Bala is an outdoor Mecca. The birthplace of mountain biking trail centres, Coed y Brenin, is just over the hill. A vast watersports-friendly lake tickles the edge of the town, with rapids-laced rivers feeding into it from all sides. The mountains of Snowdonia form the jagged skyline to the east and north. The sense of frontier wildness and raw natural beauty stirs the soul; if this was the Lake District it’d be teeming with outdoor enthusiasts.
There’s some stunning riding out here in the hills, but the main roads are blood red on the map for a reason – what traffic there is a murderous mix of trundling tourists and warp speed Welsh locals, so staying off them is an absolute priority. Unfortunately that rules out a nice neat loop including the ‘more arrows than Agincourt’ descent/climb at Dinas Mawddwy, but it’s an appendix worth doing as an extra if you’ve got effort to spare towards the end and your wits about you.
We sneak past a convoy of Ifor Williams sheep trailers waiting for market like a bleating Blitzkreig and pull off onto backroads straight away. The steady climb north-east out of Bala is just how your grandad taught you to tighten screws. Two hard turns up then back off through the next dip carries you gradually up the landscape equivalent of worn medieval steps. Grey slate chapels have the accentuated white brows of wise old men above the doors and windows. Small squat farm buildings hunker down into field folds for shelter against weather that’s turned everything metal a deep rusty red and everything wooden a live mossy green.
Soon even these vestiges of civilisation fade away as you crest onto the moors, which are bleak or breathtakingly wild depending on your point of view. The only signs of mankind but yourself and the ribbon of grey tarmac threading through the hills are the big pylons gently humming through the mist. The tops are still under thick cloud, but patches of the craggy landscape are picked out in random rotation by spears of golden light as the cloud cracks open and then closes like a lazy strobe.
Lake Celyn slides into view and the decision to not take the main road was definitely the right one. Chains of frustrated cars looking like sulking bridesmaids to fat motorhomes form simmering knots of sketchy overtake inevitability. On our route, though, I’ve only seen the one car and that was waiting politely off to the side of the singletrack road. I swoop past a green tin chapel with freshly painted sills making it look straight out of a Hornby scenic set as a handful of houses huddle below the towering wall of an abandoned quarry.
Snaking over a bridge lined with rickety railings, signposts for Trawsfynydd and Ffestiniog mean there’s no doubt where I really am as I sneak across the main road and chew a good gear up the Alpine gradient into the forest. Arms drape over the bars David Millar-style as speed picks up over the summit, deep wheels sucking me along the snaking road as I watch out for wandering sheep. Then it’s back onto the hoods on the drop and a climb past the roaring ravine falls and stunning views of Rhaeadr y Cwm. Jagged crags backdrop the twisting, tuck-and-weave descent off the tops, as I carve through a landscape sculpted by both the elements and our ancestors, as the rich Roman and historic remains studding the map reveal.
The twin blocks of Trawsfynydd power station are relics of a more recent past. While the last of its nuclear fuel was removed over a decade ago, its decommissioning will be going on for a long time yet. The two big main blocks are visible from miles away, but with blunt mountains smouldering under the clouds across the plateau to the west it’s still a beautiful area.
We dodge main road traffic on the pavement bike path before sneaking off onto the singletrack road back into the hills. The bracken is rusty with autumn rain and sheep kneel to eat the last of the fresh grass before winter comes. Broad megalithic dry stone walls have thick mossy coats fermenting over the top in blues, greys and vivid greens. Field boundaries follow the rocks, not any sort of systematic grid or geometric principle.
Make sure you’re not drawn down the tempting twisty hill towards the bridge and National Cycle Network 82. The road down through Coed y Brenin is certainly a stunning, seemingly endless singletrack descent, but it drops you out into main road no man’s land. Instead cut left, following the flat river valley as it twists and rises into the wide open mountainscape. Don’t worry that there’s no sign of the woods the OS maps shows, as they’ve obviously been felled a long time since. Now it’s a moonscape of stream-sculpted moorland mounds and grassy flanks with a few tiny Christmas trees peeping over brows in an apologetic attempt at regrowth.
