Mad Jack’s – John Seviour Memorial Audax
Last year Mad Jack’s event was supposed to be my first ever audax. It didn’t quite go to plan. This year’s attempt looked equally doomed as Jo and I drove over to meet Mark in Hailsham in sleeting snow. Neither of us recalled seeing this on the weather forecast the evening before. Yet again it looked like if any of us even vaguely suggested not starting we would happily have had a cup of tea at Mark’s and gone home again.
However we actually managed to get to get to the start line on time this year so it seemed churlish not to at least make an effort. So off we headed north out of Hailsham in the continuing sleet. Within a mile I couldn’t feel my fingers or my toes and I couldn’t really see where we were going. My usual audax navigation method of having the route notes in my hand or tucked up my sleeve doesn’t really work in freezing wet weather. So we had to try and remember a few instructions ahead mixed in with following anyone we saw with a laminated route sheet attached to the stem. [Always safest to follow the people with laminated route sheets and mudgaurds as you know they are an audaxer. Following someone with a Garmin and no mudgaurds has potential to lead you astray.]
Mad Jack’s ride is three loops in and out of Battle across the High Weald, down to Fairlight where you overlook the English Channel, and back to Hailsham, totalling 125km. The landscape of the High Weald was formed by rivers and their headwaters carving deep steep-sided valleys – ghylls – into the sandstone and clay. The route is beautiful, twisting, corkscrewing lanes sunk into the sides of the hills, from millennia of human and agricultural toing and froing, cocooning us in rock and shadow, trees arching around us, forming tunnels as if we were burrowing through the wealden rock itself. The official 2450 metres of climbing would be gained by continuously riding up and down these deep, dark lanes, occasionally offered some respite and distant views from meandering hedge lined lanes along the ridges. The lanes themselves were carpeted in gravel and mud, bits of tree, moss, and water running out from the surrounding woodland and fields. Where we were lucky enough to see tarmac it was often cratered with potholes. It was if the weald was trying to absorb centuries of human intervention back into the earth, reminding us that we were just passing through this ancient landscape.
Not long after the first info control in Bodle Street Green Mark punctured. It had, at least, stopped snowing but it was still a fumble to change a tube with frozen fingers. Back on the road 10-15 minutes later just past the second info control at Penhurst I had a flat front. After pulling a sharp flint out of my tyre and refitting tube and tyre I checked the route sheet, brevet and the time. Crap! We had 15 minutes to make the first control in Battle which was still 5km away. Any other day that wouldn’t have been an issue, but this was a relentlessly hilly ride in slightly revolting conditions on cold legs. We made it with one minute to spare.
After necking a cup of hot sugary tea we cracked on over the hills to the next control. Flying down the final descent before Burwash Mark and Jo shot past the next turn despite me screaming “LEFT AFTER THE BRIDGE!” at them. I stopped and waited. There was no way I was following them up the next hill. They’d eventually realise I wasn’t with them and come looking for me. No. I phoned Mark. No answer. I rolled to the bottom of the hill to see if I could see them. I couldn’t but then Mark phoned me back and we agreed to meet at the next control seeing as they were already in Burwash. I rolled into the petrol station control with a minute to spare. Again. This wasn’t looking good. We were barely a third of the way through and already right up against it time wise. There was time to grab some custard creams from the boot of the control car before trying to make some time up on the way back to Battle where we could re-assess our situation. The sun was out now so we were starting to feel a vague warmth and being accompanied by your shadow always makes things seem better.
Out of Burwash and we were straight onto a long steep climb. It was at this point I noticed not only was Mark on a standard double chainset, he was also on a 23-tooth cassette. This wasn’t a day for that sort of madness. Passing through Brightling we crested the highest point on the Weald between us and the coast. Sussex undulated away from us until it sank into the sea shining like quicksilver in the sunlight. Frankly it was a rather glorious view and worth the hour of not being able to feel out hands or feet.
Back in Battle we arrived at the control twenty minutes inside the cut off. We’d made up some time but with the terrain, weather and flats it had taken almost 4 hours to ride barely 50km. This did not bode well. The sky was now almost cloudless but we were damp through to our base layers so the warmth was taking a while to take hold. Mark had had enough and decided to head home where he had “…warm children that will give me a hug”. I’m not surprised with that cassette and knowing what was yet to come. However I was determined to continue as I’d not yet failed to complete an audax I’ve started. If I failed within the rules of the game by missing a control or time cut then that is one thing, but I didn’t want to give up whilst it was still possible to finish. Had it still been snowing I would have been on Mark’s wheel all the way back to his for a cuppa but the sun was shining. Jo and I decided to have a cup of tea. eat some food, and check the route sheet for the next section. Sunshine inspired belligerence. That’s riding bikes for you.
Jo and I headed off on the loop out to Fairlight, on the coast between Hastings and Rye. Within 5 kilometres Jo punctured. Another impromptu stop.
More constantly undulating gritty, slimey lanes of varying degrees of steepness followed until the long steady climb up to Fairlight started. I was really feeling it in my legs by this point but out here there was no real option than to finish the ride. Well, there was an emergency plan loitering in the back of my mind which involved freewheeling into Hastings and getting the train home…but I was determined I was finishing, plus if we didn’t stop at the cafe at the next info control we could make up some time again. Looking south the sea shone turquoise under the blue sky. Turning north, the way we needed to head, thick dark grey cloud loomed. Hmm…
As we descended Fairlight towards Rye it started to hail. Excruciatingly hard. It stung the face as the front tyre stuggled to find any grip on what was a fast snaking descent. Fortunately it lasted only a few minutes and sunshine returned along with the short steep climbs back to Battle for the third and final time. We got our brevets stamped back at the main control. However this time there was a children’s party in the cafe. It seemed a bit weird to be hanging around a cafe in lycra surrounded by small children and fairy cakes. So we popped down the road to a deli for a pork pie and cup of tea in the warm. Checking the route notes and time we realised we had a little under two hours to cover the final 25km to make the arriveé cut-off. We hadn’t bought lights as we hadn’t expected to be out all day, so our cut off was sundown which was sooner.
It was flat and fast out of Battle so we maintained a decent average, but again we were soon rising and falling on awkwardly surfaced lanes. Over hedges the sky was red like glowing embers with the sun shining gold not far from the horizon. The rest of the sky was a darkening blue. Somewhere on the way towards Ashburnham we caught some other riders just as we hit a difficult descent. Jo managed to get in front but I got caught in the middle so couldn’t pick my line as far in advance as I would have liked. Thud. My rear wheel hit a pothole. I knew instantly that I’d be lucky to get away without a pinch flat. Within 100 metres my fear was confirmed. With the light fading fast and 15km to go it wasn’t perfect timing. Tool roll unfurled again.
One more info control and a couple of short climbs and I knew it should be pretty much flat all the way back into Hailsham. This was just as well as the light was almost gone. We going to have to sprint the last few kilometres or we’d be finishing in the dark. Fortunately the last few kilometres were slightly down hill so with heads down we frantically pedalled for the finish. We turned into the arriveé in twilight with 24 minutes to spare. Jo went in to get our brevets validated whilst I looked after the bikes and texted Mark to say we’d be round for a cup of tea in 5 minutes.