Where the competition begins is in 'Special Stages' that are incorporated along the way. They typically take place on private land or Forestry Commission trail centres and are run in a time trial format with timing chips / mats to accurately record the time. On paper, the format doesn't sound too hard, but imagine riding non-stop for 5-6 hours over mountainous terrain and then having to do a 10 mile TT at full bore. Day after day, the intensity of these special stages really take their toll on the legs.
It's possible to write a huge amount for a week-long race, so I'll try and keep it brief and concentrate on the racing.
First stage was a 1.5k hill climb. Rather surprisingly, I finished second on this stage, a few seconds down current UK and European 24 hour champ, Matt Page.
Day two's stage was a short downhill and uphill loop. What I hadn't expected was the downhill section to actually be part of a proper downhill course and coming off one of the berms I hit a jump wrong (never easy with the saddle set to XC mode), landed nose-heavy and my front wheel washed out. I binned it and performed a tuck and roll in to a ditch. After, getting myself back up and untangling my bike, I careered down the rest of the hill with one foot hanging out, desperately trying to clip back in. Smooth and stylish, it was not. Powered up the climb and finished 5th, only 10 seconds down on the day's winner, Ajay Chhetri (current Nepalese mountain bike champion and twice winner of the Yak Attack (a sort of Trans-Himalayas)). I was still in third place, albeit level on time with Ajay in 2nd.
Day three had no special stage, so it was on to day four and my chance to shine on a 3.5k timed downhill run. With a background in bmx and downhill racing, a good run might have been enough for me to (temporarily) take the overall lead. Started really well but then disaster struck on a boulder section. My rear wheel came out of the left-hand dropout and the disk rotor hit the caliper, bending it at about 45 degrees. I had to pull the wheel out and beat the rotor with a rock to try and get it back in. It was still bent as hell, but at least the wheel would go round. Unfortunately, the forces now pulling on the wheel forced it out the dropouts again and I crossed the line in an aero tuck at about 40mph with the right hand dropout just resting on the threaded end of the skewer! I conceded over 3 minutes on the leader and dropped out of the top 10 to 11th.
Day 5 started much as day 4 had ended. On the 30k out to the day's special stage, I managed to blow my rear shock and shear my cleat off the bottom of my shoe (which disappeared in to the Welsh undergrowth never to be seen again). Fortunately, Bob from High5 who was manning one of the water stops had his bike and shoes in the van, so I robbed a cleat and one of his pedals. The special stage was an 8.5k loop on the Nant yr Arian trail - 4k down with a 4k long climb back up the other side including 425m of vertical. So I tackled the stage with a blown shock, a bike with its geometry out of whack, mismatched pedals and fighting through back markers. I lost time on the leaders, but still finished 4th on the stage and climbed up to 8th overall. Luckily, I'd packed a spare shock and managed to get a lift back to my car to go and get it.
Day 6 couldn't get any worse could it? Well, apart from snapping my carbon bars, no... Fortunately, I managed to blag a set of bars off Matt Page and change them out before the night stage round the 7k loop at Cwm Rhaedr. There was a proper atmosphere at the start, with riders starting in preset order, lights, booming music, a PA and announcer whipping up the crowd as you sprinted off the start ramp. I kept my 30 second man in sight on the up before quickly catching him and then my 90 second man on the descent. This is Matt Page's local trail and he reckons if he's nailing it, he'll go round in about 20 minutes. In the dark and with rain coming down, I went round in 20:04. It was still only good enough for 4th on the night though, missing out on a podium spot by 3 seconds.
Day 7 and the final stage. A short 2k up and down loop and I needed to make up 20 seconds on the guy in 6th to take his spot. A big ask on such a short course, but his legs were clearly feeling worse than mine and I took 40 seconds out of him. After missing the podium the day before by only 3 seconds, this time I cut it finer and missed out by 2 seconds.
I had a cracking week. Well over 500k of mountainous cycling with some great people and some great racing. Despite finishing in 6th, it's difficult not to feel disappointed that I wasn't able to challenge for a higher place. Sadly, there'll be no chance to have another crack next year as this is the last year the Trans-Wales will run.
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