Thursday, 28 June 2012

Tour de Wales - The Dragon Ride

To cap off a great week of riding up hills in the rain in Wales, Selene and I were meeting up with a group of my regular cycling buddies for our annual tilt at the Wiggle Dragon Ride. After riding cold up Constitution Hill (no warm up, straight up a cobbled 30% climb, back down again, and then to the beach!) we checked in at our ‘usual’ hotel – the unassuming Port Talbot Best Western (and by unassuming, I mean horrific concrete monstrosity parked on the Welsh coastline) – then revelled in being back in civilisation after suffering through some very wet days on the campsite.

Keeping in line with the noble tradition, we then met up with the rest of the gang at the excellent Zia Nina restaurant in Bridgend. If there was ever a place to load up before a long ride, then this is the place to be. Packed to the rafters with groups of men ordering large bowls of pasta, it was pretty clear that the Dragon Ride was in town and we didn’t see this as the right time to buck the trend – three courses of your finest carbohydrates, please sir! Carrying our bloated stomachs back to the hotel, it was time to tuck in for an early night, although it soon became clear that not all of the hotel’s guests were cyclists as a disco and karaoke carried on late into the night (reverberating around the entire building, and I can tell you from experience that it’s not easy to sleep as someone badly renders Lady Gaga’s Poker Face with a strong Welsh accent). In addition to the terrible music, it was clear that there were a few characters left worse for wear after a long night’s singing. After drifting off, I was rudely awoken in the early hours by what sounded like someone hammering particularly large nails into a solid brick wall right outside of our room, which kept stopping and starting over a period of about half an hour. Finally reaching the end of my tether, I dragged myself out of bed and opened the door to find a chap wrapped only in a bed sheet banging away at a room door and looking dog tired. When I asked exactly what he was doing, he explained that his comatose roommate was in there with the keys, and there was nobody on reception to help in his plight to get back to bed. As much as I could sympathise with his position, I don’t think that he would have felt particularly out of place sleeping on the floor in his current state, so I advised him (as politely as I could muster) to pipe down and stop keeping everyone else up.
Pre-ride prep
 With that fantastic night’s sleep behind us, we did the usual cyclist’s trick of waking up supremely early on a Sunday, and made our way to Margam park to join the enormous queue of cars down the M4, all trying to get to the start line. For those who had had too much coffee *ahem Rich D, here’s looking at you* the queue did seem to take longer than necessary, but after parking up and the pre-requisite amount of start-line faffing (“which shoes should I wear?” “Is it a rain jacket sort of a day?” “gloves or no gloves?”) and loading Selene up with a load of spare kit for the support car, we were finally ready to go. Or at least, all of us except Simon were ready to go…10 minutes later, Simon rocked up with newly-purchased gels in hand and we rolled over the start line, ready for the next 130 miles of killer Welsh hills
The rather Dragon-toothed profile
Almost straight away it was into the usual ‘sportive’ mode – an unrealistically high pace being set by fat chuffers who had no hope of keeping it up. Still, I hate being overtaken by fat chuffers, so joined in and ended up towing an ever-decreasing group of mamils (middle-aged-men-in-lycra) around the first 15 miles or so to Maesteg. Fortunately the split up the hill was enough to disintegrate the group and a short stint together at the top, although not before taking the photo-op to sprint out of the front of the group so get that all-important picture
Leader of the pack
After a storming descent (the first of many for the ride), we reached the bottom of the valley after Neath and began the long climb up to the Breacons and Black Mountain. Just a short way into the climb came the first feed stop, by which time we were already two men down – somehow no-one knew where Rob or Simon had gotten to. Nevertheless, on such a big ride there are always wheels to ride with, so we got the group shot and pushed on

Group shot: fuelling up
The first categorised climb of the day was the Black Mountain, which rises up an impressive 1,400 feet, all at a steady 7/8% gradient and leaving you climbing for about 10 miles in total. It’s a proper Alpine drag, with only a brief respite as the road levels off to cross the cattle grid that signals wilder, smaller roads. It was a great change to be climbing in clement weather, and with lots of riders up the road to target and pass on the way. Rich and I climbed most of the way up together, and regrouped at the top for the others

I think Rich now cycles round like this all the time

Rich D

Clive smiling/grimacing up the climb

Gus - chatting normal!
After all that work getting up the climb, we were rewarded with some more amazing descending for the next few miles and pretty much all the way to the base of the next climb. I think people have noticed how my descending has improved since I’ve started this challenge – in part this is just an output of the number of hills I’ve been climbing (and therefore subsequently descending) this year. I think that there is a lot of confidence involved in taking your bike to its limits down hills and around corners, and you only really learn those limits by pushing harder and harder (until you go past the limit…and then you’re in for a shock). Anyway, I can now hold Clive’s wheel (the Nibali of our little cycling congregation) which isn’t so bad when you consider that he’s got a few kilos on me (sorry Clive!)

