Do you ever find yourself blithely saying ‘yes’ to things without thinking them through, then suddenly days or even weeks later actually fully realise the consequences of doing so.
Yup, me too.
Which is probably why I’m sat in a freezing cold pub car park in North Wales, early on a Sunday morning with 200 random strangers, after only a few hours of sleep.
The 200 and I have just one thing in common, we’re all clutching mountain bikes, other than that the similarities end.
There are several scarily focussed, steely looking people in matching top-toe colours sporting full body armour and face helmets, a well turned out race team with what looks like its own mechanic, as well as a vast assortment of people who appear to have just rolled in off the cover of Mountain Bike UK magazine. Hearteningly there are also a few folk dressed in onesies, obviously not taking things too seriously, and finally myself and a dozen friends who’d made the 7 hour trip up to the Snowdonia National Park to take part in this brand new mtb sportive.
It would be fair to say that you could count on one hand the number of times I’ve actually ridden my mountain bike in the last year following the accident that took me out of cycling (amongst many other things) last April.
In fact it’s still a bit of a mystery how I ended up here at all? Over the past few weeks, I seem to have progressed from debating whether I would ever get back on a mountain bike again to agreeing to a 60+ km event that takes in Wales’ highest mountain
Beware what you say yes to!
But, here we are at the start. I even have a new bike, bought second-hand from a fellow club member, for the occasion.
‘Bob’ as I have christened him is a full suspension mountain bike with 27.5 inch wheels, a whole 1.5” upgrade from my last bike. I’ve also graduated from cable to hydraulic brakes (supposedly improving my stopping control) and a 1 x 10 gear ratio.
I’ve ridden Bob a couple of times but it’s fair to say this will be our first big test. The same is also true for my recently healed broken wrist. After a few cautious rides, I’m still slightly perturbed that I’ve decided to throw myself down a mountain but, so the event blurb assures me, it’s a non-technical route with a choice of distances (decide on the day). What could possibly go wrong…..?
So, I squash down my nerves and a breakfast of sausage sandwich, and get ready for the off. As the countdown starts I mentally tick off the reasons I shouldn’t be doing this:
- Post-op painful broken wrist
- Severe lack of fitness through 9 months of inactivity
- Almost no sleep after sharing a tiny cheap hostel room with 5 friends, some who could snore for England.
- Oh yeah, I’m terrified of falling off (see previous post)
Still debating the wisdom/lack of that made me agree to this an air-horn signals the start and on-mass 200 riders began streaming out of the gateway heading straight on to the mountain ahead.
Very quickly we’re funnelled onto one of the narrow paths leading up the side of Snowdonia itself. At over 1000 metres it’s Wales’ highest peak and whilst we’re not going right to the top we’re traversing a goodly portion of it.
The feeder track is incredibly steep and too narrow for so many keen bikers. Those overly optimistic about their climbing skills quickly fall behind and quietly, others of us begin to gain ground. I’ve been hanging back but, one of the things I can usually manage is to climb doggedly, which is what I do. All too soon the concrete feeder path peters out into stony single-track and the riders move to single file. It’s a path that demands attention, boulders and channels are waiting to misdirect wheels and every 200 yards or so, slate ‘steps’, fronting water channels require some skill to navigate up; speed, power and technical ability are needed to lift the front wheels over and across.
Many, including me, ride some, walk some and fail some. There’s a steep drop to the left hand side where the mountain falls away and disconcertingly I see more than one rider miss the path and start rolling away down the side, still clipped into their pedals. I get off and walk a bit more.
But I’m still going, riding up, walking the scarier steps.
It’s a 7+km climb and hard focussed work but amazingly for Wales the sun is shining by now and even more amazingly, lungs fit to burst I make it over the prow of the first climb to be rewarded by the most spectacular views, including the snow-capped summit of Snowdon itself.
A quick breather and I’m keen to stay with my group of friends so I steel myself for the bit I’ve been dreading worse than the climb. The descent.
Now, the organisers may have promised ‘non-technical’ but I’d beg to differ. A smooth grass slope was all very well at first but this soon gave way to another steep section of single track – big drops to the left, vertical banking to the right and a narrow strip of path which insistently dissolved into deep rocky gully every 20 yards or so.
