Tour of Pembrokeshire

Saturday, 26 May 2018

Cycling up here however is perhaps a different challenge all together. I was certainly inspired to cycle to the summit myself and drop down the other side at speed. However at this point in the day, some riders were beginning to feel the full force of this climb, the heat of the sun and the toll on their bodies of already hours in the saddle.

This time last week.. I was lucky enough to be involved in the Tour of Pembrokeshire.  A sportive to beat any other.  For epic scenery, warm welcoming Welsh community spirit, renown local home grown and produced food, challenging climbs and of course sensational cycling.  For families and confidence builders, to ultra endurance cyclists, adventurers and Olympians.  A sportive unlike all, for all.

Of course as soon as I heard about the tour I wanted I ride it.. but on this occasion, I had a different role, one off the bike and out of my usual cycling kit.  I was to be ‘The Voice of the Tour’.

It was a beautiful sunny blue sky Friday afternoon as Luna the campervan and I trundled our way West, over the border into Wales and towards the Pembrokeshire coastline. I always find it exciting when I see the border crossing Wales sign, welcoming the passage from England and the promise of castle-rich lands and adventures.

My first sight of the sea was as I reached the road summit just before dropping down towards Newgale Beach and overlooking St Brides Bay.  My vista was something akin to a movie backdrop.  The blue sky met the sea, though what looked like a layer of mist lay just above, wrapping itself around the peninsula and rocky outcrop, mysteriously haunting as the sun beamed down with force.  It had been six months since my last visit to West Wales, and I couldn’t be happier to be back, Pembrokeshire National Park and all its wonder, welcoming me back with open arms.

I arrived at event HQ as set up was in full swing. ToP’s head chief and directeur sportif, Peter, was first to greet me, escorting me straight to the bar for my favoured tipple of a cup of tea, despite it being so warm out I’m wearing shorts, vest and sunglasses. Personally I believe every weather is tea weather and this was exceptionally well received.

Registration for the following day’s rides was followed by a hearty meal, drinks and good chatter, as I gave a short talk accompanied by my trusty handbike, about my own cycling journey and where my adventures have taken me so far.  At the end, a good number of people asked questions, came to look at my bike and I even got a few to sit in and experience it for themselves.  The pure-blood cyclists interested in the mechanics and comparisons with their own two-wheeled charges, youngsters full of fascination and parents keen to hear stories and share their own cycling life and experience.  I really love talking to people and giving a window into what I do and why I do it, especially the youngsters.  I believe completely that everyone should have the right and the opportunity to ride a bike, there is nothing more simpler nor greater, and I hope I can play a part in encouraging that.

That night I took to my bed in Luna under a clear Welsh sky.  I was excited for what the morning had in store.

It was an early start, my alarm set for 5am, and I was on the road heading to ToP HQ by half past.  The event village had been transformed, an inflatable start / finish gantry loomed above the lane as a countdown clock was being set up and PA system tested.  I parked up Luna around the back of the hubbub of the day ahead, nestled among the cowsheds and silage wraps, my own piece of calm as the sun came up and I began to feel the warmth on my face in the crisp early morning air.

It was time to take to the stage, for my role as Voice of the Tour of Pembrokeshire.

There were four distances riders could choose from, starting from a 25 mile ride, up to just over 100.  The 100 mile riders were the first to leave the start line, in split waves, a minute or so apart, making their way down the lane and out onto the course.  For all the distances, there were around 1400 cyclists, yet with thought out route planning, careful timing and staggered feed stops, it never once felt as though the lanes were awash with lycra and cycling calves.

My first job of the day was to give each of the early start waves a few words of wisdom alongside the starter and compere for the morning.  Everyone was very well behaved and no raucous heckling came my way, at least not from the cyclists!  I can only presume the thought of the 100 or so miles ahead of them and awaiting climbs, plus the early start had yet to kick start the cyclist adrenaline, as the riders steadily and orderly made their way across the start line as the Welsh national flag dropped to a cacophony of cowbells.

