Mid-Wales Desert

Posted on October 21st, 2002

Survival Course

Event: Mid-Wales Desert 200, from Brecon, 1st June 2002 (8h30 start)
Organiser: Peter Morris
Travel to the start: On a bike (1979 Gitane classic tourer, stainless steel rims, 35mm tyres,52/42 X 28/24/21/18/16/14). Loaded with two rear panniers plus rear bag.
Travel back: On the same bike
Accomodation the night before the event: B&B, Glangrwyney Court, Crickhowell, 01873811288. Excellent place to stay!
Accomodation after the ride: Well… read the paper (See below)
Scenery: 5
Quietness: 4
Ease of navigation: 4
Easy gradient: 3
Controls – Friendly: 4
Controls – Food: 4
An excellent route. Should see me back again!

Initially, it all looked like a straightforward enough plan. Enter the Mid-Wales Desert 200 from Brecon due on 1st June, drive there the morning of the event from Oxfordshire, drive back after the ride in the evening so that I can also ride the Barbury Bash local event the day after. Being a bank holiday week-end, there was plenty of time left for recovery if needed on the following Monday and Tuesday.

Actually, my first intention had been to ride the 300km Mid-Wales Desert organised by Dave Lewis since I kept hearing people saying how good it is, but with Dave re-scheduling his event on 18th May at a later date it then clashed with Clive Wilman’s Dovedale and the Peak which I did not want to miss; so on I went for Peter Morris’s 200km for 1st June. As for the Barbury Bash, it’s a local event which is always good to support on one way or the other so well worth attending – the 100km distance only however, since I did not fancy an early wake-up on the Sunday morning.

This being only my second Audax season, I had been riding a bit in South Wales but not quite as much as I would have liked. Partly for bad luck (bottom bracket failure preventing me to turn up on the Plynlimon Polka last year), partly for poor condition (got sick on 2001 Taith Mynydd a Mor 200 and had to pack at km 140), but by now I was firmly decided to spend more time this year over there. The Gospel Pass Brevet in February, then the Carmarthen Bay in April proved to be very enjoyable appetisers, not to mention the Welsh bit of the South Coast 600, so I was really looking forward to discovering this mighty Mid-Wales Desert. There was an other incentive too: having set myself an ambitious target in terms of AAA points this season even though the actual figure remains classified information – as Norman Lazarus wisely says it (Arrivee nb. 74), while it’s acceptable to be regarded as a fool, it’s an other story to be regarded as an idiot -, the 0.75 points attached to the event were worth considering for keeping the counter clocking. At that point on time my target for the season still looked achievable, even though mental distraction (or soft brain?) had already costed me 2.50 AAA through sending me astray (Goyt Permanent) and seeing me finish out of time (Dorset Coast). So the points were indeed required…

Where things started to go wrong was on the Monday morning prior to the event, as I happily drove back from Midhurst basking in confidence following the successful completion of my first 600 ever. Even though determined not to leave black mood rule the day, I couldn’t quite ignore this nasty CLONGGGG sort of loud noise developing at alarming pace on the rear side of the car. ‘Bah, just a change of shock absorber’ was the way I treated it, and kept going with vibrant optimism. The mechanic at my local garage had quite a different view two days later: ‘well, er, the shock absorber is dead indeed and we can easily change that, but let me tell you that the coupling is dead as well and the clutch worn-out, making of the total a cost worth XXXXX £ well above the value of the vehicle’. Quite indeed, meaning that if John Curtin is interested in a wreck for parts for his Alfa 75 it’s now up for grabs mate.

So the week-end got re-scheduled as follows: no car means take Friday off, ride on Friday to Brecon (and watch France open the World Cup on the way), ride the event on Saturday, stay there on Saturday night, ride back on Sunday. And no Barbury Bash. I found a B&B 18 miles from Brecon for the Friday night, couldn’t find anything for the Saturday but bah, let’s see once over there, in the worst case it’s a night ride back and/or bus shelter night sleep in the best Audax tradition! Optimism, I tell you…

The Friday ride, between Stanford-in-the-Vale and Glangwyrne, was excellent. No noticeable wind on the flattish portion heading westwards and towards the Chepstow bridge, a perfectly dry day. Spot on time for the 12h30 kick-off I found a good pub with giant TV screen in Olveston, and happily swallowed an excellent steak and kidney pie while watching the (still then) champions of the World and Europe being defeated by Senegal. Believe it or not, even this did not manage to lower down the spirits, I just happily kept going in glorious sunshine over the Chepstow bridge and up the B4235 towards Usk, and in no time at all reached the B&B in Glangwyrne – just after having spotted ‘my’ bus shelter for the Saturday night while riding through Llanfoist. You know, the stone-built model, giving plenty of sheltering and insulation while keeping you (nearly) invisible from the rest of the world…

