Transcontinental Diaries: Part Two

Belgium to Schloss Lichtenstein, Germany

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Day one – Saturday: Namur to Brulange

After a quick shower and a couple of film-wrapped waffles each we’re back out on the road for around 5am, both of us feeling pretty lousy and wondering whether we’ve made the right decision to rest for a couple of hours.

We have a long day ahead of us as the route we’ve plotted to control point one is over 650km, so in order to reach it before it closes, our first two days on the road need to be around 300km each. Most of our route has been planned out using paper maps and road atlases, then checked online via a number of various online mapping tools and the little Google maps ‘pegman’, when available, in order to check road surfaces and the presence of cycle paths.  We’d tried to avoid major climbs in the first couple of days but we’re now discovering that our route is far from flat and full of lots of sharp, leg-sapping, little rolling climbs.

After a couple of hours of rolling along on our mini rollercoaster route we’re both pretty desperate for coffee but have to wait until 7.30 before we find a bakery that’s open and serving hot drinks. The coffee order doesn’t go exactly to plan as our idea of a cappuccino and the bakery owner’s differ somewhat. We both end up with a strong black coffee with a lot of very sweet squirty cream on top but caffeine is caffeine at the end of the day and it has the desired effect of perking us up for the following hour or so.

As we head on through Belgium to the French border we only see one other TCR rider in the morning. Most riders will have opted to ride through the night so we’re not expecting to see too many. Our route also skirts around Luxembourg rather than going through it as many riders will have chosen to do.

IMG_1174We stop for lunch at a Lidl and as all Lidls sell practically the same stuff all over Europe we get around the aisles in record time, filling our basket with familiar foods before finding a shady spot around the side of the building to eat our haul. As we are munching away, trying to pack in the much-needed calories, another TCR rider, Cap no. 53 Wiesia Kuczaj, pedals into the car park and joins us for lunch. V is also finding the rolling route a little more challenging than expected and we all joke about how on earth we’re going to manage for the rest of the race if we’re already knackered.

These supermarket pavement picnics are to become an almost daily ritual over the next 20 days. As part of our planning strategy Julie has compiled a list of supermarkets, filling stations and campsites approximately every 50km along the route. Wherever possible the route avoids going through centre of larger towns, preferring to stick to the outskirts – after all, everyone knows that’s where all the Lidls are.

The afternoon is slow-going and although the plan is to press on without another stop until we need to eat again, I find myself flagging in the afternoon heat and keep dropping behind Julie so I have to stop for a 15-minute power nap by the side of the road. It does the trick and we ride on until early evening, stopping at a McDonald’s for dinner.  Before I started riding longer-distance audaxes and endurance rides I was always pretty dismissive of Maccy D’s but McDonald’s really are the long-distance cyclists’ friend and are often used as late night / early morning controls on long-distance audaxes in the UK.

Using a phone app we book ourselves into a little B&B for the night around 100km away, estimating that we should arrive around 10.30pm and while were polishing off our Filet-o-Fish, Julie calls the owner to ensure that they’re happy for us to arrive with bicycles at that time of night.

With a plan in place we pedal on through the farmland that surrounds the city of Metz as the sun is setting. As night begins to close in the terrain starts to get lumpy again and we’re both feeling tired and a bit sore. We’re not talking much to one another as we’re just getting on with it but we’re both ok with that. We’ve done a lot of long training rides together over the past six months and know how each other reacts to tiredness. 10.30pm comes and goes and we realise that with 40km still to go, we’re going to be arriving at our B&B a lot later than planned.

Julie makes yet another call in broken French to the B&B owner to update him on our slow progress. We’re both almost out of water but the shops are all closed in the little villages we’re passing through, so when we finally find a rather smart-looking restaurant that’s still open I go in to ask if we can fill our bottles. We end up paying 8 euros for some bottled water as the chef doesn’t seem to be too keen to fill us up from the tap.

Back on our way, we finally make it to our B&B in Brulange just after midnight and sure enough, as promised, the B&B owner is waiting up for us. We wheel our bikes into the barn, apologising all the while for our very late arrival and head up to our room as quietly as we can so as not to wake the other guests. We both set about washing ourselves and our kit before setting the alarm for 5am, getting our heads down by around 12.45am.

