It’s ten past one on Sunday morning as I take a turn signposted to Lake Vernwy via Hirnant Pass. I begin to climb and the drizzle returns. I’m tired and wet. I’m not sure I’m enjoying it, but I remind myself that food and bed is less than twenty-five kilometres away. That feels manageable on a familiar stretch of road.
We had set off on Thursday morning. It was cool but the forecast warned that 2018’s summer heatwave would provide one final scorcher. Sunblock had been applied. The first hills of this 1000km ride were in Shropshire – the Long Mynd and Stiperstones. They’re big climbs, but exactly what I was expecting and I enjoyed them. The scenic valley views and fresh legs must have helped. Nevertheless, when we reached a long gentle descent it was a welcome rest.
On a short ride I’m happy enough climbing most hills with a bit of effort. But after doing that all morning it became harder. In the heat of the first afternoon on one especially tough climb I realised I was struggling. I noticed some shade from a tree and I had to stop. I was out of breath and sweating profusely. It looked like I wasn’t even halfway up. I had a banana and some water while I got my breath back. After a few minutes I carried on, but I was starting to realise what this ride would be like.
Familiar though the road to Lake Vernwy is, I soon realise that the attractive wooded valleys I enjoyed in the sunshine take on a different character at night in the rain. I find myself uncertain of what is ahead, beyond my pool of light. Bends loom out of the darkness. A small hill turns out to be bigger than expected. Debris on the road appears suddenly.
Each day of this ride so far had involved a few hours riding in the dark. At times this meant slowing down to stay safe, but most of it had been fine with good lights. At night the Welsh roads are even quieter than usual and once away from towns most of the traffic was other riders. Once I mistook a light up in the sky for an aeroplane only to realise that it was a bike ahead – and we had a big climb coming. A guy I was riding with optimistically suggested that “He might not be with us”. I chuckled wondering “Who else is weird enough to be riding out here at this time of night?”
Most of the surfaces had been good too. The only truly rough section was the sandy track and wooden bridge at Barmouth. Crossing the exposed estuary I felt the side wind blasting me and there was little chance to enjoy the views of the river. With one eye closed to keep out the sand I dodged pedestrians and wobbled my way across. It seemed frustratingly slow, but in truth it only took a few minutes.
I know the last climb before the lake will be Hirant Pass itself. I remember how the valley which precedes it opens out giving a clear and intimidating view of the mountain. I won’t see that tonight, but I’m anticipating that valley to gain some feeling of progress beyond looking at a number on my SatNav. I keep thinking it will be around the next corner but I repeatedly find another wooded dip and climb, the occasional field.
Despite having ridden numerous audaxes in Wales over the last few years, I found plenty of scenery that was new to me. The Pembrokeshire coast was interesting with its endless small ups and downs, each dip revealing another seaside town, complete with sandy high street, wandering tourists and a sharp climb to leave the town. The tunnels along the scenic coastal path added variety to the route. Equally unknown to me were the flat beaches of Borth where we enjoyed the novelty of long straight roads and a consistent tailwind. Much of Snowdonia I had not seen in the daylight, but I enjoyed Llyn Cwellyn sparkling in the sunlight and Mount Snowdon hiding ominously in the clouds. On the way to Llanberis I was lucky enough to catch the stunning vista across Llyn Padarn as the sun set.
I pass another rider, stopped in a driveway adjusting clothing. I mumble a greeting, but I can’t recognise him in the dark. For the most part I’m alone, but aware that there are others probably only a few minutes behind. I’m content to continue at my own pace, slow enough to keep going, but fast enough to keep warm.
