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We didn’t mean for it to be this epic. The UK Continental's first ride of 2013, to Wales (in Welsh, Cymru), had in fact been postponed from January, when a deep freeze made many roads in the Brecon Beacons, and in many other parts of the country, completely impassable. We didn’t intend to cycle into snow, either, although it did present a good opportunity to road-test some prototype winter products.
The route was inspired by the Bryan Chapman Memorial, an infamous 600km 'Audax', an idiosyncratic type of British long-distance event, that sends riders from Chepstow in southern Wales up to Menai in the north, across from Anglesey on the coast, and back. With more than 8,000 metres of climbing on top of that wince-inducing distance, we reasoned this was epic enough.
Our own ride, a shortened, one-way version of the Bryan Chapman, was a tribute to the 40-hour voyage embarked upon by brave men and women (including, in 2011, three Rapha riders), who annually follow in the tyre tracks of rider the event was named after. Among his fellow Audaxers, Bryan Chapman was something of a legend, one who happened to own a Tony Oliver frame. After Oliver moved to the very north of Wales, a country whose legends tend to be dragons rather than cyclists, Bryan would ride from his home near Bristol, which borders southern Wales, up to Anglesey whenever the frame needed a fettle from Tony. And then he’d ride home again.
Bryan was, by all accounts, a character, a strong-willed individual who often rode with the Bristolian chapter of the Cyclists’ Touring Club. Mark Rigby, a former organiser of the Memorial ride, explains:
There was a whole gang of them, they used to be really fast… in the group they were driven to despair by Bryan. They were only ever on five-speed blocks and he would always get his rear derailleur chattering. When he changed gear… it would chatter over again. He'd never get it spot on.
Rigby also organises a 400km Welsh Audax, the Brevet Cymru. I'd crossed paths with this ride once, a few years ago, somewhere in mid-Wales. It was the May bank holiday weekend, one of those wet, cold days that Wales does so well. Yet we felt duty bound to get out for a ride and, 50 miles into a 90 mile ride, a hailstorm, followed by a long descent, left us scurrying for shelter at a former coaching inn. There were a huge number of bikes outside, almost all steel, some with map readers, most with panniers; a fixed wheel or two, possibly even a trike.
It was one of the Audax 'controls', where riders must have their card stamped to prove their passage. Inside, clustered round the fires, a bunch of shiny-eyed riders in anoraks, several hundred kilometres into their ride and at the point where sleep deprivation robbed them of their resemblance to normal cyclists. We drank soup, laid our hats and gloves to dry by the fire and chatted. The Audaxers were still dry, having come from the opposite direction, but one by one they set off cheerily into the hailstorm that was waiting outside.
When the three Rapha riders rode the Bryan Chapman for their PBP preparation, they took the scenic route, which was the basis for the Rapha Continental’s intended ride. In the event, our route was dictated by Mother Nature and the extent of the councils’ road gritting across Wales. Still, we got a sense of the steep, sharp climbs in the Black Mountains, the roads lined with high hedgerows that shielded us from views over snowbound valleys. We felt the wind on the firing range where the SAS train on the moor above Sennybridge – where we had to turn back as the road turned to sheet ice. And we saw amazing Victorian engineering projects that created the Elan Valley reservoirs above Rhayader – though there, too, we had to turn back as ice blocked our path. Instead we climbed the deserted A470 pass by Cader Idris, then descended into the river valley to Barmouth, with Snowdonia to our right, where we stayed overnight and hoped the weather would turn.
Coming up from Barmouth to Harlech, you see Snowdon in front of you on the horizon. There's nothing that can put the fear of God in you more, because you know that when you get there the weather will be as you see it. So if it's in clouds you're in deep shit, basically.
– Mark Rigby
The next morning Snowdon sparkled as we climbed up Pen-Y-Pass on a clear road surrounded by snow, warm in the sun and with spectacular views. At the junction some hikers trudging down the pass told us the road was closed, snow thigh-deep at their hostel door. There, in the sun, it felt unreal and our ride, through wet snow, blizzards and wind, complete. We didn’t have to get to Menai, there was no framebuilder waiting to tune our bicycles up. But we had shared just a little of Bryan’s bloody-mindedness, of the spirit that kept him – and the Audaxers that followed – pedalling across Wales.