600km is the longest of the "regular" events on the audax calendar, the longer ones being a bit special, like the Mille Cymru or London Edinburgh London. It's also the final part of the super randonneur award, which I had decided to aim for after my first 200k last year. At that stage I was uncertain that I could manage such distances. For me, part of the excitement is in finding out what I can do.
"Mae Mr Pickwick yn mynd i chwilio am ddreigiau a chwedlau" (Mr Pickwick goes in search of dragons and legends - according to Google translate) is a new event for 2014, which I chose partly because I was busy during the classic Brian Chapman Memorial and because I'd enjoyed so many of the organiser's shorter routes over the winter. With over 9000 metres of climbing, it was unusually hilly, but I was hoping the views over Welsh mountains and lakes would make it worthwhile.
The day before the ride I had an early dinner with my wife and daughter before spending the night in a B&B close to the start - a village hall near Tewkesbury. Saturday was the summer solstice, so the sun was already up as we arrived for the 5:30am start. People were quietly drinking tea, eating bananas and pumping up tyres. After a few words of advice from organiser Mark, we set off with a chorus of "clacks" as about 35 riders connected shoes to pedals. A large group formed and I chatted to a few people as we rolled easily along the deserted main roads in the early morning sunshine. Some had come from as far as London or the North East for the event. Most seemed to have done a 600 before and several were sporting London Edinburgh London or Paris Brest Paris shirts. I learned later that I was one of a number of newbies, but at the time I felt a bit inexperienced.
I had a couple of minor mechanical issues early on. My front brake rubbing slightly and my Carradice rack rattling as I rode onto the off-road path near Symmond's Yat. Thankfully I had basic tools and fixed both with little trouble. In preparation I had replaced my badly worn chain a week earlier. It was the first time I'd ever changed a chain and I was nervous that it would fall apart the first time I stood up on the pedals. Still, it was ok so far.
The first control was a pub in Monmouth where I had a quick drink and stamped my card, then on through pleasant lanes and parts of the still-quiet A40 to Llandovery. We'd now done 150km and it was near enough to lunchtime, so I had a milkshake, beans on toast and an apple pie with custard. I knew this would probably make me a bit uncomfortable for an hour or so, especially with the hills looming, but it was preferable to flaking out due to hunger.
I left the control at the same time as another James, who I'd met briefly on my 400. He immediately suggested a detour. I like company on audaxes, but prefer to stick to the recommended route unless I've had a chance to review it thoroughly with a map. Judging that he knew where he was going, I reluctantly followed and it worked out well enough.
Soon we were back on the main route and joined Ian Hennesey, jokingly referred to as "audax royalty", due to being a former chairman and popular organiser. He was good company and took James' more puerile quips in good humour. We climbed towards Llyn Brianne noting the info control on the way. I'd not been here before and was impressed by how spectacular the lake was. It was set at the meeting of several partially wooded valleys, creating a plethora of secluded coves along its winding coastline. The road skirted the hills above the shore with gentle gradients, giving ample opportunity to appreciate the view from every angle. As I descended along the lake's edge I spotted cyclists on the other side who seemed only a minute or two ahead. Then I'd round the next corner and see a whole new expanse of water I'd have to wind my way around first. I was left behind for a while as I stopped to appreciate it rather than taking it all in from the saddle and risking an impromptu swim. After some concerted effort I caught up with Ian and James. It didn't seem long until we reached the lonely phone box which marked the Tregaron mountain road. After only a little more up we were descending at last. The road was generally good, but often had a strip of gravel in the centre which required some care when cornering. Adding to the drama were a number of classic cars, some being driven a bit too fast for a mountain road. Thankfully we made it into town without incident.
I was now out of water, having only filled a single bottle at the last control. The weather was fine, but not especially hot, so carrying an extra 700g of water over the hills seemed excessive. Then again, it would've saved me an additional five minute stop.
