When Tom posted his new 400km audax earlier this year, I knew I had to ride it — if for no other reason than it criss-crosses Essex and so looks slightly bonkers on paper. The event is also a late-starter, which is a novelty, since it returns to the church hall midway around sleep-o'clock for most riders, and so it either contains a significant amount of night riding or none at all, depending on your preference.
In previous years I've ridden Asparagus & Strawberries 400km event, which Tom's the current custodian of, but I felt it was time for a change this year. In the same vein, having ridden Tom's Flatlands 600 the past three years, again I felt I needed a change. So for my Essex 600km ride this year — a necessary achievement for the Essex Super Randonneur badge — I decided to extend this 400km event to 600km by riding a further 200km to-and-from the event. Normally I extend Tom's events by 100km, because his starts are almost exactly 50km from home, but this one would require some inventiveness to double the extra distance. Jason also extended this to 600km.
Tom's Kingdom of the East Saxons route comprises a 270km northern loop that heads to the highest point in Cambridgeshire (and used to be in Essex before the boundary was moved in the 1970s) at its most westerly point and rolls due east to the port of Harwich at its eastern end before looping back via Clacton-on-Sea to the church hall at the start around midnight. And a southern 130km loop then heads up North Hill — apparently Alex Dowsett reckons it's the only hill in Essex and so it has to be ridden! — to Billericay and then along the estuaries to Burnham-on-Crouch and Maldon before returning to Great Dunmow.
And I would be riding it fixed-gear — making this my longest ride to date on fixed, the previous being the 400+km ride to York at Easter (Easter Arrow) on Tom's team.
I planned to complete the entire distance in 30 hours at an average overall pace of 20kph — that would make it by far my quickest 600km ride. However, that would require riding through the night — I'm fine with the night riding and I really enjoy the peace and quiet on the roads during the dawn chorus, but I do suffer badly from the effects of sleep deprivation, so maybe I was asking too much of myself.
80km to the start
I planned to leave home around 6.45am for a leisurely 80km ride to the start at Great Dunmow, giving me just over four hours (@20kph) to do so. However, I didn't manage to get away until 7.20am, so I was already 35 minutes "late" and had to ride quite hard to the start. I gambled on a longer but flatter route to Puckeridge and set about keeping my pace consistently above 26kph — the rouse worked and I got to the start in about 3h20m, feeling a little hotter than I would've liked, but not feeling exhausted. I even managed to waste a bit of time following the Flitch Way Trail hard-pack into Great Dunmow, rather than time-trialling along the main road.
It was a nice surprise to find Tom's helpers GD Provan and Raymond Cheung outside waving everyone in. Although Tom was sending riders up to the church car park, since I was one of two 200km-ECE (extended-event) riders, I was allowed to park up at the hall. And have as much food as I could manage — which in the end was just a couple of biscuits, but thank you Tom for the offer
As often, Tom's eldest son, Dan, was manning the desk, with Al on refreshments and his mum, just over from Australia, helping out. I later saw his youngest, Jake, manning the car park. I sat and chatted with Dave (but no Caroline).
I think I got the timing about right: any earlier and I would've started to stiffen up; any later and I would not have had time to get a coffee and strip off the top layer.
For this ride I was assessing clothing choices. I'd come out without my usual windproof jacket, instead opting for my thick arm warmers and my Paris-Brest-Paris gilet, which can be uncomfortably warm, but in the cool morning air was nice. I managed to wear different combinations of thick and thin arms, legs, gilet and long-sleeve to get me through the ride, each interesting in its own right.
With just a minute or so to go I raced out to the start 100m up the road outside the church.
Day 1 — the northern loop
As Tom waved us away, I got into the first group and was second wheel briefly. I rode a bit with one rider, who dropped me on the climb from Gt Easton, a few km in. I was also passed by Oaky and someone else on fixed — with nearly 100km done my climbing legs simply weren't as good as their's. I think I was still third-wheel when I got papp'ed by Nik just after we started climbing — he brought his daughters along later to stamp brevet cards through the night.
