Bikepacking. It now seems to mean a lot of different things to many folks. My simple take on it would be to consider it a fashionable word for what was always just touring. However, many are creating a bit of an ethos around it, differentiating it from traditional touring on the basis that bikepacking is more concentrated on lightweight, speed and efficiency. Thing is, it's difficult to determine where the crossover lies. And then there's "adventure racing". Now, I'm not a racer. I just wasn't born with that gene. However, I do enjoy the buzz that's obtained from participating with other folk. It's a feeling some understand and some don't. Those who've ridden in Sportives or taken part in 10km/Half/Marathons with no chance of being at the front of the field will likely feel where I'm coming from. With that in mind, I decided to sign up for the Bearbones 200 in 2016.
|Green. It's my favourite colour.
The BB200 is a (roughly) 200km circuit in Wales, put together by Stu from the Bearbones Forum. The route changes each year and includes a wide range of surfaces and track types. The goal is to complete the route in 36 hours, though many will go much, much faster. The rules are few: it's all self-supported, no sag-waggon, no emergency phone number, no waymarking, no feed-stations and there's a minimum kit list that's there to help ensure all participants can make it through a night in the hills.
With a few long rides and some overnighters completed over the summer, I was relatively certain I'd manage the route in less than 36 hours. Of course, that would require a number of other conditions to be met. I'd have to avoid injury, mechanicals, particularly foul weather and the possibility of simply getting "lost". Specific preparation consisted of getting the bike organised, choosing the right amount of kit and then, finally, having a look at the route. In terms of bike setup I opted, unusually for me, to take a small rucksack in addition to some bike bags. This gave me more water-carrying capacity (important for long rides in the dark), somewhere to stash extra food if I had to acquire it en route and it would also make the bike a bit lighter and, hopefully, easier to manage over the infamous BB200 hike-a-bike sections.
Stu only publishes the route a week before the event so there's not a huge amount of time for research. I was pretty busy anyway but resisted the temptation to look it all up on Google Streetview. It was enough just to work out where any food/drink stops might be and pack food accordingly. On the OS map it certainly looked a lot different to where I normally rode in the Scottish Highlands. Typically, I'm used to there being few paths and tracks and for long periods of wild riding. Here, the route was surrounded by many other tracks, crossed roads and went through small villages and hamlets on a regular basis. With a lot more junctions to go wrong at, I felt the opportunity for making wrong turns was much greater.
At almost the last moment, we were also told that there was a Community Cafe at Bwlch-y-sarnau about 140km into the route that would be open all through the night. This looked like a terrific option and I took a mental note to see where it would fit into any refuelling plans.
Of course, even to get to the start line I still had to drive to Wales. I woke the night before departure at around 2am with a splitting headache and realised I was suffering from a migraine. "Shit", I thought "that's all I bloody need". Trying to get back to sleep was impossible until I'd manage to calm it down with some painkillers. Waking up to set off I wasn't much better, so the drive was undertaken in silence (noise really goes for me) and trying to make sure I was concentrating on the road ahead. I knew that riding (or any strenuous exercise) usually dumbs the pain so wasn't so worried about the BB200 itself, if I could only get there safely. With a couple of food stops and a small shopping trip on the way, it eventually took me 12 hours - all of Wales done in the dark. Suffice to say I was pretty washed out when I arrived at the Star Inn and parked up my van for the night. I got the sleeping area sorted out then disappeared inside for a couple of soft drinks - trying to be sociable and taking in some of the chat from other participants, much of which seemed to be about past events or the technicalities of various GPS systems.
The short drive to the start area gave me my first opportunity to see the terrain I'd be riding in for the next couple of days. More pastoral than I'm used to certainly and no huge mountains, but enough closely packed, steep sided hills to justify the expected 5,000m of climbing.
|Wales has hills. Who knew?
I faffed around at the start for a while, drinking Stus cofee and eating Dees toast, watching other folk and their bikes, or listening to some of the chat. With a self-selected departure time between 8:00 and 10:00 I didn't want to be right at the sharp end and neither did I want to hang around too long and waste daylight. Around 8:30 I passed the starter and made my way out of Llanbrynmair.
It didn't take long for one rider to pass me. Then, a few minutes later, I passed a couple of others. That was to set the scene for much of the event. Like Sportives I've ridden there's a varying state of fitness, stamina, speed and strength that makes some of us faster in some parts and slower in others.
