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Velo Wales

In the book of Genesis, God said: “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.” And it was so. God called the dry ground “land”, and the gathered waters he called “Wales”.

In the book of Genesis, God said: “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.” And it was so. God called the dry ground “land”, and the gathered waters he called “Wales”.

Day one of five began on a sunny August morning in Bristol when we rode out of the city and over the Severn Bridge. “We” is me (Sam), Jack, Steve, Tim and Tom – a band of late-20s (one 30) lookalikes on lightly-laden road bikes. The challenge after a long lockdown: 440 miles over five days and some serious hills.

It was a century ride that took us through Newport, the Afan Valley, Neath and Swansea en route to Gower. The highlight was the Bwlch-Y-Clawdd Road: a three-mile climb up into wet, cloudy air amongst grazing sheep and pine forest. The winding road averaged a 6% gradient, topping out at around 13%, and probably had enviable views. Emerging from the misty hilltop, we hurtled down the other side into needling rain until Jack punctured on a cattle grid at the bottom.

The fix was slow and Tom refused to stop moving, designing himself a tiny loop through a nearby village which he claims added another 10 miles to his day.

Later, with the rain still falling, we attempted to shelter from one particularly heavy downpour in a bus stop. It was here my sopping wet iPhone flickered into the final Apple screen of death and never worked again.

But the rest of the day’s ride went smoothly enough. I punctured in Swansea before we made it onto the seafront and into the Gower to the safe haven of Steve's Mum's house. There, we basked in the generous hospitality, gobbling down a giant homemade curry and enjoying a well-deserved night's rest.

[103 miles; 8,000ft; 7 hours]

 

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Day two was both bad and very good. Before we made it out of sight of the house, a spoke snapped on my back wheel. We were already en route to a bike shop in Swansea on account of Tim's brake blocks, which were about as thick as beer mats.  We pulled off the spoke and unhooked the brake to stop it rubbing and pressed on. The “proper” bike shop was closed - this being a Sunday in South Wales - and Halfords had no spare wheels or spokes. Likewise, Go Outdoors singularly failed in helping us fulfill their stated mission. But we couldn't spend all day looking for spare parts so pressed on regardless.

Riding past Swansea train station, the thought did cross my mind that perhaps I should cut my losses before my wheel inevitably burst into flames on top of a mountain. But no quitting allowed. We were expecting friends to join us to help film the trip, the guys said, and they could bring a spare wheel. So crossing my fingers (and remaining spokes), I kept on going.

This keeping-going was handsomely rewarded with arguably the best day of the trip. A long climb up Trichrug and we got the first taste of what we came for in the Brecon Beacons. The sun (yes!) shone on our backs as we wound up the long, sweeping hill with the town of Brynamman falling away behind us. And Wales just kept delivering all day, with warm dry weather, majestic countryside and perfect roads. The route around the glinting Llyn Brianne reservoir seemed other-worldly with pine tree forests and colourful patches of heather. The climbing was hard and spiky and the descents fast and winding.

The scenery proved so distracting that I forgot to eat and bonked halfway up a hill. With bloodless face and trembling limbs, my climb slowed to a crawl. In a scramble to salvage the situation – there was a window of mere minutes to turn it around – I dragged myself to the top and crammed my face with half a malt loaf, a flapjack, a handful of Haribo and a gel. It seemed to do the trick, and my legs returned.

Jack hit the same wall later on when he ran out of water, but we all lumbered on to the Miner's Arms in Pont-Rhyd-y-Groes. A shower, roast dinner and a pint later and we split into two hotel rooms. Tim, Tom and I shared and so began the first night of the stretching-in-our-pants club—a touring ritual that, in hindsight, might only have been me in my underpants.

 [86 miles; 7,200ft; 6 hours]

 

The beauty of the line

Strava is a wicked little app and records about as much data as you could ever need when riding your bike. But my brain gets disinterested in numbers rather quickly. It's a simplistic and  easily-pleased brain, and the more I take on these multi-day cycling trips, the more I focus on drawing the longest, most-nonsensical line my legs can possibly manage.

To ride from your front door in a singular direction and find yourself somewhere you’ve only ever driven to before, is a hugely satisfying endeavour. And the reward? Well, it's to find the first place possible to sit down and ogle that marvellous orange line you’ve just drawn across the country.

