Saturday, 6 May 2017

The Welsh Ride Thing WRT2017

The Welsh Ride Thing (#WRT) 2017 was to be our first joint two night trip and the first for Steve with his own bivvy kit. Alpkit had worked miracles, despite Steve's last minute order, and finished his frame bag literally just in time for it to arrive the morning before. We were still putting the bikes together at midnight on the Friday, checking off lists and decided what not to take. Still, the leisurely lunchtime kick-off meant an easy Saturday lie-in, and a lovely drive through Powys to Bearbones Towers. 

As always, the start was chaos. 126 bikes trying to find prop-up space, and everyone admiring/wincing/wondering and everyone else's set-ups. In contrast to last years WRT, I was more than happy with mine. The Sturdy Cycles steel frame is perfect for the job, and the tried and well tested Alpkit soft luggage provides plenty of kit room.

Bikepacking is one of the few times I would consider running a rigid fork through choice, although I pretty much always return to thinking suspension is the best option. I was certainly glad of the 130 mm fork up front on this trip.

The usual Bearbones shenanigans of the raffle, weigh-in and sweepstake (guess the heaviest / lightest bike) proceeded. Top notch prizes had been donated from the event sponsors this year and anticipation was high as everyone waited in hope for their names to be drawn, and for bear-crisps and water bottles to be thrown into the melee.

Steve and I missed the weigh-in cut off, not that either of us were challenging for the lightest bike and kit (32lb) or the heaviest (Over 130 lb this year taken by 5 year old Seth and his Dad on their tandem-trailer). We did, however, ask the man nicely and he did it anyway. Steve's came in at a whopping 61 lb, although he was carrying 3 full litres of water and a massive sleeping bag. His face says it all!

I was exceptionally pleased to find mine came in at 49lb. I had two litres of water, enough sweets for three days, and enough proper food for a day and a half as well as carrying all my own kit (we didn't share anything other than a water filter which I carried, and the tea/coffee which Steve packed). This was my fully sufficient comfort kit for unpredictable spring weather, and yet still 10 lb lighter than last year. Weight savings mainly in the bike frame, loosing panniers, streamlining clothing, and leaving a book behind.

I only missed the book.

We were off. Down the farmtrack, then up, up and away into the Cambrian Hills. Soon we were over 400 meters, and smiling at the views, and the dry weather.

Fantastic doubletrack went on for miles. Great gravel riding, rolling along up high and allowing us to pedal, cruise and chat side by side.

The well marked byways and bridleways in Wales tend to, on the whole, be better maintained than the equivalent in England.

It was very windy though, sheep wool blowing wildly, trapped in fences. These are the small details that you only start to notice when you finally get away from modern life.

"What is this life, if full of care?  We have no time to stand and stare".

A fabulous section of singletrack rolled alongside a valley, easily rideable in the wonderfully dry conditions and we were both enjoying the flow.

Suddenly we were faced with the first reasonably technical descent of the day. Of course, on a trail bike, with a dropper post, grippy wide tyres and no luggage, it would be no challenge at all. However, on a hardtail, with pumped up tyres, saddle and saddle bag stopping weight shifting and luggage throwing the balance well out from normal, it was a whole different kettle of fish. Frantic fun though, and very rewarding to arrive at the bottom in one piece. I love running panniers when I am pootling about on my own, but I have to admit, the soft luggage is much more versatile for maneuvering on the trails and trying to keep up with Steve.

More soulriding on doubletrack followed. There is nowhere I have ridden, as of yet, that hits my heart like Mid Wales.

The trails rolled on for miles. We were close to the clouds, and well away from civilization. It was a lost world of heathland. I say well away from civilisation, that is, other than WRT riders, who seemed to spring up everywhere, criss-crossing us time and again. Riders head out for miles in every direction, and yet still bump into each other as the organiser-provided grid references give similar focus to their rides. I think this is part of what makes the event so special.

The end was nigh for the high ground. Instinctively we seemed to know, round the next corner, a plummet would begin, and we would be dropping off the edge of the Cambrians into the Dovey Valley.

