It’s a shame that our species will continue to repress the other animals that surround us ensuring that they are never able to evolve to the position of making documentaries. As soon as we see a baboon pick up a camera and start pointing it at us, we’ll whisk it away and stick it in a zoo where we can then film it filming us and upload the results to social networks. If only we could let nature take its course and allow these animals to transcend the results would be fascinating. The monkey faced David Attenborough equivalent would be astonished at the depth and breadth of madness inherent within human behaviour. Baboon audiences would strain forward in their chairs trying to grasp why on earth these animals pick their food from the fields, contaminate it with a series of noxious chemicals, encase it in plastic and then swap it with others for a combination of paper and small round metal objects. They’d cover their eyes in horror at the sight of the mating ritual, requiring the donning of casements that don’t quite fit, self poisoning with strange fermented liquids, shouting and spitting in each other’s faces whilst loud low frequency sounds pummel the eardrums and the final zig-zag walk to the place of mating where all food stuffs previously consumed must be regurgitated prior to the act.
Finally one brave baboon would venture to Wales nervously clutching his Go-pro to film the final aberration, the most deviant of behaviours displayed by the human race. He’d hide in the bushes outside of a community centre in Ysgol Llanbrynmair and begin filming the 67 mountain bikers about to depart upon the BearBones 200.
The event is described by its organiser Stu somewhat euphemistically as “a 200km independent time trial through the Cambrian mountains and beyond. It’s a true test of stamina, self reliance and mental toughness”. It sounds as if there’s little room for euphemism in that sentence but trust me all will become clear as you progress through this text. I’d decided to round off my season with the BB200 after a failure on the Highland Trail earlier in the year. Being a needy sort of bloke I wanted to at least end 2014 with something “proper” achieved on the mountain bike. This looked to have sufficient challenge and Stu’s events are always completely unpretentious and aimed squarely at the rider rather than the coffers. So off went my £20.
Part of the BB200 challenge is the fact that the route is not published until 3 days before the event. Stu drops the occasional hint or picture upon the Bearbones forum, worryingly one of them was a selfie with a rather distressed look upon his face. Finally on the 8th October at 10am the email arrived. I scurried the GPX file into my digital mapping software and then called for a nurse. The route was 137 miles long, the elevation profile said 18,000 feet of climbing and the start went straight up a mountain. We were to set off at 10am on October the 11th and aim to be back sometime on the 12th. A sub-24 hour finish gained the owner a coveted Bearbones black badge, sub-36 qualified one for entry into the 2015 Highland Trail race.
I spent a while analysing the profile and tracks whilst reading the comments of others online. Then I came up with a simple strategy that I hoped would carry me across the route, pack light, don’t stop, think about what is coming not what has been done, keep moving forward. I kitted the bike out with a Wildcat Tiger harness, one season Yeti sleeping back, Sol emergency bivy bag, loads of batteries for the lights/GPS and a loaf of Soreen. The night before was spent in the Wynnstay Arms Hotel, notable for the fact that my room contained a cot which gave me bad dreams about dead babies for some reason. I should never have watched The Shining.
Race morning was the usual banter strewn epic of strap tightening, gear fiddling and gallows humour. I was touched by so many who introduced themselves as “Hi, you must be Dave who swears in his videos”. This is why my parents bred me, such that many years later they could glow in pride that their son had filled the internet with mountain bike related expletives. I was even video bombed at the start by a “fuck” as I attempted to film the tension of the approach of 10am.
Stu unceremoniously waved us off and the climbing began. 1,600 feet of it in the first 4.5 miles. Light-weighted-ness and a gravitationally advantageous body mass paid off for me and I rode near the front of the group marvelling at Ian Barrington’s single speedy legs as he climbed alongside, I was suffering enough on 26×40. The promised bad weather had let us all down and we ascended in warm conditions with more than a hint of sunshine, I dared a thought that things were looking good for the rest of the ride as I stopped to thrust a whole series of unnecessary layers into my rucksack.
