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Not Quite The Hailsham 600 (reprise)

I walk through the door of the empty café. It’s almost 11am, prime Sunday brunch time.

“Hello, you’re our first customer”, the girl behind the counter greets me. She looks bored as does another girl behind the counter looking at her phone.

I’m soaked through and dripping water on the floor. My shoes squelch as I walk to the counter. I need a cup of tea and warm food.

“This is usually our busiest time,” says the girl and points at the car boot fair flyer next to the till, “not sure they will be very busy today either.” I suspect it’s been cancelled as it’s tipping it down outside and has been for over an hour. The only people I’ve seen stood in a field were a bunch of waterproof clad detectorists up on the Downs a few miles from the Pewsey.

I drape my jacket inside out over the chair so I don’t ruin the upholstery when I sit down. Within seconds there are puddles of water around me. I then notice two other girls reclining on the sofas by the window scrolling through the screens of their phones. I am outnumbered by staff four to one. It doesn’t look like they are going to have a busy shift. I drop a sugar lump into my tea.

The rain continues to clatter down outside.

– – –

I’ve tweaked the route from the last time I attempted the Hailsham 600 which had already been amended from the official route sheet. A lot of El Supremo’s audaxes I find a bit main road heavy, and this one includes big chunks of the A272 which is I road I never ride out of choice. The two downsides of adapting the route is it’s now a bit more over-distance (623km compared to 611 on routesheet) plus main roads tend to iron out some of the lumps across hilly terrain. I’ve probably added to the climbing too. Since that last attempt I’ve ridden across parts of the counties included on this audax quite a few times so have used that experience to hopefully hone my version of the route a bit more. The plan is simple; ride steady but not fast, be efficient with the stops, keep pedalling, get some rest when at least 350km have been covered.

The forecast for today is good but tomorrow looks less promising. The reason for trying this audax again this weekend is because it’s a bank holiday so I get Monday to recover rather than struggling through a day in the office on vending machine espressos. All week the forecast for Sunday has been changing and it did look like I’d be OK if I can get back by mid-afternoon. However yesterday it changed for the worse and it’s possibly going to rain all day. Heavily. I hope the Met Office have got it wrong.

This time I’m starting at Pyecombe so can do the bit out to Hailsham and back first so I don’t have to ride past home to finish the ride. Psychologically this will help with the homeward stretch tomorrow afternoon. Starting off from home at 5am I cover this section quickly whilst the sun rises, without needing to navigate as I know the roads like the back of my hand. Before I know it I’ve covered 100km and arrive at the third control in Buckbarn services on the A24. I clock the ridiculous queues at the MacDonald’s so pop round to the Coop cash machine for a receipt. The man collecting for charity outside the Coop asks where I’m riding to. I fluff an answer about doing a little weekend tour to avoid the inevitable “Why?”

After a stop in Storrington for breakfast I crack on for Chichester picking up a receipt from a cash machine on the way through as proof of passage and out towards Hampshire. The roads out here are familiar but not quite known. I find myself on a ridge looking down on the Meon Valley, then climbing Wheely Down, then I can see the Isle of Wight from Old Winchester Hill. Or maybe Old Winchester Hill and Wheely Down are the other way round? Somewhere after this a road is closed and I dart down a track along a stream around the back of some houses. Next up is New Alresford, past the watercress beds and across the narrow bridge by the ford and towards the Itchens, Stoke and Abbas. I feel a sudden pang of pain in my cheek and realise a wasp has flown into my face and got stuck under the strap of my helmet. ‘Kin hell, that hurt!

Past the almost finished housing estate that was just foundations last time I came this way at Kings Worthy and to the next control at Sutton Scotney. I sit on the curb opposite the petrol pumps and eat a tub of pasta, two Tunnock’s Tea Cakes (for old time’s sake) and drink half a can of Red Bull. The next bit along the River Swift, a tributary of the River Test, is a favourite of mine. Heading west I gently climb up the valley towards Oxenwood, crossing from Hampshire into Wiltshire and onto the Wessex Downs. From Oxenwood there’s a fast descent to Great Bedwyn before I pop out on the A4 to Marlborough.

The Downs out of Marlborough are like a rollercoaster ride, gradually rising and falling and rising before you dive off Hackpen Hill through a wide hairpin around the white horse. The shapes of the hills here respond to the slanted light of early evening which somehow simultaneously softens and accentuates the curves. They’re beautiful and riding them is like surfing frozen waves. Across this chunk of Wiltshire I seem to keep dropping in large steps towards the M4 corridor.

Leigh Delamere motorway services have had a make-over since last being here. The choices of food have vastly improved. I’ve hit 300km in a couple of minutes over fifteen hours so there’s time for a longer stop and some dinner before the stint out to Wales. If I leave here before 9pm then I should be at Magor services 65km away by midnight(ish). That’s a 30 hour schedule which was my plan and enough of a buffer to get some sleep in Wales. If I can get a room at the hotel at the services that would be a bonus. At 3-4 hours it’ll work out an expensive sleep but a shower, some shut eye in a bed, and a change of kit will make tomorrow far easier. Worse-case scenario is I’m sleeping on the floor round by the cleaning cupboard again.