The first riders off, it was to the official tour car for me and my number two; my driver and the man behind the camera, Dave, ready to capture the essence of the tour in full technicolor.

My job was to get amongst the people, the riders, the marshals, the locals, the volunteers and feed stop hosts. The Voice of the Tour was to piece together the tour on film, interviews, fun chats and thoughts of the rides, the route, the delicious array of food, what was it about Pembrokeshire that keeps bringing them back, or brought them here, other that the incredible weather that had kindly joined us on the tour.

Our first stop was the first official feed stop for the 100 milers.  A beautiful coastal village at the south east corner of St Brides Bay, Little Haven treated early morning riders to freshly made jam sandwiches, welsh cakes and flapjacks, all locally made and manned by volunteers from Milford Haven Cadets outside The Corner Cafe under the Little Haven clock.

At first I was quite surprised to see how many cyclists stopped at this initial refuel, riders had a lot more hours of riding ahead of them and as a cyclist myself I would have quite possibly pushed on through to make good time.  Though within minutes of arriving in Little Haven I began to see why and began to realise this place, this ride, was about far more than the 100 miles.  It was about Little Haven and all the places in between much more than it was about times and being ‘the first’ back home.  Anyone who was that way in mind, was sure missing out.

As we took to the road for our next meet up point, I grabbed a piece of bread and jam for the journey and recounted my conversations so far.  Everyone was in good spirits, excited yet seemingly relaxed and most definitely enjoying the good weather.

Although I would have loved to be riding the route myself, being in the car, following the riders and having my own local tour guide was quite the treat.  For one I was able to see over hedges for a change and I made the most of snapping pictures and filming out of the car’s sunroof.

I was really enjoying my job as film content contributor and interviewer, the more we did, the more we learnt what worked and the more we knew who was likely to give us a unique angle of the cyclists side of Tour of Pembrokeshire and reasons for riding, and everyone who made this event what it is, which I quickly learnt was far far more than the beauty of cycling, that and more proved a special story to tell.

There were four feed stops in total, a stop at each for us to get in on the action, chat and hear stories from club riders through to multiple Ironmen and women, cyclists who had only started their bike journeys a year before, for health reasons, for happy marriage reasons, for challenge reasons, for their own reasons.  For some people this was their first ever sportive, and for others the Tour of Pembrokeshire had become a yearly staple, along with with the infamous haggis sausages on offer at Maenclochog.  The feed stations in general proved a particular highlight for many riders, the haggis taking centre stage, closely followed by Pembrokeshire buttered and salted potatoes, those I can definitely vouch for!  Not forgetting of course the flapjacks and welsh cakes.  Riders talked about the friendly atmosphere, the camaraderie, the local community and of course the weather.  If we could have ordered the most perfect weather it would have been this.  Blue cloudless sky, warm sunshine and no wind.  The weather gods were certainly on our side and it was clearly appreciated by all.

Before we left Maenclochog, I gave a short talk with cadets and staff from 2420 Squadron who were doing a fantastic job of supporting riders and were always on hand to look after bikes and help pump up tyres.  I was a real pleasure for me to speak with them and hear about their own sporting achievements.

At just over halfway on at least two of the routes came the Preseli Hills.  As one of the finest high walking grounds in Wales, with views as far as Ireland, deep into South Wales, and north up the majestic arc of Cardigan Bay towards Snowdonia, links ancient monuments and burial places, cairns and rocky tors.

Cycling up here however is perhaps a different challenge all together.  I was certainly inspired to cycle to the summit myself and drop down the other side at speed.  However at this point in the day, some riders were beginning to feel the full force of this climb, the heat of the sun and the toll on their bodies of already hours in the saddle.  For the first time we came across bikes lay down on the roadside as their riders, head between their knees collected their thoughts and their stomachs.  Seeing so much road ahead of them going up and up, seemingly endless, must have broken a few minds at that point.  But those that did push on through the wall, got to reap the glory of the downhill that followed and the feel of the air wicking away at salt-crusted brows and heavy legs.