Day 2: Sunday – Brulange to Castle Lichtenstein

As soon as I open my eyes the first thing on my mind is food. The B&B owner had offered to leave us some bread and jam out in the kitchen but when we enter, the owner’s wife is up and about already, making us coffee and asking us about our adventures ahead. She’s laid on a real spread so we both feel the need to make a bit of an effort to be sociable and not rush off, even though we need to get going as we have another 300km day ahead of us to CP1.

Four and a half hours sleep doesn’t feel quite enough for either of us and packing up our kit and getting back on the bikes takes us a while as we’re not yet accustomed to coping with minimal sleep. We eventually leave the farmhouse a little after 6.30am, later than planned but the sun is already up and we have a tailwind. As soon as we’re back on the bikes we both feel good and quickly settle into a rhythm along the deserted country lanes through the Northern Vosges area north of Strasbourg.

By 11.30am we’ve already covered over half of our 300km day pretty comfortably and we’ve had no issues with our route planning so far. We arrive in the town of Haguenau, close to the German border, around lunchtime and head into the centre, trying not to waste too much time finding somewhere half-decent to stop. I spot a reliable French chain cafe that I’ve been to before, La Mie Câline, so we grab a couple of sandwiches and have a sit down for 20 minutes or so for a quick social media catch-up.

This is when we hear the news that a TCR rider had been killed in a collision with a car in Belgium on the first night. The wifi connection is a bit flaky so we’re not able to find much out other than that a friend of ours who is also riding has made the decision to scratch for safety reasons. It shakes us up quite a bit but we try to put it out of our minds as much as possible and crack on. We’re aiming to reach CP1 by the end of the day and hopefully we’ll be able to find out more about it once we’re there.

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A damp entrance into Germany

The clouds have been building up steadily all morning and by the time we reach the Rhine, which provides a natural border between this part of northern France and Germany, the sky is looking pretty dark. Thunder begins to roll as we pedal north east along the Rhine cycle path towards our bridge border crossing at Wintersdorf and as the sky lights up the heavens finally open. There’s nowhere to take shelter as we hurriedly dig out our waterproof jackets and we are drenched in minutes. The storm lasts for around 15 minutes, just long enough to make sure we are thoroughly soaked, but it’s warm enough and as we keep pedalling we start to dry out pretty quickly.

Once we cross over into Germany our route takes us on to a dead-straight cycle path that runs alongside the main road into Ettlingen for 12 km. The route should be fast and flat but it all starts to get a little frustrating as the cycle path keeps switching sides and there are lots of toucan crossings which slow us down. The path is also full of people riding e-bikes which we manage to overtake – until we get to the next road crossing, they catch us up and we have to do it all over again, and again, and again.

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The sun’s out again by the time we arrive in Ettlingen

After Ettlingen our route planning starts to go a bit nuts. When we’d been plotting our route in the months leading up to the event we mapped most of the section through Germany on minor roads rather than cycle paths. Unlike France and Belgium, Germany does not have the ‘Streetview’ option on Google Maps so we’d been unable to check road surfaces and conditions but we were expecting Germany to be a cycle-friendly country and thought it unlikely that we’d encounter any issues here. How wrong were we?

As we start to climb out of Ettlingen we quickly discover that German drivers really don’t like cyclists in their way on the roads, even minor roads, and they certainly don’t want to slow down at all to give us room or wait for oncoming traffic to get past. We both start to feel pretty uncomfortable at the speed and proximity that cars are passing us and pull over for a rethink. Given the news that we’ve already received today, our safety is in the forefront of our minds and we are not about to start taking unnecessary risks on only our second day.

As an emergency route back-up, before we’d left the UK I’d downloaded an app called Bikemap on my iPhone and I use it now to find an alternative route via off-road gravel cycle paths over the hills between Ettlingen and Pforzheim. The cycle paths are signed but the signs are easy to miss and we take a few wrong turns and have to backtrack quite a bit. This, along with the gravel surface, is really slowing us down and both of us are getting fed up. We end up taking a completely different course into Pforzheim, adding 15km to our original route and arriving a couple of hours behind schedule.

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Early Sunday evening in Pforzheim

We stop for a bit of a regroup in Pforzheim, stopping in a busy square by the river to eat a sandwich and come up with a plan for the last 90km to CP1. It’s a summer Sunday evening and the restaurants in the square are full of people drinking and relaxing. We know that we can’t hang about for too long though as we’ve already lost the time advantage we’d built up during our speedy morning ride though France.  We decide not to waste any more time looking for off-road detours and get back on to our plotted road route despite our reservations about the traffic.

