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

Castles DIY Audax - September 2020

Ahh...back on the bike and riding out towards the Severn Bridge on a mild, dry, September day. It felt pretty good. I was having a go at my first "DIY" Audax, with the aim of validating it using a GPX file, but it wasn't strictly DIY as I had borrowed the route of a calendar event and added my ride from home at the beginning and end. The whole thing must have been around 75 miles and it was going to be a mix of roads old and new, lots of climbs and lots of castles.

Once over the bridge I went down the side of cheptstow and grabbed a receipt from the Spar - with no actual GPS device and no subscription to a riding app, I wasn't sure my technology was going to work and so I had decided to control at all the towns to make sure the ride got validated. After all, it was another having-a-go-at-something-for-the-first-time thing and I wanted it to at least count for something. That Spar is on the way to everywhere and does at least give proper receipts with the date and location. If I start using GPX to validate it will save a lot of hassle in the winter - gloves off, queue up, gloves on, etc. Anyway I bought something inconsequential and took the road to Usk, rolling over hills and through woodlands  in the cool Autumnal air before the descent into Usk itself. Just before the dive down to the Usk valley floor I had fantastic views towards Abergavenny and the Black Mountains. Once down into the town I found it in one-way mode with temporary traffic lights, but I managed to get into the bakery for a vegan sausage roll (a million times better than a Greggs one, to be fair) and then head off down an old favourite road of mine. It follows the river and leads towards the mountains - what could be better?

I wasn't sure of the route and just let the GPS take me where it wanted, past a glorious arch at the gateway of an old estate then over more hills and descents towards Raglan. After so much time running and swimming instead of riding I wasn't sure if I would hit the wall at some stage but early indications were that I was in reasonable shape - I made sure I kept eating as running out of fuel is one of my regular mistakes.

At Raglan I went off-route to the castle cafe, having seen a sign that said it was open. It was well worth the diversion. Hot coffee and the chance to sit and muse in a deserted courtyard behind the castle ruins. Very atmospheric, very friendly, definitely a good ride stop. I'll be back.

From Raglan the road to Monmouth is one of those old A roads that has been superseded by a major new highway, so it is fast and smooth and virually empty of traffic. I saw more cyclists than drivers on that stretch. Riding on a weekday I had plenty of quietude and mental rest - a real chance to recharge a tired mind as well as reinvigorating the little-used cycling muscles. Monmouth appeared in the shape of the old, arched bridge and then I had to walk a large chunk of the main street as it was, like Usk, coned off for social distancing. I got off and walked it, grabbed a receipt from a cashpoint, ate a clif bar and got back on the bike to head over the bridge to Wyesham.

Here the road was familiar - the popular cycling route down the Wye Valley on its twisting A road towards Tintern. I knew I had a foray up into the Forest of Dean ahead of me though and soon enough, at Redbrook, the line on the GPS swung sharply up and out of the valley and I followed it on to a glorious climb past holiday cottages, plush old houses and even a garden with its own waterfall. Nice.

At the top I went through charming villages along the ridge, passing the castle at Clearwell before stopping off at the even more stunning castle at St Briavels. Here a tiny shop was open opposite the castle and I ate chocolate and drank electrolyte before getting back on for the final leg. I still felt pretty strong, surprisingly. The slog over the Forest of Dean was scenic and quiet and as the tongue of land between the Severn and Wye narrowed to a ridge there were more wonderful views on both sides, with the expansive waters of the estuary below me to my left and the walls of the Wye Valley appearing in gaps to my right. I rode down the fast descent off the nose of the ridge and over Chepstow Old Bridge to catch my last castle view of the day, Chepstow Castle peering down from its eminence high above the river Wye.

A final ATM and then the ride over the Severn Bridge completed the ride - I chased a couple of riders back towards town and overtook one on Fernhill but couldn't catch the other. Perhaps he hadn't done a 100k+ with big climbs. On the other hand perhaps he had...

The ride got validated from my BIKE GPX file same day, which is pretty awesome, though it turned out to be a tad shy of the 1500m climbing needed. BIKE GPX had in excess of that, but the validation is based on a standard app that measures more in line with the old method of contour counting to make it fair and consistent. Next time I'll have to climb more!

Anyway it was a lovely ride in perfect weather on roads both familiar and surprising.

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