There aren't many times I feel a 200 km Audax is audacious. Most of the time it involves riding around a nice loop, tiring myself out, and being home before dark to drink tea
Saturday was not one of those days. Saturday was a day that tested kit and preparation. A reminder of why exactly I carry around so much blummin stuff, especially on winter explorations.
That's not to say it wasn't a brilliant day, it was, overall, a memorable epic with fantastic riding, and a number of challenges to surmount on the way.
It all started well. I got out of bed for a start. Biggest challenge ticked off early, although the fact I was really looking forward to some time in the high places of Powys helped considerably. Breakfast was eaten; another challenge that normally defeats at 6 am. It was just above freezing and not raining.
After a bit of a stuttering first km, fiddling with the horrid neoprene overshoes to unobstruct cleats, I found my rhythm and knocked out a steady 30 km, just enjoying the early morning quiet roads and that strange atmosphere that comes with a North East wind blowing a haze over the far-hills. I smiled as a farm collie came tearing out of the yard, knowing that, in pretty much all cases, they are all bark and no bite. Sure enough, he calmed immediately when I called him over, the farmer putting a friendly hand up as I passed.
Then the back end all went a bit squirmy. A flat. I'd actually had one at 10:30 pm the night before when the tube randomly split and the tyre deflated instantly. But why now? Wheel off, tyre checked numerous times, nothing. Figuring it was probably just a tiny gravel cut the fixing began. No simple task. That new Co2 inflator is the best thing ever? Not so bestest when your hands aren't strong enough in winter temperatures to screw the cartridge in and break the seal. Trying to do this wasted a canister as I messed up the attempt so I reverted to the old lezyne inflator. As I was faffing in the muddy lay-by, all fingers and thumbs with cold hands, a white transit pulled alongside. Obviously a serial killer, the man looked at me with a vacant stare and asked if I had everything I needed. I was entering flight or fight mode as I responded with a "yes thanks" to which he replied "ah, well if you get stuck I'm in the workshop just literally there on the corner". Not a serial killer afterall then, and I hung my head in judgemental shame as the wheel finally dropped in and I worked out the complexities of the new bolt up axle.
After possibly breaking the world record for the 'longest puncture repair time for a simple issue' I was back on the road following the pink line. It had changed a bit. There was white arrows and the Garmin was beeping at me at turns. Suddenly I came out on the A44. The Garmin was telling me to turn for home. Goodness knows where it was sending me, but thankfully resetting the unit put me back on the breadcrumb trail to Powys. It was lucky this happened 'on home turf', and I knew I could whizz down the main road to Leominster. Having already passed through the control village of Risbury, the diversion would have no effect on the validation for this 'old school, non-mandatory route' DIY.
Fingers were returned to normal circulation status in Leominster, where the great public toilet block is big enough to wheel the bike inside, has warm water and a hot air dryer. They were never cold again after that.
After Leominster, the sense of journey began, firstly the long steady false flat along the traffic quiet A4110 to Buckton, and the start of the beautiful Shropshire lanes. Adorable little lanes in this area, with the small bridge crossing at Bucknell ford, and friendly faces happy to say hello as you pass their homes.
Although there were a few warm up climbs early on in the ride, the climbing proper arrived after Bucknell, passing to Clun via Obley. You can see the kick on this profile, approximately 65 kms in
But you have to climb to get the best of Powys, and it was worth every pedal stroke to get to the top.
After the intimidating Pentre Hodre climb, which comes into view long before you hit it, rising upwards in a grey ribbon of imposing pain, the lane topped out and I started the descent. Immediately something felt wrong with the back brake, but a little caliper realignment sorted it and I was good to go. A difficult descent followed, on a pot-holed, gravel-strewn, very muddy lane, with a steep gradient and ability to produce speeds way too fast for the conditions. Tentative descending paid off, and I landed at the bottom in one piece, ready for coffee.
Except my routing had other ideas and I skirted the top of Clun before I realised, and dropped onto the B4386 on route to Anchor. Consideration was given to returning to the village centre, as coffee and beans on toast was rather appealing, but figured I had done quite enough faffing for one ride and I might as well press on over the Kerry Ridge and tick off the highest point before the forecast snow. There is something very special being over 400 meters, it feels like the top of the world.
Winter weather was closing in a little as I finally stopped for a hot drink in the tiny shop at Beguildy. The lovely lady proprietor let me sit on an upturned crate in the minuscule store, whilst I drank surprisingly good filter coffee and we discussed the change in society since they moved to the store in 1977. The pace of life is so fast now. Tesco vans whizz up and down making deliveries to folk who, at one time, would have relied on small local businesses. What was once a pretty isolated area of Powys is now, like everywhere, 24/7 society, and these valuable little gems are few and far between.
Getting back on the road, I still hadn't eaten anything except sweets since breakfast, so forced in a roll whilst climbing out of Knighton. "Interesting", I thought. "This could be good, I've never crossed to Presteigne this way". Distracted by some exceptionally cute Corgis as they barked a warning, I didn't realise the predicament until I was on it. Thank you Google 'follow road mode' Thank you very much.
