Friday, 31 August 2012

EWE - Bikepacking Racing The Hard Way

My reward, waiting for me when I got
home, the best prize I ever won!
I've always got an eye out for a new challenge and bikepacking, or more specifically bikepacking racing, is something that's always caught my imagination for the last several years but that I'd never gotten around to planning into my calendar, nor did I fancy my first big race to be on another continent, only to find my prep was off the mark or my equipment didn't quite work. With a few big bikepacking trips under my belt over the winter for the first time, in all weathers and with the announcement of England-Wales-England, the UK's first, super-hard, bikepacking race that would traverse off of England and Wales' national parks and would be sure to take over a week, possibly up to 10-11 days (or so we thought), I signed up to the 800mile, off road, strictly self supported adventure that lay ahead. As a sign of things to come, within a week of signing up the route had "crept" up to just over 1000miles...... and then to 1300 with 2 weeks to go. I should have heeded the first warning, to ignore the second could be considered foolish!



The race can only be described as an incredible experience for me, but turned out to be much harder than I, or Aidan Harding who had organised the event, could have possibly imagined when we set off. Beset by some exceptionally unseasonal weather, which had also made for some pretty inhospitable trail conditions. On top of this I suffered a few big kit and accident setbacks. It was just the kind of super-tough challenge of both body and mind I had hoped it would be, but one that also provided some incredibly inspiring moments too. A few weeks after I've finished and it still brings a grin to my face whenever I remember bits of it. If you want to see a bit more about the bike and dynamo light and recharging set-up I used, see this link here otherwise, here's how my ride went:

Day 0: Plymouth and the Last Supper

The race started on Sunday morning, to give us a full day's riding and to allow us to get to Plymouth at a sensible time and get a good night's sleep before we set off. Once we'd all arrived we popped to a student pub for some food before an early night and some cautious talk about kit, bikes, riding in general and adventures past. Conversation turned to worst case scenarios. It was quickly established that we all had the entent to carry on no matter what but may be stopped by a crash that caused an injury that prevented riding, a bike failure that couldn't be fixed by getting to a bike shop, no matter how long the detour, or a GPS failure as none of us had sufficient paper maps for the full 1300miles of the route. And with that we went to bed. I think I managed to hide my nerves, as both Steve and Aidan have multi-day race CVs anyone in the world would be envious of, whereas mine is restricted to closed course racing, 24hr challenges outdoors but on established routes, some 2-3 day bikepacking endeavours (without a ticking clock) and a some touring. Whilst I may have had sufficient fitness and lots of race experience in other forms of cycling, multi-day racing was very, very new to me, something of which I was all too aware.
Bikepacking bike all assembled and ready to go, looks like 1000miles of camping & riding gear to me!

Day 1: By-bye Plymouth, across Dartmoor (and some bogs) a dramatic river crossing, an over excited silly mistake and to the edge of Exmoor

The ride started at 8am and it was an early start to get as much breakfast as I could force inside myself before a nervous drive across town before the off. After defeating Plymouth's one way system the bike was assembled and I rode with no little aprehension to meet the others
Riding to the start, with many, many thoughts going through my head amid much excitement and anticipation
I'd arrived 3minutes late so, with no messing and the briefest of good mornings, we lined up at Smeaton's Tower and Grace said "GO!"
On your marks..... get set......
......GO!
The first few hours passed with plenty of chatter and a pattern quickly established due to our very different bike choices as soon as the gradient went upward with Aidan's singlepeed propelling him to the top first, Steve sitting and spinning efficiently on his full suspension with triple chainset and my hardtail with a what suddenly seemed like a rather tall double chainring setup putting me somewhere between the two, half sitting, half standing, depending on the gradient. 

After just over 3 hrs the tone of the ride was set. We arrived at a river crossing, and it was a big one. The stepping stones were underwater enough that they were almost out of site and the current was looking faster then comfy. A quick look around and there was nowhere else that was going to prove any more attractive so we lofted our bikes and waded in. By half way the water was above mine & Aidan's waists. Steve had chosen to take the stepping stones, to try and keep his shorts dry, but once we'd battled the current that kept trying to grab our bikes away and had made the other side, Steve was only half way and tiring holding his bike against the current with a not so long ago serious shoulder injury playing its part in making his morning a hard one. A little bit of drama later and we were all over, and a little damper. A couple of smaller river crossings later, scattered between a few walking sections on trails that had become boggy or just flowing water and any pretence of keeping our feet dry was forgotten for the rest of the first week.