All of the lovely height was lost in relatively straightforward fashion in order to gain Machynlleth, by this time the field was nicely strung out, I was riding with two others, Jackamo (a single speeder) and a guy from the paratroop regiment who’s name I didn’t get. We passed Jack attending to a puncture then headed out of town on national cycle route 8. On the map this section looks benign a nice section of track leading up into a woods. In reality it’s a concrete ramp that could possibly be graded “moderate” in climbing circles. I really hurt myself ascending it as it twists a lot and I kept making an effort to get to the top not realising that the corner was simply a false summit. Jackamo was a bit behind by now, I imagined him furiously thumb stabbing at a non-existent shifter.
The descent provided a valuable few minutes for recovery before another monstrous byway climb towards Rhyd-yr-onen. If I invented time travel I’d go back and introduce tunnelling machines to the ancient traders. To make matters worse the shop I’d planned to visit at Bryncrug was shut meaning that I arrived at the foot of Rhydcriw with very little water. This was the longest continuous climb of the route gaining well over a thousand feet in a few miles. I survived it using an Abba ear worm, it’s amazing just what the legs are capable of when desperately trying to get “Super Trooper” out of your head. At the summit my water was all gone, but spirits relatively high. I was pretty sure that no more than five riders were ahead of me and the road behind was empty. I stopped at a stream to refill my bottle and read the instructions on my purifying tablets (for the first time).
“Leave for thirty minutes before drinking”.
A few minutes later Jack caught and passed me easily on a short climb, it was tempting to hare after him but I’d got myself into an almost metronomic rhythm linked to my breathing that I’d hoped would allow me to survive the rest of the race. This became another golden rule, “my ride”, “my ride”, too many times before I’d got caught up in the pace of others to the detriment of my own performance. This time I’d focus on what felt right for me.
Dropping like a pebble down to Barmouth didn’t “feel right” to me at all, the road was so steep my brakes overheated and worryingly lost the ability to stop the bike. I slithered onto the A493 at Arthog waving apologetically at the car forced to swerve round me. On to Barmouth for a desperately needed water refill and food stock up. I rode with Andy and Neil out of Barmouth and across a nice series of tracks beyond Sylfaen. Views were compensating for some of the fatigue and we all seemed to be relatively happy with the route so far. I trudged on at my one speed and lost them both before the bridge over Afon Cwm-llechen all was looking good in Dave’s little world with my next mental milestone being the arrival at the Coed-Y-Brenin Forest.
Then it happened.
“It” was not a bike mechanical or a crash or a sudden loss of energy, “it” was a left turn from a perfectly rideable track into a fast flowing stream. I recalled Stu saying something about this at the start, I hadn’t believed him, but here it was, a stream that we had to ride down. I thrutched my way along it filling my boots with water and the air with profanity until water gave way to grassy tussocks and ferns. Initially there was a small inkling of a trail that the bike could be pushed along. This disappeared after some ruins and I was faced with a hillside infested with vegetation designed to prevent the ingress of cyclists. It’s hard to properly depict how difficult the next mile was in words, the best I analogy I can come up with is to imagine yourself in a field three deep in hungry babies whilst you posses a functioning pair of breasts. Every single thing grabbed at the bike and the vegetation was such that shouldering it made negligible difference. I have no idea sat writing this how I surmounted it, I can remember all sorts of manoeuvres, throwing the bike ahead of me, lifting it above my head, dragging it sideways and at one point staring hard at it trying to make it teleport. A brief section of track at the summit proved no solace as this was not the route, we were required to continue thrutching our way down to Affridd-bryn-coch where I stopped to give myself a rest from swearing and seek comfort in a slice of pork pie. Darkness had caught up with me at this point. I had just 55 miles on the gps and the clock said 6.30pm, fortunately the ride through Coed-Y-Brenin forest was without incident. Well, that’s not strictly true. On a short descent I spotted a couple of sheep lying beside the road ahead, they had also seen me and appeared to be taking no action. However, on reaching the sheep one of them had a change of heart deciding that the best evasive action would be to run across my path. I impacted it at about 15 mph and expected to go over the bars, but Welsh sheep are pretty well designed and my front wheel was absorbed instead as the sheep emitted a forced “baa” and toddled off on its way.
