July 23–26, 2010
North Roaders are well represented in racing and sportives, but not in the forgotten corner of the cycling world, Audax riding. Howell Schroeder attempts to put this right with this easy-to-follow 9 step process:
Step 1: Identify target event in calendar, and discover that it is full. Phone up organiser, beg and secure place. Announce intention to wide range of acquaintance to minimise chances of last minute rush of rational thinking; send off cheque for the event jersey to make sure I don’t duck out. After all, how hard can 1,000 kilometres round Wales and 14,000 metres of climbing in 72 hours be?
Step 2: Preparation includes lots of miles, a new set of wheels including a hub dynamo, acquiring fellow rider Mike, a good climber and route sheet reader. Studying route reveals three circuits out of Llanwrtyd Wells (L. Wells from now on), and alarming references to sleeping bags and church hall. Secure comfy bed and breakfast accommodation round the corner from church hall and prepare landlady for eccentric lodgers. Swap usual gearing for a triple with 30 and a rear cassette with 34; whatever my problems might be, being overgeared is not going to be among them.
Step 3: Arrive at the starting point Thursday evening, register and inspect other bikes and riders. This is no blingfest, bikes and riders mostly of uncertain age, with a lived-in look.
Step 4: Friday. Get up early and head for the start. Seventy three riders set off in three waves. There are several Paris-Brest-Paris and London-Edinburgh-London jerseys to intimidate the rest of us. The first 60 miles out of Shropshire fly by as we tag along in a large group led by the only tandem. As the hills start, the group fragments and Mike and I find ourselves on our own cycling through Snowdonia, over the pass of Llanberis, down the coast to Barmouth and then inland to Dolgellau. Weather perfect and scenery stunning. All good so far, and we are on schedule to make it to make it to L. Wells by midnight. Misfortune strikes about 15 miles out. Attempting a shift onto the granny ring under pressure the chain comes off and in my inelegant dismount I somehow break a spoke in the rear wheel. We let the back brake out to accommodate the bowed wheel and struggle on to L. Wells; I fantasise that this is going to be the one place in the UK where there is a 24 hour bike shop, wheelbuilding a speciality. We arrive at the church hall and the first thing I see is a wheel truing stand, an empty chair next to it and rumours that someone called Garry will help later. All I have to do is leave the bike and it will be ready in the morning. Eat heartily and head for the B&B, where the hospitable and unfazed landlady has stayed up to welcome us. Four hours sleep.
Step 5: Saturday. Get up early, force breakfast down and retrieve bike from Garry, now with two new spokes. We cycle down to Tenby, across to Pembroke and up the coast road to St David’s and Fishguard. The climbs are short, but steep and it is hard to get any speed on the descents. One of the riders on a fixed is reduced to walking up the climbs. Near Fishguard a spoke gives up. We reach a control in a tiny village pub where the locals are very entertained by the procession of cyclists and sing hymns to encourage us. The tandem crew is in the pub, the captain with a load of cotton wool up his nose to stem a nosebleed. We set off again into the evening, and it starts raining. We pass the tandem crew in a layby, the captain’s nose is continuing to bleed heavily. Another spoke goes. I have to release the back brake entirely for the bike to be rideable. I am now riding down steep wet Welsh hills in the dark with only a front brake working, suppressing questions such as “is this a good idea?”. We get back to L. Wells. Garry is on hand and sets to. Three hours sleep.
Step 6: Sunday. A beautiful morning, and we ride through the Brecon Beacons to Llandovery. Another rider is coming the other way. He has misread his Garmin, rode the short way to Llandovery and is returning to L.Wells to begin the leg again. The scenery is stunning and continues to be as we then ride through the deserts of mid-Wales to Aberystwyth. As we enter the town I hear the dreaded pinging of another spoke going. There is a control on the seafront. Nadir of the ride, as I don’t fancy the bike becoming unrideable part-way through the return; not many people in mid-Wales and it will be a very long walk or a long wait for a taxi. One of the volunteers offers to load me and the bike into his car and head back to L. Wells. I am very tempted, but one of the other volunteers builds wheels in his spare time and offers to help. He manages to put another spoke in and true it up sufficiently to be good for the ride back to base. The climbs on the way back are long, but not steep, and the stunning scenery of the Elan Valley, beautiful and desolate, take my mind off spoke anxiety. Nearing base, a spoke goes on the front wheel. Garry is on hand and cheerfully does his thing while we eat.
Step 7: Sunday/Monday. We decide that sleep is an over-rated luxury and head off on the return leg to Shropshire about 11 pm. The evening is beautiful if chilly and as we leave Wales the hills die away. With all spokes still intact and over two hours to spare we reach the finish. Mike, I and 51 others finish in the time. The tandem crew sadly were amongst those who DNF-ed. The rider on the fixed and the guy who went the wrong way through the Brecon Beacons both finish.
Step 8: Reflect. Promise myself that’s it, no more multi-day rides as both knees and an Achilles tendon are now complaining; cycling is one thing and sleep deprivation is another. Track down Garry and deliver a few beers. My wife, with scathing remarks about my being a “gentleman cyclist”, promises to give me bicycle maintenance/wheel-building course for Christmas.
Step 9: Ignore reflection, break promise to self and recommence planning Paris-Brest-Paris for 2011. After all, how hard can 1,200 kilometres in 90 hours be?