In the middle of May every year, the Bryan Chapman Memorial Audax sets off from Chepstow, Wales on a voyage to Menai Bridge. Riders then turn around and go back to Chepstow accumulating a total of 600km in a maximum time of 40 hours. I made it with one hour to spare despite everything that could’ve gone wrong, going wrong.
I’m sat in my dining room the day after Bryan Chapman Memorial (BCM) drained of any intellect, yet I’m frantically writing about this ride for fear I’ll forget the highs and lows otherwise. I’ll try and make some sense of the nonsense.
4:30am alarms were becoming a familiar wake up call with the number of audaxes I’ve been doing recently and Saturday’s was no more welcoming than any other. A few grumbles to greet each other, Dan, Samm and I jumped in the van to drive to the start of what would be a huge couple of days. I didn’t see much of these two after about 10km, which was fine. Their pace was much faster than I knew I could maintain so off they went to discover the roads together. I had my own company until the first control where I met my RCC clubmate, Roger. We rode the following 525km together.
Less than ideal conditions set in early on. Short of pointing out the obvious, the weather was Welsh from the off. That reputation for being damp lived on and 200 riders were enduring it as best they could. Thankfully, it’s hard to dampen spirits early on in such a prestigious event. If it ain’t rainin’, you ain’t trainin’ – that’s the phrase anyway. Rain clouds and sun would take turns throughout the day meaning the battle between jacket and gilet would continue for many kilometres. Damn those of you who are able to switch while riding, an art I’m yet to nail!
Welsh scenery gets more and more alpine as you ride north but so does the climbing. The section of Brecon Beacons we went through was tame compared to what lay ahead, though it didn’t stop us having a momentary stop at a fantastic audax restaurant (petrol station) at the bottom of a descent. The worst climb of the day peaked at 160km up to a place called Staylittle (don’t worry, I wasn’t hanging around), which was descended during last year’s Tour of Britain but I’m not too sure I’d have enjoyed doing that either. Some riders dismounted their bikes and pushed while I opted for the grinding technique with my 32T. Steep climbs are my nemesis but thanks to some coaching with Dean Downing at TrainSharp over the last few months, I’ve managed to get better at them. The old Grace would’ve thrown a strop, cried and walked it but the new and improved GLS enjoys a challenge.
The control at Dolgellau (I still can’t pronounce Welsh words. It’s Dol-gell-ow in my book) became both an afternoon sun trap at 225km and a chance to sleep at 400km but the climb to get to Kings YHA was a real stinker that we had to do twice. Those who hadn’t dropped all their gears before the turning soon came a cropper as the incline reared at 20% before backing off to a cool 10%. Grass up the middle made a great divide for riders coming and going. Those leaving were the envy of those arriving.
The highlight of the route for me was definitely Barmouth. It was golden hour when I arrived, Snowdonia was lurking in the background threatening its unforgiving climbs but the last of the sun’s rays beamed through the clouds hovering above. The route took us over a wooden cycle path with views all around. A real treat to be at the seaside with just a light breeze patting us on the back reassuring us we’d be ok (probably).
Darkness set in around Beddgelert before the climb up to Nant Peris so it was easy to spot tiny little cyclists making their way up the hillside as I endeavored to catch them. The information control at the top become a refuge from the rain and wind before riders made their way down the steep descent into Llanberis. The rest of the route through Snowdonia was a bit of a blur as the fatigue and rain continued. By the time I landed at Menai Bridge I was ready for a sleep but without facilities to do so, the best I could do was put my head down on the table. Others brought bivvies and sleeping bags – smart people. I took off my damp clothes in a vain attempt to dry them out before stepping back out into the same weather I’d just sheltered from. Having brought a spare pair of socks, I decided to save them for when I could guarantee the weather would be dry.
