Mayhem Weekender

Sometime after midnight on Monday morning in a 24 hour petrol station on the edge of Brighton

Cashier: “Have you done the bike ride today?” [Sunday was the annual London to Brighton charity ride]

Me: “No, I’ve done a different bike ride. A little bit further.”

Cashier: “Wow, further! Where have you ridden from then?”

Me: “From near Gloucester”

Cashier: “Gloucester!? Flipping heck!”

What I didn’t add was that I’d actually ridden there on Friday evening, done a lap of a mountain bike race that morning, before riding home from mid-afternoon until now. There was already a look of incredulity on the woman’s face and adding this additional information would have only led to the inevitable “Why?” question and I was frankly far too exhausted to think of an answer. I took my change, picked up my ready meal for two, stuffed it in my musette, and walked out of the garage, hopped back on the bike and rode into the light pollution for the final couple of miles home.

The weekend just gone was the last ever Mountain Mayhem 24 hour mountain bike race. I came to this event late, only attending my first one four years ago. That year I was there to help out mates and take some photos. That in turn prompted me to buy a mountain bike and return in 2015 and 2016 and do the solo race (in for a penny, in for a pound). This year being the last ever one I considered soloing again but sensibly decided it was a bit close to the start of the Transcontinental to recover in time properly. A plan to ride from Brighton to Gatcombe Park and then back again was hatched instead. This would mean I could hang out with mates and watch the last race with the added benefit of getting a couple of 200km night(ish) rides in as Transcon training. What with camping at the race too it gave me an opportunity to test out my sleeping stuff for the Transcon and see how most efficient to pack it on the bike. In the back of my mind I knew that if there was a spare bike kicking about I’d try and get a cheeky lap in too.

Friday

I left Brighton just before 3 o’clock on Friday afternoon (due to having run out of annual leave allowance I needed to fit the riding in around work. A couple of long days in the preceding week meant I could bunk off early) and headed along the coast for a bit before turning northwest. Annoyingly there was a stiff breeze coming from precisely the direction I didn’t need it to be coming from, but the sun was shining and the forecast was good for the whole weekend.

It says a lot about the last few months that I now consider the roads as far as Petersfield as ‘home roads’. Distances have not only become greater but there have been a lot of rides out this way, to Bespoked a couple of times, to Wales on an audax, and various long rides that have headed further into West Sussex that I ever did before (I usually head into East Sussex as I know the roads better). It’s only once past the climb over the Ashford Hangers or “Little Switzerland” as it is known locally, and there is something alpine-esque about the climb, in character rather than height, that the roads start to feel foreign and the excitement and anticipation of the long ride kicks in. I have ridden across parts of Hampshire and Wiltshire many times in the last two years but my route this weekend took in new roads to me. I was in roughly the same areas as previous rides, familiar names on signposts triggered memories. It was early afternoon by the time I got past Petersfield and Hampshire looked about as pastoral and bucolic as it’s possible to be. Narrow lanes carried me through endless fields of wheat and barley rolling across low downland until I popped out on a familiar road through the Bourne Valley towards Wiltshire. I crossed the border as the sun was setting and headed for Marlborough. Somewhere along the way a rustling sound from a field to my left startled me and I turned to see a group of deer bouncing through the golden field, not only a sight to behold but the sound of them swooshing through the tall crop was beautiful. Then a barn owl swept across my path. Idyllic.

The last of the light was fading from the sky as I reached Marlborough around 10 o’clock and by the time I dropped off the Marlborough Downs stars could be seen in the dark sky. There was an orange glow on the horizon to the northeast which I guessed was Swindon. From previous years of driving to Mayhem I knew this is where we turned off the M4 so it couldn’t be too much further. The Garmin distance told me similar, somewhere around 50km to go.

The next section passed close to Royal Wootton Bassett, Malmesbury and Tetbury but I’m not sure what the landscape was like as it was properly dark by now and I was tired and concentrating on pedalling, snacking and drinking. At 1 o’clock in the morning I was sat on a bench outside the pub in Avening eating the last of the emergency peanuts before the last couple of kilometres up the hill to the Mayhem site.

A few minutes later, and after getting lost on the campsite, I pulled into our camp where Rory and Shaggy gave me a hug and a beer, and Jo handed me a plate of pasta. Part one completed, 215km in ten and half hours.

