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 spent a few years infrequently commuting to Bristol through the year. I’ve now left that job, so thought it would be interesting to share the photos taken on my usual routes.
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.
A couple of years ago I everested Bowden hill in Wiltshire and found it a good challenge. I was the first person daft enough to do it. Since then I’ve been thinking about another hill to Everest.
For a long time I had my eye on Bwlch-y-groes aka Hellfire pass in North Wales, but last year Ian Barrington did it before me. More recently I’ve been thinking seriously about The Burway in Shropshire, but a couple of weeks ago Chris Winn did that one. Huge kudos to both these guys for amazing efforts on these famous climbs. However, I was a bit annoyed that I couldn’t be the first up either of these, which is what the Everesting.cc hall of fame focuses on.
I started wondering about whether I really needed to be the first to Everest a particular hill and for that matter why I do it at all – something which I feel I often have to explain to puzzled friends and family. Last time I was doing it for charity, but this time I’d rather do it for me. Partly because I don’t like asking people for money.
One reason I do these kind of challenging rides is that it adds a definite goal to aim for. Whether I’m training or modifying my bike or working out the route and logistics, it’s all more enjoyable with an aim in mind. If you don’t have a goal you can’t fail, but success is also rather meaningless. There’s no sense of anticipation or achievement. Some cyclists use racing or aiming for KOMs on Strava segments as goals, but I’ve never been much of a racer. I’ve assumed that, having only started cycling seriously in my thirties I was a bit old to be really fast over a short distance. But I feel I might be better suited to these longer and quite frankly, weirder challenges. If I really feel the need to get the “first ascent” on the hall of fame, am I doing it for bragging rights? A lot of people I know find my challenges more eccentric than impressive, so perhaps I am doing it for my own satisfaction. I’ve said before that everyone’s challenges are individual and in some ways hard to compare. I’ve judged that Everesting will be a challenge for me. Despite having done something similar before, I’m not sure I’ll be able to complete it with my current level of fitness, a different hill, different conditions, etc. That’s part of what makes it interesting.
So I’m still undecided about redoing a famous climb or trying to be first on a new one. Either way, I’ll need to prepare my bike.
I regularly use my bike to get to work. Usually only for the short journey across town where I leave it at the station and take the train the rest of the way. Once every week or two I ride the full 25 miles to Bristol. It’s a nice way to start the day, saves the train fare and on at least one occasion has been quicker than waiting for severely delayed trains.
However, I can remember a time when this kind of distance and the logistics of riding in to work seemed intimidating. How long would it take? Where could I secure my bike? Will I need lights? How do I carry my laptop and work clothes? Can I shower at work? What if I get a puncture?
I’ve now resolved these questions and my 18-year old hybrid is now my go-to form of transport for short journeys and sometimes longer ones.
Have you thought about making some or all of your journey to work by bike and never quite got around to it?
Cycling UK‘s Bike Week event is coming up (10th to 18th June) and in the spirit of encouraging more people to cycle, I’d like to offer to help those friends and colleagues who’ve never commuted by bike to give it a go.
I can give some advice on the practicalities, safety, route planning and, if you need a bit of extra motivation and you live or work nearby, I may even get up early to escort you to and from work the first time. Just ask and I’ll see if I can help. My guess is that when you give it a go, it won’t be as difficult as you think.
If you’re already comfortable commuting by bike, then have a think about how you could encourage others to do so.
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.