25 March, 2014

End of Snooze 100km

This was my second attempt at this ride. In 2013 I didn’t start, as the morning of the ride there was a foot of snow on the ground outside my house. I didn’t even get out of bed. All was well this year until I got off the train in Cambridge to a cold, heavy drizzle; I decided to ride to the start and see if the weather improved.

I got to Hauxton village hall with half an hour to spare, and the rain had stopped. Things were looking up. The organisers had laid on toast and other breakfasty things, so I had some of those, and then we set off. The first section was a nice ride through little villages: Shelford, Whittlesford, Strethall, Duxford....By the time we got to Whittlesford (about 2km in), the rest of the field had vanished ahead of me, and I was in my usual place – at the back. 

The Right Way to Thaxted

The first challenge was the (in)famous Coploe Road, a steep, single lane that goes over the chalk ridge that separates the fens from the rest of the land. This hill feels like it has been transplanted from Yorkshire – it is steep, and there is a proper sweeping view from halfway up. I hauled myself up there, very slowly. Eventually I made it, and continued on past Audley End House to the first control. This was an Info control, where riders have to note down the answer to a question that is on their card. There had been dire warnings at the beginning that if this wasn’t filled in there would be no validation of the ride! I met another rider here who had had some mechanical problems, and we figured out what we had to write down. That done I headed off through Thaxted (of course) and the Bardfields to Finchingfield. This road was much nicer to ride than it was on the Shaftesbury Spring ride as today I had the wind behind me!

Bolts from the Blue

I didn’t stop at this control, and carried straight on. Up until now, the weather had been alright – a bit of a breeze but nothing too worrying. But at this point the clouds started to become darker and more threatening. As soon as the sun disappeared the temperature would drop ten degrees, and the wind would whip up a little, and this seemed to coincide exactly with the bottoms of steep hills. I began to think the clouds must be stuck to the hills, hovering there to catch the unwary cyclist. As the route took me back over the chalk ridge at Hundon, hail started flying sideways towards me from one of those lowering storm clouds. I stopped to put on some waterproofs and eat some chocolate.

Crawling the next few kms, I started to have some of the odd thoughts that are sometimes created in your mind when you’re out riding alone. For example: one instruction on the route sheet that led me up a particularly steep incline was 0.6km in length. Usian Bolt, I reasoned, could run this very quickly. In 60 seconds, in fact. Or, as I decided to call it, 6 Bolts. So a long section of 3.4km could be described in terms of 34 Bolts, i.e. not very far at all. He could do it in about 3 minutes (maths is not my strongest subject). I think I was in dire need of food by this point – the 24 Bolt (2.4km) stage up to the next control at Adam’s Cafe nearly finished me off. I got there and ate a huge piece of cake just in time!

Race to the (Six Mile) Bottom

The next stage defies reasonable description. It started well enough, through some nice little villages and past names like ‘Trotting Horse Lane’. All very nice. But over my shoulder was another towering storm cloud, and ahead of me was the road to Six Mile Bottom, through Brinkley, a winding, hilly, windy tortuous route over the top of an exposed hillside. Dead trees bunch together for warmth like inmates of the gulag. That cloud was perched on the hill, off to the northwest, and the wind was howling out from it across the tops, throwing needles of sleet into my eyes. This was 10km (100 Bolts: too bloody many) of hell on wheels, it felt like it would never end. At one point I was grovelling along downhill at 5mph, yelling something incomprehensible at the weather goddess.

Reaching the Six Mile Bottom junction I had a decision to make, as if I couldn’t speed up, I was going to be out of time. This would be a good bail-out point, if I was going to quit. I didn't want to quit. I decided to press on, braced for the continuing wind....but it had vanished. Here, it was still, it was calm, it was warm. The storm really was waiting on the hills, and it didn’t follow me down to the flatlands. Riding swiftly through the Wilbrahams (55 Bolts) and Fulbourn (35 Bolts) and back up to the Shelfords, I realised that I should be in time. A last gratuitous hill and a nail-biting wait at the level crossing (why does it close when the train has stopped?!) meant that I really did have to do the last few kilometres at Bolt-speed, but I made it, last of the 100km riders to make it back, with nine minutes to spare.

That’s about 54 Bolts.

17 March, 2014

Shaftesbury Spring 100km

The Shaftesbury Spring 100km - a journey through heaven and hell

New year, new attempt at minor audacity. This year I want to get my name in the AUK Handbook, and the most modest way to achieve this is by completing a ‘Brevet 500’, five 100km rides organised under the Audax UK umbrella.

This was the first.


