Saturday, June 22, 2013

We raced the sun...

And we won, though on a technicality.
The days are now getting shorter. Last night saw the end of the longer days and also the shortest of nights. It has been a while since I did something on the Solstice; I would try and do something to get me away from the humdrum of daily life not least because of the calendar proximity to Father's Day and my lack of one. Events conspired against me the last few years but this year I set the date aside to get away.
I had a plan inspired/influenced by the Howies Rest Less ride that began by catching the train from home near Pontypool over to Aberystwyth on the West coast with push bike and cycling back through the night. I put this to my good friend, Jay and things started to happen.
The planned route was a mixture of roads I had done from riding to the Dragon Rally, and roads I had cycled. It ended up being 100 miles and took in the Cambrian Mountains and Gospel Pass. Other than the route planning my mate Pete booked us the train tickets and cycle reservations and that was it sorted. It really did come together that easily.

Early on Friday morning I discovered that the train tickets were booked for 2 hours earlier than anticipated. Eep. Nevermind, it will all be ok.
Down to the station then to catch the earlier train. Due to no direct line to Aberystwyth we had to go up to Shrewsbury to then change trains to come back down and across to the West. So there we were, waiting
The packed train arrived and the conductor shook his head at us loading the bikes on.
But we've got reservations.
With a sigh he begins to move the people the cycle area and the suitcases into the racks where they should be. There's already one bike in the rack. Arriva only allow 2 bikes per train to be booked. We strap ours in and find seats for the first leg of the journey.
By the time we come to Shrewsbury there are 5 bikes in the cycle area. The conductor has abandoned all hope.
With a farewell to the table of passengers I joined, we change trains.
The next train is quieter and this time only 3 bikes end up in the cycle area; Arriva, you might want to look at allowing more?
I remember catching the scent of wood-fired barbeque coming in through the windows. Ah that would have been a nicely restful evening. After 10 minutes of dozing and an awful lot more watching of the countryside pass by we arrive in sunny Aberystwyth. Except it's got cloudy and rather chilly.
A quick meal of pretty shitty fish and chips from the Express chip shop and we clip in and roll out.
In my mind I had foreseen the first half of the ride as being a steady paced undulating scenic passing. There did end up being more climbing in there than I had anticipated. By some margin. By the time we were beginning to see the Cambrian Mountains we had already climbed 450 metres. The mountains looked slightly foreboding as the sky hung heavy.

