Straight on at roundabout

How it all started
August 7, 2009, 7:42 am
Filed under: Rides

Getting into the car park at the DIY store at 5.30 in the morning should have been easy.  But for some reason it was shut, there were no lights on anywhere.  I started thinking that I’d dragged myself out of bed on a cold Wednesday morning in February by mistake.

But as I pulled around the corner into a service road, I found a way into the car park and, in the dark, began to see cyclists in ones and twos unloading bikes from their cars.  A couple of cycle lamps shining through the light drizzle confirmed that I was in the right place – or maybe that depends on your perspective.

I had driven the five miles to Ruislip from Rickmansworth in Hertfordshire to ride a bike further than I ever had before.  I was going to cycle 200 kilometres – about 124 miles – in one day.  It’s a distance I’ve ridden dozens of times since then, but on that morning it looked like an undertaking of herculean proportions.

Not that a look at the other participants would have given you the impression that some epic physical endeavour was about to take place.

There were no film crews, no medical tents and no hint of anyone even waving us off.  Just around 40 or so cyclists of all shapes and sizes.

And looking at these athletes themselves wouldn’t have given much of a clue about the events that were about to unfold.  Certainly few of the bikes on show looked like high performance machines and hardly anyone was dressed in what would have looked like state of the art sportswear.

I’m pretty certain that I saw one man wearing Dunlop Green Flash plimsolls.

Unlike the London Marathon or other sports there was little ceremony about our starting.

Standing under the one working streetlight was the organiser, a man called Rocco Richardson, handing out the cards which each rider would need to get stamped at various points on the ride.  Without any ceremony, he told us to stick the competed cards through his front door when we’d finished and then I swear he walked off.

No representatives from the emergency services, no St Johns Ambulance volunteers, no portaloos and no sign of that bloke who turns up at all major sporting events waving an England Flag and looking a bit of a prat with the union-jack umbrella.

That was it.  This was the big start to my first 200k Audax ride and, to put it rather bluntly, I felt a bit cheated.

I’d spend several weeks fretting about this ride, I’d scrutinised Rocco’s handwritten route sheet and traced the roads up into Oxfordshire, I’d spent hours planning what to take with me and checking that everything on my bike worked.

And that was all we got.  No civic sending-off, or even a weak cheer.

We pulled out of the car park of Focus DIY and headed down towards the A40. And away.

I’ve since learned that Rocco Richardson is something of a legend when it come to organising rides.  His route sheets are famous for being handwritten and simple.  He doesn’t organise tea and cakes – you pay your two or three quid, he provides a route and gets your entry card validated by the governing body and that’s your lot.

Which is actually the perfect example of an audax cycle ride.  No frills, simple long distance cycling.

The reality is that outside the relatively small community of people who ride Audax events, these challenges have little meaning and few people have a realistic understanding of what they represent.  By contrast many people have an insight into marathon running or into professional sport because they have experience of long distance running or of playing a team game.  Non-cyclists are often put off by the seemingly epic distances involved – and audax riders delight in playing down the imagined heroics required to pedal even the shorter distances.

I am not entirely sure why I do it.  And, I can certainly no longer really remember what I was doing on that cold February morning in 2003.

My diary notes that 2003 was one of the years in which Paris-Brest-Paris was being organised and that I wanted to qualify to ride in it.  I had read about this 1200k ride with its 90 hour time limit that attracted people from all over the world.  In order to enter I would need to have qualified as a ‘Super Randonneur’ – a journey that began with a 200k jaunt into Oxfordshire.

In reality, my ambition was only to qualify.  At the start of the year, the very idea of going to Paris was completely ridiculous – although the thought of me completing a 600k ride was probably no less absurd.

I had only graduated to owning a racing bike a couple of weeks previously after my hybrid cycle had died.  And although I’d entered audax rides before I had never gone over 100k in a day.  But within a few minutes of leaving the car park, I didn’t have any doubts at all about turning back.

The ride started in much the same way that many rides do – with the exception that Rocco’s route took us along busy main roads to High Wycombe as the weekday morning traffic built up.

However, most of the riders stay reasonably close to each other – the field normally takes a few miles to stretch out and there is a certain pleasure in group riding when everyone is still fresh.

As we dropped down the main road from Gerrards Cross a rider started chatting to me – apparently he had come over from Holland for the ride.  When he mentioned that he’d competed in a speed skating marathon the previous weekend I started to wonder what sort of company I was keeping.

Gradually the traffic thinned and we dropped into a steady rhythm with a third rider, climbing out of West Wycombe up towards Stokenchurch on the top of the Chilterns.  And I found I could keep up with these guys.  In fact I overtook the third rider, on his impressive-looking bike and led him to the top of the hill.  On my new bike, with its steel racing frame and high road gearing I was pulling comfortably up a hill that I had never ridden before – and which I would normally have never have dreamt of cycling.

“In the autumn when we do the big Willesden Road ride we come up here seven times’ the third rider added cheerfully as we hit the top.  I’ve ridden that hill dozens of times since that day I went up with Ivo Meissen and Dennis Favey, even doing it on my lovely, light as a feather carbon bike.  But I have never felt as comfortable on that hill since – despite the fact that I was melting inside my cheap watherproof jacket and the cold was making my eyes run.

I guess if that had been a horrible experience I would never have come back for more.  I wonder if drug users who have a bad experience the first time they experiment go on to become addicts?  I’m pretty certain that a crap day in the saddle back then would have been the end of my audax career.

But it wasn’t.  For some reason known only to the demons of cycling they were gentle with me.  I can only assume it was part of a plan to draw me into their world of torment.

Perhaps they also conspired to give me two great companions that day – who by chance were both members of the same cycling club – the Willesden.

In the toilets at Cherwell Valley Services, there are assorted riders taking off shoes and socks and there a full body washes going on all over the place.  And this is only a 200k ride.

There were quiet a few more great moments on that ride.  As the drizzle worked its way inside my jacket, Dennis announced at the top of a particularly nasty hill, “Remember, a bad day’s cycling stiil beats a great day at work”.

Which amused Ivo, who it turns out is a postman: “a day cycling is usually a bad day at work as well for me…”

We talked about riding PBP and how I said I was just planning on getting my SR that year.

“Sure” said Ivo, “you’re going to qualify in June and then not enter?  And not turn up?  Who do you think you’re kidding?”

Most of the route back towards Ruislip managed to avoid big hills.  We cut between the folds in the Chilterns at Wendover and we slipped up from the Vale of Aylesbury and then rolled down towards Amersham and home.  Dennis didn’t complain when I nearly ran him off the road.

Finally, sitting in a petrol station we fill out the last bits on our soggy brevet cards which Ivo volunteers to take to Rocco’s house (it turns out he’s staying the night).

And home to a hero’s welcome after only 10 hours and 19 minutes (including stops).  Nowadays, I realise that’s a pretty fast 200 so I suspect it was a fairly gentle ride.

I took the next day off work – but I was pretty surprised at how untired I felt.

And I was hooked.  Ahead of me was the next challenge – a 300 kilometre ride which inexorably would lead to a 400, and then a 600 and eventually drag me to the start line for Paris Brest Paris in 2007.

Liam FitzPatrick


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