This was my second bite at the Bryan Chapman and my only aims were to climb every hill on the bike (I walked quite a few last year), to get some sleep at the YH, and to beat last year's time of 38hrs 40mins (or thereabouts) without killing myself.
Note: this ride report is a mild rewrite of my submission to yacf, here. Codified names are the nicknames of people on the forum, sorry about that. The post date has been changed to the date of the ride.
TL:DR For those who just want pictures, click here — more pictures on Flickr than here in my report. And apologies for the length: it's easier to write than to cut
I caught the train down to Bristol on Friday to stay in the TL at Aust, bumping into Lars on the Cambridge to London leg, and we ended up at the Boar's Head for dinner with a veritable group of reprobates (you know who you are, but to name a few: Hummers.) (and John, James, another John?, Ludwig, Lars, Gadget?, and probably others)
Come 5am Saturday morning and I felt I'd dodged a bullet by leaving Hummers et al at the pub for an early night: sleep dep seems to be my biggest Achilles heel on multi-day rides, so a good night's sleep beforehand can only be a bonus.
I rode out over the Severn Bridge on my own in the morning light: I'd started out in arm and leg warmers and clear glasses, but already the sun was rising and I could see a quick change would be on the cards at Bulwark before the off.
I bumped into a few friends at the start who did the old double-take: not recognising me on what I call "funny sized wheels", but are known as 700c's to everyone else. It's interesting that we recognise each other as much by the bike as by the person, because last year I was on something a bit different. Not this year: full-size wheels and a wide selection of gears. I've also lost nearly 5kg from the laden bike since last year (although put on 2kg on the laden me). The bike is red — doesn't red go faster? I dunno, but should be fun finding out on this its first 600 (my fourth).
The first leg to Bronllys is a good 3 hours on an average day. I intended to let the fast group go and bumble along at a steady pace, as last year I managed to overcook myself on the first stage and suffered for the next 550km because of it. I tagged along with Bikey Mikey for a while, discussing approaches to the ride; however, for us mere mortals it's an exercise in futility as Mike says "I intend to keep myself below 50% up the hills" and then pedals away — we would have to maintain 75% or higher to keep up with him
In spite of my good intentions, I managed to tag onto a quicker group for a while, taking pictures of Dai and his stoker (no name, but just getting back out on the bike after surgery IIRC) on the MTB tandem at nearly the same spot I photographed him last year on fixed on the climb up to Mynydd Bach (Shirenewton). They were dragging along the usual rag-tag group of tandem followers. I managed to get into a 1-2 with edscoble drafting each other across onto the back of another group, which was a bit silly considering I didn't want to burn myself out on the first leg, and the group we had been in caught us up at the next junction anyway, being dragged along by the tandem
I dropped off the group on the final climb away from the Usk to preserve something for later and had a fast spin down the other side into Bronllys. The Honey Pot Café control was being efficient and the queue was short, but a jammed till roll put paid to that and we had to wait for what seemed like ten minutes before they could take our order. I had intended to bounce the control if there was a queue, but there wasn't so I stayed, and anyway we needed a receipt this year as PoP, whereas last year you could get stamped and be on your way without waiting. Smashing double BBonT with egg — I would need a quiet hour on the bike to let this settle, so I opted for the scenic route on the far side of the River Wye through Boughrood rather than the busy A470 into Builth Wells, and on the way there I managed to overtake a horsebox to the amusement and big thumbs-up from the stable hands in the cab
This scenic route is indeed scenic: probably half a dozen cars in 15km and it was fun watching groups of riders on the A470 on the far side of the valley with queues of cars waiting to overtake, but there are a couple of sudden, gratuitous up-turns in the road towards the end before the turn into Builth just to keep us focused.
On the far side of Builth, I opted for the old A470 rather than the new sweep of fast road: the distance is within a few hundred metres difference, but the views are more rural, as is the traffic (just two cars, and moving slowly). I could see other cyclists on the new road above me and the tandem passed just as I rejoined, so I hung on for a tow into Rhayader.
