Claerwen
Cycling

This is not a tour

Last weekend I rode the inaugural TINAT audax, devised in memory of Mike Hall by a team including Mark “Black Sheep” Rigby, James Gillies, and Gareth Baines. The 600 km option seemed the most audacious – and the best value for money. It ended up being the hardest ride I’ve ever done, but also the most rewarding.

My approach to long rides is not to think about them more than necessary beforehand – I know that I can finish, so I take the hardships as they come. But my complacency got the better of me; perhaps I should’ve heeded the almost-2% overall climbing figure stated in the route’s profile, or that any ride dedicated to Mike Hall was never going to be easy. Either way, I don’t think anyone was expecting what was in store.

The traditional Black Sheep guarantee of “weather” was suitably upheld, and the 5am départ was a damp and gloomy affair. With Mark’s usual briefing, we set off unceremoniously from a bandstand in a quiet Llaindrindod Wells. The first section of the ride, to Tregaron, was hilly, but no more so than I was expecting. The Devil’s Staircase and the hills that followed were the only bits of note, and they went by without drama.

The gravel

I was a bit surprised to learn that all the route’s gravel was to be found between 70 km and 230 km. This made the ride seem more manageable – but in the end it was the ferocity of the hills that set this route apart.

After a bit of climbing from Tregaron, the first gravel section, around Claerwen Reservoir, was frustrating. I’d been really excited about riding around Claerwen, it being generally inaccessible to road bikes, and a place whose remoteness had always intrigued me. A shame, then, that I spent most of those 10 km staring at the track directly ahead of my front wheel, hoping and hoping not to suffer a tyre failure. The potholes had recently been filled in with razor blades of slate that appeared to have been gouged out the hillside halfway along the track, and several people had reported slashed sidewalls during their recce rides here. The glimpses I did manage of the surrounding valley were rewarding, though, and I eventually made it through in one piece.

Claerwen Reservoir

The Claerwen Reservoir track winds its way down the valley.

After a jaunt down the Elan Valley, as ruggedly beautiful as ever, the second “gravel” section began. This was actually an old failed road, comprising a strip of tarmac about 2 feet wide, gravel ruts on either side, and a 15% upward slope. With no one else on the “road”, it wasn’t actually that bad (except for the hair-raising downhill that followed on the same narrow strip of tarmac).

After Llanidloes, the climbing continued through the Hafren forest and over the ever-stunning Machynlleth mountain road from Dylife. The final gravel section came about 50 km later, accompanied by some impressive views over Snowdonia and the Mawddach estuary far below. The final descent toward Dolgellau was steep, rutted, and full of large stones, and made me very glad of my heavy 40c Schwalbe Marathon tyres.

The Mawddach estuary, as seen from NCR 82.

Dehydration

I reached Dolgellau at around 4pm, after 11 hours in the saddle. At 240 km, this, I think, is where things started to go wrong for me. After some discussion on YACF, we’d established that this would be the last reliable place to stock up on food and water before reaching the 24-hour petrol station at Betws-y-Coed, some 140 km down the road. I stopped there to take on water, drinking as much as I could and filling up my bidons.

What I didn’t realise was how punishing the next 50 km would be. Bwlch-y-Groes had me emptying the tank completely just to get to the top, and was followed by a relentless series of long, dragging climbs, as if to deny any chance of recovery. And all this during the hottest part of the day.

Bwlch temperature

The temperature soars as I grind to a halt on Bwlch-y-Groes.

By the time I rejoined the A470 at Trawsfynydd, I was out of water, low on salt, and still had 90 km to go until Betws-y-Coed. When I miraculously found a shop still open at nearly 8pm, I refilled my bidons and then foolishly downed a whole bottle of sports drink in a bid to get some electrolytes in me. My digestive system really didn’t appreciate this, and from here until Betws-y-Coed I felt sick to the point that I could barely eat.