To be honest, I was finding the scenery a bit uninspiring. This was at least in part due to the mist that was hanging around. dulling all the colours and ruling out any longer-distance vistas. Partly also due to the migraine. Meanwhile I was applying what little "strategy" I'd decided upon; go steady, don't race, don't worry about timings and progress. I was studiously avoiding looking at the track counter on my GPS, sticking to the map page by turning on the screen whenever I reached a junction, trying to memorise the next couple of junctions then riding off again. This tactic meant that my GPS batteries wouldn't need changing often. However, it was getting a bit of a faff as there were so many junctions. Even when with other riders, there would usually be a quick discussion of which was the correct direction.
As the ride progressed, I'd meet other riders on and off. I'd either catch up or be caught, maybe ride in company for a wee while, then something would happen and we'd be split again. At one point I was in a group of 5-6 riders and for quite a stint it was just Richard and I sharing the gate opening and closing duties.
The riding was certainly different from at home. I loved some of the old "ways" like Offas Dyke and was less happy when trundling through some field margin. Still, judging by the daylight I was making decent progress and I was happy to reach Knighton earlier than I'd envisaged. In my initial estimates, I thought I'd be arriving in the early evening. I'd even started thinking of it as Night-town. I knew this was approximately half distance and was the place most likely to provide hot food and a stocking up of provisions for the up-coming night section. It was certainly a bit of a sight, with various bikes leant up against shops and cafes, others being ridden up and down the street as riders contemplated their options. After being solo or in a small group for so long it was actually strange to see so many gathered together here.
I opted for a wee cafe with a couple of bikes outside it, and found Jo and Mark inside just about to head off though other riders were still coming in. It turned out to be 16:30 when I arrived and, unbeknown to me at the time, the cafe normally shut at 16:30. However, the lady serving said nothing as I placed my order, nor when others did. Seems she was quite happy to extend her day a wee bit.
It was fully an hour later when I set off again, still happy to have made it round this far, albeit with somewhat tired legs. Perhaps it was that feeling of tiredness that made me look down at my back tyre. It was looking really low so I pumped it up a bit, watching a couple of riders (including Richard) pass. It always takes me a wee while to warm up after a stop so I took things very steady. The all-night cafe was only 40-45km away so I knew there was no need to rush.
|Lights on time heading West
My navigation also seemed to be going to pot. I was trying as hard as I could to stick to the GPS track we'd been given but in the dark the correct route couldn't easily made out amongst many of the sheep tracks. I got to one particular section halfway between Llanbister and Bwlch-y-carnau where the GPS track made a sharp left turn and I couldn't see anything at all even when I was right on the track point. I searched back and forth for almost fifteen minutes then just headed downhill, pushing the bike through head-high bracken to get to a mapped lower track. Stu had warned about requiring a sense of humour and it was here that I lost it for a moment.
I was therefore extremely happy to make it to the Glyndwrs Way Community Cafe at Bwlch-y-sarnau at 23:00. With a few bikes already outside I wandered in to what appeared to be a wee oasis. Food and drink were my immediate priorities. Despite only being 40km from the last stop I'd been out for another 5 1/2 hrs and felt I needed topping up. I also met Richard again and reckoned it was his light I'd seen across the moors earlier.
With only 60km to go I reckoned I'd had enough of night riding and would prefer to see more of Wales by riding during daylight hours. That meant stopping for a few hours and I scanned the cafe looking for somewhere I could get some rest. Luckily, Mark was just vacating a nice sheltered spot so I threw some gear in that area and went out to get my overnight stuff. By stopping riding I'd also cooled down a bit so was glad to strip off my damp kit and crawl into my sleeping bag.
I'll not say it was a fulsome sleep. With riders coming and going there was a general hubbub going on but I was tired enough and managed a couple of good hours before being woken by another couple of riders (Mac and Rob) setting off. Aware of not trying to disturb anyone I crept around for a while, helping myself to a cup of coffee and re-packing my gear before slipping out into the still-dark morning around 5am. Thinking of the bike, I applied a little chain oil but, curiously, neglected to even look at the disk pads I'd been so worried about earlier.
If the ride out of Knighton earlier had been a bit tough due to an hours stop and some significant hills, the first section after the cafe was worse - due to the state of the track. I'm guessing it's also used by quite a few off-road vehicles and it was certainly the worse for wear. Huge muddy puddles, some filled with cow shit and piss. It seemed everything was getting covered by it and riding faster only made it spread.
