Death on the (Black) Mountain

There are good days, when even a headwind can’t stop the feeling that it’s a good day, and the pedalling is good, and legs feel good, and the pain feels almost good, and the bike feels amazing. And there are unspeakably horrible days, when everything feels utterly abhorrent and every fibre of every muscle and internal organ complains miserably about the paroxysm of effort.

Today was an unspeakably horrible day. It was the Welsh Championship Hill Climb on the Black Mountain in Brecon. It’s right in the heartland of post-industrial Wales and it is an incredibly beautiful part of the world, especially when visibility stretches beyond 30 metres.

the ‘view’ from the top of the Mountain

The towns and villages are full of Welsh Episcopalian chapels with rich Welsh words running around the fascias and in little plaques, harking back to a more pious and god-fearing era than the current secular world of instant gratification and fame as a goal in itself. Not that it’s any better or worse, just different. Incidentally, hill climbing and bike racing in general is the polar opposite of any notion of instant gratification. it requires intense effort over a long period of time, for scant reward and a huge dollop of unpleasantness.

Capel yn Portadawe

The Black Mountain is a wild and desolately beautiful place. The road sketches out a 4 mile climb without any major steep sections, but still rises to a finish at around 1400 feet. It’s high, but mercifully alpine in nature. On a given day, with the sun in the sky and the birds tweeting, it would be a pleasurable experience. Today, with rain slicing down in sheets of thick of drizzle and the wind whipping across the mountainside, it was most unpleasant. A car went up with kit before but i only had one jacket and it was 3 miles to the start and the warm-up so i was faced with a tough decision: die of cold before or carry stuff up the hill with me during the race. i had to stick my non-packdown waterproof gilet in my pocket so that when i came back down i didn’t die on the mountain, a sort of inverse simpson. i didn’t really care, i would be alive even if my legs were in pieces and my mind was gone.

The green scar above is the road, continuing up (and up, and up)

On the way to the start i suddenly felt the incipient pangs of hunger. i’d misjudged the timings, having eaten at 7am with a start time of 10.30. I quaffed a gel and hoped that would save the day. The climb was steady and unrelenting. I struggled from the very beginning, right to the very top. The headwind was an invisible hand of doom, pushing me back down the hill and at various points i was absolutely crawling along, chewing the bars and stem to pieces. My minuteman was making stealthy progress up the climb, like a deer-stalker following in the hoof-marks of a wounded beast, waiting to make a clean shot and end the contest with an act of benign clemency.

i struggled round the final hairpin and limped over the line, turned round and headed straight back down again. i got lost on the way to the HQ before finally getting in and then out of my wet garments. Dan Evans unleashed a proper blitzkrieg for 1st place. He is stocky and very strong and mullered the climb and his opponents into submission. Jon Shubert came 2nd and John Findley 3rd. I think i may have squeaked into the top 10, if lucky, coming in a long way down on riders i would normally beat by a margin. That’s hill climbing…

Mountain Time Trial

i can’t think what tempted me to enter this one; maybe it was the words ‘essentially alpine in nature’, or ’13km jaunt up a mountain’. anyway, stung by more than a few DNS this year, i was determined to get some more racing under my lycra, so to speak. with this in mind i travelled to the heart of wales, although travelled is strangely inaccurate – ’embarked upon an epic norse saga’ is perhaps more appropriate, in order to compete in the West Wales Cyclists’ Mountain Time Trial up the Black Mountain.

i broke the journey at newport with some track riding; although i had to use a hire-bike because i had my road bike with me for the race the next day. this made me feel a little bit grubby, somehow soiled and not good enough, clipping into the dented pinarello with a wonky quick-release seatpost when really i wanted to be astride my raleigh track pro, a glistening chrome and red ego-chariot. i conserved my energy and just did the warm up and a few laps. the chaps were admiring my new zipp 340 tubular wheelset. i strategically left them on show for this very reason.

