For the third time in a year I told my friends I’d be cycling further than I ever have before. Of course this depends on how you count it. I’ve done tours that were much longer, but at less than audax pace. 400km (or 250 miles) is the longest audax I’ve yet attempted and, as it turned out, the furthest without sleeping.
Audaxing is supposed to be challenging, but I found this one really hard. Hard to the point where I didn’t enjoy some bits of it. However, it was, obviously, a long ride, and there were plenty of bits I did enjoy, one of which was the scenery, as I hope the photos show. (You can click on the thumbnails further down the post to see larger versions. If by chance I’ve captured you looking particularly heroic and you want a hi-res original, let me know.)
This event wasn’t only a challenge for those riding. The organiser, known to us as Blacksheep, had to contend with road closures and a control/sleep stop who at the last minute said we were double booked with a wedding party who didn’t fancy a horde of sweaty cyclists devouring the canapes. Amazingly, Blacksheep managed to find alternatives without having us hack along miles of dual carriageway or muddy tracks.
Having not organised myself soon enough to book affordable accommodation nearby, I got up early and drove the 45 mins to the start, running slightly late as usual. I hadn’t had enough sleep in the previous few days, so was reluctant to rise any earlier than absolutely necessary.
Still, I made it to the start in time to get a photo. Well over a hundred of us set off in pretty much ideal weather. Bright, if chilly, with a slight tailwind forecast to swing round later.
Early morning cycling might not sound like fun, but most “normal” people were in bed so even the main roads were virtually traffic free. I stopped for a photo as Tintern looked great in the sunshine, but I realised a bit too late, missing the most photogenic parts. There were plenty of other good views in the tree-lined Wye valley and I snapped a couple as I crossed the river.
Stopping, if only for a minute meant I lost sight of the large group I was with. Sometimes it’s worth sticking with the group, for drafting, chat or at night to give cars ample opportunity to notice the sea of red lights. However in this case it was probably a good thing to drop off as it meant I rode at my own pace and took it easy for a while. I doubt I was the only one who started a bit too fast, only to slow down later.
Somewhere through Monmouth or Rockfield I caught up with a group of about ten riders as the countryside opened up and we were treated to vast views across the fields. Of course views mean hills and it did get a bit lumpy here, but nothing for fresh legs to complain about. That said my legs had been achy from the start, which was discouraging so early on, but I reminded myself that I’d felt the same on my previous two rides and still got round ok.
Before reaching the first control at Hay there was a long winding descent. Opinions varied on whether this was hairy or exhilarating. I was glad of the change but had to keep my eyes on the road and away from the tempting views. Several times I slowed down early for a bend thinking I’d play it safe, only to find it was sharper than anticipated and had to brake even more just to stay on the road.
At Hay I got my Brevet card stamped and had a cake which didn’t really fill me up. Still, the cafe graciously filled my water bottle and I was on my way for the relatively flat next section. A bunch of four or five of us rode together at a pretty fast pace. One guy took the initiative to prompt a regular rotation at the front which kept us fairly fresh. His efforts were appreciated, but I think in retrospect I was going a bit fast for such a long ride.
As we entered Llandovery we were heckled by the local lads, but the staff at the West End cafe were friendly and efficient. They needed to be. Tens of cyclists arrived within a few minutes, all wanting food, drink and water refills. I had beans on toast with fried egg, which seemed to be what I needed. As I left, I discussed the route with Julian who had been in the group I’d arrived with. I had planned a detour through minor roads, slightly shorter, but with a bit more up and down. I said he was welcome to join me, although I wasn’t sure what it would be like. Understandably he took the route he knew from last year rather than that suggested by some dodgy- looking chap he’d only just met! My route seemed fine to me, but I had no idea if it had saved me time until later.