It’s now early Sunday evening so we’re hoping that the roads are quiet but just to be certain that we are seen we put on our reflective tops and all of our lights even though it’s still light enough. Most cars are still passing us scarily close – much closer than the majority of drivers pass back home in the UK – but after a while we start to feel less nervous about it.

The lack of drivers’ patience to wait behind us for oncoming traffic to go past before overtaking isn’t so easy to get used to and every time a car comes in the opposite direction I’m gritting my teeth as cars come from behind and squeeze through the ever-decreasing gap between us and the oncoming car. Why the big rush? It’s a Sunday people!

We settle into a long, steady climb and as night falls we’ve still not completely given up hope of getting to CP1 this side of midnight. All is going well until we pass through the small town of Holzerlingen where we’re struggling to pick up our route and end up cycling round and round to try to find it, even stopping to ask for directions in a garage. We bump into another TCR rider who’s also a bit lost but his route takes him off into a different direction to the one we’ve plotted so, as much as we’d like to, we don’t follow him.

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We just love hanging out in petrol stations

Eventually we head off in what we hope is the right direction, on a cycle path roughly running parallel to where our route should be and end up on a series of gravel tracks through a forest. By now it’s pitch black and we can’t see much more than a few metres of gravel track lit up ahead of us along with the bases of the pine trees that line either side of the track. There’s no wind so it’s very quiet and still and we’re just concentrating on controlling our bikes on the gravel in the dark.

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It’s dark, very dark

Every so often we join back up with our plotted route, hit a section of road and ride alongside it for a while before veering off into the forest again. I’m pretty sure that if it was still daylight and we could see where we were going we’d be able make a better decision about whether to stick to the route or not but we are tired and it’s all we have right now so we don’t really have a choice but to stick at it.

It’s around 11pm now and we know that we still have around 40km to CP1 so it’s going to be a late one. Our plan to ride Parcours 1 up to the castle before checking in at the control are looking increasingly unlikely. As we join up with another road our plotted route takes us right at a roundabout but the city we are heading for, Reutlingen, is signposted straight on. We decide to ignore our plotted route and follow the signposts instead as we hope that at least this way we might stay on tarmac rather than more gravel forest tracks.

We stay on the road for 10km until we reach a large roundabout intersection and realise that we’ve made a very bad move. The signposts to Reutlingen lead us on to the motorway where we’re not allowed to ride. Riding on banned roads and motorways can lead to disqualification so even though there’s virtually no traffic on this section of motorway at this time of night we just can’t risk it.

We’re both thoroughly miserable now and stop for a sit down and munch on a couple of packet waffles to keep us going. We can see the twinkling lights of what we hope is Reutlingen way down in the valley below us and every now and then the distant sky lights up with lightning and we hear the faint sound of thunder. I really hope that we’re not in for another soaking.

I should probably point out at this point that out of the two of us I’m the one that does the on-the-go navigation stuff. I am happy to do it and Julie is happy to go with my decision. When you’re riding in a pair it’s a good idea to divvy up the roles, agree on it and stick to it. It makes life easier, especially when you’re both tired, there’s no point in spending time arguing about which way to go as decisions sometimes just need to be made on the fly and the consequences dealt with. If I bugger up the route I take full responsibility for it and will try and un-bugger it as quickly as possible.

Neither of us wants to backtrack the 10km to pick up our plotted route again so I try to re-route us down the valley using Google Route Planner. It all starts off pretty well but after around 5km we end up on a very rutted farm track and have to both get off and push. We turn around and head back to the motorway intersection where we stop again for a while and I have a good look at the map on my phone.

It looks like there are a cluster of villages on the opposite side of the motorway all the way down the side of the valley, to the north of Reutlingen, that are joined by small roads so, rather than use the route planner to figure out the route all the way to Reutlingen, I ask Google to just route us to the next village, then the next and the next. This method works but it’s slow-going as every time we get to the next village along we have to stop and re-route. It’s also taking us much further north than we intended to go but as least we’re descending into the valley. Eventually we reach the valley bottom and the suburbs north of the city.

