I wonder if perhaps it would be best to never return to a great ride.
In 2013 I rode the Bryan Chapman Memorial audax: 600km across Wales in a weekend. Having just ridden it again in 2018 I think I will probably not ride it again… it was a brutal ride. I found it so much more difficult than last time… and yet, as I sit here at my desk I am conflicted about why it was harder.
As UK audaxes go, this has been around for quite a while and built up a good reputation. The reputation is well deserved too – a hard but beautiful ride with an amazing team of volunteers who really care about the riders. However, in 2013 I was 15 kg lighter, and 5 years younger. Clearly the additional body weight was going to make the 8500m of climbing much harder. Which is why I find it interesting that I rode entirely without painkillers: my legs felt good, my arms and hands felt good… I have no side effects of having ridden a hard event. My body seems to have coped better with the demands than it used to.
In 2013 the route was 20km over distance, with the last section a navigational headache. But I loved it – I particularly loved the wiggly roads around Weobley and the final climb past Tintern Abbey. This year seemed to have more main roads than last time – or perhaps it was the ever present motorbikes, Caterham 7’s and sports cars with ‘GoPro’ cameras stuck all over the outside which dragged me down a bit. I don’t remember 2013 feeling that busy with cars… and I certainly never knew that Wales had been transformed into an unofficial racetrack for motorists. However, the long climbs were amazing and I haven’t cycled anywhere else in the UK as demanding as this. If it had been car-free it would have been perfect, but we don’t live in a car-free world so I doubt I will ride this route again: I don’t want to be exposed that that many thrill-seeking motorists in future.
However, despite the difficulty of being overweight on a hilly ride, and of riding a motorist-saturated event; there is no denying the scenic nature of the Bryan Chapman. The weather was absolutely perfect – sunshine all day Saturday and Sunday and despite the very cold Saturday night there was no really bad weather. The wind wasn’t a problem and there was no rain. No rain for a whole weekend in Wales – how is this even possible!
Our early morning start and the exhilaration of riding with so many other people whisked a huge group along at about 30kph for the first hour… until sense prevailed and I slowed down. Actually, my left hand crank arm had worked loose and I stopped to tighten it. It has never worked loose before and I’m not sure why it did now, but I had the tools to fix it and it hasn’t played up since. With the fast peloton heading away from me I settled down to a more sensible 25kph and bounced through the first control and Honey Cafe in Bronllys – it was too crowded to stop and they were doing a roaring trade with cyclists.
The whole world we were cycling through was literally gorgeous: beautiful gorges, hills, valleys, snaked through with strips of tarmac and gentle gradients. Gentle right up to Llandiloes when suddenly the nature of the road changed dramatically: I saw a gentleman pushing his fixed gear bike up the steep climb ahead of me.
This section of the route was fairly narrow and twisty – and perhaps that was why the World Wide Caterham 7 Owners Club decided to use it as well. The confidence with which these motoring enthusiasts overtook us on blind bends and just at the brow of a hill was breath-taking. Most of them were wearing ear defenders; it was a shame that the rest of Wales hadn’t been given hearing protection too.
This is what made the 2018 Bryan Chapman so bitter-sweet: the combination of stunning scenery, potentially quiet twisty lanes and yet the overwhelming presence of weekend racers pushing the limits of their cars on public roads. I can’t help wondering if my frustration was disproportionate to the experience… certainly the section of the route from Machynlleth over two climbs including Fox Crosses and the drop to Dolgellau were quieter and easier than I remember from 2013. However, my face was covered in the cosmetics of road grime and sweat, reflecting just how tough the ride had been to this point.
After a bite to eat in Kings Youth Hostel outside Dolgellau, I set off on the round trip to Menai Bridge and back – and unlike last time I had my camera with me. The bridge at Barmouth was threatened with closure by the railway company that is losing money keeping it open. I hope they find a solution because it is a brilliant tourist attraction and a novel way to cross the estuary at Barmouth.
The ride from Barmouth to Menai Bridge is a long one, about 80km, but between Barmouth and Menai Bridge is Pen-y-Pass. The climbing effectively starts at Beddgelert and ascends into Snowdonia alongside the valley walls, with beautiful views of the lakes beneath. Ahead Snowdon looms, and the cliff edge road clings to its side, twisted back towards us with speckles of people moving along it.
We’d left Chepstow at 6am. It was now about 7pm and I was cycling through Snowdonia National Park. I can’t really convey the oscillation between feeling on-top-of-the-world one minute, and dragging-the-depths of willpower the next. I knew that once I crested the top of Pen-y-Pass I’d be descending like a demon; and sure enough I hurtled downhill all the way to Llanberis. With the daylight fading fast, I arrived at Menai Bridge.
The volunteers at Menai Bridge had done a remarkable job of preparing good food and there was plenty to eat. All the right food stuffs for a stomach to digest. I didn’t want to wait long because I knew that the final leg back to Dolgellau involved a long hard drag of a climb which was going to be hard at midnight. I was surprised to learn that two thirds of the riders were behind me on the road, but encouraged that this might mean a bed in Kings Youth Hostel… because with 140 riders and only 39 beds sleep was bound to be interrupted.
