A Long Ride

Summer’s here. The sunshine and rain of the West Country explode a bomb of greenery, coating trees, sprouting hedgerows, adding luxuriant freshness where once there was mud. The cyclist’s imagination is fueled by this growth spurt, urging exploration, challenge and adventure.

And with this we are thinking of longer rides, to places we half know, where navigation is no longer by instinct but by sun, shadow and (most importantly) signposts.

The veneer of this exotic proposition is looking flaky come the night before our new big ride. Buoyed up on the confidence inspired by a week of Spanish mountains, followed by some long rides on home turf, we’ve devised a route that should touch the 250km mark. A promising proposition, but imposing the night before a 6am start.

Come the morning the air is crisp, the rice in Matt’s rice cakes is not, and the nerves are high. There’s no need to be nervous we reassure ourselves, it’s just anticipation, we’ll survive it, even if we have to finish on our knees.

The first spins of the pedals fail to dispel the nerves but the quiet of an early Sunday morning is a soothing balm.

Before we are fully conscious of the effort we are rolling south from Usk with a puncture already behind us and a grateful prayer that one of us has brought a means of inflating tyres. This is the point of departure from familiar roads to the lands beyond, the point where the reality of distance comes upon us. The point of no return!

We’re conscious of the adventure now. A Welshman rides across the junction ahead of us, dressed, to our minds, as a carrot, but with the righteous demands of our quest at heart we resist the temptation of a chase down, just.

With only one wrong turn we cut through the valley of Pontypool and head northwards towards the World Heritage Site of Blaenavon. The mountain rises through a housing estate on to a bleak open plateau which abruptly abuts the gardens of a Victorian terraced row. The post-industrial landscape has a tangible flavour of the semi-forgotten workers and the hard lives they led. Our legs seem easy and our burden is light when taken in this context, bling cycling gear a juxtaposition of cultures.

Appropriately the wind awakes in Beaufort, along with the Welsh Sunday traffic. The border of the Brecon Beacons National Park is marked by a new, harsh road cutting and a line of pylons, but once these are behind us the hills unfold all around. This influences our perspective and the Garmin’s estimate of an 8% climb reassures us that our pace is necessarily laboured.

And for those who labour in this manner there is reward. Ours is a view. On the right we can see Hay Bluff, green and pleasant. On the left are the wilds of the Beacons and the unraveling Welsh mountains. In front, the plummeting, twisting flow of tarmac that awaits, our reward is two-fold.

The adrenalin cleans the nervousness from us, and smoothes our progress to Bwlch Yr Groes and the rolling back road to Talgarth. This is the test of our long-distance mettle, and the difference shows, where normally we stand up and apply power, we opt for the more subtle sit down and spin. The flow of the road is still in our favour, but come Talgarth there’s a feeling of effort in the legs. Nearly half way round the loop we are self-congratulatory and feast on rice cakes and coke.

The B road to Hay cuts through the festival grounds. The bookish audience have struggled from their B&B breakfasts and are making for the tents of intellect, oblivious to our legendary quest!

Leaving all this excitement in our wake we climb into the top of the Golden Valley. The Garmin beep awakens me from a pedal induced stupor infoming me its work is done. This is not the endurance omen we were awaiting, but now we know the roads and are now confident of our abilities. The blank screen neither lies about the effort, nor ticks off the unfolding kilometres, which turns out to be a nicer than expected situation. Matt can still sit and look at his pumping heart, I roll along cheerfully oblivious.

The road degenerates from smooth rolling luxury to a broken, rough patchwork, sapping the legs, bumping and jarring, but delivering us safely through Pontrillas and Grosmont to coffee. Somewhere on the road we have left morning behind us and trundled into the afternoon, our stomachs calling for lunch.

Beyond the power of useful conversation we stop at our favourite and eccentric café, Oriental Splendour (yes, really). Cycling-addled brains are easily baffled by the extent of the menu. We choose what we see others eating when we walk past. The Cwm Carn Paragon club ride has ended up here too, in lurid kit, on pricey bikes, with some ambition of reaching Builth Wells, but hampered by sunshine, cake and tea.

Full of tuna and walnut salad we resume our quest southwards towards the Wye Valley, a landscape with which we are familiar. The kilometres pass at a non-committal rate, neither fast nor slow. Is this another product of a blank Garmin screen?

We feel like we’re on the homeward stretch, in light of the distance we’ve come the distance remaining seems insignificant. Past 160km all is well as we know the ride is entering the realms of epic.

Many will claim that stamina is the key, mental fortitude and training is everything, but really it’s all down to expectation and oblivion. My strategy is this, ignore everything and keep pedaling. Obviously being on a bike ride this is a sound strategy and soon enough we arrive to re-cross the Severn Bridge.

We’re feeling as good as we can expect to, there’s still daylight and forward motion is everything. The bikes aren’t creaking and we haven’t run out of food. We could tell tales of darkness and pain, struggling with ourselves to overcome, but the sun is out, tan lines are crisp and cycling still seems like the world’s best option.

It’s easy enough to do a long ride, ride half the distance out, and you’re stuck with having to ride the other half back.

We’ve got past the restaurant critic point of the ride and into the realms where anything we eat tastes delicious, this fits neatly with the business strategy of energy product companies, but we’re more fortunate and are still cheerfully consuming Matt’s sticky rice cakes to the end.

240km and a bit is the final measurement. Seems like an epic day out.

Not so, says Charles on Strava, epic has to be more than 250km. If only we’d realised.