30 May 2013

Outer Hebrides Tour Part V: The Isle of Lewis

Despite being geographically all one island, everyone talks about the Isle of Harris and the Isle of Lewis as separate entities. After cycling the one road that links these two regions it is not at all hard to see why.

The road from Harris to Lewis

We started up the steep hill on the A859 expecting it to end just around the bend. It did ease up a bit but  the expected descent never came. We climbed, and climbed, and climbed some more on what was one of the busier roads of the trip (though still nothing compared to the southeast!).  It was a cloudy and chilly day which made things even tougher, and we stopped by the side of the road near the turnoff to Rhenigdale for a snack, wondering where this mountain had come from and why none of the blogs we had read had saw fit to mention it!

Stopping near the top of the climb on the way to Lewis
Soon after, the road finally turned downwards, only for us to pick up a headwind, so the cycling wasn't that much easier. At the bottom we were officially welcomed to the Isle of Lewis which Alberto was convinced was 'much flatter than Harris'. Where he gets these strange ideas I'll never know.  Throughout this entire stretch we hadn't passed a single building of any sort, to say nothing of a building where we could find food!

We could see that the town of Airdbruaich was coming up and hoped to find something there...but the town came and went without any commercial enterprises to speak of. Instead we pulled into a bus shelter (to escape the wind) next to the Bonnie Prince Charlie Memorial to make a lunch out of the food we could find in our panniers--cheese and tomato sandwhiches were the main items on the menu. It was already on the late side by this point so we knew we needed to press on -- back out into the wind it was.

Lunch in a bus shelter
We had entered back into civilisation though and it wasn't long before we came to the next town, Baile Allen and spotted a gallery/cafe with a sign saying 'Cyclists Welcome'. It was all the invitation we needed to escape from the elements and have a hot drink. The tea and scones were very good, if the owner was a bit of a character. She reminded me of Luna Lovegood from Harry Potter.

But it was past 5pm and we had our sights set on Stornoway where there was a campsite (it had been too many days without a shower!). The scones left us feeling a bit funny for the first few km but we soon settled into a rhythm and were thrilled to be rolling into Stornoway at 7pm. We made a beeline for the Coop as we weren't sure what time it would close (turns out 11pm so we had nothing to worry about). It is a gigantic Coop, definitely the biggest I have ever seen, and to us it was like we had hit the jackpot. We wandered around in a daze after a very tough day, trying to figure out what to buy and overwhelmed with choices. We ended up with lots of good stuff including steaks for dinner!

The campsite was just down the road so we made our way there and got the tent set up before sundown. There's nothing special about the location or facilities but it was nice to be able to take a long hot shower. They even had a hairdryer which at that time felt like the best thing that had ever happened to me! By the time we had set up camp, showered, and Alberto had briefly forayed into Stornoway for fuel for the stove,  we didn't get around to cooking until nearly 10pm and didn't get to bed until midnight.

Bacon for breakfast
The following morning we had a massive breakfast with more treats from the Stornoway coop including bacon. We planned a bit of a sightseeing day, as there seemed to be actually more stuff to 'do' in Lewis, and we knew we had to stay close enough to Stornoway to head back the following morning for our afternoon ferry. We were on the road about 10:30 to head to the west coast of Lewis via the Pentland Road, an inland lane that takes you through the heart of Lewis' peat bogs. It was a lovely, very quiet road and very scenic, although with quite a different feel to the scenery on Harris. We had a tailwind on this part of the journey which certainly helped a lot--once we hit the coastal road it was a different matter.

Pentland Road
We made it to Callanish and checked out the famous standing stones there. They were not too busy and it was nice to be able to walk around and through them. We then had a coffee and cake at the visitor's centre there and chatted with two women cyclists who were credit-card touring on road bikes with only a minimum of luggage. They had come from Tarbert that morning! They told us about a beach nearby, Dal Mhor, and said it was a great camping spot if we decided to camp in the area. It was still early so we decided to wait and see as we headed up the A859, into the headwind, towards Carlabagh and Na Gearannan.

Callanish standing stones
Na Gearannan is a traditional village of blackhouses (as they are called) which was abandoned in the 1980s as the dwindling numbers of aging residents could no longer handle the harsh life that was required by living in those houses. It has now been revitalised as a tourist centre with information about traditional island life. We spent some time checking out the village and ran into our Newcastle campervan friends again in the gift shop.

