When I was around 20 I remember coming across an article about a ride nicknamed ‘Wales in a weekend’. I was completely captivated by this account of three friends riding the Brian Chapman Memorial Audax together. This ride is Wales end to end in 600km. It starts in Chepstow by the Severn Bridge, goes up to the Menai Bridge that joins Anglesey to the mainland and back again to Chepstow.
The mental and physical toughness required to ride up and down Wales in under 40 hours was one thing but I was also fascinated by the complete grass roots nature of Audax. On an Audax there are no banners, no medals, no crowds. Bananas and beans on toast (not at the same time!) replace energy gels and protein bars. Steel is the frame material of choice and you’d be hard pushed to find a deep section carbon wheel. Audax is about understated, hard riding and is supported by an army of amazing volunteers who give up their weekend to help feed and organise exhausted, smelly, dishevelled cyclists.
This write up made a lasting impression on me. I banked it in the ‘amazing things I would like to do one day’ list thinking honestly I would probably never be able to do anything like it – this was years before I became a ‘proper’ cyclist. Nevertheless, I didn’t forget it.
Funny how once an idea is in your brain it stays there and resurfaces years later.
Fast forward about 5 years and I’m a bit more of a ‘proper’ cyclist aka roadie struggling to balance work, commuting, thesis corrections and then my grandmother died…
While I was slowly grinding my physical and mental health into the ground I followed dots along The Transcontinental Race 2016. Read ‘What Goes Around’ by Emily Chappell and Juliana Buhring’s ‘This Road I Ride’. I knew I wanted to do something, to do something for myself, an adventure and a challenge. But was I capable?
I met some awesome women through the Bristol cycling scene. One evening, at a flat party hosted by my friend Janine I said that I was thinking about signing up for the Transcontinental.
I was still unsure. I had never done anything like it before. I sought advice from people like Emily. She came back with something along the lines of ‘you are capable of so much more than you think’.
JFDI. Just Fucking Do It.
I put my TCR application in and before I even knew the outcome I joined Audax UK and signed up for the Bryan Chapman. I’d wanted to do it for so long and if I got a place on the TCR it would be great preparation. If I didn’t get a place on TCR I’d wanted to do this iconic Welsh ride for years and it would be a challenge in itself.
Fast forward 6 months and I’m rolling out of the Bullwark Community Centre in Chepstow.
Now, in true Eleanor fashion I wasn’t completely prepared. I’d spent the entire week leading up to this feeling run down and lethargic with low mood and glands the size of golf balls. But there was nothing actually wrong with me. I decided to drive to the start this time after the nightmare that was getting to the Brevet Cymru and anticipated post ride exhaustion. Except I missed the junction on the motorway, I was too excited at having seen cyclists crossing the bridge that I drove straight past the turning off for Chepstow!
I hurriedly parked the car, pulled my bike out the boot and reassembled her front wheel. Plugged in my dynamo, pulled on my shoes, strapped my seat post bag on and pushed off. Around the corner into the Bullwark community centre and the place was jammed with cyclists. I had time to quickly run inside, grab my Brevet card, run back out and search the sea of lycra for some distinctive Audax Club Bristol (ACB) orange. Friends located just in time. The mass of cyclists surged out of Bullwark, along the quiet residential streets and out of Chepstow at 6am.
Now I can’t compare this to the start of my first Audax, the Brevet Cymru, because I missed the start of that one! But it was amazing. A very understated start, no glamour and no ceremony as around 200 cyclists set off along the road to Monmouth. It was incredible riding with so many others, clearly I wasn’t the only one excited and we steamed along. There must have been around 60 still in our peloton when we went through Crickowell and it was still early enough in the morning that the few cars around didn’t seem to mind too much.
Along the road I met a rider called Dave, he asked if the cap I was wearing (my JFDI cap) was from Casquette magazine. I said it was and he asked if I knew the editor, Danielle. I said I had exchanged a few messages with her and we had vowed to ride together sometime this summer. Turns out he is a friend of the magazine and had given them some advice on a few projects! Small world!
