I turn the lever on the yellow door in front of me and open it slowly. An eruption of noise bursts out through the opening; laughter, talking, children, the clatter of balls being knocked around a pool table. Then there’s the light – from the small dim pool of light on my bike straight into a brightly lit room; it’s like a massive assault on my senses. It’s 22:44 on Saturday night, and I’m at the bar of the Star Inn, Dylife, the highest pub in Wales. I’m in time for last orders.
Fourteen and a half hours earlier, I departed Llanbrynmair on the sixth edition of the now infamous Bear Bones 200. For the first time in the events history, we were off to England. What looked like a fast and flowing route saw me arrive at the halfway point in a little over 6 hours. I’d experienced tarmac, small gravel, big gravel, a puncture, tarmac, little gravel, singletrack, mud, grass, lots of gates and only one navigational error. I’d enjoyed the brief company of many, some even twice, thanks to my puncture. On the ride over the border and back into Knighton itself, I shared the company of a spritely looking Stuart Cowperthwaite.
The second half of the route looked much less straight forward, but no less enjoyable. After a stop at Harry Tuffin’s supermarket, Stuart and I rode together for a short while, but the elastic eventually broke on the long climb to Beacon Lodge and he gradually disappeared into the distance. I enjoyed the solitude on familiar trails; some bits of Trans Cambrian Way interspersed with bits I didn’t know were a delight to ride as the sun sank lower in the sky. On one of these remote sections a noise from behind caused me to look back. The unmistakable blond plaits of Lee Craigie came into view, being hotly pursued by Ian Fitz. We rode together for a while, with me even holding my ground with Lee on the descents – a testament to the handling qualities of the Shand Stooshie.
The group of me, Stuart, Lee and Ian reformed at the Bwlch-y-sarnau community centre cafe, which had opened up specially for the event. A veritable oasis in the middle of nowhere. Soup, roll, tea, cake. Quite possibly the highlight of bikepack racing – where the leading group on the trail can all sit down together and have a laugh over a meal before all getting back on their bikes and blasting back out into the darkness.
They got the jump though, and soon I was on my own. No pressure, just ride a steady pace and gradually reel in the miles until the finish. Pant-y-dwr to Llanidloes, with a little off road detour, and onwards to and eventually through Hafren. At Staylittle, the route turns off road back to Llanbrynmair and follows more Trans Cambrian Way up onto the ridge above the mountain road to Machynlleth.
I see the lights of the pub below me as I descend off the ridge. I don’t need anything. Just keep going. I cross the road and head up the lane past the pub. My GPS repots 185 km done so far, so not far to the finish. Just another 15 km. Then my chimp steps in.
“Can I have a bag of peanuts?”
“A what?”, I say
“A bag of peanuts. You said you were going to get some in Knighton, but you didn’t. That was ages ago and I really need something savoury.”
I’m too tired to argue.
“Oh, alright, but we’re not stopping long”
I walk into the pub and feel immediately out of place covered in mud – some of it not particularly pleasant smelling mud. At the bar, I open my mouth to ask for a bag of nuts, but seem to trip on the words – I’ve not needed for form a sentence for conversation for a good few hours. My eyes seem blinkered and I’m oblivious to those around me. Then I heard my name, and turn to find Stuart Wright (creator of Bear Bones, and author of the route) was stood beside me in the middle of the pub. I imagine I looked surprised, but by all accounts so did he. He never imagined anyone would make it to The Star in time for last orders. I’m not sure I did either, but the fact that there were three others in front of me seemed to further reinforce the pace at which this years course was being ridden.
Peanuts consumed and chimp satisfied, I plunged back out into the cool night air. One of the characteristics of the Bear Bones 200 is something that Stuart calls “Magic”. That little something that the route has that you wouldn’t seek out to ride yourself, or find on another “organised” event. I was mindful that the course to this point had been fast. It had been hilly too, very hilly at over 4,800 metres and counting. So the Magic would surely be found on the next section.
I continued up the lane past the pub and followed the track down to a barn. The climbing up a little, a turn right along to the stream crossing, and there it was. I missed it first time, riding past it and having to double back after 20 yards. The thin sinuous – almost invisible – line climbed up the bank above the track and into the bracken. I started to push. And push. I pushed some more and eventually the gradient relented. I followed this line as it worked its way around the hill along the contour. Riding now, I fought to keep my narrow tyres on this faintest of tracks until eventually it ended abruptly at a fence. I shone my light up and down the slope. Down took me to water, so lets try up. At the bridlegate the route entered a field and it was time for a game of blindly follow the GPS track.
Another rider had caught me at this point – Pete Gretton. Not someone I know at all, but he breezed past looking remarkably fresh. His set up favoured the steep grassy descent that followed but I regained some ground when the route was less distinct and a bit of local knowledge came in handy. Pete soon zoomed off though, and eventually out of sight. The route descended down off another ridge after Geulan forest and climbed sharply up after a road crossing. The whole head of the valley was in darkness. Odd. I would have expected to see Pete’s lights somewhere within this black vista before me. I pushed on and up through the tussocky grass, stumps and roots of an area of cleared forestry. Beyond the forest, I just saw some more lights starting to descent into the valley behind me, from where I had come from. Pete must have gone wrong; a mistake that would have cost him 10 minutes at least.
I hurried my pace a little. The next section was tricky navigation – a roller coaster of grassy ups and downs, twists and turns on tracks barely discernible in the day time, never mind at night. But I knew where I was and that was helping enormously. The final descent became a bit of a thrutch through gorse and long grass, but eventually yielded a stone track descent to a farm. The light of Llanbrynmair twinkled in the valley below. A welcome sight, and one that signalled that the finish was but a few minutes away.
The clock stopped at 01:06 AM. The last 15 km of Bear Bones Magic had taken just over 2 hours. 16 hours 51 minutes in total. Forth person home, but due to the staggered start I was possibly sixth fastest time – I’m not sure. It doesn’t matter. It was fast and fun, and it was great to meet up and chat with a few folk along the way.