Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Church? or Chapel?


I have tried, moderately, to write up this ride.  The fact is, it would be proper hard work to write it up accurately.  To describe this ride by any fact is doing it injustice for it was a mash of pedal strokes, mud splatters, sideways sunbeams, snowy distant peaks, raindrops in headtorch beams, snuggly tents and sleeping bags our of the storm, coffees brewed fresh in the forest, surprise shelters, friendly strangers, porridge, best friends for life, colourful sheep, mucky ponies, pub food, railway lines, stained glass, Gallic crosses and icy rivers.







Llanbrynmwair: a rainy school car park.  Other peoples: eating toast.  I’m given a bottle for my holy water and a half-bottle of red to take communion.  I am also furnished with a Lion Bar and fed tea and toast.  

I change into cycling kit then set about attaching bags to my bike.  A dry bag under the handlebars containing my sleeping bag, a frame bag containing dry leggings, wool tops and knickers (also woollen).  A bottle cage filled with emergency equipment – plasters, painkiller, savlon, a needle, a tampon (good for mopping up all kinds of things), thrush cream (good for all kinds of itches).  Finally, a saddle bag containing half the tent, dried food, down coat and booties, headtorch in a box with some cables and a battery and my mug / brewkit.  My winter addition is two “stemcells”.  They’re shaped like they hold a bike bottle and dangle off the handlebars.  They’re sturdier than it sounds and most accessible so one side contains a tool kit and the other, breakfast oats in a waterproof box and goji berry / walnut mix for munching on.

We say goodbye to the guys huddling from the rain in their van and head off in our coats.
1 mile down the road and I return to the car park and add my rucsac to my back containing 2 litres of water and my waterproof trousers, warm hat, dry gloves energy bars and camera.

We finally get properly underway at 10:20 and by 11:15 have marked off our first checkpoint

Further down the road, two guys go straight on as we turn to pick up a bridlepath over to the East.  Much to my embarrassment it goes straight up and I’m convinced that I planned it this way – no worries about a bit of hike-a-bike early on.  I can do easy riding later.  As we head further and further up the 30% slope I become more and more worried that the slope will never end or the path will level out into unrideable forest.  
TSK adding to the scenery

Thankfully, our efforts are rewarded with a spectactular view before the path levels out into an entertaining track through the trees which requires some concentration but is rideable.  

After 5 miles we descend into a little village to claim our Second church and we’ve almost caught a buzzard from the sky, seen an owl and been laughed at by sheep.

For a while we climb away from checkpoint 2 on roads and TSK is almost mown down by an oncoming motorist without any concept of what might be around the next bend.  Over the other side of the hill we descend for some time, eventually overshooting a turn-off onto a bridlepath.  Again we push our bikes up to meet the connecting path we should have taken and swear when we realise if we’d retraced further we’d have had an easy ride.  Still, the path in itself is avoiding some evil chevrons on some evil climbs on the road map so we’re happy, even when having to make up the bridle path because there’s no sign of it on the ground.  

The scenery outweighs the effort and I snap a picture in case the sun doesn't come out again.

We arrive in a village where there’s an open pub serving lunch.  

Just as our meal is arriving, another rider walks in and we catch up about where we’ve been.  The route over the tops by the wind turbines was no better, in fact sounds much worse, than what we’ve just been through so that’s reassuring.  

Filled with baked potatoes we return outside to discover we’ve locked up the bikes without bringing the key for its release with us.  I go indoors and make pretty eyes at the staff and the chef comes to our rescue with a pair of bolt cutters from the boot of his car.  Turns out his other job is a farrier.
Released, we set off on our third off road ride of the day.  We climb up hill a way before turning off onto a well defined path.  It’s not a great bridleway but there’s some path to it.  It doesn’t last long and soon enough we’re following something that diverges greatly from the direction we were *supposed* to take.  After some very cool downhill slaloms which would be better on skis than mountain bikes we find the track again, just as it disappears into a brackeny hillside behind someone’s house and we have to make 4 2-person lifts of loaded mountain bikes over barbed wire fences before slithering through more bracken to the track at the bottom of the valley.

This track then runs alongside streams and rivers which eventually culminate in one big river crossing.  Whilst all the others have been rideable, this one has a bridge – at least it used to.  The only thing that remains of the bridge are the two concrete blocks either side of the river that the bridge used to stand on.  The alternatives of pushing our bikes across open grassland overlooked by a big house versus retracing our steps up hill, leads us to remove shoes and socks ready for the paddle across the river.  As I’m moving to hang my shoes over my bars, TSK decides to lob his shoes over the river onto dry land. 

Unfortunately one shoe ricochets off the gate on the other side and slowly starts to make its way downstream.  I try and race after it but I’m already in bare feet and slow on rocks even during triathlon races, never mind in a Welsh river in January.  TSK wades in fully socked.  At least shoe number 2 made it and he’s able to make more progress in stocking feet.  The shoe gets momentarily caught on a rock, buying us time and he manages to catch it just as it gets unattached and recommences steady progress down the river.  He helps haul my bike out around the gate and I walk up the mossy slope in bare feet.

