Tuesday, 2 September 2008

A Black Day in the Mountains?

Having returned from France, I suppose it was inevitable that I would end up feeling a little flat and purposeless. This continued to the extent that very little time was being spent on the bike, and something had to be done about it.

Cue a late entry onto the Tour of the Black Mountains Sportive, starting from near Abergavenny. Scheduled for Saturday 26th July, we set our plans, and were joined on the start line by the British Summer (all 1 day of it!).

In truth, this event was (for me) the final confirmation that the Etape weather was in my favour rather than against me. Setting off at about 8:00 in the morning, the sun was already beating down and by the time we reached the top of the first climb of the day, the Gospel Pass, there were already beat-up riders sitting at the first 'summit' pouring perspiration. At this point I was already happy to let people pass, knowing that I would regret it later if I didn't. Somewhere along the road to the Gospel Pass I passed a 110kg Bumble Bee, but more of Howard from Team Cycling Plus later. The final summit of the climb soon followed, and we were greeted with hazy views over the Brecon Beacons before descending to Hay-on-Wye.

The remaining section to the first feed was a mixed success. I was going along nicely sort-of in the company of another rider (losing on the drags, gaining on the flat) when another two riders joined in. 24kmh rapidly became 28. Another 3 joined, 28 became 30. Then a group of 20 arrived and things got going nicely on the flat. 40kmh was achieved, and held........until the next hill. I tried to keep up, got stuck in the wrong gear, and had to haul on the pedals to avoid grinding to a complete halt. HRM shrilly protested 174bpm (never been above that) and a fellow rider said "Crikey mate, you're going to explode!". Explode I did, and the tempting peloton receded into my now less-than-immediate future, as a speed of sensible mid-20's khm was restored. Future experience would show the damage to already have been done.

After a few km on the dual carriageway after the feed, the route returned to the lanes for an uphill drag to Sennybridge, with the attendance of airborne military hardware showing us we were getting closer. As I passed through Sennybridge an Apache attack helicopter landed about 150metres away. And I thought my Trek was an impressive piece of kit!

After the turn south into the Beacons proper the 'real' ride commenced. By this point the full-fat route riders were on their own, and I was very much on my own being amongst the slower riders (as usual). The climbing continued, and the average speed dwindled. This was very tough going.

Very tough turned to 'mental' after Heol Senni and the climb up the edge of Bryn Melin round the so-called Devil's Elbow. From the bottom, this piece of road looks impossible. Once you are on it, it is merely difficult, but at least the second feed is at the top. First impressions are that the top is a cruel place for the feed, but the view is fantastic. The view alone is worth all the climbing to get there.

Leaving the feed, the marshalls let us know that "it is all downhill, until the bottom of the next climb". It certainly was, but the climbs came thicker and faster than ever after that. The road through the reservoirs back towards Pontsticill and Talybont is rarely flat, and it was getting hotter all the time. We rejoined the shorter route on this section, but those riders were all long-gone. Not so the MTB-ers who were out in force on this section, and who wanted to know, after being told the distance of the ride, how many days we had to complete it in. When told they were convinced of our madness.

Feed three was in the most welcome place at the top of yet another hill, but it was largely (steep and twisting) downhill from there towards Llangynidr. The road to Crickhowell follows the canal at this point, so it is flat. Therefore, the road turned off right, up Cwm Claisfer towards Beaufort. Up and up it went, with my exhausted body venting wrath at the cruelty of sportive organiser throwing in gratuitous climbs for no reason. Not so. At the top, a left turn delivers riders onto the road back down to Crickhowell, and what a road! Good gradient, flat surface (cattle grid excepted) and open bends. Yee-HAW!! 50mph, and that included bottling onto the brakes prior to the cattle grid. What a descent.

Through Crickhowell to more hills, and the final few undulating miles to the start/finish, I finally crawled over the line after 9:30 of the hardest effort of the year. In the organisers tent, the Bumble Bee was receiving oxygen and looking particularly peaky. A trip to the local hospital would reveal Howard was suffering from the effects of heatstroke. Despite being as sensible as possible, I don't think I was too far off either. Brett, by this point, was phoning me as he arrived back in Stratford on Avon having finished some two hours earlier. Git!

Looking back, this was a much harder proposition than the Etape, and is a cracking Sportive. Why it is not fully subscribed months in advance, I do not understand. Finally, my fame is complete. I made the photo montage on the Bike Radar review of the event, the photo below being subtitled "Slow and steady was the preferred pace for many riders". Damn right, enough said.

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