A Fine Beginning

The ride began with a run to the beginning from Audley End station, with enough time at the first control for a cup of tea and a confirmation of the joke that in audax, no one makes eye contact. The weather was warm, such a contrast from last year’s hyper-extended winter, so I left a fleece in the clubhouse and changed into my summer gloves. The club house itself was packed, and a large group set off at 10am heading out towards Great Dunmow.

I was off the back of the main group after about 5km, but this always happens and I am now resigned to it. After successfully negotiating Brick End and only one minor double-back due to a missing signpost, I reached the first control, ate a macaroon, and carried on. My plan for this ride was to eat something at every control, rather than stopping for a big lunch in the middle of the ride. A good plan, in theory.

The sun was shining. It was a beautiful day. Another rider came past me, so I wasn’t last after all! And next was another nice run, to Great Bardfield and Shalford. A tailwind helped me fly past the airfield and into the village, where I passed the second control, ate a cheese roll, and carried on.


The West Wind

The route sheet instructed me to ‘keep left at 2 triangles sp GT BARDFIELD’. All very clear, expect that the first triangle had no signpost. I dutifully kept left anyway, only to be led down a farm track that was clearly going nowhere. Back to the main road thinking I’ve gone wrong much earlier – no trace of anywhere else to go. I lost half an hour here trying to find the right route, not helped by the absolutely dreadful state of the lanes. So much mud and debris on all of them that it was hard to distinguish the farm roads from the road that actually led to Thaxted.

I know that eventually all roads lead to Thaxted. But this one took a very long time because of the headwind. Oh, that wind. Dead-on into my face for the whole of this section of the ride. I knew I had been having too much fun on the first two stages. Now (as every cyclist knows) I would have to pay for it, and the price exacted was high.

I bounced the next control, only stopping to eat another sandwich and have a drink of water (not enough). I knew the next section would be fast as it was basically the route back to Audley End, and I was right – another nice ride past the posh house and the lake and then into Littlebury.
Where it all went to hell.


The Price Exacted

The next 20km were absolutely dreadful. The headwind was back, stronger than ever, the sun was beating down (I actually got sunburn on one side of my face, in March!) and the road was a nightmare of potholes, huge gaping trenches and pools of muddy sludge, and hills. Hills I had trouble walking up – I didn’t even attempt to ride them. Desolate landscape (as desolate as you can get in the home counties, anyway).It crossed my mind that a mechanical out here could be quite serious. It’s fairly deserted. I had seen perhaps two cars.

Royston Lane – very poor surface’, the routesheet said, and boy, were they right about that. Gaps between the broken slabs of tarmac that were wide enough to fall into. All uphill (obviously) and still into that godawful wind (it goes without saying). I was actually glad to reach the A505 and turn off....but the wind was still right in my face. Finally, finally I reached the next control and a turn away from the wind....uphill. I could hardly drag the bike forward. I was in the lowest gear, still struggling for any momentum. I walked a bit. I swore a lot. I was passed by another audaxer who looked much too cheerful.


The True Nature of the Soul

It has been said (probably) that doing audax rides reveals the true nature of your soul, and I am sorry to say that on this ride, the true nature of my soul was that of a quitter. I came to the junction for Brent Pelham, glanced up at the hill that followed, and carried on along the straight road to Newport. I just couldn’t face it. I got the map out and saw that actually, I would be covering roughly the same distance as the official route, barely going one side of the village of Manuden instead of the other, but, crucially, I would be riding mostly downhill.

So, weasel that I am, that’s what I did. Oh, it was good, wickedly so, freewheeling down through Clavering, down into Newport and then back up to rejoin the route for the last 10km or so back to the clubhouse. I made it back with four minutes to spare, and the light bleeding from the sky, so I did make the right choice out there on the road.

But...have I done the ride? Can I really claim it? I got my stamp, and the good people of Shaftesbury CC accepted my explanation and put my card in for validation, but....did I do it? I did the distance, but is that enough? Did I keep the spirit? Am I sufficiently....audacious?

15 October, 2013

Two Rides Around Essex - Chris Negus 100km and a YACF Saturday Ride

All Essex rides lead to Thaxted, with its really big hill. It’s The Law. There’s even a picture of the Thaxted windmill on the front of the OS map of the area. One of these rides was no exception. The other...let’s just say, I would have rather gone to Thaxted than bloody Tilty.

These two rides covered almost exactly the same ground, just in reverse order. Almost everything else about them is reversed as well. The second ride was a great day out, good company, good food, good weather and good roads. The first one...wasn’t.