After filling up in Tregaron I headed for the hills again, this time alone. The roads were wider now and better surfaced, but with surprisingly little traffic. The scenery was less rugged and the gradients kinder. In the colourful town of Pontryhdfendigaid they were having a fete and people were in fancy dress. From here I kept up a reasonable pace to Devil's Bridge, pausing only to snap a photo of a dragon's head door knocker.
The next control was the Woodlands cafe, which served only a dwindling supply of cakes and flapjacks. I had one of each, but the lack of savoury options led some to the nearby hotel instead. By this time several people, including an LEL veteran, were struggling due to lack of sleep in the past few days and the relentless hills. They were planning either to find a bed locally or make their way to a railway station to get home. Fortunately I was feeling ok, at least no worse than on previous rides.
Leaving Devil's Bridge I rejoined James for a while, but as we approached Machynlleth he admitted to being tempted to call it a day and relax in a hotel. He later posted photos online of his fish dinner and comfy hotel room to less than universal approval. Perhaps, having completed several 600s over the years, he had less determination than newbies like me. So I continued towards Barmouth alone and soon found myself climbing a gentle, but seemingly endless hill. In a low gear I could easily keep the pedals turning, but was breathing hard to maintain a reasonable speed. My average speed had been dropping off since Llandovery, due to the hills, but there was no point trying to rush as my legs were too tired to provide much torque. It looked like the top of the climb was about half a km away when I stopped for a breather in a lay-by. I knew the upcoming hills only vaguely and the next corner might've revealed further heights to scale. As I stopped, I looked back down the road and noticed the fantastic view. As the sun was dipping in the sky, I'd been climbing in the shade, but at the bottom of the valley, Llyn Mwyngil was still lit dramatically by the sun. The weather had truly been kind to us, it could easily have been nothing but drizzle and plain grey vistas. After snapping a photo I had one of my two gels, which I try to save for when I'm really tired. I hadn't seen any other cyclists for a while, but now I greeted a guy passing me. I didn't recognise him, but he was dressed for audax and there were few other cyclists around at this stage. Refreshed, I set off and managed to catch up with him by the top of the hill. In the valley the other side, we were nearing Barmouth, but still South of the river. Mark had told us there were a couple of crossings, but some might not be open, depending on when we arrived. We tried the nearest bridge and found the double gates shut with a closed sign. As we were about to leave we noticed a couple on the bridge enjoying the view. Curious, I looked more carefully and found a pedestrian gate which swung open when pushed. We trundled onto the wobbly wooden boards. The sightseers told us there was another gate up the lane on the other side, but weren't sure if we'd be able to get through. As we rode the kilometre or two across the floodplain, I hoped the barrier wasn't 8 feet high with spikes on top. Thankfully it was a simple farm gate and lifting the bikes over was easy enough. As we arrived in Barmouth the sun was still up, but considering setting soon. A good crowd had gathered in the control where Mark and helpers were providing soup, rolls, bananas and drinks. Much appreciated.
As I set off again the sun was low over the peninsula, where I'd sailed from Pwllheli with my wife some ten years ago. I put my lights on low power, just to be sure I was seen, as I could still see well enough to navigate the reasonable road surfaces. Even on full power I knew I had light for at least five hours. Thinking about it, there was no way I'd need the full set of spare batteries I'd packed, even if I rode right through the night, which I had no intention of doing, so they were just weighing me down. At least I wouldn't have to worry about conserving power.
As there was a slight headwind, more noticeable on the flat section by the coast, I followed close behind another audaxer. I don't know his name, but judging by the badges on his saddlebag and PBP shirt, he had plenty of experience. I lost him briefly as I paused to get a final photo from Harlech of the hills beyond Porthmadog. After a bit of effort I caught up again and soon we were on rural roads and climbing. The gradient reached 16%, not normally a problem, but as I had 300km in my legs and a bag full of batteries, even in my lowest gear (34x29) it was quite a struggle. When the slope reduced to around 5% it was a huge relief. The road was deserted and had recently been resurfaced, which made for an exciting descent of the other side. I was cautious in the dark, but with lights on full power and contact lenses in, I could see ahead well.
