Thursday, 12 October 2017

The Highest Roads in South Wales

What’s the highest road in Wales? Easy says Siri (try it): the Bwlch-y-Groes in north Wales. Except its not – it's the Gospel Pass in South Wales.

But what’s a road? Siri isn’t too clear on that. Its just a thoroughfare. There’s no mention of tarmac.

So what is the highest road in Wales? Lets make this easy and stick to south Wales. If we think of a road as an unclassified right of way – those ‘roads’ that look like equals signs on an OS map (=======), there are three that stick out. And make no mistake, as climbs they surpass those old favourites of the Bwlch, the Rhigos, the Black Mountain, or whatever your latest 100 climbs book tells you.

So what and where are they? 

1. The Brecon Gap (599m)

Its supposed to be 599m, but you can break the 600m barrier if you wanted by just scrambling up the banks either side of the col. From Merthyr or Brecon, the Brecon Gap takes you through some spectacular glacial scenery. Perhaps more suited to a mountain bike, the climb is not steep, just a bit rocky in places - the descent was harder for me on my cross bike. 

Be prepared for soldiers and walkers looking for something different to the motorway up to Pen-y-fan. The view down to Brecon, with the rest of the road snaking around the side of valley is spectacular. 

From the southern side, the col – the dramatic gap between the two mountains either side – stands out all the way  up. It never seems to get closer though, until the end. Don't forget to go past Pontsticill reservoir on the way back either.

2. Craig-y-Llyn (600m)

One of the benefits of the new wind farms opened across the top of the south Wales valleys are the access roads built to service them. To be sure, they’ve existed for ages, used by logging trucks. And Craig-y-Llyn is actually just off the the East –West Wales Sustrans cycle path, so its not as if its been hiding for years.
You can get to Craig-y-llyn a number of ways. From the north side of the Rhigos Mountain Road, turn off just off the entrance to Tower Colliery and follow the forest road around the base of the cliff face and the Llyn Fawr pond. Then gradually climb up through the forest before eventually emerging at the wind farm. 

Or take the "secret" Bwlch road from Treorchy and then the long false flat across the top and through the wind farm to reach the trig point. Or from Maerdy, follow the cycle path through the derelict mining landscape, through a wind farm coming out on the Rhigos mountain road. Cross over and ride up the last steep section to reach the summit. The surface is good – whichever way you go.
3. Fan Gyhirych (725m/680m)

The highest peak at 725m, although the road is slightly lower at 680m and perhaps the most isolated. You could park near the Crai reservoir and ride up but that would be cheating. Instead, get to Ystradfellte and then take the lane to Cave. From there prepare for several miles of gravel and farm tracks across the deserted plateau to the base of the climb. Expect sheep for company. The climb is relatively easy, steep in places with some loose stones. The descent is fast, flowing and fun. Enjoy it, but watch out for sheep.

Monday, 26 June 2017

Hotels du Tour 2017

Last year it seemed that the big teams at the Tour de France – the likes of Sky and BMC – were getting a good deal. Perhaps stung by the criticism levelled at them in 2015, not only did ASO provide better quality hotels, they continued to match big budget teams with big budget hotels.

But what are things like this year? Who can remember a tweet or complaint from a rider about their accommodation this year? Has hotel quality improved? Or maybe riders been silenced by their teams keen to stay on the right side of race organisers?

Nevertheless, previous years have shown variations in the quality of hotels between teams. For 2017, the question is have ASO taken the opportunity to shuffle the hotel options around – give more questionable quality hotels to the big teams, and reward those who’ve had a bad deal in previous years?

Well, it looks like they might have – there’s a different feel to the hotel distribution this year.  

Lets look at the data for 2017.

Materials and Methods

As before, Ive used the Roadbook for the Tour de France to identify the hotels each team gets to stay in, and then looked them up on TripAdvisor to get levels of satisfaction. TripAdvisor uses a 5 point scale to assess customer satisfaction (from Excellent to Terrible): Ive combined the top 2 categories to calculate satisfaction. Sometimes hotels have lots of reviews, others not so many. Reviewers in expensive hotels may be more critical – who knows? Either way, the analysis is not adjusting for anything like that.


2017 Hotel Quality

The first thing to notice is that this year, the overall level of satisfaction for Hotels in the Tour has risen. Maybe ASO have been consulting TripAdvisor for their hotel selection? Maybe reviewers on TripAdvisor are getting more generous in their assessments? Or maybe hotels in France are just getting better?

In 2016 the total satisfaction score was 38583.65 – this year it had risen to 38787.39. So a small rise which translates into a daily satisfaction increase of around 0.4%.  In fact, this is the second year that satisfaction levels have risen – although last year’s increase was more substantial.