On second thoughts, I should have paid more attention to what happened next. Because once in the bath (with jacuzzi, yes indeed!) I suddenly realised I was feeling pretty much tired while seriously hot. Not that the ride on the day could be a serious cause for it, 150km at tourist pace including a 2 hours break in the shade having barely to be regarded as a killer. Or could it be residual tiredness from the 600 the week-end before, recognising I had been pretty surprised not to show any sign of it during the whole week? Well, anyway there was no time left for self-pitying, so once out of the bath a short ride to Crickhovell provided the food and beer intake for having a good night sleep, and I emerged the day after confident to have batteries laden up again.

The ride to Brecon along the A40 was uneventful, leaving enough time for breakfast at a garage while entering Brecon, then exchanging news with some familiar faces at the start where the usual AUK rumours were discussed – this time there was quite a bit of comments surrounding massive packings on the Brimstone the week-end before. Well, the South Coast 600 on the same week-end was quite wet, so I can sympathise with those riders who packed on the Brimstone…

It seems to have become an established tradition that starts of Audax events have to be fast and of the mass type. Being no lover of either form of start, I set off deliberately last, as I am used to, relying on the first climbs to leave me with some companions of comparable slowish pace. There were not many this time: I passed a rider wearing a Carmarthen Wheelers top, rode for a little while together with an other rider, and then stopped for the first info control while everyone else just zoomed past. So there I was last, and continued so until I caught up Jim Robertson having met some mechanical difficulties. Then it was a fast and flat bit along the A40 to Llandovery, riding through Trecastle where I recognised the inn where I could ring a taxi after having packed last year on Taith Mynydd a Mor 200 thanks to a sick stomach. Last on the road at the Llandovery control, with already 48 minutes gained over only 40km – AUKs had been fast indeed. As I queued for sustenance and card stamping, Neville Chanin was leaving the control, cheering up local ladies with a characteristically loud ‘S’cuse me girls’ who left them all emotional…

When I left Llandovery, some few riders were still there so at least I did not bear any more the lanterne rouge – for the moment. The route became more scenic, starting with riding along the nice Tywi valley offering plenty of shade. When the gradient started to rise, I passed an other rider having obviously derailleur troubles and claiming there was nothing to be done about it. Then I was passed by some more riders, playing a bit cat and mouse with a group of four or five who seemed to have always one of them having to stop every half a mile or so meaning we kept passing each other as they waited for their mate. By then the climb had become truly splendid: not much shade any more, mountain-like scenery all round, and fantastic views over the Llyn Brianne lake. Not even the dozens of boy racers taking the road as a racing track for what appeared to be a car rally did manage to spoil the fun of the ride. If this is what Mid-Wales really is, how could I have waited that long before discovering it?

All the way along Llyn Brianne up to Tregaron we sort of rode together with two other riders, but I reckon I was glad to reach Tregaron as tiredness had clearly started to take its toll. I must have arrived at the control at the wrong time since it took ages for getting served, but I was all too happy to use the time for cooling down, taking up liquid, and relax a bit. Which means that when I left the control with half an hour to spare, there was just one rider behind me again…

Given the shape I was in at the end of the last stage, I was firmly determined to take it easy on this one. Which I did, well at least as long as the gradient allowed it. Because once passed Pont-rhyd-y-groes, about mid-point of the event, signposts gave an explicit warning that a 16% portion was standing ahead. It first went all right, but the next bit along the B4574 proved to be one of these rare occasions when the tiny sensible bit of myself manages to have it’s opinions heard: ‘On this one, don’t you think a triple chainring would be somewhat helpful?’ Well, yes, possibly. Will keep a mental note for later. Some day, maybe… Not that this portion was horrible really, I am sure there are a good dozen worse than that on say the Hard-Boiled 300. But it was bad enough for seeing me reverting to walking and pushing the Gitane upwards. Which also means I was starting to feel not that well.

