Event Review

Wild Wales Challenge REVIEW

by Sean Lacey

The Wild Wales Challenge


Date: Sunday 25th August 
Distances: 82 miles 
Entry fee: £15.00 
Participants: 730 entrants (sold out) 
Start: Penllyn Sports Pavilion, Bala, facilities available on site and a small amount of parking 
Feedstops: 2 on route and a choose for yourself lunch stop at Porthmadog 
Catering: Hot/cold drinks and food available before and after the ride 
Timed: No (electronic chip to swipe at controls) 
Signs: None (but there were warnings at awkward junctions and turns) 
Roads: Great route on quiet lanes for the most part, a few short sections on main roads and some extremely tough climbing. Sag wagon on route to provide assistance if needed. 
Goody bag: Welsh slate plaque, T-shirts available if ordered in advance 

Having picked the 2012 edition as my best event last year, I was looking forward to this one. Equally I was just as worried; my focus for the year had been my Ride Across Britain JOGLE attempt back in June and I'd had a pretty quiet time since then. The Wild Wales Challenge, in its 29th year was on form as always, with a tough route and just under 10,000ft of climbing and my form wasn't at its best. 

Fortunately a club mate, Matt, was also riding and we arranged to travel together and keep each other company on the ride, a little extra motivation for me would also be handy.

A drive through mid Wales on a cool misty morning set the scene as we took the shorter, but scenic mountain route to the HQ in Bala. The car park was full when we arrived so I parked up as last year a few hundred yards down the lane with no trouble.

Registration was as easy as swiping your electronic tag (which was sent ahead of time in the post along with the route card) and then setting off in your own time. Arriving nearer to 8:30 meant it was fairly quiet as most people had set off before now. A quick cuppa, and out into the unknown... 

Signing on electronically

Tea & coffee before setting off

The route for this ride changes every year, which adds to the appeal of new scenery and challenges each time you ride. A route sheet is issued before the ride, and GPS routes are hosted on the website. Both Matt and I had GPS devices with the route on so we hoped we wouldn't be going wrong. Out of Bala and onto the lanes, with small climbs to get you warmed up quickly before the real testing hills. The sun was getting warmer within half an hour on the road making for a pleasant ride, and highlighting the Welsh countryside perfectly.

It became a common sight at each summit to see groups of riders recovering and waiting for friends, and in our case Matt waiting for me; he's a far better climber and although away up the road as soon as the road rises, having him to chase made me put that extra effort in to get up the tougher steep slopes. 

Riders tackle an early climb...

...and take a breather at the top 

The shorter steep climbs continued before hitting the first of two real monsters 23 miles in, a three and a half mile climb up the peak on the approach to Ffestiniog. I'm a bit more comfortable on these longer sustained climbs, but it didn't stop Matt disappearing off into the distance!

The event takes in some spectacular Welsh scenery 

However, although a 3.5 mile climb, it was followed by a spectacular 6 mile high speed descent on a well surfaced and well sighted road. For the speed demons it was a real treat; my 83kg frame means I had fun here. Four miles in the road flattens out briefly at a small village and the first control was hosted here. It was busy - Matt and I had passed quite a few riders up to this point and we had caught up with the masses which meant queuing for food, but as it was laid out ready plated the wait wasn't too long. Your tag was swiped as you entered the hall and with cake, tea and quiche consumed, the pull of another 2 miles of speedy descent didn't keep us hanging around long.

A brief respite of flat road at the bottom led into another climb, up to Rhyd. Down the narrow descent with care, before hitting the wall-like Prenteg Hill; this one was a toughie for sure. From the top we had great views down to Porthmadog and the estuary, with another descent requiring care. Here I went a bit wrong, enjoying a fast section a bit too much I missed the bleep from the Garmin and overshot a turn, Matt's loud whistle caught me in time to turn around and head back up to the turn and the right path. 

Busy scenes outside the first control

The view across the estuary... 

...and to the sea

Matt takes a moment to recover and absorb the views

As the queue for water at the first control was rather long, we had opted to carry on to the mid-point at Porthmadog and seek supplies there. Before we hit the town itself we stopped at a village shop next to a pub, which was seemingly full of riders enjoying 'refreshments'; not being big drinkers of calorie intense fluids I popped into the shop and bought 4 litres of bottled water for just over a quid, bargain. This was more than enough to fill our bottles and I gave away the rest to grateful riders also on the lookout for water. Good deed done we set off again onto the rest part of the route, flat roads for the most part heading through and out of Porthmadog. I heard someone call as we headed through the harbour, turns out it was our club President Keith and his wife who own a boat moored here and their son Aiden was also riding.

