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


  1. If you haven't seen this video I'm sure you'll love it http://vimeo.com/67283155#

    Great report Alberto. It was great riding with you. Looking forward for the next one.


  2. Yep, saw that recently. May do Hereward the Wake but won't know until nearer the time as I get to the end of the week in a pretty bad state to start an overnight ride..but will see. Same, a pleasure. Perhaps we should look into the Bear Bones 200 (http://bearbonesbikepacking.co.uk/)? would that take your fancy?

  3. just spent a great few minutes reading this blog, was really inspiring and great to read thanks for the inspiration and hope you have more wonderful memories riding your bike on your next adventures.

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