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It can be hard to motivate yourself to get out when the days, let alone the nights are dark. The excess of Christmas hangs heavily around your middle and the prospect of a night outside isn’t much of a draw. It’s a good job not everyone thinks like this because if they did, ‘Mach ‘n Back would never have happened. I mentioned in part 3, that not very long after the last rider had finished the first BB200, plans were being formulated for another event, an event that would hopefully prise people off their sofas and into the mountains, forests … and let’s be honest, cafes and pubs of mid-Wales.

Forty-something riders arrived in back of beyond Wales on a splendidly cold January morning, all aiming to reach Machynlleth via a route of their own devising, which may or may not have taken in a number of suggested grid references. I’m sure they all hoped to make it back too; but that wouldn’t be for at least 24 hours and in some cases considerably longer. From the confines of the community centre, I thought the conditions were perfect. A few flakes of snow floated lazily past the window. The breeze that carried them was light but the air was crisp and cold, if something wet fell from the sky, it would likely be white and fluffy. As the crow flies Machynlleth and Llanbrynmair are less than 10 miles apart, even by road, the distance separating them is no more than 12 miles and is largely flat by Welsh standards … but there is a different way, a way that isn’t flat no matter who’s standards you go by. If you shunned the path of least resistance and opted to go in search of grid references, the potential for hills and the time taken to reach your destination, would increase considerably.

Dennis and Gnasher ready for the off.

As Sunday arrived, so did the returning riders. From 9am, a steady stream ambled their way into the warm confines of the community centre with tales of wintry conditions and numb digits. As some left for home, others appeared and slowly thawed themselves with tea and cake. Anyone unaware of what was taking place would probably have mistaken proceedings for some kind of self-help group meeting and soup kitchen hybrid. Ten hours after making the days first cup of tea, the last Mach ‘n Backer pointed their car towards the bright lights of civilisation and the question of, ‘what are you doing on the second weekend in January?’ was answered forever.

Hello, my name is Alan and I’m a bikepacker.

The rest of 2012 continued in much the same vain as the previous year and bikepacking bimbled along in its own little bubble … luggage was still produced by hand and only available from a tiny number of manufacturers and some people still unashamedly rode bikes with 26″ wheels. The WRT came and went while proving that there is a breed of off-road cyclist that still possesses a sense of adventure, a willingness to explore and an all consuming lust for cake … and the BB200 lost its moniker of ‘Hardest thing you can do on a bicycle in the UK’ to Steve Wilkingson and the Cairngorms Loop. It was a fact that probably did nothing to reassure the sixty plus riders who assembled themselves at Bear Bones Towers in October. Some were now veterans and vowed to complete the route faster than last year, while others just wanted to finish – unlike last year. In amongst the battle hardened, new recruits probably wondered quite what they’d let themselves in for until at ten o’clock the field fell silent. A mumbled ‘off you go’ released the tension and with it, a wave of riders crashed into the Welsh hills.

Although a bar had been set the previous year, there was little doubt that this year would see it raised further. The route remained identical, conditions were similar and yet, over five hours were knocked off the previous fastest finishing time and the black badge tally grew three fold … it appeared people were starting to take things quite seriously.

December could mean only one thing – the (by now) annual Winter Bivvy. The car-park of Nant-yr-Arian trail centre was chosen as a starting point, although there was never any intention to follow the little arrows and signs so lovingly placed by the forestry commission. A post on the forum a few weeks prior had netted a reasonable response which resulted in the owners of eight winter sleeping bags clogging up the overflow car-park around mid-day. 

Being only days before Christmas, we brought both fairy lights and Santa.

I recall being a little surprised that those in attendance were all familiar faces but really, I shouldn’t have been. Asking people whether they’d like to (a) put the next 24 hours of their life in my hands and (b) do it in the company of strangers, who may or may not be members of some obscure, cycling death cult, isn’t likely to be greeted by a hundred excited bikepackers jostling for position at the front of the queue. Anyway, that’s besides the point, so, if you’ve ever ridden the network of trails at Nant-yr-Arian, you will know that after the initial climb, you very soon find yourself in an expanse of what appears to be nothing but you shouldn’t let appearances fool you. If you know where to look, the area is covered with a maze of interesting tracks and trails and amongst them are even more interesting places to rest your head for the night … knowing that you’re equipped to spend the night outside and quite prepared to do so, obviously means you don’t have to, so, after sampling a variety of lesser known tracks, I played my ace card and deposited our merry band at the front door of an abandoned farm … a course of action that would become commonplace in future years.

Another year older, another WRT, a second BB200 and plenty of opportunities to get out in the cold weather. Forum numbers were steadily rising and interest in two wheel trampage appeared to be on the rise. Next time we’ll discover how bikepacking saved cycling and reveal the truth behind the legendary 2014 BB200 … it’s not for the faint hearted.

Part 5


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