Three boys (?) aged between 30 and 35 leave the Welsh glacial lake of Tal-y-llyn and head off down a small winding road, which is just wide enough for 1.3 cars in width. This means that there are several, marked passing places for oncoming cars to pass each other. These are useful, because three boys (?) on Mountain bikes riding 3 abreast down the road are exactly 1.3 cars wide. This small road has high hedges on each side, which keep the sheep in the fields and off the roads. Well, that’s the theory anyway. Sheep are great escapologists and are always on the look out for a small hole in the hedge to squeeze through in order to get to the other side. When they’re successful in their quest, they never know why they did it or what was so special about ‘the other side’.
The fields on one side of the hedges are not flat. They progress upwards at about 45 degrees, which after about 100 metres, increases gradient to about 65 degrees and in some instances, the grass ends abruptly, and a vertical wall of rock continues up. Whilst this isn’t a good place to pitch a tent for the night, sheep love it.
The 3 boys continue along the winding road, which after about 3 miles, comes to a fork in the road. Turning left means that you would head off along a wide valley bottom to get to the sea in a further 7 miles. Turning right, which the 3 boys do, takes them away from the sea and along another high-hedged-winding road towards a big mountain which blocks the end of the valley in spectacular style. Oblivious of the fact that a car could come around one of the blind corners at any minute, and make a dreadful mess of three mountain bikers, the 3 boys are chatting about everything and nothing. They are relaxed, pleased to be away from families and work for the day, and are a little excited about the ride ahead. Two of the boys are brothers and the third one is a friend of the eldest brother.
The mountain bikes they are riding are very different. One is a custom, shop built hard tail with front suspension, made by a local dealer for its rider, one of the 3 boys. It looks good, but for some reason, it’s gears never run smoothly and the chain always sounds like its about to change to another gear. When the rider asks the bike to change gear, it is reluctant to throw the chain from one gear to another. It’s like the rear wheel isn’t quite aligned properly in the frame. The other two bikes are both made in America, by different companies, Cannondale and Marin, and have full suspension, front and rear. These two bikes are a joy to ride and super-smooth in the way that they sound, change gear and soak up the bumps.
Cader Idris, the big mountain which forms the head of the valley, looms closer. The valley has a magical feel to it. This is emphasised more as the boys ride round a corner to be confronted with a small hill, made up of a rocky outcrop, and which has the remains of a castle built onto it. The castle is fairly recent in comparison to the age of the valley, being built in 1220 by a great Welsh Prince, aptly called, Llewellyn the Great.
Castell y Bere was a castle meant to be strong enough built to keep the English out of Wales. This wasn’t a hugely successful strategy, because in 1282, the English moved into the castle, uninvited, and after some general fighting. The castle distracts the 3 boys, who stop at the gate which leads to the front entrance to the castle. They read the English version of the bi-lingual, Welsh-English sign which is attached to the gate. Bikes are parked and the gate is climbed. This castle has ‘soul’. The mountains around it cuddle it as best a big stone thing could be cuddled. The sky becomes less over-powering as the sun peers through gaps in the clouds, and this makes nice moving patterns on the flat, green valley which stretches away from the castle to the sea. One of the boys suggests that it would be a good place for the gothic band, The Mission, to play an open air concert. There are protective ditches around the castle and the entrance, is flanked by D-shaped towers. This castle has been well thought through by its’ builders. Unfortunately, it wasn’t thought through well enough to keep the English out. Standing in the middle of the castle site, the views all around are stunning, and at the end of the valley, that big mountain looks a bit bigger. Photos are taken in a boyish style. This means that boys are pretending to shoot arrows through slits in the wall at the imaginary oncoming English soldiers, whilst wearing lycra outfits and helmets made of plastic and polystyrene. Its made a bit more bizarre, as all 3 boys are English!
Dodging the sheep shit, the 3 boys walk back to the bikes and resume their journey down the road, which comes to an abrupt end about 1 mile ahead. The road becomes a farm track, and the farm track disappears into the distance in the direction of the big mountain at the head of the valley. A gate bars the way up the track. I use the term ‘gate’ loosely, as it doesn’t swing open because it’s a badly welded, home built affair, tied to posts at either end with some orange string, which was once used to hold together bales of hay and straw. Just like the castle didn’t keep the English out, the gate doesn’t stop the 3 boys climbing over, bikes and all. One of the boys goes behind a shed for a pee. This is the third time in as many miles that he’s had one. This is well noted by the other 2 boys.
The ‘peeing boy’ then announces that he’s hungry, which brings a groan from the other two, who want to get riding, so he undergoes some critical enquiry from them. He admits that he didn’t have any breakfast, because he had overslept, because he’d got to bed late, because he’d had a late curry with some other friends, because he’d been out with them for some drinks, because it seemed like a good idea at the time. Doh! The Cannondale is parked/balanced on some logs for a top photo opportunity.
A black looking banana is pulled from ‘peeing boy’s’ rucksack and because it was so ripe, soft and squidgy, it had to be eaten from the skin like a sticky toffee is eaten from its wrapper. The peeing & food stop is completed, in that order, and their off again.
Cader Idris is 2930 feet, or 893 metres in Napoleon money, above sea level. The route that the 3 boys are taking is called the Minffordd Path, which starts on the southern side of the mountain and includes two consecutive climbs of just over 980 feet or 300 metric-Napoleon-metres in height gain, and 2.7 miles or 4.4 kilometres in distance. Whilst it isn’t as high as alpine mountains, it is absolutely fabulous. Looking down from the summit, there is a lake in a natural bowl, which looks like it’s being harnessed by the strong arms of the mountain that curve around it. Sexy mountain huh?
