It’s some time between half six and seven a.m. and I’m sat in a village hall in Kent with a bacon sarnie and a cup of tea. We’re about 115km into my first 300km audax and I feel slightly dazed. There is me and my friend Caven who I am riding with. We should be just over 100km in but we missed a turning in Rye a couple of hours earlier. We didn’t notice the Garmin telling us we were off course until after we had climbed a hill and coasted down the other side. Fortunately I was carrying an OS map for just such an occasion.
We’d set off just after 2am from Bethersden Village Hall after necking a cup of tea and couple of custard creams in preparation. We left a few minutes after the rest of the riders as we were still assembling our bikes in the car park. Once out on the road to Ashford and then Folkestone we rolled along swiftly chatting and reeling in a few of the riders ahead of us, blinking rear lights dangling temptingly in the dark in front of us. In fact it wasn’t that dark due to the full moon and light cloud cover. The sodium glow of Folkestone appeared on the horizon, and soon we were passing through the outskirts of Folkestone. Dropping down onto the seafront we picked up the coast road that would take us through Hythe to the first control in Dymchurch. Pulling into a carpark at 4am we got our brevets stamped and were straight back onto the road to Rye. A few miles later we were sheltering under a tree and pulling on rain jackets.
The long straight road across Romney Marsh to Rye seemed to last forever as we did alternate stints on the front in the wind and rain. Drafting was a easier on the legs but no drier as neither of us had mudguards (minus 10 audax points) so sat in each others spray. As it got lighter and lighter we could see how far the seemingly eternal straights went on for. And was very little to look at to the left or right across the marsh. A flat horizon stretched all around us. The only verticals breaking the horizontal were the turbines of a wind farm. Eventually the road started to have some corners, the rain stopped, and the lights of Rye grew larger in the shadow of the hills of the high weald.
We stopped briefly in Rye to check the next info control but in our eagerness to continue didn’t check the Garmin or route notes and hence missed a turning. Once we realised our mistake we were back on course quickly and heading back towards the ride HQ, again playing through and off on the long straight flat road to Appledore, if for no other reason than to break the monotony. As we started to climb back towards Tenterden and Bethersden it started to rain again. I started to feel cold, lethargic and weak, not a pleasant mix, and was starting to get concerned that 300km would be too much today. Back at the HQ the sarnie and cuppa sorted me out. I realised that my lethargy was down to no sleep or food for a good few hours before setting off.
Having refueled ourselves and refilled our bidons we were back on the road in a fresh set of dry kit. We had both realised that the worst of the weather was likely overnight so had taken spare kit to change into for the day session. I can’t talk for Caven, but in my case this was quicker and easier than refitting mudguards (that’s probably minus another 10 audax points). The next 100km would take us along the edge of the North Downs towards Maidstone but fortunately staying this side of Hunton Hill.
The change in landscape was a noticeable and welcome change from the relentless horizontal vistas of Romney Marsh. The lanes undulated through woodland and farmland, the lanes twisting and turning. It was noticeable that the predominant colour around us was now green rather than black or grey. We were no longer relying on the Garmin, I had the route notes to hand shouting out instructions for 2 to 3 junctions ahead (that must regain 10 of the audax points lost for not having mudgaurds?). There was the occasional left instead of a right or missed signpost, and we ended up on the A229 for a bit longer than would have been preferable, but we generally stayed on course. At Golden Green we hit the half way control (cup of weak tea, cheese and ham roll, toffee waffle, fig roll, jaffa cake) before turning back towards the flatlands of Romney Marsh.
I can’t really recall the stretch to the next control if I’m honest. The route was plenty pretty enough, it’s just I was tired and I can’t clearly remember the order of villages or changes in landscape. I know that we must have been passing relatively close to the route out to Golden Green as we recognised lots of place names on signposts as villages and towns we’d already passed through or near to. The cloud was starting to break and every now and again dappled light shimmied under our wheels on covered lanes. Out in the open it was nice to have our shadows as company. At one point we found ourselves spinning along a ridge with a view to our left over a chunk of Kent we’d ridden through. We stopped to take in the view and then cracked on to the next control, remembering to memorise the info controls so we could fill in our brevet when we got there (minus another 10 audax points for forgetting a pen).
After the roadside control at 210km in Iden Green (cup of tea, slice of fruit cake, a jaffa cake, handful of jelly babies) we swooped back down onto Romney Marsh. The cloud had cleared by now and the sun was beating down. Unfortunately we were also heading straight into the wind. Passing through Appledore again we picked up small lanes towards the coast. It was noticeable now that we were both drifting off into our own worlds of suffering, we stopped chatting and a gap developed between us. I was really tired now, had run out of water, and was getting twinges of cramp. The silhoutte of the nuclear power station looming on the horizon just added to my visions of doom. I had a little bit of a swear to myself. And then a bigger bit of a swear into the wind.
We arrived at the 260km control in Dungeness separately and in silence. After getting our brevets stamped in the car park of the light railway cafe we staggered inside to find sustenance. There were other riders inside also looking slightly shellshocked and hungry. We downed bottles of coke and slowly returned to something resembling normality. Then we bought more drinks and some food. Something we hadn’t considered when we signed up was that though ‘flat route’ sounds easy you don’t actually get many free miles. You’re pedalling almost all of the time, there are few hills to freewheel down. This becomes very noticeable after a couple of hundred kilometres.
Only 60km to go and we expected a tailwind for most of the way to Hythe. We did indeed get a push along the coast through Lydd-on-Sea towards New Romney. Crossing back across the A259 we wiggled through fields of crops, the wind never quite in our favour but not beating up on us as much as an hour earlier. Soon we were back in Hythe, in daylight this time, for the final control. The next few kilometres were on a bridleway which made me slightly nervous. Anyone that follows me on instagram will know I am not averse to smashing my road bike across many unsuitable road surfaces and happy to stretch my luck with my tyres. However right now I was 260km and 14 hours into a ride, I’d been rained on and then sunburnt, was knackered and been pushed around by the wind. If I punctured now I’d probably just sit on the floor and have a little cry. Fortunately nothing happened and we found ourselves back on tarmac for the final 30km back to Bethersden.
As we climbed back up to the weald towards Bethersden the sky started to darken and there was a crack of thunder as we cross the M20. It looked like we would have a race on to miss the rain. Fortunately we were heading west and the weather was heading east so we avoided getting a soaking. Just. The riders behind us apparently weren’t so lucky.
Back at Bethersden Village Hall for the third time I handed over my brevet and went in search of a cup of tea. And yet more food. We’d ridden 328km in just over 16 hours including stops. I was pretty astounded at this considering 12 hours earlier I seriously thought that at 100km I’d reached my limit for the day. I sat down with a cheese roll and tried not to fall asleep. I was glad I wasn’t going to have to get back on my bike.