Monday, 10 October 2016

Bear Bones 200

Mid Wales isn't somewhere you associate with lots of bridleways and mountain biking but look around and there's quite a number of bridleways, lanes and ancient rights of way that can be linked together. Every year this is what Stuart Wright does creating a route of around 200Km and invites others to ride it. The route changes from year to year and it's one of only two UK ITTs not to have a fixed route, the Yorkshire Dales 200 is the other.

It should be noted that Stuart's idea of a bike route and that of others don't necessarily align!

Expect interesting terrain.

So it was that on an October Sunday morning he emailed a GPX file to everyone who had signed up. I loaded it in to a suitable mapping web site and the disection began. Even though I haven't done much in Mid-Wales there were a few bits I had visited on the winter ride and Bearstock but these amounted to maybe 10% of the route, more investigation was required. Already there were murmurings on interweb forums, those in the know proffered digital nods and winks.

Tracing along the route in a photo website didn't reveal anything untoward but then the photographers were more interested in dilapidated old pieces of farm machinery than TPM (Tussocks Per Mile). Stuart mentioned a general slowing down might be expected after the halfway point. There was talk of a fast first half with the second half taking twice as long. A cruel finish was being spoken of.

More questions were forthcoming on the forum: where were the resupply points? What about pubs? What are the opening hours of the chippy in Knighton? Oh, hang on - the Sunday Co-op hours are different aren't they? Plans formed and disolved in equal measure.

Like many rural areas Mid-Wales has suffered from the tyranny of the motor car, village shops and services have closed as people  became more mobile and retail chains became the norm. More interweb searching leads to the conclusion that the only viable resupply points are Knighton at 100Km and Llanidloes at 160Km, the latter coming after some of the "slowing down". Most would be able to use Knighton but depending on strategy and pace Llanidloes might be shut.

Generally on events like this time is "made" by not losing time. My "steady away" pace is about 14kmh and at that sort of speed five minutes in a shop getting resupplied equates to just over 1Km, too many stops adds up. The countryside isn't a trail centre and there are often gates to contend with. These range from smooth and bike friendly to "it's better to lift the bike over" but if you weren't concentrating then each can take a minute to negotiate. A 14kmh pace would mean getting to Knighton in around 7hrs. Someone noted that there was 90Km of road on the route but a look at the map confirmed it wasn't all flat and most of it was in the first half. A possible strategy was emerging.

Aim for Knighton and refuel there. The next target would be to get to Llanidloes before the Co-op or Spar shut which would mean 7hrs for the 60Km (it would get dark about halfway through this section), however I'd take on enough supplies to ensure that I didn't rely on getting there in time. Once at Llanidloes there was about 10Km of easier riding until I got on to a section I'd done before, that would get me to the "sting in the tail". Depending on time and how I felt after Llanidloes I'd either bivy if feeling tired or ride through to the finish. I didn't want to commit to doing one or the other. Then came the news that a community cafe in Bwlch y Sarnau was going to stay open through the night for riders doing the event! ByS is at 140Km so a handy spot meaning that getting to Llanidloes wasn't the make or break it could have been.

The bike was set up with this in mind: seat pack with bivy gear and two stem cells with food. Although I try not to use a backpack this time it made sense as I could carry water in it and not using a frame bag or water bottles would mean that the main triangle was clear so carrying the bike would be easier should there be any serious hike-a-bike. The bike and luggage weighed 14Kg with 3kg or so on my back.

Saturday morning and there's a nervous group of cyclists loitering in and around Llanbrynmair Community Centre. Inside Stuart and Dee are serving up tea and breakfast. There isn't a group start, you can set off any time between 0800 and 1000. This has the advantage that you aren't immediately in "race" mode trying to keep up with others and overdo it early on as it's likely you'll set off on your own. The choice really is about whether to start early to make the most of the daylight or start later and have some riders ahead of you to act as "targets" to pull you along.

