This is the Chairman’s epic tail of the Epic ride around mid-Wales on 7th October. This was a 90 mile sportive and a dozen Wheelers took part – read all about it.
Knighton and Rhayader
Good grief, is that my alarm clock already? Itâ€™s only 6.30am and itâ€™s still dark! Breakfast is at 7.00am so that we can get an early start to the ride. Our landlady, Penny, having cooked a huge dinner for the six of us the previous night, is now cooking enough breakfast to last us for several days. Perhaps she knows something about this sportive ride that we donâ€™t. After breakfast we sort out the bikes and set off into town to meet the rest of the Wheelers who are taking part in this Welsh challenge.
The start at the Community Hall in Knighton is a lot more relaxed than the â€œmass startâ€ Dragon Ride that we did earlier in the summer; just set off when youâ€™re ready by riding across the timing chip reader mats. Having taken a group photo at the town fire station, we wait till 8.30am for late arrivals from the Club (who fail to arrive) then set off. The climbs start straight from the town with a 1.5km drag which the group tackle at a brisk pace; much too brisk for me (and Steve Hesketh) so early in the day. Over the top and we have a cool (and I mean chilly) descent into Monaughty where we go right, along the valley of the River Lugg.
This will be a recurring theme during the day; ride along the river valley, climb out of the valley, drop down into the next river valley, climb out of the valley etc etc etc. And there are a lot of rivers and tributaries in this part of Wales; I think I counted 8 rivers and about a dozen brooks and tributaries!
The road along the Lugg valley is a pleasant country lane with high hedgerows and we turn onto an even smaller road through the village of Llangunllo; a very small village with the stone and white-painted cottages typical of the area. This road rolls along for several miles across the River Aran, River Camdwr and a few other tributaries so its either up or down most of the time.
Thereâ€™s a short fast drop into the village of Llanbister where we turn right along the Ithon valley, then left out of the valley up the first steep climb of the day. Itâ€™s not too bad really; I keep it in a low gear and start to feel that I should make it round ok despite having read the scary Cycling Weekly article about last yearâ€™s Epic. There follows a couple of long steady climbs across open moorland towards Bwlch-y-sarnau where we are rewarded with an excellent descent into Abbey-cwm-hir (no it doesnâ€™t mean â€œcome hereâ€; it means the abbey in the long valley).
Weâ€™ve now done about 24 miles and we come to the first of the â€œmarkedâ€ climbs of the day. The organisers have (very kindly!?) put a warning notice at the foot of each of the most serious climbs that we have to tackle so that we know whatâ€™s coming. The climb out of Abbey is 2.5km with a max slope of 8%; taking it steady (again) makes this an excellent climb through Forestry Commission land all around with some open moorland at the top at an altitude of 417m. Unfortunately the views arenâ€™t great as itâ€™s a fairly misty morning but at least itâ€™s dry roads; this is a good thing as the descent is very fast and thereâ€™s a tight hairpin with a very welcome warning sign placed by the organisers. We now descend gradually into Rhayader in the Wye valley.
This is the 30 mile point and the first food stop. The food area is very well stocked with home made cakes and flapjacks as well as savoury biscuits, jaffa cakes, fig biscuits and bananas; electrolyte drinks and bottled water are also on offer. There are real toilets for those in need of a different kind of relief.
Heading out of the town, suitably relieved either way, we have a major decision to make; whether to head north-west up the Elan valley or whether to take the shorter route south-east down the Wye valley. Since weâ€™re only 30 miles into the ride and feeling confident at this stage (or is that foolish?) we opt for the Elan valley and turn right to tackle the longest climb of the day.
This also turns out to be the best climb of the day; 4.5 km of climbing at a gradient no worse than 10%. We climb steadily past imposing gritstone crags on the right (reminds me of my rock-climbing days when I used to be young and foolish) with the ever present sound of water in the stream on the left tumbling over rocks and mini-waterfalls. As we gain height we move above the tree line and onto open moorland. This is now looking and feeling very remote and not unlike the Yorkshire Moors with acres (or should that be hectares?) of heather and bracken all around. Nothing moving except cyclists and sheep.
