We were first forecast a bit of a breeze, then that changed to a howling gale, then that changed to a bit of a breeze with rain, then it changed back to a howling gale (but no rain) — that was the BBC's thoughts in the days leading up to this event. But I hadn't ridden for a couple of weeks and I hadn't ridden audax with any company at all for five months, so I wasn't going to be put off by a bit of weather!
I had intended to ride Brazier's Run last year, but real life conspired against me. This year I decided to extend the ride to 200km for extra points — and to ride it fixed-wheel, as that's my challenge for this season. In the end, having already booked my return route via Caxton Gibbet, a stray conversation about county summits led me to add on another 10 or more kilometres to take in the high points of both Essex and Cambridgeshire on the way past — Chishill Common and Great Chishill respectively. For fun. On the fixie — ouch!
I left the house just before 7am for the 40km ride down to Victoria CC's "'ut" near Henham in Essex. The wind was strong, but not yet at full strength, and it was a crosswind at this point with the hills opposite Saffron Walden offering some protection. It's an easy run down from Cambridge through Great Shelford, Whittlesford, Ickleton and on past Audley End House through Newport to Henham. 22.8kph to get there, taking it fairly easy.
I had never been to this 'ut and had heard it had a muddy approach — indeed the 70m driveway was somewhat agricultural and put paid to my cleaning efforts the day before
I caught up with a few friends — Tom, Jason, Phil, Raymond, Kieron of course — before resetting the bike for the main event. I was expecting to see Nik, but it turned out his riding buddy had had a serious mechanical on their ECE to the event and this had terminated his ride and delayed Nik.
At 9am riders started walking their bikes back down the driveway to the road, where Kieron was letting riders out in small groups. I started easy, gently warming my legs up again after the ride down. For some reason everyone else was starting even easier and I rode off the front of one group and onto the back of the next.
I rode off the front of this group too, but then we turned directly into the wind, at which point they all changed down and span into the wind, whereas I slowly ground round my 72-inch gear … until we turned again and I was off, flying along!
After 7km we turned onto the fastest section of the day: an almost square-on tailwind for 15km! This was proper grin-worthy road, as we all picked our pace up — everyone changing up onto the big ring/little cog, me just spinning quicker Up and over and down to Newport, and then up the hill the other side, grinding up in fixed, catching stragglers on the way up. At the top I was shortly passed by another rider, and we proceeded to leap-frog each other for the next 30km — Martin I think?
I love this part of Essex, because none of the roads are straight — they're full of sudden sharp bends around fields and you see groups of riders heading off in odd directions ahead of you.
At the top of the hill out of Debden another rider rode up next to me — "fixed?" — "but of course!" We chatted about the pros and cons of singlespeed versus fixed-gear — Harvey from Revolution Cycles, also on fixed. Martin was still just ahead of us, waiting for signals of which way to turn, as he'd come without navigation aids. Harvey and I rode together to the top of the hill at Radwinter and to the turn towards the Sampfords when somehow I rolled off the front and into conversation with Martin.
The road to Thaxted is lumpy and we ended up making good progress, chatting as we went. He wasn't feeling so keen about doing the second loop — this is a ride of two 50km loops, returning to the 'ut at the midpoint — because of the energy sapping wind and a lack of miles in the legs. And he mentioned, more than once, the thought of heading home to eggs and bacon …
At Great Sampford I had to turn back to double-check the info question and the whole of the group passed me by. But a following pair picked me up — Paul and Joaquin, out of St Albans. One of the reasons I prefer audax to sportives is that on sportives you turn up with your mates and race them, but ignore everyone else, whereas on audax you turn up with your mates and join other groups and meet other riders, which is great fun
Paul's a strong rider, commuting 40km each way across London to work, but Joaquin didn't have the legs, having not ridden many winter miles — as he put it, he was doubling his mileage for the year in that single 100km ride (I'd ridden nearly 1000km since January 1st). So Paul and I sat on the front for a good deal of the time, especially into the wind.
