Matt Jones’ Bristol to Liverpool test ride

Bristol to Liverpool Mtb Adventure : EPIC

” I hooked up with Vince from MTB Epics UK for the second time after a great blast around the outskirts of London for the ‘Smoke Ring Challenge’ previously (read about that one here). This time something a bit bigger was on the cards and certainly more remote, with the plan to ride 260 miles from Bristol to Liverpool off-road in two days. I had originally eyed it up to do in one hit but decided against as that would almost certainly take more than 24 hours and be a lot more faff to organise and pull off. Equally, perhaps softening in my older age, I had wanted to take some company along to enjoy the miles with so I put a shout out for willing sufferers. Tom and Sophie Halhead had hands straight in the air with a plan to do a day each whilst Fran who later unfortunately couldn’t join was also keen. So with our gang assembled, Vince and his mate Iain Kemp were ready as vehicle support to allow us to crack on in the quickest time. We planned a big day one of 147 miles/5000m to Bridges in Shropshire where a pub and YHA awaited. We hoped about 12-13 hours of riding given a mix of trails and backroads with regular hand ups of resupply but the weather had other ideas! 

Storm something or other flared up the day before and we convened at the harbourside in Bristol to pouring rain and some really strong winds. We would have made the distance in about 6 hours if that wind was behind instead of against us I bet! 

Me and Tom cracked on out through Bristol taking in a lovely little bit through Blaise Castle and finding some really quiet back roads and trails that neither of us had ridden before whilst heading north towards the Severn Bridge. Making great time, we approached the bridge to see it unsurprisingly closed to road traffic but fortunately still open for bikes. We crouched as small as possible but were barely moving forwards and it was a bit scary at this point, not a good sign. We made it across though (whilst dodging motorbikes using the cycle path)! 

The hours ticked away as we chewed the fat and looked nervously up at the mountains to come. The first real test was climbing up to the The Blorenge to Keepers Pond where a cocktail of some super lumpy moorland stuff and massive headwinds meant for a 40 minute ascent. We were controlling the effort well but it wasn’t quick. I realised at this point I had overgeared the bike and there would be some slow winching to come. Spectacular views awaited though at the top where we met the support vehicle. A fabulous,fast descent with some singletrack rockyness on to open moorland followed. It quickly became apparent that descending was going to be a challenge in the conditions. Some of the gullied rock sections were tricky enough without the added bonus of feeling with someone was constantly tried to shove you off your bike sideways. Whilst riding downhill at 25mph on an open moorland slope, across came a massive gust. I had just about survived being blown off the side of the hillside by about an inch after being fortunate enough to have positioned myself far enough away on the opposite side of the trail! Looking back over my shoulder Tom hadn’t quite been as lucky as he had his bike swept from under him and off down the steep banked hillside. After picking ourselves up we agreed this was quite a challenge! 

At this point our average speed had dropped way down but we were riding within ourselves knowing it was a big day and there was no point thrashing ourselves early on. We regrouped and headed off to the gamechanger for the day – the climb in the heart of the black mountains north of Crickhowell. A four mile climb is long in anyone’s book but the conditions as we ascended got worse and we could barely move forward. It started becoming quite dangerous as we were both barely able to stand up or ride. We were both pretty quiet at this point knowing we needed to concentrate and keep moving forward, as stopping here would make us cold pretty quick and it felt very exposed. After 50 minutes of climbing up the Vale of Grwyne we made it to the top, after a quick pat on the back and brief look at the amazing view, we headed cautiously down some fast open grassy trails (ridden slowly). At this point we had both eaten and drank everything a while back so we were running on empty for the next few miles to the next meet up point. We stopped to make a call to Vince to check in that we were in fact still alive but a bit shaken if we were honest and that we might need to reassess what was safe to try and ride for the rest of the day and ultimately what we would have time for before it got dark. 

We met up with Vince and Iain who provided one of the best tasting cups of tea I’ve ever had. I ate two Torq energy bars and a banana instantly as we discussed what to do for the rest of the day. We were about 75 miles in but had taken over 8 hours meaning our average speed had been totally decimated. We roughly calculated at this rate we would finish about midnight, not something we had come prepared for so we made the sensible decision to ride down the mountain a bit more and then hop in the van to take us up the road to enable us to finish the last 25 miles back to Bridges which would take in some great trails and a classic Long Mynd Descent. This would still mean well over 100 miles and most of the scheduled climbing. The van journey was far too short for my liking and we immediately had another steep climb up to Hopton Woods although a mere 15 minutes this time. We were well rewarded with some nice built singletrack trails. We made it up and over The Long Mynd in good time and eventually dropped down to end day 1 about 7.30pm. So minus 45 minutes in the van, It was still a long day in the saddle and we managed to get through about 107 tough miles in just under 11 hours of riding. We picked up a few KOM’s between us as well suggesting we weren’t hanging about. 

