I’m lying in a small stream with water rapidly finding its way through my thin layers of clothing and onto my naughty bits. My right foot is still clamped to my pedal with the leg it’s attached to pinned under my mountain bike. The air around me struggles to disperse the volume of profanity escaping my foul mouth. The swear words have all been forged at the anvil of cramp, hammer blows of pain rack up and down my right calve. The logical thing to do would be to calmly raise the bicycle from my leg and then unclip from the pedal. This would allow me to escape the cramp and also rise from the stream casually emptying itself into my clothes. Instead I flail around and swear, trying to use the word “fuck” as a mountain bike equivalent of the sonic screwdriver. Some sixty miles of hard riding have eroded large swathes of common sense somewhat explaining how I ended up in this situation. I’d ridden optimistically into a stream crossing without considering what might lie below the water’s surface. Mother nature had strategically placed a set of boulders ready for such an occasion. They’d lain dormant for many months awaiting a front wheel until I unwittingly obliged.
Finally the flailing bore fruit and I was able to extract myself and bike from the stream. I began the usual post crash tests. The bike seemed to be in one piece and all of my luggage was still attached. The wheels still went round and the only holes in my clothes had limbs and necks sticking out of them. I gingerly put weight on the right leg and felt a small tremble of residual cramp but nothing more onerous. It looked like I’d come off lightly this time. My attempt could continue. I muttered a quiet “Thank fuck for that” and remounted with a new resolve to walk every water crossing henceforth.
This is not how I’d previously visualised my attempt. Past experience never manages to interfere with my pre-ride imagination which sees me effortlessly sailing over salubrious trails with the sun painting the countryside around me. I think this may have happened once for about five minutes in Utah. The definition of salubrious has to be stretched considerably when applied to large portions of the ground I’d previously covered and the only sun I’d seen was yesterday’s edition in a bin at Dovey Junction.
I’d probably better explain what I was up to before continuing.
The Trans Cambrian Individual Time Trial (ITT) is an off road route of 105 miles running across north Wales from Knighton to Dovey Junction. The ITT bit is a challenge to those attempting the route in the shortest possible time. Most sensible folk elect to ride it over 2-3 days but there’s always one show-off who has to go quicker. Well make that nine listed at the website dedicated to the ITT http://transcambrianitt.blogspot.co.uk/. I’d decided to make it ten and set myself the objective of completing the ride in under 15 hours. I had no chance of aspiring to the record of just under 11 hours as I’d be carrying luggage. My only chance of a lift home was to be close to Newport Sunday afternoon. That meant an early start on the route Saturday, then a ride down from Knighton to Newport the day after.
Therefore at 11:13pm on Friday evening I disembarked a train at Dovey Junction and walked up the platform to the shelter, laid out my bivy bag, blew up my Thermarest and settled down for as much sleep as I could get prior to a 5.30am departure. This was an exceedingly cunning plan as Dovey Junction is a very remote station with only a dirt track leading to it. I’d checked that my train was the last arrival and the next was due at 5.10am.
At just gone midnight I had the absolute shit scared out of me when the station tannoy went off to announce to nobody that a train to somewhere Welsh was about to arrive. I cautiously peered out of my bivy bag and spotted two crusty looking traveller types clutching cans of Special Brew swaying down the platform towards me.
“That that thing there by the bike? That bag thing, fuckme, oh my god”
“Hello mate, hello, whatcha doing there? You ok, need some food?”
The last question had me all a bit quizzical. I’d set up an orderly camp with my bike parked well and my clothes for tomorrow neatly arranged on the seats above my bivy. The pissed ravers somehow assumed that I’d set up to camp on a train station in the middle of nowhere due to hunger. I politely explained that sleep was a more pressing need after telling them what I was up to the next day.
“Sweet mate sweet, fuckinghell sweet” <swigs brew>
“I’d love to do that me, fuckinghell respect sweet mate” <swigs brew>
“Sure you don’t need any food?”
They swayed in front of me for a few minutes more grinning inanely. I was worried I’d have their company for the rest of the night so dropped a subtle hint by zipping my bivy closed. I dropped off to the sound of them banging into the metal fence as they swayed out of the station.
My 5am alarm was wasted by the 4.50 arrival announced by the blaring tannoy. I ate my breakfast of cold bacon and egg bap with cold porridge then washed it down with a pint of cold chocolate milk. The stove had been left behind. The GPS was fired up, I mounted the bike then rode the wrong way down the platform to a dead end. It’s worth mentioning that not a lot of planning had gone into this attempt. I’d barely scanned the map beforehand and was relying upon a downloaded GPX route. I should have studied this map it would have told me about the stinking great climb through the woods and onto Glyndwr’s Way. Then it would have told me about the even stinkier great climb up onto Foel Fadian. Reaching this high point of some 1500 feet from sea level on a loaded bike had required significant transfer of adenosine triphosphate around my legs (and some pushing). I was two hours twenty into the ride with an average speed of less than 7 miles an hour. Already my 15 hour finish was looking to be lost.
Luckily Mother Nature stuck her oar in and gave me some wonderful views, including a cloud inversion not often seen in my native Swindon. I pressed on through the slightly soggy Welsh countryside. Weeks of rain had done little to prepare the trails for my nicely cleaned bike. The sheep had not let up on their shitting either and I soon resembled a mobile ovine bog brush. But spirits were lifted as I pedaled my way into the Hafran Forest as I’ve ridden here before. It was nice to ride through some familiar territory and the fire road climb was a welcome change to some of the previous soggyness. A long bridleway out of the forest was teetering on the enjoyable, just enough moisture and long grass to be slightly annoying but overall a decent riding experience. I arrived at the main road near Llangurig with an average speed of almost exactly 7 miles an hour. This incremented the spirits further as I’d picked up speed so I celebrated with sheepshit and jelly babies whilst making a mental note to pack wet-wipes for the next trip.
