Straight on at roundabout

Between the ears – the hard bit of a 600
October 27, 2009, 11:07 pm
Filed under: 600

§After my first attempt at a 600K ride in May 2003 I was left feeling rather flat.

I’d finished the ride but only by sheer good luck.  If packing had been a working option I know I would have taken it.  Completing a Super Randonneur series of rides was a bitter sweet experience – whilst I had covered the required distance I certainly didn’t feel that I’d mastered anything.  In short, I felt like a fraud.

It was to be a few years before I got to lay that particular ghost to rest.  In fact it was 2007 – the next PBP year before I attempted an SR.  And in the intervening years I hardly rode at all.

In 2004 I only seemed to have collected three brevet cards for a couple of 200k rides and a reprise of the Denmead 300.  The following year I did a handful of 100’s and a 200 and in 2006 I managed just two rides of 100 and 200K.  Work and a niggling back problem just didn’t make it easy to get out and ride much.

But in 2007 I decided that I was going to try for PBP and I went a bit overboard.  By the time I had to face my chosen 600 that year I’d done the requisite number of rides but I’d also put in some serious solo miles after knee surgery.  On 26 May I was ready to face the ‘Beast from the East’ – an excursion around every lump in the landscape between Waltham Abbey to the North East of London and Taunton in the South West of England.

It was a tough ride in many ways.  Firstly the climbs were all of the brutal sort.  Names such as Stokenchurch, Streatley and Taunton worry cyclists at the best of times but when you string them together it should be quite intimidating.  I say should because I didn’t really look too closely at the route sheet and of course hills are rarely actually spelt out by name – you have to know that the only way out of Goring is up Streatley Hill for example.  Ignorance is bliss.

Secondly the weather was truly atrocious from about 4am on the second day.  There were times when it seemed that people were standing by the roadside throwing buckets of water at you.  I remember walking in the café for the lunch stop and noticing the water pouring off me.  Another customer in the café joked “…so you’re not one of these fair weather cyclists then…”

And thirdly I just didn’t bring enough clothing.  When you set out on a 600 you can forget (well I did) that you’re actually travelling for two days.  And two days in an English Summer can expose you to four seasons of weather – often unpredicted.  There were several times at night when I was praying for a steep hill just to keep my body temperature up.

But I got around without too much trouble.  Of course I had moments when I thought “this really isn’t much fun” but I never considered packing or felt that I wasn’t master of the ride.

Overall the ride reinforced my belief that audaxing mostly happens between your ears.  One incident in particular sticks in my memory.

The night control in Yeovil happened in a scout hut – with a tin roof.  I got there at 1.30 and slept for a couple of hours.  But I like riding into the dawn so left about 3.45 with Peter Turnbull.  About an hour later the heavens opened as we slogged our way along the A30.

The poor souls still in the scout hut were awoken by the sound of the rain beating down on the tin roof.  One chap said on an on-line forum a bit later that it sounded like hundreds of bags of frozen peas being tipped down.  At that time of day, the prospect of leaving a warm shelter and heading out into the cold and the wet is a very low psychological blow.  Unsurprisingly quite a few people weakened that morning and packed – it was especially easy to do, given that the route passed several mainline railway stations.

But I got back on good shape – a bit cold and rather damp.  But I got back to Waltham Forest feeling untroubled by what I’d endured – 633K (there were a couple of diversions – including quite a big one around Chesham which counts as my home turf!).


There was nothing easy about the ‘Easy PBP’ 600
October 26, 2009, 9:00 am
Filed under: 600, PBP

My first 600 was back at the end of May in 2003 – Steve Abraham’s ‘Easy PBP’ out of Milton Keynes.

Steve is a legend among audax riders – he’s pretty well done everything there is to do, he’s won the award for most miles ridden several times and turns up at so many events with a broad grin on his face – despite the fact that he’s just ridden 250 k to get to the start of the event!   Try Googling him.

His route sheet promised a flat and unchallenging ride and by branding the event as ‘Easy PBP’ he’d got the marketing just right for me. His idea was to put together a ride aimed at people who just wanted to sort out their qualification for the Paris Brest Paris ride…

It was an early start from the outskirts of Milton Keynes on a misty Saturday morning.  If you’ve never been to the Buckinghamshire new town before prepared to be confused by the number of identical roundabouts to get out through on the fast run out of the town.  How did locals survive before the invention of satnav I wonder.

But once we were heading north up into Northamptonshire, the mist started to burn off and a warm day was in prospect.

One of the things I love about audaxing is that you get to see some odd sights – just because you are around at strange times of day and moving at slow speeds.  In recent years that’s included the bottoms for drunk squaddies in high streets at 2 am, post offices getting ready to handle the morning mail and a whole family of foxes crossing the road ahead of me.

This 600 ride included the spectacle of a hot air balloon rising unexpectedly besides me out of a Northamptonshire field at 7 am.  There was no warning, just the throaty roaring of the hot air burner as the balloon took to the air.  Fantastic.

Tesco in Market Harborough provided a receipt to serve as the first control for the 30 or so riders who were out.  The next section was relentlessly hilly – lots of short ups and downs – tiring and unrewarding.  But as we neared Melton Mowbray the country became quite stunning in the clear early morning.

At 128k we reached Margaret’s – a tea shop in the middle of nowhere somewhere around Redmile.  I understand that Margaret has retired a few years ago but her house was a real cyclists institution.

A big dining room was adjoined by a funny shop selling cycling odds and ends – spare tubes, shorts and bar tape.  On the wall were postcards from famous riders like Sean Yates who had stopped there at some stage on a training ride.

