I am in Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire to ride the Not Quite The Spurn Head 400 at the invitation of my friend Luke, and finally on the Singular Peregrine that had been bought with audaxing in mind but has taken a while longer to build than anticipated. Bikes are checked over, wine is drunk, and alarms set for 4am. This will give us time for breakfast before the 10km ride to the 5.30am start in Sowerby Bridge.
Riders are waiting around the market square in Sowerby Bridge for brevet cards and the off. There are two rides heading off, our one out past Leeds and Hull to the mouth of the Humber and back again, and The Old 240 which heads across the Yorkshire Dales into Cumbria and back via a vast tract of hilly land. As beautiful as The Old 240 route sounds it also has 6500 metres of climbing. My friend Mike who I drove up with is riding that one but I’ve decided it’s probably not for me on this occasion. The Spurn Head ride is front and end loaded with big hills but is mostly flat with a few other smaller hills around Hull and Beverley. Once brevet cards have been collected and pocketed, Garmins set, and route sheets organised, the small field of riders rolls down the street. The Old 240 lot turn left at the lights as we continue straight on.
The first few kilometres are up and over hills through and around Halifax and Huddersfield as the sky lightens and the rising sun blinds us. Unfortunately, on a suburban street Luke punctures enforcing an impromptu stop to change the tube. We push on over more climbs until we reach the first control, Busy Lizzie’s Sandwich Bar in Castleford. We stick stickers in our brevets and order mugs of sugary tea. Now it’s light and I’m actually awake I recognise a couple of faces, Calvin from London who was on both the Ditchling Devil and Straight Outta Hackney rides who is riding with a friend called Pete, and a chap (who I later discover is called Jim) who I am sure I saw on the Fairies Flattest Possible 300.
Soon we’re heading off again, and in true audax fashion there is a climb straight after the food stop. Though once over this we are spinning along chatting through flat open farmland, power station cooling towers looming on the horizons to the left and to the right. Then Luke realises he has another flat. This time the tyre is changed too and no more punctures are suffered all day.
Crossing the Boothferry Bridge we hit a long drag towards North Cave, taking turns on the front and wondering when this seemingly never-ending road will finish. Eventually, it reaches an end as we pass through North Cave towards South Cave, past the tall fences of Everthorpe and Wold prisons. At South Cave we reach our second control, a rather splendid Italian bakery where a calzone is very happily consumed. The sun is shining and arm warmers and gilets are stowed away. As is standard, within minutes of leaving the control we’re climbing again. However, it’s a much kinder gradient than the earlier climbs and is followed by a long descent towards the outer suburbs of Hull.
Typically as we removed gilets at the last stop it starts to spit with rain. The sky ahead looks ominous. We stop under a bridge to don rain jackets. Pete and Calvin pull in behind us and we set off as a group of four. As we navigate our way through the out-of-town superstores, it starts to hail and rain more and more heavily. By the time we’re out into the countryside beyond the city it starts to absolutely hammer down. We’ve lost Calvin but gained a couple on a tandem. Despite mudguards and rain jacket I’m soaked through and my feet are sopping wet. We appear to no longer be riding on roads but through rivers. Rain is falling quicker than it can drain away. The horizon gets greyer and murkier and more and more indistinct. Rain drips from my cap and I can’t really see where we’re going but I can make out the silhouettes of a riders cowering under some trees ahead. It’s a bit like closing the stable door after the horse has bolted but we decide to stop too.
As the dark clouds move ahead the other riders head off. Luke, Pete and I remain a bit longer in order to let the rain get far enough ahead of us that we won’t ride in to it again. Calvin appears out of the gloom a few minutes later so we continue four-up towards the North Sea. The landscape is pan flat and there is a lot of sky arching over us, much of it grey and angry looking, but there’s enough blue to the north west to lift the spirits. Suddenly we’re alongside the mudflats of the Humber estuary, and then turning a right angled corner the North Sea is ahead of us just beyond the 170km control at the Blue Bell Cafe. Damp clothing is hung over chairs before staggering to the counter to stamp our brevets, and order hot food and tea. And cake. And an emergency Twix.
Post lunch we follow our tracks back along the headland and continue to trace the coastline through Withernsea into a headwind. We’ve gained another rider but I can’t remember his name, if I actually ever knew it. He stays with us until the next control but then we don’t see him again until the final control. The roads are straight and borderless, there seem to be no hedges in this part of the country. We start to zig zag back inland towards the next control, a petrol station at Leven. A bottle of water and a pork pie are purchased, the receipt tucked inside my brevet. An extra layer is put on as the sun is getting low and with it the temperature is dropping fast.
