Elan Valley Explorer

I’ve been wanting to explore the Elan valley since I got a gravel bike and when we had a mini summer in the middle of February I knew I had to get over there to take advantage of it.

it also took me 5 minutes to be able to walk properly

I’m still suffering from a tibial band injury that i picked up last December riding in Scotland. luckily it doesn’t hurt at all when pedaling but does become very sore afterwards even with the recommended stretching exercises. It also plays up if i sit in the same position for a long period of time. It takes over two hours to drive to the start point of today’s ride from home and so when I pulled up in Ryhayader not only was it a struggle to get out of the van it also took me 5 minutes to be able to walk properly.

After getting my leg moving and unloading the bike I was ready to go. Ryhayader is right at the end of the Elan Valley so it was a very short ride through the town centre to the start of the trail. I had loaded the route onto my Garmin but the route is very well signed posted so unless you intend to veer of the route you won’t need a map. within minutes the first iew of the Valley appeared and well, it was pretty breath taking.

Summer in February

I’d left home early to avoid traffic and it also worked in my favour on the outward leg of the route as I had the place pretty much to myself. There aren’t many better things than to stand looking at that view with the only sound heard being a distant bird and the lapping of the water.

The route starts off on surprisingly rolling tarmac which takes you off the busy A road out of town, it probably would be faster on the road as there are a few gates to negotiate but the inconvenience is worth not sharing the road with a logging lorry or a holiday maker taking more notice of the view than how they are driving. the tarmac path passes the Elan valley Hotel and then the Visitor centre and then the tarmac turns much more interesting for a gravel bike. As it follows the banks of reservoirs the path becomes muddy, rooty and rutted in places. I stopped here for a drink and to reflect that the water in my flask probably came from this very lake as it was originally built and flooded to feed the thirsty folk and industry of Birmingham.

The trail wound on along side the water until it came to the part where the route starts to climb up a steep loose surfaced bank through a wooded area. Well usually it does, this time there was a orange barrier with a sign saying a short area of the route was closed due to a landslide. So a complete loop wasn’t possible. I did however decide I’d ride up the either side of the blockage to get as close to a loop as possible. I’d also comment at this point that the best was to do the route is to avoid this climb and do the loop backwards. this means the climb is on a very quiet road with awesome views and gentle gradients but means the second part of the route is all off road and all downhill on some very cool gravel tracks that take a bit of concentration!

The blockage was a rock slide and although it was only about 5ft across it was clearly dangerous and closing the trail was the only option.

On the return leg it was clear that this is a very popular place to visit as it was much busier. But in the usual way of things the busiest place was near the visitor centre and its cafe. It seems visitors to Wales do the same as visitors to forest centres etc with cafes, they turn up, look at the view from the car park, buy a coffee and then get back in their car, not many seem to venture far from the “honey pot” even on the warmest February day for years. Such is modern life.

The potential to explore the area is immense with lots of bridleways and quiet lanes to check out. I did just over 25 miles in fantastic weather. But This was still February and as the day went on and the shadows got longer the temperature fall was dramatic and it was wise to stick to routes that were sign posted or known as sunset is early and it wouldn’t be a good idea to get lost without adequate clothing or lights. i’ll comeback later in the year and do some more exploring.

A great ride to experience, nothing too strenuous but with potential for a much bigger, more technical and physical ride in the future

43 rides, 719 miles so far this year

The Deserted Forest

Fat Forest Fun

H and I took advantage of a Friday away from work to ride in the Forest of Dean. despite the picture the conditions were pretty perfect. i even contemplated taking my arm warmers off and rode for the first time since the autumn without a buff under my helmet! After the recent inclement weather i was expecting a lot of puddles lurking in the breaking bumps but there were only a couple on the whole ride.

I did find the limit of a rigid fork on the fat bike. It may be a lot lighter than a suspension fork but when you are going fast enough on the rough terrain to find that you are being so battered that it’s affecting your vision and you have to back off the speed it does make you regret losing the front squish. it did make H’s day when he caught me up on the roughest parts using the 60mm of travel from his Lauf forks to full effect.

The great thing about riding on a weekday is how quiet the trails are, I think we saw only 4 other riders the whole time we were out. Although some of the locals were a bit rubbish 😉

ride 8 15 miles total 148

Chance encounter

Having had a mountain bike since the late 1980s and ridden bikes of all types since my 3rd birthday (far too long ago to admit to) I’ve found off road riders to be the friendliest of all the sub groups.