Hands up though, I think even in good weather we had underestimated some of the terrain and 147 miles in daylight on that route would be a big ask for anyone at this time of year. 

Three courses and a pint in the pub and a debrief before an early-ish night for the team. Having Vince and Iain on hand to help with getting bikes and gear sorted at night and in the morning was an absolute godsend, thanks guys! Sophie had arrived that night with little Sam as well to take the Halhead baton onwards for day two. 

After a surprisingly good night sleep in the dorm room in the YHA, another challenge was presented of how to extract my bike from the locked bike store when the reception wasn’t open. Fortunately crafty Vince had spotted where the key was hung up in reception and through literally a slither of space on the reception shutters we managed to reach in and ‘borrow it’ to free my steed! 

We got on the road just after 7am and conditions were immediately a lot better. Still pretty windy but we could move forward and there was even a hint of sunshine. An immediate haul out of the village meant a few breakfast burps but now with Soph in tow we soon winched up to yet more awesome views. Holding back on day one was definitely helpful at this point as I felt pretty fresh. Stiperstones and Eastridge Woods was an early highlight with some super flowy built trails and some really steep rooty stuff thrown in that would keep downhillers happy let alone the lycra clad amongst us. 

There were some slightly longer road sections on this day which were also a bit wider to help keep up the average speed. Me and Soph made a decent team with a bit of time trialing along the flat sections where we could. The big test of the day though was the middle section though that we called ‘Jaws’! This section comprised of a series of steep ups and downs that were going to be leg sapping, including a 25% long climb past a church meet up point. The day was filled with lots of whoops as the views, climbs and descents were brilliant. Throughout the whole ride, although there was obviously going to be lots of linking road sections, they really didn’t feel that long so it definitely felt like a mountain bike ride not a gravel adventure (a gravel bike would get destroyed here). On that note Vince had picked out some crazy rocky descents on day two to add to the ones from the previous day that were pretty tasty on my hardtail. The Halheads on matching full sussers with droppers definitely had the right idea for those sections. We were having so much fun though. Somewhere in the middle of Jaws when Iain had joined us for a section, we were piling down a super long rocky gully with big boulders and sharp slate all over the place, when I came across Soph half off to the side who looked round at me with quite a significant amount of blood pouring out of her face from an altercation with a tree/bush thing. More concerning was the apparent hole in her neck which miraculously just turned out of be a surface scrape rather than anything deeper thank god. Fortunately Vince had appeared to take a photo so we were able to patch up from the van and crack on, Soph is tough…

‘The mega climb’ up to Llandegla loomed all day but we knew that would pretty much signal the end of any further climbing all the way to the finish. We kept going on the ups and downs and after seeing the guys taking a photo at what turned out to be the top of the aforementioned climb we were very pleasantly surprised that we’d made it to the top quite quickly. Amazing what a good chat and good scenery can do for passing the time! We flew through Llandegla Forest past lots of people out for a 15 mile jaunt, us smugly thinking to ourselves ‘if only they knew’..

After yet another long, rocky, wet and muddy descent down to the Cheshire flatlands, we eventually picked up some nice canals and big wide shared use paths around The Wirral when we made some serious headway meaning we’d finish at a reasonable hour. We rolled in alongside The Mersey in awe of where we had been that day and where we had ended up. So cool to think of the adventures that bikes can provide us with! Vince had also cleverly finished the route at a pub so I got the pints in whilst we waited for everyone to convene. 

After day one I had been thinking in the back of my mind about whether we might need to cut short day two as well so it was pretty satisfying to get the job done in full and lessen Vince’s taking the piss opportunities slightly. It definitely didn’t feel like day one was quitting but equally it was a confidence boost to feel really strong all day despite the miles in the legs on day 2. Hopefully a good sign for later in the year. Both Tom and Soph rode brilliantly throughout and were fab company. Who knew two full days of riding could fly by so quick.. Apart from one crash per family member no major incidents to report. I think I somehow managed to stay on my bike and my gammy nerve damaged hand stayed intact as well which was a bonus. 

The highlights were definitely the scenery and rocky descents but also spending time with Tom, Soph, Vince and Iain which restored my faith in humanity that organising a big ride doesn’t have to be a horrible trauma! Oh and the KFC mega bucket for one was good as well.

The route plotting was great throughout and I can’t remember many double backs or anything like that. Having a couple of navigation devices with you and means of charging is a must for these sorts of things. Vince likes to do things differently so you won’t always get the obvious route but you can guarantee you will have an epic adventure.

Massive thanks to Vince and Iain for their support, to Tom and Soph for such fantastic company and especially for giving me a lift home at midnight after a very long day! “