Saturday, 25 March 2017

Tough and Testing Touring

I know it's the end of March, and this is rather late in write up terms, but I just want to share this mini-adventure from February. Perhaps it'll give a bit of inspiration to get out and about, even when the weather isn't great.


It was supposed to be a nice early spring time jolly. Visions of blue skies and drinking tea in single digit windspeeds bounded around my brain as plans were laid.


I'd get a lift to Hereford saving legs from trundling along all-to-well-know terrain, and then relish in 77 kms of off road adventure and linking lanes to a, seemingly perfect, little campsite near Builth. I'd chill out under the tarp, brewing up tea in the Jetboil, and reading. Sunday would be a steadier, but longer, distance with only a little off-road and gently rolling tarmac to cover the 100 km home.  It would be bone dry, and dusty, too.


The best laid plans of mice and men, often go awry.......

In the UK, the weather being the trigger to send those plans into uncertainty. The forecast worsened through the week, with white cloud, to grey, to showers to, by Friday, the promise of tough winds and persistent rain.


I went anyway.

If you wait for the good weather before you have an adventure, you will be waiting a very long time.

It was dry but moody as I left Steve at the lay-by just south of Hereford, and I winched the bike uphill into the unknown.


Roads I've never seen.


Unsurfaced lanes I've never covered.


Strange places in the back of beyond.


Then suddenly I'd recognise the tarmac. Like this crossing. Yet again I stopped for a train here. More often than not I have waited here. What are the chances of that?


The headwind blew and blew as I headed West, the first 10 km on easy gentle terrain, although little shelter from the oncoming barrage.

Then a climb, up up and away into the savage hills that would take me to Builth.

A Bermuda triangle of a woodland with magnificently dry sweeping singletrack bridleway. A few fallen trees to negotiate, but otherwise, just perfect riding.


The Garmin pink line weaved me through the trees and all was well. Then suddenly the track diverted. The line was lost in real time.

I had no choice but to follow the path well trod until i could find something to link to the pink line again, for the woodland was too dense to negotiate as the crow flies.

Then an opening appeared. Felling had flattened a wide section of woodland in either direction.


I pushed in a general trajectory toward the pink line but my feet, and the bike, were rapidly sinking into the soft mud. Another 'almost-trail' heading toward to the route appeared, and this was followed too. Until it became an impassible bog.

Has the monotony of this prose got to you yet? For the monotony of fighting through a woodland was starting to get to me.


Then suddenly a trail. Swooping singletrack converging with the pink line. Thank goodness.

Until...'I recogise that fallen tree' and I was back where I had started.

Don't panic, Mr Mannering. There is enough to survive two days atop the Brecons in an emergency. I'm sure we'll cope if we get stuck in a little woodland! It is a sure sign that I am getting into the spirit of things (loosing the plot?) when the bike and I are thought of as first person plural in my head.


Eventually I found my way through. A 10 minute woodland passage that took an hour. It was with relief and big smiles that the exit was negotiated, and the following easy-rolling byway was greatly appreciated.


More sections of off-road followed. Streams were crossed,


Hillsides, traversed:


Peacocks, passed:


House of hammer horror homes, circumvented.


The effort of lugging a 60lb touring set up through undergrowth had taken more out of me than I realised, although it wasn't until I saw the impending storm heading over Hay Bluff that I finally sat and ate. I knew the dry weather would soon be lost.


A byway on the map suggested an almighty climb to a mast of some sort, but the path following wasn't clear.


In the end it was a trip up, and back from, whence I came, but worth it for the murmuration, and absolutely heartbreaking views under the last of the sunshine.


The rainbow signified the end of those rays, and the ridgelines took on a different feel. Epic, desolate, but never dangerous.


The winds built up and I felt exposed, but at home, even though I had never crossed this way before. Photos were difficult as the winds blew relentlessly, even the bike wouldn't stay stood still.


Prayer flags, seemingly at home in the mountain-like gales, danced adjacent to a Citroen 2CV.



Yes, the hilltops felt safe, no matter the conditions. Contrast this to the lanes somewhere in Powys, where paranoia of being followed by a man in a white van saw me pedaling harder than I would like to find another 'not suitable for motor vehicles' sign.