The off road fraternity

When it comes to the off road fraternity, mtb, cyclocross and any genre that get their tyres dirty it seems to be a totally different world. I’ve not come across a surly or miserable off road rider. Everyone I’ve met as a stranger has been willing to help, share tools or advice and show you the juiciest trails if you are new to the area. there is no elitism if you don’t have the lastest bike or fashionable kit that you seem to get between road riders. If you’ve got a bike and a helmet then anything goes. Some of the best riders I’ve ridden with have worn non cycling specific kit and have been on a basic bike and they have ridden the socks off everyone else with no showing off or ego.

Head butted down tube

So on Sundays ride when a guy tagged onto the back of H and introduced himself as Matt from Cardiff non of us batted an eyelid. When he said he was just visiting for the weekend and had limited time to explore we of course invited him to join us and tried to show him a few of the local trails. Our trails will never compare with what he has locally to Cardiff but in the small area we have we showed him a diverse range of mud and roots! He didn’t get the above experience of following an expert rider though because non of us are fast or particularly skilled at this MTBing lark, in fact we all fell off at various points. I even head butted Russ’s down tube during a tumble!

Right tool for the job

The conditions were a little challenging and for once the fat bike was the right tool for the job. When the skinny tyre bikes faltered in the sticky clay like mud of Waseley the fat bike excelled. It’s a bit of a misnomer that the fat tyre is good in mud, when the consistency is really soft and sloppy the tyres just slide over the surface. Today though there seemed to be ample grip and I managed to clean all the climbs, roots were in no way grippy but the bike coped well and I got a few Strava personal records. It makes me sound like a riding God but nothing could be further from the truth really. Next ride will probably be the polar opposite but I’ll take any win i can get.

It was great to meet Matt and if he’s ever up in the area again we’ll show him a few other trails and hopefully in better conditions

Ride 7

15 miles

133 miles total

Finding the motivation

Despite the bitterly cold and damp weather a couple of us were out enjoying the woods today
If the cat comes back wet I’m staying in

It’s very easy this time of year to look out of the window at the frost, put the cat out and see if she comes back wet or succumb to the pull of a warm duvet and leave riding a bicycle outside until the bluebells are showing through and the month begins with an “M”

You could spend your hard earned money on one of those fancy indoor cycling machines and spend a couple of hours staring at a computer screen (or the back of a garage door) whilst corroding your best bike with your own sweat. Frankly I’d rather eat my own arm than do that. I use a turbo trainer as a last resort if I’m injured and can’t hold the bars on a real bike. my very unsophisticated trainer has a layer of dust on it as it languishes in the loft.

I’m not into scientific training though, I’ve no season of racing to get ready for so I can see the value, but for me I’d prefer to be outside with the real wind in my face.

Caution, contains old person wisdom

However today, with a temperature hovering around zero, the windchill a lot less, the stiff breeze one that my Dad describes as “lazy”, as in too lazy to go around you, instead going right through you I found a lot of things to delay layering up and going out on the bike. Trip to the post office to pick up a parcel, yes. Pop into work on my day off to drop some stuff in? definitely. Meet my Dad and suggest going for a coffee? yes. Wait until 12 noon as the temperature then would be as warm as it was going to get? yes, sensible that.

So eventually with so many layers on I’d be protected from any fall and probably bounce upright immediately I set off into the wind with the forecast rain beginning to leave droplets on my Garmin screen. The route planned with a long climb to start I soon warmed up. I sought out trails I’ve neglected riding either because they were over grown in summer or had fallen trees over then. A couple had been cleared and I even got 7th fastest on a technical descent by just saying sod it and pushing on regardless and dropping in (thank you dropper post!) The cold meant i kept moving to stay warm, no coffee stops today.

The point (It’s taken long enough!)

I only managed 12.5 miles today, it was enough. If you’d have given me an excuse not to ride I’d probably have taken it and then felt guilty all evening at a missed opportunity. the biggest hurdle or barrier stopping me from riding is me. Once i’m out there I’m soon so engrossed on the ride i forget all the excuses I came up with.

I am glad though that my antipodean friend on twitter @CyclingContessa told me After I’d arrived home that she was basking in the 30+ degrees of an Aussie summer or I might have just crawled under the duvet and cried myself to sleep.

