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...

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