It was all a matter of perspective. For me, the moment was quite extraordinary: my nostrils were tickled by the perfume of pine and a whiff like cinder toffee, coming from who-knows-what (but nonetheless delicious); the sun dappled between the trees, a perfect spring warmer; the reservoir below was a-glitter; the arresting, anvil-like peak ahead held no fear for my cycle-happy legs. Here, in Wales’s Brecon Beacons, all was bird-tweeting, azure-skied serenity.
For my boyfriend Paul, the moment was rather different, despite the mere metres (albeit a growing number of them) separating us. For him, pine-freshness was diminished by the fug of effort; memories of the reservoir – a-glitter or otherwise – erased by exertion; the peak ahead a terrifying prospect.
I tried not to look smug as I waited (and waited) for Paul to join me. Well, I tried a bit. Then I gave in, allowing smugness free reign as he inched closer in the jerky thrusts indicative of pedalling up a hill with an unforgiving gradient. I’m no professional cyclist. Neither is Paul lazy. But on this particular day, on this particular hillside, both might just as well have been true. On a weekend break with Drover Holidays, Was riding a new Spencer Ivy (specifically “Ivy” without a crossbar; “Spencer” is full-framed), an old-school cycle with a modern modification: battery power. At the press of a handlebar mounted button, I could call on “low”, “medium” or “high” power assistance to aid with the hard bits.
Paul, on the other hand, had declined the electric option in favour of a more traditional bicycle: better gears, lighter frame. Fool! Had he never heard of the Beacons? South Wales’ lovely-but-lumpy playground – sheep-dotted slopes, rugged mountains, topping out at 886m Pen y Fan. The SAS train here! I wanted to enjoy all that up-down Beacon-age without worrying about my lack of Special Forces skills. So the start of our first day’s cycle, east along the canal from Brecon, was almost disappointing in its flatness. Almost, but not quite, because the surroundings were delightfully Welsh: the grass a green of almost artificial luminosity, daffodils nodding their cheery yellow heads, sheep baaaaa-ing noisily, like a countryside House of Commons.
The e-bike may not have been tested in those first miles, but the journey was still a lot of fun. Setting off on “medium” felt like having a helping hand: a gentle push from mum on the swings, or the kind gust of a tailwind. It didn’t bypass the need to pedal. Rather, it rewarded effort exerted: the more I put in, the more it gave back. My on-the-level speed was poor – the e-bike’s gears are not that good – but I was in no rush. Paul on the other hand, was out-speeding barges thanks to his superior mechanics.
“I am man,” said Paul. “Electric for girls. I win.”
We pootled along the towpath to Talybont-on-Usk, bobbing under stone bridges and past the watery reflections of the flanking slopes. We transferred to quiet roads daubed with “ARAF–SLOW”, which I took to be good lifestyle advice rather than safety instruction. Either way, Paul found them amusing.
Then we hit our first hill. Suddenly it was like being wafted upwards by a dozen flapping cherubim. I caught up with Paul, drew level, then sailed past. I conquered the gradient with minimal fuss, the bike’s battery thrumming quietly all the while. At the top I paused at the sign pointing us across the Talybont reservoir, and waited. And waited.
“I... am... man,” wheezed Paul. “Don’t... need... help...”
It was as we cycled across the dam that I felt the first twangs of smugness. We were down at water level; on every side forest-prickled slopes rose up. It was inevitable we’d rise with them. Indeed, the path followed a disused railway – a gradual climb through a barrow of trees. So gradual that I asked, in my power-assisted haze, “Are we still going up?”
Paul, however, was increasingly pink and uncommunicative: I took this as a yes. I could feel the effort, even with my “engine” on, but was glad. I liked the idea of deserving my views across water-trickled dells to scooped glacial valleys.
Still climbing, we passed a couple of resting cyclists, red of face and moist of brow. They were heading all the way to Cardiff, they explained, and eyed my bike with mixed emotion.
“That’s cheating!” one declared. Then: “How fast does it go? How much does it cost? How easy does it make the hills?” I could see envy in their eyes. Well placed envy, too: the hardest task, that pine-fresh slope, was just ahead.
The downhill whiz was a pleasure for us both, freewheeling on traffic-less roads back to Talybont and the Camra-lauded refreshment of the Star Inn. “You go to the bar,” implored Paul. “I want chips.”
Cycling day two, and Paul and I compared pains: both our backsides were saddlesore, but while his neck and knuckles were stiff from clenched uphill effort, mine were fine. We were off on another circular route – from Brecon towards Llangorse Lake. Though close to yesterday’s circuit, the ride felt very different. The slopes were a field patchwork, and little villages crowded between the landscape’s ripples.
One unexpected benefit of the e-bike was the liberty it granted. Sitting upright on the old-fashioned frame, not dithering over gears or heads-downing for uphills, you’re free to take in more of your surroundings. At least, that’s what Paul reckoned as he overtook me.
The Beacons had broken him: he’d swapped his bike for an e-version, and was “high-powering” up slopes like a boy with a new toy.
Drover Holidays (01497 821 134, droverholidays.co.uk) organises numerous bicycle trips around the Brecon Beacons. E-bike hire costs £45/65 for one/two days. Two-day e-bike packages including bikes, kit, transfers from Abergavenny, two nights’ B&B and maps, cost £215 per person.
Cantre Selyf, Brecon (01874 622 904, www.cantreselyf.co.uk) is a beautiful 17th-century home turned B&B. Double rooms from £75.