Monday, July 1, 2013

Red Kite Elan Valley Challenge: An offroad triathlon in all but name

Star date: 23 June 2013
Location: Cambrian Mountains
Event: Red Kite Elan Valley Challenge 82km route
Weapon of choice: Carbon singlespeed with dropper post and suspension forks
Greatest achievement: Having fun

Another challenge, not a race. And I don't think anyone raced it, what with the start being staggered over two hours and the weather really not playing ball. But a challenge it was. Not so much physically - I finished feeling surprisingly fresh and strong and up for more - but at times the wind and the rain demanded more than a little mental fortitude. Imagine the Somme, set in Atlantis.

And it really was a battle against the elements - a vicious wind gusting up to gale force, lashing rain, some even reported hail. Standard British midsummer fare then. We had a Swedish friend staying with us that weekend. No dancing naked round the maypole in the midnight sun for her this year.

I knew it was going to be wet. The wind was just the icing on the cake.

With any sane rider staying home and washing their hair, it was pleasing to see so many riders at the start and around the course - over 300 I'm told. The usual air of competition gave way to a slightly delirious sense of solidarity, a real British bulldog spirit as we united against the elements. Although my planned partner for the ride had chickened out with a broken collarbone (wuss!), I spent large parts of the event riding with others. Sometimes we'd try to chat, but more often than not the wind would steal the words from our mouths. You could tell they were saying something as their lips were moving, but in the end you just had to nod and smile and shout something back like "My hamster could pedal faster than that!" Nod, smile. "You look a right prick in that outfit!" Nod, smile. I wonder what they were saying to me in the first place.

Originally I'd planned to do a whopping 130km loop. Imagining that few others would be so crazy, meaning that help might be a long time coming if the worst did happen, I'd spent most of the previous day agonising over which kitchen sink to put in my backpack, which weighed a ton. On arrival, I found that the 130km distance had been cancelled for safety reasons. There is no motorised access to the Doethie Valley sheep track, and it was just too windy for the air ambulance, so anyone being blown over the edge by a sudden gust would have had to be carried out, assuming anyone found them. I met a few other riders during the day who had planned to have a crack at the long route, and none of them had a problem with the decision either given the conditions. I therefore decided to repack for the shorter 82km route and managed to lose all of a map and a midge band, which made all the difference, not. Fortunately Sod's law came into play - you take everything and you need nothing.

Wish I'd added these to my kit list.
Photo: Welsh natural riding guru Ambrose Hearne.

In true Red Kite style, there was no fanfare to mark our departure, just the usual man with a clipboard looking rather cold and wet. With no mass start, I was able to take it easy and warm up gradually. The first road section was easy, climbing gently and mostly out of the wind, lulling me into a false sense of security which was blown apart by the sight of the first proper climb of the day, an absolute killer known charmingly on Strava as Puke Hill. I walked every foot of it and still got a top ten time on Strava...

The next five miles were great fun as we followed a rough old bridleway into and up the valley. The only problem was something like 600 gates. This prompted some slight agonising over etiquette. How far behind does the rider behind need to be for you to (1) hold the gate open for them, (2) shut the gate on them, (3) leave the gate swinging open for them to shut?

Rather naively we were all still trying to keep our feet dry at this point, riding round or jumping over puddles and looking for the shallower lines as the puddles grew wider and longer and the track turned into a watercourse. When we started to ford ever deeper streams, though, my waterproof socks decided to switch polarity and devote themselves to keeping water in rather than out.

 Drover's road cum canal.

As we approached the Claerwen dam, we hit the first really tricky ford. It wasn't that deep but a few hidden rocks in the middle meant that virtually everyone had to put a foot or two down to guarantee a first proper soaking of the day.

The ford just before the Claerwen dam.

The same ford viewed from the top of the dam.

Yellow rider about to get wet feet.

At the foot of the dam was the first feed station, after just 10 miles, which seemed a bit early, but in hindsight it was good to get some cake inside before the next section. On a sunny day, pootling round the Claerwen Reservoir and across to the Teifi Pools would presumably have been an easy and stunningly picturesque ride - something for the family and a picnic. On this occasion, however, it was pure unadulterated hell. And with the reservoir being basically starfish-shaped, it just seemed to go on and on and on forever.

 Hell on Earth. The Claerwen Reservoir with near gale-force headwind/sidewind.

Here and there, in the lee of the hills around the lake, it was possible to ride in a normal fashion. But most of it was very exposed and it was a case of head down and grind on. Even downhill I sometimes had to stand up to get enough power down to keep moving forward. After a while I even tried applying what I could remember about sailing from reading Swallows and Amazons 30-odd years ago and tried tacking into the wind using my body as a sail, which seemed to work quite well. But while the headwind was tough, the sections with a sidewind were plain scary. To counter the wind you had to lean and point the bike sharp left towards the water and pray the wind didn't suddenly drop and send you flying over the edge for an early bath. Fortunately there were other riders dotted around at regular intervals, easy to spot in their hi-vis waterproof gear, so there was always something to aim for, someone to shout at. I think it was a collective hysteria that finally got us over the top and down into the bosom-like shelter of the valley the other side.

 Shangri-La. The descent from the Teifi Pools down to Strata Florida.

