Lôn Las Cymru
At the start of September, myself and Siôn set off on a three bike day adventure, following Sustrans route 8, the Lôn Las Cymru (English: “Wales’ Blue Lane”). The route runs the length of Wales, from North to South, giving you the opportunity to traverse a whole country, albeit a small one. Meandering around the varied landscapes of Wales, its the perfect #slowisok route, and after (another) tough year, it felt like the perfect adventure to end the summer with.
The approx 250mile route begins (or ends, depending on the direction you are riding) in the far north west of Wales, on the island of Anglesey at Holyhead, and then takes you south through three mountain ranges and two national parks before ending in either Cardiff or Chepstow. We fancied a bridge-to-bridge route, starting on the Menai bridge in Anglesey, and ending our coast to coast odyssey with the Severn Bridge on our way back into England, and Bristol where I live.
Being a Sustrans route, the Lôn Las Cymru focusses on taking the path less travelled, away from traffic, into the wilds of nature, prioritising experiences and scenery over speed and directness. This approach chimes with the Araf philosophy and myself and Siôn were really keen not to rush things and to embrace the slow and meandering nature of the route.
That said, the biggest challenge we had was time. Both with busy home lives we were lucky to be spending any time away on our bikes, and gave ourselves a max three day window to complete the ride. We are very privileged to have such supporting partners and family that would allow us to spend three days doing this, but everything I read said that ‘absolute minimum’ time to do the route was four days with the ‘ideal’ length of time to do the route being 5–6 days.
Still, it seemed just about doable for us and although neither of us were super fit, or had trained for this, we’ve done a lot of long days on the bike in the past and figured that experience and a steady as f**k™ pace would help see us through.
In order to make sure we could complete the route in three days, we did a lot of planning, mostly using ridewithgps and Google maps, and I would definitely say that preparation is key if you are on a time budget. First we split the route into three days, allowing the morning of day 1 to be spent travelling up from our homes up to Bangor near Anglesey. Then we made sure that we had a re-supply point for food and water every 20 miles or so along the whole route, and mapped the route so it went right up to garages, shops and cafes to try and minimise faff time and maximise fun time.
We also booked two nights accommodation, one at a bunk burn on the edge of Snowdonia national park, and the other in a pub on the Wye valley. Camping or bivvy would be another option, but we fancied packing fairly light for this trip as we needed to cover quite a lot of ground in shortish amount of time, over fairly tough terrain.
A big part of the inspiration to do this trip was my father-in-law who had sadly passed away earlier this summer. He’d been on many adventures when he had good health, and a memorable story he used to tell was the time he cycled solo to Bangor in North Wales from his home at the foot of the Quantocks in Somerset, seeking out an adventure. He did it on tight budget, with basic kit and on a heavy 1980s steel bike, and is great example of how the right attitude is the key to adventure, not budget.
I wasn’t sure of the exact route that he took, but knowing he was a great fan of the wildest of Welsh countryside, the Lôn Las Cymru route seemed to fit the bill perfectly as a tribute to his endeavours.
Bike wise we both rode circa 2010s Genesis Croix de Fers. These are lovely steel bikes, probably the original gravel/adventure bike in the UK. They aren't known for being particularly light tho, so made sure we had some wide range gearing as we would be hitting mountainous terrain on heavy, laden bikes. I’d also learnt from previous multi-day trips that the easier the gears the better, as it allows you to spin more, fatiguing your legs less so you can enjoy the next day more. Also, this trip wasn't about going fast.
As I had old Shimano Tiagra 10 speed on my bike I was able to put on a 11–36 Shimano Deore mountain bike cassette on the back of mine, quite a useful hack which I appreciated on the steep stuff.
We also both opted for medium sized tyres for the mixed terrain we were expecting. Between us we had the semi-slick Schwalbe G-One Speed 30mm for me, and the wider and more knobbly 35mm G-One All rounders on Siôn’s bike. I think something in between these two options would be the perfect tyre for this route, although its mostly paved we did hit some pretty chunky gravel, especially around Coed-y-Brenin. Most the route you could do on a standard road tyre, but then you might struggle on the chunk. Likewise a big gravel tyre might be slightly OTT as the route is mostly paved.
