Wales in a Day

A benefit of riding in Groups 2 and 3 is time (and breath) to talk at length to other riders and learn from their experiences.  So it was fascinating on rides this spring to learn from newer club member Peter Collyer, former Gregario and veteran of the 2003 Paris-Brest-Paris ride – 1,200km, completed in 90 hours including stops – about audaxes.  Sean Kelly had mentioned Audax UK on our Wat-Wat-Wat ride with Ger Hall in 2020 but we hadn’t taken the conversation further.  Peter’s evocation of the PBP’s journey every 4 years through remote villages in Brittany, where thousands of participants in the world’s oldest cycling event are enthusiastically welcomed, was compelling.  The next PBP is in 2023 – plenty of time to prepare! 

So I joined Audax UK, which organises national events around the country and which certifies members applying for international events as having completed the qualifying “randonneur series” – rides of 100km, 200km, 300km, 400km and 600km, to be completed in the season prior – applied for a 300km event around the Vale of Aylesbury due to take place on my birthday in early July, and out of interest attended the AGM.  This was online, attended by about 25 of the membership and largely featuring a small number of experienced older cyclists who all seemed to know each other, and to have strongly held (but not always compatible) opinions. 

A couple of copies of “Arrivée”, Audax UK’s monthly journal, arrived and provided food for thought.  On a subsequent WVS Sunday ride, Peter suggested setting a date to “do a 400” – not as part of a randonneur series (which would not in any event be required until 2022) but for practice, experience and fun.  A date was agreed, a Wednesday which turned out to fall between the second club C2C trip with Neal Oulton, Paul Weiss and Matt James, and this year’s Wat-Wat-Wat ride.  So that could add up to some 600 miles of riding in 8 days - what could possibly go wrong? 

The 300km event came and went, a fun ride with about 40 kindred spirits from all over the country.  The following month, after a challenging but rewarding long weekend with Messrs Oulton & Co crossing from Whitehaven to Newcastle (heavy bike and too much baggage) and a couple of very welcome recovery days, the day of the 400 finally arrived.  

The route we had decided to follow is a regular Audax UK event, the “London-Wales-London” route starting and finishing in Chalfont St Peter, usually taking place in May.  Our use of the route was to be independent of the external organisers, so we could modify it as we pleased.  Living in Bushey (Peter) and Watford, we took a fairly arbitrary decision to join the route at the Rickmansworth Tesco’s meeting at 0430.  With a great deal of climbing expected and remembering the struggle over Honister (in Leo’s words,“the Monister”) Pass, I loaded my much lighter carbon Cannondale Synapse with a bare minimum of equipment, but plenty of spare inner tubes.  Given an elapsed time  for the 300km of 14½  hours, including stops, I assumed that a 33% longer ride could be completed in perhaps 20 hours.  In the event, this proved to be wildly optimistic. 

Meeting in gentle drizzle at Tesco’s, we had a quick check on the route (mine a GPX file on a Garmin 830, Peter’s on his old-school route cards illuminated by a powerful headtorch) and were then ready for the off.  Except not, as during a short wait my rear (of course) tyre had gone flat.  In the dark and the rain, examination of the tube defied any meaningful diagnosis.  That ghastly sinking feeling caused by a puncture at any time was compounded by the ungodly hour of the day, the persistent drizzle and the prospect of a later finish after what would be my longest and most strenuous ride to date.  Not suspecting that there were to be further delays and not finding the offending part of the tyre, I fitted a fresh inner and off we went.  

Peter had previous completed LWL on 3 occasions, usually with a later start time, and was optimistic that we could get to Woodstock, the other side of Oxford, for breakfast.  And so it turned out.  As night turned into day the drizzle stopped, the roads dried out and we made good progress against a light headwind heading west towards Wales over gently rolling terrain.  Quickly into Buckinghamshire and through Great Missenden, our route skirted north past Princes Risborough and before long we were into Oxfordshire enjoying the charm of historic market town Thame.  Making progress through Kidlington and past Oxford, we arrived in Woodstock a little before 0800 and stopped in search of breakfast. 

