Stormy Days in West Wales
WORDS BY JON PARKER
PHOTOS BY ANTHONY PEASE
The days get shorter and darker. Rain and wind become the norm, and soggy riding kit and soaked shoes become a constant. It’s November, surely the most unreasonable time of year to ride a bike. But we do it, whether to take in the beauty of the amber and ochre forests, for fitness or because it’s the best racing season of the year. Or just because riding bikes is what we do.
The Clouds Gather
Events are thin on the ground though. Matt Page and A Cycling see this as an opportunity to get people out into some epic terrain and run Cross Mountain as an event for ’cross bikes or mountain bikes. I missed it last year, but saw some lovely pictures so I vowed to take part this time. Just my luck then that with a week to go, storm conditions hit Wales. With two days to go, Matt sent an email headed ‘Event Weather Conditions’. My heart sank as I imagined that the forecast high winds and heavy rain would drown the event. However, the email simply read ‘Bring a mac!’ I wasn’t sure whether I had enough waterproof kit.
I arrived early at the venue, Llandovery Rugby Club, with enough time to peruse the club jerseys and photos lining the walls and catch up with people over a coffee. The weather obviously affected the turnout but we were still a significant peloton, rolling through the town behind our police escort and onto the first climb of the day. Some of those keen riders who had lined up at the front of the field were found out early as the lane narrowed and steepened and bikes start zigging and zagging across the road in an effort to make headway. The lane turned to mud, but always headed upwards and onto the first open mountainside.
The Wind Blows
From this point onwards my memory gets a little hazy, I must admit. I assume that my brain was blown away in the hurricane force headwind that we battled, holding tightly on to our bikes to prevent them being blown away and making tripods against the worst of the blasts. I don’t know how accurate it is, but a report later arrived that the wind varied between 40mph and 99mph. It certainly felt it.
In time, we descended off the open mountainside via a series of entertaining muddy singletrack and country lanes. The narrow ’cross tyres found traction by cutting into the deeper mud, whereas the wider mountain bike tyres slid over the top and skidded from one rut to another. One mountain biker told me later that he took offence at my overtaking him and made such an effort to get past me again that he went flying over his bars. I didn’t see this happen – probably concentrating too hard on staying in my own saddle. A little later I took umbrage at a ‘Caution’ sign. I had been manhandling my bike down a steep, slippery hillside, trying desperately to gain some control over my bike. I ranted into the wind about the stupidity of putting the sign halfway down the slope, slid around the bend and saw the vertiginous drop that was being ‘Caution-ed’. I stopped ranting, dismounted, and carried my bike gingerly down, feeling rather chastened.
This part of mid-Wales is spectacular. The bald, grassy mountaintops don’t give any shelter from the wind, but they do provide huge views when you have the visibility. The surrounding farmland is lush and verdant, evidence of the rainfall that Wales is famous for. And it feels remote. Farms dot the landscape, with muddy, narrow lanes connecting them, but the main inhabitants seem to be the kites and buzzards.
Diversion out of the Storm
As we were battling through the storm over the mountain I had been mulling over the prospects of repeating that section, albeit in the opposite direction. Cross Mountain has two routes: 52km, which is the one I was down for, and a slightly less hilly 38km. Both followed the same basic route with the longer one diverting away twice, the last diversion repeating the mountain again. My doubts as to which route I should take were settled when, after two hours, I arrived at the first diversion at 22km. Although I was thoroughly enjoying the ride so far I knew that I wouldn’t enjoy being out in the storm for another three hours so I jibbed out and headed right. And two days later, as I write this I have no regrets. Another three hours in that weather would have made me carrion for the red kites and ravens to feast on.
In my memory, a few days after the event, the route was a confusion of muddy climbs and tracks, interspersing open hillsides with muddy bridleways and steeper technically challenging sections. There was a lovely section around the Usk Reservoir, far too short, but it led to the first of the feed stops.
It’s a heavy ride
A special mention should be made of the two feed stops. Soup, French bread, sausage rolls, cakes, fizzy pop, tea, coffee and water.
What more can the food-loving cyclist possibly want? My only concern was that I could actually put weight on during the ride if I indulged myself.
However, putting weight on was probably low on my body’s agenda. The 38km took me three hours and it felt like a marathon ride. I arrived back at the rugby club soaked through, muddy, but with a yearning to ride the route again. Unfortunately, a lot of it is on private land so this isn’t an option. If I had one critique of the event, it is that it would be a beautiful ride on a dry, warm summer day, but I also have a feeling that this event will live long in my memory simply because of the struggle against the weather… so maybe November is the correct time to ride it, simply for the sheer epic-ness. How can 38km be classed as ‘epic’ I hear you ask? Come and ride Cross Mountain next year and pray to your cycling gods for a storm. Then you’ll see.