The nativity story is pretty straightforward, and we all know that it ends in a barn with a baby surrounded by strangers competing to foist inappropriate gifts upon it. It’s fortunate that the couple in question were born in warmer climes and not Wales and equally fortunate that Mary’s due date was a little later than the 9th December and also several thousand years prior to now. Without these miraculous coincidences the carpenter and his wife might have been turned away from the barn as well, due it being stuffed to the brim with mountain bikers. How did that happen? How did a remote Welsh sheep shack go over-quota on middle aged males covered in mud. Even more bizarrely how did one end up witnessing the delivery of a three course meal served up by men in dinner jackets in one of the outbuildings? I asked myself all of these questions as I drove home from my first Welsh winter bivvy, mainly to distract myself from the various odours I had begun to emit.
Some background might be appropriate if I’m to keep your attention for the remainder of the piece. So let’s begin with bikepacking, a mildly expensive, desperately addictive and often unsociable habit that I’d succumbed to earlier this year. It’s like an incredibly invasive cycling parasite that unseats all other forms of riding and expels them from the body ensuring that only the urge to ride into the wilds with a sleeping bag and dried curry remains. I went from not owning a single piece of cycling luggage in March to a bedroom full of mountain bike touring paraphernalia within a few months. I swore myself around the UK taking on various challenges whilst digging holes in fields and shitting in them. I learnt new skills such as water purification, tarpaulin erection and extraction of a laden bike from bushes,gullies,streams,lakes and train cycle hangers. I also met a whole load of new people with similar maladies, without exception every one of them stark raving mad.
As the year waned I found out that UK bikepackers have an annual tradition, the winter bivy, a celebration of the end of a year spent dossing in the wild. Northern, Scottish and Welsh factions had set dates and locations for these. I decided to impose myself upon the Welsh event and scurried off to a grid reference somewhere west of Welshpool one cold December Saturday morning. A jam packed work week meant that I had no idea at all where I was. I’d simply trusted the SatNav to deliver me to the allotted spot, luckily it was well signposted by a bunch of middle aged men fettling with fatbikes, beards and singlespeeds. I desperately hunted through the boot of the car but had to forlornly concede that I’d arrived without any of these. I couldn’t even fake a five o’clock shadow as the sharpie I’d packed was green.
We milled and faffed and clucked and tinkered and opened and closed car doors until Stu,our appointed ride leader arrived. He and two others had been out bivying the night before, if sleeping in a hut, having dinner in a pub and breakfast in a cafe counted? I think my night at home with two teenagers was probably more primal. Finally the last strap was tightened and we were ready to leave. The car park depart was uneventful.
Actually, that’s not true. For the vast majority of the riders the depart was uneventful. For Taylor it was a day to delete yourself from the internet. A week prior he’d given comment upon the lack of skills prevalent in a video of a set of mountain bikers riding the Penmacho trails. Many gathered had read these comments and were thus hugely surprised to witness Taylor planting his front wheel in the smallest of ruts and then gracefully summersaulting over the bars into a ditch.The group expressed their concern with gales of laughter whilst two cameramen captured the event for posterity from two different angles. This concern was repeated on many occasions throughout the day as the videos were shared amongst the group.
Finally we were off. A huge diversity of bikes, luggage, rider body shapes and accents united under the banner of “are we at the cafe yet”. And it wasn’t long until we were, about five miles I think. We did attempt one mildly technical section and huffed up a few fireroad climbs. But an opportunity for hot food gained unanimous approval. We were undeterred by the road bikes festooning the cafe walls, we brushed off the slightly frosty welcome from our whippet like brethren and stormed into the apple crumble and coffee knowing that it grows more hair upon the leg. It was nearly dark when we left, Stu steered us up a few more fireroads and down a thrilling single track descent to “the decision fork”. Left was up into the hills, right towards a potential bothy. The cold wind and spats of rain bolstered the bothy vote and a few miles later we arrived at a set of stone buildings being heavily buffeted by the wind and the rain. Eighteen of us stared at the damp ground and then peered into a large barn with a smooth floor made entirely out of sheep shit. Within minutes the bikes were inside and we made our camp upon the dried recycled grass. The wind speed and noise increased, and a rattling sheet metal roof clapped in approval as most of us hunkered down to prepare the evening meal. For many this was some rehydrated noodles or a reheated curry, however, the “cook off” contestants had other ideas.
Ian laid out a three course meal upon wooden planks consisting of full cheese board, petit fours and a fresh curry type construction upon fragrant rice. His attention to detail was admirable, with the cheeseboard foreshortened to save weight on the bike. However, the clear winners had to be Matt and Taylor. Between them they’d baked a camembert for starters, ate a main course of cooked vegetables and moose, prepared layered chocolate mousse for desert and washed it all down with a dubious champagne that probably should not have been pink. Their meal was documented in paper menus and they wore dinner jacket and tie as well. Admittedly the clothing was a tenuous 2D imprint upon a t-shirt but the effort was commendable. Remember this was all carried to the barn upon their bikes.
We spent the remainder of the evening sharing stories and whiskey. But the efforts of riding to the cafe had taken their toll and by 9.30 most of us had retired to bed. Now in a barn of 18 men there’s bound to be the odd snorer. Usually it keeps me awake but fortunately there were two, one either side of me. Mono-snore is a horrible sleep distraction as the mind has the other side of the head with which to compare somehow amplifying the annoyance. However, stereo-snore appears to be survivable, almost comforting as the head just cannot escape. I was lullabied to sleep by unconscious male growlings, the only other disturbance being the screams in the night of a man suffering from cramp .. I think?
Morning saw the weather abate and minimal faff as we assembled outside for a group picture. It soon became apparent why, as a short ride later we were outside of the cafe again, which was shut. Some mild begging and 18 jangling wallets convinced the owner to open early and continue to charge a more than reasonable two pounds for pressing a button on a coffee machine. My table ordered “super sausage” sandwiches. For the uninitiated these are normal sausage sandwiches that have been labelled “super” to make them taste better. We watched the rain dash against the window whilst chorusing “same again” at the cafe owner. Until one brave soul finally convinced us to head out onto the bikes. A rash decision as a few miles down the road the rain morphed into hail.
The journey back to the cars was relatively uneventful and for me full of an ingredient that is sadly lacking from most of my rides, chat. I realised that I’ve spent most of my year hooning round the place like a weasel on speed desperately trying to get my rides done in the shortest possible time. This is great for the legs and occasionally good for the head. But the Welsh winter bivy introduced a new element of marginal gain into my cycling. This was a ride defined by companionship and shared interest, not who could descend the fastest or win each and every climb. I realised that the cafe and barn were the most important elements, as how can you take the piss when you’re blowing out of your arse? We did just over twenty miles for the weekend, Strava had left messages to ask if I was alright? I ignored their calls as I laid my bike to rest next to my car at the end of my ride and prepared to pack to head home. Content in the knowledge that I’d been part of something that everyone had enjoyed more for the company than the ride. Driving home I switched on the radio and Bryan Adam’s Summer of ’69 was playing. When it came to the line “Those were the best days of my life” I switched over, I hate that pretentious Canadian wanker.