The adventure began in an Oxfam shop. Like all good adventures do, with a map. While rummaging around amongst the dog-eared Ordnance Surveys and abandoned A-Zs, Chris Hall came across a guidebook to the National Cycle Network Route 8. The route traverses Wales, from Cardiff Bay in the Welsh capital, right up the country’s spinal cord to the breakwater in Holyhead, Anglesey.
Its name is the Lôn Las Cymru; a direct translation returns ‘Wales’s blue lane’ but las can also be used to describe the colour of fresh green grass (common in Wales) or of a clear sky (less common in Wales). Chris leafed through the pages, dispensed with a few quid, brought the book to its new home and set about plotting the route of ‘Wales’s Fresh Green Way’ using online route planner Komoot, to add to his digital bank of rides. Fast forward into 2021, a global pandemic, nebulous travel restrictions that put one at serious risk of a fortnight’s quarantine in Reading, and the route’s time had come.
Chris has ridden all around the world, from bike-packing across Australia to competing in the inaugural editions of the Silk Road Mountain Race in Kyrgyzstan and the Atlas Mountain Race in Morocco. Yet this ride in closer to home Wales is one of his favourites.
“Throughout it, I was thinking, why have I not done this? Follow these routes that are planned across the UK?” says Chris. “Because if this one is anything to go by, the others are going to be incredible.”
The 260 miles of NCN Route 8 follows the Taff Trail north from Cardiff through the coal-mining Valleys, into the Brecon Beacons, up along the main artery of the River Wye, through the lead lands around Machynlleth, skimming the skirts of Snowdonia, and then up over the Menai Suspension Bridge and into Anglesey, the historic abode of the druids. The route was opened in 1996 and owes 81 miles of its existence to former railway tracks, since turned into shared-use paths, making its cumulative 4,600 metres of elevation a somewhat flat way to traverse a particularly mountainous part of the UK.
“This is definitely a route for a gravel bike. There’s gravel trails, road, some more technical gravel with tight turns and loose surfaces,” says Chris. “There was sand at one point, that was fun.
“People would have originally done it on touring bikes with flat bars and big fat tyres. It’s not a road bike route, but you could get away with anything you could fit a 32mm with a bit of grip on it.”
This being the Cambrians, not the Tien Shan, there are enough settlements to break up the journey into a week or longer, if the wet Welsh weather holds sway, or a couple of pints of Brains famous bitter and an easy day takes your fancy. Given the absence of busy main roads, it’s a perfect route to do with friends. Indeed the original founding principle of the National Cycle Network was that all routes could be used by “a sensible 12-year-old travelling alone.”
Chris, however, is not a sensible 12-year-old, although he was travelling alone. He did it solo in two days, taking a bivvy bag, but instead opting for an overnight in an Airbnb, given the threat of overnight rain – not to be taken lightly on the borders of Snowdonia.
“A lot of these rides and challenges I do are international,” says Chris. “Given the pandemic, the options were to stop riding my bike or take the opportunity to see the country where I was born, where I was brought up, a country I should know.
“I said to myself: I don’t know a lot about Wales, I haven’t ridden in Wales, let’s go and ride Wales! I was so impressed with it. The riding, the people, the roads are fantastic, though I’m dyslexic, so I can’t compute names of places in my brain.”
Mind, body and soul
Chris started riding a decade ago as a means to commute across London; he is now an accomplished ultra-distance rider and racer, while running his cycling-focused design studio called Zero Lemon. Chris rides to raise money for The Pace Centre, a school for children with motor disorders and the men’s health charity Movember.
“They [Movember] helped me out a lot when I was at a rocky point in my life,” says Chris. “I was working in architecture and I got to a point where I either quit my job, or I quit being me. It was like in the Matrix: take the red pill or blue pill.”
His first serious challenge was to ride around Richmond Park for 24 hours. He has competed in three editions of the national 24-hour time-trial championships, once coming home with shingles and pneumonia. Along with ultra-endurance bike-packing forays, he rode 107km a day for 107 days in the winter of 2016-17. In 2020, he rode 107 miles a day during the Tour de France on a route from London to Land’s End to John O’Groats to Lowestoft (the easternmost point of the British Isles) and then back to London. In November last year, he went “trenching” – a challenge where one descends the 11,034 metre depth of the Mariana Trench in one ride – on Box Hill in Surrey. A climb with an elevation loss of just 120 metres, might sound like a hindrance for such a challenge, but the 91 descents (and ascents) required echoed the shocking recent statistic for the number of men lost to suicide in the UK each week. Chris, however, lost count of his reps and ended up riding 97.
“I’m not a good cyclist, I’m not talented as a cyclist, I’m just really stubborn and I work very hard to be as good as I can be,” he says.