Interesting it was. A steep unsurfaced, muddily-unrideable climb that went on, and on, and on. I pushed for a good while, figuring I couldn't have missed that much when I checked the route over on streetview.
I may have missed rather a lot.....
20 minutes later the Byway turned into a field. To persist or not to persist? That was the question.
Persistence paid off. Kind of. Well, in a 'thank goodness I'm a mountainbiker' sense. The track turned into some deep muddy ruts and, with descending gradient, I could ride again. Just about staying upright, the wheels kept rolling as the brakes clogged with mud and the bike slide relentlessly about. Then it steepened downwards, with rock slabs to negotiate, stoney gullies and, thankfully, eventually, just about at the time I was about to go over the bars, some tarmac. Technical riding on a roadie with slicks is one big adrenalin rush.
Oh, lovely tarmac. Tarmac that continued all the way to Presteigne. I rolled through town and pedalled happily toward Kington, knowing I was on the road to home, just 80 kms to go. Then, hisssssssssssss. Another flat. This time it got serious. One tube left. One CO2 cartridge. And the rain was on the way. The Paramo coat that has been carried around for many many rides finally got some use as I immediately layered up knowing this could take some time. Sure enough, the CO2 inflated the tyre, but the terrible Lezyne attachment unscrewed the valve core on the way back off and all the CO2 was instantly lost. It was time to resort to manual labour. Struggling, like normal, to get anywhere near a decent pressure, arms tired out, only to watch it instantly deflate again when the pump was unscrewed. This continued. A gentleman stopped in a pick up and asked if I wanted a lift to Kington, but I really didn't want to, partly because of stranger-danger, but mostly because I really wanted to finish the ride, dammit. The leatherman, thrown in a pocket last minute the night before, got used to tighten the valve core. It still unscrewed. I rang Steve in 'I've just ridden 120 km and don't want to stop but this stupid pump is stupid' tears, sniffling as I explained the predicament and where I was in case of rescue. I decided to have another go, or three. Finally, persistence with the leatherman paid off and the pump unscrewed, leaving the core in place and air in the tyre.
The rain hit and the Paramo stayed on, keeping me warm as the kilometers dragged in a haze of concern over the barely inflated back tyre. I tried to force myself away from dwelling on the tyre and appreciate the route as it was exceptionally beautiful, even on the grey winter day. Out-breaths became visible as the air temperature dropped, and the verges were full of snowdrops. A proper winter ride.
Then a turn, and a sign....25%. "Twenty five whole percent? Arthur's Seat? Why, oh why, do I do this to myself?". Still, the extra traction from the low pressure prevented the back from slipping out on the wet roads, and the climb definitely took the mind games away from puncture worries.
Such satisfaction to reach the top, see the views, and coast down the other side in a warm haze of endorphins. That's why.
Another distraction followed. Evidently is was going to be a far later finish than normal, but no longer could switching on the lights be avoided. Regretting taking the dynamo off, I reluctantly fumbled around whilst riding, trying to switch on the rear Cat Eye. Normally a simple procedure that doesn't even require a stop. Holding the hand behind revealed no red light. Another attempt to press buttons whilst riding past houses in a small village, yet the reflection in the windows showed nothing. On reaching the A465 junction for the run into Hereford City something had to be done to ensure visibility on such a frantic and dangerous road. Investigating the problem answered a 'what the hell was that?' question from earlier in the ride. The ping ping that I thought was my back light falling off was, in fact the battery cover, and batteries from it. Although I had checked the bike over when I heard the noise several hours previously, it was a case of "saddle bag secure - check, lights present - check, pockets done up - check, ah it must have been a stone flicking up". Still, preparation saved the day and a small back-up red light kept me alive on the trunk road.
Weighing up options and time, I diverted to the closest bike shop, NTFO. I was later than normal, but not close to the time limit. Acquisition of another tube and red light was a sensible idea, and I hoped they would let me use their track pump to properly inflate the rear. It may have only been 30 km or so home, but it was a cold wintery evening, and an extra light on the busy commuter lanes would be a godsend. The young staff were brilliant, helpful and even pumped the tyres up for me, although I was probably in that 'she looks like an old woman in need of sympathy' phase by then.
The psychological relief of having a tube in my pocket and additional red light was much greater than expected and I relaxed into the riding again for a short while, intermixing with Saturday traffic on the way out of town. Then started to feel a little drained. Suddenly it dawned how little I had eaten and I stopped, sat sheltered from the rain against a pump-house wall, scoffing veggie-chicken-nugget things and pondering the last three significant kicks to home.
The food worked a treat and I enjoyed the remainder of the route, which took me on the high road adjacent to Marcle Mast, the intense ruby red of the lights glowing against the grey skies and the outline of the Malverns still visible in the distance. It wasn't long before reaching Ledbury and picking up the back lanes to home.
It was such a good day psychologically. It's been months since I've had 'the bit between my teeth', determined to finish, wanting to finish and tackling challenges rather than choosing an easy life. That cup of tea and hot shower on arriving home never felt so good.