TransWales 2019 race report.

In this blog I have probably used the the words "epic", "tough" or "one of the hardest rides I've ever done" a few too many times.  But over the weekend of the 3-5th May, I did what was one of the toughest and best experiences I've done on a bike and (like some of the other events I've done over the last couple of years) very different to my normal comfort zone.  I did the Racing Collective TransWales race.


Those of you who know this stuff, skip down a bit.   Those who don't and would like to know what it all means, the styles of events can be split out like this:

Leisure rides

What most common folk see as a ride.  Typically open to everyone with wheels that turn and attracts all creeds, colours, bike types, wheels sizes and ages.  Organisation ranges from mass participation events on closed city roads to small numbers on tracks.

Risk of Lycra: low and optional.  

Sportives/Gran Fondo

These days highly orchestrated commercially driven events with a sponsor, start finish area, published manuals and start/finish villages with a medal and t-shirt at the end.   All riders are timed with electronic chips and entry ranges fro £30 to £90 depending on the event and location (large EU events being a lot more).  The events often have 3 or 4 predefined routes based on distances and follow iconic tour Stages, Word Championship of Olympic race courses or particularly challenging routes.  The rides are supported with drink/feed stations.   These rides are not races and do not require a race licence although a lot of amateur riders will ride as fast as possible to get the quickest times.  Roads can be open or closed to traffic.

Risk of Lycra: optional at lower distances but very high chance of MAMILs and celebs showing too much brain on the mid to long distances. 

Audax/Randoneur

Audax and Rando riding is more about covering long distances, evenly paced and mainly unsupported.   Most rides will be classed and grouped in distances and elevation with either checkpoints or predefined stopping locations which have to be navigated to and checked in at (till receipts are the most common) before the brevet card is returned to the organiser to confirm the event has been completed.   The rides/routes are non-competitive and although some will work towards gaining the fastest time, the ethos is more towards the satisfaction of completing the challenge and collecting the achievements (400km, 600km, 1,000km distances, elevation gains etc).   Entry ranges - the cheapest can be £6 - £8 for 400km, the largest events (LEL and PBP at 1,500km) are around £600.

Risk of Lycra:  high.   Almost essential on the lower half, high chance of wool on the top half.

Endurance Racing

Endurance racing takes elements of audax (long distances, minimal support) and adds the racing element.  The ethos is "fastest from point to point and finishes wins.   No support, you're hard, get on with it."  The number of participants is lower as the size of the challenge is more daunting - in audax, if someone has a problem, others will help out; in racing, it's racing and everyone is out to go for the fastest time.   The shortest distances will take in the toughest routes, the longest distances (RAAM, TransContiental, RACE, Italian Divide etc) can be many thousands of kilometers.   Racers are extremely independent - no support is allowed that another rider couldn't get on the road side.   Organisation and spectating is normally through social media with little in official media reporting.

Risk of Lycra:  Extreme, and the Lycra is likely to be smelly, encrusted with days of salt and rinsed every 3 days.

Professional Racing.

If you've heard of Brad Wiggins or Chris Froome, Team Sky or see any of the professional racing teams shoot past, you'll be aware of pro-racing.  By definition, this is their day job.   Max distance will be around 280km in Milan San Remo, all there races sub-200km.

Risk of Lycra:  compulsory and branded.

TransWales and the Racing Collective.

So what is TransWales and who are "The Racing Collective"?


The Racing Collective are a pretty much unknown club.   I've seen they have founders and the riders have names, but I don't think I've ever met them.   I couldn't say "Paul rides for The Racing Collective" or say what their team/club jersey looks like.   They are more like a loose affiliate of riders who organise the most epic challengers in the UK.   The club revolves around the ideas of self survival and no support.   In their words:

A COMMUNITY OF SELF-SUPPORTED RACERS​
WHO LOVE WILD PLACES

A NEW BREED OF BIKE CLUB

  • A not-for-profit road and gravel bikepacking club for self-supported racers 
  • ​An annual programme of unsupported trials to test mind and body
  • ​Timing, routes and results handled by Strava, so no entry fees
  • Our long-term aim is to establish the UK's first crowdfunded National Park
   
