Somewhere out there is probably a scientific paper discussing the benefits for survivors of a major trauma and their returning to the scene of their ordeal. I say “probably” because I simply cannot be arsed to look, but I know that like everything in this modern world it has almost definitely been studied and conclusions reached.
I’m more of a practical man myself, ask me whether a particular phenomenon occurs and I’ll prove or disprove by demonstration. I don’t have time to sit around studying the theory, I’ll quickly convince myself by practical experiment. Therefore I can tell you with confidence that a puncture cannot be fixed with electrical tape wrapped around a tube, it’s impossible to cleanly break a chain with pliers alone and dandelions cannot cure the bonk.
But back to the original hypothesis, in October this year I suffered a major mountain biking trauma as a willing participant in the Bearbones 200. The organiser, Stu, had a more leisurely event tabled for January 2015 so I decided to attend and apply my practical nature once again. The Ford Fiesta had the same base as the Barebones 200 but a completely different premise. The idea is to visit one or more of a series of checkpoints provided by Stu at your own pace with the simple proviso that one night is spent out in the wild.
My planned route contained only one of Stu’s checkpoints. The start. I’d decided to use the event as an opportunity to begin toughening myself up in preparation for this year’s Highland Trail 500 individual time trial. The idea was to go out and do a lot of long, hard, but rideable climbs on a laden bike beginning the year as I meant to go on.
Every single lesson of 2014 went into my pre-ride preparation. Kit was diligently checked into the dry bags, primary and backup bum cream was packed, the bike was serviced, brakes were bled and the route was double checked for “go-ness”. The last thing I did before leaving for Wales was to download the route to my Garmin Dakota and check that the GPX file was resident upon the file system.
Luckily most others had departed from the Community Centre in Llanbrynmair as I switched the device on to navigate the route. The Garmin had taken umbrage overnight and decided the route should be rejected. I tried to convince the device otherwise by holding it firmly whilst calling it a wanker. This failed so I called myself a wanker instead, how on earth could this have happened? I nipped into the community centre in search of a kind soul with a laptop and a Garmin cable. A search that had a high improbability index, but actually proved fruitful thanks to a kind lady who’d just waved her lads off using a laptop. Plugging the GPS in revealed a corrupted file, thirty minutes of hacking could not fix it so I’d have to ride it from memory.
So off I rode into the hills and a 25mph head wind. I’d organised everything but the weather, the weekend’s forecast was dire. The first miles gained a shedload of height too quickly and soon I was aloft enough to feel the full force of the malevolent gusts. Several times I was properly blown off course into sheep/hedges/walls/barbed wire fences. This had been the first climb of the Bearbones 200 and the therapy was not working. I was made to feel hugely inadequate by mother nature who held a firm hand on my forehead and arrested my forward motion as best she could.
After four or five miles of offroading I spotted a lane in a sheltered valley. The map told me that it headed to Machynlleth which was on my route, so I sneaked off down it and enjoyed the diversion. At Machynlleth I headed up the climb labelled by Stu as “that bastard climb out of Machynlleth”, which it was. It’s aspect provided some shelter from the wind but its gradient offered no shelter to the legs. I resorted to coping strategies to get me to the top imagining that I’d be forced to marry Katie Hopkins if I dabbed once. No dabs were made and wedding planners breathed a sigh of relief. At the summit I remembered that I’d have got out of it anyway as I’m already married, this set off another lightbulb.
I texted my long suffering wife and asked her to carry out a series of complex operations including routes, GPX’s and emails. I’d worked out that there was a way to get the route from my phone to my GPS using the SD card. This was an Apollo 13 scenario recreated for mountain biking. Helen came through and ten minutes later I had a glorious purple line to follow upon the map. I’d regret that in a few miles.
