Stamp Collecting

When I first heard the word ‘audax’ I was intrigued. The word itself sounded weird and it was described to me as “like fast touring”. Clearly this was something to find out more about. I discovered that in Latin audax means bold or daring. I asked other people about it but no one really knew much, it was talked about in a “here be monsters” kind of way, all third hand rumours about mudguards and beards and sleeping in bus stops. None of that put me off as its language appealed – randonneur, brevet – it hinted at an aesthetic, at something mysterious and foreign.

I like that the distances fall into a sequence of pleasingly round numbers; 200km, 300km, 400km, 600km, and further if the desire is strong. I like to ride from A to B to C to D, via X, Y and Z. I like it when a ride is so long that it takes in multiple counties and I have to break the route sheet down into lots of single rides, each one between the control points, factorized into X number of commutes, a manageable chunk. I like riding all day long and then through the night, experiencing the turn of the day, watching sunset and hearing the dawn chorus.

I like that it is a hidden past time. All year round week in week out men and women of all ages ride huge distances. Discreet and quiet, simply riding around collecting stamps and receipts to prove they rode somewhere. I like that it’s all done on a system of trust, no desire to cheat and no point in doing so. There are no winners, just finishers. I like you can ride a series of rides over time to tot up points to collect badges; Super Randonneur, Randonneur Round The Year, Brevet des Grimpeurs du Sud, Audax Altitude Award. Combine these series or ride them fixed and there are other badges. I like cloth patches on saddlebags as badges of honour.

I like the people that inhabit this world, the ones you meet in village halls early in the morning and on petrol station forecourts late at night. Stories of other places and getting lost over cups of polysterene tea and battenburg cake. I like the invisible elastic that binds you together over hundreds of kilometres, finding chatty friendships or silent space when you need it most, riders looking out for each other. I like that it’s a small world and I started to recognize bikes and faces (yes, usually in that order). There is give and take, a generosity, riders become organisers and share little known lanes and favoured cafes.

I like that volunteers man controls on village greens and in church halls with trestle tables and mismatching china and serve you tea with a smile. I like cheese sarnies and victoria sponge and I don’t like energy gels. I like sitting on a the curb outside a garage at midnight with a packet of crisps blankly staring at petrol pumps. I like wheeling my bike into motorway services at 4am and nodding into sleep whilst a cup of tea goes cold. I like the warm fuzz of tiredness than envelops me and lasts for a few days afterwards along with a gentle aching and faint hunger.

I like that in an age of instant pleasures you have to make a bit of an effort and fend for yourself. I like that in an era of digital noise you have to deal with bits of paper and carry a pen. I like riding in places I’ve never been. I like that it is something to engage with and not to simply consume. I like that it engenders a kind of loyalty, a pledge to do my best and do it properly.

I like actively engaging with the process of following route instructions, that it forces me to pay attention to what is around me, places me in my environment. I like the quirks of route sheet authors, the idiosyncratic and seemingly obscure codes and acronyms that quickly become familiar and friendly. I like that someone uses the acronym RBT in upper or lower case to differentiate between roundabouts and mini-roundabouts. I like that you don’t have to follow the instructions, it’s only guidance, you just need to hit the controls. If I don’t like a road I can find another one. I like that I once saw a routesheet bulldog clipped to a Garmin mount.

I like that I live in a country with such a variety of landscapes relatively close to one another. Riding long distances allows the subtle shifts in topology to be seen and felt, to recognise the significance of the local. I like that I have learned to read and decode the space around me and built a memory map of the places I’ve ridden. I like it when routes and memories overlap.

I like the mindset audax instills in me, that it constantly makes me prove to myself of what I am capable, that it has told me stuff about myself I didn’t know. It still surprises me what I am prepared to do simply to fill a card with stamps and stickers and answers to questions like “What time is the postal collection on Saturday?” and “What animal is on the pub sign?” I like that there is absolutely no reason to do any of this. Something about audaxing makes me scour the events list and my diary and find slots into which to insert these beautiful ridiculous rides. I like that something drags me back to do them again even though I have vowed on more than one occasion never to ride a 400 again. I don’t like 400s.

I like that audaxing has history and tradition and rules. If you engage with it properly it repays with memories and experiences you won’t forget. I like collecting stamps on brevet cards as it evokes memories of touring as a teenager and filling my YHA membership card with hostel stamps. I like that friends thought I was a bit odd when I started to audax but a lot of those friends have now ridden an audax with me. Mostly though I like that it has badges.