It’s around 2am as we get across the other side of the city and join up again with our plotted route which follows the main road south to Lichtenstein where we now have a long, steady climb. Our bodies are aching all over from the fatigue of a long day in the saddle, conversation is down to a minimum and we both just want to get to the control and get our heads down for a few hours’ kip. The road is deserted apart from the occasional, large truck but despite the total lack of traffic on the opposite side of the road the drivers still seem reluctant to give us more room and on a couple of occasions we get sucked into the lorries’ slipstream as they thunder past.

The rain that has been threatening for the past couple of hours finally arrives but it doesn’t bother us much as we’re just relieved to be on the home stretch. As we slowly climb the hill to the control on what are by now very tired legs, we spy the little TCR sign on the roadside by the side door of a hotel a little after 3am and breathe a massive sigh of relief – so much for our predicted arrival time of 11pm.

We lean our bikes up at the rear of the hotel and wearily wander over to TCR HQ, housed in the little summerhouse in the hotel grounds, where we get our brevets stamped and have a chat to the guy looking after the control. It seems like we weren’t the only ones to get lost on the gravel tracks and come in way later than hoped for. We calculate that we’ve added an extra 60km to our route today but there’s not much point in dwelling on that – we made it and now we need to get our heads down for the night in our bivvys, squeezing ourselves in among the other sleeping riders out of the rain on the hotel’s covered patio.

Planned Routes to CP1

We split our route into four sections to CP1 – these are the routes we were supposed to take, not the one we actually took:

TCR01 – https://connect.garmin.com/modern/course/14854386

TCR02 – https://connect.garmin.com/modern/course/14855987

TCR03 – https://connect.garmin.com/modern/course/14874545

TCR04 – https://connect.garmin.com/modern/course/14873536

Back to the beginning: https://veloelle.wordpress.com/tcrno5/

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Are you sitting comfortably?

 

For most of my cycling life I’ve ridden a bloke’s bike with a bloke’s saddle but that changed  back in 2014 when I tried out a Fizik Arione Donna saddle. All of the previous women’s-specific saddles I’d tried were either too wide at the nose and too padded at the rear for my liking but the Arione Donna was based on Fizik’s men’s race saddle, the Arione. It was stiff rather than spongy but it flexed instead, it wasn’t too wide and it had a channel down the centre to relieve soft tissue pressure. For the following three and a half years my Arione Donna and I did a lot of miles together – over 22,000 in fact – and we’d been fairly happy together.

However, in an ideal world, saddles need replacing every couple of years and I decided that before the TCR I should invest in a new one and get it worn in in good time.  So imagine my dismay when I learned that Fizik had discontinued the Arione Donna and replaced it with their new women’s specific Luce.

Fizik’s UK distributor, Extra, very kindly gave me a Luce (pronounced Loochay – Italian for ‘light’) to try out. Fizik have spent a lot of time developing and testing the Luce, consulting women riders of all types throughout the process and it is aimed at a much wider ‘all-round’ audience compared to the Arione Donna which was primarily aimed at the racing market.

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When the Luce arrived my initial thoughts were a little sceptical as the shape is quite a radical departure from the Arione Donna. The Luce comes in two different widths and I’d been sent a regular but it is still wider than the Arione Donna and has much more pronounced, angular ‘wing flexors’. It also has a narrow nose and a thin central cutaway area. However, I was pleased to see that the overall stiffness of the Luce is very much the same as the Arione and it is also very light, weighing in at 230g for the alloy version.

I fitted it to the bike and tried it out on indoor sessions for the first two weeks in order to make sure it was set up correctly before venturing out on a longer outdoor ride. Despite my reservations about the different shape my first impressions on a 100km ride were very positive. I was especially happy with the narrow nose and cutaway and I found that I didn’t need to keep repositioning myself very much at all to relieve soft tissue pressure toward the end of the ride.

After a few more successful shorter distance rides it was time to up the mileage. I had 300km and 200km back-to-back audaxes so this would give me the opportunity to try out the Luce on two consecutive long days in the saddle. As expected the first 100km were very comfortable, in fact the first 160km were, but beyond this distance I started to encounter a bit of soreness just under my bum cheeks where the very angular wing tips kept digging in. This slowly built up from a mild annoyance around 200km to full-on chafing at 300km and it wasn’t helped by the fact that the wing tips seemed to line up perfectly with where the pad was stitched into my bib shorts causing the stitching to rub against my skin.

