The Big Welsh Bike Ride - what a killer!
27 Jul 2012
<Ready for the off: just leaving Holyhead docks>
Well, I did it – or at least most of it. The bike ride through Wales was certainly as tough as anticipated – sometimes tougher – and there were some low moments. But I prefer to remember the highs: great companionship, wonderful scenery, some swooping downhill runs, and the overall sense of achievement. And the biggest achievement of all – thanks entirely to your wonderful generosity – is that well over £5,000 has gone to the cancer advice charity Yes To Life.
I started in Holyhead and I ended up in Cardiff. That much went to plan. But there were a few adjustments (otherwise known as Welsh mountains) to be made along the way. Let me tell you the story ... and please excuse the length, it felt like along ride to me!
It began as I waited on the dockside at Holyhead harbour in Anglesey, looking out for arrivals from the car ferry from Dublin. I was meeting the originators and core team of The Ride, a 1000-mile bike ride designed for cancer patients with the aim of raising awareness of the value of exercise and diet in cancer treatment.
I’d not met any of them before but had been contacted out of the blue by Reka Pataky – a Hungarian woman who married a Brit and now lives in Hull – who had come up with the idea for The Ride after herself being diagnosed with bowel cancer. Remarkably, Reka was in the middle of chemotherapy and was planning to ride all the 1,000 miles sandwiched between two chemo sessions.
By the time I was joining her and her support team, she had already cycled from John O’Groats, through Scotland via Edinburgh, to Troon, then by ferry to Belfast, and then pedalled to Dublin. You must read her blog account of this phenomenal odyssey at The Ride website. It’s absolutely gripping and I promise you will be amazed by her spirit, humour and perseverance.
Travelling with Reka at this stage were Penny (also a cancer patient), Carl (the van driver, photographer, film-maker and lifter-in-chief of spirits), Pru and Toddy (neighbours of Reka’s who’d bravely come along for the ride and had got the taste for it). So there were 5 of them, plus filming kit, plus food (they were doing this the tough way with self-catering and couch-surfing), bikes and spares all in one van.
So I was looking out for a large transit-style van at least. Several came past me and just as I was thinking I had missed them, a hand waved from the window of a tiny French-registration Peugeot or Citroen van, not much bigger than a family saloon. It was them, with the bikes hanging precariously off a standard bike-carrier on the rear.
Despite a rough and stormy crossing, and a very early start in Dublin after a long day’s ride (not to mention a last minute dash back fro some vital photography/editing equipment), they arrived in Wales looking cheerful. I soon learnt that nothing cast this lot down … at least not for long.
We said our hellos: my ‘team’ comprised my old university friend and cycling companion, Ian, and my brother-in-law Brian. It was dry but the winds were gusting at what seemed to me close to gale force. Worse still, they were coming from the wrong direction…. we’d either be heading straight into the wind or, at best, be struggling with crosswinds. And, as any cyclist knows, the wind is rarely your friend.
By the time the ferry had arrived, and we’d waited from Brian’s train, and made some running repairs (amazing what gaffer tape can do to hold on a seat post), it was after 1 pm before we set off from Holyhead docks, seeking the first signpost for National Cycle Route 8. Ahead of us: 59 miles across Anglesey to the Menai Bridge then down via Caernarfon to Porthmadog. From the start, the clock was against us.
NCR 8 is at times a delightful route but, as I was to learn through a series of long and painful lessons, it is much harder going than sticking to the A-roads. It goes up and down much more and the gradients tend to be steeper than those on the smoothed out hills of main roads) and it can be awfully hard to find the little blue-and-white signs, especially as you find your way out of town.
As I was the only one with the map, I felt a heavy responsibility. There’s nothing worse on a long ride, as your legs are heavy and your breathing hard, than having to turn around and retrace your route. Anyway, we found the way – unpromising at first, past industrial wasteland but eventually into lovely countryside – but the wind was a major nuisance. Several times the bike – with pannier and handlebar bag attached – wobbled with the whipping crosswinds off the sea.
The roads were minor and winding but smooth and it wasn’t raining. It was lovely and spirits were up … but we weren’t making very good time. This mattered most for Reka as she was determined to do every single mile of the entire route, however late at night she had to finish (ad sometimes it was after 10 pm). The rest of us had the option of being picked up by the support vehicles (driven by Chrissy and Ian’s wife Debbie – to whom huge thanks for a difficult job trying to find us at obscure meeting points along the way).
After a lovely, late and much-needed lunch stop in a field by a river we felt revitalised (the others had, as I say, had had an early start and their Irish breakfast had worn off by 3pm). We’d had chance to get to know each other better, to talk about our respective cancers and treatments and our reasons for passionately believing in the benefits of exercise. All of us had felt frustrated at the absence of conventional medical advice about the benefits, yet – as we had discovered for ourselves – there was plenty of proper scientific evidence, and medical trials, to show how exercise has clear physical and psychological benefits for cancer patients.
Maybe we talked too long - or maybe we’d been slowed down a bit to much by the filming as Carl popped out of hedgerows and behind gates with his camera - but when we got going again I realised we were way behind schedule and the wind would make it hard to speed up. We continued across the back roads of Anglesey, hardly passing a car, and finally reached the Menai Bridge.