 

Windmolen Achtervlogen

Sailing around Sussex with friends searching out windmills. All eight listed on the brevet card found and logged. At the almost the exact midpoint between the starts of meteorological and astronomical spring, it was the first ride in what felt like spring. Gloves off and jerseys unzipped. Riding with shadows and laughter.

It didn’t start out like this. Setting off along the coast, the sea fret hid the view beyond the cliff edge to our right. We barely caught sight of the first windmill up on the cliff. In and out of the Ouse and Cuckmere valleys we turned inland, away from the Downs and fog for the first ride across the marshes of the year, or simply the first time for some of our small peloton. Hazy horizons and diffuse sunlight. Climbing to edge of the hills of the High Weald our shadows flickered into life. After bagging the fourth windmill and almost half way round we stopped at a garden centre,  sat outside in the sunshine with tea and bacon sarnies.

Weaving back across the weald, we passed through the village that I’ve only ever known by it’s name on signposts. Despite all of us crisscrossing this county for years we all found new ways and places, the best kind of ride. Back on roads we know and which tilted every so slightly downhill the pace rose until we hit Uckfield. My internal audax sat nav kicked in and I sent us the wrong way, automatically turning for McDonalds. All the way around the roundabout and we were back on track. Familiar lanes, autopilot, but the next two mills, Chailey and Oldland, were new to us, both less than a mile from roads we know like the backs of our hands. Oldland involved some off-roading to find but worth every effort. Standing in the sun we could see our next quarry, Jack and Jill standing on the Downs across the way. However before that there was a tea and cake stop in Ditchling. There was no rush. The days are stretching out again, there was plenty of daylight left.

Climbing to Jack and Jill we could see Oldland Mill stood across the fields, it’s whiteness concentrated by sunlight against the haze. We realise we must have seen it across the way hundreds of times without really noticing or knowing what or where it was. Now we know. And where that lane behind the Ditchling war memorial leads. Back over Devil’s Dyke and we could see the sea for the first time despite having ridden next to it for an hour earlier in the day. We hurtled down the hill for the final mill at West Blatchington, then turned for the pub.

Thanks to Paul at Rule 5 Bikes, Brighton for organising the ride. Follow Rule 5 on Twitter or Instagram for news of other rides and events.

M+1

In 1990 I went off to Canterbury School of Art in Kent as a fresh faced scrawny twenty year old taking my Raleigh Scirocco racing bike with me. Not only would the bike let me explore my new environs but as I lived ten miles from college on the coast at Whitstable the bike was the cheapest way to get to and from college. Towards the end of my first term my head was turned by a bright red Trek 820 mountain bike in the window of Herbert’s Cycles on Whitstable High Street. I flogged my Scirocco to my landlord and topping up the money, probably with some student loan, unless I’d already spent it all on records, purchased a sparkly new MTB. I took my new pride and joy home that Christmas but it was promptly nicked out of the shed one night by some lowlife scum. In the local bike shop in Camberley there was a 1990 Marin Palisades in the January sale. I was instantly drawn to the matt grey frame and fluoro yellow bars and forks. It was way cooler looking than the Trek. Oh fickle me, how soon I moved on. I borrowed some money from Dad on the assumption he’d get it back off the house insurance and by the time I got back to Kent I had another new bike.

On Monday mornings Chris (Muddy Fox), Matt (Saracen) and I skived off Cultural Studies lectures to bomb around the woods up the hill outside Canterbury. I rode it hard and bounced it off trees, crashing it more than once. I found new ways to ride between Whitstable and Canterbury that didn’t involve the A-road. I rode it along the coast and over the cliffs as far as Broadstairs. I have a vivid memory of sitting on it on top of a hill overlooking Canterbury one beautifully sunny morning listening to Saint Etienne’s Nothing Can Stop Us taped off the radio on a Walkman. When I left college it got smashed around the woods back home, the same ones I trashed my BMX around as a kid.

There were a good few years when I bloody loved that bike, but then I was distracted by a few Vespas (150 Super, two Vespa 90s, T5, PX200) and then a Lambretta (LI 150 Special). Having motorised two wheeled transport I rode the Marin less and less. I lent it to my brother for a couple years and moved away. Visiting my parents one weekend I saw it in the shed with a ripped saddle, a bent rear wheel, and the rear mech hanging off. The front wheel was nowhere to be seen. I have no idea what he did to it and I didn’t dare ask. Knowing what I do now, and the things he was getting up to, I’m lucky to have got it back at all. It stayed in my parent’s shed in that sorry state until they decided they no longer wanted it taking up space. It was delivered to me in Brighton one weekend, unceremoniously piled in the back of Dad’s car along with a load of boxes of other stuff my parents decided they no longer wanted to look after. Most of it ended up at the tip soon after but I didn’t have the heart to scrap the Marin. Every scuff and chip told a story. So I rebuilt it with (really) cheap parts and rode it to and from the studio and locked it to lamp posts outside pubs. It was enough to reignite my interest in cycling. No longer fresh faced or scrawny I eventually decided to get a road bike again in an attempt to get fit. My first love of road riding was rediscovered on the very first ride. The Marin got ignored again.

