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Fifty miles around the Pembrokeshire coast: The first calm day.

Updated: Apr 29


The day was young and the sun was bright. The breeze flowed through the trees where birds were singing their choral delight. And then there was me and J. Like two spare parts in a world of perfection we were flustering through yet another problem. “It won’t move”, he said. It was his wheel again. We’d spent the last few hours psyching ourselves up for this day. And we were prepared. We’d packed up everything we needed and unpacked everything we didn’t. We’d brought plenty of energy supplies, a lightweight change of clothes in case anything got hairy while out there, and we were dressed according to the weather. Thermal bottoms (which we’d later regret), a base layer (me) and a bright fluorescent set-up for J. We were going out on a ride, but unlike other rides, we were in this for the long haul. Our golden rule was that we were not to return home until sunset. But before we begin to stray our minds into this romantic idea of riding off into the sunset, this is me and J, and probably like you too, that is not our story. After all of this packing and pruning, we hadn’t made it a mile or in fact, even out of the garden. J’s wheel had well and truly seized and so no riding for us, that was the end of that.



A black and white photo of a bike leaning against a tree in a rural village.


Last week, I wrote about anxiety and how I was beginning to fear being out on the bike. This week, that story and those feelings couldn’t feel more distant. That isn’t to say that I no longer have anxiety, because I do and it will likely always be a problem in my life, but it’s strange how quickly other things can happen and take you elsewhere. How other anxieties can replace the initial thing that you were worrying about. How news events can stall you like a rabbit in headlights, bringing back memories of things you had long forgotten. How travelling to a different place on a very different day can bring a new wilderness of emotion. What I am saying here, is that a lot can change quite quickly, for good or bad. As I came to the end of that last blog post, wondering whether the next ride would cancel out what I experienced that day, I’ve since realised that sometimes we need to experience these negative things to be able to reframe and truly move forward. Towards the end of that post, I mentioned that we were about to go out on an endurance ride the following day. This is the story of what happened.



Leaving home.


After J’s bike wheel had seized (not for the first time), we both thought that was it, ride over. But after a bit of wiggling and shifting around, J managed to sort the culprit - it was just a brake cable gone rogue and thankfully did not need a diversion to a bike shop (unlike my bike yesterday but that’s a story for another day). We headed out straight from home and it was a beautiful morning. After months of Wind Collection 25-45mph, today was different in both mood and weather. I’d promised myself that this ride was about the long haul and not going to be framed around segments and speed. With that, we’d set a few promises amongst ourselves. J was to tell me if I started to ride too fast or go into sprints. I often don’t realise when I’m doing it as I don’t have a device on my bike, only my watch which is hidden under my layers. I get cold very quickly and it tends to lose my heart rate if I keep my arms out. The joys of Raynauds. So within a few minutes of leaving home, and a big wave to my mate as she drove past us, we then came to our first descent. ‘You need to calm down!’, came a booming voice drafting me down the hill. This descent is tiny but the road is wide and it’s just fun to drop down it. But I needed to reassure J. He was worried that this was the start of things to come. As we climbed out of the hamlet I explained. ‘I’m ok, I’m not pacing’. A lot of our anxieties are shared like this, one of us calms the other down.


As we took our first climbs of the local lanes and began to warm up, the ride already felt different. Knowing that there was no pressure on time, or pace gave a deep sense of calm. The day before this ride, I’d shared the recent blog post about the panic attacks I’d been having. A Twitter friend had suggested me a book called ‘Breath’ by James Nestor, which I’d picked up and already begun reading. Each of these climbs gave me time to focus on regulating my breathing, something I’d previously been struggling with which was resulting in panic attacks. As I reached each hill I told myself to go gently, breath deeply and chill the hell out - in through the nose to warm the air into my lungs, and accept that you’re going to be out of breath. It’s a hill. Honestly, this stuff sounds horrendously cringe, I know. But it worked for me that day and it has done since. Even as I broke a sweat and my heart rate was climbing, rather than that translating into red alert 'You’re having a panic attack', it was now, 'You’re climbing a hill'. It’s as though I needed to retrain my brain to not respond in its fight-or-flight mode. And it really did work. As we reached the top of a particularly large climb my heart rate had got to around 160bpm peak, whereas usually at this point I’d be at my max. Breathing well really works to calm everything down, both in mind and body.



A black and white photo of a bike overlooking an empty rural lane.

The first village.


After a quick strip behind a hedge as I now needed to ditch my base layer, we rolled into the first village of the day. A tiny little place on top of a huge hill. The sort of place that is the setting of books and fictional places. The early morning glow was still with us at this point. An old couple sat out on their porch in chairs enjoying this first calm day of spring. An even older dog wandered slowly across the green sniffing the grass and inspecting scents. It was all very quaint. And so we visited the public toilet of this place and then headed off down a wide open road that sits beside the coast. This is the only footage we got of this ride as unfortunately we’d not charged the camera properly before heading out. We've not watched it yet but if it's any good we’ll share it on YouTube soon.


