Richard Barrett introduces the Brailsford Way: an ideal summer road ride around Snowdonia. Although there is not a Cicerone guidebook to the Brailsford Way, Richard shares his gpx files of the route here.
Walkers are used to long-distance routes being named after famous individuals. For instance, the John Muir Way runs from Helensburgh to Dunbar, where the pioneering conservationist was born; the 135 mile-long Glyndŵr's Way follows in the footsteps of Owain Glyndŵr, the last Welsh-born Prince of Wales; and the Jack Mytton Way is named after a man said to be mad, bad and even more dangerous to know than his contemporary Lord Byron.
Road cyclists now have a couple of routes named after someone who is perhaps more famous than all of the above combined. The Brailsford Way 75 and the Brailsford Way 50 are both circular loops around Snowdonia, named after Sir David Brailsford.
The local connection
Sir Brailsford is the former performance director of British Cycling and current general manager of the hugely successful Team Sky professional cycling team. He was born in Derbyshire in 1964 but the family moved to Wales when he was two and he was brought up in the old slate mining village of Deiniolen. His father, John Brailsford, was an enthusiastic climber, mountaineer and alpine guide, who invented and developed the first purpose-built climbing protection.
Sir Brailsford never took to the hills with the same passion but as a youth became an enthusiastic cyclist. After he left school, he bought a one-way train ticket to Grenoble and joined a semi-pro bike race team. He stuck it out for three years, slowly formulating the ideas that 30 years later would help him to coach so many others to success.
As both routes are circular you can start anywhere along their length and perhaps save yourself the cost of parking. Both are well waymarked with colour-coded signs at every junction. However, it is best to familiarise yourself with the route beforehand so you know where to look for the next waymark, especially around Caernarfon where the route loops back on itself around a roundabout before heading south along the coast.
Although much use is made of quieter roads away from the tourist hot-spots, it would be wise both to start early so you are away from roads near the major centres before tourists start pouring into Snowdonia and to avoid summer weekends and bank holidays, if possible.
Brailsford Way 50
The Brailsford Way 50 is just short of 50 miles and includes 1000 metres of ascent. I’ll describe the route starting from the junction of the A498 and A4086 at the famous Pen-y-Gwryd Hotel, where Edmund Hilary and his team stayed while they did some of their training for the first successful ascent of Everest in 1953.
Follow the A4098 towards Llanberis and climb up and over Pen-y-Pass. The gradient is so gentle you barely notice the effort before you are over the top and enjoying a long descent down the Llanberis Pass, through Nant Peris (4/46 miles) to Llanberis. Unless you are looking for a very early cake stop, stick to the main road and ride past Llyn Padarn to Llanrug (10/40 miles). Turn left at Y Glyntwrog Inn and climb up through Ceunant (12/38 miles) and Groeslon (13/37 miles).
Turn right along the A4085 heading towards Caernarfon and then after 1½ miles of fast descent, turn left at the roundabout, following the A487 towards Porthmadog. After 2 miles, ride through the outskirts of Bontnewdd (17/33 miles) and turn right at the roundabout following the A487 towards Caernarfon. Turn left at the next roundabout and ride along St Helen’s Road into the centre of Caernarfon (19/31 miles). Ride a loop around Caernarfon Castle, perhaps stopping for a timely break, and then follow your way back along St Helen’s Road to the A487. This may seem an unnecessary diversion but clearly those who planned the route intended it as there are waymarks on all the road signs.
Turn right, following the A587 towards Porthmadog, and then turn quickly right towards Llanfaglan and immediately right again into Coed Helen. Follow this quiet lane along the south bank of Afon Seiont and around to Aber Foreshore Road, giving you a fine view of the Castle across Afon Seiont. On a clear day you get fine views across the Menai Straight to Newborough Warren at the south-west corner of Anglesey. But if the prevailing south-westerly wind is blowing you will be pedalling into a headwind. And if it’s windy and raining like it was when I last rode it, it will be thoroughly unpleasant and very cold no matter what time of year it is.
After 5 miles, cross the A499, follow the road alongside the boundary wall of Glynllifon Country Park and turn right at the next roundabout, heading along the A487 towards Porthmadog. There is a café in the Inigo Jones slateworks at the next roundabout, where the route turns left into Penygroes (30/20 miles). Turn right along County Road in the centre of the village and then, after a mile, turn right along the B4418 heading towards Beddgellert. Ride through the old slate mining village of Nantlle (33/17 miles) and along the Nantlle Valley to Rhyd Ddu (37/13 miles), where the route turns sharply right along the A4085.