Stu’s route let me off for a few miles with an easy ride past Trawsfyndd followed by an enjoyable night climb on a byway up to Dolddinas. Of course, this was the trademark false sense of security that Stu clearly likes to deliver to the unwary rider. The GPS trail ordered me left onto another section of tussocky-hell-none-existant trail. I stopped under a pylon and had a good out-load moan to nobody in particular, then I decided that it needed to be on record so out came the camera for a second take. I fell over several times stumbling through steep fern laced banks before picking up a remotely rideable track that led to a welcome section of road.
Now, I’d had a brief look at this before downloading the route to my GPS and had got it into my head that it provided 11 miles of respite before Penmachno. Pre-race strategy was to recover and eat along this section, maybe I should have looked at the elevation profile as well. 1000 feet of climbing later and I was properly destroyed, it was also really cold with the moon and stars visible above and the cloud lurking mysteriously in the valley below. I suffered badly on the descent as impatience won over the need to add extra layers fortunately another lack of water forced me into the Eagles Bar at Penmachno. Warmth wrapped its arms around me so I ordered a pint of coke and had a brief chat with the locals. They enquired as to my destination, too scared to mispronounce LLanbrynmair I told them “Pennant”. A look of mild concern mixed with disbelief crossed their faces, clearly the man in front of them was in some form of advanced mental distress as Pennant was 60 miles away at least.
I asked for a refill of my water bladder, the barman pointed me towards the toilet. Glancing at myself in the mirror I saw a drained almost mummified face covered in sheep shit with mad glaring eyes. I understood his reticence to touch anything that had been in contact with me.
Leaving the warmth of the pub was a wrench causing me to shiver uncontrollably in the cold night air. I chatted very briefly with Ian Fitz (I think) who’d caught me, refilled his bottle, ate his emergency bagel and dived off into the night. His words played in my ear “this next section of hike-a-bike then you’ve cracked it”. I resolved to get it done as quickly as possible and chased him up towards Ysbyty Ifan eventually passing him somewhere on the track leaving the village. “It” turned up again as we turned left heading towards Craignant and into another completely unrideable mess that had mistakenly been marked as a bridleway upon the map. I began to wonder whether the Welsh bridleway maintainers had paid a consultant from the Florida everglades to help them with track engineering? These paths were hidden under huge masses of vegetation and swamped in water, if there was such a thing as very cold water crocodiles they’d be at home up here. The only strategy was to park the conscious somewhere else and just physically get on with it. A semblance of a path was found down to Hafod-wen where I arrived at a gate beyond which was a tree dump. Some wag of a farmer had blocked the way with all of last year’s unused Christmas trees forcing me to throw my bike over a barbed wire fence in order to gain the A4212 and thirteen more miles of tarmac respite.
Another food stop saw Carl pass me on the road. It was at the woods of Coed Gordderw that we both began another sordid death march through another long section of unrideable foliage. At this point we both had the arse with Stu, we moaned out loud to each other at the pointlessness of these sections before trying to find our own way through this hell. At one point I fell waist deep into a stream that had been disguised under a tussock and had to fight hard to get myself out. A single muttered mantra of “keep moving forward” learnt post Highland Trail attempt kept me going in the right direction. We stayed almost together to Dol-cyn-afor where I was surprised to see lights coming the other way. It was Ian Barrington retracing his steps to find the bridleway skirting Foel Gron. I followed Ian across yet another section of anti-cycling foliage, at one point we stared in disbelief at the deep ravine containing the stream of Nant-yr-Helyg as it appeared that we were required to cross this. This gives an indication of how extreme the route had been to this point, we were seriously considering that Stu intended us to somehow rappel thirty feet down to a raging torrent and climb out the other side. Fortunately a bridge appeared from the dark, but unfortunately it led to a forest with another unrideable trail blocked with fallen trees.