When things frankly got wrong was a bit further down, on the lunar section longing the Elan Valley. Fantastic scenery indeed, worth the best landscapes which can be seen in high mountain areas. But I was by then desperate for cooling down, and not a single tree could be seen… The inevitable happened when I eventually found the only shady portion along the route, after some quick stops aimed at swallowing some liquid. Then, as I sat down under a tree and attempted to bring temperature down to an acceptable level, my stomach expressed without ambiguities its refusal to go any further. I stayed there for a few minutes, attempted to keep going, had a similar stop some few hundreds of yards further down with the same message from the stomach. Hmmmm, looked like the dreaded perspective of having to pack started to loom dangerously…

Heroically gathering the last remaining bits of energy, I kept going past the right turn towards the Elan Valley, which is about as far as this damned stomach agreed to let me go. With dying morale, I then went off the bike, lifted man and machine up the verge, and decided to stay there for as long as needed before some degree of normal operation of the body could be resumed. That meant three full hours, copiously split with unpleasant spasms; at a point a couple in a car very kindly stopped and came offering me things to eat and drink – they were appalled enough by what they heard and saw, since at that very moment my digestive system appeared to be in a state of terminal crisis, for not insisting any further. Mind you, they didn’t call the priest neither, meaning at that moment they were more optimistic than me! Cattle also stayed suspiciously away, there was just this buzzard (or was it a vulture?) who seemed to have spotted a candidate for its next dinner – not that the prey looked that appetising however!

I watched the last rider passing by, on time for the next control at Elan Valley Visitor Centre; and I hence knew my fate for the day was sealed. It was 19h00 about when I assessed the overall condition to be acceptable enough for attempting going a bit further down, with phone box and shelter for the night as primary targets. Fortunately enough the route was easy down the Elan Valley, and I soon found both targets just after the second dam. A quick, rather laconic call to Peter (‘Don’t expect to see me at the finish. Been sick. Will survive. Thanks’) allowed to free the organiser from any concerns about me. Then a quick observation of the place revealed that the basics were there for a night a la belle (etoile): there was a shelter which appeared to be closed, but also a sheltered information signpost which could do, or alternatively picnic tables. All that alongside a lovely river with of course generous squadrons of hungry mitges.

When on Audax rides I get abundantly questioned about the content of this large pannier I always use to load the Gitane with. I am sure quite a few people believe I carry a large tent with me. Not quite; but once you have considered taking a warm raincoat (this being Britain, remember…), one or two changes of kit, plus a large toolbox (occasionally also useful to other people) built under the principle that redundancy is mother to safety, you just realise these things need space – and add some weight. I generally answer queries by telling that I am delighted to carry all these things for no use, but unfortunately they become useful sometimes…

This was definitely going to be the case. And the addition of three layers, the raincoat and winter gloves meant the night under the picnic table was quite all right in the sense that it allowed a reasonable amount of sleep without getting any cold. And the prey was certainly of little enough taste for that mid-Wales wolves nor vultures did not even contemplate having a go at it – even mitges eventually gave up.

One of the few good things about sleeping rough is how easy it is to get back on the bike the morning after. No risk of this well-known lie-a-bed syndrome affecting all of us on the morning before a wet winter ride, oh no! There you are all too grateful to this two-wheeled machine for being the only sensible way how to get some warmth into your body again… On that Sunday morning then, things were looking better: the stomach had accepted a breakfast from the saddlebag, not without some noises, but accepted. So on I went again, at snail pace, towards Rhayader and the South.

I managed to ride a good 20 miles, through Rhayader then down the A470 to Builth Wells, stopping on the way at a service station for stocking-up some food and liquid. It was a bit further down, at about Aberedw, when the stomach said NO again. I knew the routine by then: zero activity, wait for it to settle, and keep going looking for an accommodation for the night enabling a full half-day of rest before continuing. At least now I was outside of the ‘Desert’, and could look forward to finding a B&B. Ha! Gods make fools of those they want to lose… I must have asked a good dozen of B&Bs, they all replied the same: there was currently a festival of some sort in Hay-on-Wye, thousands of people were roaming the area looking for a room for the night, and everything was packed 50 miles around. Everything? Not for the inventive AUK rider, albeit depleted of energy. As I reached the village of Llyswen along the A470, I knew it would be my Eldorado for the rest of the day and the night after. It has four food points (2 pubs, a café, a service station). And more than that, it has a splendid church, with a superb sheltered porch. All that remote enough from the main road for ensuring a quiet stay…

I stayed there the whole Sunday afternoon, and found quite a few interesting things to do. Watching dozens of motorbikes as they stopped at the service station for refuelling for example, and I couldn’t avoid thinking of some AUKs filling their bottles as I watched these motorbikers pouring mysterious liquids into their machine’s fuel tank. Realising that the church was actually indicated as being an ‘Eglyss’, I also started to meditate about those quite few words the Welsh have obviously imported from my native language: pont, eglyss, ysgol. I had been told once in a pub in Corwen that for that reason Welsh should be easy to learn for a Frenchman – put it that way: how many Welsh do speak French, mmmh? – but I had not quite realised it until that day. Could it be that in the old days Ll and gwlrwnncwd kind of things may have been part of the French language? But if so, the Czechs with their smrk kind of words may just share as well the same roots? So we may indeed all descend from a same origin???

