Sometimes, when I am on a plane, I try to imagine what is going on down on the ground below me. At the moment of passing overhead people are living their lives while I skid by overhead at 35,000 feet en route to somewhere.
Underneath me people are standing in thier gardens, tending vegetable beds, arguing, laughing or even making love. For some reason I always picture people living their lives outdoors but they are standing around being in the ‘now’.
And sometimes I stand in mu own garden and look at the jets flying high overhead and I slightly envy the people on those flights. But it is not the destinations that intrigue me. It is the envy of being enveloped in the artificial snug of the airline.
Being in transit somewhere somehow seems more valuable to me than actualy being somewhere in particular.
Riding a bike somewhere is a similar sensation for me.
I’ll happily spend many hours eating up the miles progressing towards a control point on an audax ride. Hour after hour, mile after mile, daydream after daydream I can turn the pedals. I’ll pass through all sorts of unremarked terrains – and, especially at night, I might not feel deprived as I roll along. The fact that I can’t see the surrounding countryside won’t necessarily bother me.
But then I’ll have to stop.
A puncture will make me halt. Or maybe I have to double check my directions. And I am suddenly tipped out of my transit into the terrain. I will stop moving and it will fee very odd.
Some years ago, in the dead of night I stopped in the woods near Sonning Common close to Henley. My companion was lost ahead of me and I was waiting at a turning he’d missed hoping that he’d retrace once he had realised his mistake.
I had a pee while I was waiting and then I stood listening and trying to see his lights returning up the road.
And then I was struck by the enveloping quiet and peace of the moment. I won’t call this a noiseless silence because that might imply a Dylan Thomas-esq inky blackness. It wasn’t really deadly silent – there just wasn’t any noise that you would have noticed. Rather it was a refreshing calm – like clear cool water slaking a thirst.
No cars, no pedal turning and no breeze shaking the trees. Just a hush. Couples with a few moments of rest.
At that moment I stepped out of the constant quest of becoming or moving and I was here. In those minutes of stillness I was present in a place I don’t think I have been to before and no one knew I was there. My existence was not contingent on making progress nor did it depend on any action on my part. And despite my unwitnessed state I continued to be.
Just as I realised this, I saw the white glimmer of my friend Martin’s headlights and shortly heard him resuming the anecdote he had been telling me before we separated. The moment disappeared.
Life can feel like riding a bike. If we don’t keep moving forward we fall off. But when you do unclip and put both feet down… I ride because of moments like that.
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The week before last I rode one of my favourite 200k rides –The Poor Student and as it passed near to Adelstrop in Oxfordshire I started trying to remember why I knew the name of this small village.
And then I remembered, Adelstrop is a poem by Edward Thomas, a famous poem that turns up in most anthologies of well-loved English poems.
The poem talks about a moment of surprising stillness in the English countryside. A passenger on an express train is reflecting on an unscheduled stop at a rural station and in the quiet hears birdsong:
And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.
It’s a verse that could have been written for an audaxer.
There’s a ride that I have done a few times that climbs up Cleve Hill near Cheltenham and, if you can look away from the road in front for a second you see the rolling hills stretching back to Oxfordshire. On a still, quiet day, if you dare to stop you can appreciate Thomas’ words.
However, I feel that Thomas wrote another poem that speaks more directly to an audaxer. Anyone who has arrived, at night at the finish of a long ride will connect with his verse The Owl.
DOWNHILL I came, hungry, and yet not starved,
Cold, yet had heat within me that was proof
Against the north wind; tired, yet so that rest
Had seemed the sweetest thing under a roof.
Thomas wrote about walking in a landscape before the First World War; I understand that the war was one of the things that changed him from a writer of prose to a poet. However anyone who has been out all day will recognise that feeling of arrival. Finishing not yet exhausted but ready for the relief of sitting with cup of tea or a bowl of soup.
Last May, I organised a 400K ride and worked through the night welcoming back riders who had struggled with a headwind through the day. The memory of them sinking into the chairs in the village hall and peeling off their gloves and rubbing heir heads after removeing their helmets is brought back by these lines
Promoted by the cry of a solitary owl, the poet goes on to reflect on the people who are still out in the night:
Shaken out long and clear upon the hill
No merry note, nor cause of merriment,
But one telling me plain what I escaped
And others could not, that night, as in I went.
