Mr Pickwick goes in search of dragons and legends
Wales is full of narrow single track lanes, twisting and turning their way up and down the endlessly undulating terrain. They offer glimpses of the gorgeous landscape beyond whenever gates break up the tunnelling hedgerows, and occasionally whole vistas as another summit is reached. But wait, that wasn't the summit, this lane has more up to give. How many times did I experience false summits on my ride around Wales, and surely I have cycled every single track lane east of the boundary with England.
The ride is called Mr Pickwick goes in search of dragons and legends, and boy was it tough. Mind you, a ride of some 600km is not going to be a walk in the park. Throw in some pretty mountainous scenery and you're making it more challenging. But then route it via twisting and turning debris strewn rough narrow lanes and you have a beast of a ride with no prospect of free-riding those downhill sections you've just earned.
We started at 5:05 on the Saturday morning, all 30 of us. Well, most of us did, there were a few who weren't quite ready. The first section from Bushley, near Tewksebury, to Monmouth was a gentle introduction, a leg warmer. But already the nature of the ride was plain to see, with a rough and somewhat muddy off-road track on the run in to Monmouth. Thankfully there was a hose outside the Weatherspoons to remove the muddy debris from the drivetrain and brakes.
I had ridden with a group of about a dozen riders into Monmouth, but from there my ride was largely solo, punctuated by the occasional chat with a fellow cyclist on the road. At every stop I met up with the same half dozen riders, which brought discussions about our travels, and the knowledge that there were always other cyclists nearby when out in the desolate hilltops seemingly alone in the elements.
The landscape was becoming more hilly on the route down to Llandovery, but the pace was still good, helped by a final long downhill on the A40 into Llandovery itself. That was the last time my pace was good until the final section much later in the ride. A long awaited breakfast and two glasses of milk topped up my energy, served promptly in the West End Cafe, a favourite stopping point for cyclists and bikers alike.
The next section up to Devils Bridge saw my lowest point. The terrain had really kicked in, up and down it relentlessly threw one hill and then another. I started yawning as a little tiredness came over me. Yet with less than 200km completed that was not how I needed to feel. My temperature felt elevated, and I thought my decision to ride after experiencing a cold and raised temperature a couple of days previously was coming back to bite me. In my mind I went through the consequences of bailing out, but trying to extricate myself from the depths of Wales seemed more harrowing than just riding on. So I rode on. The tiredness subsided, and my wellbeing returned, as much as it can when on such an epic ride.
Just before the next control at Devils Bridge the heavens opened. There had been light rain through much of the morning and afternoon, but this was different. Thankfully I was not too far from the cafe, which offered shelter from the downpour. I waited there with a few other cyclists and a bunch of walkers, enjoying a cup of tea and a Mars bar ... the food choice available in the cafe was not the best.
My mood improved on the ride up to Barmouth, as I now entered the area of Wales I am very familiar with, having spent many childhood holidays in the area. I was looking forward to riding across the rail and pedestrian bridge into Barmouth, but reality was far removed from the glorious traverse of the estuary I had in my mind ... uneven planks and firm 25mm tyres are not a comfortable combination. Still, I was treated to a bowl of vegetable soup at the control in Barmouth, much needed sustenance. I was also 2 hours up on my expected arrival time into Barmouth; 8pm instead of 10pm.
The ride up the coast to Harlech was less undulating than I had remembered, but the view across Harlech beach in the fading light of the day was as glorious as I had envisioned it to be. From there the light left the skies, and by the time I got to Beddgelert and the slog up to Pen-y-Pass, it was properly dark. I was then at my most tired state, but with the odd stop for a bite or two of flapjack, I kept the sleepies at bay. Snowdonia at night does not match its daytime splendour, but the tranquility at the tail end of the day was pleasant. Even more pleasant was the arrival at the control in Llanrwst, where a bowl of pasta, shower, and mattress beckoned.
Two and a half hours after my head hit the pillow I was awake and raring to go. I didn't need an alarm, my body knew what it had to do. A bowl of porridge cooked up by the marvellous organiser of the event Mark put enough energy into my system to see me off into the morning light, at 10 minutes past 4. Then it was up and down those relentless hills, but the views across Snowdonia were marvellous. The morning had started dry, but the double rainbow gave a strong hint that rain was not far away. Showers became a feature for much of the morning, but it brightened up for the afternoon, just as it had later on the previous day.
Five hours into the morning ride I came across the first sign of life in this remote part of Wales, and thankfully it was a cafe serving a well received round of toast and coffee. I was not alone, with 3 other cyclists also enjoying this feast. Boy was I grateful for the boost this gave, as the next 20km into Aberhafesp were the most brutal series of narrow tracks imaginable, providing no respite between ups and downs, and the downs were so technical that it felt I was actually quicker going up than down!
The Aberhafesp control was joyous, providing a full plate of beans, egg, sausage and toast. That had tremendous restorative powers, but somehow I still managed to ride slower on the next section down to Leominster than I had on any other section. The terrain wasn't quite as undulating, but in my mind I was thinking it would be easier than it was, and my body then protested by plodding along, grinding out the distance without any semblance of zip.
A coffee house in the centre of Leominster treated me to a sausage toastie and gorgeous latte. From there, a tailwind and relatively flat main roads made the final 55km back to Bushley a comparative breeze. My average speed went back up to levels last seen at the start of the ride, and I finished the ride on a high.
The ride was certainly tough, more so than I had imagined. But then I look back on the many highlights of the ride, the first 2 hours out of Llanrwst in the early morning light amidst Snowdonia's most desolate but beautiful landscape, the cheerful conversations with fellow cyclists and the odd local who was intrigued by the endeavour we were on, and the feeling of accomplishment that washes through the body once the ride has finished and the cranks no longer need to be turned. Would I do it again? Well, I would have to say yes!