The scenery is pretty dramatic at the northern end of Mid Wales, the folded terrain disintegrating under it's own steepness and scree rolling into the valley below. Thank goodness for pig-wire fencing keeping us safe.

"Can we ride down that way"? "No dear, this is not Red Bull Rampage and I don't have the right tyres......"

Stick to the main path we did, but, as before, descending takes on a whole different dimension with a loaded bike.

I found myself flitting between concentrating for dear life and giggling stupidly as the bike flew uncontrollably over the loose, exceptionally steep, doubletrack. It was all quite insane!

Oops. Gate is broken....

The rocks and stone changed to grass for the latter part. I'd rather the stone scree myself. Grassy sections result in speed running away with itself, which is fine. Until it's not.

We both survived though, and relived the scary moments until we reached the tarmac again.

A field full of sheep and lambs, cows and calves, and a horse with a foal. Who knew you could just throw them into one space with no trouble?

We had a fair few miles on tarmac over the weekend, but it was all single lane stuff, quiet, with barely a car.

A stunning arced tree.

One of the grid references lead to a little stream crossing. It took us a while to find it, as we overshot the turn and pedalled up a big tarmac climb for a while until a lady stopped us. She was very helpful, and described how 'the cyclists' all turn off at the bottom and follow the trail. It was nice to meet such a friendly person, and we didn't mind so much having made a wrong turn. The people you meet on the big journeys are as important as experiencing the scenery through which you pass.

The bridge was falling apart, with a totally unstable right hand bar. It was still preferential to wet feet. My waterproof boots are great until submerged; once full of water, they stay that way. I spent much of the weekend avoiding fords and river crossings if alternatives were available. Boring and sensible, but oh-so-much better than crinkled-toes.

I did have to get Steve to carry the bike over for me though, there was only so much vertigo I could take.

Yet more lovely off-road followed. We bumped into a couple of Dyfi Enduro riders, one of which I know a little from MTBking. It's a small world, this cycling world of ours. Our paths crisscrossed paths a few times before we split off and headed toward a rather large hill.

The farm track began to point upwards, but retained a rideable nature and we smiled in the sunshine.

I'm not sure we would have smiled so much if we had known what was coming up. Oops. My one and only significant plotting 'error' of the weekend. Well, error is a wide term. I actually don't mind a bit of hike a bike, but we were pushing up an awesome descent and Steve is still recovering from a nasty ankle injury which makes any kind of pushing very awkward.

We stopped at the gate halfway up to regroup, appreciate the stunning view, and get the Jetboils on the go. Steve needed to eat. I needed a cuppa.

It turned out to be a great place to sit. Another mountainbiker was passing, and stopped to chat for quite some time, asking about the WRT, our kit, our riding, and discussing his. It was nice to exchange pleasantries with people who understood the point of being there. Another WRT rider rode by, and we pondered if he would make it up the rest of the climb.

He did not. Neither did we. Turns out I had routed us up 'The Chute', a marginally famous steep rocky and rutted descent. One to reverse for next time.....

Still, the singletrack at the top was nice.

Following on from here, we had some potentially interesting bog land to cross. There was no significant track on the map, just a vague bridleway, and no obvious track on the satellite view. I couldn't avoid it on the plotting without a massive diversion, and decided it was worth the risk.

Thank goodness for dry weather. That's all I can say about that.

It did however, as planned, drop us onto the byways leading into the back of Nant-yr-Arian trail centre. Here we bumped into another WRT rider, who we had already passed in the morning (apologies I have no name) and rode with him for a bit. We were informed he had done 24 miles and was planning to get as far South as possible that evening. Good on him, it's nice to see someone on a mission.

We, on the other hand, were not planning on anything endurance-like, so we hung back and chilled whilst watching him plough ahead.

I was out of drinking water, so stopped to use the Sawyer water filter at a stream crossing. We soon saw Nick approach and shouted a warning about the big wheel swallowing hole that had been, erm, interesting when we had passed through just before. Turns out Nick and I know of each other vaguely through the Audax world, and it was great to have a chat whilst I struggled to get the filter to work. That small cycling world again, eh?

