I gazed upon the hill ahead of me, which at first glance was a tad intimidating (as I'd be tacking on a total elevation gain of 1,780 feet), and I immediately thought to myself, "My spin classes didn't prepare me for this."
But I lowered my head and pedaled on -- slowly and unsurely, wondering how I'd make it up my own personal Mount Everest on the very first day of my trip.
Just 18 hours before the ride, I arrived in Wales for a five-day bicycling group tour with Drover Holidays, a local outfitter that organizes bicycling and walking vacations for all ages and abilities, including this "cyclist" who typically rides a stationary bike at a Florida-based YMCA.
When I'm not traveling, my weekly workouts at the Y consist of two (what I consider to be hard-core) spin classes, a boot camp that combines weights and cardio, plus a few yoga sessions at my local studio for good measure. When I'm on the road, well ... I've learned, that's a different story.
Back on the trail and riding my trusty Merida hybrid bike on an approximately 20-mile trek upward through Brecon Beacons National Park -- from the market town of Abergavenny in the Monmouthsire county, to Hay-on-Wye in the Brecknockshire district; the entrancing scenery distracted me from the burning sensation coursing through my legs.
All around, awe-inspiring landscapes spread as far as the eye could see, void of any development and very few cars passing along the way. Instead, flocks of sheep quietly grazed in lush green fields, horses meandered over to see who was passing by. The experience was not only tranquil, but inspiring.
At times, the terrain proved tough, but it didn't discourage me. I'd dismount and walk my bike through a few more challenging areas. However, I'd always be prepared to climb back on, and pedal along. After all, you can't quit. You are essentially forced to complete your ride to reach your intended destination. If my legs grew weary in spin class, I'd simply turn the knob on the bike to the left to lessen the resistance. Cycling in the "real world," there isn't a knob to turn down. And there's no turning back, only onward and upward.
After hours and 17-or-so miles of cycling, our group made it through Gospel Pass, which at 1,801 feet, is the highest throughway in Wales. Completing that ride meant we had reached the summit of our climb. Back in Florida I could only imagine this visual. It was surreal to actual live in that very moment, and be met with a real-life reward.
The spoils of our work included a delicious lunch -- which we enjoyed while soaking in sweeping views of the valley below. A thrilling three-or-so miles of fast downhill riding and, for me, a decadent chocolate dessert at dinner that evening. After all, I needed to refuel for the next day's ride.
When I awoke the next morning after an exceptionally sound sleep at a nearby hotel, my body wasn't sore at all. Perhaps even more surprisingly, I was excited for the journey ahead of me, I couldn't wait to get back on my bike. Day 2 took us to the Elan Valley, (also known as the Welsh Lake District) in Powys, Wales, for a much shorter ride, alongside lakes and wooded trails. The 70-mile reserve makes for terrific bicycling, though we rode just eight miles of it, happening upon a few walkers and even fewer cyclists, and the customary sheep along the way.
During the ride, I noticed that my legs felt stronger and I didn't flinch when our group approached the small hills. Perhaps my spin classes or the experience thus far were paying off after all.
However, on Day 3 -- while riding an 8.5-mile ride in Pembrokeshire -- starting on the coast, then inland and finally, the countryside -- something clicked. I figured out how to incorporate spin position two, which is when your hands are just inside the upward curve on the handle bars and you are more or less in "run" mode, and the third position (climb), where you hold your hands on to the top of the handles.
As we rode the undulating hills, suddenly I used the momentum from the down hills to power up hills, changing gears to increase the resistance, just like I would turn the knob to the right on my spin bike, and I surged past my fellow riders. I made it to the top without stopping, and when we all gathered together again, some asked what had gotten into me and I couldn't help but smile.
Our group of five women (plus two guides) had bonded from the first day, and we encouraged one another in every ride. All of us were close in age and of similar fitness levels, but two of the women in our group soldiered up each hill, not stopping to walk their bikes once. I was so impressed by their abilities, that I pushed myself to get increasingly better.
The next morning, Day 4, we stayed off our bikes and instead went on a coasteering adventure (think canyoneering -- scrambling, bouldering, rock-climbing and cliff-jumping into water) before making our way to Tenby, a seaside town on the Carmarthen Bay.
After we settled into our lovely accommodations, we were eager to get back onto our bikes and set out for a short, three-mile tour of the town and its beautiful beaches. I met the few hills along the route head-on and tackled all but one, which got the best of me. Reward: Bread, and lots of it, served with creamy Irish butter and delicious bites.
When I awoke on our last day of bicycling, Day 5, I was admittedly sad. I'd come accustomed to our daily rides and relished my time on the road. After a visit to the Laugharne Castle in southern Carmarthenshire, we hopped back onto our bikes for the last time.
The 6.5-mile ride took us along the salt marshes of the Gower Peninsula and to our final destination, the Britannia Inn, a local pub in Llanmadoc -- it was time for a celebratory lunch of fish and chips. And after five days in the seat of a real bicycle, I felt strong, confident and ready to tackle whatever lied ahead. Including my culinary indulgence.
Though I much prefer the gorgeous Welsh scenery to a darkened room in the basement of a high-rise building, back in my spin class I pushed myself harder and didn't hesitate when turning the knob on the stationary bike to the right to increase resistance. Because "real" bicycling uses the core much more than a spin class ever would, I was more apt to riding through the rough patches, like I did on the countryside.
And now there's no looking back, as I know now that I'm capable of tackling any terrain.
Susan B. Barnes (travlin' girl) is a freelance travel journalist whose bags are always packed and ready for her next adventure.