It’s been a while

I’ve been neglecting this blog for the past month. Mainly as I’ve been busy getting on with life after WEMBO – sounds like a tragic screenplay that will never see the light of day. A short recap:

1) I got married – it was awesome. Can’t really add much except that it was all I wanted. Then I got to ride my bike in Ireland, which was nice.

2) I went to Cuba- it was awesome as well. More on that later.

Cuba

3)I took time off – I’ve not road a MTB with any real earnest since WEMBO and it’s been a good thing. I still don’t find myself needing to ride, but I want to ride again.

4)I’ve run – only one 10km loop in the Lake District, but a run none the less. I’ve two running races I want to enter over the winter, I’ll do that later.

But mostly I’ve stopped stressing. The race prep is gone. The endless miles forgotten. The bills of a wedding yet to pass aren’t beating on my door. The phone calls, emails, questions – all the questions – have stopped.

It’s a good time to be me.

Build Me Up Buttercup

“Why do you build me up, Buttercup baby?
Just to let me down, and mess me around?
And then worst of all, you never call baby
When you say you will, but I love you still.
I need you more than anyone, darlin’
You know that I have from the start.
So build me up, Buttercup, don’t break my heart.”

I can’t get this shitty song out of my head. The writer in me wants to compare Buttercup to my race season so far; up and down with aggressive swings in luck, but still something I live for no matter how much I pretend I don’t. In reality I have a song invading my head and it’s been there for 14 hours. Get out and get your own room and leave me to suffer.

It seemed like a good idea at the time back in May trying to race the WEMBO worlds as best I could. At this stage I wasn’t too sure. Everything hurt. My arms, my legs, my face, my hair. I’d never ridden a course this hard and it was breaking me one minute at a time.

I’d given up on training 3 weeks before the WEMBO race. I was tired. The mental equivalent of cold soup. My body was as wasted as it was in the height of my racing career and it was starting to fight back. Then the excuse came along. A big crash out training one night. Knee too sore to pedal for a week, shoulder too bruised to ride a MTB at all. Part of me worried that I’d wasted all this time and couldn’t race. Part of me was happy that I could walk away with an excuse. Then I thought of Phil with his broken collar bone – I needed to man up. I just wasn’t certain I could face another abject failure after Bonty 24/12 this summer.

The normal face of a mechanic doing its duty.
The normal face of a mechanic doing its duty.

The time off my bike did give me a chance to get everything else in order for once. My bikes were stripped and rebuilt by Paul the head mechanic where I used to work in Edinburgh Bikes Manchester – who nicely lent me a gazebo and Paul for the race itself. It sounded like a good idea. What’s not to like – Fort William, some beers, bikes and tools. A perfect day out. I may have neglected to mention that it was in October, and would probably be cold. Scratch that, it would be cold. Although on race day there was little mechanic-ing to be done as the bikes ran smooth – having a dedicated mechanic and somewhere for him to hurl abuse from was helpful.

Uber pit crew master Sean Wratten
Uber pit crew master Sean Wratten

The pits were split with another two riders to make things easier; my team-mate Mark Goldie racing single speed, and Rich Rothwell racing elites. Huge thanks must go to Sean our team-mate and mechanic, and Pauline who will have to put up with being married to me in two weeks. Along with Paul these  two spent the day dressed head to toe in ski clothes and helping me do what I needed to do. People giving up their time is something that people forget about us “solo” riders – it’s never just us that suffers.

She who must be fed cake.
She who must be fed cake.

A quick recon of the course on the Friday showed a 13.4km lap with 450m of climbing and technical descents that suited me. This was not going to be a cake walk, but I felt like I could be competitive on the course. With a target of 20 laps I was aiming to climb higher than Everest from sea-level and a bit. Also, at that back of my head was a notion that I could trouble the podium.

EBC and TBP
EBC and TBP

Saturday morning saw the bikes get a final prep and wash all ready for the start. At 12 noon we all lined up and the race got underway with a fast paced climb up to the top of the World Cup XC trail before plummeting down into the woods below. A flat section along the river was the only respite before we climbed back up a, normally, red descent to the top of the Witches trail before dropping down into the pit area for the first lap.

