Great British Divide - Day 6
I awoke and found my knee was very stiff again. It was tricky to straighten. Two and a bit days of pushing on hoping it would sort itself out, but in reality I just needed a few days off the bike to allow it to recover and I knew this was the end of my event.
The Welsh mountains were done and I just had the rolling foothills leading back into England. Sounds easy, but what could have been a nice roll down into Oswestry turned into some really tough, steep tracks criss-crossing the countryside before dropping me down slowly into the town.
I rode through Oswestry into the town of Gobowen where there was a railway station. I was still on the route and on schedule. I stopped opposite the station and sat down outside the Co-op. I didn't want to scratch and needed some time to consider my options. People were telling me to get a hotel, sit out a day, regroup and see how I feel. The thing that was pushing me forward was knowing I was still within the time limit and without the motivation I wasn't sure I would make it. Everyone needs something when you are having a bad time and this was mine - maybe I set my targets too high, maybe I could just ride and see how it goes?
I looked for a local hotel on my phone but my heart wasn't really in it. It was carry on or go home. I ate some food and swung my leg over the bike and continued down the track. I didn't get very far, I turned down the wrong road, I couldn't find the correct track, I couldn't seem to work my Garmin anymore, I was just getting frustrated with myself, ahhh! I turned round and returned back a couple of kilometres to the bench.
I sat there for about 5 minutes, crossed the road and bought a train ticket home. It didn't take long, couple of trains and I was back in London, short ride across to Liverpool Street and within hours I was back in Essex.
On reflection it took about a week before my knee was comfortable to ride on again, I made the right decision. Even on the train back I was planning next year’s attempt, some kit changes and the knowledge I had gained from riding it this year would make a big difference.
I must say a big thanks to Kevin and the team for their support and for putting on a great event. When you are writing the blogs it’s easy to pick out the memorable/painful bits but there are hundreds of kilometres in-between where you are just riding along, lost in your own world, enjoying the scenery. It’s hard to explain the joy of just riding your bike for 19-20 hours a day with no other pull on your time. You are probably thinking, "I can't do that" but you probably can, it’s just a matter or pacing - normally you have a target, "I am going out for 2 hours" or a certain distance and you feel tired at the end because your mind and body is working towards that goal. When that's taken away and you just ride until you need to eat or sleep that’s it, you just do it.
I would encourage anyone to have a go, it doesn't need to be an organised event, just get out and ride your bike.
Hopefully I will see a few Travers Bikes on the start line in 2022 or posting their adventures from their rides.
Great British Divide - Day 5
Awful nights sleep - I just picked the wrong location again and never got comfortable because of the slope and uneven ground. My right leg had all but locked straight at the knee overnight. Any other day and I wouldn't have considered going out on my bike but I needed to suck it up and get on with it. I packed my kit up as usual, dragged the bike back onto the trail and just as I was mid applying the barrier cream, Jon rode past me. Normally I would have jumped on and tried to follow him, but I knew my leg wasn't going to play along, so I took my time and rolled up the trail about 2 minutes later.
We were in the middle of nowhere and the trail soon petered out to nothing, leaving us with only the GPS as a guide as to which direction I should scrabble across the mountain side, through the bracken. There were a couple of watery dips, they could easily be ridden with just damp feet...until the last one just before the gate, where we rejoined the trail. I rode in and quickly realised that this was much deeper than the rest, but it was too late - I was committed. The wave actually came over my handlebars....thanks Kevin! Just what I wanted before breakfast!
Jon was waiting on the other side of the gate, messaging Kevin a video of water pouring from his bottom bracket. I gave Jon one of my caramel waffles to cheer him up and we set off together....in the wrong direction! We back-tracked and found an opening in the trees and a path that went through some tall reeds. I lead the way, hit a hidden hole, fell off, and ended up on my back like an upside-dowb tortoise! The testing terrain continued for another hour or so, until we hit the road again. We passed a petrol station and, knowing there wasn't much else for miles, I stopped and restocked. The food didn't cheer me up and my motivation was ebbing again; my knee was bugging me every time the trail went up and I phoned Amanda and told her I was finished when I got to the end of the section.
