Cyclo-Sportive: Trans-Cambrian sportive

Breakfast is always a problem on a big day. When George Borrow visited Mid Wales and wrote about “Wild Wales” 150 years ago, he stayed over at Machynlleth and had, for one breakfast: pot of hare, pot of trout, pot of shrimps; dish of plain shrimps, tin of sardines, beef steak; eggs, muffin; large loaf and butter; not forgetting, as he wrote, “capital tea”. Halfway through the first third of the Trans Cambrian, I wished I’d at least shared some of his breakfast before I started, or that there was some waiting when I finished.

September’s Trans Cambrian is tough, sustained and utterly glorious in its scope. It is a ride conceived by Clive and Francine Powell from the Elan Valley in Mid Wales. It is an 87-mile circular route which takes in some of the finest mountain scenery in the UK: here there are high moors, deep verdant valleys, flat grey lakes, and steep dappled forests.

If I didn’t live here myself, I wouldn’t believe such variety could exist. The landscape and the terrain are why I love this ride so much: the ancient sessile oak forests, the swift green upsurges of the hills, the distant plantations of larch and spruce. It’s quiet in the day, and dark enough at night to see the stars (and not the wind farms).

The Trans Cambrian route heads north out of the market town of Rhayader; it then drops down into Llanidloes, a pretty town in the Welsh Marches; then west over the Cambrians before an eight-mile downhill blast to Machynlleth, once the capital — now the alternative capital — of Wales; then south along the coast towards Aberystwyth, but turning east up a five-mile climb to the Nant y Moch reservoir; then south again to the head of the gorgeous Elan Valley, and finally south-east homewards and back to Rhayader.

Ready for the challenge

Last year, I struggled round in eight hours. It occurred to me that a Paula Radcliffe marathon is run at a faster average pace. Shameful. I imagined Paula bounding past me on the ascents. So this year, I decided to make some changes. There were three things that I changed that made the ride more comfortable, and an hour faster.

First was the clothing. This time, I used padded shorts and a proper cycling top with pockets in the back, rather than some skiing underwear, running tights, a too-hot gilet and a bum bag.

Second, food. I really can’t say how much I hate all energy drinks: sickeningly sweet and spreading a sticky film over hands, brake hoods and bike in general. Energy gels are the same. Last year I used a blend of water and out-of-date Dioralyte from the family medicine chest; I ate flapjack (lovingly made and over-wrapped by wife and daughters), bananas and a few nuts. So this year I decided to put up with the energy drinks and gels, took the flapjack again, and relied on the feed stations for the rest.

Third, the bike. Actually, not so much the bike as the pump. Last year it was a full length old-school thing squeezed onto the seat tube; this year I outsourced it: my friend Alastair’s hi-tech CO2 cylinders. The weight saving alone made this year’s bike — a Wilier Mortirolo with a carbon frame and a compact chainset — almost incidental; perfect for the ride. Last year’s steed was a glossy steel Marin Argenta with

a triple chainset.

The first hill out of Rhayader gives a taste of what is to come for the next 20 miles or so. It’s sustained but not too steep, and long enough for the downhill to be welcome after a couple of miles’ climbing. The undulating terrain between Rhayader and Llanidloes has the cumulative effect of sapping the energy on the hills and testing the concentration and nerve on the descents. That is essentially the first fifth of the ride.

However, west of Llanidloes is the most glorious, sinuous eight-mile descent down to Machynlleth — almost on the coast — with views of Cadair Idris and the Irish Sea. But before you reach that, via Staylittle, there is a series of gruelling climbs alongside the shores of Llyn Clywedog. The route runs parallel to one of the finest long-distance footpaths in the UK, Glyndwr’s Way, which rises from Wales’s medieval capital, Machynlleth. It is funny to think that where ambassadors once came to Owain Glyndwr’s court from Venice and Florence, the modern emissaries come in the form of smart Italian designer bikes from Milan by way of Taiwan.

