Wales astounds me. I am fascinated with it's rich history and rugged landscape. Within 50 miles I can travel over 5000 years. The Bronze and Iron Ages, the Middle Ages, and the not so distant Industrial Revolution all huddle beside each other amongst the verdant Southeast Valleys. This is where I ride and this is why I write.

NOTE: I'll be updating this section over the next few months as I re-post rides from my archive. Cheers - cm

Monday, January 15, 2018

Grywne Fawr Reservoir

As part of my goals for 2018, I'm trying to catch up on reporting rides from 2017 that never made it to the blog. The following is my first instalment...

Saturday, October 28, 2017 - The plan; Bike & Hike Grwyne Fawr Reservoir. A fabulously remote spot high up in the Black Mountains which features a secluded reservoir and mountain bothy. (Check out: Mountain Bothies for more info.)

It was chilly and just coming on daybreak when Deano and I met in Pontypool to begin our adventure. We headed north along NCN Route 492 for the first 10 miles under grey skies, creaking tree branches, and quiet trepidation.

It's a lovely route, but it's also a slow steady slog and on this late Autumn morning it felt rather gloomy as we reached the forgotten town of Brynmawr. If you ask anyone in the Valleys they will tell you; "it's always windy and colder up there." And despite our enthusiasm, the day looked rather dire.

However, much to our relief and excitement; the day began to brighten as we left Brynmawr, turned east and headed out across Hafod Farm Road.

This short five mile ride ends just above Llangattock and is popular as a starting point for exploring some of the UK's most extensive cave systems. (Check out: Eglwys Faen for more interesting details.)

Additional Features
The route is popular for walkers and cyclists alike for it offers spectacular views across to Clydach Gorge, as well as stunning overlooks to the Heads of the Valleys, Abergavenny, and the Blorenge. It is a must ride for any cyclist. You can check out my report "Mad Explore & Discovery" to see more on this fabulous route.

Clydach Gorge

Left to right: The Skirrid, Abergavenny, and the Blorenge

Also found along this route is the legendary Lonely Shepherd. You can see my report on that ride here: "Bike & Hike: The Lonely Shepherd".

The Lonely Shepherd

We rejoin our story with the two happy boys having found sunshine on Hafod Road along the Llangattock Escarpment...

Deano and yours truly standing before the Black Mountains...

It's a crazy steep ride down from Hafod Road to the village of Llangattock two miles below... I'm talking white knuckle, wrist-cramping steep and not for the feint of heart (22% grade in places!) But once down there are some lovely views as you snake your way up the opposite valley through Crickhowell.

I know this shot of Table Mountain would have benefitted from a better camera.

Here's a great shot of the valley we're about to head up... I don't normally include other folks photos, but this is such a good one, I thought it would be nice to give you a better view.

Sugar Loaf Mountain, Wales. 24 Dec 2003. Photo: Hugh McCann

A few miles up the road from Crickhowell in the village of Llanbedr, is the lovely Saint Peter's Church. It's well worth stopping to explore. We found this tree in the cemetery and surmised that anyone misbehaving would be told to "go sit in the yew tree!" And so I did.

"Get thee unto thy tree
young hooligan.."
"I'll be good Deano... I promise."

We left the village of Llanbedr and continued up the road to discover even less traffic and more wilderness. This is what I love about cycling in Wales; it doesn't take long to get away from civilisation. These fabulous little un-named backroads are everywhere.

Hang on Deano! Wait for me!!!! or as the Welsh say; "I'll catch you up now in a minute."

And it was quite surprising to still see so much colour on the trees this late. Autumn 2017 was the most colourful I've seen since being in Wales. It's a fall feature that I've missed, so it was especially nice to see one this year.

You might be wondering where we are... so here is the overall map. If you select "View Full Version", you'll launch a second tab with a larger map displayed. This makes it much easier to view, especially if you're using a proper computer.

We followed the Llangenny River heading toward Forest Coal Pit. The river itself is a tiny thing tucked deep in the bottom of the valley... you hardly ever see it, but when you do, it's fast-flowing and sparkling.

What should have been some nice photos turned into fuzzy nightmares, but we're going back and I know where to stop!

