Planning a ride?

Tommy goes touring. Route planning true to the spirit of Le Sportif!

It’s become something of a tradition for me these past few years that as March rolls around and the first glimpses of spring start to emerge from the thawing winter gloom, to take the firm decision to get back out on the bike. I’m not a serious, dedicated cyclist by any means. A word like training is not at the forefront of my vocabulary. When I ride, it’s invariably at a weekend and the weather will be positively balmy. So when winter comes I pretty much shut down as far as cycling for leisure is concerned.

In years gone by I found that not riding can be as much as a habit as going riding. So I make myself one rule. When March arrives, regardless of fitness, regardless of motivation - you get out there and for 3 days you drop everything else and you just ride.

If nothing else I enjoy the planning. Picture me, mid-January wrapped up warm in my flat poring over maps, looking for routes. Some riders aren’t interested in routes. All they want to do is ride. Ride anywhere, for hours and miles.

I find that in many ways I gain as much, if not more, enjoyment from the planning for the adventure as I do in the participating in it. I like that feeling of taking a germ of an idea – a cycling route in this instance - watching it grow into something bigger, something that is possibly feasible as you connect the lanes and the towns, until slowly it finally becomes something that you’ve invested so much time in planning and thinking about that it has suddenly become a thing that you are absolutely going to do.

There’s usually some sort of hook. In previous years what appealed to me was the simple notion that I wanted the ride to start from my front door and end somewhere far away. In 2014 that was a route from my Bristol street that took me south across Exmoor, Dartmoor and on to Exeter over 3 days. Last year I linked Bristol with London via the Kennet and Avon canal and the River Thames. This year I wanted to go further afield.

So it was last that in last August year, whilst programming Cyclescreen: Bristol Bike Film Festival I had the pleasure of meeting Jack Thurston – author and presenter of the Bike Show podcast – who’d just published his latest book Lost Lanes Wales – 36 Glorious Bike Rides in Wales and the Borders. We’re similar riders me and Jack, I reckon - people, who whilst we have a keen interest in cycling as a sport fall more toward the slower tradition of cycle touring when it comes to our own riding. Don’t get me wrong, I want to be challenged - long overall distances and big hills on a route aren’t off putters for me, so long as that route takes me somewhere interesting, visually arresting and above all, I can take my time. Jack has become a master at this kind of route planning.

Lost Lanes Wales is a series of circular routes that you can do in 3-5 hours. In freezing mid-January as I pored over my already well-thumbed copy, the problem was I wanted to do them all. I’d done a couple already up the Wye and Usk valleys due to their proximity to Bristol, so I turned my attention to a clump of rides in Snowdonia. The germ of the idea was this - what’s stopping me linking these routes together? And as in previous years planning, the answer was precisely nothing. There it was, the spine of my route Barmouth – Bala Lake – Betws-y-Coed – Llandudno laid out before me. Taking in the highlights of large sections of Jack’s routes, it just became a case of stitching them all together.

So began hours of fun poring over maps identifying my own lost lanes that might best complement the joining of these dots, avoiding the busy connecting roads and finding interesting ways to get me where I needed to be before the sun goes down. 40-50 miles (roughly the equivalent to 4- 5 hours riding for me) I find is a nice distance for a day in the saddle on these sorts of trips and this seemed to fit perfectly.

Part of the enjoyment of route planning is envisaging what you think the ride is going to look like. Where is it going to be tough and hilly, where are the glorious descents, where can I just tap out the miles and soak up the scenery? There were so many parts of this route I was looking forward to riding. The stunning length and breadth of the Mawddach Estuary, the majesty of arriving at Bala Lake as the sun starts to go down, the ride up over the pass out of Bala and down into Betws-y-coed, the imposing view of Conwy castle and the subsequent spectacular route around the Orm’s Head near Llandudno as a grand finale. Iconic waypoints on a journey that begins and ends at the sea.

And they were too. There’s something satisfying about planning something and imagining it months in advance and then going out and experiencing it. The simple act of completing a task that is set. Thinking closely about routes before setting off on them is great because you find yourself already partly attuned when you ride, but constantly surprised in little ways when you enact them. The parts I thought I already knew in my head were often very different to what I actually experienced. Bits I thought might be quite mundane, and serving only in my mind to link certain highlights, invariably turned out to be some of the most memorable parts of the route. A spectacular hidden valley here, a quiet picturesque village there… all serving to link up a satisfying whole.

I’ve done similar length rides in France, Norway, Scotland and South Wales and when I compare them I’d be hard pressed to say any of them topped the beauty of the landscape that Snowdonia has to offer. Hilly, yes but not oppressively so. And spectacularly quiet - I saw surprisingly few cars or cyclists en-route. You don’t have to go far to find incredible bike rides on your doorstep or a short train ride away. And now completed, my body is awake and ready for more over the summer and autumn months.

On the train ride up I passed through the Shropshire hills and the town of Ludlow and I was taken aback at the scenery and the small pang of guilt I felt that I’d never really explored this part of the country in which I live. And so it begins again. Already the seeds of an idea of the next ride has been planted. The dreaming and the route finding already begun. Building a mental picture of what it’s going to look like, where its going to take me, what it’s going to feel like. Until it too is done… With the planning and the riding, it’s like going on holiday twice.