To me, they're more like an elusive and exclusive group lurking on the fringes of organised cycle racing with a passion for "this is going to be not just hard, but fucking hard."  The format of "start time and place; list of checkpoints; no support; now RACE!!"  So TransWales is billed not as a race, but as a "Trial."   By "Trial", this is referring to a trial against your own mind and body and a race against others and the events are used to prepare for bigger challenges such as the TransContintal Race.   the trials are about how much can you push your own resilience against yourself and you'll race others.   The process is simple:
Picture
  • Start and finish points are defined
  • Plot your own route from A to B via a series of checkpoints
  • Most riding will be on road but gravel shortcuts may be quicker
  • Riders must tweet a timestamped photo at the start, all checkpoints, and the finish
  • Test your route planning, navigation, and night riding skills... explore your limits, expand your horizons
The reality to a rider like me:
  • To enter, click "Count Me In" or "I'm attending" and take that as your entry.   By doing this, you agree to all the T&C's - basically, you'll take care of yourself, no liability on them.  There's no forms, sheets, entry websites, basic charity donations, T-shirt size options or options of VIP treatment.   That's not what this is about.
  • You take the grid refs from the Strava and Racing Collective sites and plot your own route.   You can use last years, conflab with others or do your own thing, but the navigation problem is your own problem to overcome.   
  • You turn up at the start point just before the start time, tweet a data/time stamped tweet at the start, switch on Garmins and start your ride.
  • Several checkpoints later, you'll reach the finish.   You tweet your pictures, times and locations.
  • The steps between start and finish are entirely your own (unsupported) responsibility and choices.   If you don't make it to the end then you have to get yourself un-lost.
The route information was: 
  • Start: Road below Menai Bridge, Bangor: 53.221610, -4.163571
  • CP1: Stwlan Dam: 52.981899, -3.987342
  • CP2: Lake Vyrnwy Dam: 52.762080, -3.456266
  • CP3: Nant-y-Moch Reservoir Dam: 52.459677, -3.834758 
  • CP4: Talybont-on-Usk Reservoir Dam: 51.875776, -3.302216
  • End: Cardiff Bay Barrage: 51.447618, -3.165378
Debrief: YHA Cardiff: 51.476735, -3.162839

The ride.

This style of racing and riding is a bit different mentally.   Most rides will have a similar start and stop points being events which loop out and return to base.  Mentally, a 400km audax such as the Lincolnshire Poacher isn't that frightening as the distance from the furthest part of the route back to the car/civilisation/home isn't more than maybe 100km.   At the worst, on a 400km loop, a problem at 200km is likely to be cutting the diameter of the loop to get back.   On a linear route, the km's only count down and there's no cutting the corners.   So going into these rides, my mind is always a little more nervous or anxious event though the distances are well within range.

The process kicked off Thursday night I suppose.   I had most stuff sorted, just needed an early night.   Bedded and hoping to rest up, things didn't go to plan:

Friday

Desired: Sleep.  Sleep a lot.   Wake up late, eat, nap, eat some more, pack stuff, food, nap, pick up kids from school, go to Chester, drop off kids, Anna takes me to Bangor, I start racing and ride till I finish

Actual: Woke up too early.   Anna asks me to take kids to school.   Rebecca wakes up feeling ill, so Rufus goes to school and Rebecca stays off school with me.   I keep Rebecca happy, do packing, eat.   I need to get the Genesis to Mercian, so road trip to Derby with Rebecca to drop of the Genesis and get home.   Eat more.  Anna and Rufus come home.   Eat, pack, pile in car.   Try and sleep/doze in car as very scared that potentially I'll be wake 6.30 am Friday through to early hour Sunday morning.   Kids go to bed in Chester and I grab another 60-90 mins sleep.   Change, in car, Anna takes me to Bangor.   Eat pasties from the garage and be ready to ride.

Friday night out - Road below Menai Bridge, Bangor: 53.221610, -4.163571

Under the Menai bridge, lights started to appear and skinny cyclists appeared from the dark and met up on a single, narrow bit of road down by the waterside.   Everyone exchanged greetings, took photos of the bridges and ate one more banana.  The atmosphere was a mix of commaradary and rivalry.   "We're going to race against each other so we're friends in mind of challenges, but rivals in times."   Compared to other events, the kit selections were very pinpoint and considered.   In LEL, I was amazed by the selection of "sensible" kit for the 1,400km - mix of high tech, high spec kit and low key, tried and trusted comfort kit.   In the Prudential London100 sportive it's a pissing competition of what's in GCN fashion.  Here, it was all very honed endurance racing kit - small frame packs; neatly packed saddle packs; little in excesses, mascots or frivolities; aerodynamics were possible; nothing was carried without a purpose.

