Bryan Chapman Memorial 2017
Rus and Johnny find their 600km stares
So its 5.15am and we’re standing in another car park, eating another porridge-in-a-pot, outside another Community Centre. It must be Audax season. So far this year we had ridden two DIY 200km rides, The Gospel Pass over distanced to 200km; The Dean 300km, and London Wales London 400km in preparation – so we were about as ready as we were ever going to be for the Bryan Chapman Memorial 600km.
Bikes were fully loaded, brevet cards collected, and last minute faffing executed as we stood there and waited for the Grand Depart. Many feet were clipped in, and someone somewhere honked the horn of a car – and that was it. A typically underwhelming start to an over whelming distance. What lay ahead was a trip to Anglesea and back inside 40hrs.
We started towards the first control at Talgarth up the climb to Llangwm, and the peloton formed up. Riders of all shapes and sizes, on bikes of all shapes and sizes made their way up the climb. We started to meet our fellow riders, and introduce ourselves. With the chat in full flow, the riders started to form small groups through Usk, and on to Abergavenny. Small groups became bigger groups, and finally it was one big monster of a peleton – at least 100 riders. We had a screaming tailwind, and were travelling up around 35km/h the whole time – not quite the steady start we had planned…
We hit the Honey Cafe in under 3 hours and we were rocking. Until Rus felt for his pocket… His Brevet card was still in Chepstow. Idiot. A quick call to Ritchie the organiser and we were reassured that another one was waiting for him at the 200km stop.
The peleton split up after the cafe stop which was probably a good thing – we were an enormous mass making its way along narrowish roads. Our first three hours had been very much “buy-one-get-one-free” riding, but it was time for the real riding to start at a new measured and sustainable pace. So, it was with Richard of Audax Club Bristol that we set off towards Builth Wells. The roads rolled kindly and the wind was still helping us, and before we knew it we were at lunch in Llanidloes. 145km down and we had had a very steady and enjoyable first 6 hours. This was too speedy.. maybe too easy?
After the first appearance of the audax staple baked beans, we headed north into proper Wales. The hills turned into mountains, and the signs started reporting such beauties as 14% descents followed by 16% climbs, the lakes appeared in between and the signs turned into that kind of familiar random combinations of letters. Our dream morning was then jolted back into reality as we came across a rider who had gone straight on at a bend at the base of a descent. Cars had stopped and people were helping. There was little we could do, so we pushed on having taken note to take added care.
The next climb was to the highest point of the whole ride after Dylife, and one where it was worth a stop to breathe in the sheer wild beauty of the landscape. We briefly met a couple from Austria on a cycle touring trip. We weren’t quite sure if they knew what they had taken on… it can’t have looked quite the steep on Google Maps from Austria?
Five minutes later we were on our way down a beautiful drop and the wind had revved up again, only this time it was at right angles to us. As we shimmied in and out of the esses, jumped on and off the brakes and soaked up the awesomeness we came across a rider in the road surrounded by his mates. This was a bad one. The rider had been side swiped by the wind and gone down hard. Dr. Johnny stepped forward and instantly diagnosed a broken collarbone, and an ambulance was called. We stuck around whilst the fallen rider got painkillers, wrapped in a space blanket, and had his belongings scraped up. Soon it was the time where we could add little more, so off we went. With another 15 minutes of descending out of the way we needed to collect our thoughts. Help came in the form of the full fat Coke and Purdeys(??) on a bench in Machynlleth. We regrouped and headed north again.
From here we picked up the A470 which was surprisingly quiet, it allowed us to use the great road surfaces and steady gradients to cover many miles without too much trouble. The sun came out and we were happily heading towards Kings Youth Hostel at 200km and our second major milestone in our route north. So far we had eaten well, but a misjudgement from Rus saw him turn up to Kings a shaking wreck having run out of sugar some 10mins before. Baked beans and time to head into more Big Country.
Before Snowdonia arrived we were treated to a trip to the coast. We headed west to Barmouth were the route shared one of its true gems – the causeway and railway bridge across the estuary. The weather was simply beautiful, the sun glinted off the waves and the low tide revealed the golden sands. The route took us from Barmouth to Harlech along the coast and on to Porthmaddog with the wind pushing us all the way. The further we travelled, and the more the wind helped us, the closer we got to the realisation that sometime soon we were going to have to turn south and ride straight into the eye of the storm – just not yet…
Yet again Co-op delivered full fat coke and Purdeys (its Restorative dont you know?) and we entered Snowdonia. Some 5km in and we were passed by the first rider heading south. We had both prepared ourselves for this inevitable moment, but should it have come so soon? By our reckoning we were 250km in, and he was 350km in – surely that’s not right? 100km ahead of us? Jeez. Chapeau and Godspeed.
