Whilst our friend Gareth may not be a fan of the 100 Greatest Climbs books, including the Welsh one, Cycling Climbs of Wales, sometimes there is adventure to be had in just seeking out one of these climbs.
Certainly, Gareth does have a point. The trouble with any popular climb is that it can be over-used by the local riders to the point where your eyes glaze over when people tell you they went up you-know-where again on the weekend.
This is the story of our pilgrimage to a climb that nobody else in the Cardiff By Bike Strava club had attempted until today. Probably for good reason…
Of all the climbs in Simon Warren’s Cycling Climbs of Wales book surprisingly few of them are here in South Wales. Fewer still have earned a “10” rating, but Rhiwr Road is one of those few. For reference purposes the Tumble was a lowly “7”, so we just had to see what all the fuss was about.
However, one of the things that the Tumble and the Bwlch have in their favour is that they’re quite easy to reach. Rhiwr Road on the other hand, is only really accessible from the A465 Heads of the Valleys Road, which you currently can’t cycle on.
So, we hatched a plan. At 7am, we set off through Whitchurch, Rhiwbina, Llanishen and onto St Mellons to join the A48, which went by in its typical bland fashion until we were able to turn off towards Goldcliff. The network of lanes around here really are fantastic. They’re invariably quiet, lined with watery ditches and only occasionally broken up by the odd lonely house or small holding.
Along the way we caught up with a couple of riders who were making their way to the Tumble, but Dave did his best to sell Llangynidr to them instead. Llangynidr really is a breathtaking climb, literally and figuratively…
Anyway, we finally emerged from the flats and onto a main road, where we quickly realised we’d made a wrong turn and doubled back through Magor. Here we found ourselves taking another wrong turn and ended up at a dead end.
On any other normal day we’d probably have ridden back out again and followed a different one. This wasn’t a normal day and Dave had his Ordinance Survey map on him and was in full-on adventurer mode. There was a right-of-way marked on this map that went through a field of very tall grass.
So, in road shoes we scaled the gate and waded tentatively through chest-high grass, Dave somehow riding at this point, me sensibly (I thought…), with my bike on my shoulder staring intently at what I could see of the ground. I’ve seen too many Westerns and horror movies where people meet their demise in chest-high grass. I’ve also seen The Lost World, but fortunately the rational part of my brain knew that velociraptors were extinct, even in Monmouthshire.
We emerged free of tics, snake bites and mercifully uneaten by extinct dinosaurs, but scratched to all hell from the knees down. Adventuring, you see. The excursion did pay off though, as it landed us on a road that we needed in the first place – The Elms.
We were soon on our way along quiet lanes through St Brides Netherwent and Parc Seymour before hitting our first considerable climb of the day through the Wentwood forest. Wentwood is quite a nice climb, all things considered. Not too steep and on a road that snakes through a forest. Llanllowell and Usk soon followed before the peace and quiet was rudely interrupted by the A472.
Fortunately our time with the A472 was short and we were soon on Cefn Mawr Lane to Penperlleni where we found ourselves on the Breconshire Canal. Closer inspection of the map suggests this would take us all the way to Govilon –a place that will be familiar to those of you who like those “mainstream” climbs (I think we may be turning into climbing hipsters…). Sadly it was a little hard to tell on the tiny Garmin screen and we made a few apparently unnecessary turns away from the canal before re-joining it just in time for a much needed stop.
Along the canal we came across a Goytre Wharf, complete with a charming little café that sold food. We had to stop. Apart from being lost and walking through fields we hadn’t stopped at all and the tummy was rumbling. A sausage sandwich and a coffee would tide us over until the hill-o-doom, hopefully.
After a brief pit-stop we continued along the canal. The sun, which had been disappearing and reappearing all morning was once again bearing down on us. As someone who experiences quite pronounced changes in mood, with lows often followed by feelings of euphoria, at that time and at that moment, with the sunshine, the scenery and the fact that we were out cycling, I was feeling really, really good at this point. I could still have eaten a three-course dinner, but I was on the up. I suspected that this probably wasn’t going to last…
Things start getting a bit complicated here. The A465 is going through considerable changes right now and an active travel route it is not. The first thing you will see of it as you leave Govilon is a “no cycling” sign and a request to use the footway. Sadly the footway takes you to Gilwern, which is fine if you are going to take on Llangynidr, but we were not. We found ourselves on a road to Llanelly (not to be confused with Llanelli, obviously) before getting cold feet and turning back towards the A465 again.
We were both following our Garmin’s but were soon overcome with doubt that they were not leading us around in circles, so we did something we men are not known for —stopping and asking for directions. We asked a young lady walking her dog for some help and we were sent down a rickety lane that took us down to Black Rock Road, which we actually did in reverse last year in pursuit of Llangynidr. (Have you noticed how we always seem to be “lost” around here?)
