The Bear Bones 200 is a big ride. This is a big report...
(I can only apologise for the length, I hadn't really intended to write such an essay but, well, it was a long ride. I hope someone enjoys it! More photos are here, thanks to Singlespeed George for the header shot. Strava here)
The Bear Bones 200 is an off-road reliability trial run each year around mid-Wales. It’s 200km long, invariably hilly and the organiser, Stu, typically seasons it with a healthy dose of what could be termed ‘character building’ sections that will have you off the bike and pushing. It’s an event I’ve wanted to do for the last two years but for various reasons I’ve not made. In the case of 2014 it feels like I dodged a bullet. To get a feel for it, watch this video (caution, enthusiastic swearing): https://vimeo.com/108784812 . This year, feeling like I hadn’t really pushed myself, I tossed my hat into the ring, only to discover it had filled up on the first day. I waited on the reserves list, half hoping I wouldn’t make it!
A little over a week before, I got an email starting ‘Depending on how you’re feeling, today could be your lucky day … or maybe not’. That pretty much summed up my feelings, but I was in. Time to pack. There’s a good chance you’ll be sleeping out, so carrying a sleeping bag and some sort of shelter (tarp, tent or bivvy bag) is mandatory. You don’t want to be carrying that, food, water and potentially two days of riding kit on your back, so time to strap it to the bike. What was a svelte cross country machine now is now well past 30lbs and heading for 40 with every ‘just in case’ you add, so packing carefully is important!
The route is released less than a week before, to much discussion. 200km with 17,000ft of climbing doesn’t look too bad, right? A Google Earth recce suggests a nice mix of on and off road and not too many places for unrideable tussock sections to hide. Those who know the area talk of a fast first half to one of only two resupply points, Knighton, and harder from there, with a sting in the tale for the last ten miles. That’s the plan then, ride steady on the first half, minimise stopping, fish and chips and resupply at Knighton, then take it from there.
I took the Friday off to have a lie in, pack and drive up. Pre-event nerves kicked in on the M40 so I stopped for coffee then turned the radio up and sang along loudly and badly to drown them out. The last few miles in Wales were in the dark, with the threat of big hills looming, felt but not seen. A small gathering of riders were at the Star Inn in Dylife, so I joined them for food, drink and pre-ride chat before sleeping in the back of the van.
I woke up in the half light feeling stiff, tired and unready, rolled into driver's seat and drove the five miles to the start at Llanbrynmair. Breakfast was tea and all the porridge I could eat, while chatting with Andrew of the Muddy Moles. There is no set start time (it’s not a race!), just a window of eight until ten. I failed to make my planned 8 o’clock start, but was modifying my plan. Rumour had it Stu suggested that the fast guys would be in Knighton by three, but that it slowed after that. We’d learned in the week that a community cafe in Bwlch Y Sarnau was going to be open all night for us, opening up another resupply option at 90 miles. Revised plan- maintain good pace to Knighton to make the most of the daylight, stock up and push on to Bwlch for dinner.
Anyway, 0844, enough faffing, time to head off. No ceremony, on my own, the start was undramatic, just rolling up the road. It was atmospheric, very Welsh- vivid green landscape, low, grey sky and cloud all blending together. The road kept climbing slowly, then I turned up a track up the side of the valley and was straight into the bottom gear. No point in pushing too hard now. I chatted with first rider I met, Phil, and rode with him for a while as we crossed the hill top on gravel tracks and drop into the lanes, until he shot off to chat with a fast rider who came flying past. I barely saw him until considerably later.
I spent the morning deliberately not looking at progress on the Garmin, just following directions and slowly ticking off the miles. I started catching a few of the more leisurely earlier starters and being passed by a few faster riders leaving after me in turn. We opened and shut a lot of gates, playing leapfrog as people took it in turns to hold them open. Slowly the day brightened and warmed up, we headed towards England and the miles ticked by.
Riding alongside Offa’s Dyke gave the first proper marker for distance, then a road sign suggesting two and a half miles to Knighton. This would have been a cruel trick, but I was prepared. The route overshoots and comes back. Shortly afterwards at 50 miles was the first hill I walked, but not the last. It was a steep gravel track. I could ride it but the bike was heavy and I had a long time left yet, so I pushed, turning round to enjoy the view often.
Along the ridge, in and out of 4x4 tracks and then it was time to plummet through the woods, past some logging to make a slight misturn up a fire road before rejoining the route further up. It was extra distance and height gain, I decided Stu wouldn’t mind.
Next it was back onto tarmac and turning West properly for the first time, feeling like I’d turned a corner metaphorically as well as literally. Everything here on in was homewards. I caught up with Andrew, who apparently thought I had got away from the start before him (I was in the loo) and had been pushing to catch up. He’d had about two minutes head start and I’d only just caught him. He was riding a singlespeed. The man is hard as nails.
Knighton came up quickly, and we were into a cafe. It was early, before four, now Bwlch Y Sarnau was definitely the aim for dinner, so just a bacon roll, tea and a brownie here. I took the time to refill with water and top up food supplies. The Spar provided haribo and wine gums. Combined with flapjack from the cafe and chucked into the feed bag on my bars, this provoked some mirth from a fellow BB200er. Fuel is fuel! If it’s there I’ll keep eating….
