Huge, empty blue skies, rolling hills, miles of fireroads and long sections of snaking singletrack: there are few things better than spending a day exploring new routes on your gravel bike. And there are few better places than Wales, where valleys greet you at every turn complete with remote lakes, wandering sheep and quad-burning climbs that lead to miles of long, flowly singletrack.
But with so much on offer, it can be hard knowing where to start, while the tendency for a trail to turn into a run straight out of a Downhill World Cup course means that you need to know where to look for gravel bike-friendly routes. Fortunately, some expert local riders and route-finders have revealed their favourite hidden gravel routes in Wales, leaving you to just enjoy the riding. Diolch!
1. Sarn Helen
Starting and finishing in Brecon, this is an out-and-back route along a mix of gravelly roads, muddy bridleways and rocky trails along part of an ancient road called Sarn Helen.
“It’s the collective name for a network of roads that served as the central nervous system for transport and trade when Wales was occupied by the Romans,” says Chris Sidwells, author of Really Wild Cycling: The Pocket Guide To Off-The-Beaten Path Challenges.
“This ride follows part of that road network, and is example of what Sarn Helen has to offer: rugged scenery, frowning mountains and lots of hills.” And if you like this you’ll be glad to know that the entire Sarn Helen trail is an ideal route for a Welsh bikepacking adventure.
2. An Encounter with Offa
Another route that takes in some of Wales’s rich history, this loop packs some serious elevation over a relatively short distance. “In the 8th century, King Offa of Mercia built a fortification between his kingdom, now part of England, and the Kingdom of Powys, which is part of Wales,” says Sidwells. “It’s called Offa’s Dyke, and you will meet it several times on this ride, as well as trails dedicated to other historic figures.”
These include Owain Glyndwr, the last Welsh-born Prince of Wales, who has a 135-mile footpath named after him – Glyndwr’s Way – which you ride along for a short section. Along the way you are likely to see red kites and buzzards soaring above you before you reach the famous Offa’s Dyke.
While the ride starts just over the English border in Knighton – which has a Welsh name too, Tref-y-Clawdd – most of this hilly, part-bridleway round trip is in Wales. “It’s a slice of a lovely, and often overlooked, piece of unspoilt Britain.”
3. Idris’s Elbow
“Snowdonia is real mountain country, but this ride has an extra dimension of views over the sea,” says Sidwells. “It’s a challenging mountain ride, but very doable.”
The route takes in gravel trails, narrow country roads and bridleways on the southwest side of Cadair Idris mountain in Snowdonia. “Cadair Idris means Idris’s Chair, and is probably named after Idris the Giant, a 7th-century Welsh prince who won a battle against the Irish on this mountain.” After a long, 7km climb up into the wild and remote hills, you might feel fairly defeated yourself.
4. Tal-y-Bont loop
Cyclist and adventurer Heather Kay has competed in cycle races all over Wales, and this loop is one of her favourite off-the-beaten-track routes (and the other one is below!). Although it is a slightly technical circuit with challenging sections, the vistas and riding experience more than make up for it.
“It features sweeping views over the Unesco biosphere reserve Cors Fochno and the Dyfi estuary and the conifer forests across the edge of the Cambrians, which is followed by a sweeping gravel descent carved across the edge of the hillside,” says Kay.
“The final section back to Tal-y-Bont weaves through a stunning valley with patches of gnarled woodland. This route can be done in either direction and is equally as good whichever option you go for – although if you do it in reverse you will have to push up a short, steep section.”
5. Ystwyth Valley
“Making use of the cycle paths heading out of Aberystwyth, this route may start and end with easy riding but the middle section is key to its joys,” explains Kay.
“The Ystwyth Valley is superb for cyclists, as it features stunning scenery and a fantastic descent to a wee nant [stream]. The climb up towards Devil's Bridge is undertaken on easy country lanes and then the fun really begins...
“A dirt singletrack path weaves around the hillside sweeping you down into the Rheidol valley. From here, the climb is stiff and technical on to the ridge above, but the views and final wooded descent more than make up for it.”
6. Gwydyr Forest loop
Cycling fanatic and owner of Llandudno Junction-based bike shop We Cycle Gareth Ffowcs-Williams recommends riding this loop close to where he lives as it provides a bit of everything: climbing, descending, flowing gravel, technical sections, plus the all-essential mid-ride refreshment stop.
“It’s a great route for an after-work spin or as a starting point for exploring the many beautiful trails this part of the world has to offer,” he says.
“Starting from the Llyn Crafnant car park, you are immediately on one of the many fire roads in the Gwydyr Forest with about 9km of uninterrupted gravel. At about 14km there’s a short climb leading to a beautiful view point over Llyn Elsi. The descent after this down into Betws Y Coed is a little technical, so take care.”
There are plenty of places in Betws to stop for a drink and a snack, which you’ll need for the final climb up to Llyn Crafnant. “It’s a humdinger,” warns Ffowcs-Williams. “It starts at an eye-watering 20% but quickly levels off to a more manageable 5%.”