This weekend I’m riding the 400km on and off-road audax in the style and memory of Mike Hall. My motivation for this ride is similar to the reason I ride audaxes in general, but with the added variety of off-road sections. I’m interested in the question, “How much harder will that be?”. I met Mike only briefly, but I think this kind of event is what he would have wanted to inspire.
Long distance cycling is something I’ve got into over the past five years. Whenever I’ve mentioned one of my rides to friends I get bewildered responses ranging from admiration to horror. A lot of people ask if I’m doing it for charity.
“No” I say, “I’m doing it for… fun?”.
Yes, fun. I enjoy planning the route, deciding what clothing, lights and bike maintenance kit I should take. I enjoy the challenge of not knowing whether I can finish within the time limits. I enjoy the peace and solitude exploring deserted country lanes. I enjoy chatting with other riders. Sometimes I’m winding my way up a hill, sometimes I’m concentrating on a tricky descent. Sometimes I’m ambling along, sometimes I’m pushing to go as fast as I can. I enjoy the freedom of roaming and of self-sufficiency. I enjoy getting away from it all, relaxed but focused on the ride.
I’m not claiming that every journey is smooth and full of picture-postcard scenery. Things go wrong. Punctures happen, wrong turns happen, lights fail. Headwinds, achy legs and cold temperatures conspire against an easy ride. On most rides I’ll have a “low point” when I’m fed up, uncomfortable or hungry. Getting through that and whatever other challenges the ride may throw at me is part of the challenge and the reason I feel elated if I finish.
And I don’t always finish in time. If I always succeeded I’d wonder if I was limiting myself to easy challenges. Failure is a good way to learn, even though it hurts at the time.
I’m sure most of my bewildered friends take on similar challenges. Things which take unusual mental or physical effort, which take us away from the humdrum of everyday life. Things where success is not guaranteed, where temporary discomfort is tolerated to reach a goal. Everyone’s challenges are different, but we all need to be challenged.
Can you relate to that?
I’ve got some longer audaxes planned this year, so I thought I should actually have a training plan for once. I’ve avoided stating exactly what ride I’ll do on what day as I know life is likely to get in the way, but I still have some targets which I think are reasonable. Perhaps publishing it here will keep me honest!
Jan – Feb
- 1 x interval session (outside or turbo) 30-60 mins per month.
- 1 x 50km+ ride per week (could turbo)
- 2 x 100km+ ride with 1000m+ climbing per month (could count as two of the 50km)
- 400km and 5000m total per month
Mar – Apr
- 2 x interval sessions (outside or turbo) 30-60 mins per month.
- 1 x 50km+ rides per week (could turbo)
- 2 x 100km+ ride (could count as one of the 50km)
- 1 x 200km+ ride with 2500m+ climbing per month (could count as one of the 50km)
- 600km and 7500m total per month
May – July
- 2 x interval sessions (outside or turbo) 30-60 mins per month.
- 1 x 100km+ rides per week (could turbo)
- 2 x 200km+ rides with 2500m+ climbing per month (could count as the 100km)
- 1 x 300km+ ride with 4000m+ climbing per month (could count as one of the 200km)
- 900km and 12000m total per month.
I recently volunteered for a few days at the Thirsk Control for London Edinburgh London. I put up banners, sorted out chargers for riders GPSs and phones, found beds for people, served food, fixed bikes and marshalled people into the control. It was tiring, but with a great bunch of people to work with it was also good fun.
Here are a few of my photos.
Few bike routes truly deserved the overused term “epic”, but I think Andy Corless’s Knock Ventoux 300km audax is a contender.
I rode this in June 2017 and here are my photos.
I’m planning my second Everesting, so thought that as well as climbing lots of hills to prepare my legs, I should do something to prepare my bike. I have one proper road bike which I use for club runs and audaxing. Audax is bikes are partly about comfort as over that kind of distance discomfort eventually becomes pain, which slows you down a lot. Anyway, it is supposed to be enjoyable, mostly. Maybe some type-2 fun, but hopefully not type-3.
I’ve pretty much decided on The Burway for my next Everesting, even though I won’t be the first.
Mods for Everesting
I’m conscious that with Everesting there’s a lot more climbing than even the hilliest audax. The Cambrian 200 is one of the hilliest and even that has under 4000m of climbing. Everesting means 8848m in as little as 180km. When climbing, weight makes a huge difference, so some of my modifications are to reduce weight. I’ve removed the mudguards, the bell and the pedal reflectors and swapped my dynamo hub wheel for a standard one. The weather looks good and I hope not to be riding too much into the dark, so hopefully this will be OK. I’ve also swapped out my Brooks leather saddle for a simpler and lighter Charge Spoon. If this isn’t quite as comfortable I’m hoping it won’t matter as I tend to stand up for the descents and maybe parts of the climbs.
