Thursday, 28 June 2012

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

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