The trouble with gravel is that it’s seldom gravel.
As a way of describing a style of bike it’s quite handy shorthand, and while in the USA where the genre was birthed there are endless miles of finely graded dirt tracks that stretch from state line to state line in every direction, here in the UK the dirt road network is somewhat different. The bikes are very seldom ridden on actual gravel; more like mud, grass, broken tarmac, moor, mud, bog, roots, fields and more mud instead.
You could apply the same to mountain bikes that are never ridden on mountains, or road race bikes that aren’t ever raced. Everyone knows what it means when you say you’ve got that genus of bike, although that doesn’t stop menontheinternet whining that gravel bikes are pointless because they’re never used on actual gravel, but I digress...
On top of that, everyone’s interpretation of what a gravel ride is varies wildly. For some, it’s a pleasant trundle over some nice genteel tracks and pleasant bridleways with a stop for cake somewhere (and some plaid involved), while for others it’s making tame mountainbike-able trails a bit more interesting. For some it’s a 250km smashfest only stopping for sponsored Instagram posts and a gel, and for a few it’s an extreme yomp against the clock over several fells that doesn’t really count unless you have to push your bike for a bit. The Wild Wales Gravel Festival is a bit of all of what gravel might be, and somehow manages to navigate an absolutely perfect course through the middle of it and make everybody happy.
The Wild Wales Gravel Festival is a two-day event based in Radnorshire. Because it’s in between lots of honeypot places that people flock to, with Bannau Brycheiniog (that’s the Brecon Beacons if you haven’t been paying attention to the name change) to the south, Builth Wells, Llandrindod Wells and the MTB trail centre of Rhayader to the west, and Eryri to the North (that’s Snowdonia if you haven’t been paying attention to the name change) it’s an ignored and therefore incredibly quiet part of the country in which to ride bikes. Hooray for us.
Because we’d just crossed the border into Wales, we arrive under a blanket of drizzle. Thankfully we’re directed to park the van under the comfy and dry shelter of a barn before we tip toe down the damp steep grassy hill to sign on.
The Wild Wales basecamp for the weekend is a pair of large geodomes hidden at the bottom of a secret hobbitty valley, that’s also home to some capacious bell tents for those that fancy a bit of posh camping, toilets, post-ride showers and a bike wash. There's also covered seating and fire pits for later in the evening when weather apps predict it might clear up. They’re wrong...
Supported by Rab, Stohk, komoot, Muc-Off and Outdoor Provisions, the sign-on bag is filled with actually useful goodies. The bag itself is a large tote made by Lowe Alpine from material offcuts, that would prove handy for carrying stuff around for the weekend and then shoving smelly cycling kit in for the way home.
One of the domes is set up with full cooking, seating and washing up facilities, so we join other riders in preparing our dinners, exchanging stories and spare bunches of salad on the communal tables while sipping Stohk beers that had been expertly chilled in the stream.
As soon as Wild Wales is gone, these domes - which were only just pitched the day before - will be used by Degmo, a initiative set up to provide Somali families from inner cities throughout the UK with the opportunity to explore their nomadic roots, language and customs via immersion in the countryside. It’s the creation of Hamish, who as well as being owner of Hangingheld Farm whose is a pretty handy bike (and motorbike trials) rider who helped plan this weekend’s routes. He's also a photographer, writer, lecturer and broadcaster who specialises in Somali culture and affairs.
Saturday arrives a little more cheerily than the previous damp evening, and riders gather in the sun-filled domes for breakfast and briefing before heading out as and when they please.
There are four routes to choose from to suit anyone from the novice graveller to the hardened off-road veteran. If you’re a complete newbie, you can hire a Sonder Frontier MTB or Camino gravel bike for the day to dip your dirty toe. All the routes are self-guided and self-supported, with no direction arrows and just a GPX line to follow with a frame bag full of snacks. There are 30, 45 and 75km routes and a 95km version that offers no opportunity for any kind of refuelling along the way, and only two people put their hands up for the 95km one. Did anyone check they were back yet?
We opt for the 75km ride with its 1,500m of climbing as the perfect mix of fun to distance to sufficiently challenging ratio. Also, because it had a food and water stop about halfway round, which is handy.
