Merida TransWales Update

The final linking stage brings the Merida TransWales full circle to bring an end to the behemoth mou

Day Seven: The Big Push

The final linking stage brings the Merida TransWales full circle to bring an end to the behemoth mountain bike challenge, and with it time to discover the first Merida TransWales Champions, to celebrate and to say a fond farewell to new-found friends, reports Matt Skinner in the seventh and final of his daily reports.

Linking Stage 7
Rhandirnwyn to Builth Wells
Total distance: 67km
Climbing: 2,500m

The final day and the final linking stage of the Merida TransWales slowly eased itself into the saddle just after 9am on Saturday morning. But things weren't going to run entirely smoothly: not, that is, if the rains had anything to do with it.

As soon as the first souls started stirring first thing, the rain was there: a dull, mindless grey hanging over the heads of all the riders, spitting pedantically hour after hour. Not exactly the kind of weather one would expect amid a drought: and certainly not the greatest call to arms for tired and weary bodies. But this was the last linking stage - from Rhandirnwyn to Builth Wells - and the final big push before the What Mountain Bike finishing party some 67km and 2,500m of climbing away in Builth Wells. With a few very deep breaths, the riders got back in the saddle to begin the drag back full circle and bring a close to the inaugural Merida TransWales challenge.

Today's linking stage was a melding of all the terrain seen during the full seven days of the event: steep and tough climbs, meandering drags, river crossings, open country, and singletrack aplenty. But the five hours of heavy rains with thunder and lightening added a certain something decidedly squib to proceedings and battered the riders that bit more. When they all eventually rolled over the line in Builth Wells it was the hot stills of tea and coffee that were the most welcome remedy to the cold and rains, themselves more precious than a magnum of champagne.

The previous night, the final special stage had taken place at Cwm y Rhiadr to sort out the final pecking order of the competitive side of the event. Going into it, things were close in both the men's, mixed and soloists: Team Mojo Suspension had pretty much wrapped up the men's win but behind them there was a ferocious battle looming between the Hoop Troop and Fabio & Grooverider with just 29 seconds separating them in the second and third spots respectively. In the mixed category, the third special stage on the Cli-Machx trail saw the MTB Marathon team slip from first into second, with all to play for going into the final stage. But in the unofficial categories, there was a tight grudge match ensuing between the RAF boys and the Army, with just 42 seconds between them before the start of yesterday's special stage. Things were going to be decided in one fell swoop of speed and singletrack.

Unlike the other special stages where the team rider's times were combined, Cym y Rhiadr would be a time trial where only the fastest rider's time would count, although both would set off together, theoretically allowing pacing tactics to be employed, the final singletrack showdown was an out-and-out sprint for the line.

In the Hayes Disc Brake Men's Category Fabio & Grooverider - Josh Morgan and Mansour Youssef - pulled out all the stops and trounced all-comers to lay claim to the stage but also to secure second place overall. The top spot remained the property of Mojo Suspension - Ryan Bevis and Jonathan Pugh - who secured second in the day's special stage. That meant that the Hoop Troop were relegated to third overall. As for the fairer sex, the indomitable and invulnerable pairing of Kim Hurst and Heather Dawe again dominated and took the win in the Buff Women's Category. Phil Spencer showed his international class once again by taking the Mud Dock Cycleworks Solo Category win in the special stage to further increase his overall lead. Rob Lee slotted into both second in the special stage and second in the overall standings whilst Anthony Green of GA Cycles/Felt nudged Charlie Eustace into fourth place in the special stage. However, Charlie retained his third position in the overall standings. In the women's, Sally Lee of Extreme Endurance took both the special stage and the overall win, with Tatjana Troll and Joanne Carritt taking second and third respectively in the special stage and the overall classification. The Saris Veterans Category was won by Wragge-Morley/Percival (Bernard Wragge-Morley & Nick Percival), with the X-Cumbria Cyclists (Tony Gray and Mike Hayward) in second followed by Velo 95 (Ian Muir and Bob Moore) in third for both the overall and the last special stage.

After the racing was done, the final linking stage completed and the riders back home and full circle to Builth Wells it was time to kick back, exchange stories and show off scars on both the body and the bike. With What Mountain Bike magazine in attendance providing free beer, music and lighting, the mood was upbeat and celebratory and although there was no shortage of weary legs, minds could at last comprehend the enormity of what they had actually achieved: 543km (338miles) of riding with 15,990m (52,460m) of climbing in seven days as part of a truly world class mountain bike challenge that has only just begun.

