AikenDrum and Norseman Nick do the Welsh End to End (to End)

The weekend of 17th/18th  May was supposed to be my first crack at the Marazion Middle Distance Tri, but when I heard that Nick’s burgeoning interest in Audax  had led him to enter the Bryan Chapman 600 on the same weekend, I knew that the MMD would just have to wait…

The Bryan Chapman 600 is (as the name suggests), a 600km Audax event that takes riders from Chepstow (in the South)  to the Menai Bridge (in the North) and back again over some of the most stunning Mountain scenery in the British Isles. Although it’s not a race, there is a time limit (40 hours in this case), and a strong tradition of self reliance amongst it’s devotees. There are no “winners” and no T-shirts – a turn-off to some, I know – but I know of no other activity that delivers the same degree of satisfaction for the effort you expend in doing it. OK, enough drum banging for the Audax cause, and on with the report.

I’ve done the BC600 three times before, the last time in 2003, but there’s now a “scenic” option (i.e. hillier) that diverges from the main route at certain points using some mountain roads that are well off the beaten track. Nick had opted for the scenic route, so I did the same and suggested that we ride fixed gear to make it even more of a challenge.

Nick at Pen-y-Garreg

Come the day, 100 or so Randonneurs were waved off at 06:00am from the ride HQ in Chepstow. Lots of grizzled veterans, a smattering of fresh faced newcomers, and at least two eejits on fixed wheel! There were one or two other fixed gear devotees, and plenty of more exotic machines including a recumbent two wheeler, but on the whole the Audax fraternity tends to favour traditional steel frames and a stout saddlebag!

Nick leaving Devils Bridge

The uneventful first leg took us up through Usk and Crickhowell, skirting the edge of the Black Mountains. The control was at the appropriately named Honey Café at Bronllys, where an army of comely young maidens served up countless cooked breakfasts to the ravening horde. The next stage to Tre’r-ddol (ask SurfDragon how it’s pronounced) was the longest at 110km, but delivered the promised “Wow! Factor” in spades. The lucky few who’d opted for the scenic route were diverted off the main route near Rhayader onto lanes through the Elan Valley. These took us past several huge reservoirs, including Garreg-ddu and Pen-y-garreg (see pics) and up a cheeky little double hairpin climb (a bit like a miniature version of Alpe d’Huez in the TdF) onto the Aberystwyth Mountain Road. Along this stretch I spotted several Red Kites, the colourful plumage that gives them their name clearly visible as they hovered above our heads. After a quick break at Devils Bridge, we pressed on, reaching Tre’r-ddol at around 2pm for a late lunch.

Pen-y-Garreg Reservoir

The next, and shortest stage at only 48km, involved a steady climb up to Dolgellau, with some fine views of Cadair Idris. The Youth Hostel at Dolgellau is commandeered for the entire weekend by the BC600 organisers. Helpers serve hot food and drink to the weary participants, before sending them on their way over the night section to the Menai Bridge and back. Bunks are available for those with sufficient time in hand to have a snooze before heading back to Chepstow. The first part of the next stage up to the Menai Bridge went over the wooden toll bridge across the sands to Barmouth before heading up past Harlech Castle with the sea on our left and views of the Rhinogs to our right. Leaving Penrhyndeudraeth (again, see SurfDragon!),  we crossed the narrow gauge Ffestiniog Railway line, and I warned Nick to be careful as another friend had seen his attempt on the Bryan Chapman 600 end at this point with a broken collarbone! The climb out of Beddgelert and up the Llanberis Pass is an epic slog, so the light but steady rain that accompanied us was almost welcome. We stopped for a breather and admired the view over Llyn Gwynant in the fading light, before pressing on. After a rollercoaster descent down the other side of the Llanberis Pass, we rolled into the control at the Menai Bridge at just after 10pm. 

Dolgellau YH

Once again, an army of dedicated helpers were ministering to the tired and hungry hordes, serving up soup, sandwiches and every long distance cyclists favourite: tinned fruit and rice pud – yum! At this point, I permitted myself the luxury of a complete change of kit. There is nothing quite as morale boosting on a long ride as dry socks and some clean dry layers. Some of our soggy fellow travellers looked on with envy as I donned the pristine kit I’d been carrying for nearly 200 miles. The route back to Dolgellau had changed since the last time I rode the event – it used to retrace back over the Llanberis Pass, but now used the flatter and safer A4085 through Waunfawr. Our lights blazed a trail past the giant dam of Trawsfynydd, and the long climb and final descent back to Dolgellau. We reached the hostel at 3:30am, and shovelled down some pasta before flaking out for an hour.

Llyn Gwynant

After breakfast and a bit of TLC to a binding front brake calliper on Nick’s steed, we set off into a strong headwind at 6:15am. The elastic snapped on the climb to Cross Foxes, and I lost contact with Nick who pressed on alone to the next control at Aberhafesp. The descent to Dinas Mawddwy from the top of Cross Foxes is one of the most exhilarating on the route, and speeds of more than 60mph are easily attained – as long as you’re not riding a fixed gear! Nick later confessed that what was going through his mind during the descent wasn’t: “Wheeeeee!” but rather “if my brake cable snaps, i’ll die!!!”. After an obligatory route sheet screw up, I made it to Aberhafesp at 10:00am just as Nick was leaving. We agreed to part company at this point, as Nick was feeling stronger and likely to finish a good bit in front of me if riding on his own.

Don at Llyn Gwynant

The final two stages of the scenic route used some mountainous lanes on the way down to Monmouth, and the routesheet was so intricate that I almost developed a squint trying to follow it! Finally however, I found myself at the bottom of the familiar final climb, a 6 mile slog from Tintern Abbey up to Chepstow. I settled into a rhythm, willed the aches and pains to one side and winched my way up, reaching the final control at around 8:30pm. Nick had finished an hour earlier and retrieved his car from Friday night’s B&B, so pausing only to load up the bike and raid a Chinese Takeaway for some vital carbs, we wound our weary way back to PZ.

Inside Dolgellau YH

One topic of conversation on the way home was: now that Nick’s popped his 600km Audax cherry – who’s next? Answers on a postcard to…

Dons bike takes a rest

Don “AikenDrum” H

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