It felt rather alien yet bittersweet boarding an aeroplane abroad, after the coronavirus pandemic marked a two year period of not venturing away from UK soil. Back in late April, I ventured to northern Portugal for two weeks. I’d previously visited mainland Portugal once before, mainly sticking to the Algarve nearest the Spanish border and I’ve also travelled to the island of Madeira.
The first week of my Portuguese sojourn was spent exploring the beautiful, historic city of Porto and its surrounding area, as well as a trip to see a friend towards Leiria in the centre of the country. The second week was to be spent in the mountains to the east of Porto and cycling, of course, was on the agenda. Portugal may not hold quite the allure of cycling compared to France, Spain or Italy but as I came to discover, it is a hidden gem for cycling.
I stayed in the picturesque Mondim de Basto, a town at the epicentre of the cities of Amarante, Vila Real and Fafe. The town is domineered by the Nossa Senhora de Graça Sanctuary, a church at the top of its mountain. It is located close to the River Tâmega, a tributary of the more well-known Douro river, and lies in a valley at around a 160m elevation. The town is surrounded by mountains in every direction that hover around the 1,100m mark so it’s a great location for getting some hill training in. That elevation is about standard for Northern Portugal, with most of the mountains hovering under the 1,500m mark. If you want to ride in hillier terrain, the city of Covilhã and the Serra de Estrela national park would be your best bet, which peaks at around 2,000m and sees snow during the colder periods of the year.
I rented a Trek Émonda SL5 Disc 2022 for four days and got three memorable rides in, choosing to spend a day exploring in each direction of the town towards the major cities. I had to take a rest day between days 1 and 2, for reasons which will shortly become evident, and so didn’t head to the North West of the town.
Day 1 – Vila Real
Distance: 91km Elevation: 2,103m
The plan for the first day was a ride to the city of Vila Real and looping back to Mondim de Basto. I’d woken up not feeling brilliant with a sore throat and a headache but partially put it down to having a fair amount of excellent Portuguese beer over the past couple of days. I took a paracetamol after a hearty breakfast and headed out.
The temperature was a warm 23 degrees and it was pretty humid. The first 30km of the ride was a climb up to the Alvão Nature Park that sits at 1,100m. The climb was generally picturesque but pretty unpleasant at the start as it averaged a seven percent with some steeper sections which then levelled off.
Almost immediately into the climb, I suffered a sharp cramp to my right thigh. I went through a period of suffering with cramps when cycling, particularly towards the end of a longer ride and it would tend to be on a climb. I’ve since made some changes and it hasn’t been a problem for around two years but as you’ll go onto read, this ride more than made up for it!
I wasn’t sure if I had cramped due to a poor position on a new bike, the fact I was testing some new Assos shorts for work which offer a more compressive fit or that I wasn’t feeling 100 percent. I pulled into a cafe in the small village of Bilhó around 15km up the climb to rest it a bit and see if that would help. I briefly considered turning back and aborting the ride but I have a very stubborn mindset and wanted to get my money’s worth out of the bike, as well as taking advantage of the warm weather as the rest of the week wasn’t forecast to be quite as balmy.
After the stop, I continued up the arduous climb, passing through several small villages and a serene woodland setting. Unfortunately, resting the cramp didn’t help and I had to make a stop every 2-3 kilometres or so as the shooting pain felt pretty horrific. The final third of the climb was fairly fierce in places with gradients around 13 percent but the beautiful view at the top of the natural park was worth the effort. If I’d had more time to spend in the area, I’d love to have tried some walking up here.
The descent to the city of Villa Real was 10km to just under 400m and was a fairly typical European-style descent, packed with hairpins. An aspect that would become a theme on future rides is that the Portuguese seem to relish having cobbled sections on the main road through villages or town centres. Some of these can rather sketchy on a road bike, even with 700x28mm tyres, which is heightened when descending. Some added spice was added to this particular descent with the inclusion of some steep cobbled hairpins.
Vila Real was a reasonable city with an attractive centre but I found it to be a little soulless in its suburbs. After a lunch stop, it was onto the second major climb of the day which was roughly 20km up to 900m. This climb wasn’t as scenic as the first and the roads were much quieter and the surfaces not quite as smooth.
Unfortunately, the cramp continued to play up and I had to make regular stops to rest it, including a drink stop at the village of Campeã, its small centre a vibrant hub for the locals. I was in a pretty foul mood all the way up until I reached the top of the climb and there were a few moments where I questioned my life choices!
My bad mood instantly vanished as I crested the top of the climb and was welcomed by the most majestic of views, which more than made up for the low points of the day. I was now to enjoy a circa 30km gradual descent back to Mondim de Basto and I think it instantly became my favourite descent I have ever ridden. The views just kept on coming, each topping the last. The road was perfectly surfaced with no cobbled sections and the turns were gradual and could be seen in advance, so I barely had to touch the brakes. The cramp mysteriously suddenly vanished too!
There was a brief climb of around 100m after the initial 12km and the road then headed down again back to the centre of Mondim de Basto. Today was character-building but the final descent more than made up for the first 60km of punishment.
Day 2 – Amarante
Distance: 79km Elevation: 1,004m
Today was to be an easier ride with less than half of the elevation after I didn’t feel brilliant on Day 1 and the sore throat had not abated, despite having a rest day too.
Heading the opposite way out of Mondim de Basto to Day 1 was breathtaking crossing the River Tâmega and shortly afterwards, my Garmin prompted me to turn right up what looked to be a gravel track which then joined a buttery smooth disused railway line, the Ecopista da Linha do Tâmega, or in English, the Tâmega line.
I have a particular fondness for exploring disused railways and in the UK, I’m fortunate to have lived within riding distance of both the Phoenix Trail that links the towns of Princes Risborough and Thame in Buckinghamshire and the Downs Link, which links Guildford to Shoreham-on-Sea. I now live in Bristol, which is surrounded by various paths, most notably the Bristol to Bath railway line which I use to commute to work on three days a week.
However, the Tâmega line blows everything I’ve ever ridden in the UK out of the water and then some. The views were terrific as the path skirts along the river, through a variety of terrain from lush green vistas to backdrops reminiscent of Monument Valley. There are various old train stations along the route, which have been lovingly maintained with gorgeous architecture. You just couldn’t ask for more and I’d never have discovered this path without the presence of a bike. I got to enjoy the path for 30km down to the city of Amarante.
