Wednesday 4 May 2016

The Incredible 'Welsh Ride Thing'

Leigh Robinson had mentioned the Welsh Ride Thing a long while back.  "It's an event...." and that was where I stopped listening.  I hate events.  I hate all that pretend racing, all those 'non-competitive-yet-competitive' things.  So I forgot about it for months until randomly coming across the webpage. It seemed I was very very wrong.  The Welsh Ride Thing is a truly non-competitive event, one of very few in the country it seems, and the concept is unique, brilliant and inspiring. For the entry cost of £20 you get a T-shirt and all proceeds go to the Wales Air Ambulance.

Plus, as the name suggests, it's held in Wales. Always, without fail, a spectacular place to ride.

Originally I was planning on riding solo, and plotted myself up a nice route, taking in some, but not all, of the suggested grid references to visit over the weekend.  It was a hilly one, with a fair amount of off-road, but easily doable with plenty of time to chill and take photos, and critically for me, practice with setting up camp and testing out kit.  The kit has been building up for months but I am still very inexperienced at proper wild camping.  I have detailed the kit preparation in a photo log here.

However, with the unpredictable weather in the run-up, and the fact I was giving Leigh a lift and he has huge experience of wild camping, riding as a pair seemed like the most sensible option.  I sent Leigh the GPX file, and he agreed it looked good.  The great thing about the WRT is the flexibility, if the route wasn't working out, we could always just ignore it.  I think Leigh may have hoped we would, indeed, mostly ignore it when he was immediately thrust into the littlegirlbunny world of hike-a-bike to get to the best ridge-line views.......

Backtracking in time just a little, the start was quite an experience in itself, with a melee of riders, fully kitted bikes, hail storms, a raffle prize giving with a seemingly endless prize-pit, free tea and coffee and a lot of anticipation about what the weekend would bring weatherwise.  The forecast was not looking good, but mostly spirits remained un-dampened, and it was all smiles as we left to head off in the wilds, dispersing across Snowdonia, everyone on different trajectories.

Those Mid Wales ridgelines were indeed, stunning, with granny-gear engaging climbs as we crossed over valleys and up the steep flanks.  It was dumbfounding how the 29er would climb, despite the total bike+load tail-heavy weight of 59.5 lb. Up up up.  

And then down down down.  Handling was surprisingly fine on descents too, although when it really steepened off it became a challenge to keep enough weight back with all the luggage in the way, and to keep the speed in check with the extra ballast.

This was a great descent, the two riders pictured also on the WRT. A constant theme through the weekend was the surprising number of times we bumped into other riders, and it made the event all the better.  Like a family of nutcases running amok!

Younglings all full of confidence and interest, well, until the gate was opened...

They ran alongside us in a Jurassic Park style stampede for the length of the sweeping descent.

Earl Grey tea and hobnobs, halfway up a climb, sat on someone's grass verge. No one seemed to mind.  Is is wrong to admit hobnobs were my main fuel for the weekend with two packets consumed in 48 hours?  Well they are 73% oats and wheat..........

The relentless climbs didn't stop, but every single one was worth it for the views.

This is my favourite picture of the weekend.  I won't tell you what happened 10 seconds after this was snapped.......

Oh go on then ;)  Good job he fell to the right, that's for sure.  I did go and help, honest! (forgive me Leigh, for putting up the photo!)

Leigh had recommended the Sawyer mini-filter and, indeed, it is a brilliant piece of kit. We had endless free water through the weekend. It's easier to fill up at taps, of course, but lost in the wilds, you could ride for hours and not find mains water. When filling from fast running streams I've decided to trust the Sawyer is enough.  Leigh also used purification tablets, and with the amount of sheep, including dead ones, in the catchment area, he is probably the more sensible one.

Saturday weather was the changeable stormy, sunny, stormy, four seasons in one day kind. Hail, sun, wind, warmth, but mostly dry.

