The road to Paris (Super Randonneur 2015)

In order to qualify for the Paris-Brest-Paris you have to do a ‘SR’ series (200, 300, 400 & 600km rides) in quite a tight timeframe – around four months.

I had no idea if I wanted to actually do the PBP, at the end of last year it seemed like an OK idea. After the Flatlands 600 last year I just wanted to go out and do it again, but then life takes over and in winter the bones start to freeze up and the will to achieve things on the physical plain ebbs with the hours of sunlight. Then February hits and suddenly you put on lots of weight – why is it always February?

Still, in my head I was still on for an early season SR, just because. I suspect a lot of Audax happens like this – there’s a pattern and you don’t want to break it. Or you want to prove that last year wasn’t a fluke.

So I had my schedule marked out in the diary, entirely coinciding with Tom’s Essex events, obligingly setup to allow a relatively benign qualification path to PBP. But then the tooth fairy struck.

I’ve never had very good teeth. Actually that’s not true, my teeth have been fine it’s just that I’ve had rather too many of them. I think I have had 8 out and my mouth is plenty full. I won’t bore you. But this years treat was a deeply impacted wisdom tooth. How deep? My consultant took one look at my xray and said he was taking it to an upcoming conference on wisdom teeth extraction it was so extreme. Basically it was buried in the bone of my jaw.

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I didn’t know that earlier in the year and I really felt lethargic, and then DNS’ed the first ride of the year on account of… just didn’t feel like it. Then a week later I made it half way round a 200 at ‘the uts’, but the weather was rough and I… just didn’t feel like it. What was actually happening was that I was fighting off round after round of infection. Soon it became obvious something serious had to happen. I tried my luck with the NHS and then gave in and went private. A fortnight before my operation I started a new job. I was on antibiotics and codeine the entire my whole first week, religiously taking painkillers every four hours – five minutes over and I felt like someone was hitting me in the side of the face with a shovel.

A week after my operation I couldn’t really move my jaw. Not a great state to start Toms 300, so I DNS’ed that as well. Things were not going well. I had NO rides in and a couple of weeks to find a 200km if I wanted to qualify for PBP.

But then an amazing thing happened. I started to feel a lot healthier. Surprise surprise!

So I put my name down for the Stevenage Springtime Special 200 – an out and back from Stevenage (no kidding) into Suffolk – East for 100 then West for a 100.

A TALE OF TWO ONE HUNDREDS

Last chance salon. A storm brewing. An evil headwind predicted. The ride started in rain but cleared up soon enough, the only thing that got stronger and stronger was the wind.

Having grown up in a city known as ‘Windy Wellington’ I do know quite a lot about riding in the wind. There are those of you amongst my readers who will know of those epics ’round the bays’ where you are in first gear and then 10th (this was the 80s), where you literally didn’t have to pedal for hundred of metres on end the wind was so strong on your back. Thank god we didn’t have deep section rims back then or we would have been in the harbour often enough.

So it was like that, only 60 miles downwind (travelled in under 4 hours, stops included and barely pushing the pedals). And then 60 very long miles indeed into 25 gusting 40 mph winds. By myself.

My wind experience amounted to knowing that there is no point trying to keep up any kind of speed in a 40mph gust, you just pedal to stay upright. The second thing is that don’t tense your shoulders and ‘butt’ the wind, you have to kinda let it go through you, or it will drive you totally mental. And the third things is to find a way to enjoy the wildness of it, even as it takes you FOREVER to ride a boring piece of road.

So I managed it. The ride back took SEVEN and a HALF hours. I don’t think I have ever averaged such a low speed on a road bike. There were long periods I riding at 12-13kph with the kind of effort that would usually give 25-28kph. Each kilometre was hard earned. Still, there were some upsides – the scenery was very nice and a lot of it was new, so at least I wasn’t bored. And then there was the last control. Only in Audax – someone had roped in their Mum to sit on a deckchair next to the back of a small Renault van with the rear door up. In the back was a wonderful array of bananas, cereal bars and a massive thermos of tea. Never a more welcome cup!

Here’s the slowest Audax I have ever done – 20kph average on the road.

Start of spring time

A THREE

So now I had to find a 300 in short order. Several hard minutes of research turned up the ‘Oasts and Coasts’ 300km, essentially a lap of the south east of tip of England, not an area I know very well at all.

We didn’t have a car for a month (long, sad story) so I had to commit to spending the night in Gravesend after a quick ride down on the train from Victoria. Premier Inn will feature again in this tale, but lets just note that this time I actually got to spend the night in it. The ‘Prem’ is a funny thing. Usually staffed by affable ladies with ‘hairdos’ they don’t even blink when you turn up at funny times of the night with a bicycle and then leave four hours later. I haven’t stayed long enough at one to have a breakfast for a while, but I remember one where the cook proudly bought out a frozen loaf of Gluten Free bread and asked me if that was OK? It sure was!

