You’re not thinking of riding those back down again, are you?” barked the colonel as he strode past us one beautiful Saturday morning. We had just pushed our bikes through the gate at the start of the Llanberis path to begin our venture up Mount Snowdon (or Yr Wyddfa, meaning tumulus, in Welsh).
Clearly, we weren’t about to take them to the top just to walk them back down again. But his remarks did not inspire me with confidence as I looked up towards the summit five miles away. What had seemed a good idea when idly tossed around in the pub was now a reality. The enormity of the undertaking began to dawn on me.
But the colonel’s concerns were not for our well-being: this was one of the first weekends after the voluntary ban on cycling Snowdon during peak hours ended for the winter. “You do know that it’s quite busy here today?” and “You’re not going to come back down this way, are you?” were just some of the remarks directed at us as we passed rambler after rambler. Luckily, we were to descend by the less popular but technically challenging Snowdon Ranger path.
People have been exploring mountains by bike long before walking became a mass participation activity. The likes of Wayfarer were engaging in what became known as roughstuff at the start of the last century, fearlessly taking their heavy machines over mountain passes, years before modern mountain biking was ‘invented’ in California in the 1970s and 80s. Our mistake – if you could call it that – was to start the expedition after a leisurely breakfast and too much faffing.
According to some sponsored walk officials at the gateway, 70 or 80 riders had apparently already passed through on their way to the top.
Our small party from VC Godalming and Haslemere, a CTC-affiliated club, consisted of myself, my husband Roland, Neil, Ed, ‘the other Julie’ – and my 18-year-old son Louie (a committed couch potato). He had allowed himself to be dragged along on the condition that he could bring his full-suspension downhill bike. Of course, the weight of this machine meant that trying to stay together as a group was pointless – the faster riders streaked off into the distance, making easy work of even the steeper, rockier sections. The rest of us doggedly lugged our bikes over every lump and bump, encouraged by regular doses of Kendal mint cake and visions of a slap-up lunch at the top.
As the track became ever steeper I began to wonder if it was really worth the effort. ‘Isn’t the whole point of wheels to make life easier?’ I mused after I tripped over while hoisting my BMC Trailfox onto my shoulder to climb up the near-vertical section of rock to where the track goes under the railway line at Clogwyn.
A passing walker might perhaps have read my mind: “Must have seemed like a good idea at the time”, he remarked before setting off nimbly up the track.
After three hours of climbing – which included a short stop at the Halfway House café – we finally reached the top of Snowdon and the incongruously modern Hafod Eryri Visitor Centre. Ed, Neil and Julie had been waiting in the crowded café for nearly an hour by this time but were happy to stay with us out of the cold while we refuelled with giant pasties and slabs of cake. Unfortunately, there is no secure cycle parking here so we had to leave our machines unattended outside, fairly certain that they would be safe from any opportunist thief in such a remote spot.
Strapping on his full-face helmet, goggles, and pads, in the desolate, misty landscape Louie looked like an alien who had just landed on the moon amongst ramblers and their backpacks and anoraks. He shot off down the mountainside, his downhill bike finally coming into its own. The Ranger path starts off as a relatively tame expanse of grassy hillside before turning into a field of jagged baby-head rocks. Louie skimmed over them at speed, enjoying the feeling of weightlessness.
Do it yourself
The rest of us were following at a slightly more sedate pace when suddenly, disaster struck: I had dismounted to walk some of the sketchier sections when Julie (who was right behind me), caught her front wheel on a boulder and crashed to the ground on her face, smashing her top teeth into her bottom lip. As I looked at her bloodied, bruised face, thoughts of summoning Prince William from Anglesey in his rescue helicopter entered my mind. Fortunately, Ed had had the foresight to bring a comprehensive first aid kit; after he had applied some Steri-strips to the wounds, Julie bravely decided she could carry on.
The terrain continued to be a technically challenging series of rocky drops and tight switchbacks, rideable by most reasonably competent mountain bikers. But even Louie watched in awe as a lone rider effortlessly negotiated an extraordinarily tricky and steep gulley of boulders and big drops on a Nukeproof Mega all-mountain MTB.
Eventually, the bridleway turns into a long, thrilling piece of flat-out single track, which reminded us all why we’d embarked on this crazy adventure in the first place.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t downhill all the way back to Llanberis. If you keep following the track straight down, it is easy to miss the small sign in the hillside that marks where the bridleways diverge. Carry on and you’ll end up on the A4085, the wrong side of the hill. The correct track climbs very steeply up a grassy bank but once at the top, there’s a final epic descent past deserted ruins and over rocky water bars nearly all the way back to the youth hostel. A bag of ice from the helpful warden and consultation by phone with a mountain biking dentist friend were enough to convince Julie that she didn’t need a visit to A&E that night. Which meant that Louie could be rewarded for his efforts with more than just a sense of pride in his achievement at conquering Snowdon: a massive slice of sticky toffee pudding and a huge mug of hot chocolate at the renowned mountaineers’ café Pete’s Eats in Llanberis.
‘Wow, that was the best ride ever! When can we do it again?’ he yelled, the arduous climb up now forgotten. I’m sure Wayfarer would have approved!
FACT FILE: SNOWDON
Distance: Approx. 11 miles with a 3.485ft ascent
Conditions: Rocky, steep, challenging. The weather wasn’t too bad.
Start/Finish: Llanberis Youth Hostel
Bike advice: As light as possible for ascent but full suspension XC or
trail bike for the descent. Full DH not necessary but fun.
Where to stay: Llanberis YHA or Snowdon Ranger YHA – book early. Lots of B&Bs.
What else is there: North Wales has an excellent choice of trail centres and natural riding. We rode Penmachno and Coed-y-Brenin too.
CTC, the national cycling charity, inspires and helps people to cycle and keep cycling, whatever kind of cycling they would like to do. Over a century’s experience tells us that cycling is more useful than just transport; it makes you feel good, gives you a sense of freedom and creates a better environment for everyone.
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- things that stop people cycling
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For more information visit www.ctc.org.uk
This article first appeared in Ski+board Issue 5 2013.