I never thought I had a problem with sleep – or should I say its lack. I’ve ridden a fair few overnight rides, and spent about 6 years chronically sleep deprived as a parent. On 400 km audaxes I often feel a little sleepy around dawn, and I managed my first 600 on just one hour. I had planned for about 2-3 hours on that one, and although I became a little anxious when my plans unravelled I felt pretty awake for most of the ride (despite audax fury trying to find a working cashpoint as proof of passage in the night). Continue reading
My first foray into cycle camping was a mixed experience: a week of scorching weather, fine company and challenging terrain followed by the twin insults of biblical weather and a stupid crash. Mix in a heroic rescue and a comic British Rail cameo and it sounds a story worth retelling one day. Caersws plays a minor role, a tiny settlement close to the route of the Plains 300 Audax: site of our dishevelled rail-transported return to London. Having arrived by bike, crossing into Wales via the Forest of Dean and having traversed Wales via Brecon, returning by train felt quite deflating. Not that we could have been much more punctured by fate. Continue reading
I got lost again – but that’s not the story. Instead it’s about being ill 48 hours before the event, but being ready on the day. It’s about favourable winds, lack of ice or rain, the snow stopping five minutes before the start. It’s about checking and replacing worn wheels, and preparing all the equipment and food even before the illness is definitely gone.
It’s not about being lost. It’s not even about finishing. It’s about starting.
One of the things I like about cycling is its relationship with improvisation. As a younger rider I rode long distances solo with lightweight camping equipment and no real plan. The day was spent riding from one camp site to another, with only wind and terrain governing my path. The two traditions of Audax, one where all ride together led by a captain (Euraudax), the other allure libre (where one might only meet other rider at controls or choose to ride as a group), are different distances from these roots. Although the “free” riding of the latter allows me to embrace uncertainty to an extent, there is a part of my psyche that craves a rejection of the safety in rules that allure libre audax presents. Audax riding is a pragmatic compromise for me, however: it provides a temporally and spatially contained opportunity to ride with or without others which is coherent with family and work constraints.
Four recent stimuli have made me reconsider my dedication to the collection of brevets: the first is the change that a clear goal (Paris-Brest-Paris 2015) has brought. This was the stimulus that drove me to finally become a Super Randonneur in 2014, an achievement I have avoided for many years. It is also the impetus that is currently overcoming the inertia I might otherwise have experienced after finishing my final brevet of last year, and drives me towards another SR and PBP. That drive, however has an opposing force: PBP itself exerts an influence on long distance cycling. The Audax Club Parisien designed the SR series as a way of training for PBP, and ensuring that entrants were suitably prepared. That doesn’t mean that there are no other valid motivations for riding an audax: but it does mean that PBP is an implicit as well as explicit goal whether we as riders acknowledge this or not. Although I have yet to experience it, all accounts I have read suggest that PBP is about as far from improvisation (and the x-rated Audax UK rides I have come to love) as one can get whilst having a card stamped. Its roots in racing are still apparent, and there is a huge mismatch between the versions of self-reliance it presents and those of local ACP-validated qualifying rides. That segues neatly into the second stimulus, which has been incubating for about three months: my final brevet of 2014 was a DIY event as I had missed my calendar 300 due to illness. The route, although validated by AUK, was designed by the lone rider, and evidenced purely through two gps files. Although I found my other SR rides enormously satisfying in their different ways, this was a completely different level of self-inflicted challenge, and although driven by the desire to complete my SR, actually reminded me of the role self-direction plays in my love of cycling. The final stimulus was encountering a number of articles about the trip taken by Gus and Lachlan Morton across the Australian Outback (Thereabouts). Although supported by a car and one-person support team/driver, there were aspects of their approach that spoke to me and reminded me of one of the books that haunts my cycling (Journey to the Centre of the Earth): the journeys are very different but there is an attention to people, places and the interaction of inner life and environment that resonated. Lastly, the Transcontinental Race provides a different way of negotiation freedom and rules, resulting in some extraordinary stories (especially Martin Cox’s 2014 ride) where the constraints of the race battle with an authentic sense of ethical purpose (see especially this and this).
So, although I enjoy the balance between security and self-reliance of Allure Libre I also long for the bottom-up joy of “doing it myself”. In 2016 I think I might aim to ride more DIY Audaxes, and maybe think about some more radically individual challenges. But first, there are many kilometres to ride to get to Brest and back, most of which will be ridden on fairly familiar roads.
