Day three brought a little bit of trepidation. It was on the final day in October half-term that I fell (taking a photo no less) and nearly broke my elbow.
So still fairly full of food I sat down to another stunning cooked breakfast and picked at my food. I was full yes, but I also was a little bit nervous ahead of the day. I wasn't looking forward to more climbs - on tired and worn legs - and I was worried about having escaped two days without major bail that my big crash was due today.
The others were all full of energy, Geoff naturally was excited about hiring a full suspension bike and getting out there and hammering around, Nick wanted to crush everything in site - always a good sign and Paul was returning to something like his normal self, complete with self-depreciating confidence (an impressive feat). After breakfast it was time to clear the rooms and get ready for the days ride. However being so full I suggest to Nick that instead of getting ready for 40 minutes we should do 30 minutes of napping and 10 minutes sorting out.
He gladly agreed.
We were 20 minutes late to reception.
Actually we were late to everything this week, dinner, breakfast, being ready for rides. We were however first in the bar on Tuesday night though. So you know swings and roundabouts.
Fortunately most of the clothes had dried over night so we were not forced into wearing wet gear. It was while getting ready that the toll of the previous days cycling began to become apparent. Small niggles in shoulders and wrists, bruises on knees and shins and half a dozen small cuts and scrapes the causes of which can never be recollected.
Its worth pointing out that mountain biking is a pretty much whole body activity. From your legs up, obviously you are pedaling uphill a lot but when you're going down hill your legs, ankles, knees and hips are all acting as shock absorbers, Your back and core is constantly shifting your balance so they get a heavy workout too and your arms and shoulders are at times doing just as much work as your legs. In fact it is the upper body strain that tends to surprise people the most. This coupled with the CV requirements of lung bursting climbs and adrenaline pumping downhills - that are exciting whatever speed you are going at. All leads to it being a pretty hardcore and extreme sport. This is of course without taking into account two of the biggest features that sap strength, energy and fatigue you. One, mountain biking requires incredible focus and attention. You can't look up and survey the scenery on a downhill, well not safely. You have to be picking your line, looking for loose rocks to avoid and shifting your balance and bracing yourself for descents and drops. This is also affected on climbs when you want to give up and go home so not only is it requiring a high level of concentration downhill but also a high level of mental toughness and resilience on the climbs. This is especially true when your legs and back are burning and the top of your climb disappears into the clouds. Two, this is an outdoors sport on a mountain. The weather can often be rubbish and changeable, very quickly. Keeping spirits up and being positive can be very very tricky as we found on Tuesdays ride. No one, apart from Geoff it seems, can be 100% happy when you are wet, cold, and having to do 'just one more climb' before any end is in a vague sight.
So the packing was done, the changing was done and we were wandering out for our final ride. Having already done 30+ miles in two days and not really being a cyclist my rear end had gone from uncomfortable to full fledged pain factory. I however, like Baldrick, had a cunning plan. Instead of wearing just one pair of padded shorts. I wore three.
Three is the magic number.
While being on the bike would still be slightly sore, there would be much less pain that anticipated and the rest of the day would not be marred by agony every time I attempted to get on the bike.
First we had to check out though. Bar bill paid - a very reasonable amount - we collected our bikes from the lock up and bide the owner fair well, until of course we return. I can't speak highly enough of the lodge and their staff. Very friendly, very welcoming and exceptional value. Even if you're not into biking its a stunning location and a great place to stay just for walks or as I plan to do, go on some trail runs.
OK plug over and discount for next visit secured time to describe the ride.
Geoff cheated and drove the first 4.5 miles because he needed to hire a bike. So Nick, Paul and I cycled over to Glyncorrwg to meet him. We then began the accent to the top of Whites Level. Which unfortunately for me, the non-climber, was the same climb as on Blade the day before.
However determined to suck it up and, in Nicks words 'smash it' I gave it the best I could and ascended much quicker and mostly on the bike this time. There were still moments of 'cyclocross' needed especially as the sodden earth (only 5 non-wet days since December apparently) and high winds had brought down a lot of trees.
It's something I forgot to mention yesterday but there were a fair amount of sections where we had to stop to wind our way past a fallen tree, be that under it, over it or around it - which is pretty interesting on the side of a mountain.
