Wistful on the Fens (Capitals of East Anglia 300)

Wistful – having or showing a feeling of vague or regretful longing

As we rolled out of Girton at 6AM Alex and I were joking about affecting the black and white Rapha photo look and Alex said I had to try and look Wistful. I said that would be a great word to put into the title of a blog post, a real challenge would be ‘Wistful in the Fens’.

We both knew what was coming. The Fens. Long straight roads bang into the prevailing winds. Cambridgeshire Hills. Being from that part of the world Alex is a connesseur of such terrain and I have enough versions of rides from Essex and LEL to know just how brutal they can be. Top that off with ‘Storm Hannah’.

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Gusts 45-55 mph.

Now the BBC is often guilty of exaggeration on the weather, and often weather has worn itself out as it moves from East to West over the country, losing as much a 50% of it’s impact by the time it makes East Anglia.

Well such fantasies at least got me out of bed at 4am.

I had really been vacillating on this one. Partly just because that’s the nature of my brain, partly because I have a big month of riding and work coming up, partly because I am getting over a cold. And storm Hannah.

Here is are the two sides of my attitude to doing this ride – the contradiction helpfully being noted by a riding mate…

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So, after a ridiculous amount of indecision Stephanie pointed out that I had got ready for it so I might as well go. I rely on Steph to tell me my own mind on occasion, objectivity is always appreciated.

Back to Girton, 6am.

There’s a guy lying on the ground groaning in pain saying ‘You idiot,  you idiot’. I though someone must have run into him but it turns out later that a piece of road furniture had it in for him. Nothing broken, but it looked very very sore indeed.

I was unusually apprehensive still and managed to make three wrong turnings inside the first 20km which is really hard to do. And a bit embarrassing as you overtake the same group of riders several times in a row.

Yes me, I am an idiot. Again. And again.

I was aiming to ride by myself the whole way and keep to my ‘rule’ of 125-130 bpm heart rate. This is for a couple of reasons – firstly it’s good training on pacing and secondly you don’t get into the world of self-motivation when you ride with others. There is a special little world that happens when you ride solo for a long way, and I need to spend time there before Normandicat in (gulp) six weeks time.

Even so I had a quick chat to Judith before giving a rider a 20 minute tow towards Ipswich at the end of which, deeply rested, he passed me without a word of acknowledgement. Awesome, my favourite thing! I might want to ride alone but saying ‘Hi’ as you pass is pretty much compulsory right?

Right?

No? Ok, fuck you to then.

I know, so aggressive, but really folks….

So all good to Ipswich, empty roads, grey, coolish, threatening rain but nothing coming, steady as she goes. In Ipswich I do a quick Tesco Express raid and have the first of several coffees to impart a small feeling of internal warmth.

Out of Ipswich and onto the best leg of the ride for me. Lots of new roads, laney, narrow and pretty much empty. Lots of small cottages tucked down back roads, deep hedges, quiet corners where you feel cell phone coverage may never quite reach, kept at bay by ancient curses and the efforts of modern hedge witches.

I call this part of Suffolk ‘Witch Suffolk’ and I am very fond of it. The classic way to traverse it from London is the Dunwich Dynamo ride which comes north, so this was a lovely and welcome variation.

Soon I am through Wickham Market and into ‘Sandy Suffolk’ – as soon as you cross the A12 the soil turns to sand. I wonder if the A12 was built on the very edge of the solid bit of East Anglia and everything from that point East is basically a beach? Through the quiet roads to Campsea Ashe, then Blaxhall then onto the middle-class sanctuary of Snape. A great litany of names for hamlets.

The riding is not easy as such (I am keeping to my regime) and I don’t ever look at my speedo, but I know the wind has been at my back for hours now, and I know that this easy speed has to be paid for when you do a circular route, but I am choosing to dial into the pleasure of the now and leave the rest ’til later.

There’s the horrible bit of road from Snape to Leiston (unavoidable, truly hideous in Summer) but it’s ok going and then there’s the wonderful back road into Dunwich via Minsmere.

It’s still pretty much empty, there has been moments of showers but nothing persistent. I have seen my shadow on the road for five minutes at one point, but the dominant hue is grey.

The cafe at Dunwich doesn’t have much in the way of GF food so I don’t stay for long. Alex catches me up, we comment on the speed and he pops down to the beach to take some photos. He is a good photographer so I am looking forward to them… he can make the grey sing in one way or another.

This is half way but it doesn’t feel like it. Average for the leg (looking at it now) is 26.2kph which is pretty good for me in the context of a 300.

The route angles a little bit west and the wind-assist drops a little (average for this 55km is 23.4kph which is more normal for. More lovely laney back roads, I am really enjoying the route, in no great rush.

