Jul 282014

Mark Goldie

Ever since I became a mid-life crisis endurance cyclist, I’ve held the South Downs Double (SDD)  in mind as one ride I knew I’d have to one day attempt.  It’s a special ride for UK cyclists, perhaps because it’s quite possibly the original UK long distance off-road time trial.  Over the years, as numerous other routes have appeared (see selfsupporteduk.net), the SDD has remained a must-do for endurance riders.  Part of the attraction is its simplicity – ride 200 miles from Winchester to Eastbourne and back – following an established route & making use of public drinking water taps along the way.  Just you, your bike, and the hills.  Make it back in under 24 hours and you join the South Downs Double “Hall of Fame”.

Look deeper and you see the small print: in excess of 20,000 feet of climbing – not long gradual climbs, but mostly the long steep granny gear sort.  The route is mostly quite exposed, leaving you open to a battering from the wind in one direction or another, and offering little in the way of shelter from the summer sun.  It’s also best to avoid the South Downs Way when it’s wet – chalk, flint and rain make for a nasty combination.  Whilst researching the route, I came across a statistic suggesting that only 30% of people attempting the Double manage to finish…and only a handful within my optimistic goal of 20 hours.

Ready to go

Ready to go

It’s Wednesday 16th July 2014 and I’m standing under the King Alfred statue in Winchester, the traditional start/finish point of the South Downs Double.  It’s around 6pm and the warm evening sun is shining.  As ever, my lovely wife, Ceci, is here to support me with pre-and post-ride logistics and to send out updates to family and friends as the ride progresses.  We’ve just ridden the first couple of miles of the route out & back together so I can learn the start as it leaves Old Winchester (I’ve been warned it could be a bit confusing – it was).  Part of me just wants to forget about the Double and go for a nice bike ride with Ceci in the evening sunshine, but there’ll be lots of time for that later.  Bike’s looking good. I’m feeling ok.  It’s time to get on with it.  My South Downs Double attempt starts at 6:14pm.

Within a couple of miles of dodging traffic out through Old Winchester you’ve reached the countryside, where you’ll remain for most the route.  The SDW starts you off fairly gently, allowing a nice warm-up of the legs.  Although I’m not familiar with the route, I’ve read and seen enough to know that you need to take advantage of these early miles.  Of course I have to be careful not to start off too quickly, but the lack of major climbs means the first 20 miles go by quickly in 1 hr 34 mins.   At mile 21 comes Butser Hill, in this direction a descent.  Two thoughts go through my mind as I plummet down the 350ft grassy slope at 35mph:  “Wooohoooo!” and ” this is NOT going to be fun to climb up after 180 miles!”

The Butser descent leads straight into Queen Elizabeth Country Park, where I lose my first minute or two to navigation blunders.  There are points on the route where the classic SDW I am following deviates from the signposts.  Here I end up messing around amongst the trees when I should just follow the paved road through the park and out the other side.  No great harm done, but I’m already cursing my lack of route familiarity compared to many previous Doublers.  Once through the park, it’s a swift 15 miles to the first tap at Cocking Hill Barn, 36 miles in and 9:16pm.  This is the first official tap on the route and also the only one that I had previous experience of – in 2010 I rode a short stretch of the SDW with some friends before bivying just off the route & returning the next day.  I quickly fill my bottles (710ml and 610ml Camelbak Podiums), thumb a quick text to Ceci so she can send out an update to friends & family, and I’m back on my way.  Now, in order to get under my 20 hour target, I’m aiming for at least 10mph average over the ride.   I’m feeling pretty good at this point and averaging just under 13mph, but of course well aware that this is the easiest stretch of the ride by some margin and that average will only decrease as the hills get bigger and my legs get tired.

The sunlight is starting to fade and I find myself needing to switch on my lights at 9:30pm as visibility in the woods is getting a bit sketchy.  I nearly borrowed a friend’s Exposure Diablo for this ride, but in the end decided to stick with my tried & tested Maxx-D on the bars.  The Diablo would have saved me a chunk of weight, but even with a fairly short period of darkness on the cards I just love that I don’t have to worry about the run time on my lights.  As I have done on previous long rides, I set the Maxx-D to medium and there it stays for the next seven hours or so, supplemented by a helmet-mounted Exposure Joystick when I need it.

10:28pm and I reach 50 miles, 4 hrs 15 mins ride time.  I send a quick update text and pedal onwards.  I’m approaching Washington where – according to my notes – there is a public tap.  My bottles aren’t yet completely empty but to be safe I’d like to refill here.  I slow down and shine my head torch left and right, left and right, peering into the darkness for some sign of a tap.  I know it’s here somewhere, my map says so.  Oh well, my map also says there’s another tap seven miles ahead at Botolphs, I’ve wasted enough time here so I crack on.

