Rolling my eyes at the Dublin bike cyclist breaking the lights, my pannier laden bike threaded its way through the morning rush hour. The trip to the ferry was uneventful, all the HGVs were going the other way.
The sea fog drifted out of the way as the ferry neared the harbour. RAF jets split the sunshine in the skies over Holyhead, the roar of their engines competing with the screech of seagulls. While I waited on the train platform I met a woman who remembered me from the train journey after London – Edinburgh – London. She works on Virgin trains. It’s strange how some people’s faces just stick in your head.
The small train was full of the scrummage of a bank holiday crowd. School kids hopped on and off again, their chatter filling the carriage like a flock of starlings. Weary commuters shuffled on, their burdensome bags cramping their feet and seats. I changed my plan and decided to cycle the last 16km to my hotel for the night rather than waiting an hour for a change of train.
Small country B roads and rolling hills like a lumpy bed were my lot for the ride. I dislike summer cycling principally because of the flies that smear your mouth and glasses. Give me a cold winter day,crisp after frost with no wind rather than a muggy, sticky July day with rain on the headwind.
A sleepy village with a duckpond and alpacas in the fields is tonight’s destination. The small country hotel is quaint but well run. I explain to the owner that I’ll have to leave at 5am and his raised eyebrow invites an explanation of my crazy endeavour. I’ll be back here on Monday evening and I’m looking forward to a pint of the local cider.
Day 1 ‘The kindness of strangers”
Knighton to Llanbrynmair 222km
Up at 05:00, kit on, suncream on, bottles filled and a last check of my equipment. If I’ve forgotten anything it’s too late now, it’s back in Dublin. I’m tired, I slept fitfully, I never sleep well before an Audax. I’d made arrangements with the proprietor the night before to get the bike out of the shed and leave the keys in reception. The hotel cat was happy to see me and then unimpressed not to be given his breakfast. The moon was still in the sky and the sun was just rising above the mist filled valleys. The road gently undulates along the valley floor, it’s only 9km to Knighton. Above me a red kite hovers, wings spread, suddenly it swoops down towards the road right in front of me, the rising sun turning its wings to fire. Not finding what it sought the bird wheels away into the dawn.
There are few cars on the road at this hour, I pass small factory, evidently there’s a change of shift with people coming and going. Reaching Knighton I take the first obligatory photo of the bike at the foot of the clocktower as proof of passage. The Garmin takes a few minutes to load up the route so it is 06:10am when I officially start. The climbing starts from the off, out of Knighton and straight up a 2km hill. It’s not too bad but I’m slow and the bike is heavy. This sets the standard for the next 60 hours. Up and down river valleys, one hill after another like beads on a chain. The scenery is fantastic, it’s Spring so the trees have blossom, the last of the daffodils are out and the baa-ing of sheep and lambs is my constant soundtrack for the two and a half days.
The hills are unrelenting, there’s very little flat in this part of Wales and the route deliberately runs across all the hills to ensure the correct elevation for a Super Randonnee of over 10,000m. Crossing one small valley I can see a beautiful white tower glowing in the sunlight above the last of the morning mist. It turns out to be a church in Old Radnor perched on the crest of a ridge. As I chug my way upwards I see my first swallows of the year perched on the phone wires. More hills and farm laneways. I have to shove into the verge if traffic comes the other way. The corners are tight, the kind where you scrub speed in case you meet something coming the other way.
Relief arrives in the form of an A road with its wider lanes and better surface. The first groups of motorbikers zoom past me heading into the mountains and towards the sea. By now I’m getting hungry, I spot a sign for a café “Jodi’s 1 mile” and decide that breakfast would be good. Jodi’s turns out to be a mobile biker’s cafe in a layby. He’s cooking up bacon buttys for two bikers when I arrive. I order “Breakfast on a plate” for £6, bacon sausage mushrooms, tomato and beans and a large mug of tea. 5 minutes later I’m sitting at a picnic table stuffing my face. 45km and 850m climbed.
The next 15km to the first control at Brecon is uneventful, minor a roads and a nice descent into the town. The town is busy with bank holiday traffic and I scan the narrow streets searching for the statue of Dublin-born Duke of Wellington. Bike parked, photo taken, quick WhatsApp message to the Audax Ireland group and I’m riding back up the hill out of town.
Turning my back on the Brecon Beacons, the route leads me up a pretty river valley containing the hamlets of Lower Chapel and Upper Chapel. The climbing continues and I overtake a heavily laden cyclist with multiple panniers on his bike as the trail crosses the army ranges. A red flag faintly flutters and the skylark song is interspersed with the dull thud of gunfire. As I round the crest of a hill, a group of bare-chested men are shearing a flock of sheep. I grin and give them a thumbs up.
Across the top of the plateau, the vista of Welsh mountains spread as far as I can see. I try not think of the ones I will be climbing up over the next two days. A sharp and steep descent with a bumpy road surface and cattle grids refocuses my attention. Llanwrtyd Wells is my next stop.