The WRT was Nick's first bike and bivvy style event and it sounded like a massive amount of preparation and planning had gone into it. It made me realise that, though I don't bivvy out as much as I would like, it doesn't take much to become at ease with it. Although the learning never really stops, I am certainly adept at kit prep and route planning now. Or maybe, as time goes on and I move further and further away from the restrictions of Audaxing, I am just getting carefree/careless with my time and miles.

Nick had a great bike, a classic 'ProFlex' in spitspot condition.

Eventually I had to give in an accept the water filter was knackered. That advice they give about flushing through with bleach before storage? Don't ignore it kids! We didn't have too many miles to reach the Nant-yr-Arian centre and I figured I'd be able to get enough water in the 24 hour disabled loo, so held off filling up and using sterilising tabs and got back on the road.

It made the decision for me that, at least in Wales, a water filter is a waste of time. There always seems to be some kind of water tap eventually. I can always resort to sterilizing tablets and just wash out the hydration pack at the first mains water opportunity. Less faff, less bulk. I'd get another Sawyer Mini Filter for longer journeys, but right now I feel in no rush to replace it.

I had managed to keep my feet dry so far, and had no desire to fail in this task, so picked a hop-skip route round this Ford crossing. On day trips, or even one overnighter, I don't mind wet feet, but two days of it, when the risk can be fully mitigated, is not for me. Wimpy? Do I look like I care?

Crossing to Nant-yr-Arian purpose built MTB trails we bumped into the other WRT rider, yet again! Who's name I still don't know.

We rode on and off as a group for a while, and Nick got this fantastic picture of myself and Steve grinning like children whilst descending some of the doubletrack.

This little bridge was a challenge from this direction, with a big step up.

Steve, of course, made it look easy and just popped his front wheel up like it was nothing. I dream of being this awesome!

It was nice to be back in Nant-yr-Arian as we had celebrated our wedding by riding here, less than two months before. Although we could have been anywhere according to Steve who just couldn't recognise the bridleway trails when ridden backwards. This is why I do the navigating.

Round the corner, a big group of WRT riders. And a unicyclist. As you do.

Angry face at flappy solar panel on brilliant High as a Kite descent. Bad solar panel!

Soon it was sorted and he was off flying down the trails like a maniac again. It was really nice not having panniers on for the trail centre stuff, although the little jumps and drops we don't think about on a trail bike became a whole different challenge requiring a fair amount of oomph to get the bikes airbourne, even with soft luggage.

We eyed up the watching shelter on the way down as a potential overnight spot but decided against it, and it didn't take long until we noticed someone else had taken up the option. No-tarp-needed spots are good, but we had settled on another plan....

Water bladders filled, we headed back up to the top, to ride the Italian Job and Mark of Zorro trails before hitting a pitch at the base of the massive leg burner descent. The climb would be a good warm up in the morning I told Steve, "a nice steady start to the day". He looked at me like I was mental, but soon realised he was out-voted by my veto on all matters navigation.

It was such a gorgeous evening we couldn't resist getting some pics on the way.

This is a great descent on a trail bike, much air time, really pumpy and superfast.

Not so fast on the loaded bikes, but it was still a wonderful long cruise downhill in the evening sun

Still swooshy on the corners too, with all the weight over the front end, the bikes cornered pretty well. Technical stuff and the jumps were more interesting, but rewarding when they did go well.

From memory I recalled the trail lead right to the base of the valley, and it was flat. It was certainly flat on the wide bridleway verge and I knew we wouldn't be seeing anyone else, other than possibly a few nightriding mountainbikers. It seemed like a fantastic pitch.

It was very far from fantastic. For a start it was solid rock under that grass and getting the pegs through was more than a little tough going. Although once they were in, they were staying that way! It's a good job too, as low down in the valley it may be, sheltered it was not. Once we pitched up the wind started building and building. By 10 pm I was in my bivvy listening to the roar of the wind chasing down the valley, gaining momentum and volume, lambasting my tarp and finally hitting Steve's. By midnight I had given up and tried take the tarp down, then changed my mind when the weather felt like rain. In the end I did manage some sleep by just moving my head outside of the tarp, as inside was so loud when a gust hit. How can the flimsy thin fabric of a Deschutes tarp make a noise like the clappers?