The last 50km of the ride was a very wriggly affair as I squirmed around trying to prevent the tips from digging in and doing any further damage. Needless to say I was pretty disappointed to discover that the saddle that had been pretty much perfect for 160km was no longer fine at 300km, especially considering most of the riding I currently do is over 200km a day. I certainly wasn’t looking forward to getting back on it to ride another 200km in the morning.

The next day, a long shower, a liberal application of Doublebase cream and some fresh bib shorts made all the difference and getting back on board was nowhere near as bad I as I was expecting it to be. In fact I began to wonder if I’d imagined some of the pain as everything was feeling pretty comfortable in the rear end department. Again, all was good for around the first 160km and then the discomfort started to set in as those wingtips started to dig in. Thankfully, the ride was hillier than the previous day and that enabled me to spend a bit more time in and out of the saddle so things didn’t get quite as uncomfortable.

Since my long audax weekend I’ve spent a bit of time readjusting the saddle position slightly – I’ve moved it back on the rails by around 3mm and lowered it by 2mm – and have since been out on a few other 200km-plus rides but the pattern keeps repeating itself and I never manage to get much further than 160km before those angular wing tips get me squirming around to find a comfortable spot.

For me personally this really is a saddle of two halves. The nose and cutaway area is amazingly comfortable – much more comfortable than the Arione Donna was in this area –  but the Luce’s wide, angular wing tips at the rear are perhaps a little too wide for my sit bones. Although I’ve got fairly chunky thighs, my hips are on the narrower side compared with other women and I think that a narrower saddle, or at least one that sits within the confines of the pad on my bibshorts, would suit me better. I’ve tried numerous pairs of shorts with it and the edge of the pad always seems to line up with the edge of the wing tips. Unfortunately the Luce only comes in two fittings – regular and wide.

Maybe I’m expecting too much to find a saddle that is both light and comfortable over very long distances. A saddle that’s comfortable for 100 miles isn’t necessarily comfortable at 200 miles and because the majority of us don’t ride 200 miles in one sitting it’s probably not something that a saddle manufacturer takes into consideration too much – women’s saddles (and probably quite a few men’s) just aren’t designed to be ridden ultra-endurance distances.  I guess if I’d never have ridden on the Luce for more than 160 kms in one go then I too would still think that it’s a great ride.

In short, if you regularly ride distances less than 160km and / or you have wide sit bones then the Luce will probably be an excellent choice for you.

As for me and the TCR, it’s now less than a month away so I’m going to stick with the Luce and grin and bear it. I don’t have the time to try out another saddle at this late stage and the Luce’s front end is still so much more comfortable than my Arione so I’m not inclined to put my old saddle back on either – I’ll let you know how I get on.

Other Fizik Luce reviews:

Total Women’s Cycling

Bikerumor

Sleeping under the stars

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Julie and I have been putting in plenty of miles over the last few months training for the Transcontinental Race. We know that we’re not going to win it, but that’s not why we’re doing it. We’re doing it because it’ll be a massive adventure and a huge personal challenge for us both. With this in mind we’re aiming to try and get to the finish in Meteora within 16 to 18 days, before the final checkpoint officially closes, which means an average daily distance of 250 km a day.

To try and maximise our daily cycling time we’ve decided to bivvy whenever and wherever conditions allow, sometimes in campsites but also just wherever there’s a comfy looking spot to get our heads down. This will enable us to cycle all day until we’re tired and then crash for a few hours without being too restricted. It’ll also help us to keep the cost down as staying in hotels for 18 nights could end up being pretty pricey. We’ve agreed that we’ll only stay in hotels if the weather is bad or when we need to wash kit, charge devices or have a desperate need for a bed!

Although we’re both experienced campers and we don’t mind roughing it, neither of us have done much bivvying before. We needed to spend money on some quality, lightweight kit so we’ve spent a lot of time over the last few months looking at different kit and carriage options, borrowing kit from other people to try out, before forking out in order to make sure that we’ve got something that works for us and that we’re happy to drag around Europe for 18 days. We’ve had a lot of invaluable help and advice, not to mention considerable discount, from Shona and Rich at Keep Pedalling in Manchester, Alex at Jagged Globe in Neepsend and Dan at the new Alpkit store in Hathersage.

After wriggling around shop floors in a variety of different sleeping bags and bivvy combos, we’ve both ended up going for slightly different options; me with Rab and Apidura and Julie with Alpkit and Apidura.