I took some photos as we descended through Thaxted and Paul offered to take some of me — I don't appear in many photos on my own blog, since I'm usually the one taking them, so this was a rare opportunity:
I know this bit of the route well enough, since Tom uses it on his Boudicca's Revenge, and so I ended up calling the turns. The lanes are very narrow and uppy-downy at this section and on fixed I felt I needed free space to make my own mistakes, so I kept to myself for a few kilometres.
At the turn to the fancifully named Tilty Church I got caught behind Martin (?) and a Walden Velo rider on the sudden climb on the singletrack lane, and had to grunt it out to the top. At which point the wind caught us full-face — there are few hedges at this point and the final 500m are across the middle of a hedgeless field: totally exposed we were all reduced to 16kph or so.
We really felt the wind after Broxted, a kilometre further on, and the sudden climb to Brick End with the headwind and we were grovelling at a dozen kph or so. I chatted with the nameless Walden rider, probably about building wheels, to the turn towards Henham and we descended into the wind line-astern with Martin (?) having caught us up. By this point we had dropped Joaquin and Paul.
However, the other two dropped me on the climb through Henham — the mechanical advantage of selectable gears — and I struggled to catch them on the downhill towards the 'uts. Apart from a twatty horsebox-towing farmer forcing his way through us under the railway bridge, we got back to Victoria CC 'ut in just a few minutes. Martin (?) immediately bolted for home and that egg and bacon he'd been tempting me with
Back in the 'ut, brevet stamped, it was time to sample some mid-ride refreshments. Everyone was going for the minestrone soup, so on the advice of Kieron's wife I tried the carrot and coriander soup instead — deliciously spicy and with a bread roll it hit the spot. I wasn't in the mood for cake at this point, so I spent a few minutes chatting and headed back out just as Tom arrived and Nik a few moments later.
By the time I'd kitted up and headed back down the muddy drive, I caught up with Joaquin and Paul who were about to start the second loop too. We started together heading due south into a three-quarter headwind. Our speed on the first loop had been very strong, especially considering half of it had been into a headwind of some sort, so we had so much time in hand it wasn't worth worrying at all about the clock.
As we rode, Paul was telling me that Joaquin had bought his AUK membership to get him out on longer rides, and his family had bought him a Garmin 1000 to go with it (or maybe it was the other way around?). Anyway, Paul's 1000 wasn't working as expected because out of the box they never do, so we spent a while comparing notes and going through menus. We didn't quite get it 100%, but hopefully there were some useful pointers in there. I always ride with both routesheet and Garmin, and I try to use both — the routesheet tells me what's coming up, the Garmin tells me what's happening now and when I've gone wrong. This seems to work, as I don't get lost very often and even then only for a moment.
At one point a metallic object was kicked up by my front wheel and smacked my shin — I looped around to check it out, but couldn't find it in the dirt. However, I now have a cut and a bruise where it struck, yowch!
The second 50km loop heads out to High Easter and the temptation of a quick café stop, which we forewent, before doubling back and heading to White Roding and Takeley, and back up past the back entrance to Stansted Airport and on to Henham. I thought the wind was still aggressive in places, particularly the run to the Axe & Compasses, which was very exposed. Another rider, David, tried to come from behind at this point and make a break, but once he was on the front the wind seemed too strong and we soon reeled him back in.
Soon after the Compasses, Joaquin and Paul dropped off as they tired and David and I carried on. It turned out we had both started Paris-Brest-Paris last year, and David knew me through the Brompton connection. We must've ridden together last season — his first — since he had ridden several of Tom's rides. Then again, I was helping on most of them and only rode A&S on the same day as everyone else.
UPDATE: from elsewhere I read that Paul and Joaquin stopped at a pub shortly after we dropped them — the Black Horse in White Roding, p'raps?
David and I kept up a steady tempo for the run back to Henham. There were the usual "you don't pay road tax" oiks out for a drive, which just added to the drama of the day, but no great shakes, we just rode on.
