Friday, 4 October 2013

What a week! - El Cap's CCC2CC

I’ll try to put into words how the week went, but I know I’ll have missed something. It was a truly epic adventure and was very challenging, both mentally and physically.

The adventure started early on Sunday morning, being picked up by Gaz from my house and then driving to Sarn Services to meet up with some of the other riders. We then all drove in convoy to Bryn Betts, which would be our eventual finishing point. The bikes and gear loaded onto the coach, we set off for Llandudno. It was quite a long drive. Having undertaken this journey many times, I knew how long it would be. A quick stop in Newtown and we continued our journey to Llandudno. After unpacking all the gear and storing the bikes for the evening, we set out for dinner in Llandudno. Unbeknown to me, my fellow riders had booked a table at a restaurant, which was decked out with banners and balloons for my birthday. They had also chipped in for some awesome birthday presents and a birthday cake (complete with candles). I was truly taken aback by the time and effort that had gone into making my 50th birthday a special one.

Day 1 – Monday

Well “someone’s” weather forecast wasn’t that accurate as we set off in overcast, misty, drizzly weather from Llandudno. Following the coast to Conwy, we had a few miles of flat trail to warm up the legs. The weather made the first section of off-road very slippery, I fell off damaging my right elbow, although technically it wasn’t an off as I was stood next to my bike and fell over. Still, first blood to me. The weather soon brightened up and became very warm. A combination of the long coach drive on Sunday and not eating enough for breakfast meant I started to suffer as the day went on and the hills got longer and steeper. At one stage, I had to get off and push up a road climb! I really started to have doubts if I’d be able to complete the whole challenge. The afternoon riding sections of the single-track Marin trail made up for the earlier struggles. We came across some stunning views of Wales.

We stopped for Fish & chips on arrival at Betts Y Coed. I have to say, this was the best piece of fish I’d had for a long time. A quick ride to the accommodation and day 1 was complete, however I felt for the first time in my life like I’d been broken on a bike. Perhaps at 50, I really should start thinking about slowing down a bit. It was then time for a shower, a quick restock of supplies from the local Spar, consume a few thousand more calories and then to bed for a good nights sleep.

Day 2 – Tuesday

After a good night’s sleep and a few thousand more calories for breakfast, I felt much better. I’d also had time to think and analyse why I’d struggled so much on day 1, it couldn’t have just been lack of food/sugar. I’d been trying to ride up hill, on a mountain bike, spinning very low gears and failed badly. So, I reverted to type so to speak. Most of my riding is on the road, climbing in much higher gears, stood up out of the saddle, using my thigh muscles to power up the hill. Not as energy efficient as spinning, but something I can do. So I started the climbs on Tuesday riding like this and felt much, much better. On the first section of single track at Penmachno, I fell off again (Crash 2), damaging my left elbow this time. The support crew were on hand and after a quick wipe and wash it was fine. Our route then took us up through an old slate mine (or miyan as Gaz would say in his heavy black-country accent). The first half mile or so was ride-able, after that it became a bit of a slog and then lots and lots of pushing up the un-ride-able sections. The views from the top though more than made up for the effort. After a quick jaunt along the road past Trawsfynnd we hit the trails of Coed Y Brenin, leading us out to Dolgellu. In past two days, I’d managed to tick-off from my riding list 3 trail centres in Wales, I’d not ridden before.

The ride through Dolgellau (as the hostel was on the opposite side of town) was a bit cruel at the end of the day, the accommodation being a mile out of the town centre. What was even crueller was that the Little Chef we’d spied within walking distance to the accommodation was closed when we finally arrived there to eat. After a quick restock at the garage of energy drinks, food, pies, pasties, eggs etc, the support crew went to town and brought back a takeaway/kebab/pizza. Not really ideal riding food, but very welcome none the less.

Day 3 – Wednesday

This morning’s breakfast was probably the best meal all week. Unfortunately, during the morning fettle, I noticed that one of the rails on my saddle was bent. This meant that the saddle wasn’t exactly level and would get more uncomfortable as the day went on. We knew there was a bike shop in Machynllyth, so I planned to purchase one on the way through. Changing saddle mid-ride isn’t ideal, but under the circumstances, unavoidable. The day started with light drizzle and another push up another climb. Through a section of rocky trail, I fell off again (Crash 3). Although in a similar way to day 1’s crash, I was stood next to the bike and fell over. Again, I was climbing well, only really struggling on the more technical sections. We had a couple of massive climbs that we had to push up today. The trails had been left un-ride-able by forestry activity. Annoying, but unavoidable.

