Preparations for this overnight perm haven’t exactly been perfect. Last night George and I went to watch some crit racing in Hove Park and necked a couple of beers. That would have been fine but we then went to the pub until they kicked us out in the early hours of this morning. We haven’t been feeling particularly special all day (understating the case somewhat). On top of that, we arrived in Tonbridge late due to Southern Rail being an utterly useless rail service provider. It’s taken over two hours, four trains and an 8 km sprint across suburbia from East Croydon to Beckenham Junction to get here – all of 40 miles from home.
Anyway, we’re here now and meet Luke, who has come down from Yorkshire to ride with us (I rode the Spurn Head 400 a couple of years ago with him), in an Italian restaurant in town to eat before we set off. Once we’ve taken on fuel and caffeine we roll down the high street to the Sainsbury’s petrol station, our chosen Tonbridge control, to buy water to fill our bidons. Receipts tucked in brevets and we’re off. Oh, not before we’ve emptied a CO2 canister into George’s rear tyre to get it to seat properly (in true George fashion he changed his tyres this afternoon and only noticed he had a flat spot when we raced across south east London on the way here).
OK, now we’re ready. What could possibly go wrong?
The last 70 kilometres have been lovely. We went a bit wrong out of Tonbridge and followed the Garmin backwards along our return route for later, but spotted it quick enough and cut across to the correct road at Golden Green. We follow picturesque lanes I remembered from Fairies Flattest Possible 300 from a couple of years ago. Spinning through the dusk and twilight daytime lingered in the sky long into the evening. The lanes have been beautifully quiet. We’ve rolled along at a steady pace chatting away, taking in what we could see of the landscape until darkness finally enveloped us. There’s something comforting and peaceful about riding small empty lanes in the pitch black. There’s nothing out there except for what can be seen in our lightbeams. There’s a sense of being enclosed in a tunnel of vivid green, hedges and trees wrapping around us, protecting us.
Having passed through the middle of Canterbury (where I reminisced about old haunts and gigs whilst I was at art school there in the early 1990s) we’re now sat in an all night MacDonald’s on the A28 out to Sturry, teas and coffees purchased for proof of passage receipts.
The last 20 kilometres passed without incident, gently rolling lanes under a hazy full moon. George did keep singing the chorus to Chas And Dave’s Margate on the brief stretch along the A28. I slowed up and let him go ahead for a bit.
I’m ready to pack.
The last three hours have been vile. It started to rain as soon as we left Sandwich. Initially it was annoying but bearable. The amount of effort expended was enough to stay dry and warm but the rain got harder and the temperature dropped and it got worse and worse. Tiredness and cold started to seep into every cell of my being. It’s hard enough to ride through the witching hour as it is, but when you are burning energy to keep warm it leaves less to aid concentration and turn the pedals. The concentration is what really tires you though. With bad visibility and handling due to rain the effort to concentrate is almost unbearable. You feel that at any moment something will have to give, and it will probably be emotionally messy. The same thoughts span around and around my head, “Do not want to ride anymore. Must not stop. Cannot ride anymore. Will not stop.”, over and over and over. We were in the middle of nowhere. It was the middle of the night. There was no option but to keep riding. (The south east of England may be hugely populated but it’s very easy to feel completely isolated in these conditions. In all reality we were probably 10 miles from a town with a 24 hour petrol station.) We drifted apart, keeping each other’s lights in view, enough to make sure we were all still there, but we barely talked. If any of us had been alone we probably would’ve given up. It was that ridiculous thing of not wanting to give up and let the others down despite despising every second of it. I almost crashed hallucinating that I was drifting over a broken white line into a filter lane when I suddenly noticed I was about to clip a curb. Jolted back to reality I avoided smashing myself across the road…and the path of Luke behind me. George’s front light shorted out in the rain. He descended in the dark until it flicked back into life.
By the time we drop down onto Romney Marsh both the sky and the rain are lightening. I am cold and wet to my core. I am miserable.
We ride on to Lydd for receipts.
What the fucking hell are we doing?
No one talks of giving up.
The landscape of Romney Marsh out towards Dungeness and Rye is weird and alien and beguiling. I’ve been here before many times but never at dawn. At dawn it’s even stranger. The turbines of the wind farm stand silent and still, eerie sentries. We continued to ride separately. I’m unsure we’ve recovered from the past few hours, not yet ready for company.
In Rye it’s too early for any trains so receipts may as well be gathered.
A taxi driver asks us what we’re doing. We explain. “Is it for charity?” We have no answer that makes sense to ourselves, let alone anyone else.
We sit quietly on benches eating breakfast overlooking an empty supermarket car park. The rumble of lorries heading to and from the continent drifts over the trees from the M20 just beyond. My socks are still wet.
The appeal and romance of the audax is hard to explain sometimes.
The sun has come out. We’re warm and dry. Smiles are being smiled again and we actually laugh about stuff. It’s amazing what riding with your shadow alongside does to your soul. Other riders are out and about now too. Waves, nods, and hellos lift the mood. We even picked up a draft from the Ashford Road CC club run for a few kilometres down the road.
Back where we started. It’s not lost on me that it would be really easy to give up now. So very easy. However I find it hard to reconcile myself to giving up something once started. Yes I’m tired, yes my legs are starting to feel heavy, but we’re well within the time limit and the sun is shining. My resolve has invisible cracks but it we don’t stop for long it won’t crumble. Both giving up and carrying on are equally pointless so I may as well carry on.
Almost done. The equivalent of the long commute home.
I sit on the curb outside the petrol station kiosk drinking a can of coke.