The first mile of the ride is along an ancient track, wide enough for a grey Ferguson tractor. This is an obvious observation, because there is one parked up, blocking the track and facing downhill. It’s facing downhill because it doesn’t have a battery on it to start the engine and the two battery leads are joined together with some old copper wire. This means that it is rolled down the hill and bump started, then used, then parked up ready for the next time its used. Another stop is required to inspect the vehicle. How many boys (and farming girls) could resist a sit on an ‘old Fergie’. Some more ‘photos for the album’ are taken, with the boys pretending to be farmers, and whilst dressed in bright coloured lycra. One of the boys riding one of the American full suspension bikes is wearing a fluorescent yellow wind jacket, which in a green grass and grey rock landscape, stands out so much, it could probably be seen from the moon. Maybe.
The tractor track becomes a single track, just wide enough for hikers and sheep. The boys know this because there are hiking boot prints in the soft mud and loads of sheep shit. Have I mentioned how hard it is to get sheep shit off a bike? The track winds its way between rocks which means getting a pedal stroke timed just right so that the pedal clears the rock. Each of the boys hits rocks with pedals several times.
About half a mile and some Napoleon metres from the top, the summit disappears. The track is no longer rideable due to a moraine of rough boulders. All 3 boys have to pick up their bikes and carry them. The two full suspension bikes are heavier then the shop-built-special, but as the rider of the latter was out on the beer the previous evening, he didn’t benefit from the lighter weight and instead, struggled to keep up with the other two.
The summit is reached quite suddenly as the rocks make way to a grassy top, where there are some hikers in small groups sitting around, and all with sandwiches, flasks and outdoor-tex jackets. One couple have a dog with them, except the dog is not with them, but instead, making its (not sure about its gender) way around all of the picnickers.
The bikes are propped up together like a trio of standing rifles, each holding the other upright. One of the boys eats some energy bars, which doesn’t interest the dog. Another boy has a pitta bread with some salad and chicken in it, and the other one (guess who) has a piece of yesterdays pizza, wrapped up in some kitchen foil. The dog has found a new friend! All meals are relished by each of them.
Mandatory summit photos are taken by one of the male hikers of the 3 boys in return for a photo of him and his partner. This sets off a domino effect, photo frenzy, because everyone then takes a photo of everyone else and great care is taken to ensure the right camera (not smart phone) is retrieved by its original owner.
Returning to the bikes, one of the boys sees some yellowish fluid running down the frame of his American pride and joy. The liquid seems to have hit the Frame at about dog height. Immediately looking around for revenge, the boy can’t see the dog anywhere. Never mind. The bike will be covered in sheep shit soon, anyway.
The rider to drop off the summit and attempt to ride through the moraine of rocks first, ends up catapulting himself over the bars when his front wheel hits a rock and stops, dead. Guess which rider this is? There is silence for a moment as the other 2 boys wait to see if he’ll get up after his impact. It would be inconvenient if he had hurt himself badly. Fortunately, he gets up, straightens his handlebars, which equally fortunately, hadn’t bent, because the owner hadn’t tightened them up properly in the first place. All 3 bikes are carried down carefully until the single track is reached. From where the rocks finish and the grass starts, it’s down hill for just over two miles and some Napoleon measure. The ride down is fast, with each of the boys taking turns at the front. Anyone at the back of the group takes the full force of flying sheep shit, which leaves the spinning, grippy tyres at full speed. This means both bike and rider hit flying, indiscriminate sheep shit at the same speed, thus doubling the actual speed of impact.
Regardless of this manuring that each of the boys get, they’re having great fun, sliding into corners and accelerating out, only to brake hard again into another corner. The old tractor is reached and passed in a blur. As is usual when each rider has a full complement of tools and spare inner tubes, they are not required. The gate-thing at the bottom of the track is reached quickly and bikes and riders are over it just as quickly. Since all three boys have been going so fast downhill, it’s not possible to relax and take it easy on the last few miles of the ride, so they continue to spin legs as fast as possible. They’re all riding in single file now, just in case they come upon an oncoming car. The stones of the old castle look darker as the lights starts to fade.
Before long, all three boys are back at the car, pleased with their day out, smelling of sheep shit and with some photos as mementos. 2 boys load their bikes into the car and cover them with an old bed sheet to protect the car from sheep shit contamination. The third boy has an idea and pushes his bike into a stream and dunks it up and down a few times in a feeble attempt to wash off the sheep shit. Sheep shit doesn’t come off a bike like this. Instead, it soaks up the water and releases a much more pungent smell. This doesn’t go down well with the other two when a) he loads his bike into the car and b) he rolls one of his dirty, smelly wheels over a clean-ish, flourescent yellow cycling top.
The drive home takes about 90 minutes, except there’s a forty minute break for fish and chips in the market town cafe of Bala, where the waitress calls everyone ‘luv’ and songs like Madonna’s ‘Like a Virgin’ are being played on the cafe stereo.
The final part of the day is for bike washing at home. Two of the boys clean their bikes, dry them and oil everything that needs oiling. They also put their cycling kit in their respective washing machines, on a warm-ish wash. The other boy puts his bike straight into the shed, throws his riding gear into the wash bin to fester away until someone needs something washing, and then gets a beer from the fridge to drink in the shower. All in all, a top day out!
All photos by Andy Morgan………except the Cannondale