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OPINION

The Whole Bryan: How I finally conquered the 600km Bryan Chapman Memorial audax ride

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Wales is amazing. Audax is great. 600km is easy. Life is beautiful

Whenever you’ve tried and failed to do something like a big ride, and then you try again, there’s always the trepidation that the same will happen again. And, if it doesn’t happen again, then there’s the voyage into the unknown as you move into bits you didn’t manage before. There’s an anxiousness associated with that too. What happens now?

But, hopefully, at some point that evaporates, and you’re left with: THIS time I’m going to get it done. That point for me last weekend on the Bryan Chapman was Knighton, 490km into the ride and well into the second day of riding. When we left the Offa’s Dyke Centre with an egg and cress sandwich on board, 120km left to tick off and nine hours to do it, with the legs and head still in a good place, I knew I was getting round, with time to spare. Even if I had to walk up the Gospel Pass.

Video features paid promotion on behalf of Lauf Cycles

For the uninitiated, the Bryan Chapman Memorial is a 600km audax from Chepstow to Menai Bridge and back, named after a Bristol cyclist who used to ride to his mechanic on the other side of Wales to get his bike worked on before riding home again. And for the very uninitiated, audax events are organised rides over a set distance (measured in kilometres because they originated in mainland Europe), which have both a maximum allowed speed (to stop racing) and a minimum (to stop dawdling and allow all the volunteers to go home). There are usually checkpoints along the way. There is often cake at those checkpoints. You can read our guide to Audax here

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I attempted the BCM in 2018. I made a pig’s ear of it, and it was a formative experience for me, learning a lot of things about myself and riding long distances that have been invaluable since. This year the stars aligned for another crack. And after reviewing the Lauf Úthald for the site I was sure that was the bike I wanted to do it on. Except not in that size. Or build. Or colour. At 189cm I’m exactly between sizes on the Úthald, so the L feels more like a race bike and the XL more like an endurance bike. Back went the red bike and a fresh XL bike showed up in an amazing Borealis iridescent finish and the lower-spec build; Zipp 303s are great, but I like something shallower when I’m tired and weak and the wind’s trying to blow me into a Welsh ravine.

On went the excellent Ortlieb 13L seatpack and the excellent Tailfin frame bag as well as some Deda aero bars with risers and the cheap KrankX Base 145 saddle that for whatever reason fits my bum like a glove. In went spares and snacks and extra clothes and tools, and off I set with Rachael and Justin, my ride buddies for the weekend. After a three course meal and a couple of pints at the pub, and a night in the boot of the car, anyway (it’s a big car).

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Looking back to last time, things went wrong right from the start. I couldn’t find the people I was supposed to be riding with, set off with everyone else, went too hard on the first leg, ended up at the front chasing fitter and faster audaxers all the way to Snowdonia, imploded spectacularly, was sick in a hedge, bailed and slept in a pub in Harlech and crawled back to Newtown to get rescued. How different it was this time.

We rolled up as the briefing was about to begin, waved everyone off, had a cup of tea and a chat and then set off about 15 minutes behind, on our own. With no pressure to keep up with anyone we could set our own pace, and we’re all well matched, so staying together was never going to be an issue.

After a couple of hours we were starting to see other riders again, and at the first stop at Bronllys 72km in there were plenty of bikes still at the cafe. Time to get a stamp on the card and start my fuelling strategy, which was: eat all the things. Starting with a full fry-up.

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I’ve had issues with fuelling on long rides in the past. I feel like when I eat the energy doesn’t get absorbed, and the food just sits in my stomach, and eventually I bonk and throw it all up again. It’s happened a bunch of times. And I think in one sense I’m right: there’s a limit to how much energy anyone can move across their stomach wall, of course, and maybe it’s a particular issue for me and my stomach reacts badly to an energy deficit. But the solution would appear to be fairly trivial: just don’t take out more energy than you can put in. Which translates as: Don’t ride too fast, dammit. Find a sustainable speed. 