The Bike Picture
The Bike Picture

And so it continued for 23hours and 15mins. Climb, descend, climb, descend. The racers priority was simple – ride bike and insert fuel. Try not to crash. The pit crew had a much different duty – fetching food and drinks, checking bikes and brakes every lap, checking lap times and rider positions, charging and replacing lights. Pit changes were there only interaction with me and they needed to be right each time.

View from the Pits
View from the Pits

With 13 hours of darkness the pit crew got little to no sleep, catching 20min cat naps when they could. Every time I came in they were there feeding me, then pushing me right back out again. Bar one bike swap to check everything was working I stayed on my race bike. Nothing went wrong and used only one set of brakepads somehow – Paul was at this stage accusing me of not braking at all.

The one bike change.
The one bike change.

As morning arrived, I’d ridden myself into a solid third place. Unless I blew up I was guaranteed a medal, but it would take the same to get a silver. The next 7 hours were weird. I lost the will to race. I just focused on riding my bike. Only if an orange jersey came past was I to do anything. It slowly dawned on me that I was already at my limit. If Tom could switch on, I was done.

Sunshine I love you.
Sunshine I love you.

Realising what was happening the crew were even more cautious with me and my bike – cleaning the drivetrain each lap and checking brake wear. Finally, 19 laps later, I crossed the line for the last time hearing I had an hour gap on Tom in 4th place and couldn’t be caught. I didn’t feel happy about this. I’d worked hard to try and get away from Tom but for some reason felt like I’d cheated. I know he’s faster than me on the downs and most of the ups – the first 6 hours showed this . But here I was, ahead of him and thinking of stopping. Broken, tired, and stinking I sat down in the red glow of the EBC tent and was handed a beer. This was the reason I’d made that gap – pit crew, not me. It felt odd.

Beer me.
Beer me.

Done. 3rd place in the 30-34 age group. Some more beer. The pits get packed around me and I mumble encouragements on how to do things. I wander over to Tom after he finishes and find him sat in a chair like a zombie, he’s wasted. I mildly wonder how I look. Jenn tells me I stink. She gets a hug for that.  A shower and few hours sleep in the Travellodge before I destroy a curry and several beers. We stand in the hotel before I get called up onto the podium – it feels wrong, I’ve not done this in a long time. The medal feels solid around my neck. I sit down and sip a beer debating Weaverville in 2015.  Why not?

~

I’ve a few thanks to give out:

Shona and Rich at Keep Pedalling Manchester without whom it would not have been possible to afford race food, kit and bike. Having a local bike shop that supports racers a the thing that keeps privateer cycle racing going – not on-line shops.

Ged and Alex at the Edinburgh Bike Co-Op for the loan of a gazebo for the day- my old employer, and friend/manager.

Sean at Berti Mafoons Bicycle Company for once again being the perfect pit manager/worrier/friend. Enjoy the bottle of whisky.

Pat and Pat at Ison Distribution for being willing to part with the Salsa Cycles Spearfish for a silly cheap amount that has served me well this season. I can not explain how good a bike this is.

Jenn, Steve Makin, Dave Serious, Andy, Phil, Jase and all the JMC crew, and anyone who put up with me hurting them while we “went for a ride” yes I was training. No I’m not stopping.

And finally Pauline – why you enjoy pitting for these things I’ll never know – I’m  just happy you do cause we’ll be doing them for a while more yet.

Playing with Light

Was out in Stanage over the weekend for a wander. Took a few images that made me smile.

Sad and lonely boulderer.
Tall men on the Buckstone Dyno
Over 1,500 routes along.
Stanage Lightburst

Stooge Review

Thanks to the lovely people at Keep Pedalling I managed to get a loan of the new Stooge Cycles demo for a weekend of testing. I already own a SS rigid bike for winter duties, but was interested in seeing just how the Stooge would live up to its claims of being a progressive 29er. Whatever that is.

We're a long way from Manchester

Initial thoughts in the shop were “blimey that is a pretty bike” followed by “not a bad build weight”. Velocity Blunt 32 tubeless rims with 2.4″ Conti tyres on Shimano Deore hubs were never going to be light, but they did a lot for the aim of the bike. Lots of grip, and a bit of comfort. XT brakes and a Middleburn crank-set were polished off with some Salsa finishing kit to give a sensible build that would be very similar to what I’d have done myself – or have – on my own SS.

