TRAIL RIDING FROM CARDIFF TO LLANDUDNO

Rory Elliot heads to the Land of Our Fathers for an epic adventure trail ride the length of the country…

One benefit cars have over bikes for me is that you can be pretty unorganised and not forget to pack a thing. In fact you could give me 20 minutes notice to go mollusc hunting off the west coast of Scotland and I would be on my way in a car in under ten minutes, the boot crammed full of stuff most of which I don’t need but by the same token safe in the knowledge that I MUST have everything!

In this instance I was given two weeks notice to get myself to Wales for a motorcycle adventure and I still spent half a morning packing and repacking, putting on kit, taking it off again, filling up water bottles, checking straps on my Giant Loop ‘luggage yoke’  several times over and deliberating on how many pairs of pants I should take… Then doing it all over again, as an unhinged nerve in my brain cast a shadow of doubt over my packing.

Just as I was ready for the off, one of my chickens made a bid for freedom as I wheeled the bike out of the back garden, and I had to coax it off the busy but ever-static London South Circular. Pedestrians were sent running for their lives, fearing a chicken (whose keeper needs to dress head-to-toe in protective clothing)  was on the warpath!

Once underway this feeling of unease wasn’t helped by my iPod cranking out Kurt Cobain’s desperate lyrics, reminding me that ‘just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you’.  However after a few minutes weaving my way through the gridlock of London’s traffic on a beautiful sunny day I soon shrugged off my mental kit re-listing and figured it was likely some of the irate car drivers I was passing were nearer the Nirvana front man’s final state of mind. It didn’t take long to remember why bikes are so much better than cars…

Wales Bound

I was heading to South Wales for a three day off-road trip averaging around 130 miles a day; starting just north of Cardiff and snaking up to the north coast - a new route set up by Welsh rally hero Craig Bounds and his Dakar riding girlfriend Tamsin Jones with their new set up Black Desert Training. My chosen steed was a Yamaha XT660Z Ténéré: hopefully giving me enough power and a suitably comfortable ride to do the three-hour schlep to Merthyr Tydfil as well as the five-hour ride back from Llandudno in good humour.

Having heard good things about the 660’s adventuring abilities, it was also a fine opportunity to see how the bike handled some serious Welsh off-road. The plan was to meet the gang at a local pub near to Bounds Mansions for some grub and a few sherbets - joining us on the three-day adventure was Dom Longman, founder and head designer at Kriega, with his friend Tom McGrath, an airline pilot for Jet 2. Tamsin light-heartedly described the trip as a scaled down Dakar, so provided a support vehicle manned by Michael ‘Fix Anything’  Garland and Craig’s son, Sam Bounds, a fantastic young guy who looks like he’s going to follow in his father’s tyre tracks (Craig and Tamsin are prepping him for the Dawn to Dusk this summer).  This partnership would be on hand for any emergencies, with a couple of spare bikes in the back of the van, and would also carry all of our camping equipment and BBQ ingredients for the evenings.

Dawn to Usk

I woke early, just as the sun was trying to break through the Welsh drizzle. Soon enough we were up and ready to leave, and I had to admit feeling a little nervous seeing my huge (in comparison)  Ténéré standing next to Dom’s KTM 690 Enduro, Tom’s DR-Z400S, Tamsin’s WR450 Yam, and Craig’s old Xchallenge Beemer. However the shiny new Ténéré was screaming out for an adventure.

We headed north and over the river Usk. It was a little early to get our feet wet, especially as the Usk has the second highest tidal range in the world, so we used the bridge.

We hit our first track a few miles on, a gentle climb through a golf course towards the Brecon Beacons National Park. A little known fact: The scoring system for golf was invented by a Welshman - Dr Stableford. Which begs the question, what the Scots (who invented the game itself)  were doing before that - just hacking a ball around the woods with no real point? Unfortunately the Doc committed suicide just before his 90th birthday because he became blind and could no longer play…

On our first real descent of the day, negotiating a steep shaley hillside, I foolishly pulled a handful of front brake at an inopportune moment and off I came. Craig helped me right the upside-down bike, and whilst I did my best to hide my blushes he patted me on the back and said ‘it’s always best to come off early.’