It was mid-afternoon by that point, and we decided just to head to Dal Mhor and make an easy day of it for once. It would have been very quick to get there along the coast via a footpath but we took the road instead as the path didn't seem suitable for bikes. Once more into the headwind and up a few more hills, and we were there.

Camp at Dal Mhor
It did not disappoint. It was once of the best locations of the whole trip, and with public toilets as well. There was a cemetery just next to the parking lot, overlooking the ocean. Not a bad place for a final resting spot! We picked an out-of-the-way spot for the tent and put it up, then went for a walk up the hill nearby to take in the views. We had the place pretty much to ourselves, with a car arriving every now and then with people taking a look around and then heading off again. Then a car pulled up which had MTBs, skis, and surf boards, and a dog. That's a good way to travel! The couple came out and went surfing for a little while, then got back in their car and headed off.

Taking in the views from above
We had an early (as in, before the sun went down) dinner of pasta followed by cous cous and prepped things for breakfast so that we didn't have to cook in the morning. We were in our sleeping bags by 9:30pm for our last night in the Hebrides.

Sunset at Dal Mhor
At 7am the next morning we were up, and on the road by 9:30 to head back to Stornoway, again via the Pentland Road. We enjoyed it as much as we had the first time around, even though we didn't have the same cracking tailwind. We arrived in Stornoway around 11:15am and again headed straight to the Coop to buy some salmon for Alberto and some lunch food for the ferry ride. We also went to the Hebridean Chocolates factory on a residential road nearby and bought some gifts (and of course some chocolate for us!)--it was delicious.

We went into town and Alberto stopped in at a pharmacy to pick up some sunscreen, as his nose and ears had gotten quite badly burned and were even blistering slightly. Finally we stopped at the Stornoway Fish Smokers where we ended up with some smoked cheddar cheese. We got some for us and some to give to our Newcastle campervan friends, who we knew would be on the same ferry.

Soon we were boarding the ferry back to the mainland, with only the final push to Inverness ahead of us before the end of our Outer Hebrides tour...

(to be continued!)

28 May 2013

Bryan Chapman Memorial 600: the rider experience

It has been a few days since we returned from our intense weekend in Wales. Memories of this fantastic ride have been occupying my mind for hours each day, especially when I try to remember what happened where and at what time. It all got mixed up by the time we made it back to the start, some 37 hours after we first started pedalling away from Chepstow.

The Bryan Chapman Memorial, or BCM, piqued my interest when we joined Audax UK a couple of years ago. Reading through some of the posts at YACF about which rides people recommend, it kept coming up top on the list. I have also got to know a few people who had ridden it, and I used to look at them as some sort of cycling super heroes. Riding from the very Southeast of Wales to the Northwest, and back, seemed like a tough undertaking for the average cyclist like me.

In 2012 we rode the Camino de Santiago, and incidentally, we spent the Saturday night of the BCM sleeping on the floor at a lonely Gatwick airport waiting for our silly o'clock flight to France. Back then, when trying to catch some sleep, I recall thinking about the BCM riders riding thorugh the night. I could not miss it again in 2013, so I made sure I put my entry in early enough.  Lucy still wasn't sure about the long(er) distances, but somewhat I convinced her to come and help on the event. Perfect, a weekend full of fun in May!

Things got busier for me in the weeks leading up to the BCM.. Not much time for riding, except at the weekends. Preparations did not go as planned (do they, ever?) but managed to fit in a few tours in April and May, and one hilly ride the weekend before the BCM. All that was left was to get good sleep the week before the event, which I also did not quite manage.

On the Friday before the ride, we caught a super busy 7:15 pm train from Paddington to Bristol, and after a bit of begging with the train guards, we got our bikes on board and squeezed in with hundreds other heading to Wales. Adam, Justin and Jordan, three audaxers also based in London, were also on our train. Once in Bristol Parkway, we made our way towards the infamous Severn View travelodge, on the England side of the Severn bridge. It was a pleasant short ride catching up on audax rides and plans with our fellow audaxers. Soon after midnight we were tucked in bed, ready for the big day.

Alarm went off at 4:45 am, but of course, I had been awake for quite some time beforehand. A quick calorie-full breakfast was consumed in a rush, as always, while seeing riders setting off from the window. Lucy and I left the hotel room at 5:20 am, and got some nice morning breeze while crossing the Severn Bridge.

