Neil Lauder dons a semi-opaque rain jacket and heads into the heavy Welsh night with only a bag of Tesco bait for company. What a man. I shudder at the thought of what waits in the darkness. He goes out of sight and this time my body commits a shudder more sensual in nature. It is craving the bed that’s waiting for it and I’m not about to deprive my overused rig of little more down time.
Approximately 90 seconds later I’m chatting to my host who is running a bikepackers dream B&B. As I’m shown round the well stocked kitchen and encouraged to eat as much as I want, I find myself with an almost uncontrollable temptation to affectionately lick the back of his head. Fortunately I’m able to control my dehydrated tongue and an awkward moment is avoided. I decimate his kitchen and turn in for a few hours sleep. (For anybody staying in Fishguard then you wont go wrong with James John Hamilton House, try not to lick him).
In the early hours I attack the open kitchen again before heading out into the Welsh wilderness. Now this was some six months ago now and I have minimal recollection of the finer details of the day. But I recall it was hard, very hard. I passed Kate Brennan during the course of the morning, lovely woman. That’s almost all the detail I have of the early stages, so this could be short…
Research of my Strava title indicates it was a hard day. To that end, two sections do stand out in the mists of time. The first was a gravel section that was interspersed every half mile or so with a cattle grid and gate to climb over. Just a ball ache more than anything. Stunning scenery mind you. Then a near vertical climb which finished off my achilles for good. I walked part of it, which rather than helping the achilles just attacked them from another angle. Looking at the Strava segments it might have been the Devils Staircase? It might have been something else. Regardless, what I do remember is the beauty of it. Once again I was subject to some of the most spectacular riding I’ve ever done. And the weather was good to boot. Anyone taking part in 2020, stop dripping about getting the GPX file, let them take their time and you’ll get something truly stunning like 2019 (no pressure team).
Later in the day I remember stopping for some water at a random house. I asked the old man if he’d mind filling my bidon. He refused to take my bidon but said he would fetch me some water. I’m bemused, wondering if he’s going to make me drink out of his hands in some kind of ritual Welsh demonstration of power. Instead he brings me a bottle from the fridge. It’s cold but its open and half full. This toothless OAP has clearly already had his slobbery chops round the thing. I’d prefer some council pop but I’m parched and take the risk on his not being riddled. Memory over.
The only food I remember was my evening meal, which was a kebab. I remember because it continued to remind me I’d eaten it for the next 12 hours or so. Prior to that I think I’d been a bit blocked due to excessive baguette eating in the Centra network of Ireland. The kebab changed this and my cycling was accompanied by a shifting picture in the abdomen as the blockade in my colon was gradually lifted over the ensuing hours.
To add to this the sun was beginning to go down and as the heat faded the ongoing stress of my mechanical issue really started to take it’s toll. Every climb felt like the bike was fighting against me and I had the front and rear derailleurs apart multiple times. Because I can’t remember much detail of the day I will clarify now what the issue actually was. At some point in the preceding days I must have adjusted the rear mech so that it wasn’t sitting in it’s proper position, as such the chain was rubbing against the stay and causing an unholy amount of resistance. With a non-tired clear thinking head on, I would have looked, seen what was wrong and fixed. Instead I left it rubbing and caused such damage in my achilles that even now in February I still can’t cycle far without it flaring up.
The sunset that night was immense as I road generally west through a valley towards the coast (Elan Valley? Devils Bridge? Who knows). Again this was a spectacular bit of riding and I’ll definitely return at some point. The downside of the sunset was the cold and I was shivering furiously despite wearing all the layers I owned, including my now treasured Inverary Woollen Mill jumper. I hadn’t really considered how far I was going to go, but the numbing cold in the hills made it an easy decision to carry on and get to sea level.
As I finally descended towards the coast I decided to look for a bivvy spot once I got to Borth. I went to Aberystwyth University as a younger man and vaguely remembered (imagined) there were good bus stops on the coast road between Borth and Ynslas. I was hanging out my hoop by the time I got to the coast road and I trundled along cursing my inaccurate memory. As a crawled past the golf course, I spied an outbuilding and without hesitation took the Mason off road. Moments later I was across the fairway and inside a large three walled, roofed shelter, with a bench for sleeping on. I set up my “bed” and climbed in.
Fucking freezing. I actually froze. During the night I clenched my fists and drew them up to my chest in an attempt to maintain a level of core warmth. When I woke shivering a few hours later they were stuck like that. I looked down at them in my bivvy confused, at my stumps with no digits. Fortunately, they slowly unfurled and I wasted no time in getting ready to set off in order to warm up and find somewhere to deal with the laxative effect of last nights kebab.
A low freezing fog hungover the golf course and the surrounding countryside, no wonder my joints had seized. My Wahoo had also seized and I was forced onto my back up Garmin for navigation which is always bad news.
The next town was Machynlleth and I felt confident there’d be something open here. Sure enough I found a garage on the edge of town and was directed to a portacabin in the car park which housed the facilities. It was lifting obviously but I was on the verge of shitting myself so plonked my arse down regardless. I won’t go into (anymore detail) but all I’ll say is I had a quick look in the bowl and the thing had gone grey it had been inside me that long. Harrowing experience.
I topped up on snacks and was on my merry way. I remember more of this day dear reader, rejoice. However, it is mainly me complaining so don’t expect too much.
I resolved to finding a bike shop in the morning to fix my bike (which they would have been able to do easily one would think). I caught up with Jez and we had a nice chat and I was in a better frame of mind following this. The bike shop in Dolgellau was closed so I binned that off, caught back up with Jez and we continued our ride to Barmouth. Another sterling human right there. In Barmouth I again attempted to find a bike shop and was left suitably disappointed. I bumped into my old nemesis Lee Grieve and it’s always uplifting to see that cunt. So that was nice, and generally to this point it was an excellent day.
