Guest Blog. The Big Bear 530 of Wales!
A few years ago, I had an idea for a ride, albeit a stupid one - riding the infamous Bear Bone 200km routes, back to back, in the order they came in. http://bearbonesbikepacking.co.uk/BB200/ Now even at the time, I thought it would be a bit too ambitious, but what the hell.
I discussed the routes with my mate Stu but then he came out with an even better idea, rather than going back to BB towers every time how about linking them up? And there, the Big Bear was born. I asked Stu for a copy of it so I could see what he had come up with and, ever since, it’s sat in the back of my mind waiting to be done. I watched and heard of others having a go at it but let it pass, as every time I looked at the route I got intimidated by it.
Fast forward to December last year and I found myself sat in a pub in Sheffield with Mark Evans. We sank some beers and he then picked his time to ask me if I fancied joining him on the route at Easter. Obviously after a few more beers the simple answer has to be " Hell yeah, I’m in!” Plans where made over dinner and a date set. Then the time came, last week, to finally put foot to pedal and here is an account of what those months of planning (top job Mark) and the 5 days of riding entailed.
Meet up and prep day.
Meeting on Friday night at the carpark in Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant giving us a possible food stop in Knighton before we started. Straight to the pub for some last-minute plans and a beer before hitting the sack in our vans and listening to the pouring rain. Saturday morning came around and the rain eased. We were up at 6am, little did I know that this would be the same every day for the next few days. We were on the bikes and the first pedal strokes were made at 0750.
Day 1. 86miles. 11000ft climb
The first section to Llanfair Caereinion was pretty fast going. Mark had this little spread sheet he had made with times and distances for food stops and possible over-night stops. This worked really well and we managed to keep up a 10km/hr pace. We grabbed some food from the local garage, cleaned the gears (we ended up doing this a lot on the whole trip) and made our way to Caersws.
Again, this section was reasonably quick and with one wind farm climb behind us, we got to the village as the temperture started to drop. There’s a pub there with great facilities so we eat more food here.
After Caersws there is another big climb to the second wind farm. Kerry ridge then follows and this was draggy on wet grass. Still making progress to Knighton it seemed to go on for ages and then we hit some trails on the Offa's Dyke which slowed us up and one huge climb out the valley followed.
Knighton finally came into view and we both smashed 12" pizzas picked up food stocks and headed for our first camp. We had Water breaks its neck as our chosen place for the night. However, it didn’t give itself up easily and there is a massive push up onto the tops. This was our longest and most altitude gained day.
The wind had picked up and was cold. I remembered this section from our winter bivvy ride we did in the snow and was praying it had melted or it would have been hell walking that far. All clear, I think we stopped at 2am both very tired. Found a spot in the woods and that was it.
Day 2 67miles 8500ft climbing
The morning came around way too fast for me (and we lost that hour). It was still dark and cold but up for coffee, faff we were ready for another instalment.
Our big goal for today was LLandovery. thinking we would be there hopefully about 5 or 6pm. No chance. This section of the ride was very taxing for us both. The trails were very wet and churned up with lots of gates to go through. One section on the original GPX isn’t even on the ground so we had to find a way across a river via a track around (this is now on the GPX route).
We both were carrying a lot of food to keep us going but we were slowly running out and were trying to make it to Llangammarch Wells for a re-supply. In between us was the range of hills at Llanbedr. I’ve never ridden here before and I can say it was one of the highlights of my trip. This area is so stunning with great views of the Black mountains and Brecon beacons. I should state at this point the sun was really warm and clear blue skies, we were both on a high!!
Dropping off the back we found a small cafe at the old train station in Erwood. We sat in the sun eating cake and drinking coffee whilst our sleeping bags and socks aired out. The trails after here are also cracking, but it seemed hard going for some reason we both agreed. We finally got to Llangammarch wells and the hotel was open. As we needed more energy to get us to Llandovery we decided to order the worlds most expensive sandwiches and shandy. They even cut the crusts off the bread it was that posh!! Anyhow £23 later we were off...fast.
It was a hard day and our speed dropped, but we got to town around 3 hrs after we thought we would be arriving at 9pm. We hit the Co-op and found the West End cafe still open so we ordered fish n chips both glad that they let us sit inside as they were closing up soon. It was so bloody cold outside. I think we were out of town by 9.45pm and we knew we had a big climb in front. Off into the dark we went.
