Audax Redux: Another Failure

My last organised ride for the year was meant to be the Autumn Audax arranged by Beacon RCC. Called Beyond the Dyke, it starts in Belbroughton, and heads over to Wales before returning. Hilly, but not too much so, long (200km) and a wonderful route mainly on small country lanes (once you get past Kidderminster, that is).

However, the weather on the day was somewhat miserable, and I chickened out like a real loser. There’s a voice in my head asking “Is your mother proud of you?” and the answer, of course, is no. And so, I knew that I had to make amends, and have another go at the ride. So I took today off work, and set off in the darkness that is 6:30 in late October. Apart from the early cold (which was only a problem when going downhill into chilly valleys, and only until the sun came up), it was the perfect day for riding. No more than a slight breeze, dry roads, clear skies. Scenes like this abounded:

Severn River at Arley

Severn River at Arley

And up to the 43 mile mark, that was indeed the case. That took me to an isolated spot about 90% of the way up Clee Hill, where the clippings from the hedge trimmers took their toll, and I had a puncture.

Now, I’ve only had two punctures this year, in 5,500 miles of riding. One doesn’t really count, as it was more of a self-induced tyre malfunction (say no more). And the other was on day 4 of the Wales trip. Puncture-resistant tyres are wonderful things, these days. Not really what Kevlar was designed for, but I’ll take it.

So anyway, I change the tube to the spare I always carry. Or at least, I mean to – first, I put the punctured tube back in (doh!), and then second time around, I manage to pinch the new tube when putting the tyre back. After a long while trying to work out why my pump wasn’t working, I figure it out.

Out comes trusty Google, who informs me that there’s a bike shop called Bike Monkey no more than 0.3 miles away. What luck! Especially as the nearest town is tiny (see map below – the X marks the spot where the breakdown occurred).

mapmonkey

I tried phoning Bike Monkey Ltd, but got no answer. So I started walking, and seeing no sign of any commercial activity at the house in question, I entered the yard. The doorbell didn’t work, so I knocked, and was greeted by a very old man, with an even older dog. The sort which has one eye glazed over by cataracts, can’t stand up straight, and has a rather patchy coat with hair falling out. And the dog didn’t look too healthy either.

Clearly, living in the middle of nowhere had taken its toll, as he struggled to communicate, and just looked blankly at me. Granted, if you get someone dressed in lycra emblazoned with Dementia/Alzheimers logos at your door, and they ask you if you’re in the bicycle business, you’d probably react similarly. So I gave up, and carried on down the hill towards Ditton Priors. Whence appeared my first good Samaritan, who loaded me up in the back of his voluminous Volvo, and provided me with a spare tube at his house (yes, he’s a keen cyclist). He then gave me directions to the nearest bike shop, in Bridgnorth, a mere 10 miles away. Smashing chap. Now if only I’d remembered to ask his name…

So, off I went. Initially, I’d considered leaving the bike shop and carrying on with my planned route. Which is the logical thing to do, because there’s only so much bad luck that can happen to you on one day, right?

Wrong. 2.5 miles down the road, I hear a tick, tick, tick coming from the rear tyre, and before I can react, it goes, predictably, BOOM. Blowout. Nothing to do now, except walk to Bridgnorth. Only 7.5 miles, shouldn’t take more than two hours. But wait, what about Uber? But by the time I’ve re-downloaded the app, I’ve assessed the situation, and am not terribly surprised to be informed that no cars are available. It is, unfortunately, a malady often suffered in these parts, I’d imagine.

After about 5 minutes, I get seriously unhappy about walking in clippy-cloppy-my-little-pony cycling shoes, and remove them, and my socks, and start walking barefoot down the road. But it’s cold, and there’s a long way to go, so decide to start running. As you do. Shoes in my left hand, pushing the bike with my right. And this is my appearance when I’m accosted by my second good Samaritan, who asks if I’d like a lift. Hell yeah! They’re on the way to Bridgnorth, he’s a keen cyclist (of course), and lives just a few hundred yards from Clee Cycles, my destination. Result! If only I’d remembered to ask their names…

And so finally, nearly two hours after the initial puncture, I have a functional bike. I get back on, head a bit further out (nearly to Craven Arms), and then realise that I’m running out of time, and so turn around, head home, and end up with a tally of 118 miles (instead of the 157 I’d planned).