Steve didn't sleep at all. This is what he thought of my camp spot (I have no idea why I ever take selfies when he is in camera shot)

Despite the tiredness, the legburner climb was indeed a good warm up and the morning was lovely and dry, if still very windy.

The long, steady gradient really got the legs going and we dropped down to the centre again to refill water and brew up out of the furious wind. Lots of other WRT riders appeared. Various mechnicals needed sorting, including my front tyre tubeless repair plug which had been forcing itself back out the day before and was no longer holding air. We decided to risk redoing the repair, much to the fascination of a few other riders. The repair held, and not only that, held all weekend and didn't loose a drop of sealant. It was a reminder that I need not to be slack with replacing kit before big rides. I had pondered a new tyre but just didn't get round to getting it sorted.

Before long we were away from the comfort of a trail centre and into the wilds of Mid Wales again. Tarmac first, for a while, but on beautiful lanes that never bored.

I'm not sure we saw a car for many a mile

Eventually we dropped down another one of those almighty hairyscary shale covered steep-as-you-like off-road tracks, laughing interspersed with gasping as the bike slid around all over the place. Recovering a bad line with luggage is very difficult at times, but it's fulfilling to survive to see another day when you do pull it back.

No photos of the decscent, it was hard enough with two hands on the bars.

There were long necked funny shaped sheep at the bottom to greet us though.

Alpacas are just comedy gold, without even trying. Love these guys! So inquisitive and curious.

Bluebells were out in force in the sheltered areas of the valleys, and the lanes were lined with wildflowers as we pedaled around Rheidol Reservoir.

We even had a tailwind for a while which really made us smile :)

I may have forgotten about this little gem of a killer climb though. Aberffwrd to A4120. Horrendous, even with a granny gear. The mid section must be 25% at least, for quite some time. I've ridden most of the tough Welsh climbs, and this one is up there with the worst.

Not smiling now.

Scottish flag in Wales. I don't know why I felt the need to get a pic, it just made me wonder.

Back off the tarmac at this point, but the beautiful view and excitement of the trails to come contrasted with what we were about to find.

This poor lady was probably dying, in pain, and her lamb would soon be struggling for milk. Initially we thought she might just be led on her back and stuck, but she really was not. Maybe colic, maybe septic, maybe anything, either way, she was very very ill and there was nothing we could do to help. We knocked on door after door after door and no one was in. There was no phone signal anywhere to make a call. I found some people on foot, they were tourists. Eventually we saw two quads whizz past but they were going too fast to catch them. I doubt she would have made it til the end of the hour, nevermind the day, but at least she was close to the gate and adjacent to the access track so hopefully would get picked up by the farmer when they run the field checks. Maybe. Who knows. It made me very sad and I hated feeling so useless to ease her suffering.

After covering some miles looking for help, we had to give in and move on with a heavy heart.

A field of cows suddenly became something much more when we realised one of them was definitely a bull, and he was definitely heading our way. Putting the bikes between us and them, we walked calmly and steadily until we were past and then pedaled like maniacs to the gate. Welcome to farming dominated rural Wales.

A jet boil stop by the river was a welcome relief. It was very clear there would be no way that we would fit in much, if any, of my day 2 mileage, especially with the lost time looking for help for the sheep, so I assessed the route to ensure a good shortcut whilst we drank tea.

The shortcut took us pretty much into the day 3 route, which had been planned mostly around having a tailwind to blow us home. Not the case this weekend. The weird easterly was hitting us full bore in the face for most of the trip, but, unless you are trying to be somewhere in a hurry, accepting a headwind and just riding slower is the best way to handle it. It was enlivening to be up top in those kind of conditions. Still dry, but furious, weather and feeling very much like change was on the way.

The climb to 600 meters went on and on, but we chugged away, relishing the occasional stretch of tailwind when the path zigzagged west for a while.

Rain started to blow in, first in the distance, when we saw the hills disappear. Soon we could feel it too and prepared for the worst. In the end it didn't really come to much and surprisingly we escaped a proper soaking.

Me: "Stay there babe, I just want to get a photo of you up at 600 meters with this amazing heathland". Steve: "WHY DO I HAVE TO BE HERE"?