The straight bit as we crossed the bridge, the wiggly mountain pass, the spikey bits where we U-turned and went the wrong way. All those memories are written in that line, and then the next day you draw another.

The stats and the numbers are alright; they serve a purpose. They help us stick to timings, preserve energy and give us a gauge on fitness. But none of that stirs conversation or much emotion. What we all sit down and talk about at the end of the day is the line – the route that took us to where we would rest, the bits we passed on the way and the stories each twist and turn gave us.

Jack Davies 

Day three started wet, and as soon as we left the inn, we arrived at the Devil's Bridge. Riding must give way to tourism on occasion, and we paused on the bridge - towering above a winding and rocky waterfall - as Tim read us the story of the old woman who couldn't cross the river. Striking a deal with the Devil that he would build a bridge in exchange for the soul of the first living thing that crossed the bridge, she got to cross the river with dry feet, and he got a mangy old sheepdog. Tom, uninterested in folklore, once again rode around in circles to keep warm.

As we got underway, the rain continued in torrents. At the top of one climb on which I got dropped, my back wheel punctured again. I was alone with no phone (see day one) and no pump (I, the slowest rider, was not one of the designated carriers – learn from me). I could do nothing but shuffle down the hill in my cleats until a miracle appeared in the shape of Steve, riding back up the hill to save me.

Further joys of bikepacking awaited us in the next town, where four of us huddled shivering in the doorway of a Co-op supermarket as Jack, without telling anyone where he was going, answered a call of nature – a solid nature – in a bush in the car park. 

We pressed on to the Stwlan Dam, and damn, finally we had some dry skies. Here, we met a couple of friends, Fin and Josh, who supplied me with a true new back wheel and helped us film Velo Wales for the day. We rode up the gated road of the dam, a beast of an up-and-back climb that you’d only contemplate if you enjoy pain. At just under two miles with almost 900ft of elevation gain - the gradient averages out at 10% - it literally looks like a tent on the Strava map. We made our way up the steep road at our respective paces with a genuinely majestic view of the valley behind.

After that, the day's riding got markedly better with dry, rolling hills and quiet roads. There was a sense of rediscovering the joy of cycling after grinding through the grey, but we still cut the route short because we were behind schedule. Nobody wants to make that decision, and it makes for tense group discussions that can feel like admitting failure, but it's vital to be realistic.

In Bala that evening, we had dinner at an Indian restaurant and split into two hotel rooms – me, Tim, Tom and Steve in one, and Jack in the other. It seemed odd to be split into a four and a one and, the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced Tim asked for it because of Jack's snoring.

[95 miles; 9,000ft; 6 hours 45 minutes]


 

Ode to a teacake


Oh I do like the teacake, 

Oh I like how they… taste.

Oh I do enjoy a teacake, 

And the calories they replace.

Sold four to the case, I ate fifteen teacakes 

From the Gower to Hay.

But I’ll always remember 

That one I gave away.

Oh I do like the teacake, 

I miss them every day.

Tim Lages

 

 

Ode to a teacake


Oh I do like the teacake, 

Oh I like how they… taste.

Oh I do enjoy a teacake, 

And the calories they replace.

Sold four to the case, I ate fifteen teacakes 

From the Gower to Hay.

But I’ll always remember 

That one I gave away.

Oh I do like the teacake, 

I miss them every day.

Tim Lages

 

Day four began with applying more wet lube onto our too-wet, too-lubed and now blackened drivetrains. The riding was good, starting off dry over rolling rural hills, around a lake and through a farming valley. But this blissful interlude didn't last, and the injury monster reared its ugly head in the form of Jack's ankle. A mystery pain that flared up when pressure lifted off the joint, it was worse than grin-and-bear-it, and even a lunch of pills couldn't keep him moving at his usual pace.

After a brief break beside some donkeys, we climbed out of the sunny valley into torrential rain. From that point on and with our heads down, a lot of the riding was a blur. But I do recall stopping off at a village shop where the boys ate a Subway in angry silence, and I spotted a poster advertising a 'family bike ride' laughing at me through the window.

