We tackle Cycling UK’s newest and gnarliest long distance trail in Snowdonia
Words: Claire Frecknall Photos: Sam Dugon
North Wales is the birthplace of UK trail centres. It’s where Coed Y Brenin first introduced us all to a purpose built and waymarked mountain bike route back in 1996, and since then the area has seen an ever-growing collection of centres and trails, all well maintained, signposted and graded to suit every skill and fitness level. Those trails offer a wide range of riding, with technical climbs; flowing tree-lined singletrack, steep rock slabs, drop offs and perfectly formed berms and jumps, rideable in all but the most horrendous conditions. And with no route planning required it’s an easy adrenaline fix option; just park up, kit up and ride, often with a conveniently placed café to return to for a warming cuppa and a hunk of cake once you’re done. This is all very well, but Wales is surely bigger than manmade trail centres?
What about the in between, the parts you only see from a car window as you’re heading to your curated laps of fun? Those brief glimpses of trail that catch your eye only to instantly disappear out of view as trees flash by in a blur of greens and browns? The rocky byways that weave upwards towards misty summits? The snippets of dreamy riverside path that whizz below you as you try to focus on the tarmac ahead? Where do those lead? There’s always a part of me that yearns to be out there, exploring, travelling and moving within a changing landscape, it’s a feeling of freedom, escape and adventure that you just don’t get riding around a well signposted loop no matter how much fun it is.
Cycling UK has the perfect solution in the Traws Eryri, a new long distance route though the Snowdonia National Park from Machynlleth up to the coastal town of Conwy via some of the area’s best trail centres. The 200km (125 mile) ride has around 4,700m (15,420ft) of climbing and is the sixth long distance cycling route to be launched by the charity. This time it has been working alongside Natural Resources Wales to encourage visitors to explore the fantastic landscape that the country has to offer in a more sustainable way.
Unlike Cycling UK’s other long distance routes though, Traws Eryri is no place for gravel bikes. There’s tarmac to cover for sure, along with fire roads too, but there’s singletrack you just wouldn’t want to cover on a knobbly-tyres road bike. I took a Mason RAW along, a steel hardtail with geometry progressive enough for enjoying technical trail sections whilst still being able to comfortably cover the miles during days out in the mountains. The majority of the off road sections are gravelly or rocky, so the route is reasonably all-weather but you will no doubt encounter a few puddles and the odd section of greasy off camber grass because this is North Wales after all.
The trail centre offerings start early. Machynlleth itself has the original Mach 1, 2 and 3 trails, wild and more cross country than the newer Climachx trail which takes you up into the Dyfi forest for a good mix of flowing singletrack that steps up into something a little more technical at the end of the 15km loop a short distance out of town.
If you want something more extreme then the Dyfi Bike Park is just up the road, this is Dan Atherton’s playground, which started life as black trails only and although a few red trails have now been built its designed for more advanced riders. Full face helmets and knee pads are mandatory so maybe leave the bikepacking bags back at your accommodation for this one.
Fuelled up with a hearty breakfast from the Wynnstay Arms we leave Machynlleth for our three day journey up to Conwy. We’re travelling in the company of Polly from MTB Wales as our guide with partner Phill and their beautiful trail dog Suki, providing logistical support, drone piloting and snacks along the way. The ancient mountain pass of Ffordd Ddu, (meaning Black Road in English) is the first real taste of the mountains as the track passes through the western edge of the Cadair Idris mountain range via a windswept headland that rises above the Mawddach Estuary. Swooping rocky doubletrack opens up to stunning views over golden sand beaches, the wide mouth of the Afon Mawddach and beyond that the seaside town of Barmouth. From the summit it’s a fairly gradual descent but it’s easy to get caught out by the odd loose corner or find yourself on the wrong side of a rut.
The Mawddach Trail is a cycle path that runs alongside the riverside, it’s one of the few flat sections of the route but no less beautiful because of it. The broad expanse of sand and wetlands is flanked by steep sided woodland and overlooked by the occasional picture postcard stone cottage. The route goes all the way to Dolgellau but we cross the river Penmaenpool toll bridge where a 60p fee goes towards maintaining the 19th century structure.
Climbing again it’s time for low gearing and we head up through a small collection of houses. For all the empty expanses of mountain you’ll find in Snowdonia, the rocks and gorse land stripped bare of trees, or replanted with uniform rows of pine ready for logging, you will still find snippets of what used to be here before man made his mark. Running along the roadside is a beautiful example of this native woodland, wizened moss-covered branches of ancient oaks, ash and beech trees reach over a small stream that tumbles its way down to the river below.
Crackle and pop
The easily recognisable wooden marker signs of the Coed Y Brenin MTB centre come into view at the side of a wide fireroad and it’s easy to veer off to take in a few of these trails as part of the route down towards the visitor centre café. We opt for Crackle and Pop, part of the original Tarw Du trail, but I could have happily stayed to spend an hour or so exploring the well-marked network of trails had we not had a decent chunk of riding to get done before dark. Instead we join the Sarn Helen, an ancient Roman road that meanders through central Wales, and we ride along one of several stretches that still exist as we climb back up out of Coed Y Brenin. Loose rubble makes the rocky track a challenge to clear without taking a walk but with wise line choice, commitment and the correct tyre pressure you can make it all the way up to the gate. From the top you’ll be rewarded with views over towards Llyn Trawsfynydd and what looks to be an imposing castle in the distance but is actually a decommissioned nuclear power station. Sorry to ruin that fairy tale.