Saturday

Much sitting about in the shade trying not to melt in the sunshine. Beer. Food. More beer. Heckling mates racing. Due to some motorway closures one of Jo’s team of ten, My Knees Hurt (usually a team of four and raced all 20 years of Mayhem, singlespeed in the old days hence the team name, this year all previous riders and helpers have combined to make a team of ten) can’t make it to Mayhem so they are a rider down. Frazer from the Pivot Boompods team very generously offers me his Pivot Les to do a lap standing in for ‘Scottish Phil’. Some number crunching is done and it is decided that I will go out for the dawn lap on Sunday morning. I then drink some more beer as I have hours to go before I have to ride.

Sunday Morning

I awoke to Jo saying “Oi, you’re supposed to be awake. You’re out soon”. I checked the time, it’s 04:18 and two minutes before my alarm is due to go off. Bleary eyed I gave Jo the spare number board to go on the bike whilst I dragged my kit on. Half a flapjack and a spin around the campsite to make sure the bike is set up OK and I set off to the arena to take over from Rory when he gets in from his lap. Yes, I know it would have made sense to check the bike the day before but it was being saved as second bike for Rich who was racing solo so I didn’t want to mess around with the seat height until I was absolutely sure he wouldn’t need to use the bike.

Rory beeped over the timing mat and handed over to me. I hopped on the bike and headed out of the main arena into the field before the woods. First corner and the rear end squirmed all over the place. Bloody hell, I’d not ridden a MTB since last November and I had completely forgotten about how low pressure you can run a tubeless tyre. I minced around the first few corners, almost slid out over a root into a tree, until I got used to it and then I was off. It’s a lot more fun knowing you only have to put one lap in rather than ride non-stop for 24 hours. For the first time I was riding up behind people and saying “on yer left” or “on yer right” and slaloming between slower riders. Most of the course was ingrained in my mind from two years of solo racing and the trails are so dry it was easy to get some flow going. Despite not having ridden a mountain bike for months it felt like the best I’ve ever ridden.  After a few corners I can see the sun squeezing between the trunks and branches, sun rise! A magical time of day to ride a bike. I love riding at dawn but my previous experience of dawn at Mayhem is utter exhaustion and a slow (rapid) unravelling of my sense of humour or resolve. I’m usually having a lie down and sulk not long after the dawn lap. This was riding at dawn without all the tiredness and mental fragility of soloing and it was ace. I even rode the entire course, no parts were walked, a mix of having a really lightweight bike to ride and all the Transcon training, plus the fact I only had one lap to do so didn’t need to worry about conserving energy (I may have eased off on a couple of fire roads knowing that I had to ride home later in the day). It was the most fun lap I’d ever done at Mayhem. Through the campsite section I could see Phil was still at camp and not at the handover waiting for me. “Phil, I’m back…” I shouted as I whizzed past. Through the last bit of singletrack into the arena and I span along until I saw Phil riding round to take over. I rode over the timing mat just as he arrived. I passed the baton over and went looking for a bacon sarnie. Then I dozed some more.

The rest of Sunday

All packed up and goodbyes said I pedal out of the campsite just after 2 o’clock for the 200 or so kilometres home. It was ridiculously hot and I had toyed with the idea of just getting a lift home, but this was the last big Transcon training ride, and getting a lift won’t be an option on the Transcon. I had a framebag stuffed full of snacks and two bottles of water which would get me as far as the first shop. I had routed myself home pretty much the same way as I’d ridden on Friday, so knew that I probably wouldn’t see anything open until Marlborough. Two bottles of water would not get me that far, not in the heat, but I also knew that I would pass close enough to Malmesbury to detour if I needed to. However it turned out my route back was slightly different, I rode through Royal Wootton Bassett rather than near it, so was able to buy some food and water to keep me going to Marlborough.

The section between Wootton Bassett and Marlborough was gorgeous. I’d not been able to see it in the dark on Friday but white horses in the sides of the hills at Broad Hinton and Hackpen hill glowed in the bright sunshine. On the Friday I had a feeling that the road between Hackpen Hill and Marlborough was nice, the twilight meant I had been able to make out silhouettes of the surrounding landscape, but it was an absolute cracker made even better by the fact it was a gentle but fast descent for the best part of 7 or 8 kilometres. More food and water in Marlborough before a quick blast along the A4 to get back into the quiet lanes across Wiltshire and Hampshire. The Bourne Valley again. Love this stretch of road. Under the A34. Dinner sat on a step in the shade by the river opposite the little Tesco in Whitchurch. Over the M3. Yet more hedge lined lanes through yet more fields. This part of the country always makes me think of Lemon Jelly record sleeves.

