This hasn't been an easy blog to write, in fact, I'd say it was harder than the actual event. Unlike most of my blogs, that focus on the riding, the scenery, the goodness of the people that I meet/ride with, this one is more about perspective, and putting some on my lack of that very thing, during anything that stakes me against a clock.
Goodness knows why I entered the Bear Bones 200. It's hardly a secret that competitive events bring out the worst of my nerves, riding and personality. However, for the third year in a row it seemed I couldn't stop myself booking a challenge for October. Big rides in October seem to tie up the year and settle me for the winter. Plus, Stu and Dee are lovely folk and their organisation of the Welsh Ride Thing was absolutely top notch, as was the atmosphere of that particular event.
...and maybe I actually believed this one wasn't really competitive. Maybe I truly thought I could make it a personal adventure, a lovely way to get the most out of mid wales, and ignore the rest. It's not a race anyway (finish times are not listed in order, there is no mass start with a large two hour window to set off and, as far as I know, there is no podium). It's an independent time trial and no-one cares about times.
Or so I thought, until I spent half an hour in the pre-race meet of The Star at Dylife (fantastic pub by the way) before it became painfully obvious that actually, times do seem to matter. Luckily it didn't keep me awake and I managed a solid 9 and half hours of fantastic quality sleep in the van. Everything was ready, I was there.
'It is what it is'
By ready, I mean ready. The bike was prepped, packed and polished by the Tuesday. I kid myself this is a good thing, (remember the seven p's - proper prior planning prevents piss poor performance) but in fact, it's nerve driven anxiety that ensures all the boxes are ticked early. Leaving it later would only cause frantic stress closer to the time. In the big scheme of things though, I felt surprisingly level headed right up to the event, and thought I had a good grasp of how to relax, enjoy it and just treat it as a 'bike ride'.
Packing felt pretty therapeutic and gave me time to really assess the ride and what I would need. Unlike my normal touring list, barely anything made it in the bike, and everything was justified. Of course there would be people who would take less, and some that would take more, but for me this was the minimum I was happy with to deal with an exposed night section on unknown terrain with no obvious satellite route toward the end. I wasn't planning to stop, but having seen delirium caused by the early signs of hypothermia kicking in, the margin between 'riding fine' and 'mechanical/injury/bonk/exhaustion' is much smaller than many folk realise.
Hunky bivvy bag
OMM 1.6 primaloft bag (unrated but I've used to near freezing and didn't die)
Lights (Hope R8 on the bars, Leyzne power drive and two spare batteries on the helmet, two rear red lights)
My 'considered vital' extras
Borrowed SPOT tracker from my very good friend Rafe
Extra coat (Paramo) to throw on in an emergency and to sleep in if needed.
Tiny 3/4 inflatable sleep mat (I figured if I needed to stop it would be only because of an emergency. If it was an emergency, lying directly on a cold Welsh hillside even in a bivvy, is unlikely to help much without insulation from the ground)
Tool kit and all spares stripped down to just those relevant to that bike, chain link, multitool, mini leatherman, two zip ties, small amount of duct tape, tubeless repair kit, CO2, tube, pump, tyre boots
Water purification tablets. Faffing about with the filter would just annoy me when there was a finish to get to.
Cafe mini lock (which I broke into using just an allen key when the combination wouldn't work at Knighton - probably pointless weight to carry)
Spare batteries for Garmin
Cash, cards and aspirin+paracetamol painkillers
Loo roll in a plastic bag
A large Alpkit 'fuel pod' filled to the top with high energy food including Trek bars, flapjacks, various vegan savory protein sources including schnitzels and sausages, halva and a big bag of strawberry bonbons. (I took way too much food and had loads left on return)
The camelback held two litres of water and left room to stuff my winter softshell riding coat in the day.
Limited luxury items
Tiny toothbrush and two toothpaste dots
Camera (the only one I would take again)
It really seemed like it would be just a long ride.
