So the Bearbones 200 is a 200km mountain bike ‘event’ in mid-Wales. The route is dreamt up by Stuart whose baby is the website bearbonesbikepacking.co.uk and it is known for being tough. I’ve been trying to get to this event for a while, 2015 saw me miss the entry day because I was abroad and out of wireless/mobile signal and last year I was entered but not able to attend as the logistics of getting there didn’t line up. This year with access to a car and a stable base being on the start line was going to happen.
The rest of the ride though was daunting. I haven’t really ridden that much this year. The first 6 months were full of riding a couple of miles here and there. Around town to explore Bristol but nothing that was long or arduous. My 12 mile round trip commute to work is fairly flat and I only ride it 2 or 3 times a week. In the summer I went on the ‘Run to the sun’ ride organised through the Bearbones forum and this was a real eye opener. I know I was ill at the time with a summer cold but of the group of 8 I was the weakest by far and out of energy and unable to continue at 3am (5 hours in). The weather admittedly wasn’t great but I just felt like I was a shadow of my former cycling self.
So did I train hard off the back of that in preparation for the Bearbones 200? Not really. I basically put one mountain bike ride per week in my diary and managed to hit that target/ride most of them across a 3-5 month period. They weren’t particularly hard rides usually only covering 40 to 50 miles but I made sure there were a few hills in there and tried to get across to the steep climbs and mountains of Wales as well to help increase my familiarity with the up and down.
I also experimented with my kit trying to find a set up that I knew would be fairly comfortable (in good weather) if I needed to sleep during the event but which wasn’t taking the proverbial kitchen sink and so super heavy. I was quite pleased with how much I paired my kit down in the end although I felt like I was carrying a lot after chatting to a few people in the pub before the start.
Friday I had the day off work so could spend time packing, preparing food and then driving up to mid-Wales. In the back of my mind I didn’t want to arrive at The Star Inn (where we were able to sleep in the car park) too early as the lure of one too many pints would be a temptation. As it was I arrived at 5pm, and pretty much at the same time as Andy who had been on the run to the sun ride. This didn’t bode well but my lack of will power was tempered by a good two course meal and I headed back to the car to sleep about 10:30pm with only 5 pints in my system. It was a really friendly atmosphere among all the riders and so I’m really glad I took the ‘risk’.
Fact; at 6 foot 4 tall I don’t fit in the back of a Ford focus. I still somehow managed to get a fair bit of sleep in a foetal position though, despite being woken by the wind and rain a few times. The general consensus had been breakfast at 7am and then quickly down to the start in Llanbrymair to get away as close to 8am as possible. I remember opening my eyes and thinking – “it’s very light out there” – before realising that my phone doesn’t turn itself on when you set an alarm and switch it off (a function I thought it did). The phone said 6:57 when it finally came to life, so I pulled on clothes and went inside the pub to get breakfast. I didn’t have to wait long before a veggie fry up was in front of me and I wolfed it down and was off back to the car pretty quickly. Next stop the start.
I arrived at the start got the bike out of the car, changed into my cycling gear, stuffed my jersey pockets with food, signed in and then quickly downed a cup of coffee. Drinking the cup of coffee so quickly was a bad idea and cause annoyance later on. I watched another rider (Burty – who had also been on the Run to the sun ride) roll over to the van where you registered that you were leaving and set off. After a touch more faff, I headed to the van and said hello to Stuart before setting off. Time of departure 8:24, that would do. I started riding up the road climb out of the village and looked down at my saddle. Oh for fucks sake, it was wonky and the nose was pointing off to the left by quite a margin. I pulled over to the side of the road to fix it, opened my bag of tools and was presented with the sight of my multi-tool in pieces. Argggh! Luckily I had another allen key that I could use to reassemble said multi-tool and then used that to straightened the saddle. 6 minutes of extra faff later I was moving again, kicking myself for not riding my bike around the car park before I left.