I’ve switched to some 25mm Continental GP4000 tires I have but rarely use. These are fractionally lighter and also roll a bit faster, which is a bigger proportion of energy usage uphill when aerodynamics are negligible.
I haven’t spent a huge amount of money to do this, just bought a couple of cheaper bits. No doubt you could save a bit more weight by spending more. The titanium frame is light, but not as light as some carbon ones. Still, I’ve got the weight down to 8.6kg.
The other significant change I made was in gear ratios. The Burway has a 20-25% section which I can easily get up with 34×29 when I’m fresh. However recent training rides on a 18% climb make me think that will become very hard after a few repetitions. I’d like to have the option of standing or sitting to climb, even when my legs are tired. So I had a look at Spa Cycles and found a cheap triple chainring that would do the job. the smallest ring is 22 teeth, which gives a lowest gain ratio of 1.4 (or 18.1 inches), compared to the 2.1 (or 28 inches) I had previously. At 90 RPM that’s 7.8kph, probably a realistic speed for the steepest part of the climb, though I expect my cadence will drop further when tired.
I only have a shifter for a double chainring and didn’t want the hassle/expense of buying and setting up a full triple at the moment. So I thought I might as well remove the two larger rings and for that matter the front dérailleur. A little extra weight saved.
I can still shift between 32 and 11 tooth cogs on the back, but this means I can’t pedal fast enough much beyond 25kph, so I may be a bit slower on the flatter bits of the descent. I’m not too worried about this as I think the climbs are more important to the overall time. Ideally my front ring would be about 28 teeth, but I don’t have one of those without spending more money or pulling apart my hybrid.
I’ve also replaced the chain as it was getting worn and set the length of the new one for the small chainring. I guess when I switch back to my double I’ll need a new, longer one.
I’ve also noticed recently that the fairly cheap wheels I bought about a year ago have had several nipple breakages, two when the wheel was just sitting in the garage. It looks like the nipples are made of aluminium rather than brass. Brass ones are a bit heavier (1g vs 0.4g by my measuring), but also more reliable. I don’t enjoy the prospect of nipples breaking while out on even a short ride, so I’ve laboriously replaced them all.
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.
In the last couple of years we’ve started using our tandem for longer rides and are looking at ways to make the bike more comfortable. We did some touring on it years ago, but now we’re riding 200k+ audaxes, where comfort is arguably even more important than when touring due to the time limit and limited time off the bike. As the stoker Erica tells me she’s very comfortable since we had a bike fit and she switched to a wide bullhorn bar with thick tape. With no need to steer she can easily change position on the bars or even let go or hold the saddle for a change when we’re going slowly. The tandem typically gives a very nice ride due to the long wheelbase, steel frame and 35mm tyres.
Flat bar issues
However, on my flat bars I’ve been stuck with a single hand position for an all day ride, which has caused some aches, particularly at the back of my neck and shoulders. I’ve never been able to ride no-handed and I don’t think it would be at all safe to do so on a tandem, as the stoker can shift their weight unexpectedly.
I don’t get this pain on my drop bar road bike even on much longer rides, so I wondered what the difference was. My current theory is the space between my hands. On the road bike this is at most 40cm, but on the tandem it’s always 50cm. I think this means my upper back has to work harder to bridge the gap and support my weight when leaning forward on the tandem. The usual advice for this is:-
Handlebars should be shoulder width apart (measured from acromion to acromion across the anterior chest) and comfortable. Handlebars that are too wide may cause excessive trapezius and rhomboid strain leading to muscle spasm and pain.
roadcycling.com on Neck and Back pain
The other possibility is that the tandem simply takes more arm and shoulder strength to manoeuvre, but I think narrower bars with more hand positions are worth a try.
Drop bar conversion
With that in mind I’ve picked a drop bar that is 42cm wide. This should give me enough leverage for the heavier bike and plenty of narrower hand positions. It has a very shallow drop and short reach as I figured it wouldn’t make a huge difference to aerodynamics on a tandem. If I tuck down lower at the front it means I won’t be shielding the stoker from the wind quite so well. I imagine there are still gains there, but I assume a 20mm lower front position won’t be noticeably faster.
But there’s an additional complication to this set up. The tandem has a rohloff speedhub which normally needs a twist shifter. This is tricky to get onto drop bars. There have been quite a few ideas to make the rohloff work with drop bars, some of them rather expensive and fiddly to set up. I’ve gone for one of the simplest and cheapest options by putting it on an extension to the left-hand end of the drop. The extension is called a hubbub and has an expanding end so you can tighten it up inside the handlebar with an allen key. The shifter then clamps onto this as it would the bar. Having to reach down for this is another reason I wanted a small drop on the bars. I want to make it as easy as possible to change hand positions. I tried out Thorn’s Mercury a few years ago which, if I remember correctly, had a split bar with a twist shifter on the tops, near the stem clamp. The problem for me was that I don’t spend much time in the tops, preferring the hoods or drops. So reaching up for the shifter took some effort and I was putting a lot of weight on one arm to do it. Even on a short test ride this got annoying; on a longer one I guess it could actually become painful.