I’m not particularly good at remembering to do that, or gauging my effort over long rides, and the advent of more affordable power meters has been really helpful for me. The Úthald in Weekend Warrior Wireless build comes with a SRAM Rival Wireless groupset with a built-in power meter, and I’ve taken to setting my Hammerhead to automatically lap every hour, to give me a heads up on how hard I’m working. I’ve been doing this for a while now, and the rule of thumb seems to be: if I’m averaging about 150W over an hour, I’m not getting myself into trouble.

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Because I was being sick on long rides I’d concluded that it was due to eating too much, or the wrong things, but now I’m convinced that I just wasn’t eating enough, and I was bonking: the sickness was more a side effect. Having power numbers available lets you do the maths: 150W of average effort for 27 hours of riding is 4kWh of energy output, or about 3,400 calories. The rule of thumb is that your body is about 25% efficient at converting food calories into muscle power, so I’m going to need over 13,000 calories to fuel a 600km ride. Some of that will come from energy already in my body, and fat stores, but even so: there’s a lot of eating to be done.

That intensity level is, crucially, a substantially lower point than I imagined. I remember talking to Ian Walker about his North Cape 4000 ride where he learned a similar thing about himself on day one: he was using power pedals, and the power he thought he’d be able to sustain turned out to be going much too hard, leading to a massive crash and a day from hell trying to recover whilst also trying to continue to race. Unlike me, though, he’s some sort of superhuman, so he still won.

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In the same way that the effort you can sustain on a five-minute hill climb seems easy at the start, my sustainable riding speed for a 600km audax feels like a bit of a dawdle to begin with, but that’s fine if I can sustain it for the 27 hours of turning the pedals that I needed to finish the ride in time. And sustain it I did: looking back at the laps I went out a touch above perfect pace but there wasn’t a point at which my speed fell away; towards the end of the ride there were some fairly easy hours power-wise, but by then we’d knocked it off, with all danger of troubling the time limit gone. 

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Of course, I’m only learning things about myself that other, wiser audax riders seem to know intrinsically, and now I’ve got a better understanding of what my sustainable pace feels like it’ll be easier to replicate without looking at numbers. It’s safe to say, though, that mining the stats for the ride reveals a chasm between what I thought I was capable of, and what is actually achievable.

After stopping off in Macynlleth for some chips, checking in at Kings YHA outside Dolgellau, riding the beautiful-but-bumpy boards over the Barmouth estuary and trundling past Snowdon on the Pen-y-Pass, we rolled over the Menai Bridge for soup at about 10.30pm. It had taken me nearly four hours longer than the first time. No wonder I’d fallen apart. 

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I don’t remember much about the night leg in 2018, when I ended up in a B&B in Harlech, but it felt like some of the hardest riding I’d ever done at the time. The climb over Snowdonia was purgatory. In fact, it turns out it’s barely a climb at all in the context of the whole ride – so much so I was convinced we'd gone a different way – and once you’re over that it’s flat and pretty easy for a long, long time.

A new route meant a longer night leg, nearly 100km to Aberdyfi, leaving less to knock off in the morning. Once we’d crested the hill in Harlech, past the pub I crawled to last time, the Hammerhead suggested that was all the categorised climbs done, which – not for the first or last time – showcased its creative interpretation of what does and doesn’t constitute a hill. Justin was lost to the night, attempting to have a nap standing up against a stone gate post. I spent some long stints down on the aero bars trying not to nod off. There’s not a lot to see that late, and there’s nowhere to stop.

In the four and a half hours it took us to reach Aberdyfi, Strava suggests we were turning the pedals for all but seven minutes. The last couple of hours softened me up some, rolling over the headland on the not-Hammerhead-hills and back down to the beach and a sports hall full of cheap blue flock camp beds, snoring riders and scratchy blankets. I forgot I’d packed a nice comfy sleeping bag in my drop bag.

