Severn Across Audax


May 2013

Because LEL is an adventure, an undertaking with an uncertain outcome. Past success, is not a guarantee of future success, nor is past failure a guarantee of future failure. All riders who enter LEL 2013, will do their utmost in preparation to ensure a successful outcome

These were the words I posted in a reply to a post on the LEL 2013 Facebook group. A rider, whom I do not know, was criticising the LEL 2013 organisation.  He had failed to get a place, in the 12 or so hours that the event sold out.  He was directing his anger, in every which way, but particularly at the LEL 2013 organisers.  He had a particular acerbic view of in-experienced audaxers having got a place, when he, of much greater experience, had not.  I was upset and angry at his attitude.

Storm clouds approaching
Storm clouds gathering

I started audaxing in 2010, at the early age of 44.  There are not many past times you can say that about, but I believe it true of audax. Indeed I believe my best years are still ahead of me.  In July 2012, I’d ridden my first 200 km audax, when I discovered London Edinburgh London 2013.  It was the summer of the London 2012 Olympics, whose motto was “Be Inspired”, and I was.  I began to dream, I began to wonder. Could I? Should I? Would I?

I entered my first 300km audax, the Mildenhall 300km.  Having only done a 200km ride so far, my brain hadn’t really thought about what the start time was. The night before I checked the start time, it was 4.00am. It was already late, and I managed to grab, at most, 2 hours of fit full sleep, before leaving at 2am for Mildenhall.

Shortly before 200km, I ran low on energy. I stopped at the side of the road and ate a 190gm pack of Jelly Babies in one go and downed a full water bottle. I then rested in the grassy bank in the sun for 15 mins before continuing to Saffron Walden.

At Saffron Walden I ordered burger, chips plus two cokes. On asking if I wanted to go large I said yes for the first time in my life.  I spent 2 hours taking in calories and drink at that control.  It worked, I went well from then onwards, and completed the ride well within time, and enjoyed the amazing storms sweeping across the landscape.

On the last leg from just before Cambridge I rode with a guy on a recumbent.  I mentioned I was dreaming of LEL next year, but had my doubts. He said a few words, not many but enough

Well if this is your first 300, and you’re riding this well, at this stage, in this time, then you should go for it.

Sorry for forgetting your name, but if you’re reading this, then thank you.

I discovered YACF, I discovered the LEL Facebook page. Slowly but surely I was being drawn in. I followed every post, I commented on many, I started some myself.

The date arrived for entry. It was due to open between 1am and 3am, on a Saturday morning. Too late for me, after a week’s work, I decided I’d enter in the morning.

Saturday morning I awoke around 8am, nervous and excited. I turned on the computer and started breakfast.  Having a quick look at the LEL website registration page, intending to register after breakfast, I saw that only about 35 places remained.

My fingers were a blur, worried my dreams of the past few months would come to nowt. The email confirmation came through.  I was in, committed, for want of a better word.

So, when that post appeared on Facebook, I was one of those inexperienced audaxers he was referring to.  I’d only managed a 100km, 200km, and 300km audax so far.  Was I deluding myself, was he right, and if he was, did he have the right to deny me my adventure? Was I really denying someone else of their adventure, when I was doomed to failure?

Preparation that is what I’d said “will do their utmost in preparation to ensure a successful outcome”.  I now had my target LEL at the end of July 2013.  I decided to book my build up events there and then. I find if I have targets, then I just get on with the preparation.  I booked a Feb 100km, a March 200km, an April 200km, a May 400km, and a June 600km. In the diary they went, I let all my friends and family know. I let my Facebook friends know. No one likes to look a fool, and letting everyone know, made that further commitment.

In Jan I ended organising a LEL DIY by GPS 200km. It started out as a post on YACF asking if anyone fancied exploring the first sections of LEL. Before long it ended up as a LEL 200km DIY by GPS (also new to me, and really easy to sort out).  There were 5 who turned up, Teeth Grinder (Whom I now know is really called Steve Abraham), Steve, John, and Tynan.