The road section was quite short - maybe 2km before we hit a trail centre. As I pulled into the car-park to find the correct trail up the mountain, Andre was getting out of his car! Andre from the night before. I had bumped into him the previous night, where he lived, and today, where he worked! What were the chances?.. It's as if he could have been tracking me in someway! We had a quick chat and I pushed on before me knee started to seize up again.
The next section to Machynlleth, I loved, although the mountains continued - they seemed to suit my style. Apart for one section of steep hike-a-bike, I could ride on without much pain from my knee.
After this, I caught up with Jon again - he was having a bad time and struggling, so we rode together for a bit. It was nice to see the cows entering into the spirit and enjoying some parkour on a slag heap, just off to the side of the trail, with a rather large bull just out of shot watching us closely. I stopped just long enough to take the photo.
We stopped in Machynlleth as Jon's GPS battery had died. We stopped to recharge it and had some dinner in a pub. We were there nearly 2 hours - too long because my knee was getting tight again. I knew there was nothing in the next section, no shops or pubs at all and 100km before Oswestry where there was a hotel. I knew it was probably one of the hardest sections so far, but I knew another night of poor sleep might push me over the edge.
I rode with Jon up the first mountain, he stopped at the top and I carried on; I was on a mission. I felt really good, at no stage during the event had my legs felt bad, tired - yes, but I had always held back a bit, now was the time to push on!
Everything in this section was stunning, the mountains, the views - but it was brutal. Hike-a-bike sections up a 500m mountainside with no track to follow. It was too steep to ride, not that you could, because it was so overgrown. I ended up on the wrong side of a barbed wire fence. Unfortunately, the land fell away so steeply on the other side, I couldn't put the bike on the ground when lifting it over, so had to drop it - not far, but I had visions of it shooting off down the mountainside. Clearing this section, surely we deserved a break? Nope, it was followed by the almost arrow straight steep climb up to the top of Clipiau Duon mountain. It was a road climb, the top of which you could see from miles away and it just didn't seem to get closer. I neared the top and turned round to admire the view when I noticed a figure climbing up to join me. It turned out to be Tom Gibbs - we hadn't met so far on the event and he seemed to be flying. We rode the descent together and alongside the llyn Llanwddyn Reservoir - we then climbed back up the mountain before dropping back down to the reservoir a number of times. Tom was too strong though and I settled back into my own pace. I knew at this point I wasn't going to make the hotel tonight - it was getting dark and there was still some evil hike-a-bike sections to come.
The middle image above is of one of the hike-a-bike sections. We came down through this and I took the photo about halfway down. It's tricky to see how steep it really is. There were brambles and fallen trees hidden in the grass and flowers. It was tough but downhill and mercifully shorter than some of the sections earlier.
The only plus point was that you could actually feel the mountains were getting smaller as we headed to the border of Wales. This didn't mean it was any easier, if anything, it was harder. There were still no flat trails and although the climbs were shorter, they seemed to get steeper and more frequent.
I had come up short by about 20-25km. It doesn't sound much, but at night, with these mountains it was another 2-3 hours of tricky terrain before the hotel. I knew I was going to spend another night outside. I think, by this point, I was one of the only riders not to have stayed in a hotel. It took another 30 mins of riding before I eventually found somewhere to camp. Again, not the best, it was on a slope - but everywhere around here was. I set up my kit and took my shoes and socks off.
I had pins and needles in my feet all day, but my knee had taken my mind off it. I had loosened my shoes, the Velcro on the bottom part was completely off, but still my feet were swollen and feeling like they wanted to burst out of the shoes. It's hard to tell how swollen they were from this photo.
I knew falling asleep, that I probably didn't have many more kilometres left in me.
Great British Divide - Day 4
The clear cloudless skies lead to a chilly but dry wake-up call. I didn't finish yesterday’s ride until well past midnight and I was already up and rolling by 5:10, I was in such a good mood. Things were beginning to click with bikepacking and I felt the joy of just riding until I ran out of time/energy, then doing it all over again the next day.
Today's objective was to make it to Checkpoint 2 - Talybont in the heart of the Brecon Beacons and then to complete as much as I could of the 175km daily total to make the final time cut. We were finally in the proper mountains. The first 15-20km were really nice roads in the rolling foothills, I was lucky to find a shop open at 06:30; a nice lady behind the counter found me a spoon so I could eat my rice pudding! Maybe the sight of me eating it out of the pot with my fingers was too much for her that early in the morning! Back on the bike and a short blast up to a leg sapping steep climb onto the Monmouthshire & Brecon Canal which took us all the way to CP2.
