Staff rider Mark writes about a memorable trip to Gower in South Wales. Read on as Mark tells us about this epic ride on his Orange Crush Mountain Bike, the puncture he received and a 'friend' he picked up along the way.
- Gower at sunset
'You can't ride it down there. Can you?'
'Yeah, of course I can.'
I was looking at the bridleway that led from the garden gate of the cottage that we were staying. It consisted of, in order of quantity, rocks, mud, and roots. It was steep and with some nasty looking bends. Whilst I was in no doubt that I would descend the bridleway, I couldn't be sure that I would escape injury! During my short life as a mountain biker I had ridden mainly at Chicksands for my jumping and berm kicks, and around the Kettering and Corby countryside, which has technical trails but not ones that last very long. I looked again at the path and tried to see a line through the slippery roots and jagged rock. I wondered if I should go back to the shop and exchange the bacon that my girlfriend and I had just purchased for a bottle with 'Skills Pills' written on the curious shop label.
Post bacon sandwiches, I loaded the Camelbak and checked my tyre pressure. I decided to wear a set of 661 knee pads as I was probably going to need them straight out of the door. A group of French exchange students appeared at the front gate of the cottage looking for the start of the bridleway. I decided it might be best to wait until they had walked its length and were out of harm’s way before setting off. It was going to be a tricky enough descent without throwing Gallic shrugs and appalling knitwear into the mix.
‘Francois. Ees eet cold een warls?’
‘Oui papa. Zee temperature ees zertainly colder zan eet ees 'ere een La Rochelle.’
‘Yoo ad bettere take zis ski jumpore zat I 'ave not worn for 40 years.’
I looked at my watch. Five minutes had passed and they should have been well clear.
‘Right, I’m going now.’
My girlfriend seemed largely unconcerned that I may be broken within 10 metres. That or my false bravado had been strong enough to reassure her. I wish it had me.
‘See you then.’
‘Yep. See ya.’
I walked out of the gate, got into the saddle and rolled gently to the top of 'Death Alley'. I had been given advice by Bruce the shop mechanic that under no circumstances should I brake whilst going over the rocks. Easier said than done, Brucey. I instinctively pulled the levers as my front wheel rolled over the first drop, causing the bike to buck and me to put my foot down. I breathed deep and pulled myself together. I looked ahead to see a line through and kept my head up. A really bad habit I have is looking just in front of my front wheel or at nearby passing objects, which often results in hitting them. Focused on the coming corners, I stepped on the pedal and kept my head up. An idiotic grin spread across my face as the bike gathered speed and bounced and rolled over the surface. Off the saddle with knees bent and elbows out, I absorbed the bumps and then rolled across the bridge over the river. The French students were sitting at the Shepherds cafe over the road from me. Their faces wore puzzlement as they picked at some 'croissants'.
The Gower is a peninsula, west of Swansea in south Wales. The fact that it was the first place in Britain to be awarded with the title of 'Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty' speaks volumes. A heady mix of hills, marshes, cliffs, rocky outcrops, beaches (god the beaches) and roaming horses and cows. It isn't just the flora and fauna that make it a special place. Gower folk are amongst the friendliest I've ever come across. On one occasion in the Kittle village shop, I was buying a four pack of Double Dragon ale. The smiling proprietor reliably informed me that not only was it a 'smashing drop,' but was also the oldest canned ale in the country.
‘....and the reason I knows that is because her grandfather was there.’
He nodded to the lady who was sorting through some postcards, who looked up and smiled.
It made a nice change from having my change thrown at me. It's easy to spot a tourist in the Gower. Just say 'Hello' and if there is no response then they're probably English. If, however, you get invited to dinner, it’s probably a native.
I had to ride to Penmaen on the road before joining the trail, which was a lung-busting climb with cars sitting patiently behind me as I spun and sucked water from my Camelbak. Soon enough I turned off the main road and hit the trail. The climb up towards the long ridge of Cefn Bryn loomed in front of me. A group of horse trekkers was coming down the track in front of me and I drank some more water as I waited for them to pass. The weather was perfect. There was a slight breeze but it was sunshine and big fluffy clouds all round. The previous night I had been woken by heavy rainfall on the wooden roof and despite the blue sky, long lines of water were running down the hills from higher ground. The climb up was tricky, lifting the front wheel onto rocks and then trying to get the tyres to bite and pull me over. After what seemed like an age, I rode over the edge and onto the flat. I paused and took a picture of Three Cliffs Bay behind me, before continuing along the ridge.