When I designed my recent DIY by GPS permanent 300 (over-distance at 340 km) <see here for a set of photos on my tumblr> I used the Strava route planning tool, which can be set to find most popular or least hilly routes between two points. I had already decided my control points, and chose to minimise climbing on the last leg between Lytham and Hebden Bridge. The other controls were Middleham and Sedbergh in North Yorkshire, and Glasson Dock and Fleetwood on the Lancashire Coast. What I didn’t realise was that the Strava tool would create a route so unusual in its variety of cycle provision. So although this wasn’t my intention, my overwhelming thoughts on this ride revolved around my experience of differing approaches to integrating bicycles with other modes of transport. Although I wasn’t really going anywhere, my ride became about the surfaces and widths of path and road, the attempts made to combine cars, bicycles and walkers, the absence and presence of signage – all the things that puzzle me daily as I ride from home to station, station to work on my Brompton.
So for the remainder of this post I will revel in the phenomenology of the road travelled, divided up by types of road that offered different experiences, whether emotional or practical, with a final section on my experience of other vehicle-types and users, including the animals I encountered alive and dead.
Rural, urban and suburban single carriage A-roads
I rode them all, and much of my experience was determined by the presence or absence of cycle lanes, or indeed their nature (not all cycle lanes are created equal, see below). What I will say is that even the bits of A6 I had to negotiate were cycleable regardless of provision, and some of the A-roads were achingly beautiful and quiet even in the middle of the day. The oddest experience was the A-roads taking me back from Lytham to Hebden via the Lancashire towns of Preston, Bolton, Bury and finally Rochdale. Early evening they were full of taxi lunacy, but were fairly well appointed with cycle provision and the looming tower blocks of Rochdale were an evening highlight close to home.
Segregated mixed-use paths
The most pleasant surprise of my route was the shared-use provision through Lancaster (part of the Way of the Roses, see below) and Preston (the Guild Wheel). I fiddled extensively with this part of the route to minimise the use of such paths as my experience has been the surface is often unsuitable for a road bike, but left in some good lengths as an experiment and because there was no sensible alternative. I am delighted that I did because although I struggled to find the starts of such routes at times (and the exits) these provided an experience similar to Dutch segregated long routes, with a rather better surface than I could have wished for. I experienced no difficulties negotiating broken glass, runners, walkers, dogs or slower cyclists, and left these paths with sadness.
Way-marked on-road routes
The Way of the Roses runs from Bridlington in East Yorkshire to Morecambe in Lancashire, and is mostly quieter roads. Some of my route coincided with this route and I was impressed enough to think about doing the whole thing. Such routes have no obvious cycle provision in most places (although see above)
It sometimes feels like the most dangerous roads in Britain are its B-Roads, which have no cycle provision, may be narrow and permit high speeds. Most were fairly quiet and pleasant on this ride, and often provided a more scenic route, and minimised exposure to heavy traffic. I encountered a walker in high spirits in the Fylde on one who asked me how far I had to go. I think my response stumped him.
Cycle paths that weren’t
One of the most common irritations of route planning is where a physical or electronic map predicts there will be cycle provision and it is defunct (or unfindable). There is in principle a rather wonderful shared-use path from Fleetwood down the seafront past the Blackpool “entertainments” which I joined full of hope only to be dumped back on the traffic-light blighted main road past the tower and pleasure beach. Much of the path is out of use until the improvements to the seafront are complete in 2017, and even when I re-joined it I couldn’t figure out how to stay on it and foolishly joined the busy main road through the illuminations. This had its upside, but more on that below. The best example of a cycle path that wasn’t was when my Garmin took me down a dead end in Fleetwood and tried to route me down a clearly “no-cycling” footpath (obviously a popular illegal shortcut).
My most significant memory of an unclassified road on this route was the climb and descent of Park Rash. This is not a climb that forgives poor preparation or lack of determination, nor does it admit those that select too high a gear. I struggled with the loneliness and quiet on the ascent, although on the up-side of the climb visibility was good enough to be crushed by the sublime surroundings. No cars on the ascent, and two on the descent – no walkers either: and my going down was immersed in early-morning mist. No views, just the sheep, rabbits, grouse and other birds and mammals – including those dead from being hit by cars and one freshly killed by a bird of prey that was scared by my approach from its kill.
In general, although occasional encounters with cars and animals needed some care from me, these roads were straightforward to navigate but lonely. Road surfaces were generally poor, but by no means the worst of the ride.
Roads at odd times of day
The exemplar was riding from Hebden Bridge to and through Keighley before dawn. Quite an unusual experience as I would normally avoid riding through Keighley like the plague. Almost zero traffic, ghostly quiet. Like a disaster movie.
