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Tan Hill 600


Tan Hill 600

After 11 years of long distance cycling, completing a series of 200, 300, 400, and 600km each year I set myself an ambitious target, only doing selective really hard rides. The logic was that I only have a limited time away from work and family, so want to get full value from events, and it is the long hard hilly events that I find most rewarding. But the season wasn’t going to plan. So far it had gone:

March: Cambrian 3C, 300km starting at 11.20pm, suffering from hallucinations during the night and then 10 hours of rain the next day, finished, old and wiser.

April: Cambrian 4F (cut down from the 8A due to an unpropitious weather forecast), abandoned after 170km because headwinds had meant I’d lost time and would have no more than an hours sleep if I was to make the time limit and, see above, didn’t fancy round 2 of hallucinations.

So the Tan Hill 600 was the last roll of the dice. At least I had a civilised week at work, a major report delivered the week before. And I’d managed to give up caffeine for that week, which always helps in the battle against the dozies. I could take the Friday off to drive up to Burnley. But then the four-and-half-hour journey took seven-and-a-half and I didn’t have a chance to test the position of the new cleats. Never mind, I felt relaxed as I rolled from the Travelodge to the start and met up with some old friends. Just before the start I realised my route sheet was still in my saddlebag so went out of the church hall to fetch it and tuck it into my back pocket. One awkward step with a new cleat and I crashed to the ground cutting my left elbow and bruising my left hip. I felt the shock take over almost immediately. Ray provided some wipes and I found a bandage in the first aid kit. I had a second cup of to deal with the shock and set off with the others.

The pace seemed high and after a while I formed a second group with Ray and Paul, winding our way through the Lancashire countryside to the Trough of Bowland. There didn’t seem to be any obvious damage from my pratfall, so was happy to settle into one of those intermittent Audax conversations, and the lush green rain-soaked countryside. My 30-29 gear ratio (the blessings of a triple chain ring) made light work of the Trough of Bowland and I could put my descending skills to good measure to catch the group up on the descent. They were still going too fast for my liking so I eased back and then discovered that hard fought route sheet had flipped out of my pocket. Fortunately it was only the first stage. We wound our way through more small hills and lanes to the first control, a well-appointed truck stop, for breakfast butties and more tea.

Ray and I rode off again, in light rain, encouraging me to put on arm warmers over my sore elbow.   Just as we reached Milnthorpe it turned into a deluge and I put my rain jacket on. It was now miserable, especially for the short section on the A590 drag strip, where we were at risk of disappearing in the walls of spray from the cars hurtling past.   We made it safely into more roads in the South Lakes. The land here is glacier-carved, constant little ups and downs, hardly fifty metres with steady gradient and I was glad that my legs were still relatively fresh.   The stretch from Windermere to Ambleside was horrendously busy, due to a combination of changeover date for holidaymakers and the Great North Swim. There was enough rain to make me expect swimmers along the road (at least that’s what the yellow signs seemed to suggest – “Delays – Great North Swim”, but they were busy in their wetsuits in Windermere, with a big noisy razzamatazz to welcome them ashore. Oh for the peaceful joys of Audax and the road into Little Langdale. But I didn’t feel great; I was quite shaky and not sure if this was delayed shock from my fall or simply anxiety about what was to come.

I’d ‘ridden’ this road once, on a charity challenge for the Wooden Spoon Society. On that occasion, about a mile before Wrynose a car pulled out in front of me just as I was about to change gear. In a freak combination of circumstances the chain caught the middle chain ring and bent it over to obstruct the little chain ring, leaving me with only a 53-cog to climb the steepest hills in the UK, resulting in long lonely plods on foot. This time nothing dramatic happened, and so I approached the long steep climb with just normal trepidation. It was tough, but years of experience, of using every lessening of the gradient to ‘rest’ and climbing almost as slow as possible, got me to the top, quite elated. All the anxiety and shakiness were gone and after the first steep part of the descent I used the open and clear road to my advantage. There are no trees and so oncoming traffic can be seen for miles; the road was completely clear and I used the cadence of the bends to full effect. My 85kg weight becomes an asset in such circumstances. Now there was just the wall of Hard Knott to consider. The first steep ramp is possibly the steepest I’ve ever encountered, but it does come right at the bottom so it can be taken with momentum and then there’s a gentler section to allow recovery. In fact I felt this was slightly easier than Wrynose (in this direction) because there were more opportunities to recover. So that was one great childhood ambition done already. On the way up Ray said that my tyres were steaming and I assumed that was a compliment to the manner in which I climbed the hill.

On the descent I hit a stone, on the second steep section and instantly punctured the front. Fortunately I was going very slowly and could pull to a controlled halt. The rim was too hot to touch and that gave a new meaning to Ray’s comment. I’d got the rims hot enough on Wrynose that, on the Hard Knott climb, at 2.5mph and no wind cooling, the tyres had got hot enough to visibly evaporate the water that clung to their surface.

Puncture fixed we set off and were separated by a traffic, a car between us stopping to let a motorcycle convoy passed. Then it started raining again. I felt quite tired and alone as I rolled into Seascale and took two goes to find the café, who did a great cheese and ham toastie and coffee and walnut cake. Ten minutes later Ray walked in, having followed the GPS track, which was somewhat longer. I sat eating my toastie, smugly. I had time to walk around to the little shop and get some ibuprofen and gaviscon for head and stomach. Then we set off again.

I’ve studied this route on the map many times, planning to explore the Lake District. The climb up the side of Cold Fell doesn’t look steep but it goes on forever. I took it gently, allowing Ray to go ahead and then gave it full gas on the descent, hugely enjoying the open roads, fortunately dry on this section. Now it was time to cut across to Honister, the third and last monster steep hill we would tackle in the Lakes. It rained again, but Loweswater was utterly beautiful. Then the sun almost came out as I headed towards Honister. This has the biggest ascent and foreshortening makes the last ramp look vertical. I decided not to consider the prospect and just worked my way up slowly, as I had the other two. It was working well until an Evoque went past me and then promptly stopped in my path to let a van come down the hill. I wasn’t stopping. My cleats would have left a trail of sparks as I slid down the hill. That was, if I’d actually managed to get off without falling over and bashing my already injured elbow. This incident confirmed my view that a road user’s IQ equals their normal IQ divided by the number of wheels that are driven. I overtook the Evoque and stared down the van and took the van driver’s verbals on the chin. I hadn’t read the notes about the Seatoller Café being closed so I found a couple of passers-by to sign my card and then found a café further on, courtesy of Ray’s bike parked outside. It had started to rain again and so I indulged in baked beans on toast and had a chat to an elderly couple who had been climbing and mountain biking. Ray set off for the next control just as my food arrived. The couple were shortly going to head off to the Alps. I would have guessed they were late-sixties or early-seventies.

On my own again, I set off into a deluge. Keswick seems to be a rain magnet. I could see clearer sky to the north, in the direction we were heading, but the rain took a sneaky short-cut around the back of Skiddaw and caught me up. This was making it tough. I was cold by the time I got to Wigton and huddled in the petrol station before realising that their leaky chiller cabinet made it colder than it was outside. I was surprised to see Ray, Dean, Paul, and one other arrive. They had sheltered from the deluge in Keswick. It was my time to battle on in front of the other, into a brisk headwind along empty lands west of Carlisle, more reminiscent of the east coast of Scotland than England. It was cold and grey with intermittent rain. However, as I turned on to the bypass the wind began to help more than it hindered and I was soon counting down the miles to Lockerbie. I arrived there at 8.40pm, a little ahead of my schedule and texted my wife to let her know I was going well.

The next stage was likely to be the mental crux, 91km at night, over hills, with long gaps between instructions, so that there was little measurable progress. The wind, unforecast, was a brisk easterly, which meant we were going straight into it. 30 minutes after leaving Lockerbie it started to rain; this time it really meant it. Worse still my right knee was beginning to hurt. Those familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs will know that his view of self-fulfilment is attained through a series of ever more sophisticated requirements. On this Saturday night, all of these requirements were stripped away to the base needs of food, water, and shelter. There was nothing to provide any of these in the 30km from Lockerbie to Langholm and nothing in Langholm that looked like it would provide such a thing. So at that point I should have been beyond the depths of despair. With 60km still to go if there had been a hostelry then it might have been the end of the ride. But there was no such temptation, so I just relied on hope and prayer to get through. Ray and others caught me up on the hill out of Lamgholm, going far better than I could on a gubbed knee. I stopped to eat a yoghurt bar in the meagre shelter of a tree, rain dripping around in the darkness. Then I carried on. The hill went on forever. Several times the wind intensified, as if I had reached the top, but it was just fooling, spitting quite literally in my face. Frogs jumped across the road in my lights. They weren’t hallucinations; the next day, on the Pennines, I saw a couple of dead frogs in the road. I was now seriously worried that I wouldn’t make the overnight control. A quiet prayer held me together and I carried on. On the first descent the rain stung my eyes so badly that I was blinded and had to brake almost to a halt, to avoid crashing into a bridge. Then I had no momentum for another endless climb on the other side. Then we reached Newcastleton. It was all lit up like one of those towns in a horror movie where all the citizens have been either abducted by aliens or turned into zombies. I was wet through. But it was now only 40km to go to the night control.

I continued, slowly, with a sharp pain in my right knee, knowing that I was slowing to a crawl. That’s the nature of night stages, but this was tough as I have ever experienced. Wind rain pain and fatigue from 350km of hills were scouring my soul. Fortunately Ray and Paul caught my up having found shelter somewhere on route where Dean had decided not to continue, not having drop bag with dry kit. I rode with them for about 10km of joyful company before I could no longer keep up. I reached Lanehead at 2.35am, nearly five-and-a-half hours after leaving Lockerbie. I ate some pasta and then got some sleep, feeling bruised from my fall, cold, despite changing into dry kit, and miserable. I woke up, saw the minute hand close to the top on my watch and thought I would save Andy the effort of my 6am wake up call. I was very groggy and felt awful, but then realised it was 5am not 6 so went back to bed. The hall was full of sleeping bedraggled riders. At that moment I did not feel like continuing. I hoped for some more sleep but wasn’t able to drift off. I had another prayer asking for courage. It was answered as I suddenly felt better, got breakfast, sorted myself out and was on the road just before 6am.

It was still raining, but not as heavily as during the night and I had the advantage of seeing the road. The scenery was part moorland and part farmland, with broad rivers, everything richly green. My knee hurt but it was manageable, and I made good progress towards Hexham. There is something glorious about the second morning of a 600, after the terrors of the night before, savouring the countryside and looking forward to the finish. Even the drag up to Wall (although I didn’t seen any sign of Hadrian’s construction) went pleasingly well. After the descent towards Hexham I saw a sign about a diversion, with no exit from the A69 and so I followed what I thought was the route, thereby avoiding the A69 and using a cycle path. There was no problem with the slip road, and I wondered what the diversion meant. Then into Hexham I came across the roadworks that blocked the road, but it was possible to walk over the bridge. There was a small temptation to use the station, as my knee still hurt, but I wasn’t going to give up now, not after getting through the night. I took a couple of Nurofen and set off to Blanchland.

This section was endless hills. Psychologically it was much tougher than the Lake District as every up was much longer than the next down. The constant changes of gradient were painful. But I laboured on, climbing slowly, steadily, and quite well, all things considered. I was rewarded by a couple of spectacularly beautiful gardens, full of bright flowers glowing despite the rain. In Blanchland I stopped for some bonk rations, just to get me over the next hill to Stanhope. I began to think about what time I might finish. I got back on the bike and the knee was hurting twice as much as before. After the next tight bend and bridge the road rose up at almost 20% and I could not turn the pedals. I knew right then that I wasn’t going to be able to finish. I walked up the first steep bit; the knee felt OK walking, so when I got to the top of the ramp I tried again. After a dozen pedal strokes I stopped. Ray went past surprised that I was on foot and I explained that my knee was ‘buggered’.

Paul went past about five minutes later. He agreed that there was a rail station in Stanhope; he thought it went to Newcastle. At least I had a plan. I plodded on, upwards, beyond the fields and onto the moors where the road levelled out and I could half pedal and half roll along. It wasn’’t much fun but it restored the possibility that I might finish. The road rose again and I nursed myself along, but it was too steep to continue and I was back on foot. A couple more riders passed in a soul-destroying fashion. But no one can restore strained tendons in a knee. A magic spray and powerful painkillers might work (although I had already taken some) but every pedal stroke would be increasing the injury. If it had been flat then I might have been able to manage, but I knew there was a massive hill out of Stanhope and then lots of short sharp changes of gradient across Teesdale to Tan Hill. I could walk up every one of those hills, but even with the time I had in hand, that wasn’t going to be likely, especially with more heavy showers in the offing. So when I got to the final summit I rolled into Stanhope. There was no obvious sign for the station so I had to ask for directions.

Stanhope is on a preserved railway line. They were offering a service 5 miles down the road but it was 16 miles to the nearest mainline station, Bishop Auckland. My heart sank. I asked them if they had a number for a taxi company that might take me there. They shook their heads and then organised a lift in their van to Bishop Auckland. They wouldn’t even take any money for petrol. That’s twice this year that I’ve abandoned and been met with extraordinary generosity.

There wasn’t a train for 90 minutes, but Stanhope, deep in a northern valley had far better 4G reception than most towns in the south, and I’d already checked a route on the journey planner via Darlington and Leeds to Burnley, which would get me back almost exactly at the time Andy Corless expected to be back with the drop bags. There was a decent café at the railway station so I sat with a full breakfast and a couple of mugs of tea and reflected.

My season was pretty much over. But I’d hugely enjoyed the ride. It was an amazing route, with great company, good organisation; I’d made sterling progress until I’d had to stop. I’d overcome absolutely foul conditions in the night and apart from injury would have made steady progress to the finish. So I’ll look on it with pleasure for these reasons rather than disappointment for not completing.

The knee could have been down to the new cleats or it might have been twisted when I fell at the start. More likely, given I hadn’t ridden more than 300km since PBP 10 months before and the huge variability in gradients (which put more pressure on the knee that getting in a steady rhythm on a long alpine climb), I was just not sufficiently prepared.

I drove an hour to Knutsford services (as I had to be home by 8.30am the next day to prepare for a business call and then travel to London for a meeting) and examined the damage. My elbow was swollen and quite angry from having been covered up in wet clothes for 30 hours. My right knee was also swollen, the muscle that runs across the top and inside was very tight and the areas around the tendons that attach to it were puffy. I’m not a physio but I was confident it was just muscle injury rather than something deeper inside the knee. A couple of weeks rest should see it right. What did surprise me was the massive bruise across my left backside and hip stretching about eight inches by four, where I’d landed on the step on my pratfall. On reflection I was very lucky that I hadn’t broken something. Perhaps the extra padding from being 85kg instead of the 81kg I would like to be for such an event had some benefit! I’d also carried that injury around 450km of silly hills.

Andy suggested I might want to do the Pendle next year. On the train ride back I was making myself promises to do a sensible SR series next year, with no stupid AAA points. Ho hum.

 

 

 

Audaxing in Wales, the hard way


Cambrian 3B

An Audax event is a long distance cycling event, typically of 200km or more, ridden in one go, with a minimum average speed required, usually of 15kph, although this is reduced for events of more than 600km. The discipline goes back to 1891 when the first Paris-Brest-Paris ride of 1200km was ridden. The word Audax shares the same root as ‘Audacious’, although on a modern bike, 200km is not necessarily audacious if ridden in good weather and good company. Events are scheduled in a calendar and tend to have fixed points where the riders must pass every 50km to 80km, which are referred to as ‘controls’.

The longer rides are more daring, not because of the physical demands, anyone who can ride 200km has the physical strength and endurance to go further, but because of the mental demands. Most riders abandon either due to the head or the gut. When you are tired and hungry and have several hundred kilometres still to go it can be hard to keep going to the next control.

A permanent Audax event is one that can be ridden at any time, and so is usually ridden in a solitary fashion. Proof of passage is obtained through receipts from cafés or ATMs.   Permanent rides tend to be tougher than calendar events because there is no company on the road, especially no one to give a word of encouragement when you go through a bad patch. Audax in the UK was established in 1976 and one of the early active members was Peter Coulson. He set up a series of permanent rides in Wales, referred to as the Cambrian Series, after the Latin name for Wales, Cambria. I discovered these events shortly before Peter retired from organising, and took them over.

The 3B is the hilliest of the 300km Cambrian Series events, listed as: New Quay – Newcastle Emlyn – Fishguard – Carmarthen – Llandeilo – Brecon – Llanwrtyd Wells – Lampeter -New Quay. On the face of it, this should not be the hardest of rides, as it skirts around the southern end of the Cambrian Mountains that form Wales’s backbone and the highest summits. But that belies the fact that the roads in west Wales are all very lumpy and go over the tops of hills rather than skirting through the valleys. I hadn’t done any of the Cambrian 300km events before, primarily because of logistics. A par time for me to ride one of these events would be 16 hours, but given that it takes three or four hours to get to Wales, that either involves two nights away or trying to drive back in the early hours, neither of which are conducive to a time poor cyclist.

Cambrian Series rides can be started at any point and I worked out what I thought was a cunning plan. If I caught an evening train out to Carmarthen, I could do the ride starting at about 11.30pm, ride through the night, finish in the afternoon and take an evening train back. It all seemed fine on paper but, as the event approached, I became apprehensive. I’ve done night rides before, but usually with a better rest than a four-hour train journey after a day’s work. I was also struggling with a mild cold. In addition the weather forecast was for rain and strong winds arriving at about 8am, halfway through the ride. However, juggling work and family means that a slot booked for an event like this has to be taken if at all possible.

The journey involved three trains, changing at Reading and Swansea, but I tried to get some sleep on the long Reading to Swansea leg. The change at Swansea only allowed 7 minutes but the trains were on adjacent platforms. There were a young couple with bikes on the Arriva train from Swansea to Carmarthen. They were heading for a four day camping trip to Ireland, getting off at Johnston to catch the night ferry to Rosslare from Pembroke. An older couple took an interest in our conversation. I usually try to explain what I do, the usual assumption is that I’m doing it for charity, but I do it for the sheer love of where long distance rides take you, not just in geography, but in your journey through life.

These days I use Google Maps and Streetview to research the route. I’ve found I’ve got a good pictorial memory, so if I can see an image on screen of a place when I get there I know where to go. So I found my way onto King Street and at 11:22pm obtained my first ATM receipt at Lloyds Bank, and set off on my way. Half of my route I had done before either on the Cambrian 4D or the Cambrian 4C, two tough 400km events. That included the first section along the south side of the Twyi Valley to Llandeilo. Although it was cloudy the full moon was strong enough to shine through and it gave the valley a wonderful pearlescent light. It’s rare for a night to be completely dark, but at times like this you can get a full feeling for the lie of the land, which helps in judging efforts up hills and in picking fast lines down the descents. The wind was in my favour and it was an enjoyable spin to Llandeilo, a small town perched on a hill above the River Twyi, in a very European style. I rode up the hill and gathered my second ATM receipt less than an hour after the first.

I settled into a rhythm as the ground become more undulating. I was looking out for the Bethlehem village sign, where I needed to turn left. The park bench that I had visualised on screen appeared and I turned off into the hills. It is possible to follow the A40 all the way from Carmarthen to Brecon, but the spirit of the Cambrian Series is to tackle the direct route wherever possible. This took me through Twynallan and Talsarn to Trecastle. The section up to Talsarn was about six miles up hill, with steep start and then a seemingly endless gradual drag. This was no problem given that my legs were fresh, but I was starting to feel quite dozy. The clouds were lowering on the Black Mountain to my right.

The descent woke me up, a long beautiful straight road. Like many sections of this route it wasn’t a pure descent, it had a couple of short climbs to break up the rhythm, just as many of the climbs were broken up by some short descents. These made the ride deceptive, as there were few feature climbs. But I was still struggling with the dozies. It was getting harder to stay focused on the route. When I feel sleepy I tend to drift to the right, which keeps me out of the ditch, but, when I reached the A40, a few empty army trucks went past. I did not want to swerve into the path of one of them. The A40 was a gradual descent and my lack of alertness meant that I wasn’t riding well on the tri-bars and keeping my speed. I decided to take a fifteen-minute catnap, knowing that I had time in hand. As I thought this, a handy bus shelter appeared in view. I stopped, turned off the lights and lay down with my head on my bumbag, my phone set to a fifteen-minute alarm. My eyes closed and I woke up five minutes later, much more alert, as a truck went past.

It felt much better, and I was going much faster, spinning down a fast descent when I hit a broken drain-cover. The bike skittered sideways, but I managed to stay in the time-trial position. A big army truck was behind me as I eased to a halt, my rear tyre instantly punctured. I found a place to prop up the bike, checked the tyre, which had a deep cut which, fortunately had not penetrated the inner reinforced layer and fixed the puncture. I spun the rear wheel, worried that the force of the impact would have bent it out of true. It wasn’t quite right, but it ran through the brakes cleanly. Breathing a sigh of relief, I gave the rear tyre another twenty strokes of my trusty travel pump and carried on.

Something had broken; the jolt had snapped the left elbow rest of my tribars, so I could not rest on them properly. That was annoying as this set up helps me both on long gradual descents, to keep my speed, and into the wind, that I expected to face later. But I was still in the event.

It wasn’t far to Brecon and I found a NatWest bank for another ATM. I wondered about what my bank’s anti-fraud systems would think about balance checks being made in three different towns in the early hours. The B-road, which my route followed was not well signposted, but I recognised the Bulls Head pub and started up the long series of hills that would take me to the top of the Black Mountains some twenty kilometres to the north. I expected this to be one of the mental cruxes of the ride and so it proved. It became harder and harder to stay awake. My front wheel began to drift across the road. Several times my mind wandered and my pedalling rhythm slowed. This was not a good sign and, after about 10 kilometres I stopped for another five-minute doze. It was cold and lonely and uncomfortable and soon I got up, ate something, and continued. I wondered about stopping at a chapel. I’d prayed at the beginning of the ride that I would keep safe and ride with consideration for others. I was starting to see shapes by the side of the road, people that resolved themselves into shrubs and trees. What kept me safe was that the road was mostly rising, so that I had plenty of time to react when I started to doze. Upper Chapel passed in the darkness. The clouds were thicker and the moon had less of an impact. I looked longingly to the east in the hope of the first light. They say the hour before dawn is the worst and it probably is for the long distance cyclist. The B-road forked and I took the left turn, climbing up into the open moors. A long while ago these moors were used by herders avoiding tolls. There is a pub, known as the Drovers’ Arms, where they could rest for a night. The first time I passed this way, on the endless hill from Garth, which had reduced me to a walk, on the Cambrian 2A, it was abandoned, but the last time I passed this way, on the Cambrian 4C, had been re-occupied. Now, it was shelter from the stiffening west wind for four army officers, who looked in disbelief as an apparition on a bicycle parted the night. To the east a flare briefly lit the sky to show that I was not the only person out in the early hours.

I felt brief joy at reaching the Drovers’ Arms, knowing that there was just one more hill before the big descent and then I would almost be at Llanwrtyd Wells. An Audax cyclist always thinks that things will be better at the next control. On that next hill I saw a line of squaddies marching along the side of the road, which resolved themselves into fence posts. I was not out of the dark yet. The long descent had a couple of nervous moments, when I struggled to concentrate. But I did not miss the turn to Llangammarch Wells.

The last six miles to Llanwrtyd Wells were dreadful. My eyes wanted to close and my pace up the short hills was pedestrian. I began to contemplate the idea of finding a train station; there is a mid-Wales line that runs from Llanwrtyd back to Carmarthen. If I could hole up in a shelter my misery would be at an end. But that would be giving up and I wasn’t sure that was what God would have wanted, given that I had sacrificed other commitments in order to do this ride. So I raided my saddlebag for rations, munched, struggling to eat. My cold had caused mucus to build up in my throat and stomach making food difficult to get down. As I ate, by the light of the Barclays ATM, which gave me my proof of passage at 5.04am, a couple of huge trucks thundered past. It would not be good to fall asleep in the path of one of those.

There are always decisions to make on long distance cycle rides. I’ve stopped in Penzance 250km into a 600km because I couldn’t hold down food; I’ve stopped in Hatherleigh halfway round a 400km my mind and body broken by a persistent headwind; I’ve spent an unplanned night in Abergavenny after the sixth puncture in 100km. But I’ve also completed a 400km ride after battling with black ice, and done the second half of a 600km without being able to eat properly due to a campylobacter infection. There would be another train station a little way down the road, so I decided to continue.

Oddly the threat of trucks helped me to concentrate. I was still prone to the front wheel straying but was alert enough to pick this up and correct things. In the night’s quiet I could hear the trucks coming from a mile away and so was ready for them when they came. And, most importantly, the beautiful lady dawn announced her presence, with a gradual lightening of the scenery. The road dragged upwards for a few miles, to a notch in the hills, and a long descent to Cynghordy, where I picked up my turn to cut through the hills to the Lampeter road. These were tiny lanes, of uncertain surfaces, walled by trees, twisting and turning through the landscape. Half way up the first hill I began to struggle and stopped and ate. That kept me going. There was a lady dressed in immaculate tweeds walking along the road with a large matching bag, who resolved herself into a hedge. But a twisting descent sharpened up my mind. I was very tired but I found a rhythm from that point, climbing slowly out of the saddle, rolling down the descents, through Cilycwm, and Porthyryd. It was beautiful. Twice the route involved a right at a T-junction, the second time was onto the A482. An old tramp stood by the side of the road, hunched because of the weight of the bag he carried on his shoulder, but he wasn’t real, he was just the roots and earth of a blown down tree. Soon there was a steepish climb, which opened to a view of a broader valley. My hopes were that this would be Lampeter. But there were two more hills to come; the second one went up steadily for more than a mile. I was going better now, but I needed a proper meal and, most importantly, some caffeine. What I longed for was a full English Breakfast and one of those everlasting pots of tea with an extra pot of hot water to keep the tea bag going.

