The Great Welsh Traverse

Super Randonneur is a lifetime award gained by completing a randonneur series of 200, 300, 400 and 600 km validated Brevets in the same year. With a few 200 to choose from and having completed the Heart of England 300 and London Wales London 400 within the previous four weeks, I was now down to the ultimate challenge: the Bryan Chapman Memorial 600, an inspiring traverse of Wales from the Severn estuary to the Menai bridge and back within 40 hours.

In the weeks leading up to the event, I went through a range of emotions, some optimistic, thinking of the incredible places I was going to cycle through and some very negative, along the lines of “what happens if I crack in the middle of Snowdonia?”. At the lowest point, I even contacted the organiser Ritchie Tout to ask whether he would defer my entry to next year. Reassured that this was never going to happen and with a forecast of uninterrupted sunshine over the all weekend, I effectively ran out of excuses. I was going to cycle 600 km in Wales and nail the bugger!

Audax events tend to start very early: I was already up at 3 AM and already in Chepstow by 5 AM, with an hour to perform my well rehearsed routine of assembling the bike, checking the brakes, pumping the tyres, visit the loo, eat some Welsh cake with coffee, visit the loo again, secure my luggage to the saddle and leave a sleeping bag and a change of clothes to Ritchie to take to Dolgellau, where we were going to stop on the way up and then again on the way back overnight.

My plan was to start easy, but as usual an overload of adrenaline meant I ended up following the wheel of someone going for the event record (just under 24 hours) and averaged over 30 km/h to the first control point in Bronllys. By then I was feeling very optimistic: we had climbed two ranges of hills and I had not even used the small ring at the front, maybe that guy on the YACF forum claiming “it’s an easy ride” was right after all.

The following leg to Llanidloes did look easy on the profile map and by then the bunch had thinned and I was with Javier only,  a seasoned Randonneur and former client: I could not help but notice the quality of my work, his rear wheel still straight as a dye after so many years… enough praise!

We made very good progress and got to the Control at 10:40 AM. 138 Km in just over 4 and a half hours, that was seriously fast, this Brevet was a doddle!

Javier didn’t stop at the control, while I decided to get some proper food down ahead of a hillier section. I set off on my own and things suddenly became a lot harder. The climb to Llyn Clywedog proved to be brutal, as the temperature soared above 20 degrees and with no shade in sight for miles. Luckily, after a few miles the road leveled, followed by a long and fast descent into Machynlleth. From there a more humane climb up the A 487 took us to Dolgellau, where a few steep ramps needed to be negotiated to get to King’s YHA, the third control point at 202 km.

By then I was feeling quite worn, having cycled the previous 64 lumpy km on my own. Home cooked couscous with vegetables, soup and a generous bowl of cake with custard put me back on the right track.

I left King’s with Roger, I had been following him for miles, unable to reach him in the distance and figured out we had a very similar pace. It proved an excellent partnership, as we managed to stay together along the incredible Welsh coast from Barmouth to Harlech and then up the stunningly beautiful Pen-Y-Pass and down to Menai bridge at the next control, at km 290. The heat of the day was quickly dissipating and it was only 6 PM!

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The wooden bridge at Barmouth

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Snowdonia

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Pen-Y-Pass to Llanberis

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Menai Bridge, at last!

After yet another soup and bread rolls and an other bowl of crumble with custard, we began our journey back. Things were going really well, the climb to Llyn Cwellyn proved challenging but not extreme and the following to Llyn Trawsfynydd even easier. The last light of the day was shining on the decommissioned nuclear power station, a gargantuan concrete monster, belonging to an age that hopefully will never come back! After a long and shallow descent, we were back at Dolgellau (km 375) and we only needed lights for the last hour or so… another load of couscous and more cake were laid out by the invaluable volunteers, happy days!

The youth hostel has 36 beds and the Bryan Chapman Memorial has 200 entrants… you can clearly see the problem right there. The volunteers running  the hostel ration “bedtime”: two hours each and Roger took the offer, with the idea to set off again in the middle of the night. I decided to take advantage of the early hour and take possession of one of the three-seater sofas in the common room, as those were not rationed. It proved a good idea. I woke up in the early hours of Sunday, surrounded by a sea of bodies lying on the wooden floor. As much as my accommodation was spartan, I was enjoying the five star treatment! That’s what you get by being ahead of the “bulge”… speed pays dividends in these rides!

