Once More Over the TopCorrespondence Friends Bicycles Heritage Travel & Adventure Cycling Stories
The centennial commemorations of the First World War remind us of the origins of the phrase ‘over the top’, now widely used to describe anything extreme or outrageous. The stuttering newsreel shots show young men clambering out of their trenches ('over the top') and walking briskly into machine gun fire, barbed wire and almost certain death. With the war not yet a year over, using such a charged phrase ‘over the top’ to describe a bike ride must have been a very deliberate act and that is exactly what Walter MacGregor Robinson did in his celebrated account of a ride across the Berwyn range in north Wales, published in Cycling in May 1919.
Robinson, better know by his pen-name of ‘Wayfarer’, was one of a handful of journalists whose articles and lantern lectures about adventure cycling were an inspiration for people who wanted to put the horrors of war behind them and rediscover life in the great outdoors. Ever since I first came across the article I’ve wanted to ride the route. Last summer I did, roping in my friend Matt to join me.
It begins on the England/Wales border and heads west beside the Ceiriog river and into the foothills of the Berwyns. The last village in the valley is Llanarmon Dyffryn Ceiriog. We know Wayfarer stayed the night here, most likely at the West Arms, an old drovers' inn. The innkeeper told him the route he had planned was “out of the question” on account of the heavy snow in the mountains.
The weather for our ride was a lot better than the deep snow Wayfarer had to contend with but the rough track up Nant Rhyd Wilym is little changed in almost a century.
Back in those days many Britain’s highest roads were unsurfaced and cyclists in search of adventure would ride, pushing and carry their bike up and down the other side. They called it ‘pass storming’ and thanks to accounts like Wayfarer’s Over the Top it became hugely popular in the 30s and 40s, half a century before mountain-biking was “invented” in sunny Marin County, California.
We finally reached the pass at 527 metres above sea level and there we saw the plaque left in memory of Wayfarer by the Rough Stuff Fellowship, a group founded in the 1950s to promote this kind of off-road riding, along with a tin box containing visitors’ books.
The descent down the other side was steeper but smoother than on the way up but we both greeted the the tarmac like a long, lost friend.
At the end of his article, Wayfarer asks ‘is this cycling?’ And concludes that yes, despite the walking, the clambering over fences and gates and the sliding into snowdrifts, it is:
“My conception of the pastime includes much besides main roads and secondary roads and much beyond the propelling of a bicycle.... Some of the best of cycling would be missed if one always had to be in the saddle or on a hard road.”
Read Wayfarer’s original Over the Top article from Cycling, May 1919, courtesy of CTC Cymru. And follow the route across the Berwyns on an online map. Read more about Pass Storming on the Cycling Before Lycra website. Many of the classic pass-storming routes have since been tarmacked (e.g. Hardknott Pass) but plenty still remain to be revisited. Let us know about your favourites in the comments.