The Brecon Beacons: Irresistible to the mountain biking enthusiast

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The Independent Travel

Mountain biking is a loosely fitting label. At one end of the sport it can mean a tame ride along a tabletop canal towpath. At the other there's the "North Shore" version, a techie, tricksy niche involving high-wire balancing acts performed on man-made boardwalks and obstacles a whisker wider than the bike tyres. My handlebars steer me firmly through the middle ground; yes, I do find family cyclepaths boring, but no, I do not want to fall on my head from a Mad Max obstacle knocked together by a gang of invulnerable rubber-limbed 18-year-olds.

Which is why I am very lucky to live where I do. I'm within easy pedalling distance of the heart of the Brecon Beacons, arguably the spiritual home of mountain biking in Britain. I know that the cycling media bang on about the quality of the trails - again mostly man-made - in the conifer forests of Wales, and the fact that the Afan Forest Park near Port Talbot has been voted along with Chamonix and Kathmandu into the world's top ten. But for real, natural mountain biking, you can't beat the grassy flanks, open spaces and big skies of the Brecon Beacons National Park.

I'm not alone in revering the "mountain" in mountain biking. Take a straw poll by standing along the A40 in Crickhowell and you'll be amazed at the number of cars carrying chunky bikes. Most are heading for Talybont-on-Usk, a few miles away on the road to Brecon. Talybont has become the gateway of choice into the Beacons for cyclists who want to get to grips with the highest peaks in southern Britain, the nearest bona fide mountains to London and the South-east - a fact not lost on local hoteliers and innkeepers who happily acknowledge that mud is good for business.

There are four busy pubs in Talybont, not bad for a village of a few hundred people. A steep track up and over the canal alongside the White Hart Inn is the main reason for the village's popularity. It's the start of the Brinore Tramroad, a path that takes bikers from foothill to mountain fastness.

Trams once barrelled down this incline carrying limestone and coal from South Wales to loading points on the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal. It's a bumpy ride - and you'll clatter over the stone sleepers that supported the rails. But it's not too demanding, for this early 19th-century incline is gradual and well engineered (though spare a thought for those who once came the other way on trams with no proper brakes).

Soon you're up in the trees with bird's eye views of the Talybont reservoir in the valley below. Onwards and upwards you're faced with a number of route options, though with a decent map navigation is easy. The most straightforward involves dropping down off the tramroad onto the Taff Trail, the long-distance Cardiff-to-Brecon cyclepath, which you join at the dam. This particular section follows the route of the old Merthyr Tydfil to Brecon railway so again it's a gradual pull upwards, made easier by smooth forest road.

The really interesting bit begins at the top of the pass. You're into mountain territory now, the domain of bedraggled sheep, SAS recruits and not much else. Swoop down the Tarmac road for a few hundred metres, take a right at the terminus of the narrow-gauge Brecon Mountain Railway, and you're almost at the start of The Gap.

To paraphrase Jeremy Clarkson's description of The Stig, Top Gear's mystery racing driver, some say that if you put your ear to the sandstone rocks you can catch the tramping of ghostly Roman legionnaires, others that this wild and woolly track was carved by a mad, bad giant. Whatever the truth, you simply must cross The Gap to say you've been riding in the Beacons.

The ancient track cuts a steely path northwards through the mountains, taking advantage of one of those rhythmic dips in the terrain that are such a classic part of the Beacons' ice-scoured topography. The dip in question is the 598m saddle beneath Cribyn, Corn Du and Pen y Fan, the highest summits in the Beacons.

The Gap's forceful, up-and-at-'em route certainly points to Roman ancestry, so it may well have connected forts at Merthyr Tydfil and Brecon. It has certainly worn well over the ages. Okay, it's rough and stony in parts, but is rarely steep and is 95 per cent rideable to bikers of even modest skills.

There's a short gully near the start where even the most balletic cyclist has to push, but after that it's plain sailing as you climb away from the Neuadd Reservoir, a look-alike Scottish loch set amongst a dramatic backdrop of bare mountains.

On windy days you won't want to spend long at The Gap. The wind funnels fiercely through this break in the hills. For timid cyclists, that's not a bad thing for now's the time to dismount in deference to the next few hundred metres, a challenging cascade of loose boulders and rock ledges. But shift your weight to the back of the bike with arms out and bum behind the saddle, take a deep breath, and you'll be surprised how well a modern mountain bike soaks up this rough-and-tumble terrain.

Make sure you concentrate on the view that unfolds before you. It's greener, less barren than the ascent, and you can clearly make out the meeting place between cultivated farmland and untamed mountain. Back on the bike, the final few miles of The Gap are biking Nirvana. The track weaves along a shelf cut into the hill then gives you that final adrenaline rush as it plunges down a grassy shoulder before joining a surfaced road in the lanes south of Brecon.

You can unwind on these pleasant lanes as they take you back to base via Llanfrynach. And by the time you reach Talybont I'll guarantee that you'll be ready for a pint in The Star Inn, the village's legendary real ale pub.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

Bike hire: In Brecon try BiPed Cycles (01874 622296; www.bipedcycles.co.uk) at 10 Ship Street, which rents mountain bikes at £16 a day.

Maps: Ordnance Survey Landranger 160 (Brecon Beacons) and 161 (Abergavenny and the Black Mountains).

Staying there: The Coach House (07050 691 216; www.coachhousebrecon.co.uk) on Orchard Street in Brecon is a cut above the usual B&B or guest house. This stylish townhouse has neat rooms and a small restaurant (try one of the famous big breakfasts to set you up for the day). It's run by enthusiastic, knowledgeable and bike-friendly owners. Double rooms from £55 including a big breakfast.

More information: www.mtb-wales.co.uk is an information-packed site run by enthusiasts for enthusiasts; www.mbwales.com is the official Wales Tourist Board site for mountain bikers.

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