So, a quick ride up to the Meopham scout hall for a quick cup of tea before setting off around six with a large field, the usual array of club riders, nervous first-timers, old die-hards and mentalists on fixed gear bicycles.

Here’s what I wrote about in on the YACF forum:

So I have barely even visited Kent let alone ridden around it, so all new for me and a very pleasant experience (apart from the obvious fatigue of course)

Had one of those Audax moments early on – being buzzed by a couple of loons on a scooter, one without helmet, at 6:20am. All very well them effing and blinding but I don’t think they would have stood a chance against a 130 frisky cyclists at that point, so no worries there.

After all the hills and drizzle the sun came out and the lovely scoot around the coast began – very nice in the tailwind it was. Spent a bit of that chatting with Malcolm Darcy about steel bikes and writing – very learned company we were.

Then a proper climb up and out of Folkestone (1st gear!) followed by a luxuriously long freewheel back down to sea level at Dover.

Had to stop in Dover to buy a new cache battery as old one died just as my Garmin ran out of juice. Quite worrying as I had carefully left the printed route sheet in that Premier Inn… My battery died literally as I coasted into a Halfords carpark. A rather expensive purchase of a Belkin cache battery later and all was well. Very lucky.

Then up and over the Dover castle hill and a rumble back down to sea level on a bridle way and into Deal. The bit from here around to Whitstable was really great, all new scenery, flat and sunny, all good. The turn into the headwind was a small wake up call, but I had survived the gale force winds a few weeks ago on the Start of Springtime from Stevenage and thought I would be ok.

Milkshake at Whitstable… Yum. Good control! But feeling a bit dead now. Knew I would make it but it wasn’t going to be easy and there was a climb over the North Downs to contend with. Luckily formed a posse on the road with two guys – Mr Penge Cycles who I will see again on A+S 400 in a few weeks time I believe and another chap. Sorry, I always forget to ask names. The riding here was hard but even though we didn’t chat much it was great to have the company – would have dropped off the pace severely without your company.

Quite entertaining that last bit on Pilgrims way, ducking and diving down dark unknown lanes into the unknown… Missed anything to do with that car crash thankfully.

But the very last gentle climb into Meopham got to me and with a couple of k to go I just dropped off the back and crawled into the finish at 10:40. A quick recovery (two cups of tea with sugar) then onto the 11:17 train to London Victoria, followed by a crazy midnight ride through packed London to Liverpool St for the train back to Walthamstow and from there to bed at about 1:30am, after copious cups of tea and slices of toast.

A very satisfying ride and a reminder how good it is to get off your usual patch.

Many thanks to the team for a great route with nicely spaced controls and a warm welcome at the finish. Highly recommended.

It had been a very long day. Sitting in gird-locked traffic in Westminster while Big Ben struck midnight was quite surreal. So, 300 down and a good one too… did this in not an awful lot longer time than the windy 200.

300

NORMAL SERVICE IS RESUMED

Now I had ‘caught up’ with my projected series of rides. The next was one I had done before, the ‘Asparagus and Strawberries’ 400. This one was a gentle 9am start, so I was able to get up at a ‘reasonable’ hour (for Audax that is) and rive the 90 minutes to Manningtree Station where the ride kicks off from.

A really big field, lots of people getting in their qualifying rides.

I’ve written about this one elsewhere. It was long, I fell asleep in a bus shelter (this makes me a ‘real Audax rider’) but it felt fine. I was tired of course, and I spent way too long phaffing at controls – that Gluten Free thing can really slow you down. But it was fun. Rode the last half by myself and felt pretty good. Even the sawtooth profile of the last few kms didn’t get to me.

My riding time was bang on 18hours, pretty much perfect for a flatish 400km. Average speed just over 23kph, about right for me in a ‘not too fit but ok’ state of fitness.

400

BIG SIX

So yeah, the big one. ‘The Flatlands’ 600km. As someone pointed out this one is about mind games. You can read my post about mind games (The Red King) from last year and the more conventional report as well.

So this year? Played out pretty much identically to last year up until the halfway point. Only thing worth of note was being passed by Steve Abrahams while I was doing 30kph and thinking I was storming along!

So, very pleasant, nice company along the way playing ‘haven’t I see you somewhere before’ with the Judith and David crew. Made it to Goole about two hours earlier than last year. Like to say it was fitness but I think it was just that the wind was much more benign this year.

