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Velo Wales with The Friction Collective
Posted by Jon Hicken on
In the book of Genesis, God said: 'Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.' And it was so. God called the dry ground 'land', and the gathered waters he called 'Wales'.
Day one of five began on a sunny August morning in Bristol and we rode out of the city and over the Severn Bridge. 'We' is me (Sam), Jack, Steve, Tim and Tom – a band of late-20s (one 30) lookalikes on lightly-laden road bikes. The challenge: 440 miles over five days and some serious hills after a long lockdown.
It was a century ride that took us through Newport, the Afan Valley, Neath and Swansea en route to Gower. The highlight was the Bwlch-Y-Clawdd Road; a three-mile climb which took us up into wet, cloudy air among sheep and pine forest. The winding road averaged a 6% gradient, topping out at around 13%, and probably had enviable views if it has any at all. Emerging from the misty hilltop we hurtled down the other side into needling rain until Jack punctured on a cattle grid at the bottom.
The fix was slow and Tom refused to stop moving, designing himself a tiny loop through a nearby village which he claims added 10 miles to his day.
The rain was patchy but we naively tried to hide from one downpour in a bus stop where my sopping iPhone flickered into the final Apple screen of death and never worked again.
The rest of the ride went smoothly enough. I punctured in Swansea and then we made it onto the beach front and into the Gower to the safe haven of Steve's mum's house, where we gobbled a giant homemade curry and enjoyed generous hospitality and a well deserved night's sleep.
[103 miles; 8,000ft; 7 hours]
Day two was both bad and very good. Before we made it out of sight of the house a spoke snapped on my back wheel. We were en route to a bike shop in Swansea anyway on account of Tim's brake blocks, which were about as thick as beer mats. We pulled off the spoke and unhooked the brake to stop it rubbing and pressed on. The first shop was closed, Halfords had no spare wheels or spokes, and Go Outdoors had nothing either, but we couldn't spend all day looking so we pressed on.
Riding past Swansea train station I thought perhaps I should cut my losses before the wheel inevitably burst into flames on top of a mountain. But no quitting allowed. We were expecting friends to join us to help film the trip, the guys said, and they could bring a spare wheel; I would cross my fingers/remaining spokes and keep going.
The keeping-going was handsomely rewarded with arguably the best day of the trip. A long climb up Trichrug and we got the first taste of what we came for in the Brecon Beacons. The sun (yes!) shone on our backs as we wound up the long, steady and sweeping hill with the town of Brynamman falling away behind us.
Wales kept delivering that day, with warm dry weather, majestic countryside and perfect roads. The route around the glinting Llyn Brianne reservoir seemed other-worldly with pine tree forests and heather and smooth tarmac on all-but-deserted roads. The climbing was hard and spiky and the descents fast and winding.
The scenery was so distracting that I forgot to eat and bonked halfway up a hill. With bloodless face and trembling limbs my climb slowed to a crawl. In a scramble to salvage the situation – there were only minutes to turn it around – I dragged myself to the top and crammed my face with half a malt loaf, a flapjack, a handful of Haribo and a gel. It seemed to do the trick and my legs returned.
Jack hit the same wall later on when he ran out of water but we all lumbered on to the Miner's Arms in Pont-Rhyd-y-Groes. A shower, roast dinner and a pint later and we split into two hotel rooms. Tim, Tom and I shared and so began the first night of stretching-in-our-pants club, a touring ritual.
In hindsight it might only have been me in my pants.
[86 miles; 7,200ft; 6 hours]
Day three started in the rain and as soon as we left the inn we arrived at the Devil's Bridge. The riding must give way to tourism sometimes and we paused on the bridge, towering above a gnarled, winding and rocky waterfall as Tim read the story of an old woman who couldn't cross the river so she struck a deal with the Devil that he would build a bridge in exchange for the soul of the first living thing that crossed bridge – she got a bridge and he got a mangy old sheepdog, as it goes. Tom, uninterested in folklore, rode round in circles again to keep warm.
The rain came in torrents. At the top of one climb on which I got dropped my back wheel punctured again. I was alone with no phone (see day one) and no pump (I, the slowest rider, was not one of the designated carriers – learn from me). I could do nothing but shuffle down the hill in my cleats until a miracle came in the body of Steve, riding back up the hill to save me.
We went to a bakery and supermarket in the next town where four of us waited at the door of the Co-op shivering as Jack, without telling anyone where he was going, answered the call of nature – solid nature – in a bush in the car park.