Picture Perfect England™.

A kestrel glides low over the field to my side before swerving across the road and through a gap in the trees to my right. Then I chased a hare along a lane a few minutes later.

Petersfield again. More food, more water. Home roads. Tired. Hot. Probably dehydrated. Actually, absolutely definitely dehydrated. Twilight. By this point I was starting to lose interest in riding, bored even. Close enough to home to just want to be there, far enough away to know it was still a couple of hours away. I plugged my earphones into my phone and hit shuffle. I pedalled on. Home roads. Autopilot. Village names got ticked off the mental list – Harting, Cocking, Graffham, Greatham, Storrington. Dark now, it was late. Even the main roads were quiet. Swerved a hedgehog. Route 1 home. Washington, Steyning, Shoreham. Head down, high gear, push pedals as hard as possible. The fast road and the cement works. A way I would never ride in the day, but 11 o’clock on a Sunday night it was OK. Tempted by the drive-thru MacDonalds, but no, cracked on. Didn’t even cross the lock gates for the quiet of Basin Road, I stuck to the coast road. Hungry. Tired. Get home, maybe stagger to the kebab shop. Then I saw the lights of the M&S shop at the all night petrol station near Hove Lagoon…

“Have you done the bike ride today?”

The (Not Quite) Midsummer 300

When I started to audax a few years back I came up with a 300km route that I planned to do on midsummer’s day – along the Sussex and southern Kent coast, then turn inland and cut across Romney Marsh over the Downs and through Canterbury to Whitstable on the north coast, and back to Brighton. The reason for choosing Whitstable as the return point is that I lived there whilst at art school in Canterbury many years ago, the first place I lived by the sea. I hadn’t got around to it though due to going to Mountain Mayhem for the last 3 years. I’m going to Mayhem again this year but because I was 190km short in France a couple of weeks ago I decided to ride the Midsummer 300 a week or so early.

The route has been tweaked a bit over the years, a mish mash of familiar roads near to home and parts of Kent audaxes (Fairies Flattest Possible 300, Man of Kent 200 and 300) further afield, with a little bit of memory lane thrown into the mix.

Route ridden: https://www.strava.com/activities/1030344156

North Country

Heading south to pay a visit to the north country. Drifting off the ferry in a sleep-deprived daze and heading up the hill on autopilot. Riding in a puddle of light and easy familiarity in the silent blackness, red lights blinking atop the wind turbines I can’t see, beacons out across the coastal plateau. Knowing when to change down and when that corner tightens more than expected. Almost riding into a ditch whilst distracted by the sound of turbine blades cutting the dark air above. Birdsong and the smell of rape colours in the black. Light eases into the sky as the lanes become unfamiliar on the way to somewhere familiar. A bakery open early, one pastry eaten on the corner, the other tucked in a pocket for later.

Riding a fault line between clay and chalk. Recognisable features and spiraling skylark song, the same as home but different. The pays de Bray and the pays de Caux. Mud and lime. Twisting sharp climbs and flowing waves of downland. A hare gallops through a field, following a cropped line. An owl launches itself across my path and glides low and disguised against the brown earth, it sweeps into the trees on the field’s edge, dislodging a couple of startled pigeons.

Riding between church spires and dog bark tag. Scrap yards and derelict barns. Hot chocolate at half distance. It turns a bit Belgian spring classic as I ride between fields into a wall of drizzle and headwind. I even find a bridge of cobbles. An impromptu coffee stop in a sad looking town, a closed fun fair on the main street. Primary colours vibrate against damp grey. A man smokes a cigarette under the café canopy whilst the kid from the dodgems orders a morning beer. A solitary carousel spins its tune into an air of melancholy and rain.

The route corkscrews around the hills, in and out of valleys and through the forest. The same place names appear on signposts, the direction and distances changing: The ebb and flow of a convoluted and twisting route. In and out of the wind. Wattle and dawb houses indicate what lies below my wheels on this side of the river. Legs tire over the final climbs as sun breaks through the cloud. I swoop through farmland to the valley floor to spin the last few kilometres back to the port.

Route

Stamp Collecting

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.