When the road flattened out I glanced back, but couldn't see the guy I was riding with. I didn't think I'd been going especially fast and I hoped he'd made the descent without incident. At the end of a long straight I paused momentarily and soon saw the white LED of a bike light in the darkness. He caught me a little while later at the information control. As I scribbled down the name of the pub, four others arrived. It was pitch black by now and we had some 30km to get to the bunk house, so I decided to stick with this small group as much as possible. Everyone has different highs and lows on a long ride, but I was feeling ok and I figured that these guys must've done the same average speed as me to be here at the same time, so I could probably keep up.
We climbed a shallow gradient for what seemed like hours. This was somewhere in Snowdonia, so I suppose this is to be expected. We made it over the top around midnight. With all our lights illuminating the straight, wide road, we barelled downhill, heads down and big rings engaged, with a surprising amount of enthusiasm considering the hour. This quickly changed after a sharp turn up a narrow lane. The road suddenly rose too steeply for tired and chilly legs - I had forgotten to pack trousers. I tried "tacking" across the hill, but soon wobbled into the grass at the edge and gave up to push. I wasn't the only one. However, once this last challenge was completed we were soon at the bunkhouse in Llanrwst. The simple pasta meal provided by Mark and Brian felt like luxury. The mood around the table was cheery. It felt good to be well over halfway and about to get some proper rest. "We'll have the wind behind us tomorrow.", "Isn't it all downhill on the way back?" By the time I was in bed it was 2am. I was asleep in moments.
When my alarm went off some 3 hours later I had mixed feelings. Part of me wanted to turn over and sleep for another five, maybe ten hours, but I was also excited about the challenge ahead. Getting up I realised the rest had done me good. It must have been the best three hours sleep I'd ever had. My legs could certainly feel the previous day's efforts, but I was no longer exhausted.
After breakfast I left my mountain of batteries and sleeping bag liner in the bag drop to be taken to the arrivee, making me about a kilo lighter. I got back on the road, very slowly at first and was glad to have left the excess baggage behind as I was soon faced with a long hill climb. It must have taken 20 minutes, but thankfully it wasn't too steep. Nearing the top I paused for a breather and admired another unexpected view. Behind me the mountains of Snowdonia were breaking through the clouds and the hazy morning looked to be brightening up. Some minutes later I reached the top and startled a herd of cattle as I clunked into a higher gear. They thundered through the field alongside me, matching my speed.
The descent was gentle, which I prefer as it lasts longer. Apart from the occasional tractor, there was little traffic. I saw a few other cyclists, but never rode with anyone for long, probably as we all climbed the many hills at different rates. Sometime after Bala I found myself riding along the shady side of a small wooded valley. The cool peaceful air was appreciated as the day was starting to warm up. The calm didn't last for long, however, as around the corner the valley opened up to reveal the steep Hirnant pass snaking up the mountain ahead. It was an intimidating sight. I stopped to take my jersey off and took a large gulp of water before climbing steadily. Although it got quite steep near the top it wasn't as tough as expected. Perhaps the gentler gradients before had refreshed me. Down the other side, through the dappled shade, I plunged into a densely-wooded valley. The road was suddenly flat. Weirdly flat. Surely it was lulling me into a false sense of security and would at any moment kick up to 20%? Through the trees I caught a glimpse of water. Lake Vernwy. Soon there was a clearing and picnic area, so I stopped, had a snack and enjoyed the view. For such a beautiful place it was really quiet - perhaps it's too far from densely-populated areas to attract many visitors.
