The morning of Monmouthshire 40 had arrived, it was sunny but muggy, with a blustery north-westerly wind that was certainly helping keep the stuffy air moving.
With the start of the Sportive being in the centre of Abergavenny, it meant that for once I didn’t have to get up at 4 am to eat food, load the bike in the car and drive to the starting point. On this occasion, I was able to get up at a time that didn’t involve being awake before the dawn chorus, and also eat food at a time that many regular non-cycling people would consider to be a decent breakfast time too.
After a short three mile cycle into Abergavenny, I was in Bailey Park completing my registration and collecting my timing chip. The park is also where my son plays rugby in the winter, and it was comforting to see just how different the park looked in the warm sunshine and not the customary icy cold climate that I’m sure is unique to most rugby touchlines throughout the country in the winter.
Bright sunshine was beaming down on Abergavenny, and it was getting warmer by the minute. The winter training rides in howling rain and gale force winds seemed to be a distant memory, and my concerns were now about hydration and sunburn. Just how long the sun cream I’d applied was going to last before it melted and formed a sticky mixture of sweat and cream that attracts every bug possible and clouds of dust to create a unique mess on cyclists arms, legs and faces.
After meeting with the rest of the girls I train with, we gathered in the start pen for the 40-mile route, it was time to go. Instead of starting in waves like most sportives do, we were all to start together, and marshalls were to hold the traffic for the few minutes while we left the town and made it out to the surrounding countryside. It was quite a bizarre experience cycling through your hometown with traffic waiting for us to pass, momentarily I felt like royalty, albeit peddling on a road bike!
The route quickly led us out onto the quieter roads of Monmouthshire, and other than a quick stop to check the Lions rugby final score while I still had phone signal, it was an unforgiving mix of hills, hills and more hills. In that, I was quite sure there were more ‘ups’ than there were ‘downs’. I was now riding on roads and lanes that I’d never ridden a bike on, or driven for that matter, and that was probably a good thing. I didn’t know what the next hill was going to be like or what other little (some were quite big actually) climbing surprises the course had for us.
The feed station was past the half-way mark of the course and situated in the picturesque village of Grosmont, with a small matter of a rather steep hill on the approach. A hill that was just within my capabilities normally, just not when you add into the mix three cyclists on the hill with cramp and an impatient campervan and its occupants that considered the steep 12% hill as an acceptable place to overtake the cramping cyclists with cars coming the other way. My hill climbing efforts came to an abrupt halt behind the now stationary camper van, I did, however, manage to unclip, other cyclists around me were less fortunate. I pushed my bike around the now very embarrassed campervan driver who was now engaged in a losing battle of ‘I’m not reversing’ with the car drivers coming the other way.
Feed stations often make me think of energy gels, horrid energy bars that resemble cattle cake and browning soggy bananas, but Grosmont was different. A huge selection of chilled drinks ranging from full-sugar Coco-Cola and lemonade to squash and mineral water. Flapjacks, shortbread, granola bars, Haribo and watermelon, nice bananas and other fruit delights made for a feast of refreshments on offer and left me wondering what to choose. We even had musical entertainment provided by the local primary school. Talented children were playing percussion instruments, drumming up a rousing atmosphere making us feel very welcome and also rather unique too.
As I got back on my bike, the heat hit me, and I knew it was going to be a warm slog back to the finish. I’d got it into my mind that it was a long climb to the top of the hill out of Grosmont and then a descent into the village of Llanvetherine before climbing back around the Skirrid to the finish. While this was correct, I’d missed out in my mind the significant section that involved the village of Cross Ash and the gradual climbs around it, I was very disorientated and thinking I was further along the course than I was. I powered on, leaving the girls behind at the feed station thinking only a few miles to go to the finish, only it wasn’t, it was a more than a good few miles.
After following a straight and very long road that I considered to be Monmouthshires’ very own Route 66, I dropped down into the village of Cross Ash, and that was when I realised I was not as close to this finish as I first thought. If I’d looked at my Garmin bike computer earlier, the total mileage covered would have told me there was still a good distance to go, and I wasn’t nearly as far into the course as I thought.
By now it was sweltering, and I was cycling with very few cyclists on this part of the route. Those I did see were either walking and pushing their bikes or riding very very slowly and complaining about the heat. I overtook them and pedalled along a twisty section of road that seemed ever repeating, the warm stuffy wind was now blowing strongly in my face, and it was almost silent, no birds, sheep, cars or cyclists, just me and my bike! It did cross my mind on more than one occasion if I’d missed a turning or had the road closed for some dreadful reason. All that was needed was tumbleweed to start rolling down the path towards me to complete the bizarre scenario.
Stretched out ahead of me was a prolonged climb with an oversized layby on the left. I could also see at the top of the hill another cyclist, I focused on catching them up, and not the toughness of the climb, the heat and increasing headwind. The small dot of a cyclist in the distance got bigger and closer, so did the top of the hill and I finally realised where I was, one more climb and it was downhill all the way back to the finish. It was a great feeling, and it spurred me on up the final climb past the famous Walnut Tree restaurant. Before I knew it, I was flying back into Abergavenny to the finish and into civilisation.
Monmouthshire Iron Mountain 40 Sportive was short in comparison to others, but it was tough, both with the route and the weather. I will be back to ride the 70-mile route next year, not just because it’s local, but because it’s such a fabulous event to be part of too.