matt 🚲 pedals

Writing for a living, riding bikes for everything else

I’d been looking forward to riding this route, which bisects the Black Mountains on the highest road pass in Wales. And – despite three punctures and some ill-advised fish and chips – it didn’t disappoint.

Specialized Roubaix bike pictured at Gospel Pass above Hay-on-Wye

This was a loop of two halves: the first from Abergavenny along the towpath of the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal, the second following National Cycle Network routes through Talgarth and then across the Black Mountains via Gospel Pass and back to Abergavenny. I chose this anticlockwise direction because I wanted to finish the ride with the rush of the 19km-descent down the Vale of Ewyas, from Gospel Pass through the village of Llanthony and its ruined priory. This was to be my reward.

I was prepared for some challenges on the way, but I didn’t expect the first one to confront me as I stepped from the train at Abergavenny. My front tyre was completely flat. I must have picked up a puncture on the half-mile ride from my house to the station. How unlucky is that? No matter, I put in a new tube and then weaved my way through the outskirts of town, crossing the River Usk to join the canal.

Had I been travelling this way in the early nineteenth century I could have expected to see the canal busy with coal boats – in 1809 alone, 150,000 tonnes of the stuff shipped from wharves along the River Usk to the docks in Newport. Today, the canal serves the leisure industry and I encountered only the occasional narrow boat and a swan or two.

A gentle 35km or so on the towpath provided the perfect warm up. But the wet weather of recent days didn’t provide the perfect conditions for my road bike’s tyres. The detritus washed across the path obviously included a few thorns as I was soon fixing my second puncture. As I neared Brecon, I picked up my third.

The tyre was only deflating slowly, so I pushed on – stopping occasionally to top up the air. Luckily, Brecon has a good bike shop – Biped Cycles – so I called in to get a couple more tubes. Next I needed fuel for me.

I’d forgotten my lock so it would have to be something that didn’t involve straying far from the bike. As I rode towards the edge of town searching for a good option, I decided just to grab some fish and chips and guzzle them outside the shop. Comforting? Yes. Ideal cycling food? No.

The takeaway sat heavily as I followed National Cycle Network route 8 towards Glasbury, with digesting seeming to take more energy than pedalling. I didn’t exactly feel prepared for what lay ahead as I turned on to the start of the 400m climb towards Gospel Pass. The title of the Strava segment for this part of the ride says it all: The Hard Way up Hay Bluff.

It was certainly a tough climb, but the rewards outweighed the effort. Before long I emerged from hedge-lined lanes on to open hillside, the views wrapping around me and the Bluff looming ahead. I ground my way on, through a small ford and on to the last stretch of the climb to Gospel Pass. Rounding the final bend I summited the pass and pulled over to take in the view ahead of me down the valley towards Llanthony.

This was the highpoint, and the highlight, of the ride. It was all downhill from here – well, for 19km anyway.

97.98km | 1,012m ascent

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The bridge lifted to allow a narrowboat to pass underneath. If you're three years old this sort of thing is indescribably exciting.

G is three years old and the promise of seeing the bridge in action had kept him happy in his bike trailer as we pedalled nearly 50km along the back roads, bridleways and cycle paths from Malvern to Gloucester Docks.

It was our first attempt at a family bike ride on this scale and as we took in the scene we were proud of our achievement, even if it went unnoticed by car-borne daytrippers around us. Having watched more boats come and go and briefly fantasised about buying the disused lightship moored for sale, we sought a chain restaurant to fill G up with comforting, familiar food. Then we went to bed in the cheap hotel we had booked online the week before, thinking that we’d be too tired to care much about our surroundings.

We were right; sleep came easily to us all. This meant there were none of the problems we typically encounter when sharing a hotel room – chief among which is having to hide in the bathroom while, in the darkness outside the door, an over-excited child tries to fight off sleep.

The following morning we joined the other guests with young children at the early breakfast shift, unashamedly packing in as many calories as we could for the journey home. After checking out, we returned to the spot around the back of the hotel where we had locked up our bikes. A little wearily, we began our long pedal.

Almost immediately we were cycling among meadows as we followed the Sustrans route through the Alney Island Nature Reserve. The rare-breed cattle grazing there raised their heads as we passed, giving us a better look at their magnificent horns.

It was too early in our journey to linger, so we rode on. We soon passed a landmark of Victorian engineering: Telford's bridge. Surplus to the requirements of the modern road that thunders across an ugly steel and concrete bridge nearby, the elegant lines of the old bridge now provide a grand way to cross the river by bike. But we followed instead the path that hugs the river as we made our way upstream and home.

The return journey was more tiring and less eventful than the outward stage, our legs heavy and the route now familiar. There were detours to explore bridleways that prompt cries of “Too bumpy!” from the trailer. No bent mudguards and frustrating attempts to reshape them in a pub garden. Not even too many cries of “Are we nearly there yet?” from G – or either of the two adults.

Just a quick stop for lunch and home in time for tea.

98.8km | 582m ascent

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