Now, I don’t recall exactly what time it was, but at some point during the night the most beautiful moon I’ve ever seen rises in front of me.  Huge, bright and red, it really takes my breath away and I wish Ceci was here to share it with me.  I always enjoy riding through the night…it’s as if you have the world to yourself , and I’m feeling privileged to be out here.  No matter the enormity of the task, it boils down to simply a whole load of time doing what I love, riding my bike through the countryside.

59 miles in and I’m looking for the Botolphs tap.  I waste some more time backtracking, fearing I passed it.  Can’t find it.  This could be awkward, I really need this fill-up.  Eventually I find it about 100 metres further down the trail.  Phew!  Bottles filled, onwards, but with more time wasted.

By this point I’m feeling that my legs aren’t quite as happy as I’d like.  My preparation for this ride maybe wasn’t as thorough as it could have been, but my legs shouldn’t be feeling this heavy so soon.  Oh well, plod along and see how it goes.  As expected, the closer I get to Eastbourne, the bigger and steeper the hills are. I’m clearly slowing down, but not yet too worried as this is to be expected – the 40 miles or so towards Eastbourne were always going to be tough work.

The South Downs Double - Profile

The South Downs Double – Tracklogs Profile

A super quick stop at Housedean (74 miles) to top up the bottles should keep me going to Jevington church (93 miles).  I’m not a religious man, but I do appreciate how reliable churches can be for water stops – top tip if you’re in unfamiliar territory and in need of a refill – head for the local church (also handily marked on your OS map)!

At around 3:30am I make it to the end of the South Downs Way… without actually knowing it.  It’s still dark and I’m tearing down a grassy hill when my GPS bleeps “off course” at me.  I stop, pull up the map and try to work out where I went wrong.  Oh, I’ve just gone past the end. Well, that was anti-climactic!  Other than my GPS track, the only hint that I’ve reached Eastbourne is the slight whiff of sea air and the sound of a seagull.  I check my watch…9 hours 13 minutes.  Not too bad, but I have a feeling I’ll be considerably slower on the way back.  I plonk the bike on the ground for a couple of minutes, have a quick stretch, mix up a Rego recovery drink and, as promised, leave a voicemail for Ceci with details of my one-way time and how I’m feeling.

The next two hours are the hardest of the ride.  Hauling myself back over those big, steep hills is slowing me down.  I’m starting to suspect that the home-made rice cakes I’ve been mostly using for fuel are just not giving me enough of a kick for the intensity of this ride.  I’d used them in training for a while with success, enjoying the lack of blood sugar rollercoasting, but none of my training rides demanded the frequent and sustained high intensity efforts that really can’t be avoided on a singlespeed bike along the South Downs Way.  Fortunately, I’ve also brought a good mix of Torq bars, High5 Energy bars and SiS gels, so I decide to switch to higher sugar content fuel and this helps me enormously for the rest of the ride.  That first High5 Coconut bar tastes so good!  Clearly my body was screaming for easier to digest fuel.

The sun rises by about 04:30. Finally I have a sea view, albeit behind me.  At one point I actually stop to admire the stunning view.  From high up on the ridge I can see pockets of mist down below, the tops of buildings poking through here and there.  This is what it’s all about, I think to myself.  The night so far had remained fairly mild, adequately dealt with by my lightweight gilet.  At this point of the early morning though, those misty valleys are cold, requiring arm warmers and some fast pedalling to prevent the cold creeping in.  But it’s not long before the sun is feeling warm on my back, and the early morning dew on the grass that sprays into my face on fast descents becomes quite refreshing.

It’s clear this is going to be a hot day.  I’m passing Housedean Farm at around 6:30am, with about 73 miles remaining, and the sun is already hot on my back. I’ve lost a bit more time since the turn, and I know that my super-stretch goal of beating Rob Dean’s incredible 18hrs 41min singlespeed record will have to wait for another day.

A sight for sore eyes (and legs) appears over Ditchling Beacon at 7:05am.  I’d recognise that Cal jersey anywhere…that’s Ceci riding towards me!  We ride together for ten minutes, mindful that this is an unsupported ride so no drafting and no help with the gates.  Oh yes, the gates….this is the SDW, so of course there are lots of them.  200 over the double apparently.  To be honest though, they really don’t seem to irritate me as much as the gates along the Pennine Bridleway did on my end to end ride last year.  I think perhaps the SDW gates are spaced a little more evenly so you can generally get a decent run in between them.