The Merida TransWales, however, would not be possible without the riders themselves: their good humour and positivity in the face of the sometimes horrendous rains has ensured that the event has remained buoyed and upbeat throughout. Which, being an event dreamt up, developed and run by riders for riders is more than the organisers - Mike Wilkens and John Lloyd - could have hoped for.

Mike and John would also like to thank the event's sponsors for whose generosity and support have made possible the newest and best mountain bike event in the UK with a truly global pedigree: Hayes Brakes, Buff headwear, High5, Saris bike racks, Mud Dock Cycleworks, Schwalbe tyres, Exposure Lights, What Mountain Bike magazine, Bikemagic.com and especially Merida for believing in and backing the concept of the event. It could also not have been the success it is if it were without the hard and dedicated work of the massage, medical, catering, site and marshalling teams; the British Cycling Commissaires, and Summit Cycles for their invaluable tech support; all were a pleasure to work with and without them the wheels of the event would simply fall off. Consider this a huge heartfelt thank you to you all.

Next year will see the Trans UK circus roll out to Scotland for the TransScotland (19th-27th May 2007), and if the Merida TransWales is anything to go by this will be one hell of an event that will only built on what the Merida TransWales has already established. It will be an unforgettable and un-missable experience. Pre-booking is open now for those wanting to step up the plate: simply log onto the www.mtbtransuk.co.uk website and e-mail Mike.

So until next year, adieu.

RESULTS & STANDINGS AFTER SPECIAL STAGE 4
Special Stage 4 Results

Hayes Disc Brake Men's Category
1 - Fabio & Grooverider: Josh Morgan & Mansour Youssef
2 - Mojo Suspension: Ryan Bevis & Jonathan Pugh
3 - Team Trigon/American Classic: Christopher Purt & Gareth Jones

Buff Women's Category
1 - SheCycles: Kim Hurst & Heather Dawe

High5 Mixed Category
1 - Pembroke Pedallers: Maggie Bichard & Max Jeffries
2 - MTB Marathon: Renell & Steven Brennan
3 - Hartell/McDonald: Karen McDonald & Mark Hartell

Saris Veterans Category
1 - Wragge-Morley/Percival: Bernard Wragge-Morley & Nick Percival
2 - Velo 95: Ian Muir & Bob Moore
3 - X Cumbria Cyclists: Tony Gray & Mike Hayward

Mud Dock Cycleworks Solo Category
Mens:
1 - Bikin Cyprus International: Phil Spencer
2 - Extreme Endurance: Rob Lee
3 - GA Cycles/Felt: Anthony Green

Womens:
1 - Extreme Endurance: Sally Lee
2 - Tatjana Troll
3 - Joanna Carritt

Final Overall Standings
Hayes Disc Brake Men's Category
1 - Mojo Suspension: Ryan Bevis & Jonathan Pugh
2 - Fabio & Grooverider: Josh Morgan & Manssour Youssef (+8:03)
3 - Hoop Troop: David Preston & Chris Herraghty (+9:19)

Buff Women's Category
1 - SheCycles: Kim Hurst & Heather Dawe
2 - Pedal Pusher: Jane Hurley & Helen Coakley (+2:33:12)

High5 Mixed Category
1 - Pembroke Pedallers: Maggie Bichard & Max Jeffries
2 - MTB Marathon: Renell & Steven Brennan (+2:41)
3 - Epic Adventure/What Mountain Bike: Fiona Spotswood & Gary Bridgeman (+32:46)

Saris Veterans Category
1 - Wragge-Morley/Percival: Bernard Wragge-Morley & Nick Percival
2 - X-Cumbria Cyclists: Tony Gray & Mike Hayward (+27:10)
3 - Velo 95: Ian Muir & Bob Moore (+29:50)

Mud Dock Cycleworks Solo Category
Mens:
1 - Bikin Cyprus International: Phil Spencer
2 - Extreme Endurance: Rob Lee (+13:11)
3 - South Downs Way Champion: Charlie Eustace (+17:08)

Womens:
1 - Extreme Endurance: Sally Lee
2 - Tatjana Troll (+14:19)
3 - Joanne Carritt (+36:31)

The final day of competition also becomes the day of reckoning and the day of revelation as the greatest stretches of trail on the event finally reveal themselves, reports Matt Skinner in the sixth of his daily reports.

