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Wild Wales Challenge REVIEW

by Sean Lacey


Date: Sunday 26th August
Distances: 84 miles
Entry fee: £15.00
Participants: 500+ entrants
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 Machynlleth
Catering: Hot/cold drinks and food available before and after the ride
Timed: No  Signs: None (but there were red painted arrows on the roads)
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

The Ride:

Having had a fairly quiet period in terms of reviews of about four weeks, I'd been riding as regularly as ever but it was a sign of a proper event in that the alarm clock was pressed into service early on a Sunday morning for the first time in a while. As early as it was though, motivation was high as I had missed riding events and this one had a great reputation among the local clubs; after all it has been running in one form or another over 25 years.

Bala is a beautiful location for the HQ, a small town on the shores of the lake that brings most of its tourist trade. It was dark when I got up but bright and sunny by the time I got there at just before 8am and the place was already packed. There isn't an awful lot of parking on site so a short trip down the lane secured me a spot a few hundred yards away.

In The Queue To Sign On

The queue had built up quite a bit by the time I had got the bike out of the car and sorted kit, but it moved quickly as all you needed to do was swipe the electronic tag that we had been sent before the event and collect a cup of tea if you wanted it. As mentioned, as this is run by the CTC a good proportion of the riders are from various clubs around the area. Half a dozen or so from my own club, Newport Shropshire CC were here, a few of them making a weekend of it and staying locally. Once swiped you were free to set off, after a few minutes I headed out with fellow club member Warren for the easy couple of miles getting out of Bala town.

However, it isn't called Wild Wales Challenge for nothing - hills (and mountains) are a big feature and the heart rate didn't have long to get going before the first drag upwards. The scenery changed from rural to wilderness pretty quickly, and got more stunning as it went, before the first obstacle of the day, the Hirnant Pass which connects Bala to Lake Vyrnwy.

Riders Approach The First Big Climb

The Starting Slopes Of The Pass

I've not ridden in this area before so all of these climbs were an unknown to me, which in a way I prefer. Nobody had really made much of a mention of this one so I was happy enough to head on up with no concerns, and with fresh legs although challenging wasn't too tough. A beautiful climb, it got better the further up you went with a couple of false summits to catch you out. At the top there was a poor unfortunate having trouble with keeping the contents of his stomach where they should be - that didn't bode well for the rest of his ride with the harder climbs to come!

The roads were slightly greasy still from the morning dew and the descent was a bit hairy in places, with a couple of riders either locking up the rear or almost overshooting but nobody went off road that I saw. Warren had gone ahead as I took a couple of pictures, but at the bottom of the descent I caught up with another member, Gwynne, and we rode the only flat section of the route around the stunning Lake Vyrnwy, which has an interesting story behind it should you want to Google it. Past the dam and upwards again, climbing into the wilderness again and onto the first control at Llanerfyl.

Riders Arrive At The Control

Some oF The Motley Newport Crew

Once swiped in, there was tea, water or juice and a plate of food provided, containing a wafer bar, cake and something which made a nice change from the norm, quiche. As we sat and ate others from our group arrived and the chat started. Socialising is one of the good points on events like this, but it did mean that café legs set in and getting started again was hard going for a few miles!Out on the road again, solo this time for a while, there was no warming those legs gradually as it was straight into another climb. Unusually for Wales, the road for some miles had been treated to that gravel surface dressing councils are so keen on. Being such a remote road with little traffic, and that it seemed only to have been laid within the last week or so made this section one to be cautious about. Climbing wasn't too bad but the descents were butt-clenchingly interesting.

Gravel Strewn Road

More spectacular views vied for attention as we headed onwards, with a real toughie in the middle in the shape of Bwlch Glynmynydd. For a moment I wondered if the infamous climb of the day at Bwlch-y-Groes had come early, the pretty much constant gradient and sharp steep sections fitted the picture, but common senses told me it was far too early on. The weather, good to start with had now really got into its stride and the sun was out and I reckon on around 20 degrees, which made the climbing that little bit harder, but pleasant nonetheless.The descent off this one was a beauty, most others had been twisty and badly surfaced but this one was open and a mostly brake free zone.

No Pedalling
Riders Enjoy Not Having To Pedal

A few more ups (some real nasty steep ones too) and downs and we rolled into Machynlleth town. There wasn't a control here, but as it is about halfway the organisers suggest stopping at one of the many pubs, cafés or shops to get a bite to eat if you felt the need. It seemed many did, as the main high street was littered with bikes and riders, with the biggest congregation at a well know supermarket which is where my final club wingman for the day Omar and I stopped for a sandwich.

