“It must be close to dawn…..I can hear a Blackbird singing” I look for an affirmation from my mate Richard as much to confirm it’s not just another sleep deprived hallucination. But he’s asleep, slumped in the other corner of the bus shelter. A Turkish Delight bar slipping from his fingers to his lap covered in crisps and jelly beans. No we aren’t waiting for a night bus home after an all night session but part way through an Audax, a long distance cycle event, the legendary Brian Chapman Memorial audax to be exact. 633 km from Chepstow to Menai and back; basically the full length of Wales….twice…..in one go…..non stop…..no bailout option……no backup…. hardcore! I have no idea where I am but I know exactly where I am on my route card: my lifeline: my bible “1st exit @ RBT, $ Dolgellau for 23.3 Km (elapsed distance 402.5KM) I have lost the feeling in parts of my feet, hands, shoulders and backside. My neck and knees are throbbing despite the alternative dosing of ibuprofen and paracetamol. My stomach is churning and I am dizzy with dehydration and sunburn. But the couple degrees above zero cold is nicely numbing the hands and feet and we should hit the next control by dawn for some respite and another 3 course meal – I can’t think any further than that otherwise I’ll jack it in. So let’s rewind a little how did I get here? As usual it’s a text or a call from Richard my riding mate “Fancy a ride out in Wales in May, I have some unfinished business on an Audax I bailed out on last year, fancy it?” Now Richard is not your average cyclist, he’s ridden round Australia, solo across N America coast to coast and last summer got bored so set off on a bike ride from his home in Sheffield and ended up in Istanbul…Turkey not the kebab shop in the high street in Barnsley. So I should have clocked the fact he found the Brian Chapman Memorial audax last year a bit tough…! But I didn’t know Wales very well and I had always wondered how far I could go on a bike as had only done the Fred Whitton and similar 120 mile max sportives, so what the heck. Plus Lands End John O Groats was a blast with Richard a couple years back. So I sent my cheque off just after X-mas and forgot about it. A mail from the organizer mid April prodded me into action but stuff at home prevented me from getting the mileage in. so short of 100 miles in the Dales with Richard in March that was it, no entry in the Fred Whitton to bring me up to speed this year either. I forgot about it again. The week before the event I threw a new chain on the bike, fitted a rack , a map board, lights and speedo and rode it to the pub and back; job done. Friday 16th May saw me on the road to Chepstow and a night in a hot and noisy hotel before a bright cool morning start. About 160 riders started at 6am heading north into Wales via the Black mountains for the Brecons.
A more eclectic mix I had not seen since hanging out with the courier riders and urban cyclists of East London. Tattoos, piercings, cycle caps in place of helmets, no pro team kit, sandals and spds, Fixed/single speeds, excessive facial hair, Brooks saddles and Carradice seat bags, steel frames and down tube shifters. Even one guy with a tent on his rack. The craic was friendly and of route choices (you go where you want between controls) weather and favorite café stops. The pace was steady (15kph to 20kph), the weather dry and sunny, all was good. The miles started to clock up on my speedo as we sped through villages and towns with increasingly unpronounceable and lengthening Welsh names. We had the lost the bunch during a cafe stop but reeled in stragglers and were overtaken by more committed riders. We had settled into a routine of “knees under” food stops every 2 hours or so punctuated with comfort breaks and a near constant feeding routine from jersey back pockets to keep the fuel tanks full. First sight of the sea near Aberystwyth and 170 ish Km on the clock. Then we hit some big hills near Dolgellau; Cross Foxes…and its not even in the 100 great climbs book; WHY!?!
Freewheeling into the control at a YHA near Dolgellau we launched into a 3 course dinner. Some would overnight here and so bags had been dropped with change of clothing/spares etc. I restocked my pockets with fuel, changed socks and gloves and assembled some warmer clothing for the night leg as it would be 4 am at the earliest before we were back here having passed through the halfway point at Menai. I didn’t think about this or the fact the next 2 stages were the toughest in terms of distance and altitude gained (you go through Snowdonia twice). I like hills and I like night biking – so lets go. We crossed the foot and rail bridge to Barmouth and watched the setting sun over the Lllyn peninsular en route for Harlech
I love the dusk and dawn and the views didn’t disappoint here. We celebrated the end of the daylight with screwballs, hot chocolate, flapjack and rice cakes on the forecourt of a garage in PENRHYNDEUDRAETH. Night started to fall and the lights went on; perfect timing as we hit the big hills on Snowdonia. Ultra distance events are a large part mental toughness and the night shrouded the hills and their severity after Bedgellert with only the faint lights of other audax all nighters showing us the height of Pen y Pass into Lllanberris high above us as we climbed past the lakes in the valleys. We hit the top of Pen Y Pass about 23:00 with a biting wind in our face.
