What do you do if you'd like to go on a romantic weekend with your partner, but your weekends are also precious time that you need for cycling, particularly if you are training for something?
Can you combine bike time with quality romantic time? With an impending anniversary, I thought I should probably attempt to find out. And quickly.
Now, I'm aided in this ambition by the fact that my partner is an obsessive mountain biker himself. This means that the fact I'd really like to spend most of the day on a bike isn't a bone of contention. It's a given.
But where to go? We wanted somewhere in the UK, somewhere we hadn't been before, and somewhere with plenty of places to ride. And of course somewhere lovely to stay with your Significant Other. An internet search threw up any number of possible locations, but one stood out. Mid-Wales.
Why did it stand out? Well, both north and south Wales are extremely well represented in the cycling stakes, particularly for mountain biking. In the north you have the well known Coed y Brenin and Betws y Coed trail centres, in the south Afan, Bike Park Wales, and Cwmcarn to name but a few.
But there's plenty of riding in mid Wales that doesn't get shouted about. Plus the fact that I'd never ridden there and was curious.
So one Friday after work I hopped on the train with my bike, meeting my partner in the van midway, and we plunged off the motorway and onto the dark rural roads and lanes. Driving through the night gives you very little idea of what the landscape is like, sadly, but I did notice that most of the roads were in great condition. Quite a lot looked freshly resurfaced in fact. Note to self: come back and do some road cycling.
After a close encounter with a suicidal bunny and a few iffy satnav directions, we arrived at the guest house I'd found for the weekend - Brynarth Country Guest House. Located nearish Aberystwyth, it was in a good location for our riding plans, looked lovely, and most importantly were bike friendly.
Even in the darkness it was unfeasibly picturesque - a cluster of whitewashed stone farm buildings, with the gurgling of water nearby.
Traveling up after work meant we got there pretty late, and very tired, but owners James and Stuart were happy to stay up to meet us. A quick chat about breakfast ('I'll have everything, please!) and they showed us up to our room.
A hot shower, a cup of hot chocolate, and a comfortable bed - bliss.
Living in London, the thing that gets me every time I venture out into the countryside is how blissfully quiet it is... so quiet in fact that we both nearly overslept.
Now, normally at the weekend we'd have breakfast on the run en route to a trail centre or something, so sitting down to a full Welsh brekkie, complete with eggs supplied by the Brynarth chickens, was a real treat.
Nant y Arian has a selection of three MTB trails, plus a selection of walking routes, a children's playground and a great trail centre with cafe, toilets and a shop. Sadly, the centre was hit by the recent outbreak of Ash Dieback disease, so a lot of the forest has been cleared and the mountainside looks a little sparse in places.
Happily, there was still plenty of forested single track to weave in and out off. The Summit trail is a red route that takes you on some great twisty trails, and swooping long traverses with bags of rollers. The tracks are quite narrow, with patches of loose shale and rocky outcrops, which to my mind equals fun! The views are also outstanding.
On the return part of the trail, the ominious 'Leg Burner' section was aptly named; it's essentially a long, draggy fire road. My hopes were raised halfway along by a trail zipping off to the left, but after a short while through some admittedly beautiful moss-lined trail, I was back on the exact same fireroad. I was not feeling the love.
Happily, the last descent was great and all was forgiven. Originally through trees, it now snakes down the hillside towards the trail centre. It's fast and fun, but that's not why I loved it.
The reason I loved it was it was feeding time for the local Red Kite population. Imagine dozens of majestic birds of prey swooping above your head as you ride down the mountainside! I had to stop several times to watch, as I'd never seen anything like it before. It was breathtaking.
After a bit more exploring, we headed back to Brynarth for the perfect post-ride dinner; smoked haddock with a poached egg and potatoes - packed with protein, tasty, and ample!
We then decamped to the cosy lounge. As no-one else was about we had this space to ourselves, so we sprawled across the comfy sofas, drank a rather nice local ale (or two) and enjoyed the fire. A perfect end to a day of riding.
The next morning we were nearly late for breakfast again, due to a combination of excercise-induced deep sleep, ale, and the clocks going forward. However it's amazing how motivating the lure of bacon is at rousing you quickly and making you get your clothes on.
There was time for a quick visit to the chickens before we headed off, this time towards Machynlleth and the ClimachX trail.
Taking things up a notch, this has the longest singletrack descent in Wales! Well, according to the website - I didn't actually measure it as I was too busy enjoying it. You have to work for it though, as there's rather a lot of climbing to get you to the top. The trail is one of the great; opened in 2005, it's often a feature of the Dyfi Enduro - which, by the way, is supposed to be one of the best ways to get to know the trails around the area.
As there's no trail centre, you've got to park at the bottom of the hill, and ride up. And up, and up! As a reward, expect rocky dropoffs, whoops galore, and flowing twists and turns on natural trails. The final sequence of berms at the bottom were a challenge, especially as I was pretty tired by then, but were also an exhilarating way to conclude the weekend of riding.
To finish things off, before finally saying goodbye to Wales and heading back to the big smoke, there was time for a little picnic. Sitting amongst the trees, spring flowers everywhere, and lambs playing in the field, was almost cheesily picturesque - like the mountain biking equivalent of The Sound of Music. No, I didn't burst into song.
But I did have a wonderful weekend with my Other Half. Yes, plenty of challenging mountain biking, but an equally large amount of chilling, relaxing, eating, drinking and generally enjoying each others company. Perfect.
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Where we stayed: Brynarth 4-star Country Guest House