Some time ago I signed up to ride The Elenydd – a 300km ride across the remote and scenic (read hilly) heart of Wales. I was getting quite intimidated by the prospect. Much of it was beyond what I’d attempted before. The distance, the 5000 metres of climbing, even pronouncing the names of the controls made me feel dizzy. Sure, I’ve been out climbing some hills, including most of the big ones around Bath, but I’ve never done so much in a day.
So I saw The Dean advertised and entered it on a whim. It was popular, not quite so hilly and much of it was familiar territory. In fact the route overlapped with at least four other rides I’ve done in the last year.
Oxford to Stow on the Wold
After a decent night’s sleep in a basic pub room nearby, I woke up a bit early dreaming I was late for a sailing race. Slightly excited and nervous, it was pointless trying to sleep so I got up and managed to drive to the start on time. Eight degrees felt chilly, so I layered up knowing I’d have to strip off later. I filled one water bottle with the SIS energy drink and the other just with the powder but no water. It’s hard to judge and a bit weather and effort dependent, but I thought one bottle would do me for the 50-ish km to the first control. This plan seemed to work out and I never ran out of water or felt thirsty, nor did I carry more than 600ml of water.
I had a bit of a chat with a few people at the start and as 6am arrived we set off in the usual understated Audax way. No one would appreciate a starting pistol at that time of day anyway.
We had a gentle tailwind all the way to Stow and things seemed to be easy going. As usual I was caught in a dilemma of working to stick with a fast group or to find my own pace. It being my first 300, I wasn’t even sure what my own pace should be. In any case the large turnout made for plenty of opportunities for chatting and drafting.
Just before I reached Shipton, a short incline after a junction caused me to change down from the large ring without much planning ahead. The chain jammed and I was forced to get off and fix it. I thought it would simply be a case of winding the crank backwards and re-seating it. What had actually happened is that a link had become stuck in the triangular cut-out of the large ring. I tried pushing it back the way it had come, but it wouldn’t budge. I didn’t have many tools and I wasn’t sure if the chain would be bent. It crossed my mind that this sloppy shift could end my ride. Fortunately all that was required was a bit of leverage from an appropriately sized allen key. Only five minutes lost and plenty of friendly riders checked I was OK.
I also owe thanks to the rider who shouted from behind when I day-dreamed my way off the route in Milton-under-Wychwood.
It seemed like everyone made quick progress to the first control. My receipt says 07:44 and there was a large group already there when I arrived. I bought water and drank what wouldn’t fit in my bottle. Having climbed to reach Stow I was much warmer, so packed the trousers and jersey away.
Stow to Newent
The first thing we got on leaving Stow was a long downhill, great fun if a bit cold on legs which haven’t been uncovered since September. The sun was behind me and I noticed that my shadow was a bit… flappy – one of my saddlebag pockets was open. Thankfully nothing lost and I managed to clip it shut without drama.
The pleasant Cotswold countryside became more dramatic and the climbing increased. With the thrilling descent into Winchcombe, I was glad that the weather was so good. I’ve heard that they’ve had snow during this event in previous years which would really spoil the downhills.
After the hills we were into one of the flattest parts of the ride and the increasing tailwind was really noticeable.
I reached Newent at 10 not feeling hungry enough to stop for a sit-down meal, so I munched a Clif bar and restocked my banana cache along with another bottle of water.
Newent to Chepstow
In the hills which followed Newent I found it hard to maintain a decent pace. I wasn’t too worried as was arguably the most scenic part of the ride. The Forest of Dean was beautiful and peaceful in the sunlight and partial shade. It was about 18 degrees which felt ideal. Saying that, my woolly socks were now getting a bit ripe, so I switched to a fresh thinner pair. The saddle bag may be heavy, but it brings some little luxuries.
I was now feeling the distance in my legs and resolved to have a proper lunch stop at Chepstow. It didn’t take much of a view to have me hopping off the bike and grabbing the camera. This happened more often when I was going uphill.
Most of the climbing was manageable and the scenery distracted me from the effort, but several people later agreed that the climb through Bream as being particularly draining. It seemed like the town was built on the side of a mountain. The hill was maybe 4%, but for some reason it went on much further than I expected.
Around St Briavels I met up with a group of riders. I’m not sure whether I caught up with them or they with me, but either way the wind was now starting to become a problem, so the extra shelter was appreciated.
It was warm and sunny in Chepstow at 12:44 and the tide was out showing plenty of mud in the river. I was ready for some real food but didn’t have much of a plan. It was a “free” control, so everyone could take their pick as long as the receipt said “Chepstow” for proof of presence. The high street was one-way against me, so I hopped off and pushed the bike. I soon stumbled across the Lime Tree cafe, which I vaguely remember reading up on before the ride. They did a decent veggie breakfast although it didn’t come with baked beans. I did get my receipt, though. I remember thinking that if someone tried to mug me at this point I’d have handed over my wallet but insisted on keeping my hard-won receipts!