I know I have joked about 'cyclocrossing' but having jumped on and off the bike to run up parts I couldn't cycle - at one point I was walking past Nick while he continued to pedal on - and climb over obstructions I have nothing but respect for people that do actual cyclocross. I would also, one day, like to give it a go as it does look fun, and muddy! Maybe track cycling in a nice warm velodrome first though, yes?
We also stopped a few times for some photos, I am sure Geoff will put them up at some point and I know I will put up the ones I have on my memory card as soon as I can. There was even time to pull a Tyrion Lannister and wee off the edge of the world (mountain) which was very exciting.
Actually a quick word on the photographs, there are some awesome pictures from the break and I will add some too another blog post when I have a chance, we also managed to get photos shared around this time which meant some actual ones of Geoff cycling for a change. Including an epic one of him performing a jump off a boulder (well done Nick). Unfortunately there isn't a single photo of me manualing but there is one of me cycling in the clouds which I really like, swings and roundabouts eh?
So we made our way up the mountain again and reached the summit. Instead of going off and down the Whites Level descents we made a slight detour. Geoff and Nick were too have a go at a Black run (ooooh) and Paul and I take the fire road down to the end to get some photos of them finishing.
The fire road down to the end of the Black run was steep and fast and I managed to get the bike up to a mighty 28mph which is pretty exciting and as fast as I would ever want to go on a bike.
We shall see.
However the end of the Black run looked pretty deadly. With sharp rocks and sheer locking drops I was very glad I had chosen not to give it a go. I don't believe that it wasn't all that bad and it was only the end that was difficult, it is a Black run in the midst of lots of very tricky routes for a reason.
Geoff shot round the end like it was nothing major, standard, and looked incredibly smooth and controlled. Paul got some great photos and afterwards we found that Geoff had rode the last bit on a flat tire. Which is even more impressive. Less impressive waiting for ages for the inner tube to be replaced though.
Nick was up next and made it round and down, unfortunately the camera was playing up and Paul couldn't get footage of Nick finishing. This was made worse by Nick's epic bail right at the end of the run where the bike squirmed to the left of him and he went to the right. Nick ended up face down in the gravel and the bike in some trees. He was ok though, if a little sore.
Once Geoff was back to having two functioning wheels we set off up the fire road, the long and steep fire road. The long and steep fire road where the end was hidden by clouds. This was the time where my striding was just as quick as Nicks pedaling.
However at the top of the fire road was the first descent on Whites.
In order the descents are Windy Point, Energy, Goodwood and New Down.
Looking at the data from Strava I was slower on a few of the downhills than I was in October. Faster in a lot of the places but I think the downed trees and stopping to chat to Nick, Paul and occasionally Geoff meant the overall time was slower.
Oddly this means that being closer to the others and probably quicker generally - I certainly felt quicker and more comfortable on the bike - meant that I was slower in places because we would stop and chat or something.
Maybe the slower sections were from where the rain water had pooled and it was very muddy.
Maybe and this is most likely stats and timings don't matter, I felt much better on the bike and still had an absolute riot. That I think is all that should matter. Yes lets go with that.
If only I was higher on the leader boards though...
So Windy Point was the first downhill, this includes an awesome waterfall and normally the sight of riding under wind turbines. The waterfall was still there but the cloud cover meant even though the wind turbines were close you could not see them.
Windy Point is a short and breezy section (see what I did there) which is a lot of fun to ride with just enough challenge to make it difficult without it being dangerous or hard. There is at the end the option of some jumps. I did not take them on, there are not for a manual but Geoff did and it was here Nick got the quality shots of this.
Energy is in a similar vein, great fun a few strength sapping uphills and the site of my big bail last time.
This time however no crashing and I even went down the big rock at the end.
Nick went first this time so he could set up and grab some photos of us all as we went round, these look good although I was far to upright if I am honest - boo. It did mean, just like with Windy Point, that I was riding near to someone else through the section which was a nice change. I missed Nicks big bail though he pulled the same trick as on the Black and went a different direction to his bike this time landed pecs first on the ground.
It didn't sound pleasant to me either.
Energy finishes on the duckboards through a forest and is very twisty and tight and a lot of fun.
