Wales is a popular destination for cyclists from Bristol. In my usual awkward way, I have tended to stay south of the city, looping around the Mendips. My brief forays to the principality tend to involve a blast up from Chepstow to Tintern then back via Devauden. My main issue is that you have to trek along the Portway and then over the bridge and it means at least 40 miles of the ride is a bit grim. Nevertheless, this week I set out to try some new roads, heading up to the Tumble for the first time on a 100 mile round trip.
The bridge is the fun bit and I bumped into one of the GBDuro 20 riders, heading to John o’ Groats as part of some intense off-road race thing. It’s the same race Lachlan Morton did last year – I interviewed him for the new book – and is the preserve of lunatics. The rules this year are extreme; they have to carry all their food with them and if something breaks and they can’t fix it they are disqualified. Personally I think these are a bit excessive, potentially enhancing, rather than minimising, risk.
I took a left at the top of Chepstow and immediately found myself on the good stuff, empty lanes, curving up and down across the Wye Valley then up into Shirenewton. I had an unscheduled bit of gravel to contend with which meant walking down a 20% scree slope with a furious tiny dog barking through a wire fence. The main roads were very quiet, in contrast to Bristol’s clogged arteries of rage.
The Tumble is an iconic climb, primarily because of height gain. It’s 512 metres at the summit and it takes a good while to get up. It is also visible from a long way out, so has that demented foreshortening effect that all good climbs have, looming over you from twenty miles away, a nudge and a wink, a threat. It sits on the edge of Abergavenny and is in the ‘steep and unrelenting but not too terrifying’ category. It is long though, and took me (in gentle mode) getting on for twenty minutes from bottom to top. I notice the Welsh Championships are on there this year so may even revisit. The views are beautiful, out towards the Sugar Loaf and across to the hills above Blaenavon. It was worth the trek. The top is vaguely surreal. Just as Alpe D’Huez is a bit like a tacky seaside resort at the top of a mountain, the Tumble has its quirks. For one, there is an ice cream van at the summit. The strangest thing was a murky pond – and people were swimming. It was bizarre.
I dropped down into Blaenavon – I’ve been there touring before – and then across along the tops, before a very technical descent into the valleys. I hurtled around a corner and bumped into the GBDuro chap again. It made me smile. We had a chat and I wished him well for the terrors that lay ahead.
There is one other nasty climb out of Usk which caught me by surprise. With 70 miles in the legs it had me vowing yet again to put a compact on the front; I’m still rolling with a hubris-inducing 39:25.
It was a super day out, 100 miles on the dot, about 6,200 feet of ups. One particular highlight was rolling through Mamhilad, where my grandfather was born in the 1920s. I never met him, he survived the war as a Royal Marine Commando, getting injured in the Battle of the Scheldt, only to die a few years later in a tragic accident. I didn’t feel like riding through Mamhilad was a deeply resonant experience – it’s not that nice a place, more a sort of industrial and commercial zone on the edge of Pontypool, but I thought of him, maybe supping in the Star of an evening, and my Welsh heritage.
The benefit of doing all this on a Monday is it means your mileage for the week is all but chalked off. But of course, you then think ooh maybe I can chip off a 200 mile week… and so it goes.
Adam Colvin’s stories on instagram, and the thread of his ride, are well worth a look: