On May 14th I embarked upon my first 600km Audax – The Bryan Chapman Memorial (or BCM for short) – and I thought that I’d bore the world with a write up some of my experiences from the event.
How do you go about preparing for a 600km bike ride? The furthest I’d ridden before entering BCM was just over 300km last summer on a charity ride from Leicester to Skegness and back. Thus it must have been in a moment of madness (or possibly drunkenness) that I decided to enter BCM sometime late last year. Once my entry was confirmed I thought that it might be a good idea to start putting some serious miles in; so, over the winter period, I did a couple of 200km DIY Audax rides and then gradually ramped up my weekly mileage starting in February with a very wet and windy Chiltern Grit Audax. The Elenydd Audax in April was the next milestone and, despite the hail, sleet, and snow, the ride went really well (probably one of the most enjoyable days out I have had on a bike). Regular early Saturday starts pushed my weekly average well over 300km, I was ready to go…
In the week leading up to the event I spent my evenings faffing around with my bike and deciding what kit to take. By Thursday my poor bike had been converted from a lightweight racing machine into a mule for carrying me across Wales – dynamo front wheel, big bright front light, three rear lights, bags, and even a spare spoke taped to the top tube.
Deciding what I needed for this little adventure into my saddle bag was a challenge: What to wear for such an occasion? I had to be brutal. Spare jersey? No. Extra baselayer? No. Winter gloves? No (OK, this was probably a mistake). In the end I settled on a few layers of clothing to match the predicted weather conditions (sunshine but a cold northerly wind) and my luxury item – a spare pair of shorts to change into on the second day. Next up the toolbag was packed with extra inner tubes, duct tape, bits of old tyre, cable ties, patches, more tape (I’m maybe a bit paranoid about bits falling off but hey better safe than sorry), CO2 inflator with extra canisters, and my trusty multitool. A laminated route sheet and print outs of maps were stuffed around the already expanding bag (Do I really need this much stuff? Why is it that the more bags you carry you just ram in more unecessary stuff? Maybe I will go more minimal next time). Finally, I needed to get some food in, so I fished the remainder of my high calorie flapjacks from the freezer and stuffed them in the bag together with some peanut butter balls and a few gels for emergencies. The bike was ready to go…
I managed to wangle Friday afternoon off in order to get myself down to Bristol in plenty of time. Stephen and I met and had a hearty last meal in Pizza Express before checking into the hotel. The Severn View Travelodge reception seemed to be brimming people with bikes on Friday evening which must have looked a rather odd sight to the few remaining guests who were not taking part in the next day’s jolly. I checked into my room, faffed about some more, tucked my bike into bed and went for a pint with Stephen (carbohydrate loading!).
I never sleep terribly well in hotels and Friday night was no exception. I awoke to my alarm beeping at 04.45 after a restless night. A quick shower to wake me up followed by porridge, coffee, and a banana (and a few other details that nobody needs to hear about). I convened with John, Mike and Stephen from LFCC outside the hotel and we were off, Chepstow bound across the Severn Bridge.
The bridge provided an ideal opportunity for the first selfie of the day, but where was the sunshine that the forecast had promised and was shorts really going to be a good idea?
The starting control at the Bulwark Community Centre was already bustling with cyclists as we arrived at 05.45, but we soon had our brevet cards in hand and we were ready for le grande depart. In the end, the start was more of le damp squib when the field of 200 riders started to pedal away in dribs and drabs as the clock struck 06.00.
For reasons that I still cannot for the life of me fathom, I decided it would be a good idea to head for the front of the ride and within about half an hour I was heading towards Usk along with Mike from LFCC, Gary from Rugby Velo (who I’d met on The Elenydd in April) and Adam from whose video the following shot was taken.
The pace for the first stage rarely dipped below 30kmph and we arrived at the Honey Cafe in Bronllys one minute after the advertised opening time. I got my receipt and a quick drink of water and was off again, leaving Mike to his plate of beans. I was determined to be efficient!
