Last weekend I completed my third qualifier for Paris-Brest-Paris – the Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch 400. It starts at Poynton, near Stockport, follows the north coast of Wales, over to Anglesey, past the village with the long name, out to Holyhead and then all the way back again.
I was looking forward to this ride. I had done this distance and more on two previous occasions, so I knew I could do it. It also promised to be relatively flat, which made a change from the previous weekend’s 300. Having stayed at an Airbnb the night before, it was straightforward enough to get to Poynton for the very civilised start time of 9am. Something like 80 riders set off towards Wales.
There are always some people who blast off the front, but I was happy to let them go, and settled into a good rhythm with a group who were riding at what felt like a comfortable pace. As we approached Chester we turned onto an excellent cycle path which took us right through the city and beyond on traffic-free smooth tarmac. Just over the border into Wales at Connor’s Quay was our first control – the organisers had set up a gazebo with hot drinks, bananas etc. I didn’t stop long, on a ride like this I enjoy a mixture of riding solo and riding with a group, so rather than wait for a group I was happy to carry on solo for a bit.
Roads in that first part of Wales were busy and not much fun, and while the wind was not directly from the west, there was enough headwind to make it feel like hard work. 100k seemed like a good point for a proper stop, and I found a café near Prestatyn for some lunch – decent all-day veggie breakfast.
From that point our route was back on cycle paths, and this time we were right next to the sea. It was scenic, but slow progress at times as the paths were sandy – sometimes so much so that I needed to get off and push. There was probably about 30k of this sort of stuff, until I got to the next control at Penrhyn Bay. Again, I didn’t want to stop long so just got a quick receipt from the cash machine and carried on.
The north Wales coast is very attractive, Conwy especially so with its impressive castle. Between Conwy and Bangor the route followed a small road up a bit of a hill to avoid the duel-carriageway. The only problem was a stretch of this was being resurfaced and was covered in loose, sharp gravel. I didn’t think much of it and carried on.
Over the Britannia Bridge to Anglesey, it wasn’t long before I arrived in the village with the longest place name in Europe. On stopping for a photo and a breather I realised that my front tyre was flat – no doubt the gravel was the culprit. Not really a big deal, I changed it without much fuss, but as I was doing so I realised that I had the wrong tube – an 18-25 tube for my 28 tyre. Hmm. I pumped it up anyway and hoped for the best, it turned out fine.
The route across Anglesey was hard-going – long, slow uphill-drags into the wind. It was after 7pm by this point, I was tired and looking forward to stopping at the half-way point. As I was starting to flag, as if out of nowhere, another cyclist appeared behind me. It was a really welcome relief not only to have some company, but to be able to take turns for the final 20k or so.
The Tollhouse Café at Penrhos, Holyhead was our half-way control. The lovely people there did a grand job, despite being swamped with weary audaxers. They made me a very nice vegan panini with veggie sausage and roasted veg. It was starting to get cold, so I put on some extra layers and headed east again just before the sun started to set.
There’s something wonderful about riding on your own at night. The darkness closes in, it’s quiet, and it’s just you and the spot of light on the road in front. It was a relief to no longer be riding into the wind. The wind seemed to be from the northwest, so just as it wasn’t terrible on the way out, it wasn’t perfect on the way back.
I had a scary moment just after Bangor. Just as I left the town the road went downhill and the street lights came to an end. I tried to switch my light to its brighter setting, but instead only succeeded in turning it off, and couldn’t get it back on again. I was going downhill in total darkness, aware that there was a bend in the road approaching but unable to see it. After what seemed like forever (although it was probably only about 5 seconds) I got the light on again. Phew.
Back at the gravel section I met another rider who was not in a good way – lying on the ground and vomiting hard. I asked if he needed any help, but I felt pretty stupid – I wasn’t sure what help I could offer. Understandably he didn’t seem in the mood for chatting, but he managed to get up and carry on. I hung back a little for while, wanting to check he was OK. When I passed him he seemed a little better, and while he appreciated my offer to ride together he encouraged me to go on.
At around midnight I reached the penultimate control – McDonalds at Abergele at somewhere around the 290k mark. I went for the Vegetable Deluxe but later regretted it, I got some heartburn which I suspect was a result of the bread bun.
Looking back, the experience of riding through the night has a certain dream-like quality to it. In the early hours the traffic gets less and less and it’s just a long straight road through the dark.
Just as my pace was slowing, two other riders on fixies caught up with me. Rather than just let them go past I found the energy to raise my pace to theirs. This was really helpful; their company, the quicker pace and shared work meant the next 45k or so to the final control went by fairly quickly.
Our last control was at a motorway services off the M56. The only things open were WHSmith and McDonalds. Smith’s didn’t have anything substantial that was vegan, so I got some chips from McDonalds.
I left the final control with another rider at about 4.45am – we had about 60k to go, and the sky was getting lighter.
As we rode the final stretch, everything got brighter and brighter. The sun came up and it was a really beautiful morning. There was still no traffic around (early hours of Sunday on a bank holiday weekend), so it felt safe riding on a few stretches of duel-carriageway. The final 20k or so was a bit lumpy, and I was feeling pretty fatigued, but I was very glad to have company. I slowly rolled back into Poynton at about 7.30am.
I’m really glad I chose this audax for my PBP 400. It was a really interesting and enjoyable route. It’s not an area I know well at all, so it was great to explore new roads. Having completed that ride there’s just one more qualifier to do – a 600 at the start of June, watch this space!