- Three Cliffs Bay from Cefn Bryn ridge
The top of the ridge is flat, with a wide trail running across its length. The previous night’s rain had filled the dips and holes that run all across the ridge, with water making the riding delightfully muddy and splashy. I rode on, seeking the odd spots where the rocks rise high enough to drop and roll off for a bit of variety. The view was spectacular. Both sides of the peninsula were visible, as were the rain clouds that scudded across the horizon. After a while I came across civilisation again. A road crosses Cefn Bryn and where it intersects with the ridge, a car park has established for people who want to go and view Arthur's Stone but can't be bothered to walk.
Arthur's Stone is a large boulder that legend says ended up here after King Arthur lobbed it from the town of Llanelli on the other side of the Loughor estuary. History is a bit vague on why he threw it. Either the knights of the round table had a game of welly wanging that got seriously out of hand or it was one druid orgy too many and Arthur was pig sick of being kept up at night by another sacrifice rave on top of the Bryn.
- The High Priest wasn't happy with the faulty glowsticks.
The end of the ridge approached and the descent began. Off the saddle again and with appendages bent, I began to gather speed until I was smiling as the bike periodically left the ground after bumps. I don't know how fast I was going but as I moved over to give a group of ramblers room, one of them used the ‘F’ word. The trail joined up with a road and continued to speed towards a crossroad, where brakes were applied sharply. A check of OS Explorer map 164 directed me down the road and around the next bend, before I joined an old farm track. The track climbed and fell with equal measure and the water that had run down the steep hillside on which it ran filled the potholes. At points it was deep enough to submerge the hubs of my wheels. I pedalled on, hoping not to blindly hit a rock under the water which would knock me sidewards, giving me a soaking. The track ran over a cattle grid and I heard a dreaded hissing noise. I got off the bike, turned it upside down and inspected the tyre.
Whatever had pierced it had come straight out again. I removed the wheel and stopped for a drink. My phone went off, which was a surprise as I had had zero signal for two days (another O2 technical balls up). It was a regular customer (Steve) telling me he had just been chatting to Dave Brailsford in London. 'That’s great, Steve. I'm stuck in a cow field with a puncture'. 'Sorry' was his reply. I have no idea why he was sorry...unless he had been on a drawing-pin-scattering trip in South Wales recently. I fixed my puncture and checked the time and the map. Although I had made good time, I was running late. I had agreed to meet my girlfriend in the café in Rhossili and, afterwards, head into the seaside village of Mumbles to do some shopping, which is a kind of ritual of hers and unless I got a move on I was in danger of not upholding my end of the bargain by getting there in time. I studied the map. I was at the bottom of the steep side of Ryer's Down. It was seriously steep, but if I managed to get over the top of it I could cut off the North-West side of the Gower and head to Llangennith before crossing Rhossili Downs. There was no way I could pedal up the gradient, but I might (and it was a big might) be able to climb it if I shouldered the bike. I kicked my toes into the soft boggy hillside and slowly ascended the North side. Every time the ground gave way under me, I fell onto the prickly gorse and had to stop to remove thick spines from my arms. I eventually climbed over the edge and mounted the bike again. I played dodge the cow pat for a while, before it turned into dodge the massive pools of water. Water was beginning to outnumber turf and I began to ride over soft marshland submerged under six inches of water. All was going well with me keeping my feet dry until something caught my front wheel. Something white under the water had caused my front wheel to stop. I rolled up my sleeve, reached into the water and retrieved a skull. Yep, you read that right. Not human, thankfully, but Sheep I reckoned, judging by the fact that I was surrounded by mainly just that.