But going back to the looks. This is one damn fine looking bike. The lines are right, the twin top tube that runs the length of the bike with the slacked off fork makes it in my opinion. From a visual point of view the bike is faultless. And that blue…oh yes. Very nice sir.

Pretty Bike

A quick pedal home before draping the bike in some bike-packing kit before the train to Barnsley – not the Tour Divide, but somewhere anyway. The Stooge is being touted as a great bike-packing rig by some people and I was interested to see why. Initially the lack of rack and fender mounts irked me, but with more people using soft carrying systems it’s probably not an issue. It does however limit the bike for winter duties, or extra water carrying capabilities.

About that. With a large Wildcat Ocelot on the top tube the water bottle cage was pointless. I could get a 500ml bottle in sure. But I couldn’t get it out again. It also took some space out of the frame bag at the same time. So if you’re thinking bike-packing – think water bladder in your frame, or a bag on your back as there are no other bottle bosses.

Barnsley, hub of the world

With ample space out front and at the rear fitting your desired harness, Sweet-roll or back bag won’t be an issue. The fork goes out far enough that all your front bag weight is behind the hub which makes for a super planted front end and very predictable steering. Which is something a few frame choices for bike-packing do not do well.

After a curry a few beers and a running race, we took to the Trans Pennine Trail to ride home – about 90km of mixed trail, Sustrans route and bridleway with some sneaky trails thrown in the mix. First impressions were that the bike climbed well – Barnsley ain’t the flattest of places. Actually, it’s like a series of walls.

Straight, straight, BRAKE! CORNER, road.
Straight, straight, BRAKE! CORNER, road.

Up and up the bike made me smile. I can’t stand bikes that wallow or flex when they climb and this was a real plus point to the Stooge – one I’ve never found on the Jones bike that it often gets compared with. Downhill though, well that is a different story. I’ll just say it, I think the back is too short. It wants to cut free far to easily on even the shallowest of off camber turns. It’s the total opposite of the front end. Maybe if you’re interested in pulling skids all day and ripping the tops off berms it’s something you’d like. But for me, it’s a down side and takes away from the bike as a whole. Secondly, it’s not the most comfortable ride. Bouncy, but not in a nice way. I was surprised by this  as I’d expected the twin top tubes to flex and give a bit more comfort like a Jones frame, but it didn’t. So trading off one bad thing for a good thing – comfort over climbing.

So another unladen ride around some natural trails was taken to have a play with it as a “normal” MTB. If anything, it was even more of a hand full. In a straight line – yeah the bike is fine, I’d imagine it’d be a great trail centre style bike for smashing around on, or even a great bike for the Peaks in winter. But on technical ground, it’s not for my liking. Unpredictable even with low tyre pressure. Saying that, it was a fun bike to ride once you realised that it was going to cut out and you instigated it. But again, I’m not a massive fan of trail erosion…so not for me.

Step, step, slide.

I’ve been asked would I buy one and the answer is oddly yes. But with some caveats attached. It would not be my main go-to bike. It would definitely be my “go have some fun in the woods for an hour and a pint bike”. The pricing is excellent £450 for frame and fork that look that good, throw on some mid priced kit and you’re good to go. My purchase would be based on the simpleness of the design, the aesthetics, and that Stooge are a small company doing something they want to do. I’d like to support that.

Would I sell my Salsa El Mariachi’s and replace it with a Stooge….no. But that’s just me and my old man back.

No trolls

Barkness

Not a typo.

Barkness – the act of seeing bark on trees differently.

There is something about this time of year. I forget about Autumn, how nature changes around us. Everything feels nicer, warmer, more natural.

We leave the glare of sharp penetrating summer sunlight and return to the golden fluid of Autumn. The light that flows around trees filling the spaces between. Everything becomes more real in the world. The colours come out and show what they can do, the shadows are less deep, the grues have yet to emerge.

It’s this time of year that I come back to with memories of the best bike rides of my life. Racing the onset of darkness with no lights in my pockets. Descending off ridges on dry trails as the rain starts to fall. That first cold, crisp sip of harvest beer after a sweaty evening ride.