We threw on wind proofs and turned on the lights to the max before plummeting into Llanberris in the valley below. We passed the banners and flags for the slateman Tri that was going on that weekend. My girlfriend competing in her first tri there, her event starting and finishing in half the time it was taking me to get between a single control point. She was tucked up n her camper now after a night of celebrations……lucky lass…. Pressing on at speed now the draw of Menai and halfway pulling us onto Anglesey. The lights of Menai and the bridge were blinding and a real culture shock after so long in the wilds. I launched into another 3 courser dinner/breakfast/midnight feast and then some stretching routines to ease legs back and neck.
Some banter with BCM regulars lifted the spirits as we headed out for another dose of Snowdonia at 1am Sunday morning. Passing the Saturday night drunks with their Donner Kebabs weaving their way home we were soon back in the wilds of North Wales and heading south at last. Between 2 and 4 am I hit my low point, a combination of tiredness and low temperatures reduced the power output and average speed significantly. We hit patch after patch of cold mist (speedo telling me close to 0 degrees here) which scattered our light beams and confused our tired minds. Kamikaze rabbits hopped out of the verge causing spikes in heart rates and screams of abusive over tired vocal chords. The last straw came when I rode over a low branch sticking into in the road and was convinced it was someone trying to pull me off the bike. This is where we decided to take 5 in the bus shelter mentioned above. By the time I had roused Richard the stupid o’clock dog walkers were out crossing the other side of the road to avoid us and the dawn chorus was deafening. The hardest thing to do is get back on your bike after a stop. Everything screams at you to stop, get off again and lie down, but you have no choice but to keep going: this is Audax – no backup, no broom wagon, no plan B. Shut out mind and body – just pedal and keep looking ahead – machine like. And then its light, the pre dawn sunlight illuminating the areas outside our headlights beams. Eyes relaxing after hours of straining into darkness for hints of road debris to bring us off. The birds go quieter and the increasing air temperature allows layers to be removed and glasses lens change from night yellow to tinted. Air on skin and sun on skin. So glad we kept going, this is brilliant, we crack a joke and we are back in the groove. Average speeds lift and we cruise into the YHA where we had dinner(?) 10 hours ago.
A group of fast lads were going out having snatched a couple of hours sleep. cheery waves and shouts of “chapeau, bonne Route” etc were exchanged . then the usual routine of 3 courser was played out but with me falling asleep sitting upright eating porridge
The dining room looked like a battle field command center. Riders are being helped off their bikes and herderd into control for registration. GPS devices and phones being charged en masse, bewildered riders unable to make tea or order food. Kitchen staff barking food orders to the masses, sunburn and road rash stripe the unlucky few, bodies asleep everywhere, some facedown on tables asleep whilst part way through a breakfast. The smell of embrocating cream, chamois cream and bacon fills the air. There is little conversation just fueling and maintenance of the man-machines. I take myself away from the carnage and stretch, change of clothes and we are off again wobbling into the morning heading for East Wales and Shropshire. I had forgotten about cross foxes, the killer climb form earlier. This time we did its evil brother: longer and higher but with a sweet 68 kph max on the downhill. This is the shortest stage at 65Km and we cruise along a quiet A470 heading South East for Aberhafesp. We stop at a café for another coffee and I a mention to Richard that its strange so many people are having bacon butties as its Sunday afternoon, he reminds me its 10am!…..just feels like afternoon to us all nighters.
