Blaenau 600: A perfect Ride

With Blaenau 600 only days away, my mind has been replaying last year’s edition. Often, post-ride write-ups come quickly after the ride has finished, when the blur of highs and lows have yet to settle into focus. But I’m writing this having had far more time to look back on what turned out to be a particularly memorable ride.

For those who aren’t familiar, Blaenau 600 is a 600-kilometre, mixed-surface event through the heart of Wales, starting and finishing just across the border in Ludlow. It is the brainchild of Phil and Molly Weaver, who know a thing or two about riding bikes.

The route itself is beautifully crafted, with a savage amount of climbing. It encompasses a real mix of surfaces that would suit everything from a full suspension mountain bike to a lightweight road bike. In 2022, I took part in the inaugural edition and rode fairly conservatively on a hardtail mountain bike to finish in a respectable third place.

Last year’s steed

In 2023, I returned aiming to go a bit faster and on a carbon gravel bike, believing that this would reap rewards on the smoother surfaces, even if it would come at the cost of some comfort.

But as we rolled out from Ludlow on the Saturday morning, it was not my bike choice that was on my mind. The air was thick with heat and humidity, reminding me of time spent riding in the tropics. And to add to this, storms were forecast. This was going to be an interesting ride.

Heading up Long Mynd (credit @epicyclesuk and @thecrosscartel)

As my legs began to spin up the first few hills, I saw my heart rate shoot up and I eased off the pace as much as I could. Other riders disappeared ahead of me, but I knew my body well enough to know that these conditions would require me to ride well within myself to avoid things becoming very uncomfortable very quickly.

This is easier said than done when the first sizeable climb on the Blaenau route is an off-road ascent of Long Mynd. A tough, grassy climb, this is where the legs really wake up and also where the steep gradients give you your first temptation to plunge into the red.

I did my best to manage my effort and continued to ride this steady pace throughout the morning. Some hours passed and I began to see a few riders reappear ahead of me, as a succession of quiet lanes and grassy bridleways took us closer to Welshpool. 

A quick resupply in Welshpool allowed me a few minutes off the bike, before I set off again towards Wayfarer Pass. This tough climb mixes smooth gravel with rocky sections and bogs that have been torn up by 4x4s.

But with the temperature uncomfortably hot, I wasn’t thinking about any of this. I was fantasising about the stream below the pass, which I knew was accessible where the track crossed it. Sure enough, it appeared and I stepped down off the track to soak my head and jersey, bringing some blissful relief from the heat and humidity.

Not long after I finished the descent off the pass, the skies grew dark, the wind suddenly strengthened and the first storm arrived. I got doused in the first shower, but the rain was warm and I kept riding.

Over the top of Wayfarer Pass

As I rounded a corner a few kilometres before Llangollen, I was greeted by two fire engines in the road and bits of rubble scattered across the asphalt. To my left, wisps of smoke curled out of a red-brick chapel. I was able to skirt my way around, but an excited local told me that a lightning strike had blown away the top of the old chapel.

Llangollen marked the first checkpoint and also the last resupply opportunity before the next morning. I spotted a few riders wandering around, but I just grabbed a few sandwiches and a kilo of sweets before heading up towards World’s End.

This long paved climb led into fast-flowing off road and then some quiet country lanes, as sunset approached. I stopped quickly at a pub to fill my bottles, only to find the bar deserted and all the locals in the next room huddled around a TV watching the Champion’s League final. There were 10 minutes to go and Man City were 1-0 up. As a Man City supporter, I was very tempted to join them but reluctantly got back on the bike.

Soon, darkness had fallen and I was on to the gravel and grassy tracks that take you around a pair of lakes, around 200km into the route. Thousands of frogs dotted the paths and I did my best not to squish them as I rolled along. As I reached the point where I had slept in 2022, my legs felt strong, I felt awake and I was still stomaching food. I couldn’t have dreamt of feeling so good after 15 hours of riding in tough conditions, so I just pressed on.

The riding through the small hours of the night was some of the best of the whole ride. It stayed dry and I enjoyed the cooler temperatures. I breezed up the road climb after Penmachno and enjoyed the long, fast descent over the other side as the first light began to illuminate the landscape.

On the way down, in between inhaling clouds of midges, I spotted a rider camped up next to a cattle grid. I had no idea who it was, but I wondered if the position next to the cattle grid was a tactical one in order to hear riders or simply the choice of someone desperate for sleep.

Not long after, I spotted Lee Endres trying to fix a mechanical on a grassy bridleway and then Andrew Turner stopped in still-asleep Dolgellau. We swapped greetings and both were okay, so I simply kept rolling.

In Machynlleth, the shops were open and I quickly resupplied. I knew a long climb awaited me, so I pressed on and was soon spinning my way up forestry gravel tracks, towards Nant-y-Moch.

As I neared the top of the climb, the first waves of tiredness began to wash over me. I could feel myself slowing down a little. As the climb ended, I splashed through a deep ford and spotted a lovely soft patch of grassy bank on the other side.

I knew more rain was coming later, so I quickly decided this was an opportunity to seize. I set the last timer in my phone, which had been used for a pizza, then I lay down and closed my eyes on the riverbank. 12 minutes later, I got back up, having at least visited the fringes of sleep.

Popping in a caffeine gum for good measure, I felt refreshed and made rapid progress towards Ponterwyd. Knowing this was the last spot to resupply for a very long time, I stopped at the garage here to stock up. I had realised that with the schedule I was now riding, it was quite possible every remaining shop on the route would be closed.

By this point, I could no longer spot any tyre tracks in the gravel ahead of me. It began to creep into my mind that I could be very close to the front. Could I be in the lead? “No, don’t be silly.” said a voice in my head.

