The size of Wales
The United Kingdom has given the world many great inventions, not least the globally recognised unit of measurement known as “the-size-of-Wales”. We’re all familiar with its use in tracking the annual rate of tropical deforestation, or describing the scale of slabs of ice breaking away from the Polar fringes. But now, the size-of-Wales has found a new use in my lexicon: it precisely describes the distance I am physically and mentally capable of cycling in a day.
Was I really fit enough?
I’ve got to be honest, the title of the challenge, “Wales-in-a-Day”, wasn’t exactly trying to fool anyone. The website had the blatant warning of “Are you really fit enough? If you are asking yourself this question, should you be entering this event?” Oh bugger, I’d already coughed up a hundred quid for the entry stupidly overlooking the small detail of fitness. Oh well. In the end it turned out I could actually roll out of bed at 03:10 in Caernarfon and get to the other side of the Land of Wales by nightfall, even if I did look like something off Ab-Fab at the finish line.
Not a normal Saturday
So, in the starry pre-dawn light the silhouette of Caernarfon Castle’s ramparts beckoned us to the starting blocks. Armed with our polished bikes, and ‘live tracking chips’ “So friends and family can track your [embarrassingly slow] progress across Wales [from the comfort of their living room]”, off we set.
Nuush says: Shoulda had Athlete’s Porridge!
Looking back on it, I’d describe this first 25 miles as the truly sublime part of the day. The calm waters of Llyn Padarn just before the lofty heights of the pass between the rocky peaks of Snowdon and Glyder Fawr, slightly belied what was in store. As dawn broke on the descent towards Capel Curig and Betws-y-Coed, the valley mist lifted through the trees, and the dewy grass was lit like snow. It was breathtakingly beautiful.
Well before people-enjoying-a-normal-Saturday were even thinking about getting up, we’d had a brief stop to pump tyres (bloody hell I forgot about that), stuff down some well-earned croissants, and set off on Leg 2. The character-building feature of this section was a Mt Ventoux’esque ascent darkened by swarms of biting insects. Oh how the guys at Open Adventure must have been laughing when they chose those little climbs that featured in EVERY SINGLE SECTION.
Eventually arrived at the Bala Leisure Centre feed (pie) station to the unmistakable scent of a large group of MAMILs communing around pies after 50 miles of hilly riding. This was no place for Gwyneth Paltrow and clean eating, pastry was totally in order.
The next two legs covering a further 80 miles of mid-Wales are a bit of a blur of massive ‘F.O.’ variety hills, kamikaze caravan drivers, painful arse syndrome, unfeasible amounts of FF’s, Y’s and DD’s and a lull in idle banter brought on by a new respect for the “size-of-Wales”… followed by a growing private anxiety about the scale of tropical deforestation.
OK, so this ‘category climb’, to use Tour de France parlance for a F.O. hill, deserves special mention. Coming after 150 miles of riding, just when you’re reaching the cycling equivalent of the Death Zone of oxygen starvation, is the hill-of-hills. Rising straight up from the sleepy town of Hay-on-Wye, where people idly drink tea and meander through its hundreds of sleepy book shops of a normal Saturday, is the geological bulk of the aptly named Black Mountains. Dark language, driving rain and groin-strain inducing pedalling eventually ground us over the open moors to the top of the Gospel Pass. By some mood-lifting miracle the sun broke through the clouds casting a Jesus-light over Hay-on-Wye and tea drinkers in the valley miles below.
Then came the mother of all descents. At least 10 miles of fantastic fast and furious downhill through to Abergavenny and our final feed (pizza) stop. I was done in. But was immediately handed a freshly baked pizza which I think I swallowed whole (sorry Gwyn luv). At this point the first-aid team were checking oxygen levels and pulling people out of the event but thankfully I was saved by a 9in Margherita, totally Nuush style sports nutrition.
Final leg, fired by pizza
So, in fading light, a small band of totally bushed cyclists – teeth chattering in the settling mist – headed off for the final 22 miles to Chepstow. How hard could that even be? ‘Very bloody’ as it happens. A seemingly endless ‘sting in the tail’ climb went on and on into the darkness, it was pure hellish mind-over-matter. But the stars came out once again and the lights of Chepstow twinkled far in the distance. The finish line welcome came not a moment too soon. 185 miles; 4,500 metres of ascent; 19 hours.
Sip tea or cycle Wales in a Day?
Anyone who’s never considered such a ludicrous way to spend a Saturday in July might be pondering the time-honoured question of “Why would you do this instead of going to Costa on a Saturday?”
I suppose the answer is about seeing if you can do something so seemingly unfeasible, where there’s a real possibility of failure. After the aching muscles have faded there’s the warm glow of achievement, the camaraderie of knowing there are like-minded nutters out there, the Jessica Ennis thighs, and a medal with a castle on it.
Wales in a Day 2020 is open for entries. What are you waiting for?
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Read about when Chris and Sally smashed* the South Downs Way on Mountain bikes or even bike it yourself ‘evil cackle’.
*got overtaken by runners