Day One: Birmingham to Rhayader – 139.4 km. 1,846 metre’s elevation gain.
The bike felt a little top-heavy as I clipped in and pedalled to catch up with the other three. We’d just waved an adventurous goodbye to our wives and kids in the pre-dawn twilight and, forgetting the bikepacking saddlebag on my seat post, I swung my leg over the rear wheel kicking my hat and tripod from their straps. Fumbling with the elastic and throwing the cap to my wife, I was already behind and we’d barely started!
Me, Tom, Ian and Chris were following our headlamps west, as far as we could ride until we hit the Irish Sea. We’d stop at Rhayader at the end of Day 1. Day 2 would see us through to Aberystwyth, where we’d catch a train back to Birmingham New Street. We’d opted for “posh bikepacking” – staying in a B&B rather than camping – as the mileage would be high so we were keen to keep the weight low. None-the-less, a hefty saddlebag stuffed with clothes, toiletries, chargers etc., a top tube bag full of snacks and tools, and a camera bag with spare lens strapped to the handlebars made for a clumsy first few miles getting used to the weight.
Our first milestone was meant to be Bewdley. We’d planned coffee stops at rough quarterly intervals throughout the days 140 total kilometres. We’d roll into Bewdley at around kilometre 35, the riverside town also marking the start of the serious hills. Unfortunately, as we neared Kidderminster, Ian was having some painful issues with his right knee. The month earlier he had completed the Cotswold Mad Hare sportive, but only just managed to cross the 75-mile finish line after damaging his knee. He could barely walk the following week! Clear that the injury had not gone away, he had to make the tough call to pull out now while still an easy train ride home, and still able to walk! So, coffee and snack bars at Kidderminster’s Severn Valley Railway station it would be, as we said our farewells to our fallen comrade. We were less than a sixth of the way into our Grand Tour and already one man down. But on the plus side, at least I’d no longer have to share a double bed that night!
So, after a quick refuel, a few miles later we were crossing the River Severn at Bewdley – swollen due to the downpours of storm Lorenzo – and about to grind up our first real hill. Climbing 150 metres of elevation gain over 5 kilometres, the first signs of a natural team formation on hills emerged as Chris accelerated off into the distance, leaving Tom and I gasping for breath while we found our pace. Before long Tom had also dropped out of sight behind me, and we’d entered our own climbing zones. This was also a peek at things to come for Tom, usually a capable climber with piston-like legs, but carrying the additional weight on the bike was proving challenging. We regrouped at the top and continued to ascend towards Shropshire and Clee Hill.
I can’t recall much of the climb up Clee Hill. Details fail to surface through the otherwise murky haze of my mind on that long beast of burden. I’m not sure how much time it took to reach the top. Minutes? Hours? Days? Maybe years!? But it was a dark period for all of us. (Especially Tom!) The village of Clee Hill sits at 380 meters above sea level and is the one of highest settlements in the county. Admittedly, the numbers aren’t impressive by Tibetan standards, but we’d effectively been pedalling uphill since crossing the River Severn at Bewdley – nestled in a valley 22 meters above sea level. Passing over the open moorland of Clee Hill (along with a cattle grid, which I’d never done before on skinny tyres!), the weather turned fittingly mountainous. A mist concealed any views while our bikes were buffeted by damp gusts. Regrouping at the top, Chris checked our progress.
To say it was encouraging to hear that we now had a 10 km race downhill into Ludlow, 300 vertical metres below us, was an understatement! This was literally the best news of the day so far! When the asphalt points downhill, is also when Tom comes into his element. I hurtled towards Ludlow topping out at a “not worth thinking about what might happen if I hit a pothole” 72.7 km/h. Chris peaked at 76.3 km/h. Tom shot passed us both, arms tucked tight and head just above the bars, reaching an absurd 85.7 km/hour!! We rolled into Ludlow ready for lunch, grinning beneath our helmets.
By now the sun was shining and the tables and chairs outside the Castle Lodge Buttery looked more than accommodating enough for our fatigued legs. One bacon, sausage and egg sandwich, two rounds of scrambled egg on toast and a couple of coffee’s later, we were ready to begin another gruelling climb out of Ludlow and away from civilisation. Leaving the main roads behind, we followed the lane up through Mortimer Forest and onto the tiny farm roads that criss-cross an otherwise empty patch of map between Ludlow and Knighton. Eager to reach the Welsh border, we pushed on, hoping to spot a “Welcome to Wales” sign with each bend in the road. Obligatory photo under the sign snapped, a few more wheel rotations would bring us into Knighton. At 100 kilometres in, this would be our final coffee and cake stop.
