Spending the majority of my time on the bike in and around London, it’s easy to be fooled into what an actual climb is like. Sure, there's the odd kicker in the capital if you look in the right places, and they will get you towards the lower end of your cassette, but these ascents are often over as soon as you get into your groove.
One can of course venture outside of the M25 – be it the Kent, Chilterns, South Downs or, wait for it, the legendary Box Hill – but even here, gradients tend to peak in the lower teens, with the average remaining firmly in single figures.
No, for a real energy-sapping challenge, there’s only one option – you have to leave London behind and look further afield.
A journey to the valleys
One place synonymous with ‘hills’ is Wales. Even on the drive to the start of the ride – an hour north of Abergavenny in the small, quiet mining town of Rhayader – I’m reminded of how flat most of the south of England is; now we're into Wales, the roads this side of the Severn Bridge are flanked either side by giant, looming mountains that go on for as far as the eye can see.
On arriving in Rhayader, a wave of calmness flows over me. Gone are the busy streets of London, where there are any number hazards (cars, pedestrians, even other cyclists) to watch out for.
The peace and quiet that falls over the small high street’s collection of pubs (there are nine in total - the most per capita in the UK, I’m proudly informed by local guide Phill Stasiw) is only occasionally broken by a haulage lorry passing through on the A road that cuts through the town. And that is as busy as it gets.
My steed for the day is the Ridley Fenix SL Disc Ultegra Di2 – a brilliant all-rounder from the Belgian manufacturer that was built with the Spring Classics. I'm not expecting any pave action on our route, but it’s always handy to know your bike is up to the challenge if and when required.
Setting off from Rhayader, we take a the quiet route out of town but the haulage lorry-ferrying A road can't be avoided for long. A quick burst in pairs helps the 3-4 miles on the main north-south artery of mid-Wales fly by, before we turn off onto a B road at Newbridge-on-Wye.
For me, a B road is still an exercise in sticking to the edge of the road, and it’s rare for more than a couple of minutes to pass without having to sound the ‘car up’ alarm when riding in a group. Not so in mid-Wales; I could easily count on one hand the number of vehicles that passed during the eight miles of undulating roads through the field-lined countryside. And when I say ‘undulating’, I mean that in comparison to what is to come – some of this 'flatter' part of the ride touches more than 13 per cent on the steep rollers.
"When I say ‘undulating’, I mean that in comparison to what is to come – some of this 'flatter' part of the ride touches more than 13 per cent on the steep rollers"
At the small village of Beulah, we turn right onto the small country lane that would take us up and over the Devil’s Staircase. And if I thought the previous roads had been quiet, I was really in for a treat for the next 20 miles of what I can only describe as pure cycling bliss.
The Devil’s Staircase
Length: 0.7 miles
Average gradient: 12 per cent
Maximum gradient: 25 per cent
After initially hugging the river Cynffiad, the road gradually rises and leaves the stunning valley below. The foliage goes from sparse oaks and the odd hedge through to a thick copse of conifers – transporting your mind from the roads of Wales to the forests of the Alps. Entering the village of Abergwesen, the gradient starts to pick up. I ask Stasiw if this is the climb we’ve been aiming for. He laughs off my question, as if to say 'trust me, you’ll know when we reach the Devil’s Staircase'.
A mile or so after the junction, the road opens up, and I can only describe it as a view that Top Gear location scouts dream of. The road winds around kinks in the hillside for as far as the eye can see, while to the left in the valley below the river Irfon goes about its business. Blind bends and hidden dips litter the route, but with the road as quiet as it is, these features just add to its mystery and the rollercoaster ride.
"A sign to the left of the road warns of the 25 per cent gradient and switchbacks for the next half a mile. An initial gut-wrenchingly steep section leaves me scrabbling for my lowest gears"
And then you see it. What doesn’t look that imposing from afar soon starts to loom over you on the approach. After flying over a cattle grid, a sign to the left of the road warns of the 25 per cent gradient and switchbacks for the next half a mile. An initial gut-wrenchingly steep section leaves me scrabbling for my lowest gears, and once I've ground my way to the first hairpin I'm still really only a third of the way through the climb. The incline does let up slightly, but with my legs already burning from the build-up of lactic acid, the remaining half-mile at an average of eight per cent is tough going.