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Water, water everywhere

Down in Machynlleth the checkpoint has food and energy drink, just 90 to 120 minutes into the ride. Then it is off down the Dyfi estuary to Tal-y-Bont to start the longest climb of the day, at nearly five miles, to the Nant-y-Moch reservoir 500m above the sea level we’ve just left. It is wonderful to feel that you started out inland, made it to the open sea, and are heading back for the hills.

The climb is not the steepest, but it is the most rewarding, with sweeping views down to the sea to the west, and over high autumnal moorland to the east.

The route then cuts south, dropping to Devils Bridge and the final long climb of the day to the Arch — a stone span over the road — where there is the second feed station. Strong

riders will have reached this after around three hours.

East of here is the only route back to Rhayader, up the Ystwyth and down the Elan. At the head of the Ystwyth, there is a beautiful boggy break — the watershed. If you were a raindrop — and there are plenty here — you could choose to go west to Aberystwyth, or east to the River Wye and, eventually, out to sea further south, via Bristol.

It’s these details that make the Trans Cambrian such a fine route. It is by no means easy, but the rewards are that you have a clear sense of the landscape, how it was formed and shaped, and how its rivers course through it. One of the finest views on the ride, a place where all but the racers stop, is looking north-west from the highest of the Elan lakes, Craig Goch: here the river Elan meanders in perfect curves cut into the flat valley, like a snowboarder’s first tracks of the day. It is about 75 miles into the ride, and the last of the open moors before the sheltered Elan Valley below.

There were nearly 200 riders this year; it is one of the toughest of the sportives, and immensely satisfying to do. The fastest three riders were Richard Harris, James Richardson and Matt Lelliot in four hours 18 minutes. First and fastest woman home was Phillipa Hunter in five hours 16 minutes.

In fact, over 20 riders finished the taxing route in under five hours. The next 90 riders

finished in under six hours, and the next 50 in under seven.

So, given the terrain, the field is quite select; but then everyone is made to feel welcome. This year, as last year, the organisation, information, welcome, signage, marshalling, feeding stations and general logistics were all excellent.

“So, how was it?” Clive Powell asked as he greeted all the finishers. “Great, I said, an hour quicker than 2006.”

“Yes,” Clive replied. “You looked awful this time last year.”

The ride does not boast about itself but you would be entirely justified in boasting that you’d done it.

* To sign up for next year’s event, go to Entries open in March.


Reservoirs are something of a theme on this memorable and impeccably organised Mid Wales sportive — my first serious cycling venture beyond the relatively innocuous hills of Berkshire and Hampshire.

Often as high as 1,000 feet above sea level, the grandeur of these reservoirs, and the dams that support them, are a magnificent sight. They offer a temporary respite from the seemingly endless climbing that characterises the first third of the ride and, later on, the long haul from Tal-y-Bont back over the Cambrian mountains.

The great Welsh poet R.S. Thomas may have protested bitterly at the building of the Llyn Clywedog reservoir, but as a Trans Cambrian cyclist struggling on the steep climb towards Staylittle, I find the vast, meandering expanse of water below simply breath-taking. Indeed, every surge of effort required to conquer this wonderful sportive route is rewarded tenfold by yet another spectacular view.

Clearly, not everyone finds all this climbing as tiring as I do. Those who glide past me offer their encouragement; some pause to chat before disappearing off again at speed.

Although it’s not a race, there’s no escaping the competitive edge to some of the riders. One small group offer up their timing chips at the much-needed feed station in Machynlleth, but they don’t even glance at the refreshments on offer before vanishing south along the coast. They are probably among the select few who complete the 87 miles in under five hours —

a truly impressive feat.

I tell myself that completing the ride in seven hours is about right in order to fully appreciate the landscape on offer.

Following the course of the three connecting reservoirs above the Elan Valley is a glorious reward at the end of a strenuous, yet unforgettable ride. As I’m welcomed back to Rhayader, I feel deeply satisfied. And I vow to return next year.