The manager at the Woodstock Arms, where the full Monty was advertised, politely declined to bring menus until officially opening at 0800 precisely, and so we had a few minutes to wait.  Now the reality started to set in of what was to follow: many small delays (starting with the puncture and now what seemed to be an unnecessary wait to place a breakfast order) adding up to add a significant amount of time to what would already be a very long day.  This was a setback: on the 300 I had been fortunate in teaming up for much of the ride with Nick from Milton Keynes, a former SAS soldier who liked to press on, resulting in an average speed of 24.8kph with just 2:43 of non-cycling time.  This had led me to suppose that a finishing time of around midnight, at a stretch running to 0200, would be achievable, but this was not to be.  Although Peter and I were both keen to minimise faffing about on this longer ride, additional delay kept on accumulating. 

The manager was a keen Italian mountain biker who detained us perhaps longer talking about cycling than we should have allowed, but eventually we were on the move again.  A sign marking the entrance to the Cotwolds was a reminder, for Peter, of mile after mile of “false flats”.  We tackled these as the warmth of the day grew and the sun came out.  Then, at Prescott, the rear tyre failed again, putting Tewkesbury by lunchtime in doubt.  Even in good light, without water it proved impossible to locate the puncture, and a careful examination of the tyre, as valuable time continued to slip away, failed to disclose the cause.  With another new inner, we pressed on until acknowledging at Gotherington that nothing short of a full diagnosis and remediation would solve the issue.  A phone call to a shop listed in Google as a bicycle repair shop in Tewkesbury, the unpromisingly named “Autospares”, was unanswered.  A householder kindly lent a bucket and bowl of water and the hole was located and patched, and a piece of grit in the corresponding spot on the tyre removed.  With time marching on, we tucked into a very welcome ploughman’s lunch, still some distance short of Tewkesbury, before continuing.  

Before long, my rear tyre had run flat yet again.  On this fourth occasion, for some reason it  turned out to be relatively easy to find the hole, surprisingly close to the patch, and to remove a lump of glass from not just the corresponding cut in the tyre but also another one.  Although we did not know this at the time, this was to be the final puncture.  The tyre continued to be a significant source of stress and angst (for me, if not Peter) until close to the end of the ride.  By now we were already three hours behind where I had hoped to be at this stage of the ride, largely as a result of my rear tyre.  This made me feel guilty about holding Peter back, although he was kind enough not to show any frustration, and insisted that what had already happened was not as significant as how we now responded. 

The prospect of getting to Chepstow – roughly at the halfway point – by 1430 had now long disappeared, and so we pressed on in the hope of making up some time.  The headwind, which had turned into a strengthening crosswind after Tewkesbury as we turned south west towards Wales and the Severn Crossing, seemed to abate as we sweated up the significant climb of Symonds Yat, and at this point I realized that the 12,500 of climbing during the day was going to be a challenge.  Finally, after gorging in Coleford outside the Co-op in late afternoon sun on quite nice cheese and ham rolls, olives, milk and bananas, and using the rather less satisfactory loos, we pressed on.  Getting to Chepstow and the Severn Crossing, running along the side of the motorway bridge, seemed to take forever, and my misreading of the Garmin plot on the final approach to the M48 was saved by Peter’s close following of his route card.  Finally we were on the Severn Crossing, pausing for a final photograph by day.  It was demoralising, at this point, to realise that at just over the halfway point we had only an hour or so of daylight, after which time our average speed on unfamiliar roads in the dark, even with a tailwind, would be significantly reduced. 

