It’s probably worth just talking about the style of this ride. I’d chosen to ride totally self-supported. All my gear and food was either strapped to my bike or concealed in the back pockets of my riding jersey. I knew fairly well before setting out that I wouldn’t be able to do the whole ride without some rest, and so decided to pack a very lightweight bivy bag (Wasatch Bivvy – 105g), sleeping bag (PHD Minim 900 down bag – 363g). These were packed into a 2 litre drybag and strapped to the front of the bike in a custom Wildcat Gear Mountain Lion. The rest of my gear went into a Wildcat Gear frame bag, the majority of which was filled with food, but also a 3/4 length Thermarest NeoAir (which I admit was a bit of a luxury), a Gore Alp-X 2.0 jacket and some tools. The frame bag was cut around one 610ml bottle on the seat tube, which required me to keep a careful eye on my water intake and fill up whenever I saw the opportunity at a clear-running stream. So that was it. Everything neatly contained on my bike, and nothing on my back.
Up until now, I’d also been “flying under the radar”. I had a Spot tracker with me, but only Beth (my wife) knew where to look for progress updates. It wasn’t until a I sent out a few tweets at Dyfi Junction that I declared my intention to ride the double. But now the word was out, I was committed to getting to the job done.
Every joyful descent leading down to the Dyfi Junction became a painful climb to regain the higher elevations – they’re not called the Cambrian Mountains for nothing. Glaspwll track was a steady slog on foot; its gradient too steep for my 32:19 ratio and my already well-traveled legs. Once at the top, the grassy terrace was even more beautiful in reverse, and with the low sun now casting a warm orange cast over the landscape. However, this was soon forgotten when I reached the bottom of Foel Fadian. Its intimidating steep flanks rose up steeply to a crisp darkening sky. The push turned to a slog, and I would occasionally stop and look back to where the sun had been, but it didn’t diminish the effort required to complete the ascent. By the time I reached the top, it was properly dark and the temperature beginning to drop.
At the bottom of Y Grug, I stopped to fill my bottle up, drop in a caffeine tablet and put my jacket on to fend off the cold air. I certainly needed it for the fast descent that soon followed into Staylittle. Hafren Forest became a bit of a blur – straight forward climbs now required significant effort to get up. I was certainly starting to feel the effects of tiredness and fatigue. The yawns started to come, and so at the next opportunity to fill up with water, I put in two caffeine tablets. The result reminded me of Red Bull but without the fizz. I scoffed some chocolate down too to hopefully give me a bit of a kick.
After crossing the A44, there is a long and punishing climb into the forest where Nant Rhys bothy lies. I wasn’t far now from my opportunity to put my head down for some sleep. The caffeine tablets seemed not to be making much difference, and I could feel me head nodding while riding. I get off and push some of the upward bits – it was probably safer. Eventually, the top came, and I rolled wearily down to the bothy. I arrived at 00:50 am, 19 hours 20 minutes since leaving Knighton, and with 226 km on the clock. That was pretty much two thirds distance, and I was fairly well spent.
In the bothy, I quickly unrolled and inflated my mat, unpacked my sleeping bag, ate some more food and dusted the mud off my legs before setting my alarm for 05:00 am and crawling inside my bag to go to sleep. It didn’t take long. Minutes, probably. Somewhat annoyingly, I was awoken at 03:00 am by the other two people in the bothy (walkers) getting their gear together to leave. Who, on earth, goes for a walk at three O’clock in the bloody morning?! I imagine they thought much the same when I came in just two hours before.
Now awake, but still tired, I was paying the price for the few grams I’d attempted to save on my sleeping bag as I lay there feeling the cold. I semi-dozed for about an hour, not quite able to haul myself back out of my sleeping bag and head into the cold and dark to finish the rest of the ride. Eventually though, when I thought I could discern the faintest beginning of a dawn through the windows, I got up. By the time I’d packed up my gear and got on the bike again it was 05:00 am, so at least I was still a little ahead of schedule.
Its amazing how much of an effect only two hours sleep can have when you’ve been awake for over 20 hours. The first hill was conquered with comparative ease, though I had a acute sense it wasn’t going to last. At the next available water point, I filled up my bottle, poured in some Torq recovery powder and had breakfast on the roll down to Cwmystwyth. Here the climbing started again in earnest. The enjoyable rocky descent though the woods from yesterday became another long push. The lanes and wild double track that followed were noticeably more wearing that the outward journey, but I had the benefit of a stronger tail wind. To my fortune, overnight, the wind had turned from north east to westerly. Perfect.
I stopped again at my lunchtime stop from the previous day at Teifi Pools, this time for second breakfast at 7.30 am, though I can’t honestly remember what I ate or for how long I was there. The Claerwen track that follows works well from west to east and I felt I made some good time on this section to arrive at the bottom of the dam about an hour later. The sodden and broken byway beyond the dam hadn’t improved overnight, and to make matters worse my slow brain and slowing reactions weren’t making line choice any easier.
Back in Rhayader, the town was just getting going, though by most peoples measure was probably still half asleep. Clive Powell had got his bikes outside the shop, but I didn’t see anyone. I filled up at the tap again, hoping this would be the last time before the finish. I calculated it would be about 4 hours back to Knighton. On the road out of town, I did my mental fly-through of the rest of the route. I could recount all the bits, so I thought, but such fantasies make little allowance for gradient, which was brought home to me at the huge road climb that followed the A483 road crossing up to Fron Top. The section that followed over Warren Hill appeared to be missing from my mental image and for a while I struggled to work out where I was and what would come up next.
Familiarity returned when I reached the edge of the Beacon Hill track. I finished the last of my peanuts, swallowed a gel and ate some more chocolate. This was it. One hour to the finish, and with 400 metres of elevation under my belt, this was surely going to be easy. Wrong. Oh, how my body ached. My underside of my right foot was sore, my wrists ached. My shoulders were tense and jarred over every rock and rut. My right hip felt a bit tight too, but it seemed OK at turning the pedals at least. As a bumped my way down the descents, trying as best I could to take the smooth lines, I felt like I had lost all finesse. I felt like a passenger on the bike unable to anticipate and respond in time for the next obstacle.
At last, Knucklas. Tarmac. Smooth. Joy of joys. Three miles and one climb lay between me and the finish. I dug as deep as I could on what would have been a modest gradient on any other day. I rolled into Knighton, swept through the car park and onto the station platform. I got out my phone and took a photo, much to the bemusement of the women sat further down the platform waiting for the next train. I hit the OK button on my Spot to send out a pre-prepared message for Twitter to say that the Trans Cambrian Way Double was complete, and a link to the Spot page that had cataloged my progress to Dyfi Junction and back.
My time on the GPS said 14:03 pm, which meant I’d completed the ride in 32 hours and 33 minutes. Some 338 km of riding, and over 7,900 metres of ascent.
I rang Beth to say I was finished, and within minutes of that, I got a text from Mark Goldie asking how it had gone (Mark holds the record for the TCW single). Soon after that messages came in via Twitter. The last 32 hours had been so solitary I was grateful of any sort of communication. I rode back to the car, changed and went into town or some food. Gradually the full sense of achievement dawned on me. As far as I know, no-one before me had ridden the Trans Cambrian Way Double as an Individual Time Trial, and even if (or when) the time gets beaten, I will always have been the first