Putting it all together
I spent a little under a hundred pounds on new kit, including Cinelli drop bars, Tektro RL520 Aero V Brake Levers, the hubbub adapter and SRAM bar tape. Luckily I already had a suitable stem leftover from a previous bike fit tweak to my wife’s hybrid. I held these up to the bike before fitting and did some rough calculations which confirmed that the hoods would be no further away from the saddle than on my audax bike. The bars were a little higher with respect to the saddle, but the only downside to this would be a slight aerodynamic loss and I could easily move them down later as there were still two 10mm headset spacers under the stem.
While I was doing the work I realised that the brake cables were getting a bit rusty, which is not surprising after at least twelve years use in all weathers. So I replaced the cables and outers, which was a bit fiddly but, even with the longer frame of the tandem, it cost less than five pounds. After I’d done this the rear brake seemed to have a lot of resistance in it compared to the front one. I can’t quite remember whether this was always the case, so I checked to see if anything was sticking.
Each part seemed fairly free and I could still get plenty of force through to the rear brake, so I decided it was good enough to try out there road.
I also added a small mirror to the opposite end of the bars though, being further inboard than the previous one, I’m not sure it will be worth it.
We took the bike out for a twenty km spin with a couple of steep hills. At slow speeds, especially starting off, I didn’t have as much leverage and fine control of the steering with the narrower bars, but once above walking pace they felt natural and I could even climb out of the saddle if I was careful. It was possible to hit my knee on the shifter, but didn’t happen often. What was not so good was that the shifter came loose and started rotating in the bar. The rohloff is quite easy to use, but each change does required a bit of force to get it to click. This soon became impossible without putting two hands on the shifter which was totally impractical and unsafe. So we stopped and found a suitable compromise gear to take us home.
Back in the garage I realised that the hubbub adapter wasn’t gripping the inside of the handlebar properly. I thought I’d got it as tight as possible with the shorter end of the allen key, the long end being required to reach down inside the adapter to the nut. If I had to epoxy the thing in it rather defeats the point of the hubbub adapter over a lump of wood or pipe. Online advice suggested that it just needed more torque, so I hunted around the garage for something to extend the small allen key lever. A bit of metal pipe would’ve done, but I was lucky to find an old suspension seat post. Miraculously, this is adjusted with an allen key in the bottom of the same size as the hubbub – 6mm. With a foot-long lever I could apply much more torque and it now shows no signs of moving. We’ve done a three-hour ride since and I’m confident enough to give it a go on a 220km audax at the weekend, which will be a real test of comfort.
EDIT: After riding a 200 and 300km events (including one 1 in 4 climb) with this set up, I’m mostly pleased with it, but getting out of the saddle on a climb can result in bashing my knee on the shifter unless I’m really careful. A sharp corner of it actually cut my knee on two occasions, so I may think about putting some tape over it or just stay seated.
Lately it’s been hard to fit calendar audaxes around family commitments, so DIYs have filled the gaps, both to maintain fitness and to keep a half-hearted RRtY/AAARty going. It helps that the South-West DIY organiser, Tony Hull is helpful and encouraging and the new “mandatory route” system allows more precise planning.
Having taken a lengthy break from serious cycling after PBP, I first attempted this route last October. That time, after 100km and most of the hills, my legs felt weak and I’d gone a lot slower than anticipated, so I called it a day as the route passed close to home around the halfway point. Whether this is a sensible convenience or an unnecessary temptation is debatable. I finally completed the full 200 in December, after some more consistent training and commuting.
For my February attempt, the weather looked good for Sunday, so I set out at 7am, naively hoping to be back between 5 and 6pm. I had tweaked the route to include more smooth surfaces and straight roads on the descents, in the hope I could make up some time. As I wound my way through Biddestone, Castle Coombe and Ford things were going well. It was cold, but there didn’t seem to be any ice about and after an hour or two I even shed some layers of clothing.
I’m not sure what tune I was humming, but I think it was Everyone’s a VIP to someone, by The Go! Team.