1. Audley End to Henham
The train timetable means that if I want to do one of the audaxes from ‘The ‘Uts’ (a group of cycling club houses in Essex clustered around Elsenham and Henham), I either have a long wait, or a long ride to the start. This time I chose the long ride to the start, alighting the train at Audley End and riding the six miles or so into the wind to the Shaftesbury clubhouse. This was my first mistake. Getting to the start of the ride with only five minutes to spare, I had no time for a cup of tea or a bacon roll, or even to really sort out my stuff.

2. HQ to High Roding
The usual thing happened in that within ten minutes I had lost sight of the field and was plodding along off the back of the group. This is a little dispiriting; I don’t feel I am that slow a rider, but I am slower than most on audax rides. So I was quickly on my own, but I followed the route sheet through and reached the first control – and two other riders arrived behind me! So not last after all, and I hadn’t yet taken a wrong turning. Things were looking promising.

3. High Roding to Pleshey
This was only a very short stage, through two villages. One of my tail-ender friends caught up with me again here. I stopped to eat some Haribo, and then sailed on down a lovely big hill – the right direction!

4. Pleshey to Lindsell
This is where it all started to go a bit wrong. The weather was much colder than forecast – I had chosen to wear little ankle socks and summer shoes so my feet were cold, and I started to get cramp in my toes. Usually this happens after about 40 miles so I was worried they was already doing it at mile 20. I stopped, I got off the bike, I stretched my leg muscles out – nothing worked. Every time I had to put any weight on the pedal at all, my foot seized up. I made it through Felsted past the very posh school, and limped through Stebbing into Lindsell, where I saw my friend again, studying a map. I wondered why, since he was obviously following me!

5. Lindsell to HQ via Tilty
I soon found out. He had obviously been looking for a way to avoid Tilty. Tilty of the endless hill, which I was reduced to walking up after my foot completely seized at the bottom. Tilty of the sideways rain, which soaked me in seconds and was completely unforecast – I was in totally the wrong clothes, and had already been cold. Tilty of the crows standing by the side of the road waiting for the weary cyclists to stop moving. Tilty of the swivel-eyed old man with a flat cap and a whippet muttering to himself as I crawled past. Tilty. That’s all the sign says. Just: Tilty. No ‘welcome’, no ‘please drive carefully’. Just: Tilty. I reckoned it should add: Now piss off!

6. Cake
So, I packed at the halfway point. Apparently there were quite a number of quitters, mainly because of the weather. After handing over my unfinished brevet card, I went in for a cup of tea and a bit of cake. The Shaftesbury CC do some fantastic food, which went some way to thawing me out – including the biggest chocolate muffin I have ever seen.

All this meant that I had unfinished business with The Tilty Area.

1. Audley End to Thaxted Poppy Tea Room
This ride actually started in Audley End, so already it was looking up. In addition, the weather forecast had been rubbish all week – heavy rain, high winds – but it was actually sunny, quite warm and with a light breeze. A group of ten of us set off towards Thaxted, and we all stayed together – this was a social ride. A few stiff hills here at the beginning, and we were soon at Thaxted just in time for the tea room to open and feed us cake, cream teas and cinnamon crumpets!

2. Thaxted to High Roding
This ride was almost an exact reverse of the Chris Negus ride. This direction was much more cycle-friendly! The hills we rode down seemed to outnumber the hills we rode up, which is always the right way around. The sun came out for a while. Past Pleshley with a brief stop to fix a p******e, and then slightly off-route to find the Black Lion in High Roding for lunch. This is a 14th century pub (many of the villages around this area of Essex are fairly ancient, boasting 500-600 year old buildings and pubs. I imagine the history of the names alone is very interesting) where we had some lovely baguettes and chips. Slightly depressing that we were the only customers, although the landlady said that more people would be in later. But these places, if they close, are lost forever, or turned into ‘executive dwellings’ for stockbrokers to buy (spit), which is a terrible fate!

3. High Roding to Audley End, via Henham
After lunch we got a bit faster, as it was almost 3pm and we wanted to get back in daylight, before the weather turned. The brief window of warmth had gone and it was getting colder so we powered through towards Takely where there was another p******e to fix. The roads were covered in several places by stones and washout – there had been some serious rain the day before the ride. I do have a slight dread of this happening to me on a group ride – I can fix a p******e but I can’t do it quickly!
Tyre repaired, we then made fast time back to Audley End, past the ‘Uts and through Newport, where a large deer ran across the road right in front of one of our riders, less than 10m away! A rather hairy moment. Disaster averted we got back to Audley End just in time for my train.

A much better ride!!