The elevation game

One minute you’re doing the occasional overnight bike-packing trip with your mates, the next minute you find you’ve signed up for one of the UK’s toughest ultra-endurance cycling gigs. But still, how hard can it be..?

I’m not fond of riding in the rain, who is? No matter how much I spend on a rain jacket I end up with that boil-in-the-bag sensation, and today I’m feeling that my goose may also be cooked. 

It’s day four of PanCeltic 2021, a 1400km, self-supported, single stage race. I have over 600km and around 10,000 metres of elevation in my legs, and I’m about to hit an evil climb from Wells, up past Wookey Hole to Priddy at the head of Cheddar Gorge. Just shy of three kilometres, topping out at 20% in places, and it’s tipping it down. 

With my fully-loaded Enigma Escape weighing in over 20 kilos and my allegedly breathable rain jacket even more breathless than I am, I’m in a serious “screw this” frame of mind. Not sure if I can do it, not sure if I want to do it. And I’ve not even reached halfway.

I can’t claim that either the weather or the brutality of the parcours are a surprise any more. The former made its intentions clear even before the race start, spitting ominously at me and several dozen other competitors huddled on the Cremyll Ferry, chugging across the River Tamar from Plymouth to Mount Edgecumbe. By the time we’d ridden a further four kilometres up to the start at Maker Heights spitting has become persistent, trending biblical. I dump the bike and head straight into a small canteen, barging through a group of fellow riders stood in the doorway, staring open-mouthed at the downpour, scanning hopefully for the slightest hint of a break in the clouds. But there is none. Not a sodden sausage.

Day 1 – Plymouth to Falmouth – 153km, 3120m elevation

Rain’s not going to ease up, so the organisers decide to start us anyway, in two waves. First off, the complete lunatics tackling the long route – 1995km distance, 27500m elevation – followed five minutes later by us, the mildly insane, anticipating a mere 1373km to cover with 19500m of vertical. 

A nervous check of the various bits of luggage strapped around the bike. Fuck. My Restrap framebag is filling up with water because the waterproof zip isn’t waterproof, but the taped seams unfortunately (in this scenario) are. I run back into the canteen and borrow a kitchen knife, cut a couple of drainage holes in the bottom of the bag and do some cursing. A lot of cursing.

On the start line, riders around me shiver uncontrollably during an interminable wait for stragglers to get their shit together and pull up to the line. I curse some more. FFS. If people can’t get gridded on time then sod ‘em, let’s go.

Finally we do go, straight into a nice slippery downhill run that throws in a bucket of wind-chill just to make sure we’re properly miserable. Pretty quickly, though, it’s into the first uphill pitch, a welcome chance to get the blood flowing and some warmth into the core. My feelings about climbing will change soon enough, but this is do-able, spinning the legs and keeping warm without overheating. 

The next 90km or so continue the theme as The Route winds through Liskeard, Lostwithiel, St Austell. Sure, there’s climbing, but I control my effort, focus on my own race; heartrate zone two at most, not distracted by riders passing me, keeping a lid on it, not chasing

A few hours in there’s even been a break in the rain, so the waterproofs come off and I enjoy sunshine and the rolling Cornish countryside. I chat to a few fellow riders too, a core cast of characters who will keep popping up as we dispatch The Route at similar pace. Most memorable of these is a dude named Fergus, who passes us on an old LeMond TT bike, complete with disc wheel and a massive fluorescent seat pack that’s fashioned into a kind of aerodynamic fairing, wagging like a huge day-glo tail. Although not a small chap, Fergus is one determined guy, but handicapped by an antique Garmin GPS, which continually sends him off course. Countless times he overtakes us, countless times he gets lost, overtakes us again. Pause, rewind, repeat. Not sure that his pointy TT helmet is entirely appropriate, but I guess it keeps the rain off.

I remember the picturesque fishing village of Mevagissey from childhood holidays in Cornwall, but I guess I never noticed the sharp little climb up from its harbour, probably because I was too busy being sick in the back of a Mini Traveller, or maybe just because I wasn’t scaling it on a fully bagged-up gravel bike. Whatever the reason I notice it now, and its 17% gradients.

Straight down into Portmellon, and again it’s 15% on the way out, and we’ve barely crested that before plunging down to the sea again at Gorran Haven. It’s picture-postcard perfect, but the climb out is officially a bastard. I never fancy 30% at the best of times, and this is not the best of times, and there’s more to come as the road pitches down to two more coastal inlets before The Route’s planners take pity and lead us inland towards Truro. Or maybe there were just no more hellish climbs left to do…

Through Truro and we’ve been out for nine hours, and even at this early stage it’s blindingly obvious that our ambition of completing PanCeltic in six days is hopelessly optimistic. Six days means nailing 240km a day, and as we roll into Falmouth 11 hours after starting out we’ve covered just 150.