You climb on lanes out of town then are faced with a huge push up on to the Mynydd Mallaen, and it is a beast. We were gutted that it was dark the views would be amazing from the top. The next section is a true Bearbones contender. There’s nothing really on the ground so following the GPX line is pretty essential in the dark. We must have been walking for around 2 hrs by now on high ground. We were both so tired and decided that we definitely wouldn’t make our planned night stop at Soar y Mynydd unless we rode straight through till 6 and that isn’t practical on such a long hard route unless you can function on no sleep. I’m sure it was about 02.30am when we stopped in the middle of nowhere on tussocks. The shelters were up and I crashed out to wake again at just before 6am.
Day 3. 71 miles. 8900ft climbing
We got up and by the time we packed up it was getting light and the sun coming up, this put us in good spirits again but was short lived! The clouds came in and we had a freezing fog and visibility was shocking. Again we found ourselves pushing over tussocks and relying on the line on the GPX for guidance for another 2 hrs.
The morning was really slow going and I think we were both glad to finally find a trail on the ground we could ride. The descent however was so good, but it had eaten up 3 hrs and we must have only covered 10 miles, max. We stopped at Ty n y cornel hostel for a brew and to dry/air our sleeping bags and wet stuff so that we didn’t have to get them out wet at midnight. Our plan was to stay in under a roof for the night as heavy rain was forecast, so we decided on a push to the birdhide. This decision turned out to be a great idea as it lashed it down through the night. However, getting there was a mission!!
We made a quick stop at the black lion in pont but it wasn’t open till 6, it was only 4pm so into the shop for our dinner. The push up Teifi pools track was pretty easing going as we chatted and was over fairly quick. It started to rain and by now both of us were having a few knee problems. Every time we climbed we got shooting pains but it was bearable. I look back now and put it down to all the huge pushes/climbs involved in the route. It was by now dark and wet again. The next section was horrendous in the dark from LLanafan to Nantyarian. There is a hell of a push up a muddy/grassy track that goes on for ages with a descent from hell. The section of track from Pisgah to the train station is so steep and covered in downed dead trees, its an old track and was about 5" deep in mud all the way. It’s definitely not used much I tell you other than crazy bikepackers.
By now we were both feeling the day in our bodies, we both had sore throats and I had a proper deep voice coming on like Barry White from exhaustion. I think my body was trying to tell me something but I just ignored it hoping it would go away. We finally made it to the hide and got out our beds. By this time we had both lost our dignity and stripped off with not a care in the world. It was about 01.30am and we found ourselves looking forward to our dinner which we had bought at 4pm in the afternoon. Who would of thought a bombay badboy pot noodle would of tasted so nice!! I fell in love with the pot noodle right there it was amazing. We chatted for a while and finally went to sleep about an hour later. It hammered it down through the night but we were toasty.
Day 4. 57 miles. 6500ft climbing
Mist and fog were the order of the morning at 6. Today we were making way for Penmachno or further. As you will find out it wasn’t to be and it was a sad day for one of us.
We were both suffering from knee issues today and this slowed us down a lot. It was also wet. Now we banked on a 3 hr ride up to Mach from the trail centre but it took us 5hrs. We pushed up that crappy bridle path on the BB200 with the crevasse in it. Which we have discovered after rain is like a river flowing very fast.
There’s a massive landslide above the chute to cross after all the rains and snow of late it was very messy up there. The chute was a slippy descent under foot and unriddable due to the rock being washed out more than usual. Into Mach finally we went straight into the veggie place for some proper food at last, our proper first good meal. Feeling great we left only to push up that horrid tarmac section in to the Dovey forest. The section around the back of Cadair Idris wasn’t to bad going however it was getting late now and the light was fading. Now we stopped in Dol for dinner at the steak house, its very good food and a beer. Now at this point we knew we were going to make Penmachno as it was 10 and our knees were sore and we were feeling battered.
