Retrospectively, if I had known what was to happen next, I would have ridden further and to hell with the coffee stops. But hindsight is a wonderful thing. Who knew COVID would rewrite my and many of my cycling friends’ worlds? So, the late-winter almost-spring mini tour with Sarah Chaplin, a friend from Audax Oz, was based around short days, coffee, caik and good food.
The tour had first been discussed over the interweb back in October 2019 just before the start of the Hound Dawg 1200, promoted by the Lone Star Randonneurs. I had time on my hands lazing in my hotel room, so it was easy to ping messages between Oz and the USA. This should have given me more than ample time to plan, but I then went out to Oz to ride the Audax Australia 2019 Geelong Flyer 1200 in late November. Once home, I continued to chase miles through December to break the AUK Women’s mileater record with 22,618 miles in a year.
The beginning of 2020 fell into a normal pattern. Commute to work and then the usual round of early season 200km brevets. Life was still busy, so planning the mini tour got put on the back burner, only being taken off less than a week before departure.
Looking for inspiration, I turned to the AUK calendar. By happenstance, one of AUK’s classic brevets, the 150km Gospel Pass, made the perfect tour arrivee. It is a brevet that I had wanted to ride for a while (I had never ridden the Gospel Pass before) but had not quite got around to doing. So, I grabbed the opportunity.
The plan was over three days, to take Sarah through classic English lanes and stay at hotels that would either have a fantastic restaurant or be a place of interest. Looking at Google Maps, some overnight towns jumped out at me – Milton Keynes, Stratford-on-Avon, Hereford, then Chepstow. Finding suitable hotels was easy using knowledge gained from previous solo UK tours. I was already familiar with some hotel chains where bikes were welcome plus food would be available. Hereford would be the exception, but booking.com worked its magic. These hotels fulfilled the touring cyclist mantra of ride, eat, sleep, repeat.
Now for routes. My most enjoyable tours had been ones where planning was done on a day-to-day basis driven by things like avoiding bad weather or visiting places of interest that stood out in Lonely Planet travel guides. With the advent of GPS this got lost, with meticulous planning done in advance from home. I felt that the experience I already had with Komoot might enable the spontaneity of before with the convenience of GPS. Reading a paper map on the move is not exactly easy. Lo and behold it did. Having preplanned destinations with hotel bookings allowed me to plan the next day’s route the evening before. If I did not spot a foot path, there was ample time to re-route on the fly and still be at the hotel with plenty of time before dinner. Having the stage towns about 100km apart meant I could use Komoot’s touring route planning, rather than road cycling. The benefit of the touring route is that it does not take a fast direct option, but a leisurely route primarily using lanes. I had already found that Komoot in touring route had a passion for goat tracks, sheep paths and seriously muddy canal towpaths. I also like the element of it being a magical mystery tour which is very much like being on a brevet you haven’t ridden before.
My steed for this adventure was Beryl, a Kinesis Tripster AT. She handles brilliantly on brevets up to 600km, multiday touring, commuting and rough stuff. The fat tubeless tyres meant she is fast on the road but surefooted on rough stuff. Luggage was a Carradice Carradry saddle bag, otherwise known as ‘the ugly’ and a small Apidura top tube bag. Set up like this, my chattels including the Tweccle would stay dry, no matter what biblical weather was thrown at us.
Sarah’s bike was her PBP steed, a titanium thoroughbred. A pair of large Ortlieb pink panniers and rack bag put it into touring mode.
Despite being early March, the weather was typical mixture of dull overcast skies and bright sunny days. The only rain we had was for an hour or so on the way into Stratford. This meant that the excellent bikepaths/ tracks that Komoot provided were mostly not too muddy and still ridable. Only the occasional bridleway was deemed unsuitable and an alternative route found. The climbs that Komoot chose to get to Hereford were long and, in some places, steep with fabulous views. I do not think I would have necessarily chosen to go this way, but the scenery made me glad that I did.
Beryl only suffered one mechanical and that was the roads of Herefordshire rattling her rear mudguard to the point that one set of stays departed their fixing. In good AUK style this problem was swiftly repaired with zip ties, their antenna left waving in the breeze. Sadly, the puncture fairy was rather persistent with Sarah’s skinny tyres and she had several visitations.
Sarah likes beer. This is something that the Brits are particularly good at and sadly three days was insufficient time for Sarah to check out as many as she would have liked. The top lunch must go to Corse Lawn House Bistro. I have ridden past this more times than I can remember. Knowing what food delights lie within, I think next time it is going to be a struggle not to stop!