Crossing the Severn Bridge

Severn river view, 5:30 am
We got to the start with only 15 min before the official 6 am off. Quickly introduced ourselves to Ritchie, the main organizer, and Lucy run off to the kitchen to help Claire, Ritchie’s wife, with the teas. While I was getting myself ready for the off, I heard someone calling out my name, and it didn’t sound like the usual Alberchow with an English accent, but more like it sounds in Spanish. Javier, whose brilliant blog I have been following for a few years now, had spotted me. We must be the only two Spaniards in the UK who ride (and possibly blog about) audaxes. His great accounts of audaxes, and later on Paris-Brest-Paris (in Spanish), were one of the reasons I took up audaxing. He is a quick rider, so joked with him about seeing him at the start and possibly never again during the ride. At 6 am approximately 130 intrepid cyclists set off for a weekend full of fun. Javier decided to drop his plans to go flat out for the first 200 km and would take it easier for now, so set off together.

The usual start of any audax, except note the larger saddle bags and a mix of riders from all over the UK
There’s little traffic on a Saturday at 6 am.  It was quite warm and we quickly stuck with a few groups who gave us a lift for most of the first stage. Javier and I caught up on a few years of experiences both on and off the bike. As a fellow Spaniard and Londoner, there’s much in common between us. I also saw quite a few other familiar faces, mostly people who I rode with my first 600 back in September: Rob and David. The first 80 km to the first café control went by very quickly, with no hills to speak of except the occasional bump. We had crossed the Breacon Beacon National park.

Javier taking it easy on the first few km
Javier’s plan was to machacar (to hammer down) his first 200 km, flat out, and then take it easy for the remaining 400 km. He is not only doing LEL, but also a very challenging a hilly event in the Spanish Pyrinees: the Quebrantahuesos. From what I recalled reading his posts, he completed that hilly ride in almost no time. I insisted he should go ahead if he felt like it, but he agreed to stick with me for now. Even though we weren’t pushing it, we rode at an average of almost 29 km/h, and so without much delay were in the first café control. Lucy had gone past us with Ritchie on their minibus on their way to Dolgellau and said we were near the front of the group, looking good.

One of many traffic lights on country roads

Couldn't have asked for better weather! the hills are coming
A good number of fellow riders had already made it there, and were having some food. We did not fancy waiting, and my plan (if I ever had one!) was to ride the first 200 km, as quickly as reasonably possible to buy myself some time for sleep later on. If I rode at a good pace, minimizing stops, I should be able to get back to the Youth Hostel (our sleep stop) sometime around 1 am. We went into the café, got our stamp, ate a bit of our own food provisions and pedaled off.

It's hard enough to ride a Brompton in Central London, not to mention on the hills of the BCM!
Food while audaxing is something that I am still experiment on. Most people reckon is a difficult task to manage, especially on long brevets. Initially, everything goes down well and feels appetizing, but as the ride progresses, only very few things inspire my appetite. Javier, who has many more long rides under his belt than I do, was also experimenting with food for his LEL. English muffins and nutella were his snack food, while a large pasta salad formed his main course for the ride. I, on the other hand, had only got three cheese/tomato and fuet (a type of salami, a bit dryier than usual) sandwiches and some cereal bars.

The second stage to Nant-Yr-Arian had some hillier terrain ahead. We were still making good progress though, if it not were for the many traffic lights that we encountered on the way. Wales roads are usually in a much better condition than their English counterparts, but they must require a lot of work after the harsh winter we’ve just had. On one of those stops I needed to empty my bladder. On this occasion there was a woman handling the traffic lights, and so I politely ask if she did not mind if I peed on the other side of the road, while waiting for the green light. I was minimizing stopping in true audax spirit. As it happens, she was a Wales police officer who joked about giving me a fine with the other riders! Luckily she seemed in a good mood and only laughed about it. I did explain that saddle pressures may be responsible for my transitory incontinence. Even though this was intended to be a joke, I spent a good deal of my PhD dealing with bladder disease, so I knew what I was talking about!

Javier and Graeme on a quiet Welsh main road
 Another rider, Graeme, joined us for a while. Coming from the Durham area, he had made the long drive to Chepstow the night before, and was doing this as his first 600 (forget me if I got this wrong though!). One thing he did mention, and both Javier and I agreed with, is that this long audaxes should be (and they are, at least for me!) a holiday. No need to rush it.

Discussing whether audax should feel like a holiday
There were lots of unusual bikes on the BCM. From the usual low-end Moultons, to a top of the range (pricey) one, disc brakes, electric gears (one rider reported a flat Di2 battery!) a Brompton, fixies, one recumbent and someone mention a tandem?

