Yr Elenydd 300km Audax
The Elenith is a classic audax event. Starting from the village hall in the hamlet of Upton Magna just to the East of Shrewsbury, the route is out and back mainly via the quiet lanes and roads of the counties of Shropshire in England, and Powys and Ceredigion in Wales.
It sounds like an idyllic meander, but, leaving aside presiding weather conditions, this is a circuit with teeth.
It is both a test of the spirit and a balm for the spirit. It offers the rider a physical challenge which is hard to equal in a day’s ride, and thanks to the efforts of the organiser and his team of volunteer helpers, the structure of the event, by which I mean the controls, has a unique friendly atmosphere.
So, a 6a.m start on a fine, bright morning and a large group of approximately 90 riders head off through the lanes via Atcham, Condover and Leebotwood before picking up the normally busy A49 for six miles towards Church Stretton.
There’s a chill in the air and after weeks of enduring a biting Easterly wind, we now do battle with a warmer but nagging Southerly. The mighty hill, Caer Caradoc at 459m, guarding Church Stretton’s eastern flank looms up on the left hand side, snow still visible on the top. To the west, the bulk of The Long Mynd overshadows the skyline.
Soon a right turn, and an enforced stop at the level crossing allows a big group to form. A steady climb, a rattling descent followed by another, longer, steeper ascent, thins out the peloton. Sweet Shropshire villages are passed through in the sunshine. Hopesay, Aston on Clun, Broome and Clungunford precede the bigger road via Leintwardine to Mortimer’s Cross. A love affair with this area began in 1996 on a very wet LeJOG tour. What a pleasure to return once again.
Shortly we control at Shobdon airfield. The staff do a sterling job dealing with the hungry hordes of randonneurs , desperate for their second breakfast. But whilst we are scoffing our food, the sun disappears, to be replaced by a cold and damp mist. I team up with fellow Muswell Hillbilly Julian Cole, who is a veteran of this expedition. There’s some rolling stuff and an encounter with one of the fixers on a smart Bob Jackson, before the climb of Warden Road. Hell of the North meets the Elenith. The road disintegrates into a 16% muddy track where it is most difficult to avoid rear wheel spin on my skinny 23s. Good fun though.
A marvellous stretch of road to Builth Wells ensued, with panoramic vistas and snow-topped hills lining the route like Nature’s guard of honour. In the town it was parky, a stiff breeze having developed, together with a persistent drizzle.
On our way again we pedal via the town centre towards Beulah. The right turn to Abergwesyn signals a heightened sense of excitement. Sure, we had already been treated to some wonderful and challenging countryside in which to cycle, but the next section promises an epic struggle set in the backdrop of some of the most remote wilderness of the UK.
The weather was doing all it could to spice up the day. Heavier rain coupled with a strengthening southeasterly promised an interesting passage to Tregaron. However, the start of this road is a benign climb through the trees above a tributary of the Irfon River. The rollercoaster road hits a high point of 332m before plunging down to Abergwesyn and climbing steeply again to follow the upper reaches of the Irfon proper through a magnificent, wide valley flanked by precipitous, rocky and ancient hills.
In the distance the much respected Devil’s Staircase strikes upwards like a ski jump and below it nestles a temporary gazebo populated by several slightly apprehensive looking riders and a gentleman checking our brevet cards fortified against the cold with a thick blanket.
The first two hundred metres of this tarmac ramp is all that is visible, and it is indeed extremely intimidating. Julian set off and I watched him inch his way up to the hairpin. I set off and immediately engaged 30/29 bottom gear and top speed of 3.2 kmph. I made the first hairpin after registering 25% on the GPS, the next hairpin was gained with 19%, the road swung right and continued to lurch upwards like it had swallowed a packet of Viagra.
Eventually I summited, but couldn’t find the energy to admire the view. A scintillating if somewhat cold descent was the reward for this toil, each valley trying to oudo the previous in grandeur. What happened next was this: it continued to rain, the wind blew, my GPS registered a series of gruelling gradients of 16-19%. My soul, fed by the majesty of the scenery, grew just as my physical and mental strength waned. The ascents of Cenglau, Gamallt and Esgair Ffwrd, preceded by the Devil’s Staircase is as good an examination as I have ever faced on the bike.
Finally, another speedy and slightly mad descent only pacified by a surprisingly stinky little climb just before Tregaron spat me out at the mercy of the women of the town’s bowling club. What a gem of a control! All that agony endured on the road was worth it to hear the gently lilting voices of these ladies as they cheerfully dispensed food to the mob of soaking, freezing ‘athletes’.
And so, the first five minutes after departing were spent getting warm. We were now headed for Pontrhydfendigaid and Pontrhydgroes, with the promise of a tailwind. There is a stiff climb out of the former town followed by a cracking road with a stretch of the best tarmac in the world. At Pontrhydgroes, there is a climb. You bet there is! The right turn to Hafod is brutal. This is the only ride where you pray for gradients of 8% to come along for some respite. That includes the Kiddy Killer.
Exhausted, demoralised, beaten, thirsty, hungry but despite this, generally in good spirits, we passed through Cwmystwyth to tackle the wind tunnel that is known as the Elan Valley. What happened to the promised tailwind? Onwards we plodded, past slate quarries, through snow drifts, over bridges, climbing ever upwards into the gwynt (Welsh for wind). Heroic landscape, whose finery it would be good to witness in the sunshine. Finally at 488m, we crested the top of the world and plummeted down into Rhyader and the warmth of the Strand tearooms. The staff dealt efficiently with the mass of dripping cyclists.
I ordered a double cappuccino, chicken baguette, coca cola and bacon pasty, £7.20 in total. Very reasonable, it didn’t touch the sides. At this point, if I had the guts I would have packed, but I’m gutless, so I didn’t. There was a nice bit of banter with other riders and that cheered me up. From Rhyader, I found some form and did some big pulls on the front. It helped enormously that my stomach was half full and that we now had some semblance of a tailwind. It had also warmed up a little. A wonderful tract of road led us towards Knighton. Even though there were some draggy ‘ups’, they went almost unnoticed compared to what had gone before. Negotiating the lanes in the darkness, we came quite swiftly to the wonderful control at Little Brampton. Ushered inside, fed (beef stew!), watered, warmed up, only the mention of the climb over the Long Mynd could put a dampener on our little party. What a treat for the knackered two wheel wanderer.
So we set off on the final stage, dodging frogs on the road, taking care not to get lost and enjoying the peace and calm of the night. The stony climb up to Wentnor reminded us that it was not over, but when the right turn to Thresholds and the Mynd presented itself, we need not have been fearful, yes, it was steep but not too long and a marvellous descent followed to Dorrington. The final push to Upton Magna was enjoyable, and a most warm welcome awaited us in the village hall.
Yr Elenydd, it is a classic ride and I am so pleased to have finally been a part of it.