Straight on at roundabout

Packing…adding insult to injury
July 20, 2010, 10:00 am
Filed under: Rambling nonsense, Why

I’ve only ever packed on three rides.  I’ve wanted to stop and climb on a train on quite a few audaxes, but I’ve only actually given up on three.

It’s such a miserable sensation that  just thinking about it makes me shudder.

The first time was probably the worst as it didn’t involve real injury or a serious mechanical failure.

It was a 300k ride on 3 April 2004 from Steyning in Sussex and I only lasted 209k.

All day I seemed to be riding into a strong headwind and making a succession of mistakes – leaving controls on my own, promising myself that I would reach certain points by set times. And they were all compounded by starting the event tired and stressed.

Mile after mile I struggled.  I couldn’t find a gear that worked, I could never find a rhythm, I kept being passed by groups of better organised and more cheerful riders.  If I tried to jump on the back of one of these groups I was dropped within minutes because I couldn’t settle.  I was too hot, then I was too cold.  I needed to pee every 10 minutes and my neck started to hurt.

If a day on the bike can be heaven when it goes well – a day when it’s going badly becomes purgatory.

In the end I decided to get the train from near Hastings back to the start to pick up my car and hand in my card.

That train ride was utterly despondent – as soon as I sat down out of the wind I felt like a complete failure and coward.  Every aspect of my character that I regret came crowding into my mind – clearly my failure was symptomatic of the multitude of weaknesses that define my personality.

And the vagaries of weekend engineering works on the british rail system on a Saturday, give you plenty of time to brood during a dark afternoon for the soul.

Finally handing in your card at the final control is doubly depressing.  Early finishers are relaxing with a cup of tea and the rosy glow of completion.  There is nowhere on earth that wouldn’t be preferable to standing in front of the finish controller and saying as I did “some days it’s not happening” especially when your reflections of the last two hours have only underlined in your mind that on most days it’s not happening because you’re a vapid weakling who will always fail in life….

But really it’s a stupid illusion isn’t it?  209k into a headwind when you’ve started knackered is pretty good isn’t it?  And cycling isn’t a matter of life and death is it – it’s meant to be fun.

I promised myself that I’ll never let myself get that despondent again about deciding that I wasn’t enjoying myself.  However, like many of the promises I have made in life I have broken it in spirit multiple times.  I console myself that at least I haven’t actually packed again when I’ve felt that low – but that might be due to the fact that rides rarely go past railway stations just at the moment when I am most vulnerable!

In 2007 I was riding a 400K event that followed a course in a figure of eight.  After 200K you returned to the start – next to a railway station and next to my parked car.  For about an hour before we reached the 200K control I found myself riding in the dark with a chap who had never ridden a 400 before and he was suffering.

But he kept talking about how cold his hands were, about how thin his socks were and about an ache in his neck.  I promised to lend him some spare gloves at the control and offered an extra pair of socks which I had in the car.  At the control I dug out a couple of ibuprofen for him.

An older rider suggested that he should lie down in the back of the hall for 20 minutes – we had lots of time in hand – and he’d feel fine.  I left with the older rider who said as soon as we’d turned the first corner “He’ll be packing then…”

His point was that the rider had been marshalling up a range of excuses for packing – the cold hands and feet; the neck pain were just ways of mollifying his conscience.  My new friend said “everyone has to pack now and again – it’s a mistake to think there’s a shame in it when you do.”

At the end, when I had ridden my 400K my gloves and socks were waiting for me unused.  I hope the young guy wasn’t so stupid as I had been to put himself through some sort of catholic self-criticism session and was glad that he’d got around 200.  Maybe I’ll need to remind myself of that the next time I get envious of anyone else in life!

PBP 2007 – getting to the start line – more stressful than you’d think
July 18, 2010, 9:10 pm
Filed under: PBP

Getting over the start line for Paris Brest Paris in 2007 proved tougher than I’d expected.  I’d done my qualifying rides, been accepted for the event and stretched the patience of my family by riding almost every day and entering every 200 k event I could find.

I’d even recovered from a slipped disc in record time thanks to the physio team at the Harlequins Rugby Club.

But I’m not anticipated the sheer grief involved in between leaving my front door and rolling over the start-line in the drizzle on that August evening.

Things started to go wrong before we got to the end of the road en route for the railway station.

First we had to turn back because I’d forgot my rail ticket.  Then it was my passport.  I never owned up to the fact that Saturday afternoon that I’d left the ipod behind so I went without it.

In Paris I managed to get in the only cab in my life where I was ripped off.  Fifty Euros for the ride from Gare D’Nord to my brother-in law’s flat in Boulogne Billancourt in the southern suburbs.  I’ve travelled the world and taken taxis everywhere and I think that’s the first time I’ve been had!

Then, the first thing I did on getting out of the cab was to step on one of the biggest  dog turds I’ve ever seen gracing a city street.  Bienvenue en Paris!

Into the flat, up four flights of narrow stairs humping my bike in its bag to Michel’s flat.  Dump my stuff in the hallway and straight out to buy milk and Pizza for my Friday night feast.

