St Joe's Blog

St Joe's Blog

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Over the Hills part 3 - A recount of the Bristol to Colwyn Bay bike ride, July 2013

Day 3 – Easy Riders (Day 3 – Sunday 28th July)

We awoke at 7am to sunshine and beautiful morning skies. The forecast was for rain by late morning, however, and I was keen to make as much progress as possible in the dry. The first part of the ride was a steady and long ride to Bryn y Fedwen, following an 8 mile gradual descent into the town of Machynlleth. Liam elected to dismantle camp with Fabian and the three of us cyclists were on the road by 8.30am. After cycling more than 120 miles over the last 2 days, the previous evening was the sorest I had felt in many years. Today was slightly better but we also made sure we used special cycling cream to aid our padded shorts. This was a wise move and the soreness lessened from this point on.
The climb was initially steady, but as we travelled through Hafren Forest the hills became more challenging. Tom led, climbing all the way to the top of the pass, while Jonny and I elected to reserve our energy and walk part of the way. Liam had elected to reserve even more energy and met us with Fabian at the top of the pass, his bike ready for the long decent. The decent was preceded by amazing views across the Cambrian Mountains, which stretch across mid Wales. The long descent was a fabulous tour of the beautiful countryside with no effort involved. However, the spots of rain were becoming more frequent and the clouds were getting darker. As we stopped in Machynlleth to consider having lunch or moving on, a local commented to us: 'Better find a pub, you’re going to get wet soon’. We didn’t follow his advice, however, and decided to cycle onto Dolgellau (somehow renamed Doggy-log), but he was right… we were about to get very wet!

This stretch was tough. It started well, with lovely quiet tracks along a river, but as we travelled to the village of Corris the showers were getting heavier and more frequent. We were trying to avoid getting soaked, so would take shelter anywhere we could. It was while waiting for one of these showers to pass that Liam noticed a bubbling noise coming from underneath my front tyre; the first puncture of our trip, although thankfully a very slow one. We continued east to the village of Aberllefenni and then north through a steep-sided valley which had, at the very top, a magnificent man-made cave - the entrance to slate mines that obviously at one time sustained the local community. It was now derelict with gigantic piles of slate scattered at the base. We remarked that it felt like 'Lord of the Rings' as we passed underneath the Mines of Moria into the Misty Mountains.
The road soon became a path and continued steeply up the rocky and barren valley. This was one of our most difficult climbs, with all four of us pushing our bikes and frustration being felt by all. As we neared the top, and could see the forest ahead, the air became cooler, the wind picked up and a dark cloud seemed to be following us up the valley - heavy rain was coming! Although shattered, we pushed our bikes as quickly as we could up the hill towards the trees to get some sort of shelter. Although we didn’t quite make it, we managed to shelter ourselves under scattered pine trees from the heaviest part of the shower. However, we were wet, cold, hungry - and still some miles from Dolgellau. The negative feeling was then compounded as, coming down the hill, Jonny’s tire blew and the whole team ground to a halt. Thankfully, we were near a main road, Fabian was only a few miles away and for once we had telephone reception!

15 minutes later Fabian came to the rescue with the van. We parked off the road and were able to pull out the awning and make our repairs out of the rain. Amazingly, Tom cooked a great lunch of pasta, bacon, sausage and beans. Bikes now repaired, the team fed and warm(er), we cycled on over the hill into the pretty town of Dolgellau.
As we entered the town, we spotted the biggest and darkest cloud we had yet seen. We unanimously agreed to take shelter in the town as shoppers continued their business about the streets. This decision proved a wise one as the heavens opened (not for the first time this trip) and everybody ran for cover. The wind and rain were so strong that the water blew under the arches where we were sheltered. As soon as the rain stopped, we were back on our bikes heading for the River Mawddach, up the estuary and out onto the coast. We were finally leaving the hills behind us.