The contour lines on the map certainly aren’t lying though, and with 300m of climbing in under 3km this is the first serious climb of the day. Glancing over my shoulder the view is genuinely epic, with the river glinting in the sun as it curves away towards a brilliantly lit notch between the big western mountains. Winding over the summit the rewards of your effort are clear to see – the ribbon of singletrack tarmac rollercoasters down in one giddily long cascade after another as open moor drops down into bouldery pastureland. Just keep your eyes peeled and your mouth shut, though. There’s half a dozen gates to watch out for and the sheep’s rear veneer will be lethal in the wet. Once you’re through the first farmyard and into farmland the world changes again, with steeper hills and shorter sight lines down the wooded roads making early braking a wise precaution. My Scott Foil glides across the flats to the end of Lake Bala on adrenaline and advanced aerodynamics, but there’s still plenty of work left on our planned route.
Crossing the Twrch river in Llanuwchllyn we swing off and up round the switchback. It’s a reasonably gradual rise and the road surface is surprisingly good. Rolling hills carpeted in vivid grass peer over the top
of Devon-deep hedges as they contour gradually upwards under the watchful eye of occasional slate cottages. Autumn leaves drop into the white-whipped stream in the valley bottom and the centre of the road turns greasy green as I shudder across cattle grids with fairytale waterfalls cascading through the woodland.
If your brain hasn’t realised already, your legs will certainly be making it clear that you’ve done a serious amount of climbing now. The end of the valley turns truly Alpine to prove it too. Gorse clings desperately onto the slopes rising at a neck-straining angle on your right while an Armco safety rail stops you dropping off the far edge. The road rises in a series of short kickers interspersing the longer tempo sections. It’s exposed too, which isn’t kind when the weather closes in, stealing both the last bit of body warmth and views as I tap a ragged tempo over the top and drop to the three-way junction.
Dam fine descent
Straight ahead the optional road to Dinas Mawddwy drops dizzyingly, with no less than 11 steep gradient warning arrows on the OS map and 345m of height change in under 2km. The weather has drawn the curtains in on the already fading light, so I have to forgo the challenge today and test tyres and nerves on the fantastic twisting descent to Lake Vyrnwy instead. It’s a flat- out charge through the golden leaves over the dam and back round the other side and then one last long climb up through the woods alongside another typically wild Welsh stream. It’s a fantastic Alpine style ‘pick a gear and commit’ climb with several false summits and cursing crux sections before we break clear of the trees and onto the final descent. The devil may care descent is equally Alpine in its speed, exposure and demands for commitment, and it’s a fantastic way to cash in hard won climbing chips.
The last sun of the day even stabs through the grey again to soothe tuck-tourniqueted shoulders and climb-cramped calves as I roll back into Bala. This isn’t a particularly long ride, but it is amazingly rich in terms of remoteness, epic views and silent solitude, whether you choose to drink it in over a long day or hammer it out in a few hours.
Food and drink
While it’s a popular tourist area the wild bits are pretty wild, so fill your pockets and your belly at the start in Bala. Along the way there’s a cafe at Trawsfynydd Power Station that should guarantee a ‘Ready Brek’ glow half way round, plus the Eagle Inn at Llanuwchllyn and Lake Yrnwy Hotel at the far end of the lake if you’re feeling flush.
Where to stay
There are plenty of places to stay in the area so type Bala into www.visitwales.com. Try the Rhiw Goch Inn at Bron Aber if you’re bringing a group and fancy a ‘school trip’ bunk bed experience, but with an excellent pub on your doorstep. At the other extreme if you need somewhere to leave that special someone to be pampered while you pedal, or you just fancy the ultimate apres ride restoration, then Lake Yrnwy Hotel is an oasis.