Lakeland pass raid

Perversely it also coincides with that other time of the year. The calm before the storm of cyclocross. Taking to trails with skinny tyres, searching for grip in the decaying undergrowth, working on cutting the first narrow ruts of the winter corners.

Don’t go Autum, I’ll miss you.

Sunset in Wales

Twentyfour12… or not

Start Line Waffle

So, it turns out that if you tell all your coached athletes not to get sunstroke in a weekly email – it nearly happens to you at your next race. Whooda thunk it?

When the thermometer on your Garmin reads 30 degrees, your heart rate is stuck at 130bpm at rest, and you can’t get it higher than 145 during what feels like maximal exercise…there is a good reason to stop. Not having pee’d for 7 hours, and having stopped sweating many, many hours ago despite pounding back the fluids should have been a sign, but being the fool I am I tried to push on – ignored my own words – and suffered a real China Syndrome. What a plonker.

Fucked

Sitting in the shade of the pit cramping all I could think about was my own words – watch out in the heat, it will get you – and it did. Lesson learnt, I can’t race as I used to when I was young, my thermodynamics have changed, or it’s just wasn’t that hot in the old days

Dusty trails

So what can you take from it? Well not much other than words of warning – if it looks like its going wrong on your heart rate monitor or power meter, and you feel like it’s going wrong, and people are telling you it’s going wrong: Don’t ignore it. It’s better to fail today, than spend tomorrow on a drip, or in hospital. Safety first.

On the plus side, 7 hrs – 9 laps – an ace course of perfect dry trails – and I still finished 60th somehow…nuts.

As ever thanks to the folks at Keep Pedalling for my bike and bits, thanks to Sean, Oli, Jen, Rob and “Cider hands” Claude for pitting and putting up with me. Hopefully something better will come at the worlds which can’t help but be cool.

Sarn Helen Trail – A touring ITT (part 4)

Part 1 can be found here, part 2 here, part 3 here.

Now that's what I call a bivi.
Now that’s what I call a bivi.

Day 4: I wake up as the sun brushes my face for the final part of my ride. I’ve slept like a log shaped Greg on a bed of the softest grass. The views are spectacular as the sun creeps into the valleys below me. Flowing light fills the steep sides of yesterdays final descent and runs into the sea some miles away. I’ve one high point for the day and it’s all down hill to the finish.

I spend some time just sitting, watching the animal world wake up. Sheep pop their head over my bivi ledge and stare not understanding how, let alone why, there is a large orange slug lying on the ground. Some Babybel and Penguin bars to start the morning before a luxurious 8am roll-out across dry firm trails.

Zoom

Today was to be a shorter day, but no easier than the others. No sooner had I finished the first descent of the day than I was back up again. Exposed to the warmth of the day, getting brutalised by the lack of wind. Following now the esoteric Sarn Helen trail which changed from road, to dirt, to nothing at a whim before opening up into MX shredding pools of fetid black water locked between dry stone walls.

Push, pull, drag the bike through it all. Just get passed it to the dry land ahead. Repeat. The day felt like it was getting worse, only to offer the slightest hint of perfection in a piece of fast flowing trail, or technical rocky rooty descents.

Somewhere...

Roman roads are...

Straight Roman roads cut through the terrain stopping for nothing. If there was a hill, it went over it, a forest, through it, a swamp, in it. Every now and again it would detour for unavoidable things like rock outcrops. Where it had no option it just dropped into perfect gullies full of rocks and mud. Wonderful on a light MTB, brutally difficult on a fully laden bike. Still, you’ve got to try...not always roads

The gullies lead to the final section into Neath. The local MX club use this trail extensively and it shows. If it wasn’t for its rock base, the weather and the gradient of the trail this would be a mudfest. In the dry it was astounding. On the limit of what I could ride, but had me thinking about pushing back up to go again. Probably some of the most fun riding of the trip. Over far to fast.

A trip into Neath to raid the local shop for breakfast after 4 hours with no food. Sitting down outside the charity shop cooling off in the shade and downing liter after liter of fluid and food in an attempt to stop the dizzyness. A second trip to the charity store bought some shorts and a T-shirt to wear for the train ride home. £4 gets you nice clothes these days.