We carried on, the pace a little more serious now we'd got going. And then I made my first error. I'd noticed throughout the morning the other two grazing on food and kept thinking "I must eat more" but as the pace was a little slower than my normal endurance pace my stomach was proving an unreliable measure and only when a long drag up a hill turned up did I realise that, after about 5hrs of riding, I'd woefully under eaten. A stupid mistake to make. I tried to keep calm, sat up and ate, lots, and watched the other two disappear around the next corner. I'd only lose a few minutes before the food kicked in and could push on and hopefully catch them in an hour or two's time I reminded myself. As the navigation got fiddlier and the terrain more lumpy I lost site of them and soon started to enjoy the solitude.

The drag up to the top of Dartmoor once I got there was a long, steady affair and it was with some relief that I reached the top. However relief soon gave way to dispair when I discovered the condition of the trail that would entertain me for the next 2 hours of walking with the bike; knee deep bogs interspersed with waist high patches of grass and shin high tufts to haul one's bike through with my feet going underwater with almost every step. Two thirds of the way through things got worse; I lost sight of the track on the ground. I could see one trail heading off, but this didn't go where the race route indicated, so I headed for the rocky outcrop the route was supposed to pass, zig-zagging either side of the indicated GPS track in the hope of identifying the track on the ground. This didn't work and I spent the second hour hauling my bike across boggy, uneven open country first down into a valley and then back up before I found the trail indicated on the map. I'd covered very little ground and estimated I must have lost a good hour on the others, assuming they made reasonable progress. Bother. Nothing to do now but just keep pushing on and sneak 30mins from the end of the day and the start of day 2 now.

As the afternoon continued there were a few more sections of trail that had become waterlogged by the weather and were now unrideable but I had now become used to this and took these opportunities to take in more of my surroundings, which I had all to my self for most of the day. 

Once out of Dartmoor there were a few flat miles to make up the day's mileage to something more respectable, a quick resupply and a takeaway chicken'n'chips at Barnstaple and then I headed out into the night, the way illuminated by my Exposure Revo dynamo light.

And then it began to rain..... hard. I ignored a few tempting looking bivvy spots, knowing I had time to make up and it wasn't until 10:30 that I started to look for somewhere appealing to set up camp, I eventually got into my bivvy bag at 11:15, only half sheltered from the rain, but near a stream so I would have full water bottles for the morning, by which time I hoped the rain would might have stopped.
Day 1 Route Map

Day 2: Across Exmoor (and some more bogs), a failed GPS and a night in Porlock

The alarm went off at 5:15 and I peered out with little enthusiasm into the rain which was still coming down hard. I eventually got going before 6 somehow after a large breakfast to make up for not eating quite enough before bed. The morning would go very slowly as the first half of Exmoor was more waterlogged than Dartmoor and it took all my concentration not to get annoyed with the hours of pushing that the first half of the day became as the rain came down and was blown sideways by what had become quite a strong wind too. I was by now extremely glad of my new waterproof shorts, which I had almost left at home. My happiness was topped back up half way through the morning when I stopped to stock up for the day at a friendly village shop stocked with a huge supply of cakes and a coffee machine. A hot tea or coffee and  large cake can do wonders for the spirits.

By midday the rain was easing and the waterlogged trails had given way to more gravel and rock, that didn't just enable me to ride, but I could finally get some speed up and a huge descent off Dunkery Beacon, Exmoor's highest point, was the highlight of the day, and was just the kind of trail that this ride would enable me to do, a jem, miles from anywhere, that I just wouldn't ever find myself riding in any other circumstance.

And then disaster struck. Just before I passed Minehead and, ironically just as the rain stopped, my GPS turned itself off. I turned it on and it did it again. The pattern was repeated desperately for a mile or two until I reached the end of the route I could remember. I now had no map and no route guide. Bother.

The sun was out and suspecting water damage I placed the GPS in the sun and let thigns dry out. I got out my damp sleeping kit and took the opportunity to dry this too. A twitter update of my plight was responded to by several people who had experienced similar, and with reports that drying out would bring the Edge 800 back to life. After 3hrs the damn thing still kept turning itself off, so I headed to Porlock, the nearest town according to my rough route notes and sought out a bed at Reines House B&B where a warm dry place was sought for the GPS overnight, after a "factory reset" procedure failed to work either.