Gary and I headed off at a slightly lower pace but still going strong. Mike on the other hand was now powered by beans and he came flying past us while I relieved myself by the side of the road heading into Rhayader. He gradually disappeared into the distance only to be found eating a large cake at the next control at the Coffee Bean Cafe in Llanidloes where Gary and I departed ways for the time being. A quick stop for soup and coffee and off I went into the first proper hills of the ride – the Mountain Road to Machynlleth.
“Bloody hell, my legs hurt!” and “How the hell am I going to keep this up?” were some of the thoughts floating around my head as I headed out of Llanidloes up the first of a series of steep hills. Granny gear engaged, I huffed and puffed over the next few miles of spectacular Welsh countryside in the beautiful spring sunshine. I had set out on my own after Mike had informed me that he was taking a circuitous but more gentle route to save his legs. After a left turn onto the long final stretch into Machynlleth I noticed another figure gradually gaining ground on me. I pedalled on, eating some peanut butter balls and ibuprofen to dull the hunger pains and leg pains, respectively, and reached the final summit before the long descent into Machynlleth. The next few miles were cycling Nirvana, as I freewheeled down the deserted road reaching a new top speed of 81kmph (I nearly soiled myself when I looked down at my Garmin). The mystery cyclist eventually caught me as the road started to level out again, it was Mike. As I looked over he appeared to be wearing a fine shade of red lipstick; however, it transpired that he had decided that I looked “quite photogenic” (words, that I might add, that have never been used to describe me before) and so had decided to try and capture the moment on his phone, which he promptly dropped smashing its screen into a thousand tiny shards of glass and therefore cutting himself in the process. We rode into Machynlleth together, but Mike stopped for a clothing change as we started to climb again up to Cross Foxes.
The next few miles were interesting as there appeared to be some sort of motor rally going on resulting in the roads being infested with a variety of loud cars. The most amusing moment was cycling past a rally car that had managed to get itself stuck on a sharp turn off the main road – two wheels win again! The descent into Dolgellau was another great one but did cause a few concerns in my mind as I was going to have to return up the hill sometime in the early hours of Sunday. After narrowly escaping being hit by a driver pulling onto the A470 I finally reached to turning for the A493 and my Garmin was telling me that the hostel was only 5km further, hooray! The road up to Kings YHA was, as I had been warned, pretty steep and I was straight into the lowest gear; however, the beautiful setting and gushing river soon took my mind off my aching legs. I strolled into the hostel to find Gary having a spot of lunch having arrived a few minutes earlier.
Bread, soup and tea consumed, bottles filled, time to head back out onto the road alone again. Back on the A493 I noticed two cyclists ahead of me – “They must be locals on a day out because I’m the first to leave Kings, no point chasing them down” I thought and I settle back into a steady rhythm. The bridge over to Barmouth is lovely but filled with pedestrians and families out on short trips with bikes which slows down my progress but affords me an opportunity to catch the two cyclists ahead – I recognise them as two guys I’d passed on the Machynlleth mountain road. We exchanged a few pleasantries and it turned out they were doing the Audax too but they were not bothering with controls (why would you miss out on cake?). The sun is out and I’ve just crossed another bridge therefore it must be selfie time..
The road through Barmouth was chaotic with drivers and pedestrians trying to get to the beach to enjoy the spring sunshine. However, once out of the town the traffic on the A496 seemed to die down and I once again settled back into my rhythm and began to chase down the two riders in front of me. It’s amazing how you can get lost in your thoughts while bimbling along on a bike – I was thus rather startled to be caught by Gary and Jasmine sometime after passing through Llanbedr. We shared turns off the front and soon caught up with the cake-deprived riders in front of us and then together we formed a mini-pelaton peddling through Harlech and off towards the rather forbidding looking mountains to the North.