“Where should we sleep tonight PG?”

It’s starting to drizzle again, so time to find somewhere to stop. The race doesn’t have many rules, but one of the key ones is that you can’t use any resources that aren’t available to other competitors, meaning that while staying in a hotel or B&B is fine, it should only be booked on the day you need it. Chances of finding somewhere at ten o’clock are slim to rocking-horse-shit, so we’re going to be roughing it, the only question being… where? We’re carrying sleeping bags and bivi gear so while the world, or at least Cornwall, is theoretically our oyster we’re nervous about heading out into the countryside and pitching camp in the rainswept darkness, so we set to trying to find a dry spot in Falmouth.

A pretty, cobbled high street offers nothing but drunken holidaymakers, staggering back to their nice warm hotel rooms and self-catering cottages, but we eventually find a quiet square where the bars and restaurants are all closing up. In the far corner is an unlit building with an inviting canopy over the entrance; not the Ritz, but out of the rain. We roll over to investigate. 

A slate plaque on the wall reads “National Maritime Museum, Cornwall – opened by HRH the Duke of Edinburgh”, and even though cctv is obvious and prolific, we decide to chance it. I don’t hold much hope for an undisturbed night’s sleep, but hopefully can at least trough down my petrol-station sandwich and sausage roll before security rocks up. 

Day 2 – Falmouth to St-Ives – 142.7km, 2300m elevation

Amazingly – or maybe not, because I’m completely shagged – I drift off for a solid four hours before the inevitable happens and a high-beam dawn breaks, approaching at speed. Wakey wakey lads. WTF, the real dawn is only an hour away so maybe an early start will mean we can claw back some of the mileage we miserably failed to achieve yesterday. “We” being myself and my friend PG, who’ve entered the race as a pair together with our long-time riding buddies MK and NC. Riding buddies who are now a cool 30km down route from us. Maybe our early getaway will mean we can chip away at that deficit, but as our average moving speed yesterday was 16km/h, we need to do some major-league chipping.

Rounding Pendennis Head in the darkness we set a goal of making Helston for breakfast, 66km away as The Route takes us, and a beautiful clear sunrise makes me optimistic we can do this in a few hours. After an hour and a half we see a sign, Helston 4 miles, and think we must have got our distances wrong, so the mood lifts perceptibly and my thoughts turn to how I’m going to bolster the meagre breakfast I’d scoffed earlier. Another half hour though, and events are taking a turn for the weird and, frankly, the demoralising. A further signpost reads Helston 10 miles, the morning sun is in our eyes when it should be on our backs. Things are not right here.

Not only are we heading away from a latte and a breakfast bap, every time we hit a nice, sensible stretch of road The Route darts off on a random, unnecessary detour. Unnecessary, that is, unless your idea of necessity is to ride up every insane gradient in the county. Leg-breaking climbs are followed by precipitous, slippery descents, as we wind our way round the Lizard peninsula, and it’s a full four hours before we’re passing the naval air station at Culdrose, homing in on Helston, which I’m now anticipating like a second Eden.

The Route skirts Helston’s throbbing heart, and with options rapidly closing down as we head out of town we spot an Aldi and pull in. Fair to say that expectations had been higher, so we ask if there’s a café anywhere nearby. “Oh sure, down at the boating lake, just a few minutes away.” We find the boating lake, and the café. Opens at 10.00. Bollocks. Aldi it is then.

Pasta salad with a plastic spoon, a Double Decker and a bottle of Yazoo, before setting sights on Penzance and, beyond that, Land’s End. The Route, for once, is fairly benign and I surf my own private internet of memories as we pass through Marazion, Penzance, Mousehole, a landscape of distant, care-free summer days.

The road out of Mousehole towards Lamorna is anything but care-free, another solid 25 percenter to land me back in the present, gasping like a flounder landed on the town wharf. PG calls for me to wait for him at the top, and I need no second invitation to stop.

I keep PG amused with anecdotes about odd places we pass through – a camp site here, a pub there – as we ride on, remorselessly climbing and falling through damp, wooded valleys. I’m not sure how entertained he is by my ramblings, but in truth they are as much for me as they are for him, and even for me they are just a way of breaking the whole ride down into a series of digestible chunks. I don’t want to think about the full challenge.