Amarante itself is a wonderful city with beautiful architecture and a grand cathedral, its imposing yet graceful presence felt across the city. The River Tâmega flows through the city and there’s a tranquil path to walk alongside the river bank.
After a drink in the centre, the second half of the ride was to climb up to 600m, passing through the town of Lixa and then reaching Castelo de Arnoia before descending back to Mondim de Basto.
The route took me along the main road out of Amaranate, which was nothing special as it started to gently wind up in gradient, before turning onto a quieter main road to tackle the rest of the climb. One highlight was passing a closed night club that was humorously named ‘Sin City’.
The climb wasn’t particularly scenic but the town of Lixa was pleasant enough and in keeping with other nearby towns, it featured a cobbled surface through its centre. The roads were quieter after Lixa and more scenic as the climb made its way through a couple of peaceful small villages, which were shaded by woodland.
Castelo de Arnoia was another highlight with a quaint castle domineering the village and some chocolate-box cafes, so I took the opportunity to make a stop.
The descent back to Mondim de Basto was another breathtaking one and similar to Day 1, the turns were visible and gradual so braking could be kept to a minimum. I passed through Celorico de Basto towards the end of the descent, another pretty town which the Tâmega Line passes through in its outskirts, before passing back over the river into Mondim de Basto.
Day 3 – Fafe
Distance: 74km Elevation: 1,273m
This was my final day with the bike and unfortunately, my cold was now full-blown. On any other day, I’d have kept away from the bike but given I had already skipped a day between the first two days, I was determined to get my money’s worth out of the rental.
The original plan was to head to the city of Fafe and slightly further afield up to a lake further north called the ‘Praia Fluvial de Albufeira de Queimadela’. However, I tweaked the route as I wanted to ride the rest of the Tâmega line and as I felt less than ideal, I didn’t want to overdo it. Rain was also forecast from lunchtime, which I was keen to avoid. 74km and circa 1,300m of elevation is not an insignificant amount on a normal training day, let alone when you’re feeling under the weather.
After crossing the River Tâmega, I took the same gravelly path right up to the disused railway and headed in the opposite direction towards Arco de Baúlhe, where it finishes. The railway path was just as glorious heading north as it was south to Amarante yesterday. The first five miles or so were gently uphill before a descent down the rest of the path. The path is slightly more shaded heading northbound and there are even several houses gardens that sit next to the path. In keeping with the section of the path I had ridden yesterday, this section was similarly blissful.
Arco de Baúlhe, the end of the Tâmega Line, was a highlight with a staggeringly beautiful train station that is an attraction in itself, with a section of train track at its terminus, adorned with older unused trains that seemed in good condition.
At the end of the line, I headed out via the train station into the town centre, which was also rather pleasant with a selection of cafes but as rain was forecast, I chose to carry on. I was now to start the first climb of the day, a 17km affair which would rise to 700m before dropping back down to 500m and then heading back up to 650m before descending to the city of Fafe.
The climb wasn’t particularly scenic as it was on a main road in its early sections and I took the climb very easy and kept hydrated to keep my cold under control. The 200m descent after the peak was a particular highlight as it swept through some shrouded woodland. The 12km descent into Fafe was good fun, with a now customary cobbled section through a village towards the bottom. It was at this point of the ride it started to rain, so I headed for a drink in the city centre.
Fafe is a fairly well-kept city with a pleasant centre, although Amarante is far and away my pick of the cities that Mondim de Basto is sandwiched between. It drizzled throughout my stop but luckily, the rain calmed down as I left to ride the final section of the ride. This was to be another climb up of 10km up to 750m before a 19km descent back to Mondim de Basto.
In keeping with the first climb of the day, it wasn’t particular scenic until its later sections which featured more greenery. The descent, on the other hand, was wonderful. It was fast and flowy but like other descents, with turns easy to anticipate. The descent passed through the village of Gandarela de Basto which left a quaint impression and then snaked under the A7 motorway. The second half of the descent was in keeping with the first back to Mondim de Basto and luckily, I had managed to mostly avoid the rain throughout the ride, although it was still forecast to bucket down for the rest of the day.
Whilst I didn’t feel great and riding with a cold is always to be advised against, I’m glad I rode today. This ride wasn’t as scenic as the first two but getting to ride the rest of the railway path and the final descent made it more than worth it.
Cycling isn’t as prominent a sport in northern Portugal as it is in other European destinations. Other than a handful of small groups that I spotted throughout my stay, the sport doesn’t seem to have taken off in this region of Portugal.
That’s also reflected in the bike rental options in this region and after a fair amount of research, I found a grand total of two rental companies, both of which were based in Porto, that offered carbon road bikes to rent. I had originally factored in driving to Porto and back to pick them up but luckily, the company I went with dropped off and picked up the bike for a fee.
Bicycle rental pricing is quite punchy in Northern Portugal – I paid €200 for four days and then an additional fee for drop-off and pick-up. I would typically pay around the €130 – 150 mark for an equivalent bike for the same duration in Italy, for example.
The drivers aren’t as accustomed to cyclists either compared to other European destinations and some of the overtaking wasn’t the most considered. I’d love to return to the region and explore further afield and without the poor luck of riding with a developing cold.
With its well surfaced roads, visually arresting vistas and breathtaking descents that aren’t packed with hairpins, Portugal is a tucked-away treasure for road cycling.
The King Alfred’s Way is a circular route designed by Cycling UK and historian/journalist Guy Kesteven that takes in the sites of the famous King and connects many of the UK’s best paths. It officially starts in Winchester, where King Alfred is buried and passes Salisbury, Stonehenge, the Salisbury Plains up to Avebury where you then join the Ridgeway to Goring before briefly jumping on the Thames Path to Reading, down through Berkshire into Surrey where you pass through Farnham and the Devil’s Punch Bowl before heading into Hampshire and joining the South Down’s Way back to Winchester.
We completed the ride in the middle of September and we were generally very lucky with the weather and trail conditions. We decided to start the route at Reading Station as this isn’t too far away from where we all live on the Berkshire / Buckinghamshire border. We split the route into three days. Day 1 would be from Reading Station to East Meon, where we had booked two rooms in an eco-lodge. Day 2 would take us through Winchester and the Salisbury Plains before diverting off the route slightly to stop in Devizes at a pub. Day 3 would be a shorter ride from Devizes to Avebury and along the Ridgeway back to Reading.
