Sitting on the train to London a small amount of trepidation floats around my mind. I’ve yet to complete a 600 kilometre audax having failed to complete the Hailsham 600 and the DIY in France last year for different reasons. I know I can do the distance but it’s been a while since I’ve ridden any further than 200km. I didn’t ride much further than this in eight days in the Dolomites recently. However it’s just riding a bike and I know how to do that. Keep pedaling and the rest sorts itself out. Slow and steady, minimise faff, eat and drink properly and it will be fine.
Arriving at the ride HQ at a scout hut in Raynes Park I sign in for the sleep over and promptly meet two riders, Simon and Ian, also from Brighton. Seeing as we have to ride to Wales and back over the next two days we decide the ideal prep is to pop to the pub (‘Spoons in keeping with true audax spirit) for a quick pint. Chatting whilst strolling and drinking we realise that we know loads of people in common, have been to some of the same gigs, even possibly done the same rides, but not actually met until now. Sensibly we have only one pint before heading back up the road to kip on the floor of the scout hut.
It wasn’t discussed last night but I ask Ian and Simon if they fancy riding together for a bit. We might not ride at the same pace and I have an idea of how fast I want to ride, but 600km is a long way on your own so some company will be nice. We’ll see how it goes. I’m still quite conscious of my Transcon experience and feel that riding with others adds to the pressure. However this is an audax so dropping off a wheel and riding solo or joining another group of the road isn’t the same as scratching from a race in a pair.
Out of London we’re riding a bit too fast I think but probably due to the excitement of starting plus big city roads tend to increase the speed just to get the hell off them as quickly as possible. Many sets of lights, roundabouts, and couple of bits of dual carriageway pass before the urban dissipates and we all relax into a more suitable pace. I recognise some roads around Windsor and Eton from the St Crispin’s Day Night Ride a few years back, and then we pop out in Marlow, cross the Thames and head into the Chilterns. There’s a definite change in landscape, narrow lanes through tunnels of trees and short climbs. Another rider joins us through the hills and to the first control at Watlington. Brevet stamped with the buy ten get one free loyalty card coffee bean stamp. Coffees and chocolate twists all round and back out towards Oxford on the relative flat. Beyond Oxford the landscape changes subtly again as we start to climb into the Cotswolds towards the next control at Stow-on-the-Wold, arriving around lunchtime. We order food from a small cafe and the woman writes the name and address on the back of the receipt as evidence we were here.
After lunch we continue through the hills and then drop onto undulating roads to Worcester. Somewhere we cross another county border. As well as the three of us since before Stow we’ve been riding in a bit of a rag tag group with others that join us for parts then drop back or ride ahead on other sections. Part of the beauty of audax is this meeting of riders on the road, chatting a bit, then going your separate ways, then maybe hooking up again on another bit of road or at a control. There’s comfort in the constant bumping into the same people along the way, the sense of not being alone, a common pursuit.
Joining a cycle path on the edge of Worcester we follow the River Severn past the cathedral and onto the finishing straight of the Women’s Tour of Britain (well, the dismantling of the gantry and grandstand) and look for the next control. The first 200km has taken ten hours. We’ve a vague schedule of trying to get to the overnight sleep control at 370km by midnight so we’re more or less on schedule. More food. Another receipt.
Next up is an info control in the top left corner of the route before we turn south towards Hay-on-Wye. There’s a long steady climb about fifteen kilometres out of Worcester and I drop off the back of Simon and Ian but they are waiting for me at the top of the hill. Ahead is a stunning widescreen vista where England meets Wales and the Brecon Beacons rise abruptly beyond. It suddenly hits me that I love doing this; riding all day, drifting in and out of places, watching the subtle shifts in landscape, the rotation of the day. Tiredness and occasional boredom comes and goes but the pleasure of travelling under my own steam and being outside are constants. I haven’t felt like this for a while. Yeah I’ve enjoyed being up on the South Downs and feeling winter blend into spring into summer but I’ve not felt the desire – or need – to go and ride across a country in one go since before the Transcontinental. Today I’ve been reminded that I absolutely bloody love doing this.
