Whoever said the world isn’t flat had surely just completed a Bear Bones event. As accurate as that is it wouldn't have told the full story, their experience would surely qualify for a few more observations,all in glorious, colourful detail.
So a quick recap - the BB200 is a self-supported 200 km (ish) mountain bike ride through mid-Wales. It is organised by Stuart and Dee of Forest Freeride. The BB300 extends this by an additional 100 km, or to put it another way, for me that is an additional 12 hrs in the saddle.
I had already completed the BB200 twice, conveniently missing the fabled 2014 edition which had cemented Stuarts reputation as chief tormentor of happy go lucky bikepackers. I put my name down for the 300 back in June when I had every intention to put some miles in, even some upper body work for all the pushing, lifting and thrutching that was inevitably going to be required. This didn’t happen, I want to blame having a kid but that would be unfair, I just got lazy. Come September panic set in and a half hearted attempt on the Peak 200 in perfect weather ended in a bail after just 90 km. Prep done.
The prize for completing the 300 within the 36 hour cut off was an Orange Badge. Ooooh, I really wanted that badge, but I was feeling weak and unprepared for anything apart from sleep deprivation. As long as I could keep going I might be in with a chance.
Slow and steady was to be my strategy, and what better tool for the job than my trusty old singlespeed. I treated it to some brand new rubber, cleaned and lubed the chain, fighting weight was around 19 kg including water and the 2 spare inner tubes I felt obliged to carry incase my tubeless set up failed. Pulling into the car park in Llanbrynmair on Friday evening I was glad I had already done my bike pre-faff. Feeling ahead of the game, and with a 7 am start planned, I lay down on my Dozer and listened to the rain drumming down on the van roof.
7.30 am - I felt warm and cosy cocooned in my PipeDream sleeping bag, my Dozer was also doing its job and doing it far too well. Outside the rain was falling, the wind was blowing. Riders were sounding busy, if I didn’t move no-one would know I was here, I could sneak off after lunch… Pffft, I thought you wanted that orange badge? But it’s so cosy, just 5 more minutes… come on do you want it or not? Yes I want it, I want that orange badge alright!! Breakfast was swift and by 7.49 am I appeared out the back of my van like Street Hawk, signed out with Stuart and was rolling slowly down the road.
In comparison to the weather on the tops the weather in the car park had been really quite inviting. Storm Callum had beartimed its arrival to perfection. It was bearing its teeth, bringing the worst flooding to Wales in 30 years and, over the course of the next 24 hours, we were properly savaged. Those barmy summer days were blown into distant memory.
The first of many bike-a-hike sections took us directly into the full force of the storm. Standing up was a challenge, the bike, once a fun mode of transport was now little more than a rolling crutch. A steep descent turned into a steep waterfall which then passed through a small lake. 8 km done, huh, so this is how it was going to be.
And so it continued until 20 km, where the route kicked right to ford the Afon Hengwm. Any other weekend this summer and this may have been little more than a bubbling brook lined with crocodiles basking in the sun hoping for a lucky meal. But the monsoon had hit and it was running in spate, us bikepackers stood confused like buffalo halted in their annual migration.
We had to get across this torrent to continue, but at the same time the obvious suddenly sank in… this was unlikely to be the last river crossing and they were only to get more remote. If I wanted a point to bail this was it. I confess I hadn’t studied the route in much detail, I had avoided any pre event banter on the BB forums - a deliberate and cunning strategy. When you don’t know how bad things might get things can always get better, and you have less reasons to give up. .
I scouted up and down the river with Michael from Travers Bikes, we would be riding with each other a bit, but no bridge in sight. Michael waded in to test the water, he was tall but not that tall. I was ready to wave goodbye to him, but he had second thoughts.
Unlike buffalo I didn’t need to follow in the footsteps of great great grandfather buffalo. I had a map and that gave me other options. The decision was made, with another 280 km to go it just wasn’t worth the risk. We pushed on looking for an alternative, safer crossing point.
Michael was riding the 200 and our routes split at 100 km. It had been reassuring to have some support on the river crossings when my wobbly legs struggled to stand up against the current. I found out after the event that he had to bail at 115 km due to a faulty GPS. Really bad luck for him.