It was originally going to be five of us completing the ride – myself, Rob, Charlie, Deane and Nick – all members of an informal off-road group. We tend to ride one weekday evening with a pub stop at the end and then some bigger rides on some weekends. We don’t ride every weekend as we all like our road cycling and we belong to different local clubs in the Maidenhead area.
It was always Nick’s intention to peel off in Winchester and take the train back as he had plans for the Sunday, so that would leave 4 of us to complete the entirety of the route. Closer to the event, Deane had to drop out and in the final days leading up to the event, Rob experienced a setback where the prospect of riding at all was in jeopardy. Fortunately, he had somewhat recovered, but was not 100% and decided to ride up to Winchester where he would also peel off with Nick, leaving myself and Charlie to finish the route.
I used a gravel bike for this trip, specifically a Niner RLT 9 RDO. The route is recommended for gravel or mountain bikes. You would certainly have fun on a mountain bike on some of the more technical trails but gravel bikes are pretty capable and are able to cover long distances more efficiently. You can read my first look on the Niner here, but needless to say, this Coloradan frame with Campagnolo Ekar made for a luxurious steed.
I had only just built the bike up recently after waiting almost a year for some of the Ekar components with the parts shortages so I only managed to get two short rides in on the bike prior to the event. This is not an ideal way to enter a bikepacking ride, as you should always be familiar with your equipment, but the fit of the bike felt familiar on the first two rides, so I took a gamble as my previous bike, a Norco Threshold C, is a much racier cyclocross frame and it lacks all of the mounting points for luggage that the Niner contains and has much closer gear ratios.
All other members of the group also rode gravel bikes for the event, ranging from a second-generation Specialized Diverge, a titanium Reilly and a Mason Bokeh, so a real range of brands and bikes that sit in different areas of the ever-growing gravel spectrum.
This is my first bikepacking escapade so it was time that I ‘bagged’ up. I’d read many articles, watched some videos and sought advice from friends on what to pack and how to store luggage on the bike. Niner conveniently make their own bag that mounts on the inside of the front triangle and they make a top tube bag, so that was half of the luggage sorted.
After lots of research, I settled for some Miss Grape bags in front of the bars and behind the seatpost, the Tendril and Cluster respectively. The Cluster is a particularly impressive bag in its construction – easy to fit, it holds securely on the seatpost and you can adjust the tension via some clever velcro straps. The Tendril is also a reasonable bag and is very long so you pack it down to suit. It didn’t play especially nicely with my set up as I run narrow 40cm bars so you have to pack it compactly. The straps adjust around the handlebar onto a hooked loop. On the ride, the straps detached a couple of times, despite being under correct tension. This aspect of the bag needs to be worked on and I think the way to remedy it would be to have some sort of lock and release so that the strap can’t shake free of the clip.
I’ve been on reasonable form this year prior to the event, not my best but not my worst and I have done plenty of single rides of this distance and off-road variants over the years. What I wasn’t prepared for was having to ride these distances off-road consecutively over three days. My training consisted of some longer distance rides, both on and off-road and I had planned for some back-to-back riding on some weekends with another ride on a Friday or Monday to try and simulate the event. I ended up doing 2 of these weekends in the run-up to the event and I would have tried to fit in another block, but I annoyingly had a setback in early August where I had my first cold in a year and a half! These blocks of three big rides really helped and I rode them solo to make it harder, as rides always go quicker when you have company.
One thing I would not recommend is packing new bags the night before the ride, especially when it is not obvious how one of them mounts to the frame! Get to know your bag prior to an event if you are in the same situation and another piece of advice would be to try and carry out some practice rides with the bags fully loaded to try and simulate how it will feel in the event.
It felt surreal that this day had arrived, after weeks of preparation. I set the alarm for 5am and I had a breakfast of pasta as I find that keeps me going through a long ride and rolled out the door. What was immediately apparent was how heavy the bike was with all the bags and how it handled differently. I started to ride over to Maidenhead station and having cycled along the A4 for many years, but the bike felt very alien! Rob joined me part-way on the ride over and we quickly arrived at the station, where Charlie was already waiting and we brought a coffee for the train journey to up the caffeine levels. Nick then met us shortly afterward on the platform.
We very swiftly arrived in Reading and after some obligatory faffing and a toilet stop, the ‘Play’ button on the Garmin was pressed and the King Alfred’s Way trip had officially begun. Riding on the canals around Reading was quite a welcome change from the bustling major roads, which I tend to avoid on the road bike. This was a very flat start to the ride and before we knew it, we had crossed the A33 and were on some more exciting towpaths heading into the countryside. We passed through Riseley and made our way out of Berkshire to the outskirts of Hampshire and then into Surrey.
As we were travelling on a trail that was by a farm, sealant started spraying out of Charlie’s rear tyre. I hadn’t noticed but apparently, it was also spraying out the front. We stopped to inspect the damage but the sealant seemed to have done its job. Or, as is often the case with these types of mechanicals, so we thought…
We carried on into the outskirts of Farnham where there was quite a spicy descent which was loose and rocky. It was so bone-shaking that my front bag came off and I had to quickly stop to correct it to avoid it abrading on the frame. Charlie had to slow down for me and he must have hit something as his front tyre had now failed. We stopped for a bite to eat whilst Charlie tried to sort the front tyre but he had to resort to patching it with a bacon strip-like tubeless plug. Tubeless really never is fun when it goes wrong and when you’re covered in sealant trying to fix a problem, you forget the benefits that the system offers that outweigh the negatives!
We shortly arrived into Farnham and found a Sainsbury’s so we stopped to buy a meal deal and the plan was to eat it in Frensham Ponds, a picturesque area with two lakes and a ‘beach’. It is quite a busy crossing on the A31 on the route, and you also have an uphill gradient to contend with as well as avoiding traffic. Frensham was a lot further than envisaged, as there were some trails to negotiate first and two climbs. We had our lunch at the top of a hill rather than by the beach, as we didn’t really fancy another climb on top of what was already a big day in the saddle and knowing that the ‘proper’ hills were about to start. We met 4 other riders riding the King Alfred’s Way at lunch, two determined riders on Mason Bokeh frames, much to Charlie’s delight as they shared his taste, and two more relaxed riders on titanium hardtails.
