Category Archives: Natural

Black Mountain Bridleways

Trail centre: Natural – Brecon Beacons.

Grade: Red(ish)

Length: Various.  The first exploratory ride was 30km (18.6 miles).

Start point: First ride started at the car park on the minor road off the A4069 at grid reference 708193 (51.857, -3.877).

Description: At the Western end of the Brecon Beacons lies the Black Mountain (singular – plural is the other end of the range).  Looking at the map reveals a number of enticing bridleways crossing the mountains, which have intrigued me for a while.  They largely follow the routes of old roads or pony tracks, superseded by the modern roads.  From the map, they could be exceptionally good riding – a possibility of long sections of descent across lonely moorland – proper mountain biking.  We explored two of them, and as I explore more I will add to this post.

 

Bridleway 1: 708193 to Brynamman (713150)

We left the car park and almost immediately gained the obvious and stony track that leads straight uphill.  Keep right at a junction – the left fork leads straight back to the road a little further East.  Keep climbing, and keep to the track.  The surface at this point varies from stones to bog, and the whole thing is probably worth avoiding in Winter.  We rode it at the end of April in a particularly dry spell and it was fine, but plenty of evidence of it being quite wet.  The track continues up onto the top of the ridge, and begins a descent towards Brynamman.  The route becomes gradually less and less distinct, and some guesswork is required as you come down.  However, there are plenty of little paths to follow that are close enough to the route of the bridleway as makes no odds.  Approaching the edge of the access land find and follow a small valley, and eventually come to a gate that takes you onto a lane into Brynamman.  Bridleway verdict: some good riding in Summer, probably worth avoiding when wet.

Opposite the gate, take the lane straight ahead that drops you down into the village, turn left at the foot of it and left again when you hit the main road on a bend.  Bear right at the mini roundabout and keep on going along the main road.  Keep an eye out for signs until a lane next to a garage gives you access onto the Amman valley cycle path.  Follow this along the valley and across the main road, and then at an uncertain point we turned left and walked the bikes along a footpath that finally brought us across a bridge onto a lane.  We turned left and followed the lane up into a farm, picking up signs for a bridleway on the way.  Follow signs up onto a small hillock and turn right at the top, and then follow a path down into the valley and up the other side, following a concrete farm track through a couple of gates and towards:

Bridleway 2: 760141 to 756215

At least, in theory that’s what happens.  We cruised back and forth along the track a couple of times looking for the start of the bridleway, and eventually followed a possibility round the corner of a fence and into a deep bog.  According to the map the bridleway climbs steadily up the side of a valley, joins a footpath and turns left up a tributary until it reaches the top of the ridge.  Comparing our Strava feed with the map, it appears that we were more or less exactly where we should have been, but we saw very little sign of a track at all.  Sheep tracks turned up, followed the expected route for a while, and then vanished into the bilberries.  Tallus fields guided us across certain bits of the hillside, but then the paths we were following vanished.  Some features around us suggested the possible existence of a track at some point in the past, but nothing traceable remained.  As a result, we walked and pushed our bikes for almost the entirety of the climb.  It was tedious and frustrating.  Once at the top, the route crosses the Beacons Way, that follows the ridge, and becomes a little more recognisable, and as you begin to drop into the valley you can start to see sections of path, generally across cropped grass and the occasional bog.  The riding here is fun, and a genuinely good section of downhill.  Tyre tracks suggest that it has been ridden recently, but it’s anyone’s guess how the other riders got to it.  Bridleway verdict: the North end might be worth riding, South end is largely non-existent.

Follow the path down into a valley and through a gate onto a track, ignoring the bridleway sign when you reach a farm and instead following the track to the left (walking the bike – it’s not a bridleway).  Continue down a field track to the right of a barn and keep following this until you reach the road.  Turn right on the road and take the next lane to the left, following it past a house and back out onto the hills.  This track is heavily rutted and very wet, but some bits are still rideable.  Follow this all the way to the end where it reaches the road again, and turn left for a slog up the main road until a right turning just before an obvious hairpin.  Turn here, and continue down the singletrack road back to the car park.

Good stuff:  Bridleway 1 is a fun and very natural ride with some excellent sections.  The descent of Bridleway 2 is fun, but definitely not worth the navigation issues and general bother of getting to it.