Pricey Moulton. A good example of British engineering at its best
A headwind made an appearance as we climbed towards the second control. This made the group split, leaving Javier and I slowly grinding up the gentle hill. Even though it wasn’t steep by any means, the headwind made for some slow progress. Javier moved to the front and I just tried and follow him.

160 km into the ride we got to the second control. At the café we saw a good number of bikes outside, indicating a potential delay in getting our food ordered. Even though I had food, I fancied a little reward in the form of warm soup. Potato soup and leek was my choice, with double serving of bread, a coke and a scone. Not the quickest service, but we got lucky to get there before the main group. The area looked nice, and I suppose may be busy with mountain bikers at the weekend given they had bike washing facilities and were showing downhill videos. Apparently all their loo water and bike washing water is collected from rain.

The scenery was already changing

Much needed café control at Nant-Yr-Arian

Should check this out on a mtb, sometime
My stomach had already been complaining by now, but it wasn’t unbereable. A quick visit to the loos did the job, at least for now. Upon leaving the café, the queue was considerable. We saw Jordan pull in as we got ready for the descent. It was colder now, so we put on some long finger gloves and quickly got back on to the road. The next stage would take us West towards Dolgellau, which we would visit again at the 400 km mark.

The downhill from here was quick, and on very smooth tarmac. This section took on main roads, which for the standards we are used to in the Southeast of England, weren’t too bad. A few drivers though kept on using their horns, for no real reason. The road had some elevations, but again, nothing to serious and always very gentle when going up. We were in a group of 7 or 8 riders, all led by Tom, the organizer  of some fine Essex brevets whom I also rode my first 600 km ride with last September. As Javier best describes it on his blog “the Mozart of the pace making”, he kept the perfect pace for a while that no one bothered or were able to do a turn at the front. Thanking him when I finally got past him, he said he actually enjoys being at the front keeping his own pace!

Tom (aka the Mozart of the pace making according to Javier) leads the group

Glad we did not turn on to the road on our right hand side
Dolgellau, or rather, the Kings Youth Hostel, was our next stop. Here, the organizers had booked the entire hostel for the event, serving both as kitchen/dining room for hungry audaxers, as well as dormitories for the return leg. Having that spot for both the 225 and the 400 km mark gives you encouragement. In my case, also, I would have the opportunity to catch up with Lucy, who would be helping at the hostel. Food was also provided, and unlimited, which was great.

Timings were perfect for us, as we ended up arriving at the hostel for Spanish lunchtime. A few people were already there, and we caught up with one of Javier’s friends, who was an hour or so ahead of us. Everyone was in such good spirits that I truly enjoyed just speaking to people. Lucy saw us through the window and quickly left her volunteer duties to come say hi.

The nice steep road leading to the YHA at Dolgellau, 3rd control

A whole hostel was hired for the event. Food and  later on beds awaited hungry and tired randonneurs
We sat down, ate two servings of pasta, soup, and rice pudding with fruits and some coffee. Lucy said the first guys were way ahead of us (at least 3-4 hours), apparently one of them was an Olympic rower, and that we were still at the front of the main peloton, which allowed us to be served and looked after very quickly.

Well fed, and a bit lighter after yet another visit to the toilets, we set off for the last Northwards leg. I had heard many good things about the leg from here to Menai bridge, mostly because it combines some coastal sections with Snowdonia. So you get to see both the nice beaches of the West and the sharp peaks of the Northwest. I was still feeling good, despite my stomach issues. Legs still spinning without any significant pain, which was indeed a good sign.  During lunch, we also learnt that due to a 11 km diversion on this route, some people were taking the return leg along the A470 rather than the coastal route, saving themselves quite some distance and climb…but as another guy said, we were in for the whole thing and the scenery, so we did not even considered taking shortcuts.

Only 410 km to go! Leaving Dolgellau

On the cycle lane towards Barmouth.
Shortly after leaving Dolgellau, we joined a nice cycle route along the coast. Barnmouth was the next village in sight, and from there on we just travelled parallel to the coast for quite some time. The views were amazing, I was certainly quite impressed, and it reminded both Javier and I of the North of Spain. We were lucky not to have any rain or wind.

Amazing views on the coastal section (overlooking right on the Barmouth bridge)

Reminded me of the North of Spain
Once we left the coastal route we made a quick stop to get some food. The return leg would be quite lonely, without many services, so I decided to stock up on calories just in case I needed them on the way back. We also had a couple of milkshakes which, I have found, are good and very appealing on audaxes. It was somewhere after our stop that we saw two guys on triathlon bikes with lights, chasing each other at crazy speeds, so we figured they must’ve been the guys at the front. Quite amazingly they were not far from the 400 km mark, so at least 100 km ahead of us!