Now deep into Surrey, the route is quite undulating and there are some quite technical sections and a fair amount of slippery sand to contend with. One section that passes a golf course was quite memorable as there were Portaloos rather randomly dotted around.
The Garmin then flagged up that we were about to ascend hill number 2 of 6 today and that it was close to 280m elevation. This could only have been the Devil’s Punch Bowl, which I have tackled on the road before and it wasn’t too taxing but this was an off-road variant. Compared to the road, this was an arduous climb and I cannot even begin to imagine what it would be like in the wet. The KAW route has you climbing on a sandy off-road section for almost 100m elevation before you then meet the road where you have some respite. This road then turns into a very rocky trail and you then negotiate a cattle grid whilst climbing. The climb is then impossible as sharp rocks that scream ‘puncture’ thrown in with a gulley for good measure. We dismounted and walked for quite some distance and even on foot, the climb was unrelenting. You then pass over another cattle grid and after a short walk, the gradient and surface eases and it is rideable. At the top, you are met with a stunning view of the Devil’s Punch Bowl and it would have been rude not to have stopped to take some photos. This would be an even tougher climb in the wet and is one of the areas where a mountain bike would have better served the terrain but even still, I think you’d have to walk some of it.
Passing through Hindhead, the route then takes you on a cracking descent on the road as you pass under the A3. The route is still quite rolling and we passed the two riders on Mason’s from lunchtime who rode behind us but then turned off randomly. We then descended down a trail to a gate where Charlie’s tyre had now completely failed. He stopped to carry out the unenviable task of removing the tyre full of sealant and fitting an inner tube in it to carry on his ride. We then discovered that we were off-course and that the two Mason riders had taken the right turning but that descent was too fun to resist! We managed to find a route that would take us back on course once Charlie had sorted his tyre which continued to be undulating until you reach the outskirts of Liss, where it is a little flatter as you pass through the village. We stopped in Liss at a Tesco Express for some more welcome supplies, whilst carrying out a bit of people watching.
We begun to head further south in the direction of Rogate, which is famed for its downhill mountain biking park. The route doesn’t take you quite as far as Rogate itself but you ride on the outskirts of the park. Like Surrey, the terrain here was very sandy and having climbed up a ramp, it was now time for an exciting descent. You’ve got to be quite careful on the descent as it’s technical and there was a large branch on the ground, which you can’t bunnyhop. What goes down must go up and the uphill looked tough! Rob wanted to try and outsmart the route by avoiding this climb and on his Hammerhead device, it looked like you could go around it, which we started. Big mistake! The uphill is a combination of a gulley and sand, so about a third of the way up, you have no choice but to get off and walk. It was at this point that one of the team suggested turning back and tackling the prescribed climb but having climbed this far up this annoying climb, we weren’t going to turn back now. Well, we should have done, as you’re forced into a left turn which then takes you back down the other side to where you started! Our funny faux pas cost us a couple of kilometres and we still had to go up the horrible climb! One could say we had an extended tour of Rogate. The climb wasn’t quite as tough as it looked but it was still a walker at the top as there was a gulley that was hard to navigate, but you are then rewarded with an exciting descent to a main road.
Rob took the descent a little easier and at the bottom whilst we were waiting to regroup, Nick suggested a shorter route on the road to Petersfield and East Meon. We thought as we had come this far, we may as well stick to the route, not knowing what was about to come ahead. Well, what was about to come ahead was the South Downs Way!
As we passed through the village (rather than region) of Quebec, the elevation kept on coming and before we knew it, the signpost that this was the South Downs Way. We were all pretty tired by this point and relieved that there were only 10 or so miles left to the finish. The South Downs Way was achingly beautiful, despite its unyielding nature. As we descended again, we then passed through a car park and barrier signalling that we were passing through the ‘Queen Elizabeth Country Park’ before another gravel climb that was just about rideable but brutal! There was then a spicy descent down to another car park, with the A3 in view.
What also came into view was Butser Hill, a climb that GCN described in their King Alfred’s Way video as a ‘beast of a climb’. Legs shot, some of the group suggested a road variation of the route but this didn’t really seem to be possible without crossing the busy A3. Butser Hill was as marketed by GCN. It’s always demoralising when you can view what you have to climb throughout. My gamble of having a gel at the top of the previous climb paid off as I found the climb hard but not impossible and there was only one section where it gets a bit rougher just before a gate where I had to get off and walk. When you reach the top, you realise that there is even more climbing to go until you actually reach the top but you get a phenomenal view of the Downs. We regrouped at the top and we were all even more ruined than before!
Another excellent descent towards East Meon, we then took a left at the bottom of the road for our final climb of the day towards Day 1’s accommodation. It was another grovel of a climb and we were thoroughly relieved when the turning for ‘The Sustainability Centre’ came into sight, a centre which offered camping or rooms. Although perhaps camping would be more authentic for this type of epic, but I am not one for turning down a bed and a warm shower!
Dinner was a 2 mile downhill journey to ‘The Bat and Ball’ in the hamlet of Hambledon, where the combination of beer and cooked food was very welcome compared to energy bars and gels. This was a decent pub that didn’t have an extensive menu but everything they offered was well made.
After dinner and some beers, we rode back up the climb back up to the accommodation. I could barely sit on the saddle at this point so I spent most of the journey back unseated.
Day 1 was the very definition of an epic but I had totally underestimated its difficulty. This was definitely up there in my top ten toughest rides as the hills are unrelenting after you pass through Farnham, a sentiment shared through the group. The thought of 92 miles on Day 2 was on my mind – the King Alfred’s Way is certainly not a route for the inexperienced and if it was going to be as difficult as today, we had our work cut out for us. Lucky for Rob and Nick, their journey would end 35km into the day but for myself and Charlie, there were two more days to go.
I am aware of a friend of mine riding to up to Winchester on the KAW route from Reading in one day and a group in my club had ridden the entirety of the route in two days last year. I can’t quite comprehend how as I couldn’t imagine having another batch of climbs added on to today’s route!