The day’s warmth had started to leave the air started as we climbed in fading light out of the Severn Valley, by the time we reached historic Malmesbury – by now, at around 2200, in no fit state or mood to appreciate the glorious medieval architecture – it was distinctly cool.  Another Co-Op was the of  more food, consumption of which had started to be a real chore.  The following hours passed in something of a blur with further stops for coffee and food.  By the time 0200 came around – which had been my most pessimistic time for completing the ride – we were in the middle of nowhere, both starting to hallucinate, and still well to the west of home terrain in the Thames Valley; and after a short conference decided to rest up for an unspecified period of time before a  final push.  Moving the bikes off the road and putting on every item of clothing not already worn, we lay down on some surprisingly comfortable grass next to a pub car park at the edge of Streatley and, without agreeing a time to move, caught some fitful sleep, interrupted at 0300 by a female dog walker with a torch asking after our welfare. 

The final stretch, as once again night became day and it sank in that the ride would last well in excess of 24 hours, was for me at least a little more vivid: a cheeky young American lady Mini driver advising us at roadworks near Goring that the lights were stuck on red (they weren’t); an early riser at a petrol station in Marlow telling us we should have raised money for charity; and every smallest wrinkle in the roads on the last couple of hours seeming like Whiteleaf Hill.  And then, finally, 28½  hours, 271 miles and nearly 14,000 feet after leaving home, it was over and with that no small sense of achievement.  Average speed including stops was 15.3kph – just inside the speed allowed by audax rules (15-30kph), but by no means comfortably. 

Learning points?  Carry a spare tyre as well as inners; power banks work, but don’t forget a lightning cable if you have an iPhone; keep eating and hydrating; be prepared for it to take longer – possibly much longer – than planned; the Garmin 830 battery lasted the full duration of the ride (with backlight minimised to 15 seconds and interactions rationed to once per hour); the printed route cards were invaluable as a supplement and a check to the Garmin trace; plan formal stops so as to minimise the informal, time consuming ones; wet wipes might be useful; and ride with someone with whom you are compatible – Peter and I are still friends (I think).  We had considered separating to make best use of time and decided not to.  Although this decision cost us hours, I for one am convinced it was the right one.  Am I ready to do another audax?  Not straight away, and the cumulative effect of C2C and the 400 was enough for me to give this year’s Wat-Wat-Wat a rain check, but it was a fantastic experience and I’m already thinking about a 600.  What fun it would be to have some more WVS shirts on PBP in 2023 – is anyone else interested?  

Peter Collyer writes ….

I don’t have a great deal to add to Matthew’s excellent summary of our ride. Chapeau Matthew, it was great to ride with you and a super ride in many ways, with the early dawn section between Askett and Thame, and the glorious weather after Tewksbury as the highlights.

For me, our ride reminded me of how these long Audax rides (now also known as ‘ultra distance’) tend to take one to extremes, both physically and emotionally. Determination can change quickly to desperation, frustration to elation. There’s usually a moment when I want to get off my bike (forever) but there’s always a huge sense of achievement at the end. So to avoid duplicating Matthew’s account, I thought I would share a few thoughts on what has changed since I was a regular Audax rider (2002-2007) and pass on a few tips for anyone brave or crazy enough to try one of these rides. This is mostly based on the mistakes I made this time – the good old, ‘do as I say, not as I do’.

Back in the early noughties, we had no GPS. I’m still a bit of a luddite in this department, and I’m the only person I know who doesn’t yet have a Garmin or similar on their bike (I use Strava on my phone to log my rides). Hence the old-school route cards that I used. It would be easy for me to complain about the mass of data that cyclists bombard themselves with these days (Matthew tells me he is running multiple fitness apps), but I would be wrong to do so as Audax has always been about data – distance travelled, moving time, elapsed time, elevation etc.,  so having GPS and power data is an Audax rider’s dream. To be honest, I have caught the bug; I know this because I became quite anxious about keeping my phone charged from a power bank so that the full 400km+ worth of bragging rights would be there for all to see on Strava. As the saying goes, if it’s not on Strava then it didn’t happen. With a GPS file and a well-charged phone (with Google Maps) as back up, I don’t think there is any need for route sheets any more, and I have no doubt that I’ll be properly equipped with a GPS by next year.