We dive down out of the hills into farmland bisected by small lanes of variable surface and I’m starting to feel fatigued and struggling a bit. The info control is next to a pub so I run in to get a coke but buy a tonic water. Oh hello the indecision of tiredness, it’s been a while my old friend. I wish it had a gin in it. We crack on to Hay-on-Wye arriving just before 9pm. More food. Another receipt. I sit under the entrance awning next to the automatic doors so that I get a blast of warm air every time they slide open. With the falling dusk there’s a chill in the air so we pull jackets and buffs and knee warmers from saddlebags. Heading out of town we pass a hotel and a joint decision is made to see if we can get a coffee inside. Dumping our bikes on the terrace there is the sound of a disco emanating from around the back. Inside coloured lights dance around the edge of double doors. It’s like a portal to another world from a sixties sci-fi film. We stroll to the bar and they ask if we’ve come for the disco. Another joy of audax is riding into the evening when the juxtaposition of a stupid ride versus the real world is slightly more surreal than usual. There’s the standard “You’re doing what!?” conversation before tea and coffee appear on a tray out on the patio. We decline another invitation to join the disco. We’ve decided to sit outside despite the dropping temperature so that we don’t linger too long here. There’s still a way to go to get to Chepstow and bed, and if we sit on the sofas in the nicely warm hotel we may not leave…or be sucked through disco portal into the world of DNF.
A couple of cups of tea seem to have sorted me out and I feel much better tackling the next part of the route. Or maybe it’s because we’re getting nearer to a bed and turning back towards home. Whatever the reason we all seem to have perked up and we ping along chatting away. Riding into the mountains the light fades completely, the shapes of the hills dissolving into the dark. The Black Mountains. We enter a tunnel of light of our own making. Somewhere in the darkness a sheep bleats.
The route slowly winds up a valley to Blwch and the next info control. We’re off schedule for arriving at Chepstow for midnight and drifting towards arriving sometime between 1 and 2am. Midnight was the optimistic schedule in my head but any time before two is OK – that still means some sleep and back out at dawn. (My average time for a 300 suggests midnight was doable, however my track record with 400s contradicts this). We spot a red light ahead and as we get closer we realise it’s a guy we’ve seen on and off all day, and was complaining of not feeling good back in Hay, sat on a bench. We ask if he’s OK and he quickly latches onto our wheels. He’s considering packing but in the middle of Welsh mountains in the dark miles from a train station this isn’t really an option so he hangs on to our wheels so that we can help him as far as Chepstow. Maybe a sleep will help or at least there’ll be people and better bail options for getting back to London.
After scribbling the name(s) from the war memorial in our brevets we descend into the Usk valley along roads I vaguely know from a Tourist Trophy ride here a few years back and from many Green Man Festival attendances. In Crickhowell we pass a group of revellers all poshed up outside a restaurant and crack on down the A40 to Abergavenny which is lively on a Saturday night (Sunday morning). It’s another instance of audax clashing with the real world, a sense of having fallen into a crack down the side of normality. A feeling only heightened by a gentle fatigue fairly rapidly washing over me. We joke about stopping for a pint and a kebab. At least I think it’s a joke. Simon may well be being serious. We pass the bright lights of a twenty four hour petrol station and delve back into the dark. I’m starting to feel the lack of sleep last night.
All the way from the last info control has been pretty much downhill so we’ve made up some time, but the road to Chepstow is turning out to be a bit of a slog which leads into a frankly horrible hill that never seems to end. I stop counting after the third false summit. Finally the road tips downs into Chepstow and we navigate through a housing estate to a community centre for food and sleep.
Around 4am there’s a fair amount of shuffling going on in the hall as people are awaking and getting ready to go back out on the road. I nip the loo and find Ian bent over sink as if about to be ill. I ask if he’s OK and he looks at me as if he doesn’t recognise me. This doesn’t look good. A short while later Ian passes me in the corridor and says “Sorry, I need to lie down for a bit longer” and disappears back into the dark hall. Outside it’s raining.
Simon and I grab some breakfast and hope that Ian feels better soon. Chatting to a couple of others that have ridden the Brian Chapman Memorial audax I discover there was a way of avoiding last nights climb, well this morning’s climb seeing as it was only about 4 hours ago. I make a mental note to remember this for next year if I enter again. Someone spots TCR#5 on my forks and asks about it. Turns out they also raced, finishing in 16 days. As he leaves he introduces himself as cap no.39 and asks which cap number I was. I answer 262a and he smiles. He tells me he volunteered at the start of TCRno4 and was given one of the left over race caps after the start, number 262.