The weather was turning out to be amazingly sunny and so I had included the route for the Elan Valley on my routesheet and as I arrived well before my self-imposed cut-off time of 11:15, I swung left in the square and right for the climb up to the valley. This scenic adds on a couple of hundred metres of climbing, which equates to half an hour or so, but is actually slightly shorter than the A44 motorcycle race-track route.
The climb was warm through the oak forest on the lower elevations, as the air was almost completely still. The birdsong was clear and persistent and it was almost magical. Leaving the shelter of the woods, the wind picked up and I could see another rider ahead silhouetted against the sky — you can just see him in the lower-left picture above. He was clearly too far ahead, but I kept grinding away and found him waiting for me at the top — good morning Smiffy
I still felt good whereas last year up the A44 I felt rotten — a different bike, a lot of miles and being well-rested. We rode together through the valley, which was beautiful and a lovely fast sweeping downhill section, only marred by long-board skateboarders milling belligerently in the road forcing us to almost stop, buggers. The wind was now in our faces and it was slower going through the valley once the advantage of elevation had been spent. But we did fine and climbed out the far end, although Smiffy was already preserving his legs, this being his first 600 and a big unknown for him as to what lay ahead, which was probably a good thing. In Devil's Bridge we turned left, opting to save the Nant-y-Moch scenic for another year (as it involves another 150m+ of climbing).
We rejoined the A44 for a brief couple of km before the roundabout turn northwards and we arrived at Tre'r Ddol in the middle of the pack, and that meant a queue for hot food and another queue to pay — organisational chaos. It was an easy choice to bounce the hot food, grab a pack of flapjacks and a cold drink, and aim for a quick stop, since it's less than 50km to the main stop at King's Youth Hostel, Dolgellau.
I headed on alone from Tre'r Ddol, but caught another group as we rode through Machynlleth and I hid in the group up the hill out of there. ISTR that last year someone had put a hand-drawn sign in their driveway encouraging BCMers, but I didn't spot it this year — perhaps I'd got the wrong location. I eventually dropped out of the group as the climbing pace was a bit strong for me and it felt a bit too much like hard work: this is still less than a third distance. This meant that for the big climb up the side of Cader Idris I was on my own, apart from passing one other. The air was very still in the valley and the sun hot, so it was with some considerable relief that I eventually popped out the top into a stiff and cool westerly breeze.
The drop down into Dolgellau on the new road wasn't as exciting as last year — the headwind attenuating any high-speed attempts. I swung left into Dolgellau rather than following the bypass, as I hadn't been there for over 35 years, lovely Welsh town, and promptly ran into a road block: it was the finish of a 10km fell running event up and over Cader Idris, in that heat! I soft-pedalled through the cordon, smiling and cheering the runners on, and popped out the other side on the riverside road to King's YH.
The left-hand swing into the lane to King's is the stuff of legend, as it's the single steepest part of the whole ride, although I think there's a ramp on the Dolfor climb that matches it (the left turn off the main road in Dolfor), and bits of Llancloudy feel as steep (because that climb's at nearly 600km). It's not actually so hard, because the steep ramp is only 100m or so to the hairpin and then it's relatively flat for another 100m before swinging left and upwards in another steep section, before a downhill and then gentle up through possibly the most mysteriously secluded stream valley through overhanging forest cover — absolutely idyllic!
King's is King's and after a quick three-course meal and bidon refresh it was back on the bike for the drop back to the main road. Here there was a choice: to take the official route over Barmouth bridge and along the coast via Harlech, which included a 10km diversion and possible convoy road controls to slow us down; or the straight up-and-over A470 route to Maentwrog? Last year I felt that I was behind the curve time-wise and took the direct route (under mitigating circumstances, m'lud), so this year, being quite a bit ahead on time over last, I took the proper scenic route.