Mark had bought up the subject of having to bail earlier in the day if it was looking likely we wouldn’t make our targets, this was very disheartening to hear after all our efforts to crack this and hard work getting this far but he was flying to Ibiza on Thursday morning with the family so had to get back. When we arrived in Dol I knew that was the end of the line for him, so we decided to stay at Penrhos Isaf bothy for the night. I could of pushed on but wanted to stay there and get more rest and it was a good evening, just wish we had some whiskey to drink.
Day 5. 75 miles. 9950ft climbing
And so the morning came around and we chatted in bed over a coffee and left the bothy slightly later than planned. Mark had to ride the roads back to his van so we parted at the bottom of the road. Him going left and me going right on up through Coed y Brenin forest.
Now i didn’t say anything to Mark on the evening but I was seriously thinking of bailing with him on the morning as my knee had been so painful on the 4th day I was having to walk most of the climbs as it didn’t hurt walking but riding was horrible. I’d had a good talking to myself in my head when I woke and I knew it was only another 60 miles or so to the van and I could possibly do it in a oner, if I dug deep. It started to rain on the way up through the forest and by the time I reached the mountain road it was full on snowing!
I stopped shortly at the shop in Traws for some breakfast and to get warm, I was frozen and wet. I pumped the tablets down me for my knee and it seemed to work as it didn’t hurt as much so I just got on with it. I was soon climbing up the valley to the top of the quarries at Manod. I love this part of the trail the descent on the incline is ace if a little slippery and very steep. The path into Cwm Penmachno has got trashed from the water, it used to be all rideable but now you’ll be walking some of it.
Penmachno valley is super fast. Don’t rely on the pub though it’s hardly ever open and there’s also a great shelter in the village square if needed. Two big climbs follow but are very nice. The scenery here is amazing, I had the sun come out for the rest of the day and you can see right across the Snowdonia Range. Stupidly I found an old remote farm house that I just had to yomp across a bog to get to. It’s stunning and such a waste of a great building.
I dragged my bike back to the trail and continued at a good pace. I was working from Marks spreadsheet and my next fed station was the village of Cerrigydrudion. Do not rely on this the pub. It is shut down and the cafe has weird open times. There is a small shop but that’s it. The Hiraethog trail after here starts off fast on a great surface but then continues into a 4 x 4 mess. In fact there’s a lot of 4x4 mess everywhere on this route.
I then put as much effort into keeping up my speed as I could to get to Llandrillo for dinner as I thought it would be dark by then and I’d eat there and then possibly camp up on the wayfarer for the night. I got there at 6ish and was making great time so decided on a quick coffee so that I could get over the wayfarer in the light. This payed off for me and my descent off was also in the light.
By the time I’d got to the other side I knew I was on for the same day finish and was starting to feel really chuffed with myself. Stopping at the pub in Llanarmon i decided that I was going to have a nice dinner and a pudding and a well-earned beer with some really nice locals! I stayed for nearly 1 hour, half chatting and half relaxing. I said my goodbyes and headed out into the cold. It was a clear night and the stars where out. I climbed up on to the tops and had a look at the GPX knowing I was within 5 miles or so left of the end. One more climb into the dark and then lanes all the way into Llan Moch where my van awaited my return.
I got in at 11.55pm totally battered but the happiest guy in Llanrhaeadr that evening!
Now when I look back from the warmth of my house it fills me with such joy and a sense of achievement that I continued and got it done.
The above stats are only for a guide off my Strava. It took me 4 days and 16hrs to complete it. It’s by far the hardest thing I’ve done, to date, on my bike. We had some really rubbish weather and some nice weather but the trails were in a poor state in a lot of places. If you have a go at this route in the future, and I strongly recommend you do, then be prepared to commit to it as it’s very hard going in a lot of places. You will be pushing a lot and probably questioning what the hell are you doing, I know we did.
I say we because although only one of us finished the route in its entirety, Mark played a massive part in me finishing this. I probably would have bailed at some point if it hadn’t been for his company. There were moments where it totally destroys the soul and mind, especially at night time. Thanks again Mark it was an experience I won’t forget in a hurry.
I’d also like to say a big thank you Stuart for taking an idea and making it into something which I think is special. I feel like I’ve seen the best of Wales from the views to the South over the Brecon Beacons to the Summits of the Snowdon range - all in one bike ride.
I never set out to be the first to finish it and I definitely won’t be the fastest around it, I’ll leave that for the racers amongst us. But I will remember it!