The Prince and Pugh in Knighton was an odd but welcoming little pitstop. Half hardware come brick-a-brack store, half traditional Welsh tearoom. And as always seems to be the case in Wales, the carrot cake was top notch! By this stage in our epic ride, reluctance to get moving again dominated our mood. One by one we climbed the three-story slanty old wooden staircase to use the toilet (a challenge in itself in cleats!), before re-attaching ourselves to our bikes and coasting sluggishly off towards Rhayader. By the time we turned off the main road and onto a ridiculously steep single-track lane, Tom had entered his dark place. As we would later learn, it was going to take a few beers, a decent meal and a good ten hours sleep to bring him out of it! Chris, on the other hand, bounced gleefully up and along the hellish country lanes, saddlebag wagging like an excited spaniel as he disappeared out of sight. I sat down into my lowest gear, aware that the next 40 km’s would do all they could to let us know they were there.
While we ascended further into the Welsh foothills, black clouds started looming on the western horizon. Before long, we were high on an open moorland surrounded by dark mist, which would shortly turn to rain. It was around this time – approaching the top of another steep incline at kilometre 113 – that both Tom’s legs cramped up. Cramp is such a strange form of injury, because despite seeing my friend in a world of pain, there really was nothing I could think of to help besides offering him a bite of my Boost bar. He declined. So I had a pee and took some photos of a few sheep adjacent to the road. We waited it out until his cramp had passed by enough to pedal and soldiered on over the brow of the hill towards Chris, who must’ve thought we’d fallen through a cattle grid. By now it was raining quite hard and, despite only being around 3.30pm, it felt like it was getting dark. We re-joined the main road with 26 km still to pedal and dug deep. A shower, dry clothes and beer called. Not long my golden hoppy friend. Not long.
Those last kilometres rolled by in a meditative state. Push, pull. Push, pull. Eyes fixed 8 metres ahead. At last we free-wheeled into Rhayader at 5.10pm – 139.4 kilometres and ten hours after we’d begun our journey west from home. We pulled up outside The Crown Inn, where two of its staff were stood outside smoking in the rain. They welcomed us inside with promise of a log fire and liquid replenishment. It didn’t take us long to ditch the bikes, freshen up and hit the bar for a big night of child and wife-free, laddish beer and banter! By 8.45pm we’d all gone to bed.
Day Two: Rhayader to Aberystwyth. 67.2 km. 814 metre’s elevation gain.
The breaded brie wedges, lamb shank and a couple (four, plus a whiskey) of beer’s certainly aided a good night’s sleep. We awoke ready to complete our Welsh epic ride to the seaside, and following a hearty Egg’s Royale, clipped and pedalled off into the rain once again. Our arses were a little tender upon coming into contact with the saddle. But otherwise we were feeling optimistic as our wheels rotated towards the Elan Valley and the long road up into the Cambrian Mountains. The morning’s weather was typically Welsh. At times a strong headwind and horizontal rain slowed our progress. Other moments the sun would come out and beam gloriously onto the surrounding hills and lakes. But regardless of what the weather was doing, the 200 metres of elevation we’d need to gain to reach our high point could actually be described as enjoyable. The geographic nature of ascending above three damned reservoirs means the road rises like shallow steps. Flat sections flow between gradual inclines, sneaking you higher and higher as you take in the surrounding beauty, unaware that you’ve been climbing the whole time.
Tom’s journey was unravelling as a tale of two halves. After yesterday’s battles, this morning he was positively spritely, often setting the pace and hurtling into the uphills. He reckoned it was lack of food intake that caused him to bonk yesterday, so he religiously shoved something into his mouth every 20 minutes to be sure. It seemed to be working. The problem now was, along with Chris’ usual gazelle-like spring on the hills, I was now the slowest!
Our highest point was a mountain pass through the Cambrian hills. At 415 metres above sea level, the steep valley that we were about to drop into was funnelling strong gusts right into our noses. Icy rain bounced off my cheeks, so I pulled my waterproof coat up over my face. In contrast to the enjoyable climb we’d just completed, this high plateau was proving rather unpleasant, and my eyes scanned the landscape searching for somewhere to shelter. There was nothing, but the road was about to point downwards. This was significantly encouraging, as apart from a couple of spikes on the topograph, our remaining route was essentially downhill all the way to the Irish Sea. We dropped in on the sweeping mountain road and followed the valley against a head wind until we were spat out into a sleepy little town called Pont-rhyd-y-groes, and took shelter in The Miners Arms pub.
The rain stopped, so following a cup of tea and a brief chat with the local punters (one elderly lady called Gwen), we set out for the final 24 km push to Aberystwyth. Apart from Tom having a minor brush with a local telling him in Welsh to get off the road (we think), the last few kilometres went by smoothly, and upon surmounting our final big hill, we pointed the bars down and shot speedily towards the ocean ahead. Cruising into the seaside town at around 2.45pm, we headed straight to the promenade to bag a victory photo, before promptly sniffing out the nearing fish and chip shop. Eager to make the 15.30 train home, we ate our takeaway fish and chips on the platform and ordered a beer from the refreshment trolley as soon as we’d boarded. Cheers lads! We’d made it!