As we rode on the terrain became rockier and the bike did a great job of picking its way through the steep gullies, especially considering the constantly shifting fist-sized rocks underneath its wheels. This gave me a lot more confidence in the bike; if I kept up a reasonable amount of momentum it would go pretty much anywhere I pointed it, occasionally out-riding some of the smaller lighter bikes in the group. The only consistent trouble I had was starting from a standstill on an incline. At one point a tree had fallen across our path, so we cleared it out the way except then I couldn’t get going again, the back wheel just span. I had to turn the bike sideways ride the front wheel up the side of the banked trail, pull hard right and head up the hill flat-out on one wheel.

The tracks slowly turned into open moorland with occasional deep muddy ruts, and with Swansea and Bristol Channel behind us and the Irish Sea to our left we sailed for miles and miles over the grass. The only mishap was when I chose a rather deep rut, my left foot was hit off the peg and got caught between the bike and the mud wall, causing me to twist my bars with my thumb becoming the filling in a knee ‘n’ bar sandwich. Underneath my thumbnail immediately swelled up and turned black… Ouch.

With a set routine, the few gates we came across were quickly and easily dispatched. The first rider there opened it and then rode on, whilst backmarker Craig closed it behind us.

From the moorland we dropped down into a village whose claim to fame is that it was Richard Burton’s hometown, and it was here that we stopped for lunch. The afternoon saw the Welsh weather turn with about an hour of heavy rain, and we climbed into some steep and technical mountain sections. Again the bike outdid itself, especially as I was running a pair of dual sport Continental TKC80s which found far more grip than I expected. They handled some really rough sections with aplomb, giving me the confidence to push the bike harder.

We arrived at a stretch of thigh deep water spread across the trail.  I love water crossings, and with no way round I gave it a quick look before going for it. It was deep but I kept my line, aiming for a narrow gully between two sections of slippery rock on the far side. In my haste I hadn’t really thought about the rocks that lurked beneath the murk, and three-quarters of the way across my front wheel slipped sideways into a hidden crevice, putting my bars at full lock. I was catapulted over the tank, head first into the drink - it was like having my head stuck in a goldfish bowl - and gargling with laughter and spluttering the odd expletive I extracted my head from the drink to see the bike had been wedged where I left it, bolt upright, between the two hidden rock shelves. Nice parking! Several more crossings came and went without much more than the odd toe dip.

The weather cleared and we chewed up the miles on forest roads that ran near Si Pavey’s BMW school. The afternoon ended with a 30km section of track skirting around a beautiful reservoir. Craig often used this section when training for the Dakar - really nice flowing single track with hairpin turns aplenty.

Craig and I stopped to talk to some fly fishermen who were packing up for the day and somehow Craig convinced them to give us their day’s catch of two brown trout for our BBQ. With a touch of bewilderment they then unpacked their kit and carried on fishing..!

I was learning that both Craig and Tamsin are very good with people, Tamsin is always cheery and thoughtful and Craig offers advice or a few motivational words exactly when you need them.

We arrived at our campsite in Rhayader exhausted, to find all our tents erected, the BBQ lit, and a cold beer to hand. We also had a new member to the team in the form of my old travel partner and owner of Adventure Spec, Chris Colling, who had just finished the Tarrenig Rally on his Honda XR650R, relatively unscathed considering he’d had a big off a few hours earlier. Unfortunately the anticipated arrival of infamous explorer Captain Fawcett didn’t materialise -there was a rumour he was caught in bandit country whilst navigating the river Nile.