Ian forged on, I stupidly dropped my bike closing a gate and smashed the mounting bracket of my handlebar light. Cold, fatigue and mild anger affected the repair which I made a complete hash off, from now on I’d be riding on helmet light only. Carl had caught me by this time and we rode tag-team style for a while, occasionally chatting, occasionally leading, occasionally chasing. His strategy was very similar to mine, just keep moving foreword, just deal with what is currently under your wheels, save the worrying for the end. He had no idea of whether he was going to make the 24 hour target or not. I did some calculations, we were potentially well on track. I think we needed to average 5 mph in order to get the coveted black badge. Chatting further it became apparent we were both BB200 newbies, I think this inspired us both on as I knew we were at least in the top ten by the lack of tyre tracks ahead of us.
We continued together until the climb out of Pont Llanhaiadr, I still had climbing legs and whilst the gradient was unwelcome, the effort was keeping me warm. I waited at Helygog for Carl for several minutes and on arrival he urged me to push on as his legs were shot on the uphills. Mixed emotions. The camaraderie of shared suffering verses the cold and the target, I needed to keep moving to keep warm and sub-24 hours was still within my reach.
The track from Helygog intersected the A470 where I made a huge mistake. My GPS said 124 miles travelled and for some reason I had it in my head that the route was 132 miles long and the finish was downhill. this was it, I’d done it. So, I coasted relatively easily down hill somewhere near 7am rejoicing in my achievement of beating the clock. All celebrations were off at Mallwyd as was the route, into the sky. I was 130 miles into this ride, fatigued, hungry, aching, wet, cold and wanting nothing more that to not be riding a bike. 800 feet of climbing were about as welcome as antifreeze on an igloo roof. The barely rideable section of bridleway did nothing to improve the temper and a section of trail blocked by a pheasant fence cemented my hatred for this small section of Wales. It took a further ten miles beyond the A470 to know I was done, at Trafolog the road was regained and I remembered Stu’s words properly, “the last 8km are downhill”.
I let the bike lead me downhill and considered my lot. Physically I was in a pretty bad state. The only area of my body that didn’t properly hurt was my hair purely because hair does not have nerve endings. However, this had been the case since 50 miles in, the hurt and discomfort and been constant but my body had carried on. I realised that I’d finally managed to unlock the secret of these long difficult rides. It’s the mantra “just keep moving forward, just keep moving forward”. Karl had mentioned it to me as well, and there he was, not too far behind me, on track to complete an incredibly difficult route. I wished I could return to that forlorn figure abandoning the Highland Trail half way round, and tell him that if he “just kept moving forward” he’d get to the point of completion. For sure it would hurt, for sure he’d have to endure all sorts of discomfort but if you “just keep moving forward” ultimately you arrive at your destination. The secret for me was to discard the resentment of the suffering previously as there was nothing that could be done about that, you can’t un-suffer, you can only stop.
I reached the finish at 8.46am with 1 hour 14 minutes left on the clock for the prestigious black badge. Only three others had got in before me. Tom Webb was first with a ridiculously quick 6.40am finish, then Steve Large at 8.23am despite a puncture festival throughout the route. Ian Barrington was ten minutes ahead of me, but let’s add a few hours onto that margin due to his single gear.
I sat nursing a cup of tea thinking about Carl and hoping he’d make the 24 as well. His dogged determination saw him in at 9.03am, a result he thoroughly deserved for pressing on even when the legs were telling him to stop. Then I thought of the other riders out on the course, and those that had decided to pack, and the poor guy whose hub had exploded before he’d managed to get to the start. Every single one of them had stepped up to this challenge knowing how difficult it would be. Regardless of finishing time or percentage of route completed, they had taken the decision to have a go and see how they’d get on. The baboons would love them, their monkey made documentaries would be full of people like this as it is what their audiences would want. The footage of suited workers sat at desks or listless children staring out of McDonalds windows would be quietly consigned to the editing bin. Baboon Facebook would be full of viral videos showing these idiot humans setting out on impossible rides, at the end the video would cut to a small route setter manically waving them off.