The first control was the Honey Cafe in Bronllys. As the field hadn’t yet spread out very much it was busy. We weren’t sure whether it was a good idea to stop for a proper break here as it could waste valuable time, but when we saw how quickly the organised kitchen was churning out bacon butties we changed our minds. Baconed and caffinated we got back on our bikes feeling more human. The next control was at Llanidloes on the other side of Mid-Wales. This seemed like a really long way away and one of those places so much further North from where I grew up in west Wales that I didn’t know the area very well.
The A-roads we followed took us up a few long slog climbs and the heavens opened. Wales was being typically Welsh. The field had thinned out a bit by now and we had a handful of ACB riders and friends riding in a group. We discussed whether it was raining enough to warrant stopping to put on our rain jackets, by the time it took us not to make a decision it was too late and we were wet through! We needn’t have worried, this time it was just a passing shower.
We were enjoying the smooth rolling A-roads a bit too much and we sped along snacking on trail mix from our top tube bags to fuel as we rode. As we pulled in to Llanidloes at around midday our average speed was just a pip under 28km/h. Unsustainable. We all knew it and vowed to slow down! The climbs in Snowdonia would slow us down anyway and we weren’t even 1/4 of the way through. Pacing is important over 600km.
At Llanidloes the cafe control had turned their car park at the back of the cafe into an al fresco extension. Just another demonstration of how much organisation has gone into this weekend. Other road users bemoan cyclists but we do a lot to support rural businesses and cafes.
Next came the mountain road to Machynlleth which I’d ridden last December on day 2 of Bristol to Bangor. Realising that in half a day I’d covered what took us over 1.5 days to cover 6 months earlier made me realise how far I’ve come as a rider in a relatively short time. P.S. If I can do it, anyone can!
These hills were the first ‘proper’ climbs of the ride and I started to struggle. I was probably feeling the effects of having been under the weather the previous week but I was climbing like a snail. Luckily they all stopped to take in the view across the reservoir where I caught them up and we descended into Machynlleth together. Quick info control and we popped into Coop for some water – all that climbing had dehydrated us.
Someone in Co op said ‘is there an Audax on’. Clearly seeing a couple of cyclists rushing around the aisles in search of 2l bottles of water and chocolate bars is a telling sign! We said yes, we were riding the Bryan Chapman. He then started chatting to us outside the shop, asking us what gearing we were using on our bikes. We didn’t want to be rude but we really wanted to get going. It becomes all too easy to lose dead time to faffing and the boys were growing impatient. From Machynlleth it was into Snowdonia National Park.
Beautiful climbing and the sun came out. We stopped a couple of times to delayer. Leg warmers and arm warmers off. It felt like I hadn’t ridden with bare arms and legs in so long and the feeling of the wind and sunshine against my skin was wonderful. Up to Dolgellau we rode for our first stop at the King’s Youth Hostel. The figure of eight route stops here twice, the first time for food and the second time for food and if you’re lucky – a few hours sleep.
The road up to the King’s Hostel is a tiny little steep country lane, I took note of this as I knew the next time I would be climbing it in the dark with 375km in my legs. Not a nice thought. In the daylight it was a lovely rural lane running along a stream. The air was fresh. We were in the middle of untouched countryside and it smelled delicious! We envied the riders leaving as we arrived, but it wasn’t a race and we were still making amazing time!
The organisers take over the whole hostel and the amazing volunteers, many of them Audax riders themselves (I recognised Ian from the Brevet Cymru) know exactly how we are feeling and go out of their way to make sure we are welcomed and fed. Here, Dave (off of earlier) pounced on me to get a (very unflattering) picture of me in my JFDI cap to send to Danielle. I didn’t see him again until the end.