By now it was clear that we were all riding at our own pace and I decided that I would push on and see what happened. Still feeling the efforts of the week’s miles, hills and weather in my legs, I was a little worried when I looked down to see we’d only covered 75 of the 130 miles, and knew that there was a good distance to cover with some pretty hefty climbs yet to come. As we crossed fairly bleak Breacon moorland, I gritted my teeth and pushed through the pain, picking up a few stragglers on my wheel but sadly no-one who had the legs to do any work in the wind, and rocking up to the second feed at the top of Cray, I was definitely ready to top up the tanks with some food and drink (as well as getting a sneaky kiss from Selene), which made a lot of things better.
Sprinting for the feed
I hung around to stretch my legs and see that the other guys made it to the stop ok, and then headed off back into the hills – the next significant one being Bryn Melyn. Also known as “the hill with no name” and “the Devil’s elbow”, this is a bit of a beast of a hill which you can see all the way up (not a good thing when your legs are tired) and with some fantastically steep switchbacks up what appears to essentially be a cliff face. I’d say this was probably the hardest hill of the day, especially with the mental niggle of knowing the climbs and distance still to come – once again going to show that it’s not always the biggest of climbs that are the baddest of them all. The guys from obviously knew that this was a good place for some classic ‘pain’ pictures and had put a snapper on both the hairpin and the false flat at the top to make sure they got a full gallery of lactic burn:

Next up was the long climb of Rhigos, which I had done as a stand-alone hill earlier in the week. By this time, the sun was shining down and the temperature hotting up, so conditions even allowed for a view up the hill (what luxury). My legs, however, were not feeling anything near as sharp as they had on the previous run up the hill, as you can probably tell from my expression in this photo
 After the struggle up, I knew from my prep the night before that the Bwlch was the final hurdle, after which there was a straight 15 miles of downhill run-in to the finish. Unfortunately, the Bwlch was quite a lump, with about 1,200 feet of climbing spread over a steady 4 miles. It also had the quite undesirable quality of being ever so deceiving in where its summit was, with several blind turns which only lead to more uphill to climb before reaching the top. Selene had driven up, so having posed and waved, it was time to push on and reap the rewards of all that ascent

Strike a pose - not sure those on my
wheel were impressed
Just a little more climbing...
...Before tucking in to some
delicious downhill
Having riden about 60 miles solo, towing a few but mainly passing riders, the riders on the road ahead had become quite spread out and as I topped the summit of the Bwlch a glorious panorama of open switchbacks with a couple of riders dotted like ants down in the valley below. With the time and space to enjoy myself on the empty road, I bombed down and caught a larger group on the flatter slopes, where we started trading turns on the front like a group out on a normal evening chaingang (I think the adrenaline was infectious). Moving along at a reasonable lick, we also caught one of the motorbike outriders who, like any good moto, promptly kept his speed at a steady 30mph allowing us to sit in his draft and cruise through the busier roads back to Port Talbot. The aforementioned adrenaline even went as far as tactics, as the group lined themseleves up for a sprint finish - I knew my legs didn't have it so on a slight rise in the road I put in a spurt, dropping the paceline and tucking in right behind the moto, burying myself to make the gap stick. Not a race, I know, but it's always nice to cross the line solo!

After that perfect end, we sat in the sun and tucked in to an immense picnic that Selene (as well as looking after us all on the road, taking pictures, and being the best support car) had prepared - what a girl!
One benefit of being first in is first pick of the grub
The Dragon was an immense ride - 130 miles, over 10,200 feet of climbing, and 7,500 calories - so I was pretty pleased to come in at just over 8.5 hours. The change in the route from last year made a world of difference and riding Welsh hills in the sunshine is an experience everyone should have at some point in their lifetime...