Sometimes when I can’t ride, or am sitting at home on a Saturday night I Look at the Audax website before I go to bed. I look to see if there are rides on somewhere and imagine the riders pushing into the night. They may not be soldiers lying in sodden trenches (as Thomas imagines in the last verse) but the message resonates all the same.
In anticipation of Saturday’s Willy Warmer 200 I spent all week monitoring weather forecasts and with growing alarm saw the risk of icy conditions get stronger and stronger. So by the time the big day came around I had all but decided not to start.
You see I am of the belief that cycling and ice don’t mix. I was converted to this view on a cold December day when my front wheel disappeared from under me twice in a matter of few hundred metres. Even if you’re rolling slowly because someone has warned you about the black Ice ahead it’s an unnerving experience that I have no intention of repeating.
But I’d promised Paul the organiser that I’d make tea and toast at the start (Pictures from Els here)so I was always going to turn up at the start…and on Friday night, as I froze on my homeward commute, I reasoned I might as well load the bike in the Landie in case it wasn’t as dire.
So, at 6 am there wasn’t any ice – and despite the fact that the heating in the Landie has taken an extended sabbatical/left the country to visit relatives I was thinking a 200 might be on the cards.
But this is where the psychological bit gets interesting.
I’d already told myself I’d be at home in the afternoon to get my hair cut and do a few jobs. And at the start a couple of old friends were doing the shorter 125 course…which Paul has adapted a bit…
So before I knew it I’d switched to the shorter event and later start. And I’d grabbed a card for on of the non-starters and I was off up the road with Ian Oliver.
The funny thing though I how the mind works when it comes to thinking about distances.
125 km is not really very far – it should be relatively easy in between five and six hours. And Paul had laid on a course that managed to avoid any significant hills or climbing apart from a few road hums around Maidenhead. It’s an easy ride.
It’s 50km to the first control at Pangbourne – you share the control with riders on the longer 200km ride (it’s the point where the two rides split). For them it’s the first quarter done – for us it’s coming up to the half way point. And we arrived there quickly – there were still plenty of the slower 200km riders in the café when we got there.
Over the years I have become convinced that how tired you feel is a function of how far you still have to go. I am sure that those riders on the 200 looked like they had done a quarter of a ride – the rest of us looked like we’d done nearly double that.
Later on, as we rolled through Winnerish past the Sainsbury’s that is the final control for the 200 riders I felt as spent as if I’d ridden 160 km – not the 85km or so that I had managed.
Perhaps this is one of the secrets to long-distance riding – not to focus on how far you have travelled or what proportion of the ride you have to go.
The ride did have a couple of high points.
The Non-starter, whose card I’d grabbed at the last minute when I set off, turned up in the Pangbourne control. I’ve known him for years through swimming and this was his first Audax. Chris is giving Audax a try as part of his preparation for Lands End To John O’Groats in August.
And I discovered a new climb out of Maidenhead via Mill Lane – which I used again today after I’d dropped the Landie off at the garage (they are going to start a hunt for the missing heating).
Paul is asking me if I fancy trying the 200 again next weekend – I am tempted, Els’ blog post here suggests that it might not be a waste of time!
A friend of mine once commented that the problem with commuting to work by bike was that you had two high points in your day – neither of which had anything to do with work.
In the first week back after the long Christmas break the truth behind these words really rang true.
Everyone knows what it’s like – the short hours of weak daylight, the getting out of the habit of late rising and the general fat-induced lethargy make the early days of January a struggle. Any distraction, no matter how feeble is leapt upon and any work that doesn’t come with a life-threatening deadline gets put off.
So for me, the challenge this week was to stop looking at weather forecasts for Saturday (yesterday), the day when I rode the Poor Student – my first 200k of 2011 and possibly the beginning of my PBP campaign.
I’ve hardly ridden my bike since the end of November. Freezing fogs, snow and ice have provided easy excuses to concentrate on the more important December business of drinking, eating to excess and drinking. My fear of slipping on black ice or being run over again by skidding motorists has allowed my natural gluttony to create over half a stone more of me.
Through the week I have been watching weather sites, praying that ice wasn’t going to show up on Saturday.
And watching weather sites can be a full-time occupation.
Firstly there is the BBC weather site – which changes quite a lot, especially when you research weather that is more than a few days away. Accuweather has a better track-record for a week ahead although Metcheck offers a few interesting details about wind direction and chill factor.