Ahead of us lay the 1hr+ climb to Pen-Y-Pass, so we settled in for the ride. We overtook a couple of fellow riders as dusk descended and tried to find that pace that was going to suit us for a while. Up past a lake, up past some beautiful houses, up past a lovely looking restaurant, up past a wedding reception in full flight – up past all sorts of things – but most definitely up. Then we settled on an unusual conclusion – we had done 278km and we had 100km to go until we could sleep. Alternatively, we could have set out from where we were and ridden to Aztec West, trotted quickly round the Jack & Grace Memorial Audax and then home to our own beds!
We then enjoyed the sheer beauty of the climb to Pen-Y-Pass. It dog-legged back and forth, snaking its way around the mountains. Riders below us, riders above and all sharing in the common goal. An info control at the top brought us all together for collective appreciation of that we had just ridden up some of the best the UK had to give.
Whilst we rested at Pen-Y-Pass the heavens opened. We had been so lucky until now. The wind had been mostly very kind, and the sun had kept us warm and in good spirits, but this was biblical. And so to the descent in this hideous weather. It took all the concentration and handling skills we had to get us safely back down that mountain and again we needed to regroup. Esso to the rescue – more Coke and Purdeys! Only 20km to go to the Menai Bridge and the halfway point.
Heading over the bridge and Rus reflected that riding over this landmark at this point had been his focus for months – was it nearly worth all those hours on the turbo? A question for another day.
And so we made the Scout Hut at Menai at 300km in 17 hours. We were generally feeling OK. The rain had set in just as was predicted, and so the forecast was likely to be correct – it was due to stay with us until at least 3am. More baked beans and 20 minutes kip was the best we could manage. It almost felt like to opportunity to sleep had come too soon, but the alternative was to go without and we didn’t like the sound of that.
Leaving the warmth of that Scout Hut (and it was beautifully warm!) asked some deep psychological questions of us. We were halfway through this grand journey, and three quarters of the way to a proper sleep stop, but the mountains faced us again. The drag through the A roads along the northern Welsh coast only confirmed that this was the kind of rain that the kit manufacturers spend hours and hours trying to invent clothing to protect us from. We were dragging our way up some gentle slopes when a sharp left hander presented us with the real work at hand, and the serious ascents started.
And so with as much grit as we could manage we embarked on the next two hours of rain sodden climbing through vast open countryside in the dark. There are very few lights in this area of the country, so anything on the horizon acted as some re-assurance that we weren’t just on our own. More often than not the lights turned out to be part of the collection of the UK’s best-lit rural roundabouts – with not a soul anywhere near them.
As we passed through a couple of villages the bus shelters started to look more appealing, but more and more often they were already being inhabited by our fellow randoneurs. The architects of the nation’s bus networks could never envisaged that they had created the finest network of Audax Hotels since Mr Premier and Mr Travel decided to expand their empires. We then encountered a group of “youths” on their way back from the pub:
Youth: “Might be a silly question, but what are you doing riding round here in the dark?”
Rus: “We are riding back to Chepstow”
Youth: “There’s trains for that you know?”
Yes. Quite. Some will never really get it.
Finally the rain stopped, and the moon started to break through. It was about 2.30am and we were climbing our way to the power station at the mountain bike mecca of Coed-y-Brenin. The gentle hum of the power station, and its eery slab faced generator buildings looked other-worldly in the jet black backdrop – but curiously reassuring was the thought that there were other people up there also just going about their work. It was at this point we realised that the need for sleep was starting to get the better of us. We needed to be on top of our game on the 10-15minute descents, and the heavy eyelids were repeatedly reminding us that the time had come to find our own bit of bus network. And so we found ourselves grubbing around in a concrete built bus shelter, with no windows and no seats. The floor was wet – but it didn’t matter. We slept (well kind of) for 10 minutes which proved to be just enough to get us back on our feet.
At this point Garmin left the building. Rus’s Garmin gave up for what turned out to be the rest of the ride. Simply too much data on board, and it hung out the white flag.
We were unlikely to get away without any mechanical incident, and at 2.45am the puncture gremlins struck. We were having a breather in Porthmaddog (part II) when Johnny realised his rear had gone. Like all tasks one has completed a thousand times it was just a case of switching on the autopilot, and going through the motions. Only autopilot doesn’t work on 10 minutes sleep, and so we carefully and methodically had two goes at getting the pressure back up.
At 4.30am when the skies were just starting to get lighter, we made Kings Youth Hostel for the second time at 378km. A short wait and then the sheer wonder of stepping into a warm bed for a 90 minute sleep.
The organisers had taken a drop bag for us, so we climbed into the pink and black for a full LVIS day vowing we would make Barry proud! Rocking the new kit renewed our vigour – which was needed as we embarked on the first climb of the day – 45 minutes out of Dollgellau to Bwlch. But what a treat when we got to the pass. The vast landscape glistened in the early morning aftermath of the overnight rain, the sun shone brightly and the meadows of bluebells completed the kind of view that stays with you to the grave. Sheer delight.
