Beccy and I were both due to ride the Strathpuffer in January (Beccy solo, me comfortably in a quad) a 24 hr mtb race in the Highlands of Scotland. Gail was due to head to Morocco to ride the Atlas mountain race early February, but alas both events were cancelled due to covid, leaving Gail, Beccy and I with some winter restlessness to expel. Given we should have been mentally (not sure about physically) prepared for enduring some tough conditions and 17 hours of darkness, lapping the gap seemed like the obvious way to spend 24 hours on a bike at the end of January…
The Brecon gap is an ~600m pass between Pen Y Fan and Fan Y Big in the Brecon Beacons. There is a north and south ascent to the pass, but they were not created equal. From the south, it is a relatively easy nicely graded climb with a fun bomber descent. From the north there is an extra 100m of climbing, kicking off with a painfully steep grassy start to the climb. Then heading to the top it becomes an awkward push on big rocks loose underfoot, and then almost a carry over the top. A lap would constitute an ascent and descent of both. I’ve ridden the gap 4 or 5 times from both sides, twice from the south racing gbduro, and twice doing another racing collective event Walesduro from the north. This however was the first time I had ridden it on a mtb, the new mason RAW, and I’ll tell you what, there’s a lot to be said for suspension and the right bike for the job!
We all arrived with our own objectives for the 24 hours, Beccy an ambitious (but not impossible) everesting attempt, Gail to ride through the night, and me… well… an enjoyable-ish time, no beasting myself, and if I was lucky a meandering journey into the mind bendingly surreal under the light of a moonlit sky….? If nothing else a memory to recall in the future ‘remember that time we thought it was a good idea to lap the gap for 24 hours in January?’
So we convened in the carpark south of the gap, and got our shit together - Beccy pre-ground her coffee (much to the dismay of Gail who’d been on time and ready for a while…) one pre-start photo to mark the occasion, and we were off!
The first 5 or 6 laps flew by for me, dodging walkers which littered the popular route, taking a break each time at the top to inhale a mini pork pie or snickers before descending with crumbs flying from my mouth. I cracked on till I ran out of food before heading back to the micra after dark to stock up. We’d had a beautiful wintery sunset, and with the light of the day went most of the walkers as the hill became ours for the night. With the darkness came the cold, the micra glittering with frost as I fumbled around trying to eat cold pasta, refill bags, and adding layers to see me through the next few hours. I resolved myself to hit 10 laps, estimating that would take me till around 1am before treating myself to ‘bed’.
Back to the hill… Unfortunately dreams of the bright wolf moon lighting up our night did not become reality. Instead the hill was shrouded in mist, limiting visibility to a few metres, the hill taking on an often ominous atmosphere.
Then, as I was shoving over the top from the north once again I saw a
light moving on the hill… moving closer I hear a ‘Phil?’ ‘yes!’ ‘It’s Alan!’ It was only Alan Goldsmith (organiser of the Highland Trail 550) Having put a plea on Instagram a few days before to see if anyone fancied joining for a lap, two or 12, Alan ditched his plans to camp in the black mountains and came and camped at the top of the gap instead! This is when a. social media can and does bring people together in the strangest of circumstances, and b. you are reminded how special and supportive the bikepacking community is. Alan cheered us on as we crawled over the col each lap, gave us chocolate and then settled in to make his camp. The glow of his tent (and the occasional whoop) offered us a comforting presence in the misty blanket of darkness (until he switched off his head torch and sensibly went to sleep.)
I’d brought my bivvy, mat and sleeping bag and my mind began to weaken as I thought how nice it would be to bed down and be something closer to horizontal. I’d resolved myself to 10 laps though and was actually enjoying the peace of my misty tunnel vision. I had the company of my cycling playlist, accumulated over many years, races, and places – my mind able to drift back to past experiences triggered by the nostalgia of music.
I shuddered at the thought of Gail and Beccy riding through the night and what that would be like… it was relentless and COLD! But they didn’t find out, sacking it off and joining me for a much needed break from the grind of the climbs and the arm rattling descents. Beccy, determined to the end, had deliberately not brought a sleeping bag, a means to keep riding – fortunately - Gail had a spare. When I later pointed out that without Gails spare she would have had to keep riding just to stay warm, she flatly retorted ‘I’d have rather died than have kept lapping the gap’. True that.
So we hit the hay, in Beccy and Gails case ‘the hay’ being Gails insulated van, in my case - putting every item of dry clothes I had on, kicking the passenger seat of Beccys frozen micra back and cocooning myself in my sleeping bag. Just as I’d begun to get the feeling back in my toes (around 3 hours later) Beccy opens the car door, getting prepped for going back on the gap attack. ‘Reaaaallly???’ In the past 3 restless hours more than once I’d thought ‘surely we’re just gonna wakeup, sack this off and go and get a fry up?’ but no, Beccy and Gail meant business. So up I got, joined them for coffee and porridge in the van and off we trotted back into the misty cold dark.
The mist had persisted, and the hallowed sunrise through inverted clouds we’d longed for to lift our spirits never appeared. Suddenly it was just ‘light’ and Alan pointed out I could probably turn my light off, so unapparent was the transition from night to day. Alan brewed us coffee at the top of the pass on a big rock, which will forever be known to us as ‘Alans caf’’ - hot coffee in unlikely places brewed by unlikely people, that’s what it's all about . He joined us on our final lap, bagging another highland trail sign up from Gail in the process (maybe his plan all along…?)
Back to the car park, weary and bedraggled, we sat in Gails van and had the most welcome hot chocolate while we waited for our extremities to warm and bodies to catch up with our minds that it was over. Done and dusted - a needless silly thing that most people thought we were mad to do. But hey, what’s a mere 24 hours in our long but fleeting lives, now we have a shared experience and memory which we will no doubt be recalling for years.