Cycling across Wales (day 1)
When I got off the train in Shrewsbury the first order of business was to find the footpath that runs along the riverbank. Actually, that's a lie – the first order of business was coffee, and a banana and walnut muffin.
It was just after 8:30 in the morning and I was pleased with my early start. I sat down next to the bike and enjoyed my breakfast, admiring my shiny new panniers.
A local chap was eyeing me with interest from a safe distance.
Having failed to make head nor tail of the map's recommended route to the riverbank, I decided to ask my curious local for advice (I've christened him Ged; it works better than "local"). He told me to carry my loaded bike (that I could barely lift) down three flights of stairs.
He then volunteered that he'd applied for a job in Cardiff. Ged loves Cardiff. Clearly, he felt he'd provided ample navigational assistance (he hadn't) and it was time to switch the focus of the conversation to Ged (it wasn't).
I'm sure you'll be as fascinated as I was, so I'll go on. He's currently retraining as a hairdresser, having dropped electrical engineering on the grounds that it was too dull. I got a short lesson in "tipping", a relatively recent invention in the world of hairdressing that involves making little zig-zag cuts into adjacent layers of your client's hair.
God knows how he did it, but Ged moved the conversation swiftly on to the ladies of Thailand. Suffice to say, he's a fan. I'll spare you the details – the conversation went a little "off piste" at this point.
Why are you reading about hair dressing? Well, it's a great illustration of what it's like to go cycle touring alone. People spot the heavily laden bike, and they talk to you. Unpredictable things happen. The improbable keeps things interesting.
Then, with a look that suggested he'd left his hair straighteners on, Ged hurriedly said his goodbyes and legged it. Literally.
I stocked up on spare inner tubes in the local bike shop and had a last quick look around a well placed camping shop. Then I set off in search of the river.
Shrewsbury to Welshpool
Getting out of Shrewsbury looked easy on the map, but was made immeasurably harder by the directions I'd been given by the guy in the camping shop (goes to show that you shouldn't always trust a man with an OS map).
It took me an hour travel the first mile. Things soon speeded up as I got out into the countryside, following B roads that meandered across the planes. The roads were flat and I was whizzing along with the wind in my face. There was only one hill in sight, and I was confident that no cycle route planner would take me anywhere near it.
I had a banana. Life was good.
Twenty minutes later I was hauling 36lbs of bike and god only knows how much camping gear up the side of the hill. The road ahead of me zig-zagged out of sight like a path up the side of Mordor.
So began a steady 4mph climb through lush green fields, while watching a pair of Red Kites chasing their shadows across the hillside. After almost an hour's climbing I flew down the other side and arrived in Welshpool in under five minutes. It was around 12 o'clock.
Mordor had (as expected) exacerbated an old knee injury, but I'd covered 30 miles with full camping kit, knocked off a steep climb, and and was feeling pretty pleased with my efforts.
I'd done 30 miles in 3 hours and was confident I could keep it up. I could see myself putting up the tent with a solid 50 miles under my belt by mid afternoon (a classic schoolboy error).
Welshpool to Caersws
Leaving Welshpool I had the impression I'd be riding through some gently rolling countryside. Wales didn't agree with the plan, and swapped "gently rolling" with "seriously lumpy". If I wasn't climbing at 4mph, I was descending at over 30mph.
Everything was lumpy, and I was riding into the wind. It took almost four hours to cover the next 15 miles.
I arrived in Newtown just before 5 o'clock. The ideal campsite for the night was 5 miles further on, in Caersws. I phoned them, only to discover they had no running water and were closed.
This was bad news. Newtown didn't seem that enticing. I'd only done 45 miles and was aiming to get to Fishguard (200 miles away) in under four days. Optimistically, I rode on.
The countryside between Newtown and Caersws was beautiful. I was climbing through river valleys of lush green fields of sheep, flanked by rolling hills. I had plenty of time to admire more Red Kites as they wheeled over the road, hunting for voles.
I made good time and arrived in Caersws at 6pm. I phoned Woodhouse Farm, a bunkhouse just north of Rhayader. It was a little far from Shrewsbury for the first night's stop, but was the only place I knew of beyond Caersws. I called and spoke to John, the owner. "No problem, we'll be here" he assured me, as I suggested I might be quite late.
I needed food badly. Caersws is only small, but it has a chippy.
Ray "haddock and chips" Mears
The chippy's run by Cambria's very own version of Ray Mears. Spotting my loaded bike leaning in his doorway, Ray casually enquired if I was riding far. We ended up having a long chat about which route I should take across the Cambrian Mountains, which bunkhouses had the best views, and Ray's exploits north of the Arctic circle.
All the while I was inhaling haddock and chips as if I hadn't eaten in a week.
Ray and his brother love heading off on expeditions into wild untamed lands. They go for the most remote locations they can find — if there's any sign of habitation it's not for them. During their first trip north of the Arctic circle they were trekking through the snow, feeling very proud of themselves, confident there couldn't have been a soul for miles around. Until, that is, they met a guy out walking his dog.
The real Ray Mears made a TV programme about the last great wilderness on earth, in the north of Finland. Thinking "this is it!" the brothers caught the first plane out there.
They rented a Canadian canoe off a guy called Úlfur, strapped it the roof of Úlfur's knackered old Volvo and got him to drive them 120 miles into the middle of nowhere. Waving Úlfur goodbye, they started paddling back.
Halfway down the river the canoe was thrown onto the rocks while shooting some rapids, shattering the canoe's middle thwart.
Most of us would have tried to walk out, but this wasn't a problem for Ray. He whittled a new thwart from a piece of spruce. So he's like Ray Mears, but also runs a fish and chip shop.
The ride to Woodhouse Farm
Ray and I decided I shouldn't have any problem making it to the bunkhouse. Ray also mentioned that the road to Llanidloes was fairly flat, with only one climb of note.
I should have known better than to listen to a man who can fix a canoe with his teeth (it was like riding over a crinkle cut crisp), but it was a beautiful evening ride.
Eight lumpy miles later I was in Llanidloes, halfway between Caersws and the bunkhouse, totally knackered. The sun dipped below the horizon. I pedalled on.
As I made my way up the valley the temperature started to drop. The sky was clear – one by one the stars appeared against a deep blue sky. The black hills on either side shrank into the darkness. I was alone, with only the distant lights from a farm on the other side of the valley to keep me company.
It was 10 o'clock when I knocked on John's front door. He'd almost given up waiting and gone to bed. The temperature dropped to -3.8°C that night, and I wasn't far from being lost in the dark.
The day's stats
My phone's GPS recorded the route on Strava, logging a total of 5,778ft of climbing. Strava also recorded an elevation profile.
Figures from the bike's computer:
- Riding time: 8 hours 27 minutes
- Distance: 73.36 miles (plus 4.65 to get to the station)
- Average speed: 8.6 mph
- Max speed: 37.7 mph