I think this is the happiest I was all weekend.  My feet were numb from the cold meaning I was free to “feel” the moss between my toes for I was cold enough not to feel pain but somehow I could still feel the mossy softness, the tickle of tiny fronds of green on my foot pads.  Then once the novelty of that wore off, my feet felt great again back in my wool socks and fleecy leggings.

We dried off, re-shoed and started to push our bikes out of the valley to get the blood flowing to the feet.
Bus house parked up at a local campsite complete with porch, deck and "pond feature"

Walking off the hill climbs

Pee stop

Once we’d accessed a road, we descended down again right up until we started going back up again and then, after some minor lanes and villages, we were in Corris.
This is not actually the church in Corris but it looked like a place of worship and was next to the cafe... by then we didn't care.

And there was a church and outside it were bikes because right next to it there was a  café and it was open and they sold us sweet potato muffins and coffee and life was good.  There were around 6 other riders in there and two leaving.  We assumed their seats then Andrew chatted as I spoon fed my brain to get it to work again.

Finally, Andrew insisted we go back outside and I dawdled as much as was polite.  We’d arrived in Corris way earlier than I expected.  Eventually I realised this was because my route-choice from Corris was an out and back and we would return there just 1.5 hours later after obtaining one more checkpoint and scouting out an overnight camping spot which was later rejected in favour of drier climes.  Andrew reliably informed me that Cadair Idris was above us (through the rain) and he (the mountain) seemed to be generating all kind of wet weather patterns which didn’t necessarily exist on the other side of the valley.  Stopping there, next to a river, did not seem like a good idea. 

TalYLynn Church

We dawdled a bit, thinking about a high mountain pass to the Cross Foxes Inn (which TSK had passed many times but not gone in yet) and going back to Corris.  I eventually reasoned that my plan after Corris was to get offroad and therefore the best bivi spots.

Head torch and silhouette
Where we did bivi shall remain a mystery for the protection of all those involved.  Let’s just say that me refusing to budge far beyond that place and Andrew’s reluctance to eat anything other than pub food meant that in the morning we were back at Corris, wondering casually if the café was open (it wasn’t).

So 12 hours had passed in which we had eaten in a pub, camped outdoors, got rained on all night, snuggled in our tent until dawn rose on account of it being too wet and windy to be drawn to anything else before 7:40am.

I didn’t sleep brilliantly but nor did I sleep atrociously.  I found that my wool top (now damp) being stuffed up my down coat to dry out was only making me colder but somehow when I spread it over my thighs (the only bit of me not covered in double-down) my body temperature improved.  2-man, winter camp tenting in the wet actually worked out and I think snow would have only made it easier so long as it made it less damp not that a lightweight tent can hold *that* much water.

At 7:30 am we packed up and were gone by 8:30.  We rode from Corris along a minor road until we found a forestry commission carpark, furnished with a brew-hut… I mean, infoshelter.  It would have made a perfect bivi spot but you win some /  lose some.  Coffee made on a stove outdoors is so much richer… if a little gravelly.

On the turn to our next pass that day, we met another rider coming down.  I was eager to move on and stay warm but Andrew chatted away as I fumbled with some stuff and then re-arranged the hand warmers in my gloves.  As I fiddled, Andrew asked, “is it steep ahead”.  The guy went quiet.  He was quite obviously gesturing something behind my back, like if he said it out loud I would throw some kind of womany strop and refuse to proceed.  Finally I got him to admit out loud that the climb was a bastard.  I didn’t mind.  It was early, I had miles in the legs.  We set off up the bastard.

TSK later said the man implied that we (or I) would be walking most of it.

It really wasn’t so bad.  OK, there were long sections of steep climbing but I had badass gears on my bike and only stumbled twice.  The first, when I needed to eat as I got the shakes – so I did and I walked whilst I ate because riding, breathing and chewing at the same time is not a skill I posses without choking. 

Once I’d got going again, I also had a wobble as I zig zagged across the road.  My front wheel accidentally turned downhill instead of up and I had to fight so hard not to let the bike take both of us rolling down the hill, that I knew I couldn’t get going again, even if I could get my leg over the bike top tube.  So I walked to the next lower grade section – all of about 10m before getting back on and starting to ride again.  I rode the rest with a mixture of determination, heavy breathing, tactical deployment of my new muscles and being a contrary bitch.

Over the top of the climb, the descent was justifiably insane.  As steep as the uphill, it lasted about 5 minutes (not an Alp) of whoop and some cautious braking, after which we were deposited on a main road - the other side of the hill we'd been debating riding over at 6pm the night before.  We turned North in search of Andrew's target for the day - the Cross Foxes.