I left Barmouth and headed for the last bike shop on the route, which had bikes to hire according to the website. I had come up with a master plan whereby I would rent out a bike and leave my own to be collected a few days later. Not sure if it was allowed, but was willing to take the DQ over the possibility of not finishing despite being within 100 miles of the end. Long story short the shop was a joke and the bloke’s stealing a living. I wont name him here, but he knows.
So I carried on to Harlech on my petulant and resistant bike. Harlech is home to the worlds steepest road apparently and extra kudos were on offer for climbing said road. I’ll leave you to decided if your protagonist gave that a go or not….
What followed this were some of the hardest miles of my life. Up next was Stylwan Damn and the gradual climb to it. Somewhere on the A496 I had a massive breakdown. I all but gave up in my head and as is standard practice on a Hank Rearden race I had a brief flurry of tears as I faced up to my impending failure. Then just as I was about to ring my mother who was at the finish to inform her I was scratching and required a lift, I had a strong word with myself. Yes the bike is making it harder, yes it’s going to take longer than expected. BUT does it matter if the last 90 miles takes two days? Are you going to miss the finishers party? Can you honestly say you cannot ride any further? Do you want to have to face those fuckers at work if you didn’t abuse yourself to the last? The answer was no to all and back on board I hopped.
I crawled up the Stwlan Dam climb. It was impressive but I was wrecked and I spun round at the top and descended, wasted on me today I’m afraid. The village there is fucking mad, all little railways and creepy houses. Like an abandoned theme park, it gave me useful dose of impetus to get a shift on.
Following this there was an awful A-Road climb which sapped the soul from me. Thankfully once crested it was basically downhill to the charming Betws Y Coed. Now at this point I knew I had circa 75 miles to go, and that in my current form this could take me the rest of the day and all night. So I stopped for a sit down and to get some juice on the various devices in case of disaster. I also went to a bike shop (again shite) to buy a rear bike light as mine weren’t going to charge in time. I payed £15 for a light from the ’80s. Cheers big lad.
Just outside of Betws Y Coed I bumped into Chillmaster Borlace. He opened his mouth and immediately I heard birds singing and the rustle of the wind in the trees, the smell of chamomile and lavender wafted into my nostrils and my body flushed with a renewed vigour for life. I think the fuckers been spiking me….. Seriously though, as usual he was a voice of reason, suggesting there was no immediate rush to get to Llandudno and that there were campsites etc in the locale which I should consider making use of should it all get a bit emotional. I left the serenity of Pete and continued stubbornly.
I then ran into the dynamic duo of Alex and Will. The former took a quick turn on my bike and agreed it was fucked before disappearing in the opposite direction towards the finish line. This was actually reassuring, they confirmed I wasn’t going mental, that there was something wrong. I wouldn’t consider myself a needy individual but that was some much needed validation.
I rode the final Snowdonia loop which as it turns out wasn’t as brutal as I was expecting. It was hard and the last climb back to the start of the loop took a fucking age but I didn’t die and that was a bonus. Also it was, yes you guessed it, absolutely fucking beautiful. The southerly leg riding clockwise was fantastic riding. And the views coming back along the northerly leg were again wasted on this husk of a human.
As I passed back through Betws Y Coed towards the home stretch I lit my metaphorical cigar and sat back in my metaphorical Chesterfield. I then choked on the cigar smoke and a spring came through the fine leather upholstery spiking me in the arse. Nobody had told me about the Nebo climb. That is without doubt the slowest a human has ever gone on a bike. Even at the top as the road turned slightly more rolling I could muster no power. What watts I had were gone, a trail of dwindling humanity leading to this final point. The sun set and still I stumbled on, praying for the sweet release of the descent to the coast.
And it came. Thank god because I was fucked. There was nothing left and I couldn’t even peddle the descents. I’d had a text from the organisers earlier telling me the loop round the Orme had been binned due to a road closure. I didn’t check to see if that had changed, I’d take the punishment if necessary.
I rolled down the street to the finish line. Matt it seems isn’t actually a gypsy, and the road outside his fixed abode was to be the moment I peeled myself from the saddle and felt the greatest wave of relief known to man. Rebecca fed me some left over fish and chips before handing me a beer. I thought the ambassadors wife was supposed to chuck ferreo rocher at you but I was delighted to learn that’s an urban myth. Katy (mother) was there, and I was delighted to see the woman who as usual had been a sounding board whenever I found myself needing to make use of my unlimited minutes. Also there to greet me were the riders who had finished already, animals each and everyone of them. Chapeau all.
7 Days 14 hours 22 minutes. Apparently. Enough for 7th place which I was delighted with. My third race of this ilk and I still don’t have a fucking clue what I’m doing so top ten was a welcome miracle.
Katy had booked a nice hotel for a couple nights so I spent the next few days recuperating, demolishing the buffet breakfast (is there a better meal than a hotel buffet breakfast?) and drinking beer in the Ryan’s front garden. The weather was a treat and they are excellent hosts. They gave their lives and home over to this race for a week and deserve all our thanks and appreciation.
The finishers party was a great night, even if I was still fucked from the race. Plenty of beers and stories. Some mad Welsh poet who was ALL OVER his busty maiden was my absolute highlight. Closely followed by Ali Hutton finishing during the party. Mally, Rebecca, Rhino and Chris all spoke and I think between them summed up perfectly what a fantastic event has been created. It goes beyond the just the racing because it’s such a brilliant collection of people. The PanCeltic Clan isn’t a myth or a marketing ploy, it’s a very real group of passionate humans and I’m so glad to be part of it.
For anyone racing in 2020 I’ll see you in Cornwall (achilles permitting).