My hopes of catching the other two dashed I stocked up with food ready for an early start.
Day 2 Route Map

Day 3: A trip across the Quantocks and back for a new GPS, a bit more Exmoor and into the Quantocks once more

Morning came and still no life from the GPS. Factory reset procedure still yielded nothing, so I treated myself to the cooked breakfast I had paid for while I waited for the outdoor shop to open. But this would not stock GPS devices. The owner took pity on my plight and gave me a road map, free of charge and advised me that Taunton had a couple of shops that may meet my needs. However. I was still just inside Exmoor and Taunton was on the other side of the Quantocks!


I got on my bike and got pedalling, not knowing if what Taunton may be able to provide, but knowing that I had no other choice. Once I'd arrived and navigated the one way system, the lovely people at Taunton Leisure were able to sell me a replacement unit, complete with UK mapping (necessary to follow the off road route) and they uploaded the GPX of the EWE route and sent me on my way, a very, very relived boy. I didn't even mind the hilly ride back across where I'd just came and did my best to ignore the hills either side of me that I'd looked at with some forboding on the way out, that I would have to cross, for a third time, once I rejoined the route, right back at Porlock. Lady luck wasn't quite done with me yet though, riding on the road I managed to cy the tyre with an incision large enough to prevent the tyre from sealing, presumably from something in the gutter and it was with a tube in my tyre that I rejoined the route to finish off the last miles in Exmoor.

The Eastern end of Exmoor proved as enjoyable as the final miles to Porlock had been and, after losing a calamitous 28hrs sorting myself out, I was on my way, enjoying the miles as they rolled by and making good time. I finally climbed into the Quantocks for the third time that day and called it a night at 11:10, hoping to make a start at clawing back fractions of time at each end of the day on the other two.
Day 3 Route Map

Day 4: Making progress, Quantocks, Mendips, Cotswolds and on past Bath, via barbed wire & duck tape, a huge fried breakfast and my best bivvy spot ever

I woke on top of the Quantocks as the sun was rising and, for now, the rain had finally let up. I rolled along a ridge with wide ranging views swapping intermittently with tree lined tunnels of trail as I digested breakfast and eased my way into the day, the trail conditions allowing me to keep good speed up from the off. This wouldn't last long, the trail gave way to forest workings that bright deep mud and after a few steep, unrideable climbs that briefly yielded to fun descents, the rain came down once more. At this point the route doubled back on itself and, after several hours of hard slog in mud and rain, I crossed a junction I'd originally passed late evening the day before. This brought upon a huge sense of humour failure inside my head and I made bad tempered progress for the next few miles all the way to Bridgewater, my mood as black as the skies above. The progress had been slower than I expected and I was out of food by this point. There was only one thing for it, so I sniffed out a café on my way though town and ordered breakfast...... and how!  
Breakfast of Champions...... probably of several champions actually, and very hungry ones at that!
Refuelled, and with it, cheered up, I called into a petrol station on my way out of town to restock on Haribo, Jelly Babies, cereal bars and Ginsters pasties and headed for a few flat miles before the hills would kick in again. A few rare tarmac miles allowed me to eat some more and give my battered body a much needed break as Glastonbury came and went and I made my way towards Bath. The trails may have been flatter for the day's riding, but they were no less rain affected and multiple walking sections and boggy trails kept the average speed down and I wasn't to reach Bath until dinner time, but not before I'd lost an argument with a barbed wire fence that crossed where the trail was indicated on the map as I slipped down a muddy bank and used the bike to keep me out of the barbs. The front dry bag, which I was using to keep my sleeping bag dry inside, took the brunt of the impact and I was forced to stop at the next town to buy some duck tape and put the "dry" back into what had come to resemble a hairnet. I was pleased with my bodgers fix, and this proved worthy of another week of riding and kept my sleeping bag, bivvy bag and mattress as dry as a bone through several more days' riding.
Duck tape, probably a key part of SKY Pro Cycling's tool kit too. Is there nothing it can't fix?
Lots more torrential rain briefly dented my optimism, but a stop in Bath for fish and chips, my second hot food of the day, to revive the spirits after another day of tough conditions and I headed off into the evening and the last significant climbing before the Severn cheerily and enjoyed the rest of my day's ride. Through the evening I got good value out of the bike's easiest gear as the hills, though not large, proved remorselessly steep. My reward for my efforts was what must be my best night in a bivvy yet. As I thought "I really must be stopping now" a barn, just past West Littleton, sheltered on two side by a tall hedge, a thick covering of straw on the ground and, sat on top of a hill, with an amazing view of the countryside around me. It doesn't get any better than that so, at an early just gone 10pm, I settled down for a good night's sleep, looking forward to the view of the morning's sunrise.
Day 4 Route