And Margaret herself commanded the place with a steely bonhomie.  You wouldn’t want to mess her around as she kept the riders in order with the skill of an estaminet owner faced with a platoon of the Accrington Pals in 1916 Belgium.  But the portions of beans on toast could have kept most families fed for a week washed down by the biggest pot of strong tea I’ve ever been served.  This was a woman who knew her customers!

Then we turned into the wind for a section up to Huntingdon – hung on the back of a group led by Nik Windle (the organiser in those days of the winter classic Poor Student).  I was glad to reach the control in Sainsbury’s and to feed up on pasta.

Despite the warm sun a stiff breeze was building in time for the run up to Wisbeach across the shelterless fens.  Bizarrely, no matter which direction the road took the wind still battered you and, as I was riding alone, I found myself struggling to make progress of any kind and never has a McDonalds been such a welcome sight.

I changed my shorts (one of the tips I’d been given) and hooked up with Lexie as we pushed on into the dark towards the next control – the Red Lodge café.

It is always a great idea to have some company at night – it makes the miles go quicker and limits many of the stupid navigation errors that are so easy to make in the dark.  And best of all Lexie explained how to get the most from a 20 minute kip in a bus shelter outside Swaffham.

Past the lights of a US Air base before hitting the 24 Hour café – sausage, egg and chips, apple pie and custard and head down for 45 minutes… well that was the plan until a rock band turned up.  They’d done a gig in Bury St Edmunds and were living the dream by dropping in to drink coffee!  Another of those things you only see on an audax.

Away by 4.20 into the dawn back to Huntingdon – spotting other riders in bus shelters along the way.  I also learnt about the buzzing noise that overhead power cables make when there is moisture in the air – I’d never noticed it before!

As we moved on towards Rugby we started to gather quite a large group – very jolly Happy Eater fry up at about 9 am (I nipped outside for a 15 minute kip – which the group supplemented half an hour later with a ten minute stop in a field outside Alconbury).

The group began to split shortly after that as we retracted our way across Northamptonshire – lots of short climbs and disappointing descents.  And the day began to warm up.

Around this time I really hit a low point.  I had nothing in my legs and despondency really set in – a situation that the truckstop on the A5 did nothing to improve.

I then made the classic audaxing mistake – leave a control in a hurry in the hope that getting moving will make you feel better.  It won’t and the long slog along the A5 battling speeding traffic for several hours just grinds you down.  It was a horrible, horrible ride on my own for miles and miles that just didn’t seem to get me anywhere.

My depression wasn’t helped when I was overhauled by a fresh looking group made up of several of the guys I’d breakfasted with.  Only the fact that I was in a seriously bad mood kept me going at all.  And then, the other curse of audaxing hit me as well.  I’d estimated a finish time the night before; a finish time that I thought I had no prospect of achieving.

As they say the longest journey most of have to make is eight inches…from one side of the mind to the other!

Then a stroke of luck!

The group that had passed me had stopped for ice cream in Towcester and although I pushed on they caught me ten minutes later I was blowed if I was going to let them get away twice.  I jumped into the third position and stayed there for the last 25 k.  My legs came back to life and we rolled nicely and even a puncture with one of the group outside Milton Keynes didn’t disturb the rhythm too much!

The last 10k around the roundabouts of Milton Keynes was easy riding but incredibly dull.  But only about two hours later than the time I’d promised myself the night before.

It was on this ride that I decided that although I’d completed my first ever Super Randonneur series I wasn’t going to Paris for PBP.  I wasn’t fit enough and work wasn’t going to give me the chance to get fit enough.  But it wasn’t the fitness issue that rattled me.  It was the realisation that I’d nearly packed because I’d found my limit and if it hadn’t been for the group after Towcester the last couple of hours would have been sheer hell.  It’s all about mindset – a lesson that I seem to have to learn time and again.  You’re not beaten until you think you are – completing a SR series is well within the physical capability of a reasonably healthy person.  It’s the mental side of it that makes the difference.

So I went home nursing a dirty little secret.  Although I’d got around in a respectable time I’d almost surrendered along the A5 – if a broom wagon had been on offer I would have taken it even through there was only a few hours of riding left to do.  I felt as if the ride had beaten me – my completion was only a matter of survival.

I went to work after the bank holiday and enjoyed the incredulous reactions of colleagues when I’d told them what I’d done.  But the niggling truth hung over me for several years.


Stevenage – the gateway drug…
October 25, 2009, 8:54 pm
Filed under: Rambling nonsense, Rides
The start in 2005 - that's me on the left

The start in 2005 - that's me on the left

I’ve been helping out with the Stevenage End of Summertime ride today.  100K across Hertfordshire, Essex and Cambridgeshire.

It’s possibly one of the biggest events organised in the AUK calendar – 297 riders left the start this morning.  And it attracts all shapes and sizes of riders.  I saw everything ranging from a gang of triathletes, through to a recumbent and a couple of shopper bikes.

I’m really fond of this event because it was the first event that I ever did.  It’s audaxing’s equivalent of a gateway drug.  You start small and the next thing you know…you’ve done an SR series>

I turned up on my hybrid bike and stood outside the lakeside café where it starts thinking ‘Oh my God!  Who are these people????”.

I’m not joking about the proliferation of beards or ancient pannier packs (although there was a plenty of material to work from…).   It was simply just the first time I’d ever come across large numbers of regular cyclists in one place.

But the best thing of all was that I ended up chatting to three complete strangers over the course of the day.  Nice friendly people who encouraged me to think that 100K really is possible!

And the thing that got me then (and impressed me again today) was how it all works.

Nearly 300 people turn up, pay a few quid, get a route sheet, visit controls which are staffed by volunteers and get home in one piece.  No one gets paid, the local CTC gets a bit of extra funding and everyone has a nice day out.  Even the Women’s Institute gets in on the act – catering at one of the controls.

It’s Britain at its best.