 The final road ride to Swansea and the end was dull and boring. Along the canal I was brutally reminded that I was back in civilisation with locals wanting to stop me to ‘have a go’ of my bike. I roll on feigning a lack of English. In Swansea I push across the soft sand of the beach to the start of the pier. It feels only right to finish amid the sea of the south coast after starting in the sea on the north coast.

Finished

It’s done.  Just under 72 hours total time from start to finish to cover the 383km from sea to sea. Not the fastest, not the slowest, nevertheless a nice few days out. It was time for a quick wash in the sea, then back on the train to Manchester.Wash

Day four: 4hours 06mins ride time; 52km; 569m of climbing; 6hrs 15mins on the trail

Sarn Helen Trail – A touring ITT (Part 3)

Part 1 can be found here, part 2 here.

Morning Sunshine

MMMMABBBAAAAAA – this is your 6:30am alarm sheep. Get out of bed you lazy shit. Fluffy is relentless, she wants me gone, I’ve had my time and it’s time to move. 8 hours of peaceful sleep was more than enough and I thank my host for it. Time to move on and give you back your home deary. Maybe we can meet again?

I take my time packing up, the weather is perfect and the view stunning. Sitting on the rocks letting my body warm up before another day of perfect weather and hopefully passable trails. I push for a bit to finish the Monks Trudge (Trod) before moving across to gain a ridgeline that totters between ride and push. It reminds me of a cross race, hop on-off- hop on..off. This continues for 30mins or so before I get enough gradient to ride through everything. Then down, down into the Elan Valley headwaters perfect sinuous brown trail the only real obstacles are my brain and the sheep laying on the trail basking in the sunlight. I take to herding them along in front of me, knowing they will provide a soft landing strip should I need it.

Unimpressive stone

I pass out of the valley and onto the road again, climbing up a steep incline to find early morning drivers confused by my presence on the correct side of the road. Maybe they drive on the wrong side of the road in Mid-wales? The standing stone above Rhyader proves a bit of a disappointment, but the trail into the town that runs parallel to the road – utter bliss. Fast rock slabs and baby head boulders together, this is what I remember of from the Trans Wales. Except without the rain, or dysentery.

 get into Rhyader for 11am and go straight to the hotel for breakfast. A full fry, two coffees and a coke for less than £7. I pop into the bike shop to replace my brake pads and get run of the tools, all for the price of a chat. By the time I’ve raided the shop its 12:30 before I’m leaving, just as the temperature is starting to turn up. If I thought it was warm yesterday, today was going to be a sufferfest.

Water, cool water.

This was the last real stream I saw of the day. Wading out to cool down feet and tired legs i refilled bottles and wandered along roads in ever increasing temperatures. The  wind had dropped off and was never going to rear its head again. So along came the horsefly’s, and they were hungry for blood. Every climb, every time I stopped to open a gate –they came to feast. Nothing would stop them, the smell of a sweating human was too much to resist and they feasted unbidden by my shouts or flailing arms.

This is the face of self hate
This is the face of self hate

I pushed on the climbs until I could no longer. Falling over myself to get away from them. In my hair, my beard, my clothes, everywhere. Eventually I crested a hill and found some wind that gave the briefest of respites. I was at the lowest point of the trip – hating every minute of my existence and wanting to just cease to be. The next few hours passed as such:

Ride as fast as possible on the road trails – push up shouting and flailing arms – scratch self – shout and flail – descend at warp speed.

I didn’t remember to drink much during this stage, or eat much, just keep moving. By the time I reached Builth Wells I was cooked. I’d stopped at a small post office in Newbridge on Wye to try get some anti-histamines and water. They just looked at me and said sorry, just water here. The itching continues until B.W where the lady in the chemists warns me they may make me drowsy. I opt not to tell her where I’d come from in the past 48hours.

RIDE!

I crash out in Builth for an hour beneath a tree with some shade drying out my sleeping bag. It would be so easy to stop, but I know the temperature will start to drop. But the horseflies will be with me until at least 7pm. Another three hours at least. I eat more anti-histamines, and man up.

I don’t remember a huge amount bar roads, lots of road and lots of grassy climbs. It was probably beautiful; the pictures I took make it look so anyway. But I don’t remember much except the buzzing, always biting me, hateful little things. By the time I rolled into Brecon nearly 5 hours had passed and I was starting to come around again. The weather had turned in my favour and the wind had picked up and the temp dropped by 10 degrees or so. We’re back on track I thought through mouthfuls of every food type imaginable from the Co-op.

