There’s just something about the combination of beer and bikes isn’t there? I mean it’s just so… well, right. Usually the bike bit comes first, then the beer. A guilt free pleasure, earned (and made all the more pleasurable) through the toil of the preceding ride. Of course, at this time of year it feels all the more justified, after all, we’ve braved the quagmire that is the British autumn to get here. Drivetrain consuming mud, grit between the teeth, horizontal rain and hail – yes we’ve done battle with the fiercest elements to enjoy this pint of amber goodness and hoppy heaven. We’ve won this spot next to the roaring open fire in which to sit and re-gain the feeling in our toes.
And so, while it seems natural to combine the two in a celebration of off road bike riding and great British brewing, to hold the event in deepest, darkest Wales in the middle of November… surely that’s not the brainchild of a sane individual. Or is it? Well, this veteran of his second Real Ale Wobble believes that that very fact is the real genius behind this event.
Saturday morning dawned cold but fine, no sign of the torrential rain of the day before. Unfortunately that rear mech cable that I’d been putting off fitting needed to be done before we set off, and suddenly I felt glad for not tucking into too many of the myriad ales on offer in the Stowcroft Arms marquee the night before. I’m not sure everyone was enjoying my hangover-free-zone though, there were a few well plastered Irish jigs being practised on the dancefloor the night before, spurred on by the live music.
Gears finally functional and beer tokens in pockets our group of four set off just in time for the ten o’clock start, or so we thought. “Oh crap, we’ve missed the start”, I muttered as we rolled up to the Neuadd Arms Hotel. The Square had been packed with hundreds of cyclists the year before but there were only a few small groups about now. So off up the road we trundled, thinking we were bringing up the rear. Turning off left and onto the wide track towards the forest we were suddenly swamped by the peleton, of course, they’d moved the start this year and we were now being overtaken, undertaken and generally having our arses whooped by the 99% of participants who were fitter than us. One member of our group, Jane, falls foul of some over-zealous overtaking and is involved in a pile up. A little upset about being taken out (it was her first ride on her brand spanking new full susser) and now the owner of an award winning bruise she picks herself up and we were soon off again up the forest track climb.
To our relief the field was thinning out now and as we rounded the corner it was time for first technical challenge. Turning off the forest track, the course headed steeply down through the trees in conditions that I can only describe as similar to off-piste skiing. Forget steering, braking and other normally effective means of controlling direction and/or speed this was a whole new experience. Turn the handlebars on this surface and you carry straight on. Apply the brakes and you just slide with little or no effect on velocity. Luckily there was one way of stopping… jumping off. But due to lack of experience in this unorthodox riding style, one such rearward dismount turned into a rather painful crotch/saddle interface. Swallowing hard and dropping the saddle a little, against all odds I eventually made it to the bottom.
Another forest road climb and the views of the hills around Llanwrtyd Wells start to open out in beautiful greens and golds and browns, almost glowing in the sunshine. Another sketchy descent and another climb, we were passed by the ambulance going the other way – hope no-one’s hurt. The conditions seemed to be taking their toll now and there were comedy dismounts a-plenty on the next singletrack section and descent. A guy bins it right in front of me but finds a soft landing and there are laughs all round at the new colour of his clothes.
Down a section of forest road and onto a section of man made singletrack, let go of the brakes, a few quick pedal strokes . . . woohoo. It’s the first real speed of the day and a surface that actually grips. Swooping through the trees towards the first feed station it’s over too soon but the beer is calling now. After handing over a couple of tokens, a pint of something cold and beery looking is thrust into my muddy hands. Was it Tanners or Felinfoel? Never mind, it was a good brew to wash down the sandwich.
From here, the loop for the long route extension heads out into the man-made singletrack around the cafe. Before setting out we shelter from the only rain (and hail) shower of the day and then decide to head towards home rather than tackle the long route. Another short section of singletrack leads us out of the forest and we ride out of the valley through some farmland and up a tough climb. As we reach the crest of the climb the farm track snakes away into the distance, the wet mud shining silver in the low sun. It’s a fantastic view and I can’t help stopping to take a few snaps to try and capture the scene.
After the farm track we head onto the road and to the second feed station. We stop for another round of ale, this time there’s a much smaller crowd than at the first stop. It’s getting pretty cold now (I’m not sure the beer helps much) and suddenly the thought of another 10 miles off road isn’t all that appealing so we bail out and head home. After this feed station you can head across the road and climb up the forest road for the rest of the medium route or bail out and ride the three or four miles back to town on the road.
We decided to go back and finish the course on Sunday. This section of the route seemed akin to the World Bog Snorkelling Championship course but also has some of the best views of the weekends riding. There’s something very un-nerving about riding into deep and very muddy water but I’d rather ride it than wade and so take the plunge (the trick is to keep alert for sudden changes in depth). By some minor miracle we all manage to stay bike-side-down in all that water and enjoy the rest of the route including a great short ‘n’ steep descent complete with full-speed water-splash river crossing at the bottom.
Maybe it’s these conditions, the silliness of it all and this impossible riding surface. Maybe it’s the crowd of easy going and likeminded people. Maybe it’s gathering round at the feed stations chatting and drinking ale whilst covered in Wales’ finest topsoil, as if it’s the most normal thing in the world. Whatever it is, this event must be one of the friendliest & good spirited events on the calendar and I have a suspicion it’s something to do with the beer. Yes, the riding here is great fun and the countryside is stunning, but at the Wobble, for once, it seems that the occasion and a pint of ‘One for the ditch’ has taken top spot in everyone’s minds.
The Real Ale Wobble takes place on the first weekend of the Mid Wales Beer Festival in Llanwrtyd Wells. The beer festival runs all week and taking place on the second weekend is the Real Ale Ramble. Talking to one of the landlords on the Friday evening before festivities kicked off I gained an insight into the differences between the two events. “The Ramblers are a bit quieter,” he said, “they’ll come in and try a half of this beer, a half of that. You lot come in after the ride and order pints of the strongest ones we’ve got!”
Visit the Real Ale Wobble website for more information.