After a relatively good night’s sleep, we enjoyed a hearty breakfast at the hotel and we were ready to roll out at 9. We had intended to start earlier but the earliest that breakfast was being served was from 8:00. Rob seemed to be back on form as he had a particularly hearty breakfast, which was a far cry from yesterday where he couldn’t eat or drink very much. With yesterday’s efforts firmly being felt in my legs, we started Day 2.
It was a beautiful morning with fog but not too cold to warrant jackets or thermal clothing in the Meon Valley. The route began with a technical gravel descent and we then passed through a farm with a field of cows next to it which was particularly visually arresting with the fog. 4km in and we were then reduced to walking with a particularly technical off-road climb – I hoped this wasn’t going to set a precedent for the day! There was a coffee van at the top of the climb, which seemed to be popular with cyclists but it was too early in the day to stop, especially with another 80 miles plus for Charlie and myself. It was a good job that we had had breakfast as this van didn’t seem to sell any substantial food, so it would have been a long ride for breakfast. I hadn’t really warmed up by this point and this up-down beginning didn’t really play to my strengths. I find I have to ride for about an hour and a half or so before I feel comfortable.
As we continued to ride the uncompromising but stunning South Downs Way, Rob was on particularly fine form as he made light work of the ascents and negotiated the technical descents without fear. There were lots of mountain bikers out this morning and we let some riders pass periodically to avoid holding anyone up who wanted to have their downhill fix.
It was pretty hilly going into Winchester and the cathedral city began to beckon in the distance. As we got nearer, we crossed under the busy M3 before riding alongside a busy canal path beside the River Itchen. King Alfred’s statue stood resplendent at the bottom of the Broadway in the city centre. Seeing as it was another 25 miles to Salisbury, it made sense to buy provisions for lunch now.
Greggs and an M&S Simply Food were the options for food and we all shared an early lunch. Rob had been on fine form this morning and contemplated carrying on but made the courageous decision to end the ride here, given how he had been feeling prior to the ride. It was a fairly swift lunch as Charlie and I had a way to go yet and we parted ways, Nick and Rob heading for the train station.
As we navigated the streets of Winchester, Charlie kept his eyes peeled for a bike shop as he wanted to stock up on inner tubes after his tyre fiasco yesterday but there was nothing obvious. As we were on the outskirts of the city, we were met with a fairly sharp road climb which then diverted into a picturesque off-road descent through a Shire-like setting.
The route to Salisbury was hard work, but possibly not quite as hilly as the South Downs but with the cumulative miles in the legs so far, it was tough! As we neared Salisbury, Charlie started to struggle on the climbs as he couldn’t find any power in his legs but was fine on the flat. He contemplated getting the train back as he didn’t think he could make it to Devizes, which was still some distance away. We passed a sign that signalled there being 1.5 miles to Salisbury. However, Salisbury never arrived as the route actually doesn’t go through it.
There was then quite a twisty climb alongside Old Sarum and the route continued to be unabating, Charlie continuing to find the climbs tough. We passed through several hamlets and villages but there was no shop to be found to stop at to restock, so if you are riding this route and choose not to stop at Winchester, you would be wise to divert into Salisbury to stock up.
As we had finished climbing a particular brute of a climb, we stopped by the side of the road where there was a sign for Stonehenge. Charlie wanted to road it back to Salisbury but after a bit of coaxing, he had a break and had something to eat. Two road riders passed who courteously stopped to ask if we were ok and we got into conversation with them. They were relatively new to the Salisbury area and were on their way back to the city, but they encouraged Charlie to carry on.
After our break, we carried on and descended on the road down the hill and we were very quickly into Amesbury, where we found a petrol station to stock up on food and drink. It was 15:00 at this point and as we still had a way to go, I called the hotel for tonight to let them know we were going to be late.
The route then took us on the outskirts of Stonehenge, which you don’t get a particularly good view of from the official route, so if you’d like to visit this landmark in all its glory or want an Instagram image, you’ll need to divert. We then started to ride the Salisbury Plains section, which was markedly flatter than what we had experienced today so far but on a windy day, this section could be hard work as it is quite exposed. We could hear the sounds of MOD vehicles and military machinery and there were signs warning to be weary of unexploded ordinance and suspicious objects. One of the highlights of this section was seeing a MOD towing another MOD, which both Charlie and I hadn’t seen before!
As we crossed the Plains, Charlie’s rear tyre lost air and wanting to avoid having to use a tube in the rear, he used a plug on it and re-inflated it. We carried on along the Plains until we reached Market Lavington at about 18:15. There are a couple of turns in this Northern section of the Plains that aren’t obvious on a GPS device, so be careful to make sure you are still en-route. Knowing we had about an hour until sunset and another 20 miles or so on the route, we chose to ride to Devizes on the road as we were already knackered and we didn’t particularly fancy missing dinner as the kitchen closed at 21:00.
The A360 into Devizes was a bit of a rat run but we’d definitely made the sensible decision. Charlie’s tyre kept going down and we stopped to re-inflate it a couple of times to make it to the hotel. We arrived at The Castle Hotel which was quite a grand and quirky old building and had an interesting place to lock the bike as one would expect of an 18th century coaching inn.
After a warm shower, it was dinner and straight to bed for me, as I was knackered and the thought of the Ridegway on Day 3 came into mind, especially with rain forecast for the morning.
Day 2 wasn’t quite as hard as Day 1 but it’s a big day on the bike. I wouldn’t recommend trying to cover so many miles in one day – I think 70 is the magic number.
After an even better night’s sleep than the first night, I woke up to find that the weather forecast had changed and there was no more rain forecast for the day. It had clearly rained overnight though as the ground was wet. Prior to breakfast, Charlie had gone to replace the inner tube on his tyre before breakfast. Charlie and I shared a late breakfast and we got ready to ride the final day. As we went to unlock and head out on the bike, Charlie’s tyre was flat again! Charlie was out of tubes and I had been carrying two so I gave him one of mine to use, which was rather narrow for his wider tyres but it was enough to get him riding. We had a quick Google to see if there were any bike shops in Devizes and the answer to that was yes, but nothing open on a Sunday!
Having ridden parts of the Ridgeway in the past, we knew that water was going to be few and far between so we headed to Sainsbury’s to stock up and to buy some lunch. I had a quick gander in there to see if there were any tubes as sometimes, supermarkets sell items like this but no luck. Charlie then had the bright idea to try Wilko which was in town and we next headed there where he struck luck and brought two heavy-duty looking tubes for the journey. Who knew that Wilko stocked them?
