The idea is simple: cycle from the bottom of Wales (Chepstow) to near the top (Menai) and back. That's 600km (372 miles). In 40 hours.
I blame Nick W for inducing me to enter. During a pause on a ride in January he sold it to me: ideal for a first 600km, nicely graded climbs, great controls, you'll have no problem, etc. So when I got home I signed up. The next morning I looked at it in more detail and was reminded that – unlike Cambridgeshire – Wales had hills. Not just hills, mountains too. Then I read Nick's account of his first BCM with its talk of "layers of pain" and the summary "it was hilly and it hurt me as a lowlander". What had I let myself in for? 600km was twice as far as I'd ever cycled, but more worryingly the advertised 7,500m (24,600 ft) of climbing was beyond anything I'd ever experienced – the hilliest rides I'd done had under 2,000m of climbing. And they were hard enough!
To prepare I lost weight, rode an audax at least every month (including one with night time riding and one with at least a bit more hilliness) and kept riding CTC rides alongside my own more intense solo rides – making sure sometimes to ride on both days of a weekend to get used to the sensation of coping with tired legs. Still, as the date of the BCM approached I was aware that to complete it I would be near the edge of my capabilities.
To give myself a better chance I planned to use guile and technology: a carefully worked out schedule had me completing the course in 39 hours with 3 hours of sleep, and by using my heart rate monitor and power meter I would rein my effort in to keep myself fresh enough for the distance.
That was the plan, anyway.
The night before I stayed in Bristol with my cycling chum John L, and got a pretty good night's sleep (important first hurdle cleared!) followed by a copious breakfast of porridge and toast. After a short drive up to Chepstow we found ourselves setting off from the Bulwark Community Centre just after 06:00 under grey skies and in cool conditions as part of a field of 150 riders.
Queueing to get brevet cards
John was using the ride in part as training for the 1001 Miglia Italia and I soon waved him on at his own pace and watched as his tail light disappeared rapidly into the distance; I settled back into a steady rhythm: one of my tactics was not to display speed on my Garmin, but to focus purely on regulating effort and let speed take care of itself.
Soon I was overtaken by a peloton of a dozen strikingly young and fit-looking cyclists: it was a group from Rapha, who have a history of fielding riders for the BCM. One of them asked if I was Alex Brown. Mildly surprised that my cycling fame has spread so far I affirmed, to discover that the only reason for the enquiry was that my nephew is a grand fromage at Rapha, and that he had tipped off his colleagues to watch for me. After an interesting chat about products in development, I took my status as "Ben's uncle" as giving me permission to draft the Rapha train shamelessly, and let it pull me to the first control (@ 70km) at a nice pace and with minimal effort. A good start.
Hitching a lift with the Rapha train
On the next stage I tried to repeat this trick, but either the Rapha train had quickened or I had tired a little, as their pace was a touch too hot, so I reluctantly watched them pull away and rode mostly on my own. Soon the sun burned away the cloud and revealed a glorious early summer's day with just a few puffs of white cloud in the sky. There was a slight but niggling headwind from the north which kept things cool, and which made me regret I didn't have a group to draft.
Being passed by the Essex boys as the weather blossoms
Riders passed me, including a bunch of Essex riders I'd met at events earlier in the year. Gradually I was falling towards the back of the field – but when I reached the next control at Llanidloes (@ 138km) it was buzzing and I felt I would be hunting in the pack again if I set off promptly. Audax is not a race, but it's reassuring to feel one is at least keeping up.
Until now the riding had been fairly benign, including a couple of longish drags, but nothing to trouble the legs too much. Straight after Llanidloes however the course bared its teeth with what looked like a wall to climb out of the village: a ramp kicking up to 20% as an appetizer for what was to follow. This section of the ride was new for this year and meant that the description of the BCM as a ride of exclusively "nicely graded climbs" no longer held. The B4518 is a rollercoaster with some brutal steep sections, including this horror climbing up from Clywedog Reservoir (see video).
Some video from the ride
It is possible to avoid this by taking a detour through the forest, but that route doesn’t have the great views and adds 6km, so probably isn't a superior option.
Other riders made a better fist of the steeper climbs than I did
Walking the toughest climb must have displeased the cycling gods, as shortly thereafter I heard the tell-tale whooshing sound of a puncture. I run tubeless tyres containing some liquid latex which should instantly seal any holes, but when the hole is too big to seal, the sealant spurts out noisily and so this whooshing sound means trouble. I upended the bike and looked at the tyre to locate the puncture: yes, it was quite big, probably caused by glass. One option was to remove the tyre and switch to a conventional clincher instead (I carry a tyre and tubes), but instead I reached for something I'd never tried before: an anchovy.
