Straight on at roundabout

Struggling around
January 23, 2011, 7:37 pm
Filed under: 200, Rides

In anticipation of Saturday’s Willy Warmer 200 I spent all week monitoring weather forecasts and with growing alarm saw the risk of icy conditions get stronger and stronger.  So by the time the big day came around I had all but decided not to start.

You see I am of the belief that cycling and ice don’t mix.  I was converted to this view on a cold December day when my front wheel disappeared from under me twice in a matter of few hundred metres.  Even if you’re rolling slowly because someone has warned you about the black Ice ahead it’s an unnerving experience that I have no intention of repeating.

But I’d promised Paul the organiser that I’d make tea and toast at the start (Pictures from Els here)so I was always going to turn up at the start…and on Friday night, as I froze on my homeward commute, I reasoned I might as well load the bike in the Landie in case it wasn’t as dire.

So, at 6 am there wasn’t any ice – and despite the fact that the heating in the Landie has taken an extended sabbatical/left the country to visit relatives I was thinking a 200 might be on the cards.

But this is where the psychological bit gets interesting.

I’d already told myself I’d be at home in the afternoon to get my hair cut and do a few jobs.  And at the start a couple of old friends were doing the shorter 125 course…which Paul has adapted a bit…

So before I knew it I’d switched to the shorter event and later start.  And I’d grabbed a card for on of the non-starters and I was off up the road with Ian Oliver.

The funny thing though I how the mind works when it comes to thinking about distances.

125 km is not really very far – it should be relatively easy in between five and six hours.  And Paul had laid on a course that managed to avoid any significant hills or climbing apart from a few road hums around Maidenhead.  It’s an easy ride.

It’s 50km to the first control at Pangbourne – you share the control with riders on the longer 200km ride (it’s the point where the two rides split).  For them it’s the first quarter done – for us it’s coming up to the half way point.  And we arrived there quickly – there were still plenty of the slower 200km riders in the café when we got there.

Over the years I have become convinced that how tired you feel is a function of how far you still have to go.  I am sure that those riders on the 200 looked like they had done a quarter of a ride – the rest of us looked like we’d done nearly double that.

Later on, as we rolled through Winnerish past the Sainsbury’s that is the final control for the 200 riders I felt as spent as if I’d ridden 160 km – not the 85km or so that I had managed.

Perhaps this is one of the secrets to long-distance riding – not to focus on how far you have travelled or what proportion of the ride you have to go.

The ride did have a couple of high points.

The Non-starter, whose card I’d grabbed at the last minute when I set off, turned up in the Pangbourne control.  I’ve known him for years through swimming and this was his first Audax.  Chris is giving Audax a try as part of his preparation for Lands End To John O’Groats in August.

And I discovered a new climb out of Maidenhead via Mill Lane – which I used again today after I’d dropped the Landie off at the garage (they are going to start a hunt for the missing heating).

Paul is asking me if I fancy trying the 200 again next weekend – I am tempted, Els’ blog post here suggests that it might not be a waste of time!


Getting through the week
January 9, 2011, 8:45 pm
Filed under: 200, Rides

A friend of mine once commented that the problem with commuting to work by bike was that you had two high points in your day – neither of which had anything to do with work.

In the first week back after the long Christmas break the truth behind these words really rang true.

Everyone knows what it’s like – the short hours of weak daylight, the getting out of the habit of late rising and the general fat-induced lethargy make the early days of January a struggle.  Any distraction, no matter how feeble is leapt upon and any work that doesn’t come with a life-threatening deadline gets put off.

So for me, the challenge this week was to stop looking at weather forecasts for Saturday (yesterday), the day when I rode the Poor Student – my first 200k of 2011 and possibly the beginning of my PBP campaign.

I’ve hardly ridden my bike since the end of November.  Freezing fogs, snow and ice have provided easy excuses to concentrate on the more important December business of drinking, eating to excess and drinking.  My fear of slipping on black ice or being run over again by skidding motorists has allowed my natural gluttony to create over half a stone more of me.

Through the week I have been watching weather sites, praying that ice wasn’t going to show up on Saturday.

And watching weather sites can be a full-time occupation.

Firstly there is the BBC weather site – which changes quite a lot, especially when you research weather that is more than a few days away.  Accuweather has a better track-record for a week ahead although Metcheck offers a few interesting details about wind direction and chill factor.

Secondly, the sites change a lot.  Over the course of a day they can shift their predictions by small increments – but enough to warrant rechecking.

And finally, for a ride of 200k you need to look at the forecasts for several places.  I was checking Oxford, Cirencester (because I keep confusing it with Malmesbury – understandably I think) and Chipping Camden.  Plus I want to keep an eye on the conditions here in Rickmansworth and also in Central London where I work.

Which, when all things are considered is a pretty poor alternative to working – especially when the weather on the day was so ordinary.

Apart of course from the torrential rain that was lashing down when I left the house at 6 am for the drive to Oxford.

The windscreen wipers on my Defender were struggling to cope as I charged along the motorway.  But it all miraculously stopped as I arrived at the car park on the outskirts of town.

The Poor Student 200k is an institution in Audax cycling.  It’s the first ride after Christmas and you’ll normally meet all the regulars from all over Southern England.  It feels a bit like the Charity Shield – the start of the new season, a prologue to the coming year – a year which includes Paris Brest Paris.

In the gloom of the car park bikes are assembled and gossip is exchanged before, just as the day arrives we’re off.

Through the Centre of Oxford, around back alleys behind colleges before escaping the City up Cumnor Hill into rural Oxfordshire with its yellow-stoned houses and quiet lanes.