We saw people riding the route on both ends of this spectrum, all smiles, so I wouldn't say having the ‘right’ kit should be considered a restricting factor for taking on this route. Also the route has a few options to avoid the spicier non-paved sections, if it’s not your bag.
A basic outline of our route can be found here, free of random detours for food, accommodation, getting lost, exploring and the like.
My alarm went off at 4am and I stumbled downstairs and ate some breakfast whilst trying not to wake anyone else up. I then headed over to Bristol Temple Meads train station, cruising through the lovely late summer warm night air.
Getting the train to Bangor from Bristol was weirdly the part of the trip I was most anxious about. Trains in most of the UK are not very bike friendly, and I needed to get three trains to reach Bangor. If I missed a connection I would have to wait ages for the next train, and then I might struggle to complete the miles we needed to cover on day one. You can book a bike place on a train, but this was inconsistent with some trains not giving the option, others being full, and every train company having a different process to book. In the end this all went smoothly and we arrived in Bangor at about 11am, having had a second breakfast on the train. Third breakfast eaten in Bangor, and we finally headed off to find the Menai bridge and the island of Anglesey.
After spending all of 5 minutes on Anglesey we were off, minus a few false starts trying to get back on the route. The Menai bridge is a gem and not dissimilar to the Clifton suspension bridge in Bristol, which I would be heading over at the end of my trip.
After tracing a main road around to the coast to the castle town of Caernarfon, the route got going properly with a really long, straight traffic free stretch rising slowly up to the highlands above Porthmadog, before dropping down and then spicing things up with a little bit of gravel light® down to the town. Porthmadog signalled the first of many supermarket / petrol station picnics and the start of my 10 a day chocolate milk habit.
After Porthmadog we had a lush section on the Cob, a sea wall which gave us views of Snowdonia national park with the wetlands of the Traeth Glaslyn Nature Reserve in the foreground, teaming with bird life.
After this section the route had two options, either heading around the coast to Barmouth, or taking the more challenging option of following Sustrans route 82 inland, deeper into the Snowdonia national park, and over to Coed-y-Brenin Forest. We opted for the latter, as it seemed like a more remote route with more interesting scenery, however it involved more off-road sections and elevation than the coastal route.
In the north of Wales winter comes in fast, and it was looking noticeably more autumnal than in the SW where I live, the leaves were less verdant and starting to fall. This gave the ride a real end of summer feel, and it felt good to be book-ending it with a big adventure.
After a down pour and some pretty tough climbs we hit some really lovely single track with a loose slate surface. The scenery was stunning, but the going was slow, and after the bizarre sight of a disused brutalist nuclear power station in the middle of nowhere, we noticed the afternoon was slipping away from us. With a fair bit of ground still to cover, we jumped on a b-road to munch a few miles up, before getting back on the route proper after Trawsfynydd village.
We did this a few times on our trip, I don't believe its always best to slavishly follow a set route, you need to do what works for you at the time, so sometimes flexing the plan is the best approach. Another thing I liked about the occasional spot of road cycling was the variety it offered. Sustrans routes favour small twisty lanes and paths, which are lovely and quiet, but have a lot of steep ups and downs which require concentration and lots of braking (make sure you have fresh pads for this route!). So a bit of open road, where we roll along a bit easier, with good visibility ahead was a welcome change now and then.
Back on the Sustrans route, and next up was a climb up into the wilderness, with the rain coming down again, but this time with an epic rainbow to keep us motivated. Eventually we found ourselves in Coed-y-Brenin Forest and started a chunky gravel descent over to the mtb centre. It would have been great to have more time to explore this area more, with waterfalls near by and loads of awesome trails, but with daylight fading we were keen to get over to Dolgellau to grab some food and find our bunkhouse.
We rolled into town, 100k in the bag, and found some food. Burger and chips ordered and destroyed, we next set off in the dark and eventually found the campsite where we were sleeping for the night and had a much needed shower.
This was the big day. Not in terms of length, but in terms of elevation and difficulty, and something we’d been discussing apprehensively for weeks. We’d hoped to start early but I failed to set an alarm and didn't wake up until gone 8am, oops. I ate a Soreen loaf whilst we packed our bikes back up and hit the road (via a handily located Starbucks).
First order of the day was getting up a sizeable climb, which was in two parts. Part one was up steep, meandering back lanes, which then ended in a semi off road decent, before taking us over to part two, a mountain pass up and over to the slate mining landscape of Aberllefenni.