I've just disappeared down that way

I’ve just disappeared down that way

Ceci & I part ways before the descent into Pyecombe.  I’m starting to feel a bit stronger now.  The fuelling change is making a difference, and it helps to know that most of nastiest hills around Eastbourne are behind me.  Of course, the climbs keep on coming, but I’m finally getting that “diesel power” feeling – where you feel that you can ride forever – albeit without the bursts of high power that leave the legs during a long ride like this.

9:04am and I pass through Washington.  Naturally, that flippin’ tap I failed to find in the dark is blatantly conspicuous right on the side of the road.  This time I don’t need it as I’ve already refilled bottles and poured cold water over my head at Botolphs a few miles back.  (Although despite soaking my buff and jersey, within minutes it had already dried up.)  This hot day was still going to get a lot hotter!

Pushing on

Pushing on

I continue to push on, spinning well on the (occasional!) flats, making slow but stubborn progress on the more gentle hills, and pushing up the steepest.  I’m happy to reach the Cocking Hill Barn tap at 10:50am.  Mentally, this is an important milestone as it’s the final refill of the ride and I know the easier stretch towards Winchester is coming.  I’m now thinking that a sub 20 hour finish is looking tight, but certainly somewhere between 20 and 21 hours should be realistic.  The climb up Cocking Down has other ideas.  It’s only a 400ft elevation gain, far less than many on the route, but with an 8% grade at this point in the ride my legs are not enjoying this hill.  Eventually I decide discretion to be the better part of valour and I get off and push.   I’m riding well in between the climbs, but I also opt to walk part of the climb before the descent into Queen Elizabeth Park.  Of course, us singlespeeders really have two gears: one – walking, and two – pedalling.  Often first gear is not much slower than second and – particularly in the context of steep hills – prudent use of first gear is useful to protect legs from blowing up.

Butser Hill was fun on the way down yesterday.  It would clearly be a hot, sweaty first gear climb today.  By a stroke of luck, Ceci drives around the corner honking the horn at me just as I cross the road towards the bottom of Butser.  We say a quick hello and I explain that I’m now aiming at somewhere between 20 and 21 hours, particularly with this Butser push ahead of me.  I make a half-hearted attempt to ride a bit of the long grassy climb, but it soon ramps up and I admit inevitable defeat, step off the bike and begin to walk.   Around 100 metres or so from the top, I can see someone with a camera pointed in my direction.  I figure it must be Neil Newell (ex-SDD singlespeed record holder) who had suggested he might try & meet me somewhere out on the trail.  I’m happy to see Neil, but I’m damned if the only picture of me on this ride will be whilst I’m in singlespeed first gear – walking.  Giving in to pride, I swing my leg over the bike, clip into the right pedal and push off up the hill towards Neil.  I manage to wobble my way past him, say a quick hello and continue onwards, gaining some relief from the knowledge that there are only 20 miles and 1500 feet of climbing between me and the finish.

Butser Hill

Butser Hill

I had resigned myself to missing out on a sub 20 hour finish, but I now look at my watch, do some rough calculations in my head, and realise that actually it might still be do-able.  I reckon if I can achieve at least 14 mph average over the last 20 miles then it’s still on.  To do this on a singlespeed after 180 miles of hills is not going to be easy.  After all, that’s just about the average speed I’ll achieve on a particularly fast 30 mile training ride in the Chilterns.  However, I’m feeling good away from the steep climbs and it has to be worth a try.  I suppose adrenaline kicks in near the end of a big ride like this, but I find myself spinning as hard & fast as I do on those local, short training rides.  I’m helped by a few fast descents, whilst constantly glancing at the speed readout on my Garmin and feeling encouraged whenever it’s above 14mph.  I’m pushing hard on the flats, and for the first time in the ride getting as aero as possible on the descents.  Somewhere along this stretch I see Neil again (with his camera).  This time I fly past him and yell “Sub-20 hours could still be on!”.

"Sub-20 hours could still be on!"

“Sub-20 hours could still be on!”

By the time I’m climbing up to Telegraph Hill, I know I’ve made it.  Less than five miles remain, all easy or downhill, and I have about 30 minutes in hand.  I have a smile on my face for those final few miles.  I’m still pedalling hard, wanting the best time possible, but allowing myself to feel the satisfaction of a job well done.  I spin down through Old Winchester, left on the roundabout and straight ahead of  me King Alfred is waiting along with Ceci and Neil.  Ceci stops her watch timer… 19 hours, 47 minutes, 39 seconds.  I feel pretty satisfied with that as it puts me in the top 5 all-time SDD results.