Although much of the route to Tregaron was an ‘A’ road, the traffic was still light and mostly of the patient, considerate type. After the right turn at Cwmann I spotted the info control and, rather than stopping, did my best to remember it. A more experienced audaxer from Bath was with me at the time and missed the sign, so I told him the detail which he stopped to write down. However he soon caught up and warned me that the section after Tregaron was really hilly and challenging, something I hadn’t really noted from my route planning.
On reaching Tregaron I realised I had definitely been going too fast, having completed 200km in a personal record time. This and a nagging need for the loo convinced of to have a proper stop. Time for a couple of drinks, something to eat and plenty of chat with other riders. It was also a good chance to recharge the GPS. Before long Julian turned up and congratulated me on my sneaky detour which had probably saved some five mins. Most audaxes have an official route, but as long as you pass the controls, you’re free to go whichever way you think best.
Leaving for New Quay about the same time as me – an hour later – was Steve, another veteran of the sport with plenty of tales to share. For me chatting is one of the highlights of audax riding. As long as they have plenty to say I don’t mind how long someone sucks my wheel. I’m thinking about getting a sign for the back of my bike which reads “James welcomes friendly drafters”, although to be honest I suspect I do less than my share at the front.
Eventually I lost Steve on one of the many short sharp hills, only to find him in New Quay enjoying a steak pie with chips. He admitted to taking a shortcut that I’d avoided due to much of it being along a busy main road. We were well over halfway and the seaside town of New Quay felt like a treat as did the apple crumble I ordered. For a short while we were on holiday. One rider spotted some dolphins in the bay.
Leaving the town involved and apparently endless grind uphill – bad news for those who had filled up on fish and chips before leaving. It’s a constant balancing act when riding long distances. Light, sugary snacks aren’t enough for a full day out, but cramming with stodge risks stomach cramps. I don’t have the strongest of stomachs, so I took the climb steadily, knowing I had plenty of time left. With 150km to go I still wasn’t sure if I’d need a sleep at Llangattock, around 340km.
The route passed through pleasant countryside on quiet roads. The hills continued the long slow grind theme, or maybe it just felt that way as no one was rushing by that point. I didn’t manage to team up with anyone, but saw plenty of riders I knew from earlier during brief stops. This time I skipped my detour and took the main road downhill towards Llandovery which was fast and easy. Once on the flat A40 I noticed a pair of riders coming up fast behind me. I tried to get in their slipstream, but I couldn’t accelerate enough and they soon lost me. Not a big deal and it wasn’t long before I saw them again in the now much quieter West End Cafe.
Maybe I should’ve gone for something more substantial, but impatience got the better of me and I ordered only a flapjack and hot chocolate. I left Llandovery around half past 9 with “only” 100km to go. It felt a very manageable distance. However it was now dark, so I turned on all my lights; the Hope 1 on low power pointing down in front of my wheel, the Fenix 2xAA on medium aimed to spot pot holes a bit further ahead. I also had a fibre flare shorty yellow on the front fork, and a red one coupled with a double led flasher on my saddle bag. With several hours of night riding a certainty, I like to be prepared. It was fortunate that I had extra lights, because as I was leaving, Jo (rabbit) arrived and she’d lost her rear light. I didn’t like the idea of anyone attempting the A40 without rear visibility, so lent her my double led. The fibre flare seemed to do the job for me and the few cars who passed me left plenty of room.
In other respects, however this part of the ride was the hardest for me. There weren’t any big hills, just gentle slopes along the main road, but this, combined with the lack of company or visible scenery made it feel a bit monotonous. There was nothing to take my mind off the effort and my slightly sore backside. Plus my GPS turned itself off for no obvious reason. It started up again ok when I stopped to check it out, which didn’t take long, but it put me in a bad mood. I guess you have to expect these little problems and be stoic about them.
Eventually I did find another rider and we shared the wind for a while. We didn’t say more than a couple of words until the control, but we tend to assume anyone on a bike at nearly 11pm is on the same ride. Coming off the A40 some way before Llangattock was a pleasant change and even the sleepy villages we passed through provided some interest and lifted my mood.