It was fantastic to find Dee had catered for the vegans, and properly too, with soya milk and vegan margerine available at the start. A nice cuppa, some brekkie and it was time to set off. Any time between 8 and 10. The staggered start I suspect critical to keep the event as an independent time trial rather than a proper race.
I kept telling myself this.
It didn't work, especially when the pelvic cramps kicked in 10 minutes after the start (long back story, for regular readers of this blog, if there are any, I won't repeat it) and I was in nauseating pain until I stopped and got some painkillers working. It made me sad to see all the riders whizz on past as I tried to stretch out. I think, as usual, I had just started out too fast as Mark is much stronger on the roads. Mark was brilliant though, eased off his pace and talked me out of quitting.
Once the roads, lanes and moors started pointing properly up, I came alive and found my legs. We were immersed in the riding and the scenery, with the morning mists building as the trails rose upwards. However, I found it a mental struggle to stay there. It was annoying me deeply that I had, yet again, committed myself to something that involved hard work and suffering just to be compared to others in arbitrary time terms.
In truth, anxiety was keeping me from enjoying it for what it is. Stupid anxiety. The hardest thing to deal with. Much harder than the physical act of climbing hills and pushing limits.
Fight or flight. I'm definitely a fighter in most situations. But the flight response is very strong when any event or race situation takes me back to proving myself, or facing up to failure. I admit that, without the company of Mark in the first part of the ride, I probably would have bailed within 30 km.
I would have missed so much if I had.
Wind turbines, hidden in the mists at 500 meters, such huge structures melting in and out of the backdrop. Mark investigated an open door at the base whilst the engineer was working, as I negotiated the first of countless 'throw the bike over' situations. The locked gate on the right-of-way nothing to do with the turbine company, apparently. I was immediately glad to have such a lightly packed bike.
The high turbine passes, sections of the Kerry Ridgeway, Offa’s Dyke all gave chance for soul riding and I tried to appreciate it as if I was touring.
We were playing leapfrog with a number of riders for a while, and opening of gates was shared between us.
Throughout the day I found my climbing get stronger and stronger. It’s difficult to drop your own pace on steep climbs, you have to find the rhythm to keep going, but I was more than happy to get the work done and then sort whatever gate was at the top, and grab a photo.
Mark was never far behind, even though he was beginning to feel like he was chasing me. There is no doubt he remained stronger on the tops and long false flats. Plus, there were plenty of places to regroup. Including mid welsh traffic jams:
It wasn't all easy going, with some rough field crossings and rutted pathways....
.....but mostly we pedalled up, and rolled down, gravel for the first part of the ride.
There was a cruel climb/push up to Bucknell, with the most outstanding views if you stopped to look back.
Which led to a drop into the forest. It was a surprise to suddenly find myself somewhere recognisable.
Suddenly the pink line had disappeared, the designated route was gone. It wasn’t a long trek to find it again thank goodness. I didn’t think too much about it, other than it was following the general direction of the route and we had just cut across to the main fire road a little later. Apparently this may not have been the case and we were almost-jokingly accused of cheating by cutting off a corner. I'm not so sure but, if it’s any consolation, it wasn't deliberate and I followed the route to the letter after that, including through unrideable bar-high bracken, despite knowing there was a far better option just 10 meters below following the main RoW.
There was no water stops at all between the start and Knighton at 100 km. I had purification tablets so started looking for a stream and knew there was one in Bucknell, however, we arrived in the village to see signs for ‘parking’ and ‘toilets’. “Great, let’s see if we can get water in the toilet block”. We asked a local lady where they are and she replied “sorry they were just for the village fayre, but you can fill up at mine, I only live down there in the bungalow”. So we follow her, expecting to find an outside tap or similar, but instead we are welcomed inside, despite being covered in mud, across carpets and to the kitchen. We were offered food too, although we both had way more than we needed anyway.