The first part of our Wild Wales day is on empty country roads, grass up the middle lanes and bridleways of the overgrown and field edge kind. Every so often there’s a bit of trickier terrain through sunken holloways, and maybe a bit of a walk up a greasy rocky track away from a ford, but it’s pleasant enough going. This 75km looks like it’s going to be easy...
We skip round Kington after about 20kms and skip the chance to nip off route for a leg-boosting coffee. The road turns left and starts a committed climb, before the tarmac peters out to become rough gravel, which then suddenly opens out into a broad hillside on the other side of a gate. We follow a wide grass bridleway through the bracken along and over Hergest Ridge (both a hill and a Mike Oldfield album) which gives us an impressive 360º view of the England/Wales borderlands.
The descent is an in-the-drops whoop as we fall off the hill on whooomfy grass, before skittering down hardpacked rocky double track back onto tarmac again for another few easy kilometres.
The nice warm-up for the ride is over when a dead-end farm road turns to aggregate, as we head north into a long off-road section and skirt around Colva Hill, then around Castel Hill to drop into the halfway feed station. This is where the gravel bit of the ride gets a bit mountain bikey, and to be fair we’d been warned by someone that had pre-ridden the course to pack the fattest gravel tyres we had.
As I’m of a certain age I can clearly remember this kind of riding across big landscape and big sky country as the bread and butter of mountain biking back in the day, when it was more about the mountain and a little less about the bike. I’m more than happy for that sort of riding to make a comeback, on whatever type of bike that may be. I’m on 650b x 50mm gravel tyres (2.1” in old money) and what a MTB tyre was way back then doesn’t help to detract from the “gravel bikes are just 90s mountain bikes with dropped bars” menontheinternet comments. But still, the tyres are tubeless so aren’t going to puncture on the rocks, the handling is confidence-inspiring rather than scary and twitchy, the brakes actually work and something’s not going to fall off or snap. So it’s actually incredibly enjoyable.
Numbers for the Wild Wales are limited to about 70, so with those few spread out over several routes and over quite a few miles of hill all taking things at their own pace it’s easy to find yourself alone on the trails. Sometimes it's just as easy to bump into another group of riders, meeting up at a gate in a gaggle wondering where the path actually goes. This last one is the group we stick with for the rest of the day without even making a conscious decision we’re going to, or even asking. They’re good company, they’re going abut the right speed and they cover the spectrum of bikes, from overgeared cyclo-cross race bikes with a noisy binding brake, to full-suspension mountain bikes and everything in between.
The gender split of the group is representative of the weekend too. Without making a big fuss of it Wild Wales ring-fenced 25 spaces for women, open gender/non-binary, LGBTQ+ and POC/BAME riders to attend, and that effort seems to have paid off and made the event incredibly inclusive. This definitely had a positive effect towards the atmosphere of the weekend.
After the feed stop at 45km, it’s a largely off-road route back home that circumvents a huge loop around Radnor Forest, starting off with a steady gravel road that veers steeply left far too soon after snacks. The track climbs still further through dense trees and open fields, before dipping up and down over very Welsh and rugged terrain that suits a proper MTB in parts, especially over the sections of chunky rocks that have been dumped in the way for the benefit of a recent motorbike enduro event.
We drop down off Shepherd’s Tump before taking a sharp right along the Heart Of Wales Line Trail, that funnels us north east down the valley and onto a short section of road before we reach the final and biggest climb of the day. Starting in a bucolic sun-dappled fashion along a path between the trees and farmland, it soon darkens in the woods and begins an ever-steepening climb that has most people off and pushing.
The top of this isn’t the top by a long way, as the route emerges onto a wide forestry gravel road and turns right through Radnor Forest to wiggle and bend through another 8km or so of steady climbing. The day's efforts are starting to show on some riders grinding legs.
We emerge from the endless forest onto a very blustery summit, and pause by the Black Mixen aerial mast and trig point to take in the panoramic views. We also take panoramic photos before the downhill all the way home, where the organisers have made sure the climb has very definitely been worth it.