A theme of the Lôn Las Cymru is gates, which feature at regular intervals along the route, whether the surface is paved or not, I guess to keep the livestock at bay along the agricultural access roads. Anyway, these regular gate stops turned out to be the perfect time to have snack break and pause to look around. Properly fuelling long days on the bike is really important, and as you can’t really eat too much, we just kept a steady rhythm of gates and snacks every 20 mins or so.
As with day one, the going was slow. We’d covered about 15 miles in two hours and we still had to go over one of the longest climbs in the UK, then ride 100k through some slow and lumpy terrain. We predicted the day could take us 10-12 hours, and it was almost midday already.
Over the Dyfi river and it was time for a quick refuel at Machynlleth Co-op, before our date with the biggest climb of the route, Machynlleth mountain. Starting at just above sea level, and then climbing to nearly 1700ft over 8 miles in total, this was gonna hurt.
It’s amazing that this climb isn't more well known as its an absolute beast and quite rare in the UK to be climbing for so long — I think it took us an hour, and looking at Strava, the fast people seem to go up it in around 30 mins, that’s a long climb for the UK!
I’d street viewed it when route planning and the views up top looked stunning, but sadly we had a total white out at the top.
When climbing you need to ride at the pace that suits you, and not blow yourself up, so we mostly rode separately on the big climbs and regrouped at the top (and probably a quite few times before that to snack and enjoy the views).
We didn't hang around at the top, and instead plunged back down to the other side of the mountain, past the source of the River Severn. Next up the route was due to take us around the Hafren forest, but we opted to take a b road over to Llanidloes to try and make up a bit of time. This was quite fun, as it was a fast road without much traffic, but I’m not actually sure it saved us much time as it had some very punchy climbs and more elevation than the official route. Another time I’d love to explore the Hafren forest, as Ive heard great things about it.
Once in Llanidloes we refuelled and then got back on the ‘proper’ route again to head over to Rhayader. We’d also spent a bit of time studying the map and realised we were doing better than we thought time wise (at one point we thought we might not finish until after 9pm!); we’d done the hardest part of the day and now only had about 35 miles to cover on rolling terrain.
The rest of the afternoon was spent in lovely weather, rolling through quiet lanes in beautiful valleys following the river Wye and skirting around the Elan. The route had a few surprises yet including a naughty climb which then turned into a steep gravel track and then a bouncy double track descent.
All in, the day was just shy of 8000ft of climbing, more than some of the rides I did when I went the Alps and cycled up the Col du Galibier and other monster climbs; and those were on pristine roads, not sheep tracks and gravel paths! Also we’d only covered 70miles, so we were doing over 1000ft up for every 10 miles covered. Truly a big day out, by our standards at least. It had been tough, but our slow n steady pacing was paying off and we weren't completely ruined, and of course the scenery had been outstanding from start to finish.
We rolled into the pub in Aberedw (just past Builth Wells) at 7pm, grabbed a shower and then a pint of Butty Bach and some food. The pub was nice and chilled and had recently been bailed out and bought by the local community, who take turns to do shifts etc, which was great to hear.
If day two was the tough one, day three was the long one, we had a fair bit of climbing to do, and 83 miles to cover. We’d been so focussed on getting through day two that we hadn't really thought that much about the last day, but in way we’d saved the toughest to last. After a full Welsh breakfast, we started the day with a lovely bit of rolling terrain along the Wye and over to Glasbury for the days first petrol station picnic. This was the perfect start as both of us had stiff legs from the previous day, and the big climb of the day, the Gospel Pass (the highest paved road in Wales) was looming in the distance.
Just past Glasbury the Lôn Las Cymru presents two options, either head West to Brecon and then down the Taff trail to Cardiff, which is apparently a really chilled way to end the ride, or head over to Chepstow via the Black Mountains. Again, we had foolishly opted for the more difficult option, but we really wanted to end the route with the Severn Bridge, to complete the bridge-to-bridge challenge.
The Lôn Las Cymru route took us up the Gospel Pass in a way that I’d not done before, with people more commonly coming from the Hay-on-Wye side, or up from Abergavenny. Our route taking us up the pass from a more North Westerly direction. As with the route up from Hay, there were a few killer ramps of 20%+ gradient, which we used as an excuse for a little walk. Apart from those ramps, the Gospel Pass isn't too challenging, especially compared the monster climb from Machynlleth we’d done the day before.
