Fucklands and No-mandicat
Early June was not great for my Audax mojo. My attack of the grumpies on Invicta Phoenix 400 presaged a misery meltdown on the Flatlands. I made it to Boston but, soaking and cold, I caught the train back. It wasn’t the riding, it wasn’t the form, both were good and my time into Boston was about two hours quicker than usual. No, it was just thinking forward – I felt like I knew every corner that was coming and none of it filled me with any pleasurable thoughts at all. So what’s the point? Fuck the flatlands. No ACME SR for me this year then!
This had knock-on effects. I was meant to be doing the rather fabulous looking Normandicat, a 900km bike packing style event but not having done my 600 qualifier now put me in the position of having to do Wander Wye, which was my ‘safety’. If I did Normadicat I probably wouldn’t have the beans to do a 600 two weeks later.
On top of that I was just plain exhausted at work. Large scale content migrations of websites, a team of ten editors, multiple prickly stakeholders and a development company in Sofia available by Skype were all contributing to complex and demanding days that were leaving me pretty much wrung out.
So I took the week I was meant to be in France to do NOTHING at home. Well my kind of nothing, which meant finishing a book. That is pure pleasure and something I had meant to be doing at christmass and was bugging the hell out of me.
And it was the best thing. Missing Normandicat was a burn, I will confess, I had been putting the time in on RidewithGPS on the route making too, but there is always next year. Gavin did it, a nice write up of it here.
In this motivational slump I did some rereading of some sports psychology and mountaineering books. For some reason Mountaineering books really do it for me – really extreme things being done in really extreme conditions – maybe this recalibrates my internal gauge on what ‘bonkers’ means to the point where 600-1200km on a bike seems relatively sane?
The sports psychology books are good for coaching on inner talk and dealing with failure. Basically failure is fine, you have to put everything into it but if you step back and don’t make it the best thing to do is say… it’s only a bike ride.
So I did that for Fucklands and No-mandicat. Only bike rides. Just do another one.
One really good phrase I saw in the mountainerring book was ‘point your fear and doubt to the top of the mountain’. This is akin to looking up not down, a version of ‘chin up’. I tried a version of this in the Wander Wye as my key intervention in moments of doubt ‘put your doubt at the end of the ride’. I would then picture myself rolling to the finish and experiencing the self-satisfied glow of finishing a challenging ride. A bit abstract, but it worked a treat.
Here’s another great section from the mountaineering book I was reading (Mark Twight’s Extreme alpinism)
So I started this 600 rested and with a bit of ambition in the tank – instead of the answer to the question of why ride 600kms being fuck off like last month I was happier to answer with jaunty but determined why not?
And realistically this was my last chance to qualify for PBP. 5000m of climbing in 600kms seemed like a good ratio too, about the same as PBP. And every metre of it was new territory, a big bonus for a jaded Audax palette. I was beginning to see why people roam around the UK looking for new interesting rides, because repeating old ones can be somewhat challenging.
About 50% of the field DNSed. Assuming that’s because plenty had already qualified and couldn’t be bothered with another ride?
So about 55 started but, with a very casual starting protocol in force, it felt like I was heading out for a ride with a few others. Among the starters were some fast people including someone who withdrew at 200km complaining of tired legs but kicking through that 200 in just over 7 hours… err…. am I missing something? Obviously he didn’t need that ride to qualify for PBP!
Early morning drifting along through post west London towards Windsor Park and criss-crossing the Thames as it got smaller and smaller, until we headed away from it and up and over a series of narrow lanes beyond Henley and over the Chilterns before coming back down to the Thames again at Abingdon at the 94km mark and a first control in Wallingham, a Waitrose for me, always good for Gluten Free food, in this case some pancakes.
From there another rising series of rising and falling lanes to Stow on the Wold in the middle of the Cotswolds. It was a little cooler now and I had a stop at a Co-op which had a pretty food choice of food for me – I ended up with a salad, sushi and some fruit.
In an effort to lose someone whose sense of humour I wasn’t really appreciating I took my food back up to the church and sat with a rider who I recognised and have written about before a few years ago ‘Mr Penge’ who apparently I helped on the last leg of Oasts and Coasts a while back, his first 300. And he has a name – John!
We got chatting and, as I phaffed a little he waited and that was that for a few hours. As the rain started we formed an easy alliance, though to be fair I think he either over estimated my speed or underestimated his own and, more often than not, he was riding quicker and I could only hang on. This wasn’t grim death, but he was certainly going that shadow and a half faster.
No matter, it was good to share the road, neither of us overly chatty but having enough conversation to take our minds off the task at hand while still allowing plenty of sight seeing time.
Another co-op on the outskirts at Woscester (salad, sushi, fruit) after some wading along flooded bikepaths. It seems like the whole of the UK was awash in the days before the ride, and a storm gave a great lashing to the North all through Saturday.
John again kindly waited for me and soon enough we were skirting northwards of the Malverns, climbing again to 200m (seemingly the standard for hills in the South East) before passing an info and then dropping towards Hay.
Around this point my bike started to fall apart around the edges. Cheap handlebar tape wrapped in haste started to twist oddly around the bars and, worse, my cogs on my cluster were loose. I have recetly moved to 11speed and, never ever having had this problem before, was getting it on just this 11-34 cluster.
Changing to a 11-28 more expensive cluster had fixed it previously but even so this was weird. I was even using a Shimano hub, so there was no reason why it was happening. Shimano use steel for their cluster carriers so I knew it wasn’t going to be a major big deal, but having your bike sound like a box of spanners over every bump was not reassuring. Only 350km to go then!
Somewhere along this road there was a lovely stop in someone’s backyard with tea and coffee, fruit and food. They were so accommodating it felt like if you stayed long enough you’d be getting a small personal loan from them! A reminder of just how inviting this strange community of vagabond long distance riders can be.
After this lovely stop I felt the first symptoms of a bonk so I told John not to wait for me – I had plenty of food to shove down and knew that in an hour I’d be back on my game, in the meatntime there was no obligation for John to stick with me and I was glad he accepted my slowdown and got on at his own pace – so much better for everyone!
This meant I was riding along by myself into Hay on Wye. The rain had well and truly stopped and the evening had calmed right down. As I crossed the toll bridge over the Wye there wasn’t a breath of wind and a strackly white full moon was already in the late afternoon sky. It looked like it was going to be a lovely night to be ghosting down a Welsh valley.
Another effing co-op. Another salad. More cut fruit. No proper carbs. Co-ops, being franchises, are prone to local food customs and that often means no trendy food out in the provinces. I mean I wasn’t starving but at this point, after cold meals all day, something warm would have been nice. Fussy I know. Still getting to around about half way was a good feeling, I knew I was on form enough to finish, had plenty of time in hand and, with an anticipated two hour sleep in Chepstow, I would be able to have a relaxed run in to make the cut off.
I had expected the next section to be the hardest but, switching to night time B roads, the ups and down felt gentle to me, then there was a lovely downhillish to flat section coming down the valley. The moon was full and bright, occasionally frosted amber by sketchy light cloud. There were three of us drifting past each other as one or the other stopped to adjust something, or at the garage for a welcome hot drink. It wasn’t cold but a shot of coffee (or Costa Brown Drink) was required.
And then the hill. I knew this one from the end of Brian Chapman in 2017 and I remembered it as harder as I had a good few more vertical metres in my legs the last time I came up it. A steady gradient, nothing awful, maybe 20 minutes of steady climbing followed by a downhill then a couple of bumps into the community hall at Chepstow, same one as the arrive for Bryan Chapman, arriving around 2:30.
A well managed control full of helpful people, what more could you ask for? Cup of coffee in my hand and a bowl of hot food without seeming to need to ask – lovely! I was committed to as little as 90 minutes sleep, that’s the minimum I need to function well the next day, but making good enough time meant, by the time I had got my self together and onto the floor inside my sleeping bag, I could allow myself two hours sleep to be up again at 5pm and out the door at 5:30.
I didn’t have a sleeping mat so I was sleeping directly on the cold hard floor, but my sleeping bag provided just enough padding and warmth that I slept reasonably well, though not what you would call soundly. I know that PBP will have me grabbing a couple of hours at most on night two so it’s good to ‘practice’ getting up and going after that amount of sleep.
As I woke up I mentally made a list of things for my tired brain to do and set about trying to make it work. I had two bowls of GF Muesli from my drop bag and contemplated lightening my load a little my dumping some wet weather gear – I was very glad that I didn’t do that!
I hate bridges. The Severn bridge is easier than the Humber but even so I was relieved to get off it and begin to put some miles in the bank.
Soon though it started spitting. Then spitting heavily. Then solidly. Soon enough the horizon all around was made of static vertical screens of water hanging in the air over the grey green hills. About the same time the rain started so did the hills. Short and sharp, lumping over the folds of Somerset just over the top of Bristol, and twisty back lanes. Soon enough I was having moments where I was really wishing I had disc brakes as I dropped off another rise and headed into a tight downhill corner in the narrow crutch of a hill.
