By Emily Chappell
Last autumn I moved back to my childhood home of Mid Wales, having spent most of my adult life in London. The moment my bike was out of the removal van I was off, speeding along deserted lanes, watching my shadow flickering against the green hedgerows as I raced up the hill to meet the sunset, eager to fulfil one of my main intentions in coming home, which was to work less, cycle more, and spend the following months discovering one of the UK’s most remote and beautiful areas. The place names and topography of Mid Wales are embedded deep in my subconscious, but until now I had never bothered to explore them independently.
That evening the lanes were so empty of vehicles that at first I thought the roads must have been closed, and then quickly realized that I had made the right decision in moving, as already I was barely able to remember the stuttering mass of London traffic we’d crept through that morning.
But as the months rolled on, I found that my plan to get to know Mid Wales like the back of my hand was encountering stumbling blocks. Partly, there was the fact that I was only there half the time (or even less), otherwise constantly riding my bike from Manchester to Oxford to Leeds to Nottingham to promote my newly published book. But there was another, less tangible, far more elusive impediment, for which Wales itself seemed partly to blame. Without quite realizing it, I had grown up with a small town mentality, absorbing the minute prejudices of those around me and somehow coming to believe that – never mind the rest of the world – people from the next town were curious, eccentric and possibly dangerous, and what’s more, that any place not part of the immediate round of home and school and piano lessons was so far off it might as well have been another country.
So for the first couple of months, my daily rides took me on conservative loops from my home, along roads I already knew or half-knew, and to my embarrassment it was often visiting friends who encouraged me to explore further, as we pored over maps on the kitchen table.
“Let’s go up there!”
“What happens if we go left instead of right?”
“Where does that track go?”
Usually I couldn’t tell them, and nor could I explain the sense of danger and mystery that clung to neighbouring valleys, and how I viewed them with the same mingled excitement and trepidation with which early explorers must have done the edges of maps where ‘here be dragons’ was scrawled.
Of course, there’s another side of my character to which danger and mystery very directly appeal – the part of me who licks her lips when she sees a long road winding off into the mountains, ever wondering what might be around the next bend, or over the next pass; the part of me who still suspects there might be dragons in Wales. So it was only a matter of time before I found myself drawn to the Elenydd – a vast and empty area of the Cambrian mountains that’s probably the wildest and most remote place in Britain outside the Scottish Highlands. The very name held magic for me: el – EN – ith; pronounced with the harsh voiced fricative Welsh shares with other ancient languages like Icelandic, and for me evoking an era of druids and dragons and ancient kingdoms, when unmotorised transport and inhospitable locals rendered this tiny British peninsula even more inaccessible. What went on in the barren folds of its mountains was unknown to the outside world, only available through what its inhabitants bothered to share or record.
I spent Easter weekend trundling through this wilderness with a group of friends on fatbikes, mostly unaware of my exact whereabouts; following a man from the Pacific Northwest, who himself was following a GPS track he had meticulous created on his computer. We rolled along farm tracks and ancient drovers roads by day, slept in draughty bothies by night, and regularly paused to admire the great sweeping views that lay before us – either down into valleys green with farmland and speckled with villages, if we were on the edge of the range, or across a vast rolling landscape of featureless grassland and far horizons, if we were in its interior.
My companions had travelled from Bristol, Buckinghamshire and Scotland to explore an area that I now realized was on my doorstep, with a sensation I’ve sometimes experienced in dreams, where I revisit a childhood home or school, and discover it has whole rooms and wings and buildings I somehow never noticed while I was there; the familiar rubbing shoulders with the unknown. I had travelled the globe searching for wide open spaces without people, and here was one I’d never known of, just a couple of hours’ ride from home.
So when I realized, two weeks later, that the Elenydd was the centrepiece of a 300km audax, starting on the outskirts of Shrewsbury, it was inevitable that I’d be at the start, lining up among a hundred sturdy men in club lycra and riding off into the slowly breaking dawn, leaving a small village of frost-covered tents behind us.