Day 5: From Bath to the Severn Bridge, broken jockey wheels a torn tyre, then Forest of Dean & Wye Valley and into the Brecon Beacons

I was up and mounting my bike by not long after 5:30 and made good progress, stalled only by a few short pushes through overgrown trails to, and then over the Severn Bridge and into Wales, a huge stride forward for my head. Cheered by this, an unexpected seized jockey wheel, new the week before the start, seemed like a minor irritation. I disassembled both jockey wheels the, popped the seals out of the bearings to find them more muddy than greased, cleaned out what I could and then filled with wet condition chain lube. I also checked a brake pads that had developed a nasty noise and, as I feared, they were worn out, so new pads were fitted while the bike had the back wheel out, when I set off I was happy this only cost me a small amount of time as either of these could have caused a lot more damage.

A few hills later and more gremlins, a puncture and this time I'd managed to slash a tyre sidewall on a piece of flint. Luckily my Lezyne patch kit has a tyre boot as standard so I popped it in and put a tube in to keep everything in place, no drama. 100 yards down the road, more debris, a second "psssst" and cue lots of swearing from me. I stopped for luch to refuel and calm down before I patched the tube and set off once more. Three mechanicals and it wasn't even really lunchtime, give me strength!

Impromptu hissy-fit over I got on my way again and headed into the Brecon Beacons. As I passed Abergavenny the hills suddenly became a lot steeper, a lot longer and seemingly ran straight from one to the other without any flat in-between. No complaints from me though, the scenery was stunning and there was plenty of time to take them in as I winched my way up the climbs and then rolled along the tops before plumetting back down the other side, a huge grin punned to my face every time letting my legs enjoy a brief respite before I went up again. This went on from midday until I eventually descended into Bwlch in darkness and settled myself into a hedge for the night out of town, looking forward to more of the same the next day. All told, I'd just had a truly great day out on a mountain bike.
Day 5 Route

Day 6: Bwlch to Brecon to Dfynnog, mechanicals, zipties, duck tape, yet more disaster and back to Brecon to fix me and the bike

After the previous day's success I was keen to get going and make an early start, which saw me pedal away from my overnight spot at a bright eyed and bushy tailed 5:15am. Unbeknownst to me a somewhat rude awakening lay ahead of me in the form of the Brinore Tramway and by the time I got to the top the sun was fully up and it felt like I had the whole world all to myself. A brief change of brake pads as I crossed a road at the bottom of the descent and I was off again.
Wet weather, big miles plus big hills meant a few brake pad changes
A jaunt along the tops led to a long, fast descent and then a brief respite as I passed a reservoir before a second long, this time slightly more involving climb and a fantastic, rocky descent that smoothed out and brought me into Brecon for breakfast was a great ride all in itself, and I was only just about to hunt out breakfast. No sooner had I arrived in town than a garage provided me with pies, cakes & flapjack for the day, plus a hot bacon and egg sandwich. Splendid.
Petrol station breakfast; hot food was by now a rare & welcome treat, vitamins merely incidental & caffeine essential
After this bright start however, the day went rapidly downhill. Some fast sections of trail were interspersed with a few more disappointingly slow sections, but things started to go badly when a click from my cranks turned into a wobble. Further inspection revealed my bottom bracket, replaced the week before I set off, was collapsing on one side (meaning the second side wouldn't be far behind) and was rapidly progressing from annoying to something more terminal. I had no choice but to press on until I got near something resembling a main road at which point I would take stock of the map. No sooner had a I reached a road when I heard a scrubbing, mud on my tyres, I thought. I pulled up and discovered that, somehow, my rear tyre had torn off its bead over a length of 2" and the innertube was bulging out. The bike was now unrideable. Bother.
Oops! Tyre bead torn from tyre.
This was almost terminal, the tyre wouldn't go through the frame either, zipties & duck tape to the rescue!
I racked my brains and fashined a somewhat dubious looking fix, making a 300mm tube out of my remaining duck tape from the day before around the innertube, to try and contain it's expansion to the 2.1" of the tyre. I lined this up with the section of torn bead and inflated the tyre as little as I dared to still be able to ride it. It worked to a point, but the torn bead meant the tyre rolled off centre and would still not turn ion the frame. It was then out with the zipties to pull the tyre back onto the rim and it worked, I could ride!