It languished in the hallway in a state of slow entropy. I thought about fixing it up but never found the time or inclination. Then I started to acquire other bikes including another mountain bike, so the Marin just seemed to be redundant. Yet I still couldn’t bring myself to chuck it out so it quietly sat there rusting under the gathering dust. After walking past this sad sight one too many times my friend Jo finally broke. He could bear witness to my neglect of an old mountain bike no longer.

“Just leave it with me, I’ll fix it.”

With bits dug out from the dark recesses of Jo’s shed – other histories, a multitude of stories – and a few new parts it has been resurrected as a different bike, re-invented as a singlespeed. The first bike I’ve had with only one gear since a BMX (Prolite) when aged 14. It’ll probably make me hurt and swear but commutes over the Downs should be interesting. However having just ridden it home I reckon it’ll also be a hell of a lot of fun! It’s nice to have you back Marin.

the other 20 have gone missing
1993 (probably)
1993 (probably)

February TCR Prep

1030km. 12000 metres of climbing.

Started with a rest week and a pilates class.

An aborted 200km audax in the snow.

Some longer and faster road commutes.

Some indirect wiggling about cyclocross commutes on beautiful mornings.

A loaded ride to Kent and back for a family birthday party.

Weekly swims and a short pilates routine every couple of days.

A damp and windy 200km audax a couple of counties away.

Reilly frame ready for the sprayers.

Template sent off to Wildcat Gear for made to measure frame bag.

A few more bits and pieces bought – silk sleeping bag liner, head torch, an extra dry bag.

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Can I be bothered…?

It’s dark when the alarm goes off. I think to myself “I can’t be bothered today” and doze off again thinking about getting the train to work a bit later. Something in my brain makes me get up five minutes later and fall out of bed into my cycling kit. I laid it out ready on the floor last night when my resolve was stronger. Out on the street I flick on my lights and pedal up the hill. I weave through quiet streets until I cross the dual carriageway, the boundary between the suburbs and the downs. I open the gate and spin the pedals, the rear wheel struggles for traction, squirming around and spinning on damp grass and chalk. My legs feel useless, I should have stayed in bed. I look to my left, daylight is coming, golden light drifts over the hills, tufts of mist stick out of coombes and hollows, silence surrounds. My spirit rises with the sun. I wish my legs felt the same. I scramble and trudge through mud and flint up to the ridge. I turn towards the rising sun. It’s warm, too warm for this time of year, I remove my gloves and unzip my jacket. Across the Beacon, too early for the ice cream van. Along the ridge, through more gates. So many gates. My legs seem to have remembered what to do, my speed picks up. This is glorious. Turn right through the trees. Follow the fence line to the vanishing point. Bounce down the steps to the side of the dual carriageway again. I start to climb up to the ridge on the other side, rear wheel slipping and sliding, no grip, legs start to complain again. A cloud sits atop the hill, I zip my jacket back up and climb higher into the cloud. I know there’s a radio mast just there but it’s obscured by the grey. Over the crest I speed down the gravel track, before altering direction yet again, another gate, say hello to the dog walker. Descending out of the cloud into the valley mist weaves in and out of the trees, sunlight filtered through water vapour and branches. I’ve never seen the valley look so beautiful. I’m riding fast now, by feel rather than sight. That magical moment when everything works together, flow. I lock up a wheel and slide into a gate. Ha! This is brilliant. I carry on riding a bit too fast, a little bit out of control, I’m going to be late for work. One last hill and then I really must turn for work. One last hill. Damn job, I want to keep riding all day.

In a parallel world I’m watching these hills pass by a train window. Longingly gazing at them. Frustrated.

