Last weekend the Rest Less Ride took riders across the whole of Wales from beach to border overnight. The roads were riddled with pot-holes, sheets of gravel and barrier-less hairpin bends, dropped into deep dark valleys, through forests and over 25% climbs in a race against the sun on the night the clocks went forwards.
The ride was born out of a story that writer - and friend of howies - Rob Penn, shared from a chance meeting on the road with a passing cyclist, reminiscing over night-long club rides in the late 1950's; the quieter roads, the lack of traffic, and the peloton pushing one another on through dawn.
The roads back in the 50’s aren’t too dissimilar to the country lanes in Wales, so only one question remained; "When shall we do it?"
On Saturday, 16 riders set off from howies HQ to Abergavenny, all that led the way were small road markings, the faith in the peloton and the promise that no-one would get left behind in the wilderness.
The pack was made up some of Rob's and our riding friends, who had come from across Britain, to take on this incredible adventure. A last supper gave time to go over the route, fettle bikes and exchange names with the riders who would help carry one another across the entire country in the dark.
Barely 10 minutes into the ride, a disturbed badger darted into the pack, causing a tumble. The sound of bikes hitting the ground and cries in the night halted riders in front. Once turned upright, we re-grouped and pressed on. What other dangers waited for us in the dark?
Winding out of the Teifi valley, the stronger legs set a steady pace along the undulating road to Lampeter. The hills began to get steeper, breathing deepened and gears simultaneously jumped in the dark to bigger cogs.
The descents made up for the climbs and soon everyone seemed settled, taking to the 40mph bends, down over humpback bridges, free wheeling to allow the legs to rest for the next inevitable climb.
At Lampeter we left the safety of the A roads and towns, heading into the wilderness. The quiet back roads were brown and green down the middle, with fractures to test skinny tyres and fords to test nerves; a surface barely ideal in daylight, let alone in the dark.
These country lanes were bound for the lake at Llyn Briane, up winding valley passes and through pitch-black, potholed hairpins. Chatter in the pack slowed as concentration increased to keep wheels in line over the rough surfaces and spotting markers to keep on course - we had not seen a house or car for miles and rumbling over cattle grids. There would be nowhere to go if you gave up here.
News of the coming halfway stop for hot soup refreshed tired minds. Eager stomachs wound up the pace and soon everyone was huddled around a 2-ring gas burner awaiting some real food. Passing round bread and stretching, we noticed the time, 3am. With darkness all around, we were halfway from nowhere and nowhere near somewhere with an handful of hours 'til dawn. The race against the sun had begun.
The climb past the lake, invisible in the dark, led to fantastically smooth tarmac lining the valley as it wound through the hills and over barrier-less summits with steep drops into the dark.
Approaching the pine forest, a broken chain tore apart Alex's derailleur, demanding some roadside repairs. Stopped in the silence, it was obvious the damage was irreparable. Cut down to a single speed, the best attempt to limp on, wasn't going to get the bike over the 25% climb of the Devil's Staircase and certainly not onto Abergavenny. It was game over for Alex.
The Devil's Staircase is famed for it's 25% walls levelling out briefly before the next step upwards. The set of short, sharp climbs marked the midway point through the wilderness. A series of sketchy but exhilarating hairpin descents to the valley floor followed. Mist collected between the hills as the road bounced along, mimicking the bed of the river until finally a junction and another short rest.
Signposts pointed through a dark forest to Builth, where the pack regrouped. The dawn chorus had begun, and the promise of daylight was in the air. The quiet A-roads were smooth and wide, with street lighting easing the dependence of lights which would surely be near the end of their battery life. These roads gave the pack their best chance yet to work together, forming a train of tired legs each taking turns out front to break the cold air.
Crossing the river, heading for Hay-on-Wye, the B-roads were foggy and felt chilly without the climbs to keep the body warm. Staying together for company and warmth, the pack pressed on in the mist.
Leaving Hay behind, daylight finally broke over the hills of the Black Mountains where the final - and hardest - climb of the ride came into view.
Every rider stopped to shed weight, jettisoning surplus layers and water bottles. Feeling sore and empty, the beauty of the scenery laid out in the early morning sun was enough to make the riders forget their tired legs. The end would soon be in sight, with a 15 mile whooping descent though the Llanthony Valley to breakfast. And it would be the best breakfast ever, in soft chairs with hot food.
The ride forged friendship through adversity; sharing the experience of digging deep when you’ve got nothing left, feeling sick, delirious and weary but pushing yourself and fellow riders further than you could possible ride on your own.
Despite the grueling climbs and rapid descents over tarmac laced with gravel and pot holes, 14 of the 16 riders completed the challenge - 124 miles, over 3000 meters of ascent with only one final question remaining; "When shall we do it again?"