I rolled into Lampeter, at about 7:30am, almost on schedule, to see the two most magic words in the English language, “Café” and “Open”. It was a little family run business, perhaps not the best ever breakfast that I have had, but with a tasty sausage, lots of thick bacon and a generous helping of baked beans as well as a truly everlasting pot of tea, I was a made man. I texted happy messages home whilst listening to the conversation of students after a night out, learning that a greasy breakfast is the best cure for the after effects of a night out, whether on the bike or on the booze. Smiling I went out.

Into the rain. The forecast was accurate to the hour. I was already dressed for the rain, having used my winter rain top as insulation against the night’s cold. The route took my straight up the biggest and steepest hill out of Lampeter, over that and over a road that perversely went straight over the top of the highest hill around. There was a slightly longer route that could avoid these but that wasn’t in the spirit of things. The second descent had a couple of near hairpin bends that had to be taken carefully on the newly wet roads. The fine rain stung my eyes whenever I picked up speed. The next village was Cribyn and it felt that I had already done most of the short stage to the small port of New Quay. But the roads meandered, with many more hills than I was expecting. The road out of Mydroilyn featured 16%. Coming down was a truck, the driver gingerly descending in a low gear, fearful of the sharp bend into the village. I gave him a grin of acknowledgement as I winched my way up the hill, in the smallest gear. Then the roads did ease, for descents through Llanarth and Gilfachreda (which sounds great when you think of it in a West Wales lilt). To the right were a couple of large static caravan parks looking very British Bank Holiday in the wet (even though it was the Thursday before the Easter weekend). The café I had spotted on Google Maps was decidedly shut forever, so I summoned up the courage to descent deeply into the port where I got a takeaway tea and pastry and sat and ate, feeling much better. The town was full of workmen and white vans, getting itself ready for the summer season. It is has a strange geography, on the West Wales coast, but on a north shore and facing east so that it would have beautiful sunrises and pearly evenings. Today it was just wet.

The hill out of New Quay started steep and then went on forever, about six miles (interrupted by one short descent) to the top of Castle Hill. It was all open and straight into the wind. There is only one way to ride in such conditions, put the head down and turn the pedals. Two sets of roadworks made it worse, having to stop whilst the rain was lashed at me by the wind. It wasn’t the heaviest rain or hardest wind, but it was enough to be darned uncomfortable. The second set of roadworks was at least 200m long; when the light went green I waved the cars through so that I could follow them, and, as I’d predicted, there wasn’t time for me to get to the other side before the lights changed. Once as a child riding on the road from Bridlington to Hull I’d had a chain of cars following me on such a set of roadworks to meet the cars coming in the opposite direction. I’ve no idea how they sorted that out, but since then I’ve tried to avoid such things happening from badly designed roadworks. This time all the cars were passed so all I had to deal with was the stern looks of motorist thinking that I’d tried to jump the lights. I would have loved to be able to ride up hill into the wind at 20mph, but after 190km in the saddle, that was beyond my capabilities.

The road continued to climb. Even after I reached the highest point, the road did not give in easily; the wind inhibited any build up of speed and, with damaged tri-bars, I could not get under the wind. Then there were more gradual rises, which could only be ground up at a slow pace. It was only a short stage but straight into the wind it was a hard one. Fortunately there was a nice café in Newcastle Emlyn that offered a ham and cheese toastie, that perfect Audax dish offering carbs, protein, and plenty of salt, all of which are essential to the long distance cyclist. I am sure that if I had a support vehicle and a Sky chef then they could cook up something far more nourishing, but that’s professional cycling; this is Audax.

There were a couple who asked where I had come from and I left it at Carmarthen, as they weren’t going to grasp that I’d been going for close on 12 hours. I asked how far it was to Fishguard and they guessed at 40 miles, which made my heart sink, but then I said I was going via Boncath, and I hoped it was the 25 miles that I had in my head. I had ridden this way on a beautiful June evening on the Cambrian 4D ten years before. This time the weather was completely different. There was a lot of uphill to Boncath where I stopped for a snack. From here the road would descend, and I picked up speed. The next turn was at the village of Eglwyswrw, which narrowly failed to set the British record for the most consecutive days of rain during the winter, finally pegging out at 85, 7 short of the record. They could have done with a day like today, heavy drizzle soaking everything including forlorn cyclists. I was the only person on a bike; even the traffic was fairly light.

Fishguard was one of those places that seemed to get further away the closer I got to it. Eventually I got to the turnaround place for large trucks (the road drops steeply to the sea and climbs even more steeply away from it to the top of the town. I descended gingerly on wet roads and climbed very slowly upwards. On the 4D I’d arrived at 11.10pm to find a chippy full of football fans. Today the square was deserted. The chippy wasn’t open. Boots was only a pharmacy. The café was open but had no seats in the window and nowhere to leave the bike safely. The ATM didn’t provide receipts. This wasn’t good. But there was a sweet shop that did two packets of peanuts for a pound and offered me a receipt. Then I headed upwards. On the 4D I’d gone wrong at this point, missing the fact that the B-road, which should have been the main road, was down two narrow side streets of which only the second was signposted. This time I got it right.

The dozies returned. It was so much hard work climbing up to the 270m summit of the Preseli Mountains. The steep sections were passed at a crawl. It was impossible to get bearings as the clouds were down. On the 4D I had done this at night, hitting a low point at the depressing sounding Maenclochog. This time I reached Rosebush and stopped to eat my last two yoghurt-coated bars. I felt very rough but the stop helped me to recover.

It was what I needed, and my pace picked up a little as I started to navigate the Pembrokeshire lanes, thinking that, although I would be about an hour behind schedule, it was almost over. I was looking for Llanboidy and came across a village starting “Llan…”. Then I saw a sign that I was looking for, “Meidrim”. (This turned out to be hopeful imagination; a check on Google Streetview showed that the sign says “Blaunwaun”.) Great, I thought, just three up and downs and I would be in the last village before Carmarthen. I rode up the next hill with more gusto, crossing the first of the three crossroads I was looking for. Then I came to a T-junction. That wasn’t right. And there was no sign of Meidrim. I assumed that I had gone right instead of left and turned left. The road was quite busy. After a mile there was no sign of a right turn so I decided to head in the other direction. If it came to the worst I would reach St Clears and then follow the A40. After a couple of miles there was a left turn, signposted to Cwmbach, and on instinct, I decided to take it.

A narrow strip of tarmac took me down through woods; there was a couple of hairpin bends. A tiny settlement appeared out far below. There were two roads on the hill on the other side. Which one to take? I hoped that there would be someone to ask the way to Carmarthen. But the village was deserted. I took the right hand lane. It went steeply up to the hill and then turned right and right again, back towards the valley. I desperately hoped that I hadn’t just picked a loop. My prayers were answered. The road turned again to the left and into another precipitously steep valley. The adrenalin from my predicament flowed. I was fully alert and descended the slippery hairpins immaculately, picking the apex, releasing the brakes at just the right time, flying down the lower part of the descent and making a good steady pace up the next precipitous climb. Then, through the gloom, I came to a T-junction: right on the B4299 to Trelech, wherever that was, left on the B4299 to… Meidrim. I was safe again!

There was a plummet down the valley back to a place I recognised. I rode up the next hill with gusto, hoping to see the A40 below me. Sadly I’d underestimated the distance by a couple of miles or so, but eventually I found the main road and followed the cycle path, which ran out. If I’d known I would have followed the old road into town but I had a couple of miles of nerve-wracking busy road, hoping my high visibility jacket would be seen through the spray before Carmarthen loomed up. I had one wait at a set of traffic lights, then I was over the bridge and back to the station I had left eighteen and a half hours before.

Dripping I called into the café twenty minutes before it closed and bought a pastry and a coffee, with the final receipt of the journey. Then I headed into the gentleman’s convenience with the bag of dry clothing which I’d carried around unused for 306km. After ten shivering minutes I had a much bigger bag of wet clothing, which meant that I had to extend the flaps of my saddlebag for the first time ever. A quick consultation of the timetable on my iPhone showed that the 18:35 would get me home at 23:05.

It was the slowest ever three hundred that I had ridden. The night start had made it harder. Although my cold wasn’t severe, it hadn’t helped. But the real challenge had been how unexpectedly hard I’d found the terrain. There wasn’t much climbing in the first 25km, after that it was relentless. And the weather was harsh. Not brutally so, but in such difficult terrain it doesn’t take much wind and rain to make it into an epic. In some way the best bit was my detour through Cwmbach and Gellywen, two outstanding deep valleys linked by tenuous threads of tarmac, tempting me back to Wales again.

When I cleaned my bike the next morning, in the ironic bright Good Friday sunshine I discovered that the impact from that broken drain cover had snapped one of the spokes of the rear wheel. These were my prize Shamal Ultras, seven years old but still excellent wheels. Somehow the wheel had held together for the remaining 160 miles. So my prayers for a safe ride were answered.

Once again, the Cambrian Series had served up a true challenge, pushing man and machine to the limits, rewarding both with sublime glimpses of what might be on a fine summer’s day; if the grand rides such as Paris Brest Paris are where Audax riders graduate into that title of ‘ancien’, the ones who have done it before, then the Cambrian Series is for post-graduates, the ones who seek out the whispered title of ‘hard rider’, the ones who have been tested in the crucible of out there experience and think back on it with fond memories, overlooking the cold, the fatigue, the loneliness, and exhaustion and remembering the joy of those remote places accessible only to the few who venture to them.

 

 

Cambrian Series Permanents


Audax U. K.                        The Cambrian Series

These Permanents are for experienced Randonneurs. 

As the title suggests these are rides in Wales, ranging from 100km to 800km, with several at each distance. The routes are essentially rural in nature, the intention being to avoid major roads and towns except those which are necessary to obtain Controls. Some A-roads could be used, but I hope that riders will choose to enjoy the lanes and countryside. To this end the route is free, with only the towns needed for Controls being required. It is the Entrants’ responsibility to ensure that any roads and route chosen are suitable for them.

Where a Nominal Control is a town it is permitted to use the edge, if a Control is available, and also if the distance is not materially affected, e.g the distance is already over, or the line is a tangent or a shallow angle.  A list of Controls is given; the linking roads are up to you to find using GPS software or mapping engines such as Google or Bing.  It is worthwhile using Ordnance Survey maps (there is a setting on Bing Maps) to check the result as some of the ‘bridle paths’ that mapping engines think are fit for cycles are unsuitable for typical Audax machines.

Each route may be started at any one of the Controls on it, or anywhere between that can provide proof in the way of a stamp or receipt. All places have a shop, ATM, or pub for evidence but many will not have any facilities at night: if necessary send a postcard to me, with your signature, place, date and time on it, or send me a digital message with photo evidence at the time. Once entered for a ride you are free to start at any time and date within reason. You also have the choice of which way round to go, so long as the Controls are obtained in the correct order.

Please remember that most of the roads and villages are not time-trial courses, and the roads are often dirty, gritty and muddy, with cattle-grids, sheep, motor vehicles on narrow lanes and there are many steep hills  Most routes have high and exposed sections that will be dangerous in extreme weather. I hope that you enjoy your ride(s), and that the hills and weather are kind to you!

100s

CS1A: (AAA 2.25, 2,240m) Llandrindod Wells – Beulah – Tregaron – Rhayader – Llandrindod Wells (113k)

CS1B: (AAA 1.50, 1,580m) Llandrindod Wells – Clun – Newtown – Llandrindod Wells

CS1C: (AAA 0.00, 1,760m) Llandrindod Wells – Llanidloes – Machynlleth – Llanidloes – Llandrindod Wells (129k)

CS1D: (AAA 1.50, 1,560m) Bala – Llanfyllin – Mallwyd – Bala.

CS1E: (AAA 1.75, 1,650m) Cardigan – Haverfordwest – Newcastle Emlyn – Cardigan (109k)

CS1F: (AAA 1.75, 1640m)  Chepstow – Raglan – Brynithel – Usk – Chepstow

CS1G:  (AAA 1.75, 1700m) Abergavenny – Hay-on-Wye – Tredegar – Blaenavon – Abergavenny

CS1H: (AAA 2.25, 2250m) Hay-on-Wye – Hundred House – Knighton – Penybont – Hay-on-Wye (105km)

CS1J: (AAA 1.75, 1630m) Newtown – Llanfair Caereinion – Llanbrynmair – Machynlleth – Staylittle – Newtown

CS1K:         (AAA 2.25, 2200m)        Maesteg – Treorchy – Hirwaun – Maerdy – Mountain Ash – Ferndale – Maesteg

200s

CS2A: (AAA 3.25, 3200m) Monmouth – Hay – Llandrindod Wells – Llanwrtyd Wells – Brecon – Abergavenny – Monmouth.

CS2B: (AAA 1.50, 2,320m) Monmouth – Chepstow – Abergavenny – Brecon – Builth Wells – Hay-on-Wye – Monmouth. (1500 in 100km stretch)

CS2C: (AAA 3.25, 3,240m) New Quay – Newcastle Emlyn – Fishguard – Carmarthen – Llandeilo – Lampeter – New Quay.

CS2D: (AAA 3.50, 3,540m)  New Quay – Tregaron – Rhayader – Llandrindod Wells – Builth Wells – Llanwrtyd Wells – Tregaron – Lampeter – New Quay.

CS2E: (AAA 3.75, 3,820m) Bala – Llanidloes – Knighton – Newtown – Bala.

CS2F: (AAA 3.00, 3,110m)  Bala – Machynlleth – Llanidloes – Llanfyllin – Llangollen – Bala.

CS2G: (AAA 2.75, 2,800m)  Bala – Festiniog – Conwy – Mold – Ruthin – Llangollen – Bala.

CS2H: (AAA 3.25, 3,315m) Hay-on-Wye – Knighton – Llanidloes – Llandrindod Wells – Llanwrtyd Wells – Brecon – Hay-on-Wye.

CS2J: (AAA 3.75, 3,650m)  Dolgellau – Machynlleth – Llanidloes – Knighton – Clun – Dolgellau

300s

CS3A: (AAA 4.25, 4,230m) Monmouth – Chepstow – Abergavenny – Brecon – Llanwrtyd Wells – Tregaron – Rhayader – Hay-on-Wye – Monmouth.

CS3B:(AAA 4.75, 4,800m)  New Quay – Newcastle Emlyn – Fishguard – Carmarthen – Llandeilo – Brecon – Llanwrtyd Wells – Lampeter -New Quay.

CS3C: (AAA 4.50, 4,500m) Aberystwyth – Tregaron – LLanwrtyd Wells – Hay-on-Wye – Knighton – Newtown – Machynlleth – Llanidloes – Aberystwyth.

CS3D: (AAA 0.00, 3,285m)  Bala – Pwllheli – Bethesda – Llanrwst – Conwy – Mold – Prestatyn – Bala.

CS3E: (AAA 4.50, 4,620m) Bala – Llanfyllin – Llanidloes – Machynlleth – Bala – Ffestiniog – Betws-y-Coed – Denbigh – Bala.

400s

CS4A: (AAA 5.50, 5,400m) Llangollen – Prestatyn – Mold – Conwy – Ffestiniog – Bala – Llanidloes – Machynlleth – Llangollen.

CS4B: (AAA 5.50, 5,515m)  Monmouth – Chepstow – Hay-on-Wye – Rhayader – Tregaron – Lampeter – New Quay – Llandeilo – Brecon – Monmouth.

CS4C: (AAA 7.00, 7,055m) Knighton – Brecon – Llanwrtyd Wells – Tregaron – Aberystwyth – Llanidloes – Bala – Llangollen – Llanfyllin – Llanidloes – Knighton (434km)

CS4D: (AAA 5.75, 5,805m) Monmouth – Hay-on-Wye – Tregaron – Fishguard – Llandeilo – Brecon – Monmouth.

CS4E: (AAA 6.00, 6,000m)  Brecon – Knighton – Welshpool – Bala – Machynlleth – Rhayader – Tregaron – Hay-on-Wye- Brecon

CS4F: (AAA 6.75, 6,800m) Aberdare – Hay-on-Wye – Knighton – Llanidloes – Devils Bridge – Builth Wells – Aberaeron – Llandeilo – Aberdare

CS4G: (aaa 6.75, 6,670m) Llanidloes – Bala – Montgomery – Corwen – Llansannan – Llanberis – Machynlleth – Llanidloes

600s

CS6A:(AAA 9.50, 9,425m) Monmouth – Llandeilo – Fishguard – Tregaron – Llanfyllin – Bala – Rhayader – Monmouth.

CS6B:(AAA 0.00, 6,575m) Chepstow – Hay-on-Wye – Montgomery – Mold – Conwy – Ffestiniog – Montgomery – Llanwrtyd Wells – Hay-on-Wye – Chepstow.

800

CS8A: (AAA 13.75, 13,670m)  Llanidloes – Devils Bridge – Builth Wells – Aberaeron – Llandeilo – Aberdare – Hay-on-Wye – Knighton – Llanidloes – Bala – Montgomery – Corwen – Llansannan – Llanberis – Machynlleth – Llanidloes

1000

CS10A: (AAA 18.00, 18,000m)  Llandrindod Wells – Aberystwyth – Llandiloes – Machynlleth – Dolgellau – Llanberis – Bala – Newtown – Llandrindod Wells – Tregaron – Newcastle Emlyn – Fishguard – Carmarthen – Pontardulais – Treorchy – Brecon – Llandrindod Wells – Clun – Hay-on-Wye – Monmouth – Chepstow – Abergavenny – Blaenavon – Llandrindod Wells

The Dorset Coast Ultra


The Dorset Coast Ultra.

The Dorset Coast Ultra


Running; something I had given up at the age of 15. After injuring a groin playing indoor cricket it was something I actively avoided doing. Cycling became my sporting passion, I progressed to longer and longer distances culminating in two finishes in Paris-Brest-Paris, the quadrennial 1200km grandmother of all long distance cycling events. Then I joined a new firm and a new office where a major activity was running the Reading Half-Marathon. So, at the age of 47½ I pinned a number on my front instead of my back and had a go. Two years later I finished 11th in the Sussex Coast Marathon, third in my age group, with a time better than the best 45 – 50 runner had done in the previous two years. Turning 50 gave me a final shot at vanity. In December EnduranceLife, who organised the Sussex Coast would be running a Dorset Coast Ultra. Looking at the previous year’s results I fancied I had a chance at being the fastest 50+ runner over the 33 mile course.

The Dorset Coast Ultra is a qualifying run for the Ultra Tour de Mont Blanc, a 160km 8500m ascent route around the base of Mont Blanc, and the Paris-Brest-Paris of trail running. Just like PBP the UTMB has strict qualifying conditions. And this year, they made them stricter, requiring 8 qualifying points rather than 7, with these points having to be gathered in 3 events. That meant that the piddling one point for the Dorset Coast Ultra was next to worthless. So the organisers decided to make the Dorset Coast Ultra longer and harder. Upped to 45.6 miles and 10240 feet of ascent it could proudly claim to have 2 UTMB points. If I’d seen this before entering I would probably have changed my mind. Training for 33 miles would have required marathon distance training runs. Training for 45 miles was going to take much more. And any chance of getting an age group prize was likely to go out of the window as many more strong runners would take notice.
But I’d entered, so I trained, running six marathons and seven more half-marathons, keeping my running to no more than once a week, to let my old joints recover from the shock of pounding tracks and twisting on uneven turf.

I booked the Countryman Inn five miles from the start, knowing that I would not be capable of driving far after the event. As the training distances got longer my speed slowed and my hopes of a finishing time drifted from 8 hours to 9 hours. My working week before the event was insane, having to drop everything to travel to Switzerland to rescue a troubled situation and trying to do everything that I couldn’t drop in my spare time. I even did a conference call from a car park in Andover on my way down to the event on Friday evening.

I was troubled. With my extensive experience of long distance cycling I knew that work pressure eroded the inner resolve that is required in endurance events. The will power to tell the legs to shut up and keep going, to stop the head from giving up when the gut is cranky, from shutting out the thought that it’s still at least two hours to the next control… that will power comes from the same source that makes you concentrate during that difficult interview, that finds the right word to resolve a dispute, and that gives the insight needed to turn around a report. So I was going to start drained. And the layout of the route didn’t help. The route was a figure of eight, with the start, finish, and cross over at Lulworth Cove. That meant we would pass our cars and comfort at 12, 27, and 39 miles. (Our route was effectively the Marathon, followed by the first 12 miles of the marathon, and then the 10k route, which was the first 12 miles of the marathon with a cut-off at half-way.) I wasn’t worried about the 12-mile marker; I wouldn’t be suffering by then. But I was worried about the 27-mile point. On every training run of 30 miles or more I had suffered intensely at the 4-hour mark. So, most likely, when I got to the end of the marathon I’d not feel like carrying on. By now I had over £500 in sponsorship pledges so I decided I would use that as motivation.
I registered the night before, shivering in the queue. It mean I would sleep with the race dongle around my wrist. I had a nervous breakfast of bread and cheese, bought at Blandford the night before in the correct expectation that I would need to leave before the Countryman Inn started serving. I fretted about change for the car park and drove via Wool hoping unsuccessfully to find a shop open. Fortunately the car park would take a credit card.

I stood around engaging random people in nervous conversation at the start. They looked like the running equivalent of long-distance cyclists, their kit a tatty collection of tried and tested things that worked. Then I spotted the good doctor, a cycling acquaintance, who explained to me that the reason I had suffered so badly on the Brimstone 600 was campylobacter, picked up from a cowshit covered lane (which I remembered vividly). It probably wasn’t the best reflection on which to start by far the longest and hardest running race I had ever attempted.

After the briefing we had five minutes to sort out our bags. My ancient travel bag contained plenty of food: chocolate brioche rolls, orange-flavoured chocolate Club biscuits, scones, and bananas to keep my going. They had erected a small tent right by the route so that we could restock at the 27 and 39-mile points. I started in shorts, longs, a base layer, running shirt, hat and gloves, with an Assos lightweight cycling windproof in my bumbag. Also in the bumbag were a first-aid kit, survival bag, four chocolate brioche rolls, three Club biscuits, a whistle, my phone and wallet, the car keys, and my bear Boris, in his own plastic survival bag. I also had a tatty old Camelbak with about a litre-and-a-half of water (originally bought for cycling in Crete in 2008 but now doing sterling service as a running pack. The bumbag dated from 2001 and was falling apart but was big enough to carry everything.

The first hill stretched above us. I started in the middle of the pack and threaded through those who decided to walk up this first obstacle. I was probably in the top twenty at the summit and enjoyed the next section on turf. I was a bit tentative on the first descent to Durdle Door but soon we were facing the first wall up to Swyre Head. Everyone walked, even those at the front. I followed suit, trying to get a good rhythm. On the Beachy Head Marathon I’d struggled with the walking sections; when I stopped running my walking pace was no more than a dawdle. Today I would need to walk briskly when I couldn’t run. The next two miles were a series of violent ups and downs before a long drag up to the first route-break, where the 10k run turned off. Three miles and my calves already hurt. Many hours later, at the third pass on this point we would be able to turn right. We carried on along the cliff top, a steady run with fine views over to Portland Bill and Weymouth, the sun starting to gain strength. But the next descent was slick with frost and we had to take care. We had a short stretch of tarmac and then a muddy section. I tried to take note of all the features so that I could measure progress when we came along this way on the second lap. I had a bit of a chat as we ran along a rare flat section. Then the path dropped into a little ravine and we turned right and started running uphill through a wood. This was more like my training runs and I got into a good rhythm going up the hill, only stopping to walk just before a steep and slippery stile. The runner ahead of me struggled a bit on the style and I mention that it would be tough the second time around. “I might crawl under it”, he joked.

There was a steep slippery descent to the first checkpoint. 6.3 miles in 1 hour 4 minutes was reasonable. So I jogged up the icy road and caught that runner up. We ran together for a while; he explained that he wasn’t a runner either but he was doing this to get fit for mountaineering. But he was fitter than I was, so soon I let him get ahead. I was feeling quite disoriented in the bright sunlight and could feel the first compressions of the pounding stress headache that had near-paralysed me for a while the previous Sunday. It meant that I idled along the easiest 6 miles of the course, back to Lulworth Cove, with no serious climbs and generally good ground. A few runners went past me but I knew that I had to concentrate on my own pace.
Just before the caravan park was the “One mile to go” sign that they had warned us about at the briefing. We would pass it three times and only on the third time would it be a genuine notice that we were about to finish. After the caravan park there was a short climb through a cow-grazed field to a tumulus and a short but very steep descent down to the bustle of the start finish area where the half-marathon starters were milling about. I threaded my way through people oblivious to the fact that our race had been going for a couple of hours and headed for the beach.

It was a mixture of soft sand and shingle, so energy sapping that I headed up to what looked like a storm beach in the hope that the ground would be somewhat firmer. I resolved to run on the sand and shingle on the way back. At the briefing told us to look for a mudslide. Two markers indicated the way we should take. The tough going had taken it out of me and I slowed to a walk so that I could pull out my first chocolate brioche roll of the day. I half walked and half scrambled up the steep path at the far end of Lulworth Cove and headed into the military ranges. There was a staggering view of the 500-foot high cliffs of Mupe Bay and Warbarrow Bay. The winter sun shone brightly and I was soon feeling hot. The going got hotter as we climbed out of Mupe Bay step by step with a steady mountaineer’s plod rather than a fell-runner’s tramp. At the top was a cooling breeze and a narrow ridge with a single-track path. The combination of bright sunshine and the exposed setting made me feel dizzy. I felt the return of the stress-headache. This was going to be tough.
The descent to Arish Mell was so steep that it was hardly possible to run; I took baby steps with my weight well back, hoping to look after my knees. There was about 20 yards of level ground at the bottom and then we had to climb straight back up again. A few runners ahead looked like they were going off course but they had just found a shortcut. I stuck to the main route and lost some more ground. I had to walk all the way up this hill too. This was Rings Hill with a large Iron Age fort on the top. We were soon on another long and slippery descent; this section was ever so draining, perhaps the hardest on the whole event and it was made worse by the certain knowledge that we would have to reverse the route before completing the first marathon. The next check point (not that we checked into it) was at 16.3 miles, after which we would still have more than a marathon to run.