Just after midday we hit Land’s End, in all its hideous, tawdry glory. We pass a sprawling, packed car park, and negotiate the crowds being disgorged from tourist coaches, all heading to the shopping village to buy some scrumpy or an over-priced pasty, or to be photographed (at very reasonable cost I’m certain) at the “Iconic Signpost”. It is, quite frankly, a crap and commercial place, completely devoid of charm, and I console myself that I didn’t choose to come here; The Route made me do it. The Route is making me do a lot of things I don’t much like.

There are a few other PanCeltic riders spread about, all looking like they feel pretty much the same as me about the place, and after some nods of acknowledgement PG and I decide to head towards Sennen to grab some lunch. It’s got to be better than this.

As it turns out, kind of. Sennen’s tiny, run-down Costcutter is pretty low on culinary choices but, like a truffle-hunting pig, I have a cyclist’s nose for a sausage roll and spot some of uncertain age and origin, basting slowly in their own grease beneath a halogen heatlamp. Manna from heaven. As we feast, a local cyclist wearing day-glo work clothes pulls up, ranting to nobody in particular (although in our general direction) about how they wouldn’t serve him in the pub. I make some sympathetic sounds, PG avoids eye contact, and he totters off.

The rain that was forecast for two o’clock arrives as a fine drizzle an hour early as we leave the main road and follow the winding coastal route towards St Just, past the old mine-workings at Botallack, overtaking the day-glo cyclist (who is still aggrieved and complaining vociferously about the pub), and as drizzle turns to proper rain we encounter another native rider. 

This one couldn’t be more different, dressed in his summer Lycra and greeting us cheerfully, asking if we’re riding the PanCeltic, beaming excitedly when we say we are. “I’m so envious of you guys, I’d love to be doing that, looks amazing, such a great vibe!”. It’s tempting to burst his bubble by offering to trade my bloated gravel bike for his immaculate, naked, Mason Resolution but I swallow my cynicism, and ask instead if he’s going far, because he doesn’t seem dressed for the conditions. “Nah, not far, just on my way to work in Penzance. Only 15km, so I’ll be there in half an hour.” Jesus H Christ, half an hour. Because of The Route it’s taken us three. “Sometimes I run it!” he adds. Okay, fuck-off now, Mr Happy.

On another day, the road through Zennor to St Ives makes a great ride, with steady climbs and sweeping descents, but in todays’s wind and rain the climbs become a miserable slog, the descents slippery and perilous, numb hands fumbling at the controls, body chilled to the core. It’s only mid-afternoon, but with the weather set-in we make the call in St Ives to try and find a hotel. Easier said than done. I have no phone signal, and using the public wi-fi at the Tourist Office  involves a ridiculously complicated registration pantomime, but we eventually track down a twin room. An eye-wateringly expensive one.

Slightly deflated, and feeling like we’ve pussied out, I slump on my bed and peel off layers of sodden clothing, until every available hanging space is full and steaming. I have a quick squint at the race Twitter feed and see that the leader passed through the first checkpoint, 414km from the start and 120km ahead of us, nine hours ago. MK and NC are closing on it too, and planning to make only a brief stop before pressing on. Sitting with an Amstel in the hotel lounge overlooking Carbis Bay, PG and I agree that we need to grow a pair.

Day 3 – St Ives to Tiverton – 235km, 3553m elevation

Heading off early doors we’re determined to make some proper mileage today. The elements are in our favour, strong tailwind and clear skies, and there’s a decent flat section through Hayle and the surrounding dunes to start off with, so for all of 15km we’re making a smart pace, before the rollercoaster starts again. 

Goonhavern offers up the best breakfast of the ride so far, a fully-loaded bap, and while we’re scoffing that and getting runny egg-yolk everywhere (it’s possible to be too fully loaded), another PanCeltic pair roll in, drawn like moths to the bright flame of Londis. It’s Donna and Mary-Jane who, having failed to find anywhere to stay and figuring that you keep warm if you keep going, have just toughed it out and ridden through the night non-stop. We, by contrast, are pudnockers, who definitely need to grow a pair.

Apart from a flat stretch of cycle track along the Camel Estuary to Wadebrige the kilometres pass with their by-now-accustomed and demoralising sluggishness, frustrating because the downgrades see me hard on the brakes and failing to recoup on the down a fraction of what I’m losing on the up. Trust me that I’m not a shy descender, but the blind turns and plunging gradients have me eyeballs out scanning the road ahead, ears straining for warnings of oncoming traffic, unsure which is worse; descending or climbing. One particularly nasty -25% near Tintagel has me grateful it’s dry today as it spits us out into a four-way junction, but the spiteful kilometre-long climb that follows it and peaks at 29% decides me in favour of descending, marginally.