A can of Vimto and a Feast ice-cream line my stomach before I ride on. The first of the major climbs, The Devil’s Staircase, is a few kilometres up the road. My eyes try to pick out the possible route through the hills. The mountain sides become barer and the road snakes upwards. I pass a sign for Abergwesyn Common and now I can see the end of the valley and the steep hairpins. Luckily there are few cars on this stretch. The organiser’s notes have given due warning of the steepness of the climb. I cross the inevitable cattlegrid and the road steepens to a gravelly wall in front of me. Clicking down through the gears, my legs pushing hard in the pedals, arms slippery with sweat, I grind to a halt just before the first hairpin. Stopping to catch my breath I dismount into the verge. For the first of what will become many times, I remove my shoes and push the bike up the remainder of the hill. This procedure, slowing, ignominious dismount, pushing bike, repeats for the next hill. Somehow I ride up the third hill. The descents are as brutal as the climbs, sharp and twisting. The Garmin records 61.2km even though I’m hanging onto the levers. The cuckoo’s call mocks my efforts from the cover of the forest in the valley.
Shaken but determined I cycle on to Tregaron and the next statue. I am surprised to find the village square stuffed with cyclists. The benches around the statue are covered in cyclists and bikes are propped up against each other. From the kind of bikes and the jerseys of their riders I am among my own people, Audaxers! There is the usual event jersey top trumps to be seen, who is wearing the jersey from the longest or oldest event. I see PBP 2011, Mille du Sud and a LEL 2013. I recognise a face I last saw on a train platform in Paris after PBP 2015. He remembers me and I find out that he and the others are riding the Brevet Cymru 400. They’ll be finished tomorrow evening, I’ll still be on my journey. I see a fellow participant from LEL 2017, I last saw her at a control with 364km to go but she made it back in time to London.
Cheered by the conversation I take the long road to Aberystwyth. At first it’s lumpy, rolling A road and then the inevitable turn off onto a minor B road. Initially I miss the turn, lulled into a false sense of security by the good surface, but finding myself descending I realise that I should have taken the turn back up the hill. Once on the B road the surface is gravelly and rutted. I can see the better A road running almost parallel and wish that I was on that instead.
Aberystwyth is inevitably at the bottom of a hill. It’s nearly 6pm and the sea fog is clouding the coast and greying the warmth of the sunlight. Snap of the pier building and I’m on the bike again looking for a Spar supermarket that I saw on the map when researching the route. I bring the bike inside with permission from the staff and munch a ham sandwich, tea and pint of milk. At this point I’m calculating how long and how far I’ll get tonight. 12 hours in and only 150km is very slow. I’ve another 100km until Bala and a lot of climbing. I phone the hotel in Bala and let them know it will be after midnight before I arrive.
The sky is grey and the streets are misty and cool when I leave Aberystwyth at 18:30. The next 20km are a slow grind up the valley on the A44. There’s plenty of traffic and it makes the climb unpleasant, at least the road surface is good. As I ascend the hills, the sun reappears and the heat of the day returns. The mountains glow gold in the late afternoon sun. At the top of the pass I look back and see that the sea fog has followed me and is billowing up the valley sides. It’s a bit spooky so I change into big ring and relax into the descent. Llanidloes is the next control.
As ever the straightforward road is brought to an abrupt halt by a sharp turn left up a steep hill and a minor road. Again I have to stop the bike, not to walk it but to open a farm gate that bars my path. The road is little more than a farm track. I encounter a flock of sheep walking along the road between fields. Trying not to panic them I slow to a crawl and cycle through. I begin to question the sanity of the route designer! The route passes the source of the river Severn. By now the sun has disappeared behind the mountains.
The heat of the day is still in the buildings of Llanidloes. It’s nearly 9pm, 200km. I prop the bike against the Market Hall beside the Wesley stone. It feels slightly sacrilegious to take a photo. I layer up for the oncoming night, long fingered gloves, long sleeved jersey and reflective gilet and leg warmers. Right now this is too much clothing but it’s going to be a long night. Out of Llanidloes and up into the hills with the the first stars above me. The road sign warns me that the gradient is 16%, the Garmin claims 20%, I believe the Garmin. Inching my way upwards I can just about appreciate the scenery, the last of the sunset reflected in the lake beside me. The thought that all this climbing means a descent is near keeps my legs moving, onwards upwards, just around the next corner.
The early morning start and lack of sleep is beginning to cause me problems. Even though it is cold by now and there is nothing but starlight and my own headlamp to light my way, when the descent finally comes I can feel sleep closing my eyes. The fog cloaks the next village and I reconsider my plans for the night. I won’t reach Bala tonight.
From the map and my own research the villages between Llanidloes and Bala become increasingly smaller. I decide that I’ll try for a bed for the night in the next village. I reckon my best way of finding somewhere is to find a pub and ask. I’ve slept out before and I have stuff with me and the local chapels look like possibilities at a pinch.
Arriving at a small settlement I see a building with a family group of people outside chatting and enjoying a pint, the Wynnstay Arms. I park the bike outside and walk into the warmth and light of the pub. It’s quiet, only three customers at the bar and a spry looking woman with silver hair and twinkly eyes. I realise I look a sight but I ask if she knows of anywhere that might have a bed for the night. I can see her considering the situation but she informs me that she does have a room and I can stay. She lets me bring the bike inside, shows me to a room with a bed, gives me a towel for the shower and refuses to take any payment.
By now it 23:00, 222km done and about 4000m. I ring the hotel in Bala and tell them I won’t get there tonight and thank them for their help. I WhatsApp my husband and daughter and fall into a dreamless sleep before 23:30.