It's not often I need an excuse to ride the bike, but I'd been mulling over a trip in the one direction I'd not yet explored to any real extent - south west from Doncaster towards Wales. And celebrating my Grandmother's 100th birthday in 2012 inspired me to put this into practice and ride to Narberth, the place of her birth.
Narberth is a small town west of Swansea, close to Milford Haven and, looking at the map, it was going to be a long hard slog to get there, regardless of the route I plotted.
After poring over the maps for some time I settled on a roughly straight line heading directly to Shrewsbury, keeping me north of Birmingham then a short stretch directly south along the border before resuming the south westward progress. At approximately 240 miles, it was clearly going to take me around 24 hours knowing my typical average speed and the need for me to sleep at some point.
Thinking about timings, it was obvious that I was going to be exhausted on arrival and getting there for early in the morning wouldn't be the best bet if I was going to be staying in a B&B. A twelve noon departure made much more sense then, giving me time to get a bit of lunch before heading for my bed and an afternoon nap.
So the itinerary would be: leave on Friday lunchtime, arrive Saturday, sleep for the rest of the day and then train home on Sunday. Those last 4 words made the return sound a lot simpler than it was looking on the rail website, which plotted a journey involving 4 different trains that took up almost the entire day. A day sat down in a comfy seat would be more than welcome though!
After a good long lie in and a hefty breakfast I saddled up and set off into some rather indifferent looking weather. I made sure my pace was easy and maintainable given what was ahead, although my main worry was the cloud above. Paralleling the M18 through rolling countryside on the familiar back roads between Doncaster and Chesterfield, I felt far too comfortable to be worried about what was probably going to be a short shower and dismissed the idea of stopping to put on my rain jacket.
This was a mistake as it turned out that the weather was going to be very 2012 and stay wet for most of that day. So I was setting off in just the wrong condition and never really dried out again. By the time the wind chill factor got the better of me and forced me to put my jacket on, I was pretty wet and my waterproof effectively sealed in the moisture, creating a boil in the bag effect.
Chesterfield arrived after a short while and I started to head into new territory for me, on the road to Matlock, home of a couple of entries in popular book The 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs. The hills started straightaway on the ride out of Chesterfield and thereafter it was a rollercoaster ride, with a couple of long grinding ascents to pull myself over, including Black Hill.
Passing through Matlock and on through Matlock Bath - a sort of seaside resort stranded inland - there were more hills to go before descending down into Ashbourne. By now the rain was clearing but it was still a little cool and I stopped for a quick sarnie before pressing on again to keep warm.
From here the terrain was rolling but never too hilly and I passed through a succession of small market towns. Next up was Uttoxeter, home of the Midland Monster sportive which I had managed to do twice that year due to severe weather forcing a re-run a few weeks earlier after a washed out first attempt in April.
Not long after that was Stafford. Here the weather broke and the rain really started coming down again. I pulled into the safety of a town centre bus shelter around the start of rush hour, where a bus driver watched me ring out about half a pint of water from my socks. With slightly less water in my shoes and some jelly babies in my mouth, I headed off again glad the relatively high temperatures were talking the edge off the downpour.
Mercifully, it eased up around early evening and passing through Newport and flirting with the edge of Telford I reached Shrewsbury about 10pm, which put me at 115 miles from home. I was feeling quite low at that point as I was tired and hungry and had never really been in this sort of situation before. All of my rides to date had either been single day efforts or multi-day rides with hotels booked in advance. This time I was going to be pressing on into the darkness and out the other end.
I knew what I had to do - get some sleep - but facing up to it still felt a bit odd as it had been a long time since I'd slept in a public place! Eventually I found a bench near a fairly busy roundabout that I reasoned would leave me a little less likely to be mugged or robbed, chained my bike to it and settled down for a nap. Only to be woken five minutes later by a concerned couple asking if I was ok. I muttered that I was just a bit tired and shut my eyes for what felt like a blissful extra ten minutes.
The effect of this short sleep was quite miraculous. I awoke feeling as good as new, morale sky high and set off into the darkness, genuinely surprised at the benefits of such a brief catnap. A mile or so down the A49 I found a 24hr garage where I topped up on food and water and was on my way feeling great.
I was kitted out for night riding with a Magicshine lamp that I'd treated myself to via Ebay especially for this trip. I knew it would do the job, but fears over its battery life meant I was relying on a much weaker Smart unit for as long as I dared. It was a bit of a strain trying to see just beyond the modest yellow cone of light in front of me. Keeping the speed down to compensate was frustrating, but the last thing I needed was an accident in the middle of nowhere. After an hour or so I could take no more. Switching on the Magicshine was a revelation. It felt like a car headlight and proved to be another boost to my confidence as my speed increased to daytime levels and, combined with the extra energy from the nap, I felt invincible!
Next stop was Craven Arms and it was time for another nap, this time in a bus shelter. Once again locals decided I needed to be pestered - this time by some good natured drunks on their way home from the pub. I can't complain though as I must have looked a bit odd, but the nap did the trick and I was away once more, feeling restored.
Diverting off the A49 onto the B roads towards Knighton took me away from the last of the street lighting. Briefly stopping and switching off the lamp I couldn't see my hand in front of my face. I'd thought this would be a bit spooky but in fact it was very calming, especially as a pre-ride clean meant my bike was making very little noise, so I was riding in almost complete silence, broken only by the occasional rustle in the undergrowth from startled wildlife.
Some years ago I had passed through Knighton while walking the Offa's Dyke Path and knew it was a very picturesque little town. At 3am though, it was a little harder to appreciate, but on a mild night like this it was more than enough for me to lay down on a bench in the completely empty town square for another sleep.
Then it was on to Llandridnod Wells, over the first hills I'd encountered for a while. I stopped there for another sleep in the best bus shelter yet. Brick built, quite enclosed against the elements and very dry inside. When I set off the sky was just starting to lighten. I'd hoped dawn would raise morale but it actually dragged it down as the rain came again. It had been a pleasant night, but now it was grey and depressing and the scenery was surprisingly quite dull too.
I slept again somewhere on the A483 to Llandovery in a similar bus shelter. This section seemed to take an age to complete and required some climbing just when I was at my lowest ebb. Further down the same road I stopped again for my final nap at Llandeilo, by now in broad daylight. This was about 10am and I was starting to wonder if I was going to run out of steam altogether.
I was sick of getting rained on, I was sleepy, physically worn out and my stomach was churning from eating too much sugary food. Almost in desperation I stopped at a burger van just short of Carmarthen, but couldn't stomach any food. A cup of tea and a chat with the woman manning the van and her customers worked wonders though and the caffeine seemed to power me on to just short of Narberth. Around the same time the rain stopped and the sun came out, lifting my spirits even higher.
Then came the sting in the tail - 2 or 3 short sharp hills (they merge into one dreadful climb by now!) on the A40 and some heavy fast moving traffic to keep me alert when tackling them. It was a long slow grind get over them with at least one pause, and finally I was seeing signs off to my left for Narberth and coasting downhill towards the town centre.
The relief I felt at getting off the bike was huge and sitting in the town square having a bag of chips in the sun was heavenly (the woman in the chip shop went a bit boggle eyed when I told her what I'd done to earn them!). To add to my pleasure a stream of knackered looking locals on a club ride passed right in front of me, struggling on the mild uphill.
That was about 1pm and after picking up some supplies for the next 18 hours or so I retired to my B&B for the longest shower of my life and an extremely long sleep.
Tom's ride took place on 17 and 18 August, 2012