19 hrs 47 mins 39 secs

19 hrs 47 mins 39 secs

Needless to say, I owe a huge thanks to Ceci for all the support before & after the ride, and for tirelessly keeping friends and family updated on my progress.  She’s a total godsend whenever I do silly things like this.

Thanks also to Neil for the pre-ride route assistance and giving up his time to meet me out on the trail and at the finish.  Thanks to Roger for the loan of his GPS, Matt for the offer of a Diablo (and a GPS!), and Rob Lee & Chris Noble for some useful tips before the ride.

traditional A4 paper at end of SDD pic

traditional A4 paper at end of SDD pic

A few words about the bike.  I generally ride a custom Singular Pegasus, but my wife’s been enjoying it a little too much lately 🙂 so this time I was on my Salsa Selma 29er, which is also a fantastic race bike.  The main triangle is Scandium, with a carbon rear end for comfort.  I opted to keep my preferred rigid Niner forks on the front for this ride as I wanted the bike to be as light as possible for all the climbs.  I knew I’d lose a little time on the descents over a suspension fork, but I planned on picking careful lines anyway in order to avoid the dreaded flint punctures that the SDW is famous for.  Amazingly, I didn’t suffer any punctures, I’m sure partly due to luck, but also perhaps because I’m accustomed to riding on the Chiltern hills where flint is a constant threat…therefore careful line choice is second nature for me.  For tyre geeks, the rear is a Continental Race King ProTection 2.2.  I really like this tyre on bumpy trails as it has a stiff carcass so I can run low pressure for comfort and speed whilst having a fighting chance at avoiding damaging the rim.  Front tyre is a Schwalbe Racing Ralph Snakeskin.  I’ve sliced a few of these in the Chilterns, but nevertheless they do seem to hold up better than most, and roll super fast with a reasonable level of grip considering it’s a race tyre.  The Snakeskin sidewalls are essential and only carry a modest weight penalty.

Salsa Selma Singlespeed (33-20)

Salsa Selma Singlespeed (33-20)

I usually run either 32-18 or 33-19 gearing for most rides.  In this case I opted to put an easier 20 on the back, paired with a recent find  – a Goldtec OneKey oval chainring.  The latter has been a revelation for me, really doing a great job of eliminating the dead spot in the pedal stroke.  I like it so much I’ve placed an order for five of them!

That's about all the strength I had left

That’s about all the strength I had left

And finally, Ceci makes it all worthwhile with some fantastic American home-made brownies and a cold beer… 🙂

Victory brownie :-)

Victory brownie 🙂

Jul 232014

Part 1 can be found here, part 2 here, part 3 here.

Now that's what I call a bivi.

Now that’s what I call a bivi.

Day 4: I wake up as the sun brushes my face for the final part of my ride. I’ve slept like a log shaped Greg on a bed of the softest grass. The views are spectacular as the sun creeps into the valleys below me. Flowing light fills the steep sides of yesterdays final descent and runs into the sea some miles away. I’ve one high point for the day and it’s all down hill to the finish.

I spend some time just sitting, watching the animal world wake up. Sheep pop their head over my bivi ledge and stare not understanding how, let alone why, there is a large orange slug lying on the ground. Some Babybel and Penguin bars to start the morning before a luxurious 8am roll-out across dry firm trails.


Today was to be a shorter day, but no easier than the others. No sooner had I finished the first descent of the day than I was back up again. Exposed to the warmth of the day, getting brutalised by the lack of wind. Following now the esoteric Sarn Helen trail which changed from road, to dirt, to nothing at a whim before opening up into MX shredding pools of fetid black water locked between dry stone walls.

Push, pull, drag the bike through it all. Just get passed it to the dry land ahead. Repeat. The day felt like it was getting worse, only to offer the slightest hint of perfection in a piece of fast flowing trail, or technical rocky rooty descents.


Roman roads are...

Straight Roman roads cut through the terrain stopping for nothing. If there was a hill, it went over it, a forest, through it, a swamp, in it. Every now and again it would detour for unavoidable things like rock outcrops. Where it had no option it just dropped into perfect gullies full of rocks and mud. Wonderful on a light MTB, brutally difficult on a fully laden bike. Still, you’ve got to try...not always roads

The gullies lead to the final section into Neath. The local MX club use this trail extensively and it shows. If it wasn’t for its rock base, the weather and the gradient of the trail this would be a mudfest. In the dry it was astounding. On the limit of what I could ride, but had me thinking about pushing back up to go again. Probably some of the most fun riding of the trip. Over far to fast.