Tynan having cycled up the route from Loughton to the Silver Bell Café near Barking, was cold and turned back as soon as we reached Barking. There was ice on the road, a bitter easterly wind was blowing, and it was between 0-2c, so I don’t blame him.   The rest of us rode the north bound route to St Ives, then traced the south bound route to Gt Easton, then Loughton. Teethgrinder and I had opened up a reasonable gap on the others, and rode together till we got back to the now closed café where we’d started.  During the ride I’d discovered an error in the LEL route near Loughton, which involved pavement hoping through a dead end road, and sent the organiser details so they could correct.

My 100km in Feb went fine despite the continuing cold, my 200km in March didn’t happen because my chain split and wrapped my derailleur into by wheel, my 200km in April went without incident, other than my ride companion’s derailleur ripping off on a hill.

On the 20th April I travelled down to north London to be interviewed by the guys behind “Made Good” films.  One question they asked me was did I feel nervous. I’d replied that no, I didn’t feel nervous at this stage, and actually felt pretty good so far. A strange reply you may think, for a 200km, and 300km rider of limited experience to say. But I can only go by how I felt.

We now come to the ride that started me writing this article, my first 400 km audax.  Everything I had read or seen posted about 400km audaxes said “It’s the hardest one you’ll do, harder than a 600km”. I didn’t quite understand this, but you can draw your own conclusions at the end. Those of a more experienced nature will already know.

My first 400km audax was the Severn Across on Sat 11th May. It goes from just north of London, to Wales and back via the Severn Crossing. Pretty audacious in my book. When I booked it back in Jan, the thought of riding to Wales and back in a day (well within 27.5 hours), and going over the Severn Crossing suspension bridge, just inspired me, it appealed to the inner soul in a way I cannot express.

In the days leading up I continued to ride to work, and stopped cycling just 2 days before to give myself a rest.   Via YACF I was giving Howard a lift to the start. We agreed that picking him up at 4:40am would give us sufficient time to get to the start before 6am.  Again in those days leading up I was amazingly calm. I‘d even helped the organiser in creating a GPX track from the route sheet.

I went to bed at 8pm, but didn’t sleep brilliantly, but I did dream a lot, which was nice.  I woke up at 4am, and still felt calm, when would the storm break?

I left the house about 4.30am, picked up Howard at 4.40am and off we went.  We arrived at the car park about 20 mins before the 6.00am start, still felt calm.  We agreed that we’d do our own thing for the ride, and that I’d bring in the sleeping bags to the hall when I finished. Then sleep till chucking out time, and drive home, hopefully after some rest.

Picking up my brevet card, Liam didn’t seem to have a card for me. So he gave me a blank one, which reminded me I needed a pen for the info control. Returning to the car, it had no pens in it, when did I empty it out of pens?  Anyway I returned to the community hall, to find Liam was about to start the event. I quickly turned on one of my GPS.  It was still finding satellites when Liam said go. No one moved. He then said “Go on, off you go, get moving” (or words to that effect). The ride had started.

My GPS hadn’t locked on, but I decided to get going with the group. The GPS would gain a signal whilst I was moving, and a complete track wasn’t needed as proof of anything.

We set off at a reasonable pace for me, and again I still didn’t feel daunted or nervous about the distance.  I saw the faster riders disappearing off in the distance, but that didn’t worry me. All my audaxes so far, I’d pretty much ridden solo, and at my own pace. I wasn’t going to change anything for the longer distance.

Well ok I did. I joined a group of about 6, and went at a slighter faster pace than normal, but still reasonable for me. We each took turns at the front, and that made the overall effort much less, despite the increased pace. Another group of about 8 joined us, and were soon bundling along at a good pace.

Did I mention there was a westerly head wind? We fought it all the way to Wales.  At a sharp turn the road suddenly headed upwards, and it caught me in the big ring up front, and small ring at the back. I was on the front of the group, and my sudden slowing down following by gear crunching noises, turned the well formed group into a bit of a shambles.

