I was, I admit, a little scared. The only 600s I had done were Flatlands (three times) and the first half of PBP. So the Bryan Chapman was a big deal, a plan hatched in the safety of winter, a proper big ride in a country that had proper hills and could add proper weather to that in heart beat.
I knew it would involve not sleeping much if at all. I am not a snake, nor under 50, so it was always going to be a long haul at a slowish speed.
But if LEL is going to be done then big challenging rides are needed. Though, to be honest, BCM was more worrying than LEL for the time being.
There were some luxuries. Good controls by all accounts, a hostel and the one-third, two-thirds mark, a dropbag and an organiser who has prepared to slip my required gluten free food into a box going north. A small thing, but knowing there was something to eat at Kings was a big relief.
The climbing. Officially 7.5 AA points. Some mates had said that it wasn’t too bad, that most of it was A roads climbs – long but steady. The general wisdom was that a compact would be fine. 34 x 32. No worries.
Still…. 7.5 AA points. Usually I don’t accumulate that many in a season. I am not hard-core, I don’t live and breathe Audax, I add to the richness of my life with it, not the other way round.
I’d been planning this for a long time and as a consequence had got some rides in that would help. The Shark I’d done before (3000m of sharpness in 200km), and Oasts and Coasts too (3600m in 300km). I got myself over to The Dean (2500m in 300km) which handily got me oriented in Chepstow and gave me a taste of the south Wales hills.
None of them had been easy, but then I hadn’t suffered too much either. As always plenty of riders in front, more than a few behind.
I was probably as ready as I would ever be.
And I had a strategy. Don’t burn all your matches on the hills. Climb steady. Stay chilled. It’s not a race.
It helps to have a minimal success criteria too. ‘Success’ was getting around, if I was out of time that would be fine. After all this is just training for LEL right?
A week out I decided that I would be changing from the carbon bike with the 34 x 32 bottom gear to the Ti bike with a 28 x 32 bottom gear. Mostly on the grounds of comfort, but that having those three lower gears might come in handy. You never know. If a triple had a place surely it was here. And thinking into the future, the Ti bike was probably going to be my LEL choice, so why not try it out?
We were running a little late, driving from the yurt where we were staying (recommended) into Chepstow and even with the satnav doing it’s trick it was still a bit tricky finding the community hall buried in the middle of a suburb on the outside of town (so far so audax).
We didn’t have a lot of time to get ready. Drop bag dropped, food handed over to Ritchie, obligatory tea downed.
Then a couple of minutes looking at the variety of people setting off. Plenty of people like me, middle-aged blokes with mini-guts, looking a bit worried. Some Audax luminaries, the TCR set (or those who looked like were doing it) and a fleet of Raphaboys influenced by that blog post.
I knew full well that I wouldn’t see most of these people again. While I would be happy with a time under forty hours I knew some of these young guns would be back under 28 hours. It turns out back around 24 hours. Blimey.
And young people. When I was under 40 I barely had the patience to ride more than 60 miles at a stretch. What is wrong with them? Why do they think this is a good idea?
Audax is a broad church. If people wanted to ride carbon bikes without mudguards well that was fine by me, let’s just hope it didn’t rain, at least as not as much as forecast. I’d just long assumed it was going to be wet at some stage and the temperature was looking ok, so, good enough.
And we’re off…
So the climbing starts more or less straight away, though it’s not severe. I am acutely aware that we’ll be coming back this way soon enough, so every moment of freewheel will be paid for. The weather is warm with occasional short breaks of light showers, nothing to get too worried about.
I’d marked my route sheet with triangles for major hills, and over the first hours we’d gone through two of these – A-road climbs, longish steady gradients on fresh legs, nothing to worry about.
Then a quick stop for beans on GF toast, a bit of light rain sets in.
I was riding with Jonathan, an East Anglian mate who was on his first BCM too. Raymond from Colchester seemed to be going about the same speed, so the three of settled into a small group that we would keep pretty much to the end.
After 130km at Llanidloes Raymond said “Ok, the fun starts now.”