A trip into Neath to raid the local shop for breakfast after 4 hours with no food. Sitting down outside the charity shop cooling off in the shade and downing liter after liter of fluid and food in an attempt to stop the dizzyness. A second trip to the charity store bought some shorts and a T-shirt to wear for the train ride home. £4 gets you nice clothes these days.

 The final road ride to Swansea and the end was dull and boring. Along the canal I was brutally reminded that I was back in civilisation with locals wanting to stop me to ‘have a go’ of my bike. I roll on feigning a lack of English. In Swansea I push across the soft sand of the beach to the start of the pier. It feels only right to finish amid the sea of the south coast after starting in the sea on the north coast.


It’s done.  Just under 72 hours total time from start to finish to cover the 383km from sea to sea. Not the fastest, not the slowest, nevertheless a nice few days out. It was time for a quick wash in the sea, then back on the train to Manchester.Wash

Day four: 4hours 06mins ride time; 52km; 569m of climbing; 6hrs 15mins on the trail

Jul 222014

Part 1 can be found here, part 2 here.

Morning Sunshine

MMMMABBBAAAAAA – this is your 6:30am alarm sheep. Get out of bed you lazy shit. Fluffy is relentless, she wants me gone, I’ve had my time and it’s time to move. 8 hours of peaceful sleep was more than enough and I thank my host for it. Time to move on and give you back your home deary. Maybe we can meet again?

I take my time packing up, the weather is perfect and the view stunning. Sitting on the rocks letting my body warm up before another day of perfect weather and hopefully passable trails. I push for a bit to finish the Monks Trudge (Trod) before moving across to gain a ridgeline that totters between ride and push. It reminds me of a cross race, hop on-off- hop on..off. This continues for 30mins or so before I get enough gradient to ride through everything. Then down, down into the Elan Valley headwaters perfect sinuous brown trail the only real obstacles are my brain and the sheep laying on the trail basking in the sunlight. I take to herding them along in front of me, knowing they will provide a soft landing strip should I need it.

Unimpressive stone

I pass out of the valley and onto the road again, climbing up a steep incline to find early morning drivers confused by my presence on the correct side of the road. Maybe they drive on the wrong side of the road in Mid-wales? The standing stone above Rhyader proves a bit of a disappointment, but the trail into the town that runs parallel to the road – utter bliss. Fast rock slabs and baby head boulders together, this is what I remember of from the Trans Wales. Except without the rain, or dysentery.

 get into Rhyader for 11am and go straight to the hotel for breakfast. A full fry, two coffees and a coke for less than £7. I pop into the bike shop to replace my brake pads and get run of the tools, all for the price of a chat. By the time I’ve raided the shop its 12:30 before I’m leaving, just as the temperature is starting to turn up. If I thought it was warm yesterday, today was going to be a sufferfest.

Water, cool water.

This was the last real stream I saw of the day. Wading out to cool down feet and tired legs i refilled bottles and wandered along roads in ever increasing temperatures. The  wind had dropped off and was never going to rear its head again. So along came the horsefly’s, and they were hungry for blood. Every climb, every time I stopped to open a gate –they came to feast. Nothing would stop them, the smell of a sweating human was too much to resist and they feasted unbidden by my shouts or flailing arms.

This is the face of self hate

This is the face of self hate

I pushed on the climbs until I could no longer. Falling over myself to get away from them. In my hair, my beard, my clothes, everywhere. Eventually I crested a hill and found some wind that gave the briefest of respites. I was at the lowest point of the trip – hating every minute of my existence and wanting to just cease to be. The next few hours passed as such:

Ride as fast as possible on the road trails – push up shouting and flailing arms – scratch self – shout and flail – descend at warp speed.

I didn’t remember to drink much during this stage, or eat much, just keep moving. By the time I reached Builth Wells I was cooked. I’d stopped at a small post office in Newbridge on Wye to try get some anti-histamines and water. They just looked at me and said sorry, just water here. The itching continues until B.W where the lady in the chemists warns me they may make me drowsy. I opt not to tell her where I’d come from in the past 48hours.


I crash out in Builth for an hour beneath a tree with some shade drying out my sleeping bag. It would be so easy to stop, but I know the temperature will start to drop. But the horseflies will be with me until at least 7pm. Another three hours at least. I eat more anti-histamines, and man up.

