It was supposed to be a regular Sunday club run. My turn to lead this week, and with the Cheshire Cat looming (just six weeks away), I’d decided to take us out on a nice 60 miles loop with some fairly respectable hills, like the Horseshoe Pass. And then we had the most epic day ever…
The forecast wasn’t great but I had a new jacket so I was Captain invincible. I’d prepped the bike the day before and changed a tube which I suspected was dodgy, for a brand new un-patched, pristine one. Despite the Met office forecast for persistent light rain, there were four of us ready to roll from our meeting point. Hardcore men of steel, all of us. A glimpse of overcast sky through the curtains wasn’t enough to send our kind scurrying back under the duvet.
Here’s the planned route.
Mouse over the track to figure out where the following events occurred.
The first 13 miles was all very familiar ground and we cruised along at a decent speed even though the headwind was surprising at times. James had been suffering with a chesty cold all week and wasn’t feeling great. It didn’t show – he was riding well up the Clwyd Gate ascent (the first of the big hills of the day), mile 13-15.
17 miles. Downhill from here
Down the other side, and we turned off right. My front end suddenly felt very spongy in that way you never want it to, because it only means one thing. Puncture. Up until now, chugging along quite efficiently we hadn’t realised quite how cold it was. A few minutes without gloves on handling wet rims and tyres, and I’d formed a different perspective. The little pump I carry with me is the most pathetic little thing. It takes about 10 minutes to pump a tyre up to about half the pressure you’d actually want, and following that, you can’t ride your bike anyway because your arms are too knackered to be able to do anything. Thankfully, Darren stepped in with his CO2 gizmo. Been meaning to get one of those. Yep, must get one of those. Anything that saves time when you’re cold is a good thing.
James heads home (mile 21)
Feeling like he’d had enough, James headed off for home. Now, I’m not superstitious at all, but I reckon James had been our lucky mascot up until this point in the trip. For a world of shit was about to unfold.
We’re going to need a bigger bike. (mile 21-23)
We ascended gradually, crossing over that tenuous threshold between “yeah it’s not so bad”, towards “jeezus, who’s idea was this?”.
Visibility was down, stinging cold rain in the face was up, in a big way.
World’s end. The end of the world as we knew it. (Miles 25-32)
Changing direction to ascend World’s End was a relief in that we were out of the wind temporarily. Notice the distinct and careful use of the word temporarily. At mile 27, we’d reached the highest altitude of the day and found ourselves riding into biting sleet, the kind that makes you close one eye and hope for the best that you can still see where you’re going. Or to pull your buff (tubular scarf thing) up over your mouth only to be suffocated by it because it’s saturated. Self applied waterboarding for idiots.
Knowing the route, I distinctly remember thinking “oh well, this is probably going to be the worst bit, and it’ll soon be over.”
Ha ha ha, said the evil narrator who knew better than to make such childishly optimistic assumptions.
Brain freeze without the ice cream
Somewhere between mile 27 and 28, we regrouped, made some jovial comments about the horizontal blizzard now engulfing us, and I remembered to warn the guys about the descent, as there’s a rather treacherous ford at the bottom of it. As in, a stream running across the road, not a clapped old Capri or anything….
I recalled the marshals on Etape Cymru flagging everybody down, warning them to walk across it, and passed on this little nugget of life saving wisdom.
We set off again, except we didn’t. I had another puncture.
No, not here!
Exposed, windy, horizontal sleet. 3 guys who are already pretty cold and have numb hands. Yikes. Thinking it wasn’t far to the descent, which is sheltered by trees, I suggested the other two go on, and I’d walk. We’d then repair the tube under shelter. I watched their twinkly red flashing lights quickly vanish into the mist, as I began to walk. The road had mostly turned into a stream and the water greeted my dry socks like a long lost drinking buddy. I squelched onwards. Oh crap, it must be further than I thought. I’d walked about a half a mile and the descent seemed like a long way off. Suddenly, from out of the mist, the guys returned having realised it was way too far to walk. Nothing for it, but to change the tube here, in the blizzard, freezing our nuts off. It’s amazing what you can do with six numb hands and lots of swearing, but we did it, eventually.
Descending like Captain Hook. (mile 29)
I swear I had to keep looking at my fingers to make sure they were still on the levers, because all sensory perception had deserted us. I came to the ford at the bottom and, having ridden over it a few times in the past, decided to ride it. Some slimy algae induced a sharp shot of adrenalin at one point but thankfully I made it across. So did Simon. Darren had taken the descent more slowly, obviously struggling with the same lack of control over his hands. Approaching the ford, we shouted across that it was very slippery. Onwards he came. Men of steel, remember. He’d got 95% of the way across when the world suddenly tipped sideways, depositing Darren at speed, smack into the planet; the full force on his forearm/elbow. There were two cries of exclamation – the first from the impact, rapidly followed by a different sound that comes from realising you’re in a stream with freezing cold water pouring through your kit. Refreshing.
For a few minutes, we wondered if the arm was broken, but after passing the wiggly fingers test and straightening a bent shifter on the bike, we decided we had to plough on.
Please let it go UP.
Unusual circumstances can cause you to think unusual things. Normally when cycling, people enjoy the free flowing rapid descents, and grin and bear the struggle of climbing up hills. Given that we were all shivering our nuts off, we knew that we needed to get our bodies going again to warm up, but the descent seemed to take forever. At one point Darren had to get off the bike as he was shaking uncontrollably. Think epileptic breakdancer, and you’re there.
Like Joe Simpson in Touching the Void, we clawed our way back to civilisation, which happened to be the base of the Horseshoe Pass.
Lucky Horseshoe (mile 32-35)
I’ve never been so glad to be faced with a big hill. There was a slight tailwind too, and with the promise of the Ponderosa cafe at the top, we dragged ourselves towards a hot drink and the first step towards making this experience a thing of the past and something to laugh about in future.
“Ha, d’you remember that day you were really unlucky and got two punctures and we almost froze to death in a blizzard on World’s end, then Daz nearly broke his arm and got hypothermia by falling in the ford?”
On a sincere note, I’m very proud and grateful for the way we worked together as a team to get through those particular challenges. It just goes to show that no matter how prepared you think you are, there’s always something that can bite you in the ass, so be careful out there folks, and look after each other.
Here’s the route as recorded on Strava
Right, I’m off to buy some decent tyres and a CO2 inflator.
Update: I ended up going for the classic GP4000s, and they’re awesome. Read my review and find out why.