I’ve not done all that many audaxes, generally preferring to ride alone, and not seeing the point of spending a lot of money getting to wherever in the country they start when I could just plan a route from my own front door – but their reputation has loomed large over much of my cycling career. Audax, as a long-distance cycling organization, predates the current cycling craze, the ultra-distance fad, and the vogue for cycling round the world as fast as you possibly can, by several decades. Long before it ever occurred to most of us that we might ride more than 100 miles on a bike, audaxers were covering twice and thrice that distance most weekends, for the sheer enjoyment – or maybe just the sheer habit – of it.
Although I’d not spent much time on this particular scene – and although, as a thirtysomething female, I stood out like a sore thumb – I felt very much at home as I worked my way through the pack towards the first control. Audax isn’t a race, but you’re free to ride as fast as you like, and some of these men were definitely in a hurry. I settled in with a small group going at about my speed, with a vague plan to take advantage of the presence of other cyclists and practice slipstreaming in preparation for some of my challenges later on this year.
We rolled and rattled along the leafy lanes, and the sun soared up into the sky, flickering through the hedgerows like a strobe light as we sped past. It was only when we arrived at the first control, Shobdon Airfield, that a surprised volunteer told us we were earlier than expected and I realized I was right at the front of the pack. But that wouldn’t last, I told myself, although I secretly hoped that I might get back to the start in time for last orders, rather than up against the 2am cut-off. True, I’d knocked out my last 300 in 11 hours – but that had been flat, and overnight on traffic-free A roads. The Elenydd is one of the most notoriously hilly audaxes, crossing the Cambrians twice, and traversing the mountain road between Abergwesyn and Tregaron that ascends the formidable Devil’s Staircase, described by Simon Warren’s 100 Cycling Climbs as ‘unrideable’. I had unfinished business with the Staircase, having been stopped just a few metres away from its base by a flooded River Irfon on a dark and stormy night in 2010. It had in some ways been a lucky escape, but I knew I would never be entirely satisfied until I’d cycled up it, preferably without stopping or putting a foot down.
The rain clouds gathered as we rode into Wales, and by the time I stopped at the control in Abergwesyn village hall (for hot sweet tea and excellent lemon drizzle cake) everything – gloves, socks, shorts and spirits – was somewhat dampened. The last hour or so had been difficult for no obvious reason, given that the worst of the climbing still lay ahead, and I was glad of the friendliness of the volunteers, who stamped my card and sent me on my way with a smile.
The road ramped up through moss-covered trees, and eventually emerged into a long steep-sided valley, clad in the familiar greens and russets of Mid Wales. Half a mile or so later I was crossing the three small bridges that, back in 2010, had had more than a foot of water surging over them, and looked more like fords. Back then my riding buddy and I had managed to wade across two of them, wrestling our loaded bikes between us, one at a time, feeling the current trying to tug them away from us and wash us all away into the seething torrents. The third bridge had no railings, and the water was even higher. We stared at it for a long time, and off into the darkness beyond, before agreeing that it was too risky to try and make it through to the Dolgoch hostel, a few miles further along the road, and wearily wading back over the other two bridges, and backtracking down the hill to look for somewhere else to sleep.
It was only now, in broad bright daylight, that I realized we’d been staring straight at the Devil’s Staircase, which would have been crouching malevolently just beyond the third bridge, shrouded in darkness, like a sleeping dragon. At the time we had no idea what lay ahead of us. But now I knew very well what was to come. Just after the bridge was a cattle grid, a sign warning of 25% gradients, and then what looked very much like a vertical tarmac wall, with one of my fellow audaxers already trudging up on foot.