Feed Station
An Unusual 'Feed Station'

We didn't hang around here too long as the feeling of getting my legs back into action after a longer stop on the steep stuff wasn't too appealing. We kept a decent pace up for a while though the lanes and not so tough rolling hills, playing cat and mouse with a group from the Birkenhead North End club, through the Dovey forest before hitting the final control at Dinas Mawddwy just 15 miles or so out from Machynlleth. Another fairly quick stop to fill bottles and stomachs before heading out to the big daddy of the ride, with a mere 70 hilly miles in our legs.

riders relax
Riders Relax Before The Final Assault

Tea And Cake, What Else Do You Need?

Leaving the control, some may wonder why it was there with only 14 miles left, but I think for those that didn't stop for lunch, this final rest and recuperation before tackling the Bwlch-y-Groes would be welcome! This climb is well known locally and featured in Simon Warren's book on the UK's best climbs so is well documented, and the highest tarmacked pass in Wales. I hadn't attempted it before but was feeling OK and not too tired, and mentally these things don't play on my mind which is half the battle I reckon. Rolling the few miles to the start of the climb it became obvious there was only one way out of the valley...

No Way Out But Up

I knew that the climb started as you cross a small bridge on the road and from there it doesn't level out until the very top, so steely determination set in as I went over it. Blimey, if you have ever read about this one, they weren't joking. With an average gradient of 9-10% for over a kilometre after the first steep ramp at the start it's a brute of a climb, seemingly never-ending with no let up and nowhere to recover. It's really narrow too, which makes it interesting when traffic is descending, which we had a few cars and motorbikes do, when you are blowing hard and on the limit, just keeping a straight line is as much a challenge as keeping going!

Omar is a bit of a mountain goat, and on the Hirnant Pass flew up like Chris Froome, and left me on the early slopes to grind it out. So, on seeing him grinding to a halt just over half way up didn't do me any favours, a renowned climber I am not. Pushing on I passed him and carried on until gravity, my asthmatic lungs and our good friend lactic acid pulled the plug about three quarters of the way up.As a bonus to my failure, it does mean you get some pictures to look at though.

so close
So close yet so far.. it continues after the bend

Riders Struggling Up

More Struggling

 Determination Saw This Chap Up to The Top

I managed to remount after a pig of a push - it's almost as hard walking up than it is riding - at the point of the last photo that had a side road just flat enough to get going again and pushed on the short distance to the top. There were a few folk cheering riders on which was nice, I did feel a little guilty having walked a section though! Quite a few riders were massed at the top to catch their breath or wait for friends, but I pushed straight over to get a clear descent, as I had been told it was pretty open and fast. This it was, even to the point of sitting behind a motorbike that eventually moved over to let me overtake. Nearing the bottom though the rush was broken as a tractor manoeuvred across the road to block it off. At first I feared a local protest or something, but it turned out he was bringing cattle up the road to another field and didn't want to endanger other road users.

Alone With The Tractor

But Not For Long

It took about ten minutes for the cattle to clear and the road reopen, and by that time there was a big bunch of us eager to make the finish back at Bala. A mad rush ensued as the tractor moved and as the rest of route was predominantly downhill the pace was quick. The Birkenhead lot steamed off into the distance and this left me to roll into Bala solo, thinking about what a great days riding I'd had.Back at HQ we swiped in for the last time and received our slate plaque, a nice touch and designed to build a series should you enter each year. A quick chat with organisers Denis and Graham to offer my thanks and for them to let me know how well the day had gone from their end preceded a welcome cup of tea before heading home.

Bala Lake

Graham And Denis

Riders Glad To Ease Out Their Legs At The Finish

Slate Plaque

To sum up, I like low key audax style events like these, one or two slotted in with the bigger, flashier rides makes a nice change of pace. The cost is considerably lower for not a lot less and as it attracts a large number of club cyclists they tend to more sociable, no racing against the clock and generally more group riding with plenty of banter.

The route was nothing short of stunning. Tough, certainly, but this part of Wales is truly spectacular. I'll certainly be back sooner rather than later, as I have unfinished business with a certain climb and will be on the start list next year. 

Strava ride info: 

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1 Comment

30th August 2012 10:17am wrote:

Great review. Fantastic ride. Fantastic scenery. All credit to the organisers. It would appear that I was in your group held up by the tractor. Don't feel bad about not being able to cycle up the last climb from bottom to top. I too had to stop as did a large number of other riders. It really was a killer. Looking forward to next year.