by Aidan Searle
I first rode the magnificent Gospel Pass a few months ago with the security of a triple-ring Audax machine. Since then, however, I have entered the world of fixed riding, first with a road bike conversion and more recently a fixed-gear MTB. This year I returned to tackle the pass on a fix.
The Gospel Pass links Llanthony in the Black Mountains (famous abbey) with the historic town of Hay-on-Wye (famous secondhand book markets). The pass is a magnificent stretch of narrow winding singletrack, littered with grazing sheep and wild ponies, and set amid rocky common moorland. The sight of it is enough to quicken the pulse of any approaching rider.
I begin my adventure by stripping the thread off my seatbolt. After a quick repair using a clamp-on rear lamp holder, I gingerly climb on and make my way past the Abbey and the protracted four-mile climb to the Capel-y-Ffin. The glimpses of river through the trees are reassuring. The road twists and winds, sometimes calling for a burst of out-of-saddle climbing.
After a mile or so a cattlegrid signals the start of the real climb. The road appears to rise at an exponential rate. I dig in hard, my knees screaming and my heart in my mouth. Despite my best efforts the hill gets the better of me. I have to admit that I'm on the wrong machine, and I walk the remaining 200 feet to the summit. A voice in my head echoes a previous conversation with my brother. 'Who needs gears?', it says. Hah!
Over the summit I'm soon back on the bike, my legs rotating in fury as I steer into the rollercoaster that stretches out before me. (Let's get this clear, I'm not coasting.) I hurtle past Hay Bluff and begin the descent into Hay-on-Wye. The view from here defies description but be warned -- it requires maximum concentration if you are to avoid colliding with a sheep or careering into the surrounding moorland.
Before long I was on the return leg, an endless honk back to the top and mentally prepare myself for the descent. By now, my makeshift seat post clamp is failing, and my newly-adopted riding position reminds me of those urban kids astride their BMX. But the low-to-the-ground position seems to help my efforts to control my speed. I kick back on the pedals to negotiate the twists and bends of the descent. (Both brakes covered, of course.) Before long, I'm back at Capel-y-Ffin, from where I set off back to base at an uptempo cadence, hovering above my sunken saddle. It reminds me of a drill from my winter-fitness spinning class. Now it all makes sense.
I suppose that the wisdom of tackling this journey on a fixed (16x36 in this case) is debatable. But it was a challenging ride, and strangely satisfying, the terrain compensating more than adequately for its short 12 mile length. And, of course, there's always next year's 159k Gospel Pass Brevet in the snows of late February...