I have a confession. I don’t like the series of 100 Greatest Climbs books, particularly the new Wales book. Its nothing personal, but it’s a couple of things. Increasingly I don’t like the fetishisation of the climb. It might work in the Alps where riding up the Galibier might take most of your day, but in south Wales where the climbs are 1-3km, a ride isn’t about one climb, it’s about the route, or where you are going to. That’s what makes cycling interesting.
And then there’s some of the choices, and omissions. Take the road to Penrhys. Seriously, one of the 100 greatest climbs in South Wales? What is interesting about Penrhys is the decision to build a housing estate on an exposed mountain-top, not the nondescript 1km at 10%, hard as that may be. But also where else it might take you, like the nearby Blaenllechau climb from Ferndale, sadly absent.
So in no particular order, here’s the start of an alternative 100 climbs of south Wales. They’re worth riding because yes, they are hard, but also interesting.
The Ponty Trifecta
A staggering omission from the 100 climbs is the ‘Ponty Trifecta’ – 3 staggering climbs out of Pontypridd. If you are training and want to test yourself, ride up the Graig — and hope that the traffic lights are in your favour for your Strava segment.
Descend and then ride to Llanwonno via Graigwen. Unrelentingly steep out of Ponty, once over the cattle grid the climb never lets up, its just that the countryside is more pleasant to look at. Once at the top either go into the pub, or descend to Ferndale and retrace your path up the Blaenllechau (see below). And when you’ve done that its time for Ponty Golf Club. By no means a sedate stroll the +25% hairpins at the top are the least of your troubles – crawling over the cattle grid and staying upright will focus your mind.
At the top, take the gravel track to the real summit (if your bike allows), or just look down on the post-industrial landscape below and all those climbs on the surrounding hills.
If climbs are about going to as well as going up, where should you go?
There are a number of ridgeways running along the top of the mountains that divide the valleys, some narrow, some bumpy, some gravelly. By far the best must be the Manmoel road between Oakdale and Ebbw Vale. But there are others: across Gelligaer common; from Markham to Tredegar; Wyllie to Machen; and Pontlottyn to Aberbargoed. The climbs to those ridegeways are all great, all different.
Try the 3Kms of 9% from Machen up Ty Canol Lane; from Taff Merthyr Garden Village up to Gelligaer common; from Abertysswg or New Tredegar to Mynydd Bedwellte, perhaps stopping at the Cholera cemetery at Cefn Golau; the steep corkscrew climb out of Georgetown and up onto the Manmoel road; or the bleakness of the narrow farm track onto Cefn y Brithdir from either Fochriw/Pontlottyn or the steeper side from Aberbargoed. There are other ways up too: don’t be constrained by this list.
The Hollywood Climbs
Ok, so I have to choose a favourite. Stay away from Hollywood climbs of the Tumble, Bwlch and Rhigos and head to Ferndale to climb Blaenllechau. If Daniel Friebe wrote about cycling in Wales, he’d call this his hipsters choice. A hidden gem, it goes up in sections, the top hidden from view til you get there.
In fact the last two sections seem to be mirror images: when you return you’ll think you are nearly there, only for another steep pitch to move into sight. At the bottom are two sharp hairpins. Not the long sweeping bends on the Bwlch or Rhigos, but proper switchbacks. The first you can hit at speed, freewheeling and drifting wide under the retaining wall, that give it the appearance of the first Kilometre of Alpe d’huez. At the top, a huge slag heap, flowers and memorials to those departed, and a view of brightly coloured terraced houses in the valley below. Yes, this is the Valleys.
These aren’t the hardest climbs. The hardest climbs are those within touching distance of home, encountered after 4 hours or more whilst low on energy. In Cardiff, that could mean Rhydlafar: just a pimple, but enough to question whether its worth turning right at the bottom to do the extra miles to avoid it.
Or, the lanes around the back of Pontprennau and the sharp rise to Lisvane: you’ll have gone that way to avoid being battered by a relentless headwind on the flats. But was it really worth it? The feeling at the top of these ‘climbs’, of now being home, matches anything you might experience in the Alps.
In isolation, all these climbs tell their story in numbers: their gradients, their lengths and their rank out of 10. Ultimately though it’s not these objective criteria that paint an accurate picture of those climbs. The best stories are written by our own experiences, different for each of us, which vary at different times, states of fitness, alone or in company.
The stories that we can write about climbs and tell to others are what we should want to ride for.
Dr Gareth Enticott is a Reader in Human Geography at Cardiff University.
You can find him on Twitter at @GarethEnticott