The first stage of the TransWales kicked off beneath optimistic skies as the 180 riders rolled out from the start town of Builth Wells at 9:00 am on Sunday, August 16. The upbeat character of the day's weather was a far cry from the monsoon of last year and a sign (all and sundry are hoping) of good things to come.
Riders arrived from around the globe, with no less than 13 nationalities and four continents represented, including the US, Finland, Sweden, Italy, Germany, Belgium, Ireland, and Holland. Africa is also represented for the first time in the shape of 28-year-old Kenyan Nickson Mwaura, a second-hand clothing dealer from Gilgil, near Nairobi - a place that Nickson explains is characterized by rocky and technical riding. With plenty of rocks and singletrack on the menu during the week Nickson should feel fairly at home, despite the relative cold.
The opening stage was billed by course designer and Builth Wells local John Lloyd as a "warm up"; it would ease riders' legs into the rhythm of things without the strain of tackling one of the time trial special stages - the riders will be unleashed on the first of these tomorrow at the Climachx trail, near Machynlleth.
The stage took riders all of 91km and 1650m of climbing from Builth Wells to Llanidloes in the north, via three passes - Carn Gafallt at 393m, Moelfryn at 522m, and Blanc Du at 422m - and the flooded Elan Valley with its spectacular sequence of reservoirs and dams. With firm going under tyre and a variety of trail deployed for the event's opening gambit, the mileage was liberally eaten up. A fairly hefty slab of tarmac and cycle path aided progress still further. But the weather was the greatest factor with little damp of greasy spots to slide riders off-trail along the way.
Out of Builth, and the trail worked its way towards Newbridge-on-Wye and then Llanwrthwl before ascending to the purple heather covered plateau of Carn Gafallt. From here, riders dropped down an all-too short but loose fire road descent before dropping to the shore of Caban-coch Reservoir, the most southerly of the Elan Valley's manmade lakes. The route then hugged the shores of the four reservoirs, steadily climbing, before reaching the windswept lunch stop. Then came the trail of the day: the descent off the top of Moelfryn to the River Wye (Afon Gwy in Welsh).
Gently dropping off the moorland top, the trail quickly became a boulder and gulley strewn adrenaline fest which instilled a do-or-die mentality to plummeting downwards. Rounded boulders embedded in the dirt became inviting kickers over wheel-grabbing (and destroying) trenches; rock slabs became perfect flat banks for railing turns and carving high lines; and loose babyheads kept riders loose and hanging it out until the full-fat 3km descent finally came to an arm-pumped close by the riverside.
Brendan Stevens and Steve Marks, winners of Mountain Biking UK's TransWales competition, rolled into the finish of the day's stage at Llandilioes rugby club buzzing after their first taste of big day riding in the heart of Wales. "We can't believe more people don't do this: we're loving it," said Brendan. "We normally go out and blast for two hours, taking the mick and enjoying all that banter, but today we paced ourselves and finished feeling really strong. It meant we could take in the scenery and really enjoy it. It was stunning."
Brendan entered MBUK's competition by text, but when he was called by the magazine to congratulate him on his win, he thought he'd won a bike. "Seriously, I couldn't remember entering," he said, "but I enter so many competitions I must've lost track."
Nickson Mwaura completed the day's stage comfortably and was looking forward to being let off the leash on the first special stage at the Climachx trail. Nickson only arrived in the UK two days before the start, and his only taste of British riding - up until the start this morning - was a lap of Richmond Park in London. But not only is the event his first ever stage race, but it's the first time he's ever ridden a full suspension bike, too.
Nickson is here for the tough competition and to gauge himself against it, but above all to learn: to learn how to pace himself for stage events, and to learn the discipline required for stage racing. But he's no stranger to winning: he's white-washed pretty much everything he's entered since his first race in 2003. At home his exploits have elevated him to hero status, something that he takes seriously and selflessly as he's now mentoring four younger riders, as well as organizing charity races for Kenyan conservation causes.
Speaking with him after the close of the day's stage, he said that he'd like to be competitive and win the men's solo category, but is pragmatic that to finish first, first he must finish. "The cold air was the worst thing today: I'm not used to riding in these conditions. But I very much enjoyed it and found myself faster on the singletrack than other riders but was a little slower on the flat. I read about this event in magazines for the last three years and I dreamt about gauging myself against the other riders and now I am here."
Asked how he started riding he explained that, "I just fell in love with mountain biking through my brother when I was at school. I wanted to be a conservationist but my mother didn't have the money for the extra schooling so I thought, "I cannot fly in the air, but here on the ground with the dirt and the rocks and the geology, I can ride and still be part of it." Completing an event is the best thing to experience: winning comes later. But finishing is the greatest. Then, if you’re good enough to grab the win - then you should grab it as no-one wouldn't like that."
With no special stage on opening day, the leader board is currently blank, however tomorrow's stage - all 85km and 2,900m of climbing (but with 3,100m of descending) of it - will see the first special stage on the technical Climachx trail, and with it the first leaders of the TransWales. As Nickson says, "The real job starts tomorrow. It's about to get interesting."