Not only was this ride along a lovely flat path up the estuary, but the showers took a break and the sun came out. As we travelled towards the 15O year-old Barmouth Bridge, we all shared a real sense of bliss as the cold wind and rain turned into a warm sea breeze. We paused on the bridge and considered contacting Fabian to arrange camp here (as was originally planned) but decided to continue 10 miles up the coast, as the original day 4 route was over 70 miles, and we wanted to make the last day more manageable. This sense of harmony was spoilt, however, when a motorist decided to throw a Custard Cream at Tom! Sadly, this was not the only time when a young motorist decided to abuse one of us for no apparent reason - just because we happened to be on bikes, I presume - so strange and little pathetic I think ... at the very least, a waste of a good biscuit!
The road was quick and the wind was behind us as we beat the incoming rain to our campsite in Llanfair. Just as we put up the tents, strong wind and torrential rain came in, dampening the spirit of our planned barbeque - but we were mostly dry and with ¾ of the journey completed ...

Over the Hills Part 2 - A recount of the Bristol to Colwyn Bay bike ride, July 2013

Day 2 – Diary of a Wimpy Cyclist (Day 2 – Saturday 27th July)

Although Jonny awoke early at 7am, the rest of us did not rise properly until almost 9am. Nobody was particularly enthusiastic about clearing up camp, but after delicious bacon sandwiches, we set off about 10.30am; too late as we would later discover ...

Following a toilet and water stop at the priory, the team split up, with Fabian slowly navigating the support van up the narrow lanes, and myself cycling separately from the rest of the team at the rear. This is a lovely valley and the climb is quite manageable until the last couple of miles. The last part of the climb is steep but worth the effort when you reach the top of Gospel Pass and overlook the amazing view which takes in Hay On Wye, looks across to Herefordshire and, of course, across to mid-Wales; our destination for this part of the journey.

We were all excited to find an ice-cream van and for the first time to receive some kind of phone reception. After briefly posting on the blog and checking in with loved ones at home, we set off on a steep decent before following the River Wye to our lunchtime destination of Builth Wells.

Liam, who had never cycled over 30 miles before yesterday, decided to miss the second part of the day’s ride and join Fabian to travel ahead to the campsite and set up camp at Llanidloes (our half-way destination).

The three of us set off along the river and were soon climbing another hill out of the valley and towards the town of Rhayader. This period of the ride was slow. Climbs were small but regular and the Sustrans route took us on windy paths. And then, as we ambled along these small welsh roads, I felt a spot of water on my face… rain! Rain had not been forecast until the following day so we were disappointed to feel even the faintest hint of the wet weather coming. The reality was that due to the temperature still being relatively warm, wearing waterproofs would only get us hot and very sweaty, so the only choice was to get wet until camp later on. When we arrived at the village of Newbride-on-Wye, we decided to ride on a more direct road for about 10 miles. This was a less pleasant part of the ride, but because of our late start it was already late afternoon and we needed to make up some time. We arrived at the town of Rhayader as the heavens opened and the gentle rain turned into a downpour. We didn’t bother with waterproofs but Tom and I put on overshoes so that at least we would cycle with dry feet. Because conditions were poor, we decided to go back onto the minor route and follow a narrow valley along farm tracks towards our eventual destination. By this time the three of us were wet, tired and it was getting late. This part of the route however was green and lush, with the jagged mid-Wales mountains surrounding us along the ride which was mostly off-road. We eventually came off the path, briefly joined the main road and cycled into Llanidloes, navigating to the campsite just a couple of mile beyond.
We were met by a lovely sight: the van and awning set up and tents erected. Liam and Fabian apologised that the tents looked a bit saggy; it didn’t matter – we were soaking wet and the tents were up - wonderful! It was Chili for tea (cooked by Mrs Condon earlier in the week) and a campfire in the rain. We were excited because this lovely campsite had showers! The fact it was surrounded by hills and situated next to a river was lost on us and most of the campers in the on-going rain. We spent the remainder of the evening around the fire and looked forward to the thunder and lightning planned for the following day…