This was the first time since mid-afternoon on day 1 that I had seen another rider on the course other than tents/bivvies pitched up next to the track. Harry and Jon were already there and Sam pulled in about 5 minutes after me. It was nice to see some friendly faces that I had spent day 1 riding with.
Harry left CP2 first, I couldn't see much point in sitting around so I filled up my bottle, got my Brevet Card stamped and begun the climb out of CP2 to the beautiful and shrouded with patchy cloud, Gap Mountain above Brecon. It started out with 3 to 4km of gravel which took you up gradually and allowed for a steady pace then, at the top was a short decent into a very technical rocky climb that went on and on. It was just about ride-able whilst fully loaded, but it took your full concentration.
The top of the downhill section was too steep to ride with multiple rock ledge drop-offs so I clambered down and remounted about 500m from the peak where the terrain became more ride-able. I couldn't see the point in doing anything silly, so just let the bike go and cruised to the bottom. Well, that was the plan! About half way down I hit a loose boulder with my front wheel which pitched me off to the side making me dab with my right leg. It sent a jolt of pain up my leg. I didn't really think much of this at the time and continued to descend the mountain into Brecon where I stocked up with more supplies from a petrol station.
My ankle was a bit swollen but didn't really hurt when pedalling and climbing out of the town, I was in my own little world, looking at the mountains to come in the distance, when I heard the unmistakable noise of a rear mech changing gear - it was Harry! I had obviously passed him in the town and we were now in 5th and 6th positions. We rode side-by-side for a bit, chatting until the gradient became steeper, at which point the talking stopped and we went at our own pace, swapping occasionally due to stops or tiredness. We were within a couple of 100m of each other for the next couple of hours.
Shortly, we passed through a military firing range and could hear machine gun fire on the other flank of the mountain. I though it had been hard until this point, but it was only the beginning. We started a climb that took us into a valley that looked like it should go down, but it went up! A steady draggy climb that lead us into the torturous Devil’s Staircase. The climb from the bottom was 13km, but the top section of around 1km was 25% average. I couldn't ride it, I am not ashamed to say - I walked, hats off to those that did!
This was mentally a low point for me; my knee was starting to play up and become painful on the steeper climbs and it was still hours before I could realistically stop - there were no shops or places for food for about another 50km. The climbs were not massively hard, nice mixture of single-track road and gravel, but they were just constantly one after another, no flat. I just wanted to give my knee a rest.
I had worked out a strategy whereby I only stopped to get food and drink and even then I would try and eat on the move. My theory was to just keep moving forward, even if it meant crawling along at 5kph when eating - at least I would be a couple of kilometres further up the road. This was probably the first time I considered scratching, despite the highs of the morning, feeling tired but in good spirits. The injury coming out of the blue had tipped me over the edge and suddenly the saddle sore and my shoulder pain etc… became more of an issue and I felt I was digging myself deeper into a hole. There was literally nothing there, so pulling out wasn’t an option and I wasn’t going to do it - I just needed to have a moan and a grumble - I apologise to the sheep for offloading my issues to them!
110km after leaving CP2, I finally hit some tarmac. It was now dark, about 8pm I think. I turned right up the hill and just as I was about to crest the brow, a car stopped opposite me and Andre got out. At this point I had never met Andre before, but a chance meeting like this can turn your day around. He said "Are you Michael Travers? Chris came through my trail centre yesterday and told me about the event and since then I have been following the dots!" It was nice to chat with someone else and get out of my own head. He offered me some water and a couple of bars and sweets. I enquired about a hotel or anywhere to stay and he directed me to a pub about 500m back down the hill. They had just stopped serving food in the pub, but I gave them my sob story and they kindly agreed to cook a meal for me and allowed me to charge my GPS and phone. I wasnt in a rush to move on so I watched the Olympics while I slowly ate my dinner.
Reluctantly, I left the warmth of the pub and found some shelter in some spruce woodland about 3km further up the trail. The spot I found was far from ideal, being on a slope and comprised of more roots than ground. I set up my bedding as usual, I had got the routine down to a fine art by this stage, and went straight to sleep. I had managed just under my target for the day, 172km with over 3000m of climbing.
Great British Divide - Day 3
Today was the first day I woke with saddle sore. For the first 30 minutes each day it would be difficult to sit down but it always seemed to wear off to a dull bearable ache. I packed up and got moving quickly having slept in a bit (05:15). My legs felt sluggish and I just couldn't get into the flow of things, so after about 30 minutes rather than just pushing on I decided to take an early breakfast and I rolled to a stop and sat in the middle of a fire road pondering my life choices, eating a baked slice and banana.
As if by magic a Shetland pony boy band trotted up to me, perfectly manicured and looking for some company. The lead singer approached me, and started sniffing my bike and dirty, sweaty legs, then built up the courage to push forward until we were almost eyeball to eyeball before breathing some freshly chewed grass breath over me as if to recharge my enthusiasm. He didn't seem interested in the food, just wanted to check me out. I am sure he then winked at me before trotting on, then the two remaining members approached me in turn for a quick sniff. I offered my fist up to "spud" them (keeping Covid safe) but they both blanked me, heading off into the bracken, leaving me sitting crossed legged on the fire road now ready to take on the day.
The enthusiasm didn't last long! I had tested my kit in many different configurations and over different distances and conditions - but this was my first real world experience in an event so I was expecting some issues. My Garmin came up with a low battery warning - without it I would be lost (literally), so for the next 2 hours I spent quite a bit of time trying to diagnose the issue, pulling cables out, swapping them over etc…. It didn't help that I had expected some rain so sealed the USB unit with hot glue, cable-ties and electrical tape...perfect; It kept the weather out but also kept me out with just a multitool to remove everything whilst trying my best not to break the cables. Let’s just say, a lot of swearing would ensue! Long story short...it came down to my lack of experience riding these events, the cache battery had died and with the rolling terrain around Salisbury trying to charge both the phone and GPS, it was too much for the (any) dynamo. Going forward I kept the GPS plugged in all the time and just charged the phone when I had some flatter road sections, which seemed to work well.
It would turn out to be a transitional day heading towards Wales. The rain was on and off all day but became much heavier in the afternoon and evening. I had my first crash of the event so far, really silly but quite painful. Sometimes you are following the GPS route and the satellite information doesn't always tie up with what you see on the ground and I was following a nice gravel track, day dreaming, when I realised there was a water company van behind me going to the reservoir which was a further 3-400m up the track, so I made a snap decision to take the right fork in the track. I knew instantly it was wrong, it was just a gap in the hedge, but it was too late and I fell backwards into a bramble bush! Clearly a bit fatigued, I looked around for help from my Shetland pony rescue squad, but alas they were nowhere to be found. I pushed the bike off me and clambered out, ripping my jersey, arms and legs as I went.
Right - another snack is needed and a change of mood! From this point on the day kept getting better. I finished the GPS section in Bowerhill - 116km ridden so far today, loaded up the next bit and was pleasantly surprised by a really nice FLAT towpath section all the way to Bath. It was here we experienced the first true evil section of track. We crossed a small toll bridge where a man with a bucket was collecting the toll; I made a humorous comment and he just blanked me so I was tempted to turn round and do another flyby to repeat my quip but decided it probably wasn’t worth the effort and wasn’t actually that funny! I digress; quick stop in a shop to refuel and then up to this evil leg breaker Kevin had handpicked for us. It was probably only about 1km but it was around 20% all the way. The first half was cobbled, then it went off road, disappeared and became overgrown and steeper. The light was staring to fade, it continued to rain and I felt amazing! I knew this GPS section finished in Wales and I set it as my goal to make it there before I slept.
I didn't know I had 70km to go at this point...what an idiot! However, I was feeling great and I was going to make it. The rain was becoming more sporadic and I was just about dry again except for my feet. Suddenly in the distance the clouds broke. One shaft of rain reached down to the ground, then another and suddenly it all kicked off; thunder, lighting, sheet rain. I pulled over to the edge of the road to shelter under a tree, right outside a house with a woman looking back at me from a very inviting, warm living room. I had a vision of her coming out with a blanket, cup of tea and a slice of cake but instead she drew the curtains and turned the light out...I don’t blame her really - I would be spooked if some weird man was standing outside my window in soaking wet figure-hugging lycra!