Ride 6

12 miles

118 miles total

Brewing up

Probably not the best day to go brewing coffee outdoors, Cold with a gentle breeze said the forecasters. They needed to come and stand on top of the hill and have to shield the cooker from the strong gale that was blowing. It didn’t deter us though, we could pretend we were on some epic long journey in wonderful but remote scenery. Rather than less than two miles from one of the country’s busiest motorways.

In the end it did turn out to be slightly epic. A tale of me keep adding further sections of off road, Ian’s first ride outdoors for months and Dan’s perpetually slipping seatpost that was exacerbated when Dan over tightened the seat clamp so much it snapped. Gorilla tape to the rescue though and some tentative balancing on the saddle from Dan got him home un-impaled and with only slight discomfort.

special mention to the luxury millionaires shortbread Dan brought with him. too rich to eat all in one go is always a good sign!

Ride 5

27 miles

106 miles total

Wyre Forest

The Wyre Forest is the closest large area of woodland to the NWAlps and I really should make the effort to ride here more often. There are lots and lots of natural trails and sublime singletrack if you know where to look. Even after 20 years of coming here I still find new sections to play on or even better gets shown routes by other riders.

The trails today were remarkably dry considering the time of year, there was proper hero dirt in places. I rode two trails I’d never ridden before and just explored stuff I felt looked like they might have potential. This is the good thing (there are many negatives too, I’m not a complete loner) about solo riding, you can try a trail and if it doesn’t work just retrace your steps rather than ruin someone elses ride by wasting time. This early season exploring will pay me back in the spring when the warmer weather and longer daylight hours allow after work visits as well as weekends.

Ride 4

17 miles

79 miles total

How I fell in love, out of love and back in again with a fatty


I bought my first fat bike in November 2014 from On One, as many people did. The On One Fatty was a lot of peoples first (and last) dip of the toe in the plus size tyre water. It was part of a pact with a couple of riding friends, along the lines of “if you buy one, so will I” I think the fear was being the only rider on a fatty and being left behind by your skinny tyre shod contempories. So three of us dived in head first and bought a fatty. One soon fell by the wayside and gave up but two of us persevered into the winter hoping for some suitable fat bike weather, i.e. snow.

Unfortunately, we were disappointed that year, no snow just the usual frosts and rain. The bikes though were awesome, they coped well with most conditions, only the slimiest mud would throw them off line as they floated over the surface. I fitted a dropper post and even though the bike had a rigid fork technical trails were great fun. The confidence those fat tyres give is immense.


2015 came and I rode on through the dry summer months, my other bikes lay neglected as the fatty just got more and more fun. Winter arrived and we had a light dusting of snow but barely enough to register.

2016 came and I experienced one thing the fat bike excels at-sand! We rode from Dolgellau to Barmouth and played on the dunes with tyres pressures below 5psi. the bike was such a laugh, the things it could climb up and traverse surprised my. As we rode back along the disused railway (having put the tyres back to 10psi) we talked about how we needed to try these beasts out in snow, but alas it wasn’t to be.


In 2017 I upgraded my fat bike to a Smokestone henderson. This bike was designed in England by a fat bike enthusiast and bike shop owner by the name of Graham Foot. Based on UK trail friendly geometry the bike took my riding to the next level. I road natural trails, trail centres, long road rides (70 miles on tarmac on a fat bike is an adventure itself) I even raced 24hr races on it.

Then in December 2017 it happened, my part of the UK had a large fall of snow and we were out in it before it had peaked. It was brilliant! Deep drifts didn’t phase it, there were falls, slide outs, giggles and above all fun! The snow coincided with a weekend so I spend more time out than I did at home!


The weird thing was after the snow had gone I seem to have reached peak fat bike, no ride was going to compare, I had ticked all the fat bike boxes and as spring came I was riding other bikes and I’m sad to say the fat bike got put away into the loft for storage. It would sit there in the dark neglected for 10 months.


I must thank Roy and Judy McNeil for my falling back into love with fatbikes. Every year they organise a ride to celebrate Global fat bike day down in Surrey. This year it was based around Leith hill and the super trails they have. The weather was pants, heavy rain the whole day but it was the best 20 miles I’ve had on a mountainbike for ages and ages and since then I’ve not been off the fat bike when riding off road. The love is back. I’ve fallen in love, out of love and plunged back in again.

This time if we have snow I’m not going to make the same mistake again.