After a thrilling descent of Bannerdown hill, I knew the steepest climb of the day was approaching. As before I struggled up the relatively gentle gradient of Bathampton High Street wondering how I’d cope with the wall-like 33% of Prospect Place. I’ve managed this climb a few times now, but it always calls for the lowest gear and an out-of-the-saddle effort for some 100m. I even weave across the narrow rough road in an attempt to reduce the effective gradient. Sometimes I wobble into the muddy bank and find it impossible to get back on again. This time I stayed on the bike, but by halfway up, not only were my legs aching, but I was puffing uncontrollably. It probably would’ve been smarter to walk, but I can be stubborn sometimes. At the top I rewarded myself with a banana and looked forward to the long gentle descent on the A-road. Then I doubled back on myself towards Bradford-on-Avon, over the viaduct at Avoncliffe and through Freshford, with plenty more climbs and some nice views. Crossing the A36 the lights were in my favour so I dashed straight onto the bottom of Brassknocker hill. Feeling the ache I used my habitual “photo” excuse for a quick breather. Up and down a couple more times, hugely enjoying the smooth surface on Ralph Allen drive, I got off to avoid the roadworks and congestion at the bottom and began the long climb of Widcombe hill. Around halfway up another cyclist caught up with me and we enjoyed some friendly chit-chat. This annoyed of a couple of motorists who seemed unaware that the highway code allows cyclists to ride two abreast. I gave a big, friendly wave in response to their hoots – what else can you do? I could tell by the ease with which my companion was talking while climbing, that he was feeling stronger than me. As he pulled away I resisted the temptation to give chase, knowing I still had more than 2000m to gain.
Back down through the centre of Bath I noted that the traffic was lighter than in December, maybe Sunday is a better day for riding through town. The short, sharp climb up Alpine Gardens was too much and I got off to push for a bit. I then had a good five minutes of fairly flat riding past Victoria Park to recover before Lansdown and the climb of Weston hill. Not ferociously steep, but long and relentless. I stopped for a brief rest and to moisten the hedgerow, but there was little cover – one car tooted their horn which I interpreted as saying “We know what you’re doing!”.
The long, straight descent back into town brought my average speed back up a bit. It was looking OK for my 12:30 lunch date in Lacock with my wife and daughter. At Charlcombe I was surprised by a closed road sign. Unsure of how far the detour would be, I thought I’d see if I could squeeze through. Further on the detailed warning explained about the annual toad migration. As it hadn’t rained in several days, I thought I’d go slowly and look out for amphibians crossing. Happily, I passed through without encountering any animals and went on my way. I managed the next couple of modest hills slowly, but steadily. It was only when I got to the long and occasionally steep Steway Lane that I got off to walk. At the top the Northerly wind which had pushed me up Bannerdown road now made even the slight downhill an effort, but it wasn’t for long. Climbing Ham Lane I was again forced to dismount by failing leg strength. After that there were few hills before lunch in Lacock, so I had a bit of recovery time. I was going to be a few minutes late due to walking, but near enough.
As I crawled up Mons Lane near Lacock an immaculate blue and cream VW camper van waited patiently for me whilst loudly emitting the sound of Green Onions. I passed slowly, nodding my head in time to the music and the driver grinned back at me. I met with my family and we hunted for a while for a place to eat which wasn’t full, eventually settling on a bakery where I had a veggie pasty, hot chocolate and carrot cake. I wasn’t sure if this was too much and would make me uncomfortably full for the next stage. My stomach was shouting “Bring it on!”, so I went for it with thankfully no discomfort, despite the 16% hill climb soon after. Based on previous experience, I think I was lucky. The second steep climb I had to walk for a bit, but it was my legs, not stomach that were protesting.
As I rounded a corner by Maud’s Heath Causeway, I heard the unmistakable hiss of a big puncture. Not a real blowout, but my front tyre was completely flat within two seconds. I had come prepared, so set out to fix it. A quick inspection showed nothing stuck in the tyre, but when I pulled it off the rim I noticed a 10mm rip in the sidewall. Ah. That could be tricky. If I replaced or patched the tube, the hole would likely cause it to pop through the hole in the tyre as soon as I inflated it. I remembered that I had some duct/gaffer tape wound around one of my tyre levers, so carefully cut a strip of that to cover the rip. It seemed to hold. As I rode off I remembered that I do also have a couple of tyre boots which would’ve been better than the tape.
The tyre seemed to hold up, but there was another problem. My light had run out of charge. Thinking I wouldn’t be out for long in the dark, I’d switched my dynamo light for the Ixon IQ battery light and had kept it on low power for better visibility in the day. This should’ve been fine for ten hours, but I guess the near-zero temperatures made the batteries less efficient. Anyway, I knew I’d have to stop to buy some replacement AAs. I was passing close to Malmesbury, so I diverted into town to the Co-Op and also got some water. An extra 2km, no big deal. A little while later in Tetbury I rode right past another Co-Op which would’ve been easier. Still, I’ll know for next time.
At some point the internal jukebox switched to Curlews, which I’d been listening to at work recently.