The white van man was probably only feeding sheep, but a tired brain plays tricks, especially after meeting him twice, head-on, to stares and long pauses as he watched me pedal away in his rear view mirror.


I reminded myself of the message left by the Quakers in the tiny chapel that had welcomed me in just 30 minutes before....that there is good in all of us. I was glad for their kindness, leaving a heater, kettle, hot drinks and biscuits with just an honest box for donations, and wished that they were right.


That there could be good in everyone, or at least, we all believed that there was. The world would no doubt be a better place. But wishing something is true, and actually believing it, are not the same.


I was grateful for the motorbiking enduro riders holding the gate for me as I headed up. A little human contact put the white van man paranoia into perspective and reality was resumed. I chuckled and agreed wholeheartedly that I definitely needed an engine as I struggled to keep the touring load moving up the steep incline, and their smiles reminded me that, indeed, most humans are just good folk.


Once on the rugged hilltops, the mind stopped pondering life, love and the human condition, and just spent time appreciating the solitude and the unpredictability of the weather. I felt safe again. The gales blew the cobwebs from my soul, although they didn't blow the tiredness from my legs and the headwind took the last of my effort away.


Thankfully, it wasn't far until the stop, and the drop to the campsite, stalled only briefly by a lost pannier, was a steady cruise of relief.


The rain paused for a while, just for me, I am sure, although the wind did not. Erecting the tarp was a challenge in itself, but eventually it was secured and held, no matter how much it flapped in the crosswinds of the plain. It may have seemed a sheltered campsite on the map, but at over 200 m elevation, those winds held strong.


No matter, warmth in the campsite kitchen, hot showers and many cups of tea were enough to set me up for a good nights sleep. The new Exped Winterlite mat lived up to my very high hopes. Immediately warm and exceptionally comfy. That, with my normal over-the-top winter sleepbag set up, saw proper warmth, even on wet and cold February night.


The next day I felt tired. Not muscle tired, fatigued, like the virus I have been carrying on and off all winter was taking advantage of the situation. Painkillers took the edge off and I started the trip home as best I could, with a fabulous tailwind for a while. Then gears started to play up, not just skipping, but chainsuck of a type I have never experienced. I couldn't run the bike in granny gear for more than a few revolutions. The chainrings were just worn out and there would be no correcting it. I pushed as big a gear as I could manage on the climbs, but there was only so much I could do and I stalled and stumbled when the pedals locked on a 20% lane.

I just took a step back and had a bit of break. Right there, next to the medieval and macabre display of the mole-control man.


A section of off-road byway followed and it was a wonderful place to be.



However, the gears made the climb difficult, and the descent was marred by re-opening of a tyre split.


I may have panicked a little at first, stuck in the middle of nowhere, watching sealant spray out helplessly. Absolutely no phone signal, and two potentially major mechanical issues. Then I realised just how well prepared I was. I had enough kit to keep me safe and warm in the event of an accident, nevermind a mechanical.


The SPOT tracker was on and sending my location to Steve, so he would know exactly where I was. I had a tubeless repair kit, and a tube in the event of an emergency. I could always singlespeed the bike if I needed to, to pull the chain tight and stop it sucking.


It would be fine, "I'm a big girl now".  In the end, perseverance with the pump got the tyre fix to reseal again, and I made the decision to just trundle back on lanes to minimise pressure on the pedals and reduce the chainsuck, somewhat.


It was tough, if I am honest, I was tiring and my lack of endurance training over the winter started to show. I promised myself a stop at Kington on the way through, but there was nowhere decent open.


Then Leominster; honest, I'm going to stop....but I couldn't face the queues in the coffee shop.


As it was, eventually, a small bus shelter and the last of my couscous was all that was needed to see me home. I sat for a while, reading and partially wishing I didn't have to deal with the upcoming climbs. That's home, those hills, right there in the distance. Three ridgelines away.


It's not use wishing though, some things just have to be done, and those climbs eventually fell, even if it was with numerous stops to un-jam the chain.


The frustrations of those last miles didn't crush the memories of the weekend as a whole and it was with happiness that I arrived home, my vagabond tendencies satisfied for a while