I know the roads between Gt Dunmow and the first control at the Silver Ball at Reed well, as it's all local to home, so it was no great shakes and I kept a steady tempo. At the Silver Ball service for me was a bit slow, so while waiting I stamped a few riders' cards (a pre-arrangement with Tom in case there was a bit of a queue forming for receipts). As I was now 120-odd km into my ride I opted for a sit-down meal, where others bounced the control.
We had worked into the wind and up the hill to this point, so I had ridden it on 68-inches, but now it was generally downhill with a tailwind for 100km to tea at Harwich, so I spent five minutes to flip my wheel to my preferred 72-inches, and I'm glad I did! It started to rain, but I decided to eschew any waterproof, as the shower felt light and the temperature was quite high at about 18ºC — another good decision, as the rain didn't last long and certainly wasn't heavy enough to soak through.
I set off with Pavel from Russia and we rode together for a brief while. This was the only time on the ride where I discussed Brexit — that atrocity inflicted on our children by old people and the ill-informed — but it didn't last long, as Pavel was keeping to a 20kph plan and was keeping to it even when the going was easy, so I soon dropped him.
I found myself on my own for quite some time, descending to Saffron Walden and climbing out the other side via Radwindter. I passed Andrew, also on fixed, just after the Bluebell Inn in Hempstead — Dick Turpin's birthplace — to his surprise I think by the look on his face.
I was sure other riders would catch and pass me, as I was quite tired, but as most fixie riders will attest, once you've found a rhythm then you can be hard to beat, and so I seemed to hold my own on the road.
At the control in Clare I stopped for a light snack and was away again before many of those who had stopped before me — once again demonstrating the old saying "you don't make progress standing still". Once you're moving, it takes a surprisingly long time for someone to catch you up, since the difference in speeds is only a couple of kph, so five minutes' head start would take nearly an hour for a faster rider to catch you up.
After Clare, Tom's route used a converted railway line with a loose surface to dive straight to the centre of Sudbury and after that is gently-rolling landscape with just a few sharp ups to Manningtree. A couple of these I had to tack from side to side to reduce the gradient — on fixed this can be necessary in order to preserve some strength in the legs for later. Although I was expecting to have to walk a couple of hills, on the day I rode up every single one
I caught Peter at the point the route headed along a narrow, de-classified lane-cum-bridleway — the rain had weighed the nettles, which now completely hid the path and I came out with stings that are still itchy several days later. Although I waited for Peter to emerge, he spent so long avoiding the nettles that I rode on without him.
After Manningtree it was along the Stour estuary to Harwich, where I came across the only obvious mistake in the GPS track — I'd routed it to the wrong establishment! For this ride I'd create a set of GPS tracks (GPX files) that were used by many riders, as I like to share. Nobody commented on the mistake, though, which was kind of you all
The tiny Pier Café, literally on the pier, with the gaps between the pier boards gummed up with sealant to prevent you dropping your change into the sea (the same couldn't be said for outside the café), was quick, efficient and very pleased to see us! By now it was teatime and Tom had pre-booked the basics for us, which we could augment at our own cost, a nice touch. For a café such as this, hosting 35 riders on a day of off-weather is a useful bonus that helps with their survival and so I'm always pleased when we visit them. I chatted with Joff and another rider while eating and Peter came and went — I wasn't particularly quick, but by now I was well over 200km into my ride compared to 150km for everyone else (except Jason, also on a +200, by now quite a way behind me).
After a tuna sandwich and slice of cake I honestly felt a bit bloated, but no time to sit around and let it settle. Unfortunately a storm rolled in and we had a heavy downpour for ten minutes that almost had me putting on my waterproof. However, I've found it to be a bit too boil-in-the-bag for me when I'm riding fixed in anything above 10ºC, so I waited until the rain lessened and rode off using my gilet as a wetsuit (doesn't keep you dry but does keep you warm). Within a couple of miles the rain had stopped and so had I, to remove the gilet.
The next leg uses local B roads to get to Walton-on-the-Naze, a pretty grim seaside town, where we joined the coastal path to ride to Clacton-on-Sea, another pretty grim seaside town. On the way another storm had blown over and I'd ridden on in heavy rain with just my gilet to keep me warm, donning it while riding — one advantage of strapping it to the top of my Carradice (saddle bag).