Tour de Wales - Hillbagging

Following a very wet four days of riding, we had chosen to stop the daily migration from one B&B to another, and booked in for a spot of ‘glamping’ (glamorous camping) at the wonderful Barcud Coch ( where we were staying for the next four days. Perfectly set-off in the middle of the mid-Wales hills, the camp is set back in a secluded area of farmland where it’s basically just you and the sheep. This being glamping, we were set up in an enormous scout-style bell tent, built onto a raised wooden platform, with a separate gazebo-ed field kitchen, fire pit, wood stove, an ‘open field’ shower, and, even better, ZERO phone signal! Pure luxury, we even had an enormous double bed in the tent, which made it the perfect retreat for a couple of jaded city folk with sore cycling legs.
Putting the 'G' in 'Glamping'
I had originally planned 5 separate rides for the week, to be capped off by the Dragon Ride (write up pending). Sadly, the weather had other plans, as Wales had one of its worst weeks of rain – including a month’s worth of rain in one day on the Friday, leading to the evacuation of Aberystwyth by helicopter. While a couple of the evenings did let up and enjoy the great outdoors, a lot of our time was characterised by grey skies and downpours so the cycling was forced to take a bit of a backburner. That said, this was my chance to go and ride up Welsh hills, and I didn’t know when it was going to come round again. With Plan A rained off, the only thing for it was to drive to the hills and get them done in as short and sharp a way as possible. This is slightly against the spirit of the original challenge to incorporate each of the climbs in rides around the country, I think the decision was vindicated at the top of each hill, where low cloud cover, horizontal rain, and the wind so strong that Selene could barely stand.

First up was the Horseshoe Pass, a lovely wide open road that hugged the edge of the ridge all the way round the three-or-so miles to the top. Never too steep, I didn’t have to get out of the big ring to make it to the top (something of a point of principle towards the end of the climb…), although the Garmin did decide the throw a hissy-fit and switch itself off half way up…but I have pictures at the summit to prove I made it up there
Navigation would be so much easier if they had
one of these at the top of each climb...

You’ll notice that the Horseshoe photo doesn’t look too bad, weather-wise, and I was even able to get my (hairy) legs out briefly. Sadly, the same couldn’t be said for the Thursday morning. Having been out for dinner with Mum and Dad the night before, we had left them with the words “If the weather’s anything like in the morning, then we’ll spend the day cycling”.  When camping (even glamping), you’re daily routine is very much in line with what nature dictates – meaning early(ish) nights and waking up at dawn (obviously this is wine-dependent…). In June, dawn happens to be somewhere between 4 and 5 a.m., and as we awoke to daylight and the sound of rain on canvas with no idea of the weather forecast, Selene and I looked over to each other and had the “how bad can it be?” debate. It turns out this method of weather forecasting is slightly less accurate than Michael Fish and his notorious “no hurricane” prediction in 1987.

Anyhoo, we dragged ourselves out of the warmth of the tent and bundled into the car for the drive South. Hoping to find something dryer, we were pretty disappointed to find the first climb (The Tumble) shrouded in mist with rain that really didn’t look like it was going anywhere. In the true spirit of 100climbsfor2012, however, it was time to man up and after pulling the car into an empty pub carpark, I proceeded to squeeze into damp and smelly lycra (it may have been glamping, but there was no laundry or drying room) before hitting the hill. If you remember back to Day 4 of the tour, I managed to miss riding up the Tumble by only a few miles, and with Selene waiting at the top, we decided to call it a day. Well, taking Selene’s preview (“Nothing special, don’t think you’ll find it a challenge”) as a guide, I wasn’t expecting anything too difficult, so when on the early slopes I found myself struggling to turn the gear and with heavy legs I really couldn’t work out what was going on. 8 minutes into the ride I had to pull over on the side of the road and check out my brakes (a classic cyclist’s excuse for when their legs are tired – but I was convinced mine must have been rubbing!). Not finding any issue with the blocks, I was mystified until I looked down and realised that I was still in the big ring and had a whole 10 other gears that I could be using…Doh! With that little mystery solved, I powered up the rest of the climb with relative ease, and met Selene at the top. It was at this point she confessed it wasn’t the hill she had been waiting at the previous day and actually much more difficult that she had said. I’m not sure super early starts are the best for either of us…

View of the Tumble from inside the car
Rhigos was next on the list and we pulled up to the incongruous setting of an industrial park West of Merthyr Tydfil to begin the ride up. A surprisingly busy road, it was again heavy with mist and rain, giving the switchbacks an (albeit fairly industrial) Alpine feel. It wasn’t an easy climb, but it certainly wasn’t one of the most difficult (1,000 feet of climb in 4 miles isn’t to be sniffed at) but with the visibility at about 10m, I was almost glad to be tailgated all the way up by an 18-wheeler with his headlights on full beam. When I say almost glad, I mean I’m glad that I was seen and not crushed to a pulp, but it did mean that I felt quite self-conscious climbing up at around 10mph with a lorry behind me burning out its lowest gears…
Summiting Rhigos through the gloom