A photo of two bikes overlooking a rural village.


The sea.


Within a few minutes of leaving the village on top of a hill, we rolled into another at the bottom of two very large hills. This one is at sea level in a cove. It’s a really pretty place and, that morning, no one else was here. It was low tide so the sea was right out but the sky was deep blue something, the gulls were out in force, there was no wind, nor fog. It was just stunning.



A photo of two bikes overlooking a Pembrokeshire coastal cove.

A selfie of a man and a woman wearing bike helmets at a Pembrokeshire coastal cove.


A new and very cool addition for Pembrokeshire toilets is that water fountains have been set up outside of them. I promise, we don’t just visit public toilets, but these things are so key and can really make or break a ride. Riding on a bursting bladder and running out of water is not fun, a lot of rural communities don’t have shops you can just call into. These fountains are free to use and so far we’ve seen them in two different coast locations over the last week. So keep an eye out, as there may be one at a toilet near you.





We were now ready to roll once again, with around 15 miles covered so far and many miles and climbs ahead of us. The first climb out of the cove was a leg burner, steep and lengthy although there are more intensive climbs in the area such as Newgale (we didn’t include this on this route). The good thing about climbs on coastal and rural lanes is that you don’t tend to get a lot of traffic at this time of year, so there’s no pressure to ride faster. The first time we did this climb there had been a group of walkers coming down cheering us on. All nice and everything, but sometimes you don’t want an audience, especially not when puffed out with a red face. What I will say though, is that we have no qualms with stopping on a long climb and in fact, that’s how I took this one today, a few pauses and then onwards. Once you’re up this one you are literally riding along the top with the sea beside you for these few miles. When the sun is beating down and warming your shoulders, the coastline beside you, it’s these days that you wait all winter for, just you and the road ahead.



A photo of the ocean with a blue sky and a field in the foreground.


We rode straight through the next village as we needed to make some progress before finding a place to refuel ahead of the lunch rush. Living with social anxiety, this is something that we have to plan whether we’re riding, walking or hanging out in hedgerows. We never take for granted that quiet place eating is going to be available, often it's packed lunches or eating outside of the usual hours. If we do find somewhere those moments are huge wins. As we came out of the small village its descent is wild and beautiful. You glide down it to the beach and it's wide enough to bank around and straight up the other side. As we did this, a couple were coming up the footpath from the beach watching us. J tells me that the lady was like ‘Wow’, which I automatically assumed must be because she thought we looked ridiculous. ‘No, she was amazed’, he said. I didn’t see it but I’ll take his word for that. The last time we were riding here I was almost taken out by a flying carpet (someone beating out their mat, say no more), but honestly, anything can happen when out on the road and this shows that we probably shouldn't assume the worst.


The lunch.


After a few more miles and climbs along the coast, we found a great place albeit with a rude name, which was surprisingly quiet outside. We were both so relieved. In fact, the theme of this ride was that a lot took us by surprise that day. By now it was late morning and we’d seen not more than one or two other cyclists, zero walkers and hardly any cars. Not what we had been expecting at all. We were only a couple of hours into our ride at this point but we were more than ready to eat. Since we did this ride one of our cycling mates (who knows a lot more than we do) has told us that fuelling on endurance rides is best done with food at this early stage followed by energy gels in those later miles. I’d later learn that choosing food over gel resulted in sluggish riding - he’d explained to us that this is because after riding for some hours your blood goes to your legs slowing down digestion, so basically you need gels for a rapid energy boost as that biscuit you just ate isn’t going hit the mark. We live and we learn, cheers S. While at this place we realised that our watches were also in need of a refuel. We’d planned to call into a caravan site where my dad keeps his van in a bit, but we then realised that we didn’t have the key. A quick text to the site manager who is brilliant, and had a spare key, sorted this. She said she was going to open it up for us ready for when we rolled in. She’s an absolute star, thank you J.



A photo of two bikes leaning against a wooden shed. There are bike helmets on a table in the foreground.

Back on the road.


We were now ready to leave the nice place with the rude name that had now attracted many more lunchgoers, including a couple of very pro-looking cyclists who were also kitting up ready to ride. This was a bit awkward as if we left before them they would almost certainly draft and then paste us, but they seemed nice enough and we’d exchanged a few brief pleasantries so we headed off and took the gamble. A few miles down the road we pitched up at one of our favourite stopping spots to wait for them to pass by, huge tractor tyres in a dusty field. Great spot to sit. Sure as anything, within moments of sitting down, they came flying by. We were definitely going to see that on Strava later. They gave us a smile and wave, most likely thinking we’d overindulged and needed a rest already when really we just wanted to be the fat lads at the back of this peloton.


Now alone again, we rode across the peninsula to a notable Pembrokeshire landmark. I bet you’ve seen this one before…



A photo of two bikes in front of a gate at St Justinians in Pembrokeshire. The sea can be seen in the background.