What a difference a day makes


From -2.8 degrees to 8 degrees in two rides and it certainly makes a difference to your enthusiasm. it’s gone from “i need to do this and get home as quickly as possible” to “how can i extend this to ride routes i’ve not ridden for a while or old favourites in the opposite direction to normal?”

How lovely  to find a sunny spot to stop and bask, reptile like in the rays from the Sun. glorious!

Ride 3

21 miles

62 miles total

Cold Cold cold, did i mention it was Cold?


I lasted 6 miles before i had to find the shelter and warmth of work. you can tell how cold it was because today was actually my day off and i still went and sat in the shop for a while. I’d lost the feeling in my toes and fingers. The Garmin said it was -2.8 with the windchill.

Anyway, this big brave soul ventured back out from the heat into the elements and headed straight downhill for a mile or so ensuring i was back to being cold. the only way to get warm was to ride and ride uphill. So that’s what i did and along the route i came to the Steps of Doom (S.O.D.) the S.O.D. was part of my old commute in my former life that i used to share with a colleague. He would never attempt the steps and S.O.D. became our nickname for the route home, everything was either via S.O.D. or not. looking back now those were really bad times and good times (isn’t hindsight a wonderful thing?) in my personal life. So these little used urban steps in a dodgy part of town will always have a strange sentimentality for me.

The route passed 2 good pubs that i thought about stopping at and me not stopping tells you all you need to know about how cold it was, i didn’t stop once.

Ride 2

18 miles

41 miles

Trek Checkpoint ALR 5


I’ve been lucky enough to be given a Trek Checkpoint ALR 5 “gravel” bike to play with long term and I’ve been riding it now for nearly 4 months in the dry of summer, the dampness of autumn and I would have said the cold of winter but thus far it’s been really mild.

The bike comes with a complete Shimano 105 groupset with hydraulic brakes and a 50/34 chainset and 11-34 rear cassette. the reast of the kit is from Bontrager, all good stuff that is reliable.

I found that the gearing for the riding i do (lots of off road steep mtb trails) was over geared, the 34T sprocket on the back was too high for my puny legs so i swapped to a 34T chainring and a 11-40 cassette and i’ve found that to be excellent. i even used the stock chain and rear mech without it being stretched. the nech also isn’t a clutch version. the chainring is a narrow wide one though. I’ve not lost the chain due to bouncing once since i fitted the new configuration.

The stock tyres are schwalbe G-Ones, fine for summer or road use but didn’t cut the mustard once a bit of dampness set in. i fitted WTB resolutes in 42mm size (the frame with take 45mm!) and set them up tubeless and they have been absolutely excellent, can’t fault them at all.

The other item i changed were the handle bars, i swapped in a pair of Ritchey venturemax for their extra flair and compactness, they are so comfortable and will be my go to bar from now on.

the ride is sublime, i set the “stranglehold” adjustable dropouts at the half way point for a mix of stability and manoeuverability  and for me that seems about right, the masochistic amongst us can run it single speed easily. The bike will cruise on tarmac all day, 100 miles? not a problem, the geometry is stable and not full on race bike twitchy, the disc brakes give you confidence both on road and off, it’s definitely a ride along and look over the hedge at the view bike rather than a ride on someones wheel looking at the lycra covered back side in front bike, but with the right tyres i reckon it could do this too

I’ve put Gravel in inverted commas as I think to bracket this bike as a gravel bike only is wrong, it is much more versatile than that. in fact there isn’t a lot that you can’t do on this bike at all. I’d say adventure bike but that makes it sound that it would be a rubbish road bike or commute to work bike and it really isn’t. pop some slick tyres on and this could (with the help of your legs obviously) join and club run. pop a saddle bag on it and do a extra long Audax with ease. fit a rack and panniers and you could tour the world or go credit card touring via B&Bs. bike packing? no problem, with multiple bottle mounts and frame bag friendly spaces spending nights out in the middle of nowhere carrying your breakfast and tarp would be a doddle. See that bridleway you’ve never been down before because it’s 30 miles away from home via some grass up the middle lanes? this bike can get you there in more comfort than riding an MTB on the road and still handle the roughness. I’ve also taken this bike down some of my favourite singletrack, yes it’s slower than an MTB on that stuff but so engaging, just like MTBing was back in the days when the sport was new. this bike does everything well. personally I’d like a little more height on the head tube, a bit more stand over and some dropper post compatibility but that is just my preference it wouldn’t stop me buying one. One great bike that could replace many of your other bikes!