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All bagged up and ready to go. Paris-Brest-Paris 2015.

I’ve had my Apidura kit bags for a couple of years now as I first bought a small set to carry my kit on the PBP in 2015 and I just love ’em. Although they’re showerproof, I’ve splashed out on a new fully waterproof bar bag after learning the hard way last year when all of my clothing got very wet in three days continuous rain on a trip to the Outer Hebrides. The waterproof versions are a little bit heavier but as it’s going to house my my down sleeping bag it’s really important that I keep it dry and even though we’re going to central Europe in July, the likelihood of us staying dry for the full 18 days is slim.

Bulk and weight were the premium considerations. My Sleeping bag is a Rab Neutrino 200 which weighs 580g and squashes down very small. It’s going to live inside my Bivvy – a Rab Ascent, weighing in at 625g – and will all get squashed into my bar bag along with my silk liner.

 

Julie has opted for an Alpkit PipeDream 200 down bag weighing in at 545g, a Hunka Bivvy and Airlok Bar bag. Both of our bags have a hydrophobic down fill but we still want to try to keep them as dry as possible – a wet down bag is about as warm as a paper towel.

The test run…

Last weekend, cashing in on the sunny spell we’ve been having recently, we decided to have a three-day dry run with two overnight bivvy stops. We took an anti-clockwise triangular route, heading south of Sheffield to the Forest of Arden on day one, north-west to Lake Bala in Wales on day two and finally heading back over the Peak to Sheffield on day three. To make it slightly easier we opted to stay in campsites rather than camp wild.

Originally we’d planned to ride over 200 km every day in order to try and emulate our expected TCR conditions and see how we’d cope with camp set-up when we’re tired. Normal life events conspired against us last week though and we had to set off a bit later than planned which meant trimming the first day down to 180km. Our route headed south through the Peak, past Carsington Water, toward Burton-on-Trent. Once we were out of the Peak the route was fairly flat and even though our bikes were loaded up we were able to keep to around 22km an hour without much trouble.

 

The route was almost due south, although we made little detour to cycle through Meriden, the centre of England, which is a pleasant but fairly unremarkable little village. The most interesting discovery for us was the cyclists war memorial on the village green. It was really touching to see cyclists’ contribution recognised in this way and we wondered who’d paid for it to be erected and for its upkeep.

Our final destination for the day was the the Island Meadow camp site in the village of Aston Cantlow and as we’d cut down the distance we ended up making good time and arriving just after 6.30 pm. We got ourselves booked in – a fiver each a night – and had the usual kinds of conversations that we have with ‘normal’ people in the camp shop: “Where did you set off?” –  “What?! Today?” – “You’re cycling all the way to Wales tomorrow?!” – ” Are you mad?!” That kind of thing.

The campsite had great facilities: free showers and a free hair dryer plus plenty of plugs in the washroom to charge devices. This wouldn’t normally be a problem for me as I have an Igaro USB charger that attaches to the dynamo on my front wheel but unfortunately a bit of it had broken off and it wouldn’t hold the charge so I was in need of plug points to charge up my Garmin. We washed out the kit we’d been wearing that day and used the hairdryer to dry it off a bit before heading off to the local pub for tea.

The Kings Head was a quintessentially English country pub and restaurant with a rather fancy, but not particularly cyclist-oriented menu and slightly out of our price range for a budget bivvying weekend. The food coming out of the kitchen looked fabulous but we were after piles of carbs rather than fillet steak. There was, however, a childrens’ menu with pasta on it so I had a word with the waiter to see if they could possibly prepare us a large portion of the kids’ meal. We were in luck and the chef made us a lovely carb-rich dinner of pasta with a tomato and garlic sauce, focaccia bread and olives.

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Aston Cantlow adventures… Don’t worry, we didn’t sleep in the graveyard.

Back at camp we set up our bivvys under a willow tree and were tucked up for 10.30pm. Both of our bivvys are big enough for us to put our sleeping mats inside. My Neoair XLite is very rustly and sounds a bit like I’m sleeping on a giant crisp packet but it’s very light and does the trick. Julie was out like a light but it was a warm evening so I stayed up for a while staring up at the sky and waiting for the sun to go down. I contemplated whether I’d need to get into my sleeping bag at all and just sleep in the liner but I decided that I’d probably wake up cold in the middle of the night and got in it anyway, which was a good move in the end. Earplugs went in around 11 and I didn’t stir until 6.30 am the following morning – a bit later than we’d planned.

