High Rouleurs Society

So near, yet so far


I can’t feel my hands, and my feet ache with the cold. The last climb – a solid 2 km up the stiff gradient that gains the plateau of Mynydd Eppynt – did little to warm up my extremities. It’s minus 2 degrees Celsius up here, but at least I can see over the fog.

In the distance the unmistakable outline of the Brecon Beacons is silhouetted against the faint orange of the first hint of dawn. I take a photo, and continue my passage over the plateau, eventually plunging back into the freezing fog in the valley on the other side.

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This seems like a tough start to what is undoubtedly going to a tough ride. Another level beyond Everesting, this is about climbing over 10,000 metres in height with a minimum distance of 400 km. As an added twist to proceedings, there is a time limit of 36 hours. This was about going on a Journey – in a figurative and literal sense – to gain entry into the High Rouleurs Society hall of fame.

Most of the past week had been spent planning a route and all the various other things I was likely to need for a day and half on the bike. The Shand Stooshie was fitted with my “road” wheels, a new skinny Wildcat Ocelot prototype for fast and light road touring, my super thin PHD sleeping bag and bivvy bag tucked into a Wildcat Tiger, and a few other bits and pieces to keep me sane, hydrated or fed for the duration of the ride.

The sun had pushed its way through the clouds – just – as I reached the bottom of the Devil’s Staircase. When preparing a route that covers this much climbing, you can’t really shy away from some of the most brutal and iconic hills in Mid Wales. Ahead of me lay four Category 4 road climbs in a distance of 10 km.

Devil's Staircase - the first of four Category 4 climbs
Devil’s Staircase – the first of four Category 4 climbs

This whole section of road is amazing. Super remote with virtually no traffic (I saw one van and one quad bike between Beulah and Tregarron – a distance of 30 km), and amazing views in nearly all directions. I could have stopped for more photos, but the clock was ticking.

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After Tregarron, the route eases slightly as it works its way up the west side of the Cambrian Mountains. At Pontrhyd-y-groes, the route detoured over to Cwmystwyth and then via the Arch to Devil’s Bridge. This is a wonderful climb, and the autumn colours (which I failed to justice to with a photo) were amazing. It was topped off by the best descent of the whole ride, from the Arch to Devil’s Bridge.

The Arch, marking the "Head of the Pass of Lost Existence"
The Arch, marking the “Head of the Pass of Lost Existence”

Devil’s Bridge marked around one quarter distance into a total of 500 km on my planned route. I was feeling OK at this point and the pace was good, despite more stops for food, fiddling with gear or taking photos than I really should have. Onwards to Ponterwyd, and into the next remote section around the Nant-y-moch Reservoir.

Descent to the coast
Descent to the coast

The sun had retreated behind cloud at this point and didn’t return until I began my descent down towards the coast at Tal-y-bont, near Borth. A mix of flat main road and fiddly lanes eventually brought me to Machynlleth and 175 km on the clock. It was late afternoon and most definitely time for a pizza.

The next section took me up the Mountain Road to Dylife (pronounced duh-lever), which is a monumental climb that tops out at 515 metres. Machynlleth lies at only around 20 metres. Still, in the later afternoon sunshine it was lovely.

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View from the Mountain Road from Machynlleth

After Dylife I turn left and descend down to Llanbrynmair, and onwards again on good quiet lanes to Machlwyd, and beyond into Dyfi Forest. If you’ve read Another 100 Climbs by Simon Warren, you’ll have noted that there’s a road within Dyfi Forest that features in the book. I happened to be doing the climb in the book as a descent, but the approach to it from the east was by no means a push over. The GPS reported 220 km as darkness fell rapidly. I made my way up the 20% incline flanked by dense conifers; no-one would hear you scream out here. I struggled for traction on the occasionally loose surface, but eventually the summit came, and I began a cautious descent on greasy narrow tarmac to Aberllefenni. From here, another steep grind out of the top of the valley faced me, and the toll was beginning to show. A low ratio of 36:40 had seemed perfectly sensible back in Brecon, but it was unforgiving now with 230 km and 5,500 metres of climbing in my legs.

At the Cross Foxes pub, I pulled in for some food. Since Machynlleth, I had found the 65 km of riding really quite hard. It had worn me down, and if I’m honest, had exposed an inadequate feeding strategy that probably began back as far as Tregarron. With a loss of appetite, I elected for the soup and extra roll and two cups of coffee while I evaluated the situation. Ahead of me lay more distance than I’d completed so far, with climbs such as Bwlch-y-groes (it seemed like a good idea when I planned the route), and a host of others around Bala and Coed-y-brenin. The clear night was a concern, as I expected the temperature to drop to those I’d experienced at the beginning of the ride, and I was already wearing my cold weather clothes.

