Monday, 7 May 2018

London-Wales-London Audax

Suited and booted
I was really looking forward to this ride. The thought of actually using my bike and being under my own steam to travel to another part of the UK, from the capital, seemed  to conjour up a sense of daring-do and gutsy ambition. Admittedly, the 'London' bit is actually Chalfont St Peter, on the very outward western fringes of London, and the Wales bit was only just about touching it before heading east again. But nonetheless, it was still going to be 400kms and a very long day in the saddle, in fact my longest ever continuous ride. I decided to go 'full audax' and bed down at the HQ the night before as it was an early start, so I headed off the the pub with a couple of other riders to have an anaesthetic pint, while the line-dancing class finished off. In the pub a few of the locals were rocking out to a pub band and a few of them were kind enough to wish us luck for the next day's shennanigans.

The start was typically low key. Coffee and toast, a few last minute fumbles with kit before Liam, the organiser, said a few words in the car park and on the dot of 6am, we were off. 119 of us setting out, north and west for Wales. As usual, a bit of a fast start before things settled and I found myself in a group of 3, cruising along some single lane at 17-18mph. My abiding memory of this section was just the haze and the gorgeous sunrise turning into full morning. I'd dressed in my leggings and long sleeves as it was cold and I was just right; comfortably cool. Before long we had turned into a group of five as two faster riders went past and we hooked onto the back, taking the odd turn on the front, but these two guys were doing a great job and didn't seem to mind us sucking their wheels.

Early days
  I had got chatting to a rider called Jacko and we spent an hour or so chin-wagging, before pulling into the first control at a social club in Woodstock to have a full fried breakfast. The club was a throwback to the mid 1980s, with brown swirly carpet, sticky dancefloor and pub furniture, but it was perfect. There were no energy gels, protein bars or shakes here; just a full english brekkie! I inhaled the sausage, eggs, beans and bacon. Brevet card stamped, water bottles topped up and I got going again.

Leg 2 was going to be another 70kms to Tewksbury and as I left the control I hit the first junction with a chap called Nick. We had a few brief words as we'd missed the obvious road to the route and then I spent a few silent minutes with Nick sitting on my wheel, so a few more words to say hi and from that point we rode the next 15 hours or so together. The sun was starting to get up and it was going to be a very hot day, but I was still in a long sleeve top and cosy warm, rather than hot. Nick and I chatted for the next few hours, talking all things endurance sports, work, kids. Although this was his first audax, he'd done plenty of other long endurance ultra-marathons so I could tell he had that calm, even temperament that I think you need to keep going when things are hurting and maybe not going to plan. After a while we caught up with Jacko who had left Woodstock 10 minutes or so before me and we rode the last hour into Tewksbury, where we had to get a receipt as proof of passage. It was properly hot now, so it was time to strip off, eat one of Gregg's finest steak bakes, top up bottles and get going towards Tutshill. The sun was shining, my legs felt great, Wales was 3 or 4 hours away and all was right with the world.

The countryside continued to unroll under my wheels; never ending fields and carpets of bluebells. The route was really wonderful and quiet, which made the cycling such a joy. While we had a good tempo going I wanted to take the time to smell the metaphorical roses, and I tried to take as much of the scenery in as I could. It made me realise how much of my own country I have yet to explore and what a great way that a bicycle is to do it.

Nick and I were working together well and we were keeping the speed up as we glided through Gloucestershire and into Herefordshire. The terrain was less than lumpy, but more than rolling, so at times we could really get the speed up, while some of the rollers sapped all the speed from my heavier than usual Van Nic. We had an infomation control at a war memorial, where I lent another rider who was on his third puncture, a tube, before we headed towards the big climb of Yat Rock. By this time we had hooked up with a female rider in full LEL kit and the three of us headed to the base of the climb. I started it ok but as we got to a steeper ramp near the top I got out the saddle and all of a sudden I just knew that I couldn't keep the bike moving forward, as Nick and LEL lady weaved up the road to the summit, I got off and discovered that I had not tightened the QR skewer tight enough and when I was pushing really hard to keep the bike moving forward, the wheel had moved (as happened at the Bec HC a couple of years ago). Frustrated, I sorted out the skewer before walking the rest of the way to the top, where Nick and LEL lady were waiting.

