Roadtrip: Birmingham to Cardiff
It seems like a long time ago now, but it's only been a couple of months since I decided to cycle to Wales. It was a goal I had set in the early months of Lockdown and was brought about by the desire to reach my daughter Poppy for her birthday. Pops had moved back to Cardiff in February to start a new job, but with Covid in the mix, this meant that I wasn't able to reach her or see her for months and I missed her so much, riding to Wales seemed like a reasonable effort to make.
The idea of sneaking over the mountains by bike if we weren't allowed to travel, was a good way to focus my energy and direct my fitness goals during those early months. As the set-off date came closer it also seemed a long enough distance to raise some funds for Macmillan Cancer too, as part of their 'Ride Your Way' campaign. A few months planning routes and finding places to stay, it got me out of the house for regular training rides and made me rummage through my long distance running gear, which had been boxed up for the past couple of years.
I decided to break up the journey into 3 days, to give myself the best shot of not arriving at Pop's totally pooped out and hangry. This meant I could have a test run into the independence of travelling by bike alone, with the joy of a proper bed each night and easy ways to get fed. I stayed at a B&B in Malvern and a hotel in Usk, to avoid visiting too many places and to help keep my luggage to a minimum. I was also trying to keep my costs down too, so getting at least 1 meal at each place meant I could carry less food and stop at less places.
I really wanted to get into Bike Packing this year, but I wasn't quite ready for committing to wild camping on top of the ride.. I need to work up to that for 2021 and am planning trips complete with Tent / Bivvy Bags, but for my first solo trip, I wanted a few home comforts and I was still pretty worried about picking up illness on my travels and transporting it to Cardiff. The joy of anxiety is that it makes me plan meticulously and ensure that I am both safe and kinda aware of where I am heading.
It was a good test of my kit and route planning, on a fairly safe journey which was not massively unfamiliar, thanks to many years of travelling by car between these two cities, to visit my parents when Pops was younger. The best lesson learned though was that analogue route planning works in any conditions. My paper maps from Sustrans and a plastic pouch, proved way more efficient than my GPS unit.
My hearing aids are connected to my iPhone, so I don't like to rely on my phone as my main source of power or as a tracking device. If the phone runs out of batteries, then I can find myself unable to switch volumes and due to the wind whistling past my ears, they are usually turned down while cycling. Not life threatening in any way, but I like to know I can get myself out of strife, if an emergency comes up. Following my trip from Germany too, I have given a couple of family members my location tracking on my phone, so as long as it has juice, they know I am well and no-one needs to worry.
So the upshot is Paper maps = Good for everyone.
I also went for both a handle bar bag for food and electrics and a rear bag on the back with tools and spare inner tubes etc, plus a ruck sack of clothes.. I see you folks on Instagram clocking up your long miles with no spare kit, but trust me, I am not wanting to get stuck on a Welsh Mountain with a broken bike and a credit card begging for help, at any time of year, not just through the COVID era. The anxious will carry more than the brave and I am 100% cool with that ethos.
Getting the balance right with the extra baggage took a while and I had a couple of outings on short day rides up the local hills before tackling the Wales ride. I figured that if I could get up Romsley Hill with a loaded pannier rack, everything would be okay. I chose a route with hills that were either equal to the Romsley incline or less, or so I thought.. My practise runs also gave me chance to get used to hitting roundabouts, practising arm indicating and not wobbling off due to heavy baggage.. things that I don't think of normally, but which really helped me to gain confidence.
After getting used to short fast rides and leaving the house with the bike and little else for a few months, it was strange to be loaded up, but I got used to it over time. As some of my baggage was also filled with protein bars and extra nuts and other food, it also got lighter as the weekend rolled on, but carrying extra shoes and electrical kit on the handlebars took a while to suss out.
The first day from home to Malvern went well. I saw an elderly gentleman who had a branch stuck under his car in a lay-by on my way, so stopped and helped him, but aside from that it was a pretty straight forward day with a couple of energy bar and water stops. Its really nice to be out on wide open roads on the west side of Birmingham and out towards Worcester. Loads of rolling hills but fairly quiet roads and lots of fields and wide open sky to get enthusiastic pedal action on the go.
My route was planned on mostly A roads as I prefer to be on wider carriageways, even if this does mean trucks are nearby. I find it more nerve-racking to be on small country roads, where the hedges are high and the bends are plenty, so this day suited me well. I love my maps but on this day I realised that I had forgotten to look at the tightly weaving lines near to my final point of the day.
