“What charity are you raising money for?” When you tell people what you are doing, if it is for charity they are impressed, but if it is for fun you must be insane. Nobody ever replies, “Wow – amazing distance, I’m impressed.” As a cyclist, I think I need to learn that going on a bicycle ride for charity is a really encouraging thing to do, and that non-cyclists might feel inspired and want to do something themselves. I don’t mind this, but I also want people who are already cyclists to understand that they can cycle hundreds of miles easily – and it is possible to do this just for fun. The trick here is to recognise who I’m talking to.
I completed the Bryan Chapman Memorial (BCM) 600km Audax in May 2013, the weather was beautiful and the scenery was, well, was the whole of Wales… it was wonderful.
I was staying at a Travelodge and got up at 5am to get dressed and cycle for 20 minutes to the start line, where I found the event HQ was very busy. After collecting my brevet card and saying hello to old friends over coffee, I headed outside with 10 minutes to go before the ‘grand depart’. My preparation from the week before helped me to feel relaxed and happy; knowing that my bicycle was in perfect working order, my luggage was correctly and minimally packed, I knew the route and I knew what control points I was looking for… all I had to do now was ride.
As we set off, one or two riders immediately took a wrong turn, within less than 10m of the start. Then others missed the next turn and there were cyclists all over the road. I was being cautious because I didn’t want to collide with anyone.
Something quite memorable happened early on too – while part of a large group strung along the road, we cycled past a convex mirror in a driveway, for a brief second I was able to see myself in the group as a whole as we swept by, and there was a “Tour de France” feel to being part of a peloton bowling down the road at high speed.
Soon we were onto quiet lanes in rolling Welsh countryside and the large group of riders I was with dropped me as it headed off at a remarkable pace. I resisted the temptation to keep up and allowed myself to be caught and passed by others too as the overall pace was fast. I think the combination of sunshine, brilliant roads and group riding was filling people with the joys of spring.
There were very few motorists out this early in the morning, but as the day progressed the 130 riders formed small groups and although we would have been easy to pass, I think the number of overtaking manoeuvres that motorists were obliged to take was beginning to frustrate them. However, as it was a Saturday, the vast majority of people on the roads were having a day out, just like us.
Passing through Abergavenny into the Black Mountains, we climbed to 327m up a gentle A470 before reaching Honey’s Café in Brecon (Bronllys) on the edge of the Brecon Beacons. It was a fairly fast ride overall, I had hoped to arrive by 9:17am, but actually arrived (and left) by 8:30am. The café was very busy, doing an excellent trade with all the cyclists. I noticed a couple of holidaymakers turn away frustrated because of how busy the building was. We had covered 72km (45 miles) and I wanted to keep going, so I bounced this control and rode on.
Now I was alone; I stopped at a garage to buy a couple of bananas, one for my pocket and one for my tummy. I then met Alberto and Javier, two Spanish Londoners who were chatting as they rode. I cycled along with them for a while, following the River Wye to Builth Wells, staying with the well surfaced A470. We were climbing for the next 70km (43 miles) to reach the Nant Yr Arian visitors centre on the A44 between Ponterwyd and Aberystwyth, passing through Builth and then Rhayader to get there. There were many birds circling overhead in the forests and hills as we passed the Osprey Centre, and looking back I was able to make out the shape of the glacial valley. Groups of cyclists were forming, rolling together then breaking up quite regularly and I was able to pick up one or two wheels to speed up a little bit; we had a headwind which was growing in strength as we crossed the highest point at 433m. With what looked like a fast section ahead, I took the front and gave a big turn into the wind to keep the group going. It is slightly frustrating to have to pedal hard downhill because of a blocking headwind and this drained my thighs slightly, but I was planning a 30 minute stop at the visitor centre.
Everyone was taking a breather at the Nant-Yr-Arian Visitor’s centre and I was fortunate to only have a short queue to order a full breakfast and coffee. This was my first meal of the day, and I was hungry! I captured some pictures of riders recovering from the uphill battle into the wind, we had completed 154km (95 miles) and I had got here in 6 hours and 15 mins. Stopping for a rest didn’t take long really, and I was looking forward to the next descent.
I followed three riders out of the visitors centre and immediately we began a massive drop through sweeping curves – my weight played to my advantage here and I shot off. The feeling of being fast and not braking through corners is wonderful, and as there were no motorists around I had the whole road to myself for the next 10km (6 miles) downhill.