Twenty km from Norwich I pass a rider who is obviously having GPS issues. He quickly tags on and confesses his problem so, while I am committed to a solo ride I am also not going to fail to give someone a hand when they are stuck, so I clear my throat and begin to shout directions. Soon there is another guy behind, he doesn’t announce himself and, twenty minutes of easy drafting behind us later, overtakes without saying hello.

Fuck you too mate. Opps, I said I was going to stop that.

180km is usually around about where I give up on any kind of speed up hills and I have to establish a new normal average speed – which is to say I lose any top-end zip. The only reason I will get out of the saddle from now on is to give the area a rest, I am pretending to attack anything.

I have a nice chat to Mike regardless. He is a bit younger than me and also a bit faster. Turns out he lives in Norwich and is going to go home and try to upload his GPS again. We part ways on the high street – it’s been nice to have some banter but I am quite looking forward to getting back (down) to my own pace.

2:30 now. I get down into the laney bit of Norwich central and try and find somewhere to eat. I am looking for a cafe, which are surpusingingly friendly to GF people as they will inevitably do a baked potatoe, but as this is a high street they only have the usual run of Prets, Costas, Subways and Macs. I briefly sit down in a cafe where I realise that the staff have uniforms that include pinafores and the average patron is female, rich, retired. I am probably not their target market. Turns out the Gluten Free menu is basically tea or coffee or meruinge. I clip-clop in my searing yellow top back along the perfectly shined floor and try my luck somewhere else.

And find (the only?) hipster coffee joint. Tats, a man juggling, instagrammable table settings. Tick tick tick. And some *actual* GF options. I sit up and wait an unreasonably long time for food but enjoy a very nice coffee and some bantz with a local gent while eapsedropping a conversation between a radio presenter and a local politician about Brexit.

All good fun, but it took a very loooooooooong time for that food. Which was lovely and the people there were very pro cycling and interested in the ride as they had seen people drifting by the front window.

So instead of the 30 minute stopped planned the whole Norwich experience took an hour.

I knew, everyone knew, this was the beginning of the hard bit. There was no hiding now, head into the block 25 mph headwind.

This is all about discipline. Specially when riding by yourself there is just no point in flaying yourself on the wind, you just have to stick to the drill – 130bpm, let the gusts slow you down, don’t fight anything. Time goes slower when you fight, you get angry, frustrated, and what’s the point of that when you are looking at 4-6 hours of this?

The discipline itself is tiring. The roads are suddenly inland roads, pretty boring actually. The weather is still a bit shit, it’s continually about to rain, it’s grey, there are cars. Trying to put all of that aside and pedal and find something interesting to look at… for a good two hours. I even went back to basis meditation practices, counting in-breaths, to try and stop myself holding onto thoughts about how boring this was.

Next control, Watton, 38km. Two hours. Sloooooow.

If Watton had any charms at all they were hiding themselves very well. It felt run-down and a bit angry – projection?! Actually that’s not true, the man in the convenience store was very nice. I stopped long enough to quaff some calories, put on wets and have a quick chat to Alex who turned up as I was leaving.

Turns out Watton has that feeling because it’s very near a place called the Stanford Training Area which, on the map, is a large grey rectangle. In real life it was pretty close to that, but with a few small woods and a lot of warning signs. So Watton was basically a squadie town – that explained it’s unwillingness to resist the typecasting that the weather and my experience was applying to it – grey, grim, grinding.

The good news was that the wind had died down a bit. That wasn’t even remotely true, but there was a fantasy at work here and one that I know others had. It has the following wishful thinking elements:

  • Wind dies down at night
  • The storm was meant to blow itself out in the next twelve hours
  • Perhaps the front has shifted and I am now in it’s outer circles of influence

As something of ex yacht person and occasional  follower of round the world yacht races, I was thinking that, like a lucky skipper, I was capitalising on a good turn in the weather. I know when I start thinking like this, in terms of tacking and reaching, that the wind is pretty high.

Turns out I was wrong on all counts. The route had just turned a few degrees out of the wind and entering a part of the world where big flat forests dominated, the wind was just being pushed overhead. Still it was a useful fantasy and it kept me going for the leg.

It was strange territory though. With the straight roads and the forest and the dying light it felt a bit like I had stumbled onto an set for an American Netflix Box Set. I was waiting for a strong light to come from the woods, or something oval to appear over the trees and then just hover there while my brain slowly heated up. Actually something like that would at least have been more interesting than crawling along straight roads through trees.