This newly refurbished, posh (Telegraph and Guardian reported and recommended bijoux) pub/grill could not have done any more to make us feel welcome.  We left our bikes under the deck and cautiously climbed the stairs into the warm of the conservatory entrance where we dripped onto the slate floor and hung our wet gear over the back of chairs before perching our slightly (though not too) mucky bottoms on tall stools.  The waitress predicted our "hot drinks" order and brought us our food with a smile and friendly chat about where we had been / were going.

We looked nervously at the newly painted cream and pale grey decor, the superb scenic wall art and they stoked the fire and never once mopped the floor or tutted.

Reluctantly we left and formed a plan to head back to base so that we weren't driving home exhausted.  When we realised our legs just weren't in it, the plan was cut even shorter and we started riding over the main road climb back to the HQ.  It doesn't take my brain long to tire of long main roads so by the time the downhill appeared, I was ready for minor lanes and again turned off.  This time I was gambling on a track marked both as a permissive path and "traffic-free cycle route" but not a surfaced road.

I wasn't sure how sure-footed a track it would be but it seemed to contour pretty well and I needed to get off that main road.  It didn't disappoint.  Solid enough to ride all the way yet wet, silent, glistening and sheltered enough to be absolute bliss.  We met one black labrador and his human who had a lovely chat and some purple sheep.

And then there was road again - minor lanes and they crossed the major road and we set off back up the other side of this valley with a plan to zig zag back on ourselves up the valley side then head over into the final run-in to HQ.

In one last stab-in-the-back, just after we'd been distracted by a young shepherd trying to get his flock across the road with a petulant sheep dog and one errant sheep, about the time we were looking for the zig zag road, the Garmin crashed.  Except it crashed surreptitiously so that we cruised past the zig zag and rolled down a fucking big steep hill.  Only when we had reached the bottom did I realise the Garmin had crashed and when I checked, we had to retrace our descent right to the very top.  Not only that but in my frustration I overlooked the fact that we were around 1.5 miles away from obtaining our only checkpoint of the day and with that, we turned too early as well as too late.

The zig zag was bad news.  Not a road at all but a muddy track that went up the valley side at a gradient of silly... over 33% according to Mr Garmin.  We were dismayed.  TSK didn't want to ride, I mean push, it (and neither did I) but I didn't want to go on the main road either.  We hadn't come all the way to Wales to ride on main roads and I was convinced this road turned into the lovely yellow B road which took us directly back to HQ.  Where the hell did it turn into a yellow road? (Garmin puts a big pink line over the route so you can't actually tell what road surface you're supposed to be riding on).

I zoomed out so I could see the road behind the big pink line, briefly and concluded that we had no more than 500m of pushing up this hill before it evened out and turned into a minor road.  We made a pact to do it and I prayed to the Karma that it would pan out and prayed to OS that their maps were accurate.
The views were worth it.
It was so steep I reverted to counting steps in between rest stops.  At first, 10 steps.  Then 5 steps, and rest.  It was so far to the top.  We were both, only just, managing to stay upright.  Then there it was, the gates, the view, the why, THE TARMAC.  I took the picture, less for the view but more to exercise the pride in taking myself to such a tired place and coming out the other side better for it.

The muddy splodge on my bag is where the whole thing toppled over into the mud and poo.  Oh well.

Down to a farmyard and through flocks of pheasants then onto the main road again briefly before turning off onto my B-road which cut across an evil valley (this time just a rideable 8%) before following the path of the river (gently uphill).  After a while there were no more evil climbs on it and TSK just about forgave me enough to enjoy the solitude of the b-road since we saw only 3 cars for the next 7 miles.  We considered stopping in the occasional layby / grassy field to brew up more coffee and instant food but instead chowed down on the nose-bag residing in my stem cells and the odd energy bar, just to get us the last 5km into the finish.

Ian Fitz was back.  My life completed, leaving before him and returning after him and within seconds he had sewn the seed of my next bike packing adventure in May. 

The next group to return to base were over the moon to be almost the last tribe back and had a sprint to the line amongst themselves in which a fat bike won.  We didn't steal their thunder by revealing, to the others in the HQ, that this group had been in the cafe when we arrived in Corris on Saturday and in the pub when we returned there 1.5 hours later.

We ate more tea and toast and changed into civilian clothing for the long drive home then climbed into our car with the cow poo and sweaty clothing and took it in turns to drive shifts.  

More than anything else this weekend reintroduced me to the joy of being outdoors just for the sake of being outdoors.  Reminded me that not every trip is going to be a disastrous wash out (because for all the rain, this wasn't a wash-out).  It was enjoyable and basic and mainly, real.

I can't wait for the next adventure.

60 miles, 2500m climbing
29 hours on the run of which...
8 hours riding (allegedly)
10 hours sleeping / fidgeting
11 hours faffing, brewing up, peeing and eating

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