The sun was setting slowly and the scenery was pleasant. For another couple of hours I climbed almost imperceptibly into the Cotswolds, occasionally into the wind. I was tired, but comfortable. As I approached the final hilly loop towards Uley the road dropped into a pictureque valley, half-shaded by the setting sun. I almost stopped for a photo, but decided to keep moving. Nearing the bottom of the last downhill into the village my front tyre again went suddenly flat. I was pleased how the bike still handled OK and I was able to keep control for the 60 or 70m needed to stop. Yes, my earlier repair had failed and a 7pm finish was now looking optimistic, but I wasn’t too grumpy about it. At least the village had a bench for me to sit on as I worked on the repair. Knowing I’d have a bit of digestion time I started by munching a rather stale cereal bar and examining the tube. The previous self-adhesive patch seemed to be doing its job, but another hole had sprung up right next to it, in line with the rip in the tyre. It was so close to the first repair that I wasn’t confident it would cover the hole properly, so I went for a new tube. After getting this and the tyre boot into the tyre and onto the rim, I realised the valve was too short and no amount of struggling with the pump would make a seal good enough to inflate it. Argh, poor planning, James! Back to the original double-patched tube. Hurrying with cold fingers I thought I’d pinched it a couple of times, but eventually it went in properly and seemed to hold air. Phew! I texted my wife with yet another ETA and set off through the village to find the last big climb of the day.
I tried not to think about my bodged repairs and enjoyed the last good views of the day as the sun set. The climb was long, but manageable. I suppose it helped that I’d just had a half-hour rest! Back at the top with little or no wind and a slight downhill I made good speed back through familiar places such as Westonbirt and Norton. The only thing which impeded my progress was that my light was set slightly too low, so I could only see the potholes about ten metres ahead and I was nervous about crashing into them on an iffy front tyre. Nevertheless I made it home after a couple of hours in the dark, tired but not exhausted.
The tyre with the rip is a Continental 4Seasons, but it’s done about 8000km, so it owes me nothing and is destined for the bin. Next time I’ll make sure the tubes I carry fit the wheel!
It’s not the title I had hoped to be writing, but I guess it’s the most accurate one. I’d never attempted an audax of more than 600km before, but as I’d finished the three 600s I’ve done with some time to spare, I felt confident, perhaps too confident, that I could complete the 1230km of Paris Brest Paris.
(There’s a gallery of my PBP 2015 photos here.)
It wasn’t particularly that I was unprepared, although admittedly I hadn’t studied the route or worked out a proper pace plan. I had however, given a lot of thought to clothing and equipment and ridden two 600s in case one of my earlier qualifiers hadn’t worked out. However, my training in the weeks leading up to the event consisted only of commuting – 74km twice a week. Family responsibilities occupied much of my time. I’d rarely been away from my wife and daughter for more than a couple of days and I knew I was going to miss them, so I tried to spend as much time with them as possible. Besides, having a young child is like taking on a part time job, where you are on call 24 hours a day. Asking my wife to take on my share of that for a week is enough of a favour, without insisting that she cover all the weekends leading up to it as well.
When registering for PBP I’d chosen the 90 hours “tourist” time limit, but been a bit slow off the mark, ending up with a 1845 start time, group M. I would’ve preferred to start earlier, giving me a chance to build up a time buffer before I needed to sleep. However, the advantage of going off later was that I had plenty of time to take photos of the many varieties of human-powered vehicles people were riding. Vintage bikes with plunger brakes, tandems, Bromptons, hand cycles, several kinds of recumbent and lozenge-shaped velomobiles. There was equal variety in the kinds of lights and luggage riders had and how they attached them. Great fun for a bike geek like me. More than 60 countries were represented and I’m ashamed to say that I could only recognise a handful of the flags shown on each bike’s frame label.
I was impatient to get going but, with only a couple of hours to my start, my stomach rebelled. I’m not sure if it was something I ate but I do have a delicate stomach at times. Anyway, I made repeated trips to the busy portaloos and, when the loo roll ran out, was very glad I’d taken Marcus Jackson-Baker’s advice to pack some of my own!
Disaster averted, I joined the 300-strong queue for my start and chatted to a Canadian chap about his wooden mudguards/fenders. The atmosphere as we set off was wonderful, people cheered, clapped and yelled “Allez vous” or “Courage”. I got the impression that it wasn’t just other cyclists and their relatives, but local people who had come along for the show. What I didn’t realise was that this support would continue at every town or village we passed through.
Progress into the countryside was swift but not frantic, smaller groups formed and broke up as people got into their rhythms or climbed at different speeds. I didn’t know anyone in my group, but chatted briefly with a few. It was a fairly warm evening, so I was wearing shorts and short sleeves along with the official reflective vest which would be mandatory after dark. To my surprise, I saw a group of cyclists from India wearing full length trousers, winter jackets and helmet covers. There were others who had even covered their faces, although the temperature was around twenty degrees C. I guess it shows that people need to acclimatise to temperature as well as distance. No doubt us northern European riders would struggle to ride in 40 degree heat that felt normal to others.