Credit @epicyclesuk and @thecrosscartel

The next section was very slow going with plenty of off road and lots of climbing, but I knew this would be slow for everyone and just kept ticking off the miles. Eventually, I swung on to the tarmac climb up to the lakes beneath the Claerwen Reservoir. This is a stunning road and the views were just as magical as ever.

But as I neared the top, a familiar figure appeared beside a car. It was Barry Lynham, who I had ridden with the previous morning for a few minutes. I was shocked to see him in the middle of nowhere, not least because I had no idea he had scratched, having not looked at the tracking at all. However, it was what he called out to me that shocked me even more.

“You have a healthy lead.”

“Lead? What do you mean?”

“You’re in first place. Ewan is behind you but he’s a couple of hours back.”

It took me a moment to process this. I knew I was riding well, but I hadn’t expected to be in first, let alone have a sizeable lead. Barry, however, was jogging to keep up, so we had a laugh about him accidentally telling me, before he wished me luck and I pressed on.

Riding with Barry briefly the previous morning

As I bounced down the very rough descent towards Strata Florida, I calculated a plan. I refilled my bottles at the toilets then attacked the long climb up towards Llyn Brianne. Having checked the tracking, I knew Ewan was fresher and riding faster than me. I also knew this next section of remote forestry gravel pretty well. Rain was coming and sleep deprivation was sure to bite at some point, so I wanted to ride harder for a few hours and increase my buffer.

On top of this, I was pretty sure I needed to divert to Llanwyrtd Wells just before CP3 at Tirabad. Making the petrol station at Sennybridge before it closed was going to be too tight and I felt it was better to take the 20-minute loss from diverting rather than risk catastrophe by pressing on.

I worked hard over the Llyn Brianne gravel and then on to the rolling reservoir-edge road. I love this area and I was enjoying pushing against the pedals. After the long gravel climb and descent into the valley, I committed to the 8km round trip on flat A road to resupply in Llanwyrtd. I felt confident it was the right call and soon rode back to the route and on to Tirabad, to tick off another checkpoint.

Ready to tackle my second night and with sunset imminent, I headed up into the Sennybridge training area, enjoying the smooth tarmac and gentler gradients. But it wasn’t until darkness had fully fallen that I made it to the foot of The Gap – an iconic and challenging off-road climb in the Brecon Beaons.

Here, I began to really suffer for the first time. My feet were becoming incredibly painful and it felt like there was grit in my socks. I took a moment to free my feet for a few seconds at the base of the climb, but to my surprise it made little difference when I resumed. I only realised after finishing that I had been suffering from trench foot.

The ascent of The Gap was painfully slow. In the dark and on a gravel bike, picking a rideable line was all but impossible. I pushed and even carried my bike for sections. But I made it to the top eventually, with rain beginning to fall.

The rocky descent was almost as slow and painful, but I eventually joined the smooth rail trail that led down to Talybont. Cycling in a tunnel of light with little to focus on, I found tiredness began washing over me and I struggled to keep my eyes open. A frightened hare that ran ahead of me for several minutes was the only thing to distract me.

At the base, I found the rain had stopped and I quickly happened upon a closed pub with big wooden tables outside. Knowing this was an opportunity I couldn’t ignore, I lay down on the bench of one table and set my timer. My legs bent off the end and my feet were on the ground, but I almost immediately fell deeply asleep. 12 minutes later, I woke and popped a caffeine gum, before pushing hard on the road section to Crickhowell to wake myself up.

CP4 in Crickhowell

As I ticked off the final checkpoint, I felt for a moment that caffeine and exertion had woken me up. But as I swung north towards the final big off-road pass beside Twmpa, the rain became much heavier and I found myself cycling through misty darkness up a slowly ascending, pitch-black lane.

I have never hallucinated from sleep deprivation before, but these conditions certainly changed that. My eyes struggled to stay open as every bush morphed into a living creature and trees became houses looming over the road. I kept pushing forwards, clinging to the belief that the rocky climb ahead would provide the focus I needed.

Eventually, I spotted the bridleway heading up on my right. As I began to climb, focusing on maintaining traction over the chunky surface, the tiredness dissipated. The sky was beginning to lighten and the rain had stopped.

At the top of the climb, cloud filled the valley below me, making for a beautiful sight. For the first time in hours, I looked at my phone to check the tracking. Ewan had stopped and was asleep. My lead was now even larger and I was only a few hours from the finish.

But before I could get too carried away, I had to navigate the technical descent off Twmpa. It’s a steep and windy trail, made trickier by rocky drainage channels and a few drops. On a gravel bike, it was pretty terrifying, but I knew I was safer riding than walking on the damp surface.

At the base, I began to relax and settled into a steady rhythm, slowly ticking off the miles. As I made it back to Ludlow, I finished my final bag of sweets, which seemed an apt metaphor for how the ride had gone: everything had been timed to perfection.

I was greeted by a cheerful Molly and Phil, who congratulated me on the consistency of my ride. And I couldn’t disagree with them. I had a plan to ride steadily when I set out and I executed that better than I could have imagined. On top of that, when presented with important decisions regarding resupply or recovery, I had made the right call. I had ridden right on the edge – especially during that final night – but I had never pushed past my limits.

In truth, I will probably never have a bike ride like it again. I look back and I would change nothing at all. It was a magical 49 hours and 20 minutes on a bike, spent tackling a beautiful route deserving of every ounce of effort I put in.

My bike with its trusty Zolla Odesa 35mm wheels

(Featured image credit @epicyclesuk and @thecrosscartel)

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