It turns out the first two legs are really just a commuter run to the first challenge of the ride. Moving from the busy A roads onto B roads was great – suddenly the traffic dropped right off, the sun was out and the landscape changes from lush river valley to proper high country. Also, of course, hills.
The first sharp haul up past the reservoir had me in first gear, if only to make sure I wasn’t going too hard. Much better to make the pace dictate the gear than the other way around. After the first steep haul Jonathan pulled off for ‘a photo of the top’. Raymond just shook his head and said quietly, “It’s not the top”.
Understated is Raymond. There were a good few more hauls up hills over the next hour or so, but it was glorious to be free of traffic and buildings and on high farmland, chipping away at a hill. And of course, the descent into the next control was good, though with the gusty winds you needed a good hand on the bars to keep things steady, even on my steady as a steady thing Tripster ATR.
Halfway down was an ambulance, hopefully not one of ours (it was one of ours, collarbone).
At the stop at a Co-op in after the big down hill in Machynlleth there were notably more TCR style rigs than Carradice setups. Seemed like a pretty clear issue of age of rider rather than speed of rider – we were all here together. Carradice will have to get their act together with some lightweight gear soon or they will be making gear for a smaller and smaller market.
From here it’s not a long haul to the first stop at Kings hostel and not much in the way of climbs, more steady riding and sight seeing, though back on busier roads.
As all audax regulars will know it’s usually just before the end of the first 200 that you begin to find out what shape you are in and how you are actually doing. I was ok, not speeding, not dawdling, getting the first third done in around ten hours with short but not manic control behaviour.
Someone had warned me to get in a very low gear before you turn off the main road and onto the hostel road. Jonathan found himself reaching for low gears and making a hash of the change and having to walk the first pitch. It’s an evil little climb, that’s for sure, but the road is very lovely in the late afternoon light. I twiddle up by myself, faster riders dropping down towards me to begin the next leg, reminders to get a move on.
I had a stash of GF food here, so first had a bowl of muesli and then a bowl of pasta. A quick sifting through the drop bag for a couple more gels and a warmer jacket for the expected over night rain and we were off again, onto the flat leg around the coast.
It was around here than Jonathan started having gearing issues – shifters that wouldn’t shift out of the top back cog down the cassette. It turns out he had broken a gear cable in his right shifter on a ride the week before and repairs had been made by home mechanics. And we had been on a ride earlier in the year where he had broken the same cable. Hmmmm. Having experience of that generation of shimano shifter I was not optimistic for a good long-term result on this one. It’s also unspeakably dull having to deal with other peoples avoidable mechanicals. I know I am not generous in this aspect – being a fairly poor mechanic myself you’d think I would be more tolerant, but I was doing well just to remain quiet and patient.
The riding was lovely though, crossing the inlet on the wooden bridge then scything up the coast with a nice tailwind in the gathering sunset – magic! Of course it’s also around now that the early stages of fatigue set in, 250km, 12 or so hours on the road, knowing there was another 170 to do overnight… I was at least on my comfy bike and so far it had been a wise choice.
The Tripster is very good over long distance, what it lacks in fist-pumping aggression it makes up for by looking after you a lot better. I knew I would get really sore hands, though since swapping to full-carbon forks from a carbon/ally fork this had got a lot better. I also had my ‘touring’ position dialled in with my bars a centimetre back and one and half higher than usual and this, with my very comfortable 3t ergonova bars was keeping the sting at bay. At the rear I was on my Cadmium saddle. I had sworn to never ride a Brooks leather seat again after my 600 fixed on it last year (a horrible rear end experience) and was seeing if the Cambium would be good enough at this distance. Short answer, only just.
Soon enough we reached the point where the route north and south came together again and lo and behold there were riders coming back the other way already. So they were 100k or more up on us. And there would be faster too I guess. Sobering.
Then the big event. Riding up past another reservoir (never a good sign) and seeing the headwall in front of us as the light faded and knowing somewhere up there was the pass that made it over the Snowdon saddle. Johnathan stopped to fix his gears (again, no comment), Raymond twiddled on up ahead (a much better climber than me) and so I took the climb at my own pace and solo, which was lovely. It’s not a first gear climb, but long enough to feel almost alpine. By the time we all assembled at the top it was dark and the rain had started. Time to blank out thoughts of how far was left to go and just aim for the next control at Menai bridge, not too far away now…
Hurtling down the mountain in the dark and wet was really good fun. No really. However the kms after that into Menai bridge were cold and wet and a bit miserable. We stopped at a service station for a needed Costa break.
Finally we made the control at bang on midnight – just over half way in 18 hours, with 40 hours to do the whole event…. there wasn’t going to be time for much sleeping!
Eyes getting scratchy, but there was custard and nowhere to sleep – probably just as well!
The hardest moment of the ride was standing at 12:30am in the pissing rain at the control and pushing off back into the right knowing there was another 4 or 5 hours to get back to Kings for some kind of nap.
Thankfully the rain quickly eased and, though it was damp, it was not cold. There were climbs, but nothing epic. Jonathan now had two gears only, 1st and 12th which was meaning that his speed was getting erratic. Overtaken by a group of slightly faster riders he and Raymond latched on. I couldn’t quite be bothered with that and let myself drift off the back. I’d spent most of the last 18 hours looking at lycra arses and not enough at the scenery, so I decided to pursue my own pace.
And then I had a puncture. In a village which was useful, but there was no way I would catch the others now. It took a while to fix with wet fingers but luckily I was spared an attack of the shivers. There was an awkward moment when a couple stumbling home had a mid-street clinch and were somewhat surprised to see a man emerge from the darkness, mount a bike, and disappear up the rode.
Once fixed I started off again and soon enough came to a small incline that seemed to go on for a bit. Well it went on for ten miles, in pretty much a straight line, not hard but unrelenting. This took a bit of discipline to get up. Not that you have much of a choice at this point – what do you do, stop and call a taxi? Finally cresting above a nuclear power station (which explained the good road surface!) it was a long straight road back to Kings, finally reaching it with the light coming into the sky. Being an A road this would have been fast and horrible during the day but I had it pretty much to myself.
Then the second time up the road to the hostel…. ugghhhh….
At the hostel it a zombie Apocalypse with riders and organisers stumbling round muttering incoherent things in the strange light of morning.
Jonathan already had a couple of the organisers looking at his bike. He had a spare cable so I wasn’t sure why he didn’t replace it himself right then. I wasn’t capable of rational thought as this point and kept well clear of it. I had a large amount of muesli, and surveyed the sleeping situation. Everything was full (of course) but according to the very patient helper a dorm would be coming free soon. And, amazingly, it did. I grabbed 45 minutes of sleep, just enough to do a ‘hard reset’. There’s nothing quite like falling onto a spongy mattress recently vacated by a smelly man and not even having the energy to notice how distasteful it might have been. I was beyond caring and instantly asleep.
Stumbling up, another round of muesli, another go at the drop bag and back on the bike.
And it wasn’t raining anymore! Hooray! Back onto the road again, around 6am.
The organisers had got some but not all of Jonathan’s gears back. He now had gears from 4 and 16 up, so a bottom gear of somewhere around 34 x 23. It would have to do, but I was glad it was not me as that wouldn’t have been low enough. Being a chunky lad and an ex mountain biker from NZ I know the best way for me to climb long hills – sit and spin. I am not a gurner and not a fan of the demise of the triple!
The mornings kick in the teeth came soon enough. One it started raining again and two, that final bit of that climb. Luckily I had been warned about that too. There’s a steady climb over the A470 that has a nasty sting in the end of it. I passed a guy grinding on a fixed and Johnathan was moaning like a ghost about having to do it in 4th gear. I was in first, steadily winching up, Raymond somewhere ahead in the distance.
Once over that it was a drag down the A470 (with all the attendant close passes and bad driving that A roads usually entail) to the lovely control at Aberhafesp. Here was a nice welcome, the sun was out, and, best of all, there was rice pudding. Bliss! I knew that I would make it now. Everything hurt a bit but there was nothing truly bad and I knew that slow and steady would get me in under time.
