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

Cambrian 2b 207km 1.5 AAA Audax - February 2018

After racing in the heat of Siem Reap and having to pour water over myself to cool down, a week later I was out in the welsh countryside with no less than 4 layers of kit on to stay warm. While I was well prepared in terms of gear - windproof, waterproof, thermal etc - and with the bike freshly cleaned, lubed and tuned up - I was in no shape when it came to cycling fitness. My constant switching from riding to running to hiking to swimming gives me good all round fitness but not the speed-endurance you need to cover over 200k in a reasonable time. But, with 5 days back to back of this mileage due in the summer for my ride to Germany I knew I had to step back.  up to Randonneur distance. I also needed AAA points for February if I was going to make progress towards my AAA and AARTY awards on the Audax front. Cambrian 2b seemed like the obvious way to tick all those boxes, especially as it involved my favourite road and favourite climb - the Vale of Ewyas and the Gospel Pass.

I didn't get the best of starts - mistiming things in the morning meant I left the house at around 6.40 without any breakfast - but the cafe at Abergaveny station was open when I arrived at 8 so I did manage to grab a mug of tea and a muffin before I clocked out at 8.08 to start the ride. The first stage the Chepstow was on silent minor roads through the Usk Valley, crossing and re-crossing the river on ancient stone or modern steel bridges, before the long, long 16% climb. Straight after the climb the route followed a National Cycle Route on steep descent and then more climbing to Shirenewton and finally Chepstow after about 2 hours. Passing under the ancient archway at the top of the High Street reminded me of riding through the gates of Angkor Thom a week and a half earlier. From where to where? It's just an endless run/ride/climb and it takes me to so many great places. I have to admit though, it was taking me a while to adjust from that landscape of temples in Cambodia to the more familiar charm of the welsh borders. Later in the ride the beauty of the scenery really hit me, but the early stages were all on roads I'd seen a lot of on recent rides.

After Chepstow came the testing stage over the hills through Devauden and Trelleck - lots of ups and downs on that ridge route to Monmouth. I saw loads of riders, mostly in packs, all going loads faster than me, which was slightly dispiriting. Still, the goal for the day was just to cover the 207k at whatever pace I could so there was no point going for broke in the early stages. There were great views over towards the Black Mountains in one direction and the Forest of Dean in the other, then a nasty descent rewarded by a great view of Monmouth nestling among the hills. Here I knew I needed calories big time so I found a cafe in a small arcade and wolfed a veggie breakfast in no time at all as hours were ticking by and I didn't want a long final stretch in the dark. After Monmouth, the awe-insiring vale of Ewyas was coming up but first I had a lengthy stretch through the hills of the Rockfield Road and around Grosmont. I really settled into the ride here although I was tired already with less than 100k gone. Enjoying every turn of the pedals. I spotted a sign to a village called Dawn of Day - hadn't heard of that one before. The roads were deserted once I turned off after Rockfield and there were buzzards circling in the sunlight. It didn't get warm enough to shed a layer though and it stayed that way for the whole ride.

When I came out into the Vale I realised I was making slow progress but at least most of the climbing would soon be behind me. The long road through Llantony was lovely in the sunshine but somehow longer than usual. When I crawled to the top of the pass, with words of encouragement from a hiker in the layby, I realised I was looking at around 13 hours to finish the route. I've described the Gospel Pass before and I was too tired to find new words for the amazing vista you get there, so I won't even attempt it. Soon I was down through the forest and into Hay where I saved time by just checking in at the Spar (coke, lucozade, twix) before pushing on through the Wye Valley. New territory for me came soon after - I turned north at Glasbury (usual start point when I go kayaking) on a minor road following the river towards Builth. I was down in low gear and only making slow progress.

The valley road was beautiful and despite the fatigue it was exciting to feel myself edging up out of South Wales, my regular territory, into mysterious mid Wales. It did feel different. Although it was still clearly winter there were snow drops and newborn lambs in the fields to my right and a view across the valley of the middle wye below me on the left. I could see the busy a road on the other side of the valley, and felt glad that it was syphoning off the traffic leaving only a handful of cars on my side of the river.

Small ups and downs led me into Builth just as dusk was gathering and I found a cash machine easily for proof of passage before nipping back to the Burger King on the edge of town where I knew a veggie snack would be cheap and fast and I'd have a view of my bike out of the window. I checked out the train times and realised I'd be hard pressed to get the 8.55 from Abergavenny. I toyed with the idea of using A roads all the way back then talked myself out of it. Fortified by a coffee I stepped back into the cold and flew back to Boughrood in 45 mins, a section that had taken a grinding hour to cover on the way up surrendering to determination, carbs and caffeine. Here I had to take the A road to brecon. It was getting dark and drizzly and I was pretty wasted so it wasn't much fun but I made it there and calculated I could still just catch that train if I time trialled it all the way to Abergavenny on the A470 and A40. Who wants to end a beautiful ride with hours of slog in the dark on a major road? Not me, but I had no choice. I ate a bit, drank a bit, steeled myself and went for it.

It took every joule of energy I still had to push myself all the way back on the main road, trying to cycle inside the white line and to hold my line when trucks passed close. Most of the traffic gave me space to be honest which was a relief. I was willing Abergavenny to appear round the corner and finally it did. I felt like a ghost when I rolled up to the cash machine and at the third attempt managed to get proof of finishing time. I got to the station with 6 mins to spare.

That was a hard ride, hopefully worth it as I try to condition myself ready for the 1000 odd kilometres I'll be attempting in the summer. Next up, back to back days from Tewkesbury to get used to the effort of 150k the day after a 200k. That's planned for Easter so the weather could do absolutely anything.

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