When I was doing the 3 Peaks Cyclocross Race last month, somewhere around the top of Whernside, a chap said to me
“We must be mad!”.
“It depends”, I replied, before asking him how many times he’d done the event.
“Ten”, he said.
“Ah, well, this is my first time, so you’re the one who’s mad; I’m just exercising my right to try anything once…”
Fast forward three weeks and I’m stood in a car park in Llanbrynmair with too little gear strapped to my bike ready to embark on my fifth Bear Bones 200. Indeed, nobody has ever done all five, so where that puts me on the sanity scale, I’ve no idea. After last year, most people could be forgiven for deciding to give it a miss entirely, but there is a strange draw that surrounds being sent on tour of Wales’ most remote bridleways in the quest of fun.
At the start, the usual route-related banter and speculation was exchanged with fellow riders. It was rumoured that Stuart had even gone as far as saying “every effort had been made to ensure the route was a rideable as possible”. Right, it’ll be fine then; my mind reverting to images of Stu patting tussocks flat with a shovel, cutting back trails blocked by fallen trees and scything a line through the bracken forests of Upland Powys.
At 8:10am, armed with my Shand Stoater fitted with fast rolling 40C tyres, the requisite bear minimum of kit and a set of 20 (twenty) gears that turned out to be far too tall for the terrain, I departed Llanbrymair ready to notch up a cumulative 1000 km of Bear Bones 200’s. I made short work of the opening road section, and continued to climb up into the hills and into the forest. It was all very nice and peaceful and fast rolling until suddenly the forest road came to an abrupt end to be replaced with a boggy slog through the trees. I picked my way through the wet ruts, collecting a pair of wet feet in the process and ducked through and around the windblown trees Stu had forgotten to clear, before eventually breaking out into the daylight again.
The trails flowed once again and it wasn’t long before a group of four of us had formed on the tracks over to Llyn Vyrnwy. Beyond the stiff climb out from the lake, the Berwyns beckoned. The grassy climb rose steadily, becoming less distinct as it went. Eventually, just as my feet were drying out, we reached a second bog trot (pictured above), which was thankfully short-lived before the descent into Llangynog.
Llangynog is at the head of the Tannat Valley, 158 metres above sea level. About 5 km further along the route was the very top of the valley at 464 metres. The summit of Hafod Hir lay between us at 545 metres. After a monumentally steep push up the side of a young forest, we were blessed with some flat terrain. It was almost worthy of celebration, had it not have been for the dense bracken that lined the trail. Up ahead of me were two other riders, but quite which way they had gone through here was not obvious. I pushed and yanked my bike through the bracken, some as tall as me, before eventually breaking out onto a clear path. It rose steeply, but appeared to be the lesser of two evils.
It wasn’t long before this highlighted another problem. Without putting too fine a point on it, the mapping of the GPX file wasn’t that accurate. This, coupled with a basic Talky Toaster map on my GPS not showing all the trails, lead to a number of interesting moments. From my lofty position on the hillside above the bracken I could see the track below that I supposed to be on. Bracken surfing is not an activity I would recommend to anyone.
But that wasn’t the end of it. On rejoining the track I was supposed to be on, I was only at 380 metres. As we climbed, the trail became less distinct to the point of being non-existent, leaving a group of three of us to try and seek the optimal line across the moorland.
The trail eventually levelled out toward the summit of Hafod Hir, and in case you were in doubt of being in the right place, or in which direction you needed to be heading, there was a helpful waymarking post.
After the push down off the summit, we eventually reached the road. I elected to find a rock to sit on and take on fuel. The last 5 km section had taken over an hour. While I chewed my way through a selection of bars and nuts, I pondered on how every effort had been made to make it as rideable as possible. The conclusion I drew was that at least we had the benefit of doing that section in the daylight, as you sure as heck wouldn’t have stood a chance in the dark.
Llandrillo offered a chance to resupply water, before the next crux of the route which was the ascent and descent of the route’s highest point of 584 metres over the Berwyn Wayfarer track. The approach from the west is the most favourable both in terms of trail surface and gradient, but with 50 miles in my legs and 2,000 metres of ascent so far, I wasn’t enjoying a 34:30 bottom gear as much as I thought I might.