We gingerly thread along a path hidden by rear mech-killing thick heather. If you can take your eyes off the trail for a few seconds it rewards you with an impressive view to the right of a deep and sharp-sided valley that can induce vertigo. Luckily the path opens up to be more easily rideable, skirting a large military area that’s off limits, empty and quiet apart from the sound of wind, freewheels, tyre skerfs and giggles.
The platform trail flows down the valley right on the limit of drop bar skills, before a long steady straight rise around the Whimble and a brakes off holler down into more big views over New Radnor. It's then short traverse and a final straight line descent through the fields back to the farm and the Wild Wales basecamp.
We scrub ourselves and our bikes up to a level of respectability and settle in for the evening. While the Wild Wales crew rustle up an evening meal of rice and chilli for everyone, we relax outside and listen to talks from Katherine Moore from komoot, who enthuses about her recent trip to Sri Lanka, and Rupert Barry from Trash Free Trails, who keeps things close to home with some words about the importance of connecting to the environment we all ride our bikes through.
It's then time for food and refreshments before Angus and Forbes (route organisers and riders, event helpers and the sons of farmer Hamish) and their friend George start the evening’s entertainment with a set from their accomplished folk band, to be followed by Skank Spinatra with a DJ set to accompany the campfire banter.
Sunday comes with a 'Bimble' to the local beauty spot, a waterfall, and is a no-drop social ride. Conversely komoot suggests this is an expert gravel ride with very good fitness required, and straight from the off it wasn’t in any way a bimble. The route winches its way out of the farm on the steep path we dropped in yesterday evening, and at least half of us are pushing, while one rider snaps a chain with the strain. It’s not a bother though, and the fitter and faster riders wait at the top holding the gate open, having a chat while everyone else filters through. It’s a system that works well all day, and after all the Wild Wales slogan is “Smiles Not Miles”. Yesterday was suitably milesy, but today is making up with the smiles.
There’s plenty more pushing as the route meanders its way to the very top of the hills up to the Black Mixen mast again, but there’s also lots of chatting and laughing, and a bit of getting lost in the bracken, and then some pushing down a steep loamy techy bit with roots.
The payback is the best bit of the day (actually maybe both days) in a long descent off the top on a fast natural, grassy pump track through the heather and bracken. It has everyone whooping and wanting to go back to the top for another go.
Unfortunately the waterfall destination is whatever the opposite of a damp squib is, as it’s just a dry bit of rock slab thanks to the weather these days. We just cluster in the path and munch snacks to see us the last bit home, which includes a cheeky steep back up and over to the finish of this 'Bimble', that would honestly be most people’s challenging Sunday ride.
The Wild Wales Gravel Festival probably wasn’t a gravel ride. Although maybe it was, it would depend entirely on your definition of what gravel is.
At some points a gravel bike was perfect. Sometimes a mountain bike had the advantage, but it evened out over the day, didn’t really matter and no-one complained. People of all abilities rode their bikes, and unlike the sausagefest that some other cycling events can turn into, the broader spectrum of genders present and variety of bikes ensured the atmosphere was incredibly relaxed and amenably pleasant.
On the Bimble ride we bumped into a rider on an Orange P7 steel mountain bike, which I assumed considering both their respective ages had been partners for quite some time. It turns out he was primarily a roadie and had only bought the bike second hand the week before. Instead of running chunky mtb tyres it was wearing some skinny cyclo-cross tyres, that I know from experience can be a little sketchy on certain surfaces. But it was his first time doing this sort of thing and he was having a great day, unaware of any gatekeeping or compartmentalisation that said he shouldn’t. So maybe that’s what gravel really is...
Jo Burt has spent the majority of his life riding bikes, drawing bikes and writing about bikes. When he's not scribbling pictures for the whole gamut of cycling media he writes words about them for road.cc and when he's not doing either of those he's pedaling. Then in whatever spare minutes there are in between he's agonizing over getting his socks, cycling cap and bar-tape to coordinate just so. And is quietly disappointed that yours don't He rides and races road bikes a bit, cyclo-cross bikes a lot and mountainbikes a fair bit too. Would rather be up a mountain.