Day two

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We just can’t resist a garage forecourt and takeaway coffee

After a quick pastry breakfast that we’d purchased from the campsite office the evening before, we were off for 7.45 am. We’d hoped to get away a bit earlier but my Garmin needed a bit more charge so I wasn’t rushing to leave.  The roads were very quiet and we made good progress passing south of the Birmingham conurbation. We had a quick 15 minute stop at a petrol station forecourt for a wake-up coffee before pressing on to Bewdley on the River Severn for our first proper sit-down stop. The cafe setting on the river was lovely but the queue was long and the service was slow and we ended up spending almost an hour waiting for our order. It was a popular spot with other cyclists and we had a few conversations while we were waiting but it made us realise just how much time can be wasted at cafe stops and decided that for the rest of the day we’d try to stick to shops for supplies in order to keep good time.

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Riverside cafe at Bewdley. Really great as long as you’re not in a hurry.

Today’s destination was Lake Bala in Wales at just over 200km and the biggest climbs at the end of the ride so we needed to try and keep on schedule to arrive at the campsite for 8 pm. From Bewdley the route took us into the Shropshire hills, over Wenlock Edge, skirting past the edges of Shrewsbury and through Welshpool. We arrived on the outskirts of Shrewsbury around 2 pm and were expecting that we’d find a village shop somewhere on route but none materialised. By 3 pm we’d run out of snacks, were both starving and still had around another 20km to go until Welshpool, so when we passed a pub in Yockleton that was still serving food we piled in.

The cheapest thing on the menu was a tenner but there weren’t many customers so we were hoping that we’d get served quickly and on our way. While we waited we’d spied two plugpoints in the corner so we took the opportunity to get some more charging done. The hope of a quick turnaround didn’t materialise and 25 minutes later, despite only one other table of customers, our food had still not arrived. We both stared hard at the waitress, sending out super-hungry vibes and finally, 35 minutes after walking in, we got our meals. Both were substantial and tasty but by the time we’d eaten, another hour had gone by and we still had 80 km to cycle – through Wales, up a very big hill, with no snacks.

Our 20 km to Welshpool was tough. We’d taken the singletrack roads up and over a very big hill with a steep descent and also manage to fit in in a brush with death as the driver of a 4 x 4 coming in the opposite direction decided the he wasn’t going to bother slowing down, or even attempt to move slightly out of the way to pass us, preferring instead to run us both off the road into a gravel bank. We were both pretty shook up and had to stop for a few minutes to calm down. Selfish idiot – I really wonder what goes on in people’s head’s to make them think that’s an acceptable way to treat another human being.

Welshpool was shut when we got there, save for a convenience store, so we had to make do with packet tuna sandwiches, yoghurt and a packet of crisps for the evening’s tea, all stuffed into our saddlebags for consumption at the campsite later. From Welshpool we were supposed to be taking minor roads over to Penybontfawr but the main road was quiet enough and would save us some time, event though it would cut some mileage off the route.

After Penybontfawr the route began to steadily climb over the Burwens. It’s not steep, just steady, but it’s a long one. As we climbed could see the road cut into the hillside, stretched out like a ribbon in front of us to the head of the valley. The views across the valley were spectacular but we were both pretty knackered by now and just wanted to get down the other side. We also had a lot of of daft sheep to negotiate with and no matter how much room we gave them, they were still startled, dashing in front of us at the last minute, but at least we were climbing rather than descending.

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Climbing over the Burwens

Eventually we made it to the top and stopped to layer up before our descent to Bala. We accidentally managed to herd another five sheep into the path of an oncoming Range Rover on the way down but luckily for all involved he was a little more courteous than the previous 4 x 4 driver we’d encountered and saw the funny side.

We eventually made it to the campsite for 8.30 pm where, after hearing of our epic day (only 195 km though) the warden took pity on us and made us both a nice cup of tea. The campiste at Bala has a prime lakeside spot so it was a bit more pricey than the previous night’s at £9 each. Showers were 50 pence for 8 minutes (more than long enough) but there were no plug points in the showers so we had to use Julie’s big power brick to charge up all of our devices. We’d been saving it for emergencies but I guess, with no plug points to be had, this was that kind of an emergency.