The plan was to ride round from the top of Rhigos to the next climb of Bryn Du (about 20 miles), but unfortunately the busy road and lack of visibility made it just too treacherous to attempt, so it was back in the car for the last hill of the day. Bryn Du climbs out of the Welsh mining town of Aberdare, and was probably the best road of the day. Starting steeply, it winds up a series of four switchbacks before emerging onto the exposed summit road where I’m sure there would have been great views back over the Breacon Beacons, if only it wasn’t for the rain-heavy clouds. The wind had seriously picked up by the time we arrived, and at the summit it was really blowing a hoolie so wasn’t a place to hang around. After diving back in the car, it was time to call it a day and we headed back to piece ourselves back together after being well and truly battered by the elements
What I'm sure would be a lovely view from the
top of Bryn Du

The last in the series of ‘hillbagging’ was Constitution Hill – renowned for its cobbles and gradient. Just check out this video of when the Tour of Britain went up it:

I had planned for this to be the crowning hill of day 5 of the Tour, but having cycled up it with fresh legs and in the dry, I’m pretty glad that I didn’t try it after 100-odd miles and on slippery/wet stones…

Everybody loves a montage:
Climbing the cobbles of Constitution Hill

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Tour de Wales - Day 4

Our B&B in Bala was a small, 2-bedroom terraced house, run by the lovely (and quite elderly) Gwenith. She was a fantastic host and made us feel very welcome, but I did get the impression that she was completely bemused by the fact that we had pitched up with a car full of wet kit, two bikes, and the intent to cycle around the area no matter what the weather (i.e. in heavy rain). Each time she asked us a question, she would follow up the answer with an “oooh” (try to imagine it with a very Welsh accent), and then a puzzled look would cross her face and she would chuckle slightly to herself as if thinking “the youth of today…”. One thing she had no confusion about, however, is how much food it takes at breakfast to fuel up an hungry cyclist who was about to embark on the fourth day straight of riding up Wales’ steepest hills. Cereal, toast, tea, juice and beans on toast (a revelation for breakfast!) later and we were ready to hit the road.

Things ground to a halt quickly after turning on the satnav and realising that the planned drive to Merthyr Tydfil was going to take three hours, if not longer judging by the lack of multi-lane highways and quantity of slow-moving traffic on the roads so far. Rather than drive all the way South, just to come back up afterwards, we decided to swap a couple of rides around and that I would do the ride that started in the Cambrian Mountains and then crossed the Brecon Beacons. While I had all the routes mapped out in the Garmin, it did mean that all of the reading-up of the climbs and studying the route that I had done the night before had now gone out of the window, and I would pretty much have to rely on blindly following the little pink line on the computer. This turned out to be a bit of an obstacle when trying to find the first hill: the ominously named “Devil’s Staircase”…

Starting in the town of Beulah, I knew that I had to do a loop around a small road in a forest, and somewhere on that loop I’d find the climb. However, having ridden for a while and with 15 miles on the clock, I ended up back where I started, having ridden the loop and seen no sign of a killer 9/10 climb, and now with the rain starting to come down. One recurring theme of our trip to Wales so far was the complete lack of mobile phone reception – let alone anything resembling 3G internet connection. Huddled over my A4 printed map (completely devoid of detail) to keep it dry, it just wasn’t clear where this bloody hill was located. Now we all know that men hate asking for directions – we’re solitary creatures at heart, and like to work things out ourselves. Now picture that scenario, but dressed in lycra, in the knowledge that you’ve just wasted an hour of precious riding time, and with the rain pouring down. Oh, and as an Englishman (with fairly posh accent) in rural Wales. Sadly, there was little option – I had come this far and there was no way that I was about to go home without bagging this damn climb. Looking around, I didn’t have much choice as to who to ask so I bit my lip and asked a helpful looking chap who appeared to be clearing out his garage. A bit of umming-and-ahhing later, and a fair bit of Welsh consultation with his Dad, I found out that I had missed a crucial (but hidden) right turn in the loop, and that I was about 10 miles away from my intended climb! Frustrated to the max, I thanked them profusely for their help and then set off down exactly the same route that I had already seen earlier on.

As the roads got smaller and more isolated, I finally turned off the forested loop and set off up the valley into the wind. Completely unfenced, the fields were full of sheep who seemed to think nothing of staying completely still as I approached them, only to suddenly dart out infront of my wheels as I was only metres away. I suspect that the ‘head sheep’ must have put a dare out as to who could make it the closest to a speeding cyclist without getting injured, but I have to say that in the wind and the rain, I could have done without having to also dodge fast-moving sheep. Unfortunately, yelling “mint sauce” didn’t do much to make them move, so it was probably a good thing that no-one was around to witness this particular part of the ride.