Difficult stuff: Non-existent bridleways make the ride a tedious slog at times, and are worth avoiding.  Otherwise, little difficult stuff, although sections of the climb on Bridleway 1 are a little challenging if you’re out of practise.

Verdict: Bridleway 1 worth a ride if it’s dry, bridleway 2 doesn’t exist at the South end, but might be worth a there-and-back ride at the North end.  More information to come on the other bridleways.

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The Doethie Valley

Trail centre: Natural – Brecon Beacons.

Grade: Red

Length: 

Start point: Start point for the ride that we did was the car park at the dam across Llyn Brianne at 794485  (52.12,  -3.76).  Start point of the Doethie Valley itself is more like 757533 (52.16, -3.81).

Description: As with many natural rides, this one consists of a route to and from a single long section of singletrack.  The Doethie Valley holds a legendary place in mountain biking circles, as it is a section of (largely) rideable singletrack that extends over six miles.

The route begins by crossing the dam and winding ones way firstly along the shore of the reservoir and later up through forestry, to come out on a track that leads out into the hills.  This track is fast, but largely uninspiring riding, but it does carry you a good distance towards the start of the singletrack.  When you reach the chapel at Soar y Mynydd, a track to the left leads you up and over into the Doethie Valley.  The track when we reached it was securely locked and sported a sign letting us know it was closed to all traffic.  After some discussion, we climbed the gate and continued, and soon discovered that the problem was a deep and narrow gully that had cut into the track.  It presents little problem for the mountain biker, although anyone careless enough to drop a wheel into it could be seriously injured a long way from help.

Turn left on the obvious path once you’ve dropped a considerable distance down into the valley, and you begin the singletrack section of the ride.  In essence – just keep going.  There are stream crossings, some bogs that can stop you dead, rocky sections that would require a great deal of skill to clear, and sections where (at the right time of year) the path is so obscured by bracken that you end up riding by feel and blind faith more than judgement.  That said, a lot of the path is excellent riding – hard packed dirt in shallow gullies that needs just the right amount of skill to ride well.  It goes on for miles.

At the end, come out on a farm track, cruise round the shoulder of the hill and take the track on the left up and over the saddle back down to the car.

Good stuff:  The Doethie Valley.  Better as it gets later, and some exceptionally good and extensive natural singletrack.

Difficult stuff: The closed track over the hill at the far end of the route begins steep and slippery, and then goes through some huge puddles, and then enters the section with the deep gully.  The gully section is not exactly difficult, but does require some care.  On the singletrack, look out for bogs and rocks, but there’s so much good riding that the occasional foot on the floor doesn’t seem to matter too much.  The final climb is a bit of a killer after a long ride, but ultimately straightforward.

Verdict: Definitely worth a ride, although it seemed to us that we could have taken a different track across the hill and had most of the good riding without much of the bad.  However, that would cut out a couple of miles of singletrack.

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Talgarth Epic

Trail centre: Natural – Brecon Beacons.

Grade: Black

Length: Suggested route is 45.3km (28 miles).  This more than anything is the reason for the black grading.  You’ll need to be fit for this, with sufficient stamina to manage an epic ride on exposed mountains.

Start point: Car park in Talgarth at 153337 or 51.99, -3.23.  As with any of these rides, you could start wherever you like to join it, and include other sections of bridleway to make a longer, shorter or just different route.

Description: This ride is a bit of a beast.  If you’re like me, by the end you won’t be able to find energy to pedal uphill and will find yourself walking some stuff that you would normally be able to ride.  It’s worth it, and the sense of achievement at the end also somewhat satisfying.

Start by winding your way through the lanes out of Talgarth until you find the bridleway that climbs up onto Y Das.  The mountains round here are glacial, and have a very distinctive shape – steep on the North side, and gentle on the South.  You’re approaching this from the North so, well, expect the first climb to be a challenge.  However, when you’ve finished pushing your bike up the face of the hill, look ahead at the 6km of gentle but interesting, alternately loose, rocky, and smooth, beautiful descent.  It’s a standard Brecon Beacons style descent on what used to be a pony track over the mountains, and makes for exceptionally good riding.  You’d be hard pressed ti find a downhill that was more worth the effort.

