Wales is binary.
I speak from a point of complete bias, basing that on nothing other than firsthand experience over a three-day period, but I can say with relative confidence that in the 72-hours I spent riding from its top to its bottom, I didn't see a flat piece of tarmac.
There was up. There was down. There was no in between.
It was just after 7 a.m. on Saturday 29th April that six of us convened outside of a cafe in Chester's centre. We looked forlornly through its window as the barista made his preparations for a day of trading, knowing that it would be some 60km before we sat down to our own breakfast.
That didn't matter though.
We had routes on our ride computers, excitement in our eyes and hope in our hearts. We were ready to begin a long and ambitious weekend of riding that would see us covering the length of a country in search of new roads and experiences.
DAY ONE: CHESTER TO ABERYSTWYTH
Distance: 176km | Elevation: 2,830m
The weekend's tone was very quickly set as we found ourselves ascending World's End, leaving the houses of the nearby villages behind. Following the Minera Road, we climbed steadily onwards, alternating between power stretches driven from the saddle and fleeting moments of energetic pedal dancing. Neither felt easier than the other, but they were different and that was enough.
The formalities of the road officialdom fell away as we proceeded on towards the top. Markings became faded, sheep roamed as they wished and reliable tarmac became flecked with loose asphalt and gravel. Meanwhile, the surrounds went from metal barricades to stretches of moorland.
Long, winding, gradual and picturesque, this was climbing at its best.
Having pored over each days' itinerary, we knew the routes. But knowing the route doesn't mean you know the route; it wasn't until we began a climb, tackled a descent or rounded a blind bend that we truly knew what it was the roads had in store for us.
We rode hard on our brakes on the descents, and harder still at the sight of an overflowing stream that had made the road its home. On some of the steeper, less reliable stretches this was challenging for the able-bodied amongst us, but the fact Ele -- whose recently broken hand was still bandaged and in the process of healing -- continually found her way to the bottom of each climb is testament to her strength (or belligerence)
Grinding through our pedals up a seriously steep, unfathomably long and entirely unexpected hill, we were able to muster half a breath to curse the road, write-off Wales and chastise our route master for not warning us of its presence (which only would have served to make the struggle worse).
For those looking to be forewarned, the climb in question was Pen Ffridd.
But take my word for it, ignorance is bliss.
DAY TWO: ABERYSTWTH TO LLANDEILO
Distance: 131km | Elevation: 2,700m
Every now and then a ride entirely recalibrates your view of cycling. Something happens that alters the way you see the thing you love and, for better or for worse, you look at riding your bike in an entirely different way.
Day Two was one such day.
The effects of Day One hadn't gone unnoticed by our bodies and neither had the lack of sleep. Regardless, the promise of ice cream by the seaside for breakfast was enough to buoy our energy levels and push us onwards through the rapeseed and green, green grass that Tom Jones immortalised in song during the first 50km.
We were four climbs into what was set to be a 3,700m day by the time we reached the coast. The fig rolls dished out by Gorrod at crucial moments and the endless stream of sweets supplied by Jess and Ele had no doubt helped to get us there. As we sat around a pastel pink table in a pastel pink room, we talked dismissively about the headwind.
"It's not as bad as was forecast", we observed as we tucked into a breakfast roll and a slice of apple pie.
"It's not all that noticeable, is it?", we concurred as we sank another Dr. Pepper with a cappuccino chaser.
Looking down at our average speed at the top of our eleventh climb of the day, I took back everything I'd said and thought. With 110km logged, less than 20kph on the clock and the day slipping away with each pedal stroke, I was happy to be on the approach to our lunch stop where we'd have a chance to take stock, recoup and regroup.
That's when a stranger uttered the five words that crushed me and the group:
"Sorry, we've stopped serving food".
It was Sunday. We were in rural Wales. The next town was off course and another 15km away (and on the other side of a hill). And it had just started to rain.