Rolling into Checkpoint 1, Boscastle, at around 13.00 feels like a massive achievement, even though we’re less than a third of the way through the ride with two-and-a-half long days gone. Cereal, sweet tea, toast and jam then off again, labouring up the climb from the river valley on empty legs and full stomachs. More climbing savagery before The Route heads inland from Widemouth Bay, and while it’s not exactly flat, the gradients aren’t quite so extreme. 

Four o’clock, with rain forecast, we need to call the ball on where we stop for the night. There’s a pub in Tiverton with rooms free, so we book in and set about cracking through the 85km between us and them before the kitchen closes at nine. We fail, but find a chippy in Tiverton where we can sit-in and have a beer. Arriving at the pub, the kitchen may be closed but the bar is still open, so we have another one, with only a surly barman and a giggly couple on their dirty weekend for company. “We’ve made some decent mileage today PG. Fancy one more?”

Day 4 – Tiverton to Severn Crossing – 189km, 2272m elevation

We’re getting pro at this hotel booking game now, so early in the day we set our sights on reaching the Severn Bridge, where I happen to know there’s a Travelodge. We’ll get there before the England Denmark semi-final kicks off. Maybe.

It’s good to have a definite goal and good that it’s a relatively modest distance, because I feel god-awful. I’m accepting that I’m not at my best in the morning, but after a couple of hours I generally perk up, and that’s not happening today. Just as the harsh sounding place names of Cornwall – Marazion, Zennor, Tintagel – have yielded to the gentler ones of Devon and Somerset – Holcombe, Wiveliscombe, Sampford Peverell – so have The Route’s jagged contours given way to something less extreme, but that can’t prevent me from tumbling to ever greater depths of fatigue. 

Six hours in and I’m starting to nod, falling asleep on the bars, so we pull over near a little mobile snack bar. I lie down on the verge while PG goes to investigate food options and when he returns just a few minutes later I’m asleep, spark out on the grass. He takes it a bit personally when I suggest maybe we don’t bother trying to ride together so much, but I’m just being practical and realistic. Problem with riding in a pair is that unless your moods and needs mesh exactly then it slows you down, and the benefits of being able to draft on parcour such as this are minimal. Solo means stopping when you want for as long as you want, no debate, less indecision.

PG heads off, but sparked by my power-nap I’ve caught up with him by the time we reach Glastonbury, so we’re together again as we pass through Wells, past Wookey Hole to the point where this blog began. Incessant rain, incessant climbing, incessantly asking myself what the f*ck am I doing here, what the f*ck is the point, when the f*ck will the weather or The Route give us a f*cking break. In the end, all it offers up is a drafty bus shelter, somewhere to stop and watch the rain sheeting down, somewhere to be miserable in relative comfort.

After 20 minutes we convince ourselves that things are easing up so head towards Cheddar, and it’s at the head of the Gorge that we come across Jason, another rider who we’ve been bumping into regularly. Strange thing is that he’s heading in the wrong direction. And he’s walking.  Dodging the traffic we sling a u-turn to find out what’s wrong and point out that he needs to make a 180. “Flat tyre and I’ve got the wrong inner tubes, valves too short”, gesturing towards his Zipp 404s. Fine, understood, but you’re still going the wrong way mate. “Hoping I could get a phone signal at the top, there’s nothing in the gorge”. We tell him it’s zero-G at the top too, say that we’ll call for help as soon as we hit some sort of civilisation, rashly promise to head back up to him if we find a bike shop that has what he needs. 

But to find anything we have to negotiate Cheddar Gorge first, and it’s beyond treacherous. Torrents of water cascade down the road while mud, tree branches and scree litter the tarmac, covering it with jagged fragments of debris, just waiting to pierce a tyre or bounce a front wheel off course. I balance hazard-avoidance with taking a good line as the river-road snakes downwards, making myself big in the middle of the carriageway because the last thing I want are cars or coaches overtaking me too. 

Not surprising that Cheddar village doesn’t have a bike shop, as every inch of its single shopping street is fully occupied with tea rooms and souvenir shops. If we were after a piece of polished crystal or a tea towel we’d have been spoilt for choice, but as it is all we can do is call Race HQ, explain Jason’s predicament and hope for the best. At least we tried.