At the end of the long downhill, follow the road and take a track to the right… somewhere.  We couldn’t find it.  However there are other options and all allow you to make your way to the end of Crug Mawr, and another glorious section of upland singletrack that takes you down to another road.

Winding your way through these lanes heading round to the right will bring you to the foot of the next bridleway, and a surprisingly sharp climb on a gravel track that will bring you out on the edge of the hills.  A dip to a bridge and the next section begins – an interminable but relatively gentle climb up to the head of the valley, as you climb up the adjacent on to the one you descended earlier.

This could take you some time.

A quick left right at the top and a keen eye for landmarks and mapreading should take you onto the next section of downhill, faster and more interesting than the last.  Turning left late on will have you back on roads, and lead you to a short, but sharp and unrideable for the knackered climb.  From there, a couple of short sections of bridleway lead you back to roads, and back to Talgarth.

Good stuff:  There’s a lot of effort here, but a lot of payoff.  The first long track down off the mountains is a wonderful ride, that goes on for miles and lets you ride it as fast and manic or as chilled as you like.  The second section of downhill is also excellent.  Dry and firm ruts on the path make the riding great fun.  Later sections are equally good, although I found myself too tired to necessarily enjoy them fully.  Having a climb that’s guaranteed to be a push is quite nice as well – it gets you a lot of height very quickly, and no-one’s likely to sneer when you get off your bike to climb.

Difficult stuff: Fatigue.  This is a huge ride, compared to anything I’ve ridden before on a mountain bike.  The first climb, once you accept that you should push is not too challenging.  The long grind up the second valley is much more difficult, for sheer length.  As for the downhills, there’s little that’s too troublesome.  Some of the later sections have loose and steep bits that are something of a difficulty, but can fairly easily be walked.

Verdict: Epic, excellent ride, and gets you solidly into the middle of nowhere – which is where mountain biking feels right.

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Llangorse

Trail centre: Natural – Brecon Beacons.

Grade: Red

Length: The route that I rode was 31km (19.3 miles).  As always the singletrack that represents the point of the ride is a good deal shorter.

Start point: Llangorse Lake at 129273 (51.93, -3.26) makes a good start point.  There’s plenty of parking and a sense of charming superiority as you head off for an epic ride past all the families out to play at the lake.

Description: The possible route here features an excellent amount of singletrack over the hills.  Starting from the lake head North and weave through the lanes to reach the Northernmost point of the access land around Mynydd Troed at 16430.  Turn sharp right onto the bridleway that contours round the North Western shoulder of the hill, and ride for miles along excellent singletrack on typical Brecon Beacons packed red mud, crossing a road at one point and bearing right to continue your route along the edge of Mynydd Llangorse.  After a short, varied, and mildly confusing section through forestry and fields, climb to a cairn and turn right for a blast across the top of Cefn Moel and a steep descent into Bwlch.  Turn right and head out of the village towards the Welsh Venison Centre, and take a surfaced bridleway to left of the access track.  Follow the bridleway over Allt yr Esgair – at which point hedge trimming debris ripped my drive train in half and I had to walk back.  The second attempt to ride it avoided that particular issue, and the slog up onto the top of Allt yr Esgair was rewarded with a final excellent section of downhill.  Then wind back through the lanes to Llangorse Lake and a huge slab of pink sparkly cake at the café.

Good stuff:  The bridleway along the edge of the hills is brilliant, and goes on for miles.

Difficult stuff: The drop into Bwlch is a bit of a killer – loose, slippery and very steep.

Verdict: An excellent route to explore, ideally when the hedges have not been recently trimmed.

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The Blorenge

Trail centre: Natural – Brecon Beacons.

Grade: Red

Length: Various, as it depends what route you take on the Blorenge itself.  The ride I did was about 23km including getting horrendously lost on the way up.  Much shorter routes would be somewhat difficult, but possible.

Start point: The ride I did started at the car park in Llanfoist at 286133, although the main point of this ride is the long looping sections of bridleway across the Blorenge itself, running from 255110 to around about 280110.

