An audax has been described as a journey with an uncertain outcome. If everything goes well, the time limits are usually generous enough for people of a widely varying speeds to finish. However, they take place in the real world where expected things can and do go wrong and it pays to be well prepared. To my mind, this uncertainty adds to the sense of adventure and challenge, even if it is sometimes frustrating.
Having been ill with a persistent fever and cough for most of January, I was recovering physically and desperate to get out in the fresh air. So I booked 31st Jan off work and planned my first ride of the year – a 50km DIY audax with plenty of hills, plus a little bit to and from the start. If I took it slowly it should be a gentle start to the year which my unfit body and still-sensitive lungs could manage.
It was a damp and misty day, with the threat of rain. I don’t have the luxury of much flexibility in my spare time, so I wasn’t going to let that put me off. I’ve got some good waterproofs – trousers, jacket and socks, so I put it all on and set off. I got to the start at Upper Castle Combe in about half an hour, already warming up, so I stopped to take off the waterproofs as the rain had stopped. When I did so I realised that the batteries in my front light had dropped below the level where it will actually turn on, as had one of my two rear lights. Arguably these aren’t essential in the daylight, but I prefer to use them anyway, especially as it was so misty. After a bit of switching around I worked out that one of the batteries from my front light still had enough life in it to drive the extra rear light, so at least I’d be really visible from behind. I’m glad I used all AAs, but really I should’ve checked more carefully before leaving that they were all fully charged.
I set off and whizzed downhill through “the prettiest village in England“, dodging a few tourists who were out early. After several small ups and downs, I reached the highest point of the ride near Colerne where the mist and drizzle made visibility very poor. A bit of a shame as there are often good views from up here. Nevertheless I was happy to be out in the great outdoors feeling freedom and adventure. I felt like a caged bird set free. Albeit a slightly wheezy bird. But my lungs were 95% normal and my legs still seemed to know what to do. I was happy to amble along without expecting to break any personal records.
By now I was a bit chilly again and, knowing I had a long descent ahead of me, re-donned waterproofs. Thankfully the journey through Bath was easy and unhindered by traffic. Once out in the countryside again I enjoyed some unfamiliar scenery. The last time I rode down there was two years ago, so it made a nice change. Things got seriously steep riding in and out of Wellow, but at times the mist cleared and there were glimpses of the views I’d hoped for. I returned to Bath via the two tunnels cycle path which I always enjoy. It’s a gentle gradient and a good surface, so progress is easy in either direction. Mid-morning on a weekday, there were few pedestrians about, but I was surprised by one in dark clothing – shame my front light wasn’t working.
Once out of Bath I had a choice of two climbs, the narrow, quiet, meandering Steway lane, or the busier Bannerdown hill. The latter is the obvious choice downhill as it’s possible to safely pick up speed, but on the return journey Steway lane usually makes for a more relaxing route, especially at busy times. However, the surface often gets a bit “agricultural”. In the light of the recent damp weather, I chose the simpler and cleaner Bannderdown hill, taking the long climb into the mist steadily.
As I approached the top I noticed a lot of noise from the rear tyre. A puncture. Disappointing as this one had gone on my last ride too. Never mind, I found a gap by a farm gate and looked for the hole. Normally I take the tyre and tube off and inflate then listen for the escaping air, but in this case the tube wouldn’t stay up long enough to do this. I thought this meant it was a pretty big hole, but I couldn’t see anything. Maybe the valve had failed. A light misty rain was falling and I was getting impatient. I checked around the inside of the tyre for anything sharp, but found nothing. Yes, must be the valve gone. I put my spare inner tube into the tyre and set off to finish the climb. I’d barely got twenty metres when the back went down again. I yelled some bad words into the mist and walked it up to the large lay by at the top of the hill.
In as few mins I had a glue patch applied and was putting air back into the tyre. The problem was that it wasn’t staying in the tyre. Sighing, I got the levers back out and removed the tyre again. I only had one spare tube, so I had to fix this somehow. Part of the patch had stuck, but air was escaping from the other side. More glue on that side and try again. Nope, it still won’t hold air. Maybe a whole new patch? How about the Park Tools self-adhesive patches? A bit better, but still not good enough. Maybe the ubiquitous grime and moisture was the problem? I tried wiping the tyre down with some spare clothing from my bag, one of the few really dry things I had. This seemed to help a bit, but still didn’t quite do the job. Each time it failed I had a small outburst of frustration, before regaining my calm and trying again. I’ve fixed loads of punctures, why can’t I do this one? After an hour and a half I was considering whether to walk home. It would take three hours and I wouldn’t be able to validate my DIY audax, but at least I’d be back for dinner.
Just then another cyclist arrived. Chelsea was on her first tour from Bath to Oxford and she was having issues with her gears shifting into the spokes. This can be seriously bad news and even wreak a wheel. I did my best to help her by adjusting the limit screws, but I’m not sure it was totally fixed. It had been a lonely ride up to this point, so a bit of chat was welcome. She also kindly gave me an inner tube – I got the impression it was her only one. I felt a bit bad taking it. Fingers crossed her Gatorskin tyres are tough enough for her journey.
We said goodbye and, unsure of how much time I had to complete my ride, I sped off at a faster-than-usual pace. Thankfully the worst of the hills were behind me and there was a slight tailwind, so I made good progress. Later I found I’d finished with about five minutes to spare!
The ride was certainly difficult, but not to for the fitness-related reasons I had expected. Often long-distance riding provides more mental than physical challenges, but I’d rather not repeat this experience. Inspecting my rear tyre on my return, I found it full of tiny cuts and with little tread left. My Strava history suggests it might’ve done around 9000km – far more than I’d usually expect, so I’ll replace it before the next ride. I also plan to carry two spare tubes with me in future, partly for those times when I mess up but also so I can donate one to someone else without leaving myself at risk of getting stuck.
Hopefully Chelsea reached her destination safely and without needing her spare inner tube.