I didn't know it at the time, but from the look on his face... I think Dean is beginning to suffer a bit. Unfortunately for Deano... this would prove to be true. :(

Canon IXUS 285
My Photography
Back in early October of 2017 I fell off my bike and broke the lovely little Canon camera I had been using for the majority of my photographs used in this blog.

Now I've had to resort to using the camera on my Samsung J3 smartphone. Clearly you can see that there are some significant differences. Most notably of which is focus. The smartphone camera certainly does okay in bright light, but under low-light, the sensor is just too small and I lose detail.

Another benefit with the Canon was better image stabilisation. It's a crucial feature to have when straddling a bike in the wind. This leads to a second cause of poor focus.

If you're interested to read about some of my considerations for purchasing a new camera, check out my article: "A Camera for A Cyclist".

And one more try for the river shot - still a bit blurry. Oh well. Then at Forest Coal Pit, we had a choice of roads to cycle up. Most of the mountain bikers choose the forest road; we chose the paved for obvious reasons. (I'm not quite ready for logging roads not on a map!)

Regardless of which path you chose, this is where it started to get interesting... as in steep climbing/interesting. You can easily spot our location from the elevation profile above... we're about to climb that big pointy bit.

It's a soul-crushing climb of varying degrees (between 4% - 10%) for six steady miles to the Black Mountain Car park. (You can just make it out in the photo above.) Needless to say, it's a good place to stop. Plus, it's crazy beautiful.

Across from the car park on the opposite side of the river is a pine forest. I'm not sure if it's natural because they plant a lot of trees in this part of Wales for various uses (paper, fuel, etc), but it's a knock out to walk through.

Once we had composed ourselves and I had snapped a few dozen images we began the hike. There's little cycling to be made from this point - it's leave the bike behind or push her up with ya. There were a few bikes locked up, but we weren't too confident about leaving ours, so on they came. (And of course my images are blurry!)

Word to the wise; when yer cycling buddy stops talking, they may be suffering. Deano pushed on despite having some serious back pain. He hates to give up; so we continued.

Yes, we were heading into the clouds. The temperature really started to drop and the wind was picking up as well. Note, the tops of the mountains were no longer visible!

I feel awful looking back on this photo. Deano was truly struggling and I was most probably hopping about, snapping photos, and jabbering away with little concern. I'm sorry Deano. I should have been more sensitive and had us turn back sooner.

The weather was getting more severe and we were just about to leave the protection of the trees when we spoke with a young family coming down the trail to discover that we had yet another two miles to the top. So we stopped. Dean had enough. He was in serious pain.

We were just at the edge of the tree-line and if we continued on we would be completely exposed. You can see the clouds rolling in over the mountains ahead of us. The wind was beginning to howl. It was a smart decision.

I had planned on making coffee once we reached the bothy, but we had some decent shelter under the trees yet, so I pulled out my faithful Primus stove and made us both a much needed hot cuppa. A couple of sandwiches and a good rest revitalised us for the return.

The ride back down to Forest Coal Pit was fast and fun. We had a strong tail-wind with zero traffic. We owned the road for six glorious miles.... zooooooom!

And then after another rolling five miles we were back in Crickhowell, just like that. In what had taken hours to climb; we sailed back in minutes. Dean called for a pick-up from his wife and we parted ways. I made my way to Abergavenny to find the lazy M&B canal path. I wanted an easy ride home, even if it was longer. (This boy was plum-tuckered out.)

It had been a glorious day - full of dramatic landscapes and weather as well as physical tests of endurance. We spent 10 hours cycling and hiking 56 miles. It was awesome. Were we defeated? No! We will return. YES!! We shall conquer the Grwyne Fawr!

I left Dean in Crickhowell around 5/5:30 and took my time getting back to Abergavenny. I too, was pretty tired and ready to be home, but I hadn't the energy to push myself. I was wanting a relaxed ride home. I had 25 miles to cycle which I envisioned to take about 2 1/2 hours. Easy-peasy.

Thirty minutes after I got onto the canal path it was dark, but no worries; I had a head light. Fifteen minutes later, my "no worries" head light suddenly went out. No click. No warning. Just dark. I was stunned. I thought I had checked the light before I left home?!?! Fumbling; could it be just a bad connection?!?! Nope. Nothing.

