Paris-Brest-Paris takes place in August, but the qualifiers were completed at the beginning of May and so my big worry is losing all that fitness in the meantime. It's important to keep riding the bike. It's also important to keep practising good audax technique: ride steady and control quick. Hereward the Wake is a 300km audax ride starting at 9pm and going through the night, in the middle of July and so an ideal training ride for PBP.
I rode Hereward in 2014 and found it an easy ride: almost all of the hills are concentrated in the third leg, which is ridden in daylight, so you can see what's coming. The first 100km leg to Whittlesey starts with a few lumps to Saffron Walden at 20km and then becomes flat and proceeds to become flatter than that! It was a fast leg last year with a decent tailwind; this year we were promised a light tailwind, but it should still be quick. The middle section to ‘The Pag’ — Newport Pagnell services on the M1 — isn't flat, but it isn't hard, and navigation is easy in the dark.
I had had to drop one of the boys off at Scout camp in Essex earlier in the evening and so this was the first event I had driven to the start of in well over a year (the previous one being The Norfolk Nips back in 2013) — it was an aim this season to inconvenience the family as little as possible, and so I have either ridden or used the train to get to all starts Driving, though, meant I arrived late at the pub for curry and met a few faces, but didn't get to eat — not such a bad thing as I had been carbo-loading all day.
It was great to catch up with Veloman at the start and throughout — a good friend since our gruelling Flatlands 600 back in 2013. It was also good to meet Mike Conway, Aunt Maud (who we rode with throughout), SteveB, and a load of others. Fantastic to see you back on the bike Big Saxon! It's always good to catch up with bhoot tandem, Chris & Lindsay tandem, Kieran, Jonathan (who we rode with throughout — I hope you got your gloves back), Ms Windy Milla (Virginia) and your +1 (Chris) who I rode with last year, Dark Star fixed chap, Mr Mongolia, Dulwich boy, and all the other faces to whom I can't attribute names! It was a cracking get-together — it didn't seem to matter which group you were in, nobody seemed to be out to ride solo and friendly group riding throughout.
I've been helping Tom (the organiser) all year with GPS files and with seven info controls, half of which were in the dark, it was more important than ever to get these files set up correctly. It took a few goes, but eventually we got there, with just a couple of minor mistakes in the file, but not enough to cause anyone to get too lost.
Before the start I cunningly wrote all seven info-control questions onto my routesheet so that I could refer to them while riding without having to retrieve my brevet. Last year I had to keep stopping, but this year I had them all in front of me. This proved to be a Good Idea
Veloman and I discussed tactics for the ride: he made it clear that for PBP the aim should be to not get sucked along by a fast group and to ride within yourself, but to control efficiently … as it turned out we blasted around the course and relaxed in the controls
The climb out of Great Dunmow's gravity well is always a bit of a bun fight, with eager legs spinning quickly thru the Essex countryside. The tandem of Chris and Lindsay became a target and everyone seemed to set about catching them. This wasn't too hard through Essex, as tandems tend to climb slowly, saving their strengths for the flats and downhills. However, they soon lost us after Saffron Walden.
The tempo was quick and felt on my limit, although a gentle tailwind helped quite a bit. Sticking with the group seemed the best option, though, as the fast drag to the turn at Whittlesey is when you make up most time — not that making up time was in any way my aim for this ride!
The first information control in the little village of Ickleton was a case of everyone asking "is that it?" and then repeating the answer so we didn't have to stop and write it down — I keep a pencil in the side pocket of my front bag for such occasions and so wrote it on my routesheet for later.
Soon after Ickleton I hit the front and rode with Jonathon through Duxford, a change to the route this year. We picked up another rider whose GPS had stopped working in the village. I held the front spot from Great Shelford all the way through Cambridge to the control, since I live here then I could guide and warn easily from the front. We blasted through the city, pointing out landmarks until we arrived at the first proper control, manned by i cycle.
With this being a manned control and only 50km into the ride, there was no need for a long stop and we could've bounced through, but most riders wanted to grab something to eat, Aunt Maud grabbing an ice cream, which became a theme. From the perspective of completing the ride in time, we had plenty of time in hand — 90 minutes at this point — so we hung around until a good-sized group was ready to leave: night rides don't involve much in the way of scenery, so sticking together as a group gives something back.
The second stage from Cambridge to Whittelesy is even flatter than the first stage and the roads seemed to be well surfaced, so we rolled along quickly: the slightest bit of roughness to the surface sucks energy from little wheels! The bhoot tandem did most of the work, with the rest of us getting towed along in their slipstream — there was no way I could match their pace to take the front, so I had to console myself with sitting on.
