Location: Deepest darkest Wales
Event: Dyfi Winter Warm Up
Weapon of choice: Carbon singlespeed with dropper post, suspension forks and big tyres
Greatest achievement: Keeping the big boys in sight on the first climb
Greatest weakness: Getting carried away on the first climb
Result: 11th overall / 2nd singlespeed / 1st veteran
That sinking feeling when your waterproof socks fill with water you know won't find its way out again. Photo by CameraGav.
All week, of course, the worry had been snow. Would the event go ahead, and would I be able to get there if it did, but on the day almost all the snow had melted, leaving a very different problem. I knew it was going to be a wet one when I hit a 10-mile diversion to avoid flooding on the way up to Corris. What I didn’t know was that I was about to get my first taste of white-water rafting.
The snow had been a lot of fun, if hard work. It was my first proper experience of riding in the white stuff, and I was disturbed to find that in anything more than about three inches you have to pedal twice as hard to go half as fast - and that's just downhill.
Now, though, the combination of the Great Thaw and the preceding Year of Nonstop Rain had created a rush of water down the hillsides, alternately half-inching the trails we were about to ride and carving its own lines straight through them.
Reminds me of that old joke: What do you do if an elephant comes through your window? Swim for your life!
Now officially the Dyfi Winter Warm Up is not a race, and last year I did actually do it just for fun. This year, though, I wanted to go for it – my first chance to tackle some proper hills, wild descents and a decent distance on the singlespeed in anger. And I was not alone. Besides 200-odd sane riders clad in appropriately heavy-duty wet-weather gear and safety padding, some of Wales' fastest riders lined up in wafer-thin lycra, including eventual first three Johnny Pugh, Ryan Bevis and Matt Page. Arriving at the start a little on the late side, I somewhat reluctantly weave a path through the throng towards the front behind fellow Lampeter-based racer Gareth Payne. "Won't people object?" I ask. "Nah, you'll be fine," comes the reply, "as long as no-one hits you."
The non-competitive nature of the event meant no times, no prizes, not even a finishing line, and the informality extended to a refreshingly short briefing at the start: "Right, better get on with it, then." And off we went.
I love this picture. It sums up perfectly what the event was all about - if not what mountain biking in Wales is all about. Hills, speed, concentration, trepidation - and mud. Photo courtesy of Mark Wood.
The first section took us about a mile downhill along the main road behind a pace car (well, a bloke in a Land Rover). Last year I politely started near the back, which always makes the start an anticlimax. The whistle or klaxon or whatever goes off and - nothing happens. It feels like an eternity before everyone in front gets moving, and then the congestion means you're stuck behind hundreds of equally frustrated riders going not quite as fast as you or they would want to. Last year this was compounded by having the few, ahem, larger gentlemen behind me temporarily capitalising on the law of gravity and gaily freewheeling past me as I pedalled along - and then, thanks again to the laws of gravity, holding me up on the first climb. This year, though, having started near the front (unlike Gareth, I didn't have the nerve to go all the way, so to speak), I was just about able to keep up with the leaders by raising my cadence to a mere 6,000 rpm - think Benny Hill on a bike.
Leaving the main road, we were let off the leash and embarked on the first climb, a long fire-road drag to the highest point of the course. And I mean long - more than two miles of steady climbing with a vertical gain of over 250 metres. A group of riders shot off the front and I let them go, settling straight into my steady singlespeed rhythm. Singlespeed does, of course, refer to having only one gear, but on long out-of-the-saddle climbs I find there is literally only one speed you can comfortably go. Pedal any faster and you run out of puff in no time; pedal any slower and it puts too much strain on the body. Like a car stuck in third, there's a certain speed you have to go or you'll stall. Now this turned out to be about the same speed as the leading pack once they settled, so I tracked them up at a discreet distance, eventually passing a couple of riders dropping off the back and reaching the top only about 100 yards off the pace in seventh place. So far, so very good.
But then I compounded my usual poor start on the singletrack by forgetting to drop my saddle and turn my suspension on. D'uh. Stopping to sort this out promptly cost me the two places I'd gained on the second half of the climb, but at least enabled me to make it down the first descent unscathed. It was rough, loose, rocky, rooty, muddy and fun - and fortunately nowhere near as steep as the first descent last year when I completely lost control and went arse over tit in the middle of the trail with, oh, only about 6,000 riders immediately behind me.
Next up was the main circuit, a 9km loop with two main climbs and two main descents, which we had the option of completing once, twice or, er, thrice. Last year I only just made the cut-off time for the third lap, thanks to an early pinch puncture due to inept riding. Slashing the sidewalls open on the Dyfi's slatey trails is also a very real danger, so I opted for some serious rubber for this event in the form of Bontrager XR4s. Weighing in at about 2lbs each, they are twice as heavy as my normal race tyres, but did a great job.
