After 2 sodden rides to start the year it was a relief to start this one in cold but dry conditions and almost daylight! Vilas and I set off from Cardiff Gate with a decent sized field for a winter ride that included a pretty big peloton from Cardiff Ajax and the usual random randonneurs from wherever (including ourselves). After A road into Newport that seemed to drag on for a while we heaved a sigh of relief heading up the gorgeous Usk Valley, a single-track lane shadowing the meanders of the river with virtually no cars, thanks to a main road running higher up the valley taking all the traffic. Perfect Audax country.
The pace was brisk and we ended up dropping off the back of the bunch before we got the first control – a garage just before Usk town centre. It was a convenient place to eat gels and flapjacks to top up my three breakfasts – I wasn’t taking any chances when it came to blowing up later in the ride. Receipts pocketed we headed through Usk and out on a valley road towards Abergavenny. I’d seen plenty of riders head up this way in the past when I’d ridden out-and-back to Usk from Bristol and now I could see why – flat, scenic, fairly quiet. Just the odd car going a bit too fast for the conditions but that’s standard. As we got close to Abergavenny the snowy mountains came into view – Sugarloaf and Blorenge had a dusting of snow but only when we skirted round the town through Govilon did we get a decent view of the main Black Mountains masif which was well covered. From here the route climbed steadily but gently past the castle at Tretower and up to a café at 75km – perfect distance for a stop. We took our time, had fantastic egg, chips and beans – and realised we were looking at a good 12 hours for the whole ride. Our roles seemed reversed from our last 200k – this time I felt fresh and Vilas was a bit knackered – so we went at a comfortable pace up from the café through the pass and down into Hay.
That climb took a while but none of it was steep, just a long slow drag past the highest of the Black Mountains, Waun Fach, before an easy descent to Hay. It was only a 25k stage but we stopped at another café to warm up after the cold descending and took our time over tea and cake – essential fuelling. Next up we turned the corner and began the return leg, sneaking through the mountains via the Golden Valley and then following the lowland route towards Monmouth. The tough part started when we turned the corner and headed for Grosmont – the awe inspiring scenery of the Monnow valley tempered by the exertion of 10% climbs.
Tired at this point because we’d really gone for it through Golden Valley and now came a bit of payback! Finally Monmouth came into view, we pretty much bypassed the town and checked in at the Garden Centre which is clearly a well known cycling haunt. Time for more food – strange pepper soup that seemed to hit the spot and my secret weapon caffeine gel – and a final chance to warm up before the temperature began to drop in the late afternoon.
It was after 4 when we left and we knew the last 52k would be a challenge. That challenge ended up being quite long because of some bad advice from the GPS which somehow reset itself and navigated us to a local stream – not sure how that happened! Then we had to stop in Usk to faff around with it some more. At that stage in the day an excuse to stop for a couple of minutes is more than welcome J After Usk the return down the Usk Valley went on for a very long time, riding towards the south with the setting sun to our left and a breeze behind us, not a bad place to be and not a bad day to be there.
We came back to reality with a shock in Newport – the route took us right through the city centre and up a 16% urban climb before some tricky navigation towards Caerphilly – then an equal shock in reverse as we hit a lane route back to Cardiff Gate that was utterly silent. Another cyclist was wending his way up the climb but otherwise there was no-one in sight. Over the crest of the rise we saw the lights of Cardiff and the dark strip of the Bristol Channel in the twilight. After a brief interaction with a residential street on the edge of town we were back on the lane up to Cardiff Gate and off-roading slightly on a rather overgrown pavement before we reached the services and the arrivee. Lovely mountain scenery and some wonderful silent valleys on this one, but rather a lot of busy B and A roads. Somehow it took us exactly 12 hours as expected, but on another day we could have smashed it in 10.30 I reckon. Yeah definitely.
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