Ever since I first started riding Audax in late 2010, there is one ride in the UK that, above all others, I knew I had to ride. The Bryan Chapman is the Blue Riband event in the audax calendar. A 600km ride from the south-east to north-west corners of Wales and back in a weekend. Allegedly based on Bryan's trips to his favourite frame builder, the ride crosses some of the most awe-inspiring scenery with some substantial lumps and bumps along the way. It is one of the most popular events on the calendar with fields in excess of 100 riders (and that is limited by the facilities at Kings YHA). It is the first calendar 600 of the year, providing a good test of early(ish) season fitness.
I wouldn't have dreamed of riding it in my first full year (2011) - I just couldn't conceive what riding 300km was like, let alone 600 in hilly Wales. Of course, it's all a confidence game and many do ride it in their first season and/or as their first 600 - brave choice, but very commendable (and it is actually a GREAT first 600!). Last year (2012) I knew I had to ride it - find out what all the fuss was about. I sent off my entry nice and early, booked rooms at the local Travelodge and put it in the diary. Then a close friend sent out a 'save the date' note for his wedding. Damnit!
So, this year, nothing except the demise of a close family member was going to stop me! I didn't feel like a real UK audaxer until I could talk about the BCM with other riders. It's more than a rite of passage - it's the ride against which all others are judged and to have not ridden it did make me feel left out of some conversations on the road.
The ride offers some very good TLC at controls - primarily based around the youth hostel near Dolleglau, which is visited at a little over 200km and back again at 400km where riders can take advantage of the dormitories and showers etc. for a proper stop.
A week of terrible weather forecasts had many riders suggesting that we were in for a terrible weekend of weather with heavy rain for at least 97.2 percent of the ride. This led to some interesting packing challenges. Having a bag drop at Dolgellau (that you visit twice) makes it a bit easier - leaving some layers and clean clothes there gave me options should things have got really bad. Does take away a lot of stress for sure.
After what was a challenging week at work, I was really glad to get away and enjoy a weekend in the hills. I took the train over to Bristol, and rode over to the Travelodge with Bianchi Boy (Steve) and found my room-mate for the weekend MattC. A bit of a natter with Matt and then sleep - only to be woken at 4:45 by my alarm. Showered and over the bridge to Chepstow to see the growing number of bikes at the community centre.
Great to see riders I'd not seen for a while, some I had seen more recently, and some I never wanted to see again ;)
A cup of tea and we were off. I'd heard the first two controls were an issue in terms of time suck due to queues (because of sheet weight of riders). So I was expecting a fast ride out. I wasn't expecting that fast though - a huge peleton shifting along at a terrifying pace. Even over the first couple of lumps and bumps, we were flying. Great fun. It wasn't really until Abergavenny when a bit of one-way action caused a split and things calmed down a little. Still, the first 70 km to Bronllys went by in a little over 2.5 hours. The queues at the cafe were already substantial, so I turned back a couple of hundred metres to a garage and enjoyed some food in the sunshine and a 19 minute respite from the crazy pace!
The next section was fabulous, travelling through the real heart of Wales (Builth Wells, Rhayader etc.) - the general trend was now up for many many km towards the Forestry Commission visitor centre Nant Yr Arian ( http://www.forestry.gov.uk/bwlchnantyrarian ) - a wonderful cafe, though the queues were indeed quite large for those arriving even 10 minutes or so after I did. I had a plate of very nice chicken curry and rice - hit the spot perfectly. As we rode around this section we saw many kites - they are also common where I do much of my riding in the Chilterns, but it was great to see more of them in a very different landscape.
We were now to push on towards the youth hostel - I had to start to think about what I was going to do after the youth hostel. The traditional route after there takes you along the coast via Barmouth and Harlech - this was part of the route that has been photographed and talked about in virtually everything I have ever read about the BCM. This year however, there was an issue. After that section, there is a small bridge at Penrhyndeudraeth that is being replaced. For the next few weeks it is impassable. This would mean around a 13km diversion. The BCM is already quite over-distance at 619km. For reasons too dull to go into here, you only get 40 hours to ride this 600 despite that over-distance. So to add another 30 or so minutes of riding for this diversion was quite an important choice as, in total, most riders would be looking at around 90 minutes of riding that you have to add on within the 40 hours - quite a lot really. Anyway, I had already got a lot of time in hand, so was thinking I would take the full route. This section was quite straight forwards with only one big climb (after Machynlleth) - so I hoped to gain even more time.
I had been warned that the single steepest hill was on the turn into the youth hostel - this is correct, and should you ever be riding the BCM make sure you are in bottom gear before you turn (probably the best piece of advice I got in the run up!).
Arriving at Kings was brilliant - lots of riders heading back out passing you, loads of people eating and drinking and chatting about the day so far etc. We were superbly well looked after, filled in a little food order form and 5 minutes later, soup, pasta, rice pudding were in front of me.
At this point, you can visit your drop bag and make any choices on different clothing for the night section etc. I was pretty happy with what I had in the saddle bag, so didn't change anything.
Away from Kings with a full stomach, ready to tackle the Pen Y Pass and onto Mennai now. Plenty of riders still coming in as I left.
I had decided to ride the coastal road even though it meant extra distance. It was amazing - such a beautiful part of the ride, I can not imagine having missed it (though most did it seems!).
Barmouth Bridge was beautiful and a real highlight!
As I passed through Bedgellert, I saw a group of three fast riders (zigzag, toby and a.n.other) - quite amazing really, I was making decent enough time at this point, but they were 80-100km ahead of me still!
The climb of Pen Y Pass was amazing - though it was getting colder and the clouds were really gathering (especially by the time I got to the top)
Nightfall was approaching, so I was keen to get off the high ground - what a descent off Pen Y Pass!
After that, the wheels started to come off a little. As night fell, I got a little bit sleepy. Not scarily so (i.e. not falling asleep on the bike). I really wasn't far from the control at Menai - so I planned to catch a bit of sleep there. I slowed a lot for the last few km into Menai - but was still there in under 16 hours - not too shabby really.
Got to the control and ate some soup before trying to get some sleep. It wasn't a stop equipped with beds of any form - so a little sleep (maybe 20 minutes or so) on a hard wooden floor was enough to get me through - or so I hoped!
The next section back to Kings was a bit of a nightmare. My 20 minutes wasn't enough. I had the dozies properly now. Whilst it wasn't cold, it wasn't warm - I tried a little sleep on a bench, but was a bit too cold. Tried a little sleep in a field, but it was a bit too cold.
I was a complete mess and moving very very slowly at this point - took me over 5 hours to cover the 80km back to Kings. I was SO glad to reach there! Despite my issues, I was still well up in time - I could afford to take some time out, eat and then get some proper sleep in a bunk. There is a strict three hour max rule on the bunks - so by the time I was there, there were bunks freeing up regularly. Those who had arrived at the peak time were less fortunate and were spread out under tables in the dining room, in the common room etc. (the smell when I opened the door to the common room to collect my bag will stay in my mind for some time to come!).
I got into my bunk and managed to get some good sleep - sadly broken by someone who decided that diving boots were a great thing to cycle in judging by the amount of noise he made tramping around the dorm. Most people are very considerate around other cyclists when trying to sleep etc. - but some are less so. Very annoying! I couldn't get back to sleep after that - so got up and had some more food before readying myself for the next day. Part 2 coming up soon!
EDIT - part 2 is here!