I faffed for around half an hour trying to get changed and ready to go and after a plate of Spanish omelette with beans and a cup of coffee I was on my way at 4:45 AM, with the first twilight. I wasn’t looking forward to the next stage: only 62 km, but over the Bwlch Oerddrws, one of the steepest and most relentless climbs in the all route. I began the grind in the smallest gear. The hard work was rewarded with stunning views from the top at dawn and with a fast, exhilarating descent into Dinas Mawddwy.

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Summiting Bwlch Oerddrws at dawn

Luckily, the route did not go up the Bwlch-Y-Groes, the second highest and certainly the steepest road in Wales. It followed instead the A 470 and then turned onto a minor B road to Aberhafesp. The cold was intensifying, even with the sun now already quite high in the sky. I arrived at the control point (km 437) just before 8 AM… a far cry from the 30 km/h of a day earlier! A full English breakfast was laid out for me and by then I had forgotten all about my new vegetarian regime and tucked into bacon and eggs: sin never tasted so good!

I was still on my own, as I set off to the last control point in Llandrindod Wells. The A 483 was reasonably clear and a beautiful climb it was too. However, I decided to follow the organiser’s instructions to divert to an unclassified road to Bwlch-Y-Sarnau to avoid crazy bikers on the main road, although retrospectively it was a mistake, as it slowed me considerably and, to be fair, most bikers were probably still in bed!

I arrived at the free control point (km 490) and headed straight to Gregg’s, for a coffee and a baguette (with bacon!!). 10:40 AM, not too bad, but again a very slow section. I was joined by Adam, a London based teacher of Chemistry and seriously talented marathon runner, with whom I have ridden several events in the past, funny enough always in Wales. He set off almost immediately, whereas I took my time, ahead of the last and by far the longest stretch of the journey.

A busy section of A 483 was followed by a lovely stretch of quiet road along the river Wye. The respite from traffic was not going to last, as soon I was back onto the A 470, regretting my decision not to divert to Hay-on-Wye and the Gospel pass. On the other hand my body was in quite some discomfort and the idea to climb the highest pass in Wales did not sound as stupendous as it had a few days earlier. My hands were sore, my bum was in pain, my feet were burning and I had barely enough power left in my legs to push me at a leisurely pace. But at least I had had some sleep, unlike some slower riders! After the exhilarating roads of Snowdonia, this section proved to be mentally very hard: heavy and fast traffic, fast bikers passing me at 90 mph, I should have planned this leg better, instead of blindly following the organiser’s suggested route. On the other hand, busy A roads are fast flowing and I was finally making good progress. I stopped for water and a chocolate bar at a service station before Abergavenny, with only 50 km to go. This would normally take less than two hours, but under the circumstances, two and a half hours were probably more likely. I did grind my way up the last couple of climbs, road traffic not getting any better and finally arrived back in Chepstow just before 3:30 PM, mixing with the bicycle traffic of a local sportive. Lots of clean and rested looking cyclists heading to the Severn Crossing.  It had taken me 33 hours and a half to cross Wales twice, 24 of which on the saddle and now thankfully it was over. 596 km and 7,000 meters of vertical ascent. An estimated 12,000 calories burnt, the equivalent of a week worth of food! More stats here

Four days later, my hands are still a bit numb and my bum is still a bit sore. My legs are fine, I can cycle to work, but not very fast and I get tired quickly. My Super Randonneur lifetime award is conquered (subject to validation) and I have no intention to do it all over again… ever. It comes without saying, that epic rides like this can only be possible thanks to the hard work of organisers and volunteers, who devote their time and skills. it takes twelve months of preparation to put together an event like this and I am pretty sure Ritchie will soon be at work to plan next year’s BCM.

So, never again I said! Well, that is technically not true: my wife is away for work and last night I began researching the “Pendle 600” Audax, regarded as the toughest ride in the country for that distance (even by that guy on the forum). Pure madness… yet so appealing!

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