Before two hours had passed, about ten riders from group N caught us up. I was tempted to join them and benefit from drafting behind faster cyclists who had set off 15 minutes after my M group, but decided against it. I’ve learnt that there’s a comfortable pace for each individual which changes as the ride progresses. Not so fast that you’re sweating and getting out of breath, but not so slow that you get bored or cool down too much. Some people use a heart rate monitor to determine what that pace is, today I was going on feel. Either way, it seems to make a ride go better if you stay in that comfortable zone.
As the light began to fade I came across an Indian rider stood by the roadside examining his bike. I called out the usual, “You ok? Have you got what you need?”, to which he replied, “No, help!”. One of his pedals was coming loose and I was very pleased to have the 8mm allen key to fix it for him. Riding on, we chatted for a bit before I pressed on, keen to build up some sleep time. I didn’t see him again, but I hope his pedal stayed on and he had a good ride.
I now had my lights on but, as they were battery powered, I tried to conserve power by setting them to low when in groups, reserving the brightest setting for when descending. I had an Ixon IQ and Fenix LD22 on the front and a B&M toplight senso on the back. All take AA batteries as does my GPS. I normally feel like too much of an environmental criminal to use disposable batteries, but for PBP I had made an exception and used lithium ones for their long life. I hope to get dynamo lighting soon.
As I rode through a quiet village late at night I heard an unusual noise. For a moment thought there was a problem with my bike or part of my luggage was loose. Then I realised it was a man stood outside his house clapping! Children who had probably been sent to bed hours ago waved out of upstairs windows and a few had joined their parents outside to give us encouragement.
By the time I reached Mortagne-au-Perche it was after midnight and the car park was filled with bikes. I was a bit bewildered and it took me a minute or two to find a space to park. Inside I joined the queue for food, which was long, but moved quickly. I looked around anxiously for the control card-stamping desk and eventually asked another rider who explained that this stop was for food only. The first control wasn’t until 220km. Perhaps I should’ve done a bit more planning so I’d have known things like this! After some food and chatting I found a relatively quiet spot behind a display board and got an uncomfortable half hour’s sleep. I didn’t set an alarm thinking I’d be flexible on timing and with the noise and hard floor oversleeping was unlikely. Somehow I managed to spend nearly three hours faffing at Mortagne, which I knew I was far from efficient. At Villains la Juhel some hours later I was a bit quicker, but still managed breakfast and another nap.
Back on the road I soon had a visitation from the puncture fairy. Mildly frustrating, but soon fixed. I didn’t mind too much as the weather was good and the people were friendly. Many of the towns and villages had been decorated for the event, as if they weren’t picturesque enough already. Old bikes were spray painted in luminous colours or adorned with flowers. Small groups of supporters sat in garden chairs at the end of their drives calling “Courage!” or “Bonne route”. Some offered water, tea, coffee or cake.
One of the things I had intended to do when I first arrived in Paris was to send postcards to my family, but I’d forgotten to do this so I popped into a village shop and quickly chose three with pictures of Normandy chateaux. Unfortunately the shop was out of stamps and the local post office was shut at ten am on a Monday! At a larger town some local supporters kindly directed me to one that was open. None of this took much time, but I could easily have saved twenty minutes had I done it in advance.
At Fougeres things were relatively quiet and service was quick. I was always around other riders on the road, but had no idea whether there were large groups ahead or behind me. I ate well and wrote the post cards as my lunch went down. Feeling good, I got back on the road with 309km done – a quarter of the ride. However, aware that I had been far too much of a tourist so far, I “bounced” the control at Tinteneac; brevet card stamped and bottles refilled in about fifteen minutes.
People’s opinions of the hills varied depending on what they were used to. I found them long but not steep. I often got hot by the top of the climbs, but the descents were rarely difficult and I’d usually keep pedalling gently on the way down. I could certainly feel the distance by this stage and was going a bit slower than normal. When I reached the optional food stop at Quedillac I hastily decided to keep going to gain time for a proper rest later. It was 45km to Loudeac, which seemed quite manageable. A short while later a rider overtook me in the familiar orange and white stripes of Chippenham Wheelers. I hadn’t seen any of the others from my home club since the start, so I was keen to catch up for a chat. It was Sheni who, after a slow start, was riding strongly and planned to push on to St Nicholas to sleep. It felt good to ride a bit faster and I enjoyed comparing our experiences so far. However, I soon realised that I was riding faster than felt comfortable at that stage, so I eased off. Sheni also slowed down, possibly in sympathy or because he was also feeling the distance. It was now getting dark and the last ten kilometres to Loudeac became a struggle to keep the pedals turning. My wrists, neck and shoulders started aching. I urgently needed a rest and something to eat. I usually carry a chewy bar, dried fruit or a banana on any long ride, but I had neglected to stock up on these essentials. If I’d had a five minute breather and something sugary to eat at this stage, I think I would’ve been fine.