The next hour became a deeply unpleasant, and slow, ride on the back roads back to Brecon, where I'd had breakfast a few hours earlier, which was mercifully near and home of the lovely people at Biped Cycles. Although they were busy, they generously agreed to work on my bike there and then (after sending me out to clean it!) and I went to get some food rather than distract them and out off customers in my smelly kit.

A couple of hours later and I was on my way, with a brand new, round, tyre, new bottom bracket and lovingly adjusted gears which were working miraculously better thanks to a bit of workshop fairydust. The day wasn't done with me yet and my smile wouldn't last long......

.......I made it about 6miles out of town and then, trundling along happy and refuelled into what was looking, finally, like a warm, dry evening, and I was forced to swerve to avoid an oncoming car in the middle of the road, going far too fast, I headed for the hedge but my progress was halted abruptly by the tree in the middle of the hedge. And my face.

My helmet was smashed, my face was covered in blood and, worst of all, my hand had come off my grip and snapped the charging plug for the GPS. By the time I'd come to my senses, decided not to try and touch my injuries, decide I couldn't really move my head and needed to replace the USB adaptor and made it back to town once I'd curse the car driver who just carried on driving, everything was shut. Without power for my GPS and no major town en-route for a few days to get one, I settled for an early night in Brecon in order to get a room to properly clean my face up, assess the damage and clean my cycling kit after 4 long days of riding in the same kit.
Bike fixed, but now I broke the rider, my face and my helmet but walked away to tell the tale
Conclusion: KASK Mojito helmet - good for your health!
Once clean, the damage was clealry not too deep (but I would get a lot of funny looks and sympathy from shopkeepers for the remainder of the ride due to my very visible injuries!) mostly bruising and a (very) sore neck and, tail firmly between my legs, I tucked myself in for an early night at Borderers B&B back in Becon.
Day 6 Route - Almost back where I started!

Day 7: Brecon to Coed Bwlchgwallter a few more bogs and some big, big outdoors

I was forced to wait around in the morning after breakfast for the shops to open, having searched out a shop to get a new USB adaptor from to replace the crash damaged one and it was well after 9am when I finally hit the road. An hour's roll on the country roads was the first sunny morning of the race and a really pleasant way to start the day. Once I reached the point I'd left the course, a brief second breakfast, and a stop in the local store for a celebratory ice cream as I was once more on my way after overcoming a second significant setback (and ignoring the huge time loss) and I was on my way, and stamping on the pedals once more.

I reached Llanwrtyd Wells by lunchtime and stopped for lunch and to resupply with more jelly babies, flapjacks and the, now obligatory, ginsters cornish pasty. It would then be a while into Sunday before I would go past anywhere with a shop.

I spent the remainder of the day by myself in some huge hills, enjoying both the first dry day's riding for a week and the first glimmers of sunshine. The lack of major mechanicals and disasters almost added an air of the mundane an ordinary to what would amount to another 14-15hrs in the saddle, the highlights of the day not occurring until the early evening.

The boggy yet beautiful ride up to the Elan Valley provided some of the best, broad views of the day and yet another deep river fording took me to the base of the damn of Claerwen reservoir, from here I got to watch sunset as the course traversed the edge of the damn for the next 30mins, giving me a stunning view while I paused for dinner. The course then rolled along tyhe tops for what seemed like forever and when it finally cranked up a hill, as I climbed out of the saddle onto a Welsh hilltop at 9:45pm on a Saturday I was aware both how slightly odd my current undertaking was compared to what I might be expected to be up to on a summer Saturday evening, but also how very, very lucky I was to have the opportunity to be doing what I was currently doing.

I could see on the map that I had a good stint to go, as darkness was falling, before I would get off of the tops, so it was with some dismay that my progress was halted by about the 768th long boggy section of the ride. Once I'd negotiated it, and restored my mood with some tangfastics it wasn't long before I found myself rolling down the other side of the hill into the night and into a large body of trees that I'd identified on the map as my shelter for the night. Unfortunately so had most of the Welsh midge and insect population, but the first shelter for a long, long time, coupled with an ideal flat, softy sleep spot was enough to convince me to stop and I settled down, happy with the progress I'd made in the day, looking forward to yet more riding in the sunshine through the Welsh hills as I headed toward the edge of Snowdonia.
Day 7 Route

Day 8: On to Machynlleth, last man standing, touching Snowdonia and then no trails a lot more bogs, a lot of pushing & a night in an en-suite fire exit at Caersws

The first descent of the morning was longer than I had expected from my map reading in the dark and I was pretty cold at 5:30 when I'd reached the bottom and glad of the long, gentle climb that lay ahead of my, well for the first 25minutes at least, as I winched my way toward, and then through more forest and the Nant-yr-Arian trailhead. The next few hours passed, like much of the preceding week, in absolute soluitude but now produced produced some wonderful riding, in sunshine, topped off by "The Chute" descent mixing singletrack with forest firetrack through the hills with amazing views as I headed towards Machynlleth to restock my pretty barren supplies and fill my increasingly rumbly tummy.