The second loop was definitely slower than the first — 23.0kph vs 24.5kph — but still very respectable considering the weather. I still had 80km to ride to get back home, so I took a long break in the 'ut for more soup and some cake this time, chatting with Nik, Tom, David, Kieron, Phil, Paul, Joaquin, Assassin +1, et al — nearly 90 minutes in all, but the riding had been so quick I had oodles of time in hand.
Phil was also riding back to his home in Stevenage, but had to head towards Cambridge first to get in enough kilometres to satisfy ECE rules. We knew our routes would cross at Great Chishill, but I was sure he'd beat me there.
As I set off towards home, the first section was with a cross-tailwind and I clipped along nicely to Newport. Then my chosen route headed left towards Clavering, rising sharply, and straight into the teeth of the gale — my speed dropped to low-to-mid teens for what felt like a very long climb. This part of my return journey included the climb up to Chishill Common — the summit of Essex — and it went on for what felt like hours, but was in reality about 45 minutes.
A right turn to Great Chishill and then at the crossroads another right turn towards the summit of Cambridgeshire — no sign of Phil. The summit is a bit dull, it's definitely not Snowdon — in fact it looks like there's a small service building bang on the summit, that's how dull it is.
I headed on over and down the hill and back up into Chrishall from the other side. Over the top and then there's the long descent to Chrishall Grange. I stopped to take a couple of photos and then around the corner came a familiar hat — Phil!
We stopped to compare notes: I now had a hefty crosswind to Caxton Gibbet and a solid tailwind all the way back to Cambridge; Phil had a solid headwind all the way to Stevenage. Rather him than me! We took face-to-face photos of each other for posterity and rode on.
The light was beginning to fade as I made my way across the plain west of Cambridge. The crosswind was absolutely rapacious and at times it felt like the bike was crabbing across the road, such was the force of it! Up and over Barrington hill and then west towards the Eversdens was a struggle into the tempest. I stopped to grab a quick picture of the travelling radio telescopes at the Mullard Radio Observatory, where quasars and pulsars were first identified.
By now the light had all but gone and I was feeling tired, but soon I turned northwards in Caxton and the wind caught behind me all the way up Ermine Street to Caxton Gibbet — there's a McDonald's and a Costa, and there really is a gibbet there, although whether it's the genuine one or not I've no idea …
From there the route was almost due east with a cross tailwind all the way back to Cambridge. I tapped along at happy high-20s all the way back into Cambridge, spinning out down Madingley hill on tired legs, but completing this final section at 28kph moving average, which makes me smile even now, compared to the 20.4kph to get to Caxton Gibbet.
In all it was a brilliant day out on the bike! I loved the easy ride down and the feeling of freedom when you've done a decent number of base winter miles. The fun of riding with other people for a change. The great atmosphere in the 'ut and the food and slick organisation.
Even the weather wasn't too bad, getting up into silly numbers air-temp-wise, but with a significant wind-chill — I stripped my windproof off and rode in knickers and a long-sleeve, but lost the hat it was so warm. In fact I carried a whole set of summer clothes with me in case it got too warm! Many riders were out in full winter-wear and I just don't know how they didn't boil in all those layers …
I suffered in the wind on the way home, because I was over-geared at 72-inches and I perhaps should've stopped and flipped my wheel to 64, but I couldn't be bothered. I also suffered from my winter perennial problem of dehydration — I tried to drink enough, but it's only now on Monday evening that I'm beginning to feel right again.
Overall I rode 222.6km in 12h29m elapsed, just 9h44m moving, which is a solid time considering the windy conditions. I spent a lot of time stopped — nearly three hours — which was nice and quite relaxing. I finished with 90 minutes in hand on my 200km overall nominal ride (with the ECE included), which is plenty. 4,500kcal, max cadence of 176rpm — not quite up to my 180rpm PB, but close enough. Strava.
And I met up with lots of friends, new and old.
A brilliant day out on the bike — thanks, Kieron and the team!