Now it was dark. In fact, it was pitch black. I was under a thick canopy of trees along a very dark canal. There were no roads with street lights nearby. No houses. Nothing. It was so dark in fact, that I could not distinguish the path from the canal.

It was simply impossible to ride any further... I could hardly see to walk. Yet, I had no other choice. So after a few moments trying to get acclimated (cussing profusely...), I began to slowly push my bike along. I could just barely make out some spots along the way, but only barely.

And thus began my very long walk from just above Goytre Wharf to Pontymoile Boat Basin; a distance of approximately six miles.

At 10:30 pm I stumbled into the petrol station just outside Pontypool City Park, so relieved to find it still open. (Many places close at 9:30 pm and I had been worried for hours that I'd not make it...) My hips ached as if raw bones were grinding at every step. My feet burned like needles were pressing into my souls. My back hunched and stiff drew deep moans from within my chest as I bent to unlace my shoes.

I ditched the bike carelessly against the outside wall and stumbled into the shop. I spent at least five minutes or more trying to read the instructions on the coffee machine for I could not get my eyes to focus. It was so friggin' bright and all the colours burned. I couldn't stop blinking.

I was panting like a dog as I then selected a mountain of heart-attack-inducing snacks and most importantly - the biggest flashlight they had in the shop. I made a fist-pump with a loud YESSSSSSSSSS!!!!! (Emphasising the "s" like Kaa from Jungle Book.)

I'm sure I looked a-fright as I approached the counter. The poor woman behind the bullet-proof glass did not look at all comfortable serving me. As I tried to explain my predicament, her wide-eyes only got wider and she mumbled something to the effect of "uh-huh" as she slid my change back under the window.

And she didn't take her eyes off of me as I gorged myself with sugar and dried beef products, hunched like Quasimodo in the fuelling bay, grinning like an idiot as I lashed my £10 flashlight to the handlebars with four feet of bungie-cord. I heard myself say loudly; "Who says men can't multitask?" and I chuckled with glee as coffee and crumbs went flying with my self-declared wisdom. She didn't smile.

But then... then I was magically on my bike again and it was as if I had never felt smoothness before. The world was transformed.

The road was like butter. I was gliding silently through the air. I was night-flying. And I could see. Glorious, glorious light illuminated my ebony path with silver radiance. No, no, Mr. Pothole... You'll not jar my bones! Step aside Mr. Twig. You'll not trip me tonight. I can see you all coming! Ha! Ha! Ha! Wheeeeeeeeee!

To be perfectly honest, I don't remember much after getting on the road again. Clearly, I was out of my gourd. But my wife informed me that I arrived home sometime after midnight.

What a crazy day. What a fabulous adventure. When are we going again, Deano?

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Monmouth & Chepstow Classic

This route was my very first century way back in 2014 and has since become my "go to" 'hundred-miler. To be honest, it's rather easy - yet it's also incredibly scenic covering some diverse landscapes. What more can I say? I just love it.

I try not to ride simply for the sake of clocking miles. But November has been very wet and I haven't been out on my bike much. I decided that as soon as the weather improved I'd take a big ride to catch up a bit (I am aiming for 8k this year...). So this past Sunday we had a fabulous Autumn day and I set out on one of favourite rides.

It was cold and grey when I left the house just before daybreak (7:00 am, 2°c/36°f) and as I climbed the hill behind our house, I stopped briefly to snap this photo of the sun coming up above Crumlin. I wasn't planning on spending too much time taking photos - just get some typical shots along each unique section.

On the cycle path up to Sofrydd

If you've been reading my blogs, you know that I broke my lovely little Canon camera last month and I'm now using the camera in my phone. I'm not sure about the Samsung J3... it doesn't seem to focus very well, especially under low-light. But then too, it was foggy and misty... and I am a bit ham-fisted in full-finger winter gloves.

Looking back toward Crumlin

Always the coldest section... through Hafodyrynys.

Some folks call it Hafodyrynys Road, while some call it the Old Crumlin Road, regardless of what ya call it, the road to Pontypool is always pretty and quiet. At this time of the morning - I owned it! I was loving the colour still on the trees... very unusual for mid-November in Wales.

Yup... no one is about the city park in Pontypool...