We dropped hard from this pass with ever increasing speeds until in the distance, like a mirage, the shutters of a bacon butty van were flamboyantly thrown open. We slammed on the anchors and introduced ourselves to the couple who were setting up for the day. “We passed you on the pass” said the lady in a heavy North Wales accent. Just about anyone could have passed us on the pass… Slow and steady was all we had!
In double quick time we were handed 2 coffees, and bacon and egg rolls. Simply heaven-sent!
It was 9am and we had 200km to go. It was time to just lock in for the morning and aim for the next control at Haberfesp. On paper this seemed like a simple enough task. We had Snowdonia behind us, and the A-roads and lanes ahead of us all looked relatively flat. However, a combination of things started to work against us. That wind that had assisted our progress all of the previous day was now our biggest enemy; the profile had looked flat but this was against the backdrop of the mountains and it was anything but; the roads had gone from silky smooth to that hard unforgiving crappy surface that we are only too used to here in England; and psychologically what lay ahead of us was the equivalent of being on the start line of the Making Hay 200km.
It was the start of the Un-Golden Hour. Johnny put in a sterling effort over the rolling lumps and bumps of Powys. Each one sapping a tiny bit more energy from the reserves, and each one accompanied by the clatter of the two chains working their way up and down their respective cassettes. Almost balletic, but bloody hard.
Haberfesp came and went as we sat in a gymnasium eating more baked beans, and a brief refill/refuel and we headed to Newtown. The climb from Newtown was hideous. It was a wide road, on a steady 5-6%, which in itself was OK. But today was probably like every Sunday round these parts when the sun is shining – like a warm up for the Isle of Man TT! Hundreds and hundreds of motorbikes passed us. Some close, some wide, some quiet and some ear shatteringly loud, but they just kept coming and coming. After about 40mins we finally reached the top and we thought we would take the full benefit of the down hill. Only this time the wind had conspired to mean that we had to pedal almost every kilometre down as well.
We made Llandridnodd Wells (472km) around 2.30/3.00pm and set about the most wonderful pea and mint soup. The café wasn’t normally open on Sundays, and there were wry smiles when a “normal” couple wandered in and took a seat surrounded by smelly lycra-clad types. What must they have made of it?
South again to Builth Wells amongst the motorbikes, but with the joy of turning east out of the headwind finally. We welcomed the familiar sight of the showground – it was a real boost. We had route options here. We could stay east of the Wye (the suggested route) or re track down the west of the river. We stayed west and this worked really well for us. Tucked up under the hills to our right we were largely sheltered from the breeze and we had a trouble free roll through to Talgarth at 520km. A spiteful little climb saw us back at the Honey Café some 30 hours after we last left it. More cake; more coke; more resolve to allow us to tackle the climb up the Dragons Back.
We were on familiar ground now. Years of riding up to Hay-on-Wye meant that the roads were familiar, and the landmarks kept coming. We could measure our efforts against progress with relative ease and for the first time each pedal revolution really felt like another one closer to home. What was a surprise to us both was that the roads to Crickhowell and Abergavenny were almost exclusively downhill – a point that we hadn’t noticed on the way out whilst being pulled along by the peleton.
We now had about 570km under our belts and were eyeing up the final 30km. A route we knew well, a climb at Llangwm we know only too well and then the gremlins arrived again. In truth Johnny had been nursing a soft rear for close to 200km – unbeknown to both of us. But when it went again, it all kicked off. Off went the helmet – launched into the verge. Off came the glasses – launched in the other direction. And for the holy trinity, off came the cap for a unceremonious fling into the grass. It was time for a gel. We got everything back on an even keel – got about 70psi back in the tyre and resolved to buy new ones on return to Bristol.
Bad thoughts were creeping in now. 30km to go and 3 hours to do it in. Under normal conditions this could be completed in half of that time, but these were not normal conditions – and the last 30km of The Dean had taken us 3 hours back in March. Panic is too big a word, but there was a hardened atmosphere, and a new level of speed as the task was brought sharply into focus. Where the previous 2 days had been about output management, this was now about a given distance, over a route we both knew, in a given time. Do-able? We were determined that it was.
Many times over the previous months we had talked about riding “at 600 pace” which was something of an anathema. It was a bit like the teddy bear’s breakfast (not too fast, not too slow, etc). But there we were, riding Llangwm at “600 pace” and the end was in sight. We just had to crest this, and it was a free run home and to the finish. The drop lasted forever, but Chepstow beckoned. The sun dropped behind us and set over the whole of Wales to the North. We looked over our shoulders knowing that we had conquered it from one end to the other.
This wasn’t a horror story, or one filled with tales of epic adventure or tragedies overcome. It was just a story of two mates doing what they love to do best. So with a typically understated finish to an overwhelming distance we fist pumped each other and rolled into the car park at Bulwark.