Feeling crestfallen I call my wife, Sian. We have options, some more palatable than others. After a quick chat, she suggests that she drives to Gordano – from Swansea – to pick up my dad and my bike. She would then take them to Gloucester to change the rear wheel while I ride his bike to Aust, where we would regroup.
With the new plan sorted, time to get some breakfast sorted. Options, again, are limited due to renovation work so it’s a spicy bean burger meal and a portion of hash browns to make it feel more breakfast like.
While breakfasting, in a rear moment of clarity, I decide to top up the Garmin battery. I plug in the Pebble and away it goes. I also gave Kash a bell, telling him what is going on and tell him to find somewhere warm, it may well be a while. I then decide to have a look at the progress thus far on the Garmin and notice that it has had a ‘moment’. For some reason it has deleted the data. All 220 plus kilometres of data, gone. Nervously I check the courses file to see if the routes are still there. Thankfully they are, but some of the settings have changed, but after a minute of screen tapping, all is good again, apart from the data loss.
We wait what feels like an age. A wait made worse by the cold. Our kit is wet and sitting around isn’t helping keep our temperature up. I usually think that motorway services are too hot; I would have taken too hot at this point. This is confounded by a cacophony of drilling and hammering, no rest will be found here. Sian arrives with a hug, which is much needed. The time sat waiting cold and damp has sapped my enthusiasm and my mood is pretty grey. We wheel the bikes out into the carpark, the wind is still up but it at least dry and showing signs of being a nice day. I plonk myself in the front of the car and put the heaters on full bore while I change into my dad’s shoes. I stay in the car for about 15 minutes I guess, my mood defrosts as my temperature increases. I give Kash a quick call updating him on the current situation. Mind-set rebooted: I can do this, it’s still on.
I set off on a go-slow mini TT, heading east along the A369 before hanging a left towards a housing estate, and the Avon crossing. Having waited for the Garmin to work out where I was in relation to where I was going it gave me a map of where to go, but no turn-by-turn which doesn’t prove to be a problem once I find the cycle path. While crossing the Avon I realised how strong the wind really was, every now and then the large solid barrier between the cycle path and the south bound M5 would give way to a panel of mesh fencing. The first of these unsheltered sections hit me like a whistling tsunami pushing me across the cycle path, which thankfully I had to myself. On the other side of the bridge I follow the path through some park land, and past the M5/M49 junction. At this point I am really enjoying the cycling again; this is the first time in hours that I could corner, quickly, without the fear of the rear wheel disintegrating. As I go under the motorways the path goes from open fields and play parks to a back road in an industrial landscape with views in front of huge wind turbines. Having crossed the motorways the cycle path feels much less inviting, less used. Broken glass, shopping trollies and large household items dumped into ditches. All with the background notes of the waste water work nearby. I pick my way through the industrial estate, passing large seas of cars that have been shipped in. I join a cycle path with makes its way to, and then alongside, the A403. The A403 had been on my mind for a while, it’s a big road with lots of heavy traffic running in and out of the Avonmouth industrial areas. Thankfully I had nothing to be concerned about, and in fact the views out over the Severn would have been quite something, even if I couldn’t see as far as the bridges. As I get to the roundabout at the end of the A403, where it joins the M48, I notice the overhead information matrix all have red crosses on them. All the lanes are closed?
As I get to the services I hear my phone going, its Kash. He had intended to meet me at the services, but was now stranded on the other side of the bridge. He heads back into Chepstow to wait in the pub and I go sit down and get a coffee, black not a fatty tasting latte this time.
A few more phone calls, and more waiting in service stations, on the upside I’m dry and warm this time.
We finally make it to Chepstow – three and a half hours after I arrived in Aust – via the back of the car, diversions, a missed turning and the new Severn bridge, and find Kash in a local hostelry. We prise him out and begin our merry way west across South Wales. It feels good to be on our way, and with a wheel that feels round. We follow the A48, on and off, as far as Newport, before we take the Monmothshire and Brecon Canal. It seemed slightly surreal cycling so close to the M4, a motorway I have driven along countless times completely oblivious to the relative peace so close. We track the motorway for a while; pass underneath the motorway and up to the fourteen locks near Rogerstone, where the path noticeably deteriorates. It had gone from a fairly smooth, occasionally potholed path to a lunar landscape in the matter of moments. This leads to more disquiet regarding route planning, but thankfully it doesn’t last long. After a couple of kilometres we are back onto what feels like a proper path again as we cruise along the canal towpath, intersecting the brutally steep valley roads, some of which have to be touching 35% at their steepest. The Canal towpath follows the theme of smooth gradients, nice surface and beautiful vistas until we leave it at Crosskeys, which appears to be an old mining town surrounded by other old mining towns and not a lot else.