Turns out her and her husband are bikers, and it was lovely to meet these wonderful people, interested in the event and why so many riders about. We didn’t think anything of that either, but then after I did start to ponder whether this was outside assistance? It was luck (not a planned meet) and would have been available to all if they had been lucky enough to be the ones to ask. We also weren’t dependent on it. Then I thought some more and decided bollocks to worrying about it. I would make the same decision again. Interacting with strangers, getting to know them and just generally feeling goodness in the human spirit is a very important part of long distance riding, especially when there are a load of cyclists pouring through their village.
We reached Knighton and heading to the café for coffee, beans on toast, a chat with some other riders refuelling for the next stage (see photo above for a rather impressive energy stash by one of the guys!) I looked over to the SPAR and knew, if I had been on my own, I would have rushed in there, grabbed some Coke, and been back out. I was starting to struggle a little with trying to ‘tour’ the route rather than getting my head down and getting it done. Now the distance halfway turn was done, I could feel myself starting to come alive a little. However, I was also torn, I didn’t want to leave Mark. Had had got me through the mental demons at the start, and his company is always fantastic. We'd laughed and joked and discussed bad films! Hopefully with a little food we would be riding well together for the rest of the ride.
I adored the sections after Knighton to the Bwlch-y-Sarnau community project. High moorland crossings, relatively dry from the good weather (the riders were blessed by the weather gods in 2016, it would have been a very different story after weeks of rain) and the impending dusk.
We watched a murmuration against the red sky, and found our souls again for a while. I was so happy to be there and no where else by that point. This was particularly evident considering the time of day.
Normally, on any kind of distance ride, I suffer with acute homesickness for a few hours as the sun sets, which normally passes once the 'night proper' starts. It’s strange, I don’t know why it is, but I am used to it and deal with it when it happens. It didn’t happen on the BB200. Maybe because, by then, I was aware of how strong I was starting to feel, and I knew I would be ‘home’ before morning. Who knows.
Then a significant mechanical hit. Or at least, it could have been significant. My pedals slipped a few times, and then back wheel locked up completely. For around 60 km previous to that point I had been subjected to gear skipping problems and for some reason the chain wouldn’t go into the top sprocket until I had tightened the barrel adjuster so tight that it pulled it over. Now though, the wheel wouldn’t turn. Brake? Jockey Wheels? Please, please, please not freehub. It’s well known that the awful Roval hubs have a habit of failing spectacularly.
Investigation was required. Looking over it, the problem was obvious. The rear axle had come undone, the wheel was now wedged and the axle looked bent. Some brute force and an allen key was all that was needed to get it back in place and tightened up. Luck was spectacularly on my side and now all I had was some slightly out-of-sync gears. It could have been so much worse.
After the wonky wheel and gears were sorted, climbing became even easier and I was happy to really let loose on the descents. I was loosing Mark a lot, not deliberately, but because this part of the ride was just tough climb after tough climb. I reassured him the community café was coming soon but he was struggling by that point, not helped by chasing me. In the end, I rode on for the last 2 kms to the café, to make sure it was open, and to have a bit of time to assess what to do if it wasn’t.
It was open. Warm Welcoming Welsh Wonderfulness. Thank goodness. A place to fill up on beans and jacket potato, and drink coffee.
I hadn't been there long when Mark arrived, looking cold and admitting he was needing a good stop. I made sure he knew that I was happy to carry on riding with him, I was happy to stick together and with a bit of food he'd probably be feeling better, but it was clear he needed a bigger break. It wasn't cold by any stretch, yet Mark was shivering and tired.
If I am honest, I was a little relieved. By then I was chomping at the bit, knowing what was left, how strong I was feeling and how keen I was to finish under 24 hours. Let off the leash, full of jacket potato and beans, coffee and confidence, I was ready to get some work done.