The speed picked up again until we reached a rather steep bit of road which split the group – Jasmine had already stopped for a coke and the two riders who were avoiding controls soon pulled off for refreshment (probably cake). Gary and I headed upwards towards Beddgelert. More stunning Welsh scenery was passing us by and the sunshine seemed to propel us along and soon we were climbing again with the Llanberis Pass in sight. “Bloody hell, that is a long way up” was the main thought going through my head as I once again lowered the gearing and prepared to tap out another climb. However, I had a nasty sensation welling up in my left foot – I’ve experienced it before on long rides, it’s like your foot is on fire or surrounded by a boiling liquid. I did what any sensible middle-aged man would do and ignored it. The ice cream van half way up the climb was very tempting but I resisted, “no stopping until the summit”. My foot got hotter but I kept on pedaling and I finally pulled in to Pen-y-Pass car park to wait for Gary, nice view…
I kicked my shoes off for five minutes and got some more flapjack down my neck – only 10km to Menai… Jasmine passed us by and we hopped back on to the bikes for another descent (less fast-paced than the Machynlleth mountain road due to more twists, turns and traffic). The next few km were pretty flat in comparison with the last couple of hours riding. We had split up again – Jasmine powering along in front, me chasing and Gary just behind me. I crossed the Menai Bridge at 18.00, exactly twelve hours since setting out from Chepstow.
Returning to my bike after the photo-op I found my Garmin screen had gone blank. It had crashed – the record of the outward leg was lost – I had half a mind to sling it into the Menai Straight; however, luckily for my Garmin my body was feeling distinctly odd and it needed to be fed so I headed for the control at the scout hut to seek out sustenance in the form of more cake.
Gary and Jasmine were already at the control – my body was feeling very odd by now and I was beginning to get the shivers. I fumbled through my bag and started putting clothes on to get warm. My mind was screaming “Food!” and was quickly pacified by two helpings of rice pudding and copious amounts of tea, biscuits, and cake. I finally relaxed and then it dawned on me that I was now quite a long way from my car which was still parked in Severn View Services.
The control at Menai was always going to be tough to leave, I had planned to make sure that I rode with someone as I had anticipated that the next leg was going to be done in the dark. In the end when Gary and I set out at around 19.00 it was back into the early evening sunshine with around 85km to cover to reach the hostel. I now had all my clothes on apart from the lightweight waterproof in the bottom of my bag. My mind was still in a weird place and I felt that the next few miles were going to be a test of my character. Thankfully Gary was happy to sit at the front for a time while I gradually got back into a rhythm. We passed groups of riders heading North while we slowly made our way South towards the undulating North Wales countryside. Soon we were on a different path from the outward leg and the roads quietened. My head and body seemed to be regaining mental and physical strength and the miles were starting to pass by more easily once again. In what felt like no time at all we were heading back into Beddgelert to rejoin the roads that we had taken on the way North several hours earlier. Once again we were passing riders heading North as the dusk started envelop the landscape. My spirits were lifted by our progress and the conversation picked up again. The loss of my record of the outbound leg on my Garmin had been playing at the back of my mind, I knew that I had done it but I wanted to see it in black and white (actually colour) the next day. Gary had the same GPS unit so we decided to try and share his file when he got home so that I could reconstruct my ride – all was well again as the cycling Gods looked down upon us.
We eventually reached the A470 and turned towards Dolgellau, another long drag of a hill in front of us. By the time we reached the summit the last vestiges of dusk were well and truly gone but it was all downhill to the hostel from here (well, almost). Tiredness was beginning to creep in and I was definitely finding it hard to stay alert on the long descent into Dolgellau – “must focus on the road ahead!” I kept telling myself. The two guys from earlier were taking a pee stop by the side of the road, a quick wave and we shot past and soon after we reached the turn onto the A493 – 5km to go. Retracing the road to Kings seemed longer than earlier in the day but our spirits were on a high as we ground our way up the final hill to see the hostel lights come into view.