It was my long distance cycling discipline that pulled me through. I only thought about the next control and not the distance to the finish. I settled into an ambling pace that I thought I could keep and looked around to try and make the most of the outstanding views of this sensational bit of coast. Far below I could see the Endurance Life flags of the next control point, but it was like the end of the rainbow, forever moving further away as I edged close to it. They warned us against checking in. The rules for UMTB qualifying were strict and we were not supposed to use this control. Immediately afterwards the ground rose steeply again for the climb to Gad Cliff. Although the gradient soon eased I couldn’t coax my legs into running and I lost a couple more places. Once I got running again there was a very muddy traverse and some awkward cambers as the route traversed a clayey section under Tyneham Cap. Then we dropped down again with some arbitrary zigzags before heavily grassed ground. I felt dizzy once more. I could see a group of runners who had recently passed me some way ahead, the last of them making heavy going of a slight incline by a hedge. A runner with a dog passed me; I complimented him on his dog’s fitness, think that he was the first of the marathon runners but he headed off in the wrong direction and I realised he was just out for a run. I made a mountain out of the slight incline too and realised the hunger knock was knocking so I ate another brioche roll and walked up the field. I joked with another runner that we had time on our hands and we could walk the rest and he quite seriously said that we could. I still felt rough at the top of the hill and walked some of the ridge towards Tyneham Cap and more marvellous views, including a marked overhang over which we would run.

Suddenly there were lots of runners heading in the opposite direction where we reversed a short section of the outbound route along Gad Cliff before dropping down to Tyneham Village. A couple of the fast marathon runners passed us, having already caught up an hour. I ran quite well through Tyneham but walked up the hill the other side, eating one of my club biscuits. There was quite a bustle at the checkpoint at the top (4hr 15 min for 23 miles) and so I just got my dongle tagged and did not top up my Camelbak. I immediately regretted not stopping and thought about turning back but the idea of adding just 50 unnecessary yards grated and I didn’t. The food kicked into my system and I got going quite well, still losing ground to better runners, but making reasonable progress over Whiteway Hill and Ringway Hill, the highest points of the run, before rejoining the outbound route for the big drop to Arish Mell. As I climbed out the other side I heard a few “Well Dones!” from the Half Marathon runners (a bit of a misnomer as it was 16 miles long) and this was welcome encouragement. I half walked and half ran along the top and then had to stop to eat another brioche roll. By now I’d done about 26 miles in 5 hours. It would be my slowest ever marathon but also the toughest. And I still had most of a marathon to do. The last mile to the checkpoint was mostly downhill and the hardest bit as it involved one of the steepest descents, I almost fell twice whilst trying to let people behind me past. The next delight was a retrace of Lulworth Cove beach. I tried the lower sand and shingle, which was just as tough going as the storm beach had been on the way out. Dazed, I walked up to the start/finish, ignoring the cheers for those who were finishing the half-marathon.

They checked my bag and found everything that I was supposed to be carrying. They didn’t make any remark about Boris. I asked for my Camelbak to be topped up but the guy couldn’t unscrew the cap so I carried on. I ate a banana and a brioche on the way up the first climb. Like everybody else that I could see on the second ascent I walked it. I ran down to Durdle Door in good nick, although my right heel hurt where I had obviously worn a blister. But my cares seemed to fall away in the afternoon sunshine; I had got past the point of giving up. When I next got back to the temptation of the start/finish area I would have only 6 miles to go. I broke the last 18 miles into 6 almost-equal parts: (1) from the start to the 10k cut-off, (2) from the 10k cut-off to the next checkpoint, (3) along the top to what would be the last check-point, (4) the start finish, (5) the 10k cut-off, and (6) the finish.

The first part was probably the hardest, with several steep hills and a long drag to the cut-off. I walk most of this long drag but then got into a painful run. I tried to count steps but lost count in the 900s. It’s so much easier to count distance down on a cycle computer. A couple of lady runners passed me and I tried to keep up with them. But when we were halfway down the long descent I nearly fell over with giddiness; the hunger knock had got me again. I ate a Club Bar and found washing it down drained the last of my Camelbak. I knew I couldn’t get any food down without water and I was afraid that if I tried to run the hunger knock would strike and I would not be able to continue, so I walked the mile to the next control annoyed that I hadn’t taken the chance to top up with water at the 23-mile mark. On reflection I probably only lost a couple of minutes. One runner passed me and I saw him walk up the steep woods only fifty metres ahead.

I remembered the mountain climber’s joke about the stile. It was apt. I got my foot on the first step but could hardly bend my right leg enough to get it over. Wobbling I somehow managed to keep my footing as I half-stepped, half-fell onto the rising ground on the far side and continued my walk to the top of the hill and a staggering run down to the 33-mile checkpoint. One of the crew helped to fill up my Camelbak and I grabbed a few fragments of Clif bar and munched them down whilst greedily soaking up some liquid.
Here I met Russell, who worked as a pensions actuary for my old firm. We chatted about his running for a while, walking up hills and running the flats until I could no longer keep up. Life was much more sociable now; it was the reverse of an Audax event where people talk a lot on the first couple of stages and then conversation fades. Here the conversations grew as runners grew weary and needed some degree of social spur to help them continue. As I passed the point where the penultimate control was sited (we did not check in on this lap) the lady on the control cheered us on. So I cheered back, realising that this was just over 36 miles and so now I already had a personal best for distance. There was a magnificent sunset over Weymouth and Portland Bill to reward the backward glance.

I tried to run most of the section back to the Start/Finish. It should have been easy. What had been obscure paths on the first lap were now well trampled. But my legs hurt, my stomach was groaning from all the carbs that I had tried to digest whilst running, and my spirits were drained by the effort of keeping going, especially after a long working week. I just kept putting one foot in front of the other. I’d been going for over 8 hours and I was unlikely I would finish in under 10 but all I wanted to do was get to the finish. I struggled down the last hill in the gloom, with the climber friend from the last lap running past me to do his finish. If I’d run as well as I’d intended I should have been with him, but I just didn’t have the experience or the mental strength to do so. I checked in and then rummaged around my bag for a scone. They had a bottle of Coke and my caffeine-starved system eyed it greedily. I stopped for a minute to get a plastic cup of the sugary potion into my system and then started back up the first hill at an even slower pace, scone in hand. It was getting properly dark and the three or four people within a hundred yards of me all had head torches. I relied on my night vision, which was still fine. Durdle Door came and went. We laboured up Swyre Head, stumbling in the darkness and finally I admitted defeat and put my head torch on. I caught a few people up, including a Dutch runner who had passed me towards the end of the second loop.
I got chatting to another runner; like Russell he was a veteran of many events (in fact most of them seemed to be regular ultra-trail runners). We kept together until the long drag. I’d miscounted the hills (forgetting one of them) and was starting to feel low, but obviously not as low as he was; I was able to break into a stumbling run on the last bit of the long drag, delight to see the Ultra (3) sign for the third time and obey the instruction to turn right at the third time of asking. It was just a short run to the cheery lady and her companion who were happy to check us in for the penultimate control.

I should have been able to run the whole way but by now I was set into the routine of walking up the slightest hill. I joined a group of three thinking they were going better than me but it turned out they were still on their second loop. Heartened by this I broke into a run with them and then carried on running nearly all the way to the caravan park. The full moon was rising and gathering in strength and giving a new perspective on the dramatic hills of the Jurassic Coast. I could see a string of lights along the coast, weary runners making their last loop, all thinking about it being nearly over. I saw the “One mile to go” sign and knew that this time it meant it. I could still only walk through the caravan park and up the last hill. There were two gates on this section and behind me I heard them crash at closer intervals as the guy started to catch me up. As I slithered down the last descent, hearing the shouts from occasional finishers rising up, I felt determined not to lose any more places. Then my head torch gave out. It had just enough on emergency power to get me to the finish. At the bottom, all tension and anxiety gone, I was able to break into a proper run for the first time in about 30 miles, my legs opening out, big whoops of joy from my mouth, crying out into the darkness, a quiet, “this guy’s finishing strong” and some cheers of encouragement.
I made the turn to the roundabout and the last twenty yards to the finish and recorded my time 10:09:29. I asked the lady at the finish how many bears had finished and after I explained about my small brown passenger, Boris, she gave me an odd look and said none. So, unlike me, who was 60th out of 110 finishers and 166 starters, he was first bear home!

Full of adrenalin I resolved to get straight in the car and drive back to the Countryman Inn before my legs stiffened up too much. Someone waved at me and asked if I could give them a lift back to the station. He was a German, Johannes, who had, like me, entered a 33 mile race but, unlike me had not realised it had been extended to 45 miles. He was as high as a kite (like me), shattered, and wanted a lift back to Wool Station. He was quite happy to offer me £10, which I refused as it was hardly out of my way, and we shared stories. The train was an hour later but I did not offer to drive them further as it would have been dangerous for all concerned. I hobbled into the Countryman and the staff asked me how the run had gone. Another guest had done the half-marathon and warmly congratulated me on doing the ultra. I felt great. I phone my mum and my wife and then ran a hot bath and soaked for a while before polishing off a huge mixed grill and falling asleep.

It had been a genuinely great day. I hadn’t achieved anything like what I’d set out to do in terms of time but I had far exceeded my expectations, particularly of what I might be able to do 30 months before when I pinned that number on my front again.

I had four hours at home the next day before driving off to Gatwick Airport for another tough week. But I made to the end, difficult client satisfied, job done, and with a new title to claim “Ultra-Runner” and a proper Ultra at that. I might not run seriously again, but if this is to be my last major run, it was a ‘good-un’.

A long distance cyclist turns to running


The Sussex Coast Marathon

Why run a marathon?

I was a runner once.  I used to run Cross-Country races at school.  But then I discovered bicycles, and after that I discovered cars.  I did occasionally do some running, but that came to an end in the winter of 1999-2000.  After a season of indoor cricket where my main skill was taking suicidal singles (in fact they promoted the opening bowler to opening the batting with me as he was the next fastest runner) I damaged some tendons in my right groin from the many high speed turns this silly sport involved.  After that even a knockabout game of football was enough to make the old injury complain.  So I didn’t run, not even for the bus.  It didn’t matter as shortly after that I discovered long distance cycling and the world of Audax.

But in 2011 the local office of my new employer entered 40 people in the Reading Half Marathon.  It was too late for an entry into that year’s event but, being recognised as a sporty type from my regular Lycra-clad commutes into the office, I couldn’t turn down an entry in the 2012 event.  I started off running 2 miles and gradually built up the distance, with a rule handed to me by my cycling club captain and former occasional marathon runner that I shouldn’t run more than once a week.  The time I did surprised me (and I think a few colleagues).  But I fully intended it as a one-off.  That’s until the summer when Mrs CET asked me why I wasn’t doing any running.  I said that I preferred cycling to running because it didn’t hurt so much.   But I decided to give it a go and entered the Basingstoke Half Marathon.  Training was interrupted by tweaking the dodgy groin and I went in underprepared and without much expectation.   (Although I was fit from a summer’s Audaxing including the 1000km Mille Alba.)  To my surprise I finished in the top 50, with a time that’s generally recognised to sort out the runners from the rest.  So I couldn’t let it rest there. 

In 2013 I decided that it was time to stop doing things by halves and go for the whole hog.  The Reading Half and the Combe Gibbet (a 16 mile cross-country run) were done to build up the distance, and the Milton Keynes Marathon was the first full distance event.  The Combe Gibbet was great but I struggled in the second half of the marathon, taking 29 minutes longer than the first half.  It was still what would be recognised as a good time but I wasn’t happy.  Having enjoyed the off-road event more than the on-road event I decided I would try to make amends in the Clarendon Marathon, a one-way trail run from Salisbury to Winchester along the Clarendon Way.  Again, I struggled in the second half, especially because I was about 5 minutes ahead of the start of the Half Marathon that followed the second half of the Marathon course, so on narrow trails I had lots of fitter and faster runners trying to push past.  This time my second half was 35 minutes longer than the first half.  I still needed to run a Marathon properly.

The Internet is a great thing for discovering stuff.  I’d enjoyed the trail run, even if it had hurt a lot.  So I looked up events and found the Enduralife series of coastal marathons.  The Dorset Coast event in December was too close but the Sussex Coast event on 22 March 2014 looked like it had potential.  It would certainly be pretty, starting off over the famous Seven Sisters chalk cliffs, and then going in land for a monster ascent of the South Downs and then more rolling hills before doing a double ascent of Beachy Head, one from Birling Gap and the other from Eastbourne.  26 miles and over 4000 feet of climbing meant that on average the run was either going up at 4% or down at 4% and since there were a few flat or gradual bits some of the hills would be very steep indeed.

What I’d found in previous marathons was that my legs would tie up at a certain distance, which could roughly be described as the distance of my previous longest run less one mile a week from that previous run.  So runs of 19 miles four or five weeks before the marathon weren’t cutting the mustard.  So for this one I gradually built up the distance, 12, 14, 16.5, 19, 21, 23 miles, occasionally stepping down the distance and then moving up again, but the 23 was just 17 days before the marathon.  People said I was crazy, but then I can only fit one run in a week, the rest of my leisure time is taken up with cycling (I’m also in a parallel challenge to ride 50 100km rides this year, with the current tally being 14).  It probably helps that I do have a natural running style (I need no fancy adjustments to my shoes) and I have good balance (from the cycling) and my legs have low mileage (because nearly all my endurance sport was done on the bicycle).

The Event

I left home at 5.30am for the two-hour drive to Birling Gap.  When I got out of the car it was cold and windy, there was no hint of the spring conditions of recent weekends.  Normally I run relatively lightly clothed but made the decision to start with longs, hat and gloves, togged up for the exposure that we would face on the cliff tops.

It is a fairly full-on start to the Sussex Coast Marathon.  After a quick briefing, we filed up for a mass start and we were off.  I started about twelve back, but as soon as we climbed out of Birling Gap I found myself in about fifth.  There was a strong head/cross wind.  It began to rain.  The first hill was steep and hard to run up, but my legs were fresh.  I watched the leading runners ahead of me gradually spread out.  I soon lost count of the ‘Sisters’; it was just a constant roller-coaster of steep up and steep down, with the wind making the crest of each hill as hard as the steepest bit.  Then it began to hail.  By the time I reached the top of the seventh ‘Sister’ I was coated in little pellets of ice, glad that I had worn longs and kept my hat and gloves on.  My sunglasses helped me keep the hail from blinding me.   If it kept this up for the rest of the event it was going to be arduous.

Along the Cuckmere River we became a group of three and had a conversation about cyclists becoming runners, but then we reached a series of steep hills in the woods.  The rain had turned the paths to a gloopy mud on top of a firm base with no traction in my road/dry trail running shoes (during the wet winter I’d looked for a pair of trail shoes but couldn’t get any to fit).  I wasn’t the only one to have problems; the first runner from the Ultra (that had set off 40 minutes before us) was walking up a hill with a large red lump on the side of his right knee.

We descended back to the river and I hoped that I could get a good rhythm, but I struggled once again on the muddy sections and a group of runners caught me up.  There was a fantastic view of Alfriston Church, sitting snug by the river.  As we reached the church I started to make a wrong turn, but was called back just as I saw the wrong way sign.  This allowed a runner to catch up to me and we slithered up a muddy slope together.  After a long hill we traversed the scarp slope of the Downs, with a good view of the ancient chalk figure, the Long Man.  But going sideways across a slippery slope was difficult and I lost ground on the group of runners that passed me.  By now we were passing ultra marathon runners with some regularity.  But the ground was about to turn in my favour.  The path went up a steep north ridge of the Downs.  It was almost impossible to get traction in places on the muddy surface.  I had to walk for two very short sections behind someone else but then got into a rhythm on the grass above.  I wasn’t going any faster than walking pace on the flat but I was still technically running, and I was going faster than those who were walking.  I passed the group that had overtaken me on the slippery ground.  I’d taken my hat off but at the top put it back on again because the wind was cold.  There were fantastic views in all directions and a long springy-turf gentle descent that allowed me to stretch my legs. 

The group of three (the fourth had dropped back) caught me up at the edge of the woods and we had a chat.  They were all locals from Eastbourne and impressed that I’d only started running a couple of years before.  But as the path started to descend more steeply I slithered about and let them go.  I caught them up on the next hill but lost them again in the woods to the half-marathon point.  I was starting to feel low on energy and so grabbed a few jelly-babies to keep me going as I got my tag read to check in.

It was starting to get harder to keep in rhythm.  The route went up and down in the woods, followed by a steep climb including a couple of awkward stone stiles that brought us up to the main road.  I was hoping for an easy descent into Birling Gap but there was a hard climb back onto the coastal cliffs.  On the negative side my legs were definitely tight on the descent but on the plus side I could see all the way to the top of Beachy Head and knew that the next checkpoint would be on the other side.  I felt quite rough on the descent to Birling Gap and it was difficult with all the 10K runners setting off in the opposite direction to us.  I seized the opportunity of a small gap and started up the long ascent to Beachy Head.  As the ground rose I got into the zone, passing runners from other events (in retrospect probably slower half-marathon runners).  One guy from the marathon passed me and I used him as a marker until my brain got tired.  I also caught one of the three I had run with in the woods. 

The descent off Beachy Head was the steepest yet; I couldn’t run down it properly.  The presence of surging waves in the creamy chalky water several hundred feet below heightened the exposure.  By the time I got to the bottom my legs were sore and I couldn’t get back into a rhythm.  I got passed by a couple of runners but caught them up on the next rise.  It was hot in the lee of Beachy Head.  We got to the final checkpoint and I stopped to pack away my hat and gloves and sink a gel.  There was another steep climb and I struggled up this one, my progress could barely be described as running but it wasn’t walking.  At the top it was back into the full-on wind but I consoled myself that there wasn’t much more than 4 miles to go.  What’s more, it was mostly downhill.

The thing I steeled myself for was that just as you could see the finish and hear the crowd, the route took a dog-leg and it was a further two miles.  Everything was hurting by now and even the easy descent was painful.  But I found that zone where I managed to tell the legs to shut up and I was able to keep concentrating on style and rhythm.  At the third attempt I was finally managing to run a marathon properly.  So, when we turned away from the finish for the last two miles, I wasn’t rattled.  The steepness of the last main hill surprised me but I wasn’t going to start walking now.  I started to up my pace (probably from dead slow to slow) and even managed to sprint a little bit to make the gap between two cars on the road to Beachy Head.  One last climb, then it was a mile to go.  Despite the stiffness and fatigue in my legs I tried to open my stride and started to pass the 10k runners with greater frequency. 

There was a lot of noise and confusion at the finish.  I’d pretty much emptied myself in the last few miles and almost fell over a couple of times.  I was almost in tears, not from pain or relief but just from the emotion of absolutely nailing the run.  There wasn’t anything I would have done differently.  It was like my best ever 100-mile time trial on the bike.  When you surrender your electronic tag you get a print out of your split times and your overall position.  “You are currently 11th out of 11 finishers”.  It took me a while to work out that the software expressed it this way for events where there was a staggered start rather than a mass start.  The second half was only 10 minutes longer than the first half.  Now I’d run a marathon properly.

I was quite done in at the finish and didn’t feel like eating but I bought a soup to keep me going for the hobble back to the car and the battle to change clothes over cramped legs.  But nothing could dampen the delight of having done a good run, through spectacular scenery, on a demanding day.

Reflections

At £50, this was an expensive event.  The fee included free parking, the race, a T-shirt, a free snack at the start and finish and snacks during the run, as well as marking the course.  But it was very well organised, there were 30 people around the course, which was very well marked out and, presumably, a fair amount of negotiation to get permission to hold the event in such an outstanding location.  I’ll almost certainly do another of their events, with the Dorset Coast Ultramarathon (33 miles) in December potentially being the next.

Training for PBP


When I joined Audax a few years ago I was intrigued by some of the articles in Arrivée.  It seemed that there were two components to training for Audax rides.  1) Drink beer.  2) Ride Audax rides.  While I am not adverse to either of these activities neither of them seemed particularly scientific.

Being an accountant I am at risk of taking an over-analytical approach to a problem, so I consulted a few books: “The Long Distance Cyclist’s Handbook” by Simon Doughty, “The Cyclists Training Bible”, by Joe Friel, and “The Complete Book of Long-Distance Cycling” by Edmund Burke and Ed Pavelka.  These gave me lots of advice about diet, training plans, and preparation for long distance events.  Some of the advice on how to train and what to eat was very helpful.  However, whilst beer unfortunately does not feature in the index of any of these (neither does wine for those with a preference), the second part “Ride your bike” appeared to be an important factor.  There was just one problem.  They assumed that you could ride your bike on a daily basis.  While I guess this is the case for many Audax riders I suspect that there are many riders like me, with a wife and two children and a job where cycle-commuting is not practical.  Family commitments limit the number of Audax events and the opportunity to train.  For the past few years I’ve managed little more than a bare SR series and a total of 4000 miles on the bike including all events (even the mileage to and from the cycle shop before and after repairs).

So how does someone who doesn’t drink much beer or do many Audax rides, gets out on the bike a maximum of two times a week and mostly just once, end up doing a sub-72 hour PBP on a proper steel-framed Audax bike with rack, pannier, mudguards and 28mm tyres?  It’s not as if I am a natural athlete; at school it was always my great relief to be second last to be picked when divvying up the football teams.  There are a few things in my training which I think have helped and would like to share in this article.  Bear in mind that I have no qualifications in this area and it is just relaying personal experience.  There are bound to be things that each reader disagrees with but if there is something that gives you a new perspective and helps you to train for Audax, all well and good.

Setting training objectives

I started off with one training objective.  I wanted to ride up hills faster with less effort.  There’s quite a lot hidden in this simple objective.  Firstly, I enjoyed doing grimpeur rides.  About 50% of my events have had “Attitude” points.  The problem with hills is that they force you to work hard.  Once the heart rate rises over 140 the body burns mostly carbohydrates.  The body only has a limited supply of these, it stores about 1600 calories worth, and riding in hills can burn off 800 – 1000 calories an hour.  On a typical four hour hilly stage it is very easy to run out of carbohydrates, at which point the body runs out of fuel, with symptoms of nausea, dizziness and an inability to turn the pedals, which cyclists neatly summarise in one word “bonk”.  It is possible to stave off the “bonk” by taking on fuel through carbohydrate drinks, snacks, etc, but there are limits on the amount of carbohydrate the body can absorb.  So, if I could ride up hills faster with less effort then I could complete stages more easily without having to take rests.  There was another big side-benefit from this simple goal.  Few people are dropped by groups on the flat but many are dropped on hills; by being strong on hills I could have more opportunity to stay with strong groups.

I’ll talk about my second training objective later.

 

 

The Gym

OK; time for the first taboo.  I guess many readers view a gym as a place inhabited by Neanderthals whose knuckles drag along the floor as they walk.  Or possibly as expensive palaces where neatly manicured office-workers pretend to exercise without breaking sweat.  I shared this view until a broken collar-bone forced me off the bike and my wife took me to her gym as a guest.  Five years later the gym is a critical part of my training programme.  During the winter I work on leg and core strength, with a carefully designed programme of weights and stretches.  Exercises such as dead-lifts, squats, lunges, calf raises, leg curls, leg extensions, and back extensions, don’t just help to build strength in the legs but also in the lower back.  Smaller weights for bicep curls, seated row, lateral pull down, and lateral raises help the upper back, shoulders and neck.  There is a reason for the variety of exercises; although the legs are the main driving force for cycling, they need to be anchored to a strong body to deliver their full force.  If the back or core strength are weak then some of the leg strength is lost in transmission.  Furthermore, if one muscle group is much stronger than another then that is likely to lead to injuries (just imagine one weak spring next to a strong one…).  That is why you should always have a programme set up by a professional trainer; this is normally available as part of the gym membership.

Another piece of apparatus in the gym that I have found helpful is the rowing machine.  There is a surprisingly high correlation between the muscles used for rowing and those used for cycling; 80% of the rower’s power comes from leg strength.  Most top rowers use cycling as part of their training and this year Rebecca Romero made the conversion from the UK rowing programme to win medals in the World Track Cycling championships.  A Concept II rowing machine is a standard piece of equipment so it is possible to benchmark performance and measure improvements.  The art of rowing is a good technique; this starts with a push from the calf muscles, builds up through the legs and then only at the very last minute a pull from the arms.  I have a natural advantage, being tall, but it is always satisfying to sit next to one of the Neanderthal inhabitants of the gym who is thrashing away at the rowing machine and gently pull away with faster split times.  The rowing machine also helps build the connective tissue between legs and back which are so important for usable strength and avoiding injury.

The final part of my gym training is the use of cross-trainers, running machines or other aerobic equipment.  These allow me to do simple interval training and work myself much harder than I would outside in the cold winter months.  There is a lot of advanced science on interval training but I just prefer two minute on, two minute off intervals, increasing the resistance on the “on” interval until the legs can’t take any more. 

All the above helps to increase my peak power output, with the idea that the average power output for a given calorific input will increase.  Or, in simple language, I’m aiming to make my legs stronger whilst consuming less fuel, which means that I can climb hills faster with less effort.

