Over the past decade the sport of cycling has seen a huge increase in its number of participants, with more and more people taking to two wheels for commuting, exercise and adventure. The development of trail centres has helped thrust mountain biking to the top of the popularity pile: well maintained trails for all abilities, often with on-site facilities and waymarked routes make getting off-road on a bike easier now than ever. Trail centres have given rise to a new breed of biker who have learnt their sport on the well defined and marked trails of blue and red routes, but also who have never experienced the adventure of a quiet moor or mountain, the solitude and satisfaction that a day in the hills can bring.
Trail centres are fantastic resources but there is a danger that mountain bikers will never really ride ‘mountains' but base their experiences around tamed, manicured trails. Many will remember taking their bike off-road for the first time after scouring maps for bridleways, possible gems in their local landscape and revelling afterwards at their ‘discoveries'. This series aims to inspire all bikers, but especially those who haven't yet been able to fully experience the adventure of a UK mountain or moor.
We start the first of this six part series with a route to the tallest peak in the Snowdonia national park, not for the faint of heart, but one that will give you something to work towards or for the more adventurous get out and send now. Remember to cycle responsibly, don't be an idiot, we share the bridleways with other users and a bit of courtesy goes a long way. In particular the Snowdon Ranger Path has a voluntary access agreement, adhere to it, don't get bikes banned and we can continue to enjoy access to our fantastic landscape. [Ed]
Snowdon is one of Classic lumps in UK mountain biking. I always make the effort to ride the mountain at least once a year. Not once has it failed to be a brilliant and inspiring day out. There are a few different bridleways up and down Snowdon. The most popular route seems to be straight up and straight back down the main Llanberis Path. This is an okay ride but it's never been the most challenging or interesting option, especially since the hefty resurfacing that's taken place on the Llanberis Path has calmed down a lot of the lumpier sections.
In my opinion by far the best Snowdon route is to go up the Llanberis Path and then down the Ranger Path on the western flank of Snowdon. This route gives you a bit of everything that Snowdonia has to offer the mountain biker. Fast bits, rough bits, technical bits, flowy bits, beautiful bits. It's one of the few places in the UK where you genuinely can put the mountain into mountain biking.
Looking down from near the summit of Snowdon.
Seeing as the mountain is over 1000m tall and is in North Wales, it's a good idea to attempt the ride in decent weather conditions. You should also come prepared and equipped for grim conditions, just in case. If the weather forecast looks poor on the day you've planned to do it, don't be afraid to postpone your adventure to a later date. It's no fun being up there with a bike in zero visibility and soaking drizzle.
Snowdon Ranger Path Route Map Powered by Ordnance Survey Open Data (map will open in new browser window)
One factor to be considered when riding Snowdon is the Voluntary Cycling Agreement. Basically this agreement states: "it has been agreed that between the hours of 10.00 am and 5 pm from 1st May to 30th September cyclists should not cycle on the Snowdon bridleways". Although this sounds like a bit of downer for mountain bikers, it is actually a great piece of access legislation. Please observe the rules or else bikes risk a total ban all year round on Snowdon. Riding a bike amidst the Summer hordes of tourists that swarm on the mountain wouldn't be much fun anyway.
On this latest venture the weather Gods were on our side. I was riding with three other people (Matt, Nick and Mook). Matt and I had ridden this route a few times before and were very excited about doing it again, whereas Nick and Mook were Snowdon virgins but also very excited.
After a brief carbo-load in the much-loved Pete's Eat cafe it was time to saddle up and begin the ascent of the mountain. After turning off the main road and briefly spinning along Victoria Terrace, the road kicks up alarmingly in front you. So much for the warm up! The narrow road continues similarly steeply past Pen y Ceunant Tea Rooms and up to the gated access to the mountain proper, on to the Llanberis Path bridleway - the end of any tarmac riding for the next few hours.
The first 2.5km of the Llanberis Path is about 75% rideable. The track is a mixture of shallow, wide, smooth sections (more sore than ever after the recent resurfacing work) with the occasional sharp rise of rocky, stepped sections. Although the weather conditions on our ride were bright, dry and clear, there was still the occasional section of sheet ice to contend with so early in the year. We weren't making much faster progress than if we were on foot but had a laugh attempting to ride most of it. Having said that, we didn't try overly hard or repeatedly as we didn't want to exhaust ourselves before the proper fun stuff.
