Trans Wales 2011

I’m not quite sure where to start with the Trans Wales. Part holiday, part race, mostly big adventure. I entered it then realised the distances involved and was scared into trying to actually train for it.

Except, train how? You’re not allowed to race on Bridleways in Wales so the event consisted of 7 days of gruelling ‘linking stages’ round Wales, with short ‘special stages’ on most days. The linking stages were 65-85km long, usually with over 2000m of climbing and you would be given a time cut-off for each –about 6.5 to 7.5hr. The special stages were the ‘race’ bit of the event and these varied from 1km to 8km, including a night stage. In the end, the podium placings could come down to seconds of a difference.

So, train for speed or train for distance? In the end, I tried to do both and entered lots of shorter races as well as doing loads of longer rides – both mountain biking and road biking. I knew my team mate Rosemary was always going to be faster than me on the climbs so I decided to try to make up for that by getting speedier on the downs. I had some coaching from Rik at Drumlanrig (including being made to ride down a steep scary hill without braking) and this was worth its weight in gold. Getting through 6hr of extremely hilly riding a day is hard enough and any ‘free speed’ is welcome. My cornering and confidence on steep descents have both come on loads this year and this really helped me in both making the linking stages easier and in chasing for points in the special stages. And it was more fun. For the first time ever, I was riding the scary steep slabs, while others pushed and carried alongside and wished me luck!

Each day of the event had its own distinct character and we were treated to the best of mid-Wales, being invited to follow hidden singletrack through the woods as well as swoopy trailcentres, big hilltop ridges and classics rides like the Doethie valley, which has been described as one of the longest stretches of natural singletrack in the UK. The special stages were meant to test all mountain biking strengths, from a sickening 1km sprint up a fire road to the descent down the 8km Climachx trail at Machynlleth and four short cross-country loops, including my favourite at Nant-y-Arian. I went all out on the climbs and tried my best not to kill myself on the downs (whilst still going faster than I would ever normally dare) I was pleased to find myself overtaking people on the ups and didn’t seem to be getting caught by too many riders on the descents. The climbs were definitely our strong point however and, after the first day (the hill climb) we were delighted to find ourselves on the podium, being presented with a ‘leader’ jersey for the female pairs category. We got a fair few of those jerseys over the course of the week. In fact, I will be mostly wearing Gore bike clothing for the next 3 years I think.

The only day we didn’t place first was on the downhill stage. I’d love to blame it on the full suspension bikes the other girls had, maybe also the fact that they’d ridden the trail in previous years. But mostly they were just a whole lot better and braver and managed to beat us by about two minutes. It looks like I still have a lot to learn for the downs! I think you’re supposed to get out the saddle and pedal at the little rises but I somehow kept forgetting to do that. I was mostly concentrating on not panicking. 8km downhill is harder work than I thought.

The next day at Nant-y-Arian, we got our lead back. I loved the rocky double track followed by twisty singletrack then a relentless 2 mile climb back up. Give it everything on the climbs. Even if it means the next 30km home to the campsite will feel like 100km. That was another stage that favoured the climbers, though the gap between us and second place was still only just over a minute.

It was great to see the appearance of a single speed rider on the male solos podium that night. Proving that old skool is still the best – he reappeared several times during the week to finally take third. No cleats, no lycra, no race experience and he was up there with the pro-riders. I’ve never seen anyone look so delighted!

Friday was by far the hardest day for me. I was starting to look with envy at the full-suspension bikes. My body was all a bit broken and the endless headwind and rocky river splashes weren’t helping. We crossed the same river fifteen times and it still wasn’t even lunchtime. I think I was pretty silent that day and it felt like a long, long time before the lunchwagon and friendly marshals appeared. It took at least 10 bourbons and a cheese sandwich before I was convinced I was ready to roll again, only for me to fall off 20 minutes later on a really easy bit of trail. My legs are now one giant bruise and we still had several hours of difficult, muddy and frustrating riding to go. The best I could do was to hang back and try to find a bit of a flow – not easy on that kind of terrain. However, I made it back in one piece, with time to wash the bike, get my dinner and have a bit of a rest before the night stage.

Knackered, I emerged from my tent at half past eight to find it was raining. It didn’t look like my mountain bike mojo was anywhere to be found so I put myself to warming up with some short sprints along the road, hoping it was just lost somewhere in the dark. Amazingly, the party atmosphere and cheering spectators at the start line managed to wake me up and remind me why I love racing. Seeing the pro-riders set off up the hill like rockets convinced me I was climber and we could be good on this stage. I set off together with Rosemary and did my best to keep up with her on the climb. ‘Just’ a 15minute sprint with my legs and lungs on fire, I was eternally grateful when it transformed into swooping singletrack with amazing jumps and berms though I suspect I just wasn’t riding it fast enough. I’d been a bit worried about not having a helmet light and it might all have been slightly less traumatic if I’d been able to actually see round the corners or where I was going to land the jumps. Luckily Rosemary’s awesome ‘ironlegs’ climbing meant we won that stage too, despite me being slower than usual, and I’m now the proud owner of an exposure Diablo light. This race has nice prizes!

The final day was a short one back to Builth Wells (ok, short-er), for one last special stage. At only 2km long, we were pretty sure we’d won overall but we wanted to get this last stage. With a quick blast up the fire road, a steep downhill then out-the-saddle sprint to the finish line, it was an adrenaline-packed way to end the race. I was delighted but also sad to be given my finishers jersey. Getting up each day and riding my bike through fantastic countryside with a bunch of like-minded folk is a great way to live. We spoke to so many different people during the week and made a lot of friends. You can see why people come back year after year.

This is one of the best organised races I’ve ever been to and the sheer logistical nightmare of moving the entire timing setup, marquees, toilets and catering from site to site each day was staggering. Yet somehow it always ran smoothly and the marshals were eternally friendly, funny and happy to help. No matter when you got back they had bike washing facilities, hot showers (no queues for the girls!) and endless tea and coffee available. I even had someone carrying my bag to my tent each night! And as for the food…that’s a reason in itself to do this race. From the breakfast waffles and brioche to endless helpings of chocolate cake and even curry in a Yorkshire pudding shaped naan (accompanied with rice, cous cous and pasta, in case anyone was concerned about possible lack of carbs), I was in food-heaven and loved piling my plate sky high each night!

On day 5, camped in the middle of nowhere, the organisers topped everything by bringing in a live band to entertain us. We had an entire-campsite rendition of ‘livin’ on a prayer’ and cider was only a pound. What’s not to love about this race?Thanks to the guys at Alpine, my bike held up amazingly all week. Despite the mud, grit and endless river splashes, it was still changing gear perfectly, with no creaks or squeaks. And thanks to the massage lady my body also seemed to hold together. Sadly, my tent now appears to be mainly constructed from duck tape but, hey, you can’t have it all.They wont be running exactly the same sort of format next year. There’s talk of something a bit shorter and possibly more technical, based from one centre. I’m ready to sign up now.


kate said…
well done guys!! was following your progress on singletrack, really impressed.
trio said…
Well Done, I was following your progress as well. It was great to see a women's pairs field as well. My two years at transwales there were hardly any women's pairs.

I'm sad that is the last one as I'd love to do it again, just a shame I couldn't afford it this year.
Great write up and Congrats. Sounds epic but fun.

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