I resolved to cut out the northern loop to Bala, and in so doing avoided Bwlch-y-groes. I had a vision of my chimp with arms folded slowly shaking it’s head saying “no way are we going up that hill at this time of night..”. I was tired, I’d ridden a long way already and done a lot of climbing; I wasn’t inclined to argue.

I left the pub and took the road down to Dolgellau and then the lanes up into Coed-y-brenin to the Pen Rhos Isaf bothy. The bothy was to be my protection against what I had expected to be a cold night, which in my super thin sleeping bag wasn’t going to be a pleasant experience.

I approach up the forest road to see a light in the bothy window. An image of merry souls fresh from a days walking or riding with a roaring fire and a dram of whisky warmed my soul a bit. Reality, sadly, was very different. I opened to the door to be greeted by two large dogs, a bloke in a onesie, a smell of smoke not from that of an open fire but from a bunch of chavs smoking weed. “Alright maaaate, welcome to the sessshhh”. I turned my bike around and headed back out of the door. Bivvy it is then.

Some distance away from the bothy, I lay in my bivvy looking up at the stars through the trees. I was now wide awake and I was cross. I’d staked my re-route on being able to rest at the bothy, and now I was bivvying. I may as well have carried on and bivvied out somewhere else on my planned route. Eventually sleep took hold. It had been a long day. 17 hours, 253 km and 5,750 metres of ascent.

Day Two

I woke a couple of times in the night, once at 1:30 am, and again later but I didn’t look at the time. Next time I checked it was 6:30 am. It hadn’t been as cold a night as I’d feared, and to an extent that had made my re-route decision worse. Why didn’t I just carry on? Still, it was a long way to home from here, so I was determined to ride it and see what I could achieve.

It was still dark as I left the forest, and the first grey light of dawn didn’t emerge until I was back in Dolgellau. I retraced my route along NCN Route 8 and over the top towards Tal-y-llyn. I rejoined my planned route at Corris and made my way back down the valley on quiet undulating lanes to Machynlleth. After a couple of hours of riding, I was ready for a proper breakfast before I embarked on my second ascent of the mountain road to Dylife.

Boy, did I need this on Sunday morning
Boy, did I need this on Sunday morning

The weather was quite a bit different today. Cloud cover, and a cool easterly wind that did it’s very best to blow me back down the mountain road to Mach. At the top, which was attained in one complete effort from Mach, was covered in cloud as I pressed on over the summit into the stiff chill breeze.

At Staylittle, I took more lanes to pick up more height along the way, just as my route had intended. At Llangurig, it struck me that I only needed another 2,000 metres of climbing and I would achieve 10,000 metres. The barometer on my GPS, which I had been careful to keep calibrated with various known fixed points, was giving my more metres ascent than my mapping software had predicted. I had 70 km left to do to reach 400 km, and four hours left on the clock. Was it still possible to pull this ride off?

I resolved there and then that if nothing else, I would get back to Brecon with over 400 km on the clock in no more than 36 hours. I would just have to see how much climbing I can get in along the way. I was also against doing hill repeats to boost my climbing figures; this was a journey and repeats of a climb did not fit that ethos. Instead of taking the hill road to Cwmystwyth, I took NCN 8 down to Rhayader. I rode as fast as I could. Straight through Rhayader without a stop and onto Newbridge, and soon after that, Builth Wells.

The route from Builth was to take me back over the eastern end of the Sennybridge Range, with a good long climb to gain the plateau. The climbing figure was increasing steadily. I was over the height of Everest now, and 90 minutes left. Descending off the top of the plateau I ran various route options through my head; what was going to give me the best height gain for distance, and still allow me to get to Brecon before 4:52 pm.

At Upper Chapel, I turned right and began the climb to Merthyr Cynog. Over the top, down the valley to Pontfaen, up to Battle, down to Caradoc, watching each metre tick past on my GPS. Over the hill past the golf course, then 400 km is up on the screen. 9,100 metres climbed. Turn right and it’s downhill home with 40 minutes to spare.

I turn left. One more climb. Up through Garthbrengy, everything hurts now. My legs are screaming, my knees ache, my shoulders are agony. At last the climb gives way to the descent down to Llanddew and then to Brecon. But there’s one more climb – a nasty kick before Llanddew. I’ve got nothing left for this, but somehow keep the pedals turning. Bottom gear and crawl over the top and change through the gears to pick up speed on the descent. Push push push on the pedals all the way into town. I tear into Brecon at 4:51 pm; 36 hours since I departed.

Scores on the Doors
Scores on the Doors

What a ride. To create and then execute my own route added a dimension to the challenge that sets it apart and at a level above Everesting. If nothing else, it was a journey, and it was a good experience. I’d ridden further and climbed higher in 36 hours than I’d ever done before, and towards the end dug as deep as I’ve ever done. But it wasn’t enough to qualify for the High Rouleurs Society. After uploading to Strava, I was 635 metres short on height.

So near, yet so far.

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