Some of the scenery today was again stunning, riding across some very isolated parts of Wales. A quick bike shop, food shop, saddle change stop in Machynllyth and we continued on our journey. There were a couple of river/huge puddle crossing’s today. I was too tired to ride round so rode straight through them, a couple of which were very deep, much to the amusement of my fellow riders. I think, the last laugh was on them on Thursday… We finally arrived at the Nant Yr Aran trails and rode some beautiful flowing single-track to the trail centre. Another climb ensued, during which my sugar levels plummeted. So I plodded along, eating Haribos and flapjack whilst I rode. Yet another push through a country park to Devil’s Bridge where our overnight accommodation awaited. Tonight we were in a hotel. A very welcome upgrade from the bunkhouse/hostel accommodation we’d had for the past few nights. I was sharing with Steve, who converted the wardrobe into a make-shift airing cupboard to dry off our wet clothing. This worked really, really well. Our bedroom window had a stunning view of the valley below.

Day 4 – Thursday

Without a doubt, today I had the best day ever on a bike, which considering how the day progressed, is a bit surprising. A short road climb took us to some very natural trails and before long we were at the start of the Florida Strata, an ancient route that can be traversed in a 4X4 (which our support vehicles did!). It was very rocky, very wet and great fun. Riding through water over your wheels was unavoidable. Everyone was wet, but enjoying the riding immensely. I had my 4th crash today (well, at least I’m consistent), my front wheel slipping out and landing on my knee. Thankfully, I was wearing knee pads and for once, no damage done. Mark noticed my rear tyre was going a bit flat, but a quick blast of CO2 seemed to cure any problems.

At the end of this section, we turned to go along a trail skirting the valley, but were advised by a local rider that we’d be better off on the road as the trail was un-ride-able. We turned round and up the first section of the road climb, a disaster occurred. I stood up on the pedals to power up the climb and twisted the rear frame. I initially thought I’d snapped the rear wheel axle, but everything seemed intact. After a bit of “man handling” we got the wheel to be able to turn and proceeded gently to where the support vehicles were. We tried another wheel in the frame, which concluded it was an issue with the frame. After some more “man handling” the wheel was almost straight in the frame, but would move across every time I put any pressure on the pedals. So, I set out on what would turn out to be a gruelling 20 mile slog to the overnight accommodation. I had to spin easy gears to get up any incline and then just roll down the other side (there’s no flat roads in Wales to worry about!). I’d also managed to lose a cleat bolt from my shoe, so was also having trouble clipping in and out of the right pedal.

The rest of the riders were supportive, waiting at the top of the climbs for me and then offering words of encouragement and suggesting solutions every time they passed me. One of the sections of fire-road that we’d planned to use had banned riders (and walkers) so a longer detour on the road was required. The slog up Sugar Loaf Mountain had to be the low point in the whole ride for me. It was on a busy road, it was getting dark and misty, we were cold, wet and very tired. We finally arrived in Llanwrtyd Wells. During the last few miles, I’d formulated a plan to enable me to continue the ride. I had an almost identical bike at home, it just didn’t have any rear suspension and was set up for commuting, however it would suffice with only minimal rebuilding work. I phoned my wife and asked her to get my hard-tail bike out of the shed and see if my son could get the bike to me that evening. Vin and his very heavily pregnant girlfriend (Donna), drove 150 mile round trip, through the night to get the bike to me, arriving in Llanwrtyd Wells at around 11:00. You have no idea the relief I felt when they knocked on the door of the hostel with my bike. By this time, I’d already stripped the broken bike of the parts I needed. I’d inspected the frame but couldn’t see what was wrong with it. I then proceeded to rebuild a ride-able bike out of the two. By midnight I’d completed it, but I was too wound up to go straight to sleep, so chilled out for an hour or so before finally getting to bed.

Day 5 – Friday

As Thursday’s diversions had added a few extra miles to the total, it was decided to cut one of today’s sections and ride directly to Llandovery along the road. Again we rode over Sugar Loaf Mountain. The climb (for me anyways) was a lot easier on the “new” bike and the descending more so. As a group we put in some very quick miles, covering the first 12 miles in under an hour. This sort of pace continued for just over another hour and we’d done 2/3rds of the day’s ride. However, this sort of pace didn’t continue once we started on the first major off-road section. To start with Nick’s tyre spontaneously exploded, literally. A spare one had to be brought up from the support vehicles. We continued pushing up the foothills of the Black Mountains.

