A run down of bike and kit choices, mechanical issues, things to do next time, mental strategies, ride strategies and so on. Very much a view from the full-value, back of the field perspective.
Bike, clothing and gear to take are a bog deal on a long bike ride. Even when it is supported and somehow having dropbag options makes it even harder to sort out what you will need when. There is a basic equation you are playing with though:
Light and fast VS slow and comfy.
This might sound obvious but it plays out in a myriad of ways from bike setup to how many of things like gels and spare shorts you take.
The faster you want to go the more race-like your bike has to be setup, and the more race-like your bike is the less comfy it is and the less you can carry. As soon as you introduce comfort factors the bike slows down – if you put your bars up to reduce hand pain then you are less aerodynamic and you are utilising your glutes less. By strapping on panniers full of spare clothing and a just in case bivvy kit then you adding serious windage and that weight needs to be dragged up every one of the 10,000 metres of climbing.
Age plays a part here too – I am now simply too old to hold a race position for very long.
The majority of people now seem to fall in three camps:
- Disc brake distance bike in carbon or Ti with bikepacking bags (think TCR) and aerobars.
- Road training bikes in steel or aluminium with mudguards and a carradice, maybe a bar bag. Classic road geometry and rim brakes.
- Fast steel touring rigs – more tyre clarance, maybe discs, but still with a saddlebag, bit more laid back.Most of the people I ride with opt for option 3, and sometimes dabble with option 1. And that kind of bike is pretty much perfect for Audax with a few caveats: Mudguards and the difference between bikebacking kit and saddlebags.
If you are doing a TCR or long solo event then mudguards are a pain, most of the water is kept off you by the bikepacking bags. On a group ride, or in a bunch, no mudguards makes you quite unpopular – no one wants to drink road sludge and fertiliser mixed with rain water coming off your back wheel. You end up sick that way. In the UK mudguards are almost always a good idea.
I have two bikes I could have used, as below:
The tripster ATR is a bike that is made for ‘adventure’. It’s comfy, stable and light enough. With decent wheels on it is fastish and has a reasonable range of fixtures for mudguards and the like. The Datum is a ‘new gen’ carbon bike with clearance for largish tyres and fittings for mudguards (but not racks). Its geometry is more ‘roadie’ than the ATR – it rides like a fairly conventional bike even if it doesn’t look like one. It’s a little faster than the ATR and feels sportier. The ATR is (and I mean this in a good way) a modern interpretation of a Dawes Super Galaxy. It’s a tourer with a touch of speed and a hint of attitude. The Datum is a carbon road bike with a big nod to comfort. Range Rover versus Evoque.
The Datum was bought to go faster on long rides but as I have ‘only’ had it for a year I have yet to feel that I have really dialled it in properly. Having had the ATR for three years now I am very settled on it and know that it’s good at 4am on day two with no sleep. It’s stable without being too boring which is very useful downhill and tired. I know I will get the Datum comfy enough for 600km but I am not so sure about longer. Set up with aerobars and bikepacking rig the Datum will be lighter than the ATR. I have two sets of wheels that I swap between them – a heavier stock set of discs which are solid and dull and a nicer (though entry level) set of DT Swiss 24 Splines which are shallow rimmed and aero spoked – two good things in my book for alloy wheels and audax. For the money (bang on £200) they are exceptional wheels and all I need to feel that the wheels are not holding me back.
I really wanted to use the Datum and take the time to set it up properly but I defaulted to the ATR with a couple of months to go. The thought experiment that led me to the ATR was this – which bike do you want to get on on day three at 4am? The answer is the ATR, no question. I have ridden it through the night many times, in terrible weather and up to 600km without so much as a blink of discomfort. Over 1400km comfort is a significant performance factor.
So decision made in June – ATR. The only thing changed since then were the pedals and the chainset. I switched to road pedals (keos) because I wanted a larger contact area with my shoe, but I did this too late and, after a couple of longer rides, had to admit that my new keos and sidis were not sorted enough yet and I had gained a small knee irritation that I wasn’t prepared to live with – so I went back to my tried and tested but getting knackered combo of Specialised Winter Boots and Shimano SPD 530 pedals.
I had a cheap Spa triple on the bike for couple of years in the lovely ratios of 28/38/48 which I really like, but decided to put on a lighter and stiffer campy record triple instead with the slightly less good ratios of 30/39/52. Out back I had a 12-28 cassette. 30×28 as a bottom gear was fine, though I had used a 38×32 on Bryan Chapman and found that great for the Welsh hills (I am a spinner). The record cranks are slightly longer and I think this leverage compensated for the lower gear – luckily the change in length didn’t cause me any knee trouble.