So, it turned out to be an almost, but not quite, terrible, horrible, very bad, no good day. And the Audax still eludes me. I’ll have to try it again next year…

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Mille Cymru 4: Return to the Shire

 

I should have written this last night, when it was still fresh, but then I was stale, and in no real state to do it justice. My only thought was that it was over.

Firstly, the forecast storms never quite materialised. There were the strong winds, but of the 20mph variety, rather than 40, and there was lots of rain, but it was on and off, and I never really got thoroughly drenched as I was expecting to be.

It started off so well, though: a strong Southwester, with me riding North. Bring it on! The miles flew by, and the only fly in the ointment was the realisation, when the rain first came down at 8.31 miles, that I’d left my rain jacket at the house in Harlech. Weighing up the prospect of being wet all day vs doing an extra 16 miles, half of that into a stiff wind, I went for the former. Up to Llanberis, it was good riding, especially the descent down past the lake, where sunshine could be seen over the town. Gorgeous:

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When you’re wet, and cold, riding towards the brightness is a good feeling.

However, once through Llanberis, it was a lot of climbing. Three long, arduous mountain passes, two of which were in a southerly directly, dead into the wind. Absolutely draining. Much of both of those were done standing out of the saddle, in my lowest gear, going one metre per pedal, at about 4mph. Embarrassingly slow by my usual standards, but at least I made it up without walking. Here’s the view from near the top of the first one. Dang – it looked a lot worse than that in real life, I promise. At least you can see the grass bowed over by the wind, so my story retains a scrap of credibility.

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Then it was Lake Vyrnwy – a lovely long flat section along the shore, followed by a cafe stop at Artisans (where I can highly recommend the four-layer fudge cake. Hmmm yes). While I was in there, the heavens opened, and torrential rain fell for the 15 minutes I stopped. And ceased almost as suddenly as soon as I wanted to go. Perfect timing.

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And after that, barring two short (but typically brutal) climbs straight away, it was downhill or flat nearly the whole way back. 40 miles of pleasure. Except that my butt was giving me serious pain (turns out to have been numerous popped blisters), my back was in agony, and the rest of me wasn’t doing too well either. Those last 10 miles were counted down almost pedal by pedal, and went slower than any I’ve ever done before. But then, the arrivee was arrived at, it was over, and a phone call to the Wiff was made to come pick me up (the previous plan of me cycling back the last 60 miles having been long abandoned!).

Here’s the video of the day:

I’ll go back over the next few days, and fill in details and videos and photos of the previous three. And probably write a final summary once the pain has been forgotten. But thanks for bearing with me (assuming you have!).

And if I may indulge in a final plug of my fundraising page, which will stay active for another week or two. Nearly at the target!

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Mille Cymru 3: The Return of the Rider

After the intensity of day 1, and the sheer epicness of day 2, I thought day 3 might start getting easier. Wrong.

Even though I had a good 7.5 hours sleep, I woke up exhausted. My legs were stiff for the first time, and my butt was tender in all the wrong places. But a good breakfast in a truly remarkable house (one of those 4-storey Georgian types that just oozes charm) helped make me feel more normal. It still took about 40 miles before I felt up to the day, and that’s in spite of the first leg being a lot flatter than usual.

Each time I hit a hill, I just ran out of puff. Dragging the bike and 3.5kg of luggage up the 10,000 feet of elevation today was seriously hard work. By the time I’d got out of the Elan Valley, I was broken. But then, there was a long downhill into Aberystwyth, and a good 20 miles of reasonably flat stuff thereafter, and I was redeemed.

While cycling yesterday, I came up with the concept of ‘free miles’, which are those you don’t need to work for. They’re flat sections, or slight declines, and you can cruise at 18-20mph without too much effort. Wales doesn’t specialise in these. At all. There’s also the concept of ‘free climbing’ where the incline is small enough to be able to maintain a speed of 15mph without working too hard. You’re getting some of your days elevation in without paying for it in sweat and tears. Again, in Wales, this is not big.

Until today. The last 60 miles was probably around 75% free, and I don’t think I would have finished the day otherwise. It took the sting out of the tail (both literally and figuratively), and left me in a good place for tomorrow.

