Martin Malins writes…
The 2008 Irish Mail was my 8th 400. I vowed I’d never do another after PBP but this was a ride I really wanted to do in 2007; it was almost my double SR that year. But after a hard series of rides I decided to delay and approach it fresh if it ever ran again, which fortunately it did. When I saw the route it looked like “The best of the Bryan Chapman” although it could equally be described as “Where the BCM left off” but after riding it I’d say more truthfully “The BCM crossed with the Elenith”. I’d ridden or driven some of the route which provided no preparation at all for the actual ride.
I arrived at the charming village of Upton Magna just outside Shrewsbury on the Friday night with Deniece Davidson who was doing her 4th 400 but her first AAA ride as she lives in Essex. After a very useful sleep in the hall before the start we departed at 0600 in perfect conditions; cool and sunny without much wind, for the first leg through Shrewsbury and into the mostly flat Welsh borders. Soon the first climb reared up before plunging back down to the café control at Lake Vyrnwy. This is an idyllic spot where, fortified with beans on toast we carried on round the lake. And that was the last bit of flat for quite a while as we ground up to Bwlch y Groes the highest pass in Wales at 560m.
We passed a rider on the way whose rear mech had committed Hari Kiri into the wheel and was abandoning; bad luck and hope the weather’s as good next year. Words and pictures cannot begin to describe the view from the top; you’ll just have to do it yourself. And then a lovely, almost Alpine, descent back into Bala for the next deserted mountain road stage to Trawsfynydd. This road has 5 gates on it so is not recommended at night, but gives a stunning view of the Rinogs from the summit.
After the Coed y Brenin control, where we stuck out like a sore thumb with our fully laden road bikes against all the dual suspension testosterone, the ride changes character quickly as it moves into Snowdonia. First the gentle climb back up to Trawsfynydd; the nuclear power station on the lake does look a lot like a castle; it was used as a location in the film First Knight. And the brutal climb up to Tan y Bwlch. Here Deniece had got lost and phoned me to request that I retrace to the A470. There was no way I was going back up either of the last two hills so I sat and waited, frustratingly hearing, but not seeing, two of the Ffestiniog Railway’s charming little trains. Eventually Deniece arrived and we continued on the scenic detour of Beddgelert where we were afforded fantastic views of the Watkin Path to Snowdon. The familiar climb of Nant Gwynant and Pen y Pass was a lot hotter than on the Bryan Chapman but was rewarded with the traditional pint mug of tea at Pete’s Eats in Llanberis.
After the slog up and down into Menai came the stage across Anglesey, where I have never ridden before. The character of the roads is much flatter and more rolling than anywhere else I’ve been in Wales and was ideal recovery from the earlier hills. Word had spread around Holyhead Tesco’s of the event and we were generously praised and/or called completely mad by many of the staff and a few customers. About half way back across the island Deniece’s front gear cable snapped (typically I’d though about packing a spare the day before but decided against; that’s another item to add to the list of items a sensible Audaxer carries on the bike). We improvised by tensioning the remaining cable in the wheel skewer in a sensible middle gear which her compact chainset was able to make two useable ratios with; Deniece finished the ride like this even though we were offered a spare at the Gyndyfrdwy control but it was probably less hassle to continue with 2 gears by then.
Bangor’s Heddlu had a typically busy evening with sirens blaring as we skirted the city at closing time without too much drunken adulation to get to the garage control. Bonk rations for the 71km section along the A5 were recommended so I decided to carry mine internally in the shape of a Mars milk drink and a king size Snickers. You learn something new on each ride; and I discovered on the Irish Mail that the whole A5 was built by Thomas Telford as a coach road with a maximum gradient of 5%; it was a welcome change from the earlier hills and I was able to reach Llyn Ogwen very easily. Unfortunately there was no moon but I rode alongside the lake without a front light for a few minutes and soaked up the atmosphere of the majestic location between Tryfan and Carnedd Dafydd.
There were a few cars and an ambulance but thankfully the A55 has taken most of the traffic off the A5 and it’s a near-perfect night stage. A plunge back into Capel Curig and Betws y Coed preceded the last big climb (thankfully flattened a bit by Mr Telford) before the control. A Z stop 65 km from the finish of a 400 seems odd but it was perfectly located in Gyndyfrdwy and offered sleeping bags and air beds and was a real psychological boost at 03.00 when I arrived suffering a dozies attack; even John Spooner had succumbed to the temptation to grab 40 winks. I left as the control shut at 06.02 for the beautiful section through Llangollen and past the Ponsticill aqueduct before leaving the A5 proper but continuing along the old coach road towards Gobowen. The impeccable route took us through quiet leafy lanes for the last 30km before rejoining the outward route through Shrewsbury and soon the welcome sight of the Wrekin and Upton Magna church hove into view. More beans on toast and happy conversation with John, his helpers and a few other riders including Stephen Poulton who I’d met a few times on the ride and showed me some photos he took before a pleasant drive back to the M42.
The Irish Mail is a very well organised and routed ride that deserves to become an AUK classic.