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Bike Packing–My First Attempt on the Transcambrian Way

Words by Roadi

on 03/06/2019 22:28:28

So, as all good cyclists do, you look for an adventure each season that you set your sights on and make your goal. It may be  a local sportive, trip to Europe or another warm destination in the summer or an event of some sort. This year was no different for me and I was hoping to maybe sneak in a few challenges a pre, mid and late season adventure. I entered my brother-in-law and I into the Fred Whitton but didn't make the ballot so had little hope for an early season event, until he came back with the idea of doing the Transcambrian Way across Wales.

It didn't take much convincing, I was game for something that was a little different for me, and as I was to find out, totally out of my comfort zone!

Lesson 1: Wales has a large amount of climbing!

I had heard a fair bit about bike-packing and thought this Wales trip would be a good way to try it out and be a great excuse to get out on the MTB and a good bit of mileage under the belt.

Other than having some sort of fitness for 166km of off-road riding, gear choice plays a large part in the success of these events, as I was to find out. Choosing the right kit to take, or not to take, is essential and can have an impact on the overall enjoyment. I got some good advice and a was able to borrow a set of Apidura bikepacking bags to go on the frame of my mountain bike and an EVOC FR Enduro bag with a hydration bladder.

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Lesson 2: Pack Light

As you can see below from the amount of kit laid out, and to the trained packer, I had way to much stuff. Especially since we had booked accommodation in a pub hotel for the night and didn't have to carry sleeping bags, tents and cooking gear. Since I didn't have space on my frame I had to carry extra water on my back. Another mistake which I learned quickly and half rectifies along the way. You can see in one of the pictures that I have one bottle in the bag and the other strapped onto the Apidura saddle bag I was using. I must add at this point that the good friend who lent me the bags advised me no to carry anything on my back if I could help it… it was with a good deal of regret that I didn't listen to that entirely but grateful I could make adjustment along the way.

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Lesson 3: Carry as Much as You Can on Your Bikes Frame

We set off on early Saturday morning from Shrewsbury by train to Knighton. A one carriage train, so its worth making sure that if you head to the start by rail as we did that you book your bikes on as well as it’s a popular route and you could be one of a good few trying to get your 2 wheels into a small space.
We arrived in Knighton, a small market town in central Powys, Wales. I was later to find out that the railway station is actually on Shropshire, England, so you do start this adventure right on the boarder.

We started out of the railway station and along the narrow winding country lanes, all-the-while climbing and descending as the road followed the undulating landscape. Sun was up, small breeze and away from the bustle of the city. Pretty ideal if you ask me. We had to stop once early on as I couldn't figure out how to operate my hydration pack until I realized that I had not removed the plastic seal over the mouthpiece. Another fail as all good adventurers should at least test their gear before embarking on a trip. We were carrying a set of OS maps that my brother-in-law had mounted to a brilliant self-made map clamp on his handlebars and I had my trusty Garmin to double check the map using GPS where required (the truth is I really had it to make sure I could record and upload the adventure to Strava! ‘cause we all know that if its not on Strava then it didn't…)

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The trail is reasonably well signed on the designated cycle routes but it is worth downloading the GPX file or getting a recent and well marked map to make sure. We did make the occasional diversion and a little exploring is always recommended to ensure you make the most of your adventure.

Here are a couple of links you can take a look at to get an idea of the trail:

1) MTB Wales Website

2) Bikepacking.com

3) Transcambrianway Website – you can find downloads here for route files etc.

You can also take a look at my Strava files from the two days of riding – there are a few detours and cut-backs, so if you do decide to use them then maybe use plotaroute or another waypoint website creator to double check!

Day one was pretty dry and the trail was firm and had a variation of grass, mudpack and gravel. A small tarred section, a dedicated walking and bike track, after lunch out of Rhayader along the Elan Valley Trail. I rode front and back with Vittoria’s MOTA tyres expecting the trail to be boggy and really wet. Could have gone with a more hard-pack tyre reflecting on it. Having said that day 2 was in pouring rain and the grey gravel on the forest trails turned slippy quickly and I was most grateful for them on the descents.

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Just to jump back a little. We found a great little place, The Old Swan Tea Rooms, to top up with water and have lunch in Rhayader.

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I can recommend the Baked Potato – well cooked, great toppings with good salad washed down with an ice cold coke!

The Elan Valley Trail is a good stretch of cycling to get your legs moving again and work of the lunch. The path turns steeply upwards and there is a good deal of climbing up out of Cnwch Wood and onto the ridge that runs along Gro Hill that tops out at 450m or so. the climb has a few sections that hover around 20-24%. I wont hide the fact that on occasion I did walk…

The trail overlooks the Caban-coch Reservoir with some beautiful views. When descending be sure to check the path clearly as there are a few forks and sheep tracks that can be misleading.

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The official route takes you to a fiord crossing on the river Afon-Claerwen. On advice from seasoned packers we were told to check the water level as the crossing can at times be rather deep and fast (this is before you head up to the damn wall of the Claerwen Reservoir) You will see that we decided to cross at the little iron bridge on my Strava route to avoid this. It did mean a little riding along the road but hey ho.. choices Smile There are no opportunities for shops or cafes for water here so if you intend to top-up do take water purification tablets and there is a little waterfall along the route of the Claerwen where you can top up. The path here is gravel and slate and a strong wind was blowing across the water from the West (bringing in the rain).

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We stopped just after the reservoir before dropping down into Ffair Rhos and making the short journey to Pontrhydfendigaid where we had booked in at the Black Lion Hotel for the night. A great place with top notch food, Cider and a warm shower and bed. Whats not to like. Be sure to book though as it has a good reputation and the restaurant is frequented by those visiting the nearby area. We were able to lock our bikes up securely and with good peace of mind. The offer a hearty breakfast and you can select to have a pack lunch made the night before which is top-draw as the 2nd day has very few places to stop and get food and drink.

The Black Lion Hotel

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Even if you think that you don't need wet-weather-gear. Take Some! The rain fell from the moment we stepped out of the hotel for pretty much most of the 2nd days riding. Combined with the wind it was worth having a double layer of waterproofing to keep it out and your top-half dry. Shorts, shoes and socks were soaked, even with Sealskin socks. Dry bags are a must even if your bikepacking bags are splash or water resistant. There is nothing worse than getting your essential kit needlessly wet.

The path varies again on day two and there is a bit of climbing and single track descending to be navigated. Make sure you read your map carefully as we had one or two occasions where we enjoyed a good downhill only to find we needed to go back up Smile

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There were fewer photo’s today because of the rain but I did have a GoPro running with the odd clip here and there throughout the 2 days. Ill try get those up on my YouTube channel so you can get a feel for the riding and terrain.

Day 2 has some serious climbs as well and I was feeling it in the legs. Stay focused as some of the single track has a drop off and when carrying extra luggage on your bike you need to be aware of the swaying and handling. 20kn into the ride there is a –21% decent on flint/gravel that kicks into a climb of pretty much the same. Be careful in the wet as its rutted and needs a good line choice.

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We weren’t able to complete the route in its entirety in the end as we had a train to catch and my legs were starting to fail. Definitely have unfinished business with this part of Wales and the Transcambrian Way. We ducked off of the route just after the Pwll Rhyd-y-porthymyn lake and onto the tarred road towards Machynlleth where we caught the train back to Shrewsbury.

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Big thanks to James for planning this and a great adventure. Promise Ill get more fit and carry less next time!