Down the drive, turn right up the narrow lane, grass growing up the middle, pass under the shadow of Pen Y Fan, follow the lane down a narrow tree covered descent, hard to read in the early morning mottled sunlight. Left at the junction, behold the Brecon Beacons National Park in all its technicolour beauty. Not bad for a local ride, just on your doorstep. It’s not the South Circular.
4 early morning escapees follow a canal, through small Welsh villages (their super fast broadband provided by the EU – Wales voted overwhelmingly in favour of leaving the EU). Who cares about the EU Referendum anymore? A week on, everyone’s moved on. We don’t. We’re racing to No. 94* from the 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs: A Road Cyclist’s Guide to Britain’s Hills. A sort of cycling Bible.
* LLangynidr, Powys, 397m, 7%, 5.6 km.
How’s this one going to work out? It’s only rated a 7/10. So not monstrous. Even at the foot of a climb you don’t really know. Some you write off despondently within the first few metres at the base, then ascend smoothly, fluidly, as if by magic (this is rare).
Other times ( more likely), pumped full of expectation, water bottles emptied to reduce weight. Nothing. Your legs won’t come out to play, they seize up and let you down badly. The climb becomes a Hell. All you can do is dig in and drive through the sense of missed opportunity all the way to summit, cross the line that marks the end of the pain and start of the next chapter of the ride. Tell a non-cyclist that climbing can provide peacefulness and relaxation they won’t understand the pleasure in the pain.
Expectation for the climb is greater when it’s in the Top 100. Even greater when Stevie tells us it’s a 25 minute climb if you want to be able to talk about it afterwards. His grin widens further when he tells us he’s tapering for the Etape du Tour but that shouldn’t stop us from climbing like our rear tyres are on fire. He’ll see us at the top.
Climbing, mostly alone for 24 minutes, surrounded by spectacular views, in that moment it’s possible to escape. A weekend of enjoyable remoteness from London. I Guess this is what the rest of the country feels all of the time. Yes alone. I started out with Dom, holding his wheel, letting him do the work – he won’t admit it: he’s a heinous wheel sucker, (and I won’t admit – to him at least – that he’s the better cyclist). Sucking until he’s confident of springing ahead and cruising to a clear victory. Not that we’re racing.
This time I go slow enough that he’s forced to take the initiative and put his nose in front. Cat & mouse. I knew he was gunning for those 24 minutes. Then my first mistake, I glanced down at the climb profile – the dot that was me was at the bottom and the top was at the top a long way away. I flinched. Dom pounced. The elastic broke.
As the fields and hedgerows spread out below into a picture of rural perfection I thought about a life in somewhere like this. There’s something about riding your bike that makes you consider your life situation. Life on a clear bright summer morning, on a bike: idyllic. Then the dark clouds role in: what about work prospects, my kids’ schooling and their future opportunities? As they run through the woods, jump over streams, climb trees they’d say none of that was important but they’re only 7 and 4 respectively.
It’s my risk adverseness, pragmatism, shaped by my own (office based) life experiences directing their destinies, making decisions on their behalf. They might dream of being organic Welsh hill eco-farmers. Why not? I hope I’m not limiting their futures already. It’s dangerous to project a future for their futures based on my past experiences. They’re not going to be relevant even in 5 year’s time.
Higher up the scenery is becoming ever more spectacular. The morning light providing crystal clear views, soaring (all be it slowly) above Tolkien country. The Shire below us. An inspiring panorama for Middle Earth and an inspiring back cloth for my objective of catching Dom. He’s a hairpin bend away, passing above me in the opposite direction, I’m sure he’s smirked down at me. Legs spinning quicker, feet light on the pedals but quicker, angry pedal stomping wasn’t going to do it. I closed the gap, I was surprised as Dom was.
Then the second mistake. I settled for just holding his wheel. I should’ve span past, gone on. Instead I relaxed, easily satisfied, controlled my racing breathing, fiddled with my sun glasses. He was gone again. Gone for good**. Remember: we’re not racing.
2 middle aged men racing up a mountain. Stupid hey? Maybe but when we reached the top, the race won (by Dom) there’s fist pumps, mutual pats on the back and hugged selfies. Like boxers embracing after there’d finished battering each other. Good stupid.
** I whipped him on the descent. Tipping above 70kmh.