Last Sunday I took on the first ever Etape Xtrem organised by Always Aim High Events. The Etape Eryri has a series of sportive options heading out from Caernarfon and around Snowdonia, with the 47 mile Bach, the 76 mile Canol and the 103 mile Mawr. For the fourth year of the event they decided it would be a good idea to offer a 226 mile option of all three routes together, and I thought it would be an even better idea to register for one of the limited number of places.
With the scheduling of my challenge sportives this year the Etape Xtrem was the first of three over consecutive weekends, with Coast to Coast in a day and the Etape d’Yorkshire to follow. So completing the Etape was a challenge in itself, but I also needed to train to a point where I could complete it, recover well and maintain a good level afterwards for the next events.
It would have been nice not to have such a big challenge and to have been able to enjoy the two night stay in Caernarfon with the girlfriend a bit more. After getting there (a train from Leeds to Bangor, and then a short ride to Caernarfon for me with the girlfriend getting the bus) the countdown was already really starting to when I would need to get ready. A 3:45-4am start for the ride meant a 2:45am alarm, which meant a 9pm bedtime was getting late! After laying out all of my gear for the morning, we went out to wander around Caernarfon, and splashed out the cash saved by not getting a taxi to fit the bike in from Bangor to Caernarfon on the lovely tasting menu at Blas.
After going to sleep on the evening before the longest day of the year with the sun still streaming through the window at 9pm felt weird, but it wasn’t long before my alarm was buzzing, before I was gorging myself on as much porridge as I could manage, and donning my bibs and jersey, stocking my pockets with everything I would need for the ride.
It was quite surreal rolling out of the start pen in the pitch darkness, lights on all of the bikes flashing as we went. My goal was just to get around, to complete the ride in an overall average of 13mph+. The day slowly lightened, the early morning grey skies tried to rain a bit before the first climb of the day up Drws-y-Coed, but after that the weather settled in – pretty constant overcast skies but relatively warm, but quite windy. The first loop of the ride seemed to go by quite quickly, and I was back at Caernarfon before 9am to eat more at the feed station, and then head back out. I’d hit an average of about 16mph, so decided I wanted to try and stick to this.
The second loop of the ride was a lot harder. I started to have a few little leg niggles – my right leg felt like it wanted to cramp up just before the end of the first loop, and at just over 100 miles my left leg felt like it wanted to go as well. I decided to make sure to keep on eating as much as was humanly possible at the feed stops, prioritising the bananas, crisps, and High 5 energy drink available to make sure I was getting on board enough salts to stave off the cramping. The food stations on the ride were brilliant – overflowing with food and manned by helpful friendly marshals.
Around the second loop I hit some very low moments along some interminable up and down roads, exposed to constantly gusting winds. It’s fair to say this coincided with some uninspiring stretches of road – you can’t have everything all the time. Once this stretch was over there was a great long stretch of gentle downhill, and I was starting to play mental games to tick off the miles. After 100 I’d thought of 125 as a century-and-a-quarter, then 140 as my longest ride to date -from then on it would be 150 as two thirds, and so on.
Some of the scenery around Snowdonia was amazing – particularly the valley before the Drws-y-Coed climb, but some of it is now strongly associated with memories of dread. The first time I took on the climb of Pen-y-Pass the valley road was horrible. A long, gentle climb running east-west, but into a constant buffeting headwind. It was almost a relief to be starting the climb proper and to be out of the wind. The second time was even worse. I wasn’t too proud to shelter behind two other riders who were on one of the other sportives, possibly the Canol or the Mawr, until I was on to the Pen-y-Pass climb.
When I arrived at the Castle for the final time before I came back for the finish I was surprised by my girlfriend, who took a break from her exam revision and had used the online tracking system to guess when I would finish the second loop (the tracker estimated pretty accurately when I would get there). I had a quick chat, shoved more food down my mouth, and headed off for the final loop.
This was tough. I went out with one other rider, but on one of the first stretches along the exposed coastline my legs were just shot. I was beckoned through for a turn to share the wind, I wasn’t able to hold the pace. I let him head off, and continued on alone. The final loop being changed slightly (no longer taking in Drws-y-Coed), meant that the roads were unfamiliar. Unfamiliar roads are always slightly more mentally tough, and although my body wasn’t complaining massively – it appreciated a lower gear, but I wasn’t cramping or ‘bonking’ – the fact that I was heading away from home with litle clue where I actually was was hard. Once I could see Pen-y-Pass again, and this time the approach ignoring the windy valley road, my spirits picked up: I would soon be heading home.
My body had long since ticked over 200 miles, I was averaging an overall moving speed of high fifteens, and the sun was coming out for the final run in. My body was pretty weary, and I wasn’t massively looking forward to a tiny but annoying kicker of a climb near a little village called Ceunant – it had been an unexpected shift down of gears on the first time round, a tougher climb on the second, and on this final time it was an absolute grind. But after that it was downhill, and I could enjoy the run in, say congratulations to another Xtrem rider, before feeling strong enough (and egotistical enough) to push away from him on the run in to the castle, finishing the 226 mile route in 14 hours 27 minutes and 48 seconds.
I was greeted by the congratulations of the enthusiastic Always Aim High staff, who were making hot drinks, giving out biscuits, bananas, cheese and pickle sandwiches, chocolate, chocolate covered raisins, etc. etc.! I tried to eat as much as I could, and stuffed my pockets for later. A combination of eating on the route, and a stomach that had probably been starved of the blood supply diverted to my muscles for most of the day meant I could barely eat half of the cheese and pickle sandwich. At the finish I was given a special Etape Xtrem Tee, and a Etape Eryri slate coaster – a nice touch, both with the slate mines nearby that the sportive goes by, and as it’s a bit different from the standard medal (and probably better year round advertising to get people to attend again).
The Xtrem was brilliant. I found out more about what I could do on a bike than with anything else I’ve ever done. My body coped with the distance far better than I thought I would be able to, and I was still in decent shape at the end. I found it hard to sleep properly or deeply for a few days, but I was able to get on the bike back to Bangor the next day to save on the taxi fare with relatively little discomfort.
Would I recommend others go and take part in an Etape Eryri event or the Xtrem itself? Absolutely. It is a brilliant challenge, in beautiful scenery. It’s a well run event with friendly staff, brilliant nutrition and mechanical support with Xtrem riders supported by ocassional roaming cars. As mentioned Caernarfon probably merits a more relaxed stay than I had – and you will not regret eating out at Blas!
Am I going to enter again? Not likely any time soon. The difficulty of the challenge is still very fresh in my mind. As an event as well I feel that it is one that I have ticked off a bucket list – I feel that it is the type of challenge that I woud find harder to do again, harder to keep on going in those difficult moments knowing that I had already done a 200 miler before.
So – on to Coast to Coast in a day, and the nightmares of Hardknott and Wrynose…