The route directed me west towards Tywyn, the heinous winds were coming from that direction and it was a relief to get off the main road and climb up through forest which offered a certain degree of shelter. The relief was short lived as the road was steep as hell and led to a track that continued to climb seemingly forever. I walked the bike along a few sections due to flooding. At one point I was about to dismount and push up a steep grassy ramp, but there were walkers watching me at the top. I went into the red and beyond to climb the slope and barely had enough oxygen for a “Hello” at the top. But futile pride had been maintained.
The rest of the track to Tywyn was high, exposed and a real slog in the increasingly bitter wind. The road along the coast was the same. I’d planned this expecting some decent sea views but the road is sunk behind a railway line and all I got was shingle and the odd sleeper. At Broad Water I finally turned east and began to climb, chasing the sun which was disappearing behind the earth a lot quicker than I was ascending it. The road past LLanegryn kicks up over 400m before becoming a track and kicking up a little more. I rode this in the dark with the wind on my back. A steady pace and low gears made it relatively comfortable and things were going well until a fell runner and his dog scared the shit out of me halfway up.
At the top I could see the lights of Barmouth and they looked welcome as I knew that one of them belonged to a fish and chip shop. The descent took longer than I expected, steep roads, darkness and the malevolent wind all shared the blame. But equally I was enjoying the experience of living within the small cocoon of light my head torch provided. I don’t mind admitting that I enjoyed the cod and chips more, eaten to the surreal soundscape of the shop staff discussing options for their Christmas meal.
The plan had been to ascend out of Barmouth into the hills for the night. I binned that as the coastal wind was far too bitter, a bivy in the Dyffi forest seemed a better option. The tailwind sped me through Dolgellau but progress was ruptured by national cycle route 8 which climbs pretty hard out of the town. I’d not ridden this before, which was fortunate as prior knowledge might have diverted me into a hotel. When riding with a head torch there are no false summits, all you can do is push down on the pedals and hope that the feeling of hurt will begin to abate. It didn’t for a long time, I climbed somewhere in the region of 1100m from Dollgellau as the road headed down into the Dyfi forest I decided I wanted to stop.
It took three scouting expeditions into the trees to find a spot that wasn’t water logged. I rigged my tarp between two trees and sat under it to remove my riding shoes. The wind was howling through it like a wind tunnel as I misjudged direction. Another thirty minutes of tarp fannying saw it offering a modicum of shelter at at 10.30pm I crawled into my two sleeping bags to seek some sleep.
I dreamt of the huge gusts of winds trying to rip the tarp from the trees as I lay wrapped in my bags needing a piss. At 2am I realised that this was no dream and was able to do something about the piss, but the gusts remained. At 7.30am I gave up the pretence of trying to sleep and made porridge and coffee instead. This could have caused more trauma as I was trying out my new Bearbones stove for the first time. Fortunately Stu reserves his evil for route setting only and the stove performed brilliantly in the wind. I pumped up a slightly soft rear tyre and headed into the dawn light sometime after 8am.
The road continued down for a few pleasing miles before I hit the Dyfi forest proper and propelled myself around its maze of fireroads. They came with a decent spattering of gradient so I left the forest in a state of pretty damned knackered ready for my final piece of therapy.
This was the end of the Bearbones 200 route, a set of stiff climbs punctuated with tracks that hover tantalisingly below unrideable. It’s five or six miles of concerted effort that leads to a long downhill finish. But there’s no signpost pointing down and I struggled along thinking that every slight climb was the last, which it wasn’t. Eventually, the downhill bit peaked behind a valley and waved me forward, west into the wind. I coasted back to the community centre by pedalling furiously then collapsed at the car for a few minutes before collecting my finishing bounty of tea, toast and cake.
So had the revisitation of parts of the route in winter numbed some of the pain? The answer is no. Winter riding is always a new experience on its own and paints the trail in a new flavour that summer just cannot match. Whether one enjoys that flavour is another question. I find that the pleasure in a ride likes this seeps in over time as the memory of vanquishing such conditions becomes fonder. Sat here in the warm, I loved every minute of it and am planning a few more experiments for the coming weeks that Countryfile reliably tells me will be festooned in “weather”.
The route details (Strava)