The Gap

Today we tackled “The Gap” mountain biking route through the Brecon Beacons. It was definitely type 2 fun* my butt bones have never hurt so bad by the end of the day. But it was all worth it for the long descent after.

It starts off near Brecon, but some erroneous map reading meant we started in Brecon. This also meant we could pick up some granola bars (fuel) and take a last toilet break (weight saving). We set off out of Brecon heading east along the canal and then small roads to Tal-y-bont on Usk. Here we found the White Heart pub and a small bridge over the canal leading to an old tramway. 

This was the track that would took us up 500m of elevation over nearly 10km which sounds gentle enough, until you experience the surface we were riding on. It was made up of ancient packed stones, all about the size of your fist I called “The Cobbles of Doom” where “The Gooch Bashing Begins”. We started off all happy and positive about the hard packed ground and lack of mud, but it was just relentless, never-ending and really boring from a cycling perspective. The view across the reservoirs and hills was nice and only got better as we gained more altitude.

Right at the top of this tramway is a gate where we met a farmer. They tend to hang around on the Welsh hills being unable to descend below a certain altitude for fear of no longer needing to wear a coat. He offered us some interesting information, completely unprompted, about the eco-mentalists who want to plant trees all over the hills. Apparently the moss and grasses that make the peat actually trap more carbon dioxide than trees do over their first 15 years of life and that you need the sheep up there in great numbers to make sure the right types of grass are grown. He also said there were wild orchids growing up here and that city hoodlums bring their 4×4’s up here to get them stuck in the mud and then pull them out again… Seems like a waste of an afternoon to me, but apparently that’s what they like doing and its destroying the fragile earth and tracks. He even pointed out a rangers 4×4 that was sitting up on a fire road waiting to catch anyone in the act. Being a farmer, and (owning a gun) clearly impassioned by his plight, we left him to it, ensuring him we were sticking to the designated cycle tracks.

A short descent down a fire track lead us to the Taff Trail, an old railway line that is now used as part of a cycle and walking network. This was dead flat and so we carried on pedalling towards the base of the final climb. It was on this part of the ride that I had exhausted my bum-bags water bottles and needed to start on my bike bound reserves of water. During one of the descents at BPW (Bike Park Wales) my water bottle had jumped out and made its own way in the world to follow its dreams of becoming an archaeological footnote in some future academics research into 21st century recreational sports… or more likely be picked up by someone as trail-swag or just binned by the park rangers. Whatever the case, I was down 500ml of liquid carrying capability and now had a useless water bottle cage bolted to my bike. So with the swift application of an allen key, it was removed and replaced with bespokely engineered hydration transportation facility for this ride (old water bottle gaffa-taped to the frame) It was an additional 1500ml that I’m so glad I added because I needed every single ml. The only tricky bit was accessing the liquid because it meant resting the bike on a raised bank and lowering it onto its side to tip the water bottle over enough to pour it into one of my drinking bottles. It was a bit strange, but the complex process gave my butt some time off the saddle and something to laugh about. 

Reaching the carpark we passed on our first walk thru Brecon, we knew what was coming next, the final ascent. “Cobbles of Doom II – Return of the Gooch Basher”

This shallow gradient lead up to “The Gap” that was our target for the whole ride and again was made of punishing little stones. By this point I’d eaten all my granola bars and siphoned all the water from my bottles and had very little left in the tanks. We were both knackered but surprisingly my legs were not in bad shape because Aimi had provided some electrolyte tablets that we had put in our water. Stephen had said these would replace the salts from our muscles. I was skeptical at the start, but this was the longest ride I had ever done, certainly with the most sustained uphill sections and while I was tired, my legs were not cramping up as they had done previously. 

We spent sometime mooching around at the top of the gap, enjoying the view of Pen-y-fan, Cribyn and Fan-y-big (I swear I’m not making the name up) We also looked out down the valley and saw the fabled descent ahead of us, practically all the way back to Brecon.

Before we got too cold from the brisk wind that was howling thru the gap, we set off down the track. The first section was steep and very rocky with some exposed rock shelf drop offs and mini-boulders that made the bike jump around all over the place. It was all loose and raw and truly what I feel mountain biking is really about. After that intense start, it mellowed a bit and hugged the side of the mountain in a long shallow gradient. Some sections were almost flat and packed sandy earth, some were steeper and rocky. There were drainage ditches which you could make little jumps from and the edge of the track was almost banked around corners so you could keep your speed. It was a thrilling descent because of the speed, but not technically all that challenging, it just needed endurance.

We ended up on some farm roads for a short way before a great surprise offroad descent directly into Brecon. This was something I’d found on the map as a bridleway and would link us back to Brecon, but it was almost the most technical bit of riding we did. It was a superb way to end the ride.

Throwing the bikes in the van we headed back to Crickhowell to find a celebratory icecream sundae in the local cafe. We were knackered and knew if we went back to the room, we would fall immediately to sleep so also had a large coffee to keep us going till dinner. There was time to try out the spa bath – as we had promised ourselves. This was amazing and definitely helped ease the pain in our muscles that we would otherwise have suffered… Did nothing for Aimi’s bruises tho. Almost her whole left leg thigh was now purple from falling off at BPW and again today. Somehow it was only the left one, the right one was unblemished.

*Definition of types of fun can be found here