I don’t remember a huge amount bar roads, lots of road and lots of grassy climbs. It was probably beautiful; the pictures I took make it look so anyway. But I don’t remember much except the buzzing, always biting me, hateful little things. By the time I rolled into Brecon nearly 5 hours had passed and I was starting to come around again. The weather had turned in my favour and the wind had picked up and the temp dropped by 10 degrees or so. We’re back on track I thought through mouthfuls of every food type imaginable from the Co-op.

The bemused teller at the till sold me more and more fluids until I could carry no more. This was to be my last fuel stop until Neath some 100km away, so I needed to be smart. I also had a load of change that was better off being calories rather than coins. I swing past the local dodgy chip shop and sit on a bench eating chips, chicken legs and a recovery drink. An odd combination and one that only just stays down. The heat of the day has made any food difficult to consume – but it needs to go in.

A blur

Rolling out of Brecon I feel a little worried for the first time. I’m not feeling great and I know I have a lot of climbing before I get to sleep again, I start to break it down, lamp-post by lamp-post. Kilometer by Kilometer. Small bits to step it all together. . By 10pm I’m climbing up a  long valley and the temperature has dropped, the flies have gone to bed and I’m starting to come round again. The past 8 hours have been hell, but still my body wants to go on.

I realise I’m actually on the Sarn Helen trail itself now and the speed starts to increase again, I’m feeling fast – I know I need to use this to get some more distance in. The climbs come easy, the descents even easier. I switch the lights on around 11.30 as the clear skies and full moon give all the light I need over the non technical sections.  45 minutes later and I’m riding up a perfect piece of grass when I see a white limestone face ahead of me. Within a few seconds I’m decided, this is my bivi. I spend 10mins climbing over the tiers of limestone, spoilt for choice of a perfect bivi – I settle on a 3rd floor apartment with perfect views off the veranda. I’m asleep within minutes.

Day three: 8hours 58mins ride time; 112km; 2,104m of climbing; 14hrs 30mins on the trail.


Jul 182014

Part 1 can be found here.

Morning View

Day 2: What is it about waking in a bivi bag on the side of a hill at 5am and 3.5hrs sleep is it that makes it worthwhile? I toss in my bag for another 30mins before I have to get up to join the sheep in my morning ablutions. Jacket off, jersey on, cram some cheese into my mouth, some granola bars in my pockets. Helmet, shoes, gloves on, hit the button on my GPS. 30mins from awake to rolling, a slow start to the day.

A quick up and over a shoulder before dropping down fast loose gravel into a valley trail on towards the sea and the bridge crossing at Barmouth. The fast trails fly by as I deplete my food and water supplies. I start to wonder if I’ve taken enough when a river comes by, I fill up and move on wondering if my watch is off. It can’t be this warm at 8am. Can it?Brutal PushUp and over fast bridleway trails, down grassy hills, and up the inevitable climb the other side. The general store in Llanygryn gives me an early morning laugh as I inadvertently insult its octogenarian owners poor sight, but I turn on her fridge and all is forgiven. Apparently, I’m lucky to be tall. I run out of water about 10km outside of Machynlleth but shrug it off as I know it’s mostly down hill. As ever, something goes wrong and the wind picks up for the first time cooking my body even more as the heat is driven into me. Hot, headwind, hungry. Not a great combination.

I arrive in Mach cooked, physically and metaphorically.  I raid the Spar buying nearly 3 liters of various fluids and calories beyond measure. Cheese and Haribo – works. Peperami and yogurt – works. Coke and orange juice – not so optimal. 30 minutes sat in the shade before my body temperature starts to plateau. The thermometer on my GPS says 28 degrees, in the shade, at 10am.  The biggest climb is yet to come and I know its out in the sun. I buy some suntan lotion and slather everything in the sickly sweet smelling coconut lotion.

It's me!

The climb up to the lakes is long and brutal. Out in the sun for all of it, carrying a belly and bike full of fluid. Holding me back, but allowing me to continue. By the time I crest the climbs 4 hours have passed since I’ve left Mach. 4 hours to cover <20km. Brutal, but with a huge payoff. Massive vistas, a lake that begged me to swim in it, free roaming horses wandering over for a petting. Best of all, no one but me. Not a soul. This is why I do these things, to be here and now, with no one else. It clouds over and I am grateful for it. My arms a bright red despite repeated applications of coconut smelling stickyness.


The next few  hours are a bit of a blur. I ride along a trail that ends at the end of a sheep run. I have vague memories of having ridden here before and they grow with every push. I recall the river I climb through, the bank I scramble over. I’m here, that Valley that I rode though back in 2008 that I could never locate again, the one that goes on forever with the most glorious singletrack I’d ever experienced.