I had my favourite pair of bars on – the brilliant 3t Ergonovas – and 105 triple levers. I had so much trouble with the left changer over the years that I put a bar-end lever on that side and rerouted the gear cable to it – an eccentric setup but very reliable. Further rationale – if my right hand lever went I could reroute the gear cable to the left hand barend lever and still have ten gears.
Ultegra derailleurs – the watchword in quiet and reliable. Old series, when they still did triple fronts.
The only thing that made me unhappy about this setup was the saddle. I’d been using a cambium for a couple of years and it was… ok up to about 400km then got to be a bit of a pain. Two weeks before LEL I remembered an old brooks b17 that I got with a second hand bike 15 years previously. I had given it to a mate to put on his town bike – a Moulton shopper. I rang him up, swapped it with a brand new cambium (cough cough) and took it for a ride. Wow! Comfy or what?! Bugger the weight and the look, that bad boy was staying with me! I had been persevering with a b17 narrow but it was nowhere near as good as this. When I get the money I will be buying a normal b17 again and starting the (hard) labour of love that is conditioning the bloody thing.
So with a week to go I had sorted out the bike – new cables, a pair of conti race 28 tyres, b17 fitted, new old crankset sorted.
One final tweak. I tried a longer stem for a 500k ride and it had worked brilliantly. Weirdly high and long worked better for me than low and short. I think largely because a slightly longer stem forced me to bend my arms at the elbow and it was much better uphill. I carried this into LEL and had no back issues at all which is rare, so that worked. While aerobars look a bit odd with the mudguards, carradice and bar bag I wasn’t prepared to let them go just for aesthetic reasons so on they stayed. A good move, not so much for aero as for the benefits of resting hands for 5 minutes an hour.
Oh yeah, one thing I forgot to mention – I am currently somewhat underemployed so I was really trying to hold back on outlay. Had I had money I would probably have tried a set of bikepacking bags, tried out a saddle (SMP I think), bought aerobars with more adjustability, bought a new, more reliable battery light or had a dynamo wheel made up for this bike (disk hub). I would definitely bought more more and nicer cycling kit – it’s time for a new jacket.
Bags bags bags…. When I started to take Audax seriously a few years ago I bought a Nelson long flap. This seemed about the right size until I realised that I was packing far too much and since then the bloody thing has sagged and flapped around on the back of my bike refusing to die, even though I have tried hard to kill it. I have even cut the pockets off it to make it less ‘arse in the wind’. I have a whole variety of other bags to try but again sense won out over experimentation and I ended up using exactly the same bags as I used on PBP and Bryan chapman – Nelson out back with a small 2l barbag up front. It’s an ugly combo to be sure, but convenient. And on Audax convenient is a performance factor!
Bikepacking bags are much lighter than a carridice and bar bag but they are not as accessible. Particularly the rear under seat bag is not very useful – in bikepacking you tend to stuff items you are not going to use very much – like a tent – in the bottom of this bag as it can be hard to access them. Add in tired minds and the clever packing you did at home to get everything in might elude you when you have had not enough sleep.
A saddlebag is very usable space. That’s why you see plenty of them – and rear rackbags – they are really easy to get into and keep organised on the run. Aerodynamically I guess they are a little poorer than bikepacking bags, but not by much. Because my bagman broke the morning of the ride I had to use a rack instead and the carridice sagged rather pathetically over the sides of it. Ugly! In practice my saddlebag just became a stew of stuff thrown in and ignored. A bit like a bedroom in a student flat.
The ultimate Audax bag would have the lightness of a bikepacking saddlebag and the usability of a saddlebag… Hmmm…. I think I could make something like that (watch this space!).
Before this ride I had two pairs of cycling shorts. I stumped up and bought a third. That would have to do, I couldn’t justify more. Luckily they all got on well with the Brooks and there was nothing too stressful in that department.
I had three jerseys but used only two and I could have done the whole ride in my merino icebreaker cycling jersey – the tempreatures were just right for it. I also have and cherish a set of merino arm warmers, the best piece of kit I own. My hagloffs active goretex smock (not cycling specific) is getting on and doesn’t really keep much rain out but again I am being conscious of money so I didn’t get a new waterproof. I also took a longsleeved warm base layer which I used a couple of times but didn’t really need. For the first half of the ride I used a pair of old football socks (long) to provide some up/down warmth options that I could easily adjust on the ride. This worked so well that when I came to change socks half way round I cut the tops off the football socks and wore them like calf-warmers for the rest of the ride. That’s a keeper for me, I really liked them. Knee warmth is not something I suffer from too much. I will be buying some long merino socks when I get my first next paycheck.
I also carried some proper leg warmers which I used a couple of times up north and were required, though I though they might be too warm initially (I can wear them down to below zero in winter). Lighter weight knee warmers with long socks would be a better combo for me.
