Last weekend we cycled to the Brecon Beacons and back. "We", is Mark Halliday, Ian Vanstone, Rich Harran and I. Over 3 days we cycled over 300 miles and climbed over 3250 metres.
(route) We set off from work at 12:20 on Friday, the early light rain having thankfully cleared away. Mile one was downhill and flat but then we had our first mini-climb of 80 metres up to Farley Mount. This is one of the hardest hills near work but it would pale in to insignificance by the end of Saturday.
We followed the Garmin Edge 705 Sat Navs directions to Stockbridge, taking a route I hadn't done before. We set our top speed of the day of 39mph down the B3049 in to town.
Between us we had 3 Garmin Edge's. I think this is because they're so hard to follow that you need significant redundancy. And like the Space Shuttle's control system, when one system disagrees with the other two, you can follow the directions of the two that agree.
By 1:40 we were skirting Andover heading generally north. This began the longest, ever-steepening climb of the day, from 119m to 277m in 5.1 miles. Not very tough but 25 minutes of uphill. Followed by a lovely 102m descent in just 1.1 miles. And straight in to another 76m climb. And a 95m descent. Quite good fun really.
Then we zig-zagged around loosely following a river west for about 21 miles. Rich picked up a puncture which took about 20 minutes to repair - our only mechanical issue for the day. Between Alton Barnes and Stanton St Bernard we saw a chalk horse on a hill. The landscape around this area is striking. Rich commented that it was lunar: wide plains and distant bumpy hills. Really pretty.
At Bishops Cannings we turned north and climbed a short(ish) steep(ish) hill (58m in 1.3 miles) and gently swung west to cross the M4 north of Chippenham.
We cycled through a beautiful village made of stone called Grittleton. Check it out on StreetView, although I remember the place being far prettier than the linked imagery suggests.
We reached Luckington, our destination, at 6:30. We were very generously being put up for the night by Kirsty, a friend of Mark and Ian. After a quick shower we went to the local pub, the Old Royal Ship. The World Cup started today and France were playing Uruguay. There was a big screen in the pub but we sat outside in the evening sunshine. Turns out we missed a poor 0-0 draw anyway. After a lovely meal and a few beers with Kirsty and John (her man) we headed back for a relatively early night.
(route) This is the one I'd been fearing. But it started well with a top quality cooked breakfast (thanks Kirsty). We were rolling before 8:30.
The first task was to get to the M48 bridge to Wales (the M4 bridge doesn't cater for bicycles). The first hour of the day was mostly flat and we averaged 16.5mph. For one 2 mile section we averaged 22mph (although we did drop 53 metres).
Ian had been looking forward to crossing the bridge and I can see why. You're quite high up and the views are fantastic. Looking down in to the water you can see swirling currents moving in all directions.
Once in Wales the sun came out and we headed north past Chepstow and turned west and up a hill on the main road. First gear was employed but it was fine. My bike has a "double" not a "compact" crankset. This means that my easiest gear is significantly harder to turn than a compact - which the other 3 cyclists had. My easiest gear is 39x27.
At the top of the hill we came off the main road and descended a tiny single track road. Then we were introduced to our first real hill. For the next 0.65 miles, the road *averaged* 11%. Blissford Hill in the New Forest is 25% but that was nothing to this. We ascended 112 metres in 1040 metres. Sitting down for this climb was not an option. It felt like I had to stamp on one pedal while lifting up on the other just to turn the wheels. Our speed dropped to about 3mph. There was a lot of heavy breathing. At one point everyone but Rich dismounted because it was crazy steep (28% according to GPS) and the road was covered in small pine cones that made it slippery. At the top we caught our breath, admired the view back down over the estuary and scoffed chocolate. This was the first time I've had to dismount due to gradient. But it wouldn't be the last...
Coming down the hill on the other side was quite hard work as the road was small and twisty so we had to use the brakes all the way down. 234m elevation down to 46m and apart from lovely views, no benefit. Grr.