But I wasn’t fine. When we got to Loudeac around 9pm I was feeling achy, exhausted and couldn’t contemplate food. I sat in the canteen and tried to nap, but it wasn’t happening. Sheni arrived with his dinner and kindly offered me one of his drinks, but I didn’t feel like it. Maybe I should’ve tried it, but I was afraid I wouldn’t keep it down. He finished his meal and set off to do another 45km before bed. I was glad to hear later that he made it around within the time limit. After getting my card stamped, I found a bed, asking to be woken at 4am. I’m not really sure why I said 4am. I vaguely thought that this might not give me enough time to reach Carhaix before it officially closed. On the other hand, if I was giving up, why not sleep in late? I guess I was tired and indecisive.
I woke around 3, still tired but much more myself again. I calculated that, once I’d eaten breakfast and packed up I would have three hours to cover the 76km to Carhaix. That sort of speed would be no problem if I was feeling fresh, but at that moment it felt completely unrealistic. So I got myself a good breakfast and chewed over the idea of abandoning… packing… DNF… not something I’ve ever had to do in the last two and half years of audaxing. I was feeling better and better, but not like I could race to the next control. Even if I made it there I wouldn’t be left with much time to eat and rest before racing on to the next one. I had foolishly squandered too much time early on leaving no margin for error. Then I’d made a great big error by not eating for 140km! It’s one of those things that people who’ve done PBP warn you not to do – why hadn’t I listened? Well I suppose I had listened to a lot of advice and it had been very helpful. What to pack, how to train, how to get there and where to stay – all that had gone to plan. I’d been more concerned about the logistics of getting me and the bike to the start, with the right kit, than actually doing the ride.
I returned to the control room, handed in my timing chip and abandoned the randoneé. So what now? I could carry on to Brest at my own pace, making use of the controls and resting as required, but I wanted to be sure I’d get back to Paris in time to get a good night’s sleep in the hotel and for the train back to England the next morning. I could possibly get a train from Brest or Loudeac, but as I wasn’t injured I liked the idea of returning under my own steam, being self-sufficient.
So, feeling at least that I had a plan, I set off into the darkness, this time heading East, following the pink and blue Paris arrows. I saw plenty of bright white LEDs heading the other way and it took me a while to realise that they were from the 84-hour group, who had started on Monday morning.
Starting a ride when it is still dark is often unpleasant and takes a bit of extra effort, especially when riding alone. However, it all seems worthwhile when the sun comes up, revealing the countryside in a new light. Everything feels fresh and hopeful. Today was no exception. The sun filtered though the mist as it hung in silky waves over the fields. After the previous day’s crowds and excitement, the quiet was blissful. I took time to enjoy the peace and solitude, taking a few pictures, aware that my photographic skills wouldn’t do justice to the scenes.
After a few hours, I arrived at Quedillac and decided that I could definitely manage a hobbit-style second breakfast. The place was almost deserted, less than ten people including about three volunteers. I suppose most of them were taking a rest before the next waves of cyclists returned from Brest. One of the few others there was an American lady called Laurie who had started in my group. She was still on her way West and would probably be out of time, but like me was philosophical about not completing her first 1200km audax. Her aim was to reach Brest and enjoy the ride. We sat and chatted about cycling and life and taking time to build fitness for a good half an hour – the sort of time I might not have spent sitting still if I’d still been trying to keep to my vague schedule.
Making sure I kept a banana in my jersey pocket in case of hunger, I rode East in the sunshine, enjoying the scenery but feeling slightly guilty being cheered by people unaware of my significant shortcut. At Tinteneac the volunteers tried to helpfully wave me into the control, but I rode past calling “J’ai déja abandonné”. I’m not sure if that’s the best way to say it in French, but it was a phrase I was to repeat many times over the next few days and people seemed to understand. At some point on my return journey, I’m not sure where, near the top of a hill I spotted a very well-stocked table at the roadside. Home-made cakes, biscuits and, oh joy, crepes! In broken and breathless French I fessed up and explained my situation to the three children attending the food. It seemed I was still allowed to partake, so I helped myself to a crepe au sucre and dropped some coins into the donation bowl. Such a spread would’ve cost a fair bit to make. I did my best to make conversation with the kids, but to be honest I struggled. After I left I spent much time rehearsing French phrases as I rode in the hope I wouldn’t stumble over my words so much next time.
I arrived in the beautiful town of Villaine La Juhel late afternoon having covered about 230km that day. I wasn’t really sure what to do next. The basic eat-sleep-ride pattern was disrupted, so I just stood there, taking it in. I was soon awakened from my reverie as a volunteer blew his whistle; there were more riders coming in and they needed to clear the thoroughfare. I parked the bike and headed for some food. At this relatively quiet time volunteers of all ages were taking the chance to use the catering facilities. Someone spotted me as I wandered in and called “cycliste!”. Five people leapt aside and ushered me to the front of the queue. I was getting tired of explaining that I was really in no rush, so I sheepishly thanked them and enjoyed a good meal. After that I had a shower and slept for ten, yes ten, hours. The makeshift dormitory was a school music room, judging by the records on the walls, but it had thick mats and I had it to myself. I think some others came to catch a nap during the night, but by the time I woke up I was alone again.