Secondly, the sites change a lot. Over the course of a day they can shift their predictions by small increments – but enough to warrant rechecking.
And finally, for a ride of 200k you need to look at the forecasts for several places. I was checking Oxford, Cirencester (because I keep confusing it with Malmesbury – understandably I think) and Chipping Camden. Plus I want to keep an eye on the conditions here in Rickmansworth and also in Central London where I work.
Which, when all things are considered is a pretty poor alternative to working – especially when the weather on the day was so ordinary.
Apart of course from the torrential rain that was lashing down when I left the house at 6 am for the drive to Oxford.
The windscreen wipers on my Defender were struggling to cope as I charged along the motorway. But it all miraculously stopped as I arrived at the car park on the outskirts of town.
The Poor Student 200k is an institution in Audax cycling. It’s the first ride after Christmas and you’ll normally meet all the regulars from all over Southern England. It feels a bit like the Charity Shield – the start of the new season, a prologue to the coming year – a year which includes Paris Brest Paris.
In the gloom of the car park bikes are assembled and gossip is exchanged before, just as the day arrives we’re off.
Through the Centre of Oxford, around back alleys behind colleges before escaping the City up Cumnor Hill into rural Oxfordshire with its yellow-stoned houses and quiet lanes.
The first 80K of this ride is pretty-well a straight line westward to Malmesbury – into a constant and forceful headwind that carries a chilly bite and which gnaws away at your hands and feet. Remembering the first time I did this ride when the wind carried a driving rain and I discovered what people meant when they talk about ‘grinding it out’ I was glad of the company of two old friends who had caught me on the climb out of Oxford.
Paul, Martin and I talked nonsense – but distracting nonsense. I remember discussing brake callipers, web site content management systems, the work of Helena Bonham-Carter, the Sea Cadets and the absence of hills on a ride that Paul organises. It got me to Malmesbury and to the turn northward.
The wind sort of helped a little as I rode alone through the tourist-board designed villages of Hankerton, Oaksey and Poole Keynes en-route to Cirencester after which the Cotswold Hills threw some big climbs at me.
It was around this point that the additional volumes of me that were created over Christmas really started to make their presence felt. My heart-rate thumped through my ears and my inner thighs started to scream as one short brutal climb followed another. Somewhere along the way there were some descents – I don’t remember them apart from the sheering cold that they brought.
But almost as suddenly as they seemed to have started they stopped for a rolling ride into Chipping Camden (which arrived at the bottom of steep winding exhilarating pot-holed descent).
After an outrageously expensive cup of tea, it was time to spark up the lights for the final leg back to Oxford.
I hooked up with another rider for more chit-chat about lights, Manchester, snobbery about universities and cars as the villages of Broad Campden, Draycott, Evenlode, Kingham, Shipton and Leafield flashed by unnoticed. Before I really noticed we were flying through the last 20k of Finstock, Hanborough and Yarnton back to the car park and the finish after about 11 and a quarter hours.
In January you couldn’t really ask for much more. A challenging route that wasn’t sadistic, stunning scenery through Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire, good company and no rain, snow or ice sort of justifies the endless weather watching of the preceding week.
The problem now is going to be getting through the next fortnight until the next one!
For another, far better written account of this ride check out what Els has written here…
Yesterday I rode a 200K audax – the Upper Thames – on a perfect November day, through some of the finest bits of the country, with some nice people. And for the cost of a fiver.
I’ve been riding my bike on Audax events for some time – you ride between designated points within maximum and minimum time (it’s all about the challenge) and have normally enjoyed them. But yesterday was rather special.
It all kicked off at Cholsey, which isn’t a million miles from Didcot.
A grey 7.30 start for a mixed collection of roadies gathered at a village hall. Away in a big group of about 50 that quickly started to thin out to a long line along the main road.
To the left the line of the Chilterns rose above up above us through the weak November light.
Almost as soon as we started I found myself chatting to someone I’d met about two years ago and hadn’t spoken to since. Then, we turned up a climb into the Chilterns towards Ipsden and Stoke Row. And on the climb another rider introduced herself as someone whose blog I’d Twittered about.
Soon almost all the traffic had disappeared as we worked around in a loop toward Stoke Row. We were riding through wooded lanes, which occasionally opened out to give stunning views down valleys and into open vales.
