Could you cross a country in a day? Not every cyclist can say they've done that. How about twice the length of Wales in a weekend? You may think it sounds like an improbable feat, reserved for the Bradleys Wiggins of this world, yet it's not nearly as hard as you might imagine.
Early one Saturday morning, 146 of us gathered in a car park near the Severn Bridge. We'd come from all around the country to ride the Bryan Chapman Memorial audax. Covering 619km to Anglesey and back, this annual event is one of the jewels in Audax UK's long-distance crown.
I was a late starter, so dumped my drop-bag and set off in hot pursuit. Making my way past the field, I got a glimpse of the variety of riders on this event. It could have been almost any club run in the land. Riders ranged from 17 to 70 years old, and a few of the bikes looked like they weren't much younger than their owners. I was on my ageing winter bike but it didn't matter. Audaxes are tests of endurance rather than races, so all I had to do was to pass through all the checkpoints and finish within 40 hours. With top speed not a priority, we didn't need the latest carbon bling; anything reliable would do. For many of us, getting round was our only aim. Others were training for other events and took a more sporting approach – the national 24 hour champion John Warnock was somewhere up ahead.
I've hardly been to Wales before so it was a delight to see so much of the country's best scenery, shown off by the organiser's route choice. Sunny weather helped here, despite the constant headwind that kept us lined out along the road. There was still a lot of movement in the field and as the day wore on, I learned many interesting stories from first-attempters, and old-timers alike. As the terrain rose up and the hills steepened, I caught someone from Cambridge who was riding a fixed gear. All cycling life was here!
Our luck couldn't hold: it was raining by the time I arrived at the Dolgellau control. This youth hostel would provide a sleep stop later on the trip south, but for now the volunteers seved riders with a three-course meal, all included in the bargain £12 entry fee, as I changed into my night kit. Back on the road, I took the coast road to Harlech and crossed a scenic viaduct before screaming down Pen-y-Pass and crossing Menai Bridge, having ridden the length of Wales before sunset.
Heading south after another stop, I did some maths. The night would slow me down for sure, but how far could I travel in 24 hours? Could I survive without sleep? I decided that would be reckless, so when I got back to the youth hostel, with 400km under my belt, I asked for a bed for just 30 minutes. I must have fallen into a deep sleep quickly, as I was woken up after what seemed like three seconds. All too soon I was out in the cold dawn, crossing misty mountains through the heart of dragon country, riding alone while most people slept.
24 hours came and went, as did another almost-empty control, where volunteers had only just started to make bacon butties. The terrain flattened out, but I slowed too as fatigue started to catch up with me. A couple more riders caught up with me, so we rode together, criss-crossing the border with England all the way to the finish.
Sitting around at the end, the first finishers were noticeably similar: fast lads who wouldn't have looked out of place on the race track or in a high profile sportive. Before long though, others started piling in: the tourers, the slightly wobbly and the truly knackered. This was their day as much as anyone else's. They'd completed in time, just like us. In fact, only six starters failed to make it round, which after nearly four hundred hilly miles is impressive.
The Bryan Chapman was a magnificently memorable ride, taking me through more scenic and emotional highs in 40 hours than I usually fit into a fortnight. It's a serious undertaking, but eminently achievable and fantastically rewarding