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James Bond and cheap Jelly Babies

The rising sun gently lifts mist from the frosted hinterlands, the angular shapes of Arundel Castle stand out against the hill curving through the clear sky. I’m on an early train to Chichester for February’s ‘Randonneur Round the Year’ attempt: Buck Barn Sutton Scotney 200. It’s a week later than planned, thanks to storms Eunice and Frederick(?) or whatever the F one was named. Chichester isn’t the nearest control to home but it’s less than an hour away on a direct train line. A Buck Barn start would mean adding seventy kilometres riding to and from the start and finish and it’s a bit early in the year to be adding unnecessary distance. There will be plenty of time – and daylight and warmth – for 300s later in the year.

Near the cathedral I stuff a cash machine receipt in my wallet as evidence of start time and location and tuck an ear bud into my left ear. My RRTY attempt is being soundtracked by audiobooks of Ian Fleming’s James Bond series. They are the perfect length for two hundred kilometres, the stories are exciting enough to listen to all the way through, but plots not so complicated that if I zone out for a bit and don’t pay close attention it doesn’t really matter. Last month it was “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”, this month “From Russia With Love”. I realise the irony of this title given the sickening news that Putin has invaded Ukraine in the last few days.

A cold breeze nips at my ears, I tug at my buff. A couple of deer nibble at grass in a field oblivious to, or unfussed by, my passing. The flat roads out towards Rowlands Castle are empty so I don’t detour onto my quieter route. I’m not sure when the El Supremo audaxes were created but I’m guessing a good few years back as they use a lot of roads that I don’t find particular cycling friendly. I always validate with brevet card rather than gps and rejig the routes to smaller roads where I can. Half of the day’s route is close enough to home to ride fairly frequently. The other half shares sections with the Hailsham 600, being the same audax organiser, plus multiple rides to Bristol over the years. I’ll have at least an idea of where I am all the way round.

The inclines start almost as soon as I cross over the Hampshire border and under the A3. Climbing onto the spine of the South Downs I gaze down into the Meon Valley to the north. To my left the land fades southwards towards the sea hidden in the morning haze. Old Winchester Hill, Wheely Down, in and out of another dip. Ahead the greens and ochres of the hills are broken by hundreds of white vans on the top of the next summit. Yellow sign and temporary lights “Gate K. VIPs and traders”. No other indication what it is until I reach the roundabout after the fast descent to the roundabout on the edge of Winchester: a big yellow AA sign “Motocross World Championships”.

At the roundabout I ignore the routesheet instruction to head straight over and take the first exit towards the city centre. I usually avoid big towns as they are full of crap roads full of even crapper traffic and slow progress, but I want to visit South Downs Social, a new cycling café set up by The Handmade Cyclist. I have some of his prints on my walls at home and the the café look great in photos. It also happens to be roughly sixty kilometres into the day so well placed for the first stop of the day, plus I know that there isn’t anything other than a village shop and petrol station in Sutton Scotney, the official control point about ten kilometres up the road.

After a coffee and toasted cheese and ham croissant and a peruse of the prints hanging on the walls it’s back into the sunshine to get a receipt from the petrol station at Sutton Scotney to prove I made it this far west. Turning around again I discover exactly how strong and cold the breeze is. I zip both my gilet and jacket back up and get my head down. I remember a good chunk of the next fifty kilometres from previous rides, many small twisting lanes through woodland linking long open straights with lots of ups and downs. It’s pretty but energy sapping enough without this wind. I open the bag of Jelly Babies I bought at the petrol station and move it into a side pocket for easy access.

A buzzard glides across a corduroy field. Sharply shorn box edged hedges, crisp shadows. My way alternates between flowing lanes lain across the landscape and woodland holloways furrowed and hewn into the landscape. A kite hangs suspended low in the air, tailing flickering, wings adjusting, head still, watching… a rabbit dashes across the road to the hedgerow opposite. I briefly join a main road, snowdrops push through leaf litter and actual litter in the verge, fading beer cans and McDonald’s cups. Clatter over railway tracks into another town for another cash machine receipt.

Up a hill into a less familiar corner of Sussex. It’s two or three villages before I start to recognise names on signposts. Sitting on a village bench in the warmth of the sun I munch on Jelly Babies and think about something more substantial. Should have grabbed some proper food when I stopped in Liss to get that last receipt. Visualising the villages on the way ahead I guess I’m probably going to have to wait an hour until I get to Billingshurst. James Bond is travelling to Paris from Bulgaria on the Orient Express and my mind drifts off to a vague idea to travel Europe with an Interrail ticket and a Brompton.

Annoyingly by the time I get to Billingshurst the bakery has been closed twenty minutes but I passed a café just back down the high street. No savoury food left so a bakewell tart and a double espresso. Really don’t need more sugar but it’ll fill a hole until Buck Barn. I have two options to get there, an indirect and therefore longer back road way or a straight-ish line along the A272. This is fast road that appears a lot on El Supremo audaxes and one I generally avoid unless just for a few hundred metres to get between lanes. Today I decide to risk it in the interests of time. I’m behind my schedule which means I’ll run out of light and any semblance of warmth for the last hour of the ride at least. I instantly regret my decision. It’s one of those main roads where the width is disproportionate to the speed of most of the traffic. Constantly feeling on edge waiting for that one driver that doesn’t want to maybe drop a gear and wait fifteen seconds to pass. It’s not too busy but I’m glad when I turn off into Buck Barn services on the cross roads with the A24.

Maccy D Filet-O-Fish receipt as evidence that I hit this control. First savoury food for six hours, hits the spot. Litter put in a bin where it belongs. Retrace the A272 a kilometre or so until the first left towards Shipley and my chosen route to Amberley bypassing Storrington. That road between Storrington and Amberley is awful too so I wiggle around the back lanes through West Chiltington and Parnham Woods. Shadows lengthen as the sun rolls towards the horizon. I cross the Arun and slowly climb the hill behind Arundel. The sky softens to pinks and greys as the world mutes. One last main road, a couple of kilometres on the A29 but it’s downhill and wide enough for traffic to pass easily. Into the drops and push hard on the pedals until a rollercoaster corner flings me onto a lane into the woods.

I start climbing again as the burning red horizon glows through bare trees like a fire through a grate. If only a fire, it’s getting cold again. All light has extinguished from the sky when I join the main road above Halnaker. Stane Street, the long straight descends out of darkness into the chemical light of the outskirts of Chichester. Roundabouts and retails parks and end of day traffic into the city centre and back to the cathedral to get a final receipt. I press stop on the Garmin and soft pedal back to the train station thinking about what to have for dinner. And wishing I’d brought another warm layer.

RRtY progress so far: January

Next up: was supposed to be the Horsepower 200 the weekend after this ride but I tested positive for COVID the day after this ride so I’ve cancelled that one. I’ll sort out a DIY by GPS for later in March.

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