The route stickers start right at Abergavenny station. The official route takes you downhill onto a riverside path that dodges the town centre, and if you’re eager to get going then by all means follow that. If you’ve got time to spare, Abergavenny’s a delightful little town with a strong cycling tradition, and worth exploring: pretty much everything is clustered around the pedestrianised High Street. Follow the signs to Llanfoist to rejoin the route.
Crossing the River Usk on the main road bridge, the route ducks under the A465 Heads of the Valleys Road to take you to a classic Sustrans railway path. Though this is one of the finest railway paths in Britain, running alongside the genuinely breathtaking Clydach Gorge, we don’t stay on it that long. Instead, at Govilon, we drop down onto the canal towpath.
The Monmouthshire & Brecon Canal runs from the outskirts of Newport into Brecon, and in theory we could follow it all the way. In practice, much of it has not yet been improved for cycling. The route stickers keep you on the towpath until Llangattock (mile 8), but if you have a road bike you may choose to duck onto the parallel road before then: conversely, ruff-stuff riders might continue on the towpath all the way. It’s a delightful canal, much loved by holiday boaters and almost entirely lock-free, and with a fine selection of pubs on its banks.
None better than the Star in Talybont-on-Usk, the tourist-friendly but charming village where we’re joined by NCN 8, aka Lon Las Cymru, the long-distance cross-Wales route. It follows the valley B road and little lanes to Brynich Lock, on the outskirts of Brecon, where we rejoin the canal. The canal terminates at Theatre Basin, from where we thread through the town and its confusing one-way system. Again, if you have the time, do stop to explore this town of cathedral and coaching inns.
Limber up. This stretch is undeniably fabulous, taking in some of South Wales’s finest scenery as it skirts the edge of the Brecon Beacons National Park. But that means hills, and the climbing starts as soon as you leave Brecon. A 50-metre slog past the castle takes you onto a winding country lane through tiny villages, constantly undulating up and down until you return to the Usk valley at the military settlement of Sennybridge. (There are shops and pubs here if you need to fuel up.)
Take the main road out towards Defynnog, but don’t miss the right turn onto a back lane immediately after leaving Sennybridge. (Defynnog Church is worth the half-mile detour, though, for its 5000-year old yew tree and pre-Conquest history.) This lane contours around a hill before another right turn takes you onto a short but exceptionally brutal climb through a farmyard. Award yourself five bonus points and the promise of a post-ride pint if you can make it without dismounting.
For a while, the Usk valley climbs with us. But as the meandering lane straightens out and the climb gets longer, the route approaches its finest hour. This moorland summit by the Usk Reservoir, in the shadow of the great Beacons themselves – Bannau Sir Gaer and Fan Brycheiniog, the Carmarthenshire and Breconshire beacons – is reason enough to ride the route.
If only we could say that it’s all downhill from here. Yes, you do get to enjoy a five-mile descent, the last mile on a classic ‘lost lane’ with grass growing up the centre and some enjoyable hairpins. But as soon as you cross the A4069 road, it’s uphill again for the last leg of the ride. Still, if anything this last peak feels more secluded than any road so far, and the two-mile downhill into Llandeilo is pure fun.
Llandeilo’s colourful roadsides and arty shops make a great place to relax after the exertions of the route. If you’re staying overnight there are several independent hotels in the town, though we’re fond of the Plough at Rhosmaen (just beyond) simply because of its exceptional restaurant. After all, all that climbing has surely earned you a little indulgence.