The Tutshill control was still a good hour or so away, and this was where I had my only really bad patch of the ride. I was frustrated and a bit angry at myself for not getting up Yat Rock (pure male ego) but I noticed that I was getting the tingles in my arms and starting to feel a little shaky. With the increase in heat I had been religiously taking in water but I had stopped eating for some time. I also realised that my worsening mood was an indicator that I didn't have enough energy in my system, so I got out two soreen bars and forced them down, hoping that they would be enough until we got to Tutshill. Nick and I had been sharing the work, but he was looking comfortable so I took the opportunity to sit in and take his wheel while I recovered. Nick's a big lad and made a large hole in the air so it made my life considerably easier to take a draft while I recovered.

We had arrived at Tutshill at 14:15 and not too many riders had gone through, so the control was quiet. The two fast lads I had been with early on were there with another two or three and I tucked into a big plate of pasta and a couple of bags of crisps for the extra salt. I could literally feel the energy pouring back into my muscles and as I slapped on more sun block and vaseline,  my mood lifted considerably and I started to look forward to getting back home.


 Within minutes we were over the Severn Bridge with clear views across the estuary and we headed for the climb up to the Somerset Monument at Hawkesbury. My front mech was playing up and had been for a while so I had a couple of mechanicals where I was overshifting. This would only be very mildly irratating on a standard club ride, but 240kms into a ride even a small issue becomes a major problem. It seemed sensible to just keep in the small ring which helped keep my legs relatively fresh. Again, plenty of green fields, bluebells, country mansions and  york stone villages. Audax riding really is a brilliant way to see the country. There were some sections where Nick and I were able to 2up along some faster roads, each of us taking a turn on the front for a few kilometres before swapping. I was thankful that I'd been able to stave off a full on bonk earlier, which would have been a bit of a disaster by this point in the ride. Nick was great at making us stop at a few other intermediate points to top up bottles and grab a flapjack or ice lolly. This was a big lesson for me to not just rely on the controls for food and while each stop cost us a few minutes it helped to keep energy levels up and take the pressure off our contact points, which I'm sure helped keep our average speed that little bit higher.


Fading light at Lambourne
We pulled into the last control at Lambourne and had soup and a roll, flap jack with fruit and a few cups of tea. It was about 7:30pm and it was warm but the heat was dropping fast, so I got my long sleeve top on, more vaseline and I was good to go. As I pulled out the control I suffered another mechanical and had a proper sense of humour failure. I'd just washed my hands and then within seconds they were covered in oil again. I told Nick to carry on and I would catch up, but it took me a couple of minutes to get the Van Nic back up and running. Nick had waited for me a kilometre or so further on (he'd taken the opportunity to stop and put on some arm and leg warmers). I was really grateful that he had waited; as the sun was going down, night riding after being in the saddle for over 12 hours was going to be a new challenge. It was also really quite lumpy. In my mind I thought that this section would be flat and easy; it wasn't. There were a couple of really quite tough climbs that had me bobbing and swaying out the saddle in the lowest gear I could get, the weight of my bike trying to drag me back down.  Things were starting to get quite tough.

Nick was doing more work at the front as his front lights were much better than mine. He was also doing a great job signing the many potholes, but after a while I asked him to stop. I think he was more likely to come off with only one hand on the bars and I would just run into the back of him, so I dropped back a bit and just hoped for the best. After Henley and avoiding the drunks, there was another climb out and by this time I just wanted to get it done. I tried to take turns on the front where the light was better, but Nick was able to read his GPS easier than me, so he was burdened with most of the hard work. I was behind him, clattering into potholes, swearing profusely and hoping to stay upright. With a few kilometres to go, I was just hoping not to get a puncture in the pitch black and it was testament to my mood that at that time a puncture would have seemed a disaster, but in reality it's nothing more than a minor inconvenience.  In the last 10kms, there were another couple of steep-ish hills and tons of gravel that I just couldn't see that had me slipping all over the road. It was pretty hard work and when we eventually got onto the A40 and the turn for Gerrards Cross I was a very happy bunny.

Best. Dahl. Ever.
Amazingly, we made it back before midnight, which meant that there were approximately 20 riders of the 119 or so who had made it back to the HQ before us; all in all, a pretty good day's riding! I fell on the food. Dahl, rice pudding, peaches, tea, biscuits; I had the lot and despite being achy and tired, all in all, I felt pretty good. Although not the toughest route in the audax calendar, it was still a hard test, with a varied diet of roads. I was extremely lucky to hook up with Nick. Working with another rider makes it much more bearable when things get tough and over those last 50 kms it would have been a lot more difficult, but his steadfastness and easy company really helped the miles go by. I've learnt so much about audax from this ride. I'll blog my main thoughts another time, but the main two things I've taken away is that a 400km audax is very much more than a 300km one and I really enjoy audax riding.

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