No part of the 160 mile border between England and Wales is more obviously, undeniably, a fact of the landscape than the eight-mile ridge between Hatterall Hill and Hay Bluff. There was no need for Offa to build a dyke here as nature had done the work for him. It still marks the border between England and Wales. From the east the Black Mountains really do look black: a brooding form silhouetted against the sky. They must have been named by the Saxons, who always looked upon them from the east.
Of all the rides in my book Lost Lanes Wales, this may be the one that I cherish most. Not because it's better than any of the others, but because it's a ride I have ridden countless times since moving to the Welsh Borders. Every time it's different yet it's always just the right combination of distance, terrain and scenery to guarantee a glorious day out. It's a loop that can be ridden in either direction but when starting from Hay-on-Wye it makes sense to go anti-clockwise, as this gets the big climb up to Gospel Pass out of the way while the legs are still fresh.
Gospel Pass is Wales's highest paved road and one of the great road climbs in British cycling. It's a full 456 metres in vertical ascent and it really is a scaled-down version of the famed climbs of the Alps and Pyrenees. What follows is more than enough reward for the hard work of the climb: a 12 mile descent down the Vale of Ewyas, one of the most beautiful valleys in Wales, if not the world.
Beyond Llanthony, the route follows the River Honddu to its confluence with the River Monnow. The route rounds the southern flank of Hatterall Hill, a dark wall that rises like an ocean swell above the gentle patchwork of western Herefordshire, and begins the return journey north up the Monnow Valley. It's a long, steadily uphill ride to the wide plateau of a pass a couple of miles beyond Craswall, and then a long descent down cool, damp Cusop Dingle back into Hay-on-Wye.
For downloadable route info: thebikeshow.net/14BH
Lost Lanes Wales: 36 Glorious Bike Rides in Wales and the English Borders by Jack Thurston (£14.99, Wild Things Publishing) is available from all good bookshops. For 30% off and free P+P visit http://www.wildthingspublishing.com and enter 'Travel' as your coupon code.