Reforming a new rider came along side. I asked him his name, and it was Tynan, who recognised me at the same moment. In the Jan ride we’d been so well wrapped up, and Tynan had dropped out so early on, that I hadn’t recognised him in his lighter kit for the warmer May temps. We had a good catch up, and discussed what we’d been doing in our build up.

All too soon, we arrived at the Blenheim Tea rooms, the first control.  Popping inside, Matt C, was controlling.  I had baked beans on toast, and a mug of tea.  Another rider sat at my table, and we had a good social chat. I borrowed his pen, to update my Brevet card with my details.

Leaving Blenheim Tea Rooms, at 9.10am, I turned immediate left a bit early, and ended up going down some steps to the road we were due to exit upon. At slow speeds GPS tracks often point the wrong way, and I started cycling up the road before the GPS righted itself and I turned round. At this point I was joined by a guy in a silver jacket and we rode together till just after Stow on Wold.

Shortly after Stow on Wold, I needed to get something to eat out of my saddlebag, so stopped. The guy in grey carried on. Getting started again, I passed the Golden Ball, Lower Swell, and immediately started thinking of Jasper Carrot and that TV programme “Golden Balls”. I also turned right, and started climbing into the Cotswolds.

I passed Tynan and his cycling buddy on the left, and then continued on a laney, roller coaster of a ride. Some people don’t like hills, I love them.  It went up, my legs turning, my heart beating, my lungs burning, my mind emptying.  It went down twisting and turning, pedalling as fast as my legs would turn, only to rise again.

A guy in red, with a beard, joined me on the ride to Guiting Power. We had a good chat, before he stopped for supplies. I thought his bike loved very lightly laden.  I hit 65km/h on the descent to Winchcombe, which went on for ever.

The Cotswolds did not disappoint and are worthy of any cyclists attention.  I entered Gloucester at 10:15am.

I rode solo along the Gloucestershire “flats” as I christened them.  They were twisty lanes, the head wind was still blowing, but I found I got into a good rhythm on the drops, and spun along at a fine old pace.  Someone was looking over me, as I crossed a level crossing shortly before the lights started, and a train could be heard to be coming. Tewksbury appeared, and I stopped at the second control, the Bay Tree Café. The guy in grey turned up shortly after, he must have taken a slightly different route.

At Tewksbury I had a pot of tea, a toasted tea cake, and a couple of crumpets.  At this point the first heavy rain showers appeared.  Here we go, I thought.  After finishing my food and tea, I filled up my water bottles. Undoing my café lock, I decided to get my waterproof top out of the saddle bag.  It was between showers at this point, but putting on my top proved a wise decision.

Enjoying tea and teacakes in Tewksbury
Enjoying tea and cakes, Tewksbury

I set off solo, on the leg to the info control at Walford, then onto Tesco’s Chepstow control.  I said to the others in the café that they’d probably catch me up, in the next 5 mins or so (little did I know).  I headed off, and soon found myself out of Tewksbury on the recently repaired main road, with lots of surface gravel. A symptom of the cheap but ineffective repairs being made to our roads these days.   Luckily I found a bit with a little less gravel, where the car tyres had worn it away.

Shortly after turning off, onto a quieter road, the heavens opened, and I mean opened. It was torrential, it was the Monsoon, and it was El Nino. I waited at some traffic lights before a narrow bridge, as a river form around me.

I headed over, and entered Worcestershire not long after, before entering Gloucestershire again.  All the while the landscape was changing and keeping me interested. This section was heathland, and seemed quite remote despite its proximity to Tewksbury.

I pedalled on through the heavy downpours and bright sunshine. I love the effect of storms and sunshine on the light that falls across the countryside.  I was not disappointed with intense rainbows, springing forth, dark clouds sprinting across to greet me with their rain that moisturised my skin, and winds cooling my skin.  I was out, alive in this environment, and relishing it. You don’t get that in a car.

At 2:25pm I entered Wales and made my way towards the Wye Valley. Being a rock climber and mountaineer; I have come many a time to climb the soaring limestone cliffs, or paddle the waters. At Walford I took a picture of the Info Control answer, not having a pen on my person.

