It also neatly sums up my experience of riding the famous Brecon Gap. The Gap refers to the break in the hillside between Cribyn and Fan y Big (great name) under the gaze of the beautiful Pen y Fan – the highest point in Southern Britain at 2906ft (886m). This ride had been on my ‘must do’ list for a long time and, when travel restrictions eased a few weeks ago, it seemed like the ideal opportunity to give it a go. It’s one of those ‘classic rides’ often mentioned on mountain biking forums and in glossy magazine photo spreads and I can see why. The views are absolutely stunning. As for the riding, it seems there’s no ‘definitive trail’ (everyone adds a little tweak) but a combination of information from friends and online GPX files gave us a 26 mile loop and around 2,800 feet of climbing that seemed to take in pretty much everything.
The town of Brecon is a popular starting place as it then gives you 6ish miles of flat, scenic canal path to ride along and warm up on before the start of the climbing at the picturesque village of Talybont-on-Usk. Given that our air bnb was in Talybont however it looked like we would be starting our ride with a hill! At least with the canal path mere feet from our front window the start of the trail wasn’t difficult to find.
At Talybont the route leaves the canal path and heads a short way up the Taff Trail before branching onto the very popular Brinore Tramroad (Brinore meaning Cold Hill in Welsh).The full tramroad stretches for 8 miles/13 km running from Talybont up to Trefil and rising 330m or 1.080 ft. Originally worked by horse drawn vehicles the road was built to convey produce from the limestone quarries and iron ore works down to the canal at Talybont before being shipped onwards to Brecon and Monmouth. It remained operational until 1865 when a growth in the railways meant it was no longer needed.
Today however it’s been opened up as a fantastic walking, riding and cycling route. Winding up through forested slopes the gradient isn’t steep, the path however is littered with large stones and rocks which keep you focussed and slows the pace somewhat. The climbing is worth it however when you emerge near the top of the tramroad with stunning views of Talybont reservoir to your right and soaring hills of Bryn Cefnog all around.
The route peels off the trails shortly afterwards through a spectacular shoulder in the hills to emerge on open, windswept grasslands. After 1600 feet (500 metres) of climbing it was a welcome chance to rest and take photographs of some spectacular landscape before a joyful descent on skinny dirt paths which allowed you to swoop down the hill side, splash though boggy bits and past bored looking sheep who were unimpressed with our whooping enjoyment. A rocky Roman Roman provided the next bit of descent and some lively technical loose rock sections to sharpen the reflexes, giving away most of the previous climbing and ending at the Pentwyn Reservoir. Catching our breath we stopped for a refuel and relax before embarking on the quiet tarmac road around the water’s edge and forest-side and the start of the next climb to the Gap itself.
A gate leading off the paved forest road heralded the start of the Gap Road climb. A rocky, boulder strewn trail which wound ponderously upwards. Again, the gradient wasn’t too steep but the ruts and rocks meant constant concentration, line choosing and a bumpy ride. I needed to remind myself to keep looking up and out over the unfurling view of the Brecon Beacons in all their sunny glory. If I didn’t do that I was just swearing a lot at the rocky road beneath my tyres. As the road wound upwards we passed many walkers and a few hardy armed forces types jogging and grimacing with heavy packs. They looked like they were having a less than enjoyable day out! As the unrelenting climb continued I’m so busy gazing at the towering hills in front of me that I nearly don’t realise we’ve arrived. Unknowingly I’d been looking at the tiny ant-like walkers inching up Pen Y Fan. Thankfully though our ascent stopped short, at just over 600 metres at a break between the hills of Cribyn and Fan y Big, aka ‘The Gap’.The views are phenomenal, vast rolling green hillsides framed by towering peaks and complimented, luckily for us, by blue endless skies. As the magnificent Brecon Beacons soared above us, below is an unending sea of grass and rock swept away in every direction.
Stopping for oxygen and a sandwich we gazed in awe at the small ‘Gap’ break in these hills through which the trail now seemed to plunge off the edge of the world. A closer inspection found that thankfully it wasn’t a drop to nowhere but a steep downhill on the other side. It looked a bit like the hills had melted, and a lava flow of loose rock spewed down their steep flanks. After snapping photos which won’t do it justice we literally took the plunge and powered through the Gap, heading downwards.
Initially the trail dropped quickly via some steepish rocky steps and the lava flow of stones before continuing to plunge down the hillside. It’s probably the kind of trail best ridden at speed but the loose surface and steep right hand drop meant we bounced and jolted over pretty much every rock on the entire hillside on the way down. A faint yelp from behind had me skidding to a halt, turning round in time to see M lying on his side, alarmingly near the trail edge after losing a disagreement with a particularly large boulder. Eek” After that it was less about line choice and more about the path not throwing us over the edge or hitting a surprised sheep or 2 at speed. By the time we finished the near 2 mile, 760 foot descent every muscle and bone in my entire body felt like they had been through the washing machine at speed and they weren’t happy. A final grassy run down to a field gate marked the end of the initial descent* after which the downhill continued on tiny tarmac roads, through a farmyard and towards the town of Brecon.
*We did try and explore the option of descending via a rocky gully instead at this point. Whilst the GPS assured us it was viable, after quarter of a mile of pushing in ruts as deep as the cranks and through thick brambles, a retreat to the farm road won out as the most attractive option!
A last downhill via a rocky bridle path shook loose any teeth that weren’t already dislodged before being disgorged onto some playing fields right in the centre of Brecon. The town made for a most welcome rest and refreshment stop in a lovely cafe overlooking the river, after which it was two slightly shell (stone) shocked mountain bikers who joined the canal path for a serene, picturesque ride along the water’s edge back to Talybont and a perfectly positioned waterside watering hole.
A grand day out, certainly, stunning scenery, without a doubt. Would I have loved it even more with a few less rocks…..oh yes!
So finally, with sincere apologies to Mr Carroll……..
The Walrus and the Carpenter were walking close as socks:
They wept like anything to see such quantities of rocks:”
If these were only cleared away”, they said, “it would be tops!”
If you enjoy reading about adventuring, travel, cycling or all 3 why not check out my book: How To Cycle Canada the Wrong Way.
It’s the story of a forty-something woman with no clue in life and no cycle touring experience. What she does have is a sense of adventure, a second hand bicycle and a skirt and the idea of riding across Canada….the wrong way.
Available on Amazon in e-reader and paperback formats.