In Walton I caught up with Peter again (he'd bounced past me while I was eating in the café) and we rode together to Clacton along the seaside path. The heavy rain, which I'd managed to mostly avoid, had obviously been torrential here and the path was submerged for a great distance. Not only that, but we'd turned into a block headwind and it was very exposed, so it felt like I'd need to flip my wheel to the lower gear again, but I persevered on the basis that we had a crosswind only after Clacton.
I hit several big potholes in the wet section, hidden in the puddles, and although I don't think the rims have sustained any further damage, I think it's detensioned a couple of spokes — one of the problems of building your own wheels is you're not quite sure, and don't have the experience to tell properly, whether you've put enough tension into the spokes to prevent this
After Clacton, which was a truly terrible place, Tom had included a third off-road section, which was idyllic under the setting sun. Soon after I passed a fast group who'd stopped at the chippy in Colchester — they looked like they were getting ready to set off again, so I was constantly looking over my shoulder for a chasing bunch, but I never saw them again.
The final info control was barely visible in the dying light, and then it was turn for home and the final off-road section of the ride: Pennsylvania Lane through Tiptree, a few surprises for anyone without bright lights!
Shortly after midnight I rolled back into Great Dunmow, still alone, having been on my own since Clacton, to be told I was third back — it wasn't my intention to be riding quickly, but to be honest I think most people were riding slowly. Some welcome TLC from Tom and his helpers — two of whom should've been home tucked up in bed — and the lights were dimmed and candles lit just as I was setting off again: I didn't feel the need to sleep just yet and I wanted to get on with the job.
Day 2 — the southern loop
It was about 1am at this point, pitch black and quite cold — about 8ºC, falling to 5ºC later and even colder in places. Just the way I like it. This section includes the locally famous North Hill at Little Baddow, which I managed to ascend in 9m20s — Alex Dowsett managed it in just 3m22s!! However, he wasn't on fixed-gear and hadn't ridden nearly 400km to get there … I did manage to ride all the way up without putting a foot down, but I did have to tack a bit in the middle, steep section, as I could definitely feel the distance accumulated in my legs.
In Billericay I headed for the BP garage. It had a nice balcony at the front door and I felt it would be a nice place to sit and eat in the sun, but as it was still pre-dawn I was out of luck.
As I was leaving Billericay I passed someone arriving. An hour later and I could see them behind me catching me up! I upped my tempo a bit and we moved around as if tied together by elastic, always coming back together again, even if we drifted apart by a quarter mile from time to time. In the end we arrived together at the info control in Burnham, where we changed layers and grabbed a quick bite from stores in saddle bags before setting off together.
The final leg to Gt Dunmow I set a descent tempo at the start, but it got gradually slower towards the end as I finally ran out of energy — I had ridden over 450km to get to this point, so I wasn't too disappointed, but I wasn't looking forward to the additional 130km to get me home and take the distance up to 600km. Paul, as I later found out, sat behind me all the way back — not on my wheel, just somewhere behind me. As if he didn't know the way but didn't want to chat. No worries, though — I'd ridden the distance mostly on my own to this point, so it made little odds to have him with me but quiet.
We eventually rolled into Great Dunmow around 8.40am after 21h40m of riding. We were joint-third back, with Jake having rolled through while all the helpers were asleep, and someone else having got back and then got into their sleeping bag on the floor for a kip before driving home. This was a bit slower than I had been aiming for, which was a bit of surprise since my speed on the road hadn't been too bad at 23.2kph, even with the wind, but looking back at the track I had spent quite a long time stopped at each night stop, due to tiredness and lack of urgency. A case of narcoleptic lethargy.
While I was there Tom and his helpers packed up the hall to make way for a morning booking and we decamped to the pub next door for breakfast. After a plate of scrambled egg and baked beans, I think I fell asleep in my chair for an hour — I think I did, but I was asleep, so I couldn't really tell.
