04:29, Dyke Road, Brighton, heading for London.
Underworld are played on the radio in the car and two men in their mid-forties reminisce about coming home at this time of the morning rather than going out for a bike ride.
05:47, Blackheath, London.
Applying chamois cream behind a bush on the edge of Blackheath. There is more than likely a law against this sort of behaviour. Fortunately it’s dark and no other idiots are up at this time of day.
06:00, Cutty Sark départ, Greenwich, London. 0km.
Ivan from Audax Club Hackney hands us our brevet cards from the boot of a car near the Cutty Sark. Tea and coffee are available on a trestle table set up around the corner in an underground car park where a bunch of hi-viz clad riders are gathered listening to the rider briefing. We forego warm caffeine and follow blinking rear lights along the long straight Roman road towards Kent.
My usual tactic is to follow wheels for as long as possible. Take a turn on the front if asked but generally the front runners will chat away as people slowly drop off the back over the first 50km. This means you can ignore the route sheet for a bit, warm up and wake up slowly, saving energy for concentrating on navigating when the peloton inevitably breaks to pieces on the first big climb. When that happens leave the handful of fast riders on the front to it. There’s no way you’re getting around 300km if you blow up after the first hundred. Anyway, it’s not a race.
Three hundred kilometres. Four thousand five hundred metres of climbing. That’s a heck of a lot of riding. The usual fear lurks in the back of my mind: the bike or, more likely, my mental and physical capabilities can easily fall to pieces somewhere. I read the route sheet in sections bookended between the controls, this way it’s just a series of perfectly manageable short rides shoved together.
We head east through the suburbs before turning south and into the North Downs. The first big climb is going to be over the Greensand Ridge on Ide Hill across to Toys Hill, but before then there are a fair few rolling kilometres of Kent. It starts to rain and George regrets forgetting to pick up his waterproof when he left home. My decision not to put the mudguards back on may have been a mistake. By the time we’re in the foothills of the downs the rain has eased and shadows are fading in and out across the tarmac. We start to climb, arm warmers are rolled down.
08:50, a car park in Edenbridge, Kent, 66km.
Whilst we’ve been randonneuring through rural Kent, Audax Club Hackney have driven ahead of us with the trestle table to set up a guerrilla style control in a car park. There’s also a man dressed as a shark. We don’t ask why. I make a couple of cups of tea whilst our brevet cards are stamped.
Just as we leave we bump into my friend Dan who is recently back from Paris-Brest-Paris. We set off towards the Ashdown Forest and our pair becomes a trio for the rest of the day. The route sheet makes no mention of a well known hill, The Wall, but we know we’re heading that way. Much discussion ensues about whether we’re going over it or not. Some optimistic (and ultimately incorrect) interpretation of the route notes makes me think we aren’t. George opines that we’re near enough to do it anyway. He’s like that George. No ride is ever already stupid enough (see his Morvelo Doorstep Epic film). Anyway, I was wrong – “Oh, this right. I was thinking of the next one”. At least we weren’t riding fixed like the guy tacking into the gradient.
Over the top of the Ashdown Forest we can see as far as the South Downs. Past the garden centre at Duddleswell it’s noses on stems and backsides in the air for the long fast drop into Maresfield. Autopilot kicks in at this point, I know the way to the next control at Laughton and then to Seaford. However I lose my bearings briefly coming out of Uckfield – I may know most of the lanes in Sussex but I still don’t understand how the big roads connect up – but then we find ourselves in Palehouse Common. A little group has coalesced around us since Uckfield and we hit the top end of the Lewes Crits circuit in a pack of 6 or 7 riders. From here it’s the flatlands around Ripe to Berwick and Alfriston. Coming out of Alfriston we can see the white horse on the side of High And Over. I’m glad I fitted that 11-28 block a couple of days ago. Cresting the hill we see the Cuckmere River shining like quicksilver, twisting and turning as it carves its way across Cuckmere Haven out to sea, a turquoise band between the green of the downs and the clear blue sky. The westerly wind is so strong we have to pedal down towards the sea.
12:07, Seaford. East Sussex, 132km.
