A Swede in South Wales
YOUR GUIDE: Freddy Johanssen
DISTANCE: 33 miles (53km)
MAIN CLIMBS: Bwlch y Clawdd
TOTAL CLIMB: 816 metres
ACTUNG! Lots of roundabouts
Last winter a promising young Swedish cyclist, Freddy Johansson, was on the verge of giving up racing altogether. Frustrated in his old team, coping with a lack of facilities and injury problems, they were all getting him down. Then he talked about it with the sister of ProTour rider Magnus Backstedt.
Backstedt already lived in South Wales, where he had married a local woman, an
ex-international bike racer, Megan Hughes. When his sister told him about Johansson, big ‘Maggy’ invited his young compatriot to come and stay with him. Martin McCrossan, who handles Backstedt’s PR, found Johansson a place in the PCA team, and now the young Swede is in no hurry to go back home.
“I love it here, the people are so friendly. In fact everyone I have met, here and throughout the rest of Britain, have been the same. I think British people are more welcoming to strangers than they are in Sweden. Even if I make my ambition, which is to race with a European based team, I will buy a house here in South Wales and live here,” Johansson told us when we met at Backstedt’s house.
And what about our racing? “It’s a good standard. Bigger fields than in Sweden, and you have some good riders. I was a bit nervous about the traffic at first, but the races are well organised and it hasn’t been a problem. Only in the first stage of the Tour of the South maybe.”
The ride should have been an epic tour of the roads the Swedish duo use in their training, but its length had to be curtailed by the fact that it was the first day Johansson had ridden his bike after picking up a bad chest infection at the Bob Chicken GP in London.
Still, as he rode along, Johansson was able to point out the landmarks and hills where he and Backstedt have shed some sweat, like one road climbing up to Llantrisant where, Johansson told us: “Maggy did a lot of his power training just before the Tour of Spain. We went up and down there five, six, sometimes seven times.”
The ride starts in Talbot Green, which is close to where Backstedt lives, and the first stretch is a delight, up a steep but well engineered minor road and through pleasantly scented pine forest.
Looking down through a gap in the trees at the top of the climb over the sprawling Rhondda Valley, Johansson was able to tell us a bit about his home in Sweden. “I come from Kopparberg, which means copper mountain. It is in the centre of Sweden and it used to be a big mining place, but a lot less so now. It is very like here, but with more forest. There is a lot of unemployment, the same as here. The big difference though is the winter. It can get to 20 below freezing, and night comes at 2.30 in the afternoon.”
The route uses mainly A roads, although they are not bad for traffic. “There’s a lot more than you see in Sweden, though,” Johansson points out as we take the A4119 into the Rhondda, heading for Tonypandy and Treorchy.
The valleys here are ribbons of development. When the coal mines, which used to be the region’s staple industry, were sunk, thousands of houses had to be built for the miners. However, in the steep-sided valleys flat land was limited to the valley bottoms, so the building gradually wound up each valley like probing fingers, until eventually they all joined together.
The surrounding mountain scenery is amazing, and it gets more so the higher up each valley you go. In Treorchy, Johansson does a quick flick left and right into the back streets, and onto the day’s big climb.
On the mountain
The Bwlch y Clawdd is magnificent. The road winds up it in a series of hairpin bends, and the towns far below look tiny as they sit soaking up some warm mid-September sun. “I ride this one a lot. I have even done it on my time trial bike, all the way up on the tri-bars. It helps to strengthen my lower back. I have a bit of a weakness there,” Johansson says during another stop for a look at the top.
The next bit is good too, if you like going downhill. It’s Tour de France time, as the hairpins of the uphill section are mirrored on the downhill. Ogmore Vale is a mini-Rhondda, but more intimate, and the scale of its surrounding scenery is a little less daunting. Yet even this small valley was once home to three coalmines.
From here the route travels over an area of flat land called Hirwaun Common. Hirwaun means ‘long meadow’ in Welsh, which is just what it is, and a definite contrast to the mountain scenery of the rest of the ride. Here there is space to hear
the birds singing and admire the wide open views.
The common eventually takes you to the busy A473 and back to Talbot Green. Johansson is glad to get back on his bike and to have completed first ride.
“There is nothing like the feeling of having done a hard ride and the tiredness in your body. I think that is why I ride. Nothing matches how relaxed you feel after training and eating your food,” he says.
Which, when you get down to it, is why a lot of cyclists ride. Cycling is a unique experience, using your own body power while witnessing the beauty of the landscape. Then there is the speed and the ability to cover fairly big distances that two wheels gives you. It’s great to know that a young guy who does it for a living feels the same way.
FREDDY JOHANSSEN: THE FACTS
- Age 20, lives in South Wales with Magnus Backstedt and his family
- Born in Kopparberg, Sweden. Currently a full-time cyclist, but is a trained nursery carer
- Has won 11 medals in Swedish national championships in every age group from 13 upwards
- Was a downhill ski champion, but a knee injury forced him into cycling, which he now says he prefers
Start Talbot Green at 2nd roundabout on A473 from Pencoed. Take unclassified road north to Coedely. At roundabout (r-bout) take 1st exit A4119 to Tonypandy. At 2nd r-bout in Tonypandy take 2nd exit to join the A4058 to Treorchy. In Treorchy turn left (TL) into Maindy Street and turn right (TR) onto B4223. TL on A4061 and follow directions to Ogmore Vale and then Bryncethin. In Bryncethin TL onto B4280, and follow B4280 onto unclassified through Brynna, joining A473 and back to Talbot Green.
(This ride originally appeared in Cycling Weekly September 28 2006 issue)