We pressed on to the Stwlan dam, and damn. Dry skies now and we met a couple of friends, Fin and Josh, who supplied me with a true new back wheel and helped us film Velo Wales for the day. We rode up the gated road of the dam, a beast of an up-and-back climb that one only does because one likes the pain. 1.7miles with almost 900ft of elevation gain, averaging 10% gradient. It literally looks like a tent on the Strava map. We ground up the steep road at our own paces with a genuinely majestic view of the valley behind.
After that the day's riding got markedly better and went over dry, rolling hills on quiet roads. There was a sense of rediscovering the joy of cycling after grinding through the grey.
We cut the route short because we were behind schedule. Nobody wants to make that decision and it makes for tense group discussions that can feel like admitting failure, but it's vital to be realistic.
In Bala that evening we had dinner at an Indian restaurant and split into two hotel rooms – me, Tim, Tom and Steve in one, and Jack in the other. It seemed odd to be split into a four and a one and, the more I think about it, the more I think Tim asked for it because of Jack's snoring.
[95 miles; 9,000ft; 6 hours 45 minutes]
Day four began with piling wet lube onto our too-wet, too-lubed and now blackened drivetrains. The riding was good – it started off dry through some rolling rural hills, around a lake and through a farming valley on winding lanes through moorland and long grasses. But the bliss didn't last and the injury monster reared its ugly head in Jack's ankle. A mystery pain that flared up when pressure lifted off the joint, it was worse than a grin-and-bear-it and even a lunch of pills couldn't keep him moving at his usual pace.
After a brief break beside some donkeys we climbed out of the sunny valley and into a town full of rain. A lot of the riding is a blur. We went to a shop in a mystery village where the boys ate Subway in angry silence and I saw a poster advertising a 'family bike ride' laughing at me through the window.
We pressed on with pace-maker Tom mashing the pedals on the front and the rest of us wakeboarding on his wheel, trying to get some numbers down while we had nothing to enjoy. Pulling over in a town in the Elan Valley, I had so much water in my eyes and on my brake pads that I slammed into him in the middle of the road and embarrassed everyone.
Deciding to take the direct route to the B&B we stopped first for our daily dam, where we were blessed with sunshine, and then pressed on to Llandrindod Wells. We put our bikes in the back-room of the pub, which was a blackened mafia-cave with photos of boxers on the walls, a pool table and a blind dog. Then we all bunked together for the first time in a room with a four-foot-high door in a warped hallway that could have been built by Salvador Dali. We dried our clothes on the roof.
Steve tried to order 10 veggie burgers for the group but they didn't have the right ingredients so instead we went to a Chinese takeaway, stopping for chips on the way, and ate on benches at the side of the road watching the sun set behind the aftermath of a car crash. The sleep came fast and deep.
[78 miles; 6,600ft; 5 hours 40 minutes]
Day five. Jesus Christ day five was awful. In a fun way, but awful. It rained an inconceivable amount. Starting with the best memory first, Gospel Pass climb to Hay Bluff was one of the most fun climbs I think I've ever done. Although not particularly steep at an average 5% the climb was long – 5.5 miles – and on a quiet rural road in sheep territory.
The second we crested the hill and started descending what we thought was fog turned to blistering rain. The descent was about 20 miles long and it was the most gruelling and unrewarding 20 miles imaginable. It rained so hard I day-dreamed about towels. I couldn't stop thinking about how much I had taken warm, dry skin for granted and how now it was gone and I'd never get it back. I felt like that barnacle man in the hull of the ship in Pirates of the Caribbean. If it weren't for my nostrils my brain would have flooded.
My brakes didn't work and the levers were pulling to the bar; there was so much grit in the drivetrain I could only use about three gears and my headset felt like a pestle and mortar with every turn. We plugged on and on and on in a sodden chain gang like demented storm-chasers until, finally, we saw England. We will be safe there, we said; England is good to us. England simply doesn't have this much water.
We pushed on at an anxious pace – Tom had to make it to his mum's birthday party – and made it back over the bridge and into Bristol. One last climb towards Clifton, which Steve somehow trounced as if he hadn't noticed the last five days, and we were home.
Goodbyes are strange after these trips and produce a strange post-holiday blues that make the following days feel lonely and aimless. The morning-to-night focus of cycle touring is so immersive that once it stops your life becomes confusing and without direction. You want to get back on the bike and round the guys up and go again. Even the suffering only takes a couple of hours to take on a rosy tint in the memory. Take me back. Even to day five – I don't care, I'll do it if I have to – please take me back.
[80 miles; 7,500ft; 6 hours]
The Friction Collective