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Mapping Out

I look at the map, planning a ride, following yellow and white roads, the quiet ones, linking them up, matching arcane symbols at junctions and hilltops with the key. Unfurled across the floor I crouch over the flat piece of paper surveying a land where the only ridges are the straight folds of the paper, the antithesis of reality where nothing is level or regular. I read the contour lines to find the real ridges, the crinkles and curves of the landscape. In my mind’s eye I superimpose my own symbols and codes; cafes I like, climbs I don’t, the fast swoopy bit, there’s a pothole just there. Previous rides are embedded in the map in water stains, scuffed and torn hand made folds added where folds of manufacture and packaging obscured places or disturbed the flow.

However a map is a contained world, a distillation, a reality codified into a flat image. A minituarized flattened world where conditions are constant, fixed in time, a blueprint. Always daylight and always dry. Out there seasons turn and weather changes, things are always the same but never the same. Veils of history, literature, art, drape across the landscape, paintings seen and books read. Yet more layers lie on top, things I’ve been told – anecdotes, rumour, reputation, stories told over cups of tea and slices of cake in favourite tea rooms. Riding with friends over the years their knowledge has melded with my own, “Do you know that lane?” and “Have you been along here?” are mixed in to my own memory map, differing histories stirred together. Layers interlock and weave around each other, boundaries and edges blur and become indistinct. All these things get pushed and pulled into a route that will keep me interested for the hours that I will ride it. Fragments build into a coherent whole.

Where indoors I trace a line across a piece of paper and through my imagination outside I’ll cut through air dense with remembrance and fuzzy recollection. One day it will be a headwind to fight , another a friendly tailwind. The repetition of action, legs spinning, and motion empties my mind, lets it drift elsewhere, thoughts and memories sneak up on me. Some memories weigh heavy, others flash around my head light as snowflakes. Fleeting glimpses, things caught out of the corner of my mind trigger thoughts, the here and now combined with there and then. Then I’ll snap out of reverie, become lost in the moment, the feeling of air on my face, taking a good line around a corner, speeding down a hill, the metronome of my breathing, the ache of effort in my legs. I concentrate on the here and now until other thoughts bounce around my head and collide. Previous instants blend with the moment, my mind inextricably links the present, past and future – rides remembered and thoughts of rides yet to happen. Time and space bend and scrunch like the folds of the map, places far apart instantaneously touch, ever so briefly, just for a moment, connections between places and times appear and disappear.

Another time I’ll ride with no route plotted or thought about, no map to hand. Meandering without purpose, wandering for the simple sake of wondering. No destination to reach, simply to move through space and places, no point, just lines. Local roads ridden so frequently there’s a fluid ever-changing map in my head to reference. I plot and replot as I ride, remembering some place else or happening across a lane I’ve not ridden for a while. I’ll re-route myself, change my mind, recalibrate that map in my imagination. Familiarity with place means no need to worry about where I’m going or how I’m getting there. I’ll end up where I end up. I may pass a lane that I’ve passed a hundred times and never ridden along. I’ll turn into it and follow wherever it leads. How lost can I get close to home? The worst that can happen is it leads somewhere unfamiliar but I won’t mind, it’s just somewhere new to add to the grid in my head. Sooner or later I’ll happen across somewhere I recognise or come across a signpost to somewhere I know. Or perhaps I won’t, maybe it will lead somewhere else entirely. My repertoire expands, like adding words, or phrases, or even whole pages to a never ending book. One where passages loop back on themselves, motifs repeat, stories build. Ready to be added to the next time.

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Winter Wonderland

snowsurrey-134654We can’t feel our fingers or toes but we are surrounded by the whiteness of an overwhelming silence. Mist and snow have muted the woodland around us. Last night messages bounced back and forth discussing whether to attempt the planned 200 kilometre DIY audax or not. The decision to set off from Brighton and see what confronted us when we got over the South Downs has turned out to be the correct one. Fortunately for us it seems everyone else looked at the same forecast and decided to stay at home. The lanes are damp but not icy and for the last few hours we’ve had the North Downs to ourselves. Riding into the hills was like climbing into a snow dome. Every now and again someone gives it a shake and fat fluffy snowflakes flurry around us. Swooping through and around the hills snowflakes dart past, and stingingly into, our faces, buffs are pulled up, peaks tugged down. Our route loops back and forth to catch classic and favoured climbs, diving into darkened holloways to navigate between them, retracing wheel tracks now and again. We bag Ansty Lane, Leith Hill, Whitedown, and Coldharbour Lane before deciding, due to the cold and likelyhood of daylight running out before we can get home, to miss out the loops that take in Combe and Barhatch lanes. We clamber over the Greensand Ridge one last time and drop back into the damp green of West Sussex and head back to the coast.

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https://www.strava.com/activities/862881701