The first miles of the BB200 passed by and I was enjoying myself. There was a grassy climb that required some pushing but I didn’t mind, it wouldn’t be the last time I would be off the bike and walking. Although there was a little bit of rain in the air, that – in my experience – counts as ‘dry’ for this part of the UK. Under wheel however was a different matter the past few days had contained a lot of rain and the trails were waterlogged and sodden with deep puddles on every surface. Somewhere in the Hafren forest I felt like I was flying along, I caught site of the blue helmet of Burty bobbing up a climb ahead and realised I was going to catch him up. “Hang on, hang on” whispered part of my brain “maybe you’re going too fast and will burn out”. To be honest there was no reason to worry, almost as soon as the thought crossed my mind the route left the fire roads and entered a section of steep slippy uphill followed by a some flowing (well if it had been dry) downhill singletrack. This section quickly knocked the wind from my sails and any notion that I was going to maintain the speed I had been doing quickly fell away.
I crossed the road near Llangurig and headed up past Nant Rhys bothy and down the path the other side. Familiar territory although in the summer we had ridden this in the opposite direction. At the bottom by the river I stopped to eat some sandwiches and have a pee. First a group of riders turned up and then quickly left again after one (Duncan) had expressed how close they were to the Elan visitors centre and the cafe there. Close is a relative term, it would take me another three and a half hours to pass the Elan valley visitors centre. Next Andy appeared had a wee and a chat and then headed off up the next climb.
The road up the Elan valley gave a much needed break to just spin the legs, admire the view and do some introspective thinking. Although most of the time my brain kept reverting back to maths on this ride. Where was I, how long had it taken to get here and therefore when would I finish? I skirted Rhayader and my thoughts turned to my dwindling water stocks. I didn’t really want to stop and have to use the filter I was carrying as that would be a lengthy process. Then I passed someone gardening, memories of getting water from strangers on the French Divide suddenly popped into my head so I hit the brakes. The gardener was more than happy to fill both my bottles and I was soon on my way again knowing that I didn’t need to hit the Elan visitors centre before it closed as I had food and water.
Not needing the amenities of the visitor centre was a good thing as I passed it 10 minutes after it was supposed to shut. I didn’t even stop to investigate. The part of the route from Rhayader to Elan village included a pretty steep push up and a steep descent that was beyond my technical skill level. Yep, a push downhill. I think this was the first time I crossed paths with Richard who went past me intent on reaching the visitors centre before closing time. After the visitor centre and climbing out the valley I stopped and ate a second round of sandwiches as energy levels were dropping again. All through the ride I was eating one cliff shot block per hour with the occasional Eat Natural bar when I felt I needed a boost. However some form of solid ‘meal’ was required every now and then to top up the all important energy levels.
Up, down, up, down, ride, push, road, grass, bog, rock etc etc. On the route went, passing LLanwrthwl and on to the B4358 which mentally for me marked the point where we turned and started to head back north towards the finish. I had asked another person in their garden for water and they also gave me a can of San Pelligrino which was nice, however I soon realised I was going to have to drink it on the next bit of moorland before it was too shaken up. The next challenge after the B4358 was Carnau which had been talked about a lot in the run up to the event. It was dark by this point and my helmet light was turned on to supplement the Exposure Revo dynamo light on the bars. On a grassy slope immediately after the B4358 Richard caught me up and we chatted as we followed other tracks across a grassy field. We seemed to lose the route through some woods but all it meant was some extra pushing up a steep zig zag track. There was a third rider with us at this point but he fell behind as we rode (well I pushed some of it) up the forest road climb and then out onto the exposed part of the Carnau summit.