The sun was shining brightly and the temperature was now definitely pushing the warm side of comfy as I rolled into Machynlleth for brunch and a much needed resupply. Once i'd dealt with the important matter of buying everything in Co-Op and ordering everything on the menu, with a side of chips, from an all day café, I turned my phone on, to receive a text from Aidan & Steve telling me they'd quit. I was now, definitely, all alone out there. I was disappointed to hear the news and sad that they wouldn't complete the route, but aware that, if I were to take stock I would be forced to admit the riding was so much harder, more relentless and just plain brutal compared to even my most pessimistic expectation and my body, and my will, were both taking a sound pounding. Importantly though, having worked hard for the last few days to close was seemed like an unbridgeable gap after two major mechanical problems, every yard I covered I was definitely now closing the gap to the other two.

I rolled out of town looking forward to more riding like my morning's experiences, in bright sunshine, determined to make some big miles. The remainder of the day didn't go quite how I had planned.

I shan't dwell on it but I was to learn later that the section of missing trail, replaced by a bog mixed with harvested managed forest, had also entertained first Steve and then Aidan for a couple of hours too. Aidan would tell me later than after an super tough 2 hours he had covered barely 3 miles. I think my progress may have been even slower. Steve bumped into a local farmer who seemed surprised to see him and, when he explained he was looking for a trail that didn't seem to be there was informed that "no, there's not been a trail there for years". After two absolutely exhausting hours of hauling my bike over felled trees, across ditches, through bogs and searching for the trail I made it to the forest track over the brow of the hill, lay down in an exhausted, sweaty and very relieved mess, ate, composed myself and set off, happy for some simple forest trail riding and navigation that lay ahead for the next half hour. This section will not be in future editions of the race.

A few more boggy bits kept the average speed down and, when I reached all of the pubs and shops I had hoped to get supplies from, I was later than expected and had to ride on. I knew it was a Sunday, but I hadn't expected to find both pubs closed as well as the shop I passed. More boggy trails kept me honest throughout the early evening and a tired and empty rider, with no supplies and some very sore feet, ankles and hips rolled into Caersws in need of food.

Finally in Caersws I found the Buck Hotel open and grabbed a few bags of peanuts and a glass of lemonade to get some sugar in me. Chatting to a couple outside as I made to head off to find a place to put my head down for the night, they couldn't believe that I was heading out of town to sleep in a hedge. It turns out they owned the pub and insisted that, despite their rooms being full, I take advantage of their meeting room's fire escape corridor, which was headed, had light and a loo & sink and wouldn't take my money. This trip really was showing me that there are a lot of lovely people out there. After an unexpected good wash I settled into my luxury bivvy, suddenly unconcerned by the rain clouds I'd observed nervously as the darkness had taken over the skies a few hours earlier.

This was not a good night's sleep however. the week of constant walking in wet shes had seen my innersoles slowly collapse between my feet, the unyieldingly stiff cycling soles and the rocks below and my feet were now badly swollen and bruised, my left achilles was also more than twice a size that could be considered healthy and the discomfort (a word so much more gentle sounding than the phrase "searing pain") kept me awake and then kept waking me up.
Day 8 Route

Day 9: Out of Wales, the Shropshire Hills and almost Cannock

In the morning I had a late start caused by making the logistical error of running out of food the night before and not having a possibility of resupply for another 50miles I had to wait for the shop to open to get my hands on both jelly babies and pies. I took the time to ahve a bit of a lie in but also to get all my kit out, give it the once over and then to very slowly get my shoes back onto my somewhat uncomfy feet and slowly winch the ratchets shut.

Once on my way a brief road warm up soon gave way to the huge climb up to the top of a plateau, that my feet didn't thank me for, where a huge wind farm gave the morning's panoramic view a special feel and put a spring in my cadence.
Wind farms on hillsides. Contraversial, maybe, but this one in the middle of nowhere
had an elegance that was calming and appealed to my inner engineer
It was a fast roll down the other side and then onto the Kerry Ridgeway, out of Wales and into Shropshire, with views of Wales to one side and England on the other. By now I was also finding that the sunshine, which had finally decided to settle in, was beginning to dry out the unshaded parts of the trail so my progress had a feel to it that was less like riding through treacle and more like zipping along the trail.

