“What are you expecting from the next couple of days?”, videographer Josh asked me while pointing a camera in my face. I thought back to past bike tours I’d done, either solo or in groups, and realised that the only thing they had in common was… spontaneity. When Stefan from Pannier CC asked me if I’d be keen to join a bike tour in Wales, I said yes pretty much straight away. Since cycling around New Zealand a couple of years ago, I’ll admit that I haven’t spent enough time in the saddle, instead I’ve spent most of my free time out hiking in the hills; craving the peace and quiet that cycling on roads doesn’t always give you. But on this trip, we’d be bike-packing, something I’ve been really keen to get more into in recent months. Bike-packing is all about trails, tracks, gravel and carrying a more light-weight load. You can go to places that a road bike can’t take you, much faster and further than you can on foot. That’s why I knew the answer to the question, “what are you expecting?” was “the unexpected” - in brief, I went into the weekend with no expectations, except for the excitement of trying something new with an awesome team in a beautiful setting.
I left my home in Manchester in the afternoon, and three hours later I had lost civilisation, phone service and… the road! I stopped the car on some forested track in mid-Wales, checking the directions Stefan had sent us all. “Follow the road past the carpark and up the hill for about 500m (ignore the no cars sign)”, it read. Well, it sounds like I’m going the right way… that is, a road into the wilderness or Narnia or Neverland perhaps. Not long later, I pulled into the drive of a beautiful white house nestled amidst the forested hills of mid-Wales. Spotting Stefan’s van outside and the promised wood-fired hot-tub, I knew I was in the right place, and was soon greeted by the rest of the team joining in on the weekend. Stefan of Pannier CC, Quoc behind QUOC Shoes, Josh the videographer and Ben from Condor Cycles. We were just waiting for Chris, the photographer, who arrived in the dark and was as confused as I about the middle-of-nowhere location of the house. After getting settled and acquainted, that night we ate homemade pizza made in Stefan’s new portable pizza oven (yes I definitely want one!) and drank gin & tonics around the fire, discussing the plan for the next couple of days.
In brief, we planned to ride from the house to a bothy roughly northwest of where we were currently located. We were filming a video for QUOC’s new bike-packing shoes designed for gravel, as part of a Kickstarter campaign (that has recently launched!). We’d also be taking still photography, eating a lot of food and avoiding the rain - only two out of three of those things went to plan. That day, however, we were blessed with bluebird skies all morning, cycling through rich forests in early morning light and along one of the most incredible and wild valleys I think I have ever seen in the U.K. Textured hills of orange, green and beige with a peaceful stream meandering through the valley; sheep oblivious to our quiet pedalling and not another soul in sight. The setting astounded me, it felt like being in the Scottish highlands far from anywhere, yet with a very distinct Welsh tone. Forests appeared around every turn, and the riding really was some of the best I’ve ever done in the U.K. All morning we whizzed gleefully along rocky trails and splashed through puddles with our legs spread wide. And then those puddles turned into rivers and we faced our first river crossing of the day.
After assessing whether or not there was a way around the river, we all accepted that the only was was through and prepared ourselves (mostly mentally, on my part) for the crossing. The water at this point was knee-deep and icy cold, but carrying our bikes while wading through the water was an adventure, and at the other side of the river we dried our socks while eating sweet potato, beans and cheese on the river bank. After loading up again and clipping in our pedals, it didn’t take long before we came across a second river crossing. This one was deeper and faster-paced, and despite always trying to be a strong, independent woman, I happily accepted help from the boys to make sure my borrowed Surly bike didn't get swept down the river. By this point, the sun kept darting behind the clouds so sock-drying didn’t seem likely and cold feet was inevitable. Onwards we went until another river blocked our path, and another, and another, and another. After a total of seven river crossings that eventually were thigh-deep, I think we were all very eager to get moving and get warm! So we clipped in again and headed off, down the twisting forest track down to the village in the valley.
Thanks to my drenched socks and soaking legs, by the bottom of the track my body was tense with shivering from the cold, so with chattering teeth and aching fee I dug deep into my bags to find dry socks and as many clothes as possible to put on, just so the last part of the journey would be bearable. It was nearly dark now but we were on the final stretch, along the rollercoaster road to the bothy. Though there was barely any light and I was completely exhausted from the day, you could see that the valley was stunning - stretching out to the horizon with soft round hill. It was completely dark as we pushed our bikes along the muddy track to the bothy, but we were soon out of our damp clothes and sat in front of the fire and my icy cold feet from a couple of hours before were but a distant memory. Together we cooked a delicious porcini mushroom risotto, followed by treacle sponge and custard - much needed and thoroughly enjoyed after a long day out riding.
We woke up to grey, drizzly skies the next morning, drizzle that soon turned to rain as we packed our bags outside the bothy. I opted to wear every one of my layers today, and we all decided to take the shorter route back to the house because of the weather. In fact, once we got inside the forest, the rain cleared and an eerie mist fell around us making for beautiful photos and fun riding. The last few hills were a struggle, but then it was downhill all the way back to the house (except for the hill leading up to the house!). Oreos were consumed en-masse and pond-dips were had, before hot showers, tea and toast, a pub dinner and pint of cider.
Having survived the weekend with all my toes intact, my greatest feeling was how much I’d love to try bike-packing again (just maybe in Spring and hopefully with warmer temperatures next time...). I’ve always bike-toured on the roads, however having done a bit of mountain biking and cyclo-cross and loved both (despite being a bit of a scaredy cat sometimes), bike-packing seems like a perfect way to get off the roads and into the wild, carrying all your essentials on your bike and pedal-powering your way somewhere beautiful. For the weekend, I got to borrow one of Pannier’s amazing Surly bikes loaded with Revellate bike-packing bags - the perfect set-up for the gravel tracks we were riding on. Quoc’s new gravel bike-packing shoes were incredible in the conditions, and I loved the simple, classic design. Check out Quoc’s Kickstarter campaign which has recently been launched, and the video below made by Josh Brooks for a better insight of what we got up to at the weekend. Thanks to all the guys for an awesome time and for being patient with me when my toes froze!