The camp facilities were very modern and clean though and the super-friendly warden offered to get up early at 6.30 am to make us another cup of tea so you couldn’t say fairer than that. By the time we’d got our bivvys set up and ourselves showered, the sun was beginning to set over the lake. I sat and ate my packet tuna sandwiches, having a paddle and watching the sun go down. This really was a beautiful spot to spend an evening and a few fellow campers were having open fires on the lakeshore.

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However, with lakes come midges – lots of ’em. I’m very lucky that I don’t react much to midge bites but they’re still annoying little critters and soon enough I was starting to feel a bit like that character from Charlie Brown who always has flies swarming around his head. The warden was selling bottles of Skin So Soft in the camp shop but we really didn’t need to buy another thing to carry and decided to just put up with them. Julie had brought along her little mozzie headnet to wear as her bivvy has an open face so she needs to wear it while sleeping. My bivvy has a built-in zip-out mesh panel that allows ventilation while keeping the midges out but I’m sure a few of them sneaked in there with me. There’d be no ‘out-of-the-bag, gazing up at the stars’ moments happening tonight.

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Lake Bala sunset, what a beauty

Day three

We both woke up at 6 am – and cold. It hadn’t rained in the night but everything was very damp and we’d both woken up feeling too cold around 4am, before layering up and trying to get a bit more sleep. I had a couple of little slugs on the outside of my bivvy – maybe they’d mistaken me for giant slug and had come along to make friends – needless to say I was glad of my mesh ventilation panel again.

True to her word, the warden got up to make us a cuppa before we left and, after getting packed up, we were back on the road in search of breakfast just after 7am. Thanks to Sheffield CTC’s residential weekends to Llangollen I’ve spent quite a bit of time on my bike around this bit of Wales and I was armed with prior knowledge of good cafe stops, so we headed the 10 or so miles to Corwen on the back roads for a fry-up.

 

Originally we’d planned to ride the 200km back to Sheffield today, but I needed to get my Igaro charger fixed at Keep Pedalling and as the route went to close to Manchester it seemed more sensible to head there and get that sorted out as a priority. This little trip had demonstrated how much I’ve come to rely on it for getting everything charged up when I’m on the move and I needed to make sure I had it repaired in time for the TCR.

After a fairly leisurely breakfast we headed off north-east in the direction of Chester. We’d decided to try to cut out as many of the main roads as possible as we were a bit worried about Monday morning traffic but the minor roads were very hilly and poorly surfaced so we decided to drop back down on to the main road at Lllandegla and just put up with the cars. After another little detour up a really steep single track hill at Coed Talon we crossed the border back into England and the roads flattened out towards Chester.

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Chester lunch stop. Great view but it cost us quite a lot.

We arrived in Chester at lunchtime and had an overpriced lunch in a cafe by the river, but at least the service was quick and we were on our way within 40 minutes. Our route through Cheshire took us along the Whitegate Way cycle track to Winsford and over the River Weaver by the salt mines on the Sustrans trail. The track here is very poorly surfaced and I ended up with a rear wheel pinch puncture which meant taking all the kit of the back of my bike and stalled us by 15 minutes. We needed to get into the centre of Manchester before 6 pm and I was keen to avoid hitting the outskirts at rush hour. We’d also detoured from our planned GPS route and were navigating our way by memory and road atlas maps which slowed us down even more.

By 4.30 pm we were already stuck in horrendous traffic in Wilmslow. It had taken us over ten minutes to get through three sets of traffic lights and I was worried that we wouldn’t make it. Even though it was only 13 miles into the city centre, I didn’t want to chance it and miss my opportunity to get the Igaro repaired so we decided to call it a day and jump on the train to Piccadilly. We made it to Keep Pedalling in good time, device handed over for repair and we had time to catch up with Shona and hear tales of their recent short-lived exploits on the Highland Trail 550.

Julie’s heading off to France next Sunday so this weekend was our last training ride together before we meet up again in Belgium a couple of day’s before the TCR. On our final day we’d ridden 50 miles less than we’d planned to but the overall aim of the weekend had been achieved. Our kit had been tested, strategies discussed and we both now knew how it felt to spend a long day in the saddle after a night’s kip in a field.

The next ride we start together will be on the Muur in Geraardsbergen on July 28th and I think we’re as ready as were ever going to be. Bring on the adventure.