A surprisingly hilly afternoon and evening lay ahead of me, despite the horizon constantly promising flat plains and I revelled in the sunshine, unaccustomed to the warmth after a week or wind and rain, a trip up Long Mynd and the across the plateau at the top proving a particular highlight, although I'm sure my legs didn't think so at the time. 

I finally started to make a faster average speed and as darkness drew in I started to plan a hot evening meal in a Pub in Penkridge, and stamped on the pedals with fresh enthusiasm. However it wasn't long before the navigation got a little tricky and, slowed down by a couple of little sections I watched 11pm approach with too many mile still to go. It had been a hard day's riding, and I had pushed hard, so I let my dream of hot food go and tucked myself behind a hedge and settled down under open skies for a good night's sleep.
Day 9 Route

Day 10: Cannock Chase, the White Peak, the Dark Peak, taking the race lead, one last mechanical and calling time on my adventure at 800.5miles

With Cannock chase ahead of me, and the possibility of reaching, and possibly passing, the point that Steve and Aidan had reached by the end of the day, I was up extra early and riding by 5:15am. A brief stop in Penkridge for food for the day  and to eat some breakfast was a little alarming as several people stopped me to see if I was OK, or ask if I had come off, one woman not believing I hadn't, such was the extent of the mud all over me from the still sticky bits of trail, and blood on my arms and legs from scraping past brambles on the overgrown bits of trail thanks to the summer's rain. And then on to Cannock Chase and the only manicured, purpose built trails with smooth, berm rich swoops and whoops of the ride.

The remainder of the morning is a bit of a blur as I got my head down and tried to keep the pace high, studying the blue GPS line more than the trail and doing maths on what time I might reach Parsley Hay, where Steve and Aidan had left the trail. For the first time I started to definitely suffer wiith the heat, my by now pretty knackered body, not enjoying the additional stress as the temperatures pushed towards 30degC. 

I felt a feeling of elation as I passed a "Welcome to Derbyshire" sign, I knew I was getting close. A brief, but much needed, stop in Ashbourne was necessary for more water, I just couldn't forage and buy enough by this point, and then I hit the disused railway line of the Tissington Trail, the end of which had occupied a good portion of my mind for the last 48hrs.

Half way along the trail I met Steve, looking amazingly cheery and fresh, who had been following my progress as I closed in on Parsley hay and had ridden out from his home nearby to meet me for this final section. We exchanged experiences, good and bad, it was good to relive the highlights and a relief to hear that in sections where I had particularly struggled, with navigation or trail conditions. That we'd struggled with the weather for the first week was a given, saved only by both of our last minute decisions to pack waterproof shorts, something we agreed we were both delighted we'd done as it meant a dry chamois throughout the downpours.

As Parsley hay approached, Steve couldn't resist winding me up, not telling me quite how far the'd gone before turning off and it was relief that he congratulated me on "winning" as I passed a traffic control bollard at the café. Pausing briefly for a photo before heading straight for the source of tea and cake. Afternoon tea was on me, not wanting to break the strictly self supported ethos and let Steve treat me.
Just about to pass where Steve & Aidan got to a couple of days before, you can't see it, but that's a HUGE smile on my face
"Victory" Salute + Bar Bag + over excited, tired rider = not so clever
Taken seconds afterwards, there's that smile :-)
Mine & Steve Heading's bikes at Parsley Hay, while I busily consume tea and cake
Calories consumed I was determined to carry on as it was now only late afternoon and I knew the trails that lay ahead of me contained some great sections, I always enjoy crossing the lovely Chee Dale, the climb proved too much for my legs in the heat and I pushed up the steepest sections, which my now heavily swollen feet and ankles definitely did not enjoy as I limped upwards.
Top of the climb out of Chee Dale
The view was beautiful, not a word that could be used to describe the very hot and sweaty rider at that moment in time!
The route then took us up to Dirtlow Rake and Pindale, a short section of trail but one I always enjoyed when i used to live near by. My bruised feet however did not enjoy the rocky trails and the resulting lack of bike control saw me take a little tumble on the rocks, thankfully unharmed. As I dropped into Hope a squeak from my jockey wheels proved to be more serious than I feared; as soon as I stopped pedalling one seized. I stepped off the bike and hobbled to the roadside.

