A photo of the Welsh mountains

Finding my way

In which I explain how I have approached route planning for the Slow Cycle Around Wales

I have never been particularly good at finding my way around.

Some people seem to have a sixth sense that means they always know where they are and which direction they should be headed. For a long time I suspected that this was just a question of self-confidence; as in: they don’t really know where they are or where they are going, but they approach it with an entirely unwarranted air of confidence. Jane knows what I mean.

As the evidence has mounted over the years, I have conceded that most people do genuinely seem to be more in tune with their place in the world than I am.

This isn’t a metaphor. I am being quite literal. Spatial awareness isn’t one of my strengths. You get good at what you practice and I haven’t put the work in.

All of which is a long way of saying that one of my first challenges when deciding to cycle slowly around Wales was simply how will I know which way to go?

Someone must have done this before

My first thought was that someone must have done this before.

A little googling led me to this wonderful blog by Chris Knight, who describes himself as a “budget version of Ray Myers”. An ex-rugby professional, Chris cycled the coastal path from Chester to Chepstow in July 2019 without any training on the bike and no experience of wild camping.

The Welsh coastal path is designed for walking and large segments are completely unrideable, meaning that Chris spent quite a lot of time carrying his bike – fully laden with his camping gear and supplies – up and down steps and over rocks, not to mention dragging it over sand dunes. So, while I continue to take a lot of inspiration from his journey, I wasn’t particularly excited about the coastal path idea.

I also discovered Richard Barrett’s excellent book Cycle Touring in Wales. Richard’s approach couldn’t be more different. He likes tarmac, doesn’t carry his bike at all, and prefers B&Bs to wild camping on the side of mountains. He is a classic bicycle touring kind of guy and this is a proper guide book, packed with useful insights and detailed (and I mean really detailed) directions.

Reading Chris and Richard’s equally compelling, but very different approaches, I decided to aim for somewhere in the middle. I want some off-road adventure and wild camping, but I want to balance that some quick progress over tarmac and towpaths, and the occasional warm bed and hot shower. This meant I needed to plan my own route.

There’s an app for that

Technology has long since solved the problem of my lack of spatial awareness. Provided you have a charged device and a connection, you can’t really go wrong.

The words “provided you have” are doing a lot of work in that sentence, but let’s assume for a moment that I will have a charged and connected device at all times. How do you go about planning a cycle around a country?

I turned to apps and spent my evenings for several weeks researching routes and segments on Komoot, Strava, Garmin Connect, and Google Maps, trying to connect together noteworthy gravel segments and stunning locations, while avoiding major roads and traffic. I also “want hills”, but not “all the hills, all the time”.

Ultimately, I settled on Komoot to plan the route. It’s still a work in progress (and doubtless will be until the last minute), but you can check it out here and I’ve included a screen grab image below (because Komoot and WordPress don’t play nice together).

Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face

Given that I was born in Rhyl, it felt like a natural place to start and finish the journey. The first choice was whether to travel clockwise or anticlockwise. This is one subject on which Chris and Richard agree. Richard had analysed prevailing wind conditions and meteorological reports to determine that clockwise was the preferred direction. Chris has just set off anticlockwise and faced a brutal headwind. Clockwise it is.

As you can see from the map, I haven’t strictly kept to the “cycling the circumference” idea. I head in land on a few sections – sometimes quite significantly – to either avoid horrible roads or because there are sections that I really want to cycle and things that I really want to see.

The trip is organised into rides that average around 100km per day, in most cases ending at a campsite. I am trying to cover longer distances on the days when the climbs aren’t so brutal. My plan is to cycle on 14 days, with at least one full rest day (currently planned for Saundersfoot, where it just so happens there is a rather lovely spa).

While I think I’ll broadly follow the route, I don’t expect to follow the schedule and that’s kind of the whole point of carrying bikepacking gear. I don’t want to be stressing about whether I am going to make it to campsite X or Y on time. If it’s windy or raining (quite likely) then I’ll slow down. If I am feeling good, I will push on.

If you have any feedback or ideas on how the route could be better, or any other useful tips, please put them in the comments. Make sure you subscribe for updates, you can always unsubscribe if it gets too dull.

Rides since last post: 12

83km. 47km. 68km. 82km. 49km. 76km. 167km. 40km. 77km. 73km. 47km. 47km.

This includes two overnight bike packing excursions, which allowed me to test the kit wild camping. Some tweaks needed.

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