Day Six: The Day of Reckoning
Linking Stage 6 Llanafan to Rhandirnwyn
Total distance: 80km
Climbing: 2,600m

Special Stage 4
Cwm-Rhyiadr
Total distance: 7km
Climbing: 260m

Endurance is an oft over used word, but the inaugural Merida TransWales has been a tough test of both mental and physical endurance through some truly breathtaking scenery, adrenalin overloaded trails, and through the elements themselves.

Friday's linking stage was slated to be the longest single hop but also the biggest, baddest day of the whole event as it also featured the final and deciding sprint special stage after a full day in the saddle. But, by the end of the evening, the duelling will be done and all will be settled: the victors of which will not be announced until Saturday evening at the end of event party where the Merida TransWales Champions would begin their hard won reign. But a hefty slice of rugged mid-Wales lay between the leaders and glory, and getting to the special stage start, let alone its finish, was going to be a test in itself.

Caught atop of a 479m high open moor is not where any one would want to be as thunder and lightening crackles with rage in the sky above. But that's exactly where the remaining riders were as they rolled out of the overnight stop at Llanafan and clicked down through the gears en-route to Rhandirnwayn, 80km and 2,600m worth of climbing south. Riders' legs and bodies were already pummelled by the gruelling distances already covered and, for some, the punishment just proved too much as both bodies and bikes caved in: for those that remained, seeing the end of Friday was going to be hard earned, but the pay off would be more than worth it.

The long, rugged descent from the top of the Bryn Llyn Egnant at around 480m, with its snaking single and double track continuously dropped away across river crossings and carving singletrack, was merely the warm up act to the headline trail of the entire event: things were getting progressively sweeter despite the soaking that the heavy rains had doused the riders with in the first few hours of the day. Next on the billing, following a quick drinks stop outside the ruins of the Strata Florida abbey, was the snaking valley of river crossings hidden in the midst of the Tywi Forest.

Amidst dense rock gardens and huge slabs the trail fled down stream with riders carving lines between the rocky debris and flowing water - sometimes up and over back-flowing small waterfall steps - while the trail criss-crossed the river, shadowing the water's descent further towards the Llyn Brianne Reservoir and, at one point, merging with the river: enthusiastic stories of bikes plunging to stanchion high depths wrung from the riders made it clear that staying dry was not an option.

Then came paradise: the wet and the waiting were over. Finally it was time for the headline trail to be unleashed on the riders. It was time for the Afon Doethie valley descent: a 5km trail that swept the riders along its sinuous length, inspiring tired legs as they spun through the clefts and folds of the contours, seemingly endlessly onwards towards an ever increasing serotonin payoff. For those who know Bicknoller Combe in the Quantocks, it is this magnified by a factor of five: a flowing, undulating singletrack descent wrought from Heaven that flits high above the Afon Doethie river below and gradually, seamlessly makes its angelic way to Nant y Bai below.

The final leg of the day gave the riders the quick once over of the new community project trail at Cwm-Rhyiadr that would be the 7km special stage later in the evening. With one almighty fire road climb that hurt the singlespeeders in an act of surgically precise sadism, the trail then dragged riders downwards on pumping singletrack laced with tyre and skin shedding razor flint: an off here would hurt. A lot.

Riders hauled their weary behinds around the loop to round out a day of immense riding: both in distance, the conditions themselves but more importantly, the quality of the trail itself. Day six was the day of reckoning: the day when riders broke the back of the gargantuan beast that is the Merida TransWales, the day when the final and deciding special stage was run, and the day that thoughts could finally turn to rest.

But, for now, the results of the overall and the final special stage won't be known until after the final linking stage from Rhandirnwyn to Builth Wells to bring the entire event full circle. The final push will see the riders take on 75km and 2,500m of climbing to bring an end to the first ever Merida TransWales: but, for many, the sentiment that will see them through was that they would make it, they will finish this final push whether on their bike or crawling. It is as simple as that. For some, the spoils of the win, for others the satisfaction of having survived to complete the gargantuan challenge; all are champions, and all have bloody sore arses.