As you guessed it, food deprivation and dehydration were obviously starting to have me hallucinating even worse than usually. Which is why I also decided to experiment some degree of treatment on my agonising stomach. The first remedy I could think of was obvious enough, but it’s only when facing the bottle that such evidence emerged to me: of course, Coke! If this thing can sort of cure hangovers and dissolve metals, it has to be able to unplug a stomach! But there has to be method in madness, so I started with the Diet Coke variety. It worked wonders: I was soon able to ingurgitate a voluminous cheeese and tomato sandwich kindly prepared by the cafe staff although closing time had already gone. I came to regret the friendly chat I had with said staff, because as I mentioned the waiter I was going to sleep under the church porch he left me with a distinct look of guilt on his face…

All in all, and after it emerged that none of both pubs nor the café would contemplate cooking on that evening, I had a rather unappealing supper of flapjack-cum-Diet Coke, and invaded my suite for the night.

I don’t know whether you have ever slept in a graveyard. Up to that day, I hadn’t. It’s quite an anticlimax really; the dead are very quiet folk indeed, not at all the sort of people to party all night for preventing you from sleeping. Maybe that all changes for Halloween? I should give it a try some day on the Dartmoor Devil, I am told quite a few compatriots are buried in Princetown. Who knows, they might enjoy some news from home?

As I woke up on Monday morning, the sky was distinctly becoming cloudy. I packed, lifted the bike again over the church gate (Ouch! Who said cycling has only legs working?), and left a donation for the maintenance of the church together with a message of thanks. If some day you sort of happen to ride past Llyswen at night, consider sleeping there, the vicar may even by then appreciate cyclists!

I spent the morning playing cat-and-mouse with rainy patches. Fair enough, since I just had been out for three days of dry weather and this being Wales. I could refuel on my (by now) usual garage diet in Crickhowell, kept pace with the clouds up to Usk, but couldn’t avoid being caught by the drizzle on the B4235 descent to Chepstow. Not the torrential downpour offered to the South Coast 600 riders at this same place the Sunday before, oh no. Just this obstinate, so British sort of drizzle which seems to never want to end while penetrating everywhere and leaving you shivering from cold at the best of the summer. ‘See Chepstow dry and die in peace’, I kept thinking all the way down for keeping the grey cells doing something…

I didn’t hang around in Chepstow, and hurried towards the Severn bridge looking for a better weather on the other side. Guess what? It just worked. Just the time for an interesting chat with an End-to-Ender before crossing the bridge (‘I’m 62 since last week. It’s the first time in my life that I can do what I want to do. So I do it now…’).

It was about 12h30 as I parked the Gitane against the wall of Severn View Services. And believe it or not, I was most delighted to have a proper cooked lunch at the Little Chef – this coming from a Frenchman. Which leaves quite a bit of room for meditation about what long distance cycling can do to brain and behaviour…

Duly refuelled and with the smell of the stable in sight, the portion from Severn View Services to Stanford-in-the-Vale was just an easy one, made easier by a vigorous tailwind breeze. Colours were just gorgeous in the evening while crossing the Vale of the White Horse, with splendid views over the animal all long the B4508 for the last few miles. It was about 19h00 when a tired rider pushed his trusty Gitane into the garage before collapsing in a bath, well yes I know, the first wash for the last three days…

I don’t know about you, but I found several variants of what could be the morale of this story, which is why I decided to share it with you all.

Lesson 1: optimism is indeed an excellent thing. Apart that it can be just as damaging in its effects as its opposite, self-pitying – both can cost you the ride if not properly ring-fenced. In my case, looks like I should rather leave the body to rest a bit after a long ride. Well, up to the next time I get too optimistic of course…

Lesson 2: technically, this was a failed ride. I am however prepared to bet that in three years from now I will remember better than any other ride how good fun the whole thing was. Are we such masochists? Er, well, I am afraid yes sir…

Lesson 3: organisers are not supposed to have to cater for our own mistakes once the ride has started. Let us leave it this way for as long as we can, it only adds to the spice of the thing. Some of us, including me, apparently can only learn the hard way…

Oh yes, and do ride the Mid-Wales Desert, splendid scenery all round and picturesque churches in some places…

That was for the sensible bits. For the rest, with 3.25 AAA points behind schedule and little hope to recover them from the rides to come (all already planned on my programme!), it increasingly looks like I will have to ride the Hellfire 600 Permanent for having a chance to keep the numbers up… O my God!

And this triple chainring? Well, some day maybe…


AUK V1604


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