DISTANCE 53 miles (84km)
MAIN CLIMB Bryn Helyg
TOTAL CLIMB 820 metres
ACHTUNG! Straying sheep
Eight stages in the Tour de France, first in Ghent-Wevelgem, podium places in Paris-Roubaix and Liège-Bastogne-Liège; these and more fell to the legs of Barry Hoban during a golden era of cycling. Hoban’s rivals included Eddy Merckx, Roger De Vlaeminck, Freddy Maertens and Francesco Moser. Formidable men with big reputations that Hoban respected but never had reason to fear.
After his 17-year pro career, and after even longer living in Europe, Hoban returned to Britain and settled down in a beautiful old house tucked into a fold of the Cambrian Mountains. He began a new career in the bike business, and he started to explore the hills around him, either walking with his wife, or cycling on his own.
“I’m a fairweather cyclist now though,” Hoban says as he ushers me through the garden gate. “I’ve not really done much riding this year because the weather has been terrible. I’m a poseur now. I suppose I always have been. I like a nice bike and nice kit but I don’t want to get all muddy and wet,” he adds.
Reason to ride
Not that Hoban sits inside with his feet up; he loves the outdoors. A huge garden, building projects, or just quietly taking in the countryside occupy any spare time that isn’t devoted to visiting friends, old rivals and colleagues. And it’s those old rivals that have got him out riding today.
“I haven’t done this ride for ages, but I’ve got a reunion race coming up and I don’t want to be shown up. I need to get some good rides in, and today we’ve got perfect weather for it,” he says.
He’s not training to win; all that was taken care of many years ago. “Some of those boys live on their bikes. Last time I did the race they averaged 43 kilometres per hour,” he points out.
The race is in northern France, and Hoban is an honorary ‘nordiste’. He began his European racing career there, stayed there when he was a young pro, then moved to Ghent in Belgium, where he eventually married and remained until the early Eighties. It was an environment like his native West Yorkshire — coalfields and steel mills, a far cry from the lush valleys and old mountains that surround him today.
The best place to start this ride is Newtown because there is plenty of parking there. Hoban swoops down from his home in the hills, shoots through town and flicks left over the river Severn to begin the steady north-west rise along its left bank.
“The main road from Newtown to Machynlleth runs along the other bank. This road is a bit lumpier but there is hardly any traffic on it. If you are coming to ride in this area it’s essential that you study the Ordnance Survey maps. The valley roads can be busy but there is nearly always a quiet alternative like this one running alongside,” Hoban says.
In some places the main road is unavoidable, and Hoban joins some late-summer Sunday traffic before a left turn to begin a long climb up the Afon Twymyn valley. No problem for a man who’s won a mountain stage of the Tour de France, even if he has put on a pound or two since then.
“Actually, it doesn’t take me long to knock myself into some sort of shape. I’m pretty unfit after the bad summer we’ve had, but I just had two weeks in Greece where I swam in the sea every day, and I’ve got two decent rides in this week already,” Hoban adds during a break at the top of the climb.
Hoban’s climbing style is a lesson in economy and experience.He tackles several hills on this ride, including a couple of brutes, but on each one he starts steadily and is still making good progress at the top. He calls his style, “engage a low gear and proceed with caution.” It’s a skill he learned at the Tour de France.
“As I got older I knew my strengths, and even though I wasn’t a bad climber, I was better at other phases of the Tour. I tried not to bust a gut and I would join the autobus, which is what they call the group of sprinters, heavier riders and maybe some good climbers on a bad day, who take the climbs steadily.
“Mind you, you couldn’t take them too steadily or you got eliminated. I well remember my first Tour when I was dropped on a huge Pyrenean stage when Federico Bahamontes decimated the field. Eventually I caught up with the bus and was sat nicely at the back when Jo De Roo, a Dutch rider I knew well, dropped back and said, “Come on Barry you must ride, Bahamontes has finished and is having his shower and we’ve still got an hour to go.
“In my later years I used to be the timekeeper of the autobus and could sense when the riders were going too slow. You learned by experience. For example, you had to be more than 16 minutes ahead of the elimination at the bottom of Alpe d’Huez because you lost one minute per kilometre on that climb.”
High up in the Hafren Forest (Hafren is Welsh for Severn), Hoban points out a track leading to the source of Britain’s longest river. This is a great area for all kinds of cycling, and for
naturalists. Hoban combines the two: “I ride as though I’m walking nowadays, at a nice constant pace, taking in everything around me. I’ve seen several different birds of prey up here, including red kites and honey buzzards. And you get mergansers, which are fish-eating ducks, in the streams.”
A long descent takes the route through a second town, Llanidloes, over the Severn again and Hoban faces a tough finish — two long climbs, and the final one has a 25 per cent hairpin. In goes bottom gear, and Hoban drops into his ‘click-clack, just like that’ climbing rhythm, a rhythm so deeply engrained now that it is second nature, just like walking is to everyone else.
YOUR GUIDE: BARRY HOBAN
* Age 68, married to Helen, who was married to Tom Simpson. Simpson is the only other Briton to have won Classic races and is still the only British world pro road race champion
* The couple live in Powys and have three grown-up daughters. Barry is stepfather to Helen and Tom Simpson’s daughters Jane and Joanne, and Barry and Helen have a daughter, Daniela
* Hoban works for cycle and clothing distributor Yellow
* The Hobans’ nephew, Matthew Gilmore was the world Madison champion in 1998 and an Olympic silver medallist in the same event
FROM the centre of Newtown go north, then west on the B4568, then turn right (TR) on the A470. Turn left (TL) on B4518. TR on unclassified at Staylittle. TL on B4518 in Llanidloes and go straight ahead on the B4569 just after crossing the Severn. TR on A470 at Caersws and TL on unclassified and go through Mochdre to Newtown.