10:30 and although late out of the gate, we were now ready to ride. We started to head back to the official route (Devizes was a diversion), which took us briefly along the Kennet Canal before we diverted onto a Kansas-style gravel track, which seemed to be a popular route for the Sunday road club riders that we passed. This brief gravel section transformed into a game of bicycle parkour as we found ourselves in a field and the GPX route through it wasn’t immediately obvious until we found a stile and gate that was the obvious candidate to navigate. If we were to revisit the KAW route again, this would be an area of the route to improve.
After passing through the sleepy village of All Cannings, we were then met by the first climb of the day, Tan Hill. This was a road climb that then turned into a gravel track at the top that then turns into singletrack as you descend towards the A4 near Avebury. Although climbing on tired legs, this was perhaps the most scenic climb of the entire King Alfred’s Way, a beautiful monolithic climb that felt extra-terrestrial and felt as if you were climbing a stairway to heaven. The vast landscapes at the top were stunning.
The singletrack descent towards the A4 is a rather spicy one and as it’s quite overgrown, your tyres either have to stay in the allocated track or you’re off! There were a few hairy moments on the descent so it is one to take with caution.
After crossing the A4, the route then takes you through Avebury and right by the historic stones and very shortly after, you then reach another long climb that takes you up to the Ridgeway. This was another tough climb that went on for longer than it should and similar to the Tan Hill descent, some sections of it are quite narrow-going. This was made even harder to negotiate with a group of motorbikers trying to pass us, mixed with some walkers. The sign to turn onto the Ridgeway came shortly after and this marked the start of a significant portion of the rest of the ride. The Ridgeway can be quite tough going as it is undulating and a cacophony of surfaces. Conditions were favourable so far.
After the first handful of climbs and descents, we came across the two riders on Mason frames that we had encountered on Day 1 on a climb. They were on their final stretch of the route and were due to finish at Market Liddington, not too far from Swindon and had about 10 miles to go. You could see the outskirts of Swindon from the top of the Ridgeway for quite some way, so it must have been tougher for them knowing they didn’t have far to go. We pressed on as they took a break. There was an exhilarating grass descent on one section after a prolonged climb with an optimal tailwind and another more rocky descent, made tougher by another group of motorbikers trying to overtake.
Charlie’s tyre then made the unenviable sound of deflating, although that said the road tube had held up pretty well compared to the correct tubes he had used before! It was time to test the quality of the Wilko tube and it did the job as this was to be Charlie’s final puncture stop for the rest of the ride. The two Mason riders passed us, eagerly heading towards their finish.
Once the tube had been installed, we set off again and although it was around 13:00 and lunchtime, there was still a long way to go and we didn’t want to finish in the dark so whilst we still felt moderately energetic, we chose to try and ride for another hour before stopping for lunch. The route continued to be rolling in profile and on a road crossing, we spotted the two Mason riders one final time as they were waiting for transport and they wished us good luck for the final section of our journey.
Conveniently around 14:00, we spotted a food van that seemed quite popular so we thought we would stop there to fill up on water and have a proper lunch rather than a meal deal. The menu was rather basic – it was a choice of pork or pork! Charlie had a filling-looking pulled pork wrap but I wanted to avoid a stodgy lunch so opted for the only non-pork item on the menu which was a leek and potato soup.
As we tucked into our well-needed lunch, a large group of cyclists were also eating pork-related lunches and it transpired they were also riding the King Alfred’s Way, only they had started from Winchester so they had quite a way to go and were due to stop in Reading overnight. The group presented as a real mixed range of ability, with some members seasoned gravel riders and others were beginners.
Unfortunately, about a mile or two after lunch, we encountered the group again and one members derailleur hanger had snapped off and they were converting the bike into a fixed gear to get to Reading, where there are a selection of shops, although that might have been a tad optimistic in hoping they have the specific hanger there. It was also likely to be a long and arduous ride for the poor rider, given that the Ridgeway continued to be undulating!
The rest of the Ridgeway continued to be scenic and it turned out to be a rather warm afternoon for the time of year, contrary to the forecasted rain. There was a nice section towards Wantage that was a wide and loose gravel path with a fun descent (that I had to dodge quite a sizeable pothole on at the last minute!) and some panoramic views of the Oxfordshire landscape. We had a short break about an hour later as Charlie’s feet were uncomfortable so we both took a breather and allowed our feet a chance to air out.
The final descent of the Ridgeway into Goring was a highlight of the day as it was quite loose with a couple of drops that we managed to achieve some airtime on, the first and only instance of the ride! I was very relieved when we completed the Ridgeway as it was quite a tough 50 up-and-down section and we were very lucky to have ridden it in favourable conditions.
You’d be mistaken in thinking the route into Reading would be flat, given the amount of elevation you achieve on the Ridgeway. The Thames Path into Whitchurch was surprisingly hilly and there was even one section with stairs that required walking up! This was generally the last of the off-road as it was mainly a paved road back to Reading. It’s quite surprising how you suddenly end up in the heart of Reading as the large town isn’t visible from the north.
Before we knew it, we were in the centre of Reading and we rode through the park and ended up at the train station back where we started. It had been three days of high emotions but memorable and epic riding and as it was quite late, we headed straight for the train which almost telepathically arrived as soon as we set foot on the station, a rare feat for First Great Western!
This bikepacking trip makes for an excellent gateway into this genre of cycling and the route delivers on all fronts from its picturesque settings to historic landmarks. I was especially impressed, seeing as this route is largely on my doorstep and it gave me a newfound appreciation. To those who believe that gravel riding only really exists in the United States, this route proves that the UK more than packs its own punch. It’s impressive how little of the loop is on-road.
I’m very glad that we chose Reading as our start. If you choose to start in Winchester as the route officially suggests, you’ll have the bulk of the climbing in the final day which will be hard work. Make sure you’re well stocked on food and water as there are long isolated sections without a town or city and as with any event, make sure your bike is in prime mechanical condition to avoid the risk of any problems as you will generally be quite far away from assistance.
This route is harder than the Cycling UK route guide may have you believe, who market the ride as accessible for everyone. Yes, that is true but the route will have you off your bike in sections and walking and certainly if you want to tackle the route in 3-4 days, you will want to have a strong level of fitness. If you’re riding the route on a gravel bike, I’d cap each day at around 70 miles if you’re not camping, as we tried to take on too great a distance in Day 2 and to a certain extent, also in Day 1.
