Sunday, September 21, 2014

Brecon Beast 50km: Unbeatable

Star date: 14 September 2014
Location: Brecon Beacons
Event: Brecon Beast 50km
Weapon of choice: Carbon 29er hardtail
Greatest achievement: Winning!
Greatest weakness: Following arrows
Result: 1st

You may remember that I really didn't rate last year's Beast. More than half of it was on the road, which was bizarre for a mountain bike event and desperately frustrating on a singlespeed, and the usual highlight of the event - the Gap descent - was omitted. Credit to the organisers, though, they listened to riders' feedback and came up with a really fantastic route this year.
As the eagle-eyed will already have registered, I finished first out of about 400 riders on the 50km route, woo-hoo. But I really didn't make it easy for myself:
  • 5 days before the event I spent ten hours on a rigid singlespeed taking 40 minutes off the record for the 170km Trans Cambrian Way ITT, easily the biggest ride of my life (more about that when I find the time)
  • 1 day before the event I did 40km off-piste guiding for a frustrated Dutch hillclimber in Brechfa Forest
  • A mile after taking the lead, I missed a turning and lost a good 30 places
Yep, soon after the pace car pulled over at 2½ miles, the leading pack was climbing so sluggishly I decided to break off my conversation and move things along a bit, quickly building up a 100-yard lead and keeping it for all of about a mile before missing not only an arrow but also an army cadet pointing the way onto the first offroad section. Sod's law dictated that my detour took me down a steepish hill. By the time I clocked my mistake at the next junction and got back up to the top, not only the leading pack but also a whole load of slower riders had passed through, and what would have been a clear run at a straightforward chunk of singletrack was now a sedate procession with no chance of overtaking. I just had to bite back my frustration (it was, after all, my own fault I was in this position) and wait for the next road section, where I shot off like a rocket to make up lost time.

The second offroad section up and over Allt yr Esgair above Llangors Lake was a gem: a tough 200 metre technical bridleway ascent followed by a long, fast, fun, grassy descent onto a Roman road. I was surprised to see riders in front of me struggling so badly on the climb. Yes, it was fairly steep, and it was very rough in places with steps and lumps of rock to negotiate, and a few false summits to get your head around, but after such a long dry spell there was plenty of traction, so it was entirely rideable. Some seemed to be walking pretty much from the start, but thankfully shuffled out of the way quickly enough when called. Others seemed to spin out in front of me at regular intervals, but I was absolutely determined to keep going come what may and managed to squeeze round them. Others again were still pedalling, but slowly, and it was hard at times to find the space to accelerate round them. Without wanting to blow my own trumpet (too much), I made it to the top without either foot leaving the pedals - a tribute to the power of bloodymindedness! And as the path headed out onto open moorland I finally broke free of traffic and was able to blast down the grassy descent, chasing a good rider, and only being held up a little by slower riders towards the end. It was a great descent, but probably a once-in-a-lifetime thing, as it would've been pants without all the cadets holding the gates open for us! As it was, that hill was worth the entry fee on its own.

Although it was frustrating to be held up by other riders like this and lose even more time (about five minutes in total):
  1. It turns out I got off lightly: further back there would be queues of up to an hour just to get onto these first two offroad sections, most of which then had to be walked!
  2. Beasting that climb and descent had put the smile back on my face, the chase was on.
The layout of the Brecon Beacons trails means that there is always going to be the odd long, flattish linking section (which is why I brought gears), and one of these was up next. A quick climb up through Bwlch on the road passing a few familiar faces (I was now back in the thick of things), a long gentle descent on fireroad in a group of three, and then getting dropped on the blast along the road across to Talybont, as I just don't have the thighs to compete on flat tarmac.

Overtaking on a blind corner out of Bwlch. Incidentally, the "w" is pronounced like an "oo" not an "e"!
Photo courtesy of Roy Bevis.

Next up was the Brinore tramroad - a straight, rocky, almost cobbled track climbing 400 metres up into the hills. It's a steady climb, never too steep but never really letting up and very, very long, and I did most of it standing singlespeed-style because it was too bumpy for my bottom. Nice KOM as a result. Back in my element, I soon caught and passed the riders who dropped me on the road, and then spotted a familiar figure up ahead - local rival Dylan Stephens, who I promptly caught, shadowed and dropped. I was on fire.

At the start I'd been in two minds about whether to do the long route (greater challenge, more bang for your bucks) or the short route (unfinished business after last year's nightmare). In the end I opted for the latter in light of the previous day's exertions, the inexplicable decision to have the long route's feed station as late as 50km (well beyond the range of my two water bottles), and all the extra effort I'd had to put in to catch up after my stupid, stupid early navigational error. The marshal at the split told me I was the first rider through, so it was now going to be a straight fight with Dylan. We're pretty evenly matched: I tend to have a slight edge uphill, while Dylan as an ex-motocrosser is much faster downhill, which is how he won our last duel at the Dyfi Enduro in May. True to form, I seemed to spend the next half-hour pulling away into a 100-yard lead on every climb, with Dylan then closing the gap again on the downs.

The next few miles very gradually losing height across the moors offered a welcome chance for a breather (while still pushing on reasonably hard to keep up the pressure on Dylan). With no big climbs or descents, it was a matter of ticking off the miles on a rocky moorland track that was far from taxing but technical enough to keep you entertained and avert your mind from the various aches and pains around your body. There would doubtless have been great views too had it not been for the mist.