 

Down to Downs [AAA Brevet des Grimpeurs du Sud audax perm]

We start the climb up to Black Hill in darkness, up through Five Hundred Akre Wood, a tunnel of trees lit by the many lumens of our front lights. With few leaves on the trees the ridge of the Ashdown Forest can be seen shadowed ominously against the last remnants of twilight. It’s a long climb, one of those ones that is steep, shallow, downhill, false flat, shallow, steep, steeper, shallow,flat. It’s longer than I remember it being. By the time we reach the ridge the sky is completely black. It can feel like the top of Sussex in daylight up here, when you can see all the way down to the South Downs and all the way up to North Downs, but in the dark of winter it feels even more like the top of the county. All around you can see the glow of towns and villages. Crowborough sits down to the left and Haywards Heath casts orange light into to sky to the west, and inbetween the lights of houses and villages sparkle like fairy lights. We ride back past the garden centre at Duddleswell and start the fast descent back into Uckfield where we started this ride this morning.

We set off from Uckfield fairly late in the morning due to some extra kilometres riding to the start via Mark’s house for morning tea. As well as me and Mark there’s also Vic. Mark is aiming to complete a Brevet des Grimpeurs du Sud this year, and Vic is just along for the ride. She also rode The Reliable AAA perm yesterday, not for a GdS badge, as training for an endurance thing next year. I’ve long since given up on trying for a GdS for this year as loads of other stuff has got in the way. This is only my third one of the year and I can’t be bothered to try and squeeze in two more in December.

Like many GdS audaxes the Down to Downs is almost all on home territory but not quite. Once over the A25 and inside the M25 it’s too close to London for comfort so is far less well known to me. The southern most parts around the Ashdown Forest are very familiar, though having said that the first section out of Uckfield into the forest is via lanes none of us have ever ridden before. There’s nothing like an audax you to show you lanes pretty much in your back garden yet never been traveled along. Sussex is crisscrossed by hundreds of lanes so it shouldn’t really come as a surprise. More dots joined and one or two fewer main roads to navigate in future.

The first climb of the day is up through Duddleswell and over the top of the forest down to Pooh Corner, where we follow the most direct but undulating (it is a AAA audax after all) route to Edenbridge crossing the border into Kent. Edenbridge is the first control and the highstreet is closed due to a French market. We unclip and wend our way between the stalls and punters, find a cash machine for a receipt before choosing a stall to buy lunch from – Mark and Vic opt for pastries, I head for the tartiflette stall.

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From Edenbridge we head over Toys Hill which I find fairly painful as I can only climb in the saddle. I crashed my mountain bike yesterday and hit my ribs so every time I get out of the saddle I get a twinge of pain forcing me to sit again. In Brasted we stop for hot chocolates before the climb up Brasted Hill (not as horrifically revolting as I remember it from the Greenwich Mean Climb) onto the Kent Downs. Over the top of here we’re into unknown country. I know some of the roads from Audax Club Hackney rides (The Shark and aforementioned GMC) but those head into London via Bromley and this ride heads down towards Orpington. It gets all quite suburban with big roads and traffic as we get to Green Street Green. It’s not that green though. I suspect it was once a pleasant little country village before it was consumed by the spread of the capital. We stop long enough to gather receipts from a petrol station before leaving as quick as possible along a cycle path and back up on to the downs.

After a beautifully fast sweeping descent we’re back over the M25 and A25 and into the safety of familiar countryside. Over the Greensand Ridge at Ide Hill, parallel with our traverse of it via Toys Hill a little earlier, we can see Bough Beech reservoir far below us, our next destination. It’s a view I’ve never seen before and afforded due to autumn leaf fall. Light is starting to drain from the sky and by the time we pass Penshurst Place we’ve flicked our lights on.

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In Penshurst we turn right rather than left which is new to me. It takes us to Groombridge Hill a more direct way than I’m used to via a couple of long draggy climbs and a lovely descent which swoops down across a narrow humpback bridge. We could re-route ourselves via some quieter lanes without adding much distance and with similar amounts of climbing, though with shorter acuter ramps. However this time of year those lanes will be covered in gravel and leaf mulch so in the dark will have required a lot of concentration to stay upright.

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After gathering more receipts from a petrol station in Langton Green we plummet into Groombridge for the final climb of the day back up over the Ashdown.

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“If you haven’t got a lock you can leave those in here if you want” Turns out the duty manager at the Maccy D’s in Uckfield is a cyclist. It’s not a proper audax if at least one of the receipts isn’t for a Hot Apple Pie and a cup of tea.

downs-to-downs