Ian started to make noises about his gears not feeling right but we headed down in to Usk for a bite to eat before he took a proper look. I emerged from the One Stop with a tonne of sarnies and wraps to hear Ian say that his chain was bust. It hadn't snapped (wait for tomorrow) but one of the links had split and looked very weak. Mark had brought spare chain pins so Ian took out a couple of links from his chain and got it all fixed. A quick lunch ended up taking 50 minutes but at least it was sunny and the rest of us enjoyed a leisurely lunch.
Shortly after 12:00 (38 miles) we saddled up again and followed the river to Abergavenny. En route Rich picked up another puncture which was fixed without any drama. We went through the middle of the town. It looks like a nice place, nestling among some big hills. Worth visiting some time.
We took the flat Brecon Road out of town for 7 miles, which concluded an easy 20 mile flat section. We turned right on the A479 which had recently been resurfaced and was lovely and smooth. With the strong sun and recent tarmac I feared it might be soft and sticky but it was perfect. We climbed up the A479 for the next 7.4 miles, gaining 240 metres. Long, but not too bad.
From the top we loved the descent to Talgarth on the new road surface. 189 vertical metres dropped over 3.2 miles in 8 minutes at an average of 24mph. Sweet!
Along a country lane Rich and I saw a large predatory bird take off and fly just over our heads with a decent sized black bird gripped in its claws. Nature in action!
The big climb of the day was just around the corner. We approached it by coming up a steep hill, then the road kinked steeply upwards, looking quite a lot like a vertical wall of concrete. You can't see the gradient very well on StreetView, but if you look at the fence posts on this image you can kind of see it. The GPS trace suggests the peak gradient was around 35%. I had to dismount, again. For the first uber-steep hill of the day I had walked up it in my cleated cycling shoes which isn't very easy because the cleats exacerbate the angle at your ankle, but this one was so long I took off my shoes and walked sock-footed until the gradient eased off to something more sensible like 15%.
For 5.6 miles we rode up a narrow road taking in some amazing scenery. We climbed from 385 metres up to a peak of 530 metres. Whilst tough, this part of the ride was what we came for and it didn't disappoint.
For the next 12 miles and 40 minutes (!) we dropped down the valley from 530m to 113m. And then ground up another 110 metre climb, what looked, from the graph, like the last real ascent of the day...
But wasn't. Just after we crossed the A40 the road went straight up a ridge, gaining 80 metres and peaking at 21% gradient. This one was tough but was conquered.
All we had left was the road to our destination which the others had done before and said it was a bit steep. We'd had a nice 106 mile warm up and only faced another 75 metre, 0.5 mile climb. With a gradient tightening to 20% for the last 200 metres. I gave it a big push, resolved to make it, but had to dismount just 40 yards from the end as I wasn't getting enough oxygen and my lungs were about to fall out.
We finally reached Ian's Aunt and Uncle's place at about 6 o'clock, having cycled 107 miles in 9:33 and climbed 1475 metres.
After a quick bath we sat outside on a picnic table for tea (thanks Joy) with awesome views over the valley. What an amazing place to live. We heard lots of interesting stories about the trouble the heavy snow caused earlier in the year. Pudding was excellent too - home grown rhubarb made in to a delicious fool. Truly scrumptious.
Then we watched the England game with a couple of beers and some smoky bacon crisps (of which they had a surfeit) before giving up and (again) having a relatively early night.
(route) Everyone slept like kings although I did head to the loo in the middle of the night and forgot that there was a couple of steps out of the bedroom to the landing and took a tumble. I received a whack on the knee which could have been disastrous but wasn't. It felt a little bruised and tender the next morning but it didn't affect my cycling.
We were up for breakfast for about 8 o'clock. After lots of cereal and toast we were ready and set off at 8:50. It was a bit awkward getting started as our route continued up the steep hill we finished on last night but we managed it without incident.
We took a fairly main route back to the M48 bridge. The best bit was heading out of Devauden down a billiard table smooth road averaging 28mph on a 3 mile section that dropped 160 metres. Top speed was a touch over 40mph.
Over the bridge, over the M4, heading for Bath. I was hoping to avoid the worst of the hills:- I recently went to Bath and parked in the Park 'n' Ride at Lansdown near the race course and the hills round there were big! It turns out Mark had routed us that way as there isn't much choice if you're avoiding main roads. We climbed from 103m to 285m on a hot day having cycled nearly 200 miles over the previous 2 days. It was quite tough but we just took it slowly and ground it out. Some nice views though.