Jasmine was already at the hostel as we arrived at around 22.20. Food was needed: more soup, tagine, and some kind of cake/custard combination. After taking a welcome shower I felt almost human again. Jasmine and Gary were planning on going straight through the night, I considered this for about a nanosecond before claiming my bunk for a well-earned kip at around 23.30, it had been a long day.
I was woken from a restless sleep at 02.00. Dropping down from the top bunk my legs still appeared to work which was pleasing. Stepping out into the cold night air was a shock to the system and I hurried back to the dining room in search of breakfast. Lights were coming down the road carrying weary riders towards the hostel. The garden outside the main building was a sea of bikes and the dining room itself was awash with weary souls staring aimlessly at the bowls of food in front of them. “Breakfast is not going to be served for a couple of hours” was the response from the volunteers on the desk to my inquiry, “more tagine?”. It was 02.15, I’d just got up and my brain was pretty groggy; however, even in this state spicy tagine did not seem terribly appealing so I settled for more soup and some milky coffee. I dithered around for while trying to get myself motivated to leave: change of shorts, more coffee, put on all my clothes, more coffee, chat to Andrew who’s just arrived and eating his dinner, more coffee. I discussed setting off for the next stage with another rider called Alex, but by the time I’d faffed around he’d decided to leave. Finally at 03.15 I set off into the dark Welsh countryside on my own – thinking to myself “this is truly bonkers!”.
Other riders were coming towards me as I took the road out of the hostel and I greeted them with a cheery “good morning”, their response was less enthusiastic. It was cold and I needed to get my legs moving again. Back onto the A470 and the climbing begins again and I am soon getting warm. The nice aspect of cycling at night is you can only see the road right in front of you and thus you are oblivious to the overall contour of the landscape – this was definitely a good thing at this point because the climb up to Cross Foxes seemed to go on forever. I could see a couple of red lights in the distance moving slowly up the hill which gave me a target to catch. I passed the first rider relatively quickly and carried on spinning my way up the hill. I finally caught Alex somewhere near the summit where he’d stopped to put on more clothes. We began the long descent together and chatted for a while. After passing another rider I noticed the first glimpses of dawn in the sky; however, the temperature was still going down (-0.5°C according to my Garmin) and my hands were getting chilly. Long rides can also have their share of dark moments (both literal and metaphorical in this particular instance) and you just have to deal with them by pushing on and breaking the section in front of you into smaller, more manageable chunks. At 05.00 it was really bloody cold – I kept looking down at my Garmin and the distance to the next control was decreasing at what felt like a painfully slow rate. Finally, the turning to the Aberhafsp control appeared and happy thoughts began to displace the darkness in my mind (helped too by the glorious morning sunshine). My fingers were now completely numb (note to self: when packing winter gloves are an essential item in the Welsh spring!).
When I mapped out this section of the route I was a bit vague about the location of the control and I managed to overshoot and end up in the village of Aberhafsp. I stopped and decided to consult the route sheet and maps, I cursed my numb fingers while fumbling through my bag and finally managed to pull out the laminated paperwork – yep, I’d gone a bit too far “bugger!”. I doubled back and soon found the turning and rolled along the road – the green Audax UK sign was a marvelous sight to behold as I entered to community centre car park. I kicked off my shoes off and entered the hall. After stamping my brevet card I sat down next to another pair of riders who looked in a similar state to how I felt, not pretty…
The volunteers at the control were superb, they offered me a variety of breakfast items: bacon, beans, cheese, bread – “yes please, everything you’ve got thanks” was my response. It’s not often you feel like dessert after a full breakfast but today was an exception so I rounded off my feast with warm rice pudding with a spoonful of Nutella in it for good measure. I dozed for a short time, drank more milky coffee and contemplated the rest of the ride – only 100 miles left – the end felt within my grasp.