After my Stooshie’s inaugural tour of Cumbria’s 33% gradients, I had figured out that the best strategy for an unreasonably steep climb was to take it slowly and so, abandoning all pride, I wound down into my lowest gear and zig-zagged my way up, taking the longest, shallowest line round each hairpin. To my amazement, I made it up the first and steepest part without having to get off and, and to my even greater amazement, the sun came to herald my achievement. As I neared the top of the climb, puffing and panting, and rather glad that no one was around to witness my glow of success and exertion, I debated stopping to remove my jacket, or at least unzip it.
Five minutes later I was glad I hadn’t. As I shot down the (equally terrifying) gradient on the other side of the Staircase the clouds rolled back in, and halfway up the next ascent I was stung in the face with a battery of hailstones, falling around me so thick and fast that soon the road was covered. Half a mile on the hail softened to snow, but this wasn’t much better. Snowflakes look pretty and gentle and mild, but they hurt like hell when you ride into them at anything faster than a crawl. Resigning myself to missing the sweeping mountain scenery I had been looking forward to, I arranged my face into a scowl, screwing both eyes to pinholes, and pedalled grimly on; dreading the descents, where I inevitably picked up speed and the snowflakes drilled into my face like icy nails, and relishing the climbs, where I could ride hard enough to stay warm, but not gain enough speed that the weather began to sink its teeth into me.
After about half an hour of this the air around me began to clear, and a tiny smear of blue appeared in the sky, hovering above the green valley that harboured Tregaron, and the cup of tea I’d begun to fantasize about. I descended between intricate drystone walls, watching the land fade from white to green around me, and then sat in a chair for the first time since Shrewsbury, enjoying the hospitality of Tregaron Bowling Club, and dribbling on myself as I tried to explain to the rider opposite me that this baked potato with beans and cheese was literally the best thing I’d ever tasted, no really, literally. Outside, as we watched, the clouds blew over the mountains towards the other riders, and shortly afterwards we got back on our bikes in blazing sunshine.
After a stiff and unrelenting climb along the B road from Ysbyty Ystwyth, I tipped over the top into the Elan Valley, and everything became beautiful again, a small, quiet road took me up and down – and up and up – among hills golden with last summer’s parched grass, climbing past shimmering reservoirs as the clouds rolled overhead and I watched patches of shade and light drifting across the hillsides around me. Although I had only cycled this way once before (in the opposite direction), I knew that we were headed for Rhayader – which is 15 miles from my house, and through which I often pass on my daily rides – and I looked forward to the moment when wonder joined hands with recognition.
Shortly after this moment, as I gathered speed on the final descent into Rhayader, there was a small snapping sound somewhere near the front of the bike, and my right-hand brake lever suddenly went floppy. Experimentally, I released the other one and tried to slow my progress using my front brake only. Nothing happened. I was without a front brake. But to my relief, the back brake seemed to be strong enough to see me down the hill in one piece. And to my great satisfaction, I happened to know that I was ten minutes’ ride from one of the only bike shops on the entire route – also my local – the estimable Clive Powell of Rhayader.
Really, I couldn’t have planned it better. I parked my bike with ace mechanic Neil, who quickly ascertained that, despite my fears I had snapped a cable, my only problem was worn-out brake pads, and offered to replace them for me while I covered the remaining 200 metres to the Rhayader control on foot, refuelled myself with a latte and a brownie. I reappeared 15 minutes later, bearing a further brownie as a bribe (got to keep your local bike shop sweet) and visibly oscillating with caffeine and sugar, delighted with how well things had worked out. There was quite simply no better point on the ride for something to have gone wrong.
As often happens, the next 40 miles or so were easier in terms of terrain, but much harder on my legs and mind and bike. I struggled through the sunny green hills of the Welsh borders, stiff of leg, gloomy of mind, and slightly nauseous from all the sugar I’d eaten. The final control seemed to arrive hours later than I needed it to, and by the time I arrived I was pedalling grimly along at walking pace, the world narrowed to nothing but my front wheel on the tarmac, the occasional beeps of my Garmin, and a haze of late-afternoon sunlight all around me.
