Gravel vs Road: what’s best for cycling the length of Wales?

Tarmac or trails? What’s the best route for covering a country?

Cycling the length of Wales
(Image credit: Future)

If it’s not already, cycling the England-Wales border really should be on your bucket list. 

Bookended by two historic towns - Roman Chester in the north and Norman Chepstow in the South - there’s a continual stream of stunning castles, abbeys and bridges taking you through the last 2,000 years of British history. 

And all this nestled within a beautiful landscape that was sculpted by ancient (very ancient) volcanic activity – and bears the marks of the most recent ice age, if you know what you’re looking for.

Riding the length of Wales

Cycling the length of Wales

(Image credit: Future)

Naturally, all of this magnificent scenery is best appreciated when explored by bike - but what bike? is a road bike best or could a gravel bike be better? We had quite a difference of opinion within the team here at CW, so what else could we do but pop over to Chepstow and take on the ride with our chosen bikes...

We started our rides from the centre of the Old Wye Bridge, at the point where the ornate metal work marks the border of England and Wales. With the river flowing from west to east at this point (due to the looping meanders) I (Stefan) took the obvious choice and headed straight on north and immediately into England - and was greeted by a brutal introduction to hills of the Wye Valley. 

Cycling the length of Wales

(Image credit: Future)

After that initial road climb, I hopped off the main road and onto a sweeping double track gravel descent back down to the valley floor and along the river. Sadly, though, my time cruising along the banks of the Wye wasn't to last long. 

With the pristine ruins of Tintern Abbey on my left - very much worth a trip to see in its own right - I rattled over the old wooden bridge, with its planks significantly more uneven than they might first appear, and back off into the hills.

Cycling the length of Wales

(Image credit: Future)

It was at that point I realised Sam might have made a more efficient choice in riding south off the Old Wye Bridge. It might have sent him a little further from Chester initially, but the route featured much less climbing and gave him the chance to rack up some easy miles. 

Cycling the length of Wales

(Image credit: Future)

Meanwhile, I ended up with more than just the terrain to contend with. Doing my best to clear yet another steep, rocky climb without putting a foot down, somehow I managed to puncture the front tyre with a hole too large for the sealant to fix.

Just to clarify, I didn't set up these wheels, so I'm not entirely sure what sealant was used - but suffice to say it clearly wasn't either Silca or Muc-Off, which both performed very impressively in our recent grouptest of the best tubeless sealants.

Fortunately, I did have a tubeless plug with me and, once in place, the tyres held air for the rest of the ride. It didn't end up costing me too much time, but these things always feel so much longer than they are.

Cycling the length of Wales

(Image credit: Future)

Soon, the tables were to turn. My route left the Wye Valley and traded it for a landscape shaped by a different river - the wide, open and flat terrain through which the Severn snakes its way through to the coast. 

Sam, on the other hand, had the Brecon Beacons to contend with and the fearsome Gospel Pass. Admittedly, he did ride it from the shallower side, but his Garmin Edge 1040 Solar was still showing some significant ramps on the way up. Or at least, so he tells me...

Cycling the length of Wales

(Image credit: Future)

Although Sam's ride would only get hillier from here on in, my time on the flat lands east of the Beacons soon came to an end too. It was back to my bottom gear and twiddling up the hillsides. 

At least I could count on some trailside support from my sheep-shaped spectators.

Cycling the length of Wales

(Image credit: Future)

Both routes were absolutely stunning. I thought that my route was going to be hands down the most beautiful, away from all the cars and immersed in all the nature. 

But this far away from any major population centres, the roads didn't have many cars and on a ribbon of tarmac, you can still get to some pretty remote feeling places (for the UK at least). 

Cycling the length of Wales

(Image credit: Future)

While Sam was still battling with the gradients - up in North Wales, a bridge only means that there's a steep hill on either side - my climbing was coming to an end. 

I had a pretty slow section going through some woods with trails more technical than a gravel bike is really designed for. But from Church Stretton on, my ride was going to be fast. 

Cycling the length of Wales

(Image credit: Future)

Although my gravel route wasn't particularly efficient, minimising stopped time is really the most important factor when it comes to long distance riding. Fuelling on bike rather than stopping at a cafe is a must and, being largely off-road, I didn't have my resolve tested as often as Sam did, by all the many the quaint country tea-rooms. 

Cycling the length of Wales

(Image credit: Future)

Ultimately, it was the gravel bike that got to Chester the fastest. In a sense, though, we were both winners, for having experienced such incredible rides along the Welsh-English border.

...but then again, maybe it's easy for me to say that because I did get there first!

And yes, we do know that the border does actually continue on a bit further north. But we didn't start literally in the mouth of the Wye estuary either – so we think this does make a fair enough end point, so there you go!

Cycling the length of Wales

(Image credit: Future)

 The kit

Now, pretty though it is, the terrain along the Welsh-English border didn't make for particularly easy riding. The distance is about 275km with 3,300m of climbing (170 mi / 11,000ft) - and hidden within that are some brutal climbs with extended pitches above 20 per cent.

With that in mind - thanks to the kind people at Sportful, HJC, Sidi and Garmin - we decked ourselves out in their top-of-line kit for the epic ride ahead.

Cycling the length of Wales

(Image credit: Future)

Sam, sticking to tarmac from Chepstow to Chester, opted for Sportful’s Pro Ltd. bib shorts - which really say it all in the name. They’re designed for long days in the saddle whilst also being gently compressive to help support tired muscles. Up top was the Bomber jersey, which has a very minimalist design and weighs just 110g, making it a great option for the heat.

Sam’s chosen lid was the Ibex 2.0, which does away with the conventional dial system for retention and instead uses a snap fit adjuster. For shoes, it was Sidi’s finest, the Wire 2 Carbon road shoes, designed for efficient power transfer and effective cooling.

Garmin Edge 1040 Solar

(Image credit: Future)

Myself, flying the flag for gravel, I chose my kit from Sportful’s Supergiara gravel range. The bib shorts combined a dense and supportive chamois with a whole plethora of pockets – there was similar storage capacity present in the lightweight and breathable Supergiara jersey and the delightfully warm Sportful Giara Layer Vest. 

To fend off the showers, I had the Hot Pack NoRain jacket, which can be easily stuffed into a jersey pocket.

For shoes, I went for the Sidi Speed MTB, with their simple dial closure and more forgiving nylon sole. Up top I chose the HJC Valeco helmet, with its ventilation and comfy fit. 

Garmin Edge 1040 Solar

(Image credit: Future)

Finally, both Sam and I were running the new Garmin Edge 1040 Solar head units. For a ride of this length, the super long battery life was great for allaying any potential ‘charge anxiety’ – we both were confident in having our routes loaded and displayed on the screen on for the duration of the ride.

The climber function was another top feature, helping us pace the many, many climbs and sounding out any otherwise hidden ramps. Despite the at times inclement weather, when the sun was out the solar panels did add an impressive amount of charge.

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