Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.
Adam and I have just got back from doing the Bearbones 200. Organized by the same guys who do the Welsh Ride Thing and El-an-Back this is a bit different: a 200k independent time trial that takes in a huge circuit of mid-Wales. The route has a bit of everything—exposed moorland crossings, apparently endless bogs and tussocks, technical singletrack, fire roads and quiet lanes, and a hell of a lot of climbing. Although the “rules” state that you have to carry a sleeping bag and shelter, the challenge for many people is to ride through the night and complete it in one go.
We’ve done plenty of bikepacking trips in the past, but this was a different kind of physical and mental challenge. Our aim was to get round in under 24 hours and qualify for one of the coveted black badges. After plenty of pre-match discussion and Mark Goldie’s advice we decided slow and steady was the way forward: eat regularly, drink regularly, don’t push too hard and don’t stop unless you absolutely have to. Setting off with 60 other riders at 10 o’clock on Saturday morning that’s exactly what we did. Apart from picking up water from the café at Coed Trallwm, Ty Ny Cornel Youth Hostel, the Black Lion in Bont and a random public toilet (and buying a can of coke at the café and pub) we kept on riding and pushing through the night. The miles came quickly and easily along the lanes and fireroads down to Rhayader. That didn’t last, however, and the terrain and the challenge became tougher and tougher as the night went on. The last twenty miles, in particular, were brutal. Steep, grassy and boggy—more like wrestling the bike onwards than pushing even.
As the ride went on we played leapfrog with different groups of riders, passing and being passed as our relative pace and plans changed. We saw Luke and Bryan several times after stopping at the Coed Trallwm café: they were clearly much quicker than us on the road, but were stopping for food at the café and the pub when we pressed on. As tempting as Luke’s Guiness was in the Black Lion, I don’t think I’d have been able to get going again after a chance to sit down somewhere warm. After we passed them for what would prove the final time about 14 hours in, however, Bryan decided to camp out for the night. Luke chased and caught up with Adam and I and we rode together through to the finish: great company and a real boost at a time when we were flagging.
In the end the plan worked. We rode through the night and got back to the start just before 4 o’clock on Sunday morning. By then we had covered 129.48 miles and 13,226 feet of climbing in a time of 17 hours 51 minutes—the furthest and longest I’ve ever ridden on either the road or mountain bike. I still can’t believe it and the growing sense of achievement as we cruised back down to the finish will stay with me (though I hope that pain in my shoulders and arms from the washboard will fade soon). Phil Simcock stormed home first in a scary quick time of 13 hours 8 minutes; three other riders finished around the thirteen or fourteen hour mark. Adam, Luke and I made it back just outside the top ten finishers, part of another wave of eight riders who finished in an hour or so after three o’clock. Job done. If anyone had told me we would manage that beforehand I’d have laughed.
Yet another fantastic event organized by the guys at Bearbones Bikepacking: thanks to Stuart and Dee and Flatfishy and Chew for all the hard work putting this together. It really is appreciated. Having the chance to eat a breakfast bap the size of my head was good to.
As always it was great to meet other riders both at the start and finish and out in the hills: plenty of fantastic conversations to pass the hours along and a slightly surreal gathering of seven muddy mountain bikers at a public toilet at half nine at night. Luke catching up and riding with us for the last few hours was a real boost: it’s not that Adam and I had quite exhausted our conversation, but having someone else around to ride with and talk to made a difference.
It’s always a privilege to be out on a bike in mid-Wales: there are few places I know that are as remote, beautiful and challenging. Riding across the top of Teifi Lakes as the darkness and drizzle closed in over the hills was a timely reminder of why I ride. My riding highlight was definitely the singletrack over Roman Camp though: it was a steep push up in the dark but when you were up there the combination of the stillness, the hollow sound of tyres rumbling on turf and the occasional light up ahead in the mist was almost magical. Whimsical moment over…
Not so many. The last twenty miles or so were pretty full on—pushing up a series of steep grassy banks and bogs and (in my case) taking a fall and nearly finding myself at the bottom of a steep-sided ravine again—before making it up to Glaslyn. But by then we were so close to the end that I knew all we had to do was keep plodding away. Despite all the pre-ride horror stories I actually enjoyed crossing the exposed boggy sections of the Carnau and Roman Camp. Pushing is good for the soul.
No hallucinations but seeing the dirty great big horns of a highland cow suddenly appear in my lights along the side of Claerwen Reservoir scared the hell out of me. I had a few light-headed moments in the last couple of hours but a combination of eating regularly and caffeine tablets kept me sorted. Seeing a bonked rider sitting by the side of the A44 was a bit of a wake-up call as to what can happen if you get it a bit wrong.
Some kit thoughts
I’ve used a Salsa El Mariachi for bikepacking trips for a while now (run rigid and 1 x 9 gears) and that isn’t going to change any time soon: for this kind of riding it seems spot on. This time around I owe massive thanks to the guys at Bike Pro Racing in King’s Heath in Birmingham for sorting out a last minute mechanical problem, dealing with my mistakes and getting me back on the trails. I wouldn’t have made it to the start without all their hard work.
My stand out bit of kit was a Van Chilli thermal jersey from Velobici. I bought this for riding on road over the winter, but decided to give it its first run out for the Bearbones 200. It was bloody amazing: water resistant, windproof, thermal and comfortable. I wore it over one of their sleeveless base layers and it coped with everything the Welsh weather threw at us from 10 a.m. on Saturday right through to just before 4 a.m. on Sunday—even when the temperatures started to fall and persistent drizzle set in for a few hours. Absolute quality. It looks bloody great too. I reckon that must be why another rider mistook me for a journalist from Men’s Health… In the end the jersey was so good that I didn’t need to use the soft shell gilet and waterproof jacket I had stuffed in my seat bag. It would have been too much of a risk to leave them behind though.
Apart from that, my emergency stuff (tool kit; spares; etc.) and compulsory overnight kit (PhD Minim sleeping bag and Rab Storm bivvy I used everything I had. The set up on the bike wasn’t quite right though. This is what I went for:
For the most part this worked pretty well. As the hours ticked away and I started to go through the bars in the Gas Tank, however, I struggled to get food out of the handlebar pocket on the move. In part that was because of where and how I had it mounted (under all the cables and held too closely to the bars to get in the zip easily) but it was also because I’d put the food in sandwich bags that I couldn’t get into. Next time out I need to give more thought to the best way of making sure I can access food on the go: it makes a massive difference in terms of cutting out the stops. I took a load of savoury stuff thinking I would appreciate a change from the bars: I didn’t.
In the end the batteries on my lights lasted the full distance, but I was worried enough about running out of power that I made too many compromises in terms of not using them on full power on sections when I really could have done with being able to see where I was going. It might be time to invest in a piggyback battery…