All assembled after the big rock descend we rode off to Goodwood, some faster than others and I must admit I had to 'cyclocross' a few bits of the incline to get there.
Goodwood is a great bash through a wood - as you might expect - with the added bonus that the normal route is still closed. The alternate route (great band name) is along a stream. Which is ace.
This was the closest point I came to bailing. During a small drop (less than a foot) I let the bike go too far forward and ended up missing the saddle and sitting on the tyre.
Fortunately my 8 pairs of padded shorts protected the family jewels but I did manage to scrape the inside of my left thigh. That stung.
Plus my pride as a little jolted if I am honest, I had no rode perfectly but I had ridden - I feel at least - much better than the last time I was at Afan. This felt a bit like a schoolboy error.
Anyways I finished Goodwood to find Nick having burst a tyre. So another change on inner tube needed. Luckily Geoff seems to be well versed in changes. Plus it was marginally warmer on this side of the mountain to the side where Geoff did his rear wheel.
A quick change, some food and drink taken on and a comment on how Paul at altitude was much more sweary than Paul at sea level and we were off to the New Down which is the final section.
The reason why I have gone into a bit more detail on these sections is that they were, by general consensus, much more fun than Blade. That is not to say Blade won't be ace but at the minute it is still new and bedding in. The wet weather has meant that a lot of Blade is too muddy to really enjoy at the moment plus it was a hell of a lot of climbing for two decent downhill sections. Whites seems to have a shorter climb for more downhill parts. Which gets my vote.
The New Down section starts a bit ominously. There is a row of trees (big trees) uprooted by the winds. They have taken down a stone wall as they have fallen and leveled a few smaller trees on their way. The roots of the trees still have soil attached and some of these tree root balls must have been at least 8 feet tall. The voids in the earth where the roots have been ripped out have filled with rain water to give eerie pools of muddy water.
All very reminiscent of the top of Blade which with its tree stumps and marshy pools was very much like a battlefield from WWI.
The descent down to the cafe is on the open side of the mountain. It is steep, it is quick and it is pretty tricky in places. Naturally Geoff was a dot on the landscape, Paul having regained much of his confidence was also pretty rapid and Nick had spent the day 'giving it the beans' and was off.
This was the last section of the last day.
I had made it this far without a bail.
I did not want to bail down the side of a mountain.
I had also completed this section before.
So I went within my limits and within my ability. It was not quick by other standards but it was quick enough for me. Picking lines through loose rocks and over slickly wet boulders with nothing to catch you on your right hand side was enough justification for a cautious approach. As the altitude plummets and the road gets closer in view the temptation was to get confident and start going faster. However the single track is probably about two feet wide maximum. I was not taking and chances. I kept myself low to the bike and did not do anything fancy - until the end when I finished with a manual.
Eventually Geoff, Paul and Nick ceased to be specks on the horizon and were once again fully sized people. The Whites Level was complete and I had not fallen and had not gotten injured. Could I have gone a bit faster, maybe but then I might also have ended in plaster. I enjoyed it, a lot more than on Tuesday. Maybe I was just getting into the swing of it. Probably it was the fact we did less climbing and this was a route I had done before. I don't know if I could have done a 4th day - Geoff said he could - but I don't feel cheated out of time on a bike this time.
Will I be rushing out to buy a mountain bike? Probably not just yet. I have a road bike that I need to ride more and I do honestly prefer trail running to hurtling down a mountain or slowly climbing and slipping on rocks every now and then.
We returned the bikes to the hire centre, got some tokens for showers and cleaned off - 2 minutes each then switched in for the next person.
Then we finally got to eat some Welsh Rarebit - apart from Paul who had jacket potato again.
Bikes on the rack and people squished in among bags and wet clothes and we were on our way.
To Port Talbot to get petrol.
The industrial end of Port Talbot looks like it makes the clouds that we spent most of our days in, it is a grim looking place and worlds away from the Afan Valley which is so near to it and so lovely.
A very long drive home - the only route that seems longer going home than going there - and we were all back in Kent and back to reality.
An amazing few days and we can't wait to go back, though maybe not for just biking next time.
The ride from day three can be found here.
Guys, hope I didn't miss too much out.