Four riders passed me as I made a hash of the descent, but we regrouped on the road at the bottom and I was pleased to see another singlespeed. See, it's not just me. The climb from the ruined abbey at Strata Florida back up to the start of the Splashes descent was long but enjoyable, rocky but grippy and never too steep, and the two of us singlespeeders soon left the others behind.

Approaching the top, enormous puddles the size and depth of duck ponds started appearing across the track - and a string of five Land Rovers out on an offroad adventure safari. Needless to say we caught them easily and passed them. How cool was that! I did half-expect them to be driven by rednecks reaching for their gun racks and taking pot-shots at us as we passed, but no, they were probably a bunch of stockbrokers up from the Smoke and very courteously let us through with shouts of encouragement. Halfway through their little convoy I managed to stall completely in the middle of one monster puddle and had to waddle through on tiptoe, which was somewhat less cool. But I'm sure they were probably too in awe of our eco-friendly manliness to notice.

I was surprised to see 4x4s make such a meal of what was, er, bread-and-butter stuff for MTBs.
Photo (from a rather drier day): Alterastro

 The Splashes were rather deeper and rather less sunny than this, but you get the idea. I think we crossed the river seven times, and it was thigh-deep in places.

The Tywi Track, also known as the Splashes, was just a-mazing. It's a really rough old rocky trail that apparently the monks used to transport wool to Civilisation rather than use the perfectly good road down to Tregaron, and is now used solely by thrill-seekers. For some strange reason the track is fairly straight, while the river it follows most definitely is not, so you just keep ploughing through it, ford after ford. I got very wet, but I just didn't care. All a bit Gene Kelly, really. I imagine the water was pretty bloody cold but I didn't register it. I'm grinning again now from ear to ear just at the memory of it. Total kids' stuff. After the last ford the track improves slightly, but I had unfinished business and found myself seeking out puddles like a big kid, pumping and splashing like an idiot.

The Tywi Track was the most fun I've ever had on a bike. Better than losing my MTB virginity on the Derwen trail at Brechfa. Better even than the descent at Cwm Rhaeadr. It was one massive slog across the hills to get there, and it would be one massive slog across the hills to get back again, but it was more than worth it. In fact I rode it again today - both ways - and it was just as good!

Feed station at the foot of the Devil's Staircase. The hardy souls manning the two feed stations deserve medals. No fancy marquees - just two people hanging around the back of a car, totally exposed to the howling wind and pouring rain. You have to assume they didn't know what they were letting themselves in for.

Next up, ironically, was a stop for water. And cake, of course, but I passed on the quiche and boiled potatoes (wtf?). We then headed up the Devil's Staircase. This was the easier side but I walked most of it anyway. A quick whizz down the fireroad parallel to the other side of the Staircase took us to the next big climb back onto high ground - 150 metres gained on fireroad in the forest and then another 150 on foot over open windswept moorland to Drygarn Fawr, 645 metres above sea level.

I set off at a healthy singlespeed rhythm past a couple of bemused ramblers (cycling in the rain is madness but walking in the rain isn't???). The track steepened near the top and I was about to jump  off and walk when I spotted a rider ahead, so I had to press on. Turns out it was fellow blogger and Red Kite/Mudtrek groupie Tom Stickland from MTB Swindon. But I could tell as soon as we got onto the moor that riding was going to be more trouble than it was worth. The ground wasn't too wet (that was just the air), but moorland is always soft and grassy enough to be hard going, and it was slightly uphill and somewhat windy, and I was on the singlespeed, so yes, I walked all of it. And I rather enjoyed it - a little bit of recovery and a chance to enjoy the non-view. This is where a 21 pound bike comes into its own.

A couple of hundred yards ahead, though, was a rider who was determined to keep pedalling. As I began to catch him I thought desperately of something nice to say that wouldn't sound too demoralising or patronising. I may have failed, sorry. With luck he didn't actually hear what I said. It was another example of the benefits of walking though - I was probably 200 yards ahead of him when he finally disappeared again into the mist.

The view from the top.

After passing two massive dome-shaped cairns at the top that really should have been manned by magical creatures offering passing travellers warmth and shelter and a soothing massage, it was now downhill, just about, and so rideable, just about. A newly acquired riding partner led the way at first until one soft patch turned out to be a big wheel-grabbing hole and sent him over the bars. Fortunately the peat made for a soft landing, but so much for the gap-straddling properties of 29" wheels.

Once off the moor, there was a final slog into the wind along a road, a long easy tailwind-assisted fireroad climb to some masts and then the best proper descent of the day, a straight blast down through the woods and out onto the impressive Garreg Ddu viaduct. Starting off a bit muddy and slippy and growing steeper and rockier, it was a great way to end the ride. A brief sprint down the road and suddenly it was all over. 130km became 82km and ended up as 75km. I was definitely good for more.

All told, it was mostly a bit of an ordeal, but I never got cold or downhearted, and the magnificent Splashes run more than made up for it all and I finished smiling. A fellow racer commented that it would've been a great course to race if the weather had been better. True, but it wouldn't have been nearly as much fun.

The crowds cheer us home at the finish.


  1. Thanks Chris for the write up. Boiled potatoes and quiche asked for by the roadies at the two previous events we did - I agree with the WTF but we try and do as requested by our riders. Well done for completing the day from hell. sorry we had to cancel the 130k.

  2. Great write up. I went over the bars on top of that hill too. 26" wheel into a hole that was hiding in the grass.