Mi mileage was now 800.5miles, the distance I had signed up for when I first entered the event. I had been on the go for 10long, long days now, the longest I had, at first, thought I might take to complete the 1000miles I was prepared for until the week before the start, I had overcome a series of huge setbacks undaunted and had exceeded the week minimum duration I had hoped for to really test myself and there was no chance of anyone overhauling my "lead" as I was the last man standing. I had also used up all my originally agreed leave from work and needed to get back to the office, although I did have agreement and approval for more, I wanted to go on more long rides and maybe even have a holiday later in the year!

All of this, the fact I really now was struggling to walk or get shoes on my feet when i stopped, a decidiedly creaky, badly swollen and exceedingly painful achilles and a bike that, once again, needed a lot of attention (new jockey wheels) before it would be ridable again meant my subsequent decision to take up Steve's offer of a bed and to call time on my effort was as easy as my decision to push on at Parsley Hay had been not long before.
One last mechanical, as I called time on my ride
My bike reminding me it was tough in it as well as me I guess
A wash and a giant pizza later and I gratefully settled down to a night indoors on a mattress and a long awaited night's sleep that would extend for an luxurious 8hrs and maybe even beyond before I headed home on the train.
Day 10 Route


As I write this, I've finished the ride of a couple of weeks now. My feet are fine, my achilles was not damaged and the swelling is almost gone and I'm riding to work over the South Downs in the morning as I always do, as if nothing had happened. But people still ask me about the ride at work and the first thing that happens is a huge smile spreads across my face as I answer their questions and recount the experience with great enthusiasm. The 10days presented me with some amazing experiences, took me through some incredible and very varied places that I would never have experienced otherwise, I was faced with a variety of challenges that I managed to get both my bike and myself through. All in all I had quite the huge outdoors adventure, all in the UK, all amazingly remote for the most part. England-Wales-England had definitely delivered, and I am now hooked on multi-day bikepacking races as a great way to continue to push and challenge both my body and my determination, as well as endurance races and ultra-endurance self supported outdoors challenges that have become the focus of my riding for the last several years. 

It will be some while before that same smile, that is also spread over my face as I type this, starts to fade.

And here's how my full ride looks on the map:

11 comments:

  1. Hi! I'm going to do a Alp-crossing, August next year, and I'm looking for tipps & tricks & people from all over Europe to come with me...

    Here's my blog:
    http://transalpforme.blogspot.de/

    See ya,
    Jonny

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  2. Amazing ride and great write-up, you have an unbelievable level of tenacity. Well done!

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  3. Rob, I have no idea how you managed to carry on with this. I would have jacked it after day 2, and I definitely would have been around the house of http://ianbarrington.com in Brecon calling my wife to come and get me.

    I got myself into some stupid trouble the other day on the MTB in the Cairngorms - no map and no torch stuck in the pitch black up 3000ft mountains, but it really doesn't even compare to what one of your days was and it sounded like you had 10 of them!

    Glad that your achilles healed up ok, I had to stop racing MTB and road (used to race for Torq) because of tendinitis around that area.

    Can't figure out the difference between all the dynamo hubs on their website, they need to put more info on it I think.

    Steve
    http://globalste.wordpress.com

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    1. Hi Steve,

      You had quite an adventure there! Hopefully I can help clarify the SP hub range, I now have a few and have tried different options. A quick breakdown of the SP hubs:

      1) Unless you want the switching hub, you want the hub ending in xx-8, these are the lightest and most efficient hubs

      2) Looking at the initial letter, you want the hub preceded by the letter "P" e.g. Px-8, the S series hubs put out slightly less power at low speed, but are slightly lighter. Fine for on-road but for mtb & touring the Px-8 hub is the one you want

      3) The second letter determines whether there is a disc flange or whether the hub is rim brake (or v-brake) only. xV-8 is rim brake, xD-8 is the disc brake version

      In a nutshell, if you want a high power, high efficiency, lightweight, disc brake compatible hub, you want the PD-8 hub. This is what you can see on the bike above.

      Hope that helps!

      Rob

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  4. Brilliant. Inspiring stuff. Also daft.

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  5. Holy-crap mate that was a serious little ride!

    I did consider the EWE but was put-off by the 'race' slant but I'll be tempted if it happens again next year.

    Nice one for sticking it out in those conditions for so long.

    Cheers, Gairy.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Gairy, it was an amazing experience.

      EWE 2013 is definitely happening. Start looking forward to it now :-)

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  6. Good Experience.....Keep it up;;;;:)

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