We had no alternative.
Reluctantly remounting our bikes, we put our heads down and cycled onwards onto the incline and into the rain.
A roast dinner didn't alter our circumstances. We were still 15km off course (with another 15km to go if we wanted to right ourselves).
It didn't reinvigorate us in the way we'd hoped, either. We might have been less ready to throttle no one in particular for little reason other than hanger, but we were all still paying the price for having ridden headlong into a deceptively strong headwind.
But it did allow us a moment of clarity. The big climb of the day, Black Mountain, would still be there tomorrow. So too would the other roads we'd planned to ride. What was the use in killing ourselves just to ensure we covered the planned route? We still needed to get to Cardiff. What's more, we were here to enjoy ourselves and what Wales had to offer, not to suffer unnecessarily.
We made a decision and took a beeline straight for Llandailo, where we'd re-route, get an early night and hit the road recharged with enthusiasm.
DAY THREE: LLANDEILO TO CARDIFF
Distance: 154km | Elevation: 2,270m
The final day was going to be the best day.
We'd gone to bed on a whisky. We'd woken up to a packed lunch put together by the pub we'd stayed the night in. The drunk Welsh teenagers dancing and singing to the live entertainment of the night before hadn't kept us up.
All the signs were there.
Staring at the saddle of my bike, I revisited the previous days ride and wondered whether I was in fact the passionate cyclist I thought I was. Was riding far all it was cracked up to be? Was there equal merit to kicking back on the sofa with a packet of crisps, a couple of beers and a tub of ice cream without doing a weekend's worth of riding beforehand?
The mist eveloped us as we began the first of three Top 100 Climbs for the day and the light drizzle helped to mitigate our rising body temperatures as we ploughed on up the 5.5km ascent. I watched Simon, Ele, Gorrod, Chris and Jess get swallowed into the white haze as I settled into the rhythm of the slope.
These were fitting conditions for making our way up Black Mountain.
Reconvening at the top, our hollers and laughs drowned out the sound of our cleats unclipping from our pedals. Our eyes darted from one another, to the road that had brought us there, to the valley (and seemingly infinite descent) that stretched out before us as we all let out a metaphorical (and in my case physcial) sigh of relief.
This was better than crisps and ice cream on the sofa.
Leaning through the corners of the descent, we flew ecastatically towards Rhigos and on to Bwylch. Our zipped down jackets flailed in the wind as the sun began to shine and our backsides left our saddles for another gradual, beautiful ascent that turned towns into model villages and struggles through headwinds into distant memories.
Our new found sense of confidence arguably tipped into arrogance as we began to close in on Cardiff. Sweeping round towards the coast, the roads become smaller and narrower as we sought to keep off the increasingly busy A roads. These lanes soon turned to mud and rock. We powered on through, waiting for the what would only have been the second puncture of the trip as we bunny-hopped large rocks and tried to stay upright on the sections of deeper mud.
Eventually, we were forced to dismount when faced with what looked like a small, dried up waterfall. We'd all met our bike-handling match and, with our bikes over our shoulders, we marvelled at the fact our tyres had survived and prayed our cleats would do the same.
Your best friends tend to be the people you know so much about that you hate them a little bit. You know their faults, what it is about them that's annoying, what grates, where their weaknesses lie. But that level of knowledge comes only from knowing a person in intimate detail; from having spent so much time with them you've not just seen how they operate, but looked intensely under the bonnet. You understand their mechanics and how those dirtier, messier parts of their personality contribute to the greater good of their whole. You don't necessarily love them in spite of their faults, but they do help make the things you love about them shine that bit brighter.
So it is with anything you love. If everything is brilliant, easy, fun, then nothing is. What is passion without context -- highs, lows and in betweens? What is a phenomenal day on the bike without a confidence-knocking one to give it substance?
The good days will always outlive the bad and the happy memories quickly and readily replace the unhappier ones.
Here's to the next one.