Then the wheels started to come off a bit… Last year there were a lot less riders and I was able to book a spot at the Goole ‘Prem’ for a three hour kip at the half way point. This year the Prem was booked out so I had to take a needlessly long route to a hotel on the far side of Scunthorpe (adding an extra hours worth of riding to the trip) only to discover I hadn’t actually booked the right day. Yes folks, I got my hotel booking wrong.

You may stop laughing now.

So, in a busy hotel foyer at 1:30am, surrounded by 22 year olds dressed to the nines for various weddings, stag dos and hens, I had to go back out into the night. I may be some time. 

Last year I had packed a sleeping bag in my trusty Carradice saddle bag, but hadn’t used it. This year I didn’t bother and now I was really regretting that. The idea is that with a sleeping bag and mat you find  yourself an ‘Audax Hotel’ (a bus shelter) and get a couple of hours sleep. It’s true to say that it’s quite easy to sleep at 4 or 5 am for two or three hours when you are well and truly f**ked! However trying the same thing without a bag is not great – inevitably you get really cold, your sweaty cycling kit turning back into thin layers of soggy nylon when you aren’t pumping all that body heat into it.

Sleep is a big issue in the Audax world. How much you need, where to get it. Second only to food. Some can get through a 600 by putting their head down in a service station for an hour (I saw this in Gainsborough at 3am, a guy lying between aisles of sale-price beer!) Other’s need the full bivvy experience.

So, now I was committed to riding through – with nothing more than a space blanket. Where my speed through the first half of the ride had been at a healthy average of 25kph now I was scraping along at 15kph and feeling like a complete loser – I had put myself an hour behind on the road for what? Nothing. And I had booked a non-refundable room.

I was very much in the ‘what is this FOR’ frame of mind, which I am sure many Audax riders will recognise. I have a bit of a personal rule, which is not to listen to yourself between the hours of 11pm and 6am. It’s probably a good time for magic, but it’s also the time your brain can just run away with negative thinking, with nothing much to stop it. This is even worse when you are tired and sleep deprived. I asked the very experienced David Minter if he still had moments where he thought ‘Fuck this for a game of skittles.’ and he said, gratifyingly, all the time. Not just me then!

A stop at Gainsborough and then up onto the ridge that leads into Lincoln. The sun was up now (around 5am) but it was still chilly. I was pretty much shattered, but things had picked up a little after the Gainsborough stop – at least they had warm coffee. Actually the two guys on duty there were very relaxed about having cycling sleeping on their floor – I guess 130 cyclists buy quite a lot of food as they pass through.

I needed something that resembled a sleep, and eventually I found a reasonable size Audax Hotel on the way into Lincoln (marked on a fellow riders GPX track no less) and lay down for an hour. It wasn’t much fun, I slept for maybe 30 minutes then picked my frozen self up and put it back on the bike. Then through Lincoln and I arrived at Sleaford, the breakfast stop, bang on 8am as the doors opened. From there it was a case of just keeping going. And going. And going.

My mood was pretty foul and I avoided company for most of the rest of the ride, I think I did about 450km of this one by myself. My ability to think or converse beyond grunting was nil.

Things picked up again around 1pm when I stopped at a largish co-op which luckily had a good GF sections (they’re a franchise and you can’t rely on it). I bought a 500gm box of GF oaty chruch muesli, 300ml of milk, ripped the top off the plastic bag of the muesli, poured the milk in and ate a weeks worth of muesli in one go. Bliss! That was what I needed – grains. Sometimes very hard to source on the fly for a coeliac.

A few minutes after that I found a quiet sunny bank beside a canal, rested my head between the spokes on the front wheel of my bike (it seemed like a good pillow substitute at the time) and closed my eyes for 30 minutes blissful, warm, kip.

From there I ducked through Cambridge and then took the ‘long’ option through the backroads and lanes of Essex, avoiding the horrid Saffron Walden-Great Dunmow road. A bit of up and down was welcome at this stage, and freewheeling down from Mole Hill Green was niiiiiiiiice. If I were new to the territory and only had paper I wouldn’t recommend it though as it would have been tricky without a GPS.

So I rolled back into Great Dunmow almost exactly the same time as last year. I had a sleep last year, but this year I rode an extra 30 or so k. After a cider I went back to the Mondeo, unrolled the sleeping bag and fell into a very deep sleep before driving back to the Stow around 2am.

600

AND SO

Having given up on Audax and PBP many times over the course of those four rides I now find I have entered. Gosh. There didn’t seem like much point in taking all this effort to do the qualifiers and then not doing the bloody thing. So there. The entry has been filed.

Now all I have to do is keep getting fitter for 12 weeks… hmmmm…..

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