Surpisingly Ian appears at the table with a plate of food. Looks like we’re on for all of us heading back together. This didn’t seem likely an hour ago. One benefit of the extra time spent here is that it’s stopped raining by the time we roll out through the door. The potential downside is we’re now nudging up against the time cut. However if we can maintain the same overall speed as yesterday we should gradually claw time back. There’s still the possibility of breaking 36 hours.
We set off slowly over the Severn Bridge, easing ourselves into the long day ahead (but not as long as yesterday). We climb up a lane I think I recognise from London-Wales-London and then turn onto the main road to Yate that I definitely remember from the Hailsham 600 and know can be ridden fast as it undulates downwards over a handful of kilometres. A glance over the shoulder every now and again to check Ian is still there.
Turning off onto smaller lanes the climbing starts again. The section to Pewsey is characterised by being hill after hill after hill, every time we climb I know it’s inevitable we’ll lose the height and the road will rise again soon enough. Such are the Cotswolds. Bloody hell some of these climbs drag on. Somewhere Simon punctures. Ian takes a nap. Then I puncture. Thirty minutes lost. Out of the Cotswolds and pretty much straight onto the Wessex Downs. Familiar names on signposts: Calne. Devizes. Chippenham. Hang on I know this road. From a ride to Bespoked, or maybe Mayhem? Whatever I’ve definitely ridden it, but the other way round. Which means I know there’s another hill coming. More time spent on the small ring. When we (eventually) arrive in Pewsey – and that last bit over Pewsey Vale is a right old trudge – we’re still a bit too close to the cut off for comfort.
The 30km stretch out of Pewsey retraces the Hailsham 600 so when Ian says he’s struggling to keep his eyes open I know plenty of places where a nap can be had. Ten minutes is all it takes to recharge his batteries. However mine suddenly seem to be draining and I’m hanging off the back unable to close the gap. Is that a twinge in my left achilles? Is my right knee niggling? My chain is definitely making a horrible please lube me, please lube me noise. At Whitchurch I tell Ian I’m happy to roll to the finish on my own, they don’t need to wait. There’s a faint trace of Transcon guilt rising in the back of my mind, I don’t want to be holding anyone up. Ian says “No, we’re sticking together.” I only met these two yesterday, this is beyond expectations or necessity. I lube my chain and grab some food from a shop.
As it turns out a silent and smooth running chain plus necking a smoothie has restorative powers and we’re all back on it. Perhaps it’s because we’ve crossed the 100km to go mark. Just a normal Sunday club run left. We cross Hampshire towards Surrey and this also aids my resolve as I grew up close enough to here to recognise place names on signposts so some comprehension of what’s left filters through my head.
We pull onto a petrol station forecourt in Hindhead. More food. Another receipt. A double espresso. Sitting on bags of logs or charcoal with our audax picnic drizzle fills the sky. I realise it hasn’t actually rained on us all ride until now. There were times yesterday when it looked likely, the sky turned onimous but it never actually rained. We rode on some damp roads this morning but again had avoided the rain. And by the time we’ve circumnavigated the Devil’s Punchbowl and dropped off the hill it’s stopped raining. Seems the cloud was just sitting atop the hills.
Less than 60km to go. ‘Oh I know this road’. Green tunnels through woodland. Roads I’ve ridden recently. 50km to go. A sign for the Surrey Hills. Roads I rode as a kid. 40km to go. Our speed increases in tiny increments the closer we get to London. Then it slows to a crawl over Coombe Lane. I don’t like this hill but it’s not as long as I remember it. Thankfully. Fast descent. Miss a turning. Less than 30km to go. Suburbia. Something resembling a sprint between Surbiton and Esher. The edge of the city. Thames Ditton. Surbiton. Cycle paths and speedbumps. A couple of wrong turns. Skids in underpasses. Getting over excited because we’re almost done.
Thirty eight hours and forty two minutes. We hand over our brevet cards and receipts to have our homework marked. Once it’s all ticked off we tuck into yet more food. In the disabled toilet I change out of my cycling kit into civvies. Damn, that feels better.
Thank yous and goodbyes are said before we freewheel down the hill to the station stopping at the Co-op on tbe way to get some beers for the train. Job done. It’s good to have ticked off a 600. I guess it’s 1000 next…
Thanks to Richard Evans and all the volunteers from Kingston Wheelers for organising a great audax, the friendly chat and awesome food at the start, middle(ish) and finish. See you for Rowlands RAAAmble in September.