By 2006, the accumulated benefits of three winters of gym training were becoming clear.  In March, the Tavistock rides were done in appalling weather.  In May, the epic Bryan Chapman was completed without fuss, despite half the entries in the Scenic packing.  In June I waltzed around more hills on the Cambrian 4D permanent.  But there was still something missing.  I might be strong on the hills, but I was losing ground on the flat bits.  Where the riding was less challenging, even boring, I didn’t go so well.  This problem wasn’t physical, it was mental. 

Here was my second training objective: what could I do to improve my ability to grind out miles on flatter roads?

Time trials

OK, time for the second taboo.  I mean, no-one likes time-triallists, “testers”.  They ride, unsociably alone, head down, obsessed by their cycle computer and personal performance.  The only one that seems to count is the National 24, view as a proper hard-riders event.  However, for me, time trials had two advantages: 1) they worked on a mental weakness to grind out the miles and 2) 50-mile and even reasonably local 100-mile time trials could be completed by lunchtime on Sunday thereby fitting into a family routine.

Last year I did a 50 mile and a 25 mile which served to familiarise me with the process of entering and riding these events, although the combination of village halls and tea and cake at the finish will not be strange to any Audax rider.  What I did find was that Audax rides had trained me to ride with a fair degree of reserve.  In these time trials I discovered that a “red light” would come on in my head telling me I was going too hard.  I had to ignore this red light, and the next one, in order to reach my optimum speed.  There was also a thrill to riding at a constant 20mph plus, a sense of addiction to speed.  This year I entered a 50 and two 100s, not with any intention of breaking records but to ride a hard and constant pace.  The 50 went really well, three even laps of the A4 between Theale and Thatcham and a big chunk off last year’s personal best.  Both the 100s I found hard, but it was the first time that I had ridden hard for getting on for five hours non-stop.  They taught me about how to pace myself over that distance and what food to carry so that I would avoid the “bonk”.  From Guyancourt to Mortagne-au-Perche on the PBP is 140k and takes five to six hours without a food stop.  The 100 mile time trials were perfect preparation for this.  They also helped my pedalling rhythm along the routine stages such as Fougeres – Villaine on the return.   I was able to ride much faster on the boring bits of road and I did not get dispirited.  (For me; nothing on the PBP was as mentally hard as the 70 – 90 mile stretch of a 100 mile time trial.)  I had succeeded in my second training objective – riding quickly and consistently on flatter roads.

Of course, a training programme consisting of gym work and time trials would be unbalanced and highly boring, there had to be some more entertaining activities.  So its time for the third taboo, club runs.  I’ve had many conversations over the years with Audax riders who struggle with their local club: “they go too fast”, “they’re not very sociable”, and “they abandoned me in the middle of nowhere”…

Club runs

Well, maybe I’m lucky, but I’ve been served very well by my local club, CC Basingstoke.  It was great to ride PBP in their highly distinctive colours, and I guess there are plenty of French, Germans, Italians, Spaniards, and Australians who now know that CCB can ride hard.  Despite this, all of the above complaints could be levied at CCB.  However, let’s look at each one in turn.

They go too fast?  Many clubs split their club runs into different groups, faster and slower.  I found it beneficial to pick the group (our fast group) that goes a bit harder than I would really like.  By being forced to ride at a pace at which I was initially uncomfortable, I learnt to ride harder and dismantle some of those mental blocks that my brain put in place to try and protect my body.  Over three consecutive winters I progressed from hanging on at the back to taking the occasional turn at the front, to doing a lot of the work.  This helped convert a lot of the strength and endurance I was developing into the gym into real physical prowess.

They’re unsociable?  There’s always been camaraderie amongst the strong riders in CCB; perhaps that comes from the core of riders from going out in all weathers.  One day a rainstorm struck; just as we were about to set-off a few dived for cover and the rest of us headed out.  One of those who stayed behind said “You just disappeared” as twenty metres down the road we were hidden by the wall of water.  Everyone has had hard days and has suffered and other days when they’ve been the strong one.  I found that social acceptance came quite easily, but especially when I was prepared to take my turn on the front, and learn the disciplines of riding in a group.  Leading a group I had to be sensitive to the strengths and the weaknesses of the other riders, to adapt my pace to that of the group.  Sometimes that meant going harder than I wanted, other times I had to ease back.  These social engineering skills helped me hugely on PBP, particularly in the headwind sections where I managed to work effectively with Italians, Germans, and the French, saving me both time and energy.  On the stage to Fougeres a big Italian and I gently nursed our group to the back of another going at a similar pace to generate a huge train of thirty riders which then picked up its own momentum and offered an armchair ride to all.

CCB have abandoned me in the middle of nowhere!  In February and March our rides get longer and non-stop for over four hours.  I’ve often found the pace hard to sustain after three hours, especially in the cold weather when my legs work badly compared with other riders.  This might seem like bad news but has actually been a critical part of my long-distance cycling development.   Usually, it is only on the long Audax rides where you get to the breaking point when the idea of disappearing into the nearest bar/café/railway station and phoning the organiser seems infinitely more desirable than continuing.  However, on the hard CCB rides I could be in this position on a weekly basis.  Given that I don’t have the opportunity to ride many Audax events this was a great simulation.  It taught me exactly where my break point was, how to recognise it, how to ease the pace to avoid it, not to get worried about being dropped in the middle of nowhere but to think about how to get home (or the next control point in an Audax analogy).  These days, if I am dropped I often lead a groupetto and it is surprising how often we are only 10 minutes behind the fast guys when we get back home.

So club runs taught me about group riding, social engineering, and not giving up.  But the club rides are not always available, so there has to be one last piece to my training programme.

Hills

It doesn’t matter how much work I do in the gym, or how much I ride the bike, there is only one way that I can get properly fit to climb and that is to ride the bike up hills.  Living in Hampshire I don’t have the opportunity to do the big hills of Wales or the Yorkshire Dales, nor the steep ones of the West Country.  (However, we do take the bike on a weekly holiday to a cottage between  Totnes and Dartmouth each year – my super-hilly route of Gitcombe – Cornworthy – Dittisham (harbour) – Mill Creek – Townstal – Dartmouth – Crowthers Lane – Swannaton – Warfleet – Bowden – Sportsman’s Arms – Gitcombe features 34m of ascent per kilometre and a succession of three hills at 20%, 25%, and 33%).  Hampshire can’t compete with this; all it has is a few chalk escarpments.  However, this is more relevant to the average cyclist as most of the UK’s population that doesn’t have access to Wales or Dales has access to a chalk escarpment.  My routine is simple, ride to the top of the hill, ride along the top and take the next turning down the hill, ride along the bottom and take the next turning up the hill.  Repeat for four hours.  The idea is to ride every hill in as good a style as possible, ie with a good cadence and not too much out of the saddle. 

If I’m feeling like a real workout then I have a super test piece that would make a great Audax route except for the complete absence of practical controls.  This starts at home, just east of Basingstoke and takes in Upton Grey, South Warnborough, Upper Froyle, Wyck, Hartley Mauditt, Empshott, Hawkley, Oakshott, Steep, Ramsdean, Butser, Clanfield, East Meon, Old Winchester Hill, Rooksgrove, Cheriton, Bishop’s Sutton, Gundleton, Bighton, Medstead, Bradley, Ellisfield, Cliddesden, Polecat Corner and home.  Only the ascent of Butser from the north is over 100m but the sequence of hills is relentless.

A lot of people told me they had forgotten the PBP was hilly.  After this training it didn’t seem so to me.

Conclusion

So that is my training: the gym, time trials, club runs and hills.  There is plenty there for you to disagree with.  It is quite possible that if I had just drunk beer and ridden my bike I would have done better.  But if there is one thing that helps you on your way then I’ll be happy.  I will leave you with one final thought.

I was worried about tales of people whose necks failed them in PBP.  Being tall and long-necked (and having some history of neck pain on long and/or windy rides) it was a problem to worry about.  So this summer I went back into the gym; the instructor worked out a programme of relatively gentle exercises for the shoulders and upper body to help support the neck.  This was supplemented by a half-mile swim (breast-stroke) as aerobic exercise.  The result?  After three days of persistent cross-winds on the PBP my back and neck were pain-free.

Bonne route.

Bring on the Dragons


Cambrian 4C

On a treasure map there are two permanent components.  The first is an X to mark the spot.  And the second is a legend “Here be Dragons”.  Wales is the legendary home of the dragon and the Cambrian Series permanents are the buried treasure.

On an Audax ride a long long time ago…

It was Ian Hennessey’s Devon and Somerset 100 in 2003.   I was in the café with Richard Parrotte and he was describing this horrendously overdistance and difficult permanent that he and Simon Gent had done the previous November, starting at 11pm (presumably on a Friday night) with the idea of quiet roads and a full moon.  It had turned into a full-scale epic, battling sickness and time limits.  I remembered a description of roads so steep that they could not make up time even on the descents.  Way back then I’d reckoned that 300km was probably about the maximum that I could manage.  The following year I summoned up the courage to do the National 400 on the grounds that it had a sleep stop in the middle.

Such tales are what dreams are made of.  In April 2005 I did my first Cambrian Series permanent, the 2A, with memories of bright blue sky, sheep mown grass and winter-browned bracken, the wind and the snow-showers and the endless scenery.  In June 2006 I graduated to a proper hard permanent, the 4D, including the Devil’s Staircase and a night out under the stars.  Later that year, Peter Coulson announced that he was standing down from his Audax commitments.  In the words of Victor Kiam, I was so impressed I bought the company.  I was now the organiser of the Cambrian Series.

Seven years later, I had only ridden one more event, the 1B, during the 2007 AUK Reunion at Llandrindod Wells, even though I had added to the population of routes, including the epic 8A and 10A, 800km and 1000km of endless mountains respectively.  I had graduated, through a couple of PBPs, a couple of ‘24s, LEL 2009, the Mille Miglia, the Mille Alba, and various other silly escapades into a wheel that you choose to follow, or not, as the case may be.  The time had come to revisit the Cambrian Series and that ride, the 4C.  Peter Coulson’s notes came with an apology on this ride (it’s 434km).  It was listed as 7055m of ascent but my contour count came out at about 8000m.  I’m sure that in some quarters such understatement would be sacrilege, but this is a permanent, you pays your money, you takes your chance. 

I warmed up the previous weekend with a jaunt around Mark Rigby’s excellent Rough Diamond, 300km in just over 12 hours, towing around the fast group, arriving at every control before it opened, except the last, where I was delayed by a puncture.  I guessed that despite having a slow July courtesy of breaking a finger lengthwise in a crash, that my form was reasonably good.

Anticipating taking 24 hours for the ride, a middle of the day start and finish seemed appropriate.  There wouldn’t be much time for sleeping and there wasn’t anywhere much to sleep anyway.  Travelodges and Premier Inns are in short supply in mid-Wales.  Actually most things are in short supply in mid-Wales, except hills, dirty gritty and muddy roads, cattle grids, and sheep.  So I arrived at Caersws on the 12:13 and got a first control stamp at 12:14 in the Costcutter Store.

It was a lovely sunny day, the rivers running high and the landscape green from heavy overnight rain.  The first little section was to Llanidloes on the A470, a major trunk road with a lovely smooth surface and about the same amount of traffic as on my local Hampshire B-roads.  This was just a warm up.  After stopping briefly to get proof-of-passage in Llanidloes I turned up the hill and into another world.  It was a tiny lane that went from nowhere to nowhere, the places marked on the signposts bore little resemblance to the Ordnance Survey map and two houses next to each other constituted a metropolis.  The road went up and down pretty much randomly, through fields and forests, the verges thick with ragged robin and meadowsweet, butterflies, hoverflies, and a host of other flowers and insects I couldn’t recall.  It was warm, sunny and the hedges filtered out most of the wind.  I drifted along on cloud nine.  I had to check my map at Bwlchysarnau; the crossroads was slightly different from my mental picture.  (I haven’t started to use GPS at the moment, on most of the Cambrian series, navigation is simple enough for the old fashioned use of torn out pages of Road Atlases, although on the last two stages: Llangollen – Llanfyllin – Caersws I did resort to compiling a rough route sheet from Google Maps and Google Street View.)   Listening to the wind and the buzzard cries, I ate the pork pie I’d bought at Caersws and though that all was right with the world.

The roads became rougher and the descents more serious; I took care, having recently had a collision from my own incaution.  The landmarks kept arriving as expected, though there was a bit of a surprise when I came across a gate in the road.  I was into the land of sheep and the first fast descent, like so many on this ride, became a slow one as the sheep and I negotiated which side of the road they were going to cross to.  If you could predict their movements accurately then I reckon you’d have a good chance at the Euromillions Lottery.  I now had a tailwind and this helped my up the long drag of Bailey Hill and down into Knighton.  My intention was to ride this route in its purist form, taking the shortest routes wherever possible, even if that meant some extra silly hills. 

In Knighton I had a sandwich and bottle of water and was soon away up a long gradual climb that set the tone for the next stage to Brecon.  Like so many rides this ended up being a series of vignettes of former rides (the 1B where we rode from Knighton to Clun, several Bryan Chapmans that passed through Knighton, the outward section of the Elenith – the 4C shares the first steep hill of that ride – the return of the Elenith, and then a section completely new to me through Gladestry, where the length of the hills surprised me).  I had turned into the wind and was taking the frequent climbs steadily, enjoying the swift and winding descents, thinking of those who would be doing the Gladestry Audax rides over the weekend.  I didn’t see many others out on their bikes.  There was one more big climb after Newchurch and then a long and twisting drop to Clyro.  Here was the one disappointment of the ride, a long busy road section along the A438 and A470 to Brecon.  I dropped onto the aero-bars and let the miles pass away, thinking that I would have a good feed at the next control, as it might be my last chance for a proper coffee stop.  The first place described itself as a coffee bar but they had stopped serving coffee and were only serving beer but they kindly gave me directions to a Costa Coffee.  A Panini, a pint of tap water, a flapjack and a very large coffee later I was ready to take on the long climb north. 

I made my one navigation error, trusting to signposts to get me out of Brecon.  I should have realised by now that signposts in town are next to useless.  The locals all know where they want to go and so don’t need them, and strangers are always pointed to the nearest motorway.  The back road to Builth and Upper Chapel had one signpost, but not a second one.  I realised that I had gone wrong when I found myself on the road I had entered Brecon.  A quick check of the map showed my error and a pleasant route to cut across on to the right road.  I remembered this road from the 2A.  I had walked up an endless and horrible hill and then, on the descent, found that there were a lot of little climbs that meant I couldn’t freewheel the whole way.  I expected it to be equally tough in the other direction and so set my pace accordingly, riding up a delightful valley into the barren moors used for army training around the Drover’s Arms, which looked open.  I looked away, not wanting the temptation of its creature comforts. At the top of the next climb the world opened out into that incredible inland valley of spa towns (Llanwrtyd, Builth, and Llandrindod) surrounded by mountains, the Black Mountain behind me, Radnor Forest to the East and the main Cambrian Mountains stretching out to the west, grey humps, their folds concealing the thin ribbon of tarmac that crossed them, that little road known to Audax riders as the Devil’s Staircase.

Before that I had monster descent and turn to Llangammarch Wells, the first evening chill starting to cut through my shirt.  In Llanwrtyd Wells I stopped and wondered about putting on my gilet, but stopped at arm warmers.  I ate three bananas out of a pack of four and drank a pint of milk.

There is a particular quality of light on a Welsh Mountain valley in the evening.  It brought back memories of a gentle hiking trip in 1991, where everything was dappled and glittering, the flowing waters, the leaves, even the way the light played on the lush windblown grass in the meadows.  This light blessed the road from Llanwrtyd to Abergeswyn.  It truly was one of the most beautiful roads I’ve ridden in Wales, to think that I’d only approached Abergeswyn from the other direction and missed this treat.

Part of my planning, the lunchtime departure from Caersws was that I could make the Tregaron mountain road at dusk.  What a titanic time to ride this road.  This is the setting for a Mahler symphony, a Wagner opera, a full orchestra deployed to its maximum effect.  The wild ravine with destiny at its end, familiar from six Eleniths and the Cambrian 4D beckoned.  But like any true questing hero I came prepared with a magic weapon, in this case a Centaur 12 – 30 ten speed sprocket that, combined with my triple front ring gave me a 27” gear.  You may say this is cheating.  But there were more dragons to slay on this trip.  After riding through the night I was due to face Bwlch-y-Groes at dawn.  But enough of that later.

The 27” gear made short work of the Staircase.  It was hard up the first ramp but I could do the bit before the first hairpin in the saddle, recovering, and again before the second hairpin.  So, for the first time I was able to reach the summit without my heart thumping out of my chest, my lungs gasping in every last molecule of oxygen, my head spinning, and my stomach regretting its last meal.  I was able to appreciate the wild lands and brace myself for the rocketing precipitous descent and the slippery ramp and corner into the side valley ready for the second challenge.  The next hill is in two parts, the first featuring another 20% ramp and the second waiting to bayonet the wounded.  I twiddled and tickled my way past its defences in the gathering gloom, appreciating this barren landscape as the colour filtered away in the fading light.  If Wagner and Mahler had described the grandeur of the approach to the Staircase it was Shostakovich’s turn, his astringent string sound getting ever closer to the human condition.

On the Elenith I would have the cheerful banter of the Bowls Club ladies dispensing hot soup, beans on toast and rice pudding with endless cups of tea, the cheering company of fellow sufferers to raise my hopes, the thought of turning for home, “half way there”.  Tonight I would have the meagre comforts of the SPAR shop, and the prospect of a long and lonely night and the most dreaded climb in Wales at dawn.  It was no wonder than I took things slowly and steadily and did not leave a fragment of my soul behind as I have done before on this stretch of road.  At the top of the bare third climb I gave into the darkness and stopped and put my lights on, added my gilet and ancient high-visibility tabard to my arm warmers, and thus girded in my trusty armour ventured onto the twin descents into Tregaron. 

I opted for the spread beam on my Lumicycle lights, reckoning that peripheral vision would be more useful on these winding roads that distance and so it proved.  The moon was starting to shine brightly through a film of clouds forming on the windward side of the mountains.  My descent was accompanied by a mixture of fear and exhilaration, tempered with experience, that brought me safely to Tregaron.

There are a lot of SPAR shops in Wales.  It should be renamed the Society for the Preservation of Audax Riders, for they are welcome places that offer food and drink from 7am to 10pm.  It was 9.30pm, and likely to be my last food stop before the morning.  I would have liked a bowl of soup, a wedge of bread, some baked beans and probably a big sticky pudding.  I had an almond croissant and a cherry coke.   I didn’t feel much like anything else cold and stodgy.  On my request they let me eat inside so I didn’t get chilled.  I phoned home and realised that I needed to take care.  I abandoned my plan to follow the tiny lanes (a section of about 5km between Tregaron and Aberystwyth, and another 8km into Llanidloes and stay on the main routes.  If the worst was to happen and I was to come off, with a bit of luck a driver would see my lights and come to my rescue. 

The Tregaron to Aberystwyth road passed uneventfully, and I was soon in the middle of crowds enjoying a Friday night out in the town.  (As I had done some 21 years and a bit before on my stag weekend).  They gave me a wide berth.  I took a selfie whilst munching on a biscuit and washing it down with water near the ATM that provided my proof of passage.  I looked rough enough not to bother with.  There was supposed to be a 24-hour petrol station in Aberystwyth, but I didn’t find it.

I’d never ridden the A44 from west to east but I had done most of it twice in the other direction on the Bryan Chapman.  On that ride there are two long descents so I knew I had two long climbs to do in the dark.  I set off steadily and continued to ride steadily, not setting any expectations, just riding by feel.  The problem with the metronomic pace and lack of company was that dozies began to set in.  I set the first summit as a target, knowing that there was a visitor centre and large car park where I could hide myself away.  According to the plan I got well off the road, turned all my lights off, used my bum bag as a pillow and closed my eyes to the occasional swish of trucks and taxis on the road.  A louder than usual truck woke me after about 15 minutes and, refreshed, I set-off, somewhat chilly, on the descent. 

I never saw the turn to the little road that I might have taken.  It’s a strange thing, night riding.  On the National ’24 I was riding flat out at 17mph on rides I had done at 20mph in training.  There is something about losing the perception of distance that changes everything.  Or perhaps it is just that at 1am the body doesn’t want to ride it wants to rest and half of the energy is used up in overcoming that inertia.  Fortunately the road dropped between Llangurig and Llanidloes and gravity took me to the next control.

Llanidloes was deserted.  I sat down by the ATM and watched cats prowling the streets like a scene from a science fiction movie.  Three drunks got out of a taxi and staggered across the road to their house.  The taxi drove off and left me in silence.  I finished more biscuit and water and clambered back onto the bike.  The receipt showed it was 1.37am.

The signpost showed it was 6 miles to Staylittle.  What it didn’t show was that there were 5 separate ascents with an Ordnance Survey arrow between Llanidloes and Staylittle (the arrow indicates a gradient of between 14% and 20%).  In the dark it was impossible to tell where the top of the hills were so it was a simple rollercoaster, grind on the way up in the little gears and swoop down hoping somehow to maintain some momentum.  Every climb I boiled, every descent I froze.  It was cook chill on the human anatomy and draining.  The Staylittle village sign was welcome, but I was back in a daze.  I knew there was a long descent ahead and suspected my brain function was not up to it.  For the second time, I pitched the bike off the road, turned the lights off so I would not be seen and lay back on my bum bag with eyes closed until I recovered.  I was not aware of time passing or of any vehicles doing the same, but from my watch I rested for 15 minutes. 

The descent was cold after the rest.  I reached Llanbrynmair with the faint hope that something would be open but at 3am the end of the world could have happened and no one would have noticed.  I’d stopped here on my first Bryan Chapman, cold, tired, damp, looking at a wet dawn and wondering how to continue.  I didn’t stop this time but carried on my journey along a gradual up hill that wore me down bit by bit until I had to have another catnap.  During the day a perm can be quite fun, the solitude a badge of honour or privilege; no one is doing the same as me.  But at night the solitude becomes the bare cloth of the true randonneur.  No rider will pass.  On this deserted back road no car would rumble by.  No passer-by would offer encouragement.  No fleche will mark the direction.  No signs mark progress.  I woke up and looked at my provisions.  I had plenty of food but my water bottles were getting very low.  I had a swig of my remaining PSP and its sickliness stuck in my throat and then I was off.

The road climbed for a bit longer, indicating how slow my progress had been and how false my perception of that progress.  The descent was technical and the next climb steep.  Wavering, I found myself heading for the verge and had to unclip.  The climb was too steep to remount so I had a short plod to the A458.  I was in a bad way.

Another faint hope was that the petrol station at Mallwyd might be open.  But it wasn’t.  I stopped next to it, resting the bike against a wall and drank and ate a little more.  It was 4am.  The biggest dragon of them all was waiting for me, Bwlch-y-Groes, a climb so long and steep that they used to test cars up it to see if they could make it to the top.  Riders in the Milk Race were reduced to a walk.  They were professionals or top amateurs, and they hadn’t ridden through the night, nor had they approached it 300km from the start.

I plodded through Dinas Mawddwy and onto the valley road.  As I proceeded in a lopsided fashion the first hint of light of the new day began to show my situation.  The valley was hemmed in by hills and there seemed like there was no way out.  I scanned ahead looking for signs of the fateful hill, but I could see nothing.  The road was up and down, like so many deep valley roads, even the flat bit was hilly.  I resigned myself, after the previous struggle up a short climb, to a long and lonely plod on foot up the 2.5km of precipitous tarmac.  Then, all of a sudden I recognised the first steep ramp and an impossibly steep looking hairpin bend. 

Annoyed with myself I decided to see how far I could get.  I got around the first hairpin and it levelled off a bit.  Sitting down I could turn the 27” gear without the front wheel lifting so, carefully and patiently, I continued.  Suddenly I thought to myself, “I can do this!”.  With all the experience of 10 years of hard-edged Audax rides, I winched myself along, taking every opportunity to sit and ride as slowly as possible, saving my energy for the steep bits, which had to be done out of the saddle.  There were more of the steep bits as the road rose but, inspired by the increasing dawn light, I rose proportionately.  It was marginal but I held on. Pedal stroke by sodding pedal stroke until I saw the junction and I knew the road would ease.  Elation overcame exhaustion.  Bwlch-y-Groes at dawn.  I’d expected to be shot down before making the turn, but instead it was the hero that had defeated the dragon.

On the insanely narrow descent I had little chance to pick up speed.  It was back to sheep dodging, pulling on the brakes until my shoulders ached, not wishing to second-guess where they might jump.  I didn’t care.  Bwlch-y-Groes at dawn.  After riding through the night.  After 300km of riding.  After the Devil’s Staircase at dusk.  The ride was made!

Lake Bala was grey and choppy reflected the dull skies and scudding clouds above.  The west wind blew me along its shore somewhat wearily and unco-ordinated.  But Bala was a desert, nothing open until 7am, I was reminded of the words from Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, “water water all around me and not a drop to drink”.  An ATM provided proof of passage (the third in a row).  I drained my bottle and hoped to find something before Llangollen, the next control.

A newsagent in Corwen came to my rescue.  This was after a long slow drag on the A494, which rose steadily for some distance before a descent to the Dee valley and the A5.  I resorted to sucking on fruit pastilles for relief.  I rode into Llangollen looking for cafes.  There was a promising place by the river that had a sign saying open but locked doors.   There was a bakery, ‘sorry love, we aren’t open yet’, but they did point me in the direction of Stan’s.  This was the local Nisa store, petrol station and had a coffee machine and some rather stale pastries.  I wasn’t fussy.  They refer to the area around Tregaron as the Welsh desert because it is so barren, but on a Saturday morning before 8am the desert extended far to the north.  However, I cheered myself with two thoughts.  Bwlch-y-Groes at dawn.  And there were only two short stages back to Caersws.