At the top, the trail wasn’t immediately visible and a bit of exploring around ensued until we could pick up the route. More pushing, more climbing, more walking, more punctures, more man-handling of the bikes across rivers and ditches until we finally reached the summit. From here, it was possible to see Mumbles Point and the sea. The end was in sight, literally.

A bit further on and we could see the road to the accommodation in the distance and the Landrover support vehicle parked up, a very welcome sight indeed. Even more surprising was the llamas in the field at the bottom of the descent. Again, a very welcome (if not a tad unusual) sight.

I’d struggled today with my sugar levels which had plummeted on the push up, lack of sleep and with riding the hard tail bike.

But I was thankful I was still riding as we’d lost Ben from the group today. His knee had given in to an old injury and he’d been forced to ride in the support vehicle for the afternoon. Everyone was feeling gutted for him.

At the accommodation, again there was no phone signal, but there was wifi! Everyone quickly started uploading their ride details to Strava to see who’d been quickest along the route over the past few days.

Day 6 – Saturday

There was obviously an air of excitement this morning. Everyone was in high spirits as Ben had recovered enough to complete the final day’s ride with us. Some major fettling was needed to get the bikes ride-able for the last day. We rode towards Severn Sisters and picked up the Sarn Helen route – an ancient Roman road, which consisted of lots of nice fire-road climbs and ride-able trails. I struggled on the more rocky sections of the trail, having to take my time to pick my lines. Today, we also included a new type of riding, pushing down hill! One of the sections was so cut up, wet and greasy; it was the safest way to get down. Another detour ensued and we rode the fire-roads to Resolven Dock. I got a puncture along the way. Thankfully the support vehicle was on hand as I needed a replacement tyre. It had been brand new on Monday morning, but had been worn paper thin. After a quick lunch, we headed along the canal path and then the long climb up to Bryn Betts (this was allegedly the last climb of the challenge!) We then rode the last section of single-track of the whole ride. I took this very easy, only pedalling 3 times during the whole route, standing up and taking my time.

A crash at this stage of the ride would have been tragic. We were now on the final part of our journey, the trail was easy, slightly downhill and we had the wind on our backs. In no time at all we’d reached Port Talbot.
Tired, battered, bruised we arrived at the finish line, to be met by friends, family and well wishers (and sandwiches and cake!). We crossed the line and headed straight down the beach to the actual coast and sea.

It was truly a mammoth effort by everyone involved to get 11 riders from Llandudno to Port Talbot in one piece. The support we received from our two support vehicles was invaluable; we couldn’t have done it without them. This was truly a team effort with everyone pulling together when the going got tough. And, I’m also including my wife Paula, son Vin and his girlfriend Donna (and baby bump) in my thanks. I couldn’t have finished the challenge without their help getting my spare bike to me.

I may not have enjoyed the pushing up the hills, which I may have mentioned more than once to the other riders... As I finished Wednesday’s ride, I’d seriously considered hanging up my wheels once and for all. But surprisingly after the events on Thursday, all thoughts of this had disappeared and by Friday, I was starting to consider what sort of challenge could be done next year. There are already a couple of ideas being suggested and I’ve already committed to taking part.

When I finally got home and could inspect my broken frame properly, I discovered that I’d fractured the rear stay near the gear mount. Whether it was me putting too much torque into the frame or the battering it got riding through the rivers and puddles of Florida Strata, who knows. It was a testament to the build quality of the frame that it had held together and not snapped completely. As the frame’s 13 years old, getting a replacement part isn’t going to be easy, but I will keep looking. There’s life in this old bike (and rider) still.

During the ride, I’d broken a frame, bent a saddle, lost a cleat bolt, worn down a set of new tyres, worn down a complete set of new brake pads and snapped a mudguard. This sort of challenge is as hard on the bikes as it is on the riders.