Another guy sporting a Bath jersey joined us, and we made the usual conversation of rides, ideas and experiences. I don’t mind riding on my own, in fact I quite like it sometimes, but always find company a very welcome sight, especially if people are keen to chat and share ideas and rides. Even though it was still light out, we both started to feel a little sleepy and at some point even thought of dozing at the next control. We then figured that that wouldn’t be a great idea, especially given the weather was still great and that the real good stop was in Dolgellau, with beds and food.

Shame it got cloudy and couldn't see Snowdon
Pen-Y-Pass was the big climb of the day, yet it was so gentle that we kept an average of 14-15 km/h going up it. The roads were nearly deserted by now, and it certainly did make a very pleasant time for riding. As the road winded up its way through Snowdonia, we saw other randonneurs coming up it in the distance. We did not faff much at the top, other than a few pictures, and went straight down the hill. My aim was to try and get to Menai before it got dark so at least I could see a bit of it before the return leg.

Climbing Pen-Y-Pass
Great scenery in Snowdonia
The last 10 km or so to the next control were a little weird. I was expecting a mostly downhill section, but it turned out to be more rolling that I would have liked, and my legs were ready for some rest after a lengthy stretch. We passed Llanberis, which I recognised as the place I stayed at when I walked up Snowdon back in 2009. It was getting dark as we crossed the bridge on to Anglesey, and we got the wrong turn on a couple of occasions before we found the control (I am sure a lot of people did!).

Lights on

Crossing Menai Bridge, half way there!
Another warm welcome was awaiting us at Menai. Yet more hot food, biscuits and bread were the mainstay of our dinner. It was past 9 pm, so again, perfect timing for Spanish dinner time. We could see how the ride was taking its toll on some people – we saw a guy properly snoring on the floor. We took it easy, ate, visit the loo and got water for the next leg. Just before 10 pm we set off on super quiet roads back up through Snowdonia. Lots of people were coming the opposite way on our route, indicating that quite a few riders had taken the return leg to Menai and declined the lovely coastal route.

Warm welcome at Menai control
Javier had by now decided to ride with me for the remainder of the ride, which was certainly a most welcome idea! Having someone stronger and more experienced than you always helps, and especially through the night, makes the km a lot easier. We were also feeling sleepy, but did not want to stop for sleep, so we made an extra effort to keep chatting. Not only did I learn many good things about the longer distances (i.e. PBP) but also discussed (or tried to) business and non-cycling related topics.

The roads at night don’t seem too hilly until you hit them and see your speed dropping/rising abruptly. But there were few of these to speak of, being all long drags up and down Snowdonia.

We were joined by a couple of other riders. Slowly but surely we made good progress towards the control, eventually making the infamous left turn onto the steep section of road leading to the hostel. We had already clocked up more than 400 km. Even though this was meant to be a hilly ride, I appreciate is quite a quick one. I had made my fastest 200 km to date (8.5 hours), my fastest 300 (under 15 hours) and now the quickest 400 under 20 hours. The weather had certainly played a role, and so had having good company and little stops.

4:15 am looking out of my window dorm
Lucy had just woken up by the time we arrived. She had been busy throughout the day, and only got 3 hours sleep. Almost like an audax on feet, running around serving people’s food! She served us yet more food before we requested a couple of beds. Due to the number of people already there, and many others yet to arrive, we were only allowed 3 hours of sleep. Others took on the sofas, with no limit of hours, but we resorted to greater comforts of the beds.

Mine was already warm from a previous guy. Even though I was quite tired, I could not fall asleep straight away, and took at least 15 min to pass out. I woke up with a full bladder and just looked out of the window – it was around 4:00 am and the front yard was full of bikes, indicating most people were already back and having a rest. I went back to sleep only to be woken up once again at 4:45 am by my very own alarm – as it turns out I had forgotten to turn it off from the night before. Admittedly (I am rubbish waking up to alarms!) it took me a while to realize it was my phone and was sorry for the other people in my room…turn it off and went back to sleep until 6 am ish.

By that time there were empty beds in my dorm. Javier was already up (he was in the bunk bed underneath mine) showered, and was enjoying a relaxed breakfast. It was when I asked him if he had got a good rest, he said “yes but someone alarm went off at 5 am and he did not even notice until after the second time it went off, pissing me right off”. I laughed when I mentioned it was in fact my alarm. I was feeling quite fresh and ready for some food and yet another 230 km.