The problems with ultra-endurance cycling and racing – let’s say it’s an occupational hazard – are the extreme demands put on the body and the mind. It’s not so much the suffering during an event, because racers become very adept at tricking their minds into staying in positive territory, and there is something strangely satisfying about riding so long that you end up as an empty husk of a human being, as it is the all-encompassing focus on doing more. “I find sometimes there’s a pressure, where everyone’s asking ‘what next’, of making things bigger and harder and more complex,” says Chris. “You get to a point where you physically can’t do it. I think I was feeling pressure from that.”
What made it worse in Chris’s case was nerve damage and tendinitis in a knee, an injury that kept him off the bike and necessitated a month-long intense rehabilitation in the summer of 2021.
“I was going stir crazy. I felt good and then shit again: two steps forward, one step back,” he says. “I was really nervous about making my injury worse, hardly riding outside at all, just doing little spins on the turbo, which was boring as fuck. It made me not want to cycle, or do anything related to it. I had proper fallen out of love with it.”
Green, green grass of home
Along came Wales. A ride that was designed to explore his native land, turned into a ride to rediscover the joy of riding.
“I just thought, I’m going to go out and do it. It can go well, or not so well. I’ll accept that. I’m going to give myself the opportunity to enjoy the moment, the sounds, the smells, the noises, that experience, and not really think about anything else.”
Chris allowed himself the time to engage with the ride and with the place, which is difficult to achieve when you’re head down smashing a 24-hour TT, or adventure racing across a country. He marvelled in the views across the Brecon Beacons and the sinuous descents through Snowdonia. He took time to dip his feet in the water, to breathe deeply from the iodine drafts of the sea, to soak up the warmth of sun-baked stone and to cool off with a Mr Whippy ice cream. He shared laughs with children riding on the back of a tractor as he cruised along in the slipstream. He purposefully avoided staring at his bike computer and tried to navigate using only the NCN signs, little blue shapes with a number eight in a red box.
“What I’ve learned is that when you’re struggling mentally with finding that desire to cycle – which I never thought I’d have – the solution is just to plan a little adventure, go into it very open-minded and release yourself from those things that take over your mind,” says Chris. “This has been really good for the head, really good for the heart, and really good for the soul.”
However, this was not a tour. There’s something about riding long miles and pushing your limits that opens you up to the elements and to the people around you in a way that pootling along for a few hours cannot achieve. Sometimes, there’s nothing as good at starting a conversation as being an exotic, salt-crusted creature that people stare at riding into town or, in Chris’s case, the café of the Ffestiniog & Welsh Highland Railways.
“The cafe owner asked where I’d ridden from. When I told him, he said, ‘Cardiff! What are you doing here? You cycled? You slept?’ I told him how long I’d been going. He asked, ‘but why?’ I said, ‘I’ve not ridden in Wales, I hadn’t seen how beautiful it is.
“He possibly thought I was after a free lunch but turned around and said, let me buy you a coffee at least. He told me to go through to the old train platform, chill out and enjoy the view and look out for the seagulls.”
After 19 hours and 19 minutes of riding, it was a thumbs up for Wales. The good news for Chris, and for anyone else stuck at home, is that there is a whole load more NCN adventures out there to be had. Nine more similar ‘national routes’ and more than12,000 miles in the UK, in fact.
“I’ve got quite a lot of these old books,” Chris says. “I might just go back into an Oxfam shop and see what I can find. That’s where you find the gold.”
Chris rode the Lôn Las Cymru on his Cervélo Áspero-5, “because it’s a rad bike!” He explains that the combination of all-day comfort with responsive handling makes it adept for munching up the miles on the road or gnashing on some gnarly trails off it, especially when you put 650B wheels on it.
In fact, a gravel bike is the perfect machine for British touring, where surfaces that are supposedly paved can be even less suitable for narrow tyres than some well-tended sections of dirt. Chris made use of the Áspero’s clearance by running 40mm Schwalbe G-One tyres (“a not-that-gravelly gravel tyre”) on a set of 700c Parcours Alta gravel wheels. “That Schwalbe tyre was a revelation. How can it be so quick on the road and so good off road?”
Shimano’s GRX groupset provided the range to get up some sharp kickers with a loaded bike and roll well on the flat (plus the ergonomics of electronic shifting and the shape of the levers are particularly good for sufferers of tendinitis, Chris adds).
When it comes to loading, Chris eschewed the ubiquitous seat-pack and opted for a lightweight rear pannier rack mounted to a special thru-axle and the seatpost, made by Bristol-based company Tailfin. “I’ve tried so many rear packs and the biggest problem for me is that they swing. This rack doesn’t affect how the bike handles and it’s bigger than a lot of rear packs. It’s a really good bit of kit.”
The bike is finished off by Cervélo’s own integrated gravel bars, Shimano SPD pedals and a Pro Stealth Saddle. It’s a lightweight setup for some serious fast touring, but Chris baulks at the idea of finding out exactly how light it all is.
“I never, ever weigh bike-packing set-ups!” he says. “I know the weight will be something that will sit in my head when I’m going uphill. I just don’t do it.”