Brevet Cymru 400km

I did this ride last year as my first 400. This year it was my 400 PBP qualifier, so if I really want to do PBP, then I needed to complete it.

The forecast was for wind and rain in the evening and through the night, so many people decided to DNS. Having completed it, I don’t blame them one bit. That’s not to say I disliked it – much of it was very enjoyable, but parts were very very tough. In particular I must thank Mark and Louise Rigby and their helpers for organising the event, which must be a lot of work with such a large turnout.

Don’t get cold

My first mistake was to get cold between Monmouth and Hay. It was colder than I’d expected and there was light drizzle. While my jacket did a good job, my sealskins socks were not warm enough and I also lost touch with my fingers. I should’ve brought overshoes, but I’d already crammed my saddle bag with everything I could think of. Nah, I could’ve squeezed them in. However it was nice chatting to Jo (rabbit) about life and riding and not doing PBP (I’m 70% yes at the time of writing).

But the cold. I’m not a big guy and I find cold saps my strength more than anything else, so after the descent into Hay I was shivering a bit. At least it had stopped raining. Not wanting to spend time in an overcrowded cafe I pushed on to Llandovery, thinking that “going a bit faster” would warm me up. I did warm up, but after 30km or so I was really flagging, partly from having got cold, partly just by going too fast. I find most rides have a “low” point and this was definitely it. I chatted to a few friendly riders, but they were far too jolly and chatty for my mood and riding a bit too fast for me. I probably came across as surly. Sorry about that.

I spent two hours fantasising about what I would eat in the West End cafe. This passed the time, but I was getting slower and slower, counting down the kms until the downhill into Llandovery. Eventually I stopped and had my emergency yucky caffeine gel. Somebody once told me that your emergency food should be something you don’t actually like or you’ll eat it too soon. I don’t usually have any caffeine, so it did seem to pick me up, but I had hoped to save it for later. Anyway, it got me over the hill and in Llandovery I got a veggie breakfast and tried to warm up. I foolishly sat by the door so my bare lower legs were constantly feeling the draught. Nevertheless I did warm up.

Eat, but not too much

I’m not someone who can throw down buckets of food and jump back on the bike. I’ve had some really unpleasant rides after eating nothing more than beans on toast and a cake, so I was careful to fully digest this large meal before leaving. As he left, Jamie (Vorsprung) advised me to ride for 20 mins slowly enough to breathe only through my nose. OK, I could try that.

When I did this ride last year I found a small shortcut saving 2.6km, with a little bit more climbing which had worked out pretty well. It involves taking the first right off the A40 after crossing the river, left at T, then through Porthyrhyd to rejoin the main route on the A482. From the Strava fly-bys, I couldn’t see anyone else who took this option, but it worked out for me and I seemed to catch Jamie fairly quickly. From there it was some steady climbing and amazing wind-assisted downhills. The turn towards Tregaron provided a taster of the wind to come, but it was mostly from the side. I had a bag of crisps and a large brownie at the pub, which seemed to be sufficient to keep me going without inciting a mutiny from my stomach. I also kept taking small sips of water instead of my typical gulps. Maybe that helped or maybe I was just lucky.

I rode steadily on the short but hilly section to New Quay, catching up with James Blair and having a good chat about bikes, routes and riding. He even trusted me enough to follow me on an impromptu detour. On the way into New Quay we judged that the wet forecast might’ve put off the holiday traffic, making the B road a pleasant option. We crossed the A487 near Llannarth and followed a cycle route sign downhill into town. The only downside was pausing for traffic lighted roadworks then trying to rush uphill through the single carriageway section before the lights changed and the oncoming traffic, erm, came on. James related an even worse case when he’d been riding in Italy, passing roadworks uphill in a mountain pass tunnel without enough time to get through and pressing himself against the wall as trucks descended towards him.

Thankfully our detour worked out well enough and we caught up with Ian Hennessey, riding fixed (!) as we approached the town. It was nice to share experiences with other riders as we relaxed in another friendly café. James was taking the time to eat and digest properly, so I didn’t see him again until much later. I left New Quay alone and perhaps an hour or so later than last year. I knew the climb was huge, so I just plodded slowly up it, not worrying about my speed. Over the top the feared headwind arrived and was at its worst. I pulled up all my zips and slowed to a crawl thinking it could be a long, lonely journey back.

I love Wales

Thankfully I soon found myself descending on some lovely surfaces in the relative shelter of wooded valleys. Wide, winding descents with very little traffic. I love Wales. When it rained it was the light-refreshing kind. I caught up with Jamie and later Mike Lane who were both in similarly good spirits and the company was very much appreciated. This was certainly the best section for me. I took my scenic detour again on the way into Llandovery, but think I probably didn’t gain so much in this direction as the others whizzed straight downhill to the A40 while I wiggled up and down on the quiet, and now dark, lanes. Another double pudding and hot chocolate in the West End café and I set off into the night on my own again, knowing the hills would be gentle, but the weather might not be.

That’s not rain, THIS is rain

I remember last year being pretty fed up grinding along the A40 in the dark with my GPS messing me around. This time I took it calmly at what felt like a manageable pace. I was pleased to feel if not energetic, at least comfortable and capable. Every half hour or so I’d see a red glow in the distance, which would turn into a point of light, then disappear around a corner. Then I’d see it again. No, I’m not imagining it, that’s another cyclist. 99% sure it’s an audaxer; I wonder who it is. Then I’d slowly catch up, say hello, ride together for a bit before moving on steadily. As I was on the A40 for some two and a half hours in the dark, with very little traffic, this kept me amused.

So far the drizzle had been light enough that I hadn’t really felt it. I did have to wipe it off my glasses from time to time as it was making visibility harder and forcing me to use more battery power in the lights than I would’ve liked. As I approached Brecon it was like the leak in the sky finally ripped into a gaping hole and all the water came tumbling out. Due to the headwind in exposed places, much of it ended up in my face. My buff got so soaked that I couldn’t breathe through it, so I turned it around a bit which helped for a few minutes. Then I pulled it down and put up with having a cold face for a while. I had a spare in the bag, but thought I’d save it for later. I turned off the main road at Brecon, although maybe those who stayed on until Talybont made the right choice. The lanes through Pencelli were probably quite nice in the right conditions, but with the rain still lashing down, or horizontally, it turned into an endurance slog counting down to the control. Often I’m admiring the scenery on audaxes and wishing I’d brought my wife on the tandem. This time I was glad she was warm and dry at home. She would’ve hated this bit.

For the second time I got a bit cold, especially my lower legs in the 3/4 length bib tights. My unhelpful imagination pondered the possibility of getting a puncture at this point. I had two spare tubes, but stopping for long enough to change it might’ve chilled me into exhaustion. When Churchill said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going”, he probably muttered “…unless you’re under-dressed and have a mechanical failure, in which case you’re stuffed.”.

A little later, as I rounded a corner going downhill I spotted a bike upside down and stopped to check all was OK, or at least fixable. I didn’t recognise the chap, but he had a stone caught in his mudguard and was struggling to put the rear wheel back on. I shone my front light on it for a moment and he managed to relocate it. I was starting to shiver so, apologising for my lack of camaraderie, I returned to chugging along the road. Finally the turn for Dardy appeared and there was little chance of missing it as the road ahead had been closed. Around the corner a young couple dressed for pubbing made some surprised noises as I trundled past. I would’ve criticised the girl for having bare legs in this weather, but I would’ve been a hypocrite. As I paused at a T-junction, a police/Heddlu car wound down their window and asked, “What are you all doing?”. I explained and managed to have a little chuckle about the weather.

The control was most welcome, like an oasis in the desert, except dry. And warm. And full of soggy people. OK, maybe not like an oasis, but nice anyway. Pasta, soup, spotted dick and custard, swapping tales of dampness. I thought about having a sleep, but didn’t quite feel tired enough.

Only 52km to go

Back on the road alone again. Trousers and thin balaclava on. Soon wet, but seemed to help. I realised I should’ve changed the batteries in my main light (Ixon IQ) while I was in the dry. It was still working OK, but I wasn’t sure how long it would last. Yeah, I can see the sense in dynamo lights sometimes.

Through Abergavenny and Usk too late for any post-pub heckles and out into the darkness. Somewhere I passed Mike for the umpteenth time. That man never gives up! I knew the final hill before Chepstow was approaching, so I stopped for a pee. Mike soon passed me aiming at a hedgerow and, for a moment, must’ve wished that his front light didn’t give him such searing clarity of vision!

The final climb was long, but steady. Even wet and tired it was manageable at a relaxed pace. I occasionally got out of the saddle for a bit of bottom relief and my sodden Ronhills flapped around my calves. It wasn’t fast, it wasn’t glamorous, but it was an adventure. At the top the wind and the rain increased, which I hadn’t thought possible. It was now beyond unpleasant and into silly. Almost funny, in fact. My waterproof socks were now full of water. Earlier I had been avoiding puddles, now there were only puddles, the road awash. Thankfully there was little debris. However, I did see several frogs. I think I managed to avoid them all. I was also surprised to discover that moths or daddy long-legs or something are able to fly in those conditions.

As the road tilted downwards I flicked on my Cree light to get a good view around the corners. It’s really dazzling, but didn’t matter as there were no cars around at this time. Last year I had descended into a chilly bank of fog and emerged shivering and grumpy. This time I think it was a few degrees warmer and I wasn’t going so fast.

Navigation back to the community centre in Chepstow was easy. I was two hours later than last time, but I had arrived tired and happy. Well maybe not happy, but content. Relieved. I had a low point early on, but nothing like as low as on the 300 two weeks previously – that was mostly due to lack of sleep in the previous days. Yes, it was really tough weather, but made a lot better by the changing scenery and chats, long and short, with a wide variety of other riders along the way.

Lessons (mostly reminders for me)

  • Don’t get cold. It’s worse than sweating a little.
  • Eat steadily and rest after any large meal.
  • The Gore Oxygen jacket is worth the money.
  • Rethink the socks and trousers.
  • Change batteries in the control.

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