Looking down the water was just sheeting off me. While I had a full selection of wets on after a while it was all pointless, everything was overwhelmed with water and my glasses were a running blur. After an hour of cursing it all and wondering if this was going to be the rest of ride (wet sodden hills) I just relaxed and got into it. While I never welcome rain sometimes you just have to give in – and sometimes you have no choice. And then I started to enjoy it – it was demanding complete concentration and the riding in tight and gritty terrain was totally absorbing. This was a million miles different and better than the soaking misery I had on the Fucklands; the experience wasn’t dominated by cars, I might have seen a few in the very long four and a half hours it took to get through the seventy kilometres to the next control. Sometimes (ok, mostly) lanes are just better, if slower and lumpier. There were a couple of proper door-stop climbs in there too, short but very steep. Not knowing the route I had to assume this would last all day so I was being conservative, changing down early and taking them steady. Ever now and then you would look in the distance and see a ridiculous road take an arbitrary line up a pointless hill and hope that you weren’t going that way – inevitably your were.
By the time the next control was reached – a basic plate of beans in a pub that had opened early – the sun had come out and the rain layer had mostly dried off. A clutch of riders gathered to compare notes on the last rather challenging stage, laying gear out on the tables to dry.
After setting out again a change of direction had us on a tail wind and the terrain flattened out, and the level of challenge dropped to the normal post 400km level of insanity. By this time you are just happy to be averaging anything over 20kph, and you are just steadily grinding out miles and trying to keep a positive mindset.
At the info with 80km to go a number of riders came back together again, including John, who must have slept a bit longer than me. We rode the next 20k to the top of the Devil’s punch bowl together at which point it was his turn to tell me to take off if I wanted. I was happy enough to cruise along – there was plenty to look at as we came off the punch bowl hill and into posh home county land. All new territory to me and, while I know that some people in England are utterly loaded it is something else to see mile after mile of evidence in the form of large houses up driveways, none of them worth less than a million and a half. This is the part of England that I simply don’t hang out in – and don’t want to – still, it was good to have a look at it and when I open the Sunday times magazine I will now have a picture of the territory those people live in.
Soon after I did take off, but it was only because we got caught up with a couple of riders going just a little slow for me – and I didn’t want to be looking at dirty hipster arses of people on gravel bikes with no mudguards. I mean fair play to anyone who rides 600k, but I wanted to look around me not at rapha logos in retina-burn inducing pink. With 60km to go I also thought I could open up the taps a bit and see what kind of strength I had left – after all this was a training ride of sorts do why not push the boat out now I knew that I would make it even if I bonked in a spectacular fashion?
So I took out the hammer and used it. To be fair I was still going relatively slowly and my average for the 60km was under 24kph, but it felt good to put my hands on the drops and put some watts down. I knew there was one nasty steep wedge to get over the downs, then a long gradual drop back to the Thames towards Kingston and then Raynes park. And it was a nasty little wedge too, right back down to first gear, thighs screaming, heat and sweat coming together in a good approximation of summer.
Then a straight steady run in followed by a final 5 miles or so that twisted and turned through back roads, like someone’s weekday, traffic avoiding, commute – thankful to be using a GPS. I pushed it all the way in at about the level of perceived effort – but nowhere near the speed – of a four hour training ride.
Then the satisfaction of coming back to the arrive in a decent time for me (37.5 hours) to yet more hot food and friendly welcome from Richard and crew – how they were still managing to be both hospitable and retain a sense of humour when they had had about as mush sleep as I had is beyond me – chapeau!
A quick train trip took me to Waterloo where I rode to Liverpool St to catch the train to Walthamstow only to find all services from Liverpool St suspended, so a final, quite hard, 10km home with a heavy backpack and drop bag. And that cluster was still clattering.
A lovely ride then with varied scenery, enough climbing without being willfully stupid and excellent TLC from Kingston Wheelers. The route finding itself was pretty staggering taking in two routes in and out of West London and the intricate threading on day two being particularly impressive.
And with that I had qualified for PBP and with three days to the cut off to do a final registration – would I? I had certainly not been in favour a few weeks ago but with some rest and a good ride behind me I felt much more positive about it all, so I loaded up the PBP site and entered. A few bits to sort out on my very average bike, some new handlebars ordered, a new cluster and probably a new dynamo wheel needed plus need to put the ancient Brooks on.
60 days to go and no going back now… Paris here we come… I am under no illusions this time of the job to be done. First one is to repeat what i had just done – do the 600 with 5000m metres of climbing with one short sleep and get to Brest in under 40 hours. Second job is to get back.