One of my plans for this year was to insert some more of the “ride your bike, ride your bike, ride your bike” approach into my training to balance the many hours on the turbo. And so I did. Over winter I have done a few long rides to visit friends or family, in early March I kicked off my Audax Super Randonneur series and last week I went to see my mum in Brittany, covering 550 miles on the bike there and back.
For those not familiar with the concept, Audax (also referred to as randonneuring) are non-competitive rides over longer distances, with riders completing the classic distances of 200, 300, 400 and 600km within one season being awarded with the Super Randonneur title. Another way to describe it would be as a sportive without arrows or support (riders are expected to be self-sufficient and navigate their own way) or a scavenger hunt by bike (with riders having to collect stamps at control points and find answers to questions relating to ‘info points’ en route).
For me Audax rides are simply a great way to see more of the country (as they often take in smaller roads and scenic routes). They also provide a good opportunity to practice things such as managing my pacing and learning more about the logistics of keeping my lights, Garmin etc running. Importantly, building up the Audax distances fits in well with my long-distance time trial goals and planned Land’s End John o’Groats record attempt.
The first Audax was the 200km Steam Ride: London-Oxford-London The Ghan organised by Audax Club Hackney on the 13th of March. The ride started from Ruislip Lido in West London, which isn’t all too far from my home so I cycled there and back too. After a few manic months at work and several weeks where unfortunately work took over much of my evenings and weekends too, it was a bit of a shock to the system. The distance wasn’t a problem, but riding at Alex’ pace was tough at times. On past rides with him I would usually take regular turns at the front, but on this ride just holding his wheel was challenging enough. Part of the problem was that while I probably gained weight during those long working days, Alex actually shed a lot of weight. His wheel remains my favourite wheel to follow… I just need to improve my fitness and lose some weight! Failing that, the only thing that seems to slow him down are several pints along the way.
The next weekend it was time for The Dean, a 300km Audax starting from Oxford, again organised by Audax Club Hackney – these guys somehow manage to organise a great number of Audax rides with what seems just a handful of people. This time I drove over for the 6am start and rode solo all day, apart from the last hour when my Garmin battery had died and the external battery pack / USB cable combination failed me. Luckily I didn’t have to wait too long before the next riders on the road passed by and kindly navigated me back to the start. Thanks Frank!
It was a tough day in the saddle with some 4,000 meters of climbing through the Cotswolds and Forest of Dean, but also some very fast descents. I particularly enjoyed the long descent into Chepstow. The two ‘White Horse’ climbs just after Wootton Bassett were a bit more challenging after 200-odd kilometres than I remember from the times I have done them on fresh legs starting out from Nick & Clare’s just down the road! Upon return at Pear Tree Park & Ride it was very nice to be welcomed by Audax Club Hackney and Easter eggs … which didn’t last the drive home.
During the last week before Easter I was working around the clock again to deliver reports and meet other work deadlines, but once on my bike to Portsmouth Ferry terminal in the sunshine on Good Friday all the hard work was easily forgotten and replaced with the excitement of soon seeing my mum in Brittany. Such a stunning day to be out on my bike and a beautiful route too through the South Downs National Park. I can’t take any credit for the route planning though. By coincidence, last year Alex had travelled the same way to Beg Meil in Brittany, which is less than 5 kilometers from where my mum lives in Fouesnant!
The crossing from Portsmouth to St Malo was a bit rough as a storm started to drift in. Rough enough for the glass work on the tables to move about during dinner and feeling like I was in a roller coaster while trying to sleep in my cabin. It didn’t stop me from pre-fuelling with all that nice French food for the ride ahead.
I rolled off the ferry at 8:30am in the morning in St Malo. Unlike the ordeal at Portsmouth, where cyclist were not allowed in the terminal and where we had to wait outside in the cold and rain until the very last car was loaded (!), the cyclists were set off first upon arrival. And what a nice arrival it was. The sun was shining brightly and the wind was still gentle. St Malo is such a beautiful port to arrive at too; quite a contrast with Portsmouth which is much more industrial.