About to leave the Hostel, 6:50 am.
Even though I know I had to top up my calories for the ride ahead, I couldn’t eat much. Stomach was still making funny noises but it all seemed under control. There were few people left by the time we were ready to leave, which was close to 7 am, but we were still quite relaxed and enjoying the atmosphere. It was another warm morning and we were only 1/3 of the way to the finish, so couldn’t be happier. Our estimated arrival to Chepstow was in over 11 hours.

Just as we were about to leave, we saw at least one other guy pull into the control. He had surely been riding through the night and was just getting to the control. He looked in so much discomfort and appeared to have difficulties getting off his bike. Not the image I had seen throughout the ride, but I can imagine the slower riders having a tougher time than we were. I can assume this is more common in the longer brevets such as PBP and LEL, but will only find out in 2015!

Emtpy roads at 7 am
Setting off felt good, no sore legs or butt, and a glorious day of riding awaited. The first hill of the day would be one of those slow drags that have you wondering whether it is ever going to end. Eventually it did, after near 10 km. Another one, more steep, followed, and then the first control of the day: Aberhafesp.

The organization at this control was also superb. We were served breakfast pretty much before we even had got to our seats. Another surprise came when someone hugged me from behind – I knew quite a few people on this ride, all men, but don’t think any of them would feel the impulse to give me a hug. Javier and I had spent quite some time together, riding through the night, but I thought the sound of the alarm at 4:45 am would have prevented him from giving me any of his affection. It was Lucy, who had just arrived with Ritchie after having just closed the Dolgellau control.

A long climb ahead
We had a second full English (well, no beans for me) breakfast. By the time we set off we saw the Hackney guys pulling in, and they too seemed in good spirits. Rode for a little while with a couple of people, one London based rider in SRW club gear, and someone else. We stuck together until we hit the first climb. We did not know it at the time, but this was to be the highest summit of our entire ride at 500 m. Certainly not a Pyrinean summit, but still quite a drag when you’ve got close to 500 km on your legs. Javier and I ended up dropping the other guys before going down the other side of the hill. I topped in excess of 70 km/h, but then the next hill came. At this point, with just under 100 miles to go, we hit a rough patch. I felt weak and hungry and we both agreed to have a quick stop to eat and drink something. Even though I still have plenty of wrapped food in my saddle bag, none of it was appetizing at the time. The garage had much more appealing food, especially given it was sunny and warm outside. A milkshake and chocolate did the trick.

Back to the lanes
 Weobley was the last free control. We turned right onto the High Street and saw a few bikes piled up at a café, but we pressed on looking for a shop. Quite a few riders were already there, having a good rest on the grass. Javier and I went in to the shop, bough some icecream, drinks and other audax delicacies and enjoyed the weather. I felt so sleepy and was tempted to just go for a mini siesta, so did some others from the looks of things.

Last control at Weobley, a siesta was most appealing, but we resisted the temptation
Shortly after 3 pm we got back on our bikes and pressed on. The last 80 km were in unknown territory for me, and I did not quite remember what the terrain was like from the profile. What I did think was that it was mostly downhill. Perhaps it is from my Spanish genes (Spain seems to be the second hilliest country in Europe, and I can certify that!) but I always tend to think that the remainder of any ride is mostly flat or downhill… How wrong I was this time! We also noticed that we no longer saw signs for “araf-slow” on the road, meaning we were no longer in Wales but back in England.

A continuation of ups and downs was what we had for the next 50 km or so. As Javier describes on his blog, a “rompepiernas” or leg breaker. The hills were so steep that sometimes I struggled even on my tiny 30 teeth ring coupled with a 27 rear cog. I started to feel like this ride was a bit much, and was ready to finish it. The scenery did not help either, going back to being the usual green farmland that we are so used to. There was also quite a bit of traffic on the lanes, which were very bumpy also. We had been treated to excellent tarmac all round, but this section was just so full of potholes and my wrists were hurting a lot. I was jealous of the three riders on Moultons and their full suspensions!

Green & Yellow fields
Eventually we made it to the last biggish town before Chepstow, Monmouth. We were again in Wales. After getting a little confused with the routesheet and the gps, we finally got on to the last stretch of road (the A466) leading to the arrivée. We then saw signs for the Forest of Dean, which I was familiar with from the very fine ride of the Dean 300 that I did last year. Four more guys, including two Moultons and Rob (who I did my first 600 with) passed us. They were going at an slightly quicker pace than ours, but we both felt strong and stick to their rear wheels.