Finding our way out of Cheddar is ridiculously fiddly, involving three wrong turns in the space of 100 metres, finally following The Route up what appears to be someone’s garden path before we set to regaining all the altitude we’ve just sacrificed during our white knuckle run down through the Gorge.

The day’s climbing finally finishes just after Bristol – a surprisingly hilly city, by the way – and the last 20km to our overnight are blissful, swept along by a decent tailwind in the evening sunshine. With my Wahoo Elemnt Roam configured to display the route distance remaining, I’m watching it like a hawk as the kilometres tick by, waiting obsessively for the magic number of 686.5km to appear. Halfway. I like halfway. I play a mind-game, telling myself that every kilometre counts for double, because one single kilometre notched up means I have covered two kilometres more than there are left to travel. Just one mechanism for keeping positive, staying motivated.

PG orders room service at the Severn View Travelodge, which takes the form of me trudging across to Burger King in my sodden cycling shoes. In the morning we both trudge across to Costa Coffee. Good to ring the changes.

Day 5 – Severn Crossing to Llanelli – 172km, 1730m elevation

A couple more PanCeltic riders show up for breakfast, so we chat about this and that, tyres and the like, the usual cyclist talk. Not all of them have spent the night in the Travelodge; Oli found a playhouse in a kids’ playground, which he rates highly as a bivi spot. When we bumped into him at Boscastle two days ago he was telling us about how he’d been offered a bed for the night by an elderly couple who’d found him curled up in the porch of their local church. He’s got this gig nailed.

Crossing the Severn in bright sunshine I’m feeling positive as we head into the land of my fathers. Despite Welsh ancestry I have never been one to bang on about my Celtic heritage, always supported the rose against the dragon. But I can’t help but be moved as The Route leads us through the former mining communities of South Wales, including the town where my father was brought up, ninety-odd years ago. He always made the valleys sound like a dour, bleak place, and that was back when every town had its pit to provide employment and some level of opportunity. But now, with the collieries long gone, I can’t help wondering what the future (or even the present) holds for them. 

What it holds for me though, on this bright day, is some stunning scenery as we climb out of Pentre towards Afan. I stop to take a squint back at the town, which looks as though it’s been poured into the valley from a jug, sitting neatly delineated between emerald slopes. I remember Dad telling me how, during the war, he would scramble up to the head of the valley at night and watch the glow of fires burning in Port Talbot, as bombs rained down on the steelworks. Generations later, time and economics have done what the Luftwaffe couldn’t do, devastated the place.

The town of my fathers – poured from a jug into the folded landscape

Cresting the top the climb delivers a reward that we’ve spent the thick end of four days earning, an easy 65km run to our overnight stop, downhill through the mountain bike trails of the Afan Forest, before levelling out at Port Talbot and running pretty much flat around Swansea Bay, across the neck of the Gower Peninsula and the wetlands of the Loughor estuary to Llanelli. It’s not all freewheeling fun and frolics though. Long sections of The Route follow fiddly cycle paths that have an identity crisis about which side of the road they are going to be on, and delight in tormenting us by unexpectedly petering out, or running cheek by jowl with a roaring dual carriageway. As easy miles go, they’re freaking wearing, and a strengthening headwind whipping off the Bristol Channel doesn’t help.

Dinner and a beer in a Beefeater. What could possibly go wrong? I order smothered chicken melt, opting to double-up on the chicken for an extra £1.99. “Sorry, can’t do that, there’s a chicken shortage so it’s single portions only.” Seriously? “It’s been on the news, haven’t you y’eard?” I should cry fowl, but it’s been a long day and I’m fresh out of one-liners.

Day 6 – Llanelli to St David’s – 200km, 2713m elevation

Out of interest, I just asked Google maps to plan a route from Llanelli to St David’s, avoiding major roads, and it offered up 119km and 1,200m of climbing. A nice half day ride, maybe a little more fully loaded. So the fact that The Route almost doubles that, and more than doubles the elevation, tells you pretty much all you need to know about riding PanCeltic. 

The inevitable drizzle that sets in as we head towards Carmarthen tells you the rest. Every cyclist knows the feeling, kidding yourself that maybe it will ease up, deep down knowing it will inevitably get worse. It’s a feeling that can be applied to everything just now. Weather, terrain, fatigue, the mental strain. It’s all only Going. One. Way.

From Carmarthen some long, dragging climbs before dropping to sea level again at Saundersfoot, busy with trippers making the most of a break in the clouds, then up to Tenby, perched colourfully on its clifftop. From there, no notable climbs but a constant, draining, saw-tooth profile that offers no respite, just brief descents before the slogging resumes. Haverfordwest sees me thinking about trains to Newport and from there on to Paddington. I am a hair away from quitting.

