Gravel Riding – An Adventure Across the Brecon Beacons

By AK Guest

Tom Warwick, one of our Sonder customer, wrote to us about a trip he did a few months back in the Brecon Beacons on his Sonder Camino AL.

As a mountain biker at heart and with a recently found interest in wild-camping, the thought of six weeks only being able to do local rides from the house was less than desirable. All the decent trail centres were a good drive away. One ride out from the house on my Full-sus mountain bike (MTB) along the road to the nearest forest, soon had me browsing the internet for alternative options.

Now I wasn’t about to don head to toe Lycra, but I did like the idea of being able to ride from the house on the roads without too much pain and still be able to tackle some off-road action. After a bit of perusing, looking at different options, new tyres for the MTB, hybrids, etc, I eventually stumbled across Gravel Bikes. And, even better, a sport called Bikepacking. 

After several trips out from the house to the nearby forests, abandoned railways and canals I was hungry to up the adventure levels. With a bit more reading I stumbled upon a Bikepacking website, funnily enough called Bikepacking.com, that has a treasure trove of trials across the globe for one, two, or more days combining biking and wild camping. Absolute winner!

With lockdowns easing we planned for a two dayer with a wildcamp midway stop.  We opted for The Black Mountain in the Brecon Beacons. The trip covered 88.1KM and 2103 Meters of climbing. A decent challenge for our first proper trip.

With local lockdowns closing in we had to change the start point several times and the trip was almost cancelled. We got the go-ahead and headed off to the depths of Wales.

5 Riders on a full array of Bikes, two Gravel bikes, one Full-Sus, one Fat bike and one hard tail.. Each would have their own advantage across the trip. We rigged up our bikepacking bags, down tube bags, beestings and bar bags and braced ourselves for the adventure.

It was mid-October and the weather looked pretty good considering the time of year, we parked at a very accommodating bed and breakfast car park and headed out.  Within the first five minutes the route took us straight across a river, later finding that it would be one of many river crossings along the trip. I think I counted 11 by the end of the trip. It had a positive twist as we could filter the well needed water and keep the weight down, it also added to the real sense of adventure!

 

The start of the ride was great, up across some gravel tracks, however, this quickly turned into an endless number of puddle crossings. We had maybe under estimated the amount of rainfall in the weeks before. At the end of the gravel tracks we got into some pretty tough terrain heading towards Black Mountain.  The stony, boggy and peaty sections just sucked the energy from you, it didn’t matter what tyres you had, this route was tough!

The terrain and conditions were properly brutal, at one point we had covered one kilometre in an hour - not the Strava times you aim for! Looking across the top of Black Mountain you could see no signs of civilisation and it was as remote as I’d felt for a long while. Usually around the local walks or even in North Wales you can see a road or town from the biggest peaks. Here, it was very exposed and I felt quite isolated even though I had my friends with me. With the added energy needed, I was already eating the following day’s food. Not a problem I thought, there will be a shop along the trail the following day. There wasn’t!

 As we reached the last peak over the other side we could see signs of civilization in the form of a couple of farms. The views from the top were pretty amazing as we rolled down the valley with a double rainbow off to the side as the sun began to go down.

A wooded single track down-hill took us towards the night’s stop. As I got near the bottom, I could hear a hiss behind me from my rear tyre, as we breezed into camp my rear tyre was flat as a pancake. We had arrived just in time! The stop we opted for was a ‘nearly wild’ camping site - the Wild Woods River Camp, basically it had a toilet. It was a woodland near a very remote farm with the added bonus that you could have fires. This was well needed as everyone’s shoes were soaked from the endless river crossings and wet terrain. We gathered round a fire and heated up our ‘astronaut’ food and went to bed. 

Puncture mended and tents away we headed out along a good number of narrow windy roads, the gravel bikes taking the lead. After a longer than expected road ride we veered off up a track back up over the tops of the hills into some of the boggiest terrain imaginable. At this point I was relying on energy gels and flapjack as my lunch had been tackled the day before. It was clear everyone would have benefitted from some extra food.

At the top of the next climb my friend rustled up a pack of super noodles for some extra calories. The beauty of carrying a stove means any spot is suitable for a warm meal or a brew.

The next little loop took us to a narrow grassy path and at the gate were around 30 cows. As we opened the gate and pushed our bikes through, the cows slowly turned and trotted down the hill, Cycling down a narrow grass funnel it was clear we were trapping them in a group at the bottom.With a large bull amongst them, we decided to hop a nearby fence and encourage them back up the hill so we could reach the road. 

The last big ascent was a gravel road to the top of Fan Gyhirych, it was a long slog across quite large gravel stones that looked prime for tyre destroying. As the mist set in, we reached the top.

Over the brow of the hill and down the other side my tyre started to feel a little flatter than before, then my mate hit two stones and punctured a tyre. As we repaired our tyres the fog was getting colder. Two tyres were fixed and three tubes replaced. However, there was one tyre to go, the cold was setting in up top and the puncture repair kit was used up. With only 10km to go to the finish, my friend decided to run the remainder. We agreed to head down and fetch the truck to collect him at the road. The descent over the other side, unfortunately for my friend, was epic, a final run down the valley and through the forest leading to a final river crossing to the road. We blasted down the road and collected the truck to recover our friend.

With the vans and the truck loaded we made a brew on our stoves, all of us thoroughly exhausted from the trip, with a few lessons learnt along the way; don’t underestimate the amount of food you need, carry more repair equipment than you think necessary and read up on the conditions before you go.

After we got home, I checked the guide book again and realised that I had missed the suggestion to only do this in summer. Would I do the route again this late in the year? No. Was it an epic adventure? Yes. Have we stopped talking about it? No. If anything, it’s made us more ready for the next adventure, discussing what we would change for next time, such as how much food we would need. Plans for a trip abroad, when we can, are already being discussed. Can’t wait for the next trip!

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