This weekend I’m riding the 400km on and off-road audax in the style and memory of Mike Hall. My motivation for this ride is similar to the reason I ride audaxes in general, but with the added variety of off-road sections. I’m interested in the question, “How much harder will that be?”. I met Mike only briefly, but I think this kind of event is what he would have wanted to inspire.
Long distance cycling is something I’ve got into over the past five years. Whenever I’ve mentioned one of my rides to friends I get bewildered responses ranging from admiration to horror. A lot of people ask if I’m doing it for charity.
“No” I say, “I’m doing it for… fun?”.
Yes, fun. I enjoy planning the route, deciding what clothing, lights and bike maintenance kit I should take. I enjoy the challenge of not knowing whether I can finish within the time limits. I enjoy the peace and solitude exploring deserted country lanes. I enjoy chatting with other riders. Sometimes I’m winding my way up a hill, sometimes I’m concentrating on a tricky descent. Sometimes I’m ambling along, sometimes I’m pushing to go as fast as I can. I enjoy the freedom of roaming and of self-sufficiency. I enjoy getting away from it all, relaxed but focused on the ride.
I’m not claiming that every journey is smooth and full of picture-postcard scenery. Things go wrong. Punctures happen, wrong turns happen, lights fail. Headwinds, achy legs and cold temperatures conspire against an easy ride. On most rides I’ll have a “low point” when I’m fed up, uncomfortable or hungry. Getting through that and whatever other challenges the ride may throw at me is part of the challenge and the reason I feel elated if I finish.
And I don’t always finish in time. If I always succeeded I’d wonder if I was limiting myself to easy challenges. Failure is a good way to learn, even though it hurts at the time.
I’m sure most of my bewildered friends take on similar challenges. Things which take unusual mental or physical effort, which take us away from the humdrum of everyday life. Things where success is not guaranteed, where temporary discomfort is tolerated to reach a goal. Everyone’s challenges are different, but we all need to be challenged.
Can you relate to that?
Well that was an adventure!
Many thanks to Ritchie and the legion of helpers, not just for all the food and patience, but for keeping and returning the kit I sleepily forgot after the BC!
I opted for lots of shortcuts from the recommended route, even though most of them meant more climbing. On my own through Devauden and Raglan, after which I met others and followed a friendly Dulwich chap through Abergavenny. Take the scenic quieter road through Boughrood? Boughrood not to! Very impressed by the service at the Honey Cafe. They were ready for us! Took the left at Rhyader, long slow climb through the Elan valley, legs starting to ache now, but loved every minute of it. Zipping down the other side I heard a flap-flap-flap and thought “Oh what bit of my clothing/bag has got loose now?” I turned around to check and saw I was being followed by a helicopter. Ah. Loved the road and green valleys through to Devil’s bridge, the climb was a bit of a grind, but what a wonderful road surface. After Devil’s bridge another wonderful view into the valley to the right, before plunging into it and back onto the main route towards Aberystwyth. Immediately beset by cars, about 1/3rd of them passing way too close, one bloke yelled something out of the window. I couldn’t make it out, but I guess it wasn’t “Allez-vous”. I forgot to do Bairdy’s big smile and wave, but will try that next time.
At Tre’r ddol, another helping of beans with a veggie breakfast, possibly not a good idea as my stomach got grumpy. Went slowly for a bit and it seemed to settle down. Kept seeing the same faces, but was basically doing my own thing and riding alone most of the time. Got hot and bothered on the climb after Tal-y-llyn (another great view), encouraged to see I wasn’t the only one. The traffic was queuing behind us with a lorry struggling to overtake. Gave them a wave of thanks for their patience. At King’s I nearly missed the sharp little left turning, then was in the wrong gear for the steep climb to the YHA (yes, it’s my first time there). I really needed some food, but my stomach was still negotiating with the cooked breakfast from 2 hours earlier, so I only managed the soup and a little cake. Nice to chat with a couple of people as much of the day had been lonely.
Set off again on my own taking the shortest possible route to Menai. I know the coast route is beautiful, but I was in a just-get-round mood and besides I’ll be seeing it again in 3 weeks on another 600. So I slowly ground up the A470 thinking about how great it would be to come down it later. At Maentwrog I took another hilly shortcut through Rhyd. That was the 1:6 hill, but not for long. Soon I was passing deep little wooded valleys and could hear and sometimes see streams running below. Later I rode alongside a secluded little lake surrounded by trees. I had completely missed this a year ago when I’d ridden this road as it was in the dark. Feeling lazy, I took the left at Beddgelert. It may not have been Pen-y-pass, but the scenery was still stunning. By now I was feeling really rough, it was partly the relentless climb, plus it felt like the food I’d eaten earlier hadn’t really got through, so was hindering me instead of helping. The last bit to Menai bridge was a bit of a slog, then after a brief stretch on a shady cycle path I took a wrong turn and plunged down to the harbour. Nice to look at, but I had to climb back up for the bridge. Hospitality at Menai was wonderful and the rice pudding went down nicely. I often think I might bounce a control, but when I get there I often stay for a bit.