The first 80K of this ride is pretty-well a straight line westward to Malmesbury – into a constant and forceful headwind that carries a chilly bite and which gnaws away at your hands and feet.  Remembering the first time I did this ride when the wind carried a driving rain and I discovered what people meant when they talk about ‘grinding it out’ I was glad of the company of two old friends who had caught me on the climb out of Oxford.

Paul, Martin and I talked nonsense – but distracting nonsense.  I remember discussing brake callipers, web site content management systems, the work of Helena Bonham-Carter, the Sea Cadets and the absence of hills on a ride that Paul organises.  It got me to Malmesbury and to the turn northward.

The wind sort of helped a little as I rode alone through the tourist-board designed villages of Hankerton, Oaksey and Poole Keynes en-route to Cirencester after which the Cotswold Hills threw some big climbs at me.

It was around this point that the additional volumes of me that were created over Christmas really started to make their presence felt.  My heart-rate thumped through my ears and my inner thighs started to scream as one short brutal climb followed another.  Somewhere along the way there were some descents – I don’t remember them apart from the sheering cold that they brought.

But almost as suddenly as they seemed to have started they stopped for a rolling ride into Chipping Camden (which arrived at the bottom of steep winding exhilarating pot-holed descent).

After an outrageously expensive cup of tea, it was time to spark up the lights for the final leg back to Oxford.

I hooked up with another rider for more chit-chat about lights, Manchester, snobbery about universities and cars as the villages of Broad Campden, Draycott, Evenlode, Kingham, Shipton and Leafield flashed by unnoticed.  Before I really noticed we were flying through the last 20k of Finstock, Hanborough and Yarnton back to the car park and the finish after about 11 and a quarter hours.

In January you couldn’t really ask for much more.  A challenging route that wasn’t sadistic, stunning scenery through Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire, good company and no rain, snow or ice sort of justifies the endless weather watching of the preceding week.

The problem now is going to be getting through the next fortnight until the next one!


For another, far better written account of this ride check out what Els has written here

All this for a fiver – 200K on A November Saturday
November 7, 2010, 1:48 pm
Filed under: 200, Audax information, Rides

Yesterday I rode a 200K audax – the Upper Thames – on a perfect November day, through some of the finest bits of the country, with some nice people.  And for the cost of a fiver.

I’ve been riding my bike on Audax events for some time – you ride between designated points within maximum and minimum time (it’s all about the challenge) and have normally enjoyed them.  But yesterday was rather special.

It all kicked off at Cholsey, which isn’t a million miles from Didcot.

A grey 7.30 start for a mixed collection of roadies gathered at a village hall.  Away in a big group of about 50 that quickly started to thin out to a long line along the main road.

To the left the line of the Chilterns rose above up above us through the weak November light.

Almost as soon as we started I found myself chatting to someone I’d met about two years ago and hadn’t spoken to since.  Then, we turned up a climb into the Chilterns towards Ipsden and Stoke Row.  And on the climb another rider introduced herself as someone whose blog I’d Twittered about.

Soon almost all the traffic had disappeared as we worked around in a loop toward Stoke Row.  We were riding through wooded lanes, which occasionally opened out to give stunning views down valleys and into open vales.

Red carpet at Bix

Despite the winds of the last few days many of the trees still held their leaves; creating vast banks of reds, golds, russets and greens.  And near Bix, to the north of Henley woodland floors were rich carpets of copper beech leaves.

For quite a while I chose to ride alone – climbing the long drag up to North End and Christmas Common where I stopped before the fast decent into Watlington.  At the top of the hill the view opens up South Oxfordshire and today allowed a glimpse of the Cotswolds.

After the first control near Wheatley I hooked up with two old friends and ploughed on towards Bicester swapping news about jobs, illnesses and bike components.  One lent me a spare inner tube as I’d already used all my spares.

Then, around Bicester, through the strange acres of the garrison, before turning up through the Oxfordshire villages towards Chipping Norton.  Here the Cotswold stone dominates everywhere bringing a brighter light.

South Oxfordshire from Christmas Common

A fast descent into Chipping Norton for a crowded and busy café stop.  And one of the pleasures of these rides for me is to sit at a table with people I rarely see and chat for 20 minutes about nothing in particular.

Over the years I think I have made dozens of friendships which exist only in the punctuation of these long rides.  In time I have met a wide range of people – a serious minded partner in a City law firm, a generous and warm builder (who welded together his own bikes) and countless other people who have made me laugh, think and resolve to carry on when I was feeling like giving up.

Other roadies joke about the cake eating obsession of Audax riders when in fact the cake is just the excuse – it’s all about the ten to twenty minutes of comradeship that happen when a bunch of people doing the same challenge stop at the same time.  I’ve not experienced another area of life where Brits are so easy to meet and connect with.

As I left the café, I hooked up with a friend from earlier and downwards into the Thames Valley at speed though Minster Lovell, Brize Norton and Stanford in the Vale as the light went.  Driven by my companion’s desire for a pint at the finish we hurtled along dark back lanes and watched firework burst in the sky from far away.  From high ridges we saw the orange glows of November bonfires picking out vales and valleys as we swung to the south and Didcot and returned to the start just before 7 pm.

And I marvel that we got all this for a fiver.  For such a tiny sum someone worked out a fantastic route for us, organised a starting point with a car park, laid on coffee and Danish pastries, bright together a large number of friendly people and provided fantastic soups and cakes at the finish – next door to a pub!

On top of that we had clear and mild weather all day, amazing views by day and spectacular entertainment in the sky after dark.

All this for a fiver.

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.


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.


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