A “race” with the tag line of “No prizes, no support” attracts a certain type of person.
So it was that 15 of us congregated under the Menai Bridge at 11pm on Friday the 3rd of May for the Trans Wales Race.
The premise is simple.
No entry fee.
No prescribed route.
Organised by the Racing Collective, you start you under the Menai Bridge on Anglesey then ride through four mandatory checkpoints dotted throughout Wales before finishing in Cardiff Bay.
I’d made my way up to Anglesey with time to spare and rolled around exploring the area for an hour before running into fellow rider Mark outside the unofficial staging area of the Liverpool Arms and we ventured inside for food and warmth. Even with the sun having not fully set you could feel the temperature beginning to fall.
As we worked our way through pints of coke, water and coffees we were joined by the majority of our fellow racers, some as green as me and others more seasoned veterans of the Racing Collectives events.
There was a really upbeat atmosphere as we approached 10:40 and everyone made their final preparations before a group roll out for the few hundred meters to the start where the final few racers were already gathered.
To track progress, we all tweeted time stamped photos at the start and would continue to at each checkpoint to prove you’d been there.
Into the Abyss
11pm hit and with a chorus of “good luck!” we all rolled out of Anglesey and into the (for now) dark and clear night.
With everyone taking their own route to CP1 at the Stwlan Dam I soon found myself alone and contentedly rolling though the night. Being new to ultra-endurance riding, making a turn where no one else did instantly made me question my choice of route but I had to trust in my research (that’ll come back to bite me later) and kept on moving.
After a couple of hours I saw some lights flickering behind me and sat up and was joined by a group of three riders and spent the next hour riding with them and chatting as we made our way to CP1.
This was where I first met Bob who my route would intertwine with repeatedly through the race as well as Alex whose brain I picked about multiday riding with him having already completed the Trans Atlantic Way last year and set to ride the Trans-Pyrenees this summer.
A lesson in preparation
Around 1:30 the rain started. Nothing too bad , a few light showers which had been forecast and I was making good time to CP1. The group had broken apart as we all rode at our own pace and I found the foot of the climb to the Stwlan Dam and climbed using the one red light I could see ahead as a target to keep pushing.
It was pitch black on the climb aside from the light of the town below, Blaenau Ffestiniog, and the summit came nice and quickly.
One quick, unremarkable photo later and I was descending with a line of headlights coming the other way up the climb. On the way down the drop in temperature really hit and I was glad to get on the flat and start working toward Bala and on to CP2 at Lake Vyrnwy.
Misery loves company
And I had none.
The climb over the Bala Pass has been relatively steady and the road had been empty. Not a soul out there and it was the first time I got to take in the proper dark skies. As I had descended towards Bala the rain had started again and my Garmin opted to freeze up and stop giving me any turn by turn guidance or detailed maps to guide me.
All I had was a blue line to follow, falling temperatures and a bubble of light showing me 20-30 metres ahead and that was all that existed. This little bubble of light and the blue line guiding me forwards.
Upon exiting Bala, I met Cat who would go on to take third place overall and we rode off towards Lake Vyrnwy having a quick chat about how crap Garmin can be.
Our pace varied and I continued to climb out of Bala as the rain turned to snow. This wasn’t expected. The snow continued to fall and grew more and more intense as we rode for CP2 finally reaching it at 4:50.
I was soaked through and the temperature had dropped to minus 2 degrees. There was no shelter. No where to stop. I hadn’t no option but to ride as hard as I could for Machynlleth where I knew the Cooperative would be open and there was the food.
Never scratch at night
Prepping for the ride, I read a lot about Mike Hall and his philosophy on riding, how he always encouraged people wanting to quit the events he ran to call him back in the morning after they’d slept and eaten.
The ride from CP2 to Machynlleth was one of the mostly objectively miserable times I have gone through. I was probably a little hypothermic and I wanted to quit.
I told myself that the sooner I got to Machynlleth then this would be done.
I finally got to the Coop at about 6:30ish and text my wife as I had promised and one of the other racers, another Tim, to let them both know I was considering scratching from the race.
It wasn’t my legs or the distance, it was the cold. I was shivering and was cold to the core. I couldn’t feel my feet and my hand were so cold that I could barely shift gears properly.
Combining the cold, with my Garmin needing to be reset twice, my dynamo failing to charge my phone and a clicking in my bottom bracket. I was really demoralised.
I felt awful. I wanted hot food and sleep.
I got neither hot food or sleep but what I did get was two pain au chocolat and an almond croissant, a USB power pack and some encouraging texts from Tim, I got a second wind, got back on the bike and headed for CP3.
It was amazing the difference some sun shine and food can make on your mental state under those conditions. It was a new day and the memory of three cold was already fading.
ALWAYS check the route thoroughly!
A lesson learned the hard way. I had trusted Google to provide the route for me to CP3, the Nant-y-moch reservoir, and Google neglected to tell me that a good portion of the route was gravel/bridleway and i lost a good amount of time engaging in a bit of hike-a-bike in my Fizik R1B shoes. Not ideal though on the bright side, I found an awesome route to come back and ride later in the year with some more appropriate tyres and shoes.
I wasn’t alone in this routing snafu with even the events winner Alex and Bob also taking the same route.
After CP3 it was head down for CP4 at the Talybont Reservoir a few hours further down the road. The sun was up and the skies were clear and finally being able to feel my hands and feet again gave me a massive boost.
It was en route to CP4 I felt the fatigue kick in and had to stop and eat and drink as my concentration was fading and I whilst I was very much looking forward to sleep later on, I didn’t want that to come in the form of an abrupt an unplanned roadside lie down at speed.
Shortly before CP4 I ran into Bob and we rode together and chatted through CP4 and then jointly cursed our way up the 20% gradient of the Abercynaon climb. Quite the test after having 300km under our belts.
After this it was another head-down-and-timetrial-it-home moment. The end of the ride was in sight and that meant rest and food and most importantly dry feet!
I parted ways with Bob as our routes diverged again and pressed on for Cardiff. This part of the route was fairly anonymous as you ride through bigger towns, industrial zones and enterprise parks en route to Cardiff
After spending nearly all night and most of the day in the wilds of Wales with minimal traffic the run into Cardiff was jarring. Back to the reality of cars, busses and trucks all being a little closer than was comfortable. After a stop start route through the centre of Cardiff I was there at the barrage.
Luke (who came 2nd) and Cath (who was 3rd back) were both at the finish and there was a round of “well done”‘s and offers of Stroopwaffles. It took me a few moments to process that I was done and get my final timestamped photo on to Twitter before making the ride back to Coffi where a much needed coffee and cake were consumed as planning began on how to go faster next year.
The ride is billed as no support and in the sense that there are no “organisers” en route, no mechanical assistance, no aid stations etc then that is absolutely true, but the support you get form the riders on the road with you was phenominal. When you came across another rider you know they’ve dealt with the cold, the wet and the long night but they were all smiling and ready to chat.
It’s a far more intimate experience riding an event like this than it was on something like the Marmotte. With a smaller field of riders you got to know people, where they’ve ridden before, what events they are riding this year. None of us were there for a medal or t-shirt. We’d all gotten ourselves there, fuelled ourselves and would get ourselves home at the end. Everyone was there just to ride and have a good time and push themselves for the sake of it.
I will absolutely be back next year and highly recommend the rides coordinated by the Racing Collective to anyone looking for something different.