Special Stage 3
Cli-Machx trail team relay time trial
Total distance: 15km
Climbing: 340m

Linking stage 5
Cli-Machx trail to Llanafan
Total distance: 65km
Climbing: 1,900m

The fifth day of the Merida TransWales began wet after a heavy downpour early in the wee hours but the extra moisture on the trails didn't succeed in slowing down the third relay stage. Riders blasted the 15km Clim-Machx trail with its 9km of singletrack in relay: the strongest climbing amassing the majority of the 340m vertical gain in the first leg before handing over to their team mate for the downhill second leg, finishing on the smoothly flat out 4km final descent with its whoops, drops and compressions.

With the fastest riders going out first, based on their previous times and results, it was Phil Spencer of Bikin Cyprus International who got the lead slot and went off like a bat out of hell. As a Mud Dock Solo Category rider he would ride the entire of the course non-stop, unlike the teams who ride it as a relay. Two days ago at Coed y Brenin he succeeded in putting in the fastest overall time and he again repeated this feat, completing the entire course in just 39mins 13secs.

Behind him, the other category riders did their best to beat the clock, and for some their efforts meant a change in the overall standings: in the Hayes Disc Brake Men's Category, Fabio and Grooverider - aka Josh Morgan and Mansour Youssef - put in a Herculean effort to finish the stage just 3secs behind the Mojo Suspension boys Ryan Bevis and Jonathan Pugh in a time of 41mins 21secs; a result that saw them move back up into third in the overall classification after their second special stage at Coed y Brenin was scuppered by a broken light. Third place in today's stage was claimed by Team Trigon/American Classic, consisting of Christopher Purt and Garath Jones, in 41mins 59secs and earned them their first visit to the podium.

But it was in the High5 Mixed Category where the biggest change occurred: MTB Marathon had been leading this for the past two special stages but a quick time of 46mins 32secs by the Pembroke Pedallers - Maggie Bichard & Max Jeffries - claimed both the day's stage and the overall lead. MTB Marathon - Renell & Steven Brennan - held on to second place in the day's stage in a time of 48mins 38 secs, which was enough to ensure they only slipped as far as second in the overall with just 22secs separating them from the Pembroke Pedallers.

After the speed of the special stage the riders clicked down a few gears and got into the fifth linking stage that would take them from the Cli-Machx trail to Llanafan, 65km and 1,900m climbing away. A fairly sizeable chunk of terrain to cover but with the heaven's opening once more for the duration of the day, things weren't as smooth sailing as they would have been. The water and the grit made some descents particularly greasy, prompting endless fishtailing and sketchy bike control, but despite the weather and the conditions under tyre riders were making it back and smiling through the suffering.

Friday sees an 80km linking stage from Llanfan to Rhandirnwyn with 2,800m of climbing: it will also include a loop of the final special stage at Cwm-y-Rhayader - a 7km loop with 220m of climbing which is one of the newest trails in Wales, built as part of a community project - upon which the final classification of the inaugural Merida TransWales will be decided. The Mojo Suspension boys seem unstoppable barring any major catastrophes but the battle for second and third is still running hot: with just 19secs in it, either Fabio & Grooverider or Hoop Troop could leave with the silver - rather than bronze - medals. Likewise, in the High5 Mixed Category there is only 22secs between the Pembroke Pedallers and the MTB Marathon teams. With the special stage able to be decided on the team's fastest rider's time it could truly be a blood, tooth and nail fight to the line.

Merida TransWales Day Four

It may have rained, and it may have been the toughest day yet but it's also been received as the best linking stage so far, says Matt Skinner in the fourth of his daily reports.

Day Four: The Longest Day
Linking stage 4
Coed y Brenin to the Cli-Machx trail
Total distance: 75km
Climbing: 3,000m

The rain in Spain may stay mainly on the plain but that's not true in Wales. It generally stays wherever you are, moves in directly above and turns the stereo up to full.

The fourth day began - as many have this week - a little overcast. That overcast then slowly turned into drizzle, which in turn turned into a hefty downpour; however, to begin with it stayed away to allow riders to tackle the singletrack of the MBR route as they were thrown whole heartedly into the fray that was the 75km and 3,000m of climbing that was Wednesday's linking stage.