Perspective is everything in cycling, and once you’ve done something huge, other challenges become less daunting. Equally for others (Im looking at you, extreme-rando nutters), our challenge would seem easy. 30 miles feels hard the first time you do it, but once you’ve done 60 miles, 30 miles seems easy. Whats deemed a ‘challenge’ is an entirely personal thing and is in the eye of the beholder.
We had beautiful weather up the pass, which made a nice change from the white out at the top of the climb the previous day. The top of the Gospel Pass is a bit of a non event, you go round a corner and then realise you are going down hill again, so make sure you savour the views as you climb up it, which are awesome. The descent down the other side towards Abergavenny is ‘interesting’, a potholed and broken narrow and twisty lane with a lot of big 4x4s coming up at you from the other direction, so you have to hug the hedge and keep your wits about you.
Abergavenny offered a good spot to grab lunch, but everywhere was super busy. Luckily we found a nice little cafe with outside seats to sit by our bikes, and got some coffee and toasties in. After this we climbed out of town and over to Usk, via quite a big hill with steep gradients which we were glad to call the last proper climb of the trip. I put some tunes on my phone speaker and we dragged our fairly bedraggled bodies up the hill.
Day three was the most tarmac based day for us, with almost all of it on quiet asphalt back lanes. It lacked some of the variety of the other two days, but it was quite good to be covering ground a bit easier, as we had further to go.
Once we landed in Usk, I was starting to feel the three days. I really needed to stop and eat a meal / lots of cake at this point, and for some reason I was really craving cups of tea, but we did yet another quick Co-op stop to save time. Siôn had a train to catch home from Bristol Parkway and I was keen to get home before my kids went to bed. However I was completely done with supermarket food at this point, and was struggling to find something I could eat. This was probably my low point of the trip - I was completely frazzled and just needed to stop for a while, but as it was the longest day we just had to keep moving. Luckily the body was still working, and we pressed on to Chepstow, via a really lovely descent down the winding Mounton valley (technically not on the route, but I just love this road!).
Still frazzled we arrived in Chepstow and ate more supermarket delicacies, this time from a Spar. My head was now engaging ‘just get home’ mode, as I was now in familiar territory and my body was self guiding itself to bed, almost without my consent. A quick photo on the Severn Bridge, and we’d done it, the bridge-to-bridge, the coast-to-coast, and the B-to-B (Bangor to Bristol) was about to be in the bag too.
We fist pumped goodbye on the outskirts of Bristol, Siôn peeled off to Parkway station and I crawled my way home via the Clifton Suspension bridge, as Siôn jumped on a train to Swansea. It’s a shame that we had to rush off in different directions, as its always nice to stop and the end, raise a glass and reflect on what we’d achieved, but that was the reality of our three day approach. Every minute had counted, and we squeezed every last drop out of the three days to experience awesome scenery on our bikes.
The down side of the tight three day window was that at times we felt the pressure of the time constraints hanging over ourselves, and I would have loved more time to stop and explore, to wild swim, to rest and even just eat properly.
It’s always tricky planning routes like this, what do you prioritise? Chilling, or a challenge? Ideally I hope to achieve both with a route, but I’m often guilty of being overly optimistic with route planning, and rides on varied terrain tend to take a lot longer than I expect.
For us this trip was largely about the challenge, north to south the ‘interesting’ way, and it was full of amazing experiences with the landscape unfurling in front of us, slowly changing as we moved through the regions from highland to lowland to coast.
Its a good shout to build in some contingency time, in case you have a mechanical or something unforeseen happens, and then if you don’t need it you can use it nearer the end of the day for some chill time. I think we would have struggled if something big had gone wrong. At our party pace we’d spent three ~10 hour days on the bike, but in a testament to the route (and Siôn’s company!) I don’t remember ever feeling bored of being out riding or wanting it to stop. Well — maybe on the last day I struggled a bit, but in hindsight that was probably down to poor fuelling.
Wales is a wild and beautiful country and I can’t think of a better way of experiencing it more fully than the Lôn Las Cymru, but if you fancy it maybe give yourself 4 days, to avoid hallucinating when you reach the English border.
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Dedicated to the memory of Paul Kilfoyle.
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