We can almost see home from here. We try not to think about that as we drink tea and chomp through pasties, before turning around back over High And Over and head towards the Sussex-Kent border. We gently climb to Horam before the properly nasty climbs of the High Weald start up through Mayfield to Wadhurst. We’re not entirely sure we’ve gone the right way but again these are (almost) home lanes and we can find our way to Wadhurst. An audax route sheet is just a suggested route, it doesn’t have to be followed. As long as you hit all the control points you can take whatever route you fancy between them, as the controls are placed so as you can’t take shortcuts or avoid hills.
15:01, a shop in Wadhurst, 177km.
A can of coke is emptied into a bidon and a bag of jelly babies is torn open. The route sheet is turned to the next page and the sandwich bag re-taped to the stem. It’s time to head back to the seaside. The next part of the route is in that part of Sussex that is a bit too far from home to be regular riding country. Every now and again I have a “Oh, we’re here” moment as I recognise a lane from some of the early season audaxes I did. Eventually we pop out on a main road near Battle and I have my bearings again. A signpost says 6 miles to Bexhill, the second coastal control. A lot of unexpected climbs are squeezed into those 6 miles. When we finally see the sea sparkling ahead of us there is a collective sigh of relief.
16:59, Bexhill seafront, East Sussex, 210km.
Our shadows are long as we roll out of Bexhill. We’re on the final stint now. Admittedly it’s 100km back to London but psychologically this is the finishing straight. We chase the sun up the slope back onto the High Weald (again) before the rollercoaster of hills starts (again) as the sun finally drops over the horizon. The view back across the twilit weald is stunning, muted green and blue hills rippling away towards the coast. We flick on our lights as darkness seeps into the sky.
19:48, Sainsbury Local in Crowborough, East Sussex, 254km.
More food is bought so we can tuck the receipts as proof of passage in our brevets. It turns out it’s not the right control and we should be at a petrol station up the road but we’re tired, it’s dark and I can’t read the route sheet. Dan and I feel bad at depriving George of the classic audax experience of eating a packet of crisps on petrol station forecourt in the dark.
Couldn’t say where we go next as it’s pitch black and we’re now following Dan’s Garmin. I know we climb back over the Ashdown and then back out the other side. Despite not being able to see the landscape there’s something comforting about riding in a small group in the dark, in a puddle of light from each others’ headlights. Your world only extends a few metres to the front and side of you, there are no reference points, no real sense of where you are or what the road is doing. With the need for navigation negated, you don’t think, you just pedal. If it gets harder then you must be going uphill, if you can freewheel then it must be downhill.
We revisit the North Downs, more than half a day since this morning, the steep scarp edge this time. The 28 cog gets called into action again. We rest our weary legs on the long descent down the other side. According to the route notes we are heading for a “monster climb”. I don’t what this hill is called but about half way up I blow-up spectacularly. Fortunately George and Dan have disappeared into the black so they don’t see me climb off, stare at my feet for a moment, mutter a swear word, and then walk 30 yards to the corner where the gradient eases slightly. By the time they see me again I’m pedalling, slowly but pedalling. I reach them and stop, reach into my pocket and one by one eat half a bag of Jelly Babies.
Right then, let’s crack on, 30km at most to go. Through the trees we can see tiny toy town East London sparkling down below, the towers of the City the size children’s building blocks. We smash ourselves along the bus lane on the long drop into outer London. No matter the length of the ride when you can smell the finish you find extra energy from somewhere. Weaving in and out of the Saturday night traffic I lose the wheel of George (ex-London bicycle courier) and Dan (London bike commuter) but can see their rear lights enough to chase them through the streets of south east London.
23:04 Arrivée, London, 312km.
A bunch of us stand on a street in Blackheath whilst a couple of people stare at Garmins and say, “Well, it says the finish is here”. This goes on for longer than it should before one of us notices there’s a big Audax Club Hackney banner strung across a house a few doors down. Ah, that’ll be it then. Can you tell we’ve been in the saddle for 17 hours? We knock on the door and wheel our bikes in. Someone takes my brevet card, another person asks if I’d like a cup of tea or beer, and yet another hands me a bowl of stew and cous cous and points me at a table full of other food. I like the audax scene.
“Does anyone want seconds?”
Correction. I love the audax scene.