Flat Out

Day two started well with a great little climb out of town, however the front wheel on my Ténéré took a hit on a rockstep and left me with a flat tyre. Annoyingly the bike’s tool kit didn’t feature the giant 14mm Allen key required to remove the wheel, so I slowly rode the five or six miles back to town to fix the problem. Enduro/MX dealer, ex British enduro champ, Alan Bates of ET James was at hand to help. Once it was removed I realised the wheel had been fitted with an inner tube so thin it looked like it was fabricated from black cling-film. I threw it away and replaced it with a big fat Conti tube.

Heading off on the roads, I caught up with the gang for lunch only to find that Chris’s day had come to a premature end thanks to an electrical fault - his bike refusing to start after a deep river- crossing, leaving Dom to tow him to civilisation. Like a tag-team wrestler, I high-fived Chris as he left with the support team and I rejoined the fun.

I’d missed three hours of uninterrupted off-roading, however my morning off had given me a chance to recover - my arms were like jelly from heaving the big bike around the day before. I wasn’t in the best of health anyway, still suffering from the result of a four-day stag party the weekend before, culminating in a leg-bruising, late night skateboarding accident in the back streets of Bristol which saw me thrown over a wall into somebody’s recycling bin!

Feeling suitably refreshed, we now found ourselves skirting the edge of Snowdonia National Park, and with blue skies and a fresh breeze I hit the changing landscape with renewed vigour. The rocks small loose rocks we’d been riding the day before had now turned to slate, wet slate… Hmm, tricky.

As we popped out on top of the mountains we were again within sight of the coast, this time the more rugged shoreline of the north. The Welsh landscape is breathtaking and almost diverse as anywhere I’ve travelled. You can see how Wales has inspired some of the world’s greatest explorers, like Welshman Sir George Everest whose name lives on as the highest peak in the world, as well as explorer David Thompson who mapped 20-percent of the North American continent in the 1800s - both of them came from these parts.

Dragon Flying

The afternoon flew by, with some pretty hard trails that took all my concentration to navigate - some huge muddy ruts doing their best to unnerve me. There were a few offs amongst the team but most adapted a dogged, head-down approach and made it through without too much worry. I had to sit down in the seat for quite a bit of this section as my feet were constantly being dragged off the pegs by the steep-sided mud and slate walls. The Ténéré has piddly little pegs for such a big bike, especially one designed to be taken off-road. I’m not sure bigger pegs would have kept my feet planted all of the time but they would certainly have helped, and most likely prevented the constant aching in the arch of my feet!

Meanwhile, the pillion pegs were making a fine job of carving lines each side of the giant ruts, and the exhaust covers did their job of projecting the silencers. Dom suffered a similar drag on his bike, as he was field-testing Kriega’s new pannier system. Still in development, the soft luggage was being hit with everything the Welsh countryside could muster, without, it seemed, any major problems. Expect to see these new products available early next year…

Heading down from the hills we were greeted with monumental views over the Mawddach estuary. We crossed this yawning gap in the coastline of Cardigan Bay in single-file, using the 140-year-old Barmouth Bridge - a largely wooden railway viaduct that links Barmouth with Morfa Mawddach. Along with some of the UK’s most draw dropping scenery, the Welsh can also be proud of the world’s highest concentration of unpronounceable town names…

Talking to Tamsin later that evening at our beach-side campsite I discovered the inspiration for this route goes back about six years when she did a trip to Cape York in Australia. She loved the trip but knew that there were better trails in Wales, and had been plotting ever since.

Sheep Dip

After sampling the delights of the local pub everyone slept well, awaking for the final day in good spirits, Chris had got his bike going again so with a full team, off we rolled. After some initial technical climbs hampered by the hazardous combination of drizzle and slate, we found ourselves on more long flowing tracks through the Snowdonia. The sheep population of Wales is four times greater than that of humans, and North Wales seemed to have more than its fair share. As well as a great dual sport bike it seemed the blue Ténéré was actually a fine sheep homing device too, and at one point, out the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of a ewe launching itself at full speed 500 feet down the mountainside. In a split-second and at breakneck speed it hit the trail just in time to meet me, clipping its rump on my front tyre. Off we spun, into opposing ditches, though fortunately I’d slowed right down in anticipation of meeting the fluffy white missile. So whilst looking a little ‘sheepish’,  the beast wandered off none the worse for our game of chicken. Only a few miles later they attacked en-masse, running straight at me. I stopped, covered my face and braced for impact as six beasts jumped over the tank and front fender. Tamsin dropped her bike whilst laughing at me!

