Just to the south of Abergavenny in south east Wales lies the Blorenge, a 561-metre peak that dominates the view from the town. There is a B road that crosses the mountain, the pass known as The Tumble, a climb of three miles and 347 metres with a steady gradient of around 10%. I’ve come here for a weekend of riding in preparation for my assault on Mont Ventoux in the south of France later in the year. In anticipation of attempting the Cinglés (all three ascents of Ventoux in one day), I’m aiming to ride the Tumble three times: once on the ‘official’ ascent up the B road, once up the eastern face from just south of Llanfoist and once up the western face from Gilwern.
I’d already completed the B road ascent a couple of days ago, on a day when weather warnings of wind and rain made for an extremely wet ride out to Blaenavon then across the moors to Brecon. The rain had been blowing horizontally across the road and it took around an hour and a half to make the ascent, stopping frequently to don waterproofs or make a pretence at shelter. The view was mostly of cloud.
Today the weather has thankfully calmed and it’s sunny and bright as we turn off the main road to begin the ascent. My companion is only doing it once – he’s not in training for anything – so he settles into a steady pace while I attack the lower slopes. The tree cover offers snatched glimpses of ever-more-impressive views of the valley, while the slope steadily saps the energy. I had hoped that familiarity would make it easier and it does, almost. A rumbling cattle grid marks the moorland section and the tree cover abruptly ends. This is the place where on less savoury days the wind might knock you sideways but today it’s just a long continuous slog up the unrelenting incline. It’s longer than I’d remembered; each corner teases that it might be the last, but each one reveals another rise ahead.
The summit, when it comes, is magnificent: a small reservoir and a signpost shortly afterwards marking the peak, and a tussock with a bench from where you can see out to the Bristol Channel. The Blorenge is rust-red with heather, and the surrounding slopes are marked with the spoils of the once-proliferating ironworks. The sun pours unrestrained across the road.
It took 37 minutes from bottom to top. I strike out across the moorland towards the huge radio masts where the road leads to the ride down the east face.
Descents are not my thing. I’m clutching at the brakes from the outset, and come to a complete standstill on a couple of occasions for fear of losing control. At least there are no sheer drops here, and the view (when I can wrench my eyes from the tarmac) is completely stunning – mountains frame the luscious green valley, and the road is flanked with the purple and browns of summer heather. Soon I’m concealed beneath an avenue of trees and manage to hold off the extreme speed for the last couple of corners until I’m level with the Monmouth-Brecon canal that circles the base of the hill. It’s not quite the bottom, but the short section below is 20%, and I’m not sure I could make that climb – and I definitely don’t want to.
It’s impossible to judge a re-ascent from the descent. It’s best not to try – everything is different. The timing, your thoughts, your observations. I recognise certain features as I crawl back up but there is such a disconnect between flashing down a track, trying to keep the brakes under the fingers, watching for patches that might cause a wheel to slip, and a steady uphill effort. It’s actually easier than I thought it might be. Yes, it’s steep, but there are enough sections of respite that it’s do-able – though at one point I’m out of the saddle in a bid to keep moving when the rear wheel slips and I have to stop. It’s too steep to re-start so I push for a little while until it eases off again.
Ferns crowd the verges and gaps in the hedge reveal orchards stretching down the hillside. Sheep graze at the side of the road and bolt away as I pass. A pair of them end up on the path and run ahead, bleating as I slowly follow. It’s so funny – if they’d just stop running I could pass, but by the time they work it out and dart off the road they’re a fair distance from their flock. Onwards I forge. The tree cover ends and the two telegraph masts are within touching distance – or so it appears. I can see the road gently making its way there through the bracken and heather, draped over each rise like a ribbon. But it’s deceptively steep and it takes a huge effort to keep climbing, not helped by the sudden appearance of a headwind. But eventually I’m there, photograph number two, jacket back on in preparation for the second descent.
This is the one to which I had least been looking forward, the road that zig-zags down the western face of the Gilwern hillside to the village of the same name, through closely-stacked contour lines and across exposed moorland. The dotted lines on the map suggest little more than a track; it doesn’t even exist on Google. Thankfully the start is really gentle with little need for the brakes, but soon I’ve emerged onto the exposed hillside with a vertigo-inducing, nightmare-fuelling sheer drop to the left. Escape route plans are on my mind at every bend. Back below the tree line it becomes easier again – steep in parts but a gradual return to canal level at the pretty village of Gilwern.
From the bottom, the hill seems impossibly high, the climb insurmountable, but it’s amazing how quickly you make height. Just two turns and I’m already far above the valley floor, level with the tops of megalithic pylons, the A40 nestled in its cutting far below, a bridge in the distance spanning the gorge, and the path once more perched close to the vertiginous edge. At least on the ascent I am going slowly enough that there’s no fear of losing control and plunging to the rocks below.
This time, when I can see the radio masts I really am nearly there, with the remaining climb far gentler than on any of the other ascents. If you’re lucky with the wind, it’s even easier.
And then it’s back to the crowning glory of the Tumble for the third photograph before a final descent. I pause with satisfaction and a new fondness for this mountain. I must admit I was nervous about the three climbs, wondering if I did really want to do it. But the routes have been absolutely gorgeous, and far easier than I was expecting. The main ascent is brutal because it is so constant, with little to break it up, and with a very long, unrelenting gradient. Traffic is pretty constant, too. But on the others, the tracks are a delight, and even though they are far steeper in places, the variety makes it easier to tackle. They are fabulously quiet, too: only three vehicles passed on the whole of the second and third routes.
The final descent lasts all of ten minutes, the wide, smooth tarmac lending itself to easy speed, though I’m still not ready to fully let go of the brakes. I bump over the little canal bridge and complete the short miles back to Abergavenny, fuelled by the euphoria of completing the challenge. It was as much a test of psychology as a test of strength: making three ascents of the same peak in quick succession. On the first climb I thought I didn’t want to do it again, and was even more certain on the second ascent that I’d had enough. But it was more the unknown than any physical exertion that worried me – and once I’d gone down each time, going back up again seemed the most natural thing in the world. So I hope my little trio of Tumble ascents will stand me in good stead for the trio of Ventoux climbs. The good weather prayers start now.
Ascent one, B road: 3 miles, 1273 ft, 37 minutes
Descent one, eastern road: 20 minutes
Ascent two, eastern road: 3.7 miles, 1276 ft, 47 minutes
Descent two, western road: 30 minutes
Ascent three, western road: 4.7 miles, 1178 ft 46 minutes
Descent three, B road: 10 minutes
Bike: Ridgeback Voyage touring bike, with pannier (I’ll be riding the same bike up Ventoux, but an extremely stripped-back version!)