A Bike Race Roughly the Size of Wales
What’s the Welsh for ‘stabby bastard hills’?
In Mid-2021 I decided to commit to another ultra-distance race to give my riding a bit of focus in terms of training for something in particular. I didn’t fancy flying, as COVID-19 was still affecting people’s travel plans, so looked for something close to home. I saw A Bike Race mentioned on the Twitters, and it seemed to fit the bill: still 6+ months away to work on fitness and easy to get to the start by train.
The race had an interesting sounding premise, self-supported with no set route and checkpoints dotted around the coast of Wales. Waypoints between checkpoints were to be unveiled just a couple of days before the race to give entrants the same limited time to plan an optimum route. That optimum route was a personal choice: stick to A roads for speed; take smaller lanes to avoid traffic; take off-road sections to break it up, all of course somewhat dependent on bike choice. I chose to go with my Fugio shod with 700c 38mm GravelKing SKs that’ll roll nicely on the road, but happily put up with a bit of rough stuff too.
2 days before the race we received the list of waypoints. I’d expected there to be decisions to be made as to the most efficient order in which to tackle them, but they really just fell sequentially into place en route between the already-known checkpoints. For each waypoint to waypoint segment, I looked at route options using Komoot, switching between ‘road’ and ‘gravel’ options and deciding which looked best based largely on gut reaction to distance and elevation profile. My route was coming in at ~1050km.
I travelled down to Chepstow the day before the race. At Birmingham New St I spotted a guy with a bike like mine also set up for bikepacking. It transpired he (Ben) was also heading to the race start and we travelled the remainder to the journey together, having each been delayed by cancelled trains. We then ended up both staying at the same hotel so chatted over dinner about our race plans. Ben was hoping sub-3 days and to ride through the night, whereas I just wanted to come in by midnight on day 4, with the only time schedule I’d set being the points I knew I’d need to reach each day to achieve this aim. As a goal though, 3 1/2 days made for an arbitrary but nice rounded target to push for: 8pm on Monday. This also meant I’d be able to catch a train from the finish that evening.
As I rolled down to the start point it was raining lightly. Rain wasn’t forecast but getting wet early could make for a miserable day, so I elected to start in full waterproofs. Having taken a group photo we rolled off in groups of 3 or so. I was first away so got to see a fair few riders come past and said hello. A group came by as a mini-peleton. I suggested that perhaps drafting wasn’t on in a self-supported race, but then apologised for being a dick: Their race, their choice, and it wasn’t going to affect my ride one way or the other. Anyway, such groups soon broke up into single riders and for the rest of the event there was just the odd crossing of paths with similarly paced riders.
The fast kids had started to get their heads down and legs up to speed and passed in the opposite direction as I approached the first waypoint, a lighthouse at East Usk. We were required to take a photo at each waypoint to act as a brevet card, and I guess as social media content too although I think this must have been happening on the ‘gram as I was the only user on Twitter using the #aBikeRace hashtag. At this point riders were still grouped enough to remind each other to take a snap before the field began to disperse as we headed west. A rider’s (Matt) parents had come to the roadside to cheer people on. Next stop Penarth Pier. From here we hit our first climbs, which I recognised having ridden up them while on a post-conference ride from Cardiff a few year back.
I yo-yo’d road position with another rider, a German guy and we chatted a little before he pushed ahead, I then had to shout ahead to him as he took a roundabout the wrong way with a van approaching head-on. He (Marc) said he’d been struggling with road layouts/keeping left in the towns but was happy to be back on more rural lanes.
I took an off-road route here, which seemed to save some time as I caught a rider at the next waypoint who had ridden away from me earlier on.
Then into Swansea for a quick lunch stop at the first checkpoint proper. Cycle Solutions bike shop checked all was good and refilled bottles and then, having taken a few smaller bridleways, I headed into the mother of all headwinds down the Gower peninsular. This was exhausting but the Old Coastguard Station was perhaps the first realisation of the rugged Welsh coast line I’d been anticipating to see. It was stunning.
I got to Dylan Thomas’ boat house just as the sun was setting. Lights on and I pushed through to Saundersfoot catching a pizza place still open and devoured a pizza and portion of chips. From there it was another 30 mins push to Tenby, so picked of that checkpoint before heading off into the countryside.