Also it’s close to the way you come through for Green and Yellow Fields, but half a mile or so east, so I was getting a little confused for signs to Brandon and Lakenheath and thinking that it must be way more that 60km back to Girton? Of course we were going through Lakenheath the town, to the east of Lakenheath the airbase, so it did all make sense eventually and I felt briefly settled – I knew where I was, the wind had dropped and I was settling in for a steady 60km final leg knowing that things were pretty much done.

And then the Garmin turned me right, the road sign reading ‘Sedge Fen Baptist Church’.

If this was meant to be the road to salvation let me tell you it was not. It was the hell from which we hope to be delivered – straight into the unabated headwind. Wind drop? Nope. Add to that the straight, featureless, hedge-free roads.

So the wind, still very peaky, with nothing between it and the blows it laid on me, and no visual distraction on account of it very  nearly being dark. This was beyond efforts to tolerate or overcome, this just needed to be suffered and endured.

I stuck to the plan. 130 bpm. It was so boring I started to really notice the road surfaces as they changed from a bit rough, to wallowly, to broken and back. I really started to concentrate on all the little normal niggles in the body – the arse, the hands, the neck – and work on making them so much bigger issues than they really were.

Wistful on the Fens? Not an effing chance sorry Alex. There was no vague or regretful longing here, not an ounce of romance, a shred of longing beyond a very simple desire to get to the next control. That is not wistful.

Eventually I passed someone leaning on a gate next to a field – Mike! I waved and continued on, thinking he much be having a boredom break. Quite a bit later he caught me up and said he was still having problems with the Garmin and had been stopping and consulting his phone for direction. This is a grim state of affairs and I immediately rescued him from it by sheltering behind him and shouting turnings again. Unforetunatl there was only a few kms to Ely so I didn’t get much shelter.

In Ely we rode through town looking for somewhere to get a warm drink, went right through before deciding to go back and look again. We spent too long in a convenience store on the high street before setting off again only to discover that just a couple of hundred metres on from where we looped back there was a big shiny petrol station full of Audaxers. Such is the payback for not reading the route sheet. At least we got to see the cathedral twice – it really is something.

Mike had confessed that he had a good moments of doubt on the leg from Norwich – ability to do PBP, thoughts of never riding a long distance event again. I nodded, yeo, I feel like that every time too, the only difference is I have had them for a few more years than him so I know they are just part of the terrain of FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) that goes hand in hand with Audax for most of us. After all this really is an extreme thing to be doing – most people are happy to think that 100 miles is a long way on a bike.  What we do is, frankly, mental.

Luckily the angle was different again and the going was a bit easier. Mike, still younger and stronger and now just wanting the effing ride to be over, was setting a good pace at the front and I could just about keep up and shout directions as needed – our roles were clear now!

There were even a couple of moments where the road turned down wind and we just kind of coasted in shock at the sudden silence and relief.

Finally – finally – we crossed the guided bus way  and I knew we were done.  10:45pm. While that is quite a while for a flat 300 there was the extra hour of over distance riding and a total of two and a half hours stopped (those last two stops stretched on it seems). The last 120km average speed was 19.3km and the overall 22.7 which is a big step down from the 26.2 for the first 200!

So very much a ride of two halves, both in terrain and experience. In some ways I would have been happier to turn around at the halfway point and retrace the route I liked it so much, but then contrast can lend it’s own dimension to the ride.

Without the savage wind the second half would have been dead flat, easy to navigate and a lot more tolerable, maybe even interesting – it’s hard to pass judgement on it with such extreme weather. I can say that the route is brilliant in the way I like just about all the way to Norwich. As a route it’s eminently fixed friendly and there are solid and well placed food options all the way round, though after Norwich, Watton and (late night) Ely are convenience store and/or garage stops.

As always the Arrive is top-notch on Nick’s rides – a small plate of chilli and GF cake (yes, really) were very welcome. Sitting chatting with Mike and Dave Minter and (finally) Alex after the event was great fun, and with the ride done and the strain of the wind comfortably behind it was nice to relax and chat and watch (now soaking wet) riders coming in.

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Mike, myself and Dave M having a laugh at the Arrive.

So all in all a tough but not ridiculous ride. In good weather it would be an absolute gem and a nice first 300 or early season warm up.

At a personal level I had ridden 90% of it solo and I would have had to be a real arse to dump Mike in it, so I was happy to help him out (and take that bit of shelter!). Mike, if you are reading this you are well and truly strong enough for PBP, it’s the dealing with the time on the bike that might be the challenge 🙂

My 130bpm strategy had worked well and a steady approach had worked very well. I was comfy enough on my steel bike and didn’t get the sore back I often get on the (identical positioned) carbon bike – so a choice to be made here at some point between the slightly faster disc brake bike or the slightly more comfortable steel bike. First world choices!

So now onto another new ride, the Invicta 400 from Gravesend in a couple of weeks time…

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