As I continued, the hills returned and were mostly short and sharp on narrow lanes, often with a strip of gravel down the middle and grass overhanging the sides. One short stretch wasn't even properly surfaced but was a combination of rocks and mud over which I decided it was better to push. While the narrow lanes meant very little traffic, it also left little room for manoeuvre, so it wasn't safe to descend with much speed. I probably think too much about my average speed when I should just be relaxing and enjoying the ride, but I had noticed it dropping throughout the day. I had a vague plan that I'd like to get back for my daughter's bath time, but this was looking less and less likely. Still, it's all a learning experience.
I was navigating partly by GPS (Etrex 30) and partly by routesheets clipped to the handlebars. I don't like to rely just one method when in an unfamiliar area. I've learnt from previous rides that nothing slows you down like an accidental detour. However, with the great views and sometimes technical descents, I missed a turn. Zooming out I saw that my route would soon converge with the one I'd planned, so I carried on. However, on reaching Aberhafesp the instructions didn't quite make sense. I meandered through the town looking for the community hall. I had checked on Google streetview when planning, but had not taken the time to be exactly sure where it was. Eventually I stopped and asked for directions from some locals who helpfully pointed me in the right direction. It turned out that I'd missed the control when I went briefly off course. Next time I'll either mark them on the GPS, or put each section of the route in a different colour.
At the control Mark's ever-efficient helpers were handing out beans on toast. I ate slowly and chatted to some other riders, having had a fairly lonely morning.
Back on the road I was running a bit late. It had been a simple blunder, but I had lost half an hour finding the control. I thought it was unlikely I could average the 25kph I needed to make my original estimate. Still, I'd keep pacing myself and see how I felt.
The scenery became less rugged and wild, but the hills weren't over yet. In particular leaving Knighton was an unexpected epic and several of us considered it the hardest climb of the day. Looking it up on Strava afterwards showed a climb averaging 6% for nearly 4km. When it finally flattened out I felt like I was riding along the top of the world. As I approached Leominster, things did get noticeably flatter and I was pleasantly surprised how much more energetic I felt as a result. Gradually, my average speed started to creep up. The final control was a supermarket, so no reason to hang around. I grabbed plenty of drink, carefully filed the receipt and moved on.
I had hardly caught a glimpse of another audaxer all afternoon, so was slightly excited to see someone ahead with what looked like a worn-out saddle bag. Getting closer I noticed his t-shirt was unusually baggy and the saddle bag turned out to be a sack of cement, probably not someone out to climb hills! The last of the significant ups was at the Southern tip of the Malverns, after Ledbury. I was by no means fast, but the climb seemed fairly manageable. It's amazing how much it's possible to recover when it's flat, even while still riding fairly fast. Now I was counting down the kilometers to the arrivee, adding on my 4km detour at Aberhafesp. I turned off the main road down the tiny lane to Bushley and had a bit of a scary wobble on the central strip of grass. Mishap averted, I rolled into the quiet town hall car park and was congratulated by Mark on completing my first 600km, while his wife insisted I have a slice of toffee apple cake. I gladly accepted, drank as much water as I comfortably could and got changed as quickly as my tired legs would allow. I felt good, but was a bit wobbly. After driving the hour and a bit home, I had missed bath time, but was just in time to read my daughter a story before bed.
All in all my first 600 had been an enjoyable experience. A challenge and an adventure, sometimes sociable, sometimes solitary. We had been enormously lucky with the weather; it could easily have been windy or rainy, which would have made everything much harder. It was also made easier by the helpers at controls, serving much-needed food, often at times of the day and night when it would otherwise have been hard to find. I understand they had even less sleep than those of us riding. Finally we are indebted to organiser Mark for designing such a picturesque route, which made for an adventurous and scenic tour of Wales.
I had replaced my badly worn chain a week earlier. It was the first time I'd ever changed a chain and I was nervous that it would fall apart the first time I stood up on the pedals.
The weather had truly been kind to us, it could easily have been nothing but drizzle and plain grey vistas.
Apart from the occasional tractor, there was little traffic.