South Wales may offer up a completely different parcours to Paris-Roubaix but both locations, which on paper may seem like unlikely cycling hotspots, share a common history in the development of the sport in their surroundings.
That history was born underground, by deserted mines that helped spark the Industrial Revolution.
And whereas the Hell of the North has the cobbles of the Arenberg, the Brecon Beacons have the slopes of the Iron Mountain, aka, The Tumble. It’s one of southern Britain’s most iconic climbs and like Roubaix, its environs offer up some gritty riding.
It’s considered as the gateway to the South Wales Valleys, where towns and villages appeared as industrialists discovered the reserves of iron and coal under the green and undulating landscapes.
At 4.7km in length, with an average gradient of 8.2% there’s no surprise that it’s a favourite amongst local riders, and featured as a summit finish in the 2014 Tour of Britain.
And riders who know the history of The Tumble will ride it from the Govilon side to go up and over into the heartlands of rural Wales.
The gradient is kind to begin with, becoming steeper after 800m as you ride through the woodland. Hidden under tree cover, the initial slopes of the climb are relentless. A cattle-grid halfway up signals the start of the moor-land, which offers a more forgiving gradient, but often exposes you to a punishing wind.
As the trees disappear, and road flattens off, the view will open up to your right hand side. On a clear day, it's picturesque, with only rolling hills and green farmland to be seen. The road undulates towards the summit, descending slightly before kicking up again for the finale at Keeper’s Pond.
Make friends with the sheep as you cover up for the descent towards Blaenavon, the UNESCO World Heritage site that is a living memoire of a mining town. The huge Ironworks and the Big Pit, the canals and the railways and the terraced houses where workers recovered from their subterranean endeavours all evidence what is considered as one of the most important elements of the Industrial Revolution in the United Kingdom.
And, as cycling history shows, these places and that time also produced hard men to whom cycling was a welcome escape and, for some, a chance to make a new and better life.
It is impossible to read about Welsh cycling without crossing Arthur Linton’s story. It is a tale of outstanding talent and success followed by tragedy. With his salary from working down the mines he bought a penny farthing before progressing to more familiar shaped ‘safety bicycle’. By 1890 he was winning races and his rise to stardom culminated in breaking the world 100 mile record at Herne Hill Velodrome, before the move to France.
He became a successful track rider, winning in the famous Velodrome d’Hiver in central Paris, and that form was quite naturally transferred to the road. But therein lay the problem.
In 1896 Linton returned to mining country, this time by finishing fourth in the first edition of the Paris-Roubaix. It was then considered as the little sister to the biggest one-day race on the calendar, the Bordeaux-Paris.
During the race, mechanical failure led to a crash, which led to a bike change, which led to a wrong turn, which led to another crash, which led to a desperate chase to the finish line. After much furore about Linton’s deviation from the parcours and pre-event route changes that weren’t communicated to riders, Linton was eventually awarded the joint win with Gaston Rivière.
But the damage had been done. He was entered into more races in London and Paris and could not finish due to ill health. Linton returned to Aberaman in South Wales only to eventually die from an official diagnosis of typhoid fever. The unofficial diagnosis was a combination of physical exhaustion and alleged doping.
It’s a rise and fall legend that serves as a reminder that it is a true privilege to be able to ride beautiful climbs such as The Tumble at leisure. So when climbing those first steep slopes, remember Arthur Linton, smile and remember to claim your badge afterwards.