At King’s we passed over our Brevet Cards to be stamped and filled in a food order. I ordered everything (of course!) and had seconds of the apple pie! The place was full of cyclists and as people would finish and set off again new riders would arrive. We were starting to feel it a bit and shovelled in as much food as we could, we would need it later! A quick bit of faffing to repack and unpack my seat post bag with all the layers I’d shed over the afternoon and we were off again. At this point we had become a group of 7 which was much more manageable. A lot of people ride audax solo and this makes a lot of sense because everyone will ride at their own pace and have different strengths, weaknesses and surges. But so early into a ride this epic I think we were all glad of the company and the support that provided.
As we rolled down the steep tarmac out of King’s other riders were arriving. Role reversal. We wished them good luck.
The next bit of the ride was just stunning. We rode across the wooden railway bridge into Barmouth under blue skies and warm sunshine. Where the bridge ends there is a steep path into Barmouth and here we found a lone duckling sliding down on his bottom his feet unable to grip the steep concrete. I wanted to take him with us but the group didn’t think it would be neither fair nor aerodynamic to have a duckling mascot. We rode on along the beautiful North Wales coast in the sunshine. It was so beautiful. I’d never been here before and I’m determined to go back. It was torture not dumping the bike on the beach to go for a swim!
Rehydrating in the sunshine and as we approached Harlech Jess and I were both desperate for the toilet! Boys can just stop by the side of the road but it is harder for girls and there wasn’t anywhere discrete enough for us to stop so we went off to find a public loo while the men went off to find the info control. Relieved and reunited we plunged into the depths of Snowdonia through Beddgelert (where I inaccurately retold the story of how the place got its name) and up Llanberis Pass. Again, muggins here dropped like a stone on the climb but it was too beautiful not to enjoy the stunning landscapes of Snowdonia. An info control and a group photo at the top of the pass before layering up for the breathtaking descent.
I over-layered and quickly overheated on the final push on to Menai and the 300km point. At Menai we met ACB club mate Elfyn who’s headset was ‘fucked’ and he was hitching a lift back to King’s for the night. I felt for him. This is a gruelling ride and not where you want your equipment to fail.
At the Menai scout hall the volunteers were churning out baked potatoes and cheese and beans. Despite their efficiency I still had time to shove a couple of custard creams in my mouth while I waited for my potato (every second counts! time spent off the bike not eating is dead time!!). As we sat and ate conversation fell to fatigue. Jess said she thought 300km was her distance, long enough for a proper ride and any further and you just get exhausted. I said I thought 300km was the tolerance my bottom had for riding. Denise passed the Sudocrem. Water bottled filled we clip clopped outside.
The light was starting to fade. Rain was coming. We turned out dynamo lights on and layered up. I left my armwarmers and a base layer off to try and avoid boiling in my not-as-breathable-as-it-claims rain jacket. This is where it all started to go pear shaped for me.
Back over the Menai bridge and into Snowdonia as night and rain began to fall. I wasn’t managing to keep up on the climbs and slowly watched the rear red lights of my riding companions disappear into the distance. While trying to take a drink and with one hand on the handlebars I was caught in a vicious crosswind that came out of nowhere and was nearly blown off the bike. Rain pelting down, wind battering and darkness thickening I stopped enjoying and started enduring. One from the group held back with me for a while, I was grateful for the shield that he provided against the unrelenting headwind as we rode into Beddgelert. Somewhere along this ride we turned a corner and were faced with a wall of tarmac. I panicked, I had limited visibility in the dark with the rain gathering on my glasses, my chest tightened and I nearly had a panic attack that I wasn’t able to ride up the hill. Being unable to climb a hill and falling off or rolling down backwards is an anxiety of mine that often surfaces to plague me. I managed to hold the panic away but my chest had tightened and stayed like that. I couldn’t open my lungs to gulp the air that I needed to ride. In Trawsfynydd we rejoined the others who had stopped for a modest comfort break and the friendly cyclist stopped to go find some batteries for his headlight. I turned to one of the ACB riders, Martin, and said ‘I’m scared’. My chest was still tight and my breathing was shallow, no matter what I did I couldn’t force air deep into my hungry lungs. From Trawsfynydd to Dolgellau I crawled along, unable to breathe properly, terrified of the unfamiliar wilderness that lay in the darkess, cold and ready for this ride to be over. I felt sick. That jacket potato wasn’t sitting well in my stomach and my insides were grumbling. Was I going to need to stop to throw up?