THAT valley

Bags checked, suspension opened I throw myself at it with all my legs can muster. The bike is heavy but the trails are perfect. On and on it goes before I drop into Afon Hengwm and strip to climb into the river submerging my body with the ghosts of the long deserted farmstead.   The valley is a bowl with a push in, and a push out. I know I’ve not ate in an hour so I take my time enjoying the breeze and filling up my water stores. It’s good to just sit and enjoy the silence.

BathClean as I’ll be until the end of the ride I start the long, dull push out. Were the weather not treating me so well I’d be angry. But I can’t complain. A light breeze, not too much sun, and nothing but my bike and I. After a while I open up again on some singletrack before the fire-road comes – fast and sweet on big wheels – distance covered is good after a slow going day. At least most of the climbing is behind me now.

I reach for a bottle and get air. Nothing. I go for my spare and find the same. I’ve finally done it, I’m out of water. Bugger. I think ahead. I’ve passed all the lakes and the rivers are running dry. My next chance is the visitors centre at Nant Y Arian. It’s 4pm and it closes at 5pm. I’m about an hour away. I rummage through and find a can of Redbull, warm, sticky and bitter. It does little to quench my thirst. I don’t grow wings. I do get a bit angry. I need to get there to get water. Food would also be good.

I should have filled up here.
I should have filled up here.

I ride on and on cooking in the heat which decided now would be a good time to come back. 30mins to go, 15, zero. I’m rolling into the trail centre at 5:05pm. They’ve gone home. Closed up. I’d have done the same. I grab some water in the toilet block, but I need food. I’m close to running on fumes when I pass a garage. Time to practice the Tour Divide diet; chocolate, lots of chocolate later I’m feeling a bit better. I pick up some shitty cheap white bread and sweating salty ham and cram them in my bag for dinner/breakfast.

I roll on, and on, for what feels like forever through hedgerow climbs of 20% pushing through vegetation and its inhabitants. The flies get to me, I swat out in anger at them, releasing my stress on the trail on insubstantial little black blobs. It’s pathetic how something so small can make me so angry. I sit on top of an old Roman fortification eating  my dinner at 8pm. The wind keeps the flies off and I find myself reaching for my jacket for the first time.

Golden Hour

I’ve entered the Elan valley now and I know what is a head of me. A mix of road, fast riding trails inter spaced with pushing. Lots of pushing. I had an idea it was going to be bad. I had no idea just how bad. As I roll along the trails are drier than I’d expected and I get further along faster. I drop through dried river beds being aware that I’ve not got huge water supplies left. A climb over a running river bed has me filling everything, I’m not running out again today, sod the extra weight.

Fireroad leads me down before the signpost to the Monks Trod chirps on my GPS. It’s the one section I’ve not been looking forward to. Aidans description didn’t describe it as something I’d enjoy. He’d had a hard time, I was expecting no different despite the warm weather I’d had. What I hadn’t expected was to take nearly so long to trudge through knee and thigh deep swamp to get across 10km. It was mentally harder than it was physical, but only made better by the thoughts that it’d be over soon. Finished, something I’d never bother with again. If  the Sarn Helen has a Fisherfield equivalent where you’re likely to break – it’s here. As an added bonus – you get the wonderful sign at the end.

The sign

Another trudge – when I decided the trail should be changed to the Monks Trudge – allowed me to wash all the accumulated sheep shit off in a stream. Up, up, up until I saw on the horizon something that made my day. A raised set of rocks, off the trail, out of the swamp, and on a ridgeline with wind to keep the flying nasties away. 10:30pm and I was done for the day. I stripped and bedded down taking a chance to dry out my kit. The sight of a lone sheep standing guard over me, or her flock, made me smile before bedtime. See you in the morning Fluffy.


Day two: 10hours 30mins ride time; 112km; 2,774m of climbing; 16hrs 30mins on the trail.

This turned out to be beside a megalithic tomb...oops

Jul 172014

I was supposed to be at the Tour Divide – then I was supposed to be at the Grezestien Trophy – then I was at nothing. So, with a week annual leave booked off I opted to try something ‘local’.

Sarn Helen

I’d read about a route that traversed the length of Wales from Conwy to Swansea called the Sarn Helen trail. A combination of walking trails, 4×4 tracks and an old roman road something that MTB books and magazines had touted as an 8 day epic ride. With not unimaginable distances per day, ~120km, the route looked like it would go easily in three days if I was to pack light and ride it slightly different to the normal – early start/late finish. This was in no means a racing ride, it would probably go in a single 30-35 hour push, more of a touring individual time trial. TITT?

