Three things I enjoy very much are riding bikes, photography and exploring the landscapes I find myself in. Living in Wales and partly growing up in Pembrokeshire means I have an almost limitless menu of opportunities to choose from, whatever the weather.
On this particular occasion, I was at my parents’ house that overlooks Fishguard Lower Town – almost as far west as you can go in Wales before you fall into the Irish Sea. Looking beyond the small boats and colourful terraces of Lower Town that were once the setting for the 1971 film of Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood, the landscape rises dramatically to the craggy hills of the Preseli Mountains. Strictly speaking, they should be called the ‘Preseli stumps of former mountains’, since they represent a once great range of ancient rocks that are famous for a lot of things including the source of the Bluestones of Stonehenge. Today their highest point only rises to a rolly poly 536 metres above sea level, but that’s more than enough for a morning bike ride to take a photograph.
A partial credit of this picture has to go to a Canadian photographer named Reuben Krabbe whose film about taking on polar bears, adverse weather and melting sea ice to capture a group of extreme skiers in front of a total lunar eclipse high up in Arctic Norway. I saw this at the Banff Film Festival (in Porthcawl – not Canada), but this sowed the seed of an idea in my head. So one night in West Wales before it got dark, my inner voice said to me “right, tomorrow morning you’re going to ride to that distant rocky outcrop called Garn Fawr on the horizon and take a self-portrait of you and your bike against the morning sky”.
I had just bought a Fujinon XF 100-400mm zoom lens and was keen to put it to good use, so before retiring to bed, I diligently set up a tripod trained on the top of Mynydd Dinas ready for the following day.
I woke before my alarm at 0530 and peering out of the window, was dismayed to see the landscape shrouded in a thick sea mist. To make matters worse, a last minute check on the camera setup led to me to clumsily stumble over one of the tripod legs fatally undoing all my careful alignment of the night before. If I was going to get the shot I wanted – which included the sun being northeast of my planned position on the rock, I couldn’t delay so set off on my Santa Cruz 29’er hardtail mountain bike.
The first part of the ride was a steep descent down to sea level where the chilly single figure dawn temperatures from the Gwaun Valley erased any remaining sleepiness. After that, the terrain was typically North Pembrokeshire: long, steep climbs and seemingly little respite on downhills. The real work started in Dinas Cross where I turned off the A487 immediately into a long 20% climb called Spring Hill. Once the lane levelled out, I noticed the mist was starting to lift, giving rise to sunshine and fast moving storm clouds and I could see the sea – things were looking good.
There’s a whitewashed standing stone just before the turning off the lane to Mynydd Dinas where I was momentarily distracted by a 6-foot long roll of carpet that I swear had a pair of black city shoes protruding from one end, but I didn’t stop. The off-road section toward the first rocky outcrop of Carn Enoch was easy sheep trails and after skirting around this crag that’s a popular bouldering spot for climbers, I could see my destination – Garn Fawr ahead.
When I arrived, it was a lot steeper and bigger than I’d imagined and climbing with the bike was not that easy. At about the steepest point with the least solid handholds, my mobile phone started to vibrate in my pocket. It was my wife who’d just woken up asking if I was doing that photo thing and telling me that her phone was almost dead. I said I’d call back and eventually made it onto the top of the rock where a sudden and strong gust of wind almost caught me off balance.
Amazingly, the one bar of signal that EE had generously provided in that remote location worked, and I was able to phone back to tell my wife to press the shutter button. The wind was really howling and above the noise, I made out a string of questions from 5km away such as “where’s the on button; it’s cold; I can only see black; I can see a sheep, etc.” After sending more instructions down the line, I was lined up and hoped for the best, suggesting to be as gentle as possible with the camera button since the slightest pressure on the tripod at that distance equated to several meters of vertical movement.
I was getting really cold up there, and before the call ended, I was given the additional mission of being back at the house as soon as possible for a family boat trip to Ramsey Island departing at 10:30 am. Sliding off Mynydd Dinas was a lot easier than climbing up it and once I was back on the grass, was able to complete the journey back via the pretty and isolated Gwaun Valley even faster than the last time I’d ridden there on a road bike.
I have a theory that cyclists participating in races or time trials could far outdo the dubious benefits of EPO or other performance enhancing drugs perfectly legally. All they have to do is factor in a family commitment such as a swimming lesson starting dangerously close to the anticipated finish time of the ride. It doesn’t matter what you are riding or what you are wearing, if you’re a Strava user, your segments carried out under such conditions will always, without fail be a Personal Record – unbeatable under any other circumstances.
But back to the photograph. When I downloaded the images from the camera I was happy to find that over half the shots were both sharp and had achieved the composition and lighting I was after. To add drama, some remaining wisps of morning mist were side lit against the black summer sky and with minimal processing I was perfectly satisfied with the result.
A print of the final image is on display at Plan2Ride Cafe in Tongwynlais.
Why not check out Nick’s ride on Strava?