My heart sank further when I pulled in at the tearoom, only to see a sign informing me that it was closed for the day, and a fellow audaxer filling his bottle from a tap outside.
“Oh. Is it closed?” I asked him, hoping desperately that he’d somehow have the power to reverse my fate.
He must have sensed my encroaching despair.
“No no no, it’s open! Look – the door’s right there.” And, giving me an encouraging nod, he swung his leg over his bike and pedalled off towards Shrewsbury.
“You must be Emily!” said a kind female voice as soon as I opened the door. “I’ve been hearing all sorts of things about you.”
“Oh yes?” I asked nervously, wondering what on earth people might have been saying.
“Yes – apparently you’re doing really well. They’re all very impressed.”
Oh. That was alright then – though I doubt anyone would have been impressed if they could see me at that moment. I gladly accepted a cup of tea and a plate of beef stew, and curled up miserably on a polythene-swathed chair, gradually noticing that the whole café was covered in bin bags and dust sheets, clearly in anticipation of much worse weather, and far muddier cyclists.
I swapped battle stories with riders from Brixton and Stockport, and gladly fell into place alongside them when it became apparent they were waiting for me as we embarked on the final section. We weren’t quite on the home straight yet though. The Stockport rider dolefully informed us that there was ‘one more hill’ before the long descent into Shrewsbury, and the broad shoulder of the Long Mynd reared up ahead of us. We were all tired, and naturally fell into a limping sort of rhythm: two of us chatting up ahead while one tailed along behind, struggling with their demons (or dragons); then rotating as the tail-ender perked up, and the conversation up front flagged. To our left, as we climbed, the sky faded to lilac and then indigo, and the clouds briefly flared orange as the sun sank below the horizon. After the torturous gradients of the Cambrians, the Long Mynd was a blessed relief, and we were barely out of the saddle before the road skirted the summit, and then sank into the long descent we had been promised. I finally lost my companions (being a very slow descender), only catching up with them on the outskirts of the city, where they asked if they could follow me for the final miles, as the Brixtonian’s Garmin had failed, and the Stockportian’s routesheet was no longer visible in the gathering darkness.
Slightly concerned that they’d have to reduce their pace to my crawl, I geared myself up for a final push – and then, magically, I found a doorway into that eleventh-hour energy that used to wait for me on Friday afternoons as a courier, and which fuelled my improbable sprint finish on last year’s Bryan Chapman 600. Remembering late-night drunken rides home through London’s streetlit suburbs, I flew along quiet A roads, round deserted roundabouts, and back out into the pitch-black countryside, the remnants of the previous hour’s sunset glowing on the horizon behind us.
“Is this the right way?” I shouted, as we sped round the final bend towards Upton Magna, and just as my fellow riders shouted their concurrence, I spotted another wavering light up ahead of us. With the last flames of energy surging through me like dragons’ breath, I launched a reckless last-minute attack, knowing that it wasn’t a race, knowing that no one cared except me, but wanting to end the ride on a high; wanting to savour these final moments of dizzy speed and ragged breath, before it all came to an end under the fluorescent lights of the village hall.
“On your right!” I called, as we soared past the rider, picking up the pace even more as the lights of the village appeared ahead of us. And then, with a screech of brakes and happy sighs of achievement, we pulled up outside the hall, the Brixtonian panting and sweating beside me; the Stockportian groaning along a few minutes behind. (My guilt over potentially holding them up faded effortlessly into guilt for racing on ahead of them.) It was nine o’clock; we had completed the ride in just over 15 hours.
We faded fast over our bowls of soup and plates of chilli, and within an hour I was heading out to my tent, any thoughts of racing into Shrewsbury for the last train easily abandoned when I realized I could be horizontal within minutes, rather than staying awake for another two hours, and riding another 15 miles. A couple of hours later I woke up, needing the loo, and was amazed to find the hall even busier than when I’d left it, full up with tired people who had been on their bikes minutes earlier; whereas I felt I’d in advertently stepped backwards into the previous day.