A classic climb deep in the heart of the Brecon Beacons…
There are 2 kinds of climbs: (1) Long, gradual slogs where you can sit back in the saddle and grind away, and (2) the short, steep killers where you’re forced out of the saddle by the gradient. There’s a place in my heart for both. Devil’s Elbow definitely falls into the latter category, and is a climb that no matter how many times you ride it, will always be a brutal experience that will leave you hurting. Of all the local short, steep climbs, it remains my favourite.
Devil’s Elbow is located on a quiet unclassified road between the villages of Heol Senni and Ystradfellte in the Brecon Beacons. It climbs 184m (604ft) over 1.1 miles. Strava says the average gradient is 10%. My Garmin tells me it’s actually 14% for most of the climb, and my legs agree, so that’s what I’m going with. The climb starts on the Heol Senni side. As you coast along the rolling road on the approach to the hill, flanked by steep hedgerows, peer into the distance and you’ll see a road zigzagging up a steep mountainside, an old rusted Armco barrier running alongside the steepest section. That’s where you’re headed.
The road starts to pull upwards and as soon as you cross the cattle grid you’re on the climb proper. You can break the climb down into 3 sections. The first sees you going straight ahead as the gradient steadily increases and you pass open moorland to your left. I often look to the many sheep staring at me at this point for words of encourgement, usually to no avail. As you approach the first switchback the gradient steepens. If you’re feeling strong take the inside of the hairpin and embrace the 30%+ gradient. Don’t expect much of an easier ride by taking it wide.
Now you’ve turned back on yourself to the left, a stunning view of the valley begins to open up. No time to appreciate that though, as you’ll be too busy gritting your teeth and trying to keep your cadence above 50rpm. The middle section feels the longest and toughest, the gradient never dipping below 15%. I normally find myself staring down at my front wheel at this point for motivation, beads of sweat falling onto my top tube, then disappointing myself when I look up after what feels like ages and realise I have only ridden a couple of metres. Do your mental mind trick of choice here to switch off your burning legs and screaming lungs. Relief as the second switchback finally arrives, knowing the pain will soon be over. There is still no let up as it bends around to the right, before finally you get some reprieve as the gradient eases slightly just before the summit. The long, fast descent into Ystradfellte is a nice payoff, but you’ll likely need to sit down and let your legs recover for a bit beforehand. (Hint: The New Inn Pub in the village makes a good refreshment stop).
One time I rode this climb and looked down at my Garmin to see my heart rate hitting a personal high of 200BPM as I went over the top. I wobbled off the bike, unsure if I was experiencing the elusive ‘cycling high’ or was instead having a near death experience. Another time I cursed a van driver who stopped halfway down to give way to me, forcing me to carry on and maintain a reasonable momentum rather than slowing to a crawl . The toughest time was probably doing it on The Dragon Ride with over 50 hilly miles already in the legs. Always a memorable experience.
Summary: A bit more unforgiving than it’s namesake in Mid-Wales (The Devil’s Staircase), Devil’s Elbow is nonetheless a relentless climb, with little respite until you get to the top. The remote location and stunning views towards mid-Wales all add to the character of this one and make it worthy of it’s legendary status among local cyclists. Lovers of hills climbs need to add this one to their bucket list.
Ever ridden the Devil’s Elbow or know a climb that beats it? Then let’s hear about it…