I now joined the A487 at Bow Street and could soon see out along the coast up to Aberdovey. The A487 had some malfunctioning traffic lights at a set of roadworks, the red light was shining in both directions with a long section of single-lane road coned off. I overtook the very long line of queuing drivers, dodging those doing u-turns to head back. Eventually I reached the traffic lights, and rode through the coned area to keep away from the traffic. Because of the malfunction I had the 18km (11 miles) all the way to Machynlleth pretty much alone. This was an undulating section and I passed along quickly.
Leaving Machynlleth I was passing somewhere Carol and I have visited before; the Centre for Alternative Technology. The road climbs gently and up to pass through Corris, into Snowdonia and by “King Arthur’s Labyrinth” before dropping steeply with a wonderful view of Llyn Mwyngil and then climbing again to a height of 300m. We are following the A487 here to Cross Foxes and Dolgellau. Major roadworks on the A470 are upgrading the road from a twisty road to a dead straight constant gradient – on the descent I was just ahead of a tanker and a group of cars, but I really didn’t hold them up. I like the town of Dolgellau but the fastest route to get to the control point at Kings Youth Hostel (YH) was to use the bypass and turn left towards Tywyn on the A493. This is another place where we’ve camped as a family with friends; we’ve stayed at the Greig Wen campsite which is very close to Kings YH.
I had been warned by a friend that after the sharp turn to the YH the road is immediately very steep, so I was already in the lowest gear I could find – thankfully – I think this section is about 15%-20%, narrow and wooded.
There is a river running down the gorge and making a whooshing, gurgling noise in the woods. The sun shining through the trees gave everything a yellow/green tint and I felt very peaceful climbing this last section to the Youth Hostel.
I arrived about 3:30pm, 45 minutes ahead of my schedule and feeling pretty good. I’d ridden the last section alone and enjoyed the coastal scenery, the open empty roads and the speed with which I was able to ride. At the YH there was a great deal of good food ready for us and I settled down for lunch; pasta soup, tomato pasta and rice pudding. While I was here though I hit a low point because I was going to be stopping at this Youth Hostel for some sleep later and I was beginning to worry about the next section. So far I had great weather, made good time and felt wonderful. I had covered 225km in about 10 hours, but this was the problem, I was now thinking I had another 200km to go and that I had to get over Snowdon twice with tired legs. I was thinking that I would take at least 10 hours to do this, possibly 12, and that I wouldn’t be back to the YH until between 2am and 4am – much later than I intended. I was worried about the extra 10km for the diversion by the closed bridge too. I also worried about the weather; dark wet and windy. So I left my camera behind because I didn’t think I would have a chance to use it.
I set off again and in front of me was a rider from the yacf forum. I couldn’t keep up with him – he was far too strong for me, but I could see him just out of reach. There was no one else around and I was starting to think that we were the only two doing the coastal section. I tried not to think that the alternative and shorter A470 was better… I tried to focus on the beauty of the route I was following. I crossed the wooden bridge at Barmouth and climbed up to Harlech along the A496 with massive views of the flat sandy beaches, Porthmadog and the mountains of Snowdonia. But the openness of the route was feeding my uncertainty; it was windy and I was down to 20kph (12.5mph) and there were big black clouds over the mountains. I felt I was only going to get slower and I was going to get cold and wet. I felt quite melancholy.
I met Reg and cycled with him for while. I told him I’d been feeling down, and that I was worried about time – he encouraged me that I was doing okay. He even encouraged me to stop and have a beer – which I did in Pont Aberglaslyn.
After the usual banter with pub based locals over cycling, distance, and my obvious mental deficiencies I set off again onto the A498 through Beddgelert and the loop of Snowdon. I was alone again, but happier. Ahead I could see the gentle gradient of the road climbing past Afon Glaslyn and then Llyn Gwynant to the junction with the A4086 and the turning for Llanberis via Pen-y-Pass. Around me towered the mountains of Snowdonia. The clouds were lifting and there was sunshine as, at 7pm, I passed over Pen-y-Pass (360m) and began the long descent to Llanberis. Fast and dry roads zoomed me onwards and I flew through Llanberis with a big grin plastered on my face. Only a couple of little hills remained to reach Menai Bridge (Porthaethwy).