The boy in me grinned, the nerd in me called him Yorrick, and the dirty little urchin in me shook the water off him and stashed him in the Camelbak with the map. A little further on the bike, scaring horses and sheep out of the way, saw me arrive at a roadside. I sped up the pace and rode on to Llangennith. A sharp downhill with some nice bends saw me nearly overshoot where the road joined the Rhossili downs track, were it not for a school party with a girl repeatedly screaming 'GET IT OFF ME' as she waved her arms at an invisible assailant. The others laughed at her as I turned to roll past them and onto the track. The beginning of the track was as ominous as it can get. Water was streaming between the dry stone walls that lined the route. The riding consisted of hopping over very loose big wet rocks. I came across another rambling party, who I made an extra special effort not to fall off in front of.
‘Does it get any better?’ I asked
One of them in a red bobble hat stared back. ‘No. It gets much worse.’
It did. Further into the downs and it turned from streaming water over a hard surface to streaming water over a swamp. The wheels sank into the mud and pedalling was no good as the wheels just spun and spun. Some passing horses stopped to stare at me as I stood laughing at my bike standing upright in the mud. I held onto the handlebars and pulled the bike from the swamp, Neverending Story style. I took off my bag and removed Yorrick and the map. I looked at the circles or lines showing the gradient of Rhossili Downs and tried to fathom another path.
'Come on Yorrick, this is your neck of the woods. How do I get out?'
No reply. Just a stupid grin. I hadn't intended on climbing the highest point in Gower, but to get away from boggy bike pushing I was going to have to. I bagged the map and Yorrick and started to climb up the hillside, pedalling when the ground would allow. The wind began to pick up as I neared the top of the ridge. The ground rapidly dried and hardened and I rode to the crest. I had seen the view of the coast from the village of Rhossili before and it is beautiful, but I had never seen it from the top of the downs before and the view that emerged as I rode to the edge took my breath away. It was one of those moments where you could be fooled into thinking that you were standing on the edge of the world. I rode along the ridge, gently climbing until I reached the summit. I perched the bike against the summit marker, took some pictures that will never do justice to how amazing it is to be there, and stopped and sat for a while. The wind whipped around me, gently undid my helmet hair and cooled me down. I watched some people below assemble some hang gliders before they ran off and jumped into the air, wheeling and diving along the hillside.
- My Orange Crush on Rhossili Down with the Worms head in the distance.
I stood up and stretched and climbed on the bike for the ride into Rhossili. Four hours of riding was about to be rewarded with a downhill gradient. I just had no idea how steep it was going to be. The bike picked up speed and I was too focussed on getting to the bottom to care. Until I launched off a drop. It was only a foot high, but the speed carried me off the ground and I landed where it was a lot steeper. The bike felt like a dropping stone as I stood off the saddle and moved my weight to the back of the bike, navigating it through the twisting path through rocks and bushes. My legs began to ache as they held me over the back wheel. Suddenly the path stopped and I braked hard into a near track stand to find my line again. It ran through a tunnel in the gorse. I ducked through and followed the trail until it came to a steep roll off. A family were waiting at the bottom near the gate to the road and were looking expectantly up at me. I'm not worried about falling off the bike, but I am happier without a large audience. The front wheel edged over and I moved forward to look over the edge and spot my run out. The bike rolled down and I dabbed the brakes just enough to send the back wheel skidding through the mud. I just about caught it and rode through the gate that the youngest was holding open for me. I shouted thanks as the bike rolled down the road and I recovered from probably the most exhilarating riding that I had done for a long time. I arrived at the café expecting to find that my girlfriend had got tired of waiting and gone shopping. I propped the bike up and removed my helmet. The café door opened and out she walked.
‘How was it?’
‘It was awesome. I found a Skull.’
She nervously backed away and suggested that I go and change into the fresh clothes that she had packed in the back of the car as the mud that was rapidly drying to an exo-skeleton around me may not be welcome inside. Once I had got changed she decided that sitting in the cafe with a cuppa was more preferable than shopping. We walked into the now busy diner and managed to secure the last remaining sofa to enjoy a tea and flapjack. We sat under the countless paintings and photographs of our surrounding location as I reflected on the ride. I was looking forward to my first trail centre experience but wasn’t sure that a plush groomed surface would replicate the grit of the landscape that I had just ridden through. I decided that no matter how my mountain biking progressed, I would definitely be following more contours and pink dotted lines of an Ordnance Survey map in the future.
- Yorrick chillin' after a hard days riding!
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Mark writes regularly on our LoveCycling Blog! Read more of Mark's posts here.