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.
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.
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!
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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’.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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?
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”…
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.
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.
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.