It feels like an absolute age since I signed up to the 2018 edition of this event. It’s one of the most popular audaxes on the calendar and you need to fire off a cheque pretty early to get a place. I don’t think I’d even made up my mind which ultra race I’d be entering in 2018 when I sent in my application, but as luck would have it, the BCM is just over two weeks out from TAW, so a good final hurrah before the taper.
I figured that, once again, I’d ride out the day before, stay in the Travelodge over the Severn Bridge and aim to cycle back again on Sunday. This brings the ride up to 1,000km and would, I figured, by a good way to condition myself for riding long distance over multiple days, while still having time to recover.
The ride over to Wales was uneventful – it’s the same route I’ve been using for the past few weeks and once again, I arrived at Wales after a very easy, very brisk charge across the country. It was only about 7pm, so there was plenty of time to be sensible and head out somewhere for some proper food, but instead I decided to raid the poorly stocked petrol station and get an early night. An early night that turned into a soak in the world’s smallest bath tub and finally passing out at about 1am after getting too involved in whatever crap film was on the telly.
Excitement (and noisy audaxers outside my window unpacking their car) woke me before my alarm and I was quickly out of the door and on the bike. It was pretty cold crossing the Severn, but the sunrise was beautiful and you could tell it was going to be a cracking day.
After the usual milling around at the start, we finally set off and I resolved to take it easier than last year, when I went haring off up the road with Luke Allen. I settled in at mid-tempo pace and took it easy on the first slight descent… at which point a few lads came through and sat on the front. Fair enough – nothing like a free tow!
I sat in until around Crickhowell, where it was slowly becoming clear that the pace was beginning to ease and the front group was still quite large. I’m never a big fan of being in a large group on audaxes – 20 odd riders of varying abilities all desperately trying to hold onto a wheel for a free tow can get a bit messy and cars can lose their patience. Always better to string things out a little and force a bit of a selection.
The front rider peeled off to finish his turn just as we hit the short, steep ramp into the town and I figured that was the moment to string it out. I put in a dig, got a gap and held steady waiting to see how many could/would come with me. In the end, there were about 6 riders that managed to jump on and I settled down on the aerobars at a nice steady upper tempo pace, much happier with my smaller, tidier group of ducklings in tow.
We flew along, knocking out the miles with other riders occasionally coming through to do a turn. There was definitely a bit of a mix (or maybe some keeping their powder drier than others) and I was keeping myself amused timing the turns and trying to work out where I recognised the guy on the single speed from (which eventually led to flashbacks of him tearing my legs off at 3Down).
The approach to the first control coincides with a lovely long, gentle climb and my club mate Javier came through to sit on the front and pace us all up. He dropped into the small ring and set what felt like a very reasonable and sociable pace. Apparently others disagreed, however, as our group was swiftly whittled down to just two others willing to hold the pace and we ended up arriving at the control as a quartet… a good 15 minutes before it was due to open. Cue much sitting around and faffing to kill time.
Once we’d finally collected our receipts, we were back off down the road. This time with a bit of a reshuffle of group members. A Bynea rider had headed off early (but was swiftly caught) and Javier disappeared as we left. The five of us worked together to swiftly cover the relatively flat run into the next control and a couple of the riders asked about my plans for the ride. I’d not really planned ahead to work out timings for finishing AND riding back to London and in the heat of the moment suggested that getting back by 5-6am seemed to create enough of a buffer. Little ambitious there, Chris!
At the next control, most of the group made straight for the cafe, whereas the Bynea rider and myself popped to the Spar. I was expecting this to be the faster option, but there was a big queue and we ended up wasting a fair bit of time. He wasted less and was back off up the road a few minutes before me. It turns out, one of the cafe stoppers had also managed to get straight in and back out and was already up the road.
I was having flashbacks to the steep climbs due to appear in quick succession as soon as you leave town and wasted more time than I probably should have to avoid having to face them. By the time I finally set off, I had the road to myself and couldn’t see any riders up or down the road. This was probably a blessing in disguise as, at 82kg, the climbs are rather hard work and I’d probably have gone into the red trying to chase anyone in sight. I spent a very long time in my granny gear sweating and swearing and gently becoming aware of chafing in my shorts…
A short while after the climbs, I caught back up with the Bynea rider and we had a good chat about events, bikes and everything in-between, enjoying the much easier climb that comes after the reservoirs. It’s then a fantastic, long, fast descent down to the next info and we positively flew. Despite the fierce sun, the wind was strong and very cold and my kit quickly dried out and became salt encrusted. I think this might have been the moment when my shorts, saddle and backside all decided to have a fight. The chafing I had been aware of earlier was now becoming rather painful and each pedal stroke was making it worse.