Only when I got to the checkout in the supermarket did I realise that I’d left my wallet on the hall table.  So back to the flat to realise that the keys were on the hall-table – on the other side of a locked door.

At this point my phone rang – it was one of the Willesden crew down at the campsite on the other side of Versailles asking if I was coming over for a beer.  It was all that I could do to hold back the tears.

Thankfully Michel hadn’t gone on holiday yet and a call to him in Lyon resulted in finding the only locksmith in Paris who was still working on an August Saturday night.

On the door step of the flat the conversation went something line…

Locksmith “Oh dear this is a very good lock I don’t think I can help you”

Me: “What’s the problem?”

Locksmith “it’s a very good type of lock – there’s no legal way for me to get you in…”

Me “How much would the ‘illegal’ way cost?”

Locksmith “€100”

Me “I happen to have €100 in my wallet in the flat”

About 15 seconds later we were inside the flat, there was a tiny hole in the door and I was €100 poorer (although the locksmith did actually give me an official-looking receipt!).

The Sunday was registration day – so up early on a gloomy and overcast day to ride up to the start at St Quentin – the other side of Versailles.  I managed to get a little lost en route and work in a couple of unnecessary hills

But the scene at the sports centre for the registration was one of organised mayhem.

First there was the queue to collect the rider pack – a strange collection of sheets of A4 paper full of PBP facts, stickers for the bike, a rider card and a plastic wallet to be worn around the neck.  There were also tokens for my pre-ordered PBP shirt and a PBP bidon (which I have kept despite the fact that when I try to drink from it my face is covered in a fine spray!).

I also got a medal for completing the qualifying rides – which was unexpected!

On reflection, this was one of the best bits of the whole experience – seeing for the first time all the different nationalities that were taking part and beginning to get a sense of scale for the whole thing.

As well as bumping into people I’d met on qualifying rides I inevitably found myself chatting to people from the US, from Australia, in fact from pretty well anywhere you could mention.

And everyone – except the Brits – seemed to have a national or regional shirt.  I was particularly impressed by the merino wool outfits worn by the guys from Seattle.

I rode back into Paris with a Finnish rider and got chatting about his qualifying rides.  Bearing in mind that most of the rides had to be completed before the summer and that Audax isn’t very popular, this guy had ridden the distances mostly alone, mostly in the dark and often in the snow and ice.  It rather put my whinging about rainy rides into perspective.

There was nothing much to do until late afternoon on the Monday when I returned to have dinner with the Willesden guys at their campsite.  Ray Kelly gave me a Willesden-branded Hi Viz vest which turned into a stroke of good luck later on.  And then at about 8.30 I slipped off to see the start of the Verdettes – the fast riders who do the whole thing in a stupid time!).

But I missed it as I got caught up in my first-ever bicycle traffic jam on the way into the sports stadium.

Gradually I worked my way in and we were fed onto the running track – it was completely covered in riders.  I met Damon Peacock ( and endured banter about the Willesden not being a proper cycling club.

As dusk fell our lights were checked and we started to filter towards the start tent to have our cards stamped and then, at 30 minute intervals, we were fed up to the start line.

At 1030 I was in the front row chatting to a woman from Florida, just as the drizzle started.  Suddenly we were off and so began one of the most memorable 90 hours of my life.


Route sheets
July 15, 2010, 6:14 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

An audax route sheet can seem quite complex and is actually the subject of some debate.  The debate is not about inaccuracies or interpretations but concentartes on the layout and style that can vary from event to event.

Some route sheets contain the barest bones of information.  Directions, distances and advice are dispensed persimononiously.  At best you’ll get the distance between directions together with the open and close time of controls.

By contract, other organisers seem to revel in providing turn by turn cumulative distances, intermediate mileages as well as helpful warnings such as the sharpness of a gradient or the looseness of gravel on a corner.

Getting pleanty of detail actually matters to me for reasons that might seem surprising.  Obviously more information means easier navigation, but in the age of the GPS, navigation is not the challenge it used to be.  The attraction for me is that more data makes a tough ride easier simply because the hardest bit of a ride is the bit between your ears.  A lot of information is exactly the distraction you need a ride has reached the dreadful gap between ‘I’m glad I entered because I didn’t realise how nice it is around here‘ and ‘ the end is in sight’.

In that desperate nether world, if I’m riding alone, I make continual calculations and predictions based on the routesheet information.  How many minutes to the next direction?  How many pedal strokes to the next control?  If I increased my average speed by just 1 kph what would that do to the time to the next cup of tea.

Which is great as long as you don’t commit the cardinal error of promising yourself a finish time.  In my experience this only ever turns into a morale-sapping disappointment!

Water, water everywhere
July 13, 2010, 6:03 pm
Filed under: Rambling nonsense

Today it’s boiling hot – 27 degrees and muggy.  It’s just as well that I’m laid up waiting for my achilles tendons to settle down otherwise I’d probably be thinking about riding something stupid like the South Then North 600 from Derby.

Strangely on a day when my garden has turned brown I’ve been day dreaming about rainy days on the bike.

Funnily enough, I don’t at all mind the rain; well not much anyway.

