As part of my preparations for London-Edinburgh-London at the end of July, and ultimately my End 2 End record attempt in September, I decided to ride two 400km Audax events back to back at the end of April. On Saturday 29 April at 6am I set out for the 407km London-Wales-London, followed by a departure from Poole on Sunday 30 April at 2pm for the Porkers 400. I just wasn’t hardcore enough to ride between the two events…
It has taken me a little while to sit down, recollect my memories and decide how best to approach a write-up about these experiences. Part of my intentions with this blog is to write about lessons learned along the way, rather than just reporting on wins or achievements. So here it goes.
I had a blast during the first event, covering the London-Wales-London route in 16 hours and 34 minutes. I would have to dig out last year’s brevet card, but I am pretty chuffed with that as I recall finishing in not a lot less last year when I was following Chris Herbert’s wheel most of the time, compared to this year when I was riding solo all the way and finished not too long after Chris – he was probably riding a lot faster, but I have the benefit of not needing to stop for cigarette breaks.
The event, which this year was re-branded from the somewhat less inspiring ‘Severn Across’ to ‘London-Wales-London’, was well-promoted with its own website, Facebook page and even a Strava group. The organiser had gone out of his way to attract a wider audience than the traditional Audax crowd, and it was noticeable. The event was oversubscribed with more than 100 riders. In the end 95 went out and 81 completed the ride. There were significantly more women than I have seen at any other Audax and I think quite a few people who were new to this style of event. The controls were also upgraded, with lots of tasty food and friendly volunteers at the village halls and cafes making it quite a bit more tempting to linger at the stops than a random Co-Op or petrol station.
I won’t try to describe the event in detail. Others have done so much more eloquently than I ever could. I really recommend checking out some of the links below for some great blogs and shots. I think that it was a far easier day for the faster riders though, as we got back before the wind increased too much and the temperatures dropped.
- Go West. And then come back. by Jo Burt (VecchioJo)
- The importance of people by Grace Lambert-Smith (GraceQOM)
- London-Wales-London 400km audax by Gavin Peacock (The Man from ICON)
Having done this ride twice now, I definitely want to do it again next year and I hope that some of you who read this will enter it too. It takes in some great scenery and there is something special about realising you have just ridden to Wales and back in a day! The only thing I may change for next year is perhaps adding some clip-on aerobars to my road bike (both for speed and comfort) or ride it on the TT bike, even if that may attract laughter from some because it is such overkill compared to the classic steel bike most opt to ride.
The next day I drove down to Poole for a leisurely 2pm start from the ferry terminal for the Porkers 400, where, despite being some way from home, I was pleased to see quite a few familiar faces, including fellow Kingston Wheeler Sarah Perkins and various Audax Club Hackney riders.
At first, I thought the info sheet the organiser had sent out in advance was perhaps a bit exaggerated, presenting it as a bigger challenge than it I thought it would be. Here are some extracts from how the ride was described:
“Porkers: exceeding ‘difficult’; surpassing ‘tough’; crafted to physically and mentally test the long distance cyclist” …. “The road surfaces, so long in mild decay are now akin to bridleways. Expect potholes and ruts everywhere” …. “Make no mistake, Porkers 400 is not ‘just a bike ride’. It’s much more. If not a rite of passage – devilishly close”… “Prepare a DNF strategy. It is not inconceivable that you may have to abandon”.
But the organiser was spot on, especially with the weather conditions we had to endure. It rained for the first 13 hours or so. That wasn’t too much of an issue during the first section between Poole and Portland Bill (that section was just lumpy and exposed to the wind), but it became more of an issue during the night when the little lanes became increasingly akin to rivers and there just wasn’t any line to take to avoid the stones and debris being washed into the road.
The scariest part was a very steep (20%) descent on a twisty lane somewhere between Corscombe and Winterbourne Whitechurch in the middle of the night which was not just wet but also covered in thick mist. So much so, that I actually had to stop, check where the road went and slowly continue riding again.