Description: If you start in Llanfoist, use the nice gentle cycle path to the West, and then leave it at some point to make your way up through minor roads to the edge of the hills.  I’d give more detail here, but when we rode it we got hopelessly lost in the fog at this point, which made it a long and frustrating climb.  Finding a better route would be a great deal more satisfactory.  Eventually you should come to the bridleway that leads up onto the hills at 247130, which is a rough and awkward climb up past quarries.  The industry of the area is very clear for most of the route in fact, with ever-present quarries and many of the sections of bridleway on old railway tracks.

Once at the top of the bridleway it’s a quick blast along the road – again, easier when visibility is more than a few metres.  Turn left on the road, left at the T junction and then almost immediately right on a smooth surfaced track with a lake to your right.  Then the fun begins.  A bridge takes you onto the proper bridleway along the hill.  It’s a great ride, peaty, firm, occasionally rocky, occasionally boggy, with plenty of scope for picking lines through the tricky bits and getting up plenty of speed on the straightforward bits.  A turn to the left takes you onto the next distinct section – a tumbling and much looser downhill that is a test of technical skill – but still good fun for a bad mountain biker.  At the bottom, angle right onto a long loop of bridleway that contours round the base of the Blorenge.  This again is the best of Brecon Beacons riding – red firm soil, and interesting fast singletrack.  At the far end spin round the punchbowl lake and a quick climb takes you to the top of a restricted byway.  From here it’s just a matter of threading your way through the lanes back to the car.

Good stuff:  Once you reach the objective of the ride it’s all incredible – you can see why the Blorenge has developed a reputation.  It gives you a showcase of the best of Brecon Beacons riding in a very small area.  There’s a reason that it’s been featured in searches for Britain’s best singletrack in magazines.

Difficult stuff: The bridleway climb is a bit of a beast.  Steep, technical and loose, although it could be that my impression of it has been coloured by getting lost and being tired.  You might find it’s not so bad!  The tumbling descent from the top is a challenge too, but fun enough that you’ll quickly forget the bits you had to awkwardly slither over.

Verdict: Excellent ride, a great experience of Brecon Beacons riding.

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The Gower

Whereabouts:  Wales.

Where specifically:  South Wales, the peninsula that runs West of Swansea, with the Loughor river along the Northern edge.

What am I doing here?  The Gower peninsula is worth a visit, whether mountain biking or not.  It was Britain’s first SSSI, and contains in its small area a hugely varied selection of terrain and wildlife habitats, including some of the finest beaches in the UK.  There are upland moors, woods, cliffs, beaches, salt flats, sand dunes and plenty of others as well.  Swansea itself is not far away for nightlife, bike shops and the like, the Celtic Trail National Cycle route crosses the peninsula, and the coastline has more choughs, cormorants, seals and other wildlife than you can shake a stick at, even if you’re well practised in wildlife stick shaking.

So which bits should I ride?  The Gower is a relatively small area, and so it’s quite possible to do a route taking in the majority of good spots.  See the other Gower post, which covers them in more detail.  The singletrack along the side of Rhossilli Down is excellent, as is the obvious and fun bridleway along the top of Cefn Bryn.  There are plenty of other good sections, but a quick look at a map, a guide, or the other post on here should provide plenty of material.

I miss trail centres.  The incredible trail centre riding of the Afan Forest Park is not far away up the Neath valley.  Margam Park reportedly has a new red graded trail as well (though I’ve yet to ride it).  Slightly further afield the quiet and beautifully designed trails in Brechfa Forest are within striking distance, and if you’re not from the area then the trip back along the M4 takes you past Cwmcarn, the Forest of Dean, and all sorts of varied riding.

My bike’s broken.  In Swansea there’s Wheelies, the Urban Cyclery and Schmoos.  Llanelli doubtless has some of its own bike shops.  Halfords, for cheap parts and basic repair, is everywhere.

Where can I find out more?  See the other post where I’ve described some of the sections of bridleway in more detail.  I’d recommend the Vertebrate Publishing book on Mountain Biking in Wales for a route taking in the highlights of the Gower.  Mountain biking wales, as always, has a good selection.

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The Brecon Beacons

Whereabouts:  Wales.