The 2017 GC

Back in 2016, Trek Segafredo ran out winners of the Hotels du Tour GC, followed by Bora, Orica, BMC and Sky.

This year, it's a completely different GC – the teams with the big favourites, the likes of Sky, BMC and Trek are nowhere. Winning the GC is Bahrain-Merida – surely sending Nibali into one of his strops given his decision to miss this years race. Lotto-Soudal finish 2nd, with Katusha rounding off the podium. FDJ are 4th, with Cannondale continuing to bounce back from their lack of World Tour results in 5th.

But what a race too! Bahrain-Merida took the yellow jersey (hotel?) on stage 3 only to suffer a stage 6 fringale of catastrophic proportions, falling to 18th on GC. Down, but not out, it takes an eyebrow-raising revival to catapault them back into contention by just stage 9. Hotel doping? Maybe I need to start looking at and Expedia too.

The Favourites

Given that last year’s GC was packed with teams containing the top GC riders, it was tempting to think that maybe there’s a correlation between performance and hotel quality.

Whilst correlation does not equal causation, at this stage Chris Froome may be looking around for a motorhome. Just as his form has been inconsistent, so are his hotels. In fact, Sky’s Tour never gets going – never getting above 15th on the GC and eventually finishing a lowly 20th.

Quintana (or Valverde) has little to smile about – Movistar finish 13th – with Contador’s Trek a little worse off in 15th.

If this was to be the year for Romain Bardet, then ASO haven’t exactly done AG2R any favours. Not suited to the early flat stages, they spend their time bouncing around the bottom of the GC with Sky, only to pull themselves away from the lanterne rouge once they get to the mountains and finish 11th . A prophecy perhaps?

Which leaves BMC and Richie Porte. Demonstrating he’s escaped from Froome’s shadow, BMC never really threaten the GC but still finish the Tour in 6th place – and are the only big team that get close to their position from 2016.

The Key Changes: 2017 - 2016

So if there has been a changing of the guard, who has fared best and worst?

No doubt the biggest decline is in Team Sky, falling 16 places on GC in 2017. Quick Step / Etixx fell 12 places and Trek 14.

Shooting up (the charts) are last  year’s lanterne rouge chasers Lampre. Changing their name to Bahrain-Merida has seen their GC position rise 19 places. Getting Alpecin on as co-sponsors as also helped Katusha: its not just their hair that’s benefitted, but their GC position has risen 11 places.

But pity poor old Giant Alpecin/Team Sunweb. Last on the GC in 2016, they are last again in 2017 (not forgetting 17th in 2015). They are nothing if not consistent. But no wonder Tom Dumoulin chose to ride the Giro.

The Best and the Worst Hotels

If you’re looking for somewhere to stay in France, then you could do a lot worse than the Inter Hotel Vamcel – this year’s highest scoring hotel (97.2% satisfaction). Orica get to stay here on stage 11. But pity Team Astana who get to ‘enjoy’ the luxury of the 33.6% rated Campanile, Bergerac. Not just for 1 night, though – but three! As they say for every Chateau there’s a Campanile – and for stages 9-10 (including the rest day) its Wanty Groupe Gobert that get to stay in the Chateau des Vigiers at Monestier (87.7% satisfaction). Perhaps a little surprising was to see the Novotel in Dijon amongst the lowest scoring hotels (stage 7 for Orica and Direct Energie). I last stayed there in the early 80’s and it was alright, but perhaps it’s changed a bit since...

The Best and the Worst Stages

The best hotels seem to be found at the start, middle and end of the race - some psychology there from ASO perhaps? However, the gap between the best and the worst hotels also happens at the end of the first week of racing, although the second week is not too bad.


They say in cycling that the Tour is the Tour, but also that what goes around comes around. Looking at these results you might agree. There’s definitely been a reshuffling of the pack. Last year’s winners have fallen from grace, whilst others have risen from the depths. Maybe Sky’s experience will revive talk of motorhomes? And if ASO have some kind of hotel rotation policy, then maybe it’s only visible over a longer time period. Or maybe ASO’s hotel algorithm is just chance: some teams like Team Sunweb will be wondering what they’ve got to do to get decent hotels.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

The Bwlch: A reconsideration

Ah, the Bwlch. Disparaged by me as a Hollywood climb in my last post.

But still, rides over the Bwlch (and Rhigos) usually lend themselves to stories and memories. Like the time I first rode over both in 1990. Leaving Swansea in a massive tailwind, I flew over the warm-up climb of the Cimla and was blown up the Afan valley. By Blaengwnfi the sky had turned black. Rain turned to snow by the Rhigos. Rounding the hairpin, I could see only white, the snow blasted into my face. Into a gale, I struggled through the 5 miles to Glynneath. There, I stopped under the by-pass to eat a Mars bar (that was 90s nutrition) before carrying on up over the hill to Seven Sisters and back down the Swansea Valley. By the time I was back at Hendrefoilan student village, the rain had stopped, the wind died, and the sun shining. Typical. But probably one of my first epic rides in the valleys. In the days before the internet, I didn't need Strava's suffer score to tell me how to remember that ride.