Back to a café in Watchet ten years before: ‘roads so steep we couldn’t make time up on the descents’. 

There were two possible routes out of Llangollen in the direction of Llanfyllin, the next control.  The first was Allt y Badi, but this had worrying road closed signs on Google Streetview (which didn’t extend the whole way up the climb and I had visions of it turning into deep muddy ruts halfway up) and the second was Allt y Gwernant, which looked much more civilised and had Streetview to prove that tarmac existed along its whole extend.  I’d constructed a route sheet using Google Maps and Streetview for the whole of the last two stages as the navigation looked difficult and certainly not easy to ‘follow-your-nose’ from signposts.  I’m blessed with a pictorial memory so once I’ve seen a picture of a place or been there I can usually remember it.  So I found the start of Allt y Gwernant.  There was a 13% climb sign which seemed quite civilised after some of the climbs I had done, but I slipped it down to the 27” gear just in case.  That was good planning.  I was soon out of the saddle for fear of involuntary wheelies.  A car came up behind me but I dared not stop to let it past because I would never have got started again.  After close to a minute of nasty clutch sounds the road widened enough for me to pull to one side.  I was glad I did not have its attention.  What looked to be a pleasant climb on the foreshortened Streetview was turning out to be a beast.  I went through a tunnel of trees into hedges with fields either side and then up into a forest.  The gradient never let up.  Eventually the road turned and there was a little bit of relief, but it was still a vicious climb.  By the summit I’d ranked it between the Devil’s Staircase and Bwlch-y-Groes in order of difficulty. 

There’s a common misconception when riders talk about nasty climbs.  They take the maximum gradient and apply it to the total distance.  It’s pretty easy to guess what’s happened.  “It goes on for 2km at 20%”, “Oh yes, so the summit’s 400m above the start.  What is the highest point of Dorset, Kent, Sussex, (fill in your county of choice)?  Then they go on to say that Alpe d’Huez, Col du Galibier, Mont Ventoux can’t be much cop; they only average 8% (insert your classic Alpine ascent of choice).  Its true that the Alpine climbs are (usually) better engineered and so don’t have the short steep ramps, but then they don’t have the flatter bits in between.  The average gradient is the total height gain divided by the total horizontal distance.  Very few climbs in the UK are more than 10%.  Bwlch-y-Groes is 14.2% for 2.4km – which is pretty horrible by any standard.  So, once I got back home, I did a little bit of testing with a map and a ruler on Allt y Gwernant.  The 700m to the first sharp bend rises 125m, so a joyful 18% average for nearly half a mile.  The whole climb is 1.8km and rises 245m (there is a convenient OS spot height at the top and contour line at the bottom), so giving an average of 14% for the lot, eerily similar to Bwlch-y-Groes, except not quite as long.  And it doesn’t even have an Ordnance Survey arrow on it.  Enjoy!

I actually felt good at the top, even if I didn’t have the stats to hand I knew I had climbed something special.  Now for the descent.  If kids in Glen Ceiriog cycled to school in Llangollen then we’d have riders who could drop Nairo Quintana and Chris Froome for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  Forearms aching, I reached the bottom in one piece and found myself on a valley road that went mostly uphill for about 8km and then had another 2km steep hill (this did have an arrow on it) on ever degrading tarmac into an increasing headwind.  I grew up in Devon, famous for its lanes; I could have been back home.  At least riding in the South Hams prepared me for the next long and winding hedge-bound descent, a delicate balance between anticipation and madness, remembering that around every leafy bend could be a tractor with an exciting agricultural implement on its front (or back).  Sensibly I stuck my home-made route sheet in my tri-bag so that I could alternate consulting directions and eating fruit pastilles.  One of the roads looked as if only the farmer and his cows had used it for some time.  That put me off the fruit pastilles for a bit.   The problem with my route sheet was that I had not included distances.  So I’d got to the turn I thought was the last before Llanfyllin (I’d written ‘follow your nose’) to see a distance sign of 5 miles.  Unfortunately half of this was up another stonking great hill, whose uneven gradients required me to use most of the lower gears on my machine to keep some semblance of rhythm.  My bottom bracket was starting to make interesting and terminal sounds.  At least the last 2 miles were of the furious descending variety.  And Llanfyllin was far superior to Llangollen in one respect.  It fulfilled the words Café and Open in the same premises. 

I’d arrived just after a family of eight and so was going to have to wait so I ordered two mugs of tea and as I was half way through the second mug the bacon and eggs arrived.  I was resting my head on my hands.  “It’s not that bad?” the lady asked.  “No it isn’t”, I answered with a smile.  Just one more stage to go and the bacon and eggs and four slices of toast were delicious.  A little bit further and if the bottom bracket died I’d still be able to walk and coast the remainder in the time limit.  The next section, although agricultural looked like the sort of terrain where the Middle of Nowhere would phone up the Back of Beyond and ask ‘have you heard of this place?’  The irony was that my cycle computer showed 250 miles, so I’d already done the distance.  I suppose I should complain to the organiser but he’d just remind me that I knew the ride was overdistance and that was part of its charm.

With a chorus of squeaks from the bottom bracket I set off along a series of hilly lanes and laney hills on roads as narrow and interesting as before to the village of Pontrobert and then some more exciting navigation to drop into Llanfair Caereinion from a great height.  I did meet a large vehicle on this road but had been descending cautiously enough to pull into a passing place.  There were a few drops of rain.  As I climbed out of Llanfair Caereinion on yet another climb with an arrow on it the rain became heavier.  (At least this was a B-road and therefore theoretically wide enough for cars to pass in opposite directions).  I put on my rain jacket and continued on the roller-coaster to New Mills by which time the rain had stopped and I felt cooked.  I calculated I had just 10 miles to go, but this didn’t prevent me from stopping at the petrol station in Tregynon for another snack.  I was in no hurry.  And this gave me the energy for the last little bit where, eventually, the hills relented.  I stormed passed the turn for the Aberhafesp Community Centre, where I’d had several Bryan Chapman breakfasts and then the final gentle rise before the magic sign “Caersws 1”.  I stopped at the Costcutter at 13:16 and so completed 434km (actually about 438km due to the one minor navigation error and a couple of main road sections during the night).

The Red Lion was just around the corner and it served a magical pint of Monty’s Moonrise.  I thought I might have another one but actually one was enough.  The fatigue and sleep deficit was enough that I was able to sleep most of the way back on the two train journeys (mobile set with alarm to wake me up before Wolverhampton and then again in Basingstoke.  I ate a sandwich and a hot dog at Wolverhampton and then cooked myself a risotto when I got back home.

So, the final score, “Dragons 0, CET 3”, although CET’s magical weapon had probably received a fatal wound (or at least its bottom bracket had).  Fun factor and scenery off the scale.  This ride hardly ever let up with its challenges.  There were a few main road sections (to Brecon, Llanidloes, and Llangollen) but each of these was in wild open landscape and big country so that the views were always there.

You could find a lot of things wrong with this ride.  It is exceptionally hilly.  It is overdistance.  I came into this ride on form, able to drive a hard and fast 300 and I’m well equipped for hilly events with an efficient and sustainable climbing style.  I was probably a little over par for the ride, I didn’t hurry on the last two stages, and I did have three short cat naps, but even so, if you are used to finishing at the sharp end of an Audax event then you should budget on 24 hours.  Anything less and its likely you would be pushing time limits.  Few would time for a proper sleep but then there aren’t many places suitable for a couple of hours kip in any case.

But there is something elegant about an event that takes 24 hours to complete, with basic facilities.  Whilst it is nice to ride more well supported events and have the lure of hot food to get you to the end of a stage, there is also a purity in riding an event in its most primitive form, surviving on your wits, and developing the mental courage to continue when cold dark and lonely with the dragons looming about you. 

Its at times like this that you welcome the kindness of others, when you discover your nature  and improve on it, and through prayer and resilience emerge stronger or different or both.

I’m biased.  I’m the organiser of the Cambrian Series of rides.  I bought the company.  But that’s in the genuine belief that the big rides (the 4C and the 4D) that I have done have been utterly exceptional.  I’ve returned lighter and happier full of plans for the next one, having discovered a treasure that isn’t made of gold or paper or precious stones but in life’s rich experience.

Bring on the dragons!

MIlle Alba 2012


Taking on the Mille Alba

Introduction

I think it was sometime in September when I saw a thread on the forum about a 1000km ride in Scotland.  It soon became clear that this would be hotly subscribed and so, without the consultation usual (and required) in such circumstances, I entered at the first opportunity.  I justified this lapse on the basis that this would not be like PBP or the Mille Miglia, taking me away from home for 6 or even 10 days.  This would be a Thursday night sleeper up, Sunday night sleeper back, one day off work event.  After all, I’d been able to do 1000km in 53 hours on PBP with 5 hours of sleep in Brest.

When details of the route started to emerge, a climbing figure of a mere 7000m was mentioned, less climb/km than on PBP.  This sort of made sense, as in Scotland the roads often follow the valleys.  The Cairnwell is more than 500m higher than Banchory but it does take 75km to get there.

Perhaps it was not going to be so easy after all.  A revised climbing figure of 12750m appeared.  I had not considered what a magnificent route Graeme Wyllie would put together, selecting elements of previous Audax Ecosse rides and some new sections.  With an entry capped at 75 there would not be the hundreds of riders on the road, each one a potential ally, as there is on PBP.  And, of course, there was the weather; if it cut up rough on one of the high mountain passes a lot of damage could be done to both time and will. 

Originally I had planned to do this event on my race bike with tribars, the same set up as PBP.  Two things went against this plan.  The first was the weather forecast (unsettled) and the second was a work meeting in London that meant I would need to go to work first and then get on the night sleeper.  There was no way around it, I would need the extra carrying capacity of the Audax bike, which I knew to be about an hour slower over 300km than the race bike.

However, what was most informative were the raised eyebrows and polite observations of “really?” when I mentioned my plan.

1000km between 7am Friday and late Sunday evening.  It was not going to be easy.

The plan

Although there were four loops on the Mille Alba, for anyone wanting to catch the Sunday night sleeper it had to be broken down to three day rides.  The first day was 356km with a couple of feature hills in Cairn o’Mount and the Cairnwell.  All in all it did not look too tough, but with a start time of 7am it could easily be 11pm or even midnight before we finished.

The second day was 324km and, on paper, looked easier, mostly gradual climbs in the Southern Uplands, as long as the wind wasn’t from the West when there would be a very long headwind section from Berwick to Biggar. 

The third day would require a final 336km, firstly a 266km loop into the Perthshire mountains and then a shorter loop out to Falkland over the Lomond Hills.  In order to catch the midnight train ideally I would like to finish at 9pm.  But, a hilly final day, possibly with bad weather, and lots of hills (I’d no idea how big some of the climbs turned out to be, even when following the route on Ordnance Survey maps in planning), could easily take 17 hours to complete, or longer, given that I would be tired.  That meant a 3am to 4am start time.  So, in a perfect world I probably want to finish the second day quite early.

As I travelled up to London for a day’s work on Thursday, with everything packed up on the bike, I began to ponder.  Things were quite tight, especially as there was no opportunity to get part way round the third day ahead of time.

The weather forecast was not good.  After one of the wettest springs on record Friday was “heavy rain in the morning, followed by heavy showers in the afternoon”, Saturday and Sunday both showed showers, with freshening south-westerly winds.  We could be in for a soaking.  At least having a base, Fordell Firs Scout centre, meant that we could take as much kit as we could carry.  Apart from a bar bag and two stuffed panniers I also had a 45-litre rucksack stuffed nearly full.  I took the liberty of having a full set of dry kit for each day as well as a 2.7kg tub of PSP so that I could make fresh energy drink each morning.

Before the Start

Travelling by the night sleeper was incredibly comfortable.  Although I was apprehensive about the ride and tense from work, I had a reasonable amount of sleep.  There was room for my 190cm frame to stretch out on the bed and the suspension was like a Rolls-Royce to my usual commuter trains.

I arrived at dawn (04:58, on time to the minute) at Inverkeithing into stair-rod rain.  I took everything to the shelter of a footbridge to add panniers and bar bag to the bike and then wheel the bike up the ramp to the car park, trying to get my bearings.

It was uphill all-the-way to the Scout Centre, done in heavy rain.  It felt like it was going to be a long weekend.  I chatted with the first few people who were up, got myself a first breakfast, and picked up a brevet card.  I’d missed the registration and pre-event supper the night before, due to my pared down travel arrangements.   Once the hall was thronging with nervous rides I found my room and sorted out my gear, sleeping bag ready, and one pannier packed for the day ahead (kit for the day rainjacket, bib tights, bib shorts, base layer, short sleeve jersey, long sleeve jersey, socks, winter socks, thin gloves, winter gloves, assorted gels, two bottles of PSP, multi-tool, tyre levers, four inner tubes, and two cuddly toys wrapped in the ziplock plastic bags that protect Brevet Cards.  Lights and battery were also tucked away.

It was not as cold as it looked.  I’d noticed that on the ride up and confirmed it as I fettled my bike pannier.  I decided to go without a base layer and just a long sleeve and the rain top.  This turned out to be a good decision.

In the midst of many conversations, catching up with other riders, were the raised eyebrows at my plans, advertised on the forum, long ago, of completing to catch the Sunday night sleeper.

Day 1

We set off in pouring rain.  I found myself at the head of the front group, with Paul, from Ireland, who I had first met in a Little Chef near Wrexham where we were getting breakfast before the Mersey Roads ‘24’.  The roads were typical of this area, more patch than original, with many water-filled potholes to trip the unwary.  We weaved our way across the sodden tarmac and concrete, through a few bleak-looking settlements.  It was an odd sensation, riding through such ordinary streets, with such a long distance to go.  Martin Lucas and Bob Johnson came past, looking like they were on a mission and I latched on to them, able to keep the pace but doubting the wisdom of such a plan in the long term.

In a silence befitting the gloomy morning we continued, taking turn and turn about.  Even the lowest of the Lomond Hills was blanketed in fog, leaving the shape of the summit to the imagination.  Dave Bradshaw was with us as was Hummers, and the VC167 tandem.  The River Farg was in spate, a swirling mass of brown water and dirty spray fighting its way down the gorge, lapping at the trees on either side and at the foliage foolish enough to grow low over its malign and untrustworthy surface.

There was a degree of confusion at the Aberargie control, with someone who had just turned up with a list of riders, George Berwick who was meant to be manning the control nowhere to be seen, and another rider, who had been desperately hanging onto our tails, claiming that he was the controller.  The cards got stamped quickly.  Bob Johnson and I soft-pedalled until the group had re-formed. 

We were in a part of the world I had never even considered going to before.  The UK doesn’t have much in the way of north coasts, but here the Tay estuary is so wide that it might as well be a north coast.  It was undeveloped, unlike any of the south facing coasts around, just farmland on a big slope reaching down to the muddy brown water.  It must have rained very heavily overnight, because in many places water had rushed off the fields and left sharp angled stones across the road.  There was a loud pop and hiss and we had lost Paul to a puncture.  We were down to a group of four as we headed up into the mist: Bob Johnson, Martin Lucas, Andreas, from Germany and me.

The wind was a brisk northeasterly and brought a thick fret from the cold North Sea.  We exchanged turns on the front.  At one point the road was under a huge puddle of muddy brown water, which I sailed through rather carelessly.  We descended into Wormit, a town of high walls on the steep sides that sloped into the Tay estuary.  A curl back upwards took us onto the cycle path for the Tay Bridge that, unusually, was in the middle of the two crash barriers.  I guess that gives more protection from the winds that can rage in these parts.  A long while ago a storm took out a span of the railway bridge and no-one noticed until a train went straight over the gap taking its crew and passengers to a watery grave. 

At the end of the bridge a lift took us down to road level, 4 men and bikes crammed in.  Here I noticed quite how tall Andreas was, 208cm (6’10½ “).  It wasn’t clear which direction we were supposed to go but, having researched the route on Ordnance Survey maps, I found the way out to the A92 where Martin and his GPS took over.  It was warming up and so we took off our rain gear.  Soon Martin and Bob were taking long turns on the front through the thick mist.  Each time we went up hill it seemed just a little bit harder to hang on, especially given the brisk wind.  However, as we turned toward Forfar, having got to a group view on which crossroads was the one referred to in the route sheet (it said SOX but we had right of way the whole way), the wind was behind us and we were going down hill.  Andreas, as if powered by sail, shot off and I vaguely followed him.  It was time to have a break.

They were excited to see us at the control, their first customers.  The soup was excellent.  I don’t usually have soup as it seems to fill me up without giving me much energy, but I liked it so much I had a second bowl and a cheese scone to top up the bread that came with the soup.  It had been a good first stage.

The road to Brechin was hard.  It rose up ever so slightly for about 6k into the wind.  I towed everyone along and probably put a bit too much into it.  Before Brechin I found myself on the front again, with legs that felt ever so slightly heavy.  There was a debate about a turn in Brechin (I misheard Craft Street for Market Street) and so I had to chase back on, a little reluctant.  I felt that I would want to drop back from this group at some point but hoped that it would be Cairn O’Mount and not before.  We had made a good start on our minor Scottish football teams.  Given the blankness of the sky Forfar Athletic nil Brechin City nil sounded about right.  We would also pass Alloa, Dunfermline Athletic, and Cowdenbeath, names remembered from watching Final Score on Grandstand in the days when there was sport on the BBC.  We wondered what Forfar was famous for.  I never knew that Brechin had a cathedral.  Here in northeast Scotland were places that had a grander impact on history than their current presence would suggest.  My observation that Dundee was a city built, in part, on making jam because of the soft fruit production in the area was not obvious given the cold grey skies.

Perhaps the cold and the grey got into my head.  Bob Johnson is known as Flat Earth Bob for a reason, all hills are flat to him.  In this mostly flat terrain, whenever there was a slight rise he would kick on to maintain his momentum, an excellent technique.  But each micro-kick took me out of my comfort zone and left another little piece of my soul on the road.  It could not last.  Before I blew I allowed myself not to get back on his wheel.  It had been good while it lasted but now that we approached some proper hills I wanted to ride my own pace.

When I’m dropped (and I think this applies to most of us) my heart sinks; I begin to question my legs, my heart, or my head.  Instead of realising that there are three riders ahead of me and sixty-five behind, I tend to look at the group of three above and wonder if I should put the extra effort in to close that gap.  But we were 130km into 1016km.  To go deep into the red this early was simply foolishness.  So I put the bad thoughts out of my head and began to concentrate on a rhythm, one gear lower than with the group.  We were still in the arable farmland typical of the east coast, with plenty of trees so that soon they were gone from view.  I worked my way through Fettercairn and into the hills looking for the start of the Cairn O’Mount.  It announced its presence with a steep ramp that hardly eased off.  I could see the others split up further up the hill.  I concentrated on my own sweaty process, opening up my top to see if I could get some air.  The climb was supposed to ease off but I did not see any advantage in getting out of the little ring.  I could see Andreas ahead of me and was closing on him very slowly.  The second steep ramp was hidden in the mist. Andreas, on a compact chainset, ground to a halt.  I continued onwards, not knowing what to say, being a firm believer in a triple for such things.  I was cranking out low revs even with a 30-23 gear but just had enough to get to the top.  A little further on I began to feel quite peculiar; I’d left another bit of my essence on the road.  I would have to be careful or I would start to get tired with no pick-me-up possible.

There was an initial high-speed descent but then we got into the forest.  After each drop there was a short, steep, rhythm-busting, rise.  I kept expecting Andreas to catch up with me but, after a struggle, I was into the warm forested slopes around Banchory.  Bob and Martin waved to me and pointed out the Co-op they had used as a commercial control.  Lunch was a prawn sandwich, salt and vinegar crisps, and a chocolate fudge brownie milkshake, of all of which was just what I was looking for and I felt able to hold their wheels again.

This feeling did not last long.  On the second or third imperceptible rise out of Banchory I could sense Flat Earth Bob pushing on again.  My chain was squeaking; the frequent immersions in floodwater had stripped it of most of its lubricant.  This was not a pleasant experience.  I had a choice.  On each little rise I could take another little 1% out of my reserves and hang on, secure in the company of the group, recognising that this would get me round the quickest.  But there would be a lot of little one percents on the long valley road to Braemar, and they would soon add up.  So I let the gap open up and proceeded at my own pace.  Once they had disappeared the squeaking chain annoyed me so I used this as an excuse to properly separate myself from the front group.  I also had a quick comfort break and a snack.

There was a tailwind on this section and I started to get into a good rhythm, probably not as fast as those ahead of me but still a decent pace.  It was too far to calculate a precise finishing time but I felt that I was good for a finish around about 11pm.  The route sheet from Banchory to Braemar had only one instruction, “follow A93”, but 65km is too far to digest so I broke it up into 4 sections: Aboyne, Ballater, Balmoral, and Braemar.  By the time I got to Aboyne I was going well.  (I remembered Aboyne as the place that sometimes appears as the warmest place in the UK as it is the most sheltered from southwesterly winds; today there was a gentle easterly and it was quite pleasant).  Then the rear tyre felt a bit spongy.  I tried to convince myself that it was my imagination but after another mile it was clear there was a problem.  Just when I had got my head in order.  I hooked the saddle on a stone wall and carried out the tedious task of repair, concerned that I could find no obvious damage to the tyre or remains of a shard in the tyre wall.  It’s always much more comforting to find the culprit rather than suspect that it might still be lurking to claim another tube on an appropriate impact. 

Zigzag passed me and asked if I was alright.  I was just pumping up the tyre so I called out “two minutes”.  He carried on but he was only looking for a place to fill up a water bottle.  I caught him up and we rode on together.  I like Zigzag.  He was the one who persuaded me than the forum was a good idea (and so probably the one to whom I owed the pleasure of this ride).  He is also good company and rides at a slightly easier pace than Flat Earth Bob. 

I’d noticed on the route sheet that there was a possible short cut past Ballater and so was not surprised when Zigzag took that route.  The road climb through thick coniferous woods into a forbidding defile but did very little extra climbing so almost certainly saved us some effort.  There wasn’t much wind by now, and a lot of this area is now home to recovering Caledonian forest, giving the route a lot of shelter, but it was still nice to have it helping rather than hindering.  Things were looking up and we got into a good rhythm.  I pointed out Balmoral to Zigzag, who hails from Lithuania although I believe lives in the London area.  It was 5pm by the time we arrived in Braemar. 

There was a rather dodgy looking café almost on the road junction, offering pretty much every version of junk food known to mankind (it offered fish and chips, pizza, burgers, and curries).  For a moment I hesitated but didn’t have the wherewithal to think about somewhere else.  I asked for pizza but that was going to take 10, no 15, possibly 20 minutes (which suggested they hadn’t fired up the oven) and then settled on burger and chips.  Just as we were ordering Bob, Martin, and Andreas waved to us; they were heading down to Perth, so we could only have been twenty minutes or so behind them.  The burger was one of Brake Bros budget options but the chips were some of the finest I’ve ever had.  We got the poor assistant, who seemed to be new or temporary, to sign our cards as the till wouldn’t give receipts and headed off.

It was like entering another territory.  Before becoming a serious cyclist I had been a hill walker and mountaineer.  Working in Aberdeen in 1994 I had stayed over for a weekend and bagged 14 Munros in two days (a Munro is a mountain over 3000 feet in Scotland, the selection of which is rooted in history and lost to modern knowledge, even more abstruse than the old AAA system), one of the walks starting from the Cairnwell.  Here was a land of heather and cotton grass and peat bog that I knew and understood.  In bad weather this would be fierce terrain but we had a gentle breeze was on our backs and misty cloud drifting on the mountain tops.  I got into a steady rhythm and we were going fine for a few miles until Zigzag announced he had a crisis; he had left his bottle back in the café.  He decided to go back, so once again I was on my own. But that little bit of company and comfortable pace had got my mojo back.  I settled into the long climb up to the Cairnwell and enjoyed the evening.  At one point I began to get quite excited about getting back by 9pm or so but then I realised my watch had stopped.

One thing I was looking forward to was the descent of the Cairnwell.  The magnet on my cycle computer was not quite in place so when I reached 41mph it started giving random numbers and then dropped to zero.  I’m fairly confident I hit 50mph on this fast descent; I certainly didn’t touch the brakes.  After that the route followed the valley, descending most of the time but with a few short rhythm busting uphill sections.  This was part of a 78km section on the A93 so I used my cycle computer to count down the miles first to Blairgowrie and then to Perth.  There were a couple of showers and at one point I thought I might need my rain jacket again, but then they passed.  It really was a beautiful evening’s ride with hardly any traffic despite following a trunk road.  A rider on a recumbent stopped to cheer me on; he was  a local Audax rider who had come to take a few photographs and offer encouragement.

I was tired by the time I got to Perth.  The traffic lights were a nuisance.  Here was another place of memories.  I had stayed here involuntarily in 1988 on a walking holiday.  A not particularly nice weather forecast had encouraged me to visit the city and explore Scone Palace.  But a core plug failed in the exhaust manifold of my old Audi 80 (remarkably only a mile or so from the only Audi garage in the Highlands of Scotland).  They didn’t have a spare to hand, so I had to book myself into a bed and breakfast for a night whilst they got a part shipped and fixed the car.  That was where I bought my Munro’s Tables and got into Munro-bagging, trying to climb all 290-odd (very much like a Brevet 25000 to recognise a lifetime’s achievement).  I stopped many years ago recognising that the Scottish Highlands were inconveniently located for someone living in Basingstoke, with my count on 147 (which at that time was exactly halfway – a little like the distinction between BR and BRM – they reconsider things from time to time and decide that a mountain that isn’t currently a Munro is more deserving than one that is – so I am not sure of the current total.  If I did have more spare time I’d rather go cycling in the Alps now).