I wasn’t in a good way. But I knew this road from when I’d ridden it last December and remembered a few landmarks like the turn off for Coed Y Brenin. I just did everything I could to keep the pedals turning and eventually started ticking off landmarks that told me I was getting closer to a point where I could stop and get warm and dry.
I knew what lay between me and the King’s Youth Hostel, those two sharp kicking hills. I turned off the main road and got out the saddle. I was struggling to get traction on the wet roads that were half covered in vegetation. My chest tightened. Rain on my goddam glasses meant I couldn’t see and there was only light cast in the direction my handlebars were pointed so I couldn’t see around corners. I freaked out, screamed. Made it to the top of the climb and unclipped. I bent over gulping air and fighting back the tears. Rob’s familiar voice came out of the darkness and he put his arm around me. They must have been waiting at the turning for me. It later emerged that they’d had to stop in an Audax Hotel (bus stop) before Dolgellau to rest and eat to fight off the tiredness. Rob bless his soggy socks comforted and reassured me and we rode the rest of the track up to the Hostel.
I removed my seat post bag and squelched into King’s.
It was 1am. Inside everyone was in a bad way. Martin’s knee was bad. Everyone was exhausted and soggy. Now, everyone says 400km is the hardest Audax distance because there is no sleep. That 600km is easier because you get a sleep. But for this ride we had already ridden 400km by the time we even got to the sleep stop! This didn’t seem logical to any of us. We ate in subdued silence. The fortune of being the underrepresented gender meant that Jess, Denise and myself got a bed for the night. Rob was contemplating riding back out into the night (we had passed riders leaving the hostel as we were arriving) but reconsidered that being out in the biblical weather alone at night might not be the smartest idea and he kipped down in the lounge for the night. We agreed to meet back in the main room for breakfast at 5.30am.
I went for a shower. I knew that it would help me warm up and my sore bum reminded me of the need to keep that area clean to avoid infection. The warm shower was bliss. My backside was sore and I gently cleaned myself with a bottle of hotel shampoo I’d packed. I dried myself off with the inside of a soggy leg warmer (who needs a towel?!) and pulled on some dry leggings and a soggy merino base layer. I climbed into my bunk and put my head on the pillow. Despite being utterly exhausted it was hard to sleep, the room was warm and muggy and people were constantly leaving and arriving in the building. I woke up in the middle of the night in a sweat. I must have had some sleep because I was woken by Jess gently nudging my arm to stir me at 5.20am. I wasn’t convinced that the 3.5 hours lie down would have done much for me. I felt hungover, dehydrated from the warm night and legs sore from the previous 400km. One thing I was glad for, the clean and dry shorts I had packed.
I shovelled in some Spanish omelette for breakfast. Martin’s knee was in a bad way and he was going to pull out. I wasn’t sure how I felt about the prospect of getting back on the bike. When I rode the 400km two weeks previous I was wrecked and I wasn’t exactly feeling fresh as a daisy this time!
Once on the saddle I didn’t feel too bad. Amazed at what a difference a little bit of rest and some clean shorts can make. As we rode down that killer little road I met my friend Grace wheeling her bike. I had been looking out for her all ride and was so glad to see her. I unclipped and gave her a hug. She wasn’t in a great way and was unsure if she was going to be able to finish with a dead Di2 battery. I felt for her but was also amazed at how un-dishevelled she looked.
I quickly caught up with the others and rode into my tired legs. They felt OK, amazingly. I’m not sure how. The rain had stopped and the air smelled like fresh air in mid Wales smells first thing in the morning after a downpour (trust me, this is a thing).