Climbing out of St Malo I enjoyed the views and felt good for the journey ahead. The first few hours were fine, but then the wind strengthened quite a lot and given I was travelling in a south-westerly direction that was bad news. Fighting the headwind for nearly 150 miles, interrupted only with cross wind sections (which were particularly difficult on the descents), and a 10-odd mile detour in a north-easterly direction after I had taken a wrong turn. Silly, I should have realised sooner why it suddenly was so easy and fast! I was punished for it pretty quickly too as the heavens opened to a hail storm that hurts your face and stops your breath.
Despite the wind and the downpours cycling in Brittany on Easter Sunday was a very nice experience. Hardly a car in sight and those that passed, did so which much more care than the drivers in the UK. What’s more, the French seem to love roundabouts, so hardly a traffic light to stop for. I arrived rather wet at my mum’s house just before dark at 7pm and was greeted with a big hug, a nice warm bath and a delicious meal with oysters and champagne. Bring on the holidays!
The next few days were mostly a mix of long walks on the beach and enjoying good food and good company. We also visited Concarneau and Quimper and generally it was just really nice to spend time with my mum, admire the new house and see how they live.
All too soon it was time to leave again. In contrast to the ride into Fouesnant, I was blessed with a tailwind upon my departure to Roscoff. The only challenge was the temperature, as I started with just one degree and finished in 12 degrees and full sunshine.
Again, I had Alex to thank for a great route, including great views over Parque National d’Amorique. I arrived at the ferry with quite a few hours to spare, but in contrast to Portsmouth, they welcomed cyclists into the terminal building and I was even allowed to bring my bike into the café for a more comfortable wait. The crossing from Roscoff to Plymouth was very calm and much faster (only 6 hours) than the Portsmouth crossing (which takes about 10 hours). In Plymouth I only had to cycle 1.5 kms to my B&B and the alarm went off much too soon again for the last leg home the next morning.
Although there wasn’t much traffic on the roads when leaving Plymouth at 5:30am, the absence of traffic lights in Brittany immediately dawned on me, as I had to stop for more red lights in the first few minutes than I had encountered in the whole of Brittany! The first few hours in the dark and then in the mist up and over Dartmoor were tough, especially with the luggage on the back of the bike, but it soon warmed up and the scenery was just stunning. I had planned a 400 km route home, with the thought in the back of my mind that, if for some reason I couldn’t make it all the way, I could always phone up Chris and beg him to come and get me. I shouldn’t have worried though as I felt fine and strong and the ride was just such good fun.
By complete coincidence I met two riders from Audax Club Hackney, somewhere near Burrow Bridge in Somerset. They had set off from Poole at 2am for the 300km Hard Boiled Audax. Our routes only crossed/coincided for a few meters, but really nice to bump into some familiar and friendly faces so far from home. Nearer to home in Alresford (just past Winchester) I met a bunch of other Audax riders too who were about 2/3rds into their 300km 3Down ride. So far the ride had been absolutely amazing, with good weather and good spirits.
The last 100km were a bit more challenging. The temperatures started to fall, it got dark, it started to rain quite heavily and my Garmin run out of power (again, grrr!). My legs were still fine, but I felt annoyed that I had let myself down with my electronics again. I managed to make it to Godalming on my iphone and then was able to find my way home from memory. Initially I had planned to go back over Combe Lane and Green Dene, but in the heavy rain and pitch black the A25/A24 option seemed a safer one. To top it off, both my front lights failed in the last 30 minutes, but by then I was on mostly lit roads and only cared about getting home and dry. I knocked on the door at 10pm, cold but nowhere near as tired as I thought I would be. Bring on the 400km Severn Across Audax at the end of April and the 600km Bryan Chapman Memorial Audax in May!
Meanwhile… I have been silly enough to enter a fast 25 mile TT for this weekend, despite not having ridden the TT bike outside since September or trained at that kind of intensity… Oh well… at least I get to see many of my Born to Bike team mates and ride my new TT frame which magically came back in white having sent a black frame for repair. I can’t complain about a brand new frame at all, but just baby wipes won’t do anymore!