The temperature remained fairly warm and the riding - helped in part by the weather - was challenging and slickly technical in places. For many, the distance is beginning to tell and the Merida TransWales has cracked some of its first challengers: tired legs and somewhat challenging conditions have proved just too much. But for the rest persevering through to the bitter end of the stage, they have been rewarded with the guilt free satisfaction that only comes from digging deep and breaking on through the wall to the other side.

The stage came to an end near the Cli-Machx trail near Machynlleth, which will host Thursday morning's special stage, and with nothing to do for the riders but to relax, feed and unwind after a long and tough day in the saddle we sat a few down to get the inside line on their Merida TransWales experiences.

Rider Profile
Epic Adventure/What Mountain Bike reader team
Fi Spotswood and her Merida TransMission
Gary Bridgeman and his Giant Anthem
Mixed team

Gary and Fi are each two halves of a long standing adventure racing partnership from the south west: attracted to anything challenging of the endurance persuasion - "I just like a challenge," explains Fi, "endurance challenges really: anything long and hard," - the Merida TransWales proved an ignorable carrot and it's proving an uplifting and inspirational experience for them both.

However, to begin with it was looking as though Gary would be without his team mate for financial reasons as Fi is an impoverished Masters marketing and communications student at Bristol. But then What Mountain Bike magazine's Merida TransWales Reader Competition came up, in they went with their entry, and out they came the other side two weeks before the event with a free ticket to the Merida TransWales, plus a host of goodies from Montane, Fizik, Topeak, USE custom etched personalised stems and seatposts, Exposure lights support and a perhaps a few magazines to go with them. "What Mountain Bike have been brilliant and really supportive," said Fi, "and they've given us loads of tips and advice."

It may not be all smooth sailing for the team as for Fi at least, this is only her fifth ever mountain bike event and the technical singletrack sections of the time trials and on the linking stages have proved something of an eye opener. "I wish I was a bit faster on the wiggly singletrack," she says, "but there's been nothing I haven't been able to ride it: even today [on what has been described as the hardest of all the linking stages yet]. I've loved it, it's all new and I'm not scared of it." But she admits, on this multi-day stage challenge, caution sometimes has to be reigned back in from the wind: "There's also a balance that needs to be struck between hurtling down a wicked descent and thinking I've got four more days of this and I don't want to do this with only one leg."

Although the event's ethos is mutually supportive, where "You get a lot of help and everybody is really positive," both Gary and Fi agree that although "to begin with it's easy but by the end of the week people will be fried: to survive it you need to know your own body and to be able to recognise the signs of needing more food, more sleep, and more energy."

But what they'll both take home from this event is more than worth this effort: "Just the experience of riding these brilliant trails that I've never ridden before," says Fi, "It's also been a really good laugh just sitting down after the riding and meeting loads of great characters in the evening." And with beer being espoused by some as the world's greatest ever recover drink - rather than the official energy food and drinks sponsor, High5 - it's often being put to the test of an evening. Something that both Gay and Fi will no doubt be drinking too.

Day Three: The Night Train

The race gets interesting as the second special stage takes place at night on the legendary Red Bull and Karrimor trails at Coed y Brenin, reports Matt Skinner in the third of his daily reports.

Linking stage 3
Machynlleth to Coed y Brenin
Total distance: 68km
Climbing: 2,100m

Special Stage 2
Coed y Brenin Karrimor/Red Bull routes
Total distance: 10km
Climbing: 280m

Coed y Brenin is arguably the most important single place in the annals of British mountain biking: it is the pioneering centre that first developed purpose built trails - built by the internationally respected Dafydd Davis, OBE - that have since become a defining feature of modern mountain biking in the British Isles; it is fitting that the first ever Merida TransWales should include a pilgrimage here. Day three would see the very first of these trails - the Red Bull and the Karrimor - laid bare under the blinding spot lights of 250 pairs of high powered halogen, halide and Super-LED bulbs in the event's most special stage: the night time team time trial. But first the riders had to cover the 68km and 2,100m from Machynlleth to Coed y Brenin.

The original linking stage was altered slightly due to a last minute land dispute; the new profile still looked like an erratic ECG with big peaks and troughs forcing riders to drop their hard earned altitude quicker than a Las Vegas stripper drops her draws, before hoiking back up a behemoth of yet another climb. And all more than twice nightly: no matter how you looked at it this was going to be a tough stage; which for the Mud Dock Solo Category leader and British #3, Phil Spencer, suited him just fine as he went off on what he described as a hard training ride after 'taking it too easy' the last couple of days.

