The first Scott mountain bike marathon of 2017 started from the Builth Wells Royal Welsh Showground on the hottest, sunniest day of 2017 so far. 800 riders chattered together in the sun, ready to tackle the mini, half or full marathon courses. Some were looking a bit bleary eyed, having doubled up and ridden the Exposure Lights Big Night Out shorter course the previous night. This year, although bike banter bounced off the showground buildings, the mood was tangibly dampened and rightfully somber. Before the off, riders clapped loud and long to salute the life, lost far too early, of Charlie van der Craig. This is the second weekend running where I’ve raised my water bottle on the start line in memory of a lost cyclist (#bemoremike) and despite the sunshine and smiles it was a heavy-hearted ride.
It was a heavy-legged ride too, with the route tackling a rapid succession of Very Welsh brutal climbs. Soon a long string of riders could be seen criss-crossing the remote moor tops. The spongy grass was a least dry, but there was a cheeky headwind making the going tough at times. It was all worth it for the skinny singletrack descents, and for the challenge of the sheep trods clutching at the side of those magnificent (don’t-look-down) steep-sided valleys.
And the views. Did I mention the views? The early mist quickly burnt off, and the postcard landscape around Builth was crystal clear. Rolling, bracken-topped hills, tiny farms nestled in the valleys and the odd rusting piece of farm equipment mysteriously discarded. When it was safe not to look a few feet ahead of the front wheel, it was quenching to look up and drink it all in.
Rider numbers swelled when the half and full marathon courses joined back together just before the second feed station, and the anticipation of more custard creams and hunks of cake made the long, flying descent even more, erm, exhilarating. Riders jostled for position on the narrow trail and we all pedalled as fast as our bikes, brains and bodies would allow down the infamous zig zags.
Rehydrated and full of jelly beans, the final climb up past the Builth Wells quarry was too much for me, and I lost position after position, but the final bridleway descent, despite the mud, slapped the grin straight back on my face.
Finally, buzzing through the cattle sheds and deserted barns of the show ground, the sudden thump of the music shocks you back to the present after multiple hours out on the hill. Wind-whipped and trying not to look at the cool beers being drawn from the bar, I clutched my finishers tee and skulked back to the van to peel off layers of sweaty kit and rifle around in sticky back pockets for my key. I’m always sorry-not-sorry for pushing hard at these marathons; embracing the inevitable effort inspired by having a number on my bike but aware I’m missing a chance to take all day and spend longer carefully examining the view. Of course, rider times are published, that’s never the point. The marathon series is about embracing a bit of pain to remind you you’re alive; a bit of banter to remind you you’re a mountain biker, and a bit of Big Sky to remind you what weekends are for.
Interesting numbers, if you like that sort of thing:
159 riders finished the 25km mini marathon
289 riders finished the 45km half marathon
339 riders finished the 65km full marathon
Next events in the series:
28th May, Wantage, Oxfordshire
9th July, Minehead, Exmoor
2nd/3rd September, Hope Valley, Peak District