Continuing on I had a couple take a picture of me on the bridge over the river Wye (the war film you’ve never heard of). They asked where I’d come. “Just north of London, today”. Their jaws dropped. Where are you going? “Back again today”. Their jaws dropped even further. I loved being able to say that!

Continuing on I soon came upon the climb up the narrow and steep road leading up to Symonds Yat Rock. Shortly after passing a Duke of Edinburgh group, I was cheered and encouraged “Go on, you can do it”, as my gears made a horrible meshing noise before the chain dropped onto the appropriate chain ring. It was a lovely spin up the hill.

I am familiar with the area from staying here for my rock climbing and canoeing. It felt funny but satisfying to have cycled here, and think I was pedalling back.

Onwards through St Briavels and it was time to sit on a grass bank and eat some Randoms. I must admit Randoms and Jelly Babies are some of my favourite sugar hits when on long rides. A fellow audaxer passed at this point, the first I’d seen since Tewksbury.

The first views of the Severn Estuary opened out to my left, as I closed in on Chepstow.  The tide was out, and it was rather a splendid sight, it lifted the spirits. Not that I needed my spirits lifting. This was a cracking ride, and I loved the constantly changing scenery. I also knew a tailwind must be coming soon as I turn back east for the return to Chalfont St Peter.

A monster big ring descent to Chepstow and I soon found myself at the Tesco Control. Locking the bike up, I asked if the café was open. Hasn’t been a café for years the lady replied. So a dairy milk chocolate bar and receipt from the Self Service checkout it was.

Fuelling up in the chinese
Fueling up in the chinese

Heading up the A48 I reached the first roundabout and saw the road steepen. I also noticed the first exit; Braunton road went downhill and connected with the Severn crossing later. Google Street View has a lot to answer for, for advanced planning.  So I left the route sheet for a km or so and headed left down to a block of shops before the Severn Crossing. Here I ordered beef and onion pie, chips, mushy peas, and gravy in a tray at a Chinese / fish and chip take away. They even let me eat it, in a corner of the take away, so curious were they at my voracious appetite.

Well fed, I set off for the Severn Crossing.  I’d been looking forward to this for many months, and in particular my anticipation had built all day.  I’d never ridden a suspension bridge before, and it did not disappoint.  I must have spent at least 20 minutes on the bridge taking pictures, and looking down the Estuary. I think riding across a suspension bridge is something every cyclist should do before they die (but preferably not in the same trip).

Everyone should ride across a suspension bridge before they die
Everyone should ride across suspension bridge before they die

I could see the dark clouds of the rain / hail storms were closing in again and knew I had to get going.

Exiting the bridge, I crossed the services exit, and was soon away and flying back east.  The tailwind was pushing me; the approaching hail was compelling me, my legs were propelling me, everything in synch.

This was big ring territory and I positively flew along, until that it is I realised both water bottles were almost empty. A rookie mistake, I should have got them filled when stopped at the Chinese.  Alveston had a stop on the left, and thus water bottles filled I was off again.

The storm clouds raced towards me from the North West, as I hurtled back east. A few spots caught me, as the sky turned dark and I turned my dynamo light on, a couple of hours before sunset. I retrieved my waterproof as the storm moved in.

It was an interesting race, which in the end I won, at least for a while. As I turned more south towards Wickwar I outpaced the hail, and broke free back into sunshine.

By Sherston the sky was seriously black, a mega down pour was coming. Spying an empty bus shelter I jumped in, just as the hail came down. When I say came down, it was like ice bergs carving from glaciers, with blocks the size of houses coming down.

Time for the full waterproofs, leg & arm warmers, full finger gloves, waterproof socks, and my peaked cap to replace the buff.  The items came out of the saddle bag, all but the arm warmers that is. I’d used them on my morning commute 2 days back, and put them in my panniers, now sitting at home in the hallway.  Nothing I could do about it, so I put all the items available on, and set off into the hail.