The challenge with the A465 is finding a suitable place to cross it. We were told that there was a subway that we could take under it, so we went looking for that, only to discover that it was actually a really big drain and it was blocked off anyway. In an unprecedented move we stopped and asked directions again. The person turned out to be wrong this time (see, this is why we don’t ask!) and we found ourselves in someone’s back garden. Hmm, awkward. They were fine about it though and they sent us along their other driveway straight back to the A465.
As luck would have it, this time we found ourselves at a suitable place to cross and the Garmin soon burst into life telling us that this unspeakably evil climb was upon us.
I’ve done a lot of climbing these past couple of years. I’d like to say I’m getting better at it, but Rhiwr Road hit me for six. It may only be 1.6Km long, but it is relentless and averages 13%. It’s also a narrow lane with a number of blind bends that serve only to demoralise you further. You reach each bend hoping that it is going to ease off a little, but it never does.
I’m ashamed to say I actually stopped twice on the way up. I’m going to blame the already significant amount of climbing we had done, but it could also have been the fact that I follow local pro Luke Rowe on Strava and the Garmin tells you how far behind or ahead you are on any given segment –Luke is the only person I follow who has ridden up this particular climb. I started well, being a few seconds ahead of him at the bottom of the hill, but then things started to go wrong. I’m not in Luke’s league and I really shouldn’t be trying to keep up with him.
I made it past the first few blind, soul-crushing corners before unclipping at the side of the road and resting, slumped over my handlebars with my head in my hands. When my vision finally returned I tried again, only to once again stop just before the last bend. As hills go, it’s unpleasant in an Eglwysilan or Wenallt sort of way, but I can get up Eglwysilan.
In the end I paid the price for my hubris and reached the top a whole 6 minutes behind Luke, although slightly ahead of Dave, who also had a few stops on the way up. I really should heed my own climbing advice.
Mercifully, at the top of the hill is a pub called the Jolly Collier, currently owned by a fellow cyclist, Claudio who was only too happy to have us there and talk to us about bikes and big hills. Claudio was from the Canary Islands, a collection of really, really big hills off the coast of Africa that we need to ride soon. Meeting Claudio was good timing too, as the weather was starting to look far from Canarian.
Way back home…
Having reached and scaled the hill we set out to find, the only job then was to get back home again. Rhiwr Road comes out at a junction that’ll either take you to Brynmawr one way and Blaenavon the other. We opted to go towards Brynmawr and onto Beaufort and Tredegar on the A4047.
Things started to look very familiar here as we entered Tredegar. Tredegar formed part of the Trefil Travail and the lane between Tredegar and Aberbargoed is a thing of beauty. However, unlike the Trefil we didn’t cut down towards Deri and attempt to climb back out again. I don’t think I could have managed that at this point.
Dave and I were getting hungry again. Truth be told, we hadn’t stopped and eaten that much, aside from a sausage sandwich in Goytre Wharf. We found a little café called the Tuck Shop just off the A469 in Pengam. It was a little late in the day for breakfast, but a cooked breakfast for very little money was too tempting to turn down. We stopped, we rested & we ate before the final stretch.
The downside of a cooked breakfast is that it sits heavy on the stomach and doesn’t provide that much quick energy. We got back on the bikes and slowly made our way towards home. It wasn’t too long before we came across a stricken father & daughter, bike upside-down and missing a wheel.
With Dave being a trained bike mechanic we couldn’t just leave them there. Dave sprung into action and promptly set about fixing the bike. It was quite nice to stop and let the food settle down a bit anyway. With a good deed done for the day we headed through Parc Penallta to Nelson, before a fairly uneventful slog down through Abercynon to Pontypridd and back to the start.
With little to get excited about on the local Audax calendar for the remainder of this year, there’s potential for incorporating some of this route into a D.I.Y. Perhaps I’d give Rhiwr Road a miss and take that right turn to Llangynidr instead, but Llangynidr drops you out at Beaufort, which we passed on this ride.
You could create a route using the first part, particularly the Wentwood climb and the canals but perhaps missing out the walk through the field…Perhaps also pushing the first part out to Goldcliff. After scaling Llangynidr you could then follow the same route back, particularly the stretch from Tredegar to Aberbargoed.
You know, before I got back on the bike and into these big rides, I was quite keen to up-sticks and move to a different country to start over, in vague hope of finding something that felt like home. It’s not until you start exploring your own country on a bicycle that you begin to realise just how special our little slab of rock is, or how little you really know about it.
“It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them” – Ernest Hemingway