Yeah I know Malvern is hilly... now.. I didn't really look at how far up the hill my B&B was, but once I reached it, I was really really happy. 1st day in the bag, I arrived through the gate and into the garden of a beautiful house and was met by the owner Lisa, like a old friend who had dropped in. All worries left at the gate and I had a great nights sleep after a pep talk from my buddy Simon, then walking up to the local pub / restaurant for a pint of IPA and Chinese feast for one. Beautiful food - happily left alone - it was the first time I had been in a pub for months and it was a good reward after the hill. I'd definitely recommend this spot for any walkers or cyclists visiting the area.
Day 2 was going to be the longest of the riding days. Malvern to Usk was due to be about 86km, but being inept at using my GPS tool and happier with the handlebar paper map combo, I took a few diversions from the original plan. A few more hills than planned too, but thankfully training over the preceding months had kept the legs strong and I was about 2 stone lighter and feeling the benefit of all those cardio sessions. There are some beautiful sights between Malvern and Usk too, so took a detour into Ross for some lunch by the river and stopped to admire a town which I have driven around on the by-pass for 20+ years and not known how beautiful they were. Moody skies got me back on the bike after a short rest and heading on towards Monmouth.
I took a few wrong moves between these two towns. Mostly because I realised I had planned some of my journey on a road which was just too busy. I found myself on the M50 at one stage and and it really wasn't nice to be so close to the trucks as they are not used to seeing cyclists there. So I took an opt-out over the bridge into Whitechapel and fully took advantage of the cake shop and coffee to replan how to reach Monmouth in one piece. Somewhere between the pastry and the caffeine I hatched a plan to cut up through the forest and around some serious hills and farmlands, then drop into town and get some way back onto the quieter part of the plan.
Eventually after multiple f**k ups I got to Monmouth, pooped out and happy that the remainder of the day was pretty straight forward. There were many more people in Monmouth that I had seen elsewhere on my path and it was the first time I sensed the difference between how England and Wales were treating the pandemic. It was good to see people milling around after mostly a day of green hills, roadkill and being alone, but I was also a bit nervous about being amongst other folks again. I was very aware that I was potentially a travelling germ fest in other people's eyes, so I kept to myself when the rain poured down and I needed to take cover under the canopy of the petrol station for a while.
Prior to the downpour I had a little tootle through town and got to see another town I have visited around, or to get to Rockfield studios in another life. Unfortunately with the rain I missed my chance to drop by, but I remember those days with a lot of joy. Memories of playing table tennis in the barn and recording with Rocket Gold Star and others came flooding back to me.. Happy Younger Hip Hop Days.
But - I needed to get cracking on to Usk, to get some sleep and I had pre-ordered a Sunday Roast, so I had a mission to complete and good things waiting at the other end. I stayed in a really nice hotel in the centre of Usk, which was virtually empty but they had just put Butty Bach back on the taps, so 2 pints of ale, a full Beef dinner and a cosy bed were exactly the remedy I needed. I caught up on calls with family, friends and my training group via zoom in the evening and it was great to get a boost from everyone.
So on the final day, Pops' birthday, after a big breakfast and many coffees, I pushed on to the last leg to reach Cardiff via Newport. The ride out of Usk was easy and I mainly stuck to my route until I realised I had directions to go the wrong way down a one-way street and needed to re-route a little. The route from Usk to Cardiff starts off in pretty countryside, down through the valleys until you reach the industrial peaks of Newport. I got to cross over the bridge and rode past the Transporter Bridge - a younger me had Rip Wired from the Bridge to the ground to raise money for the Anthony Nolan Trust when I worked for the Wales Tourist Board. It's frickin huge and not something I ever want to climb again, but it was great to revisit it up close and admire its angles.
The road to Cardiff from Newport is easy and the bike lanes are pretty consistent around Newport docks and on towards the old St Mellons Road between the two cities. It's fair to say I was pretty low on energy physically, but knowing I was only an hour away from seeing Pops was enough to encourage me onwards and gave me an inner buzz. That and a few packs of peanuts and Trek bars were enough to get me over to the east of Cardiff and to my final destination, where I was so pleased to see her and give her a hug.
It was a great confidence booster to complete this ride and I would encourage anyone who is thinking about touring or taking a solo trip to give it a go. It's kept me on track through the year and given me the boost to try another few trips in future. I had planned on another route this year, but with the 2nd lockdown in the way, I haven't ventured too far yet. One day it will be okay to try again. In the meantime there's plenty of time to research routes.
I found my accommodation via Beds for Cyclists, but the site is down at the moment. This alternative is called Cyclists Welcome - run via Cycling UK and has lots of choices
Yes I am a big old maps geek and Yes I am okay with that
Have a go and see where you end up xx