For riders, there were only 17 of us there ready to go.   Over the same weekend there were several other audaxes on at the same time, so the number was always going to be small but the nature of the event thins it even further.

Around 11pm, the mutual decision between us was "lets start."   There was no formal "YOU MAY RACE" or race director dropping a flag, it was whosever Garmin/phone showed 11pm.   The group of us set off from the waterside with our lights looking like a carnival climbing the narrow village street up to the Menai bridge and we set off with pace across to Bangor, out to the A487 and into the North Wales hills.




Start to Checkpoint 1 

Road below Menai Bridge, Bangor (53.221610, -4.163571)
CP1: Stwlan Dam (52.981899, -3.987342)

Almost from the pedal stroke of landing on mainland Wales, different riders had different ideas, opting for different routes, paces and intermediate points on their routes to Checkpoint 1.   In the opening stages, the circus of flashing red lights went off in different directions before groups of riders started to realise that they were roughly on the same tactics.   At one point, 3 of us were on a climb on a minor road and then through the undergrowth, we'd catch glimpses of 2 others on the main road heading off on a different approach to the same valley.  Throughout the opening miles and numerous small towns and villages, we'd split, recombine, check GPS's, see alternative routes, regroup and then split again until we headed onto the A4485 and into the more defined valley roads.  By the time we raced through Rhyd Ddu and towards Baddgelert, many of us were settling to paces and enjoying the roll through the deserted country roads.   After Beddgelert, I had opted to not cut the corner and headed to Prenteg banking on my flatter route giving a cleaner, more efficient turn to the undulating alternative.   In part it played off in saving some energy and letting my legs spin more efficiently, but it didn't save or lose me any time.

From there it was a climbing to cut the corner instead of dropping down the valley to join the A road.  Joining the A487 further up and head to CP1 I lost and gained a couple of places, but well aware that long term pace is more important I climbed at my own rate keeping within my thresholds.   Approaching Tan-y-grisiau and the bottom of the climb to the first CP, myself and one other made a nav error, before correcting and heading to the gate and the climb up to the Stwlan Dam damn wall.  Now this climb is a Bastard with a big bold capital B.   9 hairpins, 350m elevation, average 10.1% over the 2.7km of road. (NOTE: It has been Everested, worth a read).   I'm sure on a nice summers day, it's a fun jaunt up to the top.   At red-eye time in the morning, in the cold and dark, seeing 17 riders appear, race up it, take a photo and then ride off must have been weird for the locals.   On the climb, you just ignore everything else, ride your ride and hold threshold for as long as you can knowing that the top will come.  You could see the white and red lights of other riders above and below you across the hairpins, hear their breathing, see the beams from their front lights illuminate tree tops or verges, with the wobbles of going slow and hear the squeal of disc brakes as riders come down.   Once you reach the top, Twit pic, comment, zip up your jersey and onto the brake levers for the road back down to the gate.   So glad I have hydro discs!



CP1 in the dark.  We came, we tweeted, and buggered off quick!

Checkpoint 1 to Checkpoint 2

CP1: Stwlan Dam (52.981899, -3.987342)
CP2: Lake Vyrnwy Dam (52.762080, -3.456266)

