Discovering Wales
Tracing a race that never was

Wales is beautiful. It’s wild, and wet at times. But it has a lot to offer. Nigel Leech and James Deane went on a gravel adventure of its own to find out.

From the Mid-West to Mid-Wales

Back in 2014 Gravel bikes hadn’t hit the big time. Only a handful of riders were aware of the US scene, and dedicated bikes were few and far between. It was a bold move then for Ian Barrington of Wildcat Gear to suggest a UK gravel race. Set in Mid-wales, the Wildcat 100 promised a taste of the Mid-West. Despite this, there was plenty of interest, almost certainly because of Ian’s depth of knowledge when it comes to Cambrian trails and the popularity of Wildcat gear. Great location, great route, excited riders. What could possibly go wrong?

The best laid plans of mice and men

With a full roster of riders all eager to hit the gravel, the event suffered a blowout at the eleventh hour. With the Wildcat 100 making use of so many forestry logging roads, the route passed through almost every active harvesting site in the region. To ensure the safety of a mass-start event would take months of coordination with NRW, something that just wasn’t feasible. That left Ian with no choice but to pull the plug. While the event might have been shelved, the GPX route lived on for tackling at a more relaxed pace. If you travel solo, or in a small group and are happy to be flexible, you can re-route on the fly if you come across the lumberjacks doing their thing!

Back to the future

Fast forward to 2019 and gravel bikes are the next big thing. Pop into your local high street bike shop and you’ll probably find something that makes the 2014 Salsa Warbird with it’s 35c tyres look positively old hat. Events like The Dirty Reiver, Gritfest and Grinduro are well established, so perhaps the Wildcat 100 should remain in the history books? As one of those riders who received the Dear John email, the route felt like unfinished business. So why not take along some contemporary adventure bikes and see what happens?

This is not a race

“A very good inn that Talbot Arms- where they are always glad to see an English gentleman. I experienced very good entertainment at the Tregaron Inn”, wrote George Borrow in Wild Wales back in 1854.

“George Borrow went to Y Talbot on his walk around Wales, we should go there.”

“Yeah, but Google says the current owner trained under Marco Pierre White… lets go to the chippy.”

And with that, my dreams of following in the path of my fellow townsman were dashed, although certainly to the benefit of my bank balance. With two fish n’ chips ordered, we parked ourselves on the bench and waited for James Heaton from Wilderness Trail Bikes. James, a native South Walian arrived a few minutes later and while stuffing our faces with chips, we chatted about just how bad the weather forecast looked for the weekend… With the local postcodes covering several square miles of nothing, we took off in tandem relying on the trusty OS map to get us to our hostel.

Triple trouble!

We’d ridden the track past the hostel years previously and remembered that the southern section was much worse than the north so I wasn’t too worried as we turned off the tarmac. However, threading a van, rather than a mountain bike down a meandering farm track redefines whether a track is OK. After a few utterances of “Are you sure?” the headlights finally picked out the hostel from the gloom.

With the log-burner in the hostel topped up, we hatched our plans for the ride ahead with our respective regional delicacies, Adnam’s Broadside and Tan Y Castell Welsh cakes. A true athletes supper!

With the route passing close by, it made sense to start and finish from one of the Elenydd Hostels rather than the original start at the Llyn Brianne dam. Luck was on our side as Ty’n Cornel had vacancies and placed us directly on route. Relinquished by the Youth Hostel Association,Ty’n Cornel and Dolgoch Hostels were taken over by Elenydd Wilderness Hostels Trust. Run along the same principles as the YHA, the trust relies upon volunteers to take on fortnightly shifts as hostel wardens.

If you think the Wilderness label might be a bit OTT consider this. When Ty’n Cornel was a working farm (up until the 1950s) the children of the household would have to lodge in the next village to attend school and a visit to chapel on Sunday might be the only time you saw your neighbours outside of shearing season! A newspaper clipping from 2003 reports farms in the valley were finally being connected to mains electricity!

The Bike
Cervelo Aspero

Cervelo’s first foray into the gravel sector and it’s unashamedly racy. If you dressed it up with slick tyres, it wouldn’t look out of place on a Sunday club run. A huge, stout downtube blends into an even stouter bottom bracket junction. Out back, the chainstays are the complete opposite to the Salsa’s comfort orientated, bowed seat stays. The Aspero’s short wheelbase and beefy rear triangle are all about transferring power. “Haul ass, not cargo” was the tagline at launch. So naturally, the first thing we decided to do was load it up the hilt with bikepacking luggage! Far from standard, this Cervelo carried a huge range of gears courtesy of a SRAM AXS Eagle/Force ‘mullet’ combo and super light but strong, Scope O2 carbon wheels.