This "anchovy" (or "worm") is a sticky solid strip which needs to be forced into the tyre using a small two-pronged metal fork. It felt rather odd plunging a metal tool through the tyre wall, but when it's retracted it leaves the tail of the anchovy (which now plugs the hole) protruding. When you start riding this tail gets flattened into a kind of external patch and makes a long lasting repair. To my surprise, this worked brilliantly. It certainly beat mucking around with wheel/tyre removal and is another tick in the box for tubeless tyres, I think! So back to the ride ...
Following the B4518 rollercoaster there is a tough (but at least not too steep) ascent to the high point of the entire ride near the top of Foel Fadian, at 509m (1,670 ft), and from here a spectacular descent (see video) into the Dyfi valley and the town of Machynlleth. Here I stopped for a much-needed refill of my water bottles and met the Essex randonneurs again; they reckoned we were making good time and, since they're vastly more experienced that I am, I found this encouraging.
Now more climbing. I was beginning to get it. Climbing here isn't a short hard effort followed by a breather at the top but a long steady grind: more like riding into a headwind in the Fens. The climb up to Coris was 10km and took 33 minutes, then another climb over the Tall-y-Lynn pass before bombing down to Dolgellau and, shortly thereafter the third control (@ 208km). I had taken around 11 hours to get here. Not bad for me, given the terrain. Unfortunately the combination of effort and blazing sunshine seemed to have conspired to give me a lurking feeling of nausea ...
This third control is YHA Kings and this functions as a kind of "base camp" for the next phase of the ride, a loop to Menai. Ideally the plan is to have a meal at the first time of stopping at Kings, and a sleep at the second. I sat down for my meal and was asked how many courses I wanted (answer: 3) and food appeared in front of me as if by magic. This, it seemed, was a menu honed to be palatable to the jaded cyclist: soup, then vegetable couscous, then a large bowl of treacle sponge and custard. Despite not feeling great, I found I could easily eat it all. But then I found sitting down was rather nice, and there was some interesting chat to be had, so my intentions to move on briskly were lost and I wasn't on the road again until rather later than I had planned.
In the evening sun I crossed the pretty wooden bridge at Barmouth and worked along the undulating coastal road towards Harlech, where I turned inland heading towards the Snowdon massif.
The coast at Harlech
As it began to get dark I saw cyclists heading towards me at speed. It was the front of the field on the return leg from Menai – these guys were around 100km ahead of me! An astonishing display of cycling prowess.
On the lower reaches of the Pen-y-Pass the temperature started dropping markedly so I stopped to don extra layers. Looking ahead I could see, high up on the mountainside, the tail lights of cyclists winking as they traversed the pass. Still feeling nauseous, I munched an energy bar in readiness for the climb ahead.
Now the voices started: you're out of your league aren't you? Is it really that hard to get a train back from round here? What would be the least embarrassing excuse for abandoning?
Stopped to layer-up near the foot of the Pen-y-Pass
To try and silence such questions I fired-up the on-bike bluetooth speaker, got my head down and ground up the pass with the boost of a rocktastic accompaniment. This worked well: I reached the top with Rock the Casbah (apologies to any startled lambs), swooped down into the undulating coastal region and crossed the Menai Bridge in surreal fashion to Boney.M's Painter Man. Half way!
The control at the Menai scout hut seemed a kind of heaven with its light and warmth and ... hot food! Some riders were sprawled on the floor asleep; others were slumped on tables trying to sleep; around 20 were still to arrive. As I tucked into a baked potato with cheese and beans I assessed the situation and fired off a tweet announcing I'd made it half way.
It would be well after midnight when I left Menai and the next stage was 82km featuring cold, dark and climbing. I wouldn't expect to be back at Kings much before 05:00, so the 3 hours of sleep I had been planning to have there now seemed an unlikely prospect. Hmmm.
For inspiration I approached Julian Dyson, a very experienced randonneur riding a beautiful Moulton and who seemed to have a comparable pace to me. What was his sleep strategy? "Not having very much!" he beamed. Great.
At this point a wonderful thing happened. Back in Cambridge Nigel re-tweeted my tweet on behalf of CTC Cambridge, wishing me luck. That did it. All thoughts of abandonment went away: I would try to do this for CTC Cambridge's audax points tally!
With stiffened resolve, I left Menai in a group including Ade, Jeff and Richard – three riders from Portsmouth who would be my companions pretty much for the whole remainder of the ride. We formed the core of an impromptu group towards the back of the field with – it seemed – a shared love of cake, gallows humour, and not trying too hard.
Over the Menai Bridge, heading back south ...
We had come to Menai via the east side of Snowdon, but would return via its west side, a reputedly slightly easier route. Nevertheless we soon found ourselves climbing quite hard on rural lanes. The demands of the ride were beginning to tell and we paused a couple of times to gather ourselves and nibble on food we had collected from the scout hut. The temperature had dropped to -2.5°C and I was glad I had packed clothing as if for an East Anglian winter night (other riders were less well prepared, some resorting to ripping up cardboard boxes to stuff up their jerseys for makeshift insulation).