A little gang of three of us set off out of Knighton. Andrew, me and a helicopter pilot whose name I discovered I had inexcusably forgotten the next day, lost somewhere in a tired brain. We pushed on together, occasionally picking up and losing other riders, occasionally breaking up on the hills as different legs and gears picked different paces, usually regrouping on the now more frequent pushes. A long stretch across the uplands as the sun went down, vaguely in the same area as Glyndwrs way, felt very remote. The easy rolling miles of the first half were long gone. I was suffering some indigestion making what should have been some beautiful miles pretty uncomfortable. At this point, having been on the bike for over 10 hours, I was surprised that was the only real discomfort. Dropping to Llanbister meant we knew we were just one more up and over from somewhere warm that could give us food. It was properly dark now. The pace had slowed, the 25 miles from Knighton to Bwlch took nearly 4 hours compared to 3 for the previous 25.
Eventually, the elastic holding our merry band together snapped. Coming off a hill through deep ferns, the gps didn’t seem to correspond to any particular path and it was easy to wander off course. We lost Andrew somewhere here. Eventually we turned straight downhill and with a slightly sketchy plummet we were back on the trail, heading down the valley. We passed some caravans with a dog barking inside, and up ahead saw a rear light. Another rider, I think Richard (?), having a self confessed ‘grumpy’ moment. He’d been on his own for a while, it’s easy in the dark for things to go downhill in your head, I’d been glad of the company. Up the gravel road out of the other side of the valley and we all broke up to pedal at our own pace. We rejoined tarmac at the top, sudden, blessed tarmac with a sign to Bwlch Y Sarnau, 2 miles. That was it, head down, pedal hard to the top of the descent, dropper down and a full aero tuck all the way into town. A hard right and the bright lights of the Bwlch Y Sarnau village hall. 8pm and 87 miles done.
If there is heaven on earth, I don’t think it can look too dissimilar to the inside of that village hall. Warm air, the smell of hot soup and the offer of tea. I asked (nay, begged) for a cup of tea and was given a pot. Within minutes our group was back together, minutes in the dark can feel like miles. Soup was on it’s way. Bliss.
However, we still had bikes to ride. Andrew was concerned about getting going and headed off. My stomach was still suffering so I stayed in the warm and drank tea until I felt a bit more capable. 9pm, time to head out then, a slightly different trio headed out into the dark. Down the hill, hard left onto a farm track and, oh, I had a very soft rear tyre. I sent the others on ahead, swore, just a little, and dug out my pump. There was plenty of sealant in so hopefully the tubeless would seal.It didn’t, but I decided it was slow enough to try and push on and hope it would change it’s mind. Eventually, after stopping every few miles to top it up, it sealed. Or I stopped noticing!
The next few miles were a little different to what had gone before. Riding in the dark on my own I would have nothing to distract me from my own thoughts. Except that this 2 mile stretch of farm track must have had at least 50 gates to take my attention (I exaggerate, but not a lot). Not nice little people sized gates but ‘full-width-herd-of-cows-friendly’ jobs that often required two hands and full bodyweight to unlatch, then an awkward shuffle back to open followed by a frantic hop sideways with the bike to catch them as they tried to get away. And repeat. In the dark, watched by cows, while trying not to fall into some dubious looking puddles. I was getting perilously close to a sense of humour failure when I hit the road. A very welcome few miles on tarmac with couple of stops to top up the tyre before a turn uphill and another stretch of field and another 50 or so gates. I was catching someone now, slowly but surely. Over the top of the hill and a steep drop, a kick back up and this was the way to Llanidloes. Catching my erstwhile companions here, we pushed on through the town, deciding against a late night kebab. Somewhere I was cheered on by a man dressed in a poncho and sombrero. Others saw other things around here, so either the soup had been hallucinogenic or there was a party on.
Outside the town we bumped into Andrew, heading back from a wrong turning, so we were all back together as we headed into Hafren Forest. The next section has largely blurred into a long stretch of forest road and narrow trails through undergrowth. At some point I had a little lie down, unintentionally, in some ferns, narrowly missing a tumble into a stream, and somewhere we lost helicopter man who announced he was cooked and going to kip for the night. Andrew and I pushed on.
Eventually we hit Dylife and started the last stretch. The last stretch we had been warned about. 10 miles to go, it was some time around 1am. Or thereabouts, things had got a little hazy at this point! Caught by Phil again, this time riding with transcontinental rider Emily Chappell (on a cross bike!) and we had a group of four to finish. This was the section on which Stu had chosen to focus the traditional Bear Bones magic. Suffice to say the last ten miles took almost three hours, three hours of riding down, pushing up steep grassy slopes, blindly following the gps along a path we couldn’t see, over fences, through undergrowth, walking as much as riding. At some point here I finally suffered a sense of humour failure and can only apologise to my companions for the swearing. And to Stu, who I think was the target of most of it.
Still, eventually we were out and on the road back. Lights on emergency limp home power, we rolled in at 4am on the dot, signed the register pinned to the door and retreated to our cars to collapse. 19 hours and 15 minutes, 200km. Time to sleep.
I woke up in the van at half past eight to the heady aroma of mud, sweat and sheep poo. I’d managed a wet wipe shower but sharing a small space with kit and a mucky bike has a certain fragrance! Out into the fresh air and I could smell bacon. Mr and Mrs Bearbones, Stu and Dee, were knocking up industrial quantities of tea and bacon for shell shocked looking riders, some having slept, some only just back. Small talk, muttering about the last ten miles, much drinking of tea and eventually I felt revived enough to begin the journey home. It was a glorious day in Wales and I felt like I’d survived. Which would do very well.
For comparison, the fastest riders, veterans of the Highland Trail Race among others, finished in a little over 15 hours. I’m not sure they are human.