Sleepless in Aberystwyth (or the AUK National 400)

Broadly speaking, midlife crises are of three types: affairs, fast cars and sport challenges, I got stung by the latter bug, of the pedalling kind.

I have never been blessed with the agile limbs of a cheetah or the lungs of a sledge dog, therefore I am not a fast cyclist and my fascination is distance: how far can I go before I desiccate in the sun, rot in the rain or simply get too sick and tired to go any further?

The Audax world is one of little glamour, more beans on toast than cappuccino and designer shades. There are no banners advertising energy drinks at Audax cycling events and no multi million pound charities trying to squeeze money out of yourself and everybody you know. When days get longer, so does the mileage and it’s not unusual for an Audax event to go on for days. At the end of June days are at their longest, therefore a fitting time to cycle 400 km (250 miles) from Shrewsbury, down to Hay on Wye, then west to Aberystwyth and finally an overnight ride back to Shrewsbury. All in a maximum time of twenty seven hours, according to the rules set by the Audax Club Parisienne a century or so ago.

These are small, profit free events, run on a shoestring by other passionate cyclists and they are largely unsupported: there are a number of manned control points one has to go through, the organiser provides a suggested route, but diversions are also allowed. Basically, as long as you get your route card stamped at the control points, everything is game. There are no medical or mechanical support, no one will pick you up if you get stranded in rural Wales twenty miles from the closest town (which most likely does not have a train station), self-sufficiency is the rule and therefore one has to budget for that. I did find myself carrying a bit more stuff than I would normally on a bike ride, this time. The overnight traverse of Wales meant warm clothes, lights, spare batteries, an AA powered battery charger, cables and whatnot. Navigation was also essential, so a GPS unit, printed and laminated directions and an old fashioned OS map of Wales as a last desperate resort, all neatly packed in a large waterproof bag tucked under the saddle.


A bit more stuff than your usual bike ride

150 of us set off from Upton Magna, a few miles east of Shrewsbury on a fine Saturday morning, if a bit breezy. The wind was to be in the face all the way to Aberystwyth, so twelve hours at the very least, no point in getting downbeat about it.

The first half of the day passed uneventfully, as we began to spread along the route, according to each individual comfortable pace. An exercise of marvelling at the spectacle of nature, whilst keeping fed and hydrated, all made easy by a slightly higher level of TLC provided at the control points for this longer event… ok, there was a lot of cake to go through, among the food on offer!

On leaving the control at Llanelwedd (km 190), roughly half the way, dark clouds began to gather, which didn’t bode well for the more hilly and remote part of the course, through the Cambrian Mountains and the Elan Valley reservoir system and down to the sea at Aberystwyth.

It turned out to be a fluke, not a drop of rain to speak of and the ride through the Elan valley was sublime, with the sun beginning to peep through the clouds and eventually making a full comeback by the time I reached Devil’s Bridge.

elan valley

The sun peeping through the clouds

paolo nat400 2

230 km behind, 170 to go… all is well


The stone arch above Devil’s Bridge

The descent into Aberystwyth signalled the need for those spare clothes I had packed, as the wind stiffened and the temperature dropped like a stone. By the time I rolled into the control point by the seafront, a warm bowl of soup was very welcome!
On leaving the seaside, another crossing of the Cambrian Mountains was on the cards, but this time along the A44 main road, a much shallower gradient. I joined four fellow cyclists met along the way which made light work of the climb and within two hours we reached the last control point at Trefeglwys village hall. By then it was already dark and there was an option to get a few hours rest, before tackling the final 75 km to the finish. After yet another meal, I decided to stick with the four and press on, as we were doing a sterling job as a bunch and it felt somewhat safer to ride together on unknown roads in the middle of the night. There is something primeval about the desire to seek comfort in each other’s company when it’s dark.

It took less than three hours of cycling in some discomfort to get to the finish, back in Upton Magna, but despite the aches and pains, it was never a chore. An overturned car blocking a lane and surrounded by Police was free entertainment and the sky kept clear enough for a bit of star and planet spotting.

I collected the last stamp to complete my route card at 1:30 AM, eighteen hours after I left, tired but happy and I collapsed in my sleeping bag without a shower. Over the course of the day apparently I burned over 8000 calories, which I did my best to replenish along the way eating the following:
Four slices of toast
Four bowls of cereals and milk
Double portion of beans on toast
Two bowls of pasta
One bowl of beef stew with a bread roll
Two bowls of soup with a bread roll
One coronation chicken sandwich
Three bowls of rice pudding with jam
Two bowls of trifle with extra custard
Two flapjacks
Two slices of cake
One rhubarb and custard flavoured energy gel, out of desperation with ten miles to go
A full English breakfast at 6 AM the morning after, while spectating other riders, who had a longer day on the saddle than me, slowly rolling in.

This was always going to be a voyage of self-discovery, as much as it was a long way round Wales. So what did I learn? I think the main lesson is that the body is a pretty amazing thing, capable of adapting to pretty much anything one throws at it. I was never short of legs and still surprisingly strong after over twelve hours of pedalling. The brain is a trickier one: once I got to within a comfortable distance to the finish, basically once I had it in the bag, it began a slow process of shutdown, so that every mile became that little bit longer.
We spend a lot of time training the body to go faster and further, but really the mind is what needs to be trained and that is a little bit harder to do.


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