I don’t have much experience of riding further than 600km and, as I had failed to complete Paris Brest Paris in 2015, I was determined to plan this ride more carefully. For the first time I’d even made a pace plan in a spreadsheet by looking at each stage and trying to work out how long it would take me depending on the distance and hills I’d climb. I scribbled the target average speeds and estimated arrival times in the route sheet so I could easily keep an eye on how I was doing. My usual audax pace feels like a gentle hurry. Never quite relaxing or pausing for too long, but not sprinting or putting in any big efforts. I don’t think I’m very competitive and I’ve never raced but somehow I often find myself giving chase when another rider passes me. It seems to happen without me even realising I’m speeding up. A few minutes later I’d notice that I’m puffing and my legs are aching! It may be the right speed for the other audaxer at that moment, but that doesn’t mean it’s right for me. I think it’s better to listen to my body and stick to a comfortable pace in order to feel stronger later, even if it takes a conscious effort to do so.
A gust of wind blows rain into my face. I’m suddenly exposed, in the wide valley before Hirnant Pass at last. Carefully over a cattle grid then I start the climb. It’s not too steep at first and I continue steadily. I take an occasional look over my shoulder to see a couple of lights some way below me. I wobble erratically and decide my curiosity can wait. I concentrate on keeping the bike going straight. The rain and gradient increase and I decide to get off and push. It isn’t the first time on this ride.
I had decided that for really steep climbs it was worth getting off to push the bike and avoid making an unsustainable effort. It isn’t much slower and probably uses different muscles or something. That’s my excuse anyway. The Devil’s Staircase on the morning of the second day was at least 25%, so I walked that. A couple of riders overtook me, but I didn’t mind. My second unmanageable hill was on the way out of Aberystwyth. I’d guess it was 1 in 3. I know some brave souls rode up it, but I didn’t. The next impossibly steep incline was a surprise in the dark. Having thought I’d done all the big climbs of Snowdonia I confidently powered up a small steep bit on the way to Ffestiniog. Except it wasn’t small. The steep bit continued for several minutes and eventually I realised I was panting and my legs were aching. I hobbled along until the gradient eased and I rode slowly up the rest of the mountain. The headwind coming over the dark, bleak summit made this one of the tougher parts of the ride.
At the top of Hirnant Pass I get back on the bike. A couple of others are waiting for a friend. There is still a lot of weather happening. Keen to keep moving, I press on.
Hills don’t make for easy group cycling; riders don’t benefit much from drafting as they tend to climb and descend at different paces. It seems to me there’s a kind of unwritten rule for audax that if you’re riding faster and leave someone behind that’s fine, it’s nothing personal. It’s good to check people are OK if they’ve had a mechanical or seem unwell. But in most situations people understand the importance of riding at your own pace which may vary as the terrain and energy levels change. Unless I’ve planned to ride as a group I prefer to go at the speed that feels right and rely on serendipity to provide occasional company. Happily, I did manage to chat to several people, some of whom had completed the event before. I don’t mind long periods of solitude, but it’s always interesting to hear how other people plan and ride events like this, to hear someone else’s life story or even make new friends.
The section through Monmouth to Tintern was relatively flat so we formed a small group sharing the wind and made good progress. After a hot day it was pleasant riding in the dappled shade beside the river Wye.
I was also happy to help one other rider who was missing a route sheet for part of the ride. Without a GPS either he was a bit stuck, so I suggested we rode together into the second night. It was good to have some company, even when we were tired and not inclined to chat much.
I remember the descent to Lake Vernwy as a swooping joy in the daylight. Now it’s treacherous. I have good lights, but I still can’t see enough. I try to choose between keeping my rain-covered glasses on or taking them off and half-closing my eyes to cope with the stinging drops. I round each corner cautiously. Small rocks are scattered across the road. This should be the fast bit, the payback for the big climb, but my speed is never more than 20mph. My hands ache from the braking. I reach the T-junction at Lake Vernywy glad to know that the road ahead is flat. I feel like I’m going fast now, but the road carries on and on. This lake must be bigger than I remember. In addition to the rain there’s plenty of water coming up from the road. I’m glad I decided to put my mudguards back on. My jacket is doing its job well, but my hands, feet and legs are wet.
I had already been drenched that afternoon. I was chased by rain clouds up the West coast and they finally caught me around Harlech. I stopped to put my jacket on, but didn’t have full waterproofs. The downpour was heavy, but brief. I thought afterwards that I should’ve run for the cover of a bus shelter or tree, but I was so intent on making progress that it didn’t occur to me until I was already soaked. Luckily I wasn’t too cold and I dried out over the next few hours riding in sun and wind to Snowdonia.