Stopping for a rest and refreshments at the (closed) cafe, Halfway House, out came the sandwiches, sweets and chocolate. In front you'll get a good view of the tail end of the return leg of the ride, peaking out behind the imposing Moel Cynghorion. The temperature for us was still tolerable, helped by the near total absence of any wind, pretty perfect conditions really.
The decision was made to make hay while the sun shone and so we resumed our ascent. After an amusing/annoying (depending on your line choice and luck) section of loose, scrabbly, "pebble beach" terrain, the track turns left and pitches steeply. Nick had a brave attempt to see how far he could winch his way up before stalling and nearly wheelying off the back of bike -the rest of us got off and began pushing.
After a leg burning 10 minutes or so you'll finally reach the railway tracks above Clogwyn Station. Snowdon Mountain Railway runs from March to October, weather depending and they don't allow bikes on the train. After passing under the railway tracks through a small archway you'll get a stunning view of Glyder Fawr, the Pass Of Llanberis and generally a whole lotta Snowdonia. It's one of those views where it's hard to adjust to the scale of it all at first. The tops of the adjacent mountains hidden under wispy clouds and a dark band of grim weather thankfully passed to the north of us. There was a noticeable decrease in temperature, so we didn't hang around for long.
Near Snowdon summit on a fine day.
From here to the summit point it is almost all hike-a-bike. Luckily I didn't have to do any cajoling or spirit raising among my riding partners, they had all got the idea of the route now and were loving it. The excitement that builds as you near the summit of Snowdon, the end of the ascending, is thrilling and addictive.
It was finally time to prep ourselves for the big descent. Down went our seat posts, on went our knee pads. I remembered to let some air out of my tyres; I had deliberately run them fairly hard for the ascent to make it less of a draggy experience. After checking that everyone had spare inner tubes in their packs - and a pump to inflate them with - we were off!
The first section of the Ranger Path descent comes incredibly fast. It's clear and open track that allows, nay encourages acceleration. Although it was generally firm underneath it had sections lightly covered in small rocks. It took us a few turns to get used to it but soon enough we were "embracing the drift" and grinning our heads off. It also takes a conscious effort to look further ahead down the trail than we may normally be used to. There are a couple of rougher chicanes that require a bit of commitment or luck to ride out without losing a lot of momentum. But generally there's a real - and rare - sense of riding way up high, a feeling of being a small thing whizzing across epic landscape.
The descent underway.
The next section is a lot rougher. The little pebbles disappear and becomes a wall to wall rock garden. The trail is still easy to follow but it's difficult to know what speed to ride at, too fast and it's easy to miss an unexpected twist or dip - or pinch flat, too slow and the bike's wheels can "hook up" on larger rocks or ruts and buck the rider off course. The trail seemed to shift and change shape as we rode it, as if alive. This section of the descent is always different.
All of a sudden we swung left at a cairn and the rock garden immediately stopped, to be replaced with sunken technical singletrack. There was still a rock firmament under our tyres but it was more of a clattery, jagged, slatey kind. There was probably an awesome view of Llyn Ffynnon-y-gwas down to the left, "probably" because the track demands full concentration, it would be a brave rider who dared glance left at the view even for a split second.
Technical rock gardens lead in to sunken singeltrack.
This sunken singletrack section contains some tricky, steep roll-ins immediately before sharp right-hand turns. Commitment and looking-where-you-want-go techniques must be deployed to good effect. Even though Mook and Nick hadn't done much of this type of "Alpine" riding before, after a couple of repeated attempts at earlier sections were soon cracking the code and cleaning the tricky bits with aplomb.
The "Thrutch Section" follows which is narrow, tight, ledged, pointy, rocky, slabbed and steep. It's the most technical, awkward, nadgery bit of the whole ride and is difficult to master the art of riding such steep stuff with the necessary slow speeds required. Even though myself and Matt have attempted this section numerous times, we've never come close to cleaning it all in one go. It takes a good rider to get down all the different obstacles even with repeated attempts.