What was a bit annoying is that lunch took about half an hour to arrive. I’m not sure if resting mid-ride really helps me go faster later, but some digestion time is definitely good. As it was, by the time I’d finished eating I’d been stationary for nearly an hour and wanted to get going immediately.
Chepstow to Malmesbury
As is often the case after a “proper” meal I set off feeling a bit bloated and decided to take it easy for a while until I felt more athletic. The wind on the Severn bridge wasn’t as bad as expected and much kinder than on Sam Weller’s Day Trip to Wochma nearly two months earlier. Nevertheless, I appreciated the tow from a couple of other riders.
I stuck with these guys for maybe an hour or so, taking my turn at the front. I probably should’ve made more effort to chat, but I guess we were all just trying to keep going as best we could in the post-lunch lull. Thankfully, by the time we reached the Somerset monument, I had enough energy to keep going up the hill a little faster than my last time.
Soon I was alone again, although I’m not sure who went ahead or stopped or what. I guess I was tired and concentrating on the route and keeping the bike on the road. Funny how long-distance rides can be a mental as much as physical effort. I saw only a few riders between Thornbury and Malmesbury. You only have to be a minute or two ahead or behind another rider not to see them at all. As usual, when I reached the control there was a good crowd. Most people were a lot less chatty at this stage (after 200km), but the Hackney crowd seemed to be in good spirits. I bought some water at the Co-Op and was dismayed to receive a large pile of change. I was annoyed, quite unreasonably, with the guy on the till, but I guess earlier riders had cleaned them out of five pound notes. It was 15:54.
Malmesbury to Membury
As I live in Chippenham, much of the next section was familiar from club runs. However, even without the local knowledge, the ridge at Broad Town was obvious from some distance away. Every rider knew that unless the route took a big u-turn, there was no escaping that hill. With about 3000 metres climbing already in my legs, I crawled up it, knowing there was a second hill on the way. Hackpen hill was even more obvious with few distractions save the white horse. This took the route to 250m, its highest point since before Winchcombe. Usually when reaching the top of a second big climb like this I’d feel some sense of achievement and relief. This time the headwind, which had been niggling for some hours, stole any relief and I had to work fairly hard to keep up a decent pace on the gently rolling downhill section. Still, the expansive landscape and relatively quiet road meant it was still enjoyable.
Around this time another rider appeared behind me. Looking on Strava at his times on the last two hills he’d worked pretty hard to catch up. It was Alan, who made good company for the rest of the ride and with whom I gratefully shared the wind. I switched my rear light from flashing to gently pulsing as it must’ve been doing his head in. We memorised the information control in Marlborough and enjoyed a good pace through the lanes to Membury, arriving about 18:46. More water, rocky road and pinched some (OK, a lot) of Alan’s crisps. Maybe this wasn’t the best combination of food as I had some heartburn at times, but I didn’t feel I could manage anything more substantial.
As we left Membury I somehow forgot that service stations tend to attract cars and blithely crossed in front of a jeep. They had plenty of time and space to avoid me, but I was a bit embarrassed to have been in the way. It was now dark enough to need the lights to see by. As Alan had forgotten his front bracket, he’d had to zip-tie his light to the stem, meaning he had a great view of the back of my head, but not much else. So I took the lead.
Around the first corner we noticed a set of of red lights ahead and agreed to try to catch the small group. They were going at about our pace and were helpful enough to warn us about any big holes or sharp bends. We stopped a couple of times to moisten the verges and change batteries in people’s lights. Despite these interruptions, riding with the group definitely brought my average speed up. I’m sure it’s also a lot safer as a group of cyclists riding two abreast with various bits of reflective and lights is much more conspicuous than an individual, who might not notice if their rear light stops working. After 250km I was fairly tired, but didn’t feel significantly worse than two thirds through a 200. Perhaps it helped that by this stage I felt I had a good chance of completing my first 300. I couldn’t have sprinted, but I managed a few brief turns at the front and we averaged over 25kph.
It was quite different to riding in the daylight earlier and there were some great moments. I was especially excited as we descended single file through the darkness into Lambourn, lights blazing in a line down the gently winding road. It’s a shame that I couldn’t get a photo, but it would’ve been a pretty stupid time to ride one-handed.
I had done a lot of homework on the route and considered a couple of detours to avoid a bit of B-road and the centre of Oxford. However, in the end I decided that the main road was quiet and well surfaced and it was worth staying with the group. Furthermore, my GPS (Garmin Edge 500), died at 290km, so I wasn’t keen to strike off on my own.
We approached Oxford around 9pm and by the time I was proudly claiming my receipt at the Peartree Waitrose it was 21:21. Alan and I congratulated each other and said goodbye. I was really pleased to have got through my first 300 without too much difficulty. I think I felt better than at the end of some of my early 200s, which may have been harder due to the wintry conditions. I’m sure the Elenydd will be harder and, I expect, slower, but at least now I feel confident I can keep going. The Dean is a great route, made better by good weather and good company. I’d certainly like to repeat it and maybe persuade my wife to join me on the tandem next year.