It's a picturesque run around the coast, but it is most benign and most enjoyable for its scenery and views than any physical challenges: particularly the views across the coastal plain to Snowdonia National Park and Snowdon itself, which is impressive. There's a small climb towards Maentwrog, but nothing significant. By the time I got there, the convoy section had been packed away for the night and I could ride through unimpeded. I did have a bit of a worry, though: my dynamo started making strange buzzing noises and stopped working (not that I needed it at this time, but worrying for what lay ahead); it turned out the QR was not tight enough, allowing the axle to turn, pulling on the connector and causing it to release; once re-tightened it was all good (and a relief, since I built the front wheel myself).
It was fun watching groups of cyclists heading in the opposite direction on the other side of the river, and soon I joined them after crossing at Maentwrog. At this point the forecast wind picked up and it was an unpleasant solo push into the wind to Penrhyndeudraeth before turning towards Beddgelert and climbing up over the mountain railway crossing (maybe it's just me, but it doesn't look like it deserves its reputation for bringing riders down, just another pothole to traverse).
The run to Beddgelert is surprisingly flat, considering we are now in Snowdonia National Park, but it was a chance to enjoy the looming mountain views and consider the weather we may be encountering, which looked pretty good from afar. A quick squib of oil on another rider's chain (it was that noisy) and some arm warmers, and it was time to make the next routing choice: up and over Pen-y-Pass, which is bigger and longer, or the less picturesque, but noticeably quicker, reverse-return-route over Rhyd Ddu? Last year I took the quick route due to time constraints and other factors, so this year it was full-value.
I had never ridden over Pen-y-Pass before: I've driven it many times in my youth, but never climbed it on two wheels. The climb starts easily enough almost as soon as you turn right in Beddgelert, but the slope is barely noticeable. A gentle meander along the bank of Llyn Dinas, across the river and to the banks of Llyn Gwynant, where the incline winds up steadily. From the viewpoints along this single-track A road (this is Wales!) as it climbs the east flank, you can see the valley laid out in front of you, and it is truly impressive! The sides of the hills rise steeply from the valley floor, carved out millenia ago by a great glacier, leaving the valley square-sided and boulder-strewn. As you look along the valley, you can see a ribbon of wall wandering impossibly high along the slope above, leaving you wondering whether that's the road you have to climb up to — it is! At the end of the valley a huge promontory reaches out from the side of the Glyder peaks towards you, and a diagonal scar indicates the path of Pen-y-Pass itself, shortly after the left turn at the hotel. This is a magnificent, humbling, cruel and unforgiving landscape, that's hard to describe in words and harder to capture in pictures. The clouds being created by Snowdon's microclimate as the wind pushes the sea air over the peak were peculiar, but at least it was relatively clear and not raining.
I climb up slowly, being passed by a couple of quicker riders while I take pictures. I eventually reach the Pen-y-Gwryd Hotel and turn left to find the road rising steeply in front of me and the breeze becomes a wind, and as I climb further then the wind becomes a gale. As I reach the right-hand turn I have to dismount because I fear I will be blown over the edge as I turn into the teeth of the gale. I walk 100m or so until the strength of the blow moderates slightly and the drop off the edge becomes less pronounced. I crank slowly up to the visitor centre, take a few gratuitous selfies in front of a triangular peak, but I am pretty sure it's not Snowdon but actually Crib Goch; still one of the region's 3000-footers with a vicious reputation.
The drop down to Llanberis on the other side should be an all-out wall-to-wall blast, but the gale blowing up the valley, focused between the sheer walls of rock, acts to buffet the bike left and right and it's impossible to control it with any confidence, so I ride the brakes all the way down. In Llanberis I take a left and pass through the village itself: it's no further distance-wise and it's there and should be appreciated.
