Getting out of a nice warm bed at 4am isn’t usually my idea of fun, but today it was easy because I knew I had to. I’d carefully calculated the logistics of the day & they demanded a 4am alarm, 4:30am in the car, 6:30am reach destination, 7am start riding, 7pm finish riding (worse case), 8pm at bunkhouse with tired legs and pizza. In theory this would give me sufficient time at either end of the day to minimise the need for lights and also to avoid any extremes of temperature (we’re currently seeing sub-zero nights and mid teens days). Most importantly, this would mean I could carry less stuff…no heavy lights, no bulky cold weather gear…less stuff = faster (in theory). I’d actually planned to do the ride today at fairly short notice. Having felt good after an 80+ mile, 10K ft ride in the Beacons the previous week I was feeling strong & confident, and most importantly the weather forecast was looking favourable for a TCW attempt.
Inevitably then, the outside temperature for the start of my Trans Cambrian Way ITT at Knighton train station was a bone chilling minus 2 degrees C. No matter, I’d been watching the forecast like a hawk for the days running up to the ride & knew the temperature would rise quickly once the sun rose fully. With that in mind, I kept to my plan of just a jersey & arm warmers, a light gilet and showerproof jacket and some of those marvellously cheap but actually not too bad PlanetX gloves. Oh, and summer bib shorts. My hands would eventually stop hurting after about the first 90 minutes or so.
After a quick faff, I set off at 06:56…in the wrong direction. Fortunately (this time at least) I noticed my mistake within 50 yards and turned around. Despite there not being a soul around, I still felt rather embarrassed. I wondered if the gps track would pick up that little error at the start for people to see? [yes it did!]
The start of the route is really quite pleasant. Two miles of smooth minor road gives the legs at least a fighting chance of getting the blood moving around before the inevitable hills arrive. Having read up on the route, I knew it had quite a reputation for steep, tough climbs. The hills looming above me in every direction brought that home rather quickly. They always look so small & easy on the map don’t they? After that brief stretch of road, things move off-road and upwards at the tiny hamlet of Knucklas. That short bridleway climb is just a warm-up for the one that follows, westwards up from Lloyney, a 17% grassy climb that provided my first push of the day. Walking up that hill gave me some time to look around and really start to appreciate the beauty of this area. It’s a striking landscape, very different from the long sprawling hills of say the Brecon Beacons (one of my favourite places to ride). The Cambrians are more a collection of mounds. Very big mounds. At the top of that first big climb, the enormity of the route starts to hit home. Gaining altitude around here, all 15,000 feet of it, was not going to be easy. The sight of a bird of prey circling nearby & the dawn sunlight rising over the hills won out though and at that moment I just felt thrilled to be there.
The other reputation the TCW has is that of how tricky it is to navigate. There’s the odd yellow arrow or dot on a tree or gatepost here & there, but other than that you’re pretty much on your own. I did have a gps with me, which helped enormously, but even so some tracks were hard to spot. You know you’re in trouble when the official IMBA route directions contain instructions such as “drop L down hill on faint track“; “you’ll spy a faint track“; “bear L on track less travelled“; “bear left on faint path“; “though not marked on your map…“; “do not follow the obvious track“. You get the idea.
Ithon Ford at llanbadarn fynydd was running low enough to cycle through with dry feet, and thus avoid losing a bit of time on the detour. Nevertheless of course, my front wheel caught a rock in the stream which brought me to a dead halt…right foot down…saturated and freezing cold, just 16 miles into the ride. I think it took a good couple of hours to dry out…at least until the next time I stood in a river.
I lost a bit here & there due to navigation errors but nevertheless made decent time (3 hrs 22) into Rhayader, officially the end of “Day 1″ (the route is touted by IMBA as a 3-day tour). After a few hours of the closest we still have to wilderness, the roads, people and building of Rhayader are actually quite jarring, though the nice fast cycle track that follows was most welcome. This is where a singlespeed loses a bit of time as I can only max out at around 15mph on the flat. Still, stretches like this are few and far between on the route.
Through Rhayader, the climb up from Elan Village was right up my street, a smooth 8% gradient that matched perfectly with the 32:19 gearing on my 29er. After the steep climbs of the first “day”, it was refreshing to to know I could stomp up a climb like this all day long without raising the heart rate too much. Inevitably of course, it didn’t last long before the route took a turn off the road & onto a track, steepening up to 15% and a walk/push for me. Some more grassy climbing, followed by descending, then led to the run-in to Claerwen Reservoir.
In my mind I had the reservoir as the approximate half way point, and as I’d ridden it a couple of times before I had an element of comfort zone there. I knew I’d be able to switch off my brain & just pedal for a while without worrying about navigation. The bit I hadn’t done before however was the track south of the river leading up to the reservoir. Whilst most of the track had been fairly dry, this stretch was still really quite muddy & wet, requiring a lot of stop/start gloop avoidance. Rather sadistically, there’s a perfectly good paved road just the other side of the river, running perfectly parallel to this energy-sapping mud & rock fest. Clearly the designer of the route had a sense of humour. There’s a ford to cross at the end of this stretch, but it was too high today so I took the slightly longer way around via the bridge & a short but tricky steep bank.
Claerwen Reservoir followed, and I was happy to be able to switch off a bit & just pedal, enjoying the increased speed and the views of the huge reservoir to my left. At this point I picked up what would be a significant feature all the way until the end of the ride…a headwind. There was nothing a-typical about it, a NWN wind is perfectly normal around here and I knew it was coming, but it did turn out a bit stronger than I’d expected, and due to the mostly exposed nature of the route, there was little respite from it other than the brief & occasional wooded areas the route runs through.
The rest of “day 2″ went fairly smoothly. A few more wrong turns lost me some time, along with the odd steep climb that was beyond my legs & gearing. The stretch through the forest near Llangurig made for an interesting change of scenery, along with a steady climb & fast descent on the other side. “Day 2″ was done with a total elapsed time of 8 hours 9 mins. From being on target for a 10 hrs 30 mins finish at about half way, I was clearly slipping a bit but at this point still fairly confident of an 11 hour finish.
Stuart from Bearbones Bikepacking / Forest Freeride, and the “owner” of the Trans Cambrian Way ITT website had planned to meet me out on the trail somewhere around Foel Fadian. I knew that’d be somewhere around 90 miles in, and for the previous 30 miles I’d been counting down (hey it’s something to do). The run up to Foel Fadian (at least I think it was, it’s all getting a bit blurry at this point!), included some proper hike-a-bike up a track that was frankly only suitable for a mountain goat. That led into an exposed stretch where the headwind really started to beat me up. Stuart later told me that he’d been up there with gusts of 90 mph in the past. I can well believe it. Anyway, shortly after, I crested a rise to see someone in the distance pointing a camera at me. Considering there could be no other possible reason for someone to be here in the middle of nowhere, I concluded it must be Stuart. I stopped for a brief chat & another photo “for the fans” joked Stuart! Just a couple of mins chatting definitely perked me up & I went off fairly confident that I could make the remaining ~10 miles or so in about an hour & make a sub 11 hour finish.
Unfortunately things then got a bit tricky. By now my GPS had been warning of low battery for quite some time. Eek! I’d forgotten that having map view on display all the time (as I needed to on this route) really sapped the battery, as usually a ride of this length would be well within the battery limit. I knew if it ran out I’d have to resort to the paper maps which would be much slower. In order to save battery, I disabled the heart rate monitor (which was no great loss as it was over-reading anyway), and I switched the main view from map to statistics. This meant that I was reliant on the “off course” messages from the gps when I went wrong, rather than being able to know which route to take ahead of time. Straight away this had an impact on my speed of progress. I started to take more frequent wrong turns. As the route seemed to become more convoluted, the minutes were slipping by far too quickly and the miles far too slowly. I had read on Jason Miles’ blog write-up of his TCW attempt that the hills just kept on coming near the end, so I knew what to expect, but it didn’t make it any easier! Just when you’re getting tired, this trail chucks yet another climb at you, then another, and another. By now 11 hours had come and gone, and a bit of disappointment set in.
The route is generally accepted as being around 100 miles. I recalled from Tracklogs that it was around 103 or so, and yet my gps was now telling me I’d done 106 miles and I was still climbing! Clearly I’d taken a lot of wrong turns! And then the gps batteries ran out, with 11 hours and 21 minutes gone. This was the first point at which I thought I might not even make a 12 hour finish, which I would consider a complete failure. After all this effort, that was just not an option! I took out the final sheet of (badly) printed OS map, had a quick look, pointed bike in the correct direction, put map in between teeth and pedalled for all I was worth. This was repeated for the next 15 minutes or so. Each potential change of track meant a stop, remove map from teeth, assess, insert map and pedal like crazy.
Mercifully, it then became clear that I was on the final descent to the road and my destination at Dovey Junction station. As I sped down a final fire road descent, I watched a bird of prey flying low just above the river below & to my left, it’s fresh prey wriggling hopelessly in it’s claws. I thought there might be something poetic there but frankly my brain was too full of mush by then to work it out. Even the gravel track to the station platform required a double-take on the map as it seemed such an odd way of approaching a station. Fortunately it was correct, and as I finally reached the platform I glanced at my watch…18:40. I knew I’d started somewhere close to 07:00, so it was mission accomplished, albeit with a slower time than I’d hoped for. I quickly took out my phone & captured the obligatory pictures.
So that was that. Or, at least it would have been if I hadn’t then cycled the wrong direction on the A487 for 25 minutes before having to turn back & then onwards to Machynlleth & my bunkhouse for the night, giving me an extra 13 miles of riding!
So, overall it was a successful outing, and officially the fastest time on the route to date, but I know I can do it quicker. I’m confident that an 11hr finish is possible now that I know the route, especially if I can choose a day with less of a temperature range and headwind. Unfinished business then, to be revisited in the summer I hope…
GPS track of the route. The batteries ran out 3.3 miles from the end: http://connect.garmin.com/activity/164156538
Trans Cambrian Way ITT website: http://transcambrianitt.blogspot.co.uk/
IMBA Trans Cambrian Way website: http://imba.org.uk/where-to-ride/trans-cambrian-way/