For a good deal of this stage I felt I was beyond my limits and kept getting prepared to drop off the back of the group. But each time I promised myself 'just a little further' and clung on. The short climbs seemed to be my undoing, because it's hard to climb on a 23kg Brompton, but the tandem suffered more, and so the group stayed together.
Cheekily, as we turned left in Whittlesey for the final 1km to the 24-hour garage, I put on a spurt and span at just under 40km/h to the garage, just catching a rider in front as we rolled onto the forecourt: this moment of lunacy would be paid for later, as it felt like I had used most of what I had left in my legs
We arrived at the garage in Whittlesey at about 12.45am to find it was window-service only, but it was taking the poor chap so long to serve everyone that he opened the door for us and greatly improved service times, thank you mate!
Again, we had plenty of time in hand, so nobody was in any great hurry to leave, going against my aim of riding steadily and controlling quickly. We had ridden at an average moving pace of 28.7km/h and had 3h10 in hand at this point, though, so no technical need to hurry. To compensate, I made sure that my controlling was done and dusted as quickly as possible before waiting for the rest, thereby safe in the knowledge that if I hadn't waited then I would've been riding.
Chris and Lindsay took their funk and left before us, so that would be the last we'd see of them … or would it?
The route turned to the west from here, straight into a prevailing wind, and we could feel it. However, headwinds aren't as bad as all that, and the pace remained pretty okay. There were some bumpy surfaces which sucked energy out of the little wheels and I could feel the effort to keep up draining my reserves, but each time I managed to keep up with the group.
This leg includes quite a few sharp hills in the dark, and at times I dropped off the back of the group, but each time Veloman looked around and dropped back to help tow me back in, for which I'm gratefull. Once back in the group on the flatter sections, I was able to keep up okay.
We passed Chris and Lindsay along this stage: it looked like they'd stopped for a comfort break.
There are two info controls in the dark on this stage. The GPS files were set up to beep at the appropriate times, which they did, meaning everyone knew when to be attentive and look for the clue. Info controls make this ride seem a bit like a Beetle Drive, but on bikes
We turned into Newport Pagnell services (using the rear entrance) at about 4.30am: it was light by now, but the services were still very quiet. It seems a bit odd 20 riders all wheeling their bikes in to grab a coffee, but the staff were great and didn't bat an eyelid. The poor Starbucks lady was a bit overwhelmed with orders, but, again, we had so much time in hand — over 5 hours at this point — that nobody was in a hurry. Last year Rog and I got here at about 6am by controlling quickly and riding steadily, so it was turning out to be a much fast ride this year (and last year's ride was certainly quick enough for a decent PBP experience).
Chris and Lindsay arrived a little later and Chris promptly sat down and went to sleep — a proper pumpkin moment, which I'm putting down to jet lag.
My quads were absolutely killing me by now, so I took a couple of Ibuprofen: they were so painful they were distracting my mind into thinking my legs were about to fall off and to slow down. Our pace had also dropped significantly, and we managed only 25.3km/h on this stage.
50 minutes later and we set off again. Although only two or three of us seemed to set off at first, within a few seconds the rest of the group joined us: it appeared everyone had been waiting for the signal to leave
The sun was up properly now and it was looking like being a glorious day. The forecast said we'd have a tailwind to the finish, but it felt more like a crosswind on the road. Luckily we had the bhoot tandem in tow — an oxymoron, I know — so we continued to make good progress. However, the tandem had slowed a bit and now other riders started to take the wind at the front.
It was a bit hilly now, so on all the uphills I struggled to keep up, particularly with my shredded quads, but on the downhills the Brompton uses its extra mass to descend with advantage — I tucked down with my chin on the bars and chose the smoothest lines to pass everyone and roll off the front, only regularly challenged by Veloman
Some of the climbs were becoming more extended efforts and I was really struggling to stay in the group: at some point the gradient became too steep to do anything except stand up and honk up the hill, dropping off the back, and then keeping my effort in the "my goodness, this hurts" range by spinning like crazy back up the gears as the hills levelled off and catching back onto the group. There was no way I could maintain this level of effort, I was just waiting for the moment when the elastic would snap!
As we approached Biggleswade, which is only 40km after the big stop at The Pag, we began to discuss options: Veloman and I wanted to bounce through, others wanted to stop for coffee. The time was only 7am, so at this point our big group splintered into two and shortly into three. We had managed an average moving speed of 26.0km/h to here from Newport Pagnell.
Four of us — myself, Veloman, Aunt Maud and Jonathan rode on to the BP garage at the edge of Biggleswade for a quick stop: Veloman needed water and we all needed a receipt. Aunt Maud, almost inevitably, had his third (or fourth?) ice cream of the ride We were stopped for about 16 minutes, which was a pleasant break from the bikes.