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Over the Hills - A recount of the Bristol to Colwyn Bay bike ride, July 2013

Day 1 – A Long-Expected Journey (Friday 26th July)

Following several days of denial, I awoke early on Friday morning feeling prepared but unsure of what to expect. This was a ride which I had planned (and bored people about) for many years. Back in the Easter of 1985, at the age of 13, I cycled from Colwyn Bay to Bristol with the St. Joseph’s Scouts, over 7 days. Now, some 28 years older (and a lot heavier), I would attempt to do the reverse journey over 4 days.
The weather, which had been hot and settled for weeks, was now turning for the worse. The forecast for days 1 and 2 was fine but thunder and lightning was forecast for day 3 and beyond. I was confident that we could manage to the 60 miles planned per day, but wasn’t sure how easy this would be in poor conditions - however, at least the wind seemed to be coming from the south west, which was the most important. Cycling in the rain with the wind against us was my biggest fear.

The team assembled outside the Bridge Inn, Shortwood at 9.30am and consisted of Liam (my brother), Tom, Jonny, Fabian (our support driver) and myself. After a brief photo shoot and goodbyes to our families, the 4 cyclists were off with Fabian and the support van meeting us later in Usk.

The first part of the journey was familiar, following the ring road to Hambrook, until we made our first break from the planned route - cycling via Almondsbury, past Woodhouse Park and towards Tockington. Riding past Woodhouse, we could see great views of the Severn Bridge and managed to speed down a long stretch of road. Across the bridge, we could also see the hills that we would have to climb before lunch. We made good progress and were enjoying the fine weather as we crossed the Severn Bridge.
As we crossed the bridge, I opened a discussion; should we follow the Sustrans route and cross the hill which would be a climb of 7 or 8 miles, or should we take a longer route around the hill and follow the Usk River just north of Newport? I was dreading this hill and so opted for the longer detour. I was supported by my brother but Tom and Jonny heroically opted for the hilly route. We chose the hilly route, although 20 minutes later we were having second thoughts as we huffed and puffed up a steep incline a few miles past Chepstow. This was our first real challenge, although the climb became gentler after a mile or two and we managed to cycle most of it (we had decided early on that if we needed to walk, we would!). Eventually we reached to top and enjoyed the steep and pretty decent into Usk.

We cycled down into the Usk Valley and onto the town where we would meet Fabian. Usk is a small town that I had been to many times before. I recommended a good fish and chip shop to Tom, Jonny and Fabian, who all wanted a substantial feed; Liam and I opted for a less filling pie and cake. My bread pudding was delicious and gave me lots of energy for the next leg to Abergavenny. I enjoyed this next 15 mile stretch and built up a good speed, although I got told off by the others for going on ahead and not being a team player - I would not have had the energy to do it again even if I had liked! We stopped in Abergavenny so that Liam could buy new cycle shoes (he had borrowed a pair of mine that were too small), and then set of on the last stretch to Llanthony.
This last stretch started with a long climb over into the valley to Gospel Pass. This was the first time that some of us had ridden over 50 miles and although it was early, it was getting tough. Fabian, who had brought his racing bike, met us along the valley road and we eventually arrived, exhausted, at a very basic campsite, a couple of miles south of Llanthony Priory.

This choice of campsite had been the subject of much discussion the night before when we bought provisions. The team had wanted a luxury campsite nearer to the Priory. In this case, luxury meant a toilet and showers but sadly the campsite was booked. We had to settle on an old favourite of mine which is a basic campsite which consisted of a field and a river. After a long day cycling, we were all in need of a wash and had no option but to bathe in the icy river. Now, feeling fresher than we needed to feel, we had spag bol for tea and then visited the pub situated in the Llanthony Prior ruins a couple of miles up the road.

The day had been successful but we were apprehensive; how sore and tired would we feel the following morning? What would the weather be like? How would we manage the first part of our ride – 8 miles up the valley and over Gospel Pass?