We hit the feed station at 30km together. Luckily Dylan too needed water, as we caught the marshal napping and I seemed to spend an age frantically tearing the water bottles from their wrapping and getting one open and pouring. If I was to beat Dylan from here, I needed to top up quickly and make the break now - as I'm sure he was well aware. We both knew the route from here, and he'd be quicker on the two big technical descents and maybe also on the road sections, so I absolutely had to drop him on the climb up to the Gap.

First up was a long fireroad grind, with Dylan again sitting a constant 100 yards behind me. Then a short dash down through some forestry onto the Gap climb proper, which starts by dropping into a big hole. I got to the edge, saw the Grand Canyon open up in front of me and thought something unprintable, but quickly spotted a line on the left and plummeted down without mishap. Up the other side is a carry, though, whether you like it or not. I was just about at the top when I heard Dylan clattering down the ravine behind me. I had maybe 30 seconds on him. The time to go was now!

Only I was in no shape physically to push particularly hard. The climb up to the Gap is a long, steady slog. Both times I've done it have been on tired legs, making it feel twice as long as the two miles it actually is. It's a rough old track, with the winter rains each year adding and removing soil and gravel and dumping random stones and bits of rock here, there and everywhere. You end up weaving constantly from side to side, seeking the smoothest and most efficient line so that your rear wheel doesn't skip and skitter around squandering your limited remaining reserves of energy. Maybe on a full-suspension bike you could sit and spin, but I was out of the saddle the whole way up, stomping in a relatively high gear, effectively singlespeeding. It's my comfort zone.

The climb seemed doubly endless on this occasion because the mist meant I couldn't see the top, so I had no idea how much was left. I could no longer see Dylan behind me either, and presumably he could no longer see me. Psychologically, that must have been in my favour, but it didn't seem so at the time. I had to assume he was just 50 yards behind and keep pressing.

When I finally got to the top, 600 metres above sea level, to a welcome round of applause from some first aiders, it was time to engage the afterburners. The Gap descent is a classic. Only one corner and a pretty gentle gradient for the most part, but long and fast and rough. Bloody rough. It's steepest at the start with big random rocks to judder over. No line to follow, just point the front wheel and let the bike do the work. The rocks then get smaller, lines start to appear, first left, then right. Do you zigzag or blast straight over? Then it flattens and you have to pedal for a while. No sign of Dylan, I'd expected him to be breathing down my neck on that early moonscape, but so far, so good. Then the track heads down again. I whizzed down at warp speed for me, keeping off the brakes as much as possible and praying the bike could handle it. In places you can ride the grass next to the track for respite from the road-drill effect, but mainly it's just plain rocky. Here and there, deepish drainage gullies cross the track; I managed to hop two but hit the third hard. Luck was with me, the tyres coped. Still no sign of Dylan.

Part of the Gap descent, courtesy of Richard Li. It's really about time the council did something about those potholes...

I'm feeling bolder now. The faster I go, the smoother the track feels. A few walkers start to appear, some cyclists pushing up (and not getting out of the way!), marshals, supporters. Time to go into full enduro mode. Right off the brakes, speed is your friend. A bit more applause. Sorry not to acknowledge with a wave. I listen out but hear no applause behind me, what's happened to Dylan?! The track gives way to grass and becomes a very narrow road between tall banks, still heading steeply downhill. A car appears around the corner. Shit. Brakes on, heels down, two-wheel skid, just manage to hip-steer the bike through the eye of the needle to the left of the car. That was scary. But no time to get shaky, Dylan could be coming. Next up is a 4x4 which just stops in the middle of the road leaving me no room to ride through. Come on, damn you, move!

There's a long flat straight on the road after that, and I know that if there's still no sign of him when I get to the end of it, victory will be mine. And there isn't. I pussyfoot down the final offroad descent, saving the bike, desperate not to flat and throw it all away. Shame, really, because it's a really fun blast down a green lane littered with rocks and begging to be ridden hard, but tactics are now paramount. Into Brecon, through the town centre, overtake a couple of cars, hop off at a red light and run across as a pedestrian, stomp up the hill. Onto the sportsground, over the finishing line, another "non-race" won.

Er, hello, is there anybody there? Anyone?

Oh, yes, hello, er, well done! Would sir care for a thankfully-less-garish-than-last-year T-shirt?

Two minutes later Dylan rolls in. We wait ten minutes for third to show up but then give up and head home. Strava tells me I pulled those two minutes ahead on the Gap climb - and then made it down the Gap descent fractionally faster than Dylan (bagging 29th out of 1,200 on Strava - wow!). That's testimony to the power of fear, the fear of being caught and throwing away the win. All very negative, but I just seem to work better as the hare than the hound...

A cracking course, dusty trails, perfect weather conditions, the right bike for the job (gears for the linking sections, big wheels and suspension forks for the rocky descents), a great duel with Dylan ending in victory for me this time - and home in time for lunch! A top morning!

To see lots of helmet-cam (is it only me who wants to snigger?) footage of people riding this event a lot more slowly than me, click here.

The top 10:

564 Chris Schröder 2.35
445 Dylan Stephens 2.37
697 Ben Dunster 2.56
670 Martin Meadham 3.01
811 Matthew Challenger 3.09
525 Jamie Price 3.11
6 Stephen Trott 3.11
833 James Hargreaves 3.12
185 Alex Roberts 3.16
569 Andrew Davies 3.18


  1. Well done Chris :) Great blog too!! Shame no awesome photos though ;)