A dry hot day

Just to check that it’s not a case of selective memory I’ve been looking back at my diary for the last couple of years (yes I do write up a lot of my rides) and in general rain doesn’t get mentioned much as a problem.  Although in a couple of cases it is was the defining characteristic of the ride.

Often rain is just an intermittent British drizzle.  On days when you’re out in it, all you have to endure is occasional 20 minutes of thin rain.  Just 20 minutes and it’s over for another hour after which it restarts.

Of course weather is rarely that conveniently predictable.  Sometimes the drizzle lasts only five minutes – so you are left with the uncertainty of when to stop and to put on the rain jacket.

Or the gap between downpours varies greatly and you are left with the difficult decision of when should you stop and take the jacket off.

And unless you can afford a kings ransom on the most technical of jackets, most people will want to wear their jackets as little as possible.  Even my best jacket gets might warm on the inside and after a few hours the condensation build-up on the inside makes the idea of protection from the rain irrelevant.

This has a particularly nasty side effect on longer rides.  On the 2007 PBP I found myself wearing the jacket for several days on end and despite frequent changes of underclothing I started to get pretty ripe.

At one point I stopped in a small village to top up my supply of painkillers in a local pharmacy.  Like all French chemists, it was permanently occupied by a small group of old ladies who seem to be hanging around for no particular reason.

When I walked in, as happens at any point on PBP, I was met by the usual battery of appreciative comments.  Then came to moment to pay for my ibuprofen.  When I unzipped my rain jacket to get my wallet, my group of new found admirers all took a comedy step backwards; such was the potency of my smell!

Most of the time though, my notes only complain when the rain strikes up an alliance with a driving headwind.

For example, riding the Oxford Poor Student 200 in January 2004 I remember watching the water flicking off my front wheel – but instead of flying up in a straight line, it turned back on itself as I ground out 60K in a straight line.

And the worst rain comes in buckets, with a wind and for several hours.  On the Brian Chapman last year I rode out on the second morning into mid Wales and reached a control before Newtown where I was totally cold.  In fact getting back on the bike was a blessing because I could generate some body heat again.

However, the effect that rain has comes down to preparation.

Brian Chapman was a misery partly because I left my rain booties back at the start – my mid afternoon on the first day my feet soaked.  And feet don’t dry out.  The only way I got through the night was to borrow the plastic bags wrapping two loafs of sliced bread at the Anglesea control which I wore under my socks.

On another ride my morale was lifted considerably when late in the day I found a fresh pair of gloves and glove liners in my pack that I hadn’t realised I’d brought with me.

And finally, the trick is to keep going.  The biggest impact rain seems to have is when you get out of it.  Whilst exposed you survive by simply grinding out the miles, but getting into shelter means you have to go back into it.  My darkest rain moment have come when I’ve had to leave a dry and warm control to face the elements again.

In short, be ready for the worst; but if you thought about it too much you’d never ride.

The inaugural Comms Club Run
July 12, 2010, 12:01 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

For a while I’ve been puzzled by something…

If my colleagues can slope off to play golf for a day and call it work, then can I get to ride my bike for the day and turn it into networking by doing it on a weekday?

So I’ve cooked up a plan with Paul Wilkinson – a fellow roadie who works in PR – to launch an inaugural Communicators’ Club Run on 24September 2010.

The idea is to invite as many people as possible to join us on a 50K ride at a 20-25kph pace starting from Watford at 10 am.  We’ll head out through the Chilterns and have a tea/cake/networking break before getting back to the start at around 1 pm.  We’re not planning anything too challenging and will roll at the pace of the slowest rider mostly along quiet lanes.

Trains leave for Watford from Euston and the town is close to the M1 and M25 and not too far from the M40.

If you’re game RSVP Paul Wilkinson on or Liam FitzPatrick on And feel free to pass the invitation along to your chums, clients and contacts.

See you there…


Wondering about 2011
July 7, 2010, 8:13 pm
Filed under: PBP, Why

So, after a few months of silence it’s time to blog again.  Which is probably a substitute for riding – I’ve had to take a month off in the hope that a persistent achilles tendon problem clears itself up.

Which has left me time to start stressing about Paris-Brest-Paris 2011.

The event website is live and already the discussion boards are abuzz with debate and advice.

I know I want to do it.  I want to ride the 1,200 km in under 90 hours.  I did it in 2007, but this time I want to do it in the dry.

Finishing PBP in 2007 - looking more cheerful than I felt. Pic Tim Wainwright

But I don’t know if I can do it – I genuinely don’t know if I’m up to it this time.

Back in 2007 I was working from home and was able to ride a great deal in the run -up.  I lost count of the number of evening rides I did and the stolen days when I should have been working.  Yet despite the preparation I grovelled home in 89 hours and 59 minutes, with a desperately painful back, a neck that would no longer support my head and both achilles shot.

Now, I’m four years older and over a stone heavier.  My Achilles continue to play up and I’m back in the world of wage slavery which is cetrain to eat into my preparation time.

However, I wonder where I’ll be at 10pm on the night of August 21 next year?