When I first heard the word ‘audax’ I was intrigued. The word itself sounded weird and it was described to me as “like fast touring”. Clearly this was something to find out more about. I discovered that in Latin audax means bold or daring. I asked other people about it but no one really knew much, it was talked about in a “here be monsters” kind of way, all third hand rumours about mudguards and beards and sleeping in bus stops. None of that put me off as its language appealed – randonneur, brevet – it hinted at an aesthetic, at something mysterious and foreign.
I like that the distances fall into a sequence of pleasingly round numbers; 200km, 300km, 400km, 600km, and further if the desire is strong. I like to ride from A to B to C to D, via X, Y and Z. I like it when a ride is so long that it takes in multiple counties and I have to break the route sheet down into lots of single rides, each one between the control points, factorized into X number of commutes, a manageable chunk. I like riding all day long and then through the night, experiencing the turn of the day, watching sunset and hearing the dawn chorus.
I like that it is a hidden past time. All year round week in week out men and women of all ages ride huge distances. Discreet and quiet, simply riding around collecting stamps and receipts to prove they rode somewhere. I like that it’s all done on a system of trust, no desire to cheat and no point in doing so. There are no winners, just finishers. I like you can ride a series of rides over time to tot up points to collect badges; Super Randonneur, Randonneur Round The Year, Brevet des Grimpeurs du Sud, Audax Altitude Award. Combine these series or ride them fixed and there are other badges. I like cloth patches on saddlebags as badges of honour.
I like the people that inhabit this world, the ones you meet in village halls early in the morning and on petrol station forecourts late at night. Stories of other places and getting lost over cups of polysterene tea and battenburg cake. I like the invisible elastic that binds you together over hundreds of kilometres, finding chatty friendships or silent space when you need it most, riders looking out for each other. I like that it’s a small world and I started to recognize bikes and faces (yes, usually in that order). There is give and take, a generosity, riders become organisers and share little known lanes and favoured cafes.
I like that volunteers man controls on village greens and in church halls with trestle tables and mismatching china and serve you tea with a smile. I like cheese sarnies and victoria sponge and I don’t like energy gels. I like sitting on a the curb outside a garage at midnight with a packet of crisps blankly staring at petrol pumps. I like wheeling my bike into motorway services at 4am and nodding into sleep whilst a cup of tea goes cold. I like the warm fuzz of tiredness than envelops me and lasts for a few days afterwards along with a gentle aching and faint hunger.
I like that in an age of instant pleasures you have to make a bit of an effort and fend for yourself. I like that in an era of digital noise you have to deal with bits of paper and carry a pen. I like riding in places I’ve never been. I like that it is something to engage with and not to simply consume. I like that it engenders a kind of loyalty, a pledge to do my best and do it properly.
I like actively engaging with the process of following route instructions, that it forces me to pay attention to what is around me, places me in my environment. I like the quirks of route sheet authors, the idiosyncratic and seemingly obscure codes and acronyms that quickly become familiar and friendly. I like that someone uses the acronym RBT in upper or lower case to differentiate between roundabouts and mini-roundabouts. I like that you don’t have to follow the instructions, it’s only guidance, you just need to hit the controls. If I don’t like a road I can find another one. I like that I once saw a routesheet bulldog clipped to a Garmin mount.
I like that I live in a country with such a variety of landscapes relatively close to one another. Riding long distances allows the subtle shifts in topology to be seen and felt, to recognise the significance of the local. I like that I have learned to read and decode the space around me and built a memory map of the places I’ve ridden. I like it when routes and memories overlap.
I like the mindset audax instills in me, that it constantly makes me prove to myself of what I am capable, that it has told me stuff about myself I didn’t know. It still surprises me what I am prepared to do simply to fill a card with stamps and stickers and answers to questions like “What time is the postal collection on Saturday?” and “What animal is on the pub sign?” I like that there is absolutely no reason to do any of this. Something about audaxing makes me scour the events list and my diary and find slots into which to insert these beautiful ridiculous rides. I like that something drags me back to do them again even though I have vowed on more than one occasion never to ride a 400 again. I don’t like 400s.
I like that audaxing has history and tradition and rules. If you engage with it properly it repays with memories and experiences you won’t forget. I like collecting stamps on brevet cards as it evokes memories of touring as a teenager and filling my YHA membership card with hostel stamps. I like that friends thought I was a bit odd when I started to audax but a lot of those friends have now ridden an audax with me. Mostly though I like the badges.