Straight on at roundabout

400 out of Reading
September 21, 2009, 8:22 pm
Filed under: PBP, Rides

In 2003 I rode two 400k events – both were very memorable for a number of reasons.

Covering 400 kilometres in one ride isn’t something many people find themselves doing naturally.  In fact it’s probably more than many people ride ever – the figures about bikes rotting unused in garages are to be believed.  But in 2003 I was doing it in pursuit of my Super Randonneur award – a sort of black belt for long distance cyclists.

To win it I had to ride in a single season events of 200, 300, 400 and 600 kilometres.  And it also happened to be the year when an SR series was the necessary qualification to enter the fabled Paris Brest Paris audax.

I signed up first for the Reading 400 on Saturday 26 April and made my way down to Grazeley Village Hall just south of the M4 for the 6 am start.

The route swung west and then headed north towards Pangbourne.  I remember crossing the Thames and climbing upwards into the Chilterns before puncturing and seeing the whole of the sizable field whizz past me in a few minutes.  Which is an incredibly depressing experience.

Once on the move again I quickly got lost and then hooked up with another rider called David just before crossing the M40 above the Stokenchurch gap.  We dropped down to a petrol station at Thame (where we’d stopped on the first 200) and then onwards to Brackley in Northamptonshire.  Then a roadsire halt near Daventry before heading south again into a headwind toward Chipping Norton.

Still with David we stopped in Chipping Norton at 5 pm in a café.  Writing this now I’m struck by how frequently one returns to the same places on bike rides.  I have certainly been back to the café a few times since and the all night truckstop we called at that night in Cirencester has features on a couple of other rides I have done since over the years.

On leaving Chipping Norton the heavens opened and we rode into the face of a hailstorm.  Taking turns to ride on the front made the ride tolerable, but a new experience for me – grinning and bearing it into the face of the rain.

Chips in Cirencester before lighting up and heading off into the dusk for a section through nightime lanes which took us to Hackpen Hill near Broad Hinton in Wiltshire at around 1030.  Hackpen is a long steady climb in a granny cog – from a couple of miles away you see the road rising up and in the dark you can see it kick away to the left as red tail lights wind their way up.

A few months later I did the hill in daylight and I swear some hills are better done in the dark.  Sometimes it is best not to know what you’re fighting!

And at the top, we were met by the event organiser Andy Uttley with cake and drinks – never a more welcome sight before the fast descent into Marlborough.  Through the inky black dark and suddenly you are spat out into the lights of the high street.

I don’t remember much more about the evening except that I punctured again in around 2 am and was rescued by a chap who insisted on changing the tube with his eyes shut – in 20 minutes.  Sadly I put the front wheel back in the wrong way so my computer didn’t record anything for the rest of the night.

And then my first experiences of riding into the dawn past Bracknell and along the Thames Valley.  I still can’t get over the feeling of refreshment that hits you with the light – gradually making out the road without the need for lights and for some reason getting a sense of being quenched despite the fug inside your night clothes.

I punctured again about 20k from home but I still limped back at around 6.40 according to my Brevet card.

I was now three quarters of the way to completing my SR series – and by all accounts over the worst bit.

Everyone was saying that a 400 is a tough distance because there is no scope for a decent sleep.  I plodded through it without thinking about it –possibly because I’d promised myself a finish around 2 am.

And that was my biggest mistake – but one I still repeat on every ride.

Promising myself a finish time can only leave to pain and anguish as headwinds, punctures, slow service in cafes and unexpected mountains snatch the prospect of an early finish from your hands .

But the best bit of this ride?  Realising how tiny Britain really is.

From south of Reading I rode almost to Rugby in about seven hours (including a puncture and a detour) and then south west back into Oxfordshire, on to Cirencester before charging East home to Reading.  And all within the space of 24 Hours.

How did I feel afterwards?  Not too bad considering.  I slept a few hours when I got home and still went to Tae Kwon Do training.  And on Monday I still turned in a decent day’s work.


Denmead – the first 300
September 3, 2009, 8:48 am
Filed under: PBP

When I was doing my 200 in February, other riders debated the merits of different organisers.