I’ve got the bikepacking bug and I’ve got it hard after riding the King Alfred’s Way and I’m already planning another adventure!
2018 was an interesting year in the cycling industry, with many interesting new products and developments. These included an influx of aero bikes from many different bike brands, the continued rise of disc brakes and more road bikes geared to venture slightly more off-road to name but a few trends.
Here I will detail ten products that I loved last year, products that are well designed and that I will use for years to come. In no particular order, here are my picks for the products that I loved most in 2018.
Image from Castelli’s website.
Castelli Inferno Bib Shorts
I’ve always got on well with Castelli bib shorts as the padding in them is generally excellent and they are well made but last year year, I bought an Inferno for hot weather and it really comes into its own in hotter conditions and has become a favourite. The best compliment I can give these shorts is the cliched argument that you forget you are wearing them. They fit perfectly and after many uses, have proven to be impressively durable given the lightweight materials used.
Image from Osprey’s website
Osprey Syncro 15
This bag is excellent both for commuting and for riding. With well-placed pockets and clever integration of storage, it feels excellent when commuting. I used the bag on a 70 mile ride down to the coast this year and whilst I could still tell I was wearing a bag, it’s better than a lot of other options out there that would be far more cumbersome.
BMC Teammachine SLR01 Disc
I upgraded to (one of) my dream bikes last year and I am very impressed with this bike. Aesthetically, this is one of the cleanest looking bikes on the market and the red paint job is just stunning. BMC have cleverly focussed on integration and there is barely a cable in sight. Whilst this is a hard bike to work on mechanically, at least BMC have designed the bike to be fairly logical to work on. The Teammachine SLR01 is a perfect blend of lightweight, stiff and aerodynamic and has proven to be an excellent all-rounder.
Image from BikeRadar’s first-look at the Shimano Ultegra R8000 series groupset
Shimano Ultegra Di2 R8070
This one is a bit of a cheat seeing as it’s part of my BMC but I have been equally impressed with this groupset. Although more an evolution than revolution of the outgoing 6870 series, Shimano have integrated the hydraulic reservoir into the shifter impeccably and the shifter feels like a normal road cable-actuated shifter. It works very well and gear changes are more noticeable than on previous models, which was a common complaint for feeling a little vague.
The first (of many) Silca products that I bought last year when I discovered this brand. Silca are a brand whose ethos I strongly get behind who take a pride in engineering exceptional quality tools with no corners cut. This T-Ratchet set with the Ti-Torque beam is a masterclass as it combines pretty much every single bit you’d need on a beautifully crafted ratchet and has a torque bit to boot which displays live torque as you are tightening bolts. I use this day in day out where I work at a bike shop, it gets taken with me on every ride for any eventualities and it’s perfect on holidays when I hire bikes and don’t need to worry about working on carbon components. A masterpiece.
Image from Kalf’s website
Kalf Flux Jersey
Kalf, exclusive to Evans Cycles, are a clothing brand that launched in 2017 and for the reasonable prices for their kit (generally everything is less than £100), it’s all really well-thought out items that rival other clothing brands that target the same demographic. This Flux jersey is their more race-focussed product (Club products are a more relaxed fit) and it is brilliant – great on hotter days due to lots of ventilation and the fit is spot-on.
Image from Pedro’s website
Pedro’s Tyre Levers
The only set of tyre levers you should own. Perhaps a rather boring item to pick, these are perfectly designed and get most tyres off with ease or with relative ease if a difficult tyre. No tyre lever I have used compares to this. The shape is just perfect for real world conditions. And what’s more, they have a lifetime warranty to boot with no quibbles if you break them.
Image from Clif’s website
Clif Energy Bar
The only food I look forward to eating when on the bike, these always hit the spot. They’re an impressively big portion so you could have one bar in two goes when on the bike and they taste very nice. The best compliment that I can give is I would be happy to eat these off the bike! The ‘Crunchy Peanut Butter’ is my pick of the bunch with the ‘Cool Mint Chocolate’ hotly contesting second place.
Image from KMC’s website
KMC X11 SL Chain
I was fed up of having to replace Shimano chains after not a lot of mileage so I thought I’d give this uber-lightweight chain a go. This chain is sensational and you can really feel the difference when you ride. I’ve also found it a lot quieter to ride than Shimano and shifts remain silky smooth. The only chain to have!
Image from Castelli’s website
Castelli Arenberg Gloves
Whilst now updated in 2019 (and now not quite as good), the previous version of the Arenberg gloves were excellent. The padding is in the right place, they fit very well and these are very comfortable to use on the bike, combined with quality bar tape.
What kit have you enjoyed using on the bike? Let me know your picks in the comments.
It’s taken a while but I’ve finally managed, for the first time, to build up a road bike from a bare frameset. This has been one of my bike-related dreams for a while and I feel very proud to have fulfilled it…and I’d happily do it again.
First, a bit of context behind this build. As a Winter bike, I’ve been riding a B’Twin Alur 700 for several years which has mostly been fine and has made for a reliable Winter / university workhorse. It’s fairly light and comfortable and has served me many miles, embarking on many club rides, sportives and the odd TT here and there. However, the rear brake is chainstay-mounted which has caused many problems particularly in the Winter months with all the mud and dirt getting caught into it and odd headset bearings. So I have been looking for a while for something that will do the job a bit better and also who doesn’t always envy a new bike?!
However, I managed to find a Specialized Allez DSW SL frameset, brand new too, for a very reasonable price. If that all sounded completely confusing, the Allez DSW SL is Specialized’s higher-tier aluminium frame featuring their D’Aluisio (named after the designer) Smartweld technology making for a lighter, stiffer and stronger frame.
