My last two 200km audaxes were calendar events. Kings, Castles, Priests and Churches in December and Mr Pickwick's January Sale in January. Due to having been all kinds of busy, I'm writing them up now...
The 7am start was cold, dark but at least not raining. I was hoping to be a little faster than last time, as I wanted to get home in time for the badminton club's Christmas party. This was particularly ambitious as I'd been out late at another party the night before and the early start meant I'd had about 4.5 hours sleep. Never mind, I guess it's all part of the challenge.
Starting in the dark, about ten of us found ourselves trying to keep up with the fast group. Racing down the B-road to the West of Tewkesbury, each with several LEDs flashing, we must've looked like some kind of runaway fairground ride. I'd put on a thin balaclava and slightly overheated due to the frenetic pace, resulting in me finishing a whole bottle of water/energy mix by the first control. Usually in a group I'll do well on the hills, but either this group was particularly strong or I was feeling weaker than usual as I found my legs quickly tiring. At Bromyard control I had a slice of Christmas cake and got a bottle refill. We'd averaged over 27kph and I didn't expect to keep that up all day. On leaving the control the group drifted apart and the glimpses I caught of the faster riders' rear lights became gradually rarer as they increased their lead. I still felt OK and continued at my own pace.
After another couple of hours, and the long drag up the hill leaving Ludlow, I was really starting to tire. Perhaps part of it was gassing to Jo (aka rabbit), maybe I should aim to do more listening. What's more my front mudguard seemed to be full of crud, making an irritating rasping noise. Not wanting to stop for long I tried poking a twig in the side to clear it, but after a few more miles it was obvious this pathetic attempt had failed. Biting the bullet, or rather a handful of nuts and dried fruit that I always try to eat when stopping for a bit, I and took the wheel off. As suspected, loads of sticky mud clogging the inside of the mudguard and discouraging my 28mm tyre from rotating smoothly. It can't have all been collected this morning, so this is obviously something I should check when I clean the bike.
A couple of passing audaxers checked I was OK. Apart from fretting over how to clean the brown sludge off without getting myself mucky, I was fine. A real man would've used his fingers; in the end I grabbed a sturdy looking stick and managed to liberate about a Mars bar's worth of what I hoped was mostly mud.
Much better. The main way I can tell if something has gone wrong with the bike is the weird noises it makes. It was a relief to ride without that gritty rasping. I've no idea how much it was slowing me down, but the psychological difference was reason enough to fix it.
However, now the Herefordshire hills were taking their toll and, despite Clif bars, gels and regular sips of water, my legs felt weak. The hills weren't especially tough, but at times I was struggling to keep the pedals turning. The only thing which made me feel better about my sagging average speed was the ever-climbing altimeter, which hinted at a big downhill, any time now... Determined not to get off and walk I limped over the last of them with a cadence in the mid-forties.
At the Kington control the café staff were helpful and welcoming. I opted for beans and egg on toast. It took quite a while to appear, but I passed the time chatting with other riders. Ideally I'd want to eat as soon as I arrived and wait a bit before setting off again so the food has some time to go down. But after nearly an hour at the control I felt the clock was ticking so jumped on the bike and resolved to ride gently for a while. Unfortunately this wasn't to be as Kington is surrounded by hills. Soon I was feeling bloated and uncomfortable. I pushed on as best I could, getting out of the saddle for some relief where possible. I shared the headwind on the flatter parts with David and Peter. After much anticipation the downhill arrived and we were able to make the most of it on the well-surfaced B-road.
By the time I'd reached the final control and satisfied the chocolate bar craving, I felt the best I had all day and had a good bit of bike chat with my companions as I finished off an apple. It's funny how I can go from feeling like I can barely turn the pedals to raring to go, without taking that much rest. I knew there were a couple of hills ahead, but nothing like what we'd already crossed, so, with less than 40km to go I left David and Peter behind and tried to go as fast as I could. It was getting dark by now, but I'd researched this part of the route and the navigation was thankfully straightforward. Well actually SOX, R\@T, SOX, R\@T...
I made the arriveé in good time, but only ten minutes ahead of my erstwhile companions and about the same time as someone who'd started an hour after me! But the important thing was that I made it and managed to get home in time to rush out for dinner.
This time the "extra" challenge was getting to the event. We had been staying with family in Shropshire over the new year, and rather than have a really early start, I booked a B&B near Tewkesbury and took a train to Great Malvern the afternoon before. From there it was a mere 22 kilometres to a warm, dry bed with no adorable, but sometimes noisy, daughter to interrupt my sleep. This would've been a good plan, but for the wet and windy weather. Arriva trains were all at sixes and sevens, adding up to a half-hour delay and a sprint over a footbridge carrying the bike in what I imagine is a bit like cyclocross, only with less mud and more apologising to commuters. Leaving Great Malvern on the bike was another challenge. I found I needed to ride down the middle of the lane so the side wind would only blow me to the kerb, rather than over it or into a ditch. Thankfully the drivers were mostly patient and considerate. Out of town things calmed down until I neared Upton on Severn. This turned out to be a misnomer, as it looked to be mostly under Severn. The main road was blocked so I did a U-turn and started looking for alternatives. The rain had started coming down hard, so I didn't want to use my phone for navigation.