Just kidding, he enjoyed it really, and we were both mesmerized by the massive windmills. Maybe a little scared too as they sounded like they were on their last legs and getting a battering from the unusual easterly. Steve thought it would be an appropriate time to tell me about all the YouTube videos of exploding wind turbines.

Still, I couldn't help but stop and take photos, despite the imminent death.

I was out of water again, and resorted to filling up at a stream and chucking in some sterilising tablets. Quite glad I was to find a tap before the 30 minutes incubation time were up. It may have been fast-flowing water, but was also rather green.

A little more car-less tarmac followed and we were starting to ponder supplies. We had no proper food left, and time was ticking on. We hadn't yet seen a shop all day. The high ground was starting to feel bleak, exposed and devoid of normal life.

Then, a proper plummet. I knew we would soon be at Llangurig. The minor panic over food could stop.

Oh food. £30 of carbs. We ate it all.

The amazing 4G coverage in Wales meant I could also double check the Sunday opening hours at Llanidloes. It was a huge surprise to find a) the Spar was open until late and b) Llanidloes was literally just a few miles up the road.

A hilly road. With donkeys. Apparently the grass IS always greener.

Llanidloes is one of my favourite towns in Wales. Steve let me loose in the Spar, and I came out with enough food to last a fornight. We didn't even eat again that night due to the massive pub feed. Ah well, extra weight on the bike is all good training, right?

This was a much easier sheep situation to deal with. One escaped lamb caught and sucessfully returned to his mum over the fence. It was very heartwarming to watch them run off together (to clarify, the lamb and his mum, not Steve and the lamb).

Me: "Ah Hafren Forest, it's just up the road from Llanidloes. Let's get to the picnic site and pitch there"


Ok, so maybe it wasn't quite up the road, but, despite the darkening skies, it was still pretty early when we eventually found the picnic spot. Working WC's but no tap water. We just filled up from the Severn. It was fine.

No wind. A soft pitch. Tarps pegged and ready before the heavy forcast rain hit. Not that I heard much of it, I think I slept 12 hours pretty much straight through. It was bliss.

We liked it here

In the morning I woke up and just led there watching the rain fall and the droplets glisten on the branches.

There was no rush to get up really, we weren't far away from the finish, although I was keen to ride my full route up to the top of the forest and back over the Machynlleth mountain road.

Best of all, the rain stopped as we got up, and we sat feeding the birds whilst the coffee brewed. Pot noodles and porridge for breakfast. Food of champions, don't you know?

We also saw an Osprey. You probably won't be able to though. He is in this photo, somewhere, I promise!

The rain died off for a while, but the mist in the forest stayed. It was a big climb up to the top, and a long sweeping descent back down on nothing more than gravel fireroad, but thoroughly enjoyable none-the-less. We saw no one else at all on this stretch and it felt very peaceful amongst the trees.

After Hafren, there was a choice. Roll straight down hill and home to Pennant, or turn and climb the Mountain Road and take the scenic route back. We had lots of time, and a fair amount of legs, left, so it was an easy decision. I really wanted Steve to see the wonders of the Mach road too. It's one of my favourite pieces of tarmac in the UK and even on a MTB it's pretty special.

Unless it's raining so hard, and you are descending so fast, you can't see a thing and all you can do is pray.

We turned off, nursing our stinging faces, and onto the unsurfaced tracks, away from the traffic and into the peace of the unsurfaced roads-less-travelled.

A big climb followed, and it was worth every pedal stroke for the views of the hidden valley. Properly folded Cambrian terrain. A perfect way to finish.

Back at base we were greeted by the wonderful Stew and Dee and their gorgeous greyhounds. Over lots of tea and cake we caught up with other WRT riders, heard their stories and started the gradual fall into 'real life'.

I really recommend the WRT for both novice and experienced bickpackers alike. If you want to go out, smash out miles, torture yourself with little sleep and minimal adventure kit, you can. You can tour a few miles a day and spent the rest in pubs and cafes. Or you can go half and half and have a little physical challenge and an awful lot of adventure.

Like life, the WRT is what you make it.