Rolling into the penultimate feed station, Bluestone Brewery, a relaxed outdoor chill-out space with good vibes, summertime live music and the all important feast and fuel.

I had never experienced a sportive quite like this one.  And this seemed to run true with so many people I chatted with during my day filming.  This was the case for the volunteers and marshals as much as the riders and even roadside supporters, not one could work without the other and together, this tour had all the magical ingredients for something very special indeed.  I totally understood the love for this place, its people and communities.  It wasn’t something artificial, part of a conveyor belt of processed money driven characterless free-for-alls.  The Tour of Pembrokeshire is its people.  That’s what brings riders from far and wide again and again.  The people make it, the food from local people make it, the local communities, schools, businesses and support make it, every cyclist makes it.  All wrapped together in this incredible coastline and National Park, its quaint harbours and villages, its mountains and country lanes, its epic views and wild places, nature and wildlife.  There was not one thing that made the Tour of Pembrokeshire. It made everything.

Back at base, riders poured through the finish arch, cheered on by families and loved ones lining the lane waiting for partners and parents to push on home.  Many were enjoying the afternoon sun with drinks flowing and cow bells clanging.  Every cyclist I saw finish had a smile on their face, and I’m sure it wasn’t just for the relief of finishing.

Hundreds of bikes lines the walls around the event village, they had done their job for the day.  People lay on the grass and filled tables under the sun.  There were ice cream, local beer and even strawberries and fizz to celebrate the Royal Wedding, the other highlight of the year, only second to the ToP.  People were tired but happy.  A live band played, people danced and children played.  More hearty food was served as cyclists continued to return back base, fuelled with tales of the day and a good amount of cyclists tan.

I had had a fantastic day out and about and we managed to catch up with a few more people once back at HQ, it was important we got thoughts at the end of the day, had they changed since the six plus hours out on the road? People may have been a lot more tired than back at that first feed stop in Little Haven, but the energies and fondness of everything the day brought had not changed, it had only grown.

I was really happy to catch up with Tori James after the ride.  Patron of the Tour of Pembrokeshire and first Welsh woman and at the time youngest British woman to climb Mount Everest.  Tori was one person I did not want to miss the chance to speak to.  I could of easily chatted and listened about everything adventure and her incredible challenges well into the evening, but Tori and just finished her ride, her first event as a mum! and I wasn’t going to keep her away from enjoying the rest of the late afternoon’s sunshine with friends.  Though I do look forward to hopefully catching up with Tori again sometime, and without the camera and mic next time.  I did have on my list to try and catch up with Wales and British Lions Rugby legend, Shane Williams on route, but learning he had dropped from the 100 mile to a shorter route in preparation for a triathlon event the following day, we missed our chance with the second best Welsh great cycling the tour.  We did manage to catch up with a number of Shane’s team, all cycling or Velindre cancer centre.  They certainly didn’t let him off lightly with some great banter on camera for us, even the parts told in Welsh I knew were all in good spirits.

As the late afternoon blended into early evening, heavy legs and sun-blushed skin covered the grass and benches, with family and friends, drinking, eating and chatting the day away.

I took a few minutes of quiet and retreated to Luna for a cup of tea amongst the cows, the sun was low and covering everything in a sparkle.  I sat contentedly with my tea, as laughter and chatter washed over the barn into the evening air.

It would have been very hard to choose between experiencing the Tour of Pembrokeshire from bike or as I did this day.  I witnessed and experienced the heart of the tour and I learnt what the ToP essence really was, I had thoroughly enjoyed my day in a different role.

I am sure stories of the tour will be told for years to come and without doubt the Tour of Pembrokeshire 2018 will go down in the history books for its weather alone.  I have my own tales to tell and great memories made and I know without doubt, I will be coming back..