Llanidloes was the next major settlement. In my preparation I'd noted that it had a supermarket and some cafes but it was still not yet 7:00 so I knew nothing would be open and trundled through in the pre-dawn. On the first hill out of the village, I remembered to start looking around a bit more and caught the sun coming up.
|Another day in Wales
Coming out of Staylittle I saw a couple of riders ahead and pushed a bit harder to catch them up. This was Mac and Rob who'd left the cafe about an hour before me. We settled into a wee bit of a rhythm for a while, swapping gate duties and chatting about the route. We all knew there was to be a bit of a sting in the tail and found it not long after passing the Star Inn at Dylife. Here, the GPS track clearly had us going up untrammeled ground through grassy tussocks. We'd sometimes take a different line, being pulled away by a tempting sheep track before checking the GPS and tacking back again. I'll not lie, it was frustrating, especially when there would be a better looking track just off-line somewhere which would disappear round a corner. After a few more climbs and descents I found myself slowly pulling away from them until the "elastic" snapped and I was once more riding alone for the last five or so km into Llanbrynmair.
At the finish, Dee checked me in while Stu supplied me with tea and a bacon roll. Some riders who'd finished earlier were hanging around and others were still arriving. it was a sort of quiet chaos A total time of around 28h45m was a bit better than I'd expected and within my original target of 32h. I was therefore quite happy and contented. I could easily have sat about longer, just relaxing in the pleasant atmosphere and banter but knew that I still faced a long drive home.
The journey home
Determined to make it as far north as possible before stopping, I motored on until reaching Tebay services, all the time dreaming of a bowl of pasta. The best they could do was a rather insipid macaroni cheese, which completely missed the spot. Further north approaching the central belt I had a sudden craving for Chicken Chow Mein and remembered there was a little service area near Cumbernauld that had an adjoining Chinese Restaurant. I made it with barely three minutes to spare before they closed up but they made a big carton of Chow Mein up for me and I wolfed it down in the van. That felt much, much better and I headed further north before I felt that tiredness was finally catching up with me. I pulled into the car park at Bankfoot around 22:30, laid out the sleeping bag in the back of the van and lay down for a couple of hours rest. It was 6 hours before I awoke.....
It was a great weekend. I achieved pretty much everything I wanted to; a ride in Wales, a chance to meet up with some folk I'd only chatted to online, a test of some different riding and packing strategies.I was well within my original target time and could have made it in less than 28 hours (for a Blue badge) simply enough. Could I have made it round in less than 24 hours for a Black Badge? Maybe - on that route and in those conditions and without a long stop in the cafe. But then I'd have missed seeing so much and that, to me, would have been a bit of a waste. Other than weary legs, I didn't suffer any other aches and pains so riding position, pedal position etc. all seem to be well dialled. Even carrying the rucksack didn't induce any back pains.
The bike worked perfectly despite the clart it was covered in. The brake pad worry that haunted me on the first evening and throughout the second day turned out to be completely unfounded and there's still lots of life left in them. The choice to run with rigid forks and 29er wheels also seemed to be the right one given the state of the surfaces and the extensive tarmac stretches.
My one equipment glitch was the GPS. I always run it in power saving mode for best battery life. With a new set of Energizer Lithiums in at the start, I got round the whole course without needing the spares I'd brought and it was only switched off for the 5 hours or so I was at the Glyndwrs Way cafe. However, that meant having to switch the screen on at every junction and often taking a wrong direction. Without doubt, I need to consider how I set it up when there are quite so many junctions.
Wales is a lot different from my usual riding. In some ways it's more like the Scottish Borders, especially with the amount of livestock around. I found the number of paths and tracks confusing at times, especially in the dark. The people were exceptionally friendly. Most I met en route were keen to know about the event and very happy to see us all. I'd certainly come back to ride some of the nicer tracks and explore many of the ancient sites.
And other events? Maybe. I felt this was an ideal "taster". I enjoyed being part of something, feeling the buzz of the other riders and meeting up with them occasionally through the weekend. I'm not quite sure that would be true of much longer events where the field would be more stretched out through the route. A Cairngorms Loop certainly appeals and has the advantage that I'd be more familiar with the area and so could concentrate more on riding and less on looking around. However, I suspect my desire to see where I'm riding rather than racing through it means I'm still a tourer at heart.
I'd also like to add a massive thanks to Stu and Dee. They've created something wonderful. The enthusiasm of the many participants and the affection they feel for the event is well justified.