Thrutchy sections abound on the descent. Llyn Ffynnon-y-gwas to rear.
Talking of repeated attempts, after all of us successfully negotiated the first obstacle ("Thread The needle") each and every one of us came unstuck on the next. After a couple of aborted "roll-ups", Nick and Mook decided to give it a miss this time. Matt and myself - goaded on by a pair of friendly but no doubt blood-thirsty walkers - were intent on doing it. And after a few jack-knife spills, a bruised shin and a couple of palm-slaps, we finally managed it. The rest of the Thrutch Section's obstacles pass by with slightly less incident but no less an adrenaline rush. The Thrutch Section's merit is that it's not terrifically long in distance (100 metres ish), so for those riders who don't feel like tackling it on the day it doesn't take too long to get down it on foot and on to the next section.
Rock gardens keep riders on their toes, but don't be afraid to walk it.
The next section is flatter and muddier, with pretty much the only bit of mud on the whole of our ride. The trail snakes its way down the Snowdon Ranger Path across grassy fields on a track made up of a mixture of slate, gravel and rock with the occasional boggy bit to splat through. Just as the boggy bits stop and the track firms up, it begins to tilt downward in a highly alluring manner, when here, it's time to dismount though, and begin the hike-a-bike back up towards the top of Telegraph Valley.
The hike-a-bike to the top of Telegraph Valley begins.
An easy-to-miss small marker post on the right hand side of the trail signifies that the bridleway required for the return to Llanberis is straight up the steep grass bank. There's no clear track on the bank to begin with but after a couple of minutes heading straight you'll see a little bench in an ideal spot to rest those burning calves and to finally take in the views below. The sun was pretty low in the sky so we didn't stay rested for long, resuming our haul to the saddle of the hill up ahead.
Upon finally reaching the saddle point - the beginning of Telegraph Valley - another brief rest may be needed. Our legs were beginning to remind us that we'd been all the way up Snowdon and then down one of the UK's most full-on bridleways. Under the advice of myself we consumed the rest of our highly nutritional snacks (sweets). The descent down Telegraph Valley to Llanberis doesn't last very long at all so I thought we might as well load up on a sugar rush to help us whizz our way down.
The first kilometre or so of the descent can be summed up in one word: FAST. It's steep enough to enable a rapid and continuous pick up of speed, but not too steep that you'll need to be on the brakes the whole time. Although the track isn't overly narrow (approx 2ft), at the speeds we were finding ourselves at, we wouldn't have wanted it to be any narrower! Due to the speed the terrain enabled, I wished I had brought some eyewear with me; my eyes were streaming most of the way down. Matt had clearly remembered this problem - he was wearing goggles.
Goggles can come in very useful.
Every 50m or so there are built-up drainage channels cutting across the track. Get your timing right on these, and long, gliding jumps will be the result - and a massive grin. If you don't get your timing right you'll be fixing a puncture. Thankfully we all got away with all our tyres inflated. I think this was the first time ever that I've done this route without having a single puncture. Nick wasn't so lucky; the very last drainage channel bit his rear tyre resulting in an instant deflation.
Back in Llanberis, at Pete's Eats, we were all buzzing from the day's adventure, chatting over the top of each other about "this bit where" and "that bit when". Gabba gabba hey. Another pair of Snowdon Virgins had been transformed into Snowdon Fanatics. Another pair of Snowdon Addicts had been satiated for another few months.
- Any decent mountain bike with good brakes and fat tyres will do. Given the choice I'd recommend a 140mm travel full suspension bike with a nice short stem and wide bars.
- Body armour. No need to go crazy and plaster yourself head to foot in plastic but a pair of knee/shin pads are strongly recommended.
- A pair of thick gloves and a warm wooly hat. Not for riding in, for keeping you cosy during rest stops if the weather turns grim.
- Shoes that are comfortable to walk/hike in. Stiff and slippy XC race shoes aren't much to walk in and Snowdon involves a bit of walking.
- A camera. If the weather's nice you'll want to get some snaps of the awesome scenery.
- A map. The route is easy to follow but you want to make sure you're on the right track (OS Explorer OL17 Snowdon is the best one).
- Eyewear. Streaming eyes are not much fun on the fast-as-flip sections.
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