I’m hugely grateful for my new brakes at this point and grimly ride/scoot down this new obstacle, sliding into the gully or balancing on the path, trying to ignore the press of faster riders behind me. A series of zig-zagging turns then unfolded, strewn with boulders and large drop-offs, gullies and debris. I’m descending white-knuckle style, heart in mouth, less out of choice and more pushed on by the 100 or so riders behind me and the inability to stop and let them past.
Careening down a rocky shoot I’m spat out at the bottom of the trail, fingers locked in terror on the brakes and legs shaking.
I’d made it though!
The next road section afforded a chance to recover my breath and let the adrenalin die down a little. I’m cheered slightly by the fact that my friends also found it a nerve-straining experience. After a few more kilometres on road riders were then funnelled off along picturesque gravel paths into a large forest. Climbing and descending on the fire-trails I was looking around both eagerly and in fear of the next single-track section but weirdly it didn’t appear. The route, somewhat disappointingly wound on sticking to these wide tracks.
Whilst the forest trail seemed never ending, my drink bottle wasn’t, on a hot day I’d run out of liquid and, as the adrenalin wore off my energy plummeted too. Rounding another section of wooded track I caught sight of a marshal who thankfully confirmed a water/food station ahead. 5 minutes later I pulled in and flopped exhausted on the ground. Forest lap one completed.
To complete the full distance there was the option of a further 2 laps. Don’t get me wrong, the forest was gorgeous in all its wooded sunshiny glory but it was also pretty featureless for mountain biking and, being on the knackered side, I opted for just one more time around the route.
Curiously the field had dispersed, a good number of riders heading back after the first mountain descent or after only one forest lap. By now, my friends too were spread out ahead and behind and I found myself mostly on my own.
The odd hard-core cyclist passed finishing off a third go round, lapping me on occasion whilst I was now just content to take in the scenery. The smell of the pine, the mountain streams trickling through the forest punctuated by the odd whistle from the steam train that ploughed the Ffestiniog railway nearby. It was idyllic but I was also knackered.
Reaching the water station again at the end of lap two I caught up with the majority of my friends, lying prostrate on the grass we shared the highs and lows so far – punctures, mechanicals, falls, before heading off together as a group for the ride home.
Somewhere during the day however it seemed that the originally planned, more relaxed route home had been vetoed by local officials which left the only option of finishing via the same mountain pass from the morning. It was not an appealing thought.
My energy levels had pretty much reached rock bottom by now, my lack of bike fitness making itself known in jelly muscles and aching limbs. On top of that my newly healed arm was complaining vociferously at this prolonged, rough treatment. But, the only way is up, so we began climbing. It was soon obvious that the steep path, with its boulders and steps would be easier to push than ride so that’s what we did. The angle and the weight of the bike reminding me how much more healing the broken wrist had yet to achieve.
It truly took all my focus to make that climb, one of those situations when you have to draw deep on psychological reserves as the physical ones are near empty. Ultimately, it was the patience and support of those I was with which made the difference between success and failure as we joked and cursed our way to the top accordingly. Some of the group could easily have gone faster but they chose camaraderie over speed. I can’t tell you how humbled and grateful I am by that.
Regrouping at the summit we’d been at just hours earlier (was it really only that morning), nothing remained but the sweet, long downhill descent back to the starting point.
By now we were amongst the last riders out on the course, even the odd marshal looked surprised to see us but, in style and with a surprising speed, we negotiated the technical, rock-strewn single track, whizzing back down the paths we’d slogged up so laboriously.
In no time at all our intrepid little group reconvened to ride the last few metres over the finish line, triumphant and absolutely knackered.
Abandoning bikes we headed for the bar. Pints of beer have never been so gratefully devoured.
But Bob and I had done it, 32 miles (51km), 6ish hours, nearly 5000 feet of climbing and some hair-raising descents later. Not bad for a full-fledged chicken and after nearly 9 months of no riding.
A whole soup of emotions swirled inside me, relieved, exhausted and full of gratitude for friendship, for the joy of cycling, for getting back in one piece and lastly for the huge bar of chocolate I’d just found in my bag!
Majority of photos shamelessly stolen from friends as I forgot to take any, thanks Jemma D, Jacky NM and Jackie S.
Thanks also to Brinyau MTB events, a link to a few more photos can be found here!