Thankfully I met another cyclist - a friendly local lady on a shopper bike. She carefully explained an alternative route to me, which I promptly forgot. Lucky for me she was starting out in the same direction and yelled at me when I signalled for a wrong turn. Eventually I made it onto the A38, which was a bit busier than I would've liked and probably a bit dangerous in the dark despite my lighting, so I took a detour through some side lanes running parallel. Unfortunately here I met another flooded road. In the dark I wasn't sure if it was passable. I had a go, but water, unknown debris and general wobbliness forced me to wade back the way I'd come. My waterproof socks were now doing a good job of keeping the water in.
After nearly twice as long as expected, wet and bedraggled, I arrived at the B&B. They were only too happy to welcome me and my dripping bike into the hallway. (I've booked them for the next ride.)
The next day it was still raining, although we'd been promised that it would stop mid morning. The organiser was a local man, smart enough to have routed us away from the worst floods. We went off at a more sensible pace than last time and progress in the dark was steady. I couldn't read the routesheet in the dark (I'm considering bringing a head-torch for that next time), but the GPS did its job well. I didn't really have a big low-point in this ride, which may be because around the usual half to two-thirds point I was riding a little more slowly than usual to chat with the seriously dedicated rider known as Bikey-Mikey. He rides a little slower than me, but finishes faster because he doesn't eat or drink much in controls. I guess that this means he's burning fat, which I'm told, is something which takes a long time to develop, but is great for long distance rides as a little bit of fat goes a very long way.
Having done solo permanent and DIY by GPS for the previous two months, I've been reminded why I like the calendar rides. That's not to say that there aren't advantages to DIY ride - planning it all yourself and deciding where to go can be part of the fun and certainly ticks the self-sufficiency box. It can also be good to work entirely to your own schedule, with no trying to keep up with the "fast" group or having to stop at a control at a fixed point, rather than when your body says so.
Despite all that I'd still prefer a calendar ride, mainly because they're more sociable. Even on a thoroughly wet day in January, an impressive 45 riders turned up, so whatever pace I ended up going, I'd always find someone for company and chat. In the January Sale, the other advantage - drafting, was limited by the huge puddles and my vain desire to have a clean face. I made the mistake of looking in the mirror at the first control and felt compelled to have a quick wash. There are other advantages include being able to explore a new route that someone (else!) has put a lot of thought into, but overall the social aspect is the main draw. Having done several rides in the same area, I've seen a few of the same people. I've met the gruff but considerate Peter towards the end of all the calendar 200s I've done. He's obviously used to riding in groups and is always willing to give struggling youngsters a tow. At least this time I also took my share of the wind. When climbing arduously through the Cotswolds after some 150km we passed a dog which started barking frantically at us. It's owner struggled to restrain it saying, "Sorry, he hates bicycles!". Peter grunted, "So do I!".
I was also glad to find someone with about as much audax experience as me. Jo, who has a done more biking off-road than on, is audaxing for a less competitive challenge. We tend to cross paths in the early stages of a ride, while in later stages her very short breaks at controls mean she leaves me behind.
The final control of the January Sale was very welcome. Riding a little slower than usual meant I was a bit colder than usual. I'd dressed in Ronhills, a long-sleeved Smelly Hansen, waterproof and hi-viz gilet with gloves that were only good for a shower. It had rained most of the day. I decided to stay for about half an hour in the pleasant Italian café in Chipping Norton, consuming a couple of cakey things and a hot chocolate. I warmed up and felt a lot better after that. If the aim is to finish as soon as possible, I don't know how long the ideal stop would be, but the last 50km or so was very much more enjoyable and certainly a bit faster for the recovery. I even managed to enjoy the "sting" in the tail of the ride in the form of the hills leading to Winchcombe.
Approaching the end of the ride, for some reason I took a scenic detour through Tewkesbury's Priors Park. This was marginally shorter and away from the main road, but also flooded to an unknown depth for at least 200m. After the previous night's adventures I decided I'd had enough swimming so turned around and took the main road, which was fine.
I was delighted to be met at the Arriveé by my wife and 21-month old daughter who for the first time, spontaneously toddled over and hugged me - after finishing the computer game on Mummy's phone!
It's funny how I can go from feeling like I can barely turn the pedals to raring to go, without taking that much rest.
My waterproof socks were now doing a good job of keeping the water in.
Even on a thoroughly wet day in January, an impressive 45 riders turned up.