As with anything I do, I evaluate it afterwards and put together a list of lessons learnt which should hopefully be useful for any subsequent challenges:
  1. Just because it’s a bridal way, doesn’t necessary mean you could ride “an oss” up it, or a mountain bike for that matter…
  2. Shimano XT mechs work perfectly well under water.
  3. Weldite TF2 bike lube will keep your drive-train lubricated under-water.
  4. Haribos are awesome any time of the day or night.
  5. It is impossible to ride up a hill with your mouth full of Haribos and breathe at the same time.
  6. Mobile phone reception in Wales is pretty much non-existent once you’re outside the major towns.
  7. Hi5 Recover Drinks taste awful (the berry one), but they work very well.
  8. All energy gels taste the same, no matter what flavour is say’s on the wrapper.
  9. Mountain bike disk brakes and road descents aren’t a good combination.
  10. Sudacrem works.
  11. Take-Away restaurants shut at tea-time in Wales.
  12. I really, really, really hate pushing my bike up hills…
In the 7 days that we were together, I’ve made some life-long friends. I’m already looking forward to next year’s challenge and to raising even more money for Cancer Research UK.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Northern Train - Alex's CCC2CC

What an amazing week, where to begin?


I suppose Llandudno would be a good start, something Peter Dewison failed to manage. Actually, it began long before that, many months ago in a dark, secluded corner of the Bikeradar forums called "The Crudcatcher", where I posted in a thread that Gaz had started expressing my interest in the challenge. Shortly after, I decided I would definitely do it and I would have the fitness to do it, I think I must have been drinking when I made that decision.

So, not long before the ride I met up with Gaz and Stu for a leisurely ride around Afan forest in Wales on what must have been the hottest day of the year. Unfortunately 35 miles in I understeered into a corner and clipped a tree stump which sent me over the bars and left me needing 7 stitches in my right knee. This left me off the bike for several weeks and had me starting to question whether I'd manage the ride. Thankfully I continued with the idea knowing that if necessary I could jump in the support van and try and help out in other ways.

So the journey for me started at 6am on Sunday morning when I began my long trip down to Sarn Park services to meet a bunch of wierdos off the internet most of whom I had never met before. After that it was a coach journey all the way to Llandudno where the real story begins.

On arrival in Llandudno we met up with the rest of the Crudders with the exception of a certain member, in both senses of the word, where we all began to question our sanity after seeing the size and amount of hills and mountains we would be climbing up and over.

After having a meal and some drinks while getting to know everyone it was time to hit the sack and so Monday morning came, and with it the start of the adventure. If I'm honest the start couldn't have been much worse for me. While we were building the bikes it started to rain and I was starting to think it could be a bit of a miserable week. So with the drizzle continuing we set off up the road to the coast for the start and some photos. It was here I discovered my back was soaking, I knew I was unfit but I couldn't possibly have sweated that much, turns out my camelback was leaking, after much panic I realised that I just hadn't clipped the pipe on properly. Then finally to top it all off, I became the first to fall off, we hadn't even left the beach, thankfully there was no injury to myself or the bike and was ok to continue.


The rest of Day 1 involved some of the steepest hills and switchbacks I've ever ridden up and eventually it got too much and ended up having to push some sections. Thankfully what goes up must go down and we were treated to some fantastic little trails downhill too which meant I could make up for my lack of pace upwards. The route also took us on a blast round part of the Marin trail and provided us with possibly one of the best views I've ever seen.

Onwards to Day 2, and yet more steep hills, after spending the best part of an hour pushing up to the top of an old slate quarry it finally levelled out and we could see a nice track going round the side of the hill, sadly looks can be deceiving and our route deviated off this and just up one last bit of hill, feeling encouraged having being assured that after this there was only one more hill off we went. I was slightly disappointed that the descent down was by road, but still the speed going down was around 40mph so we managed to make up time lost on pushing up. To top it off as we rounded the first corner on the road the valley opened up and presented us with the most magnificent view, some stopped to take photos but even those don't do it justice, words cannot describe the scene that was in front of us. It was even better than the view on the Marin trail and is something that will stay with me forever.  Sadly there wasn't just one more climb but it was a phrase that would become very regularly heard over the week and soon became ignored much like the boy who cried wolf.