It was only then I realised what the event was about. I was alone, ready to face the challenge and totally in the moment. It was pitch black as I picked up the muddy trails and roads to Llanidloes and I felt comfortable knowing that, even solo, I had no fear of being in the middle of the hills, no worry about whether I could handle the remaining 60 km, despite knowing they were to be the toughest both physically and from a navigational point of view. "I am happy nightriding and I am experienced at distance work" I said to myself. It would all be fine. I didn't care about my time, or anyone else's for that matter.
There was one creeping nagging doubt. Water. Like a total novice, I had forgotten to refill at the community hall. Dropping into Llanidloes, pub emptying was well underway and I figured the toilets would be locked. I could always sterilise river water, but then the lights of the Kebab shop came into view. Two cans of Pepsi thrown in the bladder with the remaining water would see me through, and the caffeine would help keep me buzzing. I'm not sure I was the most popular person to visit that evening, covered and stinking of sheep shit, getting mud and goodness knows what on the tables as I sorted the camelbak, but there was no complaint from the nice guys behind the counter. I set off happy and ready to finish the ride, taking the last photo of the evening on the way out. No time for photos now.
Hafren Forest was a real adventure. I barely saw another rider, although overtook a few on the big climbs, grateful for my easy gearing. Singlespeeders are masochists; statement of fact.
There was wide forest trails, swoopy bridleways, washed out, almost technical descents, river crossings and I relished being able to deal with it all. The trail passed through a 'no access' sign and barriered road, but forestry workers were hardly going to be active in the early hours so I pressed on, under the big crane, past the log piles and back to the comfort of the main fire road. The road went down, then a rutted mostly unrideable climb took us back up. Well above 400 meters familiarity returned with 'The Star' pub at Dylife. This also signaled the end of well trodden, well discernible and well ridable trails. Soon the hike-a-bike would start.
It felt like an hour to cross one field. After a few minutes of sensible 'assessment', there was one thing for it. Get the front of the bike and drag it through the impenetrable bracken, as close to the pink line as possible. Eventually an almost-trail was noted, probably demarking the passage of the early riders. Still tough going, at least it became bike-pushing, scooting, a bit of riding, pushing again. The work kept me occupied physically and mentally and I had forgotton all about the clock, speed, placings and 'competition'. It was me, and the challenge, and that was it.
I can't remember the number of times I criss-crossed barbed wire fences, pondering which side I needed to be. The frame started to suffer as my arms tired and I got lazy. I didn't care about the scratched custom-paint one iota at the time. I may have whimpered a little when it was being jetwashed later!
I distinctly remember looking at the Garmin screen and finding myself no longer on the pink line (which was somewhere 10 meters to the right) but on a blue line....a mapped stream. I certainly couldn't see the stream through the scrub, tussocks and bog-grass, but I could feel it, rushing through my Primaloft boots. Good job they are warm when wet. There was an unsettling sense of guilt. I'm not sure traipsing through untouched bog-land and bracken really sits well with the 'leave no trace' philosophy, but it was too late by then so I dragged myself and the bike back out, vowed to concentrate harder on the screen and get back close to the pink line. If I kept putting one foot in front the other, I would eventually get through it, there is always an end, even if it's not in sight.
I kept my head down, negotiated off-camber grass with no visible trails, flicked lights to 'bright' to spot gates and negotiate rutted steep descents, flicked lights to 'minimum' on climbs, to preserve batteries until they were needed. I became increasingly grateful for the good weight distribution of the luggage to the front and centre of the bike, handling was fantastic and I could let (relatively) loose on the descents.
Faffy stuff, which earlier in the ride hadn't bothered me, really annoyed me now. The bar light started rattinling and pointing the wrong way on faster sections so a lot of fiddling with an allen key was required to tighten a stupidly placed bolt. My dropper post had gone past the point of being a bit sticky, to being a right royal PIA. Batteries in the head torch were changed. I got aggravated by my shoe laces that kept undoing themselves, I just wanted to keep going and stay in the zone. There were better things to do than mess about with batteries, that climb wasn't going to climb itself. I didn't need to stop to soak up the scenery, I needed to keep interacting with it.
