A Welsh gravel adventure

A couple of weeks ago some of our riders, along with one of our sponsors The Ark Cycles headed west, for a weekend of fun in the welsh hills on their bikes… Ellie, from The Ark, has put the adventure into words for us, here is how it went…

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A Welsh Gravel Adventure

Wow, what an adventure! Three brutally tough but awesome days in the saddle, venturing from The Ark Cycles HQ in Brimscombe just outside Stroud, to Abergavenny, the Elan Valley, Hay-on-Wye and back.
The Ark Cycles crew of Sean, Mike and myself, Ellie, plus shop friends Nat, Jim, Packer and fellow Magspeed racer Sam set off on what was to be a huge off-road touring trip on gravel bikes.
The bikes were fully loaded with all the basic touring essentials, a tent, sleeping bag and mat, cooking equipment and of course Sean with his all-important coffee machine! 
We all had different bikes equipped with varied collections of bike touring kit. Sean and Sam used Ortlieb, I used Blackburn touring kit, Mike used his Pro kit, Nat used Top Peak, Jim with his Specialized kit and Packer used Apidura. It was a great way to test out and compare several of the leading bike touring kit brands and to see whose setup worked the best.

DAY 1 – Saturday evening 
The first day/evening consisted of a 62-mile route from The Ark Cycles HQ to a campsite just outside Abergavenny. We set off from the shop with each bike weighing in at around 20kg – significantly heavier than the road bikes we usually ride. We headed out through the back lanes of Stroud and towards the Severn Bridge where we picked up Sam and Jim. Due to a mix up in communication (causing great hilarity) Packer had gone a day earlier so was already in Wales!

It was a reasonably flat route with no gravel so the pace was high. We stopped at a Morrisons in Abergavenny to get food for our evening meals, however this turned into a 45-minute shopping trip! We picked up avocados, wine, chocolate and pasta but were unsure as to whether it would all fit on our bikes. Luckily it all did, with Sam carrying a bag for life on top of his front bike bag as extra storage. Because we took so long, darkness was fast approaching so we stopped at the nearest campsite on route to Crickow (where we’d originally planned to stop) and we pitched up the tents before it got too dark. Most of the group quickly got their burners and stoves out and began cooking their pasta. Nat and I though (first-time cycle tourers) couldn’t work out how to use our burners. It turned out I had the wrong gas for my burner! Fortunately, Nat had the right gas so we were able to eat! The food went down a treat and an early night was had by all. 

DAY 2 – Sunday
We set our alarms for 6am to make breakfast and get everything packed away and loaded back on the bikes for an early start. The sun was shining and the temperature was rising. We headed out of Abergavenny and towards the Elan Valley. The first 30 miles were fairly fast on relatively smooth road surfaces. We found Packer in a Welsh village along the way. This was where the fun and the gravel started! We headed uphill through a field with no actual path, through stinging nettles and hedges, jumping off our bikes every now and again fighting our way up, it felt like we were getting some early Cyclocross training in! Eventually, we found a gravel path, picked up the pace a little and continued to climb. Once we hit the top, the only way was down and again there was no path. We rode down as much as we could, but it got to a point where again we had to jump off the bikes and scramble down the hillside. We only had one minor incident when Nat, who was riding with rim brakes went head over heels, luckily having a soft grassy landing. No damage done!
After a lot of brutal off-road climbing, we hit the Devil’s Staircase which had an average gradient of 25% but luckily this was a tarmac road, making it slightly easier. At the top of the climb, we came to another gravel path which eventually led us to getting lost once again. Luckily we discovered a cafe to top up water and to buy some much-needed snacks. On the way down to the cafe Sam leapt off his bike after seeing a £10 note on the ground and ran back up the hill to grab it. Ice-cream, coffee and cake were on him!
Still not yet at Elan Valley, we started to wonder if we’d ever make it. After riding for 5 hours, we came across another hill with a grassy path and lots of gates. The grassy path eventually turned to a slate and gravel track which took us to the Elan Valley.

Sean and Jim powered on ahead and whilst waiting for the rest of the crew, Sean cracked out his burner and stove and cooked a curry on a dam at one end of the Elan Valley reservoir. We’d managed to travel all this way on gravel tracks with only two punctures!
Sunset was fast approaching and we still hadn’t eaten any proper food. We found a Co-Op at Rhayader and bought some sandwiches. While outside the Co-Op, Nat had some trouble with her rear wheel and whilst everyone was helping her sort it out, one of the tyres on Mike’s bike went bang! Tubeless sealant went everywhere and I expect the whole village of Rhayader worried that a bomb had just gone off!
Once we’d sorted things out, we pushed on in search of the campsite in Hay-on-Wye. By the time we had clocked up 100 miles, 60 of which were off-road miles, we hit another 20% climb, the final one of the day. That was a tough climb! After 8 hours in the saddle, 110 miles with nearly 10,000 feet of climbing, we reached Hay-on-Wye and pitched our tents for the night. As it was so late by this time, we decided to order food from a local Chinese. Sam and Sean went to pick it up. It went down a treat!

DAY 3 – Monday
Homeward bound! After a savage day of gravel the previous day, we decided to head straight to Monmouth on tarmac. Sean, having sliced his tyre the day before and having fixed it with a temporary patch, decided he would be OK to get home without stopping at the local bike shop in Hay to buy a new one. This was a fatal mistake as after only a few miles, we had to stop and pump it up again…..and again and again! Losing count of how many times we had to stop, the day got off to a slow start.
Eventually, we arrived at Monmouth for a pasty. We found a local bike shop, so Sean picked up a new tyre and an inner tube. From here, Sean, Jim and Sam headed off back towards the Severn Bridge, where Sam had left his car and Mike, Nat, Packer and I headed off towards Symonds Yat, along the river Wye on a gravel path. After the challenges of the previous day, 5 miles of flat gravel felt beautiful! 75 miles later, we arrived back in Gloucestershire.

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After three hard days, 245 miles, and 16,000 feet of climbing, we were all shattered. An epic trip was enjoyed by all and it was certainly one to remember!
On the kit front, Ortlieb came out on top in our opinion. It was sturdy on the bike, easy to pack and un-pack, and simple to attach and detach from the bike. Its quality was excellent and it was completely waterproof. If you’re interested in taking a close up look, you’ll find Ortlieb bike packing kit is sold at The Ark Cycles.

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 A great little adventure had by the some of the team and I am sure it’ll be the first of many! Though we all like to race here at Team Orange, we also appreciate simply being on our bikes, whether it be touring, or cruising around our local woods on a MTB…keeping it fun, that being the main reason we all do it!
 

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