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  • Writer's pictureMike Raine

Bikepacking Wales by Emma Kingston.

I don’t mind admitting that I’m a bit disappointed by the drift towards gravel based and road dominated routes for bikepacking. For me it’s about flowing, wild trails, between remote camps, it’s about the old ways, the bridleways, the drovers’ routes and the singletracks that made the game before the trail centres came along. Yes, minor roads and forest tracks are useful links, but riding around a forest ‘avoiding the good bits’ is not my idea of fun and it isn’t my idea of bikepacking. So I was, it has to be said, a little trepidatious at the thought of reviewing Emma Kingston's new volume Bikepacking Wales. Not (yet) being an owner of Emma’s Bikepacking England I didn’t know what to expect but was preparing myself for chapters wasted on road rides and a book dominated by gravel.

I need not have worried. Bikepacking Wales is excellent, absolutely excellent. On my first flick through I was looking for trouble; I expected to be disappointed. Even the pre-released route from South Pembroke was signposting trouble, how could there be a good off-road route down there? The routes are brilliant. The writing is first-rate and inspirational, whilst the layout of the book is exquisite. I was quickly satisfied that the routes were proper off-road bikepacking adventures befitting the title of this book.

I returned to the front of the book. Here, I found this, music to my ears… “Bike packing as a term has arguably developed over time and is used in this book to describe a style of adventure riding which is self-supported, largely off-road and which incorporates the same type of fun trails you would normally choose for a day out mountain biking.” This is not a book corrupted by road-based cycle tours, this is not a book dominated by gravel, this is a book about longer journeys on mountain bikes. I know many of you have got the gravel bug and that’s all well and good, I’m sure you’ll love these routes too. You’ll probably do them quicker than me, but I’ll me lapping up those rocky descents singing the praises of Emma Kingston.

With the growth and increased use of the Welsh language there can be concern for a book written about Wales, especially by somebody who resides in England, with the potential for roughshod riding over the Welsh language. I’m sure purists will pick holes in some of Emma’s work. Telegraph Valley is now routinely referred to as Cwm Meathlon and others would prefer the English in brackets rather than the Welsh. But she does use Yr Wyddfa, Eryri and Bannau Brycheiniog. She uses Welsh place names; she adds pronunciation notes and glossaries. For me the language is respected, and its use encouraged. Diolch Emma.

The way Emma writes is pure class. In her introduction she writes “Bikepacking in Wales has taught me to read maps like stories, to look for the narrative behind the contours, symbols and place names.” Each route is introduced with a crafted piece of prose such as “It's low tide at sunset and the estuary is turning orange. Ribbons of liquid gold carved meandering lines through the mud, the sun's reflections pick out each twist and turn as the water flows west. Across the bay, Barmouth has been swallowed up by the darkness, while the wooden viaduct is silhouetted against the sun.”

And the routes?

There is not a weak one. For me there are interesting variations on existing routes I’ve done such as her version of the Cylchdaith Rhinogau, the inventive Conwy and Gower tours (I’d never even thought of going over the Beacon, but it makes so much sense!) and her solution to creating a tour based on the Claerwen Reservoir track. Da iawn Emma.

Hours and hours have gone into these route plans. I know myself that you can never be sure if a route will work well until you actually ride it. I cannot imagine how much time Emma has spent checking routes, tweaking routes and rerouting routes. They say time spent in reconnaissance is never wasted, which is true, but it’s time off work that has gone and can’t be reclaimed. I hope she enjoyed those days.

I love the route introductions, the use of quotes, the legible maps, the notes on the routes, fact files in the margins and I don’t believe there is a weak photograph in the book. You also get access to the routes as GPX files. I know that many of you heathens will only want the GPX files, I urge you to buy this book. You’ll love it, it’ll guide you, inspire you and give you a great tick list of routes to do.

I have a sneaking suspicion that Wales is actually better than Scotland for bikepacking. We don’t have long boring glens and there is rarely a need to hop on a busy road. Even the single-track roads in Scotland can be quite a challenge with the pressure on to race from passing place to passing place. Yes, the access isn’t quite as free and easy in Cymru, but the ancient ways, of which Emma pays due respect to the history of, have left us with a fine legacy of off-road journeys across this hilly and varied land.

I respect that so many of the routes do start from railway stations, but I also know that many of us will use our cars and some notes on parking might have been helpful. I suspect their absence is deliberate. The trains in Wales work well if you live in Shrewsbury but are more challenging for those of us who live around the edges of Wales itself.

This is a beautiful book. Immaculately page set, meticulously researched and totally inspirational. I have to admit to myself that Emma is actually a better route planner and researcher than myself. I wonder if she could improve my Welsh 550 Cylchdaith Cymru route? I’ll follow her way because I know it’ll have been tried and tested by her. Thank you for the list of new routes to do Emma.

Oh, and well done on making the south Pembroke route 50% off road, and that this is the most road riding on any of the routes in Bikepacking Wales by Emma Kingston.

Mike Raine

Bikepacking Wales is published by Adventure Books at Vertebrate Publishing

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