A difficult off-camber traverse adjacent to a barbed wire fence eventually came out on the last rutted descent. Through the farm swamp at the bottom, out onto the road, and then I knew I was home and dry. In just over 20 hours. I had worked well on the last section, got through it, avoided the sleep fairies and pushed on with an increasingly sore ankle (turned out to be three rather nasty insect bites). I was glad to find that Mark had got back safely too, although he had to unfortunately take the road option due to lost batteries.
Was I happy with my performance? Did I feel a massive sense of achievement? Not even close.
This year, the Weather Gods smiled on the riders, we were lucky. The route was pretty straight forward until the last 15 kms, although I wouldn't say easy. Of course, the elite pointy end were round in under 16 hours, and calls to make things tougher have been banded by a few. But everyone who worked hard, wherever they were in the pack, deserves credit. For some folk a 200 km mountain bike ride is an absolutely huge undertaking.
For me though, I didn't feel I deserved any credit. I left feeling like I had massively underachieved. Physically I think I had more, but my weak mental ability to deal with competition was, like always, the limiting factor. Could I have got round quicker? Three hours of my time was stationary, of course I could streamline my time off the bike. When audaxing I wouldn't ever dream of having more than an hour out of 24 stationary. Could I have gone faster physically? Maybe, who knows, although even with a little more pace I'd not save a huge amount of time. There is often a very fine line between 'OK' and 'too hard too fast and dying too soon'. I am never going to be a sub-16 hour rider, that's for the genetically gifted. I will always be steady on the flat, on tarmac and into a headwind, although I can indeed continue to work on improving those things. But I can tell you now that, on Saturday, I couldn't have got round quicker, because I was mentally too weak to face up to the challenge, face up to putting in a time and going out hard from the start, and face up to truly testing myself. I wouldn't have even been there without Mark talking me through the desire to bail.
Self-limiting by trying to 'enjoy it', to 'take it steady' did me no favours other than teach me that, if I ever do an event like this again, it's a pointless exercise to try and force appreciation of it.
Touring, which I adore, gives me time to treasure the place I am in, absorb the beauty of what I am seeing. Pushing myself off road on endurance events doesn't allow that. I wasted a large amount of mental energy trying to force being in the moment by looking around. However, once I found my 'zone', it became something else entirely. It allowed me to become part of the place, connect with it, bounce off it, fight against it and solve the puzzles it threw up. It was rewarding and satisfying in a very different way.
I just wish I could deal better with the anxiety that limits my understanding and appreciation of this, and that brings out the worst in who I am. I desperately wish I could be like my amazing friend Jo who has the best attitude to racing/events/riding in general out of anyone I know. She's provided so much inspiration to deal with my demons, for I see her calmly grasping life with both hands, no matter what the result will be. I just want to be able to accept that I can only do my best, and that self sabotaging and thus giving myself an excuse to say 'well, I could have gone harder' just leaves me empty and feeling like I am cheating myself. Self-limiting doesn't mean I could have gone quicker, it just means I was too weak mentally to even try.
It's funny writing this now in hindsight. I know others will be reading it and thinking 'what the hell is she on about', it's a nothing-thing, a non-entity, it just doesn't matter. Indeed, I look back at what I have written and I think 'get a grip, there are people starving in the world and you are writing about self-induced race anxiety'. Then I think, but that's the point. That's part of my fascination with it. How can something so unimportant and pointless be so hard to overcome?
You know what though, standing back and reading through this again, I did the best with what I had. I got there to the start, I fought through the demons, and I got round within the time goal I had set for myself. I certainly learnt a lot, mostly about my own response to events, and, without a doubt, it was wonderful to ride in the best bit of Wales. Would I do it again. No. Well, perhaps maybe....