The van was visible above the ugly fence panels. Parked across the block of prefabricated garages and illuminated by the orange streetlight it looked pretty big. Feargal was hungry and therefore angry. Ollie had a rough day at work and also hadn’t eaten. I had spent the afternoon scouring Strava and making a list of objectives to be displayed in the back of the van. Matt didn’t know what to expect but had packed his trusty up-cycled bowl.
This was it – four lads, four bikes, three days, one van and fifteen of Wales’ most offensive stretches of tarmac.
I’m a pretty open minded person. The world of faith has been intermittently tapping on my shoulder for many years now. I’ve spent many hours learning about religion and some of my best friends are steadfast Christians. All conversion attempts have always been thwarted by the same thing – I am already a cyclist. I already belong to a religious order, albeit one without a heavenly God. In cycling, like other major religions there are festivals, Christians have Christmas, cyclists have the Tour de France. A catholic priest has his purple robes, a Sikh his turban and a Jew his skull cap. Our cyclist also must bear the signs of his faith – his dress code so obnoxious and overt that nobody would dare doubt his credentials. Do not leave home without the casquette, ensure adequate sock length and keep those tan lines razor sharp. Although it’s not quite circumcision, the true mark of the pious cyclist is their unerring maintenance of pristine shaven legs. There are holy places; the slopes of Mt Ventoux or the cobbles of the Koppenberg. There are also the idols – every recent convert reads the inspiring exploits of Anquetil, Merckx and Coppi and heedlessly aspire to follow in the footsteps of these virtuous saints. A congregation has its church, a club it’s club run. For those of you crying out about the lack of a spiritual component in all of this I urge you to try a Russian pyramid session on your turbo trainer in the dark in your kitchen and try to tell me that you didn’t have just a little word with God.
Well this weekend was a pilgrimage, in every sense of the word. Our inspiration was the holy text: the 100 greatest climbs in Britain. The book of Wales. In Simon we trust.Thursday night in the kitchen everyone was really keen to finally get going. A quick stop at ASDA and once loaded up on beer, pork pies and bin liners we hit the motorway. Some excellent driving and a few road beers for those in the back and eventually arrived atop a foggy, freezing wasteland. A few hairy seven point turns in the darkness and we found a great place to park up allow the driver to quench his thirst. We got more excited as the minutes passed. It didn’t take long for me to get mud all over the van and it didn’t take long to build up a large collection of empty glassware. Beer, beer, beer then bed. Two in the van, two in the tent.
We woke up to some serious tent shaking. We had parked at the top of the Brecon Beacons and set up the tent in some boggy ground just off the tarmac. The cloud had been blown away to reveal a large, grey lake. Whipped and windswept and pretty damn cold. The first climb of the day was to be The Tumble.
Now, writing chronologically would end up with this blog entry becoming more repetitive than one of our many discussions about gearing ratios. When trying to climb fifteen large hills, bikes have to be unloaded and loaded into the van fifteen times, wet socks are peeled on and off fifteen times, rogue shoes are lost and found fifteen times and as we eventually clip in and roll away from the van, somebody always forgets something.
The climbs were all hard. Some of them could certainly be ridden up by most fit people with enough tenacity and patience. Some, such as #90 Horseshoe Pass were even serenely relaxing; we sleepily climbed up through chilly clag before bursting though into dazzling autumn sunshine and wound our way up the side of the valley, the clouds now below our pedals.
Some of the climbs were of the sort that even the most sadistic sportive planners fear to include. They took not only a lot of lactic acid and the familiar choking, drowning sensation that is only felt on club hill climb championships morning but also a fair amount of experience and skill. In fact, to even get up #92 Ffordd Penllech, I had to have two attempts, let the air out of my tyres (more traction on the wet leaves), hover my arse over the rear wheel and hold my carefully planned line as tightly as if it was a railway track. Aching muscles tremble and so all your tendon stretching pulling on the bars has to be perfectly balanced. A single deviation in your course results in being thrown off. The temptation to grab onto the lamppost after the second devilish hairpin was difficult to resist. On it’s own it is a serious challenge. On Saturday night, halfway through our challenge and after a couple of back seat beers, it’s bloody ridiculous.
