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10 May 2016 No comments

Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Cats

Correspondence Events Bicycles Monthly highlights Travel & Adventure Cycling
By Jack Thurston
Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Cats

Since its first edition in 2013 the Transcontinental Race has captured the imagination of amateur cyclists looking for the next big challenge. Multi-day, unsupported events like the Transcontinental makes demands that go beyond physical endurance. Riders must be totally self-sufficient on the road, from navigation to finding food and rest and dealing with mechanicals. As I've written before on the blog, these races evoke the heroic spirit of early years of road racing far more than the tightly controlled and carefully choreographed professional peloton. Yet races like the Transcontinental are also thoroughly modern affairs. Riders can make free use of the most modern bike technology and the very latest lightweight bikepacking gear, they are tracked in real time using the latest satellite technology and their Twitter, Facebook and Instagram dispatches from the road add texture and emotion, making for a thoroughly post-modern way to watch bike race.

But how to make the step up from riding traditional road racing, audaxing or sportive-riding to take on a challenge like the Transcontinental? Or what if you like the sound of testing yourself on an long, unsupported bike race but don’t have a fortnight to spare to ride 2,500 miles from Belgium to Turkey? That’s where the Valleycat comes in. Dreamed up by Transcontinental Race organisers Mike Hall and Anna Haslock, a Valleycat is “a cross breed of the Alleycat and the traditional Brevet”. The way it works is that at the start - and not a minute before - riders are given a list of control points and have to plan their own route to reach them, in any order they like. According to Hall, "it's not a race, it's a game". The first Valleycat was a one-day event in South Wales last October. Valleycat 2 was a weekend affair in mid-Wales and I went along to check it out.

The barn at Ty Mawr farm

Valleycat HQ was on a small sheep farm on the western slopes of the Cambrian mountains, a few miles inland from Aberystwyth and riders began to rock up on Friday afternoon. A pair of army mess tents provided a makeshift kitchen and sleeping area for riders who’d come without their own shelter. At 7 o'clock on Friday evening everyone gathered in an old stone barn to listen to Mike’s briefing where he revealed the nine control points, scattered across 600 square miles (1500 square km) of the wildest and most remote landscapes south of the Scottish Highlands. Riders collected their satellite trackers and a hush of deep concentration quickly descended on the barn as riders got to work planning their routes.

Some riders worked out their routes on computers......others preferred good old-fashioned paper mapsHandwritten cue sheets for a Welsh adventureEach rider carries a satellite tracking device for real-time tracking on the web

As the temperature dipped towards freezing two hardy riders set of into the night, with the rest enjoying hanging out by the campfire or getting an early night before a dawn start the next day. With riders fanning out across mid-Wales the trackers showed most were riding a longer northern loop first then return to HQ for the night before mopping up the remaining controls on the Sunday. A few rode continuously or grabbed a few hours rest in a bivvy bag.

Volunteer super-chefs Liz and Rob (pictured) kept the coffee brewing......and fried a seemingly endless supply of eggsValleycat organiser Anna Haslock and her bottomless pot of chilliValleycat organiser and ultra-endurance vedette Mike Hall

Mike's placement of the control points invited that riders take on some of the most iconic cycling roads in Wales including the famed Devil's Staircase and the dreaded Bwlch y Groes, also known as Hellfire Pass. The location of the controls tempted riders to take shortcuts on unsurfaced paths, from forest trails through towering conifers to old drovers roads across the open moors. A shortcut can save time but increases the risk of tyre damage and there's always a chance that what looks at first like a viable unsurfaced track will deteriorate into a precipitous rocky path or unrideable quagmire.

Ian Barrington of Wildcat Gear hitting the roadLooking good: fresh tarmac on the Tregaron mountain road......not quite so fresh, but still there......anyone for rough stuff?

Riders returned to the farm in varying degrees of exhaustion and exultation. All had been wowed of the power and beauty of the scenery, for most of the riders to this part of Wales was terra incognita. Mike believes that having to plan and navigate your own route means you engage more with the landscape than if you’re riding a fixed course, either by following an audax routesheet or the black and yellow arrows of a sportive. Most cursed the occasional wrong turn and the extra miles they'd had to ride as a consequence and one rider maintained that the first day of Valleycat 2 was a harder than any single day of last year's Transcontinental.

Craig Dolwin was first home after visiting all 9 controls - 345 kilometres and 6,600 metres of climbing in just under 24 of hours of riding - on a Brooks B17, naturallyA campfire kept bodies warm and spirits high

Besides being a uniquely challenging test of body and mind, what made Valleycat 2 stand out from other bike events was the atmosphere back at the farm, from the good food in the makeshift kitchen to the campfire that burned late into the night. People came to ride big miles but it was as much about enjoying good company on a hill farm in the middle of Wales. Whether you’re planning to race the Transcontinental or just want to see a whole lot of Wales in a weekend, Valleycat 3 on 16-18 September might be just the ticket.