Cath's away early on to make the most of the daylight, I wait a while getting more food and drink inside me before starting at 0855. The first few Km are road but generally uphill until a turn left and things steepen. Eventually the gradient eases and forestry tracks lead to and from the high point. Once on the road again it's mostly downhill for the next half hour or so but even the uphill bits aren't hard. The fast riders are already going past with alarming ease. At Llandinam the next bit of hard work starts in earnest, there's 400m of height to gain in the next few Km with a nice muddy traversing bridleway to make things interesting. I catch Cath on the first really steep climb, all but the strongest are walking.

For those of you who have only ever seen his back, this is what Stuart "it's not a race" Cowperthwaite looks like.

As the day goes on I begin to catch up the early riders and more of the faster riders pass me. Sometime I'm riding with company with a bit of chatter then the elastic snaps and I'm on my own again. The route is quite easy to follow with just the occasional check of the GPS to make sure. The early morning clag clears and it's a bright if not sunny day and just the right temperature for riding.

On the outward leg.

There's a few squiggles in the route where you are riding along a ridgeline only to drop into the valley before climbing back up on to the ridge. At the last of these climbs we have a strange encounter with a local resident.

"You can't go up here, it's not a right of way."

"The map says it's a bridleway."

"Yes. So it's for horses. Bicycles aren't allowed."

"Err, a bridleway is for horses and pedal cycles. It's just motorised vehicles that aren't allowed."

"Is it? Well I never knew that!"

A bit more dealing with moaning then it's on with the climb. Eventually this climb becomes a push until the angle eases and we roll through fields to Bucknell Woods. At some point on here my GPS bounces out of its mount but fortunately it's also on a leash so it's a moment's work to remount it. A blast down the fire-road to a tight bend then a little working out where we are meant to go gets us on to a great bit of singletrack flowing down through beech and oak trees. All too soon we are on the road and it's a steady few Km to Knighton. I sip the last of my water from the Camelbak. I get to Knighton in 6hrs45 so just inside my projected pace.

Knighton cafe stop.

There's quite a gaggle (dunno what the collective noun for a group of bikepackers is) of riders in the Spar and at a cafe across the road. Just what the staff thought of twenty muddy cyclists suddenly turning up goodness knows. I think we cleaned them out of bottled water! A few bites to eat, refill the water, drink the rest then on my way.

Another rider, Richard, leaves at the same time as me, we'd been riding together for a while earlier on but he'd pressed on ahead about 20Km earlier. The first big climb out of Knighton and we both decide to walk, I can feel a small twinge of cramp but nothing that a bit of walking can't deal with. We walk a bit further than the gradient dictated then it was back on the bikes and keep on rolling.

Up, down, gates, lanes, tracks. It was all nice flowing riding. The route then pulled on to moorland and everything opened up with great views over the Mid-Wales countryside. I was now about a minute behind Richard, he was always in sight but I was basically riding alone. The riding was quick with just the occasional ditch that had you thinking "Can I ride through it?" Some you could, others looked a little too much. I like riding through heather moorland, you get a feeling of floating on a sea of purple and it's nearly always well draining so doesn't get too boggy for most of the year. All too soon I'm blasting down the descent off the moor and in to Llanbister. The light's now starting to fade so on with the rear light as there's a little bit of road work then it's more up.

Once out of the fields there's more moorland tracks but by the time I drop to a road that crosses the ridge I definitely need the front light. Through a farmyard and up again. Away to the east there are lights descending the previous block of moorland. I catch my erstwhile companion who's taking a short break and I get the good line down to the next farm. From here to the cafe is forestry tracks and tarmac lanes. The forestry is mainly uphill though and drags somewhat.

The long descent into Bwlch y Sarnau chills me and I need to put my spare clothes on once inside (I've been riding in just a short sleeved top to this point), Richard arrives a few minutes later. A pot of tea and a bowl of soup for starters. That all goes down nicely. I'm looking at the cake. Hmm. Maybe a refill of tea first. Finally I give in and have a piece of coffee cake. Richard heads off, I won't see him again until the end, as it turns out I don't see any other riders once I leave the cafe. More riders arrive at regular intervals but eventually after nearly an hour I decide I'd better make a move and after refilling my Camelbak head out.

Belinda, an absolute star.