Over the top of the climb, at 488m our high point of the day (Rhayader was 200m), and onto a short sharp descent round a couple of tight hairpins we speed down to the â€œPont ar Elanâ€ at the northern end of the Craig Goch reservoir. The bridge is a metal girder construction with metal plates to ride over. I slow down in case the plates have any sharp edges waiting to present a pinch-puncture to the unwary but neednâ€™t have worried, itâ€™s a fairly smooth crossing.
Naturally enough, since we have just crossed the River Elan, the road starts to climb again but this time itâ€™s not bad. The next few miles are gently rolling roads around the reservoirs and past three of the Victorian dams. There are in fact five reservoirs; three on the Elan, one on the river Claerwen and one (the Caban-coch reservoir) where the Claerwen river effectively flows into the Elan. This reservoir system is a superb example of the scale of civil engineering achieved in Victorian times. The initial system was begun in 1893 and took eleven years to complete, employed over 50,000 men and now supplies over 300million litres of water per day into Birmingham. The Claerwen dam was added just after the second world war. The biggest dam is the Caban-coch which is 37m high and 186m long and all built without a JCB, although they did lay a railway line specifically to transport the thousands of tons of material needed for the dams!
The water is mirror calm as we ride by, giving us terrific reflections of the dams, wooded hills and heather fields as we cycle along. We see a few cars here (not seen many at all so far) as there are still a few tourists around despite the lateness of the season. We spot a Range Rover with number plate R8 BEE and I am reminded that Warwickshire bee keepers take their hives onto the heather moors in the Peak District during the summer, to give more flavour to the honey; I wonder if they do that round here.
All too soon we pass the last dam (Caban-coch) and follow the river back towards Rhayader, the good news is that we are now about half way through the ride. A right turn through some very narrow single track roads takes us to Llanwrthwl where the Elan meets the Wye. We turn onto the main road and follow the Wye valley for the next few miles. After the beauty of the Elan valley this seems pretty tedious, but itâ€™s only about 5 miles to Newbridge on Wye. This is where the River Ithon meets the Wye and we cross the Ithon again (we crossed the Ithon back at Llanbister about 40 miles ago) and of course start the next climb.
Food Stop Number Two
This is quite a steep one at 14% but doesnâ€™t last long fortunately. We reckon we have done about 55 miles to here and the next food stop must only be 5 miles along the road. This is a nice quiet road but it drags up somewhat and weâ€™re wishing the food stop would appear. Looking ahead we see the road turns fairly sharp right and there is an organisers warning sign. As we get nearer we realise it says â€œSmall chainring?â€ and as we round the bend we see why. The road rears up so quickly that if you were still in the big ring you were in trouble. This is actually a very short climb but so steep (20%?) that the â€œ100m to the food stopâ€ sign near the top is a life-saver.
The second food stop feels like itâ€™s in the middle of nowhere. The view is tremendous but the most astounding thing is that up on this desolate spot there is an army of helpers who have set up tables stocked with food and drink just to look after these lunatic cyclists struggling up Gilwern Hill hour after hour! All the same food and drink as we found at the first stop is available and Iâ€™m sure it helped most of us get through the final 30 miles.
In fact we have just climbed the edge from the Wye/Ithon valley onto a huge stretch of open moorland looking toward Kington in the east and Hay-on-Wye to the south-east. The range of hills stretches as far as we can see; the food stop is at about 350m altitude and most of the hills around us (which we have to cross) are 450-500m which makes it all look pretty impressive. There are in fact several peaks above 500m with the highest being Gwaunceste Hill at 542m; fortunately the road doesnâ€™t go right to the peak so maybe we should be ok.
We set off after a relaxing food break and head downhill again, this time weâ€™re heading to the village of Hundred House (a complete misnomer as there are about 6 buildings and one of those is the pub!) in the valley of the River Edw. Now we are heading for Glascwm where there is supposed to be another tough climb. The road drags up away from the river and Iâ€™m thinking this climb isnâ€™t too bad as we reach Glascwm village. Little do I realise! This is another village typical of the area; a very small farming community at the foot of Gwaunceste Hill with two hills either side, both called Little Hill!