On the slate
When the route is launched this month, it will still be a work in progress as Cycling UK continues to negotiate with landowners to open new trails to improve the route. It took us through one section it hopes to include in the near future, which snakes its way up to a quarry that is still used by lorries collecting slate from one of the area’s few remaining operational quarries. The tops are shrouded by clouds the morning we start, adding to the feeling that we are entering the unknown but what comes next is undoubtedly one of the highlights of the route in terms of riding, scenery and also an insight into the region’s history.
A short stretch of pathway weaves around steep sided drops into cavernous quarry pits, I unclip from my pedal and plant my foot on the tufty grass before peering over the edge to take a look, too nervous that my target fixation would get the better of me and send me plummeting into the precipice below if I continued riding. Around the next corner the path drops away and we approach with caution. But rather than a sheer drop it’s a couple of large slabs of slate that step down to a perfectly straight steep grassy incline instead, drawing our eyes ahead to the crumbling infrastructure of the derelict mining area below. Walls and chimneys still stand as a stark and ghostly reminder of a dying industry where huge piles of waste slate fan out like feathers from the remnants of the settlement. The eerie silence of the mountains is broken by the sound of our tyres clattering over this loose slate like shattering ice as we weave our way down to the valley below. More roofless shells of tumbledown buildings litter the hillside above the village of Carrog as the road passes by rows of tiny terraced cottages that still give the feeling we’ve stepped back in time.
The Penmancho MTB area is a little different to the other North Wales trails centres in that it’s unashamedly XC, more natural and wild with fewer man made technical features and 30km of singletrack maintained by local riders. It may not have a café or toilet block, but it still has a lot to offer as you swerve your way through giant ferns and scruffy undergrowth. Later on we rejoin the Sarn Helen as we climb the last hill before a long overdue coffee stop at Betws Y Coed and an unexpectedly rough descent greeting us on the other side. Rocks dislodge and resettle with a rough clickety-clack as my bike skips and hops beneath me, arms and legs pump like pistons in an effort to keep flow and momentum over increasing technical terrain. I pick my way around football sized boulders that I know I won’t be able to just roll over on my hardtail, stuttering, dabbing and eventually walking my bike through a particularly tough section. This was one of the few points on the trip where I wished I’d bought a full suspension bike.
Refuelled with coffee, cake and ice cream we journey on through the peaceful Gwydyr Forest and over to Llyn Crafnant, skirting around the lake, the sun starting to get low in the sky as one last obstacle lay between us and our beds for the night in one final climb. Starting off through a grassy tussocky field before exposed rocks break through at the higher levels and force us into a final push up as the path passes between two peaks and opening up to views of the village of Capel Curig below and giving us our first glimpses of Snowdon. The downward stretch of this pass has been disappointingly sanitised and what was once a challenging technical descent is now a smooth gravel track, much to the dismay of local riders.
The way to Conwy
From Capel Curig we ride out through Dyffryn Ogwen, a distinctive wide glacial valley that separates the Glyderau and Carneddau mountain ranges. Past the lake and visitor centre we hit a beautiful stretch of singletrack road leading us up towards strange towering mounds of slate scrap. The remnants of years of industry, these conical heaps looked so unnatural compared to the surrounding landscape resembling colossal sand inside a giant egg timer. The nearby Penrhyn Quarry has now found a new life as the home of ZipWorld and we soon pass by the chugging machinery that powers the network of zip wires. It’s a good idea to stop at Bethesda, a run-down town that has sadly suffered high unemployment since the closure of the quarry but it does have a few shops, cafes and pubs to fuel yourself for the next stretch of riding up to the summit of the Sychnant Pass.
Don’t let your guard down when the sea comes into view and the landscape changes leaving the jagged mountains to become more rolling, open and exposed, as this doesn’t mean it’s all downhill to the finish. It reminds me of Exmoor as patchy sunshine warms us and we ride along a high path that follows the curve of the coastline. It would have been a far bleaker experience had a strong northerly wind and traditional Welsh drizzle been rolling in from the Irish Sea. Colourful heather and gorse make way for grassy hillsides, fast descents towards the coastline, dipping back down to almost sea level to cross a river before climbing back up past stone circles and burial mounds. Sheep tracks criss-cross bridleways and ponies watch on as we traverse the undulating hills towards Conwy Mountain and a final descent into historic Conwy itself, a medieval walled castle town and world heritage site.
I love the finality of a route that ends at the coast, with no land left you feel that you can go no further on your journey. Better yet there’s usually the option of fish and chips to refuel those tired muscles while you gaze out to sea reflecting on the experiences of the past few days. Traws Eryri is a proper off-road route, and one that now needs to sit proudly at the top of every mountain biker’s bucket list.