The chill air is a shock and the first few hundred metres is downhill so no chance of warming up. Turn left and along a track, this turns muddy then mucky when it passes a silage feed cage for cattle - riding through 20cm of slurry isn't nice! I aim for the next few puddles to clean things up. Getting to Llanidloes is mainly road though quite a bit of up and down. The 20Km takes me 1hr20 and I ride through town just as the Co-op is closing. I've no need of restocking though. I do need to stop to get more stones out of my shoes. I take the opportunity to text Cath that I'm feeling good and will probably push on to the finish in one go. While I'm sat there a bloke in drag passes me - "Charity pub crawl mate". "Ah".

The next climb is another steep one and I'm walking it. Once it eases I'm back on the bike and making good time. The road turns to track but it's easy going. Most of the gates are open on this bit and when I reach the next lane and head down the hill I'm on terrain I've done before. From here through Hafran Forest to Staylittle is familiar. Somewhere on one of the forestry tracks I'm told there was someone kipping by the side of the track but I didn't see them. As I blast down the road out of the forest my back light dies - shouldn't be a problem as there's no traffic and not much road left anyway.

The climb out of Staylittle to Dylife is a drag, just the wrong angle for me at this time and I walk quite a bit of it. As I drop down to the pub I see a couple of sets of lights near the top of the climb on the other side. Just 15Km to go. As I start the climb I take on more food, just walking along getting energy in. Then I lose the line. There's no tyre tracks on the other side of the gate but I can't see where anyone has gone. Eventually by dint of lifting the bike up and shining the light around I spot a faint track but I have to carry the bike up the banking to get to it.

This is the start of the sting in the tale. The next 2Km to the top of the ridge is a push, carry, push again, look for gate through fence, keep pushing. On the ridge there's a track, easy going. I can still see the lights of the two riders in front of me. But why are they up there and I'm heading downhill? I stop and check the GPS, yes this is right. I keep descending until eventually I come to a stream and the uphill starts again.

A clean bike is a happy bike.

I'm tired now and as I ride along I periodically check the GPS (the screen is off by default to save batteries). Damn! I've overshot the turning. I turn back and head up the only track. After a couple of hundred metres I check again. I'm on the wrong track. Back down to the fire road. I wander back and forth trying to find the track that matches the line on the GPS screen but there isn't one. Cursing I start climbing the only track again. I reach a gate - keep going I'll figure it out when I get out of this damn wood.

On top of the ridge, I'm on the right line again!? How? Never mind, this bit's a blast. Keep going and watch out for the left turn where the bridleway drops to the road. Except I don't see one. After overshooting I retrace my steps. No track, what's going on? Never mind I'll chuck the bike over the fence and wing it. On the other side of the fence is another track! Just beyond that is the track descending in to the dark. This is steep but I don't care, just ride and keep going.

Cross the road and the next bridleway is a push - the forestry has been felled and it's unrideable. Out of the woods and the route traverses a grassy hillside. I keep getting lost, losing height and having to push my way back up hill. Eventually I get on to the final bridleway but it's only rideable in bits, there's gorse and old stone walls in the way. Finally it's rideable and it's all downhill.

With the bright lights of Llanbrynmair ahead it's full steam ahead. Then I lose concentration, catch the edge of a rut and I'm airborne. No damage done but I take the rest of the descent a bit more circumspectly.

I roll back into the community centre at 0348 for an overall time of 18hrs53mins, good enough for a black badge. The fastest time was 15hrs09mins.

I done gone and got me one of these!!

After a couple of hours' kip (and being woken by some lovelorn teenage girl sobbing and shouting for her boyfriend) it's time to get up and start spotting the incoming riders. Cath arrives, she had a great first day getting 150Km in to the route but a bit of a 'mare on the second day.

Cath finishing

What have I done to her!

Overall I think I got just about everything right, possibly my best ITT to date:

  • I ate well but still had some food in reserve;
  • I drank properly, I ran out of water just before Knighton so perfect timing, refilled there and at Bwlch y Sarnau which did me to the finish;
  • I only got the occasional twinge of cramp but didn't need to get off and walk to sort it out.

The Strava bit or it didn't happen: