Tasting the ashes – Invicta Phoenix 400

“This is horrible” said the woman who, for reasons which will become obvious, I am calling The Mother.

“This is horrible” was a dense heavy local shower, one of those proper rain deluges that don’t often catch you out but when they do they take you over like a private hell. It’s not just the wet it’s the not being able to see much as you plummet down a hill, it’s the way traffic feels a lot more dangerous, it’s the way stopping becomes more protracted and the way the road hazards are hidden under a leaping sheet of water.

I had been following wheels across the first part of the ride, a continual up and down and left and right threading along the top of the downs towards Ide’s hill. The rain had started, ignorable, then become enough that everyone was making turns off the road, seeking shelter to roll on their wet weather gear, quietly praying that the forecast of ‘clearing’ was correct. 425km in the rain is no fun.

It was so wet I wasn’t even particularly aware that I had ridden up the easy side of Ide’s hill until I was dropping off it at great speed, feathering my slightly pathetic rim brakes to stay a safe distance behind the couple in front.

It wasn’t cold so the rain wasn’t eating into my core warmth, so it was just a case of seeing it out. But it took some time to let up.

At the first control in Edenbridge people were looking a little sceptical – just how long would this rain last?

By the time we got to the next control at Rudgwick the worst had gone. And now we were off the ride and into the valley the going was easier and prettier, the traffic less intense. It’s the South East after all, you’re not going to be alone for very long on these roads.

I bounced Rudgwick on a whim – it just looked like the kind of place that wouldn’t have the GF food that I needed. 10km down the road and I realised I was running out of energy and would bonk if left unfed for half an hour, so I pulled over and rummaged through my bags. I founds a sachet of complan (!) that I put in as a test sometime ago and next got around too. It felt very 80s, but I mixed one with some water and it was surprisingly effective, keeping the wolves at bay all the way to Haslemere, where I took a stop at a Costa just off route and had the food I should have had earlier. At least I knew Costa would have something I could eat, GF porridge, a cereal bar and a BIG latte.

I was well and truly riding alone now, as I wanted. It’s not that I don’t enjoy company but I am still prepping for Normandicat and solo pacing is what that kind of riding is all about, so that’s what I was rehearsing. My HRM stopped working so I couldn’t ride to pace, but it was interesting to see if I could do the same thing, more or less, with RPE.

Also riding alone allowed me to climb back into the ride. For the first couple of hours I had resented being on the ride, a waste of a day I could be spending with the family, or doing many of those things that needed doing around the house, or some more writing. I was decidedly shitty for most of the way to Winchester, by which time the scenery and the inevitability of what I was doing wore me down. I had decided to do this, to do Normandicat and PBP, and this is what you have to do to get through those – commit, even if you are not feeling it. Commitment trumps motivation.

Luckily the road was all new, the scenery fresh and the weather improving. There were some genuinely nice back lanes, one in particular that was like a private drive strewn with expensive real estate that twisted and turned delightfully through woods.

As for Winchester itself the route avoided it, suggesting a stop instead at Tesco Extra where I picked up enough GF food to get me through a night at a pinch; some pita pockets and 5 GF cereal bars. I also visited Winstanley’s bikes in the industrial park next door and picked up some gels, just because it was there.

The next 30km to Petersfield were easier – we must have turned a little downwind? I had planned to take a stop at the Spoons here, but on entering decided that Saturday at 6pm was not the best time, I stood out A LOT amongst the families and the youth getting in early rounds, looking like they were audtioning for Love Island.

Leaving them to their fake tans I headed back to a Waitrose and had a luxurious Audax Picnic on a becn in the car park. After so much sweet food all day it was nice to have some actual rice and veggies.

From Petersfield the next couple of hours were magic – drifting along the back lanes and valleys as the sun slowly settled into the western hills. The Meon valley was sublime. I was inhabiting near enough the same bubble with a couple of other riders and, as the dark kicked it, settled into that habit of looking for tail lights up valleys.

The terrain was rolling and after Steyning there were multiple crossings of main arterials that linked London to the Coast. There was plenty of height loss and gain without ever feeling like you were climbing a lot.

I was on my second bike which has bar-end levers and I was getting pretty sick of reaching down to shift gear and change front chainrings – the changing gradients and dips and rises were pretty relentless by this point and fatigue was kicking in – this was a long leg at just over 90km and the average speed dropped pretty sharply at this point.

The drop to Lewes made you realise quite how much up you had already upped and just on midnight I came into the BP and had a top-up food stop. I chatted with The Mother before stepping out into what I thought would be the hardest leg – the night time 60km to Rye.

The good news was that The Mother had told me that Rye was a luxury stop. I had forgotten it, but there was a dropbag option and food there. Awesome. I was carrying a summer-weight half-sleeping bag (less than 200gm) and a light down jacket and was expecting to have to do a shivery nap somewhere on route. Given the temp was quite a bit lower than expected, closer to 0 than the 5 expected, this was not an experience I was looking forward to!

And the 60km was hard and slow, just on three hours for me. Speed always drops at night, but it was also lumpy and, due to mist, my glasses were continually fogging up. Cars that approached had the ‘close encounters of the third kind’ look, hazing the mists with their defracting light.