It also has me thinking about a slightly dark piece of advice I’d been given about avoiding a traveller site near there, but unfortunately I remember this only after I’ve ridden into it. I find myself in a small cul-de-sac lined by, admittedly immaculate, static caravans, each one complimented by an equally immaculate Ford Ranger, Nissan Navara, Toyota Hilux… (insert the name of your favourite double-cab pick here). It’s also spookily quiet. “You’re lost, ain’t you mister?” enquires a high-pitched voice behind me. Or maybe it’s telling, not asking. Anti-traveller preconceptions crowd my mind as I turn towards the origin of the voice, who is about seven and perched on a gate a few metres away. “Erm, yes, it seems that way…’’. 

“Been a lot of cyclists down here today. You should of taken the turning back down the way that leads to the track.” Yes, I think I probably should of. And I do. Fast.

As well as this encounter with my own prejudices, the reward for not quitting is another random meander, this time down through the Marloes Peninsula, the lowering sun to my right telling me we’re heading south, when my inner boy-scout tells me we need to be going north-west. A signpost pointing to the west reads Broadhaven 1 mile. Two hours and 40km, let’s call it 25 miles, later we reach that place, approaching from the south. I hate the GPS tracker strapped to my seat pack, constantly feeding live position data back to race HQ, ready to grass me up if I stray to the straight and narrow.

St Davids sits pretty in the twilight, but we ain’t stopping. Our aim for this day is hitting Checkpoint 2 at Celtic Camping, half a dozen kilometres to the north, and it’s just about dark when we arrive, and starting to drizzle again. Good news though, there’s a bunkhouse to sleep in, a cauldron of pasta on the go, and we’re offered a beer. Notwithstanding the aroma of unwashed cycle-clothing, the empty snack wrappers, the half-eaten pieces of cake, the assortment of zombie riders wandering around, it’s like Shangri-la. Or perhaps its appeal is because of these things, not despite them. I sleep soundly, if briefly.

Day 7 – St David’s to somewhere in Snowdonia – 192km, 3332m elevation

Bikes have been left outside overnight – the site is remote and deserted apart from us – and it’s rained again so my frame bag is once more partially flooded. Balls. We’re bivying tonight and I could really do without my sleeping matt being wet. Still, the day is dry for now, in a grey and slightly miserable pre-dawn way, and the road to Aberystwith (intelligence from MK and NC tells us) is pretty flat. 

Balls again. Maybe it’s flat compared to the 25% torment of previous days, but it’s relentlessly undulating and even moderate climbs are torture. The road is pretty busy with morning traffic, and the sun decides to put in a full-on July appearance just to contribute to the misery. We bump into Jason again, last seen heading in the wrong direction at the head of Cheddar Gorge, and ride with him for a bit until he expresses an overwhelming desire to lie down and sleep. Which he does on the verge, fatigue rendering him oblivious to the roaring traffic and baking heat.

MacDonalds in Aberystwyth for brunch, and PG insists on locking our bikes together while we go in to order. Fuck-it I think, anybody stealing my Enigma Escape might just be doing me a favour. To be fair though, he was probably wise as we’re inside for ages, standing in line and going through various Covid protocols before we can order. It’s like getting clearance into GCHQ, only the people are fatter. 

As well as a double-something-or-other and a McFlurry, I order a salad. That’s how desperate things are. I’ll try anything. What I won’t try is riding up Cefn Llan on the way out of town, as no amount of limp lettuce is going to get me up a climb that hits 35%. Walking up is difficult enough.

Mounted up again, after a short, gently rising road to Tal-y-Bont, things get easier as we spin down towards Machynlleth. Seems like a pretty place, must come back sometime and stop somewhere other than the Texaco. Needs must though. We’re sleeping out tonight, so priority is getting a couple of meals’ worth of food on board, and filling up with water.

The ride up the Dyfi Valley, alternating between open sunny meadows and cool woodland with the road occasionally dropping down to run alongside the meandering river, is truly beautiful and I make a mental note to come back and ride here again sometime. A time when I can enjoy it at leisure, and in less pain. Pain that stabs through my shoulders and makes me use my aerobars in the most unlikely terrain just to get some relief. Constant road vibration, 12 hours a day for the last seven days, means my hands now become numb within minutes of getting on the bike, and I have the grip strength of a toddler in my left paw. Similar story with feet, and as for my arse… The best I can say is that occasionally it gives up on reporting back to my brain about its suffering. The rest of the time, it’s screaming.