Dame Edna lives! The glasses had to come off as soon as we got into the forest as I couldn't see a thing. Photo courtesy of Mark Wood.
The first descent on the loop proper is known as the Builth and starts off all fast and flowy curves before turning right over some tricky, slippery, polished bedrock steps onto a long all-out blast down a loose-cobbled gully which eventually spits you out onto a fireroad complete with waiting ambulance. And today half the meltwater in Snowdonia seems to have been channelled in this direction and was running down and across the trail. I'd have been better off bringing a canoe than a mountain bike. Hell, I could have piloted a gondola down there.
Keeping your feet dry was not an option - waterproof socks or not - so the big decision was whether to blithely follow the route taken by the stream of water or try to ride alongside it where possible. Now in theory water will find the shortest, fastest and easiest path down the hill, which is exactly what you're after as a rider. The danger, though, is that you never know what lurks beneath - holes, rocks, Nessie, whatever. I decided to take the plunge and plough through the water for the most part, and it worked a treat. Plenty of riders had problems with one of the stream crossings, though, by being overly cautious, as can be seen from the rather amusing video below from event organiser Peter Jones. As Si at my local bike hire emporium always tells me, speed is your friend... (Apart from when it puts you in hospital, of course).
Besides heavy-duty tyres, I put suspension forks on the bike for this event, and boy was I glad of them on the second half of this descent (especially on the third lap when my body was no longer responding to instructions from my brain). Human suspension is all very well, but when it's that relentlessly rough, even with suspension forks it's like riding a road drill.
The second big descent, after another steady fire-road climb, is known as the 3-in-1 (I assume not due to sponsorship – this is Machynlleth FFS – but because it's split into three parts by two fire-road crossings). This one wasn't rocky but was rather muddy and a whole lot of fun, barring the fake puddle at the beginning of the second section which caught me out on the second lap. Now either the Viet Cong established a hitherto undiscovered line of defence in mid-Wales or it was a relic from World War II. “Hey, Fritz, ze Tommies vill never guess ve spearhead ze invasion of Britain through ze Dyfi Forest on our MTBs – aaaaaahhh, a booby trap! I appear to have been katapulted over ze bars into a kunningly koncealed gunge tank! Gott im Himmel, isn’t zat Noel Edmonds?”.
Still, no damage done, and the reward at the bottom was the feed station, one of the highlights of 2012 – and I'm delighted to report that the flapjacks were just as good as I remembered them.
Next up was the climb back to the top of the first descent. On the first section the water had carved a winding channel down through the fire road a metre across and almost as deep, as though it were built of sand, not rock. Someone had clearly been on a health and safety course, as we were ordered to get off and push for about a hundred yards rather than being trusted to make our own risk assessment. To be fair, though, I can see the insurance implications of having half a dozen mountain bikers washed out to sea, desperately trying to inflate their spare tubes as impromptu life rafts. More sobering, though, were the odd remnants of police tape on the next part of the climb left from the hunt for April Jones. Everyone seemed a bit subdued on that section.
You'd have thought laps 2 and 3 would be more of the same, and indeed they were, but they were also very different. I was on my own for most of the first lap, but now I was regularly lapping slower riders (think me last year) and swapping places with fellow singlespeeder Sion Parry. We ended up riding quite a long way together, but from halfway round the second lap I was struggling - I still haven’t learnt to pace myself properly on (or off) the singlespeed. Sion very sportingly slowed a few times to give me a chance to keep up, but halfway round the third lap I had to insist he went on ahead – I was now properly shattered. The last big climb I was riding 50 yards, walking 50 yards, riding 50 yards, walking 50 yards.
Still, I had enough energy to enjoy the final descent and free flapjacks one last time, and then it was back to the very welcome warmth of Corris Craft Centre (albeit with a bit of a detour as we weren't sure whether we were supposed to get back there using the main road or a back road).
A year ago I would've panicked on muddy steep ruts like this and fallen off. Photo again courtesy of Mark Wood, who took hundreds of photos of the event and gave them all away for nothing.
All in all, a really enjoyable ride. Got very wet and very muddy but never got cold, as the weather was surprisingly clement bar a couple of light hail showers, and a hot drink in a proper cafe at the end was the icing on the cake. All proceeds went to charity, too, so a full-on "we're not worthy" to the organisers. I look forward to doing it all again next year - not to mention riding these descents again in the dry at the Dyfi Enduro proper in May (how's that for tempting fate?).