Where specifically:  South Wales, ranging from the Black Mountain at its Western end, sort of North West of Swansea and reaching out towards Carmarthen, to the Black Mountains at the Eastern end, round Abergavenny.

What am I doing here?  The Brecon Beacons are the mountain range that heads the South Wales valleys.  They lack the craggy, remote rockiness of some other mountains in the UK, and instead tend towards sweeping grassland and mighty glacial valleys – out of which rear the sheer faces of the highest mountains in the South of Britain.  The highest point itself – Pen y Fan – is not (legally) accessible by mountain bike, but there is a vast network of bridleways and tracks that offer some outstanding riding.

So which bits should I ride?  For an absolute South Wales classic, ride the Gap Road, straight across the top of the Pen y Fan ridge.  The sections of the Roman road Sarn Helen that cross the mountains make for fun riding too.  Further East, the mountains around Abergavenny are exceptionally good for some natural singletrack – in particular try the track round the Western edge of Mynydd Llangorse, and the tracks on the Blorenge.

I miss trail centres.  Never fear, young neophyte.  Although outside of the confines of the Brecon Beacons National Park, the trail centres at Afan Forest Park, Cwmcarn and Brechfa are not far away at all, and the mighty Bike Park Wales squats on the Southern Border of the National Park itself, close to Merthyr Tydfil.

My bike’s broken.  You’re a stones’ throw away from the biggest population centres in Wales, so you might be in luck when it comes to bike shops.  At the Western end there’s Hobbs in Carmarthen, and County Cycles at Cross Hands (midway between Swansea and Carmarthen).  In Swansea there’s Wheelies, the Urban Cyclery and Schmoos.  Further North, Brecon has Biped Cycles and Bikes and Hikes.  Merthyr Tydfil has EC Cycles and Taff Vale, as well as the high end shop at Bike Park Wales itself.  There are also bike shops in the Aberdare region.  Cardiff has too many to list.  Crickhowell has Cycle Basket and Abergavenny has Gateway and M&D.  Halfords, for cheap parts and basic repair, is everywhere.

Where can I find out more?  There are more specific routes outlined on here, and plenty of guides are available.  I’d recommend the Vertebrate Publishing book on Mountain Biking in Wales as a general one.  Mountain biking wales, as always, has a good selection, and the National Park authority itself publishes a pack of fourteen natural trails (ranging from yellow grade to black) which is available online here or from the visitor centre.  The visitor centre is well worth a visit anyway – it’s not far off the A470 just South of Brecon and is a fantastic place to have lunch or a coffee with outstanding views of the highest peaks of the mountains.

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The Gower

Trail centre: Natural – Gower Peninsula.

Grade: Red

Length: Variable, depending on which bits you ride.  25-30km (15-19 miles).

Start point: There’s an excellent circuit that starts at the picnic spot in Penmaen (at 51.578, -4.124).  There’s plenty of places to park on the Gower, if you fancy starting it somewhere else.

Description: As with many other natural routes, the point here is linking a number of excellent sections of trail with roads, tracks and other rideable stuff.  The route that I rode started in Penmaen, ran the length of the Cefn Bryn ridge, along the edge of Ryers Down, over the edge of Llanmadoc Hill, along the edge of Rhossili Down and back along Cefn Bryn.

The track along the top of Cefn Bryn is a fun and relatively easy blast, with views of the whole Gower peninsula.  Then it’s a short section of road past the Fairy Hill hotel and up onto Ryers Down, ending at a hidden pony bridge.  A tough climb leads back up onto the road, and then along to Cheriton and up a steep road climb until you find the track up on to Llanmadoc Hill.  Navigation gets distinctly tricky at this point, but make your way across the hill towards Rhossili Down, which dominates the skyline to the South.  Once off the hill, follow the road along through Llangennith to Hillend.  Go through the gate and keep right onto the long section of singletrack along the edge of Rhossili Down.  When you come out in Rhossili, follow the road up to Middleton and then along the bridleway through Kingshall and out onto the main road.  After a while, turn left up toward Reynoldston and back onto the top of Cefn Bryn, which takes you back to the start.

Good stuff:  The track along the top of Cefn Bryn is excellent, and frankly it’s all about the long singletrack blast along the edge of Rhossili Down.  There are plenty of other sections that are great fun too, but a fair bit shorter.