...and the canal path is quiet as well.

Too early for dog walkers or joggers...

... but never too early to be beautiful.

The ride from Pontypool to Gotyre Wharf is just five miles, but it is stunning. The canal path continues on another 30 miles or so up to Brecon, but I drop off at bridge #71 and scoot down the lane to Chain Bridge where it's a very short and fast race into Usk; my first stop.

Loving the tail-wind and windmill at Llancayo!

It was just about 9:30 am when I pulled into Usk and I'd cycled bang-on 25 miles. I sat in the square and had some coffee (from my flask, of course...), ate a breakfast-bar-thingy and watched a group of cyclists gather for their Sunday club run.

One of my favourite lanes: "Lord Raglan's Bugatti"

The next section is one of my favourites. I call it; "Lord Raglan's Bugatti" because it goes past his old estate and he was well knwon for his collection of antique cars - especially a 1933 Bugatti. (read: Lord Raglan's Obituary) Cycling along this section, I imagine Lord Raglan zipping down the lanes near his home in that red Bugatti... something akin to Peter O'Toole in the opening segment of Lawrence of Arabia.

Looking across the late Lord Raglan's 600 acre estate...

Snaking around on the lane...

Looking over Llandenny

Then I left the lanes and got onto a "B" road that leads straight up through Raglan and on to Monmouth. Wales is incredibly quiet on Sunday mornings; most of the traffic along this stretch were large groups fast-racing cyclists. This road is popular for it's mild hills and long straight sections. It's wide and smooth and uninterrupted for almost 12 miles.

Easy rolling and empty... how I like 'em!

Folks have been snacking here for 800 years!

I always stop at the Monnow Bridge in Monmouth because it's just so friggin' cool and there are picnic tables right along the riverbank where you can sit and look and ponder time. Generally, it's crawling with tourists, but today I'm mostly alone. Weird?

The bridge and gatehouse in 1818,
drawn by Copley Fielding
The Monnow Bridge
There is much to read about the history of this lovely bridge, but the most surprising bit of trivia I discovered was that it was used as the main western entrance into town until 2004! Yup, that's right. Cars and trucks and buses and any vehicle that would fit - drove over and through this 800 year old bridge to get into town. I just find that crazy!

Now there's a much wider modern bridge approximately 1/2 mile down river that handles all vehicle traffic and the old bridge and tower are Grade 1 Listed and designated just for pedestrians (and cyclists!).

Another small historical tid-bit is that the tower was originally built to keep out the Welsh. This part of Monmouthshire is referred to as the "Borderlands" such that "ownership" has changed back and forth between England and Wales for hundreds of years. The top bit of the tower now houses a small museum which is only accessible on certain days.

Take a few minutes to read more about the last surviving fortified bridge in the United Kingdom.

Resources: Wikipedia; Monnow Bridge and Castles in Wales, a website by Jeffrey L. Thomas

And then it got crazy beautiful...

Heading out of town on the eastern side I cross over the second river and bridge that defines this medieval town (The Wye River Bridge). Immediately, it's easy to see why this valley is designated an "Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty" because it's stunning. Also of note; shortly after leaving Monmouth you pass through the quaint village of Redbrook and enter England!

... heading down through the Wye Valley.

Even though it's an "A" road (A466) and the main connector running between Monmouth and Chepstow, it's wide and commonly used by cyclists. Drivers are mostly courteous for they too seem to appreciate the scenic beauty. However, I should add  that it's not for the faint of heart. The speed limit is 60 mph and cars, especially motorcycles often exceed that - so cyclists take heed!

The Wye River looking like glass

Crossing Bigsweir Bridge back into Wales

After crossing the Wye (again) at Bigsweir Bridge I continued a few miles down the road to the adorable village of Llandago, perched right on the banks of the Wye. Blink and you've missed it. The road then snakes and climbs above the Wye for another few miles before dropping down again beside the river to enter the village of Tintern.

Coming into Tintern

Hold onto your hats ladies and gentlemen because the next few bits will knock yer socks off!

Looking back...

Looking down river...

The old railroad bridge is just for pedestrians now

Looking back again...