From â€œThe Wallâ€ to the Finish
We have to climb the more easterly of the two Little Hills and this is another complete misnomer!! As we leave the village I spot a very large warning sign in the distance, placed by the organisers. I canâ€™t read it at first but as we approach I see that it says, in very large letters, HILL WITH MAX SLOPE 25% !!!! The hill is dead straight in front of us and is littered with cyclists walking and pushing their bikes. I say walking but in fact they are finding it very difficult to walk in cleated shoes on this slope.
I carry on riding and wonder how far I can get before climbing off/falling over. Iâ€™ve no idea how long the climb is; I was so stunned by the 25% bit that I didnâ€™t notice the length! I get in amongst the walkers (it looks about half way up) and they all start to clap and cheer me on so I feel duty bound not to climb off. I grovel my way to the top at little more than walking pace but I make it and try to smile for the sadistic photographer whoâ€™s waiting at the top. That was easily the toughest climb of the day and I made it â€“ wow! â€“ Iâ€™m starting to feel quite pleased with myself.
I know there are more hills to come in the final 25 miles but Iâ€™m starting to feel â€œquietly confidentâ€ as they say. The next descent takes us down to another river (surprise?), the River Arrow, where we turn along the valley which makes a nice change. We get to Newchurch where we do cross the river and climb but itâ€™s quite a short climb and the next few miles across to Gladestry and Presteigne are gentler and almost flat in places.
At Presteigne we are back to the River Lugg and the organisers sign says 8km to go, but I know itâ€™s 4km up hill and 4km down. The last village of the day is Norton which looks the kind of place where I could build my retirement cottage. Apparently Presteigne was once voted the best place to live in Wales but Norton must be a close second. The road gradually climbs into the village past the Gothic style St. Andrews Church on the right, opposite the remains of an early Motte and Bailey settlement thought to date back to around 1068. Norton actually lies between Offaâ€™s Dyke and the current border with England so the Motte and Bailey will have been one of the many border castles built in an effort to maintain peace in the border areas, known as the Marches.
But enough of the history, I have a hill to climb as the road is now reaching upwards just outside Norton for the last climb of the day; the organisers sign says 12% for 2.5km. Knowing itâ€™s the last effort of the day I push it as hard as I can and manage to keep a good pace to the top (at least it feels good to me) and nobody overtakes me so thatâ€™s a plus point for the day. At the top the organisers sign says â€œdownhill all the way from hereâ€ and I put it in top gear and finish in style (no photos so youâ€™ll have to take my word for it).
I roll smartly across the finish mats and deliver my timing chip to the organisers; my computer says weâ€™ve done 94 miles. There is more food on offer in the Community hall; soup, coffee/tea, cakes, rolls etc. and a large crowd of hungry cyclists making the most of it. I ring my wife to check she is back at the B&B where we stayed the previous night and ride up to meet her. We load the bike in the car and drive 80 miles back to Warwick. It seems to be a long drive and then I realise that we have actually cycled more miles today than we drove in the car. Great stuff!!!
The Autumn Epic has turned out to be a great day out. Itâ€™s certainly not to be recommended for the unfit but nowhere near as horrendous as the Cycling Weekly article made it sound. Extremely well-organised with sign posting and marshalling which make it virtually impossible to get lost, well-stocked food stations, almost traffic-free lanes, some challenging climbs and wonderful scenery: exactly what a sportive should be all about.
For those who want to see how we all got on here are the times and standards awarded to the Wheelers:
Lance Ravenhill 06:00:35 Gold
John McGuire 06:01:14 Silver
Val Ravenhill 06:02:45 Gold
Dominic Harrison 06:03:15 Silver
Kenneth Gregor 06:11:45 Silver
Sean Collins 06:20:13 Silver
Steven Hopkins 06:24:05 Silver
Dave Collins 06:32:15 Silver
Roger Pratt 06:43:24 Silver
Steve Meredith 07:14:46 Silver
Steve Hesketh 07:40:05 Bronze
Adrian Osborn 07:44:43 Bronze