Feeling a bit enduro’d out? One big day’s mountain biking not cutting it for you? Don’t worry, for the next step has arrived in the UK. Multi-day MTB stage races have been around for years in other parts of the world, with the TransAlp and TransRockies being probably the most well-known examples. But this year the UK got its very own stage race in the shape of the Merida TransWales.
Of course, being Britain things had to be a little bit different. Unlike some parts of the world, trail access legislation in England and Wales doesn’t permit racing bicycles on off-road rights of way. That would seem to put the kybosh on the idea of a multi-day race across hundreds of miles of the country, but Merida MTB-Marathon organisers Mike Wilkens and John Lloyd had a plan. These days there are lots of purpose-built trail centres across Wales, and you can race at those. So the format they cooked up involved competitors riding their bikes across the wilds of Wales between trail centres and then doing timed special stages on purpose-built singletrack.
The Bikemagic crew was immediately enthused by the concept, and we ended up fielding three teams. Editorial types Mike and Dave competed in the Team Men category, while sister site SheCycles.com put up Kim Hurst and Heather Dawe in the Women’s category. And then we had a big competition to give away a place in the Mixed category – that went to forum stalwart John Underwood and wife Barbara. They drove up from their home in the Pyrenees for the event and to take in some other riding beforehand, a fine plan that backfired somewhat when John took a tumble in the Peak District and cracked his knee on a rock. For a while his participation looked uncertain, but come the first day the swelling was going down and he decided to give it a go. It was a struggle at times, but they made the distance – all the more impressive given that upon their return to France John discovered that he’d actually broken his kneecap…
The linking stages were mostly pretty long – 70km and around 2,000m of climbing was typical, although the second day to Machynlleth was a blissfully short 33km (and with a lot of descending in it). They took in the full range of Welsh terrain, from moorland singletrack to forestry fireroads and all points in between. There were many, many highlights – we’ll single out the beautiful Afon Doethie singletrack as a particular one, but there were plenty more. And we experienced so many “Oooooh…” moments as views opened up at the top of climbs that we started to get a bit blasé about it – oh, look, another spectacular view, ho hum…
It wasn’t all a delight, of course. A week in Wales is likely to involve somewhat unpredictable weather, and there was a hell of a lot of water around. Some of it would have been there anyway, as on The Trail Of A Thousand River Crossings (ok, eleven, but it seemed like more), but the second half of the event suffered from increasing amounts of rain. The last day’s riding back to the start in Builth Wells took place almost entirely in rain.
Just those stages would have been tough, but stir in camping every night, early starts and the necessity to put in a flat-out race-pace effort on a special stage either before or after a big day’s ride and you’ve got a recipe for fatigue. It started to get very, very hard to turn the pedals as the week went on, until we got to the point that even 22/32 seemed like a fairly stiff gear.
Fortunately the event team was amazingly together in terms of the overnight stops. Arrive at the end of the stage, grab your event holdalls, pitch tent, shower, eat copious quantities of pretty tasty food, chat for a while, retire, get up, eat copious quantities of breakfast, break camp, head out. Yes, the showers could be a bit erratic – would you get icy water or superheated steam? – but we were mostly in fields in the middle of nowhere and everything generally worked, which to us is pretty impressive.
The second special stage was somewhat pivotal. A night ride on Coed y Brenin’s rocky trails would be an interesting experience at the best of times, but after a lot of rain and a hefty ride to get there in the first place it was something else. Punctures, mechanicals and falls were commonplace, and it was after this stage that we started to realise that TransWales was going to be properly hard work. The need to ride conservatively to keep some energy in reserve and not break your bike alternating with having to ride at full bore to get quick times was a combination guaranteed to make you suffer.
The shared spirit of adventure was something that we’ve not experienced for quite a while, though. It seems to take an unfamiliar event to really get riders who are notionally competing to pull together – early 24 hour races, when no-one really knew what they were doing, had it, but at most of those there’s now a critical mass of experienced round-the-clock riders for whom such events aren’t really a novelty any more. TransWales, though, was different for pretty much everyone, with only a smattering of TransAlp and TransRockies veterans knowing vaguely what to expect. But even then, the TW format was sufficiently different that the value of other stage race experience was somewhat limited.
Of course, you didn’t have to race, and quite a few teams either opted out of the special stages altogether or just cruised them for a laugh. That flexibility is one of the great things about the format – you could, if you liked, treat it as a fully-supported tour of the wilds of Wales rather than a race. Or as a race, or as a bit of each, whatever you like.
At the front of the field, of course, there was proper racing going on. In the Team Men category, the Mojo Suspension duo of Ryan Bevis and Jonathan Pugh wore the Hayes Disc Brake leaders’ jerseys all week, winning all but one of the special stages – second-placed team Fabio and Grooverider (Josh Morgan and Mansour Youssef) got the better of them on the final stage at the Cwm y Rhayader trail (a community trail project that we’d never heard of until we arrived at it – it’s quite good fun, too…).
There were only two teams in Team Women, with our very own Kim and Heather cleaning up. Unfortunately Kim did her Achilles tendon in on the penultimate day, so Heather had to do the final special stage and the return to Builth Wells solo. They incurred a time penalty for one rider not completing the last stage, but held on to the lead and the Buff Headwear jerseys. They were going fast all week – their cumulative time would have put them comfortably inside the top 30 in the men’s event (yes, a couple of places ahead of Mike and Dave, we know…)
Competition was hot in the Mixed category, with Steve and Renell Brennan (MTB-Marathon) swapping the lead with Maggie Bichard and Max Jeffries (Pembroke Pedallers) all week. In the end, though, it was the Pedallers who finished up clad in the High5 leaders’ jerseys.
The final team category was the Vets, sponsored by Saris Bike Racks. The winners here were Bernard Wragge-Morley and Nick Percival. Then there were two solo categories, both sponsored by Mud Dock (Mud Dock’s Matt Carr was racing solo himself. On a singlespeed…). Phil Spencer won the men’s event and Sally Lee the women’s.
For most of the field, though, it was a question of getting round and doing the best you could. And that was achievement enough…
Those Bikemagic/SheCycles teams in full
The recurring theme from talking to what we’re now going to call TransWales veterans is camaraderie, and that’s probably the thing we’ll remember most about the event. It wasn’t easy for anyone, but different things were hard for different people and everyone chipped in to get each other through. Get a flat or a mechanical and you’d be asked if you were OK fifty times. People were carrying one another’s bags, pushing the broken-transmissioned up hills, lending tubes/tools/food or just simply forming silent, but somehow deeply communicative, groups. A bunch of riders grinding up an endless climb in the wet greyness doesn’t have to say anything, everyone knows exactly what everyone else is thinking.
One thing’s for sure, multi-day events are here to stay on the UK calendar. We look forward to seeing what the TransWales team come up with next – it deserves to succeed. Whether it’ll ever be quite the same as the first one remains to be seen, but we feel privileged to have been part of it. We’ve ridden new trails, made new friends, plumbed new depths and found new highs. TransWales was everything that’s good about mountain biking crammed into a single week. And it may have taken until a little while afterwards to develop a full appreciation of it, but sat here in the warm and dry, with all the laundry finally done, we can safely say that we loved it…