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.
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.
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.
What is it?
On the 31st July 2021 I will be taking part in the Great British Divide, it's a self-supported event (not race, so don't be surprised if my dot is at the back) over 2200km and 35000 metres of climbing starting near Canterbury and finishing in Applecross. Over 70% will be offroad. There is a predefined route supplied which you must follow - you can leave it to visit a shop or get your bike repaired but you must re-enter at the same point. The final checkpoint will close at 18:00 on Saturday the 14th August. You can obviously finish after that date, but there won't be anyone to welcome you and stamp your card.
The basic concept is, you need to carry all the supplies you will need and can only restock at shops that are available to everyone, so no team car, support crew or pre-defined food drops etc... You can use hotels/B&B's but obviously there are not many en route and probably not at the place or time you will need them, so sleeping on the side of the track at night will be predominantly the only option.
How to follow my progress?
I can't believe it isn't being televised! However, you can follow me (and all the other riders) via their GPS tracking in the form of a slow moving dot on a map. Here is a link to mine Michael Travers, you might notice one rider already on course... Paul. He got his holiday dates mixed up and has been allowed to start a week early! From other events I have followed it's surprisingly addictive to keep checking in to see how far people have got, when people are sleeping and for how long.
I have done quite a bit of research into training, components, pacing, food/drink and the route as well as testing all of the above and I am still quite nervous about it. I have done long rides and overnight events before, but nothing this long or extreme. There has to be a first time for everything! I have put in place as much as I can to get me through, but there is always the possibility of a mechanical, crash and of course - the British weather that can't always be planned for.
Training: I am happy with how it's going. I have been doing some 150km+ rides with a fully loaded bike and it's been good and I'm happy with the progress. I have also been mixing that up with shorter, harder rides, also fully kitted up.
Bike and Components: I will obviously be riding my Travers RUSSTi EVO but I will go over the bike and components in more detail in another post.
Pacing: I have done quite a few 100km+ rides to test out different pace scenarios and ways of riding, riding hard up the hill, different power outputs, speed etc... and 14-15 kph seems to be a comfortable day long pace when fully loaded (although this will obviously change in the mountains). I do have a Zwatt Powermeter which might be a little controversial in mountain biking, let alone Bikepacking but I have found it extremely useful as it's very easy to get carried away, especially at the start of an event and it can be quite hard to judge your effort when you have other riders around you and your heart rate is elevated due to nerves/excitement. All this, plus taking into account the bike is about triple its normal weight and your usual metrics go out of the window. Ideally I don't want to go over 200 Watts but obviously in certain situations I will have no choice where it's steep or pushing over the top of a hill might be more beneficial to allow me to keep the momentum up, rather than slow and grind/walk up the hill. 140-180 Watts will be my cruising range. My plan is to do 200 km a day, then see how it unfolds.
Food/Drink: This is a little bit of a grey area as although I can start with the ideal food/drink it's going to run out in the first 24hrs and so I will need to restock wherever I can find it. I have had a chat with Precision Hydration and they were really helpful. I will be taking some of their 1500 Effervescent Electrolyte tablets to help replace my salts. I expect to be burning 7-10,000 calories a day, an amount I will struggle to replace, so I have also spoken to Maurten and will be taking some of their 320 caf mix. As this is quite a heavy and bulky product, I plan to take just enough to get me out of situations where there are big gaps between shops or I run out of energy.
HAND BUILT TITANIUM FRAMES.