Apparently there was a big difference in the approach which various organisers took to the way they laid on events.  Some, like Rocco are known for the barest of bare boned facilities.  A hand-written route sheet, a start in a non-descript car park and no en route contacts.  Receipts from petrol stations prove you’ve ridden the route – no friendly controller serving up tea and fruitcake in a church hall somewhere.

By contrast the legendary Dave Hudson – El Supremo – lurks in lay-bys with a trailer-full of ready cut sandwiches, a choice of hot drinks and as much rice pudding as you can scoff.  Having done a couple of his ride in Sussex and Kent I shouldn’t be surprised to see a full physiotherapy service laid on one day.

Hampshire’s Pam Pilbeam was known, back in 2003, for the quality of her organisation, the friendly tea at the start and the inch-perfect accuracy of her route-sheets.

I can’t now remember what 300K ride I had originally planned, but under pressure from the guys on the 200 I found myself heading down to Portsmouth one Saturday morning in April 2003 to start the Denmead 300K.

Riding 300 kilometres in one day was to be the second step in my quest towards achieving Super Randonneur status and qualification for the legendary Paris-Brest-Paris Audax of 2003.  Only a matter of weeks before my longest ever ride had been 100 kilometres or five hours of pedalling – now I had embarked on a series of events which could potentially lead me to riding 600 kilometres almost non-stop.

The 300 Kilometres had to start somewhere – and that somewhere was at Pam’s house – the Crows nest – where she dished out tea and biscuits to about 80 riders.

As before, I felt a little isolated.  Most of the riders seemed to know each other or slipped into easy conversation.  By contrast I felt tense and on edge.  And I certainly didn’t want to confess to anyone that I’d never ridden anything like this distance before.

Since the 200 I’d bought a map trap – a perspex holder for my route sheet – which I hoped would hide the fact that I was a novice.  And I’d spent good money on a waterproof – one that wouldn’t slowly cook me inside or reduce me to a moist sludge.

But I still felt like an outsider.

Thinking back now, six years later, I’m not sure why I didn’t automatically think of myself as an insider.  In truth people probably were as friendly to me as to any other rider and I’ve come to recognise the same sort of nervous individuals standing around the fringes of every pre-start crowd.

Perhaps it was the fact that I hadn’t yet realised that there are relatively few faces to be seen on these rides.  The same regulars turn up and sooner or later you get to ride a few miles with most of them.  And inevitably they’ll stop for you or you’ll stop for them when something has gone wrong although you are little better than strangers to each other.

Soon enough we were off for a circuit of the New Forest, a visit to the coast on the other side of the Solent and then home. Bucklers Hard, Milford-on-sea, Ringwood, Blandford, Salisbury, Ower and back to the village hall in Denmead.

The day went smoothly enough.  The run to Bucklers Hard for the first stop went smoothly and mostly solo.  Then around the coast to Lymington before heading north into the Forest again.  I remember lots of cattle grids, a first meeting with Richard Phipps (who either rides or stewards on every single Audax I ever do!) and eating a fantastic pork pie at a petrol station outside Salisbury, as it was getting dark.

And for the first time, I rode properly in the dark.

There is still something magical for me in stopping to light up.  I always get a buzz at the moment when the high visibility jacket comes out and the lights get switched on.  Ahead lie spooky lanes – which get increasingly quiet as night draws on.

And riders bunch up.

For the last 75 K or so I found myself in a group of strangers who were working together.  Navigating and chatting into the night is fantastic – especially if you are with a group of people working at the same pace as you.

Then, progressively you have the lanes to yourself.  A quiet descends and on this ride, for the first time I got a real sense of peace and calm.  Even though you are with other people, the conversation, for me, takes on a quality that is relaxed yet purposeful.  You are all concentrating hard on where you are going, yet there is a stillness about the group that’s gently spinning its way ahead.

On one ride, a 400 I think, I punctured and I was with another rider.  We sat cross-legged on the road way whilst, at 2 am, I stripped out the tube and replaced it.  And we just chatted about nothing much – I think it might even have been gardening books- and we were still.

Which I think is why I’m hooked.

I didn’t make a note of when I finished although the old Brevet card (yes I keep them all) says it was 2310 – quite a respectable time for a first outing.  And at the finish, there was Pam dishing out M&S ready meals from a microwave, alongside banter about other well known riders.

And I’d done it.  And I was left wondering…surely this has to get tough sometime….