I confused myself with the route sheet, found the centre of Perth deserted of eating-places and got an ATM receipt.  This didn’t address my need to eat but I resolved to stop at the first filling station.  Here I got a chicken sandwich, packet of cheese and onion crisps and a milkshake.  I sat down in the lee of the filling station wall, struggling to eat this not-particularly-appetising fare, wishing that my nose would stop dripping.  I was disturbed by a group including Hummers, Postie, and Dave Bradshaw who seemed to have had similar trouble in locating eating establishments.  Their company perked me up.  It was getting cold and so I did not wait for them, assuming that, as a group, they would catch me up. 

I knew there was a long climb after Aberargie because we would be repeating our route back.  However, it was here that I found my long-distance climbing legs, finding the gear that would turn at a decent speed (11 – 12mph) all the way up.  With newfound confidence I sped up through Kinross and was in good spirits at dusk for the last rough bit of road through Hill of Beith to the Scout Centre at Fordell.  It was 10.45pm when I arrived.  Bob, Martin, and Andreas had arrived at about 9.30pm so they must have been steaming back from Braemar; thinking about it, this was the sort of terrain they would have made short work of. 

I went upstairs, sorted out my kit and had a shower and then struggled to eat a large portion of excellent fish pie.  The hall was beginning to fill up with arrivals.  It was midnight by the time I went back up stairs and scrambled up to my top bunk (the consequence of being a late arrival).  I set the alarm on my mobile phone for 03:30 to give me 3 hours sleep.  It had been a good day.  356km had been completed in 15 hours and 45 minutes and I would have a reasonable rest before what should be an easier second day.  Things were going very much to plan.

Day 2

It seemed to take me longer to get ready than I had hoped.  But I did get two bowls of Crunchy Nut and a large bowl of porridge, washed down with two cups of tea.  This set me up.  It had been still and dry when I went to bed but now the wind was blowing steadily from the west and there was some rain in that wind.  There was no sign of Martin or Bob but they had said that they were going to start later.  I wanted to get back by 8pm to have a decent break before the final day; all in order to make sure I caught the midnight train on Sunday night.  Graeme, the organiser, told me that the weather forecast was windy with a few showers, but easing later on.  I did not check what he meant by later on.

I descended into Inverkeithing carefully, with just a long sleeved top and bib tights.  I didn’t need the lights at 4.30am.  I did not want to miss the route onto the Forth Road Bridge, though this turned out to be easy to find.  I think that makes a full collection of major road bridges: Severn, Humber, Tamar, Forth, and Tay, though I am sure there are others I have not done that others would consider important.  There was a strengthening crosswind and the sky to the west looked angry and threatening.  As I reached the B800 and looked for the brown sign for Bedlam Paintball it began to rain.  I recognised this section from the Only for Softies Audax organised by Sonya Crawford a couple of years before (it was raining then).  At the time I had been quite weary so it was nice to do the section on legs freshened by an overnight sleep and being pushed along by a considerable tailwind.  More careful navigation took me to the seafront at Cramond Glebe.

Another day, another north coast, this time the coast of the Firth of Forth.  There is something magical about north coasts in this part of the world in the summer, with the pearly light of dawn coming from the north-east.  When south coasts would still be shaded, the north coast is lit with an artist’s palette, an infinite range of colours too delicate for human manufacture.  The route took us through a countryside park, a wide strip of tarmac along which I was propelled by a considerable tailwind.  All in all I could ignore the angry scudding clouds and the spitting rain.

Sadly the park ended and the route took us through the docks and harbour conversions of Leith and through to Portobello.  A seemingly endless series of traffic lights turned red on me and the roads were as patched and cut-up as any other built-up area.  I was feeling a bit rough, with an acid stomach and runny nose and gave up with the intricate navigation in Portobello, sticking to the A199, knowing I had to get to Tranent.  The rain continued, never quite heavy enough to put on the rain jacket but heavy enough to get into the eyes and make the ride unpleasant.  I didn’t have much power on the climbs to Tranent.  On the other hand I did realise that I had the privilege of being at the head of the ride.  To the south and west were the wild lands of the Lammermuir Hills.  To the north and east were more rolling border lands.  The route took me closer to the A1 than I was expecting (we were only 4 miles from Haddington) but step by step it rose through villages.  The scenery was very pleasant.  After 40 miles I stopped, ate a Twix left over from the day before and had a comfort break.  Ahead I could see the last sharp part of a climb, a faint scar on a brown heathery boggy hill.

Now I could feel the full force of the wind pushing me along.  As I began the descent the speed rose indecently quickly.  There was no need to pedal, all I had to do was hang on.  The numbers reached the 40s.  I could see trees and a sign of a cattle grid in the far distance.  The magic 50mph was reached.  I let out a whoop of joy.  This was great.  Then I began to feather the brakes and seek out any imperfections on that cattle grid that might cause me to tip up.  The next 20km followed a valley.  If anything the river was higher and in greater spate than those I had seen on Saturday; the overnight rain must have been very heavy.  There were a few short hills but these were generally swallowed up by the 30mph tailwind.  It was all very exciting but forming in the back of my mind was a doubt.  This was not going to ease by the time I left Berwick.  There was a long stretch of almost due west after that, which was going to be into the teeth of this wind.  In good Audax fashion I decided to concentrate only on the next control and put the following stage out of my mind.

I had got into my head that the stage was 100km and it was only as I reached a turn for Chirnside and decided to stop and check the route sheet (it was also a good time to eat a flapjack) that I realised it was actually 112km.  The next section of road had flood-damage.  They had put a road-closed sign up and were ineffectively trying to scrape off loose stones using a bulldozer.  After this I was soon at Chirnside and flying along the A6105 to Berwick.  More tailwind pushed me along at a rapid rate of knots.  It was obviously going to be much harder when I turned round towards Galashiels.

I remembered Berwick from a family holiday the week after LEL.  I had taken my son there to find some cycling kit and we looked around.  I remembered some shops in the Market Street but as I turned in café-blindness took over (this is where a tired AUK rides past a perfectly good café and ends up in a Tesco or grubby petrol station).  I turned a corner into a street that looked like it had run out of shops and resorted to asking a little old lady who kindly pointed me to a place two doors down.  Her suggestion was excellent.  I had a large strong coffee, a bacon roll and scrambled egg on toast, ingeniously made by bubbling steam from the attachment on the coffee machine.  It was some of the best scrambled egg I have ever tasted and I assure you that it was not just because it was greatly needed.

Fortified I set out into the westerly blast, for about a hundred yards until I found a small corner shop where I could top up with flapjacks and similar bonk rations.  Now it was time for a crawl.  The first 5km were done at an average speed of less than 20kph, even though it was flat or only slightly up hill.  Heading towards Coldstream there were a few places that were easier, either where trees blocked the wind’s passage or there were slight downhills, but after Coldstream the sun went in and progress seemed to become even harder.  The route took us over several undulations to avoid Kelso and after a couple of these I knew I needed a five minute stop just to restore sanity.  As I was sitting down in the lee of the wall another old lady drove into the drive of a nearby house and asked how I was.  I told her it was windy but I was OK and she asked where I was going.  “Galashiels”, “That’s a long way, where have you come from?”  “Inverkeithing”  She did not seem surprised, as if she had seen other riders on this route before.

The clouds were looking angry as I neared the Jedburgh Hills.  There was a nice long descent and I picked up the B6360 with only 10k to go.  However, if I had not stopped for another flapjack, it might as well have been 100k as I would have bonked.  Fuelled, I scrambled up the next couple of hills out of the saddle, the trees thrashing around me as the wind caught them.  I had been checking my progress using distance on the cycle computer and I reached the point where I should turn into Winston Road.  There was a road sign, halfway down a road that looked like it led to a council estate, faded and wind-blasted.  I checked carefully.  It was Winston Road.  Glad of this I descended the hill and soon found myself being welcomed by Lucy McTaggart as the first to Gala.

Even more welcome was the offer of pizza.  This and cake and tea and I was restored.  Bob and Martin arrived about fifteen minutes after me.  They had made up about an hour, which made sense.  They suggested I should wait and ride with them but given that the next section was hilly I decided it would be easier to go at my own pace.  I was sure that they would catch me up sooner rather than later. 

There was a steep hill out of Galashiels, which led into some sheltered woods.  My get up and go and got up and gone a long while ago so I just laboured up the hill and hunkered down in to the wind.  It was warmed in the sheltered valley, the leaves were thick on the trees and rustled around as the wind swirled and eddied.  It would have been nice to find a sheltered spot except everything was saturated by the overnight rain and topped up by a recent shower.  After a stretch of A-road the route took us on the other side of a big river.  I had hoped that this would be a valley floor road but it climbed for a couple of miles, a tiny little lane a little akin to some of the Surrey lanes around Hindhead except that the surrounding hills were much bigger.  At one point a family of stoats crossed the road in front of me, eight or ten of them.  Again progress felt slow but at least it was sheltered.  I passed a few mountain bikers who looked at me incuriously. The distance crept up on the cycle computer and I was back on another route etched into my memory, the climb out of Innerleithen to the Gordon Arms.  That had been another windy day.  I took it slowly up the climb, which was also mercifully sheltered, measuring my progress by the gradually dwindling burn and the increasing nearness to the skyline.  Just when it looked like there was no way through the hills a gap opened up and I was exposed to a damp blast and a sky full of thick grey cloud.  I descended the first part of the hill on the middle ring before turning a corner and getting into some proper gears and, after a slower descent than on LEL reached the shut Gordon Arms that look like it was undergoing fitful redevelopment.  In its lee I munched on a banana and contemplated a long section of exposed headwind.

On April 29 the weather in England was appalling.  Gale force north-easterly winds lashed the country with heavy rain and temperatures of 5 Celsius.  There were three 200km Audax rides, one of which was cancelled and the others didn’t have their entries decimated for that would have indicated one in ten not finishing.  It was the opposite.  One in ten did finish.  I had set off for a 200km perm in the worst of the conditions at 2.30am, completing the ride after having to cyclo-cross around a fallen tree and risking the 45mph gusts that ran along the scarp of the Lambourn Downs like an assassin in the night.  I call this method training.  You can never tell what will happen on a major Audax ride (my first two were PBP 2007 and LEL 2009).  If you are not used to stonking headwinds for over 100km, lashing rain and the dark, then it can be terribly demoralising, not to mention dangerous if you realise your kit doesn’t work.  In my view, the way to prepare, is once in a while (at least every two years) take on these conditions, go out where the wind shouts back and the rain scores lines into your soul and learn what it takes.  Then, when it happens for real you will know what to do.

So I got my head down, stuck into a low gear, and counted down the miles.  It was alright for a while along the main road but once I turned off onto the little road to Talla Linns and Tweedsmuir it was harder.  The wind was a solid force off the reservoirs and, as this was a road consisting of tarmac sprayed onto a hummocky landscape each little rise exposed me to the blast, wrecked any rhythm and brought me almost to a standstill.  Worse still I convinced myself that my rear tyre was going flat.  In the middle of this wild and beautiful landscape, with sunbeams breaking through the clouds and touching the water I stopped and slithered down the shelter of a bank to examine the tyre.  It was clearly some psychological trick.  The tyre was fine.  I ate half a flapjack and continued my labours up the hill into increasing darkness (even if it was only 5pm on one of the longest days of the year).  Finally I reached the top, and, as I started the welcome descent the wind blasted rain at me.  I very quickly stopped as I would have been soaked and chilled and struggled to put my rain jacket on with the wind blowing it inside out.  At this point two bedraggled cyclists caught up with me, Martin and Bob.  “Good idea” they said, seeing me struggling with the jacket.  “I’ll see you at the bottom” I said, finally getting my left arm into the thin fabric of the Assos lightweight raintop.  Rain lashed itself on to the smooth whiteness.  It was time to go; this was no place to hang about.  The descent was steep, gravel strewn, and with a sharp left-hander at the bottom.  With swirling head- and cross-winds there was no risk of reckless descending.  Bob caught me up on the flat ground by the lower reservoir.  We found our way down a second descent and onto a main road where, for the first time in 120km we had a tailwind.  I managed to cram down some bonk rations.  Martin caught us up and after a few more km we stopped to take off our rain jackets and I crammed in most of the rest of my bonk rations, leaving little more than a single gel.  Then we were off and running again, doing big turns on a fast road.

In Broughton we turned back into the wind.  Bob was on the front on a short hill where a gust caught him as if he had been hit by a bus.  I found myself back in front and hammered it most the remainder of the way into Biggar, just keen to get to a proper stop.  We found a chippy and I ate steak pie and chips and very nice it was too.  I washed it down with a Coke, which was probably a mistake as I suffered badly from reflux for the rest of the day.

We set off.  Between Biggar and Carnwath there was a brisk crosswind and I struggled.  I decided I wasn’t going to kill myself keeping up with the other two.  I had a much earlier start planned the next day and so needed something in reserve. I had so far got round a tough day and it looked like, despite the weather, I would not be far off a 9pm finish.

So I let them go, plodded to Carnwath and stopped in a town that had a rough reputation to buy a couple of Twix.  It was time for long straight and demoralising A70, with a 24km stretch before the next turn.  I started slowly and gradually picked up speed although was fairly hopeless on the climbs.  The clouds lifted and evening sunshine picked out my route.  The wind eased, much as I had predicted to Graeme that it would, but it still helped and, when I eventually got to the downhill bit, I enjoyed spinning a big gear and keeping the speed high.  It was a predictable chore working across to the Forth Road Bridge but a great joy to ride it in the sun and less labour than I thought for the climb up to the Scout Hall, where I arrived about 9.15am (having stopped again at the Shell petrol station on the south side of the Road Bridge to get a couple of flapjacks).  I went up stairs, took a Moralpro anti-reflux tablet (given to me by a pharmacist in France when I was suffering badly on PBP), had a shower, sorted out my kit for the next day and went to eat, struggling with a chick pea and pasta bake that I hoped would have sufficient fibre to assist the tablet in its work.  I went to bed at 11pm with a 2am alarm call.

I slept well, tossing and turning a bit and waking up once.  It was a little before my alarm call but I decided to get up anyway.

Day Three

This was it.  I had taken nearly 17 hours over 324km on Saturday and if I had similar conditions on the Sunday the 336km could easily take 19 hours.  A 2.30am start would mean a 21.30pm finish, which would be quite close to the wire in terms of getting packed, fed, and leaving by 11.30pm.  Graeme wished me luck as I set off at 2.30am, with a bowl of Crunchy Nut and a bowl of Porridge inside me.  This time it was dark.  There was a lightness in the northern sky but not enough to see the route sheet or the potholes by.

I was soon confused by the roundabouts around the north side of the Forth Road Bridge but persistence found me on the right route and the A895 to the Kincardine Bridge.  There was one wrong turn near Culross (which I discovered when almost getting back onto the main road) then I was OK for a long while, picking up the delightful cycle route to Alloa, the lights of Grangemouth a comforting distance away across the Firth of Forth.

My high-viz tabard was a nuisance, it kept tucking itself into my pocket when I tried to get my route sheet out, so somewhere on the western outskirts of Alloa I took it off and stripped the lights off the bike.  I had a flapjack and carried on along the flat roads to Bridge of Allan and the old A9.  The road rose surprisingly uphill, reminding me that I hadn’t really checked this day out on the maps beforehand.  I remembered Dunblane from a terrible massacre of schoolchildren many years ago, but there was no trace of such evil on this peaceful Sunday morning.  I followed the road to Kinbuck.  Here there was an info control.  I got to the point where I expected the info (the maximum vehicle on a bridge)  and there was a bridge but no sign.   After about half a mile I turned back because my mind had been wandering.  There was no such sign.  I memorised something about the local village hall and then found the actual info on the next corner.  Such things can mesmerise a tired rider.

It was a lovely calm morning as I entered Braco and started on a long but gentle climb.  This road was one of the pleasant surprises of the Mille Alba, entering a low-level wilderness that once upon a time I would have bypassed but on a cycle ride was required to look around and appreciate the raw beauty of the Scottish landscape, rolling hills and peat bogs, wondering just where the road might go.  At the point I thought it might require a further climb I found myself on an immaculate descent, sweeping turns continuing for a couple of miles until the final flat run in to the control at Comrie.  The town looked deserted which was bad news as I had been on the go for four hours but then I spotted the van dropping off papers to the newsagent.  This allowed me to pick up a BBQ sausage sandwich, crisps and chocolate milk.  There was a little park almost next to the newsagent so I had this curious breakfast, the sort of thing that only an Audax rider would breakfast upon, staining the brand new seat by accidentally tipping over my chocolate milk.  Guiltily I continued on a flat road to the west.

There was a little bid of wind blowing across Loch Earn in my face, but nothing like the previous day’s blast.  I enjoyed the scenery as I rolled along.  The climb up Glen Ogle passed pleasantly, a steady rhythm taking me up to the summit.  I could really do with a coffee.  But there was nothing open in Killin as it was before 8am so I stopped for a brief raid on my bonk rations before continuing, looking for the turn for the Bridge of Balgie.

There was a van looking to turn out of the road, which made me hesitate.  By the time we had sorted ourselves out I was on the hills.  After 800km hills tend to seem a lot steeper than they really are but a good chunk of the bottom part of this hill must have been 10%.  It required all the granny gears I had.  The woods closed in, thick coniferous woods; even with a temperature of 12C it was oppressive.  But I kept a steady rhythm and emerged on to a bare mountain slope.  I worked up this, looking at the Tarmachan Ridge for guidance on my progress.  A couple of cars came down the hill and I rolled steadily into the passing places to let them down.  31 years ago I had come up this hill in a car with my parents on a journey that would lead us to the summit of Perthshire, Ben Lawers, at almost 4000 feet, one of the major mountains of Scotland.  This time I would restrict myself to the pass, a thin ribbon of tarmac that was challenge enough.  I saw the dam, a bleak concrete wall ahead, then the road climbed steeply once more.

The descent was amazing, narrow, twisting, with big exposure on every right hand bend, and washed out gravel ready to rip the tyres of the unwary.  It chilled my stomach but it was exhilarating, yet another highlight to a trip that was bordering on the amazing.  By the time I got to the bottom, wired from constant concentration on the road, I was quite dazed and took a couple of goes to work out the information control.  Then I realised that (at 8.30am) although the café was not open the shop was so I said hello to the lady who was manning the place.  There was no hope of hot food or coffee so I bought a banana and struggled to eat it.

The wind was getting up; there had been signs on Ben Lawers.  But the good news was that it was from the west and it blew me down Glen Lyon.  I took a fair number of risks on this valley route, taking the corners at high speed so that I would maintain my momentum on the flat sections.  There was plenty of “wow’ in the scenery but little time to look at it.  At the end there was a T-junction and the valley opened out.  Now it received the wind properly and, although I was now going on the flat rather than gradually downhill my speed improved and I was regularly doing 20mph with the long grass blowing waves in my direction.  This was more like it.  I kept a good speed all the way to Aberfeldy where, once again, I began to suffer café blindness.  I had done over 100 miles (169km) by the time I reached this control, all without the assistance of caffeine.  A couple of tourists pointed me in the direction of a bakery and café where the English proprietor saw me right with a large black coffee, bacon eggs and beans on toast.  There were a couple of Australian tourists in the café and I correctly guessed that they were from Coffs Harbour.  All day I had been making connections with my past (Beinn Ghlas and Beinn Lawers were my first two Munros, we had stayed at Balquhidder near Lochearnhead). 

But now I moved to a part of the route that was new.  What’s more, I realised I hadn’t properly researched it.  The climb out of Aberfeldy was quite steep and was obviously going to go on for quite some time.  I began to boil in my bib tights; I never like stopping on a hill but the alternative was to melt, so I stripped down to shorts and a short jersey for the first time on the ride.  It immediately started raining out of nowhere, but I persisted on the climb and by the time I reached the top it was clear.  This was a long climb, rising over 300m, and one with a couple of false summits.  I did do some of it out of the saddle, but more to give me a change of position; the climbing legs were still working.

On the other side was a long descent.  I could have rolled down this at a not very high speed, but with some wind assistance I decided to work up through the gears.  After a mile or so I got the 53-12 turning and had an exhilarating time.  After reaching a forest section there was a turn to the right and a short climb to Amulree.  Here I felt the strength of the headwind and was glad that my early start had spared me riding into much more of this.  The climb was very short and the route soon took us down another valley, again most a slight descent where it was important to get the big gears turning.  I was going really well and looking forward to the next control.  I picked up the turn to Logiealmond exactly at the right distance and carried on with another, steeper descent.  The hard climb out of Aberfeldy had been a fantastic investment as the majority of the stage after that was downhill.  I followed the winding B-road round and began looking for a turn at the 3km point as indicated on the route sheet.  At almost exactly this point a creature ran across in front of me, small, red, tufty ears and a tail, too small to be a fox.  It took a second for things to sink in.  After 40 years or so of hoping to see a red squirrel in the wild I had finally and incontrovertibly seen one, long after giving up any real expectation.  Enraptured by this I plugged up a hill and down a descent looking for the R to Fowlis Wester sign.  I did not appear.  I must have done nearly 5km since the last turn.  Something had done wrong.  Reluctantly I retraced my steps and got to the previous junction.  The main road went round to the right quite sharply and there was a R (actually SO) but no Fowlis Wester on the signpost.  Could it be that I had enjoyed the descent so much that I had missed a turn.  I looked at the steep geography where such a turn might be.  Not even a Landrover would make that.  I look around but there was no-one to ask.  So I decided that I would take a guess and assume that the road had been repainted since the last time the route-sheet had been checked.  My guess worked out.  200m down the road was a little sign to Fowlis Wester that apparently pointed to a farmyard.  Years of occasional Audaxes in the South West of England meant that I was not put off by this and sure enough it turned out to be a tiny little road that took me in the right direction. 

It climbed for a while and then descended in true Devon-lane fashion (steep and lots of blind corners) to a crossroads.  The lane then turned sharp right to be parallel with the main road and I had visions of another wrong turn (a genuine error in a route sheet can be quite unsettling and often leads me into imagining others when they are not there).  The road was newly surfaced with loose chippings causing me to worry about punctures.  But I survived these fears and rolled into St David’s where they applauded me for being the first rider in.  That was a really nice feeling.  So was the bridie (a Scottish steak pie – apparently what Forfar is famous for if you are wondering about the question we asked on day 1).  I told them about my little adventure and they sent someone out to make it obvious where the route went.  On the forum they mentioned me as looking ‘fresh’.  As I don’t recall making any dubious remarks to the helpers I assume that meant that I looked in good condition.  I certainly felt fine, for someone who had ridden 900km.  It had been a relatively easy stage and I had fed well over the last couple of hours.  They had a track pump and we checked the tyre pressures.  The rear was down to about 60psi (the one that I had repaired in Aboyne) so we topped both up and I was on my way. 

It took a while to get into rhythm.  The legs had seized up a little, but by the time I approached Auchterarder I was going well again.  The route sheet instruction “Keep L and thro MUIRTON village to L @ T in GLENEAGLES” had me puzzled, especially when the L @ T that I did find seemed to have me going in the wrong direction.  I was lost again and decided that I would follow road signs that might help me get back.  This led me onto the busy A9 for half-a-mile but then I picked up the A823 to Dunfermline and was back on route.  There was another long climb up Glen Eagles (the original geographic feature rather than the golf course); by now I was getting a little ragged, doing too much out of the saddle.  We were in another delightful range of hills, totally unexpected given that I had not looked properly at this bit of the route.  The wind helped in the main, which was good as there wasn’t much of a descent of the other side.  It was warm and the legs worked quite well through Glendevon.  I had left St David’s at about 1.30pm and so had plenty of time, with 7 ½ hours to complete the final 125km of the event by my self-imposed curfew of 9pm. 

Another unexpected climb was the long drag up to Knockhill; I had heard of this motor racing circuit but never been able to place where it was.  Fields full of cars and an eerie high pitched whining sound indicated that there was an event on but fortunately I passed whilst the racing was happening and the road was empty.  From there it was mostly downhill to Dunfermline.  I had a couple of dodgy moments at traffic lights where my weariness started to tell but there was a really good feeling when I discovered that the road I was on joined the B891 almost opposite the Scout Centre at Fordell Firs and the stage was about to finish.  I arrived at 4pm, again to congratulations for being the first rider on the road.

Here Graeme informed me that the next two riders (I assumed Martin and Bob) had just left or were about to leave St David’s, so I had two clear hours on them.  I’d never set out to be in this position, or assumed that I would be the first back, but it seemed that barring unforeseen accidents I would be so.  I kept my meal break quite short, eating an omelette and some cake as there would be plenty more time later.  I lightened my pack, taking out bib tights and a few other things and then headed off at about 4.30pm.

It was very hard to get my head in gear for the last stage of 70km.  For two-and-a-half days I had been concentrating on each stage as it had come, focusing on the balance between good speed and reserving energy, of eating and sleeping whilst maintaining digestion, of saving mental reserves for the hard bits, rather than thrashing myself to hold a wheel.  Now it was all about to come to an end, but not quite.

The road surfaces through Cowdenbeath were shocking, especially for a rear with 940km of wear and tear.  I made a simple navigation error at “Thro CROSHILL LOCHGELLY & BALLINGRY (B981 becomes B920)”  – I turned right on the B891 rather than going straight onto the B920 – simple failure to consult route sheet.  I bashed my left shin on a pedal when failing to get the cleat set at a set of temporary lights on a hill.   I climbed out of the saddle in a clumsy fashion rather than getting in the right gear.  I knew there was a big hill to Falkland and I was letting it get to my head. 

Gradually I got my head back into gear, just by concentrating on the basics, getting the pedals to turn fluently, being sensible about gears, enjoying an unexpected descent and then focusing on the turn out of Leslie up into the Lomond Hills.  It was marked as “easy to miss” and would have been if I had not researched on the map beforehand and known it was about 300m after the church.  The directions were painted on a wall rather than a standard fingerpost road sign.  I could see the ground stretching upwards but it was not clear where the road went.  After a gentle start there was a steep ramp that got me into the granny gears and then a series of ramps thereafter, which I dealt with in slow plodding fashion, focusing on the ever-nearing summit of East Lomond Hill.  It was not done with speed, style or finesse but I did not care.  I would grab a snack from Falkland and then spin the wheels back to Fordell Firs.

At the top I expected an immediate descent but there was a kilometre or so of plateau with an inviting footpath leading to West Lomond a couple of miles away; but that sort of thing was a past activity.  It was time to concentrate on a fast descent, with a couple of surprising corners, one of which showed the track of a rear bicycle tyre locking up under emergency braking (Graeme claimed credit to that one on the helper’s ride; it must have been a nervous moment).  Falkland was shut except for pubs so I used an ATM and delved into my bonk rations.  I was cold after the descent and wished that I had not left my bib tights back at the base for this short but difficult leg.   The next 4km were on a freshly dressed road into the wind, not particularly good for my psyche and I started along the cycle path in Strathmiglo wearily.  I found that if I rode on the wrong side of this lane I got shelter from the wind and this encouraged me on a never-ending slight uphill drag.  Meanwhile the sky had clouded over, although it was still a fine evening with fine scenery, a broad flat valley, rolling hills, and the steeper slopes of the Lomond Hills to my left.  I thought I had missed a R turn on the routesheet but then realised that I had read the same line on the routesheet twice and so was much nearer the info control.  I was running on empty so I finished off a flapjack at the info control.  From here it was only 5km to Kinross where I needed another receipt for the penultimate control.  I had a strawberry flavoured milk, which was what I would have rather liked at Falkland.  Now it was time for a time trial back to the finish on roads familiar from Friday.  It was not a particularly stylish time trial and I ran out of steam about 300m from the final turn, but I did not care.  I rolled into Fordell Firs to see Zigzag leaving.  He raised his hand to congratulate me and we did a careful “high five” to celebrate success.  I got a cheer from the helpers for being the first to finish, sat down and had a cup of tea before getting ready to pack.

Once I’d sorted out my bags, showered, and phoned home it was about 9pm, so I had time for a couple of beers and a chat.  Martin and Bob did not get in until 10.30pm, so had taken about the same time for the final day as I had.  Various people asked me about the final stage, including Andreas, who told me he had gone too hard on the first day and wished he had stayed with me!  I gave them the same answers, its about 4 hours, the hard to miss turn is 300m after the church.  How can you convey all the information you need to know about a stage in a couple of stages; you cannot predict how someone will feel, doubtless the points they struggle with will be different from yours.  Someone who read my WordPress article on PBP said that I could have been describing a completely different event from the one that they had experienced.  I think that is a fair expression.  Audax is one of the closest things to a solipsistic experience that I have encountered, where we become completely wrapped up in our own world, detached from our day-to-day experience.  It is that which is so valuable to me; it becomes a form of self-renewal from all of the other pressures that I face.

I both succeeded and struggled on my return to work.  I made all the meetings, did all the things I needed to do, and approached a particularly critical team meeting with a fresh heart.  But after a week I felt weighed down again.  I realised that I was escaping back to those wide open Scottish vistas, and the winding road that reached up through the forests and into those hills where the wind shouted back at me and the rain glistened in the low sunshine.  I had ridden 800km of 1000km on my own, without other riders on the road.  This was different from my solitary excursions on PBP and LEL where I was often not riding in company but there were others on the road; for 10 hours on Saturday and more than 15 hours on Sunday I was in complete isolation.  Martin asked me about that, wondering if I would have got better riding with others.  I don’t think there was a simple answer to give, but on reflection, at that time and place I was happy to be alone with my thoughts, riding at my own pace, living my own experience. I certainly couldn’t have stayed with Martin and Bob; they were a little bit faster but had a completely different rhythm to mine. 

Besides.  I had a train to catch.  At 11.30pm I said my farewells, tied the panniers to the rack, and hoisted the huge rucksack onto my back and rolled down the hill, for the train that would take me back to London.

MIlle Alba 2012


Taking on the Mille Alba

Introduction

I think it was sometime in September when I saw a thread on the forum about a 1000km ride in Scotland.  It soon became clear that this would be hotly subscribed and so, without the consultation usual (and required) in such circumstances, I entered at the first opportunity.  I justified this lapse on the basis that this would not be like PBP or the Mille Miglia, taking me away from home for 6 or even 10 days.  This would be a Thursday night sleeper up, Sunday night sleeper back, one day off work event.  After all, I’d been able to do 1000km in 53 hours on PBP with 5 hours of sleep in Brest.

When details of the route started to emerge, a climbing figure of a mere 7000m was mentioned, less climb/km than on PBP.  This sort of made sense, as in Scotland the roads often follow the valleys.  The Cairnwell is more than 500m higher than Banchory but it does take 75km to get there.

Perhaps it was not going to be so easy after all.  A revised climbing figure of 12750m appeared.  I had not considered what a magnificent route Graeme Wyllie would put together, selecting elements of previous Audax Ecosse rides and some new sections.  With an entry capped at 75 there would not be the hundreds of riders on the road, each one a potential ally, as there is on PBP.  And, of course, there was the weather; if it cut up rough on one of the high mountain passes a lot of damage could be done to both time and will. 

Originally I had planned to do this event on my race bike with tribars, the same set up as PBP.  Two things went against this plan.  The first was the weather forecast (unsettled) and the second was a work meeting in London that meant I would need to go to work first and then get on the night sleeper.  There was no way around it, I would need the extra carrying capacity of the Audax bike, which I knew to be about an hour slower over 300km than the race bike.

However, what was most informative were the raised eyebrows and polite observations of “really?” when I mentioned my plan.

1000km between 7am Friday and late Sunday evening.  It was not going to be easy.

The plan

Although there were four loops on the Mille Alba, for anyone wanting to catch the Sunday night sleeper it had to be broken down to three day rides.  The first day was 356km with a couple of feature hills in Cairn o’Mount and the Cairnwell.  All in all it did not look too tough, but with a start time of 7am it could easily be 11pm or even midnight before we finished.

The second day was 324km and, on paper, looked easier, mostly gradual climbs in the Southern Uplands, as long as the wind wasn’t from the West when there would be a very long headwind section from Berwick to Biggar. 

The third day would require a final 336km, firstly a 266km loop into the Perthshire mountains and then a shorter loop out to Falkland over the Lomond Hills.  In order to catch the midnight train ideally I would like to finish at 9pm.  But, a hilly final day, possibly with bad weather, and lots of hills (I’d no idea how big some of the climbs turned out to be, even when following the route on Ordnance Survey maps in planning), could easily take 17 hours to complete, or longer, given that I would be tired.  That meant a 3am to 4am start time.  So, in a perfect world I probably want to finish the second day quite early.

As I travelled up to London for a day’s work on Thursday, with everything packed up on the bike, I began to ponder.  Things were quite tight, especially as there was no opportunity to get part way round the third day ahead of time.

The weather forecast was not good.  After one of the wettest springs on record Friday was “heavy rain in the morning, followed by heavy showers in the afternoon”, Saturday and Sunday both showed showers, with freshening south-westerly winds.  We could be in for a soaking.  At least having a base, Fordell Firs Scout centre, meant that we could take as much kit as we could carry.  Apart from a bar bag and two stuffed panniers I also had a 45-litre rucksack stuffed nearly full.  I took the liberty of having a full set of dry kit for each day as well as a 2.7kg tub of PSP so that I could make fresh energy drink each morning.

Before the Start

Travelling by the night sleeper was incredibly comfortable.  Although I was apprehensive about the ride and tense from work, I had a reasonable amount of sleep.  There was room for my 190cm frame to stretch out on the bed and the suspension was like a Rolls-Royce to my usual commuter trains.

I arrived at dawn (04:58, on time to the minute) at Inverkeithing into stair-rod rain.  I took everything to the shelter of a footbridge to add panniers and bar bag to the bike and then wheel the bike up the ramp to the car park, trying to get my bearings.

It was uphill all-the-way to the Scout Centre, done in heavy rain.  It felt like it was going to be a long weekend.  I chatted with the first few people who were up, got myself a first breakfast, and picked up a brevet card.  I’d missed the registration and pre-event supper the night before, due to my pared down travel arrangements.   Once the hall was thronging with nervous rides I found my room and sorted out my gear, sleeping bag ready, and one pannier packed for the day ahead (kit for the day rainjacket, bib tights, bib shorts, base layer, short sleeve jersey, long sleeve jersey, socks, winter socks, thin gloves, winter gloves, assorted gels, two bottles of PSP, multi-tool, tyre levers, four inner tubes, and two cuddly toys wrapped in the ziplock plastic bags that protect Brevet Cards.  Lights and battery were also tucked away.

It was not as cold as it looked.  I’d noticed that on the ride up and confirmed it as I fettled my bike pannier.  I decided to go without a base layer and just a long sleeve and the rain top.  This turned out to be a good decision.

In the midst of many conversations, catching up with other riders, were the raised eyebrows at my plans, advertised on the forum, long ago, of completing to catch the Sunday night sleeper.

Day 1

We set off in pouring rain.  I found myself at the head of the front group, with Paul, from Ireland, who I had first met in a Little Chef near Wrexham where we were getting breakfast before the Mersey Roads ‘24’.  The roads were typical of this area, more patch than original, with many water-filled potholes to trip the unwary.  We weaved our way across the sodden tarmac and concrete, through a few bleak-looking settlements.  It was an odd sensation, riding through such ordinary streets, with such a long distance to go.  Martin Lucas and Bob Johnson came past, looking like they were on a mission and I latched on to them, able to keep the pace but doubting the wisdom of such a plan in the long term.

In a silence befitting the gloomy morning we continued, taking turn and turn about.  Even the lowest of the Lomond Hills was blanketed in fog, leaving the shape of the summit to the imagination.  Dave Bradshaw was with us as was Hummers, and the VC167 tandem.  The River Farg was in spate, a swirling mass of brown water and dirty spray fighting its way down the gorge, lapping at the trees on either side and at the foliage foolish enough to grow low over its malign and untrustworthy surface.

There was a degree of confusion at the Aberargie control, with someone who had just turned up with a list of riders, George Berwick who was meant to be manning the control nowhere to be seen, and another rider, who had been desperately hanging onto our tails, claiming that he was the controller.  The cards got stamped quickly.  Bob Johnson and I soft-pedalled until the group had re-formed. 

We were in a part of the world I had never even considered going to before.  The UK doesn’t have much in the way of north coasts, but here the Tay estuary is so wide that it might as well be a north coast.  It was undeveloped, unlike any of the south facing coasts around, just farmland on a big slope reaching down to the muddy brown water.  It must have rained very heavily overnight, because in many places water had rushed off the fields and left sharp angled stones across the road.  There was a loud pop and hiss and we had lost Paul to a puncture.  We were down to a group of four as we headed up into the mist: Bob Johnson, Martin Lucas, Andreas, from Germany and me.

The wind was a brisk northeasterly and brought a thick fret from the cold North Sea.  We exchanged turns on the front.  At one point the road was under a huge puddle of muddy brown water, which I sailed through rather carelessly.  We descended into Wormit, a town of high walls on the steep sides that sloped into the Tay estuary.  A curl back upwards took us onto the cycle path for the Tay Bridge that, unusually, was in the middle of the two crash barriers.  I guess that gives more protection from the winds that can rage in these parts.  A long while ago a storm took out a span of the railway bridge and no-one noticed until a train went straight over the gap taking its crew and passengers to a watery grave. 

At the end of the bridge a lift took us down to road level, 4 men and bikes crammed in.  Here I noticed quite how tall Andreas was, 208cm (6’10½ “).  It wasn’t clear which direction we were supposed to go but, having researched the route on Ordnance Survey maps, I found the way out to the A92 where Martin and his GPS took over.  It was warming up and so we took off our rain gear.  Soon Martin and Bob were taking long turns on the front through the thick mist.  Each time we went up hill it seemed just a little bit harder to hang on, especially given the brisk wind.  However, as we turned toward Forfar, having got to a group view on which crossroads was the one referred to in the route sheet (it said SOX but we had right of way the whole way), the wind was behind us and we were going down hill.  Andreas, as if powered by sail, shot off and I vaguely followed him.  It was time to have a break.

They were excited to see us at the control, their first customers.  The soup was excellent.  I don’t usually have soup as it seems to fill me up without giving me much energy, but I liked it so much I had a second bowl and a cheese scone to top up the bread that came with the soup.  It had been a good first stage.

The road to Brechin was hard.  It rose up ever so slightly for about 6k into the wind.  I towed everyone along and probably put a bit too much into it.  Before Brechin I found myself on the front again, with legs that felt ever so slightly heavy.  There was a debate about a turn in Brechin (I misheard Craft Street for Market Street) and so I had to chase back on, a little reluctant.  I felt that I would want to drop back from this group at some point but hoped that it would be Cairn O’Mount and not before.  We had made a good start on our minor Scottish football teams.  Given the blankness of the sky Forfar Athletic nil Brechin City nil sounded about right.  We would also pass Alloa, Dunfermline Athletic, and Cowdenbeath, names remembered from watching Final Score on Grandstand in the days when there was sport on the BBC.  We wondered what Forfar was famous for.  I never knew that Brechin had a cathedral.  Here in northeast Scotland were places that had a grander impact on history than their current presence would suggest.  My observation that Dundee was a city built, in part, on making jam because of the soft fruit production in the area was not obvious given the cold grey skies.

Perhaps the cold and the grey got into my head.  Bob Johnson is known as Flat Earth Bob for a reason, all hills are flat to him.  In this mostly flat terrain, whenever there was a slight rise he would kick on to maintain his momentum, an excellent technique.  But each micro-kick took me out of my comfort zone and left another little piece of my soul on the road.  It could not last.  Before I blew I allowed myself not to get back on his wheel.  It had been good while it lasted but now that we approached some proper hills I wanted to ride my own pace.

When I’m dropped (and I think this applies to most of us) my heart sinks; I begin to question my legs, my heart, or my head.  Instead of realising that there are three riders ahead of me and sixty-five behind, I tend to look at the group of three above and wonder if I should put the extra effort in to close that gap.  But we were 130km into 1016km.  To go deep into the red this early was simply foolishness.  So I put the bad thoughts out of my head and began to concentrate on a rhythm, one gear lower than with the group.  We were still in the arable farmland typical of the east coast, with plenty of trees so that soon they were gone from view.  I worked my way through Fettercairn and into the hills looking for the start of the Cairn O’Mount.  It announced its presence with a steep ramp that hardly eased off.  I could see the others split up further up the hill.  I concentrated on my own sweaty process, opening up my top to see if I could get some air.  The climb was supposed to ease off but I did not see any advantage in getting out of the little ring.  I could see Andreas ahead of me and was closing on him very slowly.  The second steep ramp was hidden in the mist. Andreas, on a compact chainset, ground to a halt.  I continued onwards, not knowing what to say, being a firm believer in a triple for such things.  I was cranking out low revs even with a 30-23 gear but just had enough to get to the top.  A little further on I began to feel quite peculiar; I’d left another bit of my essence on the road.  I would have to be careful or I would start to get tired with no pick-me-up possible.

There was an initial high-speed descent but then we got into the forest.  After each drop there was a short, steep, rhythm-busting, rise.  I kept expecting Andreas to catch up with me but, after a struggle, I was into the warm forested slopes around Banchory.  Bob and Martin waved to me and pointed out the Co-op they had used as a commercial control.  Lunch was a prawn sandwich, salt and vinegar crisps, and a chocolate fudge brownie milkshake, of all of which was just what I was looking for and I felt able to hold their wheels again.

This feeling did not last long.  On the second or third imperceptible rise out of Banchory I could sense Flat Earth Bob pushing on again.  My chain was squeaking; the frequent immersions in floodwater had stripped it of most of its lubricant.  This was not a pleasant experience.  I had a choice.  On each little rise I could take another little 1% out of my reserves and hang on, secure in the company of the group, recognising that this would get me round the quickest.  But there would be a lot of little one percents on the long valley road to Braemar, and they would soon add up.  So I let the gap open up and proceeded at my own pace.  Once they had disappeared the squeaking chain annoyed me so I used this as an excuse to properly separate myself from the front group.  I also had a quick comfort break and a snack.

There was a tailwind on this section and I started to get into a good rhythm, probably not as fast as those ahead of me but still a decent pace.  It was too far to calculate a precise finishing time but I felt that I was good for a finish around about 11pm.  The route sheet from Banchory to Braemar had only one instruction, “follow A93”, but 65km is too far to digest so I broke it up into 4 sections: Aboyne, Ballater, Balmoral, and Braemar.  By the time I got to Aboyne I was going well.  (I remembered Aboyne as the place that sometimes appears as the warmest place in the UK as it is the most sheltered from southwesterly winds; today there was a gentle easterly and it was quite pleasant).  Then the rear tyre felt a bit spongy.  I tried to convince myself that it was my imagination but after another mile it was clear there was a problem.  Just when I had got my head in order.  I hooked the saddle on a stone wall and carried out the tedious task of repair, concerned that I could find no obvious damage to the tyre or remains of a shard in the tyre wall.  It’s always much more comforting to find the culprit rather than suspect that it might still be lurking to claim another tube on an appropriate impact. 

Zigzag passed me and asked if I was alright.  I was just pumping up the tyre so I called out “two minutes”.  He carried on but he was only looking for a place to fill up a water bottle.  I caught him up and we rode on together.  I like Zigzag.  He was the one who persuaded me than the forum was a good idea (and so probably the one to whom I owed the pleasure of this ride).  He is also good company and rides at a slightly easier pace than Flat Earth Bob. 

I’d noticed on the route sheet that there was a possible short cut past Ballater and so was not surprised when Zigzag took that route.  The road climb through thick coniferous woods into a forbidding defile but did very little extra climbing so almost certainly saved us some effort.  There wasn’t much wind by now, and a lot of this area is now home to recovering Caledonian forest, giving the route a lot of shelter, but it was still nice to have it helping rather than hindering.  Things were looking up and we got into a good rhythm.  I pointed out Balmoral to Zigzag, who hails from Lithuania although I believe lives in the London area.  It was 5pm by the time we arrived in Braemar. 

There was a rather dodgy looking café almost on the road junction, offering pretty much every version of junk food known to mankind (it offered fish and chips, pizza, burgers, and curries).  For a moment I hesitated but didn’t have the wherewithal to think about somewhere else.  I asked for pizza but that was going to take 10, no 15, possibly 20 minutes (which suggested they hadn’t fired up the oven) and then settled on burger and chips.  Just as we were ordering Bob, Martin, and Andreas waved to us; they were heading down to Perth, so we could only have been twenty minutes or so behind them.  The burger was one of Brake Bros budget options but the chips were some of the finest I’ve ever had.  We got the poor assistant, who seemed to be new or temporary, to sign our cards as the till wouldn’t give receipts and headed off.

It was like entering another territory.  Before becoming a serious cyclist I had been a hill walker and mountaineer.  Working in Aberdeen in 1994 I had stayed over for a weekend and bagged 14 Munros in two days (a Munro is a mountain over 3000 feet in Scotland, the selection of which is rooted in history and lost to modern knowledge, even more abstruse than the old AAA system), one of the walks starting from the Cairnwell.  Here was a land of heather and cotton grass and peat bog that I knew and understood.  In bad weather this would be fierce terrain but we had a gentle breeze was on our backs and misty cloud drifting on the mountain tops.  I got into a steady rhythm and we were going fine for a few miles until Zigzag announced he had a crisis; he had left his bottle back in the café.  He decided to go back, so once again I was on my own. But that little bit of company and comfortable pace had got my mojo back.  I settled into the long climb up to the Cairnwell and enjoyed the evening.  At one point I began to get quite excited about getting back by 9pm or so but then I realised my watch had stopped.

One thing I was looking forward to was the descent of the Cairnwell.  The magnet on my cycle computer was not quite in place so when I reached 41mph it started giving random numbers and then dropped to zero.  I’m fairly confident I hit 50mph on this fast descent; I certainly didn’t touch the brakes.  After that the route followed the valley, descending most of the time but with a few short rhythm busting uphill sections.  This was part of a 78km section on the A93 so I used my cycle computer to count down the miles first to Blairgowrie and then to Perth.  There were a couple of showers and at one point I thought I might need my rain jacket again, but then they passed.  It really was a beautiful evening’s ride with hardly any traffic despite following a trunk road.  A rider on a recumbent stopped to cheer me on; he was  a local Audax rider who had come to take a few photographs and offer encouragement.

I was tired by the time I got to Perth.  The traffic lights were a nuisance.  Here was another place of memories.  I had stayed here involuntarily in 1988 on a walking holiday.  A not particularly nice weather forecast had encouraged me to visit the city and explore Scone Palace.  But a core plug failed in the exhaust manifold of my old Audi 80 (remarkably only a mile or so from the only Audi garage in the Highlands of Scotland).  They didn’t have a spare to hand, so I had to book myself into a bed and breakfast for a night whilst they got a part shipped and fixed the car.  That was where I bought my Munro’s Tables and got into Munro-bagging, trying to climb all 290-odd (very much like a Brevet 25000 to recognise a lifetime’s achievement).  I stopped many years ago recognising that the Scottish Highlands were inconveniently located for someone living in Basingstoke, with my count on 147 (which at that time was exactly halfway – a little like the distinction between BR and BRM – they reconsider things from time to time and decide that a mountain that isn’t currently a Munro is more deserving than one that is – so I am not sure of the current total.  If I did have more spare time I’d rather go cycling in the Alps now).

I confused myself with the route sheet, found the centre of Perth deserted of eating-places and got an ATM receipt.  This didn’t address my need to eat but I resolved to stop at the first filling station.  Here I got a chicken sandwich, packet of cheese and onion crisps and a milkshake.  I sat down in the lee of the filling station wall, struggling to eat this not-particularly-appetising fare, wishing that my nose would stop dripping.  I was disturbed by a group including Hummers, Postie, and Dave Bradshaw who seemed to have had similar trouble in locating eating establishments.  Their company perked me up.  It was getting cold and so I did not wait for them, assuming that, as a group, they would catch me up. 

I knew there was a long climb after Aberargie because we would be repeating our route back.  However, it was here that I found my long-distance climbing legs, finding the gear that would turn at a decent speed (11 – 12mph) all the way up.  With newfound confidence I sped up through Kinross and was in good spirits at dusk for the last rough bit of road through Hill of Beith to the Scout Centre at Fordell.  It was 10.45pm when I arrived.  Bob, Martin, and Andreas had arrived at about 9.30pm so they must have been steaming back from Braemar; thinking about it, this was the sort of terrain they would have made short work of. 

I went upstairs, sorted out my kit and had a shower and then struggled to eat a large portion of excellent fish pie.  The hall was beginning to fill up with arrivals.  It was midnight by the time I went back up stairs and scrambled up to my top bunk (the consequence of being a late arrival).  I set the alarm on my mobile phone for 03:30 to give me 3 hours sleep.  It had been a good day.  356km had been completed in 15 hours and 45 minutes and I would have a reasonable rest before what should be an easier second day.  Things were going very much to plan.

Day 2

It seemed to take me longer to get ready than I had hoped.  But I did get two bowls of Crunchy Nut and a large bowl of porridge, washed down with two cups of tea.  This set me up.  It had been still and dry when I went to bed but now the wind was blowing steadily from the west and there was some rain in that wind.  There was no sign of Martin or Bob but they had said that they were going to start later.  I wanted to get back by 8pm to have a decent break before the final day; all in order to make sure I caught the midnight train on Sunday night.  Graeme, the organiser, told me that the weather forecast was windy with a few showers, but easing later on.  I did not check what he meant by later on.

I descended into Inverkeithing carefully, with just a long sleeved top and bib tights.  I didn’t need the lights at 4.30am.  I did not want to miss the route onto the Forth Road Bridge, though this turned out to be easy to find.  I think that makes a full collection of major road bridges: Severn, Humber, Tamar, Forth, and Tay, though I am sure there are others I have not done that others would consider important.  There was a strengthening crosswind and the sky to the west looked angry and threatening.  As I reached the B800 and looked for the brown sign for Bedlam Paintball it began to rain.  I recognised this section from the Only for Softies Audax organised by Sonya Crawford a couple of years before (it was raining then).  At the time I had been quite weary so it was nice to do the section on legs freshened by an overnight sleep and being pushed along by a considerable tailwind.  More careful navigation took me to the seafront at Cramond Glebe.

Another day, another north coast, this time the coast of the Firth of Forth.  There is something magical about north coasts in this part of the world in the summer, with the pearly light of dawn coming from the north-east.  When south coasts would still be shaded, the north coast is lit with an artist’s palette, an infinite range of colours too delicate for human manufacture.  The route took us through a countryside park, a wide strip of tarmac along which I was propelled by a considerable tailwind.  All in all I could ignore the angry scudding clouds and the spitting rain.

Sadly the park ended and the route took us through the docks and harbour conversions of Leith and through to Portobello.  A seemingly endless series of traffic lights turned red on me and the roads were as patched and cut-up as any other built-up area.  I was feeling a bit rough, with an acid stomach and runny nose and gave up with the intricate navigation in Portobello, sticking to the A199, knowing I had to get to Tranent.  The rain continued, never quite heavy enough to put on the rain jacket but heavy enough to get into the eyes and make the ride unpleasant.  I didn’t have much power on the climbs to Tranent.  On the other hand I did realise that I had the privilege of being at the head of the ride.  To the south and west were the wild lands of the Lammermuir Hills.  To the north and east were more rolling border lands.  The route took me closer to the A1 than I was expecting (we were only 4 miles from Haddington) but step by step it rose through villages.  The scenery was very pleasant.  After 40 miles I stopped, ate a Twix left over from the day before and had a comfort break.  Ahead I could see the last sharp part of a climb, a faint scar on a brown heathery boggy hill.