With most climbs, there is the small part of your brain that is telling you that, regardless of the pain you’re enduring, you’ve got something to look forward to with the descent. Not so with the Devil’s Staircase. The other side is a white knuckle descent sure to put the frighteners on any rider. Although relatively straight and with good visibility through the snaking corners, the gradient mirrors the ascent’s 25 per cent, and my speed shoots up - this is a lightening quick stretch of road. Flying down the hill, trailed by the smell of burning pads on disc brakes, the descent bottoms out with a punchy crosswind at the base, as if we needed a reminder to stay on our toes.
"Both climbs are tough in themselves, but when paired with energy sapped legs, you really have to get into a rhythm to keep your things ticking over and the wheels rolling"
A steep rise soon takes the wind out of my sails though, and it’s on to the other climbs dotted along this unrelenting country road. The first is Gammalt – a tight hairpin and a long, drawn out switchback that rises almost 600ft with an average gradient of 6.2 per cent, and sections far steeper – which is quickly followed by Cenglau – a three-quarter-of-mile drag with an 8.5 per cent average gradient where the summit is hidden from the start of the climb. Both are tough in themselves, but when paired with energy-sapped legs, you really have to get into a rhythm to keep the wheels rolling. A fun, winding descent is the reward – including a tight, technical, tree-lined chicane – which brings us to Tregaron and with it a well-earned break for lunch.
Wales’ answer to undulating roads
Reflecting on the day so far over a hard-earned jacket potato and slice of cake, I’m struck by how everyone on the ride with me is smiling, despite sore legs all-round. Sure, there have been some gruelling moments – today is the first big spin of the year for some. But riding on the quiet country roads of mid-Wales is a reminder of what cycling is all about – away from the Strava segment-chasing crowds and close-passing cars, you can relax and enjoy the sport in its simplest form.
The guide describes the rest of the day as relatively flat with a couple of climbs, but having spent the morning riding in this part of the world, I know that what I consider to be ‘flat’ doesn’t really exist here. Needless to say, the afternoon leg is more of the same - stunning panoramic views, amazing tarmac, minimal traffic – but despite having 40 miles and a lot of climbing in my legs, I’m feeling surprisingly fresh.
The first notable incline is seven miles after our break – a mile-long rise from Pontrhydfendigaid to Ffair-Rhos that has an average gradient of 6.8 per cent and highs double that – which is quickly followed by the shorter-yet-tougher ascent to Hafod.
The the next ten miles fly by thanks to the stunning scenery of the Ystwyth valley. This is easily the most picturesque section of the whole ride; the road is carved into the hillside, the river babbles away in the valley to the left, while in the distance, hills seem to cross each other like the folds in a bedsheet.
"The road is carved into the hillside, the river babbles away in the valley to the left, while in the distance, hills seem to cross each other like the folds in a bedsheet"
The beauty of the area is only broken by the long, gradual climb that sits between me and the finishing point back in Rhayader. With 60 miles in my legs, the 1.5-mile, 6.5 per cent rise is one of the last things I want to do, but the grind is worth it for what follows - a fast and fun 3.5-mile descent back to town.
What riding is all about
The Devil’s Staircase climb and the others that surround it have their reputation for a reason. Each ascent is typical of Wales - thigh-burning in steepness, if not as long as the mountain climbs found elsewhere in Europe - but when done back-to-back, are truly a challenging set of stingers that will test even the most experienced climber.
Riding in mid-Wales reminded me of what cycling is all about. Gone were the stresses and strains of riding on busy city roads or the lanes of the south east. I was left with a truly testing route on amazing roads and fantastic scenery, where I was able to focus all my attention on the most important thing - riding my bike.