Star date: 7 Apr 2013
Location: Llanwrtyd Wells
Event: Red Kite Devil's Challenge 60k
Weapon of choice: Carbon singlespeed with dropper post and suspension forks
Greatest achievement: Winning!
Greatest weakness: Bonking!
You know those wildlife films where they follow some lonely furry critter that keeps limping on forlornly through the desert, getting thinner and thinner and slower and slower, until you start screaming at them to put the poor blighter out of its misery and end up having to turn the telly off?
That was me, that was. However...
Did I mention that I won?
OK, so it wasn't a race, it was an event, a challenge. But I went as fast as I could, I wasn't the only one to do so, and I was first back over the 60k course, so I think it's fair to treat it as a first win.
That said, a challenge it was. Forty miles off-road in the Cambrian mountains with a whopping 7,500 feet of climbing and some really long, physically demanding descents. I've ridden further, but I've never climbed as far or descended as fast. It was an absolute beast - and, until I hit the wall, an absolute blast!
The climbs were both numerous and endless, but mostly on fireroads with very manageable gradients (except for some prat on a singlespeed who increasingly found himself hopping off the bike to conserve energy as the race went on). Of course, what goes up must come down - and the descents certainly made all the climbing worthwhile. They were fantastic. Enduro trails, rough doubletrack, singletrack old and new, a bit of everything. Steep, loose, rocky, rooty. Bedrock, mud, grass, snow. And all very rideable, thanks to the amazingly dry ground conditions. It would've been a very different story in the wet!
I've previously ridden four MTB Marathons in Wales and the descents have seemed few and far between, a little bit safe, ultimately a little bit disappointing - perhaps because they have to cope with up to a thousand riders, often in seriously wet weather. Today's course felt like what a marathon ought to be. Descent after descent after descent. Untamed and fun. Proper wilderness riding. It was an absolutely wonderful course, and although I currently feel like I'm never going to be able to ride again, I really hope I can do the next Red Kite challenge in the Elan Valley on 9 June, which promises to be even better. Apparently it will also have an insane 130k option, which I have to admit is very tempting...
Just after the start. The calm before the storm. Photo: Red Kite Events
Of course, it was supposed to be a gentle ride, a chance to get some miles under my belt, get my mojo back, chill out and enjoy the stunning Welsh countryside. Especially as I was also beginning to lose the fight against a full-on man-cold. In fairness, I did have enough self-control to stick to the plan and do the 60k route, not the 80k. Nutter that I am, though, I chose to race it.
Unlike lapped races where you do everything three, four, five times and the course becomes etched into your brain, this was one big - BIG - loop and most of it is frankly a blur. It started with a big fireroad climb, naturally enough, and obviously I went up it faster than I should have, turning onto the first descent on the wheel of the leader and eventual clear winner over the 80k route, Gareth Payne. The first section of this descent was something of a baptism of fire - snow-covered ruts - but set the tone for the day. There followed many more climbs, a little rough moorland riding, a couple of stream crossings, and lots of loose, eroded enduro descents. Good old-fashioned mountain biking.
I never saw Gareth again after the first descent and rode the first half of the route in and around a group of five riders, including a couple of guys who've beaten me in XC races this year, so I was clearly pushing hard. I wasn't afraid to walk steeper climbs from the off, which would drop me back a little; whereas on gentler climbs I would catch up and push ahead; and on flat bits they'd sail past again, taking advantage of those infernal gear thingies all the young people seem to have these days. I also rode a couple of descents in the midst of this group, but I still find it hard not having a proper view of the trail ahead and having to trust the rider in front to have picked a sensible line. I was convinced my time was up a couple of times as rocks or drops appeared out of nowhere at speed, but ultimately my only two offs of the day were slow-motion affairs in unexpected pockets of mud and due entirely to a lack of concentration.
Stock photo from the Brecon Beast on last year's sunny day. Sadly no action photos at the Devil's Challenge, but it looked pretty much like this (except for the odd snowy bit).
Then, around 30k in, we went wrong. While shooting down a long fast fireroad descent we followed arrows pointing right and charged down a lumpy enduro trail through the forest. The more eagle-eyed among us smelt a rat. Yep, said arrows were indeed the wrong colour, orange not red. Turns out that after the Red Kite organisers marked up the course on Friday, someone had come along and put out a load of otherwise identical arrows for an upcoming motorbike event. We carried our bikes back up, meeting more riders coming down the fireroad and had one of those "what do we do now" pow-wows. Back up the big hill or carry on down? Eventually a local rider arrived who knew where we should be going. Best part of ten minutes lost, but at least we were on the right track again.
By now we had become a bunch of about 20 riders. I felt a bit flat - all of that effort staying with the leading group (bar the runaway leader) for nothing. There were some very good racers there and they'd had an easier ride so far.