i got the train from newport to swansea; i don’t think i’m doing anyone a disservice by saying that this particular stretch of welsh coastline is not one of the principality’s beauty spots. in fact, as i mentioned to belle during the 2 seconds of the entire journey that i got phone reception, one of the corridors of uncertainty through the industrial post apocalyptic wasteland gave every indication of being (truly) the toilet of the universe.

but the sun came out, and a small train took me away from swansea and into the luminous and sublime beauty of the brecon beacons. i stayed in a small farmhouse b+b, they had no guests so they gave me a cottage to stay in which was pretty amazing, and a bit odd. i had a 3 bedroom palace for £30. it was great, and i was tired. it’s hard to understate how dark and quiet it was. i was unprepared for the utter darkness, a void which swallowed everything on turning out the light, it was an encompassing and total blackout, and the only sound was the occasional skittering of bats in the eves. i just prayed i wouldn’t have to get up in the night, wondering aimlessly like some sort of drunk, shellshocked veteran.

anyway, the race. the parcours ran from llangadog to the top of the black mountain. the first 3 miles were gentle, about 3%, then it kicked up massively. the start is in the base of the valley, near to a little town called Bethlehem.

this is near the top – it’s a found image, i didn’t get the chance to take any, apart from of the strange place names on the even more epic journey back afterwards. the height gain is below:

for the first stretch along and up the valley, the temptation is to really put the hammer down; i was doing around 22mph if i remember, trying to keep a healthy cadence, not go off too hard and get tricked into riding like it was a ten, but save energy for the steeper inclines in the knowledge that this is where the time gains would be made. i was also confident from the field that choosing a road bike was best; most of the gaunt-looking mountain goats were on road bikes; and this was a good sign; i felt that any time lost to a power-merchant during the first 3 miles would be reined in sharpish once the hill took shape.

the incline turned into a steady ascent, alpine in nature; 7-9% with a few sections where it ramped up, and some hairpins near the top. for me, this is probably the perfect climb, not unlike burrington combe, just 4 times longer. i’d been feeling rubbish for a few weeks, no form, illness, no races, no intensity, and had been trying to get back some sense of order and a training schedule over the two weeks prior. it seemed to come together and i felt good on the climb, on top of the cadence, being able to shift up rather than reach down, maintaining a rhythm. i felt disadvantaged by not knowing the climb, but other things worked in my favour – i caught about 6 of the 9 riders up the road ahead of me. the rider behind looked fast, i could see it in his eyes at the start; and i held him off all the way up; i think i gave him the jitters because he was up for the win and didn’t see me until the 6 mile mark. he went on to win and set the course record, and i lost only 45 seconds to him over the whole TT; which i am really pleased about, and came fourth overall, my highest placing in an open event. it means i can say i got within 45 seconds of the course record, which is affirming.

the psychology of the minuteman is a funny one – if you know you’re going well you generally expect to catch them, unless you also know they are much stronger; in an event like this i expect to catch people, it’s a motivating factor, and i don’t expect to be caught unless, again, you’re being chased by the eagle of toledo (in which case you can catch up when he stops for an ice cream). him not seeing me for about 6 miles would have been a bit jittery for this reason, he expected the catch but it never happened. i knew he was quicker once i saw him, but that was fine with me, and once he’d seen me, he could relax a little knowing that he’d made up some of the minute deficit, thus beating me in terms of time.

despite the schlep, it was worth going; i’ve got some confidence back, i’m really thrilled with the result. i felt i could have gone a bit quicker – as always – but in a good way, if i’d known the finish maybe i could have buried myself a bit more; but it makes for an unedifying spectacle. the chap in third came over the line making a terrible sound, a real death rattle, white stuff coming from nose, eyes, ears and mouth in a synaesthetic riot of excess endeavour. he was a big chap and he went very deep indeed. there is valour in discretion.

average speed: 17.4 mph.

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