Taff Trail Bike Ride 2007

Frustrated by a lack of endurance events of late I decided to test my body out with a long ride up into the hills from my home in Cardiff. I was also keen to do some camping out, as I hadn't slept out under the stars for a couple of years. Enthused by the acquisition of a cheapy mountain bike via the adtrader, I donned camelbak stuffed full of the smallest and lightest camping kit I could muster and set off up the Taff Trail from Cardiff after work on a Saturday evening at around 5.30. It was a mild but overcast evening - hence no photos of that day (but there are lots of the return journey) - but this made for ideal riding conditions.

I was hoping to make it as far as the Beacons National Park, and maybe even head up a small mountain if time permitted, but one of my gearshifts broke on the first use before I was even out of town, leaving me stuck in the smallest chainring. This meant I could get up steep hills on road in bottom gear, but would lack the seriously low ratios needed for a rough ascent. The break was obviously down to sand stuck in the mechanism - my own stupid fault! After a particularly muddy ride on Gower a few days earlier I had washed the bike in the sea before putting it in the car, and obviously picked up sand on the way. Still, with a stripping down and cleaning out, plus a little wrapping of tape or cable ties, normal gears should be resumed some time soon. I revised my plans to just head for the National Park and find a nice place to camp, possibly near the reservoirs north of Merthyr. Of course, I had no idea how long such a ride would take, and the whole thing was a bit speculative.

I know the Taff Trail well as far as Castell Coch and Craig Yr Allt, from long marathon training runs over the last three years. beyond Taffs Well it would all be new territory. It soon became evident that the trail is harder to follow than the map suggests - the signs are inadequate and always missing or obscured when the trail comes out into a residential area, making it hard to find the next entry point. The scenery was lovely though, deciduous woods and fields lining the trailside (which is either paved or surfaced with firm shale/gravel that's nice to ride on) and great views over the Taff itself - sometimes slow and brooding, at other times gushing over massive weirs or making small rapids in gravelly shallows. There were lots of gates that required me to stop and ease the bike through, or sometimes lift it over, but these at least make the trail safer for runners and walkers who would otherwise be at the mercy of the crazed cyclist.

The new sections of the trail were full of contrast - wonderful beechwoods near Quakers Yard contrasting with urban sections near Aberfan (sullen teenagers regarding me suspiciously as I passed). Several times I got slightly lost - especially where subsidence had caused the trail to be diverted - but whenever I was scratching my head overr the map a kind soul would appear and offer directions - in fact the people I met were incredibly helpful, and I got the impression that a confused mountain biker poring over a map while trying to find the next section of Taff Trail was a common sight in these parts.

After various misadventures, and with fatigue setting in after well over three hours of biking, I found myself north of Merthyr in the Taff Fechan valley - a protected nature reserve and rightly so. Night was obviously about to fall, and I had no lights, having seriously underestimated the journey time. Fortunately, only a very short section of road was required from the trailhead just south of Pontsticill to the layby at the lakeshore (actually the Ponsticill Reservoir) just north of the village where I had decided to camp.I was able to get off the road as cars approached (there were only about three) rather than chance it as an invisible "stealth cyclist" in the traffic.

Arriving at the pull-in by the reservoir shore (a fantastically beautiful spot, though it was too dark at that point to appreciate it) I decided against cooking and just downed a protein bar as I unpacked. I nipped over a style and stashed the bike out of sight, locked to a post, before sorting out the sleeping bag and bivvy sack for the night. I sat down to meditate as the darkness closed in, but an onslaught from the midges (yes, I'd forgotten that water would mean midges in profusion) meant that I could only manage a few minutes before it was time to get my head down inside the sack to avoid being eaten alive. Once night had fallen fully, the cool air seemed to disperse all the bugs and I relaxed in the sack just listening to the sploshing of birds and fish, the breeze in the pines above me and the occasional hooting of geese at the south end of the lake. Sleeping out alone without a tent can be a little nerveracking - perhaps movies have fuelled this - but it was all quite calm and restful until the cars started arriving. The first couple came around midnight and there was much opening and closing of doors and honking of car horns - all a bit weird really and it made me pretty edgy. How would a bunch of youngsters coming here for a smoke after the pub treat a lone camper dossed down ten feet from the shore of a lake? I could imagine some idiot finding it amusing to chuck me or the bike in the drink. Soon one car left, others arrived, and while I was hidden from them by bushes and they never saw me, I couldn't relax enough to sleep while they were there. I grabbed some short sleeps in between visits, but all in all it was a fitful night up until 4am when the last couple left (I could justt hear their voices when the breeze blew from the north) and I could relax and sleep properly for an hour and a half. During that time I just gazed up at the stars and watched the glorious rising of the bright half-moon overr Cefn Yr Ystrad directly across the lake from me. It was staggeringly beautiful in the moonlight, with the boughs of a pine I was sleeping under reminding me of that Bowie lyric - "the stars that pin the branches to the sky". Another factor in the general lack of sleep was the cold I felt in my legs - I had to shift around every so often to keep them warm - another thing I'd underrestimated was how muchh cooler than the forecast 16 degrees it would be up here a thousand feet above sea level - it was more like eight or nine degrees and with a chilling breeze too.

I woke at around half five to a clear and lightening sky, washed in the lake and meditated (midge free) for over half an hour (when the midges began to arrive). Shortly afterward the sun rose in the same spot where the moon had risen, inspiring me to meditate a little more and sing the mantric song Surya Debata Pranam for the benefit of myself and the assembled waterfowl. As soon as the sun rose I felt it's powerful warmth and soon I was throwing the sleeping bag off my shoulders and lighting the stove for a breakfast of instant mash and more energy bars. I spent a while just soaking up the beauty of the surroundings before packing and heading off at around seven. I hadn't had a workout of any kind approaching the four hours of riding of the previous night, and tiredness predictably set in quite early on, but after loading up with lucozade sport at a corner shop in Cefn Coed I enjoyed a lovely ride back to Cardiff along sunlit trails and roads.

Above and very top are shots of the view from my camp site (below).

This is a shot from the dam at Pontsticill, just a mile or two away - looking north you can see Pen Y Fan and Cribyn on the horizon almost 2000 feet above the lake.

Another shot of the reservoir:

After rejoining the Taff Trail soon after the dam I rode back through the Taff Fechan nature reserve, where the trail takes a line high on the valley side, crossing from one side to the other on this bridge::

Above, the church at Cefn Coed on the way into Merthyr from the Taff Fechan valley. After Merthyr the trail alternates between pastoral and semi-urban (small villages line both sides of the valley, and the trail switches from one side to the other, revealing these views looking south towards Cardiff:

Finally I entered Cardiff and found myself in Pontcanna Fields, a regular running haunt of mine and scene of our Self-Transcendence Race Series. This path leads into Pontcanna Fieldsfrom the north (shot taken while moving!).

Great ride - please someone sort those signs out so that a novice can follow the trail without numerous wrong turns and retracing of steps! But hey, thanks to whomsoever instigated the Taff Trail - much appreciated.


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