I settled in behind Bynea and figured I’d earned a tow to the YHA. Climbing through Snowdownia, it got sweaty once more and my discomfort increased. By the time we were descending into Dolgellau, sitting on my saddle was pretty uncomfortable and pedalling felt like being stabbed in the arse. I’ve not used chamois cream in years and can’t remember the last time I had a saddle sore – clearly I was well overdue one!
At Kings I had a long sit, loosened my shoes a little (new Empires are still a touch tight around the toes and cause some rubbing) and started thinking about thinking about sorting my saddle issues. In the end, I did very little to remedy the situation and set back out a few minutes behind the two frontrunners.
I stopped shortly after Barmouth at a corner shop and decided to give my backside some more time off the bike as I was struggling to remain seated. After a few minutes, a Bristol rider rolled through and I figured I should probably just get on with it. There were a few more short stops on the run into Menai, but on the whole I was able to grit my teeth, stand for absurdly long periods of time and just about keep the speed up. I arrived at the control third and decided to have a proper think about what to do next (the train seemed VERY tempting).
Luckily the next rider in was Javier and he suggested we ride back together, take it easy and make the ride as enjoyable as possible. He pretty much saved my ride and I finally managed to get my head on a bit straighter and make a few changes to try to ease the saddle pain (while stupidly forgetting that I had a big patch of reskin in my bag, ready to go).
We headed off at a lovely steady pace and I sat on Javier’s wheel at active recovery pace while ticking away the miles at a very respectable rate. I took the lead at times, keen to ‘earn my keep’, but on the whole Javier was doing all the work and guiding me home.
His reward – where the route diverges from the route out, I suggested we go left… up a long, steep climb… instead of his suggestion that we take the same route back. Sorry Javier! The climbing is a touch gratuitous, but you get it all out of the way at the start and then it’s a very long, fast descent back towards Kings. Heading back the way you come means more rolling roads and a climb back up to Kings, which really wasn’t appealing at the time.
Once at Kings, we grabbed some food, put on all the clothes we had with us and set back out into the freezing night. This overnight section begins with two very long climbs and I overheated in my down jacket before absolutely freezing on the descents as the sweat evaporated back off. The down jacket had seemed like a good idea to minimise what I needed to pack, but in retrospect it was a poor choice.
At some point about 10 miles out from the next control the saddle pain became too much to take and I had to stop and wave Javier on. I’d remembered I had the reskin and told Javier I’d catch up when I’d finished ‘fiddling’. I’d stopped by a pub that wasn’t as closed as I thought and gave a local a dirty smirk with my hands down my shorts when he stepped out of the back door.
Reskin applied, I was much happier. I hopped back on the bike and set off for the next control while the temperature slowly dropped.
By the time I reached the control (around 1am), it was absolutely baltic and I could see my breath in the air. Between us, we agreed that it was probably better to stick around and get some sleep in the warmth, setting back out around 4.30 when the sun would be starting to rise and the air might be a touch warmer. I was being obstinate and hard to convince, but then the controllers pointed to the thick duvets and air mattresses and I decided to get on board with the plan.
When we stirred a few hours later, the smell of bacon filled the air and there were gentle snores from the adjacent mattresses. We got up, grabbed some food and headed out of the door as the sun was coming up and the air was beginning to warm. We’d picked up two strays, but quickly lost both when Javier took the next climb at a bit of a clip.
Simon caught us back up on the descent and we rode as a threesome for the rest of the morning. It was uneventful and pretty easy – once you’ve cracked the back of the early climbs, it’s a very long, easy down hill and then just some smaller lumps. We ran into issues finding somewhere to get proof of passage at the next control and then trying to find somewhere to grab breakfast, but eventually found an open petrol station, filled our boots and cracked out the rest of the ride.
By the approach to Chepstow, Javier and Simon were flagging, so I decided to take a couple of turns and then led Javier out up the final climb. I’d sat on his wheel for countless hours, so it only felt fair that I finish the ride by actually making a bit of effort. In the end, we got back to the arrivee at around the same time as when I first rode the BCM – only this time I’d actually had a couple of hours sleep, whereas last year I caught just 15-30 minutes while on the road.