Mind the GAP!
Words and photos: Paul Trimble
Bank holidays are great, that extra day which needs to be filled with those all important tasks that work gets in the way of: gardening, extra family time, tackling that mammoth DIY job that really needs 3 days and not 2, plus the sales are on bank holidays as well.
On the other hand, as you effectively have a day in the bank (so to speak) why not go biking? This is what a group of bikers from my local club decided to do last Sunday, and with me being a somewhat honorary member (I never actually make the weekly rides and just appear from woodlands once in a while to say hello, bit like a less-camp willow the wisp) I was allowed to tag along. They are a proper club (with a youth group and insurance and everything) and one of their group is going for his Mountain Bike Leader certificate, which requires time spent on proper mountains (anything over 2000 feet/609 metres in case you wanted to know) and the ability to use a map and compass (not a box of technology with a screen), so they decided to go and do what we have called the Brecon Gap Ride. I am sure that there are lots of combinations of rides in this area but the Gap will be a common section on lots of them. It’s basically a saddle in the main line of the Brecon Beacons (with an enormously long descent) and here is our version.
Brecon Gap Ride
So it’s 9am, and Pete and I have arrived in the lovely welsh village of Talybont-on-Usk and as a starting point for a ride it is almost perfect. It’s just off the A40, has a little village shop that is also a café, which serves a great selection of nice stuff. I can recommend the ‘breakfast in bread’ (see clever that) but it also has good coffee and even a GAP Lunch (honestly they had it on a sign and everything!). So with the rest of the gang arriving and me wiping egg yolk off my chin, we were ready to go with only a small amount of faff. For parking I would recommend the village hall – it has a small car park and it is signposted throughout the village. It does have a donation box, so you can drop a few coins in, but otherwise it’s free parking and only a minute’s walk from the cafe.
So getting going we head from the car park, past the café, and down through the village until just before a decent looking pub, then up a small lane and onto the Taff Trail that runs right through the village. For those who do not know, the Taff Trail is a long distance road and trail route, seemingly running through almost all of Wales, but here we only stay on it for a short way, taking a left trail called the tram way (if you fancy making this ride much shorter easier, just continue on the Taff trail. This will link up with the rest of the ride at almost the half-way point of Taf Fechan forest). The tram way is the sort of climb that is a wonder. As the name suggests it is an old tram way (where to I have no idea) but it’s an easy way to gain height at a constant and relatively easy gradient, and gives you some great views over Talybont reservoir.
For those who do not know, the Taff Trail is a long distance road and trail route, seemingly running through almost all of Wales
It was so good in fact that it came with its own fanfare of trumpet (or possibly Ian and the large amount of BBQ he ate the night before), so with the challenge of being either in front of Ian or well behind him we all cleaned the first climb of the day. We were now up on the hills with the open views that the Beacons are famous for. The trail that we took is the middle of three, heading up along a small ridgeline and into a saddle between two hills, shown on the map as Pen Bwich Glasgwm, spot height 520 metres. So not a mountain yet, but high, with amazing views but also on a bit of a plateau, being Wales it was pretty wet and boggy. Here you head over towards a large quarry. For us this was wet, there were ruts well over a metre deep, and an amusing amount of bodywork left over by unfortunate 4X4s.
It was so good in fact that it came with its own fanfare of trumpet … so with the challenge of being either in front of Ian or well behind him we all cleaned the first climb of the day
Again if you want to make this route shorter take the left hand trail after the saddle and head down into woods shown as Cwn Callan and Pontsticill Reservoir. Our route however took us down the side of the quarry, a fun grassy trail, with loads of small lumps and drops, carrying speed was easy and going was fast, but watch out for some of the lumps! If you carry on along this bridleway you get the option to head down into Pontsticill (maybe a good place for lunch) but our route took us down a track to the right, through the woods and along to the reservoir. Unfortunately at this point we missed our turning (we were enjoying the grassy track too much), so with a bog land of sheep trails in front of us and a gully with a stream and a waterfall at the end, we did what every decent biker would do. No, not backtrack and find the trail, but instead set off across a mire of sheep tracks, dragging bikes through bogs, climbing gulleys, jumping streams and generally getting wet feet. Which was all good fun in the nice weather we had, but would have been a very different experience in more typical welsh weather – so watch that map reading!
With our Bear Grylls experience behind us we then managed to find the track we wanted through the woods and down to the reservoir. This appears to be a much underused track with tree branches in your face and trail repairs which appear to involve putting huge amounts of loose rocks and boulders down on the trail until it is almost un-rideable. Eventually we popped out by the Brecon mountain railway and again encountered more loose rocks through a small tunnel and out next to Pontsticill Reservoir and a picnic lunch.
After lunch we had a small road section back onto the Taff Trail and headed up towards Taf Fechan Forest on the road. If you just keep going ‘til you run out of road, then you will start to look up the south side of Pen y Fan, Brecon’s most famous mountain. From here it’s a well-used stone track that in places appears to have been repaired by throwing any old bits of buildings onto it. You have 130 metres of climbing coming, but again it’s all gradual. In fact I didn’t even need my front smallest ring. Yes there is a small ravine to drop into and climb out, but again the use of huge amounts of loose rock means this is one only for the really talented. Continuing your climb, you are now heading for the GAP, a large saddle between Cribyn with Pen Y Fan behind it and Fan Y Big (stop giggling). The height here is 599 metres, so again not quite a mountain, but hey walk a few metres up either side and you are on a mountain!
Continuing your climb, you are now heading for the GAP, a large saddle between Cribyn with Pen Y Fan behind it and Fan Y Big (stop giggling).
Stop for photos, enjoy the view if it’s nice or just dash into the descent. It’s a massive one but it’s what this ride is all about. It’s all doable but watch it, there are loose rocks, big ones, small ones, there are drainage gulleys and large sections of rock slabs. In short it’s huge fun and while it’s not stupidly steep you are dropping 250 metres in two and a half KMs. Just remember to watch for walkers coming up, and make sure you make it down, a bad fall here would be very uncomfortable.
Just remember to watch for walkers coming up, and make sure you make it down, a bad fall here would be very uncomfortable.
And so we made it down with only a flat to a tubular tyre, a few extra dents in our carbon and aluminium frames, a couple of blisters on our hands from holding bars too tight, and a large amount of smiles. We then left the mountain and headed into farmland via some very small trails. Again there was a huge amount of loose rocks, which made the going very hard. Later down the trail we came to a section that had not been reinforced which was much better, but it makes you wonder what sort of weather has prompted such extreme trail protection. By now we were in much lower ground, small lanes and a lovely riverside bridleway took us to Pencelli. Then back on the Taff Trail on a route back to Talybont-on-Usk and its café – for cake this time