It was gone midnight now, and it made sense to get some rest. Having ridden for what felt an age with nothing but gated fields I spotted a track which opened onto grassland. I snuck in and set up my bivvy. I set a timer for 4 hours and quickly fell asleep. 3 1/2 hours later a deer clip-clopping along the road on the other side of the hedge woke me up. It snorted than trotted off. I dozed for a little while watching the moon set, then got myself up and on the road again, taking down a chocolate milk and a banana I’d carried from the start for breakfast.
There was a long out and back returning to Pembroke, and I needed a second breakfast. I’d not eaten in a McDonalds in 20 years—just ‘cause—but knew an egg McMuffin would do the job. As I ate, another rider (Ricardo) turned up, and then Stephen the race director too. We chatted for a little while then I headed off. Another couple of riders (Matt and Steph) arrived who’d had a night of luxury in an Air B&B. I decided there and then to find a hotel that night.
St Anns and St Davids were stunning, as was Cwm Yr Eglwys, but I was beginning to doubt the choice of routes that Komoot had mapped out. There seemed to be a lot of zig-zagging and small roads taken for the sake of it. Leaving for New Quay after a little while I checked the map. It made little sense not to take the A road instead of the back roads I was following, so dropped down and headed north east without having to worry about navigation: the regular road signs could be followed. I stopped at a nice café for lunch.
Chips in New Quay and then onwards, having had a quick moan about the elevation between here and Aberystwyth with a couple of other riders I bumped into. I ummed and awwed for a while then decided again to abandon my planned route and take the A road. On the way there was a couple stood in their garden rattling cow bells and shouting encouragement: real life dot watchers! I hoped to get to the next checkpoint by 11pm when I’d find a bed for a few hours and leave before dawn suitably refreshed. In theory.
What transpired was something quite different, and something I’m still troubled by now. I won’t go into details but I ended up checking out of the hotel after a couple of hours having had to call the police as someone was being assaulted in an adjacent room. Shook-up and unable to relax I rode on. I found a bus stop-like shelter near Borth and got into my sleeping bag for a few hours trying to calm down as I listened to the sea close by. 4 days on and I’m still waiting on an update from the police as to what action they’re taking to ensure the victim is receiving help.
I awoke, and headed round the Dovey estuary and into Aberdovey I knew there were cafés there so I’d be able to get breakfast. Apart from I’d forgotten it was a Sunday and so nothing was open. Luckily a convenience store was so I grapped some cheap sandwiches and washed them down with chocolate milk. Another rider (Arion) was here too, a little worse for wear having ridden through the night. We rode for a little while together until he spotted a suitable shelter to get some rest in and I pushed on, over the bridge to Barmouth, up and over the causeway to Shell Island.
My quads were really feeling sore now, and I didn’t have much to give on the climbs, so had taken to dropping it right down the gears and crawling up anything more than about an 6% gradient. I took a 20 minute nap in a bus shelter, passed the 40% sign in Harlech then stopped for coffee and cheese scone in Porthmadog. Just about everywhere I stopped I got into a conversation about what I was doing. I think that’s one of the great things about travelling by bike: you get to interact with everywhere you pass through far more than if you were stuck in a car.
The headwind was back as I rode down the Lleyn Peninsula, unlike the Gower where I’d ended up sunburned, this time the wind was accompanied by fine drizzle. My jacket and waterproof shorts were doing a find job of keeping me dry, and luckily although wet my feet weren’t getting cold. My kit choice seemed vindicated.
I grabbed a coffee and slice of bara brith—I can’t believe I waited so long to get started on the most perfect of Welsh energy food—at the next waypoint in Machroes and was joined by Ricardo again, he was soaked through and shivering. I headed back into the drizzle, onwards towards Mynydd Mawr. The rain quite suddenly cleared and we were basked in sunshine. I stopped at the café near the headland and ordered a couple of cheese toasties. I don’t think you can underestimate the power of taking on warm food to re-invigorate the body and the mind. From a racing perspective I stayed far too long here, but had got into a conversation with the propertier who took a real interest in where I’d been and where I was going, and really, if you’re not at the sharp end of the race does another hour or a lost position on the road matter? In the now glorious evening light I rode on and dropped down the beach by the Ty Coch Inn beach bar. What a location for a pub!