In south Wales cycling, the Bwlch needs no introduction. Mention the Bwlch and everyone knows where you are talking about, even though it just means a pass or col. Imagine saying to someone in the Alps that you went over 'the col' - which one they'd ask. The only qualifier to saying you went over the Bwlch would be which way - for there are 3 different ways. Graham Robb explains this problem in his excellent 'Cols and Passes of the British Isles'. Its thanks to the Tour de France, Robb argues, that col has become shorthand for mountain, when really its just referring to a gap between two mountains. Its the same for the Bwlch too: the mountain we know as the Bwlch actually has three bwlchs in close proximity. Most probably imagine Bwlch y Clawdd as the Bwlch. But as one chap said to me disparagingly: "most people don't go to the top of Bwlch", by which he was referring to the 100m higher Bwlch yr Afan - sort of like carrying on to the Col de la Croix de Fer after completing the Col du Glandon. Which probably proves Robb's point: even in Wales, rather than a 'mynydd', bwlch has come to define a mountain to cyclists.

Definitions to one side, the three routes up the bwlch(s) offer challenging terrain. The classic ways are all different. From the south, the steep section is from the clock tower in Price town, but the lush pasture, forest, rocky cliff face and hairpin give it the sense of the alps. From the north, the shadow comes not just from the mountain but the Rhondda's industrial legacy. And from the west a more sparse, empty and desolate experience.

But wait. Did I say 3 routes up the 'bwlch'? Make that 4. Yes, just like Mont Ventoux, there are four (possibly more) ways up (what we call) the Bwlch. The fourth way up - just like Ventoux's - is off road. From Treorchy, head straight on to Cwmparc rather than the road to the north face. By the baptist church take a right up a steep street, before turning right onto the forest road through Tyle Coch. The forest road twists its way over the ridge of Graig-fawr. Turning left you can rejoin the main road at the hairpin on the western ascent by Bwlch yr Afan. Or turn right to go up through the new wind farm and the summit of the Rhigos (which perhaps to the aghast of many, isn't listed in Robb's book as a col, bwlch or pass).

You can see the route at the top of the map marked in white. Strava says that the climb is 4.4km at 5% - or more like 6ks if you include the first part of the climb on the road. In numbers, thats similar to the other ways up the Bwlch. But what is it like to ride?

I had to wait a couple of weeks to try. Resisting the urge to do it in snow, I waited until the weather looked better. I took the quickest way to Cwmparc at the base of the Bwlch. Sunny in Cardiff, by Treorchy it was raining. Things werent looking promising for the ride I had planned. Still raining, the first part of the climb proved to be the hardest - first in the streets of Cwmparc, particularly after turning right by the Baptist church, and then the early off-road sections. At this point, the sun returned and I found myself riding through the clouds.

The secret road to the Bwlch

More loose stone than gravel, the climb was relatively easy, punctuated by a few short descents. Emerging from the woods, a plateau affords a fantastic view of the Bwlch and Rhigos road climbs.

Above: Looking over to the Bwlch
Below: In the opposite direction the Rhigos

It was at this point that things decided to go pear shaped. A rear wheel puncture was easily fixed, but when I decided to press on to try and follow the forest roads to the Rhigos. By this time the weather had closed in again. Windy, with a feeling for snow, I punctured again on a short descent. Using my last spare tube I reasoned that my tyres weren't really up to it and retreated to the safety of the main road over the Bwlch before starting the long descent to Cardiff.

The rest of the forest road would have to wait (perhaps for a better bike and/or wheels). But so would the 5th way up the Bwlch: in planning my ride I found another way to the Bwlch from Clydach Vale.

Monday, 16 January 2017

Not another 100 Climbs

I have a confession. I don't like the series of 100 Climbs books, particularly the new Wales book. Its nothing personal. I mean, as a lightweight, the hills should be my natural territory. It's just a couple of things. I'm fed up of the fetishisation of 'the climb'. Maybe it works in places where the climb is the ride. I mean, riding up and down the Galibier will take up most of the day. But in south Wales, where the climbs are 1-3 km, a ride is about where you are going not just one climb but several. Its the combination that makes a ride: that’s what makes cycling interesting. And then there’s some of the choices, and omissions. Take the road to Penrhys. Seriously, one of the 100 greatest climbs in South Wales? What’s interesting about Penrhys is the decision to build a housing estate on an exposed mountain-top, not the nondescript 1km 10% straight road, hard as that may be. And, its about where that road might take you, like the nearby Blaenllechau climb from Ferndale, sadly absent from the 100 climbs list.