By now though it was almost 6pm and we’d only done just over 30 of the 59 miles. Some of the others called it a day (they had, unlike us, already been cycling for days and all of them were pretty new to cycling). Reka was going to speed on to Porthmadog, as relentlessly as ever. Ian, Brian and I were now looking out for our meeting point with Chrissy and Debbie. On our minds was the fact that our hotel – the wonderfully eccentric Pen Y Gwyrd, at the foot of Snowdon - required you to arrive for dinner to the bang of a gong at exactly 7.30 pm. None of us wanted to miss food and, ideally, we really wanted a bath too before eating.
So as I struggled up a big hill not long after the bridge, I was delighted to see our support cars turn up unexpectedly. While disappointed to have only done about 32 miles I was ready to stop and to save what was left of my stamina for the next cycling day. I barely had the strength to lift the bike onto the roof carrier and slumped exhausted into the car seat. It was only 32 miles but it was the furthest I had cycled for a long, long time and I realised that the lung cancer had badly affected my lung capacity, particularly on hills where I was struggling to breathe.
We got back to the Pen Y Gwyrd just in time to fall into one of the Victorian baths and to make dinner in time for the gong. The food was fantastic. I’d never eaten so many potatoes in one sitting, although my anti-cancer diet meant no nice long Welsh beer to go with it and none of their lovely school-dinnerish puddings either! A word about the hotel: it was the training camp for the Everest expedition in the 1950s and it has been kept as almost a shrine since then, with few modernisations since that time. There are no keys to the rooms, most rooms lack ensuite facilities ad the bathrooms are fantastic original early 20th century models, with solid baths in the middle of the room.
The following day was very wet and the clouds had come down so we were doubly relieved that we had decided to miss the cycling this day as it went through the steepest bits of Snowdonia. I felt a twinge of guilt though at the thought of Reka and Penny and the others doing their bit after what must have been a late finish last night.
Instead we settled for a lovely 4 mile walk (the Precipice Walk by Dolgellau, with fantastic views over the river valley and to the coast) and caught up with the rest of them at the overnight stop near Rhayader. Reka didn’t finish cycling that day until after 10 pm and had fallen 18 miles short of the destination. With typical grit she insisted on going back the next morning to make up the lost miles.
So the rest of us set off for the ride to Brecon, which still promised some good hills. The weather hade changed. The Gulf Stream had shifted and the sun was out and the temperature had soared. NCR 8 had some shocks in store for us, including a 2-mile section where it was so rough you had to walk (and most of that was uphill). The track was even more up and down than in Anglesey, and definitely much harder than the A roads, but it was beautiful and astoundingly quiet and scenic.
Before lunch we missed a sign and ended up doing Newbridge-on-Wye to Builth Wells along the A road. It was so much easier that we wondered why we had been seduced by NCR 8 (but we would be again, with devastating effects). We had a lovely lunch break by the river Wye at Erwood, where we did some filming and interviews for the film that Carl and Penny are making (ad which will be put out on public release – details later).
The next section was delightful, towards Hay-on-Wye along the river and then climbing up to cycle along the English-Welsh border via Felindre and Talgarth. We were back on Route 8, seduced by the peace and calm. Big mistake. Instead of a nice easy A road our back lanes seemed to take us up and down every contour. My lungs and legs were giving out. Around Llanfilo my spirit was almost broken as each hill seemed to lead to another not the anticipated downhill. The views were gorgeous but I couldn’t enjoy them. Even walking and pushing my bike was almost too much. I raged at my diminished lung capacity, remembering how I used to be able to eat up the hills in Devon in the past.
But we made it to our B&B near Brecon by about 8pm (and just had the energy to get to the local pub to beat the last food orders deadline). Ian and I had managed 45 miles (Brian had done 60 but he’d gone off in a different direction). I was absolutely exhausted by the final few miles but, overall, it had been a lovely day’s cycling in the sunshine.
The final day for me was from Brecon to Cardiff. Ian had to return to London so it was just me joining The Ride team. I’d looked the map and there was a massive climb up through the Taf Fechan Forest on NCR8 soon after leaving Brecon. The others decided to take the A470, which was a better option but too much for me. So Chrissy drove me to the picnic spot on the Llwyn Reservoir a few miles down the road and I decided I’d join the others there.
So my final run was from there to Cardiff, about 35 miles, starting on the A road (which was busy but a good smooth surface and not too steep) and going via Merthyr Tydfil and Pontypridd to the edge of Cardiff. NCR 8 was as eccentric as ever: one minute a gorgeous smooth path in woodland then suddenly turning into concrete steps taking you down and under the dual-carriageway. Some sections were closed for repairs and the diversions were hard to find.
Eventually, I made it to my meeting-point with Chrissy at Taffs Well rail station. It was about 7 pm and I was ready to stop but nowhere near as done-in as the end of the day before. One last effort to get the bike onto the roof and then an easy evening drive back home.
It had been a big adventure. It had tested me to the limit – and sometimes found me wanting – but it had been a lot of fun most of the time and I had made some wonderful new friends. They, of course, were not stopping. Reka was going to do every single mile from Cardiff to Chippenham and then on to London.
I had done about 115 miles over the three cycling days. I intend to make up the missing few miles over the next few weeks in Devon so no-one who sponsored me will, I hope, feel short-changed.
My Just Giving page is still receiving contributions and it was a huge boost to find that, during the ride, I had gone past the £5,000 target and – at last check – was now at £5,173.
If you’ve read this far, you deserve a medal … I hope it hasn’t been as gruelling as the hills outside Brecon. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
And do please read The Ride blog ... and leave some comments, the others find them so uplifting and supportive after their huge efforts. And I'll let you know about the film when it is ready.