Which, however, brings it’s own problems. Because the weather up to now has been perfect. Hot and dry, apart from an hour or so of rain today. But tomorrow’s forecast looks like this:

I don’t know about you, but I’m not keen on cycling in 43mph winds, with or without rain. So we’ll have to see what happens. I may well have to hole up somewhere for a while and let it pass.

Here’s the Relive video, and a few more photos below that (probably duplicated in the video anyway):

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Mille Cymru 2: The Two Coasts

Today is the do-or-die day. Where I find out whether I would make the whole trip or not. It’s understandable, I suppose, that I’d wake up stressed a little early. 3:15, to be precise, with my heart thumping like it used to on the mornings before actuarial exams. After trying unsuccessfully to get a bit more sleep for an hour, I gave up, got up, and got going. My alarm, set to go off at five with the sound of crickets, went off three minutes after I started, with me thinking “why’s my bike making that noise?” before realising what it was. So, on the road at 5, then, heading roughly Northwest initially. Over the pass to Llanwrtyd Wells (where the full ride would have a sleeping spot for the first two nights), and then West towards the coast at Fishguard. Once again, beautiful scenery – through forests, over mountains, down valleys – and there were far more photo opportunities than I had the time to stop for. Such as this one – sunrise over the Usk river.2018-07-26 06.14.13

Or this, by the river Towy (again, you can see how low the water levels are here):

2018-07-26 09.06.49

It’s a long slog into Fishguard, with some 10,000 ft of climbing done by that point, and knowing that the others who stayed at Abergavenny were overnighting there played a few tricks with my mind. The next stretch down to St Davids was terrible – it felt horrendously long, and despite the good scenery along the coast, the road was busy, and it was a continuous up and down steep coastal valleys which never gave one the opportunity to gather any momentum. No free miles, as I’ll explain tomorrow. Also, having to work into a headwind for much of this wasn’t pleasant either.

But rounding the corner at St Davids made all the difference – for the first time in the day, I was actually heading vaguely in the direction of where the endpoint was. And having less than 50 miles to go made it feel doable, and I finally had the wind behind me. Sort of.

I did have to do some serious self-motivation to keep moving from this sort of thing, though. Sundowners on the beach. Hmmm:

2018-07-26 18.44.45

Thankfully, the last few miles were mercifully flat, and the house was easy to find, and on the route itself. And what a house it was – one of those old Georgian-style mansions, with four storeys, each with it’s own function. Kitchen / entrance rooms, then lounges, then bedrooms, and who knows what on the fourth floor. Yes, I had to climb two flights of stairs to get to bed, but a soak in a Victorian bath, and comfortable mattress, and I was out forty minutes after arriving. Sixteen hours of travelling, with fourteen and a half of actual cycling, and using 14,500 calories – by far the most work I’ve done in a day, ever.

There’s no video today – the limit is 12 hours, not 10 as I thought previously.

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Mille Cymru 1: The Fellowship of the Ride

The day started at 6, packing up and heading out to Upton Magna for the start. I was quite surprised to find that there were only 8 of us doing this ride, out of only 12 to sign up. Given the popularity of the full Mille Cymru Audax (which does the same route in 75 hours), I would have thought that there would be more interest in this. But anyway, the main thing I took from the initial chats was that I’m the only one doing it in 4 days. Therein is the first clue that I’m either just a little bit insane, or seriously overestimating my abilities.

In case you’ve never heard of Upton Magna, the following signpost should mark it out near somewhere you probably have heard of:

The first 5 miles or so were ridden all together, but given that some were heading to Tintern (a mere 202km), there was a natural split off for those of us staying the night in Abergavenny. I found myself a little hampered by the initial slow pace, and ended up alone for about 30ish miles, before being caught by James. Who is an old hand at these things. He’s done the full ride before, did the Kidderminster Killer at the weekend (on a single-speed bike, no less), and is generally out of my league. However, we stayed together all the way to just before Abergavenny, where he headed off to a camp site.

It was a bit strange for me to have company for so much of the ride, but we got along pretty well, and I think I’m going to miss the mutual assistance we gave each other.