Oddly, I noticed that my quads were no longer screaming and I felt pretty good — great in fact
The next leg to the Silver Ball Café in Reed is the lumpiest of all, rising to the highest point on the ride. It was also the slowest at only 24.3kph — still a respectable speed for an audax after 200km of riding.
This leg exposed a flaw in the GPS file at Ashwell: the automatic routing of RideWithGPS had used an unsurfaced bridleway instead of the road parallel, for just a few hundred metres. But nevertheless enough for it to cause some riders a few issues. I know that part of the route anyway, so I guided everyone to the correct route. We then had a long, steep climb out of Ashwell, where I was well and truly dropped as the Brompton doesn't have a properly low gear, and I had to spin like crazy to hook back on, Veloman dropping the pace to enable me to catch up. This bit of the route climbs steadily for 20km and it was certainly hard work in the gathering heat, but we got to the top as a group of four and carried on.
Just before we got to the next control, Veloman rode off the front. Unfortunately for him, he didn't realise he'd passed the control! He sheepishly rejoined us five minutes later when he realised he was riding on his own
The Silver Ball Café is a classic truck stop on the A10 south of Royston. When we controlled there last year, Rog and I were struck by how unwelcoming they were: we may not eat much and we do smell a bit, but you would've thought they would be a bit more pleasant to their customers. Unfortunately it was the same experience this year: sour looks and not a smile, even through Veloman turned on his considerable charm and they must've taken a couple of hundred pounds out of us collectively. The egg on toast was okay, the atmosphere less so.
While we were there the younger Dulwich Dynamo riders passed through, eager to finish the ride quickly, as we had only 40km to the finish. We left sometime after them.
At this point Veloman started to put the hammer down: he'd realised that we would arrive back in Great Dunmow so early that he would be able to grab a shower in his wife's hotel room before she had to check out. Now it was a real struggle to keep up and I had to dig much deeper than I've had to do in a long time to climb with the group: always the same, though, in that I'd drop off the back on the steep sections and then spin like crazy to catch back up as it levelled off. For sure I was the slowest of the four of us up the hills for most of this stage.
The situation turned a bit, though, as we started to get closer to arrivée: I had no reason to keep anything back, so I started to pace Veloman and we stretched out a short lead on the run down to the climb into Great Dunmow. Unfortunately we dropped Jonathan on the final climb, which is deceptive and also incredibly hot with new black-top kicking out huge amounts of heat.
Gamely we waited at the top for Jonathan to tag back on and rode into arrivée together, 308.6km ridden in 13h40m at an average moving pace of 26.6kph, that final stage having been ridden at 27.6kph, incredibly quick for me on a short, flat audax, amazing after 250km of overnight riding!
Just the three young Dulwich crowd sat eating brunch ahead of us. Tom made me an egg-and-bacon bap for my efforts
I set out with the aim of simulating some small part of PBP: evening start, ride steadily, control efficiently. How did I do?
I have to say I am normally a bit rubbish on the second day of an overnight ride: the dozies hit me hard and I simply can't pedal the bike: my averages drop from 24kph to more like 18kph, just because I'm sleepy. I didn't get any dozies on this ride at all and my pace never dropped below 25kph, which was just brilliant. The problem for me is now to repeat that on PBP, because this looks more like an anomaly than anything else.
The steady moving pace never materialised, instead turning into a high-energy endurance event (for me): I was sweating the whole way around and was covered in salt deposits at the end. It summed it up nicely when Aunt Maud mentioned that he wasn't even warm on one of the climbs, and I was puffing and panting! I clearly could be fitter, but I take away the fact that I maintained a much higher output that I am used to over 300km, so dropping the effort a bit should enable me to go for even longer, say 90 hours?!
I treated each control as if it were PBP: get things done and finished. I then waited patiently for everyone else. In this way I practised as intended, but didn't rush off on my own, and so enjoyed the ride with company, but achieved my goal.
And at 13h40m elapsed, this was my quickest 300km audax event to date, I think — in fact even quicker than the first 308km of Flatlands in 2013 when we had a stiff tailwind all the way northwards! At 11h35m moving, this is also my quickest 300km audax, but on Flatlands we managed 11h05m moving over the first 308km, again with Veloman.
I am delighted how well this ride went: this I think sets me up nicely for PBP, I just need to maintain my base fitness for the next month!
Thanks to Veloman, Aunt Maud and Jonathan — a real pleasure to have ridden with you all to the end And thanks to Tomsk for organising the event, and to his many helpers, including tippers_kiwi — Nik — and the junior tippers, i cycle, Dan, Denise, and anyone else involved