Getting up I felt good and I only had a 90km day planned which would leave a 141km ride back to Paris for Thursday morning. As I rode I chatted to a few riders who were, in effect, 330km ahead of me. I found that how I felt about abandoning the randonneé changed depending on who I was speaking to. Those whose attitude was most relaxed, “Well, it’s still a nice ride” made me feel comfortable about it, but other who had an “Argh, what a shame!” response made me feel more disappointed in myself. Curious, and something I’ll bear in mind next time I meet someone else who has packed. By lunchtime I was most of the way through the day’s riding, so in Mamers I found an Italian cafe and had a large pizza and dessert. More than I’d usually eat in one go on a ride, but I figured I could ride gently if I had any digestive trouble. The town had an attractive square, but I wasn’t quite sure I liked the atmosphere away from the main PBP route. It was generally quiet, but I noticed groups of youths hanging around, apparently with not enough to do. Perhaps I was getting paranoid travelling alone, but I find it harder to read situations in foreign countries, even when I can speak a bit of the language.
So I got back on the road and before long I was back at Mortagne, where I took some time to watch the riders arriving, applaud and take photos. I caught up with some other club mates who were tired, but doing well and hoping to reach Paris that night. After a lazy, but sociable afternoon I went to find a bed. I was amused when the volunteer described me as “Ce petit jeune” – “this little youngster”, but explained that although I was 36, I probably look young due to being slight of build and having had much more sleep than everyone else.
The thin mat on the floor was not particularly comfortable and I appreciated having ear plugs and a buff to cover my eyes – I think someone took a flash photo at some point. Still, I got enough sleep to set me up for another pre-dawn start.
The next morning when I got on the road the main thing I noticed was that I was overtaking everyone. I wasn’t trying to, I was just going at what seemed like a comfortable pace. Of course it wasn’t really fair as I had done a shorter distance and probably had much more sleep, but I was surprised how much difference it made. The dawn was not as dramatic as the last time. The sky remained a dark grey and looked rather threatening. I chap called Alex introduced himself and asked if he minded if he chat to me to keep himself awake. I was happy to listen and learnt a few things about the Ukraine – his home country. I wasn’t aware that their flag – blue at the top and yellow underneath – represented the sky and wheat, the latter being the country’s major export. We rode together for a couple of hours, sharing a love of Campagnolo ergonomics and home-brew bicycle hacks. I admired his Garmin mount made from an old bottle cage as we stopped for free roadside soup – “Je vous remerci les Francais!”.
At one point we were passed by Steve Abraham clocking up the miles for his one-year time-trial. I was delighted that he looked around and gave me a big grin – he must’ve recognised my YACF forum name plate.
Alex and I parted ways at Dreux. He was meeting up with his team mates and I wanted to grab a quick bite to eat without cooling down too much. Having been really lucky with the weather, it was now raining persistently, so I didn’t want to hang around. I think it was as I was leaving Dreux, climbing a small hill, that I spotted a van wanting to turn into a side road across my path. In the UK, drivers can get a bit impatient in this situation, but he waited calmly. When I got out of the saddle to clear the road more quickly, he thumped his chest with his fist and mouthed the word “Courage!”. I was grinning for a while after that.
After another pleasant chat, this time with a British recumbent rider I was soon rolling along familiar roads into the outskirts of Paris. I was feeling strong and still overtaking people who had done the full distance with hardly a chance to close their eyes. Again I felt a bit guilty and got a couple of grumpy looks. I decided not to try and strike up any conversations.
The mood at the finish was one of muted elation and relief. I left my bike in the parking lot, congratulated a couple of friends who had made the full distance and headed into the velodrome for paperwork and pasta. I couldn’t find anyone I knew, so ended up sitting with a couple of older French men who’d just finished the ride. I was pleased that by this time I’d remembered how to speak French and one of them spoke English to a similar standard, so we took it in turns. It was a great way to learn and I could’ve chatted with them all day. No doubt I made plenty of blunders, but also managed a few jokes. It was the first PBP for Jean-Claude, at age 68. His younger friend joked that it had been easy for him to train, being retired. I explained my failed attempt and enjoyable journey back, how kind the French public had been and the wonderful scenery that made a pleasant change from England. In the months leading up to Paris Brest Paris, all through the qualifying brevets, I had felt oddly unenthusiastic about it, but now I understood why it is so special. Like many I thought it would be a one-off, but even if I had completed the randoneé successfully, I think I’d still want to ride it again. It may be a big commitment, but if circumstances allow I do hope to come back in 2019 and do it properly.
Some other riders took much better photos than me, and here are some of them on various themes.
Strava Glamorous glossy-photos view:
US-rider’s amazing photos: