By Vilas Silverton, Sri Chinmoy Cycling Team
Since entering this year's Mille Pennines Audax in July, I have looked for tough rides that would prepare me for the upcoming hill-fest that awaits later in the year. In preparation, I have tried to loose a little weight, and have sought to increase my monthly long ride by 100km a month. This meant doing 100 & 200 km rides in January, 200 & 300 km rides in February, 200 & 400 km rides in March and a 600km in April/May.
To this end, I have been very grateful for Colin Bezant’s Cambrian series of permanents. Living in Bristol means that I can ride out to quite a few of these though to date I have only tried the ones that pass through Chepstow.
At the time, doing the 4B in March seemed like a good idea. I completed Mark Rigby’s Rough Diamond 300 the month before and that went well (despite forgetting my lights and having to borrow someone else’s which was a bit stressful) I forgot my chamois cream too, but that is a whole other story.
This time I was using a dynamo front light for the first time, and what a revelation! I certainly needed it as much of the ride was in darkness. Leaving Bristol at 1.22am I headed for the Tesco Express ATM at Bulwark, Chepstow to start the ride proper. After a few hours of riding, I realised I was quite cold. Uncharacteristically, I was glad of the climbs as they helped maintain body heat. Descending into valleys was a whole different experience. The damp cold wind cut right through me sucking any hard earned warmth from my core. Feet were the first things to go, followed about 45 minutes later by fingers. Sanity was close behind. How could I be so stupid as to not pack enough clothes? Why was I only wearing a thin windproof jacket? Even though the forecast was for no rain, who in their right mind does a long ride in Wales without at least a Gore Tex jacket?
The sun was still a long way from appearing as I tried to encourage myself with such motivational gems as: "it’s always coldest before the dawn" and it will soon warm up and then you will be fine. I knew I was lying, but somehow didn’t care as I couldn’t face the alternative. With the first golden rays of sunshine somewhere along a random Welsh lane, I looked around and saw frost all around me, covering the fields and verges. ‘Ah ha!’, I thought to myself. I wasn’t imagining, it really was cold.
On long rides, it seems the mind can wander just as far as the body. For example, it is easy to try and predict where you expect to be at certain points of a ride, based on experience, expectations and bravado. It occupies the mind and gives a little sport. Sooner or later though, these projections usually come apart as reality kicks in. Such was the case on this ride. I had been feeling a bit ropey all day, quite why I am not sure. I needed many more natural breaks than normal and tiredness was a constant companion. Usually in the week before a long ride, when I know I will be going a bit short of sleep, I try and bank some good nights to see me through. This didn’t really happen this time and I was feeling the effects.
Even so, I was treated to some spectacular countryside on one of the warmest and sunniest days of the year thus far. Climbing through the Elan Valley in warm sunshine, I laughed to remember my cold weather struggles of the morning.
At around half distance, I also realized that time was getting on, and I was in deepest west Wales riding through places I had never been before and whose names I did not recognize. This can feel liberating or induce desperation depending on how the ride is going. Unfortunately, I wasn’t doing that well. There are some controls that seem to take a disproportionate amount of time to reach, even though they aren’t far away in distance. When you finally reach them the small victory is short lived and somewhat anti-climatic as you look for a receipt and push on to the next place. For me, Llandeilo was such a place that dangled like a carrot in front of my nose, always seeming to stay just a signpost away.
In time, of course, the kilometres ticked by as I kept riding. I was aware however that my tiredness was still with me and would only get worse after the sun went down. I could not risk sleeping in the freezing cold after what I had experienced the previous night, and it was not long after that I found the solution. A little lane set at 90 degrees to a B road had everything: a grassy bank set high above the road so it was well drained and dry. It was in the sun, and would remain so for quite a while as there were no over hanging trees. Lastly, there was a hedge providing shelter from the wind. 40 blissful minutes later I awoke and continued my way eastwards towards Monmouth.
As the sun set and night time set it, the temperature inevitably plummeted and the appeal of negotiating small lanes in the dark waned considerably.
Normally. I would never ride along the A40 in South Wales. I would leave it for lorries, holiday makers with caravans and time triallists ;-)
However in the wee small hours of a Sunday morning, it was fairly deserted and I couldn’t face the alternative route. By now, fatigue meant I could not face the brutal changes of gradient found on the narrow Welsh lanes, and as this was a permanent ride, I was free to make my own way between controls. I was back in familiar territory which helped my mental state. I recognized some of the roads from the National 12 hour time trial championships the previous year when I handed up bottles to my clubmate Tejvan Pettinger who placed second.
After a good chunk of main road, it came time to return to my gps device and pick the smaller, familiar roads home. At this late hour, I was always glad to find places open where I could get a receipt. Riding along in the night time bubble of your own thoughts, it can be a shock to come across ‘civilisation’ and a struggle to re-engage in social exchanges. That is a polite way of describing my late night chip shop experiences with the drink fuelled Welsh youth. In any event, the chips were horrible and as my stomach was playing up by now, they went in the bin. I carefully kept hold of the receipt though.
I had a final attempt at sleep, after my ‘normal’ tiredness increased to what I felt was dangerous. I knew I was struggling, but after wobbling off my bike into deserted pub car park and desperately looking into my bag for sugared items I realized I had better do something more constructive than putting my head in my hands. Down the road I found a 5 star Audax hotel aka a Welsh Bus stop. One of those beautiful stone buildings that offers refuge and shelter to those waiting for a bus as well as late night long distance cyclists. This one had a carpet of dry wind blown leaves neatly arranged inside and I offered a prayer in praise of divine providence.
I need not have bothered to set my alarm however, as the temperature had plummeted once more so that any attempt at sleep was foiled by my violently shivering body. I remember making a pathetic attempt to keep myself warm by scooping dead leaves on top of myself as if they would act as a miracle duvet. It’s funny the things that seem like a good idea at the time. At least the 20 minute break had allowed my ‘dangerous’ tiredness to decrease to ‘just very’ tired and I felt safe to continue.
More cold descents followed as I rolled in to Chepstow and the rather ill advised climb to Penalt. I fantasized about how much warmer it would be once I got out of the forests and into built up areas but there wasn’t much difference really. I had long ago given up any idea of being warmer until I was in my bed. At one point I decided to buy some plastic bags from an all night garage so I could wrap my feet and maybe even get a bin bag for my body. My mind raced ahead with the strategy. I would put a carrier bag under each of my thin overshoes and put a bin bag on under my windproof. I would get a roll of 20 if necessary! If the bin bag wouldn’t fit under, I would wear it over my jacket, like a feeble attempt at a Halloween costume flapping in the freezing air with my reflective belt on top. It was, indeed all sorted in my mind.
Finally I found a late night garage open, and after shivering and shaking my way in, discovered that they had only one carrier bag on the premises! I felt like laughing as I wondered which foot to put it on… In the end I just stuffed it up my front and carried on. It helped a little and saw me through to the ride’s finish at Chepstow, and the second finish at 4.48am Bristol.
I couldn’t risk a warm shower initially as all the feeling had gone from my fingers and toes. I was taken back to my rides as a schoolboy, when it was quite possible to get things spectacularly wrong in terms of clothing, food and distance. It reminded me also of why I still love riding the bike.