Difficult stuff:  Nothing massively tricky, although inevitably the sections of natural track vary considerably according to weather conditions and time of year.  Some bits require a foot on the floor, or occasionally two.  The climb from the pony bridge is loose, steep, and a bit of killer.  The herd of cows that you end up following along a bridleway is also somewhat tricky to ride over.

Verdict: Great fun, and very good for seeing a lot of the Gower in a single great ride.  Definitely worth a ride!  Or several.

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The Gap

Trail centre: Natural – Brecon Beacons.

Grade: Red

Length: The Gap road itself: 7km (4.3 miles).  Routes that use it: various, but somewhere just over 20km is the shortest.

Start point: The Gap road itself runs from somewhere below the Neaudd reservoirs South of Pen y Fan (say grid ref. 035174, co-ordinates 51.847, -3.402) to somewhere in Cwm Cynwyn North of Pen y Fan (perhaps 037237, or 51.902, -3.402).  However, a circular ride taking it in would be better started from Talybont on Usk (honesty box parking next to the town hall) or from Brecon itself, although this means a rather longer route.

Description: The Gap is an iconic route for mountain bikers in South Wales.  It is an ancient pony track that leads straight over the top of the Pen y Fan ridge – not far from the highest point in the Brecon Beacons and the highest point in the South of Britain (although I’ve never been entirely sure what that means).  It’s the closest you can legally ride to the top of Pen y Fan itself.  What all this means for mountain bikers is that it’s a long, interesting, challenging, but relatively gentle climb on good rock, gravel, and occasional loose stone, followed by an excellent long rocky and completely rideable descent.  As with many natural rides, the route that you take to get to and away from the Gap are just the prologue and the epilogue to that one section of trail.

I’ve ridden it from Talybont on Usk.  Follow the Taff trail out of the village over the canal, across the dam at the foot of the Talybont reservoir, and up the long climb through the forest on the other side.  After emerging from the trees at the top, turn left on the road and follow it up and over the crest of the hill and down to the first track on your right.  Take this and keep right so that you contour round and meet the foot of the Gap road.  Keep right at the crossroads onto the rough track that starts to climb.  Shortly you’ll find a large gully that isn’t terribly rideable, and may involve getting wet feet depending on the weather, but after scrambling back out of it it’s all pretty smooth sailing as you climb the track up to the ridge.  Pen y Fan is the highest peak to your left.  Cross the ridge between Cribyn and Fan y Big, and begin the epic descent.  Enjoy it!  At the end, basically make your way back along the lanes to the canal, and then back to Talybont.  There’s a byway at the start that’s a bit of pain to ride, being a narrow gully lined with holly and brambles, and later on there’s a bridleway across a field that might be passable in summer.  Essentially it’s up to you how much you want to stick to lanes and how much you want to find more cross country routes.

Good stuff:  The Gap road in its entirety (with the exception of the unrideable gully).  The descent is long and great fun, the climb is interesting and a pleasant challenge.  The contour track just before you reach it is an easy blast too, but massively overshadowed by the later awesomeness.

Difficult stuff: The climbs are long, and can be troublesome if you’re out of practise.  Some of the surface on the way up is loose and quite tricky.  Other than that, it’s a relatively straightforward ride.

Verdict: An excellent route to ride, and an essential in South Wales.

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Usk Reservoir

Trail centre: Natural – Brecon Beacons.

Grade: Green

Length: 9km (5.5miles)

Start point: Usk reservoir dam or Pont ar’Wysg.  Turn West in Trecastle or East through Llanddeusant.  Usk reservoir is South of Llandovery.

Description: Short and reasonably easy fire road route around Usk reservoir.  Includes some short climbs, one of which is on a road.  It’s a fun and straightforward route that works nicely as a family ride or a short evening blast.

Good stuff:  Little that’s spectacular, but take some of the flat or downhill sections at speed and they’re fun nonetheless.  It’s an excellent opportunity to get covered in mud without the effort of the longer and harder trails.

Difficult stuff: Nothing much.  Some of the brief climbs are surprisingly sharp.

Verdict: Fun, easy, and worth riding if you have half an hour to spare in the Brecon Beacons.

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