Sunshine and second breakfast at the next control in Aberhafesp. My hamstrings were threatening cramp and I was crossing my fingers for bananas. On the approach Jess, Rob and myself were fantasising about what greasy terrible junk food we’d love to stuff our faces with. A few familiar faces at the control and I sat down to a banana and nutella sandwich (such luxury!) followed by a bacon sandwich and a cup of coffee.
From here there were a fair few old climbs into Newtown before the next control at Llandrindod Wells. I lost Rob and Jess on the climbs just unable to keep pace with them on any incline. I arrived at the control as they left. I was riding solo at this point and placing a lot of faith in my GPS, route cards and own ability to navigate. Some soup, a bread roll and some lemon drizzle cake and a chat with some other riders. I knew there wasn’t far to go now, but it seemed further than I was capable of. My knee was also starting to make my brain aware of her presence. I popped some vitamin i (ibuprofen) as a precaution.
There were no more controls now until the finish and I wasn’t sure if I was capable of riding that 90 odd km without a proper rest to break it up. I kept telling myself it was only the distance of a club run, but I had over 500km in my legs! I set off by myself into the undulating Welsh lanes. Seriously, Wales. All the hills!
The sun was beating down and I stopped once to take off my arm warmers. I didn’t take off my knee warmers because I thought if my knee was going to be problematic I didn’t want to risk it getting too cold. I met an Islington rider near Boughrood and the company picked up my speed a little. But he dropped me on a climb.
In Abergavenny I was joined by a couple of Pembrokeshire lads who we’d met on the first day. I rode with them on the flats along to Usk. I was enjoying the lack of incline and settled into my TT bars and powered along at 30kph. One of them asked me if I’d ever time trialled. I said I hadn’t but he encouraged me to give it a go. He said he’d once ridden Brevet Cymru with the national 12h TT champion and they’d got back by 3pm!
We rode along and accidentally dropped one of them. His friend stopped to wait for him and I carried on saying they’d catch me on the hill. In Usk I caught up with Rob and Jess grabbing a sit down outside the village shop. As we started along the road to Chepstow (nearly there now!) we experienced a couple of close passes by motorbikes. They dropped me on the climb and the Pembrokeshire boys caught me, and dropped me. As I crested the hill before Chepstow at the alpacas sign a scooter came down the hill telling me there had been an accident and police were turning traffic along. My heart sank, those close passes by motorbikes. What if a cyclist was involved? I also wasn’t going to turn around, I was getting back to Chepstow come hell of high water. I came across the accident and the policeman said as I was on a pushbike I could go through, I asked if a cyclist was involved ‘no, a motorbike’ was the response. I was relieved that my friends were safe.
My knee was in agony as I crawled up into Chepstow. I had an internal argument about which bit of my body hurt more out of my knee and my bum. When who comes up behind me but Robin who I’d met at the start of the Brevet Cymru! We rode into Chepstow and the Bullwark community centre. I unclipped and hobbled into the hall and handed over my Brevet Card for the final time. Relieved. Exhausted.
I hobbled into the back garden and collapsed on the floor next to Rob and Jess. The amazing organises were concerned about the state of my legs and fussed about, I reassured them I was fine. It took me about 3 hours waiting around the control to feel safe enough to drive home and in that time I met Judith, an incredible rider who has ridden this ride 11 times! Audax royalty as one other rider described. She’s also a bit of an authority on saddles so I picked her brain on that topic! Just as I went to go fetch the car to load up to go home Grace comes around the corner. I was so pleased that she’d been able to finish despite all her setbacks. We had a cuddle and a quick chat. She showed me the kitten that I’d missed at King’s. We both exchanged fears at how hard this ride had been and how would we do the 4,000km Transcontinental if we found 600km so challenging? I don’t know the answer.
After the ride people have congratulated me on finishing my first 600km. I just feel frustrated at not having ridden well. At being dropped on every hill and having had such a bad time on Saturday night in the wind and rain. I don’t feel like I’ve achieved something, I just feel frustrated with myself. I’m disappointed that I let myself have such a breakdown at night. Far from making me feel like I’m better prepared for the TCR I’m worried that I don’t have it in me.