Where is the control? It can’t be far now. If I can keep going at this pace I’ll keep warm enough for a while, but I’d like this bit of the ride to be over now so I can have some food and rest. Did I mention that it’s raining?
Sometimes I’d think I could make up some time at the next control. I would intend to stop only briefly, have a light snack and eat more on the road if I needed it. But more often than not, I was tempted to stay longer by the good hot food on offer, especially the fruit crumbles which I cannot refuse.
There are occasional small branches in the road which I dodge easily as there’s no traffic about; I haven’t seen a car for hours.
Aha, the dam! I’m at the far end of the lake, the control must be close. I slow down for a bend and downhill slope. I don’t know if the puddles hide potholes or gravel. My reaction times are slowed and I’m feeling a bit stiff, so better to play it safe. The road straightens out and I see the corner shop where my left turn is. A couple of hundred metres at most. I pedal out of the saddle briefly to keep the bike going up the small slope, then I’m around the corner and coasting into the school. Volunteers with umbrellas welcome me inside.
The food is simple, but it’s hot and it tastes wonderful.
Six hours earlier I had devoured a generous veggie grill at the lively “Pete’s Eats” in Llanberis. Actually, that’s not quite true – I left half of it. I was unsure about eating so much in one go having suffered from heartburn over the last few days and taken plenty of antacids. I don’t have a strong stomach and it sometimes complains at the volume of food required for audaxing with little time to sit and digest. For me it’s a careful balance to avoid ever being completely full or empty. Luckily the veggie grill didn’t cause me any issues, maybe because the next climb was Pen-y-Pass, which was long but relatively gentle.
Sitting in the quiet school at Lake Vernwy I’m still a little damp, but without a change of clothes. I strip down to my long-suffering shorts and find a blanket and air mattress for some sleep.
Sleep had been limited on this ride. With only 75 hours to complete the route and much of it slower than my predictions, it was the sleep stops that got squeezed. On the first night I arrived at Llanwrtyd Wells a while after my planned arrival time. The four hours of sleep I had been looking forward to would have to wait. Two would do. I still wanted a shower. It would take more time, but it had been a hot day and I reasoned that this and a fresh pair of shorts might make me more comfortable over the next few days.
Amazingly, I discovered that even a couple of hours sleep is far better than none. I didn’t feel totally refreshed and energetic getting up in the mornings, but the sleep did give me a bit of strength back. More importantly, I felt alert enough to cycle safely at all hours.
I’m startled awake as someone drops their phone on the wooden floor near my head. It’s half five. I don’t need to leave until seven. I get a bit more sleep, pull on my wet clothes and enjoy some hot porridge to fortify myself for the weather. After more faffing than usual I head out into the rain. Straight up another hill. That’s no bad thing; it feels good to warm up a bit. About 70km to the arriveé and not so many hills. With little energy or enthusiasm to speed along I plod through the wet and think back on what has been an amazing ride.
We’d experienced such variety in one small country. Rural Wales is beautiful and full of adventure. The dark and bleakness of Snowdonia’s mountains at night. The stillness and peace in early morning sunshine near Abergwesyn. Small seaside resorts in secluded bays. Remote farms nestled in their own private valleys. Castles overlooking huge estuaries. The many folds of the Elan valley with wind alternately helping and hindering.
Wild and wonderful. A little rain couldn’t spoil that.
As it turns out the rain eases off as I approach Shrewsbury and join a couple of other riders. We’re comfortably within the time limit now. With the exception of a couple of navigational errors in the town for which I take full responsibility, it’s a relaxed ride back. We’re joined by more riders converging on the tiny town hall. At the arriveé we get a warm welcome from organiser John Hamilton and warm food from helpers. People aren’t cheering or jumping for joy, but there are plenty of big grins on weary faces. Those who’ve done the ride before seem to feel the same – tired, relieved, proud and elated.