Its been two weeks since I was on the Stonehenge cycle challenge.
The ride was absolutely fantastic and I felt truly honored to participate.
The adventure started as soon as I left the door on Thursday 12th September, with Gavin (from Newcastle) and Brendan (from Glasgow). I had driven down to Cardiff on many occasions before and felt confident I could get there in about 3 1/2 to 4 hours. We set off about 2:30 and reached Cardiff about 7:00pm, but didn't realise there was about another 80-90 miles after that. After a stop courtesy of McDonalds, we reached the starting hotel at about 9:30pm. We dropped the bikes off and set off for the pub to meet the rest of the group, arriving there about 10:30, but they had left by that time. After dropping Gavin off back at the start and getting lost with the sat nav, which took us on a 30 mile detour Brendan and I arrived in Pembroke Dock just after midnight.
We met up again at 6.00am for the trip back to the start and made good time this time, breakfast was courtesy of McDonalds again, but whilst eating breakfast, the heavens opened up and the dread came that this ride was going to be very wet,, but by the time we arrived at the start, the rain had passed.
Getting ready for the start was quite relaxing. We were told an 7:30am start, but it was more like 8:30am before we got off. I spent the time sorting the bike making sure everything was packed and that I hadn't left anything in the car. It was also a time to get to know everyone else in our little group and to start mixing a bit with the remainder of the group. From HASSRA, there were about 12, and the wider group including us contained about 35 riders. I found myself mentally checking off the other riders, to see how I might fair against them... I know it wasn't a competition, but I'm a bit insecure at times and this being the first time I had ever ridden in a group of more than 1, I didn't want to embarrass myself and get left behind or worse.
I'm not sure how it happened, but when we set off, I was at the back of the group anyway, with Gavin and Brendan, I think it was more a combination of throwing my bags into the back of the support van and taking a toilet break, but anyway, I was at the back. It was probably the best place to be though as it helped me the observe everyone else' riding discipline. simple things like how much distances to stay behind someones back wheel and whether riding side by side was generally accepted. I soon got used to it, and even though we were going up hill I found the time to have a natter with a few of the other riders around me and not struggling for breath with the pace. The atmosphere was upbeat and every one seamed excited about the ride ahead. It was 70+ miles on the first day and by this time I felt like I could conquer at least the first day easily. We stopped at a scenic point at the top of the hill for a photo stop and then got down to the serious business of clocking up the miles towards the first rest stop.
Throughout the 3 days the signs directing us along the route were excellent and if I found myself alone with the doubt creeping in that I may have took a wrong turn, another reassuring sign was never far away. Another hill soon loomed before me, we were on a country lane and the group was beginning to extend and some of the people around me were starting to slow. I knew I had a better pace in me, and felt that a slower pace may actually grind me down quicker, so I picked up the pace and gradually started moving to the front of the group. After a while, I found the lead group of 3. Two were from HASSRA (Brendan and John) and another guy called Ian. The pace at the front was challenge and I learned a lot that morning about the how a small group operates, things such as pointing out obstacles, alerting the group to other traffic, especially on the country lanes, and shouting 'clear' at junctions if there is no other traffic. I didn't take my fair share of turns up at the front of the group that morning, but I'm sure the rest of the guys understood.
After a challenging hill, and a fast descent, we finally arrived at the first Water stop. We were 26 miles into the ride and the support car had driven ahead to set up. We were in a car park attached to an old scout hut were we could use the toilet. The support car had been used to set up the first water stop. There was water, an assortment of tracker bars, bananas, oranges, nuts and re hydration sachets. We settled down and the rest of the group soon started to arrive after. It must have took about 25 minutes before the last of us rolled in, which permitted us to set off soon after. There was another challenging hill right from the start, but my stiff legs after 30minutes of rest soon loosened up and it was not long before we were through Carmarthen and well along the road towards the lunch stop. We were joined by a lad called Igor, from Russia originally, but working in the London area, he was about 26 and did not have an ounce of fat on him. I was very impressed at how he could keep pace on his mountain bike, which is not as efficient as riding a road bike. We arrived at lunch and waited for what seemed like 30 minutes as people arrived before we settled down for lunch. I felt a little guilty about leaving so soon after the last person arrived, but after an hour we needed to get on the road. Unfortunately, we had also been told than one of our group (Lynn) had an accident after the first water stop, she took a tumble whilst descend down a hill, dislocated her knee cap, needed 26 stitches, damaged her arm and split her cycle helmet. She had a scan at the hospital, but it turned out there was no head injury, so I guess the helmet did its job. Lynn joined us for the rest of the challenge, but did not get back on her bike, she stayed in the support car and acted as the morale officer.
I made the big mistake of saying 'the weather is being really kind to us today' whilst at lunch, so inevitably it started to rain shortly after lunch, in fact in did not stop for the rest of the day. There was another major climb straight after lunch, this started to feel like a recurring theme, but the climb felt like it was never going to stop. Some other riders were in front of me, so I started passing them and having a chat with them along the way. I passed a lady called Carolyn, whilst we were on a particularly steep stretch, I drew up by the side of her and just manage to gasp a 'hello', she went t say hello back, swerved and ended up tipping over into a hedge. It was nothing serious as she was going so slow and she only tipped a couple of degrees into the hedge, so it acted more like a cushion. Well at least that is how I justified it myself, I apologised, especially for being completely shameless and not stopping and helping the poor lady, but we had a good laugh about it later. After a quick descent and another climb, I found myself crossing the Brecons by myself, the scenery was magnificent and the rain did not spoil it a bit. I descended down into Trecastle and eventually found my way to the second water stop in a nice little coffee shop. I had coffee and a piece of cake, it was delicious. Again we were waiting a while before the others arrived. We were told that there was only another 12 miles before we reached Brecon for the evening.
When I got out of the coffee shop, the rain had not abated, I was still wet and I felt really cold. I started off in a low gear so that I could spin my legs a lot quicker which helped to get my core temperature back up. Shortly after Trecastle, we were directed off the main road onto some country lanes. It is at this point when it became clear that every farmer in the local area had decided that today was a good day to chop the hedges by the side of the road. I was lucky, I only received one puncture, but by the time we limped into Brecon there was a total of 32 punctures (from a group of 35). Those last few miles, although hard and cold, were probably the best ten miles that brought us all together as a group across the whole trip. Every time we saw someone with a puncture, we would slow down and offer some assistance, sometime they were OK, other times they needed some help. Stopped for a lady called Liz (from Canada, but living in Scotland), who was struggling to get her rear tyre pumped back up, so we stopped to help, whilst we were putting the back wheel back on, we spotted another thorn in the front tyre, as soon as we pulled it out we could here it hissing, so Liz had a double puncture and no spare tube. Brendan loaned her a tube and we carried on. Brendan had 3 punctures himself and was glad I was with him with my needle nose pliers to pull out the offending thorns. Just after lunch, someone asked if I was one of the HASSRA mafioso, to which I reluctantly replied 'Yes', but it was a term I never heard after that point. I really think the adversity of those last ten miles really brought us all together as a single group. We eventually arrived at the hotel, I think last because of the support and mopping up we were offering, and at the first opportunity I took a nice long hot bath. I was sharing with Gavin, the room was comfortable and there was plenty of time to relax before I went down for tea. The food was lovely, I kept a strict 2 pint regime as I didn't want to suffer unduly the next day, but I was in bed for 11.00pm. Sleeping in a strange bed that night was not a problem.