Disappointingly the night was possibly the worst of the trip for us as there was no food on site and the only place open was a kebab house in the town, the food wasn't bad but we ate late and probably didn't get the nutrition we really needed. This meant the start of Day 3 was a little harder, but undeterred, we had really started to gel as a group at this point and we all got each other going and up through the first of the long climbs up out of the valley. Once again the day involved another steep hill that required a large amount of pushing and carrying to get to the top, but this had just become standard practice for us and being so well versed in the art we made up the miles in no time at all... Again the route took us through another section of trail centre and one of the most fun descents I've ever ridden, with the words "watch out for the left turn arrow" from Tom ringing in my ears off I went trying to keep up with Rich, sadly my eyes were so focused on trying to see what was in front of me on the trail and constantly trying to find Rich ahead of me I missed the arrow but soon realised what Tom had meant when the trail just disappeared in front of me and took a very sharp left thankfully I just managed to make it round with some rather dubious skidding of the back wheel otherwise I'd have ended up in heap about 30 metres below. Day 3 was probably my favourite day in terms of what we had ridden and we were treated to a very nice stay in the Hafod Hotel at Devils Bridge. With this came the invention of Mrs Mackenzie's Amazing Rack, a patent pending product, designed by Gaz and myself to help us dry out all our clothes that we had "washed" and with the heater turned up to full everything was dry within about half an hour. If you're wondering about the name, it is derived from my uncanny resemblance to Will Mackenzie from The Inbetweeners who happens to have a very yummy mummy and the twee home labels such as Aunt Bessie's it became an obvious choice.

On the fourth day our luck with the weather ran out and the wind and rain came out in force, it was a day of 2 halves for me, the first being the crossing of Strata Florida. That was fantastic fun, a mildly technical climb followed by some tricky descents and plenty of axle deep river crossings, sadly this meant for the second half of the day I was cold and wet and this was sapping what little energy I had left, this meant the road mileage and long climb into the town where we were staying was a massive struggle for me, still Stu had broken his frame and we really had no other option but to get back to civilisation and get him sorted. Once again, Mrs Mackenzie's Amazing Rack was once again built, it wasn't quite as effective this time but still meant I started day 5 with some dryish shoes.

The penultimate day saw another section of our luck run out, we had several mechanicals including Nick's tyre exploding and Rob having about 3 punctures. It also sadly saw Ben having to reluctantly jump into the support vehicle after having his knee injury come back to haunt him. This was a massive blow to everyone and also meant I was alone at the back on the climbs. Unsurprisingly there was a long push up the black mountain and made worse by some sheep trails causing havoc with our navigation, I was starting to get extremely fed up and almost had a tantrum when I found out we had been going along the wrong track, I just wanted to sit down and give in hoping it would all go away. Still, the team spirit and not wanting to let the others down pushed me on and boy was it worth it, at the top of the last push there was an incredible view across South Wales and we could see right up to the coast. The finish line was in sight. This cheered everyone up and morale was running high that night. You could sense the relief in everyone and from dinner up until midnight where we had stayed up drinking as a sort of mini-celebration there was almost an endless amount of laughter, mainly brought on by the case of Steve's missing chips.
The late night had really affected me for the final day on Saturday, I was really struggling and barely managed a smile when the group tried to cheer me up by trying to let me loose down the final descent at Afan and assure me there really was no more climbing. Normally I'd have enjoyed myself at that point, but I was struggling that much that I had to stop half way down for a few minutes, my vision was blurring and I was struggling to concentrate on what was happening in front of me so it was an obvious choice to stop and ensure I didn't have an accident so close to the finish. The relief that spread through me when we hit the 5 mile cycle track down to Port Talbot was amazing. At this point everything hurt and ached but the thought of the finish line being so close helped block it out.

Seeing the finish line and having a crowd of people, some relatives of the group, others who were just passing and stopped to congratulate us was such an incredible feeling. We had just cycled 230 miles, we had just cycled the length of a country.


First and foremost I would like to thank Gill and Kev for being there in the support vehicles and following us all the way, even to some of the remotest parts of Wales, navigating various routes around roadworks and closures just to ensure we were all still ok. Without you this certainly would not have been possible. You deserve the same praise we are getting, if not more. Onwards to Gaz for organising and planning everything and Sarah for suggesting doing it for charity, if it wasn't for a good cause I'd have given up half way through Day 2. In fear of forgetting someone I won't go into any more specifics, but needless to say, a massive thank you to everyone who helped out in any way, I'm sure you all know who you are, (even if I don't) Thanks also go to everyone who has sponsored us and given up their hard earned cash to help others, we have raised an incredible amount of money with more still coming in.


Lastly, thanks to the fellow Crudders for such an amazing week, full of laughter, tears, frustration and joy. I am so proud of everyone and I cannot wait for the next one.