My second bike also had a bottom gear of only 34 x 28 which is more sportive than Audax, but I was coping easily enough on it. I did have a sense of humour failure on ‘Steep hill’, where the mist was particularly bad and I felt like I was climbing in a sea of grey sludge.

As I ghost towards Rye the very first blush of the day comes in and settles on top of the mist that rolls beneath me, still high on a ridge. It’s cold now, and 18 hours in so things are getting a little wonky perception wise. I am glad I don’t have to try and find a quiet spot for a nap in my too-light half sleeping bag.

The Rye control then was very welcome indeed. The organisers had nailed it. First of all it was warm, secondly the crew were fantastic. One of them even remembered me from a previous ride as a coeliac and offered me rice cakes. So I had rice cakes and bacon and eggs at 3 in the morning. I also had some Pita left so all was good with the world.

With my light-weight bag on I was able to lie on my back and get to sleep easy enough without any padding on the floor. When I am tired the floor just disappears. I woke again exactly one minute before the alarm went off, 90 minutes later.

A quick chat to Martin who tells me off for describing myself as slow on my blog, but we are at the control at the same time Martin so that makes us about as slow/fast as each other right? I ghosted Martin a little before a control earlier and he rides exactly half a kilometer an hour slower than me. Small differences!

Back out around six, the sun just beginning to take the edge off the cold. Later on people are reporting temperatures near zero for the night time. But that is all soon forgotten as I set off towards Kent into what is going to be a lovely day.

Over the next couple of hours Kent wakes up. A balloon sits above the warming orange haze of first-light, a horse-float passes, then a delivery van, then someone in an open-top MG persuades the thing around a corner. An early morning close-pass from a guy in a white 6 series BMW. I wish I could catch him up and tell him off, as much for the whiteness of his BMW as his cock-rock stupidity.

There is a sportive that comes the other way, serious men looking purposeful with little white numbers on the front of their bikes. Racing but not racing. Not waving. Believing that they are actually fast, men riding Canyons – the white BMW drivers of the cycling world. A little later a slower group is all smiles and waves, more intent on enjoying themselves.

I confess I was enjoying pegging back some riders in front. Hardly fair as they haven’t slept, and after my 90 minutes I feel like a new man. Actually it’s all perceived, I am riding slowly, just a little less slowly than those I am overtaking.

Finally I am inside the last 25km and onto the ‘four climbs’ that conclude the ride. One is properly steep and long, I am just getting away with that 34 x 28 now. I catch up a guy who insists on riding beside me on the narrow lanes, even as I drop behind, or go forward to lose him – it’s just not that safe to my eye. There’s one last short climb to the ridge and I leave him behind, knowing the run down from Meopham to Gravesend having done it a couple of times at speed late at night to catch the last train after Oasts and Coasts (once successful, once not)

And then I am back where it all began, the cycle centre. 25 hours before, reaching the cycle centre at 9am, there had been techno blasting from the spinning room. It was still going now, though I hope it wasn’t the same class!

The woman I had been saying hello to around the way was already showered and changed. As we had been moving about the same speed I asked her if she had ridden through without a sleep. “Yes” she said, “I’m a mother, I don’t sleep anymore.”

My boy is now 14 so those days are thankfully somewhat distant, but I smiled. I remember enough of those nights, waking every few hours to take a turn on the bottle, or being up at the crack of dawn on a sunday morning with the lego, building endless space ships so Mum could sleep in a bit. Yes, parenthood is certainly a good training ground for Audax. Or is it the other way around?

As for logistics the 9am start had meant I could get up at a reasonable hour in East London, ride 15 minutes to Stratford, then take the train to Ebbsfleet in twelve minutes (!) then another 15 easy ride to the cyclopark. It was just as easy returning home – a brilliant connection that really opens Gravesend events out to us London folk.

So that’s the ride report, I would thoroughly recommend the route and the event, but… well how did I feel?

Physically fine, not too fast not too slow I paced it well, never over-cooked anything and generally coped without any great worries. And yet my mental state was bleak. Nothing to do with the ride of course but I spent about half the ride swearing off Audax for good. The deluge of negativity was quite something; why was I wasting my time on this? Why wasn’t I spending time with my family, or doing some writing instead? Why was I spending precious time away from my pretty dull job to just ride a bike a ridiculously long way for no particular reason?

For much of the ride I was simply giving up Audax at the end of it. For the last 200 or so km that thought made it more doable and enjoyable – if I was never going to ride one of these again then I could kick back and enjoy it.

Such, dear reader, are the strange interior journeys I take when out alone on a bike. It’s often a strange place to be my head, and this was definitely one of those times that strange simply meant unpleasant.

That I was able to defer the negativity was quite good I suppose, but it all came back to haunt me the following week on the Flatlands, a ride which would qualify me for PBP… but that’s another post.

2 comments / Add your comment below

  1. Hi Allen,

    Another thought-provoking and reflective write-up. Thank you. The way you capture the experience of these events resonates with me.

    I still think you are quite quick though 😉

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