#100 was Constitution Hill. A short but deadly climb with a reputation and heritage to rival any other stretch of highway in the land. It was however, a long, dark drive through the centre of Friday night Swansea. No tired cyclist wants to squeeze a large van through a treacherous one way system being directed by a sweaty drunk more concerned by the playlist than the next right turn. Once it was pointed out that all of the climbs were ‘really out of the way’ and that that was kind of the whole point, we deliberated no longer and launched a raiding party to bag the cobbled classic. It smashed, shook and stung exactly as much as a climb of such severity should. It was made all the more dramatic by the presence of a local woman apparently very loudly resisting being sectioned under the blue flashing lights. Definitely worth the detour.
Each and every climb was a serious and fantastic undertaking. I’m not going to write about each one (I could and would – but I’d be the only one to ever actually read any of it) rather I’ll implore you to go out there and taste them for yourselves. They are all individuals to get to know. Here are some snapshot highlights.
#99 The Bwlch – Climbing fast on Feargal’s wheel, flirting with the red line of over exertion, racing against the impending darkness through the thickest whiteout conditions I’ve ever experienced on two wheels.
#93 The Devil’s Staircase – Savage. Just Savage. Reducing the pro peloton to exhausted, hobbling, cleat damaging, bike pushers. With more modern gearing and no stage race in our legs and using the whole road, we all just managed it. Simon challenges his readers by writing of an ‘unrideable apex’. Challenge accepted.
#89 – The Road to Hell – We’d saved this 11km climb to last. Climbing from the lights of Denbigh town centre to the tranquility of Llyn Brenig nature reserve to glide through chilling, damp clouds drifting across the moonlit road was nothing short of magical. The terrifying and really quite cold descent was not my cup of tea but I know at least one of the boys enjoyed it!
As with any challenge, particularly one of this nature, everyone had their peaks and troughs. Here are a few portraits capturing that spectrum of emotions. You can write your own captions.
Things that were learned.
Going to bed early in a howling gale is not nearly as effective as drinking until early and sleeping right through it. The hangover lasts no longer than the first hill of the day.
It can be Mallorca-training-camp-like in Wales in November.
There is a lot of litter in South Wales. In other areas of the country the mountains are majestic, wild and beautiful. The drivers have their eyes wandering around the landscape, they are patient and happy. Down in the valleys, the drivers do not notice the rays of light bursting through clouds or the windswept rocky outcrops, they are secretly texting, frustrated by the effort involved in navigating through the bumper to bumper traffic linking each of the old mining towns. The hills in South Wales are seen as huge lumps of wasteland, obstructions to be avoided except when avoiding charges for taking an old sofa to the tip. Scrape back the grime and they are as beautiful as any upland area.
Refuse sacks over bin liners for any weekend trip.
Telling oneself that one is tucking into a delicious mixed bean salad makes cold beans from a tin in the back of a van much more enjoyable.
Simon Warren was spot on.
Weekends are so much better when there is a table of information to refer to.
Having tackled the biblical landscape on two wheels, I have a new found respect for those tackling it on two feet. If you don’t already know the story please indulge me – it’s one of my favourites. Mary Jones and her bible.
I really need a camper van.
Unicycles can be ridden up and down very steep hills.
When embarking on a pilgrimage – always make sure your companions are as fervorous as you are. It’s great to worship alone but it is best done collectively. I’m sure we’ll find ourselves losing arm warmers, forgetting to start Garmins and debating the need for a chain catcher in the back of a van sometime soon.
Unfortunately there were many elements of this trip which don’t exactly fit with the thingswhatihavedone ethos. The best way to tackle this is for me to just be up front about them. We did borrow the van free of charge and we are very grateful to Feargal’s step dad for allowing us the privilege. This is not something available to everyone but the journey could have been carried out in other, admittedly less suitable vehicles.
£40 per person covered all the food, beer and refuse sacks for the three days. We were never hungry or thirsty.
£?? per person for the petrol. It was surprisingly economical.
£9 per person for two nights camping in a site with showers and electricity. The first night was free in a puddled public car park.
We already had bikes.