But then there was another long and unexpected climb (a low gradient eight miler) up out of Newtown which I wasn’t expecting and made very unpleasant by the numbers of motorbikes hurtling up it, every now and then one of them doing the ‘fuck you’ pass (go close, get out of gear and rev your engine in a cyclists ear as you pass). I find it staggering that motor cyclists don’t generally cross into the other lane even when the road is obviously clear and they are doing upwards of 80 miles an hour past you. I found myself using a lot of anglo-saxon singulars as they went past.
At least the rain was gone and the sun was out.
I had my worst moment of the ride though coming into Llandrindod Wells. I had an energy crash about 5km before the control and it was all I could do to keep riding at 10kph. The thing to do in these situations is eat, hydrate and just keep going at snails pace until it eases, so I grovelled on at a snails pace, the other two disappearing into the distance rather rapidly. Oh well, if it meant riding by myself for the last half a day, that was fine.
I arrived at the control pretty much spent a good ten minutes behind Jonathan and Raymond, which was becoming a bit of a habit. I was lucky they hadn’t left me to it really. Still, ‘only’ 130km to do and I knew that there would be two proper hills as the route more or less retraced the route we had come up.
Sometimes it’s amazing what half an hour can do! By the time we all got back on the bikes I had eaten an unholy amount of food (they had GF options, triple hurrah!) I was feeling ok. Again Jonathan hared off after a faster group and I let him go off (I wasn’t fully recovered yet) but soon enough we were all back together and riding down the opposite side of the Wye valley that we had come up (off the bloody A road!) along a gorgeous ten or so miles through small villages and fields – a real highlight of the ride for me.
Up and over the road to Abergavenny I at least started to feel human again and was able to actually lead the climb and descent. After a brief stop for ice cream (I know many did this) back on the bikes and onto quieter roads again for the final leg back to Chepstow.
On the final climb I eased off totally, plonked it in first gear and just looked around. I quite often do this near the end, let the people who just want to bloody finish go ahead and just drift along by myself, taking in the scenery and clocking the aches and strains in my body, a kind of tally of what could be better.
My hands were sore, my legs were woody and my arse hurt but all within acceptable limits. The tripster is not an aggressive bike, it encourages you to be smooth and efficient and looks after you well. It’s particualry stable and great for those ‘whoops I didn’t realise I was that tired’ moments.
I was sick of traffic and I was sick of sitting and spinning up hills at steady-eddy pace, but it had done the trick and got me through.
There is no way I could have ridden harder and not totally blown up so the only speed improvements would have come from using my lighter bike (which would possibly have been torture) or stopping or sleeping even less (which would have been imprudent) so I had got it all about right. The tactic of just easing back off the boil all the time and staying below ‘ouch’ on the climbs, aided by that low gearing, had done the trick.
It was a nice atmosphere back at the control, you really felt like you’d done something hard and were surrounded by people who were perhaps just as surprised as you were that they had finished in time. And there was GF cake – awesome!
38 hours. I wasn’t going to be scaring anyone with that time, but a finish is a finish is a finish and I knew it was a great ride to have in the bank for LEL.
Overall deserves it’s classic status. Good controls. Too many A roads in the day for my liking ultimately, but then they keep the gradient down, and it would be hard to do a full north/south in Wales in 600km without the A roads, so a necessary evil.
So, hardest 600 so far? For sure. Took a few days to snap out of the fatigue fog and come back to reality, but no worse than any other time – and I felt better than my Flatlands on 45 minutes sleep a few years ago… so I guess that’s progress….
A lot of the time I say you can’t really train for Audax, you condition for it and I had got a lot of conditioning in that’s for sure.
Equipment notes – Tripster was just about perfect but it is not very lively, sometimes I missed the power transmission of the Datum. I am going to do a few longer rides on the Datum with bars set in the same position as Tripster to see what happens. Trying to strike that balance between comfort and speed – as if speed is an issue when going this long for me… I have to admire my own optimism…
https://www.joejord.co.uk/cycling/10854/bryan-chapman-memorial-600-blimey/ (nice pix)