View from the Devil's Staircase
It was a relief to finally be at the base of the climb, and even though it was torturously steep and went on for a good distance, I pretty pleased to be actually achieving what I had set out to do that morning. Nothing like a few 30% hairpins to put a smile on your face! The views at the top were a little muted due to the weather, but I would imagine it looks amazing in the sunshine. For the third time, I made my way back to Beulah, where I indulged myself in a Snickers Duo (essentially two full Snickers bars in one wrapper – pure chocolate inflation, there) and hid under a petrol station roof while I wolfed it down. The look on the nearby sheep’s faces said it all really – I have no idea what I was doing there, either:

Yes sheep, you're right. This is no day to
be out in the great outdoors
Pushing on, I was a bit confused to be confronted with a massive hill ahead of me – not one that I had been expecting. The B4519 crosses a military firing range, it turns out, as well as being a natural funnel for the South-Westerly that was rapidly picking up pace. At the bottom of the climb was a large sign which read “Do not proceed if red flag flying”. With no red flag in sight, I didn’t pay this too much attention and continued to battle against the wind and gradient. About half way up, I started to hear the booming of artillery guns fire, but appeared to stay shrapnel free and there wasn’t any chance of me heading back down having come this far. I breached the summit at cloud level, but with enough visibility to see this sign:

Danger of death: always worth
slogging uphill for

And this flag:
At least it wasn't a skull and crossbones...
Putting two and two together, I realised that this wasn’t a place to hang around (not that the horizontal rain made that much of an option, anyway), so ploughed ahead along the very rolling tops of the range. With the cloud so low, there wasn’t much to see, although I did get passed by one or two military Landrovers moving at quite a pace. Pretty bleak, although at one point out of the gloom emerged the remains of a building with a bunch of squaddies huddling next to it for shelter. I think they were as surprised to see me (in those conditions) as I was to see them, and as I nodded a hello they gave me a bit of a gee up as I went past. Camaraderie and mutual respect for braving the conditions, I like to think – although they were likely sleep and food deprived so goodness knows what they were really thinking…

Finally cresting the last of the hills, I powered down the descent and through Upper Chapel, counting down the signs for the last 10 miles into Brecon where I was meeting Selene for ‘lunch’ (even though it was nearly 4pm). Soaked to the bone, and with a decent drive back up to Newtown after the ride, we took the decision to cut out the next 10 miles and drive to the base of the next hill (Llangynidr Mountain) from where I would be able to ride round finish up the final climb of the day (The Tumble). This had the added bonus of me being able to crank the heaters up to their max, regain the feeling in my extremities, and swap my sodden gloves for a dry spare pair. Literally nothing like cycling in June!

I was quite reluctant to get out of the duvet-like car, but fortunately something twigged and I did (probably helped by a bit of coaxing from Selene) and set off up the 7/10 Llangynidr Mountain. By now the rain had subsided a little (I even managed to upzip my jacket!) although the wind was just as strong so it was a case of settling into a nice rhythm up the long, if fairly steady, climb. At this point into the day, I just wanted the riding to be done with, so I wasn’t holding back with the pacing and flew up the climb passing a number of similarly-mad cyclists.
Cresting Llangynidr Mountain

Still smiling...

...and cursing (once out of earshot)
Summiting, and then descending into Llangattock, I rounded the corner to what I assumed was the last climb of the day. Up teeny-tiny roads and past a couple of farmhouses, the road kicked up and up and up without remorse for the lack of energy in my legs and I was this close (*indicates a small gap between thumb and forefinger*) to getting off for a stop. For some reason the Garmin is showing odd results for this section, but as a frame of reference, here is the image from Google showing the road of pain:

View Larger Map

In my mind, that was it and I was done for the day – just a case of cruising down the backside of the hill to meet Selene with the car. I couldn’t remember the name of the town, exactly, but knew it began with a ‘G’, so I sat down outside a pub in the town of Gilwern and got on the blower to find out where Selene was parked. After a few minutes of confused conversation, Selene agreed to come and find me – she was convinced that I hadn’t made it to the right hill. And she was right: I hadn’t. Frustratingly, I had switched off at the wrong moment, and not realised that I actually had a few miles and another hill to do before I was all done – The Tumble actually climbs out of the town of Govilon (rather inconsiderate to have two almost-identically named towns slap bang next to each other, don’t you think?). But with the build up of cold and fatigue, The Tumble could wait for another day, I was well and truly cooked.

