Last Saturday I completed my first 200k Audax – the Border Castles Randoneé from Chepstow. I can’t say I found it easy, but then I did want a challenge.
Shortly before 7:30, about 40 cyclists, including a couple on a tandem, gathered in the car park at Chepstow castle to collect their brevet cards. Many were having a last-minute breakfast, checking their tyres or chatting with acquaintances made on previous events. Some seemed fully-equipped for a week-long tour, others carried little more than a credit card. As the time limit allows for any average speed from 15 to 30kph (9-18mph), audax events encourage all kinds of riders – from boy-racers to beardy-weirdies – to take part. A few were obviously out as a group to get round as fast as possible, others planned to take it easy and enjoy the countryside. I was just hoping to complete the course. I had in my mind a target average speed of 20kph (12mph), which would get me back at 17:30. I’d brought lights and warm clothing in case that didn’t work out. Even optimists should be prepared.
The route had been recommended to me by a colleague who is an experienced audaxer. He and his clubmates set off in the first group and must’ve been making a good pace as I didn’t see them again.
After some obsessive check and re-checking of my kit, I clipped the first routesheet to the bars, started my GPS and set off. Before long I managed to catch up with a group who were going about my pace. I had intended to travel with a group as much as possible. This was partly to be sociable (and nosey looking at other people’s bikes and kit), but also for the benefits of drafting, which I’d experienced during club training around Castle Coombe circuit recently. Depending on whom you ask, you can save 20-40% of your effort by cycling in a group. Everyone takes turns leading, but spends most of their time sheltering out of the wind. Even the leader gets a small boost from those behind interrupting the vacuum that usually attaches to a rider’s rear end.
On the other hand, on a long ride there’s something to be said for going at your own pace. If I had tried to keep with the fastest groups I probably would’ve flagged mid-ride and risked having to give up or take a long rest. Gradually the group I was in spread out as different people climbed and descended at different rates. I’d see many of the same people again at the cafe control in Ross-on-Wye, but for now the lanes became quieter.
Navigating became a full-time job. I could no longer rely on the democratic opinion of some ten other riders, some of whom had done the route in previous years. The routesheet was sparse on directions in order to fit onto a single sheet of A4, so often included instructions like, “…Lanes to Stockton…”. However, combined with the Garmin Edge 500’s basic satnav directions I stayed mostly on track. I did take two wrong turns and failed to realise before travelling a km or two. The GPS does beep and say “off course” when you go wrong, but it can do this occasionally anyway, when under trees or if a bend in the road isn’t exactly where the map says it should be. I was annoyed to have added an unnecessary 4km to my final distance, but felt better when I discovered that others had made similar blunders. Later, one audaxer admitted that in a previous event he’d done an extra 32km (20miles) through poor navigation.
At the second control I got my brevet card signed and had a light lunch consisting of a flapjack and fruit juice. I’d been munching Trek and Clif bars along the way, as well as the occasional blackberry from the hedges, so didn’t feel like anything more. When touring in mainland Europe with Erica, we’d learnt to avoid tempting big lunches when we hoped to get going again soon. A baguette and ice cream once slowed us to an uncomfortable crawl for a couple of hours.
What I didn’t do, however, was to ask for a water bottle refill. Like most people, I only carry two 750ml (1.5 pint) water bottles or bidons and as I’d only got through one in the morning, I thought I could get to the next control on the other. However, the afternoon was warmer and although I wasn’t really thirsty, I think I would’ve felt stronger being fully hydrated. Most controls seem to be pretty good about giving out tap water, especially if you’re buying something else, and I really should’ve taken the opportunity.
60km and nearly three hours later I reached The Angel, an attractive pub in Grosmont and the next control. I downed a pint of lemonade and got the much-needed bottle refill before heading off to find out whether Whitecastle had a moat or not. That was the next “information control” – a proof of passage in the form of a question on the Brevet card that you don’t discover until the day.
I felt I was making good progress, but with 50km to go, the big hills returned. Normally I enjoy hills, but I found it hard to keep the pedals turning on this section of the ride. My strategy is normally to avoid getting out of the saddle if at all possible, but my legs were feeling weak and even in my lowest gear (34 & 29) I was forced to stand up. I think part of the reason this provides relief is that you use some different muscles when climbing out of the saddle. Even if it’s not sustainable for very long, the change is a good thing.
Eventually, as we reached the summit we were rewarded with some stunning scenary. The sunlit Usk valley on our right and Raglan castle later on the left. Finally, the long descent into Chepstow provided a welcome breeze to cool down.
Almost ten hours after I’d set off, with in total about an hour of rest, I had made it. I was tired, but really happy to have finished without too much trouble. I was also pleased that the bike had done everything I’d asked of it without complaint. Hopefully, if I’m good about maintenance, it will continue to do so.
I will admit that I was surprised how hard I’d found the last third of the ride. As practice, I’d done a hilly 188km ride two weeks earlier, including Bathford’s Prospect Place hill – briefly a 33% gradient. I’d thought that would prepare me. Nothing in the Border Castles was quite so steep, but I had found it harder. I could put this down to simply having good days or bad days, but I suspect the reason may be hydration, or lack of it. This may have affected my ability to absorb the extra carbohydrate I was consuming and made the legs more achy than usual.
On my next big ride I’ll aim to drink at least 500ml (two-thirds of a bottle) per hour. This will probably mean more stops and damper hedgerows, but should make me faster overall.
The other thing I must improve is navigation. I had the routesheets and my GPS and when it said I was off route, I should’ve stopped sooner to check my position (possibly on my phone). This probably would’ve saved me some 15 minutes overall, but it would’ve been worse if I’d taken a wrong turn down a steep hill.
So what’s next? Well, my first BR has given me the confidence to do some even longer distances, so I’m aiming to gain the Super Randonneur award next year. That’s a 200km, 300km, 400km and 600km rides within one Oct-Oct season. It will be a challenge, and I’m not sure yet whether I can do it, which is part of the fun. Hopefully now I’ve told people I’ll be less likely to give up.