Happily I met up with a chap from Swindon called Allan and we decided to ride back to King’s together. A bit of company in the dark seemed like a good thing. I was chilly when I set off so had trouble keeping up until I warmed up. We hugely enjoyed the descent back into Beddgelert which Allan called “the best descent of the day” and there was some competition! He was also keen to do my hilly detour through Rhyd and leapt out of the saddle as the hill started. I warned him that it went on for at least ten minutes. We relaxed a little and got to the top still able to chat and saw the lights of (probably) Porthmadog to our right. I took the lead for the descent, both of us again grateful for my cheap but bright cree headlight. We were starting to get cold now, but knew there was, yes, another long climb ahead, so agreed to stop at the top to put on jackets, shoe covers, etc. That turned out to be the right plan. As we stopped in a layby a police car pulled up and asked us the now-familiar “What’s with all the cyclists?” question. He seemed happy enough with our response, scribbled Audax on his hand and we went on our way. In spite of all the extra layers we did get a bit cold. But it was gentle enough to keep pedalling which helped. Back at King’s we were ready for the turning and in the right gear this time. The climb seemed particularly cruel at that time of night with nearly 400km done, but we made it. I tried a bit more food but didn’t really feel hungry. What felt really good was a proper shower after which I was ready for bed.
However, when our room was woken up only 1.5 hours later we were all pretty grumpy, having been hoping for 3 hours. At first we thought it was raining, but it was actually just the babbling of the stream nearby. I forced down a little toast and cereal and sat around until it got light, hoping I’d feel refreshed at some point. After a couple of hours of nibbling I persuaded myself to get moving. It wasn’t raining much, the sky wasn’t black anymore and James Blair was just setting off. We chatted for a bit, then as the rain got real I stopped to put my jacket on. I slightly regret not using the waterproof trousers I carried all the way around, but I was concerned about overheating on the upcoming climb and I didn’t want to stop again in a few moments to take them off. Funny how you end up in these silly dilemmas about apparently-trivial clothing choices.
We were caught by Allan and there was much to-and-fro on the climbs and due to the aforementioned clothing faff. The highlight of this section for me was the descent after Cross Foxes. Steep at first, but what a long run-out. Amazing. I was a bit cautious in the wet, but it was great fun! I took my next little detour through Pandy. The first bit was steep-up-and-down gravel as promised, but when I got to the top it was wide, smooth and straight for several miles and I soon picked up speed. I’d lost touch with the others by this point, so I’m not sure whether it was faster, but I was just happy to get off the main road. The rest of the way to Aberhafesp seemed to drag on and I was feeling both hungry and full at the same time. Service at the school was friendly and had some food. Stomach was now in a really bad mood, so I decided to wait for a bit. Resting my head on the table I fell asleep. Not sure how long for, but when I looked up there were different people around me. I noticed rougher road surfaces as we re-entered England and arrived at Weobley, where I bought some anti-acid tablets and an ice-cream. Much better! The painful burps stopped and within an hour my energy had come back. It was as if I’d finally digested the last 24 hours-worth of food. I’m pretty sure that’s not possible, but that’s how it felt. Maybe it helped that the sun was coming out and the weather just kept getting better.
The climb from Dolfor was long and tedious, but very much worth it for the tailwind across the top and another glorious descent, minding the hairpins, carrying the momentum pretty much all the way into Knighton. I’d been doubting my last shortcut, up Lanshay lane to the Spaceguard Centre, but I was now in a much better mood, so went for it. I sweated quite a bit and maybe it slowed me down more than going around, but I’m glad I did it.
From then things got better. Sure, my back side was sore and my legs were a bit achy, but I felt somehow more energetic than before. I didn’t exactly fly up the Llancloudy climb, but I was a minute and a half quicker than a 200km ride last year. But then there was Tintern. Probably no harder than previous climbs, but I’d kind of had enough and just wanted to get back. A nice descent, but by now I’d been spoiled by Wales. On the outskirts of Chepstow I misread the routesheet and made, I think, my only wrong turn. I should’ve known better as I did roughly know where I was going. Not much time lost, but was a bit annoyed at myself.
Lovely relaxing in the garden of the Bulwark centre at the end. Thanks again to the organisers and many helpers and to all who kept me company along the way. A day later I’m just about starting to look forward to the next ride…
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.
I won’t spout too much text here, this is mainly for the photos. But I must say that I really enjoyed this ride and would recommend it to anyone who doesn’t mind some challenging climbs. It’s fair to say you are heartily rewarded by the stunning views, joyful descents and the helpful and efficient controls.
Of particular note was the food service at Tregaron Bowls club. It might’ve only been beans on toast, a jacket potato or rice pudding, but the friendly helpers served it so quickly we barely had time to find a seat.
This is no doubt part of the reason why some of us managed to complete the ride fairly quickly. I was about half an hour quicker than my last 300, The Dean, despite nearly 1000m more climbing. We were also lucky with the weather, there was a little drizzle, but the gentle tail wind on the way home made a real difference climbing the Elan valley. In previous years they’ve had snow.