The road was pleasant enough though and the scent of wild garlic was on the air as we rolled through shaded canopies of trees.
Soon down in Tregaron and turning off onto the mountain road towards Abergwesyn we remarked at how few cars we had seen. Onto the smallest road so far and within minutes we had two cars coming the other way.
This is where the climbing really began. Which would be logical really, given that we were heading into mountains, it just hadn't sunk in. First up was a 16% climb that was ok but feelable. The road rolled up and down with each roll becoming slightly fiercer. Like someone had pushed the land in from both sides. The descents were quicker though the surface sometimes made them a little unnerving.
The moon has come up and out now, peeking from behind the clouds. So far things are still dry.
On we roll and sooner than expected we come to Devil's Staircase. Someone has helpfully graffiti'd the road with 'Welcome to the Staircase :-) ' just in case we weren't sure what the 1:4 climb was. I didn't pause to take a photo, instead I banged a gear home and began to climb.
It was good to get to the top.
The night was starting to close in and the descent over the other side was quite interesting with the inner edges* of the corners being what felt like sheer drops between the straight sections of road. On the drops with an eyes peering forward into the pools of light in front we sped down. Brake, turn, brake, turn, dodge the gravel in the road, is that a hole or water?
Finally into Abergwesyn and a left towards Beulah.
6 more miles to go until we are closer to civilisation.
Those miles passed well, though we were still going far slower than we had anticipated. Would we still be pedalling towards home at this time tomorrow?
Then there was a glimmer of lamppost lights and the flat green of an A-road sign.
The roads had white lines on and we were back in the almost real world.
8 miles to Builth and rendezvous with a bowl of chili. The tiredness was creeping in as my body cried that it wanted to sleep. It wanted food and warmth and not to be here.
Then the rain that we had so successfully avoided began. We chainganged towards Builth Wells and swept through the empty streets to the waiting car.
Thanks to my girlfriend for meeting us with a thermos of chili and fresh supplies. I really needed the warmth.
The weather hadn't improved and revised plans were made. The Gospel Pass section would be dropped with a run back through the Black Mountains instead. We would be short of our overall distance of an imperial century but the little safety warning of self-preservation was kicking in about heading up over that high pass in the strong wind and rain. The disappointment was fighting back but losing.
We rolled out and on, there was so little traffic we were able to ride two abreast along the great Welsh trunk road of the A470. Villages passed by in silence and sometimes there would be a ghostly light pooling out from a bathroom or kitchen window.
Still the rain fell gently.
I felt hungry yet full of food. Tired yet wanting to go on. Sick and tender yet numb.
I knew the climbs that were coming as they appeared little by little in the far reaches of the headlights. Ticking them off all that was left was the long drag out of Talgarth.
As we turned from the A470 onto the A40 for that tiny section, the cats eyes ran out in front of us like an infinity of peering felines.
With a teenage laugh at the sign for Three Cocks we were soon headed left and up again as the road began the final kick.
It's not a steep climb, the one from Talgarth, but it is long. It never feels like it's over until you are a fair way down the other side nearing Pengenffordd. Cwmdu was passed, the cafe stop of many club rides lying dark and empty. Next Tretower was over with and I was entering the cave of endurance Vs. enjoyment.
In and out of Crickhowell and the mental countdown begins. That part where you know roughly how far and how long it will be until you are home. You don't have the protection of blissful ignorance any more and instead you try and blank out the wetness of the gloves, the pain from the strapped up shoulder and dislocated AC joint. I would tuck in behind Jay and lose all sense of balance in the pool of his blazing rear light.
Just keep it ticking over, son.
Past Nevill Hall Hospital where I've spent too much time recently and then a pause to relieve myself in some layby bushes.

Gobbling down some jelly babies and start pedalling again. Two late night or early morning revellers exclaim 'fucking hell' as we whirr past them up the road.
The A465 is empty bar one lorry heading the other direction as we push into the wet wind down onto the A4042. Car with hazards on as we come to Llanellen. They pull off and a little mystery remains.
Pedal pedal pedal.
A little incline out of Penperlleni then the road drops down to dual carriageway. Normally a good section to build a head of speed up but this time we are hit with wind as we crest the top.
3 miles to go.
We spin up the dual carriageway and with heads down push hard along the long fast section. Puddles of water soak through clothing and my feet feel very wet for the first time.
Up the hill into the village.
Up once more and then a coast to the door. I can't remember where I've put the doorkey.
Knock knock, let us in.
Bikes wheeled in, wet clothes removed.
Drink of milk then towel off and lie in bed.
The cats follow and settle to warm my feet.
My head is still whirring as my legs fizz and tingle. 
Let me sleep now.
Stats. Distance 95 miles, climbing 6854ft, riding time 6hrs 15 minutes. Technically if we had the tickets for the original planned time of arriving in Aberystwyth at 2130 the sun would have beaten us but hey, yay for technicalities.

* I wanted to add, that on one of the descents I felt something move out of my back jersey pockets and come sliding up my back and over my shoulder before landing on the ground. At the point where it was about halfway up my back I realised that it was the camera. At that point also I was on the drops and controlling my descent along the steep gritty road so could do precisely bugger all about it. I have to say, massive thanks to Canon for designing and making good quality metal bodied compacts. The second time this one has had a road interface and it's still going strong.


  1. Fantastic piece, Tom. Very interesting, even for someone like me who isn't interested in cycling at all.

  2. Well done indeedy :-)
    To you and the support crew, too!