The final 130km ride home
After an age — about 2h30m! — I decided to make a move. Only a couple of riders had come back in the meantime. After saying my farewells, I headed off towards Saffron Walden and the rest of my 130km retour.
Riding ECE legs home after an event can be a properly demoralising experience: having given the main event a good seeing-to, it can be hard to conjure up both the energy and the enthusiasm to sit on the bike for another six hours to bag the distance. Especially as by now I was sleepy tired, exhausted tired, with sore legs, sore shoulders (from riding fixed), sore hands and a really sore ar*e.
The Sunday temperatures were much warmer than Saturday and, coupled with dehydration from the efforts of the previous 500km, I felt very bad. I stopped off at Bicicletta café con vélo in Saffron Walden for a cold drink (chilled beetroot smoothie!), where I chatted with the owner about sending audax riders his way — which I had done on the Cambridge Spring Dash 100 in March, making a substantial and welcome addition to his regulars on the day, he said; and, as it happens, I hope to be sending another group of riders his way on 8 October 2016 with a new Cambridge Autumnal series of events
After the climb out of Haverhill, some way further on, I was really suffering from tiredness, dehydration, and what felt like the onset of heat stroke. I flipped my wheel to the lower gear to see if that would help — it didn't. I also stripped down to the bare minimum of thinnest layers, even putting my lightest-weight socks on — that didn't help much either. I finally found a large, safe grass verge with overhanging shade near Clare where I lay down on my bivvi bag and went to sleep for half an hour after finishing off my water bottles. When my alarm went off I felt much better, and I was delighted to find nobody had nicked my bike while I'd been asleep
I headed into Clare, adding on another 5km, to buy more fluids and ate a pack of salty crisps while I was there — although it really annoys me that they all use sodium-substitute salt, because it's the sodium that we endurance
athletes idiots need the most — you could've licked a heart-attack's worth of the stuff off my face I reckon, I'd been sweating that heavily!
I'd routed this extra leg along all the lanes that looked interesting on the map and that I thought I'd never ridden before. But now that I was riding them I realised that I'd ridden most of them on a number of rides of both Tom's and my own … unfortunately, a routing error had put me onto a bridleway and I didn't have the mental tenacity to reroute on the fly, so I ended up walking a kilometre or so through muddy ditches and patches of nettles to get to the lane at the other end to continue on my way
Eventually I got to Balsham at the top of the chalk hill range that wraps around the south and east of Cambridge. At this point I was within 30km of home and it was almost all downhill, so I stopped to flip my wheel back to the standard gear for the 7km run downhill to Cambridge. I found myself now cruising easily in the higher gear, my body having gotten on top of the heat and hydration issues. In Cambridge I was racing other cyclists, although only at about 30-35kph, but after well over 600km at this point, that's no mean feat, I think.
With the silliness over, I rode the final 5km at a steady 23+kph to get home at about ten past seven in the evening — just under 37 hours after I started. This means I was about six hours outside my target of 20kph overall pace when adjusted for over-distance. It was also not quite my quickest 600km. But it had been a good ride and I was pleased to have completed it. The following day I was able to walk normally and three days on I was back on the bike and setting a decent pace, so all good
And that was that: Tom's inaugural 400km Kingdom of the East Saxons complete, with an additional 200km added on for good measure, which is my longest extension to any event to date. All ridden in under 37 hours on a time limit of over 42 hours, so well over five hours in hand, which for me is pretty okay on a multi-day ride. And on fixed, to boot
In summary — a grand couple of days on the bike
Tom's new 400km audax makes a great first 400 for riders new to the distance, because the return to base at sleep-o'clock removes the fear of the night, and you can either eat and head back out into the dark, or climb into the sleeping bag you left in the hall at the start and head out into the dawn a few hours later. The pre-paid simple food at the café in Harwich also simplifies tea, and the garage stop in Billericay is excellent for breakfast as the sun rises.
The route is almost completely benign for climbing — there's only one hill of note, which is North Hill on the second day, but you could walk it in 10 minutes if you were so inclined. There's a bit of off-road interest in the four bridleways on the route, which you don't normally find on an audax, but all were easily