On-road cycle lanes (single white line)
Oh the horror of them, too narrow, strewn with road debris and often parked in. Also, due to the time of year, full of nuts and seeds dropped by overhanging trees. Ugh.
On-road cycle lanes (cross-hatched segregation)
I encounter these rarely, but was fairly impressed by some of the wider cycle lanes with a cross-hatched separator. Sadly the lack of traffic tends to mean they are full of debris, but at least they were wide enough to feel a bit further from heavy traffic.
Pavement cycle lanes
I DON’T HAVE AN OPINION ON IT
Other road users (including fauna)
Riding early mornings tends to rouse the wildlife, and I was inundated with animals, and birds that are normally hiding from the noise of traffic. Sheep were the main feature of North Yorkshire (and trying not to hit them); plentiful road kill was in evidence (see above on Park Rash) but the really prevalent feature of the ride was the plague of tiny insects that I spent most of the day riding through. Something about the Indian Summer we are having brought out clouds of unidentifiable bugs which I could feel hitting my skin on the descents. The other really unusual experience was being held up through Blackpool by the horse-pulled carriages along the seafront. I was tired enough by that point to experience the beginnings of intense road rage: thankfully I escaped on onto the quieter A-road to Lytham.
Here are the .gpx files of the route split into sections between controls
This post is light on photos, partly because I rode with Gavin Peacock (@themanfromicon) who is a proper photographer and will be writing this up elsewhere, but also because I was busy fixing punctures (rode over glass just after start) and for much of the ride, dealing with low temperatures and torrential rain. I could write a whole book on the weather we experienced, but suffice it say it was nearly as bad as this season’s Northwest Passage.
The key word was ‘we’: I have never ridden with anyone else for further than about 25 km on an audax, yet here I was riding 400 km with first one companion, then for the last 300 km or so a further 1-3. Apart from Gavin (who I only knew from twitter and dinner the night before) my most constant companion was Pete, a London – Edinburgh – London veteran, who like me, has designs on Paris – Brest – Paris next August. Although I love riding on my own, there are many advantages to steady companions who ride at about the same pace: we didn’t get lost, for one thing, and during the worst night section I have ever endured between Airmyn and Bretton it was a relief to be amongst friends. The companionship of the road is a beautiful thing, and I feel honoured to be part of it.
And the one photo I took: coincidentally it captured Pete and Calvin from London, just before Gavin and I met under a flyover to cape up at the end of the morning’s crisp but fragile sunshine.
I am already entered for this ride next year, as part of PBP qualification, and I am hopeful that it’s earlier May date will bring warmers and dryer weather. Do join me: it’s a fabulous route mixing flat and hills, and my post from last year gives some more details of the route and controls, as well as a lonelier account…
Technical Postscript: my front lighting (Exposure Toro) and Garmin functioned perfectly on this ride, although the custom way point function I used (via a .tcx file) was a bit of a mixed blessing. I carried too much food, and ate pretty well. I cursed my new tyres having suffered a slashed and finally unusable rear in the first 50 km, but the front reduced my hand pain considerably. I always carry a spare folding tyre, despite the bulk, and would have had to pack if I hadn’t. The whole experience was much less panicked than last year, where mechanical and navigational issues made running our of time a real possibility.
20 years ago I was knocked off my bike in central London riding home to watch the highlights of the Tour de France, which visited that year for the first time since 1974. I also met my partner. I am delighted to say that only two of these events are having anniversary celebrations this year. I last wrote about 2014 in January, having started the year with more kilometrage than I have ever gathered in Winter, and some high hopes for the year.
I did complete a 600km Brevet de Randonneur this year, but won’t manage a Super Randonneur Series. I have really enjoyed my riding this year, and will ride just one more event I think, in August. The Tour did come, and I am still reeling from having this slice of French spectacle rushing past the end of my road, slowly. But most of all I am delighted to say that I am still together with @accidentobizaro. Our relationship isn’t about cycling, but it is interwoven within our lives both as an intermittently shared activity, but also as a topic of conversation and as a jumping-off point for many seemingly irrelevant features of our lives. We have climbed Pyrennean and Alpine Cols together, but it is the climbs of the Vosges which the Tour de France visits this year on stages 9 and 10 which I think are most apt – our last big cycling holiday before starting a family was an extraordinary experience. Hair-dryer winds on the flat, and the cool at the top of the mountains; birthday cakes; anniversaries; Cremant…
So, let’s aim for a return to these shores for the Tour in 2034, I’m waiting… if it comes before, all well and good, but it’s something to aim at.