Next thing I knew I was blowing out of my arse on a road climb. That soon became a fire road that continued to have me blowing out of my arse. I was learning that for large portions of this route the climbing is relentless. It can help to practise distraction therapy whilst suffering these climbs rather than focus on the horizon willing it to lower before you. Unsurprisingly I didn’t take my own advice. Instead I focused on average speed calculations required to get my fifteen hours thus making the climb even more interminable.
A river crossing further along the route did nothing to aid my climbing ability as it filled my waterproof socks with water. Another reason to maybe study the map first before making kit choices. I also remember a fantastic section of broken up tarmac with only the central six inches remaining for riding upon. The miles up to Blaen Marchnant had been “relatively” kind compared to the earlier part of the ride. I was feeling ok with it all and even managed the odd whistle. And I strangely enjoyed the never ending false summits of the road above the Claerwen Reservoir.
But made a huge error on descending down to the dam.
Now, I’ve ridden a bit around Rhayadar before and I have crossed the dam at the top a few times. So I therefore should know the difference between the dam at Claerwen and the one I’d ridden before. Somehow I convinced myself that Rhayadar was only a few miles away and after another river crossing I joined a track that would surely deliver me to food in just a few minutes.
Did it heck.
The track was the worst kind of hell for a rider with rigid carbon forks. It was a rocky mess of baby heads interspersed with a muddy treacle of shale. I had to work harder getting down this than on many of the earlier climbs, fixating on line choice and keeping enough momentum to traverse a trail worthy of a place in Dantes Inferno. Then, where the fuck was Rhayadar? And what was this horrible climb up Gro Hill all about? It was here that this article begins and it is the Nant Y Gro stream that was responsible for my trip over the bars. Luckily four miles of easy road and cycle track were enough to restore my sanity and I rolled into Rhayadar for some chicken wraps and water bottle refills at the Spar.
73 miles in 9 hours and 15 minutes. 5 3/4 quarter hours to bang out the remaining 32 and the sun had come out. It was actually looking to be doable and to make matters better the route took a relatively nice road climb out of town and up into the hills. But then something else began to nag at me. Gates (not the Bill kind).
Now, I understand that we need gates to keep certain things in and prevent other things from obtaining entrance. There’s definitely need for the odd gate in the countryside but Wales seems to have received an EU grant to proliferate them at every available juncture. I can now understand why the population voted for Brexit. Because gates are ok when they work, you lift and pull a latch, the gate opens on well oiled hinges and gently swings away from you. Allowing you to casually wheel the bike through and re-hitch it without a fuss. There is one gate in Wales that works like this. The rest are a conspiracy against mountain biking. Some have rigid immovable opening systems that require body weight behind them to open. A significant disadvantage when you are me and would look down a seesaw at Kate Moss. Others have knackered hinges ensuring that the gate drops to the ground as soon as the latch is lifted and have to be dragged open. Then there are the gates that have levers designed to open the bolt a tantalizing inch less than is required for it to delatch. Finally there are the strategically placed obstacles near gates called stinging nettles.
All of this requires a slow motion gate-bike dance that I have never seen mastered. The gate goes one way, the bike the other until the bike either pulls the rider down or has to be dropped. It always ends badly and I challenge the riders of gnar who look so good on their dusty berms to make a video of them passing a gate with panache, it cannot be done. The final insult came near Brondre Fach where a dog shit had been placed in the exact spot necessary to dance with the bike whilst unlatching gate. I lost it a bit at that point believing that those with sub-12 hour times had utilised a gate-butler to keep up their speed.
The gates continued with a fury up to Stank Hill. I also seem to remember a very steep forest climb that had me furiously stabbing at the gear selector hoping for chain inches that were long since exhausted. But from Stank Hill I glimpsed what I thought was the finish. And so spurred the bike downwards fast through the grassy fields and newly shaven sheep. Again some map research might have helped as the town was Knucklas not Knighton. A very very steep loose downhill made me glad I’d ridden this way, surely it was a push from the other direction? Quite a way to start the ride.
I rode a final few miles of tarmac before dropping down into Knighton and claiming my prize. A mediocre kebab from the local takeaway washed down with chocolate milk from the Spar. The clock had stopped at 13 hours 20 minutes, well within the target I’d set. So I patted myself on the back and then looked for somewhere to wipe the sheep shit off my hand. I’d not set the fastest time but then again I’d ridden a loaded bike. Not bad for a close to fifty year old IT worker who always tore the PE page out of his school report before delivering to parents.
But the last salute must go to the route itself. It reminds me of the film Fight Club which I love for the narrative, sense of suspense and characters. These completely remove the need for CGI or complex arty camera shots designed to cover up a rubbish script. The Trans Cambrian Way does not have buff wonderfully flowing singletrack, most of it is overgrown. It doesn’t have the highly technical bermed descents that made millions for GoPro. Instead it has a burning ongoing narrative never giving up on its Welshness yet always leaving a sense of foreboding as to what might be around the next corner. And it’s stuffed full of strong characters the forests, the open hills, the incredible valleys and the water, so much water. As an ITT it makes a fantastic single day challenge that will break many riders if the weather goes wrong or they turn up without the legs. It probably has already.