Train to Chepstow
Their pace was in fact perfect, and we made good progress through the nicely paved A466 following the river Wye. The last few inclines were very gentle, and Javier and I got to the front of the group to share a bit of the work. There were only 10 km or so left, and I started to feel the rush of being so close to the finish. Three riders who I had met on the Elenith were in a hurry to get in before 7 pm and went past us like real pros. We weren’t bothered with times and just tried and enjoy the last bit of the ride.

We got to the HQ seconds past 7 pm, having ridden 632 km in the last 37 hours. Got our card stamped and were quickly offered a bacon sandwich and a drink. Two years after I first heard about this ride and here I was, feeling (relatively) fresh and happy to have just finished it.

Overall I believe this has been one of the best cycling excursions I’ve been on. Last year in September, when I did my first ever 600 km ride, I really wondered whether long distances were for me. Someone (MattH from Yacf) suggested I gave the Bryan Chapman a go, and so I did. Surely the weather helped a great deal, but I think I’ve come to love the long rides again. The scenery, organization and company had been the best I could’ve hoped for.

We were back in London at 10 pm, and really it all felt like a dream. I had crossed Wales twice, left work at a normal time on a Friday, and will aim to be back a normal time on Monday (if a bit too sleepy and happy). Sometimes it feels like you’ve achieved a lot at the weekend, and this was certainly one of those times.

My thanks go first to Ritchie, Claire and daughter, Mark, Stan, Jo, Andy, helpers at Menai and Aberhafesp, and of course Lucy, who not only agreed to come and help, but gave me the extra motivation to make it to the next control (see her helper report here). All of you did a superb job in making this happen. I will try and give some of this help back at the start of the LEL. Muchas gracias to my riding companion Javier, who adjusted his machaca schedule to ride with me from Chepstow, put up with my faffing at controls, and most importantly, did not push me of a cliff after the 4:45 am wake up alarm at Dolgellau. Riding long distances in good company really does make a difference.

Other riders have written accounts of their own BCM:

- Wilkyboy and zigzag on here
- Lucy's account as a helper here
- Graeme blog post here
- Javier's blog in English here and Spanish here
- Marcusjb here and here
- General discussion and ride reports on the YACF BCM post here

25 May 2013

Outer Hebrides Tour Part IV: The Isle of Harris

We had caught the last ferry of the day over to Leverburgh, on Harris, and hadn't stocked up on food or water before we left. We hoped to find a shop in town and then a spot to wild camp, all in the few hours before the sun went down.

Upon arrival in Leverburgh at about 7pm we learned that the shop was closed. We had some backup food, so that was not too much of an issue, but we needed water. We decided to circle back to the harbor where there was a restaurant and ask them for water. When we got there, we took a peek at the menu and decided it looked good! Another restaurant patron told us that the fish was so fresh, they were missing some of the items on the menu because the boat hadn't arrived yet. So we decided to treat ourselves.

We enjoyed some delicious local cuisine--seafood for Alberto and an island venison pie for me. It was delicious and made a nice change from our camp dinners. We filled up on water as well and headed off around the west side of Harris to find a spot to camp. We had heard there was a good spot in North Bay but as we passed by the town in the fading light, we didn't see anything (we later figured out you need to take the turnoff into the town itself, and go through to the other side of it to the beach).

West side of Harris (near Northbay) in the fading light
We kept pedalling, past the town of Borve, and the only spot that seemed remotely suitable was a picnic area next to the road, where two campervans were already parked, seemingly settling down for the night. We pressed on a bit longer but when nothing else presented itself we turned back to the picnic area. It was really getting dark by that point and we put on our headtorches to pitch our tent. The ground was pretty slanted and we were a bit too close to the road for our liking, but beggars can't be choosers.

As we were finishing up getting everything set up a guy came out of one of the campervans to offer us a drink. He was from Oban, living in Newcastle, and taking his parents-in-law around the Outer Hebrides for the very first time. He was very friendly and generously made me a cup of tea and gave Alberto a beer -- really can't ask for anything more than that!