Finally I had two ugly ugly pieces of kit, one of which worked and the other which didn’t. The bit that worked was a screaming day-glo helmet cover I bought on a whim in halfords on sale for £8. Ugly ugly ugly. Brilliant too. Keeping rain out of your helmet is a really good idea it turns out. Sure a cycling cap is more hardman, but trust me, it’s not a patch on the showercap for comfort.
I also had some cheapie rain trousers. These worked but on account of the on/off nature of the weather I ended up getting frustrated with how long they took to get on and off and so wasn’t wearing them the one time I should have been – over Yad Moss in the horizontal rain. I think some long shorts would work – something again I might make (or cut down the existing trou). The thing with shorts is they do the most important thing – keep your crutch dry – but they don’t get too sweaty and you can get them on and off quickly.
My complete clothing list (including dropbags) was:
- Shorts x 3 (all worn)
- Leg warmers (worn)
- Rain trou (awkward)
- Short sleeved jerseys x 3 (2 used)
- Short sleeved light merino base layer (didn’t need it)
- Long sleeved warm baselayer (used once, probably didnt need it)
- Rainshell jacket (worn a lot)
- Buff x 1 (used a bit, could have lived without it)
- Cycling mitts x 2 (wore both)
- Nylon shell gloves (wore for a day or so)
- Cheap nylon undergloves (worn at night once or twice)
- Proper wet gloves (sealskins, worn but too hot, not needed)
- 1 pair long socks (wore a lot)
- Socks x 3 (could have done with more, all merino next time)
- Helmet cover (great!)
- Thin overshoes (worn a lot at night and in rain)
- 3 caps (1 worn)
I also carried a primaloft gilet (230g) all the way round specifically to put on when I got off the bike. I get cold quickly off the bike so find this works a treat to keep me away from the shivers. Also if it had got really cold at night (zero) then this would have been worn on the bike. A luxury but important to me.
The only thing I needed more of was socks. 5 pairs thin merino please.
My ideal kit list for the weather would have been:
- Single merino cycling jersey
- Rapha insulated brevet jersey
- Merino arm warmers
- Gore rain shell
- Merino knee warmers
- Goretex over shorts
- Merino long socks
- 5 pairs merino socks, a spare set on the bike all the time
- 3 pairs gloves, I pair knitted gloves plus rain cover gloves
- 3 pairs of shorts
- 1 cap and a shower cap
If you are from a warm country overseas then take that with a pinch of salt – I am used to UK weather. I saw riders from India and Singapore and Brazil in padded insulated jackets with hoods on and full tights in the daytime. I would have been boiling, but obviously they were cold.
Tools and stuff
Other stuff I carried or had in dropbags:
- Toolkit: spare gear and brake cables, tyre boot, multitool, patch kit with glue, spoke key, tyre levers, minipump, small roll of electrical tape, spare chain links
- 3 tubes on bike, 3 in each dropbag (no punctures!)
- 3 x big batteries (13,000mh) total overkill as it turns out, 2 would have been plenty.
- 2 x garmins – touring plus that was faultless plus a 520 carried for backup (unused)
- Spare AAA batteries for back lights
- Gels – 10 in dropbags, only used 4
- Gluten Free muesli, one 500g pack in each dropbag – godsend!
- 3 tubes of sodium tabs, one used.
- Sudocream (used)
- Stacking pots (from boots, for make up) of creams and drugs and chain oil.
- Drugs: Ibuprofen (2 used) paracetemol (0) and cocodamol (0) and rennies (all used!)
- ‘Audax wallet’ an old first aid kit bag with a teaspoon, drugs, money and cards in it.
- Phone also fits here as does Brevet card.
- Cafe lock (not needed and I dumped it somewhere in order to lighten up).
- Digital voice recorder
Next time I would take more energy drink sachets and less sodium tabs. I would take less gels and make sure some were caffeine. I took Pro Plus and used them a couple of times to good effect (I’d never used them before).
Lights and charging
Here’s a lesson. I normally use a dynamo for very long rides but I couldn’t afford a new wheel that I needed for the ATR to achieve this so I took my Exposure Strada AND a Hope One battery back up. They are supposed to be bullet proof but they both died in the rain. I also had a small blinker, but fortunately was able to borrow something just a little brighter.
My Garmin Edge Touring worked flawlessly and recorded the whole ride as one track. I used an Anker 13500 battery (great kit) to power it the whole way around (and for one phone recharge). I had two of these the other was for recharging the exposure strada which would have got through four nights with one recharge had the Strada actually worked!
Everything on the bike was tried and trusted and new where it needed to be. I had no mechanical issues at all, the only thing that happened was a mechanic who insisted I had my tyres under inflated and then stuck a whole heap of air in them making the bike uncomfortable – at the next control I let all the air back out.