We crack on. Somewhere along the way we are faced with a flooded underpass and bottle it. We clamber over a crash barrier and dash across the main road instead. Getting caught at a level crossing gives me time to take in the splendour of Beverly Minster, before we start to climb again, a long steady drag as dusk falls. Over the top all of Yorkshire stretches out in front of us and we flick on our lights. The sun sinks behind the horizon as we drop back towards North Cave to rejoin part of our earlier route. Somewhere along the way we drop Calvin again but I don’t realise as I’m too busy avoiding potholes in the dark to look over my shoulder. It starts to rain heavily again and I’ve lost my place on the route sheet that I can barely see through the rain in the light of street lamps. Fortunately both Pete and Luke have Garmins and after a quick discussion at a roundabout where we’ve all taken different exits we find ourselves on the right road and only a few kilometres from the next control. Ashamed as I am to admit it I have never been so very happy to see a MacDonalds!
I suspect Calvin feels the same as he traipses in ten minutes after us. Jim arrives a little later and informs us that the underpass we avoided was flooded up to his bottom bracket. After warm food, tea, and a futile attempt to dry mitts and cap under a hand dryer it’s back out into the chilly damp darkness. What follows may be slightly incoherent, possibly not a true reflection of events, and almost certainly not in the correct order.
We head for the Old Goole Road passing through a sodium lit industrial landscape that is eerily still and silent. We continue into a flat darkness. It’s a new moon so there is no light out here other than that streaming from our headlights. A pool of light created by my riding companions surrounds me. It feels like a protective halo against whatever may be out there in the darkness. As long as I stay within the light I’m safe. This road seems to go on and on forever which may or may not be related to the waves of tiredness surging through my every cell. At the next junction I seem determined to turn right despite the route sheet, the signpost and everyone telling me to turn left.
Drunk people smoking outside a pub heckle us. Somewhere further down the road Calvin mentions it’s ten past two. I thought it was about midnight. It appears North Lincolnshire is some kind of time vortex. Oh yeah, we’re not in Yorkshire anymore, we crossed a border somewhere. We pass an electronic traffic sign that flashes our speed at us; 12mph, then 11mph. This explains a lot. We pass through towns lit orange by street lamps. There are bus shelters that look very comfortable. We miss a turning. We turn around.
We leave the orange glow behind and enter into blackness again. Roads start to rise and fall gently, then not so gently. We miss a turning again. We turn around again. In wooded lanes our lightbeams cast our shadows as giants amongst the trees. There’s a rabbit in the road. I almost run it over. There’s very little chat. Pete falls over. Not falls off, he very matter of factly, simply falls over. We climb higher and higher. I want to stop. I need to stop. If there was any option other than to continue to pedal I would take it right now. Riding a bicycle has never felt so futile and downright ridiculous.
A short while later we’re navigating ourselves around an empty car park trying to find the entrance to the Woolley Edge Services on the M1. We push our bikes inside and buy tea and pork pies and cake and water and…my head is nodding, I can barely keep my eyes open. I very seriously want to give up. We’ve ridden 375km and can almost see the finish but I just want to stop now. I’m not sure I can actually continue. Even if I could I can’t be arsed. My resolve has been left somewhere on the road the other side of that hill I just hauled myself over. I am starting to seriously doubt I have the mental fortitude for this audaxing nonsense. And believe me, right now this is nonsense. My body is screaming at me to sleep.
We step back outside and light is creeping into the sky, I can make the outlines of trees against a dense turquoise, I can make out layers of hills, the world is no longer shallow and flat, dawn is breaking. Again. The light has an uncanny effect on both my physical and mental being. I’m pushing the pedals harder. A new found determination grows as the darkness recedes. The lighter it gets the faster we roll, or at least it feels like it. The sun breaks over the hills behind us and we’re racing our shadows stretching along the tarmac. Each climb seems to be longer and higher than the last but I don’t care, I can see Halifax down below and that means we must be near the finish.
We make it to the arrivee with 36 minutes to spare*.
Many thanks to Luke and Alison for their hospitality, to Luke (again), Pete and Calvin for their company on the ride, and to Mike for buying the custard creams and Red Bull for the drive home.
There’s also a post from my ride partner at http://cyclismespandelles.com
Photos taken with an Olympus Trip 35 using Fuji Provia 100 slide film which was then cross processed.
*I must have been knackered as when I received the brevet card back six months later I realised we were one hour and thirty six minutes within the time limit. Which meant I could have had a kip somewhere.