TransWales Trial 21

The TransWales Trial: Wales end-to-end, Menai Bridge to Cardiff Bay Barrage, via 4 checkpoints located at dams in Snowdonia and the Brecon Beacons. I’d decided to round it up to 400km so caught the train to Colwyn Bay. Knowing how hard this was likely to be I thought I’d stick the extra 50km at the beginning so I couldn’t "on second thoughts" halfway through. This addition took me to Llandudno to cycle round Great Orme, a beautiful little road hugging the coast that I’d bottled out of 6-7 years ago when riding home from Holyhead with Greg Crouch. I arrived at the start beneath the Menai bridge about 20:40 to find a solitary rider undergoing mental preparations for the ride ahead. On the way to the first checkpoint at Stwlan dam it was great to come across other riders popping out at junctions; this felt much more like a collective ride than the fairly solitary experience of TransEngland a couple of weeks ago. One of those I encountered was Hannah Larbalestier who flew past me up a hill looking unstoppable. I just about managed to keep up until the real beginning of Stwlan, but after that I thought I’d better calm down as there was still a long way to go. A gang of about eight had congealed for the ascent and the company was motivating. The climb up Stwlan Dam itself is steady, tough, but it’s the relentless climbing even to get to the start of Stwlan Dam that makes it particularly hard. At the top of the dam a biblical swarm of midges was awaiting and they gorged themselves upon us. A hasty photo of the only visible proof (pitch black by this point) that I was at the top and then a rapid descent back down the many hairpin bends dodging sheep and rocks in the dark. Needless to say, after lifting my bike over the gate at the bottom of the climb, I didn’t see Larbalestier again as she proceeded to smash the route to bits in just 15.5 hours.

Fleeting company out to checkpoint two: Lake Vyrnwy Dam. A psychologically testing section of the ride with the blackness deepening through the woods. I’d been tired before the start of this ride due to some insomnia earlier in the week, which feeds any anxieties about these rides creating a fatiguing feedback loop. This caught up with me in the woods and the mood dipped. By the time I arrived at the dam I was ready for a nap, but the presence of a group of riders who’d congregated at the checkpoint was a relief; it’s amazing what the briefest of social exchanges can do for your emotional state on a ride like this. Revived by a quick natter I left checkpoint 2 at about 02:20 and set off into the darkness looking forward to 3am. 3-4am is a pretty amazing time of day when you’re riding through the night, seeing the sky ever so gradually creep towards sunrise and usually being the only creature around. The ride out to Machynlleth was largely down hill and undulating meaning a good pace and rhythm. Found a tap round the back of a garage in the town and topped up on water. Leaving the town and entering the countryside I was treated to some excellent early morning gore: the sight of an owl catching, puncturing and carrying off a rabbit for breakfast. I opened my second packet of mixed nuts and tipped them into the top tube bag for easy face filling.

Now in daylight the climb up to checkpoint 3, Nant-y-Moch Reservoir Dam, was an intimidating sight. There’s something about not being able to see just how long the climbs are when riding at night that brings a calm acceptance. The staggeringly long climb to the dam was well rewarded by the beautiful morning light waiting at the top, golden light over the woods, water and mountains. A solitary but wonderfully calm and peaceful checkpoint, a few minutes to soothe the swollen feet then a long stretch to checkpoint four.

The tiredness caught up with me again, and with no rejuvenating company my face had become one constant and all consuming yawn so it was time to stop. The beautiful and empty Elan Valley seemed a good place so I pulled over by a stream, set an alarm for twenty minutes and slithered inside the bivvy. Feeling refreshed I continued into the nearest village for a glamorous forecourt breakfast of (vegan) icecream and a cola; the replenished energy and mental focus pushed me on to Talybont-on-Usk Reservoir Dam. I was feeling pretty ecstatic at this point as the realisation I was going to make it sank in. After another rejuvenating natter with a lovely human following the ride and waiting with sugary treats for his friend, I set off for the finish and had a little joyous cry at the thought of completion with only 64km to go. But then the cruelty of this checkpoint hit. On the TransWales you have to climb up to checkpoints 1-3, but the challenge of checkpoint four comes just after you’ve reached it, a relentless 20+% away from the dam that forces you to sweat out any euphoria experienced only minutes ago. I’d avoided the A roads into Cardiff knowing I’d be tired and not in the mood for cars, but the continuing climbs up over the moors were a challenge and the tiredness caught up again. I rode to the top, lay down on the desolate moorland amongst the remnants of sheep, set an alarm for 10 minutes and hoped my mind and focus would reassemble in the void. Now it really was all down hill to the finish, except for the headwind. The stop start of cities and the sudden density of vehicles and humans is always a bit of a shock after hours in the wilderness. I arrived at Cardiff Bay barrage at 15:35, 21 hours, 408km and 6700m of elevation having passed since leaving Colwyn Bay, giving me a time of 18:55 for the #transwales21 route. Two minutes later Charlie arrived looking equally red eyed, words were spoken but mostly two human shaped voids emitting the vapours of an odd satisfaction acknowledged each other’s existence and then retreated into sleep.

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