Sunday, 18 August 2013

Wales - turns out it is quite steep

After riding the Road to Hell on Thursday the 11th July I overnighter just outside Mold with the plan of driving to Harlech the next day. Mold wasn’t an ideal location but as it was the middle of July I was having trouble finding anywhere that was convenient and not stupidly expensive. The heat didn’t really drop overnight by all that much and when I got going at 6.30am on the 12th the temperature was already into the low twenties. After having a hard time in the heat at the start of the week when I finished off the South Eastern climbs I had kept an eye on the weather forecasts and was rather depressed to see that my time in Wales was to coincide with a heat wave. The Road to Hell had been a struggle and the fact I was due to be climbing Bwlch-y-Groes just as the high temperatures were really kicking in did make me a bit nervous. Still, at least the first climb of the day would be the relatively short Ffordd Penllech in Harlech; its only just over 300 metres long how hard could it be?

Ffordd Penllech

My drive from Mold to Harlech was fantastic. I had the roads largely to myself and the views from the car as I travelled across North Wales were amazing. It would have been nice to stop and take a few photos but I wanted to get on the climb in Harlech out of the way and be back on the road by 8.30. I wanted to be on the Bwlch-y-Groes climb before the temperatures got too high. That did mean that I had to make one attempt at Ffordd Penllech and then get straight back on the road. I also had a long journey back to Devon to factor into the equation. Harlech is a fairly small place and it was easy enough to find the climb.

As you wheeze up the steep stuff don't forget to look at the pretty castle

After parking up in a public car park it was time for my date with destiny to see if I could tackle a 40% gradient. Yep, you read that right, a 40% gradient. Its actually less of a road and more like a waterfall that has been covered with asphalt. I managed to get to Harlech before 8am and this gave me a bit of a dilemma. You see when I rode the Devil’s Staircase a few weeks previously the heavy braking on the steep descent back to the car left my brakes pretty much fried and the front brake has developed an awful howling noise when its applied. It isn’t a big deal and I’ve probably just glazed the pads. The thing is I could see myself waking up the whole of Harlech with my howling brakes and so I decided to walk down the climb to the start to avoid making too much noise. This turned out to be a less than bright idea as walking down a 40% gradient in stiff soled cycling shoes whilst holding onto a bike turned out to be a bit slippery. When I reached the steepest part of the climb I needed to use the aforementioned howling brakes to slow the bike, and myself, down. Walking down it seems wasn’t the best course of action after all and the good people of Harlech were woken up by a loud braking noise despite my best efforts! Never before has walking down a hill involved so much fuss.

 Not a sign you see everyday. Thankfully
The worst part of the Ffordd Penllech climb is the tight right hand hairpin. You reach it early on in the climb and the 40% gradient has to be seen to be believed. I had a chance to have a good look at is as despite monstering bottom gear up the first part of the slope I ran into a small problem called gravity. I’m not exactly a lightweight chap and whilst I can crank out a fair bit of power it turns out my power to weight ratio is pretty appalling. As I reached the hairpin my momentum started to fade and I got the distinct impression I would soon be rolling backwards down the hill I had just winched my way up unless I hurriedly got off the bike. This lead to my second problem, namely trying to get going again on a stupidly steep piece of road from a standing start. The hairpin bend is so steep at its apex that I was more worried about falling down it than not being able to get the pedals turning. Once I finally started inching my way back up the hill I ran into problem number three; Ffordd Penllech is a one way street and to ride it you need to go against the flow of traffic. It is also a very narrow piece of road so I was less than happy when a 4X4 appeared just before another steep uphill right hand bend. This meant another stop and restart but thankfully I was able to complete the rest of the climb with no further hold-ups. The gradient does back off from 40% but it remains steep all the way to the top and I was at walking pace and gasping for breath before the top.

 I think Ffordd Penllech is a climb that would reward multiple attempts as you would be able to figure out the right points to put the hammer down and how to pace yourself up what is a tricky climb to ride well. Unfortunately I had a schedule to keep to and it was back to the car and back on the road. Bwlch-y-Groes awaited.


The drive to this climb from Harlech took in yet more fantastic scenery and I took a route which involved driving over the brilliant little toll bridge at Penmaenpool.

Not my photo but it really is a lovely old bridge and it only costs 60p to drive across

The Bwlch-y-Groes pass is in the middle of what feels like nowhere and it was 10am when I finally saw the thin sliver of road clinging to the side of a mountain appear through the trees. Bwlch-y-Groes is narrow and steep and my little Fiat didn’t get out of 2nd gear the whole way up the climb. Its actually a brilliant bit of road with a real sense of exposure the further up you travel. That sense of exposure was highlighted on the descent down to the start of the climb by bike. I wasn’t worried about the front brake making a howling noise on this bit of road; it gave me the reassurance I needed that it was working. This is one bit of road that needs to be treated with respect, whichever direction you are travelling on it.

It was once I got to the bottom of the climb things started to unravel for me. Despite getting to it as early as I could the heat was intense and there was no shelter from the sun once on the main part of the climb. My roll along the valley to the hairpin bend was hampered by an appalling road surface. Across the UK the different regional branches of the Highways Agency seem to think a decent road repair can be achieved simply by splashing a layer of tar over the existing pock marker road surface and then throwing a layer of loose chippings over the top. I noticed on the drive from Harlech that the Welsh Highways Agency workers seem to be fond of applying as thick a layer of chippings as possible. I drove through one town that had a road surface that wouldn’t have been out of place on a rally stage. Sadly, the idiots had been let loose on the lower valley road leading to Bwlch-y-Groes and the warm up ride I was hoping for was a bit of a slog. You can hear my wheels crunching along on this surface on the video footage of the climb. Somebody had even thought it was a good idea to take the loose chippings all the way up to the apex of the steep hairpin bend leading onto the climb. It was more through luck than judgement that I was able to survive the descent and I had to take cautious line through this bend on the way back up.