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There’s something magical about sleep, even if it’s only for two hours in a fruity hangar. It’s a reset: time for your body to make some more muscle fuel and for your mind to take a break.

Almost the first person I saw in the morning was Rachael, and she’d found Justin, who’d rolled in half an hour behind us, and kicked him out of bed. By half past seven the three amigos were fed and back on the road, with just over a third of the ride to do and just over a third of the 40 hours remaining. We weren’t flying but we weren’t crawling either, and by the time we’d filled up on coffee and 49p Mr Tom bars at the Spar in Carno, slogged up the big and beautiful climb out the back of Newtown and crushed the twenty downhill kilometres into Knighton, all of a sudden the maths were very much on our side.

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The day was hotting up as we rolled over the Wye into Hay, and the Gospel Pass is no picnic, even when you’re fresh: at 8.3km and 445m of climbing it’s only an average of 5%, but there’s a long and very gentle section near the end and plenty of percentages well into the teens at the bottom. That’s the downside, but the upsides are legion.

For a start, the view from the top on a clear day, looking out over mid-Wales, Worcestershire and Shropshire, is just sensational and worth the climb on its own. Secondly, there’s usually an ice cream van in the car park near the top. And lastly, the descent down the other as far as Capel-y-Finn has been resurfaced: it’s steep, smooth, twisty and, if you’re trying to chase Justin, terrifying.

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Treats cafe had sold out of everything except bread by the time we rocked up, so there was nothing for it but to knuckle down and get it done.

The road to Monmouth was a lumpy sting in the tail, but once we were back on the Wye at Monmouth and on the road to Tintern there’d be no more surprises: a selfie at the abbey, a spin up to Chepstow Racecourse and that was that: 38 hours and 18 minutes after our 6am start time we were back at Bulwark Community Centre, and I just have to find time to knock out a 400km before November to get my Super Randonneur badge for a 200km, 300km 400km and 600km completed in an audax year.

A huge thanks to Lauf for the lend of the bike which was, as I suspected it would be, just the job: fast and comfortable and manageable. Thanks to Wales for putting on a show: in weather like we had there are few places as beautiful. Thanks for Rachael and Justin for the company and the many tows along the way, and thanks to Will at Audax Club Bristol and his army of volunteers for putting on such a fantastic event. I may have ticked it off, but I’ll certainly be back.

Check out my Strava file here

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Dave is a founding father of road.cc, having previously worked on Cycling Plus and What Mountain Bike magazines back in the day. He also writes about e-bikes for our sister publication ebiketips. He's won three mountain bike bog snorkelling World Championships, and races at the back of the third cats.

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17 comments

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DomThomas | 2 weeks ago
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Fantastic effort Dave! Really makes me want to do it.

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Rob Skinner | 3 weeks ago
1 like

Llongyfarchiadau (congrats), Dave! Loved the video which gave a wonderful idea of what the ride was like, which I found really interesting as I'm considering BCM next year. Looks like you had near perfect conditions. PS - can't believe it's 20 years since Karen and I took part in your Umbria tour. Happy memories. 

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dave atkinson replied to Rob Skinner | 2 weeks ago
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was that the one with the crazy cable car? fun times. you should deffo do the BCM, it's a fantastic ride

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a1white | 3 weeks ago
1 like

Congratulations Dave on conquering that epic route. Sterling effort. No way I would ever want to subject my body to that though!

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fwhite181 | 3 weeks ago
4 likes

Fair play! I did the 3*200 and that was enough of an outing for me. I'm toying with turning it into a 6*100 for a camping trip with time to visit all the castles/abbeys/cafes the route trundles past.  

One of your riding friends has a really bright bar-end light, what is it? 

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EK Spinner replied to fwhite181 | 3 weeks ago
2 likes

I don't know what the light is, but for this purpose I use a moon aerolight which is a red and white double ender that can be used as either front or back or indeed have both at once, it caan go on a helmet, and most usefully the bar mount increments in 90 degrees so it can mount on the bottom of the drops and show red and white flashes on your outside ege

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dave atkinson replied to fwhite181 | 2 weeks ago
0 likes

it's an exposure red eye that's wired to his front light through his bars

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Matt Page | 3 weeks ago
1 like

A brilliant write up, and well done Dave!