Despite the winds of the last few days many of the trees still held their leaves; creating vast banks of reds, golds, russets and greens. And near Bix, to the north of Henley woodland floors were rich carpets of copper beech leaves.
After the first control near Wheatley I hooked up with two old friends and ploughed on towards Bicester swapping news about jobs, illnesses and bike components. One lent me a spare inner tube as I’d already used all my spares.
Then, around Bicester, through the strange acres of the garrison, before turning up through the Oxfordshire villages towards Chipping Norton. Here the Cotswold stone dominates everywhere bringing a brighter light.
A fast descent into Chipping Norton for a crowded and busy café stop. And one of the pleasures of these rides for me is to sit at a table with people I rarely see and chat for 20 minutes about nothing in particular.
Over the years I think I have made dozens of friendships which exist only in the punctuation of these long rides. In time I have met a wide range of people – a serious minded partner in a City law firm, a generous and warm builder (who welded together his own bikes) and countless other people who have made me laugh, think and resolve to carry on when I was feeling like giving up.
Other roadies joke about the cake eating obsession of Audax riders when in fact the cake is just the excuse – it’s all about the ten to twenty minutes of comradeship that happen when a bunch of people doing the same challenge stop at the same time. I’ve not experienced another area of life where Brits are so easy to meet and connect with.
As I left the café, I hooked up with a friend from earlier and downwards into the Thames Valley at speed though Minster Lovell, Brize Norton and Stanford in the Vale as the light went. Driven by my companion’s desire for a pint at the finish we hurtled along dark back lanes and watched firework burst in the sky from far away. From high ridges we saw the orange glows of November bonfires picking out vales and valleys as we swung to the south and Didcot and returned to the start just before 7 pm.
And I marvel that we got all this for a fiver. For such a tiny sum someone worked out a fantastic route for us, organised a starting point with a car park, laid on coffee and Danish pastries, bright together a large number of friendly people and provided fantastic soups and cakes at the finish – next door to a pub!
On top of that we had clear and mild weather all day, amazing views by day and spectacular entertainment in the sky after dark.
All this for a fiver.
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I wonder if I’ll get one of these on my birthday?
A depressing afternoon watch Saracens get beaten by Exeter sent me home wishing I’d been out on the bike. At least the day wasn’t wasted as I have planned my 2011 Paris Brest Paris campaign – I think I have worked out which qualifiers I would like to ride; which is probably a bit sad in October.
Perhaps that slight obsessiveness is one of the reasons why Audaxing doesn’t seem to appeal to as many people I would hope.
In fact there has been quite a lot of debate on the web recently asking why, despite the massive growth in the popularity of cycling, the numbers of people doing audax events hasn’t really risen much in the last few years.
This has led me to a few conversations with a number of people about how do we get more media coverage for audax events and a few weeks back I did a little research into the external image of Audaxing.
On-line no one really talks about Audaxing. According to Google Insights people rarely search for Audax events (they do search for Audax-type cycles) and a conversation with a very good friend at the excellent Evans Cycles tells me that no one ever walks into a bike shop and asks about Audaxing.
However, a review of media coverage shows that time and again the word ‘challenge’ comes up in the connection of cycling events. People seem to buy a nice bike, get the hang of local routes and realise that they can do something more. They realise quickly that actually riding long distances like London to Paris or Lands End to John O’Groats is actually achievable with a bit of preparation. Whilst most of us couldn’t imagine doing something like the Marathon Des Sables, we can sit on a bike for a few hours – and actually have fun in the process.
And Audaxing should fit the bill quite nicely for people looking for a bit of a challenge.
Every weekend there are events ranging from just 50Km to astonishing distances of 600km or more – which anyone can enter. They cost almost nothing (most events cost about £5) and they are full of friendly people who will strike up a conversation at the drop of a hat – there are few aggressive young men racing for a time. And best of all, when you get back to work on Monday and mention that you spent Saturday cycling from London to Wales and back your colleagues hail you as some form of modern Shakleton.
Audaxing is a challenge – but it’s democratic. All you need is a bike, a fiver and a bucket of determination. You don’t need to be a member of the Royal Marines, a five grand bike and a year of living as a monk.
But it get’s next to no media coverage.
This is going to be a challenge in the coming months that I’ve agreed to help rectify… so watch this space.