I bought the frame around Christmas time last year but as I had my B’Twin up at uni, I didn’t get a chance to bring the old bike home until May. I then managed to transfer a lot of the parts over from the B’Twin and changed a couple of other parts in the meantime as to me, it made sense to. I ran into a couple of snags though, for example when I broke a stem bolt and had to wait ages to get a replacement and also holidays and work got in the way. I have only just completed it earlier this month and went out on my first maiden voyage the other day. I’ll do a full review and write up once I get to know the bike more but so far, so good. Here it is:
Here’s a full list of specs for those interested:
Frame and Fork: Specialized Allez DSW SL
Groupset: Shimano 105 5800, 50/34 chainset, 11-32 cassette (I will change this to an 11-28 when it wears out)
Wheelset: Mavic Aksium Race (these are still going strong from my original bike, once these are worn, they’ll be replaced)
Tyres: Continental Grand Prix 4 Seasons, 700x25c
Pedals: Shimano 105
Saddle: Fi’zi:k Aliante (this will probably be changed at some point)
Seatpost: Specialized S-Works Carbon
Handlebar: Specialized S-Works Carbon Handlebar, 42cm (I upgraded this from the 3T Ergosum Pro handlebars I originally had as they were the wrong shape for me and I was so impressed with the carbon handlebars on another bike, I thought I might as well bite the bullet now if I have to tape them and mount the shifters / sort out cables etc…)
Stem: Bontrager Race Lite 100mm (this will be changed soon as well. Part of the reason why this post is so late was because I broke a bolt on the original Deda stem I fitted to the bike but I need to see how the bike works size-wise before upgrading.
Headset: Tange Seiki, 1 1/8 to 1 3/8 (these will be upgraded when they wear out)
Bottom Bracket: Unbranded BB30 (this will be upgraded when it wears out)
I’m not sure on the weight yet but I would imagine it to weigh in the low 8’s region. I’ll update this article when I know.
I would definitely recommend building up your own bike if you get the chance as you get to pick and choose all the components you want and also it means that you haven’t got to buy something you don’t want (ie. if a bike you buy is not specced how you want it and then have to spend money to upgrade). I would definitely do it again and over the years, as I have worked with bikes and know a lot more of how they work, I can upgrade or change sections at a time rather than just buying new bikes. I’ll say it again, building your own bike is an EXTREMELY rewarding process.
Despite cycling for three and a half years now, this Summer was the first time I ventured abroad and had the opportunity to ride on foreign roads. Earlier on this month, I went to Sardinia for 2 weeks and managed to rent a Canyon Ultimate CF SL 9.0 (I’ll review it soon) in the middle of the 2 weeks for a week. Now Sardinia may not be as famous for its cycling as say, France or Spain are but looking online beforehand, many cyclists were shouting praise for the cycling on this island for its smooth tarmac and variety of climbs. I have been to Sardinia before about 10 years ago but that was just on a holiday so knew that the country had some beautiful views but was unaware of what the cycling scene was like there.
Cycling in Sardinia is stunning. The main roads are generally much smoother than in the UK but when you go off the beaten path, some of the roads can turn into gravel rather quickly which luckily the Canyon was more than up for! There are plenty of long climbs with an awe-inspiring view at the top but nothing that’s ever too steep – the UK’s hills are a lot shorter but the gradient is much bigger. One particularly impressive climb was the SP3 / 50 out of Siniscola, a town between Olbia and Nuoro which had an elevation of 600 metres followed by the best descent I have ever done into Torpé.
My favourite place to ride in the area that I was staying was a small town called Posada between Siniscola and Olbia which had some great roads circling the old town which was on a hill – I went through here on all of my rides bar one. There is a great café in the main square which is always moderately busy but keenly priced and has a great atmosphere. The old town is also nice but on a bike, all the roads are cobbled which is interesting for an experience but is sketchy when descending back down into the main town.
Italian drivers are notorious for being rather erratic but I actually found them to be nicer to cyclists than they are to cars and they give you plenty of room when overtaking. In terms of other cyclists, I didn’t see that many but most people who passed me would always greet me so the impression I got was that the cyclists are quite friendly. Of course, Italy wouldn’t be Italy without the café’s and the coffee on offer was stunning. My two joint favourite café’s was the one in the main square in Posada and the other one was in Bodoni about 5 miles north of Posada which not only served a range of coffee’s but also ‘cream di café’ which the best way to describe it would be a coffee-flavoured Mr Whippy that was amazing.
I was very downhearted when I had to give the bike back as cycling here is just so wonderful and the atmosphere is great too. I suppose the only negative for cycling here was that I did get chased by two dogs in the space of 6 rides but you can’t have everything! I would definitely recommend cycling here if you can as the views are spectacular and there is a bit of everything for everyone – mountains, coastal views and roads off the beaten tracks thrown in with excellent café’s. I suppose the only negative for cycling here was that I did get chased by two dogs!
So, it’s all over and done with – 500km between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve and boy was it hard! The ‘Rapha Festive 500’ challenge has tested cyclists since 2010 and after being caught up at work last year, I thought I would give it a go this year. I knew it was going to be hard but the last couple of rides really did put pay to my legs. It works out at 40 miles a day which in itself is manageable.
As I knew I would have problems to ride 40 miles on Christmas Day and Boxing Day respectively, I decided to make up the mileage and rode 80 miles on Christmas Eve which wasn’t too challenging. I was planning on a short ride on Christmas Day but the weather looked less than appealing and ended up putting it off and rode 25 miles on Boxing Day – already behind! Luckily, I managed to make up the mileage on Sunday with a 55 mile ride in what was originally meant to be another 80 miler, but I just didn’t have it in the legs.
At this point, I was at the half-way mark (250km) but plan-wise, behind due to not riding the 80 miles on Boxing Day. This was going to be tough! From this point onwards, my legs ached on each and every ride and the average speed of each ride plummeted – this was really tough! On Monday, I rode another 25 miler as I didn’t want to push it after putting in a big ride on Sunday. This was followed by a 65 miler on Tuesday which completely wrecked me. At this point, I had 95km left and was a little stumped how to finish this challenge. As my legs were finished, I contemplated finishing in two rides splitting the distance or just doing it in one ride with Wednesday as a recovery day. This was what I ultimately ended up doing although I did plan on riding on Wednesday but the weather was especially foul. So a final 60 miler on New Year’s Eve and challenge completed and boy, do my legs now ache!
I’m glad I’ve completed this challenge as I’ve proved to myself that I’m capable of doing the distance but in all honesty, it took up a lot of my Christmas as I had to dedicate lots of time to it and I don’t think I’d be willing to do it again. But as a challenge in itself, I’m proud that I completed it.
The lengths us cyclists put ourselves through just for a roundel!