Toward the end of the day, Leigh's ankle started to play up and it became a struggle for him to climb. We had some interesting times through the ClimaX forest, tackling some pretty tough subsided fire roads, and ended up dropping out onto the A487 much earlier than planned.  It was a good choice though, a nice steady reliable climb and Leigh could pace himself up it, taking breaks to rest his ankle. Plus, it was a surprisingly quiet road toward the end of the day.  Climbing is one of those things you have to do at your own speed, so I'd go on ahead and then stop when I found somewhere safe to pull in. This little layby is a familiar place on many an audax photo, it was strange to be there with a mountain bike instead.

The perfect camp spot. Hidden alongside a traffic free cycle route. Dry, flat, with fast running streams adjacent and soft spongy grass. Plus, the rains hadn't returned and we could pitch in the dry. It couldn't have got any better at 250 meters elevation. After a feast of roast vegetable couscous, left over veggie chicken and lapsang souchong tea, I finally got to try out the new sleep set up. Oh it was perfect. The sleep mats, perfect. The sleeping bags, perfect. Leigh's 3Trees Liner, soft against my skin. Snuggly. Having dry clothes to change into helped too, and it was a comfortable night spent. Leigh also slept well and we were both ready to head off before 8 am the next day.

What a way to start the day.  A gentle warm up as we finished the climb on the cycleroute, skirting the edge of Cadair, and then dropping down a seemingly endless swoopy descent to town. Those clouds though, they weren't boding well, and neither was the change in the feel of the air.  The weather was definitely on the turn.

After stocking up on provisions, utilising facilities (note to self: remember 20 pence pieces, and remember how lucky you are that the Dolgellau SPAR is open at 7 am on a Sunday so you can change a ten pound note), we headed along the Estuary to cross the toll bridge.  The rain had started, but it was fine. By this time, we were fully immersed in the riding, and just being there, away from internet, away even from a decent phone signal for most of the journey, cut off from those daily 'must do's'.  Time to just be, no matter what the weather.

A terrible photo, but put in for my memories. Apparently rescuing lambs seems to be a common theme on the WRT, and sure enough, even I had to pull one out a barbed wire fence and throw him into the field, to run after his bleating mum.

There is a noticeable change in terrain, trails and feel as you cross over the Mawddach Estuary and into North Wales. Ancient, abandoned and weathered.  Tough terrain, open space and an unforgiving undercurrent.

We climbed for a very long time, up small lanes, which became unsurfaced forest trails, and eventually graveled mountain passes.  Windswept tops of isolation.  I could have stayed there for hours.

It wasn't that long though, until we were on familiar terrain.  Coed y Brenin Forest Park. There had been much pondering about whether to visit, again. Keen to ride new places, and not see the same old familiar routes, yet the cafe is always reliable (if a little overpriced) and the bike shop an invaluable resource.

In the end it was the best decision. The cafe provided a damn good feed and warm shelter from the ever worsening rain, for us, and seemingly most other riders on the WRT! More than that though, was the bike shop. Invaluable would be an understatement, for Leigh's slow puncture needed fixing, the spare tube was split, and, to top it all off, his waterproof was no longer proofed.....and he needed a new coat. The WRT gods were really smiling on us. If you are going to get a 'difficult' puncture, then a visitor's centre with a bike shop is definitely the place to do it.

The original route had put in a committing loop Lake Trawsfyndd. There was no short cut across the mountains and, once out, we'd be fighting the headwinds back to Barmouth and be a very long way from the WRT headquarters if Leigh's ankle worsened. What with the time spent fixing punctures, it was the sensible decision to reroute and pick up some of the forest trails before heading back to Barmouth to rejoin the original route there. Leigh was a little concerned about our low mileage for the effort to that point, but off-road up steep climbs is always going to be tough compared to smashing out miles on A roads, and no one was keeping score. I personally didn't care about mileage, collecting grid references or whether people would think we should have done more. I can ride big miles running round the country on audaxes, the novelty of doing 'miles for miles sake' soon wears off.

I mean, who wants to be worrying about getting in an extra ten miles, when you could be riding this instead?

By the time we had done a few of the Coed y Brenin flowy trail centre trails, visited waterfalls and the stunning river crossings in the forest, sheltered from the rain under the canopy of a carpark seating area to brew up hot drinks, ridden the lovely quiet NG82 to Dolgellau and generally had a lot of fun, it was obvious the choice to divert was a right one.