As I came downhill into Porthaethwy (Menai Bridge), the suspension bridge was visible and is a great technical beauty. I was bouncing with joy as I rode over it to the Scout Hut on Anglesey at 7:45pm, arriving 30 minutes ahead of the time I had guessed at home in the planning stages. 314km (195 miles) covered in just under 14 hours. The hospitality at the Scout Hut was warm and welcoming, and I enjoyed a ham roll, a cheese roll and some spicy green soup. I was a bit tired, but very happy, and I had now covered half the distance, I was making good progress and still had great strength available – I began to hope I could get back to Kings YH between 1am and 2am.
Reproduced courtesy of Milltag (taking photos around 8pm in Porthaethwy)
Reproduced courtesy of Milltag
So far the weather had been amazing and I had been in shorts and short sleeved shirt for the day, with a windproof gilet for the fast descents. But now it was night time I decided to make sure I could stay warm. I also got my lights arranged and switched on before setting off. It was about 8pm as I set off on the section to get me back to Kings YH and complete the loop of Snowdon.
The evening was warm though, and I had to strip back some of the clothing, and the light stayed with me for a couple more hours. I was riding along the A4085 back to Beddgelert and coming the other way were loads of cyclists. I assume they were doing the Pen-y-Pass route the other way round, although I don’t know why. Lots of cheery ‘hellos’ were shouted back and forth – most people were in high spirits. I was accompanied by bats flitting around the hedges next to me and I was very relaxed and happy – everything was going well and I was pleased to be there.
There is an fast descent into Beddgelert where I hardly touched the brakes and here I met up with Stuart, a gentleman of Scottish origins who currently lives in Hampshire. We now rode together chatting about work and responsibility, also about the route. Stuart was good company and I felt encouraged to be with him for a while – but inevitably he was stronger than I and climbed away from me as we came back to Penrhyndeudraeth. Here we joined the A470 heading back to Dolgellau; it was a route some of the riders had used to avoid the ‘non-diversion’ due to the ‘not-closed’ bridge. This was a hard slog into the night; the climbing seemed to go on forever and I reached a height of over 350m before finally starting to drop. But it was still a very long way in the dark and although I felt I was moving fast, a glance at my computer told me otherwise.
In the dark, by some roadworks, a motorist and his companion pulled alongside me and asked, “What charity are you raising money for?” As I’m only doing this for self-indulgent fun we had a brief conversation about my lack of sanity before they beeped me farewell and sped off. I think in future I’m just going to say “Help for Heroes” or something – and maybe ask them to put a fiver in a pot next time they see one.
The turning for Tywyn was a welcome sight, and the climb to the YH was no harder than it had been 8 hours earlier. I arrived back at Kings YH at 11:55pm; a mere 5 minutes ahead of my rough planning schedule. My big grin and cheerful disposition was probably not welcome as I strode back into the dining room.
Being organised is extremely important; I placed my food order, I made my request for a bed and was offered 3 hours in a bunkroom. I ate and drank, then at 12:15am was taken to my bunkroom for some quiet rest. There was only one other rider in the room and he had just arrived. I had a very quick shower, keeping the lights off and moving as quietly as possible. I also applied some cream to sensitive patches of skin, and slipped into bed. More riders arrived now and by 12:30am all 6 beds were filled. I drifted off to sleep by 1am.
At 3am there was a wake up call for the first rider into bed; it was someone else’s turn for sleep. I got up too and put some fresh cycling clothes on, I was dressed and leaving the bunkroom as another rider arrived to take my place. Up in the dining room was absolute carnage – about thirty people arriving, eating, trying to arrange sleeping… I met up with Jason who was doing the event on fixed with two friends from AC Hackney, so I took time to have a coffee and wake up gently, repack my Carradice Barley and sort out my lights. I thought of having some breakfast before setting off, but it became apparent that the organised chaos was going to continue for some time and breakfast would have to wait. I decided to set off and get breakfast at the next control.
At 4:30am I started out of Kings YH in the faint dawn light, with my lights on, ready to do battle with the climb to Cross Foxes by Cadair Idris (mountain). Firstly I took a deliberate and small diversion through Dolgellau and Bala, just to see the town one more time, as it is a pretty place. This involved a little more climbing than the official route, but was worth it in the early dawn.
As I climbed I was overtaken by a faster rider on a fixed gear bicycle, he was a strong cyclist and came past making a noise like a small electric car… just the buzz of tyres speeding over tarmac.
Over the top… and I had been told the descent was fast… so I push hard to set off and then tucked in… didn’t touch the brakes at all… and topped out at 81.9kph (51mph). This is not the fastest I’ve ever been (53mph) but it was amazing and the road was perfectly suited to going as fast as possible.
