So… the Bearbones 200 – 200km and several thousand metres of climbing through mid-Wales in October. With no direction arrows, marshals or feed stations.
The Bearbones 200 is probably below the radar of most riders and yet it was sold out within a few days of opening. Personally I knew I wanted to do it as soon as I first heard of it, but I lacked both the mandatory gear and enough weather-proof kit to be safe out on the hills. This year I have been slowly acquiring enough stuff to go bikepacking, without actually getting round to having a go.
Preparation for the Bearbones
I train in a very general way and not for specific to events, but over the summer I certainly made sure to put a little extra distance in on my Salsa El Mariachi SS to get a better idea of long ride comfort. The week leading up to the Bearbones 200 turned out pretty warm and dry, and fortunately I was almost over my most recent cold. I picked up a budget B&B room right by the start in Llanbrynmair (North East of Aberystwyth) and even the drive up on a Friday evening did not go too badly.
I was not conscious of being nervous or excited but could I sleep? Not a bit… the night before a 24 hour ride and I was just lying there wide awake having packed absolutely nothing that might help. So that made a clean sweep of events this year where I have had good fitness and bad condition (normally from camping for 2 nights before Sunday rides).
100km to Knighton
The earliest starters were away at 8am as I rolled into the carpark; I had to load the bike, then had a brief chat with Mat Swan before beginning the Bearbones on my own at 8.42am. It began with an easy road-dominated section and I kept a high average speed for the first 2 hours. I knew my heart rate was high but there was nothing to be done about it; other than that I felt fine and the bike was riding fine despite the extra luggage. The day was dry, with mud on the sheltered trails and as it turned out we wouldn’t see the sun all day.
The route progressed onto more off-road sections, across farmland and through a seemingly endless number of gates each with their own unfathomable mechanism. In general the gradient was either all or nothing and I was riding and pushing at the same time as the geared riders.
I was buoyed by the thought that I would reach Knighton (the first resupply point en route) in time for coffee, rather than fish and chips. Mat rolled up at about 90km; although I had thought him ahead of me he had actually left 3 minutes later and so we had practically held the same pace independently for all of the distance so far. Average pace 14km/h.
Coffee, cake and a sausage roll. Just what you might pick on a Sunday morning ride but not nearly enough calories or liquid when you are 7 hours into a 20 hour ride. However many long distance blogs you read, actually making good choices yourself when the moment comes is not easy. I still had a bag full of food I had pointlessly carried so far, but went into the Spar for a Boost bar and (by accident) some sparkling mineral water. Nevermind… don’t dwell on the failures… if you are ever too tired to suck the water from your Camelbak then you might appreciate it spritzing into your mouth.
I suggested to Mat that we try riding together and we left Knighton as a trio. The tracks got steeper and grassier and it was much harder to keep up with the geared riders, overall we were having a tough stint as the sun set and the lights came on.
Progress slowed to a 12km/h average and there was a lot of relief when we reached the Bwlch Y Sarnau community cafe at 8pm. Ordinarily there would be no certain resupply points in the 2nd 100km of the ride but a volunteer had stepped forward to run the cafe all night for the Bearbones riders, an outstanding service. I had soup and a roll, and some apple juice and carelessly topped up my water (not to 100%).
I was stuck in a mental state where I thought we had 50km left to go which is just a normal ride. I knew that the final section might be unrideable, but I could deal with walking the bike for 2 hours after a 3 hour ride. It turned out to be 3 hours of pushing after a 5 hour ride, big difference. I should have sat down and fuelled up on anything, instead I walked out saying that I preferred to be spinning along than being still and the others would catch up with me soon enough.
The bitter end
I was plodding along, there were a lot of cows and a lot of gates but actually I was doing okay. My condition was better than I might have expected, no soreness or general fatigue. My heart rate seemed to be developing an issue, it was more than 20bpm lower than I would have expected at any given exertion. Dehydration causes elevated HR so it wasn’t that, some kind of nervous system fatigue is all I can think of.
After Llanidloes, where there were open shops which I didn’t stop at, I managed to ride off course (without warning from the Garmin) up a gentle road climb for 15 minutes before I got to a junction and realised that neither direction was the right one. So I rolled back down and by luck reunited our little group.
I was starting to get pretty cold and so put on my Gore jacket – not technically insulation but it was enough to keep the windchill off and so perfect really. The watershed where I ceased to be an effective singlespeeder came at around 11pm – Mat would just spin on up the climbs and I got more into trudging than marching, and less able to power up shorter slopes.
We left our third man to sleep in Hafren forest and pressed on, not willing to talk about stopping.
We got to the Star Inn and the pre-warned sting in the tail of the Bearbones at 1.15am just as I sipped the last of my water and ate my rock hard Boost bar. Of course I could/should have filled up and purified some stream water, then I could have continued eating, but I was locked into a mental state of being near the end so it just did not seem necessary. Almost immediately the gps track veered off onto something that was decidedly not an actual track, just a field of gorse and bracken.
We met with 2 other riders – Emily Chappell and Phil? and pressed onwards together for a mixture of trying to find a path in the dark and just bashing our way through. I don’t know what to say about this section, it is a sort of trademark feature of the event to have an unnavigable and unrideable bit so it was expected. I suppose what hurt was that we weren’t forcing our way to a difficult summit; or getting to the start of a quality track; or even bridging a section to continue riding on the other side – we were done except for this optional final punishment.
The Bearbones aftermath
Everything was covered in cow and sheep excrement and I had one (recently) wet foot as we finished the ride. I guzzled down a little water, managed to choke down a rice cake that I had carried the whole way, and changed my clothes for whatever I could find in the car, trying to be quiet in case any earlier finishers were asleep nearby. I laid out a sleep mat from the car and crawled into my sleeping kit off of the bike to attempt my first ever bivvy. It was hot and sweaty, uncomfortable, and somebody kept on screaming for some reason.
I was certainly still wired (not even from caffeine, I only had one extra coffee at 4pm), not at all tired despite being up for 2 nights in a row. At 7.30am I got up and joined the other night-time finishers for coffee and bacon in the community centre, then made a pretty quick getaway because I wanted to get the 4 hour drive home done before the sleep monster caught up with me.
Notes on kit
Really good kit doesn’t get mentioned much because it just works. The Alpkit Joey bar harness with 13L drybag was rock solid. The 5L drybag under my seat was less solid (as I had no more good straps) but worked just fine. The bike just kept on going as you would hope a rigid singlepeed would.
I had issues caused by going light on the luggage which meant that bags held mixed contents e.g. my Camelbak had water and other random bits stuffed around it – in hindsight this reduced its effectiveness; my fuel tank had food in bags and money and a battery in – it was just a mess and hard to find things. I would definitely prefer to run a feed bag instead and just layer the food inside it with with no wraps.