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


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