This is the first time I’ve been truly unable to eat, and it’s scary. Riding with the feeling that you may have to abandon is psychologically crippling, especially when you’re imminently facing several lonely hours of darkness as the daylight fades. Somehow I managed to get through this, and by the time I left Betws-y-Coed at 11pm-ish, having bullied myself into finishing a packet of crisps and a large hot chocolate, I was starting to feel much better.

It’s something that every audaxer learns to deal with, but I’m always amazed by the emotional ups and downs of long-distance cycling. In the space of about 20 minutes, I’d gone from doom-and-gloom misery to outright perkiness as I rode off up the A5 and into the Welsh night. It’s been said that the most important weapon in dealing with this is experience – knowing that the emotional dip will pass – so I will chalk this one up.

Claerwen

Somewhere near the ford crossing on the Claerwen track.

Rehydration

The night section passed uneventfully, and the rest of the ride through the Welsh Marches in the morning sunlight gradually drained the last of my energy reserves. By the time I finally rolled into Llandrindod Wells at just before 11am I was struggling to keep the bike moving in a straight line. The nice people at the arrivée apparently commented on my state after I hobbled in, saying that I “didn’t talk much”.

The highlight of the event was, of course, the “rehydration session” on Sunday evening. Hog roast, local ale on tap, and good company finished off a truly punishing weekend in the saddle. It was really nice to see a such a mix of people and backgrounds here: seasoned audaxers, TCR veterans, those just starting out on long distance riding (chapeau!), and everything in between.

The event felt very inclusive, and was a breath of fresh air compared to the standard AUK fare. It showed me corners of Wales I’ve never seen before, took me on roads less travelled, and around every corner delivered another spectacular view (and gigantic hill) – a worthy contribution to Mike’s legacy. I’d really like to see more like this in the AUK calendar, and can’t wait for next year’s edition. Huge thanks to Mark, James, Gareth, and everyone else who made this event happen.

The post-event rehydration session.

https://www.strava.com/activities/1613896896
https://www.flickr.com/photos/willvousden/sets/72157697884478855

Learnings

Overall, the biggest challenges of this ride were:

  • Hydration: I think I got through about 8 litres of water on the first day, and would’ve had more if I’d been able to find it. Not really sure what I could’ve done about this, other than making more of an effort to find extra water (pubs?).
  • Recovery: With so little flat ground, there was almost no chance to recover from one enormous hill before starting on the next. By the time I realised how severe the climbs would be, it was too late to drop my pace. It’s very difficult to gauge beforehand how the hills will feel on the bike.
  • Eating: I still don’t really understand the vagaries of my own digestive system, so this is something I really need to work on in future long-distance rides. One of the organisers, James Gillies, suggested afterwards that avoiding sugary food can help keep you to your eating schedule. I certainly find that eating lots of cereal bars destroys my appetite on longer rides, so I’ll give this a try next time. Sitting down in a café and eating “real” food definitely helps – and is a morale booster – but this is usually too much of a time-sink for me.

What would I do differently next time?

  • Take a spare tyre or two. I was lucky not to need them this time, but I saw several people who did.
  • Take the hills seriously right from the start.
  • Leave the sleeping kit at home; I didn’t need it.
  • Eat smaller portions more often, and try to stick to savoury food where possible.
  • Take electrolyte tablets, but otherwise stick to plain water. Over-sweet energy drink becomes unpalatable very quickly.
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4 thoughts on “This is not a tour

  1. James Gillies says:

    Top riding Will! I tend to avoid sitting in cafes eating meals, instead you will find me cycling around with sandwiches, baguettes and savory things stuffed into my pockets. I do eat sweet things, but they tend to be the exception rather than than rule. I use them as a mini pick-me-up treats. I’ve started noticing boiled eggs available in co-op stores. And I always water down energy drinks 50:50. I also try to avoid caffeine on anything less than 400km.

    • Thanks James – some good tips! I like the sound of boiled eggs from Co-op, and Spar often has a hot food cabinet with steak bakes and the like. That can make a nice treat! I also avoid caffeine unless I really need it. I could’ve done with a coffee at Newtown on this ride, but the McDonald’s wasn’t in a state to serve it 🙁

  2. Pingback: A Wee Adventure | Will Vousden

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