The lights of Bath sparkle on the horizon to the south and I soon pop out at a junction on the A46 that I recognise from the Wander Wye audax earlier this year. I then ride the Wander Wye route in reverse as far as Chepstow. I’m not sure if riding the Cotswolds at night dark is easier than in daylight but some of the climbs seem shorter when you can’t see them. The light pollution of Bristol floods the sky to my left.

I can see the Severn Bridge from a fair distance and like last time it seems to take an age to get to it. Then there’s the sodding road out to Magor. This part of the official route feels pointless. I know Magor services are the furthest control to fulfill the Audax UK distance requirements, but then you have to ride exactly the same road back to the bridge, and it’s not a nice road and Magor services aren’t all that. I realise there’s a hotel there making it easy to get a kip after breaking the back of the ride but I’d rather get across the bridge, buy something from the 24 hour petrol station on the A48/M48 roundabout on the edge of Chepstow, turn around, back over the bridge and settle down for a rest at the Severn View services on the English side. I’m sure the extra distance could be found on more interesting roads in the Cotswolds or across Wiltshire. The road to Magor is tedious.

There’s no room at either hotel at Magor so I grab some food and bed down in the corner of the services around the corner from the 24 hour MacDonalds. The lights are too bright and the music too loud but I should be able to snooze a bit. Resting the legs for a while is what I need. I decide to try and be back on the road by 4am.

Last time we did this ride the services were quiet overnight. Not this time. There is a steady flow of noisy groups of pissed kids talking (shouting) and laughing. Is this the post-club hang out for the kids of Chepstow on their way home from a big Saturday night out in Newport? Sleep seems almost impossible but I must be drifting in and out as three hours pass relatively quickly. A bit after 4am I get a coffee and hot apple pie from Maccy D and sit back down just as the music gets turned down. Oh great, now they turn the music down.

The back of the bike feels squishy as I make to leave. A slow flat. Hey ho, better now than out on the road in the dark. Ten minutes later with a re-inflated tyre I wheel the bike through the doors past strange looks from early morning customers. I click onto autopilot for the stretch back to the Severn Bridge (passing various staggering drunks, Newport must be carnage at weekends) and then follow the Garmin back over the Cotswolds. Parts of the route are the same as the way to Wales so the long draggy climbs don’t come as too much of a surprise. The day slowly fades in to reveal thin light cloud, even slivers of what might be blue sky…or maybe just thinner cloud. From the top of the Cotswolds for as far as I can see to the east and south the sky looks promising. Maybe the forecast was a bit pessimistic after all. Back at Leigh Delamere for a second breakfast I check how I’m going. I’m still on a 20kph schedule with stops (excluding the sleep). That’s roughly ten hours home from here.

Back outside light rain has started to fall. Actually it barely counts as light rain. It’s not really falling, a few specks of water floating on the wind. Two hundred kilometres to go and the areas I’ve ridden a few times over the last couple of years, easily manageable in my head, broken down into chunks – get to Pewsey, then up to Oxenwood, down the Swift Valley to Hurstbourne Tarrant, back to Sutton Scotney, across some lumps to Petersfield, then Midhurst via Harting to avoid the A272, and then it’s home roads and easy navigation.

The rain is getting heavier as I head south past Chippenham and then through Calne. However it’s still not too heavy, under the trees the roads are still dry. If it’s like this all day then I can cope with it. My optimism is soon dashed, by the time I’m halfway up the climb towards Bishops Canning it is hammering down and any sense of brightness in the sky has disappeared. A flat grey extends in all directions and the views in every direction are hidden by veils of rain. Water flows out of fields into the roads, the gutters are torrents, the dips in the roads are like fords. Some car drivers seem oblivious to the conditions and rush by. A lowered black Beemer passes so close and fast that I get pulled along in the draft, uphill. Not much later I hear the sudden braking of a car behind me when the driver realises they aren’t going to get past me before the car coming the other way. I glance down and see the car headlight behind my leg far too close for comfort.

This is not fun. Realistically I’ve got at least nine more hours of this, and I know I’m slowing because of the conditions. I decide to knock it on the head. I’m close to Pewsey (not as close as I’d like) and I’m sure there’s a train station there. By the village pub in Bishops Canning I duck into a bus stop and swipe at my phone to check train times. My fingers and the screen are both so wet it’s not having it plus there’s very little signal out here. An older chap parks up and asks how far I’m riding. I say I need to get to Brighton but I’m giving up and going to find a train station. He tells me that 65 years ago he rode from Ringwood to Cheltenham on a bell ringing tour then trundles off to the pub.

I zip up all the layers and pull the buff around my neck and clamber back on the bike. I’m trying to remember how many hills there are across Pewsey Vale before I get to the village itself. I’m sure it’s more than I want it to be, and indeed it takes another forty minutes to get there by which time I’ve certainly had enough. I pull into the train station car park and push my bike on to the platform. Two hours to the first train to London. Right then, let’s hope the café or the pub are open…

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