12 hours in, not yet half way, progress had felt hard won. Darkness was falling. Now the switch to the night shift is an exciting moment in an endurance ride. You know it is inevitable, you just hope you have done the trickiest stuff before it comes. With 12 hours of darkness ahead it can feel quite intimidating. Everything becomes more difficult, more committing, but for me it is also quite a calm time. You have to be patient, the sun will appear again and that is something to look forward to.
I was accompanied through the night by Murphy the Moose on the bike, an audience of hundreds if not thousands of sheep with eerie glowing red eyes, albino leaping frogs and a solitary badger. I had saved my cheese bagels until midnight - you have to have a carrot to dangle.
While we are on the subject of food, some wiley Boners know that if you pass through (insert unpronounceable name) on the 2nd Saturday of the month with a hungry stomach under a full moon there will be a small pub open just where you need it. It will be packed full of friendly locals with live music, a roaring fire, an authentic menu, real ale, it will be just as if they were expecting you. The rest of us have to carry what we want to eat and hope to find a dry spot under a bush with a clean stream where you might be able to recoup for a couple of hours.
Unfortunately at my speed stopping wasn’t in the game plan, but my spirits were lifted when in the early morning light I rolled into Knighton to find a Coop offering a hot coffee, sandwiches and a small group of other riders.
200 km done, I would have been finished in previous years. I was heading into new territory but I felt like I had paced myself ok even though my legs had hit the wall in the past couple of hours. I didn’t feel exhausted in the aerobic sense but my legs just didn’t have the power to get up the hills.
But it was ok. I had the next 100 km all worked out in my head. I had overheard someone say the last 45 km was all road, so really it just broke down to another 50 km of real riding, and once I was up onto the Kerry Ridgeway it would be pretty much flat anyway… I was virtually home and dry.
I scoffed that Yorkie I had been saving, Original of course, and started spinning. My legs had regenerated themselves, it felt great to ride my bike rather than walk alongside it. Feeling strong as I worked my way up to the Ridgeway my mind accelerated and started to pull away. I was already weaving through the windmill farm and freewheeling down the long descent to the finish.
Before I could get there reality bit back, there was 70 km to go and fatigue had returned. My pace slowed to a snails crawl. When you are on a singlespeed there is nowhere to go except get off and push. Still it wasn’t all doom and gloom, I could see the windmill farm in the distance and there was a patch of blue in the sky.
A few hours later the windmills were still beckoning from a distance. I kept reminding myself that however bad I felt now it was going to be all downhill from the windmill farm, downhill all the way to that coveted little orange disk.
The windmills did come and go, finally, and it was followed by a nice downhill section where I could put on my smily face again, except that it didn’t go on for 45 km. Nope, somehow in my head I had smoothed out that steep 300 m climb out of Llanidloes. My legs didn’t care if it was on smooth tarmac, they just knew it was uphill and I had lied to them. We were no longer friends.
As my GPS clocked up 285 km I could smell the finish line fry up. As 300 km came and went I wondered why I didn’t have a mug of tea in my hand and an orange badge in my pocket. Llanbrynmair still wasn’t showing on my GPS, I zoomed out, then zoomed out again, then scrolled up…
Oh my, 10 km still to cover and the sands of time were all but drained. I still wanted that orange badge, that orange badge had kept me going over 35 hours and I still wanted it. Adrenaline said hello and suddenly my body was working as one. I was back up on the pedals and charging for the finish line.
If anyone had been out for a recreational ride they would have sauntered by me and wondered what all the huffing was about, but there wasn’t and I was charging all the same. Jumping the red lights into Llanbrynmair I felt fast and dangerous. I had given everything but probably missed the cut by 5 to 10 minutes. I couldn’t bring myself to swipe the screen on my GPS and check. I still didn’t want to give it up the little orange badge. Rolling down the steps into the school I expecting a friendly but ultimately sympathetic greeting from Stuart and Dee. Oooh so close, good effort in those conditions, urm we are locking up now, back next year?… but to my amazement I was greeted by fellow BB300’ers.
“Have I done it” I panted… “Oh my god, with 1 minute to go, unbelievable” was the reply.
I couldn’t believe it, I had that orange badge after all!
For more on the BB200 the BB300, gates, sheep, wind, rain, fords and unrideable trails visit the BearBones forums.