To be honest Carnau didn’t seem that bad. There was a clear track to follow left by other riders and because I was behind Richard most of the way he found all the deep boggy bits for me by falling in them! I think though we both appreciated the others company as we hiked most of it. We also helped each other get ourselves and the bikes across a fairly deep and fast flowing stream that the route crossed. I went ahead on the descent and followed the vague track whilst ignoring the line on my gps. I manage to ride some bits the track swinging to the right whilst the gpx line carried on vaguely left.I wasn’t overly concerned I had looked at satellite images the week before so I knew I had a bit of a plan for this section. Eventually I hit a fence and followed it back to my left and down quite a steep slope to the gate/fire road we needed to reach to escape from Carnau. Whilst I was doing this Richard at the top of the slope clearly following the GPX line more rigidly and found his way down. He had previously been extolling the benefits of the Jones bars we were both riding, at this point he started stating how the drawback was when they swung round and gave you a dead leg. I probably should have been more sympathetic, but he seemed mobile and ok, although in hindsight he did say something like “bugger, that hurts”. Trying to be helpful I highlighted the track we needed and set off at pace down it.
I reached the gate at the bottom and turned around to find myself once again alone. To my discredit I just carried on, I don’t think Richard held this against me (and he was actually ok). The last time I rode the next section around Claerwen resevoir it was 3am and into horizontal rain. I was dying on my arse and so happy when we went to Claerdu bothy at the top. This time there was a tail wind and once again I felt like I was flying. We had dropped below ’24 hour pace’ crossing Carnau so I was intent on making up some time. Again the brain was mentally doing maths. The familiar gravel/rocky/puddled track gave way to tarmac and then the route turned right onto unknown tracks. In my head after Carnau the route was plain sailing and was going to be ‘easy’ tracks and fire roads back to the finish. How wrong I was! The next section was very muddy with the choice of riding in a gully or on a ridge. I really struggle riding gullies or ridges and not wobbling out of/off them when alert. After riding for 15 hours, when it’s dark and the middle of the night, I had no chance. Again it became a trudge.
I think I saw Richard’s light behind me again on this section (although I have to admit it all gets a bit confused in my head from here) but he hadn’t caught me by the time I reached Pont-rhyd-y-groes. I do remember wondering where the moon was earlier on in the night and as I climbed out the village I looked over my right shoulder to see a thin red slither of moon rising up into the sky. I instinctively sang “I see a bad moon rising” because, well why not? Despite the line on the gpx being non-committal I knew the route took the turn down NCN 81 so I wasted no time in getting through the gate and onto a familiar track again. The intial part was quite muddy and cut up from previous riders but my tyres seemed to grip ok and it is fairly flat. When the cycle path rejoined the road I stopped and ate some more of my ’emergency Jamie’.
‘Emergency Jamie’s’ is an in joke with my partner Judith. The easiest ‘adventure’ food I’ve been able to source are essentially packet pulses/grains (e.g. lentils or chickpeas) that you can get in pretty much any supermarket. They don’t require cooking and you can just rip off the top and dig in. They’re not massively heavy in calories but can get you out of a jam if you’ve failed to find anywhere to eat. There is a range branded by Jamie Oliver which is where the term stemmed from. Earlier in the ride (I forget where) I had started on a packet of Moroccan Bulgar Wheat. I couldn’t eat it all in one sitting so I popped it back in my jersey pocket for later. This is where downing that cup of coffee came back to haunt me as it had burnt/irritated the top of my mouth making eating less than pleasant and a slower process.
More fuel put in the tank, it was off up to ‘the arch’ on the road and then up the forest road to where Nant Syddion bothy is. Earlier in the night I had asked Richard what colour the light on the back of my Exposure Joystick helmet light was. Confusingly he said white. This was the first time I had used the joystick in anger having not managed to have a practice and I had no idea if it was on the right setting. On the climb up to Nant Syddion, I discovered that no it wasn’t on the right setting as it promptly turned itself off! I didn’t actually see the bothy, I’m not sure how as apparently it is right by the track but I just pushed on past and round to the left up the next climb. Making do as best I could with my now reduced vision/light.