We then had the Mawddach Estuary trail to take us to Barmouth.  Traffic free and absolutely stunning scenery, it was a pleasure to ride, albeit it with a tough headwind. I don't mind headwinds if I have nowhere to get to in a hurry, so was happy to pootle along, stopping to grab photos and ignoring the speed on the GPS screen. Leigh, however, wasn't enjoying the headwinds that much. I guess it had been a tough 24 hours, what with lots of off-road, climbing and now a flat bit being made hard with a full on Irish Sea-fueled blasting wind.

The rain hadn't stopped either, and Leigh was getting very cold, struggling to warm up.  I suggested we could either cross the railway bridge to Barmouth and warm up in a pub with some good food, or, we could warm up on the 25% road climb I had planned in and see if we could find a camp spot.

You'll never believe which option we went with. Well, it certainly warmed us up. I have ridden a lot of of the killer road climbs in Wales, but this was by far the longest constant 20-25% climb I have come across. Way worse than the Bwlch, Devil's Staircase or Knucklas, this one was proper front wheel lifting, granny gear is not low enough with luggage kind of stuff.  As soon as I saw the shell-grit on the entrance, hidden off the A493, I knew it would be a kick. "Engage granny gear" I shouted to Leigh. It was like hitting a vertical wall of tarmac.

With a mix of riding until the front wheel lifted, walking, riding, walking again, and relief when it did finally ease off to about 15%, I got to the top cross-roads to assess options as Leigh plodded up behind, his ankle protesting at any gradient. The climb continued off road at that point, on some proper moorland trails, up into the clouds and the ferocious winds that had been building all day. At my normal pace it would have been a good hour or two's riding, and it was getting late in the afternoon. There would be little shelter on the top and we would have to cross, drop to the coast, and find a decent pitch. In all honesty I was a little worried about Leigh by then, as he had got very cold in Barmouth so figured we needed a change of plan. These trails would be there for another (hopefully sunny) day. So great to have the flexibility to make sensible decisions. I'm so used to audax where you are set off on a route which is followed relentlessly, no matter what is thrown at you, until you either a) finish or b) bail.

I had another interesting time of it whilst waiting for Leigh to arrive. The Garmin was beeping at me, another set of batteries gone, sapped by the cold. I figured it would be a good time to stick in that last set off AAs. Etrex 30s a brilliant for that.  Readily available power source from any small shop. However, when I popped the batteries out, one flew through the fence into a farmers field, just out of reach. Right by the farmhouse. I couldn't leave it, visions of poisoned lambs made the guilt too much, but how to retrieve it through the barbed wire fence? It was either go and explain myself in the farmyard, or squeeze through that fence. Oh gawd. There I am, tangled up in barbed wire, not a chance of getting through, glad I am in the £30 cheap coat and not my expensive Paramo, as I rip and tear myself back out of the hole I had got myself in.  The farm dogs are kicking off and I am trying not to laugh at myself, as I then spend time ferreting around for something to knock the darned battery closer.  A broken gate post saved the day.

When Leigh arrived we hunkered against the drystone wall, trying to hold onto the map in the rain and wind, and work out the best option. Turning South would take us along the ridge, with some steady undulating lane work, possibly a little off road, and then a descent to the coast. It was a really lovely lane, rolling with the terrain, through a forest, past standing stones and all the time with a 40+ mph cross wind trying to push us off it. Wild riding, proper adventure, and all self-afflicted.

You know though, those riding Karma Gods? They have a habit of rewarding you if you put in the effort and, sure enough, the payback for our hard work was massive. It took a while to come. We eventually dropped of the mountains to the coast road, but, for 40 minutes, we rode with no sign of anything remotely suitable for pitching. Just trying to get up a tarp in the wind, keep the bedding dry and get changed without a tent in the persistent rain would be a challenge, but we didn't even see a suitable wall to hunker behind, or a bus shelter, or an empty derelict building. It was starting to look a little like the time to consider other options when I rounded a corner and noticed a tiny campsite, hidden beneath the coastal railway. I spoke to Leigh and suggested we checked it out. We would be able to pitch, and then at least get changed in the dry of their shower block before jumping in the bivvies.