At around 3am, the climb past Trawsfynydd nuclear power station seemed particularly gruelling: when you've been grinding away for 20 minutes and somebody (maybe me) shouts out "half way up, guys!" then it starts to gnaw at your soul. For the first time ever I was using the Garmin's elevation profile screen to show how far up the climb I was. I sometimes wished I hadn't.
In the cold, the fast long descents were particularly chilling and even with long-fingered gloves I began to lose sensation in my hands. I was starting to yawn a lot and Richard said he was struggling not to fall asleep. To keep ourselves going we kept talking and swapped cycling yarns while fantasizing about the pleasures that awaited us a Kings.
We eventually arrived at Kings just past 5am as many riders were leaving. But one advantage of being towards the rear of the field was that the pressure on beds had eased and so while eating an omlette I was told I would find an empty bunk in room 7 upstairs. I headed upstairs and clad in clammy stinky lycra stretched out under the duvet, setting my alarm to sound in 80 minutes. I quickly fell into a dreamless sleep, lulled by the sound of my fellow riders snoring and farting.
An hour later I woke and crept downstairs for breakfast. The place seemed full of cyclists still, including the Rapha train who seemed in good spirits. I drank several cups of coffee and ate toast. There were 220km to ride today to finish. How hard could that be?
Randonneurs first thing on day 2: perhaps not in mint condition
I wanted to ride in a group again so waited until my companions were ready which meant we weren't underway until 08:00, effectively giving us 14 hours to complete those final 220km. Usually, this would be no problem – but on tired legs over hilly terrain ... ?
The day began with a stinker of a climb to test our creaky legs. Fortunately I had been forewarned to expect to want to abandon the audax on this (one rider did just that when his knee gave out halfway up), and so endured to the top and then enjoyed a rapid descent as a reward. After this the terrain relented a bit until the next control as Aberhafep and a second breakfast. Who knew that Nutella stirred into cold cream rice was such a treat? Around 150km to go.
By now I knew what mattered when contemplating the next stage. Forget distance, the important thing is what the profile looks like. The next stage featured a long (11km) drag up to Dolfor. Still, we were coping well by taking it slow and stopping when we felt like it for food and a stretch. The day was warming up nicely and I was back down to a jersey and arm warmers.
However by the time we reached the final control in LLandidrod Wells, a doubt began to creep in. Were we taking it too easy? With 105km to go if we kept dawdling and stopping we might find it hard to be back in time.
The nauseous feeling that had persisted since yesterday had now cleared and I felt good and strong, so I was happy to increase the pace. Strangely, my one hour of sleep seemed to have been enough and I don't remember yawning all day. We zipped along nicely mindful that the biggest challenge in this final stage consisted of two last climbs. The first of these, from Talgarth to Pengenffordd, was another half hour of grind, but the payoff was a extended shallow descent which effectively continued for over 40km of easy fast cycling, and during which we stopped quickly at a cafe for a final break.
Then it was just a matter of one final climb up Golden Hill. I was in no mood for heroics, and with time in hand was happy to stop a couple of times on this ascent for a stretch and to admire the wonderful views in the warm evening light.
Then down into Chepstow and to the arrivée. As I neared I saw a figure with a camera waiting to photograph me. It was John L. He had finished in 31 hours, cycled back to Bristol for a rest, and then returned to Chepstow to meet me (my Garmin LiveTrack had made this accurate interception possible).
Arriving back in Chepstow, adjudged to look "in good order" (Photo: John Lee)
I had completed the course in just under 39 hours, as planned (even if the execution of the plan differed from what I had intended).
It had been a sensational experience, so good it makes me reluctant to want to repeat this course as I find it hard to imagine how things could be better. The conditions overall had been kind and I suspect that with wind and rain I would have struggled, a lot.
I was very grateful to John L for guiding me back to Bristol (where we ate an enormous Chinese meal) as when driving I felt a bit like Cary Grant in that scene from North by Northwest when he's driving a car after being forced to drink two bottles of whisky. Thanks must also go to all the wonderful volunteers who made the event the success it was. And finally thanks to Nick W for inducing me to enter the ride. He was right: it really does make a great first 600!
Food and drink consumed:
— almond slice
— tuna sandwich, can of Coke
— soup, vegetable couscous, treacle sponge and custard
— baked potato with cheese and beans
— potato omlette
— 2 rounds of toast
— energy bar, two slices of malt loaf
— Snickers, fig roll
— bacon sarnie, rice pudding with Nutella
— chocolate milkshake, crisps
— numerous cups of tea and coffee
— approx. 11 litres of water (some with Nuun tablets in)
My Strava report is here; a few more photos are on Flickr here.