The inaugural ValleyCat was a first of the kind for the Dropouts foursome. Races were cancelled and families were put to the side for this one day as Dropouts Cycle Club’s Matt, Jon, Luke, and Callum leapt at this chance to dip our warm toes into the waters of ValleyCat – Brevet meets Alleycat. Tempestuous and mightily rad waters, we soon found out.
The previous day’s preparation was a now familiar task. Chains were renewed and gears fine tuned at the shop, and at home I committed my energy into making some date bars and rice cakes to drive us through the 200km journey. The ValleyCat kicked riders out in the Welsh Valleys from Llangbyi village hall in Usk. We drove up with the sun, after a solid breakfast of eggs and porridge; some riders had ridden up from afar and slept in the hall.
A congregation of lycra and Ordnance Survey was a feast for the eyes upon entering the hall and the benevolent Mike Hall was giving a briefing on the order of the day and what the rules were, of which there were few and simple ones.
Riding as a brave individual or as a group, all that you had to do was reach all 4 checkpoints and return home. Any order of checkpoint, and any route. Each individual was given a GPS tracker to ensure that we reached the checkpoints, and the live tracking was made visible to public via internet.
Mike and partner Anna very kindly produced some information of recommended routes and tips on the best way to get from Checkpoint X > Y, so we decided sensibly to follow their advice. Some riders chose to use just map only navigation but we planned a GPX route and uploaded this to Garmins. Luke and Matt had some prior knowledge of cycling in the Valleys, but really our experience was limited so it was reassuring to glean some of the flavours to come.
With our route planned and a break in the rain it was a clear sign that we must depart! Off we went, sprits very high and I could clearly imagine Mike and Anna chuckling away, growling ‘…dammed fools..HA-HA-HAAA…’
First stop was Blaenavon World Heritage Site and as instructed we looked for the classic analogue alarm clock. The café staff looked as bemused at our requests for location of the ValleyCat alarm clock as they must have felt, seeing a quartet of sodden hi-vis peelers clatter in through the door, relishing warmth. We had a short break here to fulfil our ’Super Relax’ riding policy and eventually the clock was found, hiding like peeping Tom in a window.
Onwards and with great excitement we rode towards the Penderyn Distillery. Mike’s tip for this route was to detour at Cwm Cadlan and take the single track road from the reservoir to Penderyn, and what a beautiful detour this was – thank you Mike. It’s a steady climb through the snaking and rolling forest-to-plains. This part of the ride was finished off with aged and fiery Welsh miniatures – single malt.
And we needed that fire in our bellies as the force of the Valleys’ rained down on us for the next 4 hours and it got a bit hardcore. I made internal repetitions of my mantra ‘I am immune to rain’, doing my best to stay zen and overcome the rain with my head as much as my hardshell and while on the bike, I think that this really did actually work.
The epic pass that is Rhigos brought back some warmth on the way up and was a thrill on the way down in sideways wind and rain. Staggering vistas and sweeping bends made for excellent riding, and we kept speed for the next 15-20km as it was all a steady downhill. We filled ourselves on the epic feeling that riding really fast in the rain for a relatively long time brings: feelings of immunity, immortality, and a pioneering spirit.
Despite our pressing on and hard riding, the long descending did sap the warmth from our wet bodies and we were all feeling pretty cold, but closing in on the next checkpoint we didn’t worry and were looking forward to lunch at the cafe.
The suspicious bleep of the Garmin and the quick flash of the off-course warning sent a stake through my heart – I hate going wrong (especially when I’m on the front), but was met with relief at the ‘course found’ message returning to the tiny map under my chin. Almost telepathically however, everyone seemed to detect that something was wrong and we were affirmed in this notion when the café never came. Part of our route was a double-up, and as we zipped past a turning towards the 3rd checkpoint the Garmin re-directed as if we had ridden this section and were onto the next part.
Do we go back? Do we carry on to Cardiff for the 4th checkpoint? Our emergency meeting was not decided by us, but decided by the weather – let’s get some hot food and then route ourselves back. Super Relax.
The hectic main roads and offensive Welsh drivers did nothing to stop our train to whichever food-place came first, eventually coming to an halt in Pontypridd. We ate: omelette with peppers; pizza with chips; sticky toffee pudding with ice-cream; meatballs with chips, and we drank a lot of coffee. Then we sat, shivered, and slowly emerged from a state of dormancy and took our first breaths after devouring too much food. Something weird happened in the next 15 minutes, when I realised that our unbreakable group of 4 was now down to just myself and a cold Luke at the table. Where had Matt and John gone? Had we eaten them? Had they died?
With a beaming smile Matt returned to the table, triumphantly declaring that he had new socks and a T and even new shoe-covers to boot. Turns out plastic shopping bags make excellent shoe liners for foul-weather. John followed in return and with a fresh ‘do and rosy cheeks – he had been sat under the hand dryer. Retail therapy and a makeover?? I’m worried that I’ve got the wrong mantra.
We worked up the energy to leave this haven and set a new route to cross the valleys and get back to that cosy village hall and the warm-heartedness of Mike, Anna, and everybody else (whose names I didn’t get) who helped out with ValleyCat organisation and food. The sun even came out to remind us just how majestic Wales is and how beautiful an experience it is to ride a bicycle, whether alone or with friends.
The ValleyCat was a ride in support of the charity Newborns Vietnam. Newborns Vietnam is a UK registered charity that strives to improve the welfare of both newborn babies and their mothers in South East Asia, focusing on Vietnam. There are high levels of death at child-birth and related illnesses in this region and a lack of support for the family involved. Newborns Vietnam works on long-term solutions and support for babies and their mothers: neonatal nurse training in partnership with British higher education institutions and teaching hospitals; basic lifesaving equipment to support the delivery of enhanced newborn care at regional referral hospitals. Taking part in the ValleyCat also brought the chance to have a go a screen printing, so I printed a ‘Cycle A Difference’ T, in support of the Newborns Vietnam cause and gained some experience in a new skill. There was a hearty dinner (cooked by a chef in a cycling cap) and complimentary BWS for ValleyCat riders back at the hall. Sadly we couldn’t stay for the after party, but left brimmed with anticipation for the next ValleyCat and dreams of TCR 2016. We busted the myth that you should never meet your idols – Mike Hall is a lovely guy and totally rad. Thank you once more to Mike, Anna, and everybody who put time into arranging this fantastic experience.
We will definitely see you again.