The hail made it very dark and the rear lights also came on at this point.  Pedalling on I still hadn’t seen anyone since Tewksbury apart from the one guy when I was stopped.  The km continued to pass quickly on delightful roads, with a nice climb up to Somerset monument.  The hail battled with the sun, and intense rainbows appeared and disappeared in quick succession.  Eventually the sun won, and I rode with the late evening sun casting my shadow on the hedges hereabouts, before entering Wooten Bassett.

Somerset Monument
Somerset monument

On crossing the roundabout, before the Esso garage, on leaving Wooten Bassett; either my front wheel had a puncture or the road had become suddenly rougher.  It was the former.  I wheeled the bike over to the front of the Land rover garage. It was on the verge of sunset, and so the head torch came out. The puncture fixing progressed well. I found the cause quickly, a large and sharp flint in the tyre. Checking for any further flints I soon had a new tube in, and the tyre reseated. Then it all fell apart.

The pump, lovely silver Lezeyne, mounted on the frame, was seized. Commuting through the last 18 months of our long cold winter had done it no favours. Teeth, jamming it in the space between some boulders, extra strong grip (?), it was no use I could unscrew the hose fixing. So I was resigned to sitting with the bike waiting for the next riders. The temperature was dropping, and with no arm warmers I was noticing it.

About 45 minutes of waiting after my puncture a couple of riders pulled into the Esso garage.  I hurried across, to see if I could borrow a pump. The response was, yes, if they could borrow a spoke, one of them had a busted spoke. After realising I was serious, and pointing my bike across the road, I was leant a pump. It was Bikeability man and Simon from YACF, also on the Severn Across audax.  The tyre was soon inflated up to pressure, the front wheel back in place, and the dynamo connectors plugged. I was back in business.

I headed over to the garage and said thanks and offered them the pump back. They were about to set off having finished there refuelling.  I asked if I could tag along, not having a working pump. After a short discussion it was agreed I could borrow the pump. I was quite cold from the waiting around, with no arm warmers, and needed a hot chocolate before continuing on. (My GPS data tells me that puncture added 1.5 hours to my elapsed time. Always check your pump works, before a long ride, and keep it somewhere out of the way of the weather, like your saddlebag).

Enjoying a hot chocolate
Enoying a hot chocolate. Note absense of arm warmers

After a hot chocolate, I waited for another rider. We rode on to Membury services, at the beginning of the dark night. It was clear my companion (in the red top and with a beard) was riding quicker at that point, and after 20 mins or so he pulled away into the darkness.  Tracking along the roads either side of the M4, the storms had passed, and I enjoyed gazing at the stars. My legs steadily turned the pedals, propelling me along. I was once again, back in my own little world.

I correctly guessed that the transmitter I could see, with winking red lights, was positioned at Membury Services.  As with all transmitters, they can be seen from a long way away, and for a long time, it didn’t seem to be getting any closer.  Closer it did get, and after crossing to the north of the M4, I eventually reached the right turning for the services.

Arriving at the services, I carried my bike across some grass and went into the Petrol Station. Bikeability Man and Simon were still there.  They had waited for me, which I thought was really nice. I bought a bacon baguette to be heated, some crisps, some chocolate, a milkshake and a red bull, and the all-important receipt. A couple of other riders came in that this point, and one went to sleep near the toilets (warmest part of the station), with the intention of a 15 min kip (he slept 45 mins).

Bikeability Man and Simon were very patient with me, as I’d hit a low energy point, and ate and drank slowly.  I grabbed some lemon juice for the water bottles and we set off together.  I knew from my energy low point that I’d need the extra food and liquid, and now it was a question of when it would kick in.  I sipped the lemon juice regularly to assist rehydration.

After a short while we turned right and headed up a hill in the darkness, the other two pulled ahead. I dropped the gears and steadily spun onwards, and then caught them on the flats, and then overtook them on down hills.  They would then pull away again on the up hills. This was to be the pattern of the night.

I loved cycling down those lanes, not a light to be seen, other than the occasional view out to the orange glow of distant towns.  The km passed easily with the other two, and before long we’d passed through Beaconsfield, through Henley on Thames with the late night drunks. I took a late night picture on the lanes, and on we went.