I climbed up again and met another rider (Pascal) coming the other way. We compared thoughts on the literal ups and downs then carried on in our opposite directions. We’d each been forced to walk for the first time on the same climb not long before. It wa good to know I wasn’t the only one. This was as far north west as the route took us, and after another almighty climb, the route felt like it all downhill towards Bangor, where I intended to rest for a few hours. There wasn’t a single shop/food stop in the next 40km, where I passed through Caernarfon and I looped round the town looking for a pizza place or the like. Being late on a Sunday there was nothing, and I pressed on to Bangor.
Here I spotted a KFC and got some fries. I bumped into the race director again, and offloaded my worries about the hotel incident the night before in a barely cohesive fatigued manner then decided to find a bed for a few hours. I rode on before realising I’d forgotten to pick up the checkpoint which had been not even 200 metres from where we’d chatted. Furious with myself I returned to take a snap, then spurred on by my own stupidity decided to head on to Anglesey where I was sure I’d find somewhere to bivvy as to my mind it was too late to find a hotel.
I’d never been to Anglesey before and hadn’t realised how relatively inhabited it was. I rode for what seemed an age following what felt a ridiculously meandering route never finding anywhere to sleep that wasn’t either gated or obviously private land. I was becoming a little despondent when I spotted a church. I’d previously noted how few churches I’d passed had had open porches, a staple shelter for bike packers, but amazingly this one did. I bedded down and set a timer for 4 hours to get some proper rest.
I woke, got myself sorted and when in search of the next waypoint. This, a Celtic cross, was the trickiest to locate as it was on a sandy headland. I rode through pinewoods and dropped on to the beach, walking along for a little while before spotted the cross between two dunes on the skyline. I headed towards it, but the tide had made reaching the cross itself impossible with a channel crossing. I took my snap and headed north west. Despite the early hour I found a convenience store open so grabbed breakfast and supplies for the next couple of hours. Next stop was Holy Island and en route I was caught by Pascal again. He was in good spirits and pushed on ahead of me, cursing in Flemish as we each missed the same turning before riding off into the distance.
South Stack on Holy Island was another stunning waypoint. I dropped down and grabbed a coffee in Holyhead then pushed on to Amlwch. Psychologically this was a big one, the furthest north point and what seemed a straightforward run in all the way to the finish. I celebrated with the biggest cooked breakfast …
… then headed south with the wind on my back as quick as my tired legs could manage. There were a few long drags up climbs, but all ‘spinnable’. I stopped to have a drink, and a guy approached me to ask if I needed anything. I told him I was good, and it was self-supported anyway. He knew of the event and took a picture of me. We chatted bikes for a bit, then I pushed on back onto the mainland and picked up cycle lanes that’d take me all the way to Chester.
There was some seriously good active travel infrastructure in north Wales that other places could learn from.
Although I did get stuck for a while behind a truck driver destroying a trailer by towing it down too narrow a lane …
The climb up to the Great Orme was my second get-off-and-push moment. There was no way I was going to ride that today. The ice cream kiosk at the top was shut so no reward save for the steep descent to begin the final push. Just one waypoint left, and only one hill, and in hindsight I could have avoided even that. I’d started to do the maths and realised my 3 1/2 day goal was in reach. The next couple of hours made for the slowest time trial effort ever, head down and trying to stay on top what was really quite a low gear but all I could manage.
I rode past a man stood alone on the beach with a cone on his head …
I reached Talacre (which for the record has to be pronounced with as Scouse an accent as you can manage) snapped the final lighthouse waypoint, then got my head down again for the straight and pan flat run into the finish. I kept an eye on the time and my speed, rounding up and down to work out a safe average speed I needed to come in by 8pm. My tired legs could just about keep a steady 30kph which I was pretty sure would be ok as I rode alongside the Dee.
I swung off the riverside path and quickly found myself bearing down on the finish, turned a last corner and rode down a dead-end. I spotted Kirsty, my wife, waving. I doubled back and round to the correct unit which marked the finish. Job done, and wife, mother, and Gilbert the dog all there to meet me. A proper nice surprise.
And that was that. Perhaps an underwhelming finish line if truth be told, but it was what had gone before that mattered. The Welsh coastline is stunning and my route had taken me places I’d never visited before. I could have made a theoretically easier or faster route, but it’d have made little difference to my efforts in race result terms and to my mind, unless you are at the top of the leaderboard you’re really only competing with yourself: I’m going to take this as a win.
Oh, and Google translate tells me that it’s ‘bryniau bastard trywanu’.