Pressing on with pace-maker Tom mashing the pedals on the front, the rest of us wakeboarded on his wheel, trying to get some numbers down while we had nothing to enjoy. Pulling over in a town in the Elan Valley, I had so much water in my eyes and on my brake pads that I slammed into him in the middle of the road and embarrassed everyone.

Deciding to take the direct route to the B&B, we stopped first for our daily dam - thankfully blessed with a patch of sunshine - and then pressed on to Llandrindod Wells where we stashed our bikes in the back-room of the pub—a blackened mafia-cave with photos of boxers on the walls, a pool table and a blind dog.

Steve tried to order ten veggie burgers for the group, but they didn't have the right ingredients, so instead we went to a Chinese takeaway - stopping for chips on the way - and ate on benches at the side of the road, watching the sun set behind the aftermath of a car crash. We all then bunked down together for the first time, in a room with a four-foot-high door in a warped hallway that could have been built by Salvador Dali. The sleep came fast and deep.

[78 miles; 6,600ft; 5 hours 40 minutes]

 

Day five. Jesus Christ, day five was awful. In a fun way, but still awful, as it rained an inconceivable amount.

Starting with the best memory first, Gospel Pass to Hay Bluff was one of the most fun climbs I think I've ever done. Although not particularly steep at an average of 5%, the climb was long – 5.5 miles – and on a quiet rural road in sheep territory.

The second we crested the hill and started descending, what we thought was fog turned into a veritable wall of rain. The descent was about 20 miles long and it was the most gruelling and unrewarding 20 miles imaginable. It rained so hard, I daydreamed about towels. I couldn't stop thinking about how much I had taken warm, dry skin for granted, and if it weren't for my nostrils, my brain would have flooded.

My brakes didn't work - the levers were pulling to the bar - there was so much grit in the drivetrain I could only use three gears and my headset felt like a pestle and mortar with every turn. We plugged on and on and on in a sodden chain gang like demented storm-chasers until, finally, we saw England. We’ll be safe there, we said; England is good to us. England simply doesn't have this much water.

Pushing on at a frantic pace – Tom had to make it to his Mum's birthday party – we eventually crossed back over the bridge and into Bristol. One last climb towards Clifton, which Steve somehow trounced as if he hadn't noticed the last five days, and we were home.

Goodbyes are strange after these trips and produce a post-holiday blues that make the following days feel lonely and aimless. The morning-to-night focus of cycle touring is so immersive that once it stops, your life becomes confusing and without direction. You want to get back on the bike, round the guys up and go again. Even the suffering only takes a couple of hours to take on a rosy tint in the memory.

Take me back. Even to day five – I don't care, I'll do it if I have to – but please take me back.

[80 miles; 7,500ft; 6 hours]

 

On navigation

Navigation is something the group takes seriously. I don’t mean in a nautical, discovering a new land, follow the stars type of serious. I mean the type of serious in which you design a route to see cool things: dams, bridges, hills, rain, drunks, rain, sheep, shops, rain etc.

But we also take it seriously in the sense that we look out for one another—saying which turns we’ll take and when. Often, though, we are all following our own maps just so we can break down the route ourselves and chunk up what is ahead.

On the last day, when Tom was in a particular rush, he didn’t have his mapping on and missed a turning we’d all taken. He got REALLY angry. Sort of full-on, red-faced and evil-eyed. I’d noticed that Tom hadn’t taken the turning early on but thought he’d just stopped to grab a bar and would catch up.

I waited around for a couple of minutes, eating a bar myself. After a while I got concerned and did what anyone would do when waiting for a friend on the side of a road by a park—I went on the swings. Five minutes later, still no Tom, and now bored of the swings, I noticed I had about 11 missed calls and a message from Jack saying “Tom’s angry”.  

I found Tom about five minutes later when I went back along the route on my bike. He was angry and had almost every right to be. It didn’t take long for him to calm back down and start enjoying the trip again; these things are easily forgotten. But I am pleased he didn’t catch me on the swings.

Tim Lages

Film and photography by Friction Collective / Ride journal by Sam Blanchard 

Film and photography by
Friction Collective

Ride journal by
Sam Blanchard 

PURCHASE

Volume 12

A tribute to Nanu
Project type
Finding Myself
Project type
Tokyo Tree Trek
Project type