Darkness fell. So did the temperature. I felt my chest and stomach getting colder. I stopped to put the remaining clothes from my Carradice onto my body. In the end I was wearing a nylon baselayer, a silk long sleeve baselayer, three-season cycling shorts, a cycling jersey, a gilet, a jacket, arm warmers, leg warmers, long fingered liner gloves and short fingered gloves. A hat and a buff. I was cold on the descents – but felt perfect on the climbs – I nearly stopped and unpacked my foil emergency blanket to stuff down the front of my shirt. Two good friends caught me, Debs and Mike from VC167 – they offered me a polo and an opportunity to draft their rear wheels… suddenly we were zipping along at 30kph again. I have no idea where they found the strength but for the next 45 minutes I held onto their company with grim determination and an awareness that this was making a significant difference to the distance remaining. As we hit the final climb… the A470 through Coed y Brenin… I dropped back and let my legs twiddle a low gear.
Mike and Debs floated away from me , but the climb is dead straight and with no dips so I was able to see their taillights way into the distance. It was a challenge in the dark to hold my morale. A coach came past. I watched the lights keep climbing away from me, willing them to crest the brow of the hill and disappear… they just kept climbing and climbing, never seeming to dip, but only fade from view into the distance above me. Eventually the hill had to stop going up. In the cold I hung onto the bike and enjoyed the descent to Dolgellau. Kings Youth Hostel beckoned.
It was really great to see familiar faces and friendly volunteers. Especially when I was told that the power of prayer had secured me a bed for two hours. As the bleary-eyed cyclist who had not had enough sleep climbed from the bunk bed, I rolled into the warmth he left behind. It would have been nice to sleep, perchance to dream, instead I wrestled with the potential of cramp in my thigh until someone woke me up. I must have slept. Two hours? Perfect. I moved to one side and a bleary-eyed cyclist rolled into the warmth I left behind.
The sun was thinking about getting up as I shuffled into the canteen from the dormitories. I tried to stomach some beans and omelette. I couldn’t. I couldn’t even force one baked bean past my lips. I needed to eat, I had to force myself to eat. I spread marmalade on toast and nibbled the corners until it was gone. I sipped blackcurrant juice. I sipped white coffee… white coffee. Coffee with milk. I never have milk in my coffee but I figured this might help me get some energy into me – kickstart my digestive processes. I nibbled a second piece of toast. I managed a bowl of cereal and began to believe I would have energy to continue. I must have looked miserable to the volunteers. I left at 5:30am. I had hoped to be on the road by 4:30pm but it had taken this long to get nourishment past my lips.
The reward for leaving Dolgellau early is a traffic free climb of Fox Crosses.
The reward for climbing Fox Crosses is the descent along the A470 beside the river Cerist.
Gravity swept me away: 73.1kph. I rolled down the hill at about 45mph enjoying the wind in my face and the freedom of a quiet Welsh road in the early Sunday morning, before the screaming motorcycle engines have been fired up.
There was less than 200km to ride to the finish at Chepstow and I had all day to ride. I was expecting this to be easy now, the hardest climbing was behind me and the day was promising to be warm and sunny. I was slathered in sun-cream, as with the day before and I have to acknowledge that Kids Waterproof SPF 50+ sun-cream really does protect well: I finished the Bryan Chapman Memorial with less tan than I started.
My appetite had well and truly returned by Aberhafesp and I devoured the two delicious bacon rolls I’d been offered. The banana went into my back pocket and I set off again for Newtown and beyond. The final 100 miles of the BCM was marked by three climbs:
1: The A483 climb from Newtown past Dolfor under the sight of Bryn Gydfa
2: The A479 climb from Talgarth to Cwmdu underneath Pen Allt-mawr
3: The B4235 climb from Usk to Chepstow through Coppice Mawr
I found that the beauty of the day had slowed me down – I was so happy cycling along in the sunshine and the warmth, knowing that I was going to finish no matter what – that I decided it would be wise to stop and have some food at a pub. I found an excellent little pub on the A470. A lovely pint and a nice big lunch sat in the glorious blue-skied warmth outside was a real treat.
The beer was a treat I felt needed repeating on the descent from Cwmdu too. These fermented iso-tonic sports drinks really fired me up and I stopped again for ice-cream in Abergavenny. The last ice-cream seemed to have two immediate effects – the traffic disappeared (I was on a back road to Usk) – and I found some new legs. With 17 miles to go I found myself raising the pace… the last climb was ahead and I rode up it as though I was racing for a podium finish. I passed a couple of riders. As I crested one final hill the Severn Bridge appeared in the distance and I knew I was basically done, but I didn’t slow until I reached Chepstow.
I was utterly shattered. I rode back to the Travelodge and waited for my friends. In the evening sunshine I cracked open a bottle of beer. I never want to do that ride again.
Foolishly I’ve signed up for three more 600km rides this year… a ‘permanent’ version of the Pair of Kirtons, the New Border Raid and Borderlands Late Season Explorer. I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. I don’t know why and I have no idea whether I can complete this, but if I do I plan to take a season off audaxing and go touring instead.