We turned left off the main road before the PnR and took some narrow lanes to the east edge of Bath, heading through Bathford and near Bathampton (imaginative names they have in these parts).
Mark had been warning us about a steep climb for a while and it arrived on Warleigh Lane outside Claverton. It's about a 75 metre ascent over 1/3 of a mile. Mark walked part of it because he still has achilles and knee issues from his London-Edinburgh-London ride last year, and Ian walked part of it as he dare not stand on the pedals given the state of his chain. Rich and I both made it to the top without stopping which was satisfying given the 3 hills I'd walked yesterday.
Then we rolled down the hill in to Bradford-on-Avon. I hadn't heard of the place but it looks really cute. We were looking for lunch and we got directions to the local Sainsburys. We passed a bicycle shop and then literally 50 metres later Rich's chain appeared to explode. We later found out that the front dérailleur had slipped down the seat post and got caught in the chain, ripping it off. Rich found one half his chain but not the other half which had disappeared. I'm amazed at the luck of having a bike shop 50 metres away and that we wanted to stop for lunch anyway. Rich bought a new chain whilst the rest of us went to get food from Sainsburys.
We had lunch by the canal as Rich fixed his bike. Mark and Ian managed to mistake 2-litre bottles of water for 1-litre bottles so we had twice as much as we needed. A couple of bottles were gifted to a random passer-by.
We still weren't half way home so we got going once Rich had fixed his bike and had some food. We'd conquered all the nasty hills but we still had 60 miles to go. We went through Warminster and then followed the river for 22 miles to Salisbury. Somewhere in this segment we spotted another white horse. I haven't managed to find it on StreetView yet though.
As we got in to Salisbury there was a point where the road narrowed to a single lane. A BMW driver (what else?) saw 4 cyclists about to enter the single lane section and gunned it. We had to stop in a hurry and he flew past. He either didn't see or didn't care about the stop sign after the narrow bit as it emerged on to the main road, but on another day this could have ended in a nasty car crash. Idiot.
It's odd to think of Salisbury as "nearly home" but it felt like it. Less than 25 miles and I'd be home (although Ian and Rich had slightly further, and Mark 5 miles less than me). There's a bit of a hill out of Salisbury in to Aldebury, parallel to the A36, but tiddlers like this no longer bothered me.
Then it was over the A36 to the lovely flat terrain of the Deans, Lockerly, Kimbridge and home.
112 miles for the final day, 9:38 hours, 1050 metres of climbing. (The elevation graph above is from Mark's GPS and doesn't show the full distance).
81.6 miles, 107.3 miles, 111.7 miles = 300.6 miles (plus a 5 mile commute to work for me).
750m, 1475m, 1050m = 3250 metres of climbing. Highest point at 530m in the Brecon Beacons.
6:10, 9:34, 9:38 = 25:22 (including stops)
2 punctures, 1 new chain, 1 chain repaired.
Everyone was pretty tired by the end. I was developing saddle sores on the third day but otherwise was in remarkably good shape. I chose not to cycle to work on Monday and on Tuesday I do the school run. I cycled Wed, Thurs and Friday though. Rich cycled every day the following week.
Over the 3 days, as well as big meals, I had:
- 5 KitKat Chunky
- 4 Snickers
- 2 bags of Haribo Super Mix
- 2 bottle of Lucozade
- 2 Alpen-like bars
Mark had planned the route using BikeRouteToaster.com which is a great tool. It can reroute by dragging like google maps does, it shows elevation, it has lots of import/export options, and it can show maps from and route over OpenStreetMap. Superb.
Rich and I took rucksacks but Mark and Ian packed everything in to their jersey pockets and various saddle bags. I used sun cream but still ended up with sharply defined lines on my upper arms between pinky-brown and white.
Rich's pattern of one mechanical failure per day also continued on into Monday when his gear cable snapped on the way in to work.
Overall: a lot of fun, met some people, ate tonnes, saw many pretty views and villages, was defeated by and conquered some big hills, did back-to-back long days. Thoroughly enjoyed.