Roadside camp spot the following morning
We slept well despite the less-than-ideal camping spot and woke up to another glorious sunny day. We chatted with the campervan people over breakfast and compared notes. They gave us a tourist map of the islands which was useful in that it showed cafes, and told us about Huisinis, a beach in North Harris where they were planning on heading for the night. It sounded great so we set our sights on that as well, though we weren't sure how far it would be for us as first we were planning to do a complete circle of south Harris, as we couldn't decide between the east and west sides, both of which were supposed to be spectacular.

We set off northwards along the west side. After about half an hour we passed a campsite in Seilebost. We could have made it if we'd known to head for it, but it didn't appear on our map. Oh well, it really wasn't too bad where we were. The west side of Harris did not disappoint, as we followed the coast with it's many beautiful beaches, and then had a long climb in the north of the island, before turning off to head south down the east coast and back to Leverburgh.

East coast of Harris
The east side of Harris was equally stunning, but completely different in feel. Although at times we were only a few meters above sea level, it felt like we were very high up because of the rugged landscape. We stopped for a snack at the Skoon art cafe near the town of Geocrab. It was so sunny that we sat outside as we had our tea and cakes. We really never pictured ourselves doing that in Scotland in April!

Eating outside at the Skoon Art Cafe
We arrived back in Leverburgh after stopping briefly to check out St Clement's Church in Rodel. We stopped in at the shop to stock up. We got some good items for dinner and snacks, but a lack of bread made lunch hard. We had some crackers, cheese, and fruit and in the parking lot of the shop, where we met another couple of cycle tourists who had just come off the ferry. They were doing roughly the same route as us but had a few more days to do it in. We headed off up the A859 together-ish but we were quite different paces. Alberto and I took the turn into North Bay and found the beach where we could have camped the night before, and also saw a fish shop where apparently they operated an honor box system -- we didn't get anything though.

This is the beach in North Bay that we were trying to find the night before
We got back on the A859 and surprised the other couple by passing them from behind again. They couldn't understand how they had gotten past us! The road was just as beautiful as it had been the first time, and soon we were passing our previous turnoff spot and headed for Tarbert. It took a bit longer than anticipated and we reached Tarbert just before 6, so we quickly hit up the shops for food and water. There was a local butcher so we picked out some sausages in addition to the usual dried foods and grains.

It was starting to get late, but it didn't seem like there was anywhere nearby to camp so we decided to head to Huisinis as we had originally wanted to. I don't know why we were convinved that the road to Huisinis would be relatively flat, perhaps because it went along the coast. But it was not flat. It was actually some of the worst hills we had encountered on the trip. I do believe I began cursing them at some point, but it didn't change things. We wanted to get to camp before dark so we just kept pushing, and after what seemed like hours we finally reached the beach. The beach was absolutely stunning, well worth all the effort. It felt like paradise (if paradise exists at 5 degrees C).

The road to Huisinis
Our campervan friends from the previous night were there already, and they were incredulous that we had made it there on our bikes. We had a good laugh about that and they let us use their disposable BBQs which were already hot to make our sausages. By the time we were eating it was dark again but we were content with our ride and drifted off to sleep planning a relaxed day to make up for two tough ones in a row. The other good thing about Huisinis beach was that it had public restrooms, which made washing up easier and made everything a bit more civilised.

We woke up on the early side due to the bright sunshine coming in to the tent. We decided to go for a walk around the fields before breakfast to take in the views from other angles. There were tons of rabbits out in the fields, though we seemed to scare them away whenever we got near. We packed the tent and headed back down to the beach to make breakfast. There was another young couple on bikes there who had spent two nights there but were getting ready to head off. They were on really cheap bikes and carrrying backpacks, and were mainly using the bikes because it seemed easier than bringing a car, rather than purposefully setting off on a bike tour.

We set off with a bit of dread to retrace our steps from the previous night. Actually, the road didn't seem so bad in reverse, we weren't sure whether it was because of a difference in gradient or because we knew what to expect this time around.

About two thirds of the way back to the main road we stopped to check out the North Harris Eagle Observatory. We asked some walkers who were headed back to their cars about the condition of the trail and they said it was passable by bike so we left our panniers at the entrance and set off on our bikes. It was a good test of their off-road capabilities. We reached the eagle observatory and hung out for a while waiting to see what we could see. We did spot the eagle after a time, though sadly we didn't have binoculars so we couldn't really see any great detail. Still, it was cool.

We headed back out to the road and then onto the main road which links Harris and Lewis. We knew there was a hill to climb but were not prepared for just how long it would be. This stretch between Harris and Lewis was the longest of the whole ride where we would not encounter any services, towns, or restaurants...

(to be continued!)