This was the first of the “proper” Paris-Brest-Paris qualifiers for me. Although the 200k and 300k distances are hard enough, they are done without any night riding, whereas the step up to 400k means some serious hours in the saddle and a first proper test of your riding set-up. I planned on driving over to Chepstow from Oxford in the early hours of the morning for the 6am start. I knew I’d be nervous, especially as the forecast was for strong winds and rain, and I might as well get a fitful night’s sleep in my own bed rather than a Travelodge.
There was a passing shower as we were preparing our bikes at the HQ, a taster for what was to come. I saw some familiar faces sipping tea: Nik Gardiner (likely to be the first back) and Toby Hopper, as well as some riders more local to me. It didn’t seem to be long before we were lining up and after a quick briefing from Mark Rigby, we were off.
The keen riders were soon off the front and into the distance. I am never the fastest starter these days so I was happy to hang back with Alan Parkinson and Andy Watt as we trundled down the A466 towards Monmouth. The rain got heavier and it seemed to be getting much colder. I stopped to put on a rain jacket, but it didn’t feel like enough and my hands, although wearing full gloves, were cold and stiff. I caught up with Rob Gray along here, he stopped in Hay to buy a pair of gloves and a hat!
At the first control – a bus shelter – we were all struggling with the wet and cold. Fortunately it never got much worse and we dried out on the run through Builth Wells (where I stopped at a garage to top up my bottles and buy more batteries for my GPS) to the West End Cafe in Llandovery (recommended – good food served quickly, although I only stopped for a brevet stamp on the way out). There were some big long climbs and descents on the next section to Tregaron and some pretty amazing views, but I was determined to get the first half of the ride out of the way before a long stop here. In the end, it turned out I leapfrogged a few of the faster group here and at Llandovery.
The next section to the coast at New Quay featured some short, sharp hills, and the wind was definitely getting up although it was still dry. I was finding the weather draining although I was just about warm enough. I stopped for a hot pasty in the Mariners Restaurant, realising it was going to be a bit of a slog back to the finish. I was the third rider through here, although “Vistead” from the YACF forum passed through while I was eating. I checked the weather on my phone and it looked like a rain front was heading our way at midnight – time to get moving!
Sure enough, the long climb away from the coast was into a fierce head/crosswind. Vistead was always just about in sight over the tops, and we leapfrogged each other all the way along this rather lumpy section, back to the West End Cafe. I stopped for more hot food here – I was getting tired – and then as dusk was falling, headed back out on to the A40 for the next, easier section to the school hall in Llangattock.
It seemed like the wind was dropping a bit, or maybe we were getting shelter from the hills around. There were a few other cyclists about, even at this time of the evening, but not too many cars. Eventually I negotiated the last few twists and turns and I was at the hall where Mark, Louise and Ritchie Tout were ready to feed me jam roly poly and custard and tea before I headed back out into the dark (and now light rain) with Vistead, a jam bun in my back pocket. I hoped we’d ride together but as was exiting Crickhowell my Garmin froze up (I’d done 355km by this point – the Edge 800 will only go so far before you have to save the ride and continue, and I’d pushed it as far as it would go). I spent a good ten minutes faffing about in the town trying new batteries in the external battery pack, but to no avail. Fortunately the rest of the route back Chepstow is relatively straightforward (and familiar from having ridden the Welsh 12-hour TT) and I had a routesheet with me to follow, as back up.
On the long climb out of Usk I caught Rob Gray again, riding with someone else; they must have leapfrogged past me when I was faffing with my Garmin. I was going well up this climb and soon distanced them, I think my frustration with the Garmin was coming out! Finally, over the top we had the lovely long descent back to Chepstow and a welcome cuppa at the arrivee at 11:40pm, my 400 qualifier done.