During the second visit through Beddgelert, my front mech decided it didn’t want to play anymore. Rog asked whether I’d charged my Di2, at which point I remembered that I hadn’t done so since around April time. I was in the red. I left it in the little chainring and had use of a few gears on my rear cassette. How long that would last was anybody’s guess. It was raining, dark and my bike wasn’t working as it should. This was the lowest point of the day and I voiced my anxiety. Where could I get a train if I needed to bail out? Mid-Wales isn’t known for being well-connected to the rest of itself. All my stuff was in Chepstow so I’d have to find my way back somehow. The stretch of the trip was extremely challenging. I was 350km into a 600km bike ride and I was in dire need of sleep. We found some great audax hotels (bus shelters) along some of the uninhabited roads back towards Dolgellau. I managed to get 30 minutes on a bench outside a youth hostel somewhere in Snowdonia, 10 minutes in a cosy little bus shelter and another 30 minutes on an actual bed when we arrived back in Dolgellau.
Upon arrival up the awful climb up to Kings, I saw my friend Eleanor for the first time. It was so nice to see a friendly face at such a low point for me. I had lost my personality somewhere en route and Eleanor came running riding up to me and gave me a big hug. I think if I’d had the energy, I’d have cried then and there. We said our goodbyes and good lucks and she carried on while I got my head down, drying out my kit on the radiators in the process. It was fresh sock time! There was also a hostel kitty frolicking around the rocks so I made the best use of my time and became its new best friend. It was just days earlier Eleanor and I were talking about how great it would be if there were kittens at every control. It was a convenient morale boost knowing the climb that greeted us out of Dolgellau.
Every time I reached a control or major town I said to myself that I’d see how I felt about whether I’d carry on. My lack of gears was getting me down and was a major blow for me and I didn’t want to carry on with this sort of crazy cadence every time I wasn’t climbing. Newtown was my last opportunity for a train but I decided to toughen up and get the job done. I didn’t enter this event to only do 500km of it. I wanted that brevet card filled and verified in order to work towards my super randonneur award. If I’d have failed it’d only mean doing another 600, something barely worth contemplating at this stage of the ride. After a bit of maths, we worked out that we were quite tight on making the cut off so had to be efficient through the remaining controls, make any petrol station stops quick and eat on the move.
The last morale boost was seeing Dan, Samm and their gang in Llandrindod Wells. We were passing ships through the controls so it was again lovely to see familiar faces. One last push to the finish and we could enjoy beers together. My internal monologue set the conversation for much of the final 100km. I’d run out of things to say and energy used chatting was better used up the last climb into Chepstow. I’ve come to realise I get pretty strong second winds during long events. I’d been feeling strong since I’d committed to finishing the event in Newtown so I put the hammer down as much as I could with my little chainring and set about getting the job done.
The final highlight for me was talking to an older chap whose name I didn’t get just after the Chepstow climb. He was wearing leather cycling shoes on a steel bike with toe-straps on his pedals and in typical audax style, he wore just a red cycling cap. The route card sat proudly on his handlebars as he mentally checked off each manoeuvre. Roger went ahead while I sat alongside him finding out his story. He knew Bryan Chapman personally and told me Bryan was a jovial character and would’ve loved the thought of everyone riding this route every year. I told him this was my first 600 and he assured me I’d picked the best one. It turns out that hindsight had already set in and I had to agree with him.
We rolled back into the Bulwark Community Centre together an hour before the cut-off. It took me 39 hours with 28:33 of that pure saddle time. I’ve still got so much to learn: I took kit I didn’t need and didn’t take some kit I would’ve liked (foil blanket), spent too much time off the bike, wasn’t efficient through controls and didn’t charge my Di2 beforehand like a total rookie. However, I had a few issues to contend with this time with the aforementioned Di2 issue challenging me both physically and mentally. My power meter wasn’t recording my huge watts which was annoying me (I like data, sorry), my puncture early on was a bit of a downer (pun intended) and my lack of sleep made mountains out of these molehill problems.
Ritchie Tout put on a brilliant event along with everyone else who gave up their time to assist hungry, tired cyclists round the clock. It won’t be long before I’m returning the favour at audax o’clock for those of you signing yourselves up to ride silly distances.