Next time though I will track down some spare spokes for my dt swiss wheels. They are 28s but I should carry the required spares as there seemed to be wheels going ‘ping’ all around me.
I was much better prepared physically for LEL than my PBP wash out. I remember in 2015 thinking that I was fit enough in September to have done it – a month late.
Knowing there was significant cycling up hills in LEL I put an early emphasis on AAA rides: The Dean, the Shark, Bryan Chapman, Oasts and Coasts and this paid off big time. With PBP I was surprised and caught out by the roller-coaster nature of the terrain but for LEL I was ready and happy churning up endless climbs at an efficient but not stressful pace.
I had exactly the same number of kms in my legs in 2015 and 2017 but there was a crucial difference – in 2015 I was commuting and this year I had done no commuting so all my miles were training – long rides or hilly rides. The number of rides a week I was doing went down a lot but I was less tired without the commute and had more energy for weekend rides – superior recovery I think. I had also not worried too much about distance in winter but had instead concentrated on short hard rides. There is a term for this – reverse periodisation, but the basic idea for me was to get some strength in over winter so I could ride early hillier rides and then increase the distance through summer. This is the opposite of the base plus power than racers need, but I am not aiming for power so it kinda made sense.
I had also very much been working on attitude and mental health (for want of a better term). In 2016 I had managed a fixed SR which was very much mind over matter when the going gets rough, and this year the hard hilly rides, in particular Bryan Chapman, were an important training ground in not giving in just because you are having a bad patch.
I was more conscious of my mental states and consequently more able to catch any negativity early. To dispel unhelpful thoughts or mindsets I used a number of things – songs and haka (chants) being the most useful as they stop you thinking, give your mind a minute to clear. Also strangely the haka reminds me I am a kiwi which always helps give me a lift. I am by no means a typical kiwi sportsman but I do find it helps to remember previous adventures in NZ and benchmark current experience against them (mountain biking in crazy storms, trying to do long day walks or all day-runs, my time as a bike courier, sailing, being lost and found in National Parks). With the exception of the storm over Yad Moss comparing LEL to past rugged adventures made it seem not easy but well within the bounds of the achievable.
I also kept a short ‘journal’ as I went on a small voice recorder. I did this is instead of taking photos. Externalising progress and observations puts them in perspective. Essentially I was able to hear myself thinking, and then adjust my mindset on the fly. Just being able to talk out exactly what I was feeling without needing to be careful or circumspect was very very useful. It’s not very interesting for anyone else to listen to though 🙂
I had been nursing a knee issue for a while and it was the number one thing I was worried about. Luckily it settled down as I rode, but then has come back with vengenance now, so I really need to get it checked out and sorted.
You spend a lot of time in controls. My time of 112 hours had 70 or of riding an 42 of controls. If you want to do the ride in 100 hours or even 80 for the young and fit you are going to have to crack through controls very quickly and this is pretty much impossible if you are riding in company. The time you want a longer rest will be the time someone else wants a shorter one and vice versa.
Solo is fastest because the key to a good time is not stopping rather than riding very fast (though that will help obviously). A simple illustration: The first rider back spent 60 hours riding and three stopping. If I had been able to do that (and I couldn’t to be fair!) then I would have got 73 hours which is stonkingly fast for a ride like this. Even if you just want more time in hand (always a good idea) less stopping and phaffing makes for a more relaxed time experience. If you can manage it.
I think the late start and ride through the first night really worked well. It meant we had around 450k in the bank before the first sleep. Too many people stopped too early for too long, condemning themselves to a brutal second half of the ride.
There’s a chart that shows probable success versus time in hand at Thirsk:
You want to be as far up that graph as you can without killing yourself! I had 9.5 hours in hand here, so had a 75% chance of making it.
Three hours sleep is more than enough if you can get it every night, four a luxury. I got ten and a half altogether but it was in diminishing chunks: 4, 3, 2, 1.5. But 3, 3, 3, 1.5 would have been better.
I made a chart that shows how average speed is affected by time off the bike:
Spending 5 minutes more on the bike in an hour if you are road averaging 21kph (which is just over what I managed) makes you 2kph faster or about 10% overall – this gives you hours more time in hand over four days. Of course you have to earn this on the leg up and spend it on the way down – the old adage race out, tour back applies.
People say LEL gets quite hard once you are over 60. That gives me two more times to do it. Would I? I think so, yes. It’s brutal and beautiful in equal measure. Next time I would hope to do it on my Datum with some bikepacking bags that I have designed and sewn. My kit will be more streamlined but better quality and I think I will make a fair amount of it too and have a lot of merino on hand… And I would aim for 100 hours and most likely ride it by myself or with an loose affiliation with the ACME crew.
As always the intention will be to ride more and phaff less – PBP will give me a change to practice that in 2019!