Leaving Aberhafesp I felt a new lease of energy surge through my body. I bumped into John and Stephen on the way out of the door, they looked about as cold as I had felt an hour or so before. I joined a group of riders including Alex and Adam (from stage 1 on Saturday) on the way towards Llandrindod Wells. It was nice to be riding in a group again after the solitude of the early morning and the sun was shining. We whizzed through Newport and onward to the long climb out of town – my legs seemed to be working well (must have been the bacon) and two of us led the group up to the summit. The combination of long distance cycling and eating lots can play havoc with your digestive system, a fact that was clearly demonstrated by the sound of breaking wind from the group at the top of that hill as we stripped off layers of clothing. Off again on another descent followed by some lovely undulating roads as we pedaled furiously towards the next cafe (undoubtedly spurred on by the thought of more cake). We entered the sleepy town of Llandrindod Wells sometime around 09.30 on Sunday morning, the cafe had just opened and there was indeed cake on offer.
My original plan of being efficient at controls to make a good time worked well all day Saturday; however, Sunday was a different story and I was now taking my time and having a nice relax at each stop and the cafe in Llandrindod Wells was no exception. I was just getting my head around the idea of leaving again when I saw the familiar pink Rapha top of Stephen come through the cafe door. He inquired if John had turned up yet and I told him that I’d last seen him at Aberhafsp – it transpired that there had been some confusion as they’d left the last control and Stephen had spent the last 50km chasing someone who was behind him! John arrived soon after and I decided to wait around and ride back with some of the LFCC pelaton. Enough time to be captured for a second time on Adam’s film – this time seemingly doing some kind of teapot impression.
The end was now truly getting into focus, the final stage was around 100km with a couple of largish lumps to get over. Off we went back into the wonderful Welsh sunshine following the course of the river that we’d cycled along the previous day. It was now a nice and social ride as we sped through the countryside and chatted about the life, the universe and cycling. We passed the first control in Bronllys and somebody mentioned the great descent we come down the the day before to reach this point which, of course, meant only one thing – another climb – but this time it was sweetened by the fact that it was the penultimate one of the ride. Hurtling down the other side we eventually arrived at Crickhowell where we decided to have one last unscheduled stop at the Number Eighteen Coffee Shop for some light refreshments. Stephen had done his research well, there was a fantastic array of delicious looking cakes from which to choose and some proper coffee – life could not get much better.
Once more into the saddle to negotiate the main road into and through Abergaveny. The next couple of hours flew by with our spirits high with the sense of what we had achieved. The roads finally quietened once more as we reached the final stretch back into Chepstow. We met up with a couple of local Sunday riders and exchanged greetings. “Have you come far?” one of them asked, I smiled “Yeah, just on our way back to Chepstow from Anglesey”, “Back to Chepstow, when did you leave?” he said with a somewhat surprised expression, “Yesterday morning” I replied, “Yep, that’s pretty far” he respsonded with a smile. They pedalled along with our group as we ascended the final hill, which, like a big idiot, I decided to attack to expend the last of my energy reserves. I got to the summit and my feet felt like they were on fire – possibly something to do with wearing overshoes on a warm spring day. Time for a last hilltop photo.
Going down the final descent into Chepstow it started to dawn on me that this was it, we were reaching the end, my longest ride to date by a country mile and I was still alive and pedalling – it’s amazing what you can do with a bike. As the Bulwark Community Centre came into view we finally could relax and enjoy one more final slice of guilt-free cake. Over the bridge for a final time and we said our farewells as we loaded our bikes and weary bodies into our cars.
Final thoughts, if you’ve got this far without getting bored to tears well done and thanks for reading. Did I enjoy the event? Yes, all-in-all it was a fantastic experience with a great deal of ups and downs (excuse the pun). Would I recommend it? Of course, what better way is there to spend a sunny spring weekend in Wales? What next? I have a place for London-Edinburgh-London 2017 – 1400km. I have spotted a trend, similar to Moore’s law in computing, I seem to be doubling the distance of my bike rides every year (so currently faster than Moore’s law), where will it end? Probably with a sore bum and almost certainly eating more cake.