"Each step forward has a sacred meaning of its own"   Sri Chinmoy

Usk Grimpeur DIY - 100k Audax - October 2021

My early summer of 2021 had been dedicated to Triathlon, then the late summer saw me race a trail half-marathon and complete (slowly) a virtual marathon. So, when Autumn came around and I felt I had finally got my mojo back after all those exertions, it was time to get back on the bike for the first serious ride since I had climbed over Beachy Head at the Ironbourne race in July. With a new chain and cassette just fitted and new brake pads in, I was all ready to fly up the hills and survive the descents. I sketched out a route on Just Go Ride using their course creator and although it was 100k with around 1400m of climbing, it didn't quite qualify for AAA points. From my point of view that was not a problem - I had a target of 60 AAA to hit at some stage but that target comes with no time limit. I had 54 bagged already and a chance to score another 6 - 6000m of climbing in what they call sufficiently hilly rides, would come up soon enough. So I stuck to the route I had chosen and headed off from home early on a Sunday in early October with mixed weather ahead of me and some new roads around Wentwood to explore.

To get a lot of climbing in I had planned a route that maximised hills, so I was barely out of Bristol when the first climb came around. I descended into Almondsbury on Sundays Hill, with magnificent views over the Servern Bridge to the Forest of Dean and South Wales beyond. Next came a slog up The Scop to regain the high ground on the A38 and descend again with the same epic views from a slightly different angle on Fern Hill.

The bridge was a joy to ride as the sun began to rise behind me and I had a long descent through Pwllmeyric before turning off into the unfamiliar lanes of a National Cycle Route I hadn't ridden before. I'd fallen into a pattern of always heading north and then west from Chepstow on my previous rides, but this new route felt very Audaxy from the start, with grass growing down the middle of steep and narrow lanes. The surface was pretty broken up in places and the showery morning had turned the road messy and treacherous but my rim brakes and 32-tooth chainring were up to the task and got me over the ups and downs. I descended to Crick and Caerwent, both looking like sizeable settlements on the map but totally asleep and silent before 8am on a Sunday morning. I was planning a cafe stop later, probably in Usk, but had brought just enough bars and gels to see me through in case I ran out of fuel before I got there. I had no idea if I would have residual fitness from my seven 180k rides through the Spring and early Summer or if that would all have dissipated leaving me needing to start again with my endurance training. After years of running and riding I still haven't worked out how long training benefit lasts but I think I now know what I need to do to get it back when it has ebbed away.

The map showed a steep climb past the Wentwood Reservoir ahead of me and a signpost told me it was a 14% hill, so I was soon up out of the saddle climbing through woodland that was just starting to turn red and gold as the seasons shifted. I was looking forward to seeing those colours reflected in the mirror-like surface of the lake when I passed it, but as I came out of the trees to look down over the reservoir I found it empty. It was just a deep depression, grassed over, with a dam at one end and a dull pool of water lying in the marshy ground at the lowest point. I later did some googling and discovered it was drained four years ago to do some work on the tower and valves, but I guess the pandemic has delayed completion. Rather disturbingly a body was found during the drainage which turned out to be that of someone who went missing in 1997. Welsh Water claim that discovery has not been the cause of the reservoir remaining empty, but who knows. I watch enough police procedurals to know that the press releases are not always the whole story.....

After the lake that wasn't there, another steep climb led me back into the woodland and the road became a tree-lined tunnel leading up to a gothic doorway of brilliant blue sky at the top of the ascent. I rode up and out into the sunlight and it was one of those glorious moments of emerging into a new and beautiful space, much like when you come out of the sea or lake in a triathlon and have that overwhelming sense of emerging into the light and sound from a darker, more silent world. Once over the top I descended towards the Usk Valley looking ahead through the arc of a rainbow, one of many I saw on the ride, to mountains I could clearly recognise around Abergavenny. I could pick out the Blorenge, the Sugarloaf and a tall mountain beyond them which was probably Pen Cerrig Calch, an adversary I remember well from my hill running era. Here I hit my first big snag of the day when the road I had plotted on my GPS route turned out to be a muddy bridleway - not suitable for road bikes! I could either walk down it through the mud or ride a long detour on the road so chose the second option and had to ride out-and-back to where the surfaced road met the bridleway. It was a pleasant interlude and brought me an extra climb as a bonus, so I wasn't bothered. When I have had to do that in the past the DIY ride has still been validated as an Audax so I had no fears on that score.

Soon I was riding into and around Usk, my half way point, but nothing was open not even the bakery (10am start on a Sunday!) so I contented myself with a Ride Bar and some electrolyte drink on a bench by the river. A sharp shower encouraged me to get back on the bike rather than sit still in the rain, so I was pretty soon back on the road and riding past the windmill on to the climb at Trostrey. The route from here was undulating - in the hilliest sense of the term - with contants climbs and descents and no flats. The Monmouthshire countryside was lovely in the alternating showers and sunlight and there was hardly any traffic. The long and testing climb came at Star Hill and then I was heading over the high ground to Devauden and St Arvans. I paused to eat another bar on the hill looking down towards Chepstow Race Course and the Severn Estuary, still feeling strong and having decided not to bother with a cafe stop after all. There was only around 25k to go.

The hills kept coming and fatigue really set in at the 80k mark. Note to self - that's how far I can get without serious feeding on the bike or a proper food stop! I kept the wheels turning well enough and got myself back up Fernhill, down The Scop and up the final climb from Lower Almondsbury to finish in 5 hours and a few minutes. With the amount of serious climbing I'd packed into that ride I was more than happy with the time. The DIY guy Rob validated my ride same day (which is awesome) and also sent me a link to the mysterious AAA calculator so I can plan an AAA route next time out. I also discovered that Just Go Ride has an OS 1:50,000 map view so I can get myself a route that is all roads rather than muddy tracks as well. I call that progress.


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