Now I could feel the full force of the wind pushing me along.  As I began the descent the speed rose indecently quickly.  There was no need to pedal, all I had to do was hang on.  The numbers reached the 40s.  I could see trees and a sign of a cattle grid in the far distance.  The magic 50mph was reached.  I let out a whoop of joy.  This was great.  Then I began to feather the brakes and seek out any imperfections on that cattle grid that might cause me to tip up.  The next 20km followed a valley.  If anything the river was higher and in greater spate than those I had seen on Saturday; the overnight rain must have been very heavy.  There were a few short hills but these were generally swallowed up by the 30mph tailwind.  It was all very exciting but forming in the back of my mind was a doubt.  This was not going to ease by the time I left Berwick.  There was a long stretch of almost due west after that, which was going to be into the teeth of this wind.  In good Audax fashion I decided to concentrate only on the next control and put the following stage out of my mind.

I had got into my head that the stage was 100km and it was only as I reached a turn for Chirnside and decided to stop and check the route sheet (it was also a good time to eat a flapjack) that I realised it was actually 112km.  The next section of road had flood-damage.  They had put a road-closed sign up and were ineffectively trying to scrape off loose stones using a bulldozer.  After this I was soon at Chirnside and flying along the A6105 to Berwick.  More tailwind pushed me along at a rapid rate of knots.  It was obviously going to be much harder when I turned round towards Galashiels.

I remembered Berwick from a family holiday the week after LEL.  I had taken my son there to find some cycling kit and we looked around.  I remembered some shops in the Market Street but as I turned in café-blindness took over (this is where a tired AUK rides past a perfectly good café and ends up in a Tesco or grubby petrol station).  I turned a corner into a street that looked like it had run out of shops and resorted to asking a little old lady who kindly pointed me to a place two doors down.  Her suggestion was excellent.  I had a large strong coffee, a bacon roll and scrambled egg on toast, ingeniously made by bubbling steam from the attachment on the coffee machine.  It was some of the best scrambled egg I have ever tasted and I assure you that it was not just because it was greatly needed.

Fortified I set out into the westerly blast, for about a hundred yards until I found a small corner shop where I could top up with flapjacks and similar bonk rations.  Now it was time for a crawl.  The first 5km were done at an average speed of less than 20kph, even though it was flat or only slightly up hill.  Heading towards Coldstream there were a few places that were easier, either where trees blocked the wind’s passage or there were slight downhills, but after Coldstream the sun went in and progress seemed to become even harder.  The route took us over several undulations to avoid Kelso and after a couple of these I knew I needed a five minute stop just to restore sanity.  As I was sitting down in the lee of the wall another old lady drove into the drive of a nearby house and asked how I was.  I told her it was windy but I was OK and she asked where I was going.  “Galashiels”, “That’s a long way, where have you come from?”  “Inverkeithing”  She did not seem surprised, as if she had seen other riders on this route before.

The clouds were looking angry as I neared the Jedburgh Hills.  There was a nice long descent and I picked up the B6360 with only 10k to go.  However, if I had not stopped for another flapjack, it might as well have been 100k as I would have bonked.  Fuelled, I scrambled up the next couple of hills out of the saddle, the trees thrashing around me as the wind caught them.  I had been checking my progress using distance on the cycle computer and I reached the point where I should turn into Winston Road.  There was a road sign, halfway down a road that looked like it led to a council estate, faded and wind-blasted.  I checked carefully.  It was Winston Road.  Glad of this I descended the hill and soon found myself being welcomed by Lucy McTaggart as the first to Gala.

Even more welcome was the offer of pizza.  This and cake and tea and I was restored.  Bob and Martin arrived about fifteen minutes after me.  They had made up about an hour, which made sense.  They suggested I should wait and ride with them but given that the next section was hilly I decided it would be easier to go at my own pace.  I was sure that they would catch me up sooner rather than later. 

There was a steep hill out of Galashiels, which led into some sheltered woods.  My get up and go and got up and gone a long while ago so I just laboured up the hill and hunkered down in to the wind.  It was warmed in the sheltered valley, the leaves were thick on the trees and rustled around as the wind swirled and eddied.  It would have been nice to find a sheltered spot except everything was saturated by the overnight rain and topped up by a recent shower.  After a stretch of A-road the route took us on the other side of a big river.  I had hoped that this would be a valley floor road but it climbed for a couple of miles, a tiny little lane a little akin to some of the Surrey lanes around Hindhead except that the surrounding hills were much bigger.  At one point a family of stoats crossed the road in front of me, eight or ten of them.  Again progress felt slow but at least it was sheltered.  I passed a few mountain bikers who looked at me incuriously. The distance crept up on the cycle computer and I was back on another route etched into my memory, the climb out of Innerleithen to the Gordon Arms.  That had been another windy day.  I took it slowly up the climb, which was also mercifully sheltered, measuring my progress by the gradually dwindling burn and the increasing nearness to the skyline.  Just when it looked like there was no way through the hills a gap opened up and I was exposed to a damp blast and a sky full of thick grey cloud.  I descended the first part of the hill on the middle ring before turning a corner and getting into some proper gears and, after a slower descent than on LEL reached the shut Gordon Arms that look like it was undergoing fitful redevelopment.  In its lee I munched on a banana and contemplated a long section of exposed headwind.

On April 29 the weather in England was appalling.  Gale force north-easterly winds lashed the country with heavy rain and temperatures of 5 Celsius.  There were three 200km Audax rides, one of which was cancelled and the others didn’t have their entries decimated for that would have indicated one in ten not finishing.  It was the opposite.  One in ten did finish.  I had set off for a 200km perm in the worst of the conditions at 2.30am, completing the ride after having to cyclo-cross around a fallen tree and risking the 45mph gusts that ran along the scarp of the Lambourn Downs like an assassin in the night.  I call this method training.  You can never tell what will happen on a major Audax ride (my first two were PBP 2007 and LEL 2009).  If you are not used to stonking headwinds for over 100km, lashing rain and the dark, then it can be terribly demoralising, not to mention dangerous if you realise your kit doesn’t work.  In my view, the way to prepare, is once in a while (at least every two years) take on these conditions, go out where the wind shouts back and the rain scores lines into your soul and learn what it takes.  Then, when it happens for real you will know what to do.

So I got my head down, stuck into a low gear, and counted down the miles.  It was alright for a while along the main road but once I turned off onto the little road to Talla Linns and Tweedsmuir it was harder.  The wind was a solid force off the reservoirs and, as this was a road consisting of tarmac sprayed onto a hummocky landscape each little rise exposed me to the blast, wrecked any rhythm and brought me almost to a standstill.  Worse still I convinced myself that my rear tyre was going flat.  In the middle of this wild and beautiful landscape, with sunbeams breaking through the clouds and touching the water I stopped and slithered down the shelter of a bank to examine the tyre.  It was clearly some psychological trick.  The tyre was fine.  I ate half a flapjack and continued my labours up the hill into increasing darkness (even if it was only 5pm on one of the longest days of the year).  Finally I reached the top, and, as I started the welcome descent the wind blasted rain at me.  I very quickly stopped as I would have been soaked and chilled and struggled to put my rain jacket on with the wind blowing it inside out.  At this point two bedraggled cyclists caught up with me, Martin and Bob.  “Good idea” they said, seeing me struggling with the jacket.  “I’ll see you at the bottom” I said, finally getting my left arm into the thin fabric of the Assos lightweight raintop.  Rain lashed itself on to the smooth whiteness.  It was time to go; this was no place to hang about.  The descent was steep, gravel strewn, and with a sharp left-hander at the bottom.  With swirling head- and cross-winds there was no risk of reckless descending.  Bob caught me up on the flat ground by the lower reservoir.  We found our way down a second descent and onto a main road where, for the first time in 120km we had a tailwind.  I managed to cram down some bonk rations.  Martin caught us up and after a few more km we stopped to take off our rain jackets and I crammed in most of the rest of my bonk rations, leaving little more than a single gel.  Then we were off and running again, doing big turns on a fast road.

In Broughton we turned back into the wind.  Bob was on the front on a short hill where a gust caught him as if he had been hit by a bus.  I found myself back in front and hammered it most the remainder of the way into Biggar, just keen to get to a proper stop.  We found a chippy and I ate steak pie and chips and very nice it was too.  I washed it down with a Coke, which was probably a mistake as I suffered badly from reflux for the rest of the day.

We set off.  Between Biggar and Carnwath there was a brisk crosswind and I struggled.  I decided I wasn’t going to kill myself keeping up with the other two.  I had a much earlier start planned the next day and so needed something in reserve. I had so far got round a tough day and it looked like, despite the weather, I would not be far off a 9pm finish.

So I let them go, plodded to Carnwath and stopped in a town that had a rough reputation to buy a couple of Twix.  It was time for long straight and demoralising A70, with a 24km stretch before the next turn.  I started slowly and gradually picked up speed although was fairly hopeless on the climbs.  The clouds lifted and evening sunshine picked out my route.  The wind eased, much as I had predicted to Graeme that it would, but it still helped and, when I eventually got to the downhill bit, I enjoyed spinning a big gear and keeping the speed high.  It was a predictable chore working across to the Forth Road Bridge but a great joy to ride it in the sun and less labour than I thought for the climb up to the Scout Hall, where I arrived about 9.15am (having stopped again at the Shell petrol station on the south side of the Road Bridge to get a couple of flapjacks).  I went up stairs, took a Moralpro anti-reflux tablet (given to me by a pharmacist in France when I was suffering badly on PBP), had a shower, sorted out my kit for the next day and went to eat, struggling with a chick pea and pasta bake that I hoped would have sufficient fibre to assist the tablet in its work.  I went to bed at 11pm with a 2am alarm call.

I slept well, tossing and turning a bit and waking up once.  It was a little before my alarm call but I decided to get up anyway.

Day Three

This was it.  I had taken nearly 17 hours over 324km on Saturday and if I had similar conditions on the Sunday the 336km could easily take 19 hours.  A 2.30am start would mean a 21.30pm finish, which would be quite close to the wire in terms of getting packed, fed, and leaving by 11.30pm.  Graeme wished me luck as I set off at 2.30am, with a bowl of Crunchy Nut and a bowl of Porridge inside me.  This time it was dark.  There was a lightness in the northern sky but not enough to see the route sheet or the potholes by.

I was soon confused by the roundabouts around the north side of the Forth Road Bridge but persistence found me on the right route and the A895 to the Kincardine Bridge.  There was one wrong turn near Culross (which I discovered when almost getting back onto the main road) then I was OK for a long while, picking up the delightful cycle route to Alloa, the lights of Grangemouth a comforting distance away across the Firth of Forth.

My high-viz tabard was a nuisance, it kept tucking itself into my pocket when I tried to get my route sheet out, so somewhere on the western outskirts of Alloa I took it off and stripped the lights off the bike.  I had a flapjack and carried on along the flat roads to Bridge of Allan and the old A9.  The road rose surprisingly uphill, reminding me that I hadn’t really checked this day out on the maps beforehand.  I remembered Dunblane from a terrible massacre of schoolchildren many years ago, but there was no trace of such evil on this peaceful Sunday morning.  I followed the road to Kinbuck.  Here there was an info control.  I got to the point where I expected the info (the maximum vehicle on a bridge)  and there was a bridge but no sign.   After about half a mile I turned back because my mind had been wandering.  There was no such sign.  I memorised something about the local village hall and then found the actual info on the next corner.  Such things can mesmerise a tired rider.

It was a lovely calm morning as I entered Braco and started on a long but gentle climb.  This road was one of the pleasant surprises of the Mille Alba, entering a low-level wilderness that once upon a time I would have bypassed but on a cycle ride was required to look around and appreciate the raw beauty of the Scottish landscape, rolling hills and peat bogs, wondering just where the road might go.  At the point I thought it might require a further climb I found myself on an immaculate descent, sweeping turns continuing for a couple of miles until the final flat run in to the control at Comrie.  The town looked deserted which was bad news as I had been on the go for four hours but then I spotted the van dropping off papers to the newsagent.  This allowed me to pick up a BBQ sausage sandwich, crisps and chocolate milk.  There was a little park almost next to the newsagent so I had this curious breakfast, the sort of thing that only an Audax rider would breakfast upon, staining the brand new seat by accidentally tipping over my chocolate milk.  Guiltily I continued on a flat road to the west.

There was a little bid of wind blowing across Loch Earn in my face, but nothing like the previous day’s blast.  I enjoyed the scenery as I rolled along.  The climb up Glen Ogle passed pleasantly, a steady rhythm taking me up to the summit.  I could really do with a coffee.  But there was nothing open in Killin as it was before 8am so I stopped for a brief raid on my bonk rations before continuing, looking for the turn for the Bridge of Balgie.

There was a van looking to turn out of the road, which made me hesitate.  By the time we had sorted ourselves out I was on the hills.  After 800km hills tend to seem a lot steeper than they really are but a good chunk of the bottom part of this hill must have been 10%.  It required all the granny gears I had.  The woods closed in, thick coniferous woods; even with a temperature of 12C it was oppressive.  But I kept a steady rhythm and emerged on to a bare mountain slope.  I worked up this, looking at the Tarmachan Ridge for guidance on my progress.  A couple of cars came down the hill and I rolled steadily into the passing places to let them down.  31 years ago I had come up this hill in a car with my parents on a journey that would lead us to the summit of Perthshire, Ben Lawers, at almost 4000 feet, one of the major mountains of Scotland.  This time I would restrict myself to the pass, a thin ribbon of tarmac that was challenge enough.  I saw the dam, a bleak concrete wall ahead, then the road climbed steeply once more.

The descent was amazing, narrow, twisting, with big exposure on every right hand bend, and washed out gravel ready to rip the tyres of the unwary.  It chilled my stomach but it was exhilarating, yet another highlight to a trip that was bordering on the amazing.  By the time I got to the bottom, wired from constant concentration on the road, I was quite dazed and took a couple of goes to work out the information control.  Then I realised that (at 8.30am) although the café was not open the shop was so I said hello to the lady who was manning the place.  There was no hope of hot food or coffee so I bought a banana and struggled to eat it.

The wind was getting up; there had been signs on Ben Lawers.  But the good news was that it was from the west and it blew me down Glen Lyon.  I took a fair number of risks on this valley route, taking the corners at high speed so that I would maintain my momentum on the flat sections.  There was plenty of “wow’ in the scenery but little time to look at it.  At the end there was a T-junction and the valley opened out.  Now it received the wind properly and, although I was now going on the flat rather than gradually downhill my speed improved and I was regularly doing 20mph with the long grass blowing waves in my direction.  This was more like it.  I kept a good speed all the way to Aberfeldy where, once again, I began to suffer café blindness.  I had done over 100 miles (169km) by the time I reached this control, all without the assistance of caffeine.  A couple of tourists pointed me in the direction of a bakery and café where the English proprietor saw me right with a large black coffee, bacon eggs and beans on toast.  There were a couple of Australian tourists in the café and I correctly guessed that they were from Coffs Harbour.  All day I had been making connections with my past (Beinn Ghlas and Beinn Lawers were my first two Munros, we had stayed at Balquhidder near Lochearnhead). 

But now I moved to a part of the route that was new.  What’s more, I realised I hadn’t properly researched it.  The climb out of Aberfeldy was quite steep and was obviously going to go on for quite some time.  I began to boil in my bib tights; I never like stopping on a hill but the alternative was to melt, so I stripped down to shorts and a short jersey for the first time on the ride.  It immediately started raining out of nowhere, but I persisted on the climb and by the time I reached the top it was clear.  This was a long climb, rising over 300m, and one with a couple of false summits.  I did do some of it out of the saddle, but more to give me a change of position; the climbing legs were still working.

On the other side was a long descent.  I could have rolled down this at a not very high speed, but with some wind assistance I decided to work up through the gears.  After a mile or so I got the 53-12 turning and had an exhilarating time.  After reaching a forest section there was a turn to the right and a short climb to Amulree.  Here I felt the strength of the headwind and was glad that my early start had spared me riding into much more of this.  The climb was very short and the route soon took us down another valley, again most a slight descent where it was important to get the big gears turning.  I was going really well and looking forward to the next control.  I picked up the turn to Logiealmond exactly at the right distance and carried on with another, steeper descent.  The hard climb out of Aberfeldy had been a fantastic investment as the majority of the stage after that was downhill.  I followed the winding B-road round and began looking for a turn at the 3km point as indicated on the route sheet.  At almost exactly this point a creature ran across in front of me, small, red, tufty ears and a tail, too small to be a fox.  It took a second for things to sink in.  After 40 years or so of hoping to see a red squirrel in the wild I had finally and incontrovertibly seen one, long after giving up any real expectation.  Enraptured by this I plugged up a hill and down a descent looking for the R to Fowlis Wester sign.  I did not appear.  I must have done nearly 5km since the last turn.  Something had done wrong.  Reluctantly I retraced my steps and got to the previous junction.  The main road went round to the right quite sharply and there was a R (actually SO) but no Fowlis Wester on the signpost.  Could it be that I had enjoyed the descent so much that I had missed a turn.  I looked at the steep geography where such a turn might be.  Not even a Landrover would make that.  I look around but there was no-one to ask.  So I decided that I would take a guess and assume that the road had been repainted since the last time the route-sheet had been checked.  My guess worked out.  200m down the road was a little sign to Fowlis Wester that apparently pointed to a farmyard.  Years of occasional Audaxes in the South West of England meant that I was not put off by this and sure enough it turned out to be a tiny little road that took me in the right direction. 

It climbed for a while and then descended in true Devon-lane fashion (steep and lots of blind corners) to a crossroads.  The lane then turned sharp right to be parallel with the main road and I had visions of another wrong turn (a genuine error in a route sheet can be quite unsettling and often leads me into imagining others when they are not there).  The road was newly surfaced with loose chippings causing me to worry about punctures.  But I survived these fears and rolled into St David’s where they applauded me for being the first rider in.  That was a really nice feeling.  So was the bridie (a Scottish steak pie – apparently what Forfar is famous for if you are wondering about the question we asked on day 1).  I told them about my little adventure and they sent someone out to make it obvious where the route went.  On the forum they mentioned me as looking ‘fresh’.  As I don’t recall making any dubious remarks to the helpers I assume that meant that I looked in good condition.  I certainly felt fine, for someone who had ridden 900km.  It had been a relatively easy stage and I had fed well over the last couple of hours.  They had a track pump and we checked the tyre pressures.  The rear was down to about 60psi (the one that I had repaired in Aboyne) so we topped both up and I was on my way. 

It took a while to get into rhythm.  The legs had seized up a little, but by the time I approached Auchterarder I was going well again.  The route sheet instruction “Keep L and thro MUIRTON village to L @ T in GLENEAGLES” had me puzzled, especially when the L @ T that I did find seemed to have me going in the wrong direction.  I was lost again and decided that I would follow road signs that might help me get back.  This led me onto the busy A9 for half-a-mile but then I picked up the A823 to Dunfermline and was back on route.  There was another long climb up Glen Eagles (the original geographic feature rather than the golf course); by now I was getting a little ragged, doing too much out of the saddle.  We were in another delightful range of hills, totally unexpected given that I had not looked properly at this bit of the route.  The wind helped in the main, which was good as there wasn’t much of a descent of the other side.  It was warm and the legs worked quite well through Glendevon.  I had left St David’s at about 1.30pm and so had plenty of time, with 7 ½ hours to complete the final 125km of the event by my self-imposed curfew of 9pm. 

Another unexpected climb was the long drag up to Knockhill; I had heard of this motor racing circuit but never been able to place where it was.  Fields full of cars and an eerie high pitched whining sound indicated that there was an event on but fortunately I passed whilst the racing was happening and the road was empty.  From there it was mostly downhill to Dunfermline.  I had a couple of dodgy moments at traffic lights where my weariness started to tell but there was a really good feeling when I discovered that the road I was on joined the B891 almost opposite the Scout Centre at Fordell Firs and the stage was about to finish.  I arrived at 4pm, again to congratulations for being the first rider on the road.

Here Graeme informed me that the next two riders (I assumed Martin and Bob) had just left or were about to leave St David’s, so I had two clear hours on them.  I’d never set out to be in this position, or assumed that I would be the first back, but it seemed that barring unforeseen accidents I would be so.  I kept my meal break quite short, eating an omelette and some cake as there would be plenty more time later.  I lightened my pack, taking out bib tights and a few other things and then headed off at about 4.30pm.

It was very hard to get my head in gear for the last stage of 70km.  For two-and-a-half days I had been concentrating on each stage as it had come, focusing on the balance between good speed and reserving energy, of eating and sleeping whilst maintaining digestion, of saving mental reserves for the hard bits, rather than thrashing myself to hold a wheel.  Now it was all about to come to an end, but not quite.

The road surfaces through Cowdenbeath were shocking, especially for a rear with 940km of wear and tear.  I made a simple navigation error at “Thro CROSHILL LOCHGELLY & BALLINGRY (B981 becomes B920)”  – I turned right on the B891 rather than going straight onto the B920 – simple failure to consult route sheet.  I bashed my left shin on a pedal when failing to get the cleat set at a set of temporary lights on a hill.   I climbed out of the saddle in a clumsy fashion rather than getting in the right gear.  I knew there was a big hill to Falkland and I was letting it get to my head. 

Gradually I got my head back into gear, just by concentrating on the basics, getting the pedals to turn fluently, being sensible about gears, enjoying an unexpected descent and then focusing on the turn out of Leslie up into the Lomond Hills.  It was marked as “easy to miss” and would have been if I had not researched on the map beforehand and known it was about 300m after the church.  The directions were painted on a wall rather than a standard fingerpost road sign.  I could see the ground stretching upwards but it was not clear where the road went.  After a gentle start there was a steep ramp that got me into the granny gears and then a series of ramps thereafter, which I dealt with in slow plodding fashion, focusing on the ever-nearing summit of East Lomond Hill.  It was not done with speed, style or finesse but I did not care.  I would grab a snack from Falkland and then spin the wheels back to Fordell Firs.

At the top I expected an immediate descent but there was a kilometre or so of plateau with an inviting footpath leading to West Lomond a couple of miles away; but that sort of thing was a past activity.  It was time to concentrate on a fast descent, with a couple of surprising corners, one of which showed the track of a rear bicycle tyre locking up under emergency braking (Graeme claimed credit to that one on the helper’s ride; it must have been a nervous moment).  Falkland was shut except for pubs so I used an ATM and delved into my bonk rations.  I was cold after the descent and wished that I had not left my bib tights back at the base for this short but difficult leg.   The next 4km were on a freshly dressed road into the wind, not particularly good for my psyche and I started along the cycle path in Strathmiglo wearily.  I found that if I rode on the wrong side of this lane I got shelter from the wind and this encouraged me on a never-ending slight uphill drag.  Meanwhile the sky had clouded over, although it was still a fine evening with fine scenery, a broad flat valley, rolling hills, and the steeper slopes of the Lomond Hills to my left.  I thought I had missed a R turn on the routesheet but then realised that I had read the same line on the routesheet twice and so was much nearer the info control.  I was running on empty so I finished off a flapjack at the info control.  From here it was only 5km to Kinross where I needed another receipt for the penultimate control.  I had a strawberry flavoured milk, which was what I would have rather liked at Falkland.  Now it was time for a time trial back to the finish on roads familiar from Friday.  It was not a particularly stylish time trial and I ran out of steam about 300m from the final turn, but I did not care.  I rolled into Fordell Firs to see Zigzag leaving.  He raised his hand to congratulate me and we did a careful “high five” to celebrate success.  I got a cheer from the helpers for being the first to finish, sat down and had a cup of tea before getting ready to pack.

Once I’d sorted out my bags, showered, and phoned home it was about 9pm, so I had time for a couple of beers and a chat.  Martin and Bob did not get in until 10.30pm, so had taken about the same time for the final day as I had.  Various people asked me about the final stage, including Andreas, who told me he had gone too hard on the first day and wished he had stayed with me!  I gave them the same answers, its about 4 hours, the hard to miss turn is 300m after the church.  How can you convey all the information you need to know about a stage in a couple of stages; you cannot predict how someone will feel, doubtless the points they struggle with will be different from yours.  Someone who read my WordPress article on PBP said that I could have been describing a completely different event from the one that they had experienced.  I think that is a fair expression.  Audax is one of the closest things to a solipsistic experience that I have encountered, where we become completely wrapped up in our own world, detached from our day-to-day experience.  It is that which is so valuable to me; it becomes a form of self-renewal from all of the other pressures that I face.

I both succeeded and struggled on my return to work.  I made all the meetings, did all the things I needed to do, and approached a particularly critical team meeting with a fresh heart.  But after a week I felt weighed down again.  I realised that I was escaping back to those wide open Scottish vistas, and the winding road that reached up through the forests and into those hills where the wind shouted back at me and the rain glistened in the low sunshine.  I had ridden 800km of 1000km on my own, without other riders on the road.  This was different from my solitary excursions on PBP and LEL where I was often not riding in company but there were others on the road; for 10 hours on Saturday and more than 15 hours on Sunday I was in complete isolation.  Martin asked me about that, wondering if I would have got better riding with others.  I don’t think there was a simple answer to give, but on reflection, at that time and place I was happy to be alone with my thoughts, riding at my own pace, living my own experience. I certainly couldn’t have stayed with Martin and Bob; they were a little bit faster but had a completely different rhythm to mine. 

Besides.  I had a train to catch.  At 11.30pm I said my farewells, tied the panniers to the rack, and hoisted the huge rucksack onto my back and rolled down the hill, for the train that would take me back to London.