Enjoy a fast descent to Beddgelert (40/10 miles) where there are plenty of choices for a final cake stop. Turn left by the bridge over the Afon Glaslyn and follow the A498, first past Llyn Dinas and then Llyn Gwynant. As the road narrows, climb up steadily through the trees back to the start at the Pen-y-Gwryd Hotel. Most likely there will be an ice cream vendor at the viewpoint near the top where you can reward yourself with a well-earned treat.
Brailsford Way 75
On the ground, the Brailsford Way 75 is more like 78 miles – and we’ll stick with the figure of 78 for the purpose of counting off the miles. It also involves 2064 metres of ascent, making it a far more demanding proposition than the 50-mile option.
Start from the junction of the A498 and A4086 at the famous Pen-y-Gwryd Hotel and follow the Brailsford Way 50 to Beddgelert (40/38 miles). Cross the bridge and follow the A487 towards Porthmadog. After 2 miles, turn left towards Penrhyndeudraeth, cross the bridge over the lovely Afon Glaslyn and follow this flat road to Garreg (47/31 miles). At this point you are riding around land that was reclaimed from the sea when The Cob was built across the estuary at Porthmadog in 1812. Turn left along the B4410 towards Llanfrothen and follow this minor road through the tiny hamlet of Rhyd (49/29 miles) and down to meet the A487 at Tan y Bwlch (51/27 miles).
Turn left, join a stretch of shared-use path past The Oakley Arms, ride over the Afon Dwyryd, past the converted chapel near Maentwrog and then turn left along the A496 towards Blaenau Ffestiniog. After 2 miles, turn right and follow the B4391 through Llan Ffestiniog (54/24 miles) and into Blaenau Ffestiniog (57/21 miles), which is a suitable place for a stop before the next climb. Turn right towards Betws-y-coed at the roundabout at the north end of the town and climb steeply up ‘the Crimea Pass’, past the ruins of the slate industry that once thrived here.
Once over the top, enjoy a long descent down through Dolwyddelan (62/16 miles) which, with sufficient momentum, will carry you all the way to the A5. Turn left towards Bangor and follow the A5 through Betws-y-coed (68/10 miles), past Swallow Falls to Capel Curig (73/5 miles). At the end of the village, turn left towards Llanberis and follow the A4086 back to the start at the Pen-y-Gwryd Hotel, hopefully enjoying a clear view of Snowdon and its neighbouring summits directly ahead of you.
Are they for you?
The Brailsford Way 50 and the Brailsford Way 75 are both great rides through some of the most stunning scenery in the British Isles. But are they for you? It would seem that the routes were designed to appeal to the enthusiastic club cyclist, which would explain the tendency to stick to the smoother and faster surfaces of the main roads.
However, they could both be ridden at a much more leisurely pace, with the Brailsford Way 75 making a great mini-tour for a short midweek break. I suggest midweek rather than weekend because, as I’ve mentioned, the roads near the major tourist centres are very busy on summer weekends and bank holidays. Although if you look at an Ordnance Survey map, or load the route into a ride planning app, you will soon discover a number of minor side roads, such as the quiet lane across the river from the Ugly House, so you can minimise the amount of time spent on major roads.
Try them; these are stunning rides that deserve to be better known.
Interesting facts along the Brailsford Way
Although it is perhaps the most iconic climb on the route, at 359m (1180ft) above sea level, Pen y Pass is not the highest point on the ride. That honour goes to Bwlch Y Gorddinan (the Crimea Pass) on the A496 between Blaenau Ffestiniog and Dolwyddelan, which reaches 385m (1263ft).
The Crimea Pass takes its name from the Crimean War (1853–1856), which was being fought at the time the road was opened, in 1854. It is also said that Russian prisoners of war captured at the Battles of Inkerman and Balaclava built the stone walls either side of the road.
To get anywhere near the top of the leader board on Strava a man would need to ride the segment from the Pen-y-Gwryd Hotel to the top of Pen-y-Pass in 3 minutes 30 seconds or less, and a woman in 4 minutes and 15 seconds or less.
Llywelyn the Great (c. 1173–1240), Prince of Gwynedd and eventually the ruler of most of Wales, is thought to have built Dolwyddelan Castle opposite his birthplace, Tomen Castell, which was a small tower on the opposite bank of Afon Lledr.
Glynllifon Country Park, a hidden gem that is 500 metres off route along the A499, has important historic gardens that are Grade I listed, a visitor centre and that all important café.