“And if I ever ride a Super Randonnée, I think I’m gonna ride it in Spain or France! Anywhere but Wales”
Llangollen to Knighton 135km
There is no-one in the hotel reception, no-one other than the recording eye of a CCTV camera sees me park the bike against a wall and collapse onto a large sofa. I haven’t the strength to look for a room. I cover myself with my gilet and close my eyes, grateful to be horizontal. Sleep is restless and I am woken after an hour by uncontrollable shivering. I try to get warm and doze until 6:30am when the first of the hotel staff walk into the lobby. I’m surprisingly coherent as I explain what happened. I had emailed the hotel during the day and evening and I locate a note asking me phone a number when I get in but it’s too late now.
I find a toilet and change my kit. I can’t bring myself to take off the underlayers, but a change of shorts, socks and mid-layer makes me more comfortable. I clean the dirt off my face and reapply suncream. I’m in good shape, no saddle sores or sore muscles but my stomach feels ropey. I won’t be tucking into a full English breakfast or I’ll see it again on the first hill. The weather promises another day of glorious sunshine.
It’s too early for the other guests to come down for breakfast but the man with an Irish name working in the kitchen takes pity on me and brings toast, yoghurt and a very large pot of tea. I WhatsApp the Audax Ireland group with updates. The Garmin tells me I’ve done 160km and 3,000m since Abergele yesterday. Total climbing so far 9,276m, no wonder I’m knackered. The route instructions suggested only 10,600m for the total ride. Ah well, only 135km left and 10 hours how bad can it be?
Just before 8am I wrangle the bike back out through the doors of the hotel. As preparation for the ride I’d read the organiser’s blog where he describes the climb out of Llangollen as being just as tough as anything else on the ride. He’s right, it is. So much so that I hadn’t put my cycling shoes on in the expectation that I’d be walking up it and I do, the contents of my stomach sloshing uneasily with every step. A woodpecker drums in the woods as my feet plod upwards.
Another plateau, another hairpin descent, thumbs straining on the hoods. My disc brakes are pulsing with effort. Coming down a god-forsaken back road, last resurfaced when there was a Welsh king on the throne, I meet a farmer in a tractor. I stop to let him pass and he rolls down his window and says in response to my greeting, “You’re not local, or else you wouldn’t be coming down this!”. I agree and ride on.
Up another sheep infested valley to the top of a ridge. My mobile phone signal had been intermittent and now I have perfect reception. I can hear the ting of notifications of messages of support and good luck. The sun beats down, the ridges of hills bob up and down, blue-green in the heat haze. 10,000m done with 100km left. I’ll finish this.
Llanfyllin is sleepy on a Monday morning. I find the control point outside a hotel and take the opportunity to refill my bike bottles. I’m trying to make the calculations, will I make it back by 18:10. It’s going to be tight. The elevation profile on the Garmin doesn’t get any better. I try not to think about how far I’ve come in the last 48 hours and just concentrate on getting back to the start.
Over another ridge and another, more walking. If it wasn’t for the fact that the road signs change and the distance to the finish lessens I could believe that I’m riding an endless loop. I remember my least favourite part of the London-Edinburgh-London ride in 2017 was the Lincolnshire Wolds. What are the Wolds but a series of steep little river valleys with sharp ascents. I really hated that section on the way up to Edinburgh and it preyed on my mind until I rode it again on the way back down, I still hated it. Wales is a never-ending circle of hellish small river valleys. The final words of the Johnny Cash song “A boy named Sue” came to mind paraphrased as ““And if I ever ride a Super Randonnee, I think I’m gonna ride it in Spain or France! Anywhere but Wales!”.
Caersws and its railway station shimmer in the heat. The Garmin is reading 32°C, it exaggerates but it is certainly in the mid-20s. 14:00, 60km left in four hours. Keep moving. The next section to Llanidloes is on flattish A-road. It’s a relief to find that I can still ride faster and I complete the 15km in 45 minutes. 14:47 and another photo outside a landmark. It seems surreal to think that I was in the same town 42 hours and many hundred kilometres earlier. I flop onto a step outside a shop on the shady side of the street and eat my second Feast ice-cream of the trip with yoghurts and milk. 15:00 and I have to get moving again
Another ridge of hills waits for me outside the town. This time I don’t walk it, it’s not steep enough. Head down, feet firmly on the pedals I winch my way up by sheer effort of will. The open moorland with its skylarks and sheep opens before me. I can see wind turbines on the surrounding hills. Of course the route goes over them rather than around. One more control at the top of a hill in the village of Bwlch y Sarnau. 16:30, 30km left. On any other day easy peasy but not with one hour of sleep in the last two days. The road does not take the easy way back to Knighton. I rejoice when I finally reach some smooth A-road and then nearly cry at the climb out of Llanbister. I can’t believe it’s this hard even at this stage. I should know better.
Only 10km left and half an hour until my mandatory 60 hours run out. As ever in an Audax, I turn left and up yet another steep hill across moorland. I can feel myself beginning to think I won’t make it. I try and go faster but my body is used to one speed by now and protests at the demands I make of it. Down a final rutted track, luckily traffic free, I reach the town sign and inevitably the last kilometre is up a hill. I reach my destination just as the 60 hours allocated to a Super Randonnee run out. I sit on the steps of the clock tower and can’t believe that I did it. It seems ridiculous. The life of the town goes on around me, no-one takes any notice of a bedraggled middle-aged cyclist sitting on the steps. There is no welcoming committee, no fireworks, no winning post.
This is Audax.
Final statistics according to the Garmin, 617.1km, 11,995m, 37:21 hours moving time, 16.5kph average speed.