Hit these cracking Welsh roads before the warm summer weather appears and you’ll have this veritable biking playground all to yourself, says ABR James Owens
North Wales has to be one of the most iconic places in the UK for biking. The roads are littered with ‘Think Bike’ signs, and during the summer the place is alive with the sound of motorcycles. In winter, though, it’s a different beast altogether. You can find yourself very much alone on the roads. I had the Welsh playground to myself for a lot of the time I was there, only finding other vehicles when I ventured into the towns and villages.
Llangollen and the Ponderosa Café
Starting off in the wonderful town of Llangollen, I was up at first light for a fun-filled ride up the Horseshoe Pass and a bacon buttie. This large U-shaped pass is a classic route among the slate-mined Welsh roads with some very nice corners as you climb towards the Ponderosa Café, a family-run biker haunt for 28 years. The Ponderosa sits at 1,400 feet above sea level with amazing views of the rolling Welsh countryside, but the wind can get a bit snappy up there. Add horizontal rain to the mix and you can see why I was the only bike in the car park – in fact, I was the only anything in the car park besides a very rough-looking seagull!
From the Ponderosa, it’s roughly a 22-mile ride to Bala Lake. Either route down the pass will get you there. Have a play and see what you can find. The A5104 takes you down the main valley towards Corwen to join the A494. These are outstandingly well-maintained roads with beautiful vistas.
Bala lies in the Snowdonia National Park and it’s clear to see why this place is protected. The history here is so thick, it drips from the buildings. As you stroll down memory lane, the smell of burning coal fires from dainty cottages splash the roadsides. Monuments, chapels and churches can all be found in Bala, along with an old workhouse and even some Norman remains at the top of a hill that boasts a wonderful view of the town.
Bala Lake is the largest natural lake in Wales and is home to no fewer than 14 species of fish. Among these is the Gwyniad, a white fish unique to Bala Lake; it’s not permitted to fish for this little local legend for obvious reasons.
The back roads to Bwtys Y Coed
After taking in the sights, history and culture of Bala, head on down the A494 towards Dolgellau – but not too far. You’re about to experience a host of back roads into and out of forests, up and over glens and into the valleys, so hop off the A road asap and aim for Llanfaclwech, better known as single-track paradise.
You’ve had the culture and the history, now it’s time for some pure tarmac indulgence of the highest order. This area is teaming with visual delights. As you cross over old stone bridges and pass under stone arches, this network of roads takes you around sweeping bends where gushing water cascades down lush green hills.
If you can pull yourself away from the playful roads that cause you to araf (slow) at their surrounding beauty, you’ll find that you’ve passed up through Ffestiniog. From here you can of course cut into the Gwydyr Forest Park, or as I did, run up the A470 which also takes you through the forest. The advantage of the A470 is seeing the huge slate quarry and caves at Blaenau Ffestiniog. All too soon you’ll find yourself coming out of the tall tree-lined A road and into the town of Betws-y-Coed.
This little gem is the meeting place of three rivers, the Conway, Llugwy and Lledr, and a very popular spot for tourists; the number of hotels and cafes in the town is testament to this. I was tempted into one small caff on the basis that it had reserved parking for motorcycles. You can spend a good few hours wandering around the numerous knickknack shops the town enjoys, and in the summer, this place is very much a bikers’ meeting place where you’re sure to hear a few tales from the road.
The Llanberis Pass and Llanberis
Another reason for stopping at Betws-y-Coed is that the Llanberis Pass runs from here, with the A5 taking you to the A4086 to Pen-y-Pass, one of my favourite roads in the UK.
This place is a Mecca for climbers and home to what’s known as The Three Cliffs. Even in this dreadful weather, I could see bright-orange hard hats dotted across the cliff sides. I was happy cutting down the pass. The sweeping turns and gradient on the route are an absolute joy, edging past Wales’ highest mountain, Snowdon, which rises to 1,085m. I could ride up and down this pass all day long.
Once in Llanberis, there’s a wealth of things to see and do. The Electric Mountain Visitor Centre (I love that name!) is home to the largest manmade cavern in Europe. This cavern is so big that the tour is conducted by bus, which runs visitors around inside the mountain. There’s also the National Slate Museum where you can learn all about how the Welsh people struggled and strived to forge this industrial revolution that sparked a culture and work ethic that’s second to none – and of course the Welsh choirs!
Fancy letting someone else drive for a bit? Then you can take the train up to the top of Mount Snowden from Llanberis with the Snowden Mountain Railway. This is a great way to see the surrounding area as you cross viaducts and pass by waterfalls on your way to the peak.
To the Coast
A4085, the sister road of the Llanberis Pass, takes you back down south past some amazing little towns. Not as dramatic as the A4086 but still with a resounding charm, I’d call this the cuddle road after the main event. Easing back along the A4085 you get a wonderful view of Llyn Cwellyn lake to the right.
Taking the A496 all the way to Barmouth and then on to Dolgellau, the next body of water that comes onto view is the sea. Take your time on this road and enjoy the metallic taste of the mineral rich air as you head along the side of Afon Mawddach, a tidal inlet that runs in from sea. Turning inland, this estuary becomes a river that, in the right weather, is very popular with canoeists. It’s prone to ‘flashing’, which means that even brief spells of rain can make things very perky for those canoes!
Dolgellau itself is a market town and there’s more than one mineral in the air here. That’s right – there’s gold in them there hills! Dolgellau was the sight of a serious gold rush in the 19th century and a lot of prospective panning went on around here as well as copper mining.
These days it’s more the walks and wildlife that bring people to the area. A deep history and religion has left its mark here going as far back as 1189 when the abbey in nearby Llanelltyd was built; the remains are still visible today. This town was also the main stage for the Quakers who planted here after a visit from George Fox in 1657.
The run home
All too soon it’s time to say goodbye to Wales and I leave much happier than when I came. The entire place is a playground of twisting roads, deep forests, mountain passes and more culture than you can poke a stick at. Steeped in history that’s often tales of great hardship and triumph of the human spirit, it’s little wonder that Wales has been the inspirational muse for poets, artists and songwriters through the ages. Don’t be too surprised then that when you get home and put down your helmet you may feel the inexplicable urge to take up a paintbrush, a notepad, or even start looking up your local male voice choir; this is what’s commonly known as ‘the Welsh effect’. Dioch yn fawr, Cymru!
Did you know?
In 1865, a group of colonists left Bala, Wales, due to the economic slump and feelings that their Welsh culture was being eroded. The colonists headed over to Argentina and set up home in Patagonia. Today, around 50,000 descendants of these original Welsh settlers still live in this part of South America and around 5,000 still speak the mother tongue. Not what you’d expect to hear over 8,000 miles from Cymru!
Where to ride
A542 – The Horseshoe Pass
A494 – towards Dolgellau
A470 – to Bala
A4086 – Llanberis Pass
A4085 – A496 – Costal road that leads to Dolgellau
Stay inn comfort Premier Inn
Maesbury Road Estate
From £19 a night
See www.premierinn.com for the cheapest online deals
Under the stars
01978 861 297 www.abbeyfarmcaravans.co.uk
£5 per night for single adult with tent
For your satnav
I work on a Garmin 660, and of course, satnavs are only good as guides – always read the signs!
Postcodes can be a bit patchy in Wales so I’d go for town names and the map function to explore the back roads when playing in the forests: Llangollen Ponderosa Café – LL20 8DR Bala, Llanfachreth, Trawsfynydd, Betws-y-Coed, Llanberis, Waunfawr, Beddgelert, Barmouth, Dolgellau