Once past the stupid road surface I was on the climb proper and already starting to suffer in the heat. There was no shelter from the intense sunlight and with the temperature already at least in the high twenties I knew this was going to be a hard ride made harder by the conditions. I really don’t go well in hot weather and the further up I went the harder I found it to keep cool. By the time I reached the halfway point I was feeling totally done in and just had to stop and pour some water over my head in an attempt to regulate my temperature. It was at this point that I noticed the entire mountainside seemed to be buzzing with horseflies.

Every time my pace dropped or I dared to stop and pour water over my head great clouds of the damn things would descend and start biting lumps out of me. The nearer I got to the top of the climb the more unwell I started to feel in the heat and the last thing I needed to be doing was expending energy and making myself hotter by flapping my arms around in a vain attempt to get rid of the horseflies. I ended up being bitten 17 times. Watch carefully on the video and you’ll even see the bloody things buzzing around the camera. I know it sounds like I’m making a big deal about the heat but I was starting to realise that when the Met Office starts issuing heat wave warning fat chaps like me should probably try to avoid riding up steep mountain roads in Wales.


I started to get quite worried about how overheated I was starting to feel and once I was eventually past the steepest part of the climb I found a small wall to sit on to and poured the last of my water over my head before attempting the final short ramp up to the car park. This inevitably involved more swearing at horseflies

The view from the top of Bwlch-y-Groes. Millions of horseflies just out of shot

The ride up Bwlch-y-Groes was probably the worst I have ever suffered on a bike. When I did finally inch my way up the final slope into the car park I felt totally ruined and it was a couple of hours before I was able to properly cool down. The following day, which was even hotter, would see heatstroke claim the lives of three soldiers on a training exercise in the Brecon Beacons and highlighted just how stupid I had been taking on such a fearsome climb in such hot conditions. I’m not some super fit light weight hill climbing genius; I’m an overweight bloke on a bike who should know better. I bumped into another 100 climbs rider at the top of the climb. I was too wasted to catch his name but if he ever reads this good luck with the rest of the climbs.

With the school summer holidays now in full swing I have been able to spend the last few weeks since my trip to North Wales resting up and training for the final 33 climbs. I don’t see the attraction in trying to travel and bag climbs at the height of the school summer holiday season as everywhere will be too busy and the roads will be too clogged. Next stop will be Scotland. Lets hope it’s a bit cooler when I get there.

Saturday, 10 August 2013

The Road To Hell

It has taken me a bit of a while to get around to editing the footage for the Welsh climbs I completed in July. I've been busy with work and stuff at home but one of the main reasons for the delay is that I just needed a break from the 100 climbs stuff after getting back from Wales. I took on the remaining three Welsh climbs at the start of heat wave which really left me suffering and in truth I haven't been in a hurry to edit the footage.

Still, I've started the editing process now and the stuff I filmed doesn't look too bad so maybe I should look back on my time in Wales a bit more favourably. On the 11th July I drove up to Denbigh to ride the worryingly named Road to Hell. I originally intended to take on this climb a month or so earlier but a pulled calf muscle that left me struggling on the Horseshoe Pass meant that I felt it was more sensible to wait until I was back in decent shape before finishing off the Welsh climbs. Driving up to Denbigh seemed to take forever in the increasingly hot weather and after about 5 1/2 hours in a sweltering car I rolled into the car park at the nature reserve at the top of the climb.


This is a long climb and the descent was a decent ride in itself. In the 100 climbs book Simon Warren mentions that halfway up the climb there is a longish and fast descent. This of course translated into a short sharp little climb half way down to the start so I was able to get a warm up before starting my climb back up to the top. Not that I needed a warm up. Even though I didn't get to the climb until early evening the heat of the day hadn't abated. Working up a sweat on a descent was a first for me.

The first part of the climb is a pleasant enough meander along the lanes out of Denbigh and it isn't until you reach a couple of hairpin bends that the climb proper begins. The first mile or so of the following section is gentle enough with the gradient only ramping up slightly. After a significant period of gently climbing narrow lanes however the real challenge of the climb rears up in front of you; a long 17% gradient section that starts with some vicious bends. I was already feeling rubbish before I reached this point in the climb and it ended up being a painful slow speed crawl to the top of this section of the climb. A long drive in the car followed by a hot and long uphill bike ride are a less than ideal combination and it was a relief to have a nice downhill to coast down after suffering on the toughest part of the climb. It helped me to cool off a little.

It may be called the Road to Hell but the nature reserve at the top is very pretty
After negotiating the toughest part of the climb I had to try and keep my momentum up on the undulating upper slopes. The gradient isn't severe but I was fading badly in the heat and managed to get through all of the water I had by the time the more open uphill sweep of road to the summit finally appeared. The last couple of hundred metres was an excruciatingly slow crawl to the top and I was extremely glad to finally roll back into the car park. It was a sign that I would be able to very shortly drive along at high speed with all of the windows open as I drove to my overnight stop. The following day I had the joy of taking on Ffordd Penllech and Bwlch-y-Groes and cooling down before taking on those two climbs was going to be crucial...