Next was a phase of; good, quiet, "oh fuck!" and "yes! Got there!"   Once we left CP1, riders split again.   And the rain got a bit heavier.   Leaving the area, I made a couple of minor nav errors, but I was aware of dry patches of road under the trees.   At some points, I could see tyre tracks cutting across the dry areas telling me there was a rider or two ahead.   After I while, I was alone, riding in the cold on a long stretch and aware of being the only one out there.   No worries, I am used to this.   Then I started the climb along the side of the Afon Gain and over the top.   It was extremely isolated.  Comfortable, I settled to the climb knowing sitting in my own mind the mantra's of "don't panic, tap a tempo, head over the top, ignore other tactics" like I've done many times before.   Then psssstttt.    Bugger; front wheel puncture.   I stopped and tried to repair with fingers getting colder.   First patch didn't take, neither did second.   Screw it, time for new tube.   I put in the new tube just as sleety rain started to fall.   I got going again half with a paranoia that grit from my fingers would have got into the tyre while doing the fix and cause a second puncture.   Then the blizzard kicked in.   My god that was extreme.  As the next couple of hours played out, the principle was simple - ride, stay warm, stay upright, keep on the tarmac.  The temperature plummeted, I had around 4 to 5m visibility, -3C temperature, a head wind and now had to drop down bends in the dark.   As I kept climbing and riding, I was aware of forcing to breath deep and becoming slightly wheezy - more of that later.

In an interview, Kristof Allergaert describes this kind of riding as 33:33:34.   33% equipment, 33% fitness, 34% mental strength.   In honesty, that stretch of road stretched me to 33:33:95 where the additional 61% of mental strength was pulled from somewhere unknown.   Part of the appeal of these rides is the challenge and ability to see how and where that 34% can get you.   Those miles I must have borrowed mental strength from some time in my past or future self; sucked from the mental strength of the sheep hiding in the verges on that hill; or scavenged it from some unlocked recess of my brain.   The depths of that window of riding will fade, but at that time the fear of "what the fuck will happen if I puncture now?" and where is everyone else was extremely high.  To give an idea of the conditions, tweets from Cat Smiths  and Luke Allen from the area:




Once out of the blizzard, I headed towards Llanuwchllyn and sun rise.   A few roads became familiar from my kayaking days.  My main lights battery died, but meah, I was safe, warm(ish) and riding with the sun coming up.   Over the next moor I found sleety roads again but at least daylight.   Then down to Lake Vyrnwy.   As I hit the top of the water, two riders were coming the other way.   To go back the way I had come (their tactic?) or to take the other route?   I got to CP2, and checked in.

Checkpoint 2 to Checkpoint 3

CP2: Lake Vyrnwy Dam (52.762080, -3.456266)
CP3: Nant-y-Moch Reservoir Dam (52.459677, -3.834758)

Now the time came to choose: up where I'd come from and where I'd seen the other two riders head off; or down/across valley and use "the other route"?   Not wanting to re-climb what I had just come down I was banking on heading south east to the quicker (and quiet) A458 and gain some speed.  So I did.

On the early morning roads, it was quiet, quick and as the morning warmed, I started to think of my stomach.   Time to find food and drink.   The next major town was Machynellth where I found a shop and another rider!  I dashed in and got food and headed through the town.   As by now, "nature calls" were kicking in, time to find somewhere to drop a log, get comfy and start the days riding.  

On the way out of town, I found a couple others from our race.   We roughly rode together heading to CP3 using a common route.   Coming off the main road down at Tal-y-bont, I stopped to take off my night layers, drink and reset ready for the next lot of climbing, leaving a fellow rider to go up the road.   For the next few miles I headed along winding country lanes before getting to where the Garmin said take the road dead ahead............. and my view being a gate to a cart track and two mountain bikers coming down.   WTF?   I asked the MTB'ers if it was passable: "not if you want to snap your head tube!   We've just come down a black run!"   Shit.   I asked if anyone else had been through; "yeah, two of them on the road up top.   One on a Synaps?"   Yeah, they were the two I was chasing!   With no way through, it was mapping on my phone and lost on forestry tracks.   Bang went all my timings.   

In that section, I lost hours on gravel roads.   Getting over the top, I dropped down to the A44 at Ponterwyd, way back on time and a bit pissed off.   I found food, drink, stopped, gave my head a wobble.   I had to climb up to CP3 with the head wind.   If you gotta do it, you've gotta do it.......

On the climb up, I met another racer coming back down.   All my speed had gone.

CP3 (hours late) done.

Checkpoint 3 to Checkpoint 4.

CP3: Nant-y-Moch Reservoir Dam: 52.459677, -3.834758 
CP4: Talybont-on-Usk Reservoir Dam: 51.875776, -3.302216

Now time to ride on.   Once over the top of the A44, the next part was tracing the route of the River Wye down the A470.   I had kayaked the Wye back in the late 90's and early 2000's.   It's a fantastic valley and I had intended to ride the quieter roads but to get time, I opted for the A road and just kept spinning.   Settling in, it was cruise time; enjoy the sun, keep rolling.  I hopped another rider (yes! place back!) only to puncture 15 mins later and lose the placing.  I stopped at Rhayader for more drink, and found a pump to get tyre pressures back.