The motorbike nutters start appearing as the morning draws on, you can hear them coming but it’s still disconcerting to be passed at 100mph where you know one sleep induced wobble will put you into their narrow but fatal path. The temperature is rising rapidly my speedo reading 29 degrees as we pull into the next control and its museli, tinned fruit, rice pud’ custard and cake. Some Sunday Lunch this is!, but perfect for our fuel craving bodies and churning stomach. Slap on some sun cream on the already sunburnt bits and we are off making a run for the Welsh border. We pass cider orchards now and we fantasize about lying in the shade drinking cool cider all afternoon….But Newtown draws us in and spits us out up a narrow, airless potholed 1 in 5 that kicks at times into 1 in 4. My speedo is reading 30 deg’s, I am overheating, my legs are screaming, I’m doing 6/7Kmh and other riders are off pushing, swearing or lying in the verge. their discomfort steels me to push to the summit and a breeze. I pick a rider 500m in front and reel him in before the summit. And then I’m falling: dropping like a stone over rough open moorland roads and filling loosening cattle grids down into England and Shropshire. Herds of small dark wild welsh ponies pace me and play chicken on blind corners. Knighton welcomes us in a blinding bottom of the valley airless heat and we seek shelter in an air-conditioned Spar. There is a bunch of us now and we strip the shop of ice creams, rice pudding, yoghurt and fruit like locusts. Our nauseous stomachs unable to process anything else. BRAMPTON BRYAN, Lingen, Presteigne pass by as names out of fast show comedy sketch. I pick up the scent of apples and perhaps a cider press, we round a corner and there is Dunkertons. One of the many Meccas to fermented apple juice (cider) lovers like myself. But we have to press on…..SACRILIDGE!! we are heading for Weobly now and a till receipt to show proof of passage from the local shop. The shop is shutting so we grab at random items and are shooed out.
The speedo reads 553Km so only 47Km to go right? I turn over the route sheet to the last section and read aloud 78.5Km!?! WHAT!?! I forgot the route is longer this year due to roadwork’s, but it’s a slap in the face. I am exhausted mentally now, we have been riding for over 36 hours non stop, and realise I’m not going to back until 10pm and then a 5 hour drive home. MISTAKE!! Never think too far ahead on an Audax, just take on bite sized chunks. I look around and other riders are mounting up so I do the same as don’t want to be left alone and venerable: safety in numbers! . I’m in a group of 10 with the leader riding GPS, I switch off for the first time form the route card and allow myself to be led. All of a sudden we stop, the GPS has led up us a cul de sac. Its my own fault, trusting someone else. Richard and I exchange glances and know we are on the same page, we retrace our steps, orientate ourselves and are off following the route card. The bunch arguing behind us. We both want to be home now and are working 5mins on the front and off rotating to keep the pace high, we are averaging 30Kph and are picking off groups and soloists for fun. Some jump on our train but cannot maintain the speed, the last 2 days have brought some conditioning to our leg muscles it seems.
Signs start appearing for Chepstow and the temperature starts to drop. We don’t stop to add layers our high heart rate keeping us warm, we drop into Monmouth and are following the stunning Wye as it winds towards Chepstow. We fly past Tintern Abbey and start the ascent before the drop into Chepstow. My backside is so painful I have alternate cheeks: pedaling lopsidedly, I cannot stand as my knees are to inflamed and painful my wrists too sore to bear the weight. The road climbs steadily round more corners and straights, I listen to the sound of the engines of passing motorbikes straining to hear them shut off the revs at the top, they go out of earshot before I can hear this, we’ve been climbing for 20 mins and I slow to a near stop examining the route sheet. This can’t be right my speedo shows we should be in Chepstow according to the route sheet, have we gone wrong?, where are all the other riders? Panic sets in for the first time and I dare to think about packing in. packing in 5km from the finish, what am I thinking? But I have had enough of all this, its just stupid! But who will come and pick me up: no-one, SUGAR! I have to press on! Another 10 mins and we are at the top and dropping again, past the race course and views of the Severn and the lights of Chepstow. I’m freezing but can’t stop as I won’t get back on. We pass the welcome to Chepstow sign but we can’t relax as we need to find the finish. We have 40 minutes before the final control closes. A solo rider speeds past so we jump on his tail and weave through suburbia and to familiar roads passed over nearly 40 hours previously. The control comes into sight and we dump the bikes and a kind person says “lets call it 9:30 shall we, hope you enjoyed it, Beans on toast, rice pudding and cake over there for you” No medal, no t shirt, no certificate, no clapping. But I don’t care; beans on toast and rice pud’ is all I want. So that’s 633 Km in an elapsed 39.5 hours. My speedo and shows about 24Kph moving average and Strava about 10000M of climbing to the 500Km point where I ran out of battery. That’s over 3 times the furthest I have ever been in one go on a bike and 4 times as long in the saddle. I’m just glad to be still in one piece and free of incidents. I would probably do this again, but with some training before hand and perhaps 2 brakes instead of just the front. Did I mention I had lost a rear pad before the start: certainly made the descents more interesting… especially on the night section in Snowdonia…