So in no particular order, here’s the start of an alternative 100 climbs of south Wales. They’re worth riding because, yes, they are hard, but also interesting.

The Ponty Trifecta

A staggering omission from the 100 climbs is the ‘Ponty Trifecta’ – 3 lung busting climbs out of Pontypridd. If your training and want to test yourself, race up the Graig, hoping that the traffic lights are in your favour for your Strava segment (there's also a back way too if you fancy it). Descend and then ride to Llanwonno via Graigwen. Unrelentingly steep out of Ponty, once over the cattle grid the climb never lets up, its just the countryside is more pleasant to look at. Once at the top either go in the pub, or descend to Ferndale and retrace your path up the Blaenllechau (see below). When you’ve done that its time for Ponty Golf Club. Be prepared: the +30% hairpins at the top are the least of your troubles – grinding over the cattle grid requires serious concentration. At the top, if your bike allows, take the gravel track to the real summit, or just look down on the post-industrial landscape below and all those climbs on the surrounding hills.

The real summit of the 'Ponty Golf Club' climb, Mynydd Eglwysilan

The Ridgeways

If climbs are about going to as well as going up, where should you head? There are a number of ridgeways running along the top mountains that divide the valleys in south Wales, some narrow, some bumpy, some gravelly. By far the best must be the Manmoel road between Oakdale and Ebbw Vale. But there are others: across Gelligaer common; Mynydd Bedwellte from Markham to Tredegar; Mynydd y Grug from Wyllie to Machen; and Cefn y Brithdir from Pontlottyn to Aberbargoed.

Mynydd y Grug

The climbs to those ridegeways are all great, all different. Try the 3kms of 9% from Machen up Ty Canol Lane; from Taff Merthyr Garden Village up to Gelligaer common (or maybe this way is better); from Abertysswg or New Tredegar to Mynydd Bedwellte, perhaps stopping at the Cholera cemetery at Cefn Golau.

Heading to Cefn Golau across Mynydd Bedwellte

Alternatively, try the steep corkscrew climb out of Georgetown and up onto the Manmoel road; or the bleakness of the narrow farm track onto Cefn y Brithdir from Pontlottyn or the steeper side from Aberbargoed. There are other ways up too: don’t be constrained by this list.

The best road in South Wales? The Manmoel mountain gravel road

The Hollywood Climb

The Bwlch and the Rhigos are the 'Hollywood' climbs of South Wales. Doing the two in one day? Now, thats a ride. but the fame heaped on these climbs is undeserving: just as the locals know that Alpe d'huez isn't particularly special, its infamy marginalises other more worthy climbs. So, if Daniel Friebe wrote about cycling in Wales, what would his 'indie-boho hipster climb’ be? Perhaps the road to Abercarn Quarry;Or Troed-y-Rhiw Road to Mynyddislwyn starting in the appropriately named Wattsville?

My choice is Blaenllechau. A hidden gem, it goes up in sections, the top hidden from view til you get there. The last two sections seem to repeat themselves: when you return you’ll think you are nearly there, only for another steep pitch to move into sight. At the bottom are two sharp hairpins. Not the long sweeping bends on the Bwlch or Rhigos, but proper switchbacks. The first you can hit at speed, freewheeling and drifting wide under the retaining wall, that give it the appearance of the first km of Alpe d’huez. At the top, a huge slag heap, flowers and memorials to those departed, and a view of brightly coloured terraced houses in the valley below. Yes, this is the Valleys.

Pimples: Not Simple

These arent the hardest climbs. The hardest climbs are those within touching distance of home, encountered after 4 hours or more low on energy. In Cardiff, that could mean Rhydlafar: just a pimple, but enough to question whether its worth turning right at the bottom to do the extra miles to avoid it. Or, the lanes around the back of Pontprennau and the sharp rise to Lisvane: you’ll have gone that way to avoid being battered by a relentless headwind on the flats. But was it really worth it? The feeling at the top of these ‘climbs’, of now being home, matches anything you might experience in the Alps.

We can write the story of a climb in different ways. One way is numerical: their gradients, their lengths, the power required. We can put all this together and rank them out of 10. What's lost in this objectivity are the stories and memories of how these climbs made us feel. The best stories of climbs are written by our own experiences, different for each of us, varying at different times, states of fitness, alone or in company. As others have said, The only way to truly appreciate cols is to pass through them and the only way to truly appreciate the stories they tell is to seek those stories out yourself". And in doing so, lets write our own stories of the climb and tell them to others, for this is what we should want to ride for.