This place was busier than most stops on this ride. We also had our first official Strava fly-by at this point. A guy who was extremely fast on an extremely nice bike. Again, we were still averaging a gentle place despite these encounters. We had no place to be and no deadline to hit. The only pressing need was the watch batteries needing their charge. We’ve since resolved this issue by getting hold of a power pack for future rides, another lesson of both this ride and an endurance ride we did in Scotland last month.



A photo of two bikes leaning against a worn out supermarket wall.


After heading into the city to grab the pointless biscuits, we rode straight to the caravan site. As we arrived, we struck pauses and stuck the watches on charge and then my dad turned up, ‘Do you want a doughnut?’. He always does this, goes back to his Highlands camper days, comes armed with supplies and often sweet treats in abundance. Honestly, the best test of my willpower is my dad. While we were in Scotland last month it was like 8am in the morning when we were sat having a cuppa and he said, ‘Fancy a scone?’. He’s like me, sweet tooth, but I don’t eat too much sugar these days. I didn’t even have a mince pie at Christmas, but once my dad turns up, that’s also when the cakes make an appearance, every time. Honestly, if you ever see my dad he always has a cake up his sleeve. We stayed here for a little while until the watches had what they needed and we were ready for the next round of miles. This wasn’t going to be flat riding, but by this point we were around 40 miles in. It became easier from this point on.


Some would disagree when I say that the later parts of an endurance ride are easier, but personally, I find that it to be this way because my mind isn’t hitting out. The worries and woes of the earlier miles have faded away and all that’s left is just that focus on making it to the next place. It’s the same with hiking, the early miles carry worries that become more distant as you leave them behind you. I suppose in this sense, this is how being outdoors can really clear your head. You have to travel through those early woeful miles to reach the calmer points. Today was also about taking a gentle pace, not only in the literal sense, but also in mind. Since this day I’ve realised that this is why short rides are a complete headf-ck for me, as there isn’t the space or time to reach this place.



An abstract photo of forest trees and a gravel road. The shot is off angle with low saturation colours.

Heading home.


As we rode the roads back home, the sun had warmed everything. Thermal tights were a hinderance at this point but hot legs can easily be cooled by unzipping and pulling them up. We saw a few other cyclists at this point in summer jerseys and shorts, another take home for endurance rides, layers, removable garments, get it all out and off if you have to. Do whatever it takes to get you home. After some A-road riding, we were finally back on the rural lanes, the quiet ones where you see few and feel everything. Coastal spots are great but personally, these places are what makes a ride. When you stop on these lanes, there is nothing but you and nature. It's great.



A photo of two bikes looking down a rual lane.


The final miles of the day were tiring as to be expected, but they were also the best. There was a stillness with the gales of Wales absent and the sky stayed blue like it had promised. We were around three miles from home on a descent when a bang errupted from behind me. ‘I don’t think it’s going to make it back’, J called. We’d come this far and J’s back wheel had almost packed in. ‘What was that bang?’, I shouldn’t have laughed but he was cracked up too. This is what I mean, by this point you really don’t give a sh*t. ‘I don’t know’, he said, ‘but it ain’t rolling right’.


It wasn’t a puncture. J’s back wheel has always had problems that we’ve since found is caused by a defective bearing. This was the last ride we did with it. We’re used to riding with mechanical issues. If you’ve not yet seen what happened in Glencoe last month, that one was perfect. 30 PSI all the way back in a headwind. Today we didn’t lose pressure, the final few miles just took a bit of care. I said to J, ‘Don’t end your ride. Just jog with it, 4mph or whatever’ - if it’s not on Strava it didn’t happen and all that, but he was alright. So with J now riding like a drunk and me trying not to laugh we finally made it past my mate's house and came back into the village looking as though we’d just come back off a pilgrimage. Flies stuck to our faces, a broken bike, a camera that had long stopped filming still attached to my bars by its long stick, tights halfway up our legs and hair all over the place. ‘You’ve had a good one’ came a voice from across the way. A neighbour had seen us wobbling back into the village in this state.


In my last blog post, I’d written with hope that today’s would be a good one, and it was. The first calm day of many, without all that had come before; the anxiety, the panic attacks, the stress over segments and speed. Yet, if I’d not experienced these things and learnt about them, then maybe today wouldn't have been the day that it was. Perhaps I wouldn’t have learnt things about breathing and keeping a cool head, maybe I’d have just carried on racing without stopping for a moment and burnt out. Perhaps we wouldn’t have made this ride without those things happening. So, all in all, I guess anxiety can be helpful in that sense. Learning the worries of yesterday was what reframed this ride.


And so, as we came to a halt on the driveway, with the sun now setting, we had made it home and kept all our promises. The neighbour called, ’Nice day for it eh?’. ‘Beautiful’, I said, ‘A gentle one today’. And it had been just that. The first calm day of many to come.



A photo of two bikes on an empty track through a pine woods.


 

Life is wild enough before we even venture out of the door. That's why me and J seek quiet places and share our stories about them. We all need an escape from this world.


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