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.







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