Anyway, the ride today had two things in spades. Beautiful scenery for one, and brutal climbs which enabled you to see the scenery for two. Such as these views:

This was 20% more hills than my 215 mile ride the other day, and it was only 150 miles! A new record for me on the climbing stakes for a single ride. The weather was also good – no rain, decent heat hitting 31 degrees at one point, and a gentle breeze to help one keep cool. I realised what it was that I forgot to pack yesterday, though: suncream. My shorts tan line is now admirably sharp, if a little on the red side. You can see the effect of the recent warm weather on the Welsh countryside, though – it’s remarkably dry. Richard Llewellyn would have to find a different title for his book now…

The major climb was Gospel Pass, which is the highest road in Wales. Here’s a pic or two en route (that’s James just in front of me there):

This one is closer to the top, and you can see the road snaking around in the middle of the frame, before heading left.

The worst moment of the day has to be at this point, where we saw a sign for Abergavenny only 4.5 miles away. We turned left, got to Tintern, and then turned back to the Northwest, only to reach Abergavenny 45 miles later. Heartbreaking.

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The ride from there, though, was special. I’ve done part of it before – the stretch from Monmouth to Tintern. It follows the Wye river, and is a real treat. Forest-lined roads alongside the river the whole way, before opening up to Tintern, with a view of the ruined abbey. The road back to Abergavenny wasn’t too bad either, with more uphill, but all manageable.

I said yesterday that today was a key determiner of tomorrow. The riding today took 11 hours. If I leave at 5:30 tomorrow, I’ll have 16 before a decent arrival time of 9:30pm. That translates to an extra 5 hours for an extra 55 miles. It feels doable, I think, but much will depend on the road from St David’s to Carmarthen. It looks flat on the elevation profile, but is apparently full of ups and downs through coastal villages. That’ll slow me down a lot. We’ll, all according to plan so far, so let’s see how it goes tomorrow.

Here’s the video of the day’s ride, which includes a few more photos.

 

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Mille Cymru: Prologue

The day is finally here. When I booked the ride, it was months away, I had plenty of time to do loads of training, and the thought of fundraising hadn’t even crossed my mind.

Now, I’m in an Airbnb room in Shrewsbury, feeling more than just a little bit inadequate. I haven’t done all the riding I thought I might, I’m sure there’s something I’ve forgotten, my bag is heavier than I’d like it to be, and the ride here (which was supposed to be an easy tootle) was into a stiff headwind the whole way. The one success is the fundraising, which is a small step away from £600, which, when my company’s matching contribution is added, puts me well past my target. Thanks again to all for being so generous!

The ride up was mostly uneventful: beautiful scenery through Ironbridge and Coalbrookdale counteracted by a few sections on busy roads at rush hour. There was one detour of made, when I spotted the National Cycle Network route 45 signposted to Shrewsbury. I’ve been a big fan of the NCN since this ride, although the romance wore a bit thin when it redirected me back to the main road as I entered Shrewsbury.

Anyway, the next two days are the crucial ones. Tomorrow, because it’s going to be hillier than anything I’ve ever done before, and I have to keep enough aside for Thursday. And then Thursday, which is the one I’m worried about finishing on time. My Airbnb room is in the house of a little old lady and I don’t want to keep her up too late, poor dear. If I’m still in the running after those, then only a mechanical issue will get me down.

Relive took longer than usual to give me a video, but here it is now. You probably won’t get many more of those as the free ones are limited to rides of under 10 hours.

So some photos instead:

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My Gear Cable is Smarter than Me

At the beginning of the year, long before the mad idea of cycling around Wales came to fruition, I signed up for a few local Audax rides. One of these has the very inviting name of The Kidderminster Killer. It’s 210km of hilly roads, totalling 3,750m of climbing. I’ve been wanting to ride it for a couple of years, but never get around to it (given that it’s at a rather busy time of year).

The only fly in the ointment was Wales – as much as I wanted to do the ride, going all out four days before the trip was probably not going to be a good idea. So when it rained the night before, I thought it might make a good excuse if it carried on. No luck there – nice and dry in the morning. And the scoffing of a colleague at the weak excuse of another that announced he was pulling out due to a party the night before put paid to any similar ideas on my part. So, it was with a bit of misgiving that I set out early this morning, heading for Belbroughton, But my bike had other ideas – six miles out, the gear cable snapped.

A limp home, a bit of repair work, and it’s back to being good as new, but with a little less mileage on it than expected, with hopefully a commensurately higher quantity of miles left in the legs.

This does mean that my training distance isn’t as great as I was hoping for, but I should still be in good enough nick to make it through next week alive. Now for a couple of days off, and then Tuesday sees me ride to Shrewsbury for the start early on Wednesday morning.

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