*Note: while taking these photos Kash had a moment involving taking a selfie, trying to brake and negotiate a stile which ended up with the bike riding him. Fortunately he was unhurt, unfortunately no action photo*
We are back on the road for a matter of a couple of kilometres, if that, passing over the Ebbw River before we are traffic free again. We continued along the Sustrans ‘Celtic Trail’, but now on a disused railway, rather than the canal tow path. We stop for a bite to eat about 45km into the final leg, and end up eating everything we have, bar a couple of energy gels. It’s beginning to get gloomy by this point, and having used our lights the night before we aren’t sure how far they will take us. We continue along the disused railway, for a fair while gradually climbing all the time. As it begins to get dark navigational mistakes begin to creep in, left when I mean right and vice versa, missing turns, that sort of thing. This is magnified when we pass through urban areas where we have to leave the current trail and re-join it a few roads over. Frustration is beginning to creep in, and decisions need to be made. With lighting at a premium, we reach the main road into Neath and have a decision to make. Do we take the quicker, but potentially much busier dual carriage way into Neath, or continue on the bike path? It’s getting late, and with unknown burn time on the lights we decide to hit the A465, concluding that if the lights go here we will at least know where we are. It’s decided that we will ride in a formation of Dad at the back (most visible), Kash in the middle (as he wasn’t really equipped for night riding, having expected to set off at 9 rather than 2) and me in front setting the pace. And off we went trundling along the thankfully quiet dual carriageway. I try to set a pace which is comfortable for us all and just go for as long as we can. If I am truly honest the 20km along the A road aren’t really a highlight, with the occasional car flying passed while we ride in the overrun to the left of the inside lane, to be fair most cars pulled out into the outer lane (and would not have expected to see three cyclist at gone 10pm on a Sunday evening). My front lights finally have enough, and my dad is already using my spare so we pull into a layby.
Just as we do I get a call. It’s Sian, my wife. She is with our friend Leanne in her van and just happen to be the next junction down on the A465. They arrive, having come to find us armed with cakes (every cyclist loves cake, but also bananas and water – apparently), and we take stock of our lighting situation. Kash, who has been suffering with hamstring cramps and a sore back, now has an arse like a dragon’s nostril (I didn’t feel the need to inspect it) and the lure of the newly arrived broom wagon is too much. Bike in the back, and seat claimed. My dad and I look at each other, having come this far despite all the shit that has gone wrong we can’t abort now. Leanne rummages through the van and finds a pack of AAA batteries. We are in business. The AAAs are slung into my dad’s light I have my spare back and we are good to go. After we eat more cake.
We are given a set of instructions, which if I’m honest mostly passed me by. Remembering just two junctions down, and head for Skewer (the place is actually called Skewen), then A48. So off we go again into the night. With lights that are working and a vague idea of where we are going, I can’t wait to get off this bloody road. Finally we reach our junction, drop down to the roundabout then almost right around and back onto the A465 before a sign with Skewen appears. As we come to Skewen there is a climb up to the shops, and before I realise what I’m doing I’m out of the saddle attacking it. It felt like it was much steeper than the 4% Strava informs me it is, and before I’m half way up I’m sat back down panting wondering what the hell I was trying to prove. I spin up the remainder and continue to spin until my dad catches up. The next obstacle was the hill up through and out of Morriston. I had been pre-warned about this one, keep my ego in check and just took it easy the whole way up. Spinning is winning, as the saying goes. Once passed Morriston we are on to Penllergaer and I am on familiar cycling ground – a training route I ride when staying at my Mother-in-law’s comes along here and I know there is nothing to fear. We drop down into Pontlliw and then tackle gravity for the final time up the modest climb to the edge of Pontardulais. As we come into the town we stop to take the accustomed bike-leaning-on-town-sign photo, and we desend to our rearranged finish line. The original finish line was the local rugby club, where a party had been planned for our arrival, which we rudely didn’t turn up for. The club shut at 10pm, so the finishing line upped sticks and moved to the mother-in-law’s house.
As we come around the corner there is still a fair number of people waiting for us. I wasn’t really expecting that. We pull up and I just take a seat on the front lawn, just trying to process that it was done. Not really how I had it planned, but done. We’d just cycled from Plymouth to (past) Swansea. Once I prise myself of the ground I give a couple of, what must have been vile smelling, hugs. I get a bottle of cider thrust into my hand, courtesy of the rugby club. A better tasting cider I don’t think I’ve had. I only manage about a quarter of a bottle before I have to move on to tea, but that’s just how I roll. I just about manage to eat a veggie wrap, expecting to be starving, and drink a lot more tea while we wind down and get clean. We turn in at about 3am and I’m awake again by 8, feeling remarkably fresh.
I will do it again, I feel compelled to. Having spent the last 8 months or so planning and training for this, and for it to work out how it did, it just feels unfinished. I think next time I’ll do it in the summer, but not this summer.
Total distance: 371km (approx)
Total time: 30 hours, almost to the minute
Time minus wheel related waiting time: approx 23.5 hours