I continued along the A470 for a very long way now; following first the River Dovey and then the Taff Valley Railway with very few towns to break the Glamorgan valley views. I was accompanied by wildlife; yellow hammers dodging along the hedgerows next to me, rabbits jumping in and out of the road, and all the time the sky was getting lighter and blue. I could tell I was in for a warm day.
It was about 7:30am when I arrived at the Community Centre in Aberhafesp and I was greeted with the news that there were no more bacon rolls – I was too late and they’d all been eaten. As jokes go, this was terrible. Thankfully it was a joke and I was treated to good hospitality, coffee, and bacon/beans on toast. I had covered 480km (298 miles) and was 30 minutes ahead of my self-imposed schedule.
I removed arm warmers, and set off now for Newtown and what was to be the highest point of the entire journey (468m). The road switches back and forth with hill after hill revealing itself as you gain height. At first you expect a short climb, and with every brow of the hill you expect to crest the top, but it goes on and on, up and up. It is a wonderful climb which doesn’t require the lowest of gears, it just requires endurance. Once over the top into the Teme Valley, there are a few hairpins which can be taken (at this time on a Sunday morning) using the whole road to keep speed up. I then rode the undulating tarmac all the way to Knighton at a brisk pace of 28-32kph (17-20mph). In Knighton I stopped for the well-earned ice-cream at the Tourist Information Centre.
Following this road a bit further I found myself briefly in England, and it is embarrassing to note that the road surfaces were dreadful. The twisty singletrack country lanes were nice though, and at one point I found myself gawping through a break in the hedge back into the amazing Glamorgan countryside.
For a while I had to navigate with care, but soon reached Weobly for my final break of the route. 540km (335 miles) and it was now 11:30am, exactly on the schedule. I had a nice rest with Mike, Stuart and a few other riders, sitting in the hot sunshine. They treated themselves to ice-cream and I cracked open a bottle of Bishops Finger to have with my sandwich. I also bought a bottle of energy drink to put in my bidon for the last section. A couple of guys headed off together and then I left, alone again for the final section.
I weaved my way south through Herefordshire, from Weobly (south of Leominster) to Monmouth and onwards. A brief bit of fun overtaking the queues for the Car Boot Sale at Madley Airfield and the sun was baking my skin. I was dripping with perspiration, and started to run low on liquids but pushed on to Monmouth along the rolling A40. In Monmouth I saw a sign for Tintern Abbey (10 miles) and knew that there were some great pubs there, so ignoring the lack of water in my bottles pushed on, quite hard. The road is dappled with sunlight filtering through the trees and it was cool in the shade. I switched my rear light on to flashing to warn drivers as they passed from sunshine to shade and I’m sure this helped because I was always given plenty of room.
Now this was where my competitive side came to the front: I was in Tinturn Abbey and surrounded by pubs… but I had only 11km (7 miles) left to get to the finish and there was a distinct possibility of getting there before 4pm. (Remember this is an Audax - there are no rewards for finishing quickly…) I couldn’t help myself. Instead of stopping and relaxing in the bright sunshine for a beer and some chips I dug deep and powered all the way up the climb back to Chepstow. Passing the racecourse there was a ‘Wiggle Sportive’ taking place and I waved at loads of other riders. And that was it… I was back in Chepstow. I rolled into the car park at the Community Centre at 3:55pm, having covered 619km (385 miles) in less than 34 hours.
I was very comfortable for the whole ride, the combination of touring bicycle, leather saddle, good quality shorts and pacing myself carefully combined to keep me feeling fresh and strong for most of the ride and comfortable with my contact points of feet, hands and backside.
There were about 160 entries, of which 130 turned up to ride. The distance is 619km (384 miles) and the maximum time allowed is 40 hours. We started at 6am on Saturday 18th May and the fastest riders were back by about 7am Sunday 19th May, the “full value” riders were back just before 10pm Sunday night. I was just one of the average riders, finishing at 3:55pm. My average moving speed was just under 23.7kph (14.7mph) as I spent 26hrs and 10mins in the saddle. My total elapsed time, including stops for food and rest, was 33hrs 55mins making my total average speed 18.2kph (11.3mph).
I cycled back over the Severn Crossing to the Travelodge to get washed and changed, then cycled back to the Community Centre to watch more riders arrive. At about 8pm I went for some dinner and then headed home back one last crossing of the Severn for bed. In total I covered 650km from Saturday morning to Sunday evening, breaking the 400 mile mark (403 miles) and the longest ride I’ve done to date.