The hastily-arranged control at Llangattock was a community hall which had just what we needed. Blacksheep was there stamping cards and some gym mats had been laid out behind the stage curtain where at least one rider was having a well deserved rest. We spoke softly partly not to wake the sleepers and partly because we were weary ourselves. Feeling physically ok for the distance I’d done I hadn’t planned to stay long, but the helpers were offering rice pudding, which I gratefully accepted.
Before long I headed back out into the darkness with a handful of others. From here it was along the A40 through Abergavenny. I’d been warned that it can be unpleasant riding through the town late in the evening, due to post-pub attitude, but we saw no sign of trouble. Perhaps we were too late. Soon we were passing through Usk and onto smaller roads.
Anticipation was building for the last big climb. Hills often separate groups of riders due to the need for each to climb at their own pace, which depends on weight, fitness and gear ratios, all of which vary widely. So the small group I was with spread out as the gradient began to increase. For a while my world shrank as I pedalled away in the darkness, with little noise except the chain and my puffing breath. I was startled out of this peaceful state as a car shot past full of youngsters shouting out of the open door. At first I was angry, but then I thought that they’d passed me with as much room as possible, so no harm done. I found out later that I wasn’t the only audaxer to get buzzed by that car.
Progressing alone through a village I came to a turning with Chepstow marked left. There was nothing on the route sheet to indicate a turn and the GPS hadn’t beeped, but neither of them are foolproof. I took the turn. However, I’d barely gone 50m up the road when the GPS buzzed to tell me I was off course. I got my phone out to check the map and it promptly shut down, out of charge. As I dithered over which way to go I heard the faint click of a gear change back on the main road. It was suddenly obvious that the road sign had been twisted around and I’d taken a wrong turn. It’s not always a good idea to follow another cyclist, but when the GPS and routesheet agree there’s a fair chance it’s the right way!
I rejoined the road for the start of the real climb. There is something to be said for climbing in the dark, just picking the gears by feel and not worrying about the “wall of tarmac” in front of you. I had added a few extra layers of clothing at the last control and now, despite the late hour, I started to sweat a bit. I’m starting to think that sweating on an audax should be avoided if possible. It means you have to carry more water and even breathable fabrics end up a bit damp. When the road drops and wind increases, damp means chilly as I was soon to find out.
On reaching the top I was pleased to have got over the last big hill of the day/night. I was hoping to get a photo. There were some hazy glimpses of the lights of Chepstow and the Severn bridge, but nothing I thought would come out well on my camera. Other riders had told me of the glorious swooping descent from this hill and I wasn’t disappointed. The road was just the right gradient to easily maintain a good speed without having to constantly pull on the brakes. It had bends to make it interesting, but few so sharp that you had to slow down for them. And it went on for ages. The only downside was that I got a bit cold on account of working up a slight sweat on the climb, but not enough to stop me grinning like an idiot. I much prefer a bit of up and down to a slog along the flat.
By the bottom I was in the outskirts of Chepstow. It wasn’t far now, but every little rise in the road seemed like a major obstacle, I guess I’d cooled down and stiffened up a bit.
By the time I reached the control I’d been awake for about 22 hours. I handed in my card and grabbed my food from the car. I was a bit tired and grumpy, so after eating as much as I thought my stomach could handle, I settled down in the darkened back room and despite not having thought to bring a sleep mat, fell straight to sleep on the hard floor.
I woke about 8am feeling a whole lot more positive and started to look back on the highlights of the ride. In the end it had been all I’d hoped for. It was an adventure, a challenge with plenty of chatting along the way. There had been ups and downs and I learnt a few things. I had perhaps been over-confident, not respecting the distance as much as I should have. I’d been seriously intimidated by my previous audax, the Elenydd 300, but on the day I was comfortable and enjoyed every minute of it, which may have made me cocky. Perhaps starting with a bit of trepidation does me good. I’ll be careful not to underestimate the 600 I have planned for next month and hopefully on the day I’ll relax and have fun.