I had one dry jacket left that I needed to sleep in. I was freezing, I just wanted to push on and suddenly I had a brainwave - I had packed a really cheap, lightweight poncho - the style you get at a theme park. The idea was to use it as a windbreak, to get changed in if it was really heavy rain or for emergencies to keep warm. I put it on. It came right down to my knees. I tucked it into the bottom of my shorts and the hood down the back of my jersey to stop it flapping and to keep everything dry....I looked like something out of "Last of the Summer Wine" but I did not care, this is cyclocross weather, this is what I know, I told myself everyone else's head will be down and this is my chance to make up some ground.
Wales baby! I made it! I bloody made it! The conditions over the last 30-40kms were diabolical, constant spray in my face, muddy trails, my body was clammy from the poncho, but I could see Wales in the distance. It was stunning, calling me - there was a thick black cloud in the sky blocking the stars, but it was framed by a bright red setting sun from over the water. Riding across the Severn Bridge into Wales was one of the best experiences I have ever had on 2 wheels. I knew my parents, Amanda and a number of you were following my dot. I sent everyone the above picture to make sure they were up! It was just gone midnight. I had ridden just shy of 210km and moved up from 12th to 7th place, it was a good day! Now just to find a place to sleep...there wasn’t anywhere - it was all just industrial units and a wide open road with no cover. I carried on to the end of the section and loaded the next part before eventually finding a nature reserve car park to settle down in. It was not the most comfortable, hardly any flat ground that wasn’t covered in gravel. I didn't care, I felt like I was actually getting the hang of it, Wales had been a bit of a target for me, I needed to make it at least to Wales! I made it to Wales, I went to sleep with a smile on my face.
Great British Divide - Day 2
I had decided to not set an alarm, I was not expecting to be racing the event - just to survive for as long as possible. I knew I needed to do about 175km a day to make each time cut and the finish, so the plan was to complete the 175km needed each day as efficiently as possible.
Day 2 - I woke up (as I would every day) around 04:30, meaning I would be riding between 18-20 hours each day. I found either the light or the cold would wake me and the only way to get warm was to get moving again. I reorganized my bag as much as I could and set off.
I soon realised I had made a poor choice of camping spot, within minutes I had dropped off the high ground and passed a number of riders still asleep in their tents/bivvies in much more sheltered spots. I was here to learn...I am sure it won’t be the last time I make this mistake!
Really nice flowing hills followed for about the next 4 hours before dropping down onto the road and finding a very welcome burger van and my first warm meal of the trip.
One feature of the South Downs Way is the gates, there are lots of them! Some were great; flick the metal arm and the gate sprung open and shut behind you, others either had no hinges and just fell off or were so stiff they were almost impossible to open. There was one gate (above) surrounded by cows with a bull in the middle getting jiggy with the ladies - I let him finish before trying to get through.
Great lunch at this cycle cafe where I went for the Chris Hoy (cheese and ham toastie) and some rather nice carrot cake which I took with me to eat as a celebration for getting to the end of the South Downs Way. The skies started to darken, but the storm didn't hit until later in the afternoon. This was the start of the proper rain!
Dropping into Winchester to finish section 2, I was freezing, soaking wet and just needed to sit in the dry for a bit. I found a Subway, but due to Covid I couldn't sit inside or use the toilets, so ended up eating it in a park opposite under a tree that would occasionally let a cold blast of rain through. Sad story...I dropped a meat ball from the sub on the ground, a quick look around and a shake and I popped it in my mouth - it was a little crunchy but it tasted sooo good!
No time to feel sorry for myself, load up the GPS with the next section and head off into the New Forest to find Checkpoint 1
Riding through the New Forest was probably one of the best sections on the course so far, no traffic and wildlife every where! It was magical just as the sun was setting. Another hour or so and I made it to checkpoint 1 at about 21:45. Quick chat with Kevin and the crew, whilst we all marvelled at the kLite that remained on the whole time I was stationary and then I was off to Tescos for a top up.
Kevin advised me to stop just down the road because the next section was hard to navigate in the dark, which I did. 185km covered today and to my surprise my legs were still holding up really well - my backside had taken a pounding and was sore but other than that it was all good.
As a side note I did get into a routine each night before going to bed;
1. Clean up with a wet wipe,
2. Clear the area of sticks and stones etc..,
3. Lay the sleeping bag out in the bivvy bag,
4. Blow up the pillow and mattress,
5. Close up all the bags on the bike just in-case it rains,
6. Get some food out ready for the morning and some for going to bed,
7. Eat it,
8. Clean my teeth, then sleep, no faffing.
I always stood the bike up close to me in a safe place away from the road or trail. I would put my helmet next to me the right way up and keep my phone and GPS under it to keep them dry and easily accessible. Also, I would stand my shoes up against the bike to allow them to dry/air. I always slept in my shorts, I would take off my jersey if it was wet and put my long sleeve on ready to wear in the colder morning. The reason for wearing the kit was there wasn't room for more in my pack and it needed to dry, so I used my body heat. Yes I could possibly have taken another set, but once they are wet it’s unlikely they are going to dry the next day. By the end of day 2, my feet were in a bit of a mess, pedalling for 19-20 hours a day, add in rain and sweat and there isn't much you can do to keep them fresh, so I always took my socks off to allow my feet to breathe. Next time I will take a spare set of socks because I found the mud and dirt gets ingrained into them and it’s very hard to get it out without washing them.
Good night - another cold night coming up - see you in the morning.
Great British Divide - Day 1
I was dropped off about 4km from the start of the event by my girlfriend Amanda and son Vinnie as there was no parking there and I took a very easy ride down to meet all the other riders. I was filled with nerves and excitement and just wanted to get on with it. We were set off in groups of 8, 2 minutes apart at 10:00 (I was in the 4th out of 5 groups due to my lack of experience). I was told the best pacing strategy was to start slow and get slower and that is pretty much what happened. We rolled off and soon started to split up and found myself pulling clear of the group, I felt good and wasn't that concerned.
During the next 4 hours I found myself picking off riders from the groups ahead until we formed into a group of 4 that was working well together. One of the other riders checked on our tracking and he said we were in 6th place! At that point I thought I had got my pacing very wrong, I must be going too hard but I still felt good and I thought it was better to stay with the group - although I say stay with the group, it was quite elastic, we were all on a similar point of the road and were joining up then splitting up over the next couple of hours.
The terrain in the morning started out rolling with a nice mix of on but mainly off road along the North Downs, through Bedgebury and skirting round Bewl Water, this then turned really quite dark for me. I was on my own, riders were all over the place with quite big gaps between us by this stage and the next 40km section to Heathfield was horrible with 70% on-road but it was unrelenting, steep climb after steep climb, there was no rest and it had started to rain - I just put my head down and ground my way through it.
I was getting low on water as I pulled into Heathfield, Harry, a rider I was with earlier was just pulling out of Waitrose as I pulled in (it will turn out that he will be the rider that I ride with the most during the event). I restocked with food and drink and bought myself what I thought was a yogurt drink...it wasn't... it was some kind of lumpy cheese drink which was revolting and almost came up as quickly as it went down.
Setting off again down the track I was pleasantly surprised to be met by a cycle track that used to be a train track and slowly went down for about 25km, which was a massive relief to my whole body and allowed me to pull myself back together.
This path took you almost all the way down to the end of section one in Jevington, 151 km completed so far, and with just a climb to go to start the South Downs way.
There was a church at the start of the section 2 and I knew there was a tap there to refill my water bottles, but after several laps of the church yard trying to find it I gave up, picked up my bike and I had basically lent my bike on it and hidden it! The GPS got a little confused and sent me back down the hill round the block and back to where I was 10 minutes before! A few swear words later I made my way up onto the top of the rolling South Downs, where I was met by an amazing setting sun.
With daylight fading fast I started to turn my attention to where I was going to sleep, it would be the first time I had bivvyed in an event and it was all a big learning curve, I wasn't really sure what was and wasn't a good place to stop and I continued for another 26km. The South Downs are very exposed with little cover but I eventually stopped in a small thicket of scrub land fenced off from the sheep to try and shield myself from the wind.
Suddenly, in the dark you realise what seemed logical and easy to find/pack when at home certainly wasn't so when in the middle of nowhere and you are fatigued. My wet wipes were in one pocket, the toothbrush another and I was pulling my sleeping bag out and dropping things in the long grass in the process! I just wanted to get some sleep and decided to rearrange things in the morning when there was light and I could see better.
HAND BUILT TITANIUM FRAMES.