Coming down off the steep gradient was seriously tough and heavy work - there wasn’t a chance to stop and catch your breath for miles. Finally relief came at the bottom of a valley. Dripping with sweat, I drew a huge swig from my hydration pack, only to be overwhelmed by the moisture-sapping taste of warm, watered-down lager! I had fallen pray to a Mr Bounds schoolboy prank and had a taste in my mouth like I’d just licked a tramp’s armpit. Revenge was called for…

After a hunger-sating lunch in the bustling, shuffling, god’s waiting room of Betws y Coed, we departed for the final leg of the journey basking in majestic sunshine. However, there was a slight delay in leaving as Craig’s lid had inexplicitly become filled with pepper. His Welsh accent had become totally incomprehensible through the sneezing and the frothing mouth. It was an unfortunate and unexplainable incident…

The only track the Ténéré couldn’t tackle came just after lunch. After arranging a makeshift ramp to get onto a precarious moss-ravaged footbridge, we were faced with a very long, damp, and narrow woodland track, littered with big stones. Because of a two-foot mound at the start of the track I couldn’t build the momentum needed to blast to the top and soon found myself pinned underneath a rather angry Yamaha. In the crash I lost a couple of indicators and added some scratches on the tank. The screen had also pinged off but remained undamaged thanks to its plastic fasteners that are designed to sheer on impact. It was not worth another attempt, even with Craig helping it remained impassable. Fortunately (and this goes for the whole of the trip)  Craig and Tamsin had recce'd the entire area, so they have several alternative trails up their sleeve to suit different bikes and skill levels. It wasn’t too long before we found another way round.

Soon enough we were back into the long flowing trails that took me back to my time in the vast expanse of the Mongolian steppe. Epic trails. And they ultimately led us to a cliff top high above Llandudno on the north coast. We had made it.

A Wales of a Time

Sitting together for one last cup of tea, there was a tangible sense of achievement. Everyone was exhausted but smiling ear to ear. I had spent the past three days with seven really good people and through a short space of time we had become a close-knit team. Faced with a five-hour ride back to London I contemplated Craig’s offer of completing the loop and spending another two or three days on new trails heading back to South Wales. The thought of revisiting places like Strata Florida and Happy Valley was very tempting, but at the same time I had a mental image of my P45 waiting for me on my desk for being three days late for work. So we all agreed we’d do it again another time.

The adventure gave me back something I had been missing a few days earlier - a bit of perspective. The thought of panicking over the small stuff, like packing, now seemed laughable. Bike trips like this are life affirming, they shed the stresses of modern day life and give you a renewed sense of zest and dynamism. Boy, when I get home I’m gonna show those chickens who’s boss..!

Huge thanks to the following:

Yamaha UK: www.yamaha-motor.co.uk

Craig & Tamsin: www.blackdeserttraining.com

Forcefield Body Armour: www.forcefieldbodyarmour.com

Adventure Spec: www.adventure-spec.com

Michael Garland and Sam Bounds

Coasting Along

Craig and Tamsin are running their ‘Coast to Coast Challenge’  over 30 July - 4 August this year, with the second trip taking place in Spring next year. However, if they get enough interest then they may well add further dates. Leaving from the south coast of Wales, the five-day adventure will take riders up to the north coast and then back down again.

The riding is suitable for those of an ‘intermediate’  level, and you’ll be camping along the way (though group bookings can be made at B&Bs if preferred).  There are nine places available on each trip, costing £695 per person if you use your own bike. The same trip with a hire bike comes out at £1195 which includes insurance, although they do have to ask for a £300 damage deposit. Visit www.blackdeserttraining.com for more information.

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