A quick internet trawl turned up an article from Aidan Harding who had done the SH back in 2010 as preparation for the Tour Divide  -more or less the position I was in now, but a year out. Aidans ride had aimed for around the same time I had and I figured the most obvious way was to use his route as well. Consistency and all that. Nothing to do with me forgetting to copy the files onto my GPS the night before….


Day 1: A leisurely 9am start had me on the train from Manchester to Conwy Castle as I was aiming to start later in the day. Extraordinary Welsh weather forecasts had showed that the next 4 days was going to be dry and with temperatures in the mid to high 20’s. Little was I to know, it was going to be much warmer than that. So I packed the new shiny Salsa Spearfish* with more kit than needed, but none the less the same kit I’ll be using on the Divide next summer. I may as well keep it similar I figured. With the bike and kit paired up I think I now have the perfect blend of off road capability and all weather kit. The Fargo is excellent for longer gravel/fireroad rides, but the new Spearfish is just lush. Honestly, this is one of the best full suspension bikes I’ve ever owned. Hands down.


The opening miles were on tarmac winding their way up, over, down and round valleys. With no wind and oppressive heat I started to go through my water supplies a little faster than planned. Rationing within the first 3 hours, not ideal. Eventually the climb led up the Lyn Colwyd and more water than I could shake a stick at. Tempting as it was to jump in I refilled and then started along the excellent valley trail before climbing up and out over a steep trail – read push. At this point I had my first crash of the trip.

Down, not out

Sneaking a “dry” line ended up in an OTB moment as my wheel buried itself to its hub. No time to un-clip I ended up pinned below my bike all my weight on my now aching wrist. Game over…. maybe. Hopefully not. After finally extracting myself I hobbled my way down to Capel Curig and some food. A quick icing with two cans of coke and a massive scone and jam treat and I was on the road again. A momentary lack of perception leads to crash – a note to stay a little more in the moment.


At this point the real climbing began. Into the real guts of Snowdonia and up, up, up. Always climbing the heat kept pounding down. Searching for ridable shade at any opportunity took over as I climbed into the woods behind Penmachno. Then it started. Initially just a few water filled MX ruts, then full on hell. Kilometer after kilometer of flooded knee deep ruts like Gaia herself been repeatedly run over by all the MX and 4×4 drivers in the world. There is a place for motorized fun in the mountains, but on wet peaty forestry trails it is not. Well done for screwing it up for everyone else.

Mordor Starts

After an hour of pushing, carrying and cursing I was spat out above the trails I know in Penmachno. The road came as a wonder as my speed crept above 2kph for the first time in hours. The sun was starting its trend downwards as I rolled into the Glanaber Terrace and entered what felt like the start of Mordor.


The traverse across the slate slag heaps and the following “trail” are a blur. I constant feeling that I don’t belong here, that I should just turn around and leave. Why keep going on, this is just shit and you hate it, leave, go find a nice pub for the evening. Cresting the trail near Lyn Pysgod I felt like it was over. I knew the road down towards Blenau and figured I’d just turn right and head for a friends house in Llanberris. She’d have gin and some floor space.

Apparently this is a f**king trail.
Apparently this is a f**king trail.

I’ve no idea if it was the near crash with the chav and his Imprezza, or the food in the Co-op in Ffestiniog but I decided to keep rolling. A quick call to Pauline to let her know what I was at and I was on the road again. 7 hours in and less than half what I wanted to do for the day. It was going to be a long day with my aim for the evening being  to sleep somewhere near Dolgellau.

But it changed, hilly roads not withstanding, the trails became ride-able, faster, dryier. As the temperature dropped my pace climbed. Riding  along trails parallel to the road to Coed Y Brenin the lights had to come out of the bag. Hammering round sections of the MBR trails the wrong way in the dark with a huge grin on my face. Back in the night, where I belong, loving every moment of it. The trails flew beneth my wheels and I could feel myself getting back on target. 10pm flew past and then 12am and the next day.


As I drop onto the road to Dolgellau I stop to debate the turn. I can go left to a hostel I know will have space, or up the road, try Kings or just push on? I ride on, past Kings stopping only to get some water, before climbing all the way to my highpoint in the fields at the top of the valley. 1:30am, tired, I crawl into my bivi ingesting my dinner of Babybel and two Penguin bars.

Day one: 8hours 50mins ride time; 106km; 2,486m of climbing; 10hrs 50mins on the road.

*Huge thanks to Shona at Keep Pedalling for sourcing the Spearfish for me, and to Ison Distribution for making a price I couldn’t refuse.