Venue for the waterstop

From here we crossed the estuary alongside the famous steam railway, and over the toll bridge, free for cyclists, towards Harlech. A right turn off the main road marked the start of the final phase of climbing with a stinging steep wooded ascent before it eased up (slightly) and broke cover to more spectacular views. A common sight around here were massive overland pipes carrying what I assume was water, from the leaks I could spot at points. It was nicely warm in the sun now, and with weather like this and views so good it was hard to curse the pain your legs were feeling at times. 

The climbing was unrelenting on tiring legs

Overground pipes were a common sight in the region 

The second control came up at 60 miles in the village hall at Gellilydan. We had made up a big number of places along the route and there was a big difference between the bustle of the first control and the rather empty hall here. It did allow us to have a more relaxed stop once swiped in, with plenty of free seating and no queues in sight. More tea and cake to fuel us up and a top up of the bottles completed it was time to hit the road for the final push for home. 

A more relaxed stop as numbers had dispersed throughout the day

If I'm honest, I was suffering a little now, and the next ten miles were a constant push uphill over the second monster climb of the day, the Trawsfynnydd mountain road that tested the legs to the limit. Matt had waited up at one point as I was flagging so far behind, and from here rode alongside to keep me going. I would usually take a couple of pictures at the top, but I was too knackered truth be told and the prospect of a long descent down to Bala lake was too tempting for me to stop. After another exhilarating descent off the mountain, the view of the lake in the distance was a relief! 

Bala lake was a sight for sore eyes after a long day in the saddle

Once at the lakeside all that was left were a few rolling miles around the lake back into Bala and the HQ. It gave me time to reflect on the ride; we dropped lucky with the weather again and despite my legs protesting numerous times it was another epic ride in the welsh hills. Arriving at the HQ we propped up the bikes before heading inside to swipe in for the last time and receive our fantastic slate plaques (and for me a T-shirt), before a well earned rest with more tea and cake to relax with. 

A fantastic momento 

As with last year which was the first time I rode the event, it was a fantastic day out. It's one of the few rides that calls itself a 'Challenge' that really is just that. The climbing is pretty relentless, lots of steep and testing hills alongside lengthy mountain roads make for a tough ride and one you are proud to say you have completed. Don't think though that it means only the hardiest high level riders can tackle it though; there is always a real mix of riders and bikes from tourers, MTB's and recumbents all taking it on.

The route takes you on roads you never knew existed, taking in some of the countryside you have never seen before, with spectacular sights and scenery. The controls at village halls create a great atmosphere as riders swap tales of the ride so far whilst tucking into traditional tea and cake in true Audax style. The event still has a very Audax feel to it and that adds to the appeal for me. A low entry cost with high value overall in terms of route, stops and memento is to be applauded in today's market of ever increasing event prices. There have been some comments made that people would like the route signed, but part of the appeal for me is the adventure of exploring the ride on the day, the route card provided will see you right and GPS routes are provided and most people nowadays have the facility to use these.

Overall a fantastic event and one that will be a firm fix to my calendar. 

Note: Although the ride wasn't timed or signed I've rated them as a 10 so as not to skew the overall score unfairly (low percentage). 

Route info: http://app.strava.com/activities/77457592

Official Review

1. Feed Stops (correct foodstuffs and energy drinks, the right many, well spaced) 7 out of 10
2. Timing (correct and easy to use) 10 out of 10
3. Signage (Clear, concise, maps, profiles, route card) 10 out of 10
4. Facilities (HQ, Parking, Toilets) 7 out of 10
5. Support (Sag Wagon, Outriders) 7 out of 10
6. Friendliness / Professionalism (Sign-in, marshals, support) 10 out of 10
7. Website - ease of use (Online and postal entry, clear concise) 8 out of 10
8. The Course (Area of outstanding beauty/scenic, quiet roads, cleverly designed?) 10 out of 10
9. Would you recommend it. (Would you ride again?) 10 out of 10
Overall Rating 87.8%

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1 Comment

29th August 2013 2:20pm Herbie wrote:

Thanks for great write-up Sean - think this will be making it into my wishlist for 2014!!