Addendum: as I was taking the photo of the rather misleading TdF sign at the beginning of this post I talked with and photographed a rider from London who had grown up in Hebden Bridge. His son had the same name as me, and lives in Stoke Newington, where I was living in 1994. Jung would like this very much.
I have written a lot about doping here, especially in relation to competitive cycling. Since I do not race, this is fairly neutral territory, and I can at least maintain a degree of objectivity. Recent discussion of the use of strong pain killers such as Tramadol, and of medical interventions for asthma and other respiratory issues in professional cycling, and my recent encounter with pain and injury has brought this all a little closer to home. Any medication can enhance performance, and the ethical issues here are complex: many athletes could not compete at all without asthma medication, and there are many situations where anti-inflammatory medication or an analgesic would be perfectly reasonable to enable someone to continue with a minor injury. I would suggest that there are three issues that limit such medical intervention in competition, notwithstanding chronic conditions which require maintenance:
- the injury or condition should not be made worse by the use of medication;
- the medication should not enhance the athlete’s performance above their baseline without such medication; and
- the medication should be within the rules of the sport.
I had a Dutch colleague once whose practice when travelling abroad was to get lost. Intentionally. At a conference in Liège in the early 1990s I accompanied him on late night walk off the University campus (which is out of town at the top of a hill). I hadn’t quite appreciated the extent of his dedication to lostness, and the combination of pitch darkness, unfamiliar territory and dry Dutch humour will stay with me for ever.
I have been lost many times, and mostly on ‘audax’ rides (or randonnées as they really should be called, as on an actual audax, with a road captain getting lost is virtually impossible). My night-time navigation skills are becoming legendary in their inaccuracy, but I am equally capable of turning the wrong way or missing a cue sheet instruction during the day. Recently, Gavin Peacock, who wrote this account of his first 200 here, suggested to me that the absence of yellow arrows, the potential for navigational failure is a feature, not a bug, in the allure libre model of riding that characterises the brevets randonneur organised by Audax UK, and that this was something that positively differentiates this model of riding from the cyclosportive. Despite the cursing that results from my lack of ability to follow a cue sheet, I think he might be right. Even when I have tried to reduce my off-route wandering by using a GPS device I have been foiled by software and hardware failures, or lost signal: it is as if the gods of audax intend me to be forever questioning my progress from control to control, hoping for a sign.
There is getting lost, and the fear of getting lost. Actually being lost is disturbing, but is a problem to be solved, and as my Dutch friend would have argued, a means to finding the unexpected and unplanned. The fear of getting lost is quite something else, and because of the strict time limits on brevets, can lead to a level of stress which takes the fun out of what should be a challenging adventure, hence my attempts to limit my failings using a Garmin. When added to the uncertainty (due to inexperience) of calculating average riding speed versus sleep on my first Brevet 600 (The East and West Coasts) I nearly allowed it to corrupt my enjoyment. Strangely, despite getting lost quite significantly in the Fylde after the Glasson Dock control, and thinking I was lost looking for it, I managed my time very well, completing the ride with two hours left to spare. As per usual, my efforts to stay on course were stymied by lack of confidence, failure of said Garmin at the 400km mark (which wouldn’t even hard reset), and the loss of my watch at the HQ after my one hour sleep stop. Following a route sheet after 4-500km gets pretty tough even with a functioning odometer, but without even a watch I found judging distance and time almost impossible. Two things stopped me from becoming a latter day Flying Dutchman of the Fylde: my phone (which was still charged and working, I had plenty of external power) and, unsurprisingly, fellow riders (often as unsure of the route as this stage as I, but there was safety in numbers) on the same route, and at one point a random racer who actually waited at the next junction and directed me like a race marshal. I was so addled at this stage that I cannot remember the names of the cycling couple who allowed me to suck their wheels just before and after the mysterious Cartford Toll Bridge control, but they were a high point of my ride – I hope we meet again and I can redeem my embarrassment.
In the main, I kept to the route, however and despite the agony of the last 100km, where my lack of preparation and limited sleep caused me to lose position on the bike and end up with battered hands and arms and sore shoulders (more on this in a companion piece), this was a wonderful and magical experience. I had no mechanical or lighting problems (new Exposure light was very good) and felt great on the bike for most of the ride. This was a wonderfully organised ride, and a credit to Audax UK, Chris Crossland and his helpers. My second high point after the kindness of others was the experience of eating fish and chips in the LANTERN O’ER LUNE CAFÉ at Glasson Dock. Quite extraordinary, and every visit I have made there has been on an Audax, and each one magical in its own way.
It’s a long while since I rode the North-West Passage in biblical weather. Look what just arrived! Maybe I’ll do another…