For some of the time I had been riding with 1 or 2 other riders, but due to the lumpiness of the route people would quickly adopt their own pace and for most of the ride I was alone. I was lucky to have company from the lovely Charlotte Thompson (who is training for the TransAtlanticWay, a 2500km self-supported race along the Irish coastline) when suddenly my crank fell off on a climb. At first, I just thought my cleat was a bit wobbly; the next moment when I looked down I saw a whole crank hanging off my cycling shoe! Luckily, I managed to stop and get off the bike without falling over, with Charlotte and Rob Herridge kindly helping me to get the crank back on the bike.
Normally I don’t eat that much on an Audax and only make very short stops. This time I made sure to eat absolutely everything that was offered at the manned controls from pasta bakes to potatoes and from rice pudding to bacon butty, I ate it all.
Everything was just soaking wet. I made the mistake to take my gloves off at the West Buckland Village Hall only for the lining to becoming loose. If it wasn’t for a kind volunteer to help get all the fingers in the right place again (and double-check my crank too), I would still have been stuck there as my Raynaud’s fingers make riding without gloves during a wet and cold night impossible. I hugged the heaters in the village halls as much as I could and was surprised that the many cups of hot tea I drank somehow still didn’t make me need the toilet.
During the dark, wet and cold night section, when most other riders were sensible and had a little sleep at Corscombe Village Hall, I pushed on into the wet and cold night. I can’t remember too much from the section between Corscombe and Winterbourne Whitechurch other than seeing quite a few fairly large animals crossing the road. I wasn’t hallucinating, but I am not too sure what they were either, badgers perhaps?
It was a proper grim night, especially when riding solo. I was somewhat relieved to hear from others and read on the forum that I wasn’t the only person who had been struggling in the wet and in the cold. Many riders had packed up and even hard-core Audax riders commented that was a proper tough event in those conditions. In total, there were only 30 finishers. I certainly counted many more starters. The organiser wasn’t being overly cautious with his warning about the need for a DNF strategy!
Some of the climbs were just horrendously steep and there were very few flat sections which made it both fun and scenic, but also challenging for someone like me who doesn’t like to climb hills. With 5,900 meters of climbing over 400km this Audax definitely deserves its 6 Audax Altitude Award (AAA) points. There was one climb (luckily fairly early on) between Portland Bill and Beaminster which was 25% and the only way to ride it (for me) was to zig zag up it. I was glad to be riding a compact chainset with an 11-28 cassette, but at times I wished I had the luxury of a 30T or 32T. Although it was challenging, I was proud to have managed the hills better than anticipated. I only had to walk up 1 hill (Alfred’s Tower) when I couldn’t be bothered with the last steep ramp anymore and walking was in fact quicker than riding!).
I made the mistake to charge ahead of everyone (or people who had been ahead of me had dropped out) when a little before dawn on the section between Winterbourne Whitechurch and Crockerton the inevitable happened… a rear puncture and not enough control over my frozen gloved hands to fix it or enough brain capacity to realise that the valve of the spare inner tube I was trying to use was faulty. I waited for what felt like forever. By the time daylight had arrived, I was lucky for Alan Parkinson (SWRC) to pass by and stop to kindly help me out and I was soon on my way again.
It made me feel really annoyed with myself though to not be able to even fix a simple puncture, but under these conditions (combined with lack of sleep) even simple mechanicals can be more complicated than usual. It did make me finally take action to become less dependent on the kind help of others though. I have since practised changing tyres with my gloves on. Arguably my hands weren’t frozen, so I may need to simulate that some more. And I am really looking forward to a class at London Bike Kitchen all about gears. Next up is a class all about brakes, then a class all about cycle touring maintenance and perhaps then (and with some bivvying practice) I may feel slightly more confident to have a go at some long distance unsupported racing next year.