In other ways, not much has changed. The roads are worse, making night riding more of a challenge, while 24 hour shops and garages are more numerous, a good thing for the hungry long distance rider. Nearly all of us rode steel bikes for Audax in the past, with new-fangled aluminium or carbon considered to offer too harsh a ride. This is not a problem now, and my carbon Planet X was fine over this distance. I would swap back to a long nose saddle though – the uber-trendy short one I have now is fine for 100km club runs, but I could have done with the scope to change position a bit more on this ride.

As far as mistakes are concerned, here’s what I would do differently if I could do the ride all over again (what a thought):

We planned to travel light and do a fast ride, but my packing was just too light for a ride over 200km. I should have made space for another layer of clothes as I got very cold in the unplanned night section and sleep stop. The advantage of saving some weight is quickly lost if you are too cold to pedal strongly.

Most organised 400km and 600km+ rides are held in May and June when the nights are much shorter (I once did a 24hr mountain bike race on top of hill in Wales over the summer solstice weekend and it never really got completely   dark). I wouldn’t choose to do a ride like this so late in the summer again, and we were particularly unlucky to have thick clouds for most of the night section. Having said that, it’s quite good training for Paris-Brest-Paris as that is always late in August with plenty of real darkness. On the plus side, riding into the dawn can be magical.

My nutrition was a disaster! It was my idea to have a massive fry up at Woodstock, and me who ordered the giant ploughman’s lunches outside Tewksbury, and by the middle of the afternoon I was definitely low on carbs and struggling to digest these two mountains of fat and protein. Everyone is different, and learning to know one’s own needs in the food department is the key to these distances. Worse still, I used an electrolyte drink that I had never tried before and which clearly didn’t agree with me. The moral of the story is obvious – test everything out on shorter rides first.

I hope Matthew won’t mind me commenting on tyres, as we were both riding well-worn hoops that had plenty of cuts in them, so it could very easily have been me who suffered the tyre woes. Back in the day, it was received wisdom to carry a spare tyre as well as tubes. This makes a lot of sense as a modern, folding tyre weighs very little and can be strapped to the frame or a bag without problems. When I rode this route in 2007 I did puncture at night, and with very little chance of finding the problem in the dark I swapped the tyre and tube and was able to continue with confidence.

Finally, the other bit of received wisdom I (now) remember is that these distances are best ridden solo. I really enjoyed the sense of setting out on an adventure in the company of a fellow club member, but riding a long distance as a pair or in a group will always take longer. Matthew is a much stronger rider than me and would, no doubt, have caught up with me again if I had kept going at my own (slower) pace while he wrestled with his rear tyre. During an organised Audax ride, groups tend to form and splinter as the time goes on; one finds people to ride with (especially at night) but no offence is taken if someone wants to push on up the road or drop back to find food or shelter. It would be very unusual to find two riders who could remain perfectly matched over such a long distance. Riding it as a leisurely ‘tour’ would be fine, but our ambitious target time made sticking together problematic, even though it was always convivial and enjoyable.

Cycling is addictive (we all know that) and the longer the distance, the more that strange addiction takes hold (I’m told it’s something to do with endorphins). Early in our ride Matthew asked why I was thinking of riding Paris-Brest-Paris again as I had already ‘ticked that box’. I explained that I liked the symmetry of going back and doing it again after a gap of 20 years, but his question had sown a seed of doubt in my mind, and by the second half of our ride I had no doubt that I did not want to suffer like this again – digging in enough to salvage some dignity as Watford Velo Group 2 rides up Chenies Hill is quite enough pain for me, thank you very much. However, having arrived home with a huge sense of relief, it only took a couple of hours for my brain to start plotting again, rather like a surfer searching for that perfect wave. Perhaps I do want to do a 400km ride again? Perhaps I can go faster, or just do it better? I know a better route between Stowe and Tewksbury….. And so it goes on.

As for Paris-Brest-Paris 2023, I’m still not sure. How about I drive the support car for Matthew and anyone else from the club who wants to join in?