There followed a short section along the A483 to cross from the Irfon Forest into the Crychan Forest for the second half of the ride. We rode this peloton-fashion, right on each other's wheels. Strangely enough, we'd been talking in the car on the way over about how hard drafting is and how MTBers never really do it. Cue salutary lesson in why they shouldn't. One clash of knobbly tyres and... yes, over they go like dominos across the road, other riders piling in from behind. It was real cartoon stuff. Luckily nobody was hurt, so it was OK to find it funny, if not to laugh out loud, and it was just what was needed to lift my mood.
So, another forest, another ****ing fireroad climb. But it's a good gradient for my gearing and I soon start pulling away from the main group. A bike passes me - sure enough another nutter on a singlespeed - but then drops away. Where did he go? Half-way down the next descent, two riders emerge from a side-track ahead of me. Where did they come from? I lose them too on the next fireroad climb.
Gazing up at the Alpine contours of the Sugar Loaf without wandering off the road is a familiar challenge on the drive up from Llandovery to Llanwrtyd. At one point today, though, the challenge was gazing DOWN at it without wandering off the trail...
I rush through the feed station at 40k, topping up my water bottle and grabbing a bit of cake I can't swallow. What happened to the others? Only one guy is with me now. Another strong climber, but I have the better of him on the descents (now there's a novelty). Eventually, though, just before the 60/80k split, I have to let him get away, as my back wheel keeps working loose and rubbing on the frame, so over goes the bike and out come the tools.
I rode the last 20k entirely on my own. I continued to enjoy the descents, but the climbs were getting very lonely and increasingly painful. After a while I started to lose it mentally as well as physically. I bonked. Big time. I just wanted to lie down across the fireroad and wait for someone to come along and call an ambulance. I couldn't turn the pedals. I could barely get off the bike without falling over. I forced myself to walk on, reminding myself over and over that this was my shot at a first win, it was mine for the taking, everyone else would be tired too, I just had to keep going. So on I went, driven by fear as much as anything, the fear of blowing that chance, and praying no bugger comes up the track behind me. One foot in front of the other, but increasingly like someone doing the walk-in-a-straight-line test after 15 pints. Urging myself on, fighting the delirium, the lethargy, telling myself that the climb couldn't go on forever. Except it could, and did. Around every corner, it seemed, lurked another ascent.
I never thought I'd say it, but bonking isn't fun.
The sun was out now too. My gels, energy drink and water were all gone. The tumbleweed was a-tumbling and the vultures were a-gathering. I was one of those guys lost in the Outback, cracking up both literally and figuratively, first walking, then stumbling, crawling, coughing blood, drinking their own pee, that kind of thing. (Not sure how they do it, though, to be honest. I drank 4½ litres of water during that race and didn't need to wee once!) I was just about to curl up and die when I remembered that I'd stashed an extra energy gel with my tools just in case. This lifted me psychologically (it wouldn't have had time to work physically) and got me to the top of the Hill from Hell.
I then freewheeled down the other side to find myself... at a feed station! Now on the one hand this was a really good thing - more food and water and a breather - and in hindsight it was probably what got me over the finishing line. On the other, it was worrying as there wasn't supposed to be a second feed station on the 60k route... And it was the same feed station as before, only approached from the other direction... And there were no arrows saying where to go, and the volunteers didn't know where I was supposed to go... Initially they tried to get me to do another loop of the bit I'd just done, and in the end they had to ring up to find out where to send me... I might have seemed a little tetchy... Sorry...
Another stock photo. The next generation takes the teddies for a spin. I could've done with a lift at this stage.
The break and the food gave me a second wind, but what happened next was downright cruel. I thought I was on the home straight. The long and winding road down the valley must surely lead back to base, what with my Garmin showing the 60k almost up. But no, the course turned out to be more like 65k and there was a whole extra off-road section to come, complete with a couple more climbs. And, thankfully, a couple of fun descents. As the first rider through I catch a couple of marshals napping. Shit, there's a rider. Bloody hell, he looks knackered. I ask how much further. Dunno comes the reply.
More confusion about the route ensues as I ride over my first-ever level crossing (imagine having to wait for a train mid-race!) and come face-to-face with riders heading towards me... It dawns on me that they might be doing the 30k route. I ask. No, they say, we're on the 80k, ha ha. Ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer.
One more climb, one more descent, and then, out of the blue, it's not a mirage, it really is a terrace of red-brick houses. Yes, that was me, riding down Victoria Road, Llanwrtyd Wells, at three in the afternoon with the inane grin and tears of joy running down my cheeks. I did it. A win!
No cheering crowds, sadly, just a man with a clipboard. I head back to the car grinning like the Cheshire Cat and await my chauffeur (well done Gareth for winning the 80k!), so glad I'm not the one driving home. My Garmin shows 66.6 kilometres completed, how very appropriate for the Devil's Challenge. It wasn't the longest but it was definitely the toughest ride I've ever done. A real epic journey and a harsh lesson in sports nutrition. 50k of heaven and 15k of hell. But I finished. And I finished first, and on a singlespeed. And I'm well chuffed with that.
Legal note: Any impression whatsoever given that the above event was a race or was ridden as such is entirely coincidental.