We knocked on the door of the farmhouse at Cae Du Campsite, looking very much worse for wear, soaked through, and realised we didn't have enough cash to pay the young girl for the pitches. However, when we explained what we were doing, and what the WRT was about, the owner kindly let us pitch for free, refusing the offer of the money we did have, with our campsite charges to be donated to the Wales Air Ambulance (I have since donated £20 to the WAA on their behalf, more than their charges, but they were so generous, it felt like the right thing to do).  "You can sleep in the barn if you like, there's no door on it, but there are a few families using it for the evening and they have a fire going at the moment)".

Sure enough, there was a blazing inglenook, three lovely welcoming families and we were welcomed in, to dry our clothes by the fire, and gatecrash their party. They even offered us some of their food, although we had plenty with us so politely declined as we cooked up on our campstoves, much to the fascination of the kids, who laughed as our clothes steamed in the heat.  The camp showers were blazing hot and I got to use those not-so-unnecessary-after-all toiletries. The bliss of clean dry hair, clean dry clothes, bivvying under a roof and waking up to a dry morning can't readily be put into words.

We were up and gone on Monday morning before the families returned to the barn for breakfast, refreshed, refuelled, and with a steady route back, we started plodding on. The last day was mostly lanes (for I figured we may be tired) although, with a mountain byway to cross to get in the last of adventure riding for the weekend.

There were some beautiful lanes leading up to the byway, traversing the valley sides as we climbed along side the mountain streams.

Then the tarmac ended, and the slated rocky double track began. My favourite type of riding. Technical climbing in places, with challenging slabs to negotiate, yet the loaded bike managed most of it with ease. This was exactly the kind of riding I had come for, and had a grin for the entire route.

Even when the visibility was totally lost, and the winds were howling, it was just perfect.

Leigh, on the other hand, was not loving it so much, admitting after my name was mud for most of the climb. Still, the reward of descending the challenging boulders, slabs and water pits on the way back down had him buzzing, so I think he's about forgiven me, just.

The rain was relentless and we were soaked through to the skin by the time we hit Mach. I had hoped to stop at the Quarry Cafe for lunch, but Leigh's ankle was grieving a lot, and we were aware of our lowering speeds. Pressing on, we just had some hilly lanes to negotiate, so, even with lots of stops, we would make it back in plenty of time to sign out. Leigh's ankle was bad, but he was impressively determined to finish, so kept churning out the miles, pushing when the pain got too much, and riding when he could.

When the climbs were steep I forged on ahead, just to warm up the core, and then wait for Leigh to arrive, trying to take photos in the meantime. The rain covered lens kept blurring all the images, and I had not a single dry item of clothing to wipe it with, which set me off giggling at the stupidity of it all. Does hypothermia turn you into a stupid giggling mess? I like riding in the rain, but it is hard when you can't keep moving enough to generate heat. Shamefully, I admit to being grateful to find a wallet on the main road, which gave me an excuse to power back to the centre and try and catch the WRT rider who had dropped it. Unfortunately he had already left for home, but I was at least warm again by the time the headquarters, and the friendly faces of the organisers Stu and Dee, came in to view. It was great to see Leigh come in a few minutes later, with a big relieved grin, for he had fought through a lot of pain and issues over the weekend, and yet kept going through it all.

It really was an epic adventure, with so many experiences, memories, trails, views and smiles all rolled into an intense 48 hours. We worked hard, but when we really needed some good luck, it was there, either with the puncture issues happening at the visitor's centre, or finding the perfect camp spots on both nights. I wasn't going to detail our mileage, for it doesn't really matter in the context of the event, but I know some folks will be interested. It was 105 miles, 4200 meters of climbing, mostly on traffic free off route bridleways, byways and cycleroutes, some quiet lanes, and as little main road as possible.  

Audaxing has given an ability to deal with harsh weather, long days in the saddle, and relentless climbs. It was nice to know that the endurance work has paid off with both experience, kit preparation and physical tolerance of discomfort.  It was surprising to find it easy to deal with the extra weight on the bike, as my test ride a few weeks back suggested the opposite would be true. Summer plans are changing already, it seems I can easily cover the distances I was hoping, and, to be honest, probably a lot more, which has given a real sense of liberation to where I can go, fully laden, in the future.  

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