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Dnnnnnn | 3 weeks ago
1 like

Chapeau, a great achievement!

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galibiervelo | 3 weeks ago
2 likes

Top marks, super impressive ride.

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ceebee247 | 3 weeks ago
4 likes

Thanks Dave for these write ups - really interesting and encouraging to read. Average 150w seems well within my abilities so may well give it a go - and liked your tip about watts/lap will try it out.  

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rjfrussell | 3 weeks ago
2 likes

Hi Dave-  sounds like an amazing ride!

Can I ask-  where is the best place to find out about full functionality on the Hammerhead Karoo 2?  I am sure that there is a bunch of stuff I am not using (such as autolap you mention), but there doesn't seem to be any comprehensive manual.  Also, how do you charge it for such a marathon?

 

Thanks!

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OnYerBike replied to rjfrussell | 3 weeks ago
5 likes

The support pages seem fairly comprehensive - does this answer your auto-lapping question: https://support.hammerhead.io/hc/en-us/articles/25706647845019-Karoo-OS-...

I don't know about Dave, but for long rides I take a portable power pack and a cable, and just charge the GPS on the go. I think the power pack I have is rated at 10,000mAh and is comparable in size to a slightly chunky smartphone, and since my GPS is a Wahoo Bolt with a dinky 1,500mAh battery, that is enough to fully recharge it several times over. I've never done any rides long enough to require more than that.

If you do need more, you might be able to grab a bit of charge at control points (especially if there is an overnight one) but I wouldn't want to rely on it (there will be far more riders than plug sockets). If there is a drop bag option, you could include another fully charged power pack in that (or just take a bigger one or more than one to begin with). Or for ultimate self-sufficiency, you could use a dynamo-powered charger. 

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wycombewheeler replied to OnYerBike | 3 weeks ago
2 likes

OnYerBike wrote:

..., but for long rides I take a portable power pack and a cable, and just charge the GPS on the go.

I've stopped doing this as I have become convinced that the vibrations from riding lead to the connection between plug and socket becoming unreliable over time. I find that putting the charger on for 20-30 minutes when stopped at a cafe gives ample time to recharge for the next section.

A 10,000mAh pack will charge a mobile phone twice, or a gpx unit many times. It will even charge the battery on your Di2 if you carry the correct charger lead.

I got round PBP using a 10,000mAh power bank for rear lights and GPS, also keep the GPS in battery save mode, most of the power is consumed by the screen display not the recording of data. With junctions in much of Wales being few and far between there were plenty of occassions when I didn't get a direction between one lap time notification and the next. (Lap times on my garmin seem to pop up at 5km intervals. 12 minutes or less means I am doing well. more than 20 minutes and I am losing time on the AUDAX clock based on 15kmh average.

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OnYerBike replied to wycombewheeler | 3 weeks ago
2 likes

Fair enough - I've not yet noticed a problem, but then I don't often do rides long enough to need to charge my GPS en-route (or on multi-day rides, each day isn't long enough and will just recharge overnight).

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dave atkinson replied to rjfrussell | 2 weeks ago
0 likes

yeah like OYB i just pack a 10,000mAh battery pack. because i was filming on my phone and an action cam and running them down more quickly than usual i could have done with a bigger one for the BCM, but because there's a bag drop i just lobbed another one in that and swapped it over

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dave atkinson replied to rjfrussell | 2 weeks ago
0 likes

rjfrussell wrote:

how do you charge it for such a marathon?

yeah like OYB i just pack a 10,000mAh battery pack. because i was filming on my phone and an action cam and running them down more quickly than usual i could have done with a bigger one for the BCM, but because there's a bag drop i just lobbed another one in that and swapped it over

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