The climb up out of the valley is done in the failing light and a quick stop at the garage was required to get some flapjacks for the return run. Then it's down to the Caernarvon road for the drag up to Bangor and Menai Bridge. I opt to take another scenic detour: over Stephenson's rebuilt box-section bridge, with its old towers that look like menacing space invaders in the dark, turning off the A55 at Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch (ahem, from memory ) and a decently quick descent along the Anglesey side of the Menai Strait to the control at Porthaethwy (Menai Bridge), aiming for a return over Telford's A5 suspension bridge.
A welcome and welcoming control, as last year, serving jacket potatoes with beans and cheese — such a treat! Thank you Jasmine and everyone. The rice pudding was good too. I snaffled a cake for my back pocket for the return in the night over Rhyd Ddu.
The wind had now swung around to the south and strengthened, which meant the return to King's YH would be a headwind slog all the way. I set out on my own in the dark aiming to get back to the Youth Hostel around 2am and hoping for a bed this year. I knew that Robin and George (father and daughter) were just behind me on the road and last year I rode with them to Penrhyndeudraeth, but they easily dropped me on the climb up to Trawsfynydd, so I was constantly checking to see if they were closing the gap. I know, I know, it's not a race, but I wanted to see whether experience and/or fitness would give me a quicker ride this year. I could see lights behind me all the way up Rhyd Ddu, but they didn't get any closer. I kept pushing and by the time I got to Penrhyndeudraeth I was still on my own. However, I chose to stop at the 4* bus shelter in Tan-y-bwlch for a catnap and slept for 30 minutes in spite of the cold.
Refreshed, I set off up the A487/470 and made good time up past Trawsfynydd. The headwind over the moor was incessant, but not as strong as on LEL or Flatlands last year, so it was a case of persevering. The straight road revealed a long trail of steady (no blinkies at all!) red lights into the distance and a rather bemused-looking policeman drove past giving each rider a wide berth (by now it was 3am). A quick descent to Dolgellau and another stiff climb up the lane to the YH and it was time for supper. Somehow, I recall, I managed to get to the YH at about the same time as my perceived chasers — they really can't have been at full strength this year.
U.N.Dulates was on the door and mds101 was taking food orders and in next to no time I was chowed out and ready for bed. Last year I'd had to sleep on the common room floor, which was mighty cold and uncomfortable. This year I brought a lightweight bivy bag, sleeping mat and inflatable pillow, so when there were no rooms at the inn I aimed for a quiet bit of floor. Fortune shone on me, though, as mds101 double-checked and found a bed had just become free, bagged it for me and shuffled me off into sweaty bliss
A couple of hours later I arose and, skipping first breakfast as I was still full from supper, I set out into the early morning light. I started out in cold-morning gear, but stopped within a couple of miles to cool down and undress — aside from the wind it looked like it was going to be another lovely day.
The climb up past Cross Foxes is a long slog through wild country, although not as wild as Pen-y-Pass. It's the last of the proper Snowdonia-type climbs through open hills and is to be enjoyed. I took my time to get to the top, relishing the downhill on the other side where last year I topped 81kph (50mph). This year, though, the wind was blowing the wrong way causing the bike to become very unstable in the buffeting — I am beginning to thing that the mudguard on the front wheel is generating lateral loads that cause the front end to oscillate and be generally a bit of a git at high speed.
With a sense of disappointment at not having bested last year's speed, the next 50km are a bit of an anticlimax after Snowdonia. TBH it wouldn't matter where you cycled on the second day of BCM, it will always be an anticlimax compared to the first day. I rode mostly on my own, with the headwind sapping my energy and resolve. In the end I was noticeably slower on this leg this year than compared to last year, in spite of the change of machinery and greater fitness. I spent a good deal of the time wondering whether the BCM isn't over-hyped in how good it is: the first day is an amazing smörgåsbord of scenery and terrain, whereas the second day feels more like a get-me-home-any-which-way route. It's ironic that the two biggest climbs of the ride are on the second day, but they simply lack the majesty and sense of achievement of the climbs in Snowdonia. And while the Wye Valley is a beautiful scenic road back into Chepstow, after the sights of the previous day, it pales into ordinary.
