Straight on at roundabout

What happens when you stop?
January 18, 2014, 1:41 pm
Filed under: Rambling nonsense, Why

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.

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!

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.

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.


What is Paris Brest Paris?
August 9, 2009, 8:16 pm
Filed under: PBP, Rambling nonsense, Why

I first heard about Paris-Brest-Paris, or PBP, about ten years ago when I’d only just started riding my bike on the roads and entering organised events.

I’d joined Audax UK and got a copy of the the magazine Arrivé and there was a story of someone’s epic 1,200 bike ride from Paris to Brest on the tip of Britanny and back again – within the 90 hour time limit.

I think that’s equivalent of riding from London to Lands End and back and then returning to Basingstoke (give or take a bit).

Like most people I thought that sort of ride was all but impossible – what sort of person in their right minds gets on a bike on a Monday evening in August and rides almost solidly until Friday?  They grab sleep where they can, but it has to come out of the 90 hour allowance….

But, every four years, quite a few people give it a go – four to five thousand people turn up from all over the world to give it a go in fact.

And if they didn’t demand that riders qualify by riding shorter distances earlier in the year I guess quite a lot more would turn up on the start line.

You can read all about the history of the ride and about some of the heroics of the past – before the days of lightweight bikes, lycra and sensible nutrition – on the official website run by the organising body L’Audax Club Parisiene.

If you are thinking of riding PBP (which is probably within the reach of anyone who is reasonably fit, has a bit of time to train and has an understanding family) there are a few things you need to do to get you to the start line.

Firstly you have to qualify – which is both entirely achievable for a novice and an endless source of bragging rights.

Qualification entails completing a ‘Super Randonneur’ series of rides in the first half of the year.  This means that you have to ride events of 200, 300, 400 and 600 kilometres – an impressive achievement in itself.

Finding such rides in the UK isn’t too much of a challenge – most weekends there are Audax UK sponsored events all over the place.  Book early to avoid disappointment and you’ll be in.

Once you’ve completed your rides and all your workmates are convinced that you are both super human and bonkers you get a doctors’ certificate, pay an entry fee and you’re on the road to Paris in August.

The first year I qualified I didn’t ride PBP – too much pressure at work meant it would have been rather unfair to ask my family and as 2003 turned out to be one of the hottest Augusts on record I was rather glad to have stayed at home.

I’m not sure why I had a crack at in 2007 (one of the wettest Augusts on record) but I’m glad I did.

PBP StartWhen you’re a slightly overweight 45 year old there’s a tendency to find a challenge.  I’m never really got running so marathons were out and somehow those charity rides to Paris never really appealed (I thought I was too lazy to raise the minimum sponsorship!).

But I suppose I got rather sucked in.  I started doing the shorter rides and each time you discover that you can actually manage 200k, then 300K and even 600k you are left begging the question… ‘I wonder…what is 1200k like???’

There’s certainly very little competitive element to it all.  There are few badges and nobody cheats because there really isn’t any point.  As my old house master would have said: ‘you’re only cheating yourself’.

For me, it’s a personal test.  I clearly have an unresolved issue with quitting or giving up too soon and even though my CV bears testament to my lack of patience with pointless jobs or stupid bosses, I take a perverse pleasure at hanging on in there on in the drizzle 300k into a 400k ride.   And I get disproportionately depressed when I climb on a train back to the start having ‘packed’ early.

I’m not sure if it’s the same for other audaxers but that’s about it for me.

If you are thinking about a major challenge for 2011 – one that you can build up to – then PBP is worth thinking about.

Liam FitzPatrick