The majestic ruins of Tintern Abbey

And then after a lovely cruise past the quaint shops, small hotels and pubs that line the narrow strip between the hillside and the river; the valley widens without fanfare and there she sits nestled against a backdrop of trees and undeveloped natural beauty.

The Chancel and Crossing
of Tintern Abbey, Looking
towards the East Window
by J. M. W. Turner, 1794
Tintern Abbey
Growing up in America, I wasn't taught much on European history. And to be perfectly frank, I don't think many Americans have a grasp on the enormous amount of history scattered about this tiny island.

The first church to have been built here was in the early 1100's. What we see today was built primarily during the 13th and 14th century and was an active monastary for 300 years until the Dissolution of the Monasteries by King Henry VIII during the 1500's. Can ya get your head around that?

While America was struggling through the early years of independence, when Turner painted the image shown to the left; Tintern Abbey was then 700 years old and had been a romantic medieval ruin for almost 300 years.

Read more about the one of the greatest monastic ruins of Wales.

Resources: Wikipedia; Tintern Abbey and Castles in Wales, a website by Jeffrey L. Thomas

Across the main road...

I stop again at Tintern, have lunch, and walk around for a few minutes. It's the half way mark on the route and a good spot to get off the bike. Normally, this place is crawling with tour buses and visitors from the world over; today it's weirdly quiet. It's absolutely gorgeous. I don't understand why people aren't out enjoying the weather?

Behind the abbey, looking north...

... looking south again.

Leaving the abbey I've got a good three-mile climb up to St. Arvans. The road gets narrow in places and traffic can be somewhat of an issue. They regularly close lanes to repair areas of subsidence and rock falls are common. Today, however, it's fantastic. The road works have provided new tarmac practically all the way up!

An old quarry scars the far side of the valley

I race like the wind down from St. Arvans, past Chepstow Racecourse and the Sunday traffic, and onto the Gwent Levels. Admittedly, I'm getting tired now. It's late in the afternoon. I've been out on my bike for nearly seven hours and I've roughly 40 more miles ahead of me.

Down from the mountains and heading onto the Gwent Levels

Muddy, but lovely country lanes zig-zgging around farms

If you look closely, you can see the Severn Bridge in the distance

Report Card
Ride Name: Monmouth & Chepstow
Start Date: Sun. Nov 19, 2017
Starts in: Oakdale, Wales, GB
Departed: 7:07 AM
Distance: 102.2 mi. / 164.5 km
Elevation: + 4972 / - 4971 ft
Max Grade: 12.7%
Total Duration: 11:16:29
Moving Time: 08:33:40
Stopped Time: 02:42:49
Max. Speed: 35.0 mph
Avg. Speed: 11.9 mph / 19.1 kph
Weather: SUN!
Temperature: 8°c / 50°f
Some Technical Details
I follow the route shown above clockwise, with planned stops in Usk, Monmouth, Tintern, Caldicot (or) Redwick, and Newport. Generally, it's a full 12 hour ride/day.

As part of my goals for this year, I've made the ride three times. You can read more about my longer rides in the Charts section of my blog at 2017 100 Mile Club.

I've also included my newly redesigned "Report Card" which you can see directly to the right. I record all of my rides using a Garmin Edge Touring which I then upload to the website Ride with GPS.

Recently, I was asked; "why use Blogger?" I started using Blogger along with the suite of Google cloud applications when I went I bought a Samsung Chromebook (way back in 2010). It's a worry-free setup without having to install ANY software or virus protection. As long as I can get online, I have access to ALL my files (including photos!) And yup, I'm still using this setup in 2017! It's a wonderful portable writing system.

I then transpose, compile and embed the information from these other external websites here. It's that easy! (Oh yeah... and it's FREE!)

In my heart, I'm a farmer

The sun is getting low and the shadows long

The day is getting quiet now. It's late on a Sunday afternoon and I'm feeling it too...

Solitude for miles

Coming into Redwick

The church and mill in Redwick.

It's been a long day. My photos are starting to show a lack of enthusiasm (would love to have the photo above without the car...), but I'm just too tired to put in much more of an effort.

My old friend

How many times have I sat here looking down the Usk River. The slightly blurred image seems to capture my mood and the end of the day perfectly.

Not long after this I was riding in the dark. Head hung down, feet just going 'round.

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