With the Leader's Jerseys on display on all the category leaders at the start, the linking stage slapped straight into some seriously long climbs, testing both the heart and the muscle of the riders. Steep and loose pitches conspired to knock riders off line and off the bike, before finally summiting atop at 317m with some stunning views and then dropping down again for some gravity pay off. With a little blacktop to help spin the legs out it was quickly back to the grindstone up the long and sustained climb of the Rhydoriw pass at 401m, before snaking down its rocky and convulsing flanks in a heady rush of adrenaline for the descent of the day towards Arthog, just down from Dolgellau. It then followed the Mawddach Trail cycle route to Dolgellau and the back way out of town to Coed y Brenin itself.

The 10km special stage featured 280m of climbing and kicked off at 9pm following an amalgamation of the old visitor centre side of the Karrimor (now called the Beast) and the Red Bull loops on part of what is now known as the Tawr trail: climbing out as usual up fire road to the heads of Snap, Crackle, and Pop singletrack sections and their rocky blend of drop offs, slots, cambered turns, and culvert bridges, the course then spat riders out onto the old Karrimor route to thrash down the singletrack once again. The course then climbed gradually to the top of the singletrack and dual slalom course for the final floodlit blast to the finish.

The stage certainly lived up to its billing as a 'special stage': few riders were without mishap as they careered around the course in the pitch black. Any sign of tired or weary legs from the day's stage was erased by the adrenaline of the racing and although there were plenty of offs, some serious bike mashing carnage seeing trashed rear wheels, ripped off rear mechs and a few spots of blood left as reminders of the drama, the stage was enthusiastically received by riders; a sentiment that was further reinforced by mountain bike journalist Lars of Dutch magazine Fiets, when he said that the Merida TransWales surpasses the TransAlps and is at least on a par with the TransRockies for the riding and technical challenge.

With the rain seeping into the ground, the second special stage results were collated and computed with major ramifications for the overall. Phil Spencer scored the fastest lap of the event with a phenomenal 29mins 10 secs, 5 seconds faster than the Men's Overall leader, Jonathan Pugh, who's partner Ryan Bevis finished a minute or so later. A result that strengthened the Mojo Suspension duo's place as overall leaders in the Hayes Disc Brake Men's Category, but behind them it was all-change: Fabio & Grooverider were knocked out of the top three by Team Solo: Dan Wells & Matt Mountford in second with the Hoop Troop (David Preston & Chris Herranghty) now in third.

The women's is becoming a run away by the She Cycles team who are putting in consistent and convincing times, with the men's solo still being led out in dominating fashion by Phil Spencer although the top three are separated by just 7 minutes after two special stages with two yet to run. Either second placed Rob Lee of Extreme Endurance or third placed Charlie Eustace could close this gap. Similarly, things are tight in the High5 Mixed Category with the MTB Marathon team of Renell & Steven Brennan still leading but only by a very slim 1min 44secs ahead of the new second placed Pembroke Pedallers (Maggie Bichard & Max Jeffries), with the Epic Adventure/What Mountain Bike team of Fiona Spotswood & Gary Bridgeman slipping into third 22mins and 25secs down overall. Elsewhere, Sally Lee is still leading the women's solo ahead of Tatiana Troll at 12 mins 52secs down, with the Saris Veterans Category now being led by the pairing of Bernard Wragge-Morley & Nick Perceval. It's clear that at the halfway stage everything is still up for grabs, and all will be decided in the next few days.

Wednesday morning emerged a little damp and overcast but sees the fourth linking stage from Coed y Brenin to the Cli-Machx trail near Machynlleth, and with it another 75km and 3,000m of climbing for the riders. But that's it: there's no special stage today so the overall standings will stay the same until after Thursday morning's special stage on the Cli-machx trail, one of Wales' most popular of recent trails that should do a fine job of spicing up the proceedings even more.

Day One: the Merida TransWales A-Go-Go
Just after 9am on Sunday under somewhat overcast and dull skies with little sign that the looming cloud cover would break, 240 starters coming from as far a field as Japan and continental Europe, saddled up in the mid-Wales town of Builth Wells - the spiritual home of the Merida TransWales' close relative, the Merida 100 MTB-Marathon Series - to get the inaugural event under way. Easing their legs into the first of the seven stages; riders settled into their pace early on, with many treating the first day as just another Merida 100 marathon, reserving their mental reserves for the long haul linking stages yet to come.

