The Bear Bones 200 is a self supported, long distance, bikepacking event in the Cambrian mountains of Wales. With the promise of remote tracks, steep valleys and some of the biggest views in all of the UK. Not that I would be riding it as I applied too late, having been away riding the North Coast 500 when entries opened…
…that was until the week before when I received an email from Stuart, the organiser and founder of Bear Bones Bikepacking, offering me a place.
Depending on how you’re feeling, today could be your lucky day … or maybe not ;o)
The route is around 200km with the majority of it being ‘off road’, however the final GPX file is not sent out until just 48hrs before the start.
The challenge is to complete the route with no outside assistance, support or back-up. Instead you must rely on your own skills, fitness and determination to get you to the end.
There are a number of items that all riders must carry… sleeping bag, shelter, lights and phone. While there’s no time limit or cut-off for finishing, the anticipation is the last finishers will be back within 36 hours! Not your normal sportive then!!!
The short notice and lack of preparation just added to the general feeling of being well out my depth. I spent the days leading up to the race getting hold of some proper winter kit, reading the Bear Bones forum for advice and trying to work out just how slow you would have to ride to take 36hrs to cover just 200km…!
A short morning drive had us surrounded by bike(packing) porn at a community hall, that was acting as the start/finish for the event. Riders can start at any time between 08:00-10:00 with black badges for sub 24hrs finishers, blue for sub 28hrs and green for anyone else finishing later.
I was targeting a sub 24hr ride, but first things first I was aiming for Knighton and the halfway point.
Most people on the forum agreed that the second 100km would be at least twice as hard as the first, with the very last 15km being mental!
The roads and trails around this part of the country turned out to be awesome and despite having some concerns about riding in the dark, getting clean water and using my new Garmin 520 for the very first time, I was thoroughly enjoying the ride. Despite it being cold compared to the south coast by the time we got the top of the first hill we joined a bunch of other riders delayering from all their winter gear. It was at this point I lost Arunas and Dainius and opted to just push on at my own steady pace. Even got to say hi to a bit of a legend in the form of Ian Barrington as he passed me after fixing an early mechanical.
The route was up and down all day, to say the least… cramming 2,500m elevation into every 50km. I quickly realised (not for the first time) my 32t x 11/34 gearing was still way to hard, especially loaded, as I had to get off and push even on a couple of the steep road sections!
Running out of water and with a few twinges of cramp in the legs I bumped into another rider called Richard in the woods above Knighton and we rolled into town together at around 16:00. Here we were faced with a lot of confused looking towns folk as the pile of dirt and shit covered bikes stacked up outside the Spar shop grew. I had the pleasure of a quick chat with Emily Chappell while washing down some home-made vegan rice wraps with a good few liters of fruit juice and water before getting quickly back on the road.
This was me really starting the ride proper. I had had a few doubts up until this point, but feeling I was homeward bound re-energized me and I really started being fully present and accepting of the ride.
I had been told by a couple of other riders about a rumour there was a church hall open at around 138km serving hot food and drink all night.
The hills this side of half way seemed longer and taller with them starting at river crossings, winding up on road before turning off on to gravel, climbing over a gates and heading still upwards on dirt.
The terrain on this section of the course was boggy, exposed and rugged as you like. Riding on grass is hard work at the best of time, but the change of scenery definitely added something to the experience.
Just before being plunged into darkness for the remainder of the ride we were treated to a properly amazing glowing red sunset. The picture below doesn’t do it any justice, but trust me it was awesome!
As the night drew in the downhills became more of an issue. I rolled up on another rider who had just been bumped off over his bars as we tackled a steep downhill with no real path and a lot of hidden dips under a canopy of ferns.
The good thing about the dark is you can’t see how much you still have to climb.
It turned out the rumors were true and at 138km a shaft of light from a community hall lit up a bunch of filthy bikes and even dirtier riders. On entering it took my eyes minutes to adjust, but moments later I was tucking into some hot home-made vegan soup. What a result!
Forcing myself back out into the dark was hard, but once out it was strangely peaceful. I turned off the road and rolled through a farm track cover in an inch or two of shit. Just as I came to the end of it my back wheel got lose and I realised it was flat. With nothing else to do other than change it I got set up, mounting my spare light on a gate, to see what I was doing, and got stuck in. Not wanting to have to do it all over again just down the road I took my time, checking the tyre carefully and removing the two large thorns that were stuck in it. A few riders passed me a checked I was ok, but it was too dark to tell who they were. Thanks all the same though, it was good to know I wasn’t completely on my one.
By the time I was back rolling it was late and I had around 50km still to go. I figured push on till 100 miles (160km) and see how I felt. Night riding is super cool and if you haven’t ever experienced it I highly recommend it. This was my first time doing it off-road and it just added to the experience.
160km came and went then 150km. At this point I did the maths and worked out I was still in with a good chance of going sub 24hrs, baring any major mechanicals and decided then to push on through the night to see what I coud do.
I think it was at around 20km or so to go I started riding with a lady from Bristol (sorry can’t remember your name, but to be fair I probably would have had a hard job remembering my own at this point), who was one of a few women on the ride and these girls were not messing about! We kept leap frogging each other before coming to a river crossing. She was ahead of me and already on the other side.
I didn’t like the idea of riding it as it looked proper slippy and the last thing I wanted right now was wet feet…
luckily she shouted at me to turn back as there was a bridge directly down a trail behind me which followed round to the other side of the river crossing. When I caught her up and thanked her for the advice. She said a local rider had told her over breakfast that when you see the river crossing use the bridge behind you. She hadn’t know where it was, but when faced with it remembered and took the advice.
Riding together for a bit, trying to make sence of the route and follow it the best we could was still not easy. On one downhill I had my levers pulled against my bars with no effect on my speed what so ever and had to tactfully ditch it with the help of a bush before adjusting my cables.
Turns out there’s a reason no one else runs V brakes nowadays!
At points I was exactly on course acording to my garmin, but yet thigh deep in heather or faced with an impenetrable wood. There was lots of locked gates, boggy ground, barbed wire and a general sence of frustration due to having to walk so much of the last 15km. Not my idea of a bike ride, but then it’s not my ride.
The last section down to the sleeping town below had riders headlights all over the hillside as people struggled to find the path.
As trail gave way to farm track before turning into a road I was just relived to be done with it. I checked the time as I signed in and was stoked to have finished in 21hrs something! Black badging it on my first attempt!
I looked around for Alex and our camper, but after almost banging on the side of a very similar one realised she was nowhere to be seen. With nothing else for it I crawled into my bivvy and got an hour or so of sleep before we could get into the community centre for some breakfast at 07:30.
Alex showed up at around 08:00 after a relaxing morning at an idyllic wild camping spot overlooking a lake, some confusion with time she had expected me back…
Dainius had called it a day in Knighton after being forced to drink some very sketchy water, but still had to ride back albeit on road. Where as Arunas finished on his fat bike just outside his 24hr target and was in some serious need of a rest!
All in, it was a remarkable ride, put on by a group of riders who clearly love this type of thing! If you want a challenge I strongly recommend you give it a go, just make sure you’re comfortable hiking in your shoes. Would I do it again? I’m not sure, I kind of prefer riding my bike more than pushing it, but with a shit load more gears who knows…
Unfortunately we were hit from behind by a car while waiting at temporary traffic lights on the way home resulting in the death of my Surly Troll! RIP, you done me well!
Luckally everyone involved walked away, but it goes to show life is short. Make the most of it, while you can!