In the dark of the night
In the dark of the night

The lanes formed a familiar pattern, they’d climb, they’d level out, we make a tuning and then the angle would change again up or down.  I’ve never really minded hills, in fact I prefer them to the flat, they provide interest, and at some point you get “free speed”. The lanes had light wisps of freezing fog with were amazing to watch as they formed and snaked along the lanes.  It also reminded me I had bare arms, due to forgotten arm warmers.

Before long we found ourselves in Streatley.  I’ve cycled here a number of times but usually on my mountain bike when on the Ridgeway or some other off road route.  It felt like I was home now, and in my head I knew I’d make it to the finish of my first 400, barring something major happening. It felt very comforting.

As we continued through the lanes the hydration measures kicked in, and I must have been stopping for a wee every 10 mins, and then catching the others up.

I’d been riding for some time without knowing the distances. I deliberately have my GPS set to a screen that only shows the route, nothing more. I split the track up to ensure I don’t ride past any essential controls, manned or otherwise.  I was by now curious, and it felt close to home, so I looked. I pressed a button on the GPS to bring up the trip computer screen.  I saw 14km, and that bolstered me.  That was the distance of my daily commute, so mentally that’s where I was, just on my commute, nothing more.  My brain has this amazing ability to discount km so far, and I hope I never lose it.

Shortly after the beardy bloke with the red top passed us, and the other two gave chase, trying to get on his wheel.  The road turned upwards, and it climbed steadily, and steadily and steadily, and steadily.  Yes it wasn’t particularly steep, but was deceptive in its length.   I continued to spin up the hill, noticed them slowing, and then saw that I was gaining, strange.  Anyway not that long after the top I caught them all up.

I thought we might ride as a foursome, but it was not to be. I think the closeness of the finish, and the NEED to finish spurred us all on.  A sign for Gerrards Cross said 3 miles and the sprint to the finish started.

BikeabilIty man and Simon pulled ahead, Beardy Bloke in red top fell back.   I dropped the gear onto the big cog up front and smallest out back, got on the drops, and cranked up the speed.  By now it was not that long before sunrise and the pre-dawn sky promised delightful day ahead, as the chill of the night began to evaporate.

The birds were singing, branches creaked as they caught the light breeze of the warming air, and the leaves rustled. It was again delightful, especially so, after riding through the night with bare arms.

The two ahead, and my gps tracks diverged and I took a left. I knew I was almost there and increased my effort.  Arriving in Chalfont St Peter the track stopped, but I wasn’t back at the hall. Not to worry I saw the car park sign where I was parked, and so went to the car. I retrieved both mine and Howard’s sleeping bags and walked over to the hall.  I’d made it.

I’d just got ahead of the other two, as my route clearly must have been the better choice. Beardy man with red top came in not long after.  My first 400, and I felt great, I felt elated, I felt justified in my comment many months back.

After beans on toast, some tea and biscuits, plus some chat, as others arrived, including Tynan (30 or so minutes later); it was time for sleep.  Liam and Marcus had looked after us well, at the finish.  I retired to the sleeping room, leaving Howard’s bag out for when he arrived. Sleep was but 3 hours, but amazingly reviving.

Shortly after 9am I left with Howard, who’d come in Lantern Rouge, with no sleep.

This last weekend I completed my first 600, the Kernow and SW 600 from Exeter.  Another brilliant ride, organised by Ian Hennessay.  That’s another story, but again I completed it successfully, and greatly enjoyed it.

Going back to my opening sentence: LEL is an adventure, the outcome is not certain, but I for one, and many others I have met along the way, are doing our best to be prepared and make it a success.

I was a new randonneur last year, and now I’ve completed my first 400 and 600, all on the road to LEL 2013.  I hope it inspires others yet to ride their first 200 and beyond; you can do it, you can step up the distances, and you can progress.

A little belief, some encouragement at the right times, some preparation and dedication and you’ll make it.  Maybe I’ll see you at LEL 2017? (I plan to volunteer for the next one).

My tips for moving up the distances

  • Take care of comfort
  • Take care of hydration
  • Take care of nutrition
  • Do not focus on any distance beyond the next control.