I did manage to eek a bit more light out of the joystick later on by putting it on the setting I had thought it was on in the first place. It was only for a short section of track though so most of the time I had to make do. Navigating in the dark and especially not missing turns became more difficult with just the front light but I still pressed on. I should probably mention that at this point I really didn’t feel sleepy. I had yawned maybe two on three times around 3 or 4am but was pretty awake. I’d now moved onto caffienated shot blocks though. Crossing the A44 at Ponterwyd passed and it was onwards across the last off road section. I genuinely thought this was going to be nice gravel fire road like the first part of the Hafren forest earlier in the day.
Fat chance. First up I rode into a knee deep stream and then instead of pushing across to the other side I retreated back. It then seemed a really good idea to ‘ghost’ my bike across the log bridge next to the track and shimmy across after it. This idea was shown to be terrible when my bike fell over on the far side with a crunch. A closer inspection showed I had broken the mount for my Revo light on my bars. Fuuuucckkk, you stupid tired idiot! Luckily pushing the clamp back together around the bar seemed to work and it sort of stayed put. I was really paranoid on anything bumpy though that it was going to then come apart again.
Going under wheel started getting boggy again and the line on the gpx suddenly took a sharp left turn across a stream. I walked up and down a bit swinging my front wheel back and forth but couldn’t see any sign of a path. Sod this I thought and followed the obvious ‘track’ that appeared to loop round to rejoin the gpx line. As I followed the track though it became more and more like a canyon. It had obviously been washed out and eroded downwards. Eventually I had to lift my bike and then myself out of it and push through the tussocks beside it. This was a low point for me, I had definitely had enough of pushing through boggy tussocks! If Carnau has been alright, this was not. Plus I wasn’t following anyone so I was finding my own deep patches of bog to get wet in.
It’s worth mentioning that this was my first real tough test for a new pair of shoes. Having been using Shimano MT91 boots for the last two or three years I had grown tired of them taking forever to dry and holding water. So I bought some Pearl Izumi Drift IV shoes which are essentially all hole! Paired with two pairs of wool socks my feet stayed warm all night. It will be interesting and possibly character building to find out how this ‘system’ fares in the deep of winter. There was an initial ‘ooh that’s cold’ shock when you plunged your foot into water but then the water drained back out and subsequently when stomping/pedalling my feet began to feel dry again. They weren’t, the shoes/socks were pretty damp at the end but they never felt sodden/squelchy which was really nice.
After the end of the canyon section as the track became more rideable Richard caught me up again. We were clearly both suffering a bit by this point and he highlighted that finishing sub-24 hours was looking touch and go. I think that gave me a bit of extra resolve and even if I had to walk some of the hills I tried to ride more in an effort to give myself the best chance of getting back before 24 hours were up. I was also really paranoid I was going to finish in 24 hours and 6 minutes and my saddle faff would come back to haunt me. A locked gate briefly slowed our progress especially as it took me far to long to realise it was locked. We hit the penultimate climb and I started walking again whilst Richard carried on upwards. Eventually I got back on the bike though and caught him at the top. He expressed that he was tired, possibly with a few choice curse words.
I started off down the descent and suddenly Richard appeared again beside me. “I’ve had a small piece of chocolate and now I feel great!” I don’t think I’ve heard anyone enthuse about eating a piece of chocolate quite so much in the space of a couple of minutes. The bit now between his teeth, Richard yelled “final climb, and it’s a baby one”. Up he went as another rider appeared behind me (I assume this rider passed me but I have no recollection of where he went!) and finally I reached the top of the last climb and rejoined the road at Dylife.
By this point the sun had supposedly risen. It was definitely partially light but grey clouds obscured the sun and there was almost drizzle in the air. No time for weather watching though. In my head over the final few off road miles the sums had gone like this.
– Dylife -> Llanbrynmair = approx. 8 miles
– Therefore if I hit the tarmac at 7:50am then I have 30 minutes to ‘descend’ 8 miles with a 4 mintue buffer.