The descent off the other side went very well. Compared to the 3 Peaks race, my confidence had increased on the descents now that I was more attuned to the bike. The carbon fork provided sufficient compliance, while the slightly larger tube profiles ensured the front end stayed tight for sharp steering response. On these sort of descents, you need to pick your line precisely and I was pleased to have made it to the bottom with air in both tyres and all my fillings still in place.
A dose of lanes took us towards Glyn Ceiriog, immediately before which were a couple of grin-inducing descents down sunken lanes that provided a further test of skill as I traversed sloping rock slabs, skirted the edge of deep rocky gullies or threaded my way through small rock gardens.
For some reason I had in my mind that the chip shop was in Glyn Ceiriog. Thus, upon asking its whereabouts when I arrived in the village, I was somewhat disappointed to be told the nearest one was in Chirk. Instead I paid a visit to the Spar to get a bottle of strawberry milk (on offer) and the last luke warm chicken & mushroom pie (reduced). £1.49. Result.
The light was starting to fade as I left town and by the time I eventually made the chip shop in Llanrhaeadr it was properly dark. With nearly 12 hours in the saddle and 117 km on the clock, I was much in need of a portion of chips and a can of Pepsi. £2.40 later, I was feeling a bit better with things. A few other riders were there with a mix of issues, though mostly bike related than mental.
I pressed on into the night, on my own. My mind wandered a bit and I just went with the flow of the route. Sometimes road, or gravel, then grass, back to road, more gravel, and suddenly water.
Water? Where’s the trail gone? The gravel track came to an abrupt end and all I could see was a very wide river. My light barely lit the far bank. I checked the GPS. Everything looked fine, even considering the vagaries of Stu’s mapping. I turned my light up and located a gate at the far side, before setting out on a fruitless search for a bridge. My mind flipped to a remote loch somewhere in the Scottish Highlands, before I took the first tentative steps into the water. My feet had only just dried for the second time too.
Having done the BB200 four times already, each in a single sub 24 hour push, I was looking for a different experience this year. With a 147 km on the clock I was feeling that I’d had enough for the day and at 11:30pm found myself back at Dyfnant Forest with a nice little spot on the edge of the car park in the woods. Despite only taking the minimal amount of gear, it was good to deploy it and prove a comfortable nights sleep could be had. With a combination of Rab Module 100 top bag, Neoair and Terra Nova Discovery Lite gore-tex bivvy, I enjoyed about 7 hours sleep.
I got going just as it got light and retraced my steps to join the main route. Of the 50+ km of the route that was left, 30 km of that was tarmac, so I was hopeful of a reasonably straight forward morning. What I hadn’t allowed for was the relentless climbing. I craved a larger sprocket at the back, but no matter how sternly I looked at it, 30 grimy teeth grinned back at me. The climb out of Llanerfyl was the most punishing. A ribbon of tarmac wound up the hillside, gaining 250 metres height in the process, though it seemed more.
At the top, the tarmac disintegrated into a stone track and eventually into a sinuous line through the tussocks. There was plenty to dislike about this section, but tucked in the drops, in bottom gear, I piloted the Stoater along a faint path through the tussocks with remarkable finesse.
That marked the last hard section of off road. Everything from here was gravel track or tarmac. With tired legs I pushed and rode the roller coaster of lanes to Clatter and beyond, catching (briefly) Alan Goldsmith, Phil Richmond and Chris Purt, before Alan got his second wind and left me pushing up the climb from Llawr-y-glyn. We briefly regrouped at Staylittle Stores, where I tried to get jump on them for the last 10 km of road to Llanbrynmair. It wasn’t long before I saw Alan and Phil in pursuit and it was full gas all the way to the finish.
Arriving back at the finish at 11:42am, I’d taken 27 hours and 32 minutes to complete the route, with a nice bivvy part way through. It was a tough two days out, no question, but I think the route had the right balance of rideable but challenging off road and traditional hike-a-bike that is an integral part of the Bear Bones 200.
Strava file: www.strava.com/activities/410879270