What I need is something to take my mind off contact points. Pretty soon I get it. 

Overall, the ascent from Dinas Mawwdwy to Bwlch-y-groes doesn’t read too bad, say 12km at an average of just over 4%. I’ve ridden beasts like Col du Galibier – twice the distance averaging more than twice the gradient – so even fully laden at the end of a long week, scaling the Pass of the Cross doesn’t sound too intimidating. Good theory, reality begs to differ.

The first three-quarters of the climb chop up and down, giving regular respite as the road periodically drops down to the level of the river, but also meaning the overall elevation gain is pretty negligible. I’m still in the process of trying, with my rudimentary mathematical skills, to work out how the average can end up over 4%, and at about about the same time as the figure 15% pops into my head I round a bend out of some woods to be presented with the answer.

It’s a freakin’ wall. You can see pretty much all the way to the top, and this is not reassuring because that top is an effin’ long way off. All I can do is turn the pedals, think about it one revolution at a time, watching the elevation profile on my Wahoo Elemnt for signs that there might be some false-flats to provide the tiniest hint of relief. But there is absolutely no let-up, and I‘m mesmerised by the Wahoo’s gradient display as it increases steadily through the teens – 13%, 15%, 17% – and settles solidly over 20%. When it hits 25% I’m long past the point where I’d be quicker walking, but ridiculous pride keeps me on the bike. Topping 30% and the laws of physics make the decision for me, I’m simply not heavy enough to turn the pedals at any meaningful speed. For the second time today, the march of shame.

Back in the saddle, grinding slowly towards the summit, there’s a figure trotting down towards me. Getting closer, I see he’s carrying a video camera, proper full-on pro one with a furry cover on the microphone, so I summon up some poise and try to look good for GCN. Without breaking stride he jogs on past me, camera swinging with closed eye by his side. “India Landy is on her way up!” he pants excitedly, scurrying on his way. 

Great. Don’t mind me.

Anybody seen India Landy?

Finally cresting the climb I roll into a little car park to catch my breath and regain some composure, pulling up next to a VW Transporter containing video-guy’s buddy. After the briefest of chats, during which I get the distinct impression he’s looking somewhere beyond my left shoulder, he makes his excuses and heads off after his lensman. “I’m going to grab a quick word with India Landy, she’s on her way up now.” 

Yes. So I hear.

An awesome descent down towards Lake Bala makes the indignities of the climb and the cold-shoulder from GCN almost worthwhile, but once again I’m pondering the sheer insanity of enduring my worst ever hour on a bike only to throw away the elevation-gain in a few brief minutes of descending. Madness.

What’s also weird is that PG seems to have been abducted by aliens. I thought he might be waiting at the top – if not for me, then for India effin’ Landy at least – but there’s no sign of him, and my thoughts are turning towards finding a bivi-spot for tonight. Eventually I spot him, tucking himself up in his bivi-bag about 50 metres up a grassy bank to the side of the road. Quite a steep bank as it goes, but I scramble up to him and set about sorting out my own camp for the night. 

Which is easier said than done, as he seems to have bagged the only spot that isn’t either strewn with rocks or set at a precipitous angle. Not wanting to risk a puncture to my sleeping mat, I opt for the sloping option, and spend a fitful night as my slippery sleeping bag slides around on my equally slippery sleeping mat. I stare up at the crystal clear sky, alive with a billion stars, trying to get all spiritual but failing miserably as my bed slithers beneath me.

Day 8 – Somewhere in Snowdonia to Llandudno – 112km, 1593m elevation

5.00 AM, stumbling around in the semi-dark, trying to get my riding kit on without everything getting soaked with dew, failing. I chew on a scrap of Cornish pasty and a battered Danish, a truly international breakfast and the last remnants of yesterday’s re-supply in Machynlleth. Other than a few jelly babies and a squashed Double-Decker, that’s my lot until I reach Bethesda, 70km down route. Doesn’t sound like a long way and I normally wouldn’t bat an eyelid about doing fewer than 50 miles on relatively little fuel, not a problem when that’s under three hours riding.

But based on the previous seven days’ pace I reckon it’ll take nearer to five, and as well as being short of fuel I’m going to have to eek-out the last of my water too. 

I’d been hoping to feel a euphoric rush as we kicked off the last morning, but instead we set out in gloomy silence. Here we go a-fucking-gain. Predictably, the road soon kicks up and I watch PG disappear off ahead. Maybe we’ll meet up somewhere, maybe we won’t, but frankly I don’t give a shit. My legs are trashed and I’m doing my own thing.