Then it was just the small matter of driving the 70 miles back up North to the campsite where we were spending the next few days (and hoping for much better weather). Still, arriving to a warm cup of tea and then munching down on large quantities of tomato soup and buttered bread did make things seem a heck of a lot better. As did the beer in the shower (although the shower was outdoors - and yes the site was one berth only!)
Getting to grips with nature


Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Tour de Wales - Day 3

Still revelling in the lack of Jubilee spirit that had done anything but grip this section of North Wales (and smug in the satisfaction of having missed at least one day of this summer’s London based carnage), we woke up to the happy sight of sunshine streaming through the window of our B&B. The plan was to get the drive to Bala done early, so we could leave our stuff in the next B&B before both heading out to do loops of the Snowdonia National Park. As with most best laid plans, things didn’t exactly go as we expected, as we first struggled to find the place (with no-one answering the phone, we discovered that between us we had failed to remember the address, the name of the house, or even the name of the owner) and then when we finally located it, there was no-one in. Luckily Bala is a small place, otherwise the day would have been full of some very tense navigating, lots of confused Welsh non-B&B owners being asked questions by two English tourists, and very little cycling.

So with Plan A out of the window, it was time to revert to type and we parked up in an empty carpark and stripped down into our lycra gimpsuits (not actual gimpsuits – my getup was a lot more 80s neon than that). Having studied the route map and the hills on the way, Selene decided that the profile of her ride would be more favourable if she tackled the route backwards (going from B to A, as it were, not actually cycling backwards – that would be impressive). This meant that after about 10 miles she would head up the back (and less steep) side of the Bwlch-Y-Groes and with all going well would be there to meet me in Dolgellau (prounounced “Doll Geth Lau”, and not “Doggy Loo”, as we learned). For me, that meant crossing the Northern ridges of Snowdonia, before descending to the coast and along some unusually flat roads to Harlech, where my first climb was situated.

Heading over the tops in the sunshine was absolutely glorious, and even managed to counterbalance my gears squeaking all over the place (after the previous day’s pounding in the rain) and my Garmin randomly deciding to turn itself off every now and then.

Roads that lift the soul
After an hour of almost continual ascent, I had reached the peak and my reward was an incredible 12 mile stretch of descent into Ffestiniog followed by another 10 miles or so of pan-flat road, tracing down the Welsh coastline. With a combination of non-rainy weather, high speeds and great views, I was really buzzing when I reached Harlech and the start of my first official climb: Ffordd Penllech.

Sunshine! In Wales!
Ffordd Penllech is a one-way street by a caravan park, heading up from sea level to the main street running up to Harlech castle. Sounds innocent enough, but that’s before you add in the detail that it’s the steepest road in the UK, with a gradient of over 40%, and also that to ride up it you have to go against the flow of traffic. Fortunately, it’s not exactly Oxford Street in rush hour, so you can pretty much pick whatever line you like (not that it will do you much good)

The unassuming start of the steepest
road in the country
Steep from the off, the road is very steep and narrow, and gets steeper in the hairpins and the straights of the higher slopes. There’s not much technique to climbing it, except to whack your bike in its lowest gear and then jump up and down on the pedals until you hit the top. With the nice weather, the roads were dry so I didn’t get too much tyre-slip – which is good as I’m not sure I could do a seated climb  of 40% with my smallest gear of 39-25, and anyway I’m damn sure that I’d end up pulling some pretty extreme wheelies if I was to try and do that. At the T-junction at the top of the hill is a pub where two old boys were sat at a picnic table supping on their pints. As I breached the summit, red-faced and panting, one chap looked over and in true Welsh understatement said “It’s quite steep that, isn’t it” – sadly I was too winded to give a witty riposte, so I just nodded and headed back down the hill to have a good look at what I’d just come up

Sandals, not flip-flops for this hill

The unrelenting Ffordd Penllech

Pretty damn steep
After this effort I was glad of some more flat roads all the way through Barmouth and into Dolgellau. Waiting for me there was a tired looking Selene, who was slightly regretting her choice of route, having swapped the steeper ascent of the Bwlch for the epic ascent of the busy A470 (image from Google Streetview)

Selene went up and over THAT!
I chose the sensible option and went down it...
With a greasy sausage roll and bag of prawn cocktail (food of champions) to restore my legs, Selene and I parted company to meet back in Bala. Almost straight away Selene’s warnings of the A470 being very busy and full of inconsiderate drivers were brought home, as carriageway repairs narrowed the normally two-laned ascending road to only one lane – meaning that as I climbed at a reasonable brisk (for a bike) 10mph, I was being passed with only a few inches to spare by cars at 40mph. At the top of the ascent, the road then became very twisty, with lots of blind bends and no view of traffic heading in the opposite direction. The only safe way to ride on roads like this is to adopt the ‘primary position’ (riding about a metre out from the side of the road), meaning that drivers are forced to pull into the opposite lane to overtake – if you don’t do this then people will try to squeeze by with no room and you put yourself in real danger of being run over if traffic coming in the opposite direction happens to make the overtaking driver swerve back into you.

Sadly, not all drivers understand that cyclists have as much right to be on the roads as they do, and for the next few miles I was sworn at, hooted and cut up by several motorists as they went by. Coming up to a very steep corner, I waved a wannabe overtaker back to make sure he didn’t try and pull past round a bend he couldn’t see round. This did nothing to improve matters though, as he wound down his window and proceeded to hurl insults at me, before overtaking, stopping his car 10m infront of my position, and reversing back at full speed in my direction. With nowhere to go, I had no option but to go round the car to the right in the opposite lane, and was lucky that there wasn’t any traffic in that lane – otherwise it might have been a very sticky one. Anyway, if anyone ever comes across the young man driving a silver Ford Fiesta with the plate CV02EVL, then please do be my guest to remind him that he is a dangerous TWUNT who should not be on the road.

Shaken, but unhurt, I then had the joy of descending the long hill that Selene had climbed on the way, with the speedo topping out at about 47mph on the way down. With the last of the A-roads done, it was great to be back on the tiny Welsh country roads, although that did mean that even from a distance, I could see my next beast of a hill – the 10/10 Bwlch-Y-Groes.

The imposing Bwlch-Y-Groes
I find that riding on the flat can be really quite deceiving; it lets you build up a momentum that allows you to pump away and keep your speed nice and high without really noticing how much effort you’re putting out. So there you are, powering down a straight road and feeling really quite fresh until suddenly the road points upwards, and all that freshness suddenly gives way to waves of lactic acid and fatigue. This is pretty much what happened to me up the Bwlch, along with the mental intimidation of already knowing that this is a tough climb. At about 3.5 miles long, and with a gradient that never really lets up from the 25% early sections, it’s also made mentally tough because the road just keeps on going up as you round each corner. I thought I was nearly at the summit three times before I actually got there, which definitely takes its toll as you put in a ‘final’ push, only to see more and more hill! Of all this hills so far, this was the first one where I was really killing for a mid-climb stop before reaching the top. Fortunately, I kept my resolve (and my dignity) and managed to make it up in one - although it was a closely run thing.

At the top, with the sheep

Feet sound more impressive than metres
After stopping for a quick recover, I tailgated a couple of fairly bemused motorbikers down the other side – they couldn’t work out how I could manage to stay right on their tail the whole way down. After that, it was a fairly simple 10 mile run in down the side of Lake Bala and back to the car, even managing a sprint finish for the camera – I’m nothing if not a sucker for a photo-op!

Garmin missed a few miles off this ride by turning itself off for a bit at the start. Even so, for a 'flat' ride with only two categorised climbs, there was still a handy 5k of ascent and it definitely made itself felt...

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Tour de Wales - Day 2

Having arrived at our luxurious authentic Tudor B&B in Ruthin the night before, and carbo-loading (read ‘stuffing our faces on some good pub grub’), Selene and I woke up the sound of heavy rain tapping at the window. We had both seen the weather forecast, and to be honest a holiday in Wales comes with its own pre-conceptions, so there was no massive surprise to be woken by precipitation. With cycling, the weather always seems so much worse when you wake from your slumber at 6a.m. and in the comfort of your warm duvet, than it does when you’re actually out there in the worst of it and actually having a ball (there’s a deep life message in there somewhere). Trying to keep this in mind, we went for a second round of carbo-loading (read ‘stuffing our faces on a full Welsh breakfast’) and got the bikes ready to go. As an aside aside, I’m still no clearer on how a Welsh breakfast distinguishes itself from an English breakfast – there were certainly no lamb, leeks or daffodils in play as far as I could tell – but it did the trick of getting the stomach, legs and head aligned and in the mood for riding.

Ruthin is something of a hub for the 100 climbs book, with three climbs within spitting distance of the town itself, and another two in the surrounding area, so I had plotted an ambitious route taking in all of these ascents starting off with a series of loops up and down The Shelf, Penbarra, and Moel Arthur. Selene had, quite wisely, opted out the first two ‘unnecessary’ (her words!) climbs and we had agreed to meet at the top of Moel Arthur.

The ride started pretty incongruously as we struggled to find the start point, before realising that we actually needed to head out in opposite directions. The rain was still coming down, but seemed to be easing – although this could have been little more than optimistic posturing on our part…After getting lost for a second time (Garmin doesn’t like circular routes), I eventually found the small roads leading up to The Shelf. The road up was pretty broken, covered in debris from the rainstorms, but thankfully also covered by overhanding trees most of the way up so was at least sheltered from the worst of the elements. Having said that, it wasn’t much of a climb to write home about – not too steep, not too long, and not particularly scenic and I can’t help but think that there must be better roads around this area. Looking out from the top reminded me very much of the film Gorillas in the Mist, except for the lack of gorillas and inclusion of lots more sheep and one steaming cyclist.

Fortunately, it wasn’t long until I found one. The road up to the Welsh fortress on top of Moel Famau is known as Penbarra and includes what Simon Warren describes as ‘the perfect hairpin’. It also happens to be directly into the direction of the howling gale that had been increasing in strength ever since leaving Ruthin. After crossing a couple of speedbumps and the ever-present cattlegrid (probably more accurately known as a sheepgrid), the road ahead rose up at around 20% and something closer to 30% on the hairpin. This is probably my ‘sweet spot’ when it comes to climbing, but with the weather as it was, it was definitely not a pleasurable experience making it up this one. Rounding the second corner, the road levelled off into a more manageable 5/6%, but also losing any pretence of shelter from the wind, which actually picked up as it funnelled down the valley. Horizontal rain and a block headwind aren’t exactly the conditions that make the word “holiday” spring to mind, and I didn’t linger long at the top.

The 'View' from Penbarra

Start of the perfect hairpin

After a few more very wet country lanes, the next hill on the list was Moel Arthur. For a tiny road to the top of a hill, it was surprisingly busy, and with almost no room to squeeze past, there wasn’t much that I could do other than give the drivers behind a lesson in how to use the clutch and drive a car up a hill very slowly. Still, at least they had some entertainment as they sat in their warm air-conditioned cars bemusedly watching a cyclist struggle up a steep road in the pouring rain! The climb itself is tough, rolling in gradient and on difficult roads. The views are supposed to be stunning, and take your mind off the task ahead, but unfortunately with the cloud so low I had no such benefit. At the top, there was no sign of Selene – not surprising considering the weather and the fact I had been delayed getting lost – and also no sign of the castle that is referenced in the book: I can only assume it was there in the mist up there somewhere. On the way down, I got a message saying that Selene was soaked through, and had bumped into some local riders who were showing her the shortcut home. As tempting as this sounded to join (my waterproofs had also been overwhelmed by the sheer amount of rain being thrown at them), I knew that I was here for one reason and that was to notch up a few more climbs.

Fortunately the next leg of the route was a series of very flat roads to Denbigh, complete with a roaring tailwind and my spirits were lifted by sailing along at 25mph – a stark contrast to the previous 20 miles of suffering uphill. Out of Denbigh was the ominously named ‘Road to Hell’ – a long slog back up to the tops of the mountain range. Apart from a few steep kicks at the start, this was a great climb and really enjoyable all of the way up. The roads were perfectly quiet, smooth and wide, and the views under the cloud-cover were stunning. This combined with a long but not too challenging ride up made it my favourite climb of the day and one that presented a real feeling of achievement having made it to the top.

The view from Hell

The rain had, however, set back in and after taking in a few more lumps the cold really started to seep through. The ‘just get it done’ mindset from earlier vanished when I checked the map and saw that I’d need to cover another 30 miles of undulating terrain to get round to the Horseshoe Pass, before then having to climb back over the first set of hills to get back to Ruthin. On a normal day this would have been eminently possible – however on an exposed hilltop in soaking clothes and black clouds all around, the crossroads with the sign saying “Ruthin 10 miles” had a magnetic pull to it. With that resolved, I pedalled back to the B&B to regroup, reclean the bike and finally jump into a steaming hot shower to get back the feeling in my extremities.
Even the camera was shooting blurry
by this point

And our reward for slogging it out in the rain? £5 each to spend at Llandudno arcades and a 3-course slap-up meal (paid for by the loser) at Ruthin Castle to finish. Now this is living!
Weather wasn't much cop on the coast either

Guess who just lost

Prize cupboard of dreams!