Words: Henry Orna
Early on Saturday 25th August, I set out from Bristol to ride the Permanent version of the Bryan Chapman Memorial 600km audax. This end-to-end of Wales (from Chepstow to Menai Bridge and back) runs every year in May as a calendar event, this year over 100 people completed it. A friend and myself decided to tackle the newly-created Permanent version – A Permanent being an audax route you can ride at any time, gaining proof of passage and timing by getting shop or ATM receipts at the nominated control towns. A few days beforehand my friend decided he was not fit to ride, he was having some achilles trouble after riding the London-Edinburgh-London 1400km – fair enough excuse for sure. I decided to go ahead and ride solo.
The calendar event of the Bryan Chapman mainly uses good Welsh A and B roads, with long steady climbs and descents. The Permanent version uses some of the same, but also is quite a different route – a lot more country lanes going against the grain of the hills, meaning sharper inclines and slower going. A couple of weeks beforehand I had found out the cheap sleep stops of the Youth Hostels at Pen-Y-Pass and Dolgellau were full up, it being the Bank Holiday weekend. So the plan became, ride right through Saturday night, and take it from there. In total I had around 670km and 10,000 metres of climbing to do. And a maximum time limit of 42hrs 43min to ride the 617km from Chepstow-Menai-Chepstow.
Chepstow-Usk-Rhayader: I got to Chepstow a few minutes after 6 am, collected an ATM receipt and set off up a hill (naturally) out of town. This leg passed smoothly, enjoyed the very long but very shallow climb of the A479, followed by the endless descent into Builth Wells. Stopped just before Rhayader at a roadside cafe for the only sit-down meal of the ride, jacket potato.
Rhayader-Borth-Barmouth: Straight out of Rhayader I turned off at the sign for Aberystwyth Mountain Road. This meant the start of the serious climbing, but also the long traverse of the Elan Valley that I had been looking forward to. The valley starts gently and gradually opens up, the landscape gets wilder, every view is better than the last. This place really feels like a wilderness, doesn’t seem like you are in the UK at all.
In the small seaside town of Borth, the classic local shop meal of sandwich/crisps/milkshake, then inland and out towards the next coastal town of Barmouth. Across the Afon Mawddach estuary at Barmouth on the low wooden bridge which also carries the railway. Again stood outside a supermarket eating, it was busy with holiday makers. A lady shouting at her dogs. A guy wearing some kind of dress or sarong. Some lads old enough to know better came up “How much is your bike worth mate?” they weren’t smiling “Never you mind” I said, nor was I. They weren’t looking for a showdown, just inquisitive I guess, “Come on let’s go to the pub” and off they went.
Barmouth-Caernarfon-Menai Bridge: Leaving Barmouth with the evening sun coming through the clouds, there was a grandstand view of the mountains up ahead. I knew I should make it over Snowdonia with some light left for the views. Sure enough I made the climb to Rhyd-Ddu with the sun low in the sky, dazzling in the eyes and making the valley and mountains look like they were made of gold! OK, a little poetic license there. By the time I got down to Caernarfon it was dark.
I had gotten out the battery pack and charging lead for my GPS unit but realised I had brought the wrong lead. My GPS was running out, but I still had the paper route sheet on the handlebars to navigate from. At the 24hr petrol station at Menai Bridge I stocked up on supplies, as I knew I wouldn’t pass an open shop until morning. Had a chat with a guy and his girlfriend, she refused to believe I was riding back to Bristol – surely I lived round the corner and was just having them on! He had done an Ironman triathlon himself and did believe me, with a handshake and best wishes I set off.
Menai Bridge-Llanberis-Betws Y Coed-Dolgellau: Going up Llanberis Pass, I could make out the black shapes of the mountains looming up all around but not see any detail. It was completely still and quiet. Once or twice I heard a bird of prey. Despite getting warm on the climb, I could feel that the temperature had dropped, it was a clear night. As I had thought, it would not be possible to stop for rest, it was too cold. I set music playing in my earphones, I concentrated on that and the miles ticked away. Most of the night was on main roads, no navigation issues. I got into Dolgellau around 7 am. Nothing was open, apart from a bar playing music, looked like a lock-in from the night before. I decided not to knock on the door for coffee.
Dolgellau-Newtown-Llandrindod Wells: Out of Dolgellau the route headed up a long and steep lane. Half way up I had to get off and walk the rest, but at least I had properly warmed up after the chilly night. The sun was out. Then some nice smooth A road, before being pitched into some stunning countryside that reminded me of Cornwall. That and the fact that the lanes either went up, or down, never flat. Shortly before Newtown I got dozy so I laid down in a field and set the alarm for 1 hour. But in 30 min I was awake and feeling surprisingly refreshed, especially after an early lunch in Newtown. Newtown to Llandrindod Wells was a blast along the A483, after the long but very steady rise out of Newtown, the road seemed to be downhill all the way or flat, most enjoyable.
Llandrindod Wells-Hay on Wye: I had been making good time, I was seeing myself getting home early evening. This leg was only 35km, however that proved to be deceptive. This section was pretty but some of the most challenging riding I could imagine. The majority of hills, and they were constant, were too steep to ride on my fixed gear (I was using 67″), I did a lot of walking. The road surface in some of the lanes was very poor. A couple were gated roads across farmland, public rights of way but clearly never used by cars, only sheep. Some steep descents I had to inch down on the brakes, or get off and walk down. A signpost mentioned on the route sheet no longer existed, so I got lost and spent quite a while searching around in what seemed like a Bermuda Triangle of lanes. When I was finally spat out of this maze at Hay on Wye it was 7 pm. For a moment I wished there was a train station there. Then common sense took over, I had 75km and nearly 6 hours to do it in, not a problem.
Hay on Wye-Monmouth-Chepstow: Leaving Hay I was soon on foot again as the lanes to Craswall that run parallel to the Gospel Pass twisted steeply upwards. However it was then a long flat and downhill fast blast in the dusk through lanes to near Abergavenny. Up, up, up again, then down into Monmouth. After all the tricky lanes crammed into the second day of the ride, Monmouth to Chepstow is a kind final section along the A466 Wye Valley, well known to Bristol cyclists of course. I was starting to see things, the dark shapes of overhanging trees looked like cartoon figures. I used the music in my earphones to focus. To wake myself up I rode as fast as I could up the final hill from Tintern Abbey, and then the ride was done, bar the spin back to Bristol.
This is a great route. Having done both, I was a little surprised at how much harder it was than the calendar event of the Bryan Chapman, but also was not disappointed by the breathtaking scenery. Would I do it again some time in future – yes. On fixed again – no, I’d like to ride all the hills properly. On my own – This was an adventure that took me close to the limit, we all come back from that “other place” feeling refreshed and stronger, company would make it even better no doubt.