The Merida TransWales is a mountain bike event with a difference: taking its cues from the epic Trans-Alps and Trans-Rockies point-to-point races that cross the Alps and the Canadian Rockies, it mixes marathon linking stages - varying from 33km to 90km - mixed in with a selection of special stages on the cream of Wales' purpose built trail centres for singletrack speed shakes: Coed y Brenin, Nant-y-Arian, the Cli-Machx trail, and the new Cwm-y-Rhayader will all see riders taking on rally style time trials in pairs or in relay. All in all this uniquely epic challenge will demand riders complete a total of 543km (338miles) of riding with 15,990m (52,460m) of climbing; making the TransWales - on paper - tougher than the its Canadian namesake, the TransRockies.

The opening linking stage's course climbed up on-going moorland flanks before traversing lonesome singletrack and dropping into the flooded Elan Valley with a screech of brakes. 3 hours and 31km in after the pass taking them over Carnau at 537ft and over the top via some boggy hike-a-bike stints, the trail morphed into flowing singletrack and then fire road that dropped quickly into the beautiful flooded Elan Valley. From there it was like riding through a little Switzerland as the geography changed with every crank stroke, from glacial majesty to lush forested escarpments, and riddled with gnadgery and grin inducing singletrack that carved sinuously down the contours. As the pace settled, the field swept 80km through the heart of Wales to the first stop of the event just shy of Nant-y-Arian, near Aberystwyth.

Day two: the competition begins in earnest
The second day of the Merida TransWales challenge dawned, bringing with it the first true test of speed, endurance and bike handling that is the first special stage; the honour of which fell to Nant-y-Arian, near Machynlleth. The course itself was a slightly modified version of the Summit trail that would last for 16km total distance and would rack up 600m of climbing, with much of that height gain coming in one heady dose.

Slated as a team relay time trial, the special stage saw the first rider of the team handing over to the second at the 8km mark. On the Summit trail that just happens to be after a generally downhill profile with gradual climbs to a mirror image reverse for the second rider and one long, grinder of a fire road climb before the final descent for some sweetly sweeping singletrack pay off. Some teams slotted their fittest (or most masochistic) rider into the second stint whilst other simply flipped a coin for it to let the Fates decide.

The riders went off at 30 second intervals from 9.30am this morning, with riders averaging around 50 minutes to cover the full 16km course with its switchbacking and smooth singletrack.

Fitness and finesse proved the order of the day as the pairing of Heather Dawe and Kim Hurst of SheCycles.com took the lead in the Buff Women's Category; Ryan Bevis and Jonathon Pugh of Mojo Suspension blazed the trail in the Hayes Disc Brake Men's Category; Renell and Steven Brennan of MTB-Marathon.co.uk stamping their early authority onto the High5 Mixed Category; the pairing of Tony Gray and Mike Hayward of X-Cumbria Cyclists riding solidly into the lead of Saris Veteran Category; Sally Lee of Team Endurance leading the Mud Dock Women's Solo Category, and Phillip Spencer of Bikin' Cyprus International leading the men's solo.

After a spot of lunch at the eco-friendly Nant-y-Arian visitor centre the riders set off on the 33km linking stage from Nant-y-Arian to Machynlleth. Climbing out of the forest and onto the Plynlimon range, skirting the rocky drovers road along the Nant-y-Moch reservoir before kicking up steeply into the woods once more and high along the Creigiau Bwlch Hyddgen ridge with stunning views towards the River Dovey. The descent from this 529m high ridge dropped immediately down a steep and loose slate chute that was a test of tyres, tubeless systems, and both nerve and sphincter, dropping the riders skittering through the woods and into tonight's home, the Machynlleth leisure centre.

Machynlleth itself, once the capital of Wales, is the British capital of alternative technology. It isn't short of a few pubs either, which the riders made full use of to calm nerves and soothe legs before the third linking stage on Tuesday morning. The riders will be riding out from theto the Coed-y-Brenin vistor centre72km and 2,300m of climbing away. After that behemoth is under the belts of the riders, the second special stage will kick off as a night team time trial to see if Monday's special stage winners can retain their leaders jerseys or if a mechanical can put a spanner in the works. It's anyone's guess. Let battle commence.

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