By now it had finally stopped raining and it was warm and sunny for the run into Crockerton for a stop at the picturesque settings of Shearwater Lakeside Café. I even had an ice cream! The final section of the route was great fun with great views and pretty much the only long section of what felt like an endless gradual descent along a super smooth and fast road (the kind of road that just makes you want to shout with excitement). I was lucky to find the company of another rider (unfortunately I cannot recall his name) who was well-matched and up for a bit of a 2-up TT to the finish. By the time we got there (around 11:40am after 21 hours and 40 minutes), it had turned into a beautiful sunny day and it was time for yet another ice cream, this time by the seaside at the Café in the Park. One other rider had finished first, just ahead of us. He told me about his yearly diet regime 6-8 weeks ahead of Porkers 400. I can see that if there ever was a time to shift some weight, this would be the ride for it!
I wouldn’t do this ride justice by only talking about the challenging parts. The organiser wasn’t just right about the difficulty of the ride, he also was spot on about the beauty of this ride.
“Porkers enjoys ‘Best of’ status with many experienced AUKs. Seven challenging phases take you to a pinnacle of cycle touring achievement”… “Intensely rural with few towns of any substance visited, Porkers is idyllic”… “your reward? The Blackdown’s sundown; nocturnal fauna; a Bulbarrow sunrise; vistas, grand and sweeping; rural idylls far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife”.
The only thing I am left wondering is how much more amazing this ride could be if it was somehow possible to cover even more of it in the day light (and hence see more of the landscape). Perhaps an earlier start?
After Porkers 400 I still don’t like hills, but I am strongly contemplating riding the whole Wessex Audax series next year if I can make the dates as the views and the sense of achievement are just amazing. I may even start to enjoy climbing. Perhaps even more so if I follow Rob Herridge’s pre-Porkers diet.
So, what lessons did I take away from this back-to-back Audax experience?
- My endurance engine is working fine and I felt fitter and stronger than I had anticipated > take confidence from that for LEL and other upcoming endurance events.
- The #BeTheEgg cap did the trick, I got through some very tough patches on the Porkers 400.
- Riding solo in horrific conditions doesn’t face me, but hypothermia remains a big risk factor > invest in some new Sportful Fiandre gloves or an even better alternative.
- This ride confirmed what I learned during last year’s Bryan Chapman Memorial (BCM) 600k: my capacity for clear/solution thinking diminishes severely with cold and sleep deprivation > anticipate problems and rehearse solutions until they become routine.
- Stop chancing it and relying on help from others > sign up for a proper maintenance course and practice until I feel confident sorting out most things on the go.
- Eat, eat, eat, especially on a cold wet night. Nothing is as comforting as hot food, hot cups of tea, warm heaters and friendly smiles and help from the volunteers at the controls. Always show appreciation.
- Isobar Compression calf sleeves are just awesome, providing an extra layer of warmth underneath my long bibtights, keeping my legs as fresh as possible to get through this double bill and aiding with muscle recovery after the rides.
- The Wahoo ELEMNT is a great piece of kit, spot on navigation and reliable battery life too.
- The drive home from Poole was just the hardest thing of the weekend, having to stop at almost every service station for a little snooze so as not to fall asleep at the wheel > next time, take the train or book some accommodation for a sleep before the drive home.
- Hills are more fun than I care to admit, I just need to ride a few more of them…
Having completed two 200k, one 300k and two 400k Audax rides this year, I just have a 600k left to ride to complete the Super Randonneur Series. I would have loved to have done the BCM again, but this year that clashed with a wedding invite. Instead I will ride the Pair of Kirtons 600k this weekend, which starts just south of Stockport, crossing the Pennines into Yorkshire, over the Humber Bridge and then flat all the way back across Lincolnshire. With just 3,000m of climbing in 600k, there are no AAA points on offer and it is, on paper, an ‘easy’ 600. But as most Dutch people know, wind on exposed flat sections can sometimes be more challenging than hills …
I look forward to it and hope the conditions are good enough to even bring the TT bike. The night before I will be speaking about my End 2 End record attempt preparations at The Green Jersey in Clitheroe. There is still time to get your tickets.