Words by Gem Atkinson | Photography by Johan Björklund
I’m in Wales, Chepstow to be exact. I’ve driven a few hours here from London, my bike thrown in the boot of a crappy 2003 Vauxhall Corsa, a bumper held on with a cable tie and a rattling engine. Within this crappy rattler there is an air of excitement, and of course trepidation. It is the weekend of the 2015 Bryan Chapman Memorial, an audax that traverses the length of Wales.
noun … a type of long-distance road cycling event in which participants must navigate a route within a specified period of time.
Starting at one of its most southern points (Chepstow) and snaking its way in a northern direction up to Menai Bridge, where upon ramming a baked potato and several peanut butter slathered pieces of toast in my gob, we turn around and ride south for the remaining 300km, back to Bulwark community centre.
Our fine group of five fell into an effortless synchronicity… sometimes the boys would ping off the front, but always we would rendezvous, arriving at each of the seven controls together as a unit.
- Graeme Raeburn
- Kati Jagger
- Jon Heslop
- Gem Atkinson
- Johan Björklund
So what is it actually like to ride the Bryan Chapman, one of the calendars most celebrated audaxes? Well, to be honest… the only adjective I can use to describe it is ‘stunning’. The landscape is quite serene and lush in its abundance. Endless rolling green hills and birdsong reward tired legs on the clip north, the A roads paved in silky smooth tarmac, and for the most part the roads pleasantly quiet.
Forget what you picture 8200 metres of climbing to feel like… there's a distinct (and frankly, welcomed) absence of truly punishing gradients, unlike the infamous Porkers 400 event I’d ridden as BCM preparation. The climbs are enjoyable and decidedly seated affairs, with ample scope to really soak it all up and relish each hillside viewpoint.
- Swollen knees
- Sunburnt calfs
- Extreme tightening of hip flexors
- Aching lumbar
Around the 300km mark of the ride en route to the fourth control at Menai Bridge (and thoughts of baked potatoes), came the indomitable Pen-y-Pass. I recall its wonders from a rather more cold visit here back in 2013 for a Rapha Continental ride.
An absolute cracker of a climb, a few years ago due to some rather interesting weather, the top part of the pass was actually closed, so we skirted off to the right in the direction of Capel Curig. This visit, however, Kati Jagger and I were able to climb to the top, chatting and raving about the view as we did so. It’s the kind of experience you crave as a cyclist… just looking out onto a vast expanse of nature in its rawest form. This one will stay in the memory banks for years to come, the icing on the cake being the ‘magic hour’ where light gently fell on us upon reaching the summit and the boys around 9pm.
Attack of the ‘dozies’ — the inability to keep ones eyes open and retain control of the bike
Around 2am as we neared Dollgellau and with it the mouth watering potential of a real actual bed to sleep in for three hours. I found myself, or rather Kati found me, with a severe attack of the ‘dozies’. My light-beam wobbled across the road surface, and my eyelids so heavy they kept stealing micro rests. I jolted upright on the wrong side of the road each time. A rather stressed sounding Kati berated me and made me ram more jellybeans down my mouth in the hope the sugar might offer a slap of energy. We had been on the course for almost 20 hours, and no nap was had at any previous check points. She was worried and kept firing questions at me; “what was the worst thing you ever did?”; “what was the hardest thing you've ever done?”; “where do you want to be in ten years?”; and each time I struggled to answer, frustrating my poor riding companion even more.
These seemed the most treacherous of final 15 miles to the youth hostel, and to make matters worse, there was a huge long descent off the mountain down towards Dollgellau. Hardly the best point for a very real absence of lucidity. I owe Kati a thousand thanks for keeping me safe and navigating what was a stressful and dangerous situation.
Food & drink consumed in 630km:
- 12 x fig rolls
- 3 x duo biscuits
- 1 slice of coffee & walnut cake
- 2 Cadburys boost bars
- 1 Mars bar
- 1 X Snickers bar
- 1 x small bowl of veg noodle soup
- 1/2 x plate of penne & tomato ragu
- 1 x bag jelly beans
- 1 x bag dried mango
- 2 x nougat bars
- 1 x jacket potato & baked beans
- 2 x slices toast peanut butter
- 2 x slices toast Nutella
- 2 x slices bacon, 1 veg sausage & 1 fried egg
- 4 x Jaffa Cakes
- 1 x small orange
- 1 x small bowl of tepid rice pudding
- 2 x small pieces of brioche
- 1 x packet of Wine Gums
- 3 x slices wholemeal bread
- 4 x cups of instant coffee
- 1 x cappuccino
- 3 x bite-sized flapjack pieces
- 10.4 litres of water
- 2 x hydration tabs [Other brands are available for your energy needs]
- Harlech Beach
- Dinas Mawddwy descent
- Tintern to St Arvans
Saturday am weather > Fine & warm
Saturday pm weather > cloudy & mild
Sunday am weather > drizzly & mild
Sunday pm weather > scorching & sunny
Machinery on the road:
I saw tricycles, a tandem and several Moultons but predominantly the popular bike choice seemed to be a modern steel frame with mid range components. Large rear saddle bags were the luggage choice du jour.
- Condor Acciaio w/ Pacenti rim wheelbuild w/ 25mm Vittoria Pave
- Large Ortleib under saddle bag
- Raceblade mudguards
- Anker astro mini charger duct taped under stem
- Lezyne Powerdrive XL & spare battery
- Lezyne Zecto rear light
- Moon Comet rear light [Other brands are available for your equipment needs]
- 630km cycled in total
- 27 hours riding time
- 9 hours spread out over stops
- circa 8000 calories burned
A stunning ride, would not have been possible without the humour and stewardship of my four riding companions. Truly, distance is no impassable barrier when you have such fun people to share the experience with.
What did I learn? That actually a normal girl, certainly average in regards to cycling prowess, with two jobs, family, friends and a partner to juggle, can find the time to build a modest foundation of base miles to get round such a seemingly long ride. The hardest thing I contended with was simply a touch of sleep deprivation, something I’ll try and rectify for next year. That’s right, next year...