One of the highlights of the ride was meeting my exceptionally good friends, Anne and Mark Brazier, in Ewyas Harold near Hereford, which strangely enough is on the Brevet Cymru 400 route. The meeting point was a church hall that turned into a coffee house for the morning. A whole gaggle of Hereford Wheelers had collected, as it was their regular Friday morning meet-up spot. The usual swapping of stories ensued while tea was guzzled and cake was scoffed.
Given that the following day we would be riding 150km including the Gospel Pass I had considered a longer, flatter way to Monmouth. Anne and Mark were very keen to ride with us to Monmouth on their way home to Ledbury and it seemed churlish to decline. Mark’s preferred way was through the hills, a route well known to me but in reverse, again on the Brevet Cymru. The sun shone and the ride to Monmouth was fantastic. Mark’s recommendation for lunch was the Spoons, which was OK and provided the opportunity to summon a GF apple crumble from our table using a smart phone app. Little did we know that eating in a crowded pub was shortly going to be a dim and distant thing of the past.
The final stretch from Monmouth into Chepstow was the old Bryan Chapman 600 route past the ruins of Tintern Abbey, following the River Wye. You get two countries for the price of one as you briefly dip into England and then back to Wales. There is some climbing involved but the distraction of the scenery makes the road seem almost flat until the twisty climb out of Tintern up to Chepstow Racecourse. I have ridden this road so many times in both directions on brevets, but the only time I had stopped was as a child. I decided it was essential that a stop be made to sample the tea and caik that I was sure I had glimpsed when whizzing through a-wheel. I spotted a little tea rooms right by the abbey. Sarah was somewhat impressed by what Henry VIII had left of the abbey but seriously impressed by the gluten-free carrot cake.
My preferred hotel pre-Bryan Chapman, the Castle Inn had no vacancies. It is always a flying visit and it would have been good to enjoy its hospitality at a more leisurely pace but sadly, no vacancies. I guess too many other riders had realised that its front door opened onto the start of the Gospel Pass brevet. Via the internet, I found another good hotel that did the job perfectly. The only downside would be that we would have to ride uphill to the hotel after the brevet. The Bike Butler met us there with Shedman (the car) as I had persuaded him that a hilly 150km in early March was just what he wanted!
The day of the Gospel Pass, the weather was murky with a hint of rain in the air. Beryl performed perfectly, less so the rider. We headed out of Chepstow, leaving the castle behind us, over the river and immediately started climbing. The climb would last for some kilometres enabling a circuitous route to the first control at Monmouth. The nominated control was rammed so I stopped at Costas. Then it was over to Abergavenny via the Gospel Pass, taking in a few minor lumpy bits on the way. By the time we reached the Gospel Pass, the rain had gone. However, some idiot had installed the headwind from hell as we grovelled upwards firmly in the gutter. As I winched myself to the top, I was looking forward to a rapid decent. Alas not; spotting the smooth amongst the potholes and gravel was a challenge. Any silky-smooth stretches on the descent could not have added up to more than a handful of metres. Of course, Beryl handled this perfectly.
Abergavenny was the final control before the finish at Chepstow. I was dreaming of the 24-hour petrol station having been a rather regular visitor to this oasis. Instead, we got the opportunity for some brief time travel in a pub that had somehow got stuck in the ‘70s. The run into the arrivee would be the oh-so-familiar route to Usk and up and over to Shirenewton. Nick Peregrine, the original sorely missed organiser of this ride, directed us left into Shirenewton rather than the usual straight on and through some fantastic back lanes to avoid much of the A466. A final swish down to Chepstow and the ride was complete. Jen (Nick’s partner), the current organiser, was waiting for us in the Three Tuns. Digby carefully refuelled, using a method that is remarkably familiar to anyone who knows George Hanna.
I will certainly be using Komoot for future touring when I want to plan the route on the fly. The one thing that I would do differently is use my Garmin GPS for this, rather than the Wahoo. The Wahoo is perfect for brevets where the route is defined, and you really have no intention of going off it. However, there are occasions with Komoot as route planner, where tweaks may be required while you are riding. This is a challenge with the black and white map of the Wahoo and its more rigid zoom and the way it marks the route. With the coloured, easily zoomed map of Garmin and the purple line, it is much easier for me. A plus with the Wahoo is that you can kill the route without having to stop and save your track. You simply create a new route on your phone, ping it across and start riding. Sadly, this is not possible with a Garmin, as you cannot push a route through from your phone with the ride being recorded It would have been good to have a small tablet to review the route once plotted. Doing a route on an iPhone screen was a tad challenging.
The Brevet Bird
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