The bemused teller at the till sold me more and more fluids until I could carry no more. This was to be my last fuel stop until Neath some 100km away, so I needed to be smart. I also had a load of change that was better off being calories rather than coins. I swing past the local dodgy chip shop and sit on a bench eating chips, chicken legs and a recovery drink. An odd combination and one that only just stays down. The heat of the day has made any food difficult to consume – but it needs to go in.

A blur

Rolling out of Brecon I feel a little worried for the first time. I’m not feeling great and I know I have a lot of climbing before I get to sleep again, I start to break it down, lamp-post by lamp-post. Kilometer by Kilometer. Small bits to step it all together. . By 10pm I’m climbing up a  long valley and the temperature has dropped, the flies have gone to bed and I’m starting to come round again. The past 8 hours have been hell, but still my body wants to go on.

I realise I’m actually on the Sarn Helen trail itself now and the speed starts to increase again, I’m feeling fast – I know I need to use this to get some more distance in. The climbs come easy, the descents even easier. I switch the lights on around 11.30 as the clear skies and full moon give all the light I need over the non technical sections.  45 minutes later and I’m riding up a perfect piece of grass when I see a white limestone face ahead of me. Within a few seconds I’m decided, this is my bivi. I spend 10mins climbing over the tiers of limestone, spoilt for choice of a perfect bivi – I settle on a 3rd floor apartment with perfect views off the veranda. I’m asleep within minutes.

Day three: 8hours 58mins ride time; 112km; 2,104m of climbing; 14hrs 30mins on the trail.

Sarn Helen Trail – A touring ITT (Part 2)

Part 1 can be found here.

Morning View

Day 2: What is it about waking in a bivi bag on the side of a hill at 5am and 3.5hrs sleep is it that makes it worthwhile? I toss in my bag for another 30mins before I have to get up to join the sheep in my morning ablutions. Jacket off, jersey on, cram some cheese into my mouth, some granola bars in my pockets. Helmet, shoes, gloves on, hit the button on my GPS. 30mins from awake to rolling, a slow start to the day.

A quick up and over a shoulder before dropping down fast loose gravel into a valley trail on towards the sea and the bridge crossing at Barmouth. The fast trails fly by as I deplete my food and water supplies. I start to wonder if I’ve taken enough when a river comes by, I fill up and move on wondering if my watch is off. It can’t be this warm at 8am. Can it?Brutal PushUp and over fast bridleway trails, down grassy hills, and up the inevitable climb the other side. The general store in Llanygryn gives me an early morning laugh as I inadvertently insult its octogenarian owners poor sight, but I turn on her fridge and all is forgiven. Apparently, I’m lucky to be tall. I run out of water about 10km outside of Machynlleth but shrug it off as I know it’s mostly down hill. As ever, something goes wrong and the wind picks up for the first time cooking my body even more as the heat is driven into me. Hot, headwind, hungry. Not a great combination.

I arrive in Mach cooked, physically and metaphorically.  I raid the Spar buying nearly 3 liters of various fluids and calories beyond measure. Cheese and Haribo – works. Peperami and yogurt – works. Coke and orange juice – not so optimal. 30 minutes sat in the shade before my body temperature starts to plateau. The thermometer on my GPS says 28 degrees, in the shade, at 10am.  The biggest climb is yet to come and I know its out in the sun. I buy some suntan lotion and slather everything in the sickly sweet smelling coconut lotion.

It's me!

The climb up to the lakes is long and brutal. Out in the sun for all of it, carrying a belly and bike full of fluid. Holding me back, but allowing me to continue. By the time I crest the climbs 4 hours have passed since I’ve left Mach. 4 hours to cover <20km. Brutal, but with a huge payoff. Massive vistas, a lake that begged me to swim in it, free roaming horses wandering over for a petting. Best of all, no one but me. Not a soul. This is why I do these things, to be here and now, with no one else. It clouds over and I am grateful for it. My arms a bright red despite repeated applications of coconut smelling stickyness.

