A Mountain Bike Adventure: Wales
Manu Bustelo & Chris Davies
Photography by Chris Davies
Ragged low cloud hugged the uplands when we began our ride at the village of Bodfari, just in from the coast. Rain overnight had cleared to leave a landscape saturated in water and in colour.
Perhaps we all ask ourselves similar questions at different stages of our lives. Have I taken the right paths? Does my work bring me joy? Am I able to support myself doing what I love?
A decade ago I made the most important decision of my life. I gave up a career in international politics to become an explorer, and now I spend my time running trails, riding tracks and diving the seas while learning about new cultures and discovering new places. I seek to understand how ecosystems work at high altitude, in forests and underwater.
Chris Davies and I embarked upon a new project – one in which we aimed to ride the lesser-known tracks of the world. North Wales proved an irresistible lure. Although it can hardly be called unfrequented, there’s almost limitless potential for exploring away from the purpose-built trail centres. The idea of a continuous journey by mountain bike, from the north coast through the mountains to culminate on the summit of Cadair Idris, began to form in our minds.
I met Chris at the airport. As we got our bikes ready and checked the maps for the route ahead, we chatted excitedly about what we might find. Our first taste of the terrain came when we reached our campsite for the night, and after pitching our tents at dusk we lay back and gazed up at the smooth green outlines of the hills. Fences divided the landscape into geometric shapes, scattered with white dots – hundreds of sheep. We’d see thousands more over the following days.
Ragged low cloud hugged the uplands when we began our ride at the village of Bodfari, just in from the coast. Rain overnight had cleared to leave a landscape saturated in water and in colour. Puddles filled the ruts and hollows in the farmland through which we rode at first, and the greens of the trees seemed extraordinarily vivid, crystalline with moisture. But it was humid too, and the long pedal up to the Clwydian Range felt like hard work.
Soon enough we were out of the lower farmland and into the range of hills which runs south from Prestatyn. The cloud lifted and broke away from the tops. Cattle grazed by the sides of the track, looking at us dolefully and munching as we sped past; no doubt mountain bikers were an unusual sight for them. We flirted with the line of the ridge that day – now on this side, now on that, dipping in and out of the hanging valleys. Fun, twisty singletrack descents rewarded the tiring climbs. Although a managed and carefully cultivated landscape, it’s also a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and it’s easy to see why. I was stunned by the views far over the rolling hillsides and back out to sea, the trails impressed me with their quality, and we both had a lot of fun.
The next day, Llantysilio Mountain presented both an obstacle and a challenge. This undulating whaleback ridge, mottled with shades of heather and bracken, was our handrail as we traversed below, heading west along fast narrow and winding tracks. Yet, despite the open nature of the land and the big skies that arched over us, it was a day of opening and closing innumerable gates.
Little details caught my eye as we travelled across these ancient highlands. The bilingual road signs intrigued me and I tried to decipher them when we crossed roads, but the landscape was so densely packed with farms and neatly partitioned fields that I soon gave up. Humans have existed here for millennia. Generations have converted the landscape from a wilderness to a picturesque factory for human needs, but that isn’t to say it has no wildness – in fact, the profusion of green and growing things astonished me. All the while the promise of Cadair Idris kept me moving forwards, anticipating the grand finale to our adventure.
Little details caught my eye as we travelled across these ancient highlands. The bilingual road signs intrigued me and I tried to decipher them when we crossed roads, but the landscape was so densely packed with farms and neatly partitioned fields that I soon gave up.
Things soon got a lot more technical. The Rhinogau threw up a barrier of rock and bracken, convoluted contours, and a dose of remoteness the like of which we hadn’t yet seen on our journey.
Things soon got a lot more technical. Hiraethog threw up a barrier of rock and bracken, convoluted contours, and a dose of remoteness the like of which we hadn’t yet seen on our journey. The Romans constructed trackways across these hills and we took advantage of their roads, cunningly built from interlocking stones. We saw no sheep. It was as if this beautiful and rugged world we now entered had been placed here for our enjoyment alone.
We neared Trawsfynydd at dusk after a hard day’s ride. Yearning for a moment of silence after the ups and downs of the day, we stood alone on the brink of the mountain, gazing out over the panorama. My thoughts turned to the Romans who had constructed the paths. What must they have felt as they looked out over this landscape – no doubt wilder and more untamed then than it was today?
After a wet ride through the Coed-y-Brenin Forest, we found ourselves at the base of Cadair Idris for the climax of our adventure. It would prove to be a long day.
The trail climbed through a stand of woodland up the side of the mountain. Working hard to overcome the steep climb, I had little chance for sightseeing but flashes of landscape burst in on me whenever I looked up from the grind of the ascent. Enormous boulders loomed out of the murk, overgrown with the gnarled crooks and roots of ancient trees draped with moss. We were soon out on the open slopes again and my lungs pumped in the fresh mountain air, powering me uphill.
As we neared the ridgeline the sound of a jet disturbed the mountain’s peace. It surged over the brow of the hill and roared overhead, so close that I could see the pilot inside. It was yet another reminder of how closely enmeshed humanity and nature can be in the uplands of North Wales.
The ridge was a stark and hard place, a jumble of exposed rocks where little grew apart from the mosses and alpine flowers native to Britain’s harshest environments. We had to carry our bikes to the summit. It was at this point that Chris was injured by the handlebar of his bike as he swung it up onto his shoulder – it split his eye right open and bled all over his shirt. I patched him up as best I could and, together, we staggered the last few metres to the summit.
Chris saw the funny side of it as we stood there at the highest point on our journey, looking out over the many miles of rolling countryside we had traversed to be here. The mountain was silent now. We took our photos and began the exhilarating ride back down, dodging the enormous boulders and avoiding the many cliffs and other hazards on a path mainly used by walkers, not mountain bikers.
Our journey ended at Barmouth, but in our minds it was on the summit of Cadair Idris, soaring high above the empty trails and unfrequented miles of singletrack, that we learned what our journey had really been about: total solitude, time to think and appreciate the unique mesh of natural and artificial that is North Wales.
You can follow the whole five day ride with routes available to download from the Ride North Wales website – www.ridenorthwales.co.uk
“A Mountain Bike Adventure” is a series in which Chris and Manu take their bikes and explore places lesser know to the mountain bike world. The series explores the people, the cultures and the incredible trails and landscapes. A Mountain Bike Adventure is produced by Chris Davies