Weekender: Crossing the Dragon’s Back

Ride level Regular cyclist
Distance 71 mi / 114 km
Type of bicycle Gravel or adventure bike
Traffic free
Circular route
Living on the Welsh border, one of Paul Rogers’s favourite rides is an off-road route over the Cambrian Mountains to the Irish Sea

Route name: Crossing the Dragon’s Back 
Start/Finish: Aberystwyth pier (SN582818) or Bishop’s Castle (SO324886) 
Maps: OS Landrangers 135, 136, 137, 147 Ride length: 113km (71 miles) 
Climbing: 1,500m (E-W) or 1,700m (W-E) 
Bike type: Gravel or MTB 
Rider level: regular (two days) or experienced (one day)

Originally conceived as a single day crossing of Mid Wales, this route links up three distinctive off-road sections: the Kerry Ridgeway, the Elan Valley, and the Ystwyth Trail. It’s approximately 50% off road and can be tackled either way to make best use of the prevailing wind direction.

Quiet lanes connect the mainly gravel off-road sections, which provide traffic-free trails across open moorland, around reservoirs and along old railway trails. The town of Rhayader is well positioned to break the journey if you’re doing it over a weekend.

I’ve ridden this many times as a day challenge. A recent easterly wind gave two of us the opportunity to ride to the coast for a change. As ever when reversing a route, it’s very different – and it meant we could finish with fish and chips on the beach.

We caught the train back from Aberystwyth to Newtown, which is about 17 miles from Bishop’s Castle. An early train out to Aberystwyth works for a west-east crossing.

1 Bishop’s Castle

This ancient border town is an excellent spot to start or finish this ride, or to explore the Welsh Marches in general. There are many colourful buildings, each with a story to tell. The town also boasts the UK’s oldest brewery, a thriving music scene, pubs, cafés and more.

2 The Kerry Ridgeway

An ancient drovers’ route that crosses the high moorlands to the east of Newtown, it was originally used to drive cattle to the English markets. It offers big skies and big views. The ridge overlooks Wales on one side and England on the other.

3 Rhayader

At the base of the Elan Valley, Rhayader is a bustling market town with plenty of cafés and accommodation. It’s a good mid-way point for a two-day ride, with excellent wild swimming options in the River Wye after a long day on the bike.

4 Elan Valley

You pass a series of mostly Victorian-built reservoirs that supply water to Birmingham. With cycle paths around much of the valley, this is an ideal place for a longer family break. The recently-built short mountain bike trails are sure to put a smile on your face.

5 Ystwyth Trail

Sustrans NCN Route 81 uses the old railway bed by the Ystwyth River. Although tempting to miss out the steep climb to the railway cutting on the hillside, this is an absolute gem, with moss-covered walls, gently dripping to the path below.

6 Aberystwyth

The start or finish point of this ride, Aberystwyth is a lively Victorian seaside town at the mouth of the River Ystwyth. It has all the usual seaside attractions. The darker months bring huge starling murmurations each evening as they gather to roost under the pier. Not to be missed.