Solitude

The next few  hours are a bit of a blur. I ride along a trail that ends at the end of a sheep run. I have vague memories of having ridden here before and they grow with every push. I recall the river I climb through, the bank I scramble over. I’m here, that Valley that I rode though back in 2008 that I could never locate again, the one that goes on forever with the most glorious singletrack I’d ever experienced.

THAT valley

Bags checked, suspension opened I throw myself at it with all my legs can muster. The bike is heavy but the trails are perfect. On and on it goes before I drop into Afon Hengwm and strip to climb into the river submerging my body with the ghosts of the long deserted farmstead.   The valley is a bowl with a push in, and a push out. I know I’ve not ate in an hour so I take my time enjoying the breeze and filling up my water stores. It’s good to just sit and enjoy the silence.

BathClean as I’ll be until the end of the ride I start the long, dull push out. Were the weather not treating me so well I’d be angry. But I can’t complain. A light breeze, not too much sun, and nothing but my bike and I. After a while I open up again on some singletrack before the fire-road comes – fast and sweet on big wheels – distance covered is good after a slow going day. At least most of the climbing is behind me now.

I reach for a bottle and get air. Nothing. I go for my spare and find the same. I’ve finally done it, I’m out of water. Bugger. I think ahead. I’ve passed all the lakes and the rivers are running dry. My next chance is the visitors centre at Nant Y Arian. It’s 4pm and it closes at 5pm. I’m about an hour away. I rummage through and find a can of Redbull, warm, sticky and bitter. It does little to quench my thirst. I don’t grow wings. I do get a bit angry. I need to get there to get water. Food would also be good.

I should have filled up here.
I should have filled up here.

I ride on and on cooking in the heat which decided now would be a good time to come back. 30mins to go, 15, zero. I’m rolling into the trail centre at 5:05pm. They’ve gone home. Closed up. I’d have done the same. I grab some water in the toilet block, but I need food. I’m close to running on fumes when I pass a garage. Time to practice the Tour Divide diet; chocolate, lots of chocolate later I’m feeling a bit better. I pick up some shitty cheap white bread and sweating salty ham and cram them in my bag for dinner/breakfast.

I roll on, and on, for what feels like forever through hedgerow climbs of 20% pushing through vegetation and its inhabitants. The flies get to me, I swat out in anger at them, releasing my stress on the trail on insubstantial little black blobs. It’s pathetic how something so small can make me so angry. I sit on top of an old Roman fortification eating  my dinner at 8pm. The wind keeps the flies off and I find myself reaching for my jacket for the first time.

Golden Hour

I’ve entered the Elan valley now and I know what is a head of me. A mix of road, fast riding trails inter spaced with pushing. Lots of pushing. I had an idea it was going to be bad. I had no idea just how bad. As I roll along the trails are drier than I’d expected and I get further along faster. I drop through dried river beds being aware that I’ve not got huge water supplies left. A climb over a running river bed has me filling everything, I’m not running out again today, sod the extra weight.

Fireroad leads me down before the signpost to the Monks Trod chirps on my GPS. It’s the one section I’ve not been looking forward to. Aidans description didn’t describe it as something I’d enjoy. He’d had a hard time, I was expecting no different despite the warm weather I’d had. What I hadn’t expected was to take nearly so long to trudge through knee and thigh deep swamp to get across 10km. It was mentally harder than it was physical, but only made better by the thoughts that it’d be over soon. Finished, something I’d never bother with again. If  the Sarn Helen has a Fisherfield equivalent where you’re likely to break – it’s here. As an added bonus – you get the wonderful sign at the end.

The sign

Another trudge – when I decided the trail should be changed to the Monks Trudge – allowed me to wash all the accumulated sheep shit off in a stream. Up, up, up until I saw on the horizon something that made my day. A raised set of rocks, off the trail, out of the swamp, and on a ridgeline with wind to keep the flying nasties away. 10:30pm and I was done for the day. I stripped and bedded down taking a chance to dry out my kit. The sight of a lone sheep standing guard over me, or her flock, made me smile before bedtime. See you in the morning Fluffy.

Fluffy

 Day two: 10hours 30mins ride time; 112km; 2,774m of climbing; 16hrs 30mins on the trail.

This turned out to be beside a megalithic tomb...oops