Adventuring by bike

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My lovely yellow bike somewhere in the middle of the Brecon Beacons, snowy peaks in the background!
As much as I love cycling, until recently I had never taken an entirely human-powered holiday. Which means that every holiday I have ever taken has been powered by fossil fuels (some more than others, thanks to those international flights!). Perhaps it is understandable – in Melbourne you have to cycle at least 50 kilometres in any direction just to get out of the city.

We seized the chance over the Easter long weekend to try something new, and what resulted was one of the most satisfying and refreshing short breaks I have ever had. With the prospect of two weekends of international flights ahead (a wedding in Hungary followed by a trip back to Australia), I really couldn’t stand the thought of being cramped in a bus, train or plane. So I came up with the slightly crazy idea of riding the entire length of the 88 kilometre Taff Trail over the weekend – and my boyfriend, supportive as always, went along with it.

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A very cool spillway in Pontsticill Reservoir – we completely missed this on the way to Brecon as we were so exhausted from riding up a massive hill.
For those not based in Wales (or not super into cycling infrastructure), the Taff Trail is a route that runs from Cardiff to Brecon through a lovely mountain range called the Brecon Beacons (perhaps that should have been a warning that the ride might be a bit hilly). It is part of the National Cycle Network in the UK, which signposts safe(ish) routes for cycling across the country. I say (ish) because some of the routes are on roads which never feel quite as pleasant as a fully separated bike path.

So how did it go? As you can see from the pictures, the scenery was nothing short of spectacular (actually the photos really don’t do it justice). However, it was definitely a challenge and I learnt some lessons for the next time that we decide to take an adventure by bike.

Tip 1 – Have something to look forward to. We weren’t paying anything for transport on this trip so we splurged and stayed at a pretty fancy schmancy bed and breakfast. The thought of a hot shower made the last 25 kilometres coming into Brecon when we were soaking wet so much more bearable (refer also to tip 3 on weather). If you are looking for a place to stay, I highly recommend Herdmans Bed and Breakfast. Janie and Nick were wonderfully welcoming and helped us to dry all our wet gear and safely store our bikes, not to mention the delicious breakfast (they also have solar panels!).
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The view towards Pen Y Fan from our lovely room at the bed and breakfast. If we were less exhausted we might have spent a day walking up it.
Tip 2 – Know your limits. And then push them. I knew we had ridden 80 kilometres in a day before, so I figures 88 kilometres would be fine. I didn’t quite take into account that it would be through a mountain range though. We spent a good 9 – 10 hours on the road each day of the ride, but that included quite a few breaks to eat and take photos. Nonetheless, we were glad for the lengthening spring days, as we only just made it to Brecon in daylight. If we had known what a challenge it would be, we might have just taken the sensible option of a bus to Brecon. And if there was an easy way for us to give up halfway after lunch in Merthyr Tydfil, I think we would have. But we pressed on and were rewarded with the most spectacular views in the second half of the ride.

Tip 3 – Check the weather. Turns out there was a yellow weather warning for storms on the first day of the ride. We didn’t realise this until the last minute, and even then decided not to reschedule because we wanted to take advantage of the bank holiday. But if you happen to find a sunny weekend in Wales, definitely choose that one for the ride! I have never felt so miserable riding down a hill as on the last 25 kilometres of the ride to Brecon, because we were so cold and wet. Nothing a hot shower couldn’t fix though, and we certainly felt a sense of achievement afterwards.

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Poor wet bikes!
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Ty Bach Llanfrynach – community managed public toilets which we were so glad to come by that I gave them all my change.
Tip 4 – Pack light. We were staying in a bed and breakfast so were able to fit everything we needed for the weekend in two panniers (neither of which were on my bike…lucky me!). While I will happily load up my bike (and myself) with 20+ kilograms of groceries for a quick trip through the city, I certainly had an easier time going up hills than my wonderful boyfriend who was lugging all our stuff. That said, I would like to try more bike touring after this ride. We passed and chatted to a particularly inspirational Polish family who were carrying everything that they needed to camp self-sufficiently – even their son who looked to be about 10 years old was carting panniers and a backpack. After seeing them I felt rather less impressed with myself, having carried nothing!

Tip 5 – Stay positive. We knew it would be a long ride so from the outset I was very conscious of staying positive and appreciating the scenery. It helped that we set out with the mindset to enjoy the journey, rather than focusing on the destination. Riding up an unrelenting hill on a gravel path for 10 kilometres at the start of the ride home was made much easier by making jokes, singing and exclaiming at the snow covered peaks which had been covered by mist on our way there. ​

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My cycling outfit featured a second-hand down jacket and Girlfriend Collective leggings made from post-consumer water bottles…Wales is cold! (It is also muddy, which is why I’m opting to carry my bike around the gate rather than wheel it through the chicane barrier.)
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The Taff Trail (route 8) signs accompanied us the whole way, so we barely needed to check the map except for a confusing part around the motorway in Pontypridd.
If you are planning a ride around Cardiff, Wales or the UK, here are some fun and useful resources to check out:

  • ​UK National Cycle Network Official Site – a lot of useful information, including online maps.
  • Cardiff by Bike – a blog about cycling in and around Cardiff. My trawl of the archives prepared me for some (but not all) of the tricky parts.
  • If you are visiting and need to hire a bike, Cardiff Pedal Power are a Cardiff-based cycling charity that do bike hire among other awesome things. ​
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