After Rhayader, it was keep going and head to CP4.  The roads rolled by fast with small underlations, but no major climbs.   As a couple of tricky navigation areas, I approach the bottom of the valley for CP4.   Riding along the later afternoon roads towards CP4, I realised that some of the damage from earlier in the small hours of the morning were coming back to hurt me; lungs damaged, coughing up a bit of blood, lung function not as deep as it should be.  To be honest, CP4 was a bit of a disappointment - I was expecting a massive climb up to an impressive bit of architecture, but the damn was damn small!   Check in done, time to head to Cardiff.

Checkpoint 4 - Cardiff.

CP4: Talybont-on-Usk Reservoir Dam: 51.875776, -3.302216
End: Cardiff Bay Barrage: 51.447618, -3.165378

Now riding up the side of the reservoir, I could see that the breadcrumb trail of my Garmin was showing I should head up the valley, around the corner and turn South to Cardiff.   Aware that I had around 500m of climbing still to go with the south Wales valleys heading me down hill to Cardiff, where was that climbing hiding?   Yeah, I found it!


That was just EVIL!   Screw you tired legs!

Once over the top of the pass, in theory it was down hill all the way.   By this point, things were far from rosy - as evening fell, I feel I could feel my body temp drop and fatigue starting to kick in.   After dropping into the valleys, I opted to look for an easy route.   I local told me to try the Taff Trail - bit of a mistake!   The trail is good for casual riders, but the stop/start nature, options around junctions and so on slowed my progress so I switched back to the main roads.

To try and warm up, I started to look for somewhere with a warm drink.   As night fell, I could see house, house, house, house, house, former garage, house, house, house, house, house, house, closed shop, house, house, house, ex-pub, house, house............   eventually I found an extremely local pub that was open.   I dashed inside with my bike and ordered a hot chocolate.   The land lady fixed me a Carbury's hot chocolate from the tin behind the bar, warmed my cap and gloves and I chatted with the locals - who thought I was bonkers.  Rewarmed and with no charge, I headed back out to the last push into Cardiff.

Riding through the suburbs, I eventually reached the main city area.   Being a Saturday night on a bank holiday, it was extremely busy and lively with drinkers, stag and hen do's and party people in the bright lights.   Cutting through the lot, I headed out past the welsh Assembly buildings, onto the barrage and for the finish line.




#TransWales19 done!

Now all I had to do was find the YHA with my last 1% of phone battery........... I had to ask a lot of bouncers.

Eventually, I checked, found my bunk, unpacked my one pair of boxes and vest and passed out.

Sunday

After 8 hours sleep, feeling refreshed I went for a well earned breakfast x2.
Rob who had raced will me joined me for breakfast and we recounted tales, routes and experiences.   An amazing, brutal at times, picture perfect at others, long adventure taking in the length of Wales.   

Results

Results wise, I was 10th and kind of last of the finishers.  24hr 16mins, compared to the winner at 15hr 23min.   A couple of riders opted to hide out the blizzard and restartted the following morning rather than riding through.   A ride had had enough by CP3 and went howpe.   It was a brutally exciting experience and race.  I had been hoping for around 20hrs or lower, but with nav errors and lungs, I'm chuffed to have finished!  5 DNF's and a couple DNS's, the results are pretty hardcore.

For me, the summary is:



One of the most enlightening ways of seeing what we did is through Strava Flyby:  https://labs.strava.com/flyby/viewer/#2342796743

Veloviewer style: 

Massive thank you to those who supported me on this -

Anna for logistics
Jim and Ginny in Chester with the kids
Those on Twitter for the fun and the hype
The Racing Collective for the event
The riders for making it such a top notch competition.

Comments

  1. Serious well done Mr S. Did TransEngland, & cannot believe the brutality of these rides... and I didnt have a blizzard, flats, or lung blood to contend with! Chapaeu!!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Many thanks! And TransEngland too?! I heard that was a tough event too. Maybe on the list for next year.....

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