– Therefore when I hit the tarmac I need to peddle above 16 mph to be finish sub-24 hours.
(I think) I hit the road at 7:47am. Time for a sprint finish!
By this point my Garmin was saying I’d ridden well past 200km (in fact it picked up a couple of extra miles from somewhere over the whole ride) but that was fine because the route was actually 215km long with the final 15km being downhill. I had however not failed to notice driving down from the Star Inn to the start that the final 15km were definitely NOT all downhill and had a few little inclines to slow you down. I turned my Garmin from map to trip computer so I could concentrate on my speed. Up through the gears I went and although initially I was only doing 13 or 14mph I started to gain speed as the descent steepened. I could see Richard ahead of me and then I lost him as I concentrated on riding at 20+mph. I reached the t-junction with the B4518 and looked right for traffic and saw Richard a little way up the road in the wrong direction. The outwards and homeward legs of the GPX crossed at this point and he’d followed the wrong line. I yelled at him – although he had stopped and clearly realised his mistake – and then turned left. I actually got slightly paranoid that the route to the finish wasn’t the one I thought it was and turned the map on again!
I pushed on the pedals as hard as I could. Which surprisingly (especially for me) was fairly hard. I seemed to have plenty of energy and hit the inclines as hard as possible trying to maintain as much speed as possible over them and down onto the next section of descent. As I passed through Pennant and then Llan I started to relax a little. I was going to do this. I cracked a wry smile as I passed where I stopped to fix my saddle and then rolled into the car park of the school at Llanbrymair. At first I was confused as there was no van to welcome you back/sign you back in. I rode over towards the entrance to the school to find a welcoming chap (Chew) with a clipboard. As I reached him Dee started talking to Chew about the cycling jersey I was wearing. My attire was a Northwave skeleton winter jersey (which is the first jersey I ever owned) and apparently there was a motorcycle racer in the 60’s or 70’s who used to paint a skeleton on his leathers. I think I may have got slight panicked or annoyed because (I think) I may have theatrically coughed and then sarcastically said “it’s ok I’ve got 10 minutes to spare”. Chew got the message and said “we’ll call that 8:15, shall we?”.
I actually felt pretty good at the finish. Even better for the veggie fry up provided by Dee and Stu. I mean once I got off the bike I had a bit of John Wayne about my walk but I drove home without the need for a sleep and only hunger forced me to stop. Whilst I was packing down the bike and getting changed into clothes not covered in bog muck Richard arrived with 15 minutes (I think) to spare. The weird thing is that we never asked each other what their name was or introduced ourselves whilst riding large sections of the route together. I only know Richard is called Richard because Strava says I rode with him. I think the one time he addressed me on the actual ride he said “hey skeleton”. Oops.
I had no idea I could achieve a sub-24 hour finish on the ride, it was definitely not planned. I set out to ride until I couldn’t any more then have a sleep and carry on. However I always felt I had gas in the tank and so I just kept going. I think I rode the last 25-30 miles with pretty much no water. I really tried to limit stops. According to strava I only stopped for 1 hr 15 minutes in total across the 23 hours 51 minutes. In hindsight that seems a bit nuts. However I know that is also my strength, if I eat on the go I find a (slow) pace at which I can chug along and then I just do that for hours and hours and hours and hours. It’s what I did on the French divide, although with more sleep stops.
After finishing my mental feeling was never again, however now I’m looking back and wondering. If I actually did some form of training, if I actually pushed myself could I get round more quickly. Dave Barter wrote on the bearbones forum;
“Could I have gone faster.
No. It’s easy to look back and think “if I’d done this or that I’d have been quicker”. It’s bollocks, you are who you are and the mistakes you make are yours and part of the ride. I always have made some and always will.”
However the temptation to think I can go more quickly is there and so I’ll probably be there next year in the Star trying not to drink too much before another Bearbones 200.
That’s a year away though, so what about now? What next?