It’s 5-30am on an August morning and the temperature reading in the car is saying 3˚C and the little frost symbol is displayed. What. The. F*ck!? Fast forward two hours and I’m in a car park in Bala, Wales, surrounded by middle aged men (and women) in lycra, getting ready for the Wild Wales challenge. The temperature is now a balmy 6˚. I put arm warmers on, woollen gloves under my mitts, a gilet and a waterproof jacket. I’m in shorts and my legs and feet are already cold. I leave the aero shell on my helmet – not for aero purposes but for keeping-head-warm purposes, and I set off towards the start. I’m doing maybe 10mph and the wind chill is already pushing the temperature lower. I reach the football ground HQ with some other 500 riders, find a spot to park my bike and join the long queue snaking into the clubhouse. It moves fast and I soon reach the front and get bleeped in. I see a few other North Cheshire Clarion jerseys and say hello but I don’t recognise them. Then I see Gary in the queue and say hello to him. Riders are milling around nervously, drinking coffee, but I find my bike and decide to hit the road.
The chill hits me again as I am very quickly on my own, no cars. The coldness is forming little droplets of condensation on the leading edges of my bike, and on the stubble hair on my legs. It’s quickly foggy and I stop to momentarily flick my lights on.
Almost immediately, some five miles in and with cold legs, the road enters some trees and rears up maybe 20% and I climb past other riders steeply for about a mile, then less steeply for another four miles or so.
Others are cursing but I don’t mind. My legs are strong and at least now I’m warm and we’ve climbed out of the fog. The descent is fast and furious and immediately I’m cold again.
The morning is a repeat of this. Up and warm. Down and cold. Up and warm, down and cold. I reach the first control amongst an early group of riders. Straight in and out, eating a flapjack that a helper has handed me. Apparently later it will be chaos when 500 riders descend on it. I don’t like large groups of riders so I’m off again quickly.
I’m enjoying the roads. Mostly. There are few cars but many are little more than single farm tracks, so the surfaces are broken and full of gravel. Going up is challenging, with my back wheel intermittently losing traction, and going down I am wary of patches of gravel and mad sheep as I swoop in and out of bends. Still, it doesn’t stop me hitting speeds of 40mph, my hands hurting applying the brakes. I’m having fun though.
There’s another control and I buy a sandwich and a cup of coffee, the lady behind the counter slipping effortlessly from Welsh to English and back again, just to remind me where I am. The guy on the computer bleeper tells us only three riders have been through. One from Middleton CC passed me and was seriously fast, easily dropping me. It’s warmer now although not August warm, and the sky alternates between foreboding clouds and blue skies. Riders come and go as I finish my food.
I’m off riding again and it’s still up and down, up and down. My legs are tiring. I can feel the dull ache that signifies a good day’s riding. The worst/best is still to come and I start to wonder whether running a 25 cassette on the back was sensible. Should I have used my other bike or another wheel with a 28 on the back. At least I have a compact on the front. This is brought brutally to life when I climb towards a left turn and the road just rears up ridiculously. I’m looking at my Garmin and it’s saying 400 feet to the turn. The road gets steeper. I get slower. 300 feet. Grind. Steeper. 200 feet. Grind. 100 feet. I can see the turn but this must be more than 25%. I’m now seriously worried about what is to come.
At the final control I’m overhearing riders talking in hushed tones about the final hill. Hellfire Pass. Bwlch-y-Groes in these parts. It’s in the book, and gets ten out of ten for difficulty. 25 cassette. Hmm. Nobody comes out and calls me stupid but the looks say it all.
I can see the climb in the distance as I approach. It reminds me of Fleet Moss. Like a big ski jump getting steeper and steeper, and I’ve done that on a 25 cassette. Apparently it’s the highest tarmac pass in Wales. How hard can it be? I’ve just come back from the Alps on a 25 cassette.
The first part of the climb is in some trees. It’s hard, with a very sharp and steep right hand bend. I see a rider pushing and he says well done as I go past him, not much faster than he is walking. I come out of the trees and feel the gradient ease beneath me. I don’t increase my speed as I normally would, because snaking away ahead of me is the rest of the climb, and I take a breather spinning my legs.
I feel the steepness again and it’s relentless. Normally intuitive, I’m concentrating on pushing each pedal now. Most hills have gradients that ebb and flow. You feel that and take respite when it comes. There is no respite here. I’m not cold now, I’m too hot. Sweat is running down my face and flies are dive-bombing me. I spray my face with water from my bottle and it helps for a while. On and on. Grind. Grind. I can hear my Garmin beeping away at me, laughing at me. It’s set to auto-pause when my speed drops below 3mph and auto-start above 3mph and it’s beeping gives away how slow I’m going. I can see what I think is the top around some turns. I pass walkers heading down. It’s so steep they walk slowly and carefully. “Keep going,” I barely hear. I make the final turn and am met with yet more hill. Not the final turn? I flick my Garmin to the gradient screen. Still around a half mile to go. Surely not? A mistake? Please.
Another false peak with a junction. This hill keeps on giving. Relentless. My Garmin says left. I have a voice in my head now. “Get off, there’s no shame. Get off.” I don’t get off. I feel the pain in my shoulders and arms from pulling on the handlebars. I sit in the saddle and the pain disappears from my shoulders and arms and appears in my legs. The front wheel lifts. I stand on the pedals again.
Finally I think I can see the top. I check my Garmin and it concurs. The gradient almost imperceptibly flattens. I think I’m nearly there.
I crest the hill and roll over to a verge. I sit for a while. My reward is the view and a melted kit-kat I still have in my pocket from the control. Bwlch-y-Groes. Hellfire Pass. Ten out of ten.
A very fast descent and skirt around the edges of the lake and I’m back at the finish in Bala. Job done.
Ride stats : 95.6 miles in 6hrs 19m at 15.1mph average. 9,663ft ascent, 4,230kcals used. Average HR 132bpm.