And it’s pretty much rinse and repeat for the next couple of hours. Passing Llyn Trawsfynydd takes me back to teenage years. Not because I ever went there, but because it came up in a geography lesson four decades or more ago, something or other to do with hydroelectric power and man-made lakes. Mind wandering again.

Just under three hours deep and a weird thing happens. Trundling past another ripple-free lake I see two figures marching purposefully down the road in my direction. I pull up just short and give one of them the surprise of his life, or at least his eight-and-a-half-hour old day. 

“Hello Russell, how are you mate?” I can see the gears turning as he processes before returning the greeting. Of all the strange places and unlikely occasions to run into a friend, this ranks well up there. We chat for a few minutes (“What the hell are you doing here…?” “Never mind me, what the hell are you doing here…?”) before heading in our respective directions. As I watch his retreating form I can’t help noticing his bulging Camelbak. My mouth feels dry.

Four-and-a-half hours deep, Tesco Express, Bethesda High Street. Finally. Predictably, I buy too much, finding once I start to feast that I’m not actually that hungry. I peck away though, sip on a Costa latte.

Maybe it’s the coffee, maybe it’s just psychological, but the restorative effect is amazing and I feel a rush of energy. There’s a short climb out of the town, then it’s downhill to the sea and a flat run along the coast towards Conwy. 

Rather than just ambling, I’m pushing some pace now, spurred on by the knowledge that I’ve nothing to lose by burning my remaining matches, and motivated by an increasingly common phenomenon as I near the finish, the Dot Watcher. These random PanCeltic fans follow the race’s progress (on a website that plots the signals from each rider’s GPS tracker) and shout encouragement from over a garden gate, outside a pub, or some other vantage point. I spot a middle-aged lady holding up her mobile phone, videoing me as I pass. “Well done Matt!” she yells. It’s kinda weird. Endearing and charming, but kinda weird nevertheless. Turns out she’s captured dozens of riders from her spot in a bus shelter and uploaded them to the event Facebook page, each accompanied by a short commentary.

The reach of PanCeltic, the extent of its fanbase, is strikingly large. Home-made signs here and there shout messages of encouragement, “good luck PanCeltic riders,” “PanCeltic GO, GO, GO!” Outside a cottage in Devon there’s a large drum of Quality Street and a sign urging PanCeltic riders to help themselves, somewhere else a bowl of fruit. It’s amazing, and undeniably uplifting.

There’s a good level road following the coast from here to the finish, but The Route has me randomly spearing off to the right. After a week of this I know it can only mean one thing, more gratuitous climbing. It’s not a monster though, and I have some zip in me now, out of the saddle and dancing.

A wrong turn in Conwy slows my progress, but then it’s nice and flat towards Llandudno. Along the seafront past North Shore Beach, I hear a final “go on, Matt” before the last climb around the Great Orme. This one is a joy though; a gentle gradient, the midday sun glinting off the Irish Sea, burning blue sky.

The final couple of kilometres and another local rider cruises up beside me, knows who I am and where I’ve materialised from. “Well done mate, awesome ride. And you’re looking really fresh!” Ha, if only. Respect for his kind intentions means I stifle a smile as he offers me directions to the finish. Having managed the previous 1371 kilometres I think I can probably find it.

Find it I do, tucked away in a quiet residential street, a few people milling around, not a lot of razzmatazz. Pull up on the pavement by a suburban garden gate, unclip, rub knuckles into grimy eye sockets, lean forward and rest my forearms on the handlebars. 

“Tea? Or a beer?”

“Tea will be great, thanks. Couple of sugars please.”

Done.

To give recognition where it’s due, my friends MK and NC – Matt Kuwertz and Neil Couchman – who I last saw disappearing up that first climb after the start, went on to win the Shorter Route Pairs category in an impressive 5 days, 7 hours, 30 minutes. Not bad for a first ultra-distance race, and an awesome effort from Neil who, due to a new-born baby and London Marathon training, had ridden just a thousand miles in 2021.

Fergus Murray’s PanCeltic odyssey, people will be glad to hear, also ended happily after completing the long route solo (on a hastily borrowed bike) in 10 days, 6 hours, 46 minutes.

4 Comments

  1. Great writing Matt with some memorable lines, not least “Okay, fuck-off now, Mr Happy”. And what fortitude and perseverance to see it through in those conditions. Chapeau to you all.

    Like

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