Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.
I wasn’t going to write this blog.
It might have been the moment when I fell while crossing a river somewhere near Bryn Cau in the early hours of Sunday morning and dropped my bike into the water. It might have been when my back popped while wrestling my way up a steep tussock bank from Dol cyn Afon only to find myself in a tangle of trees and yet more mud. It might just have been the fifth or sixth hour of stumbling across a pathless bog carrying a bike that was definitely not made for walking. I don’t know. But at some point out on the Bearbones 200 this weekend I decided that I was so fucking angry and fed-up that I was never coming back to this part of the world, not even in writing.
I am writing this blog though.
But just to fill in the back-story: the Bearbones 200 is a 200 km independent time trial that takes in the best and the worst of the trails that mid- and north Wales have to offer the bikepacking mountain biker. It’s organised by Stuart and Dee, who are also the brains behind the fantastic annual Welsh Ride Thing. If the emphasis in the Welsh Ride Thing is towards the recreational side of things, the Bearbones 200 is a bit more serious: it’s long, the terrain is demanding, and the idea is to move as quickly as you can. Some people rest up overnight, but many others ride straight through. Adam and I did it last year and did pretty well: making it back to the start in 17 hours 51 minutes was a long way off the 13 hours of the fastest rider, but it left us happy enough and with one of the coveted black badges for getting under 24 hours.
Reason enough to feel confident when rocking up to this year’s start point in Llanbrynmair? No chance. The forecast weather for mid-Wales was awful, for a start; trying to finish a book has left my miles way down this year; an abortive attempt to time trial the Pennine Bridleway back in August wasn’t the most auspicious preparation. Most of all, however, the new route for 2014 was brutal. Covering well over 200 km, it headed west through Machynlleth before heading out up Happy Valley and over the mountains to Barmouth. From there it just kept on going – a big loop taking touching on Coed-y-Brenin and Festiniog before reaching Penmachno (the most northerly point) and starting to wind back down towards the start. As if the length wasn’t enough, the route was designed to be as tough as possible. Checking on Google Earth a couple of days before the weekend, you could see how it cut across huge expanses of bog with no obvious track on the ground. No reason at all here to feel confident.
Some facts and figures
All of these include the roll out to the start as well as the route itself, and the assorted wrong turns and wanderings off course we took along the way. If you’re interested, you can see where we went here.
It’s hard to describe the experience of riding for that length of time, and through the night. Often I find myself shutting down completely. A couple of hours can pass almost without you noticing. Adam and I tend not to say much. He usually starts with a list of 24 conversational topics to pass the time, but we only get through a couple. Sometimes a grunt is enough to check each other is OK; sometimes we talk more if either of us seems to be flagging; sometimes – most of the time – we’re too tired or absorbed to talk. Even in the most spectacular parts of the Cambrian Mountains it’s possible to not notice how amazing the view is. In the dark all you can see are the tussocks, or the water running down the rocky trail, or the trees in the pool of light in front of you.
If riding for that length of time can turn your mind inwards, or empty it completely, there are other moments when you are suddenly made aware of the world around you. You pass and are passed by other riders, and roll through a series of conversations – with Nick, Matt, and Alan from the South West Road Club we met last year, with Lars on the hill up and over to Penmachno, and with Gabes on the long hike and bike back to Llanbrynmair. You look up from the bars and are struck by the view – cresting Rhydcriw and seeing Barmouth and the river in the bright autumnal light down below, or looking back across at Cadair Idris in the distance. Sometimes in the dark you glimpse two blurred balls of light – one white, the other red – moving slowly in the far distance. As the mist falls or you drop down to a river or reservoir the cold starts to bite.
Riding for that length of time, most of all, you’re struck by how it feels physically. The short efforts of grunting uphill merge into the sharp pains when you hit the ground and the regular and repeated steps of trudging the bike uphill. Pushing means dull aches in your forearms and wrists, and more worrying pains in your lower back; carrying digs into your shoulders and makes you more likely to stumble into a tussock or stream; putting too much effort through the pedals bring shooting pains through the outside of your knees. And as the hours get on the aches and pains accumulate and merge. Even though the tiredness blurs your vision and mind, it doesn’t dull the physical sensation of riding through.
The sun was shining when we got back to Llanbrynmair. Rather than being pleased, I think I was relieved it was all over. Sitting down in the back of the van (sitting down for the first time in 27 hours) I was asleep within a minute.
I wasn’t going to write this blog. In the end, I did though. It might be because, after a couple of days of struggling to move, the aches and pains have faded enough for me to be able to tell where they are coming from, and to think about getting back on the bike again. It might be because I’m starting to realise what an accomplishment it is to have completed something as tough as this years Bearbones 200 route – that’s certainly what people are saying. Maybe I just want to get it out of my system once and for all.
As always, thanks to Stuart and Dee, and everyone else who helps out, for doing such a great job organising this event.
Big thanks to thesloth94 for letting me use his fantastic photos: somehow he manages to make it look fun.