I eventually crawled into Aberhafesp control for bacon and beans. I managed to be uncharacteristically impolite with the volunteers and they were right to pull me up on it. I apologised then, and I apologise now, I'm sorry, there was no excuse for it Now piling feelings of guilt on top of feelings of apathy and lack of energy, I had to dig deep on the penultimate leg to Weobley.
I set out just 100 yards behind Halloween, but for all my efforts to catch him it could've been 100 years! The climb up Dolfor was a killer for me last year and I was all but lanterne rouge, but this year I was a bit earlier in the day. However, I felt rotten and climbed inexorably slowly up the hill being passed by groups of motorbikes scarily close and fast! The left-hand turn in Dolfor off the main road couldn't come soon enough, and once up that first steep ramp my legs started to return.
Those who have perservered with my long and rambling ride reports over the past 18 months will be familiar with my recurring theme on most rides: the first half is fine, the next quarter I fall to pieces and the final quarter I piece myself back together again, find my legs and speed up to the end. This ride was no different and I paced other riders to the top of the hill, catching John on his fixie near the top. After the summit I passed him through the hairpins for fear of crashing into one or other of his legs as the gravitational pull caused him to overspeed and separate from them at the hip! It's scary following fixies down fast hills!
I stopped with a couple of other riders for an ice cream in Beguildy before Knighton, which in the baking heat was a welcome respite!
After Knighton I had the choice of a main-road bash to Weobley, or a gravelly lane crunch instead. I figured the headwind would be less in the lanes with hedges to slow it down, but those who took the main road said that wasn't so bad either.
In Weobley there was the usual gaggle of cyclists spread out in the village square and the shelves of the shop stripped bare of anything calorie-dense or cold. A quick pep-talk from Blacksheep on catching up with Mel, who'd left 20 minutes earlier and I got my head back into gear for the final push to Chepstow: this involves a roller-coaster ride along the A466, with a stiff climb at Llancloudy, a fast drop through Monmouth, and then a riverside meander before the long climb back up to arrivée.
Again I left with last year's chasers hot on my heels and kept expecting to be caught and passed, but instead managed to stretch away with only a couple of riders passing: one up Llancloudy and another up the Tintern climb. I blasted down the roller coasters and rode hard up the other side over and over again along the A466. Last year I had to walk up Llancloudy hill, which is 10% for 1km: this year I managed to ride it all the way! Flatlander, see: you Wessex-types probably wouldn't understand the scale of the achievement. I was only about two minutes quicker, though
The final leg under the trees along the Wye Valley is lovely, and welcoming, and at this point I knew I would be finished well within time. However, it does go on a bit. I finally got to the bottom of the climb at Tintern and told another rider that I was packing in right now to his protestations to keep pushing on to the end. He congratulated me when I arrived at Chepstow a couple of minutes after himself and I owned up to the joke
In all I was barely fifteen minutes quicker this year than last. However, I rode the full, official route this year plus scenic detours and additional climbing, and the detour at Maentwrog. I also rode up every climb, only breaking out the 24" gear for that short section on Pen-y-Pass because of fear of being blown off the edge. Plus the headwind on Sunday was much stronger than anything we experienced last year.
All in all a very pleasant ride. The headwind on Sunday was a disappointment, but the weather otherwise was absolutely glorious and my sunburn is just beginning to peel now (where my suncream got rubbed off my wrists by my gloves ). I achieved all my goals: ride every hill, get some sleep and beat last year's time. Next year I will be aiming for either a much quicker time (i.e. much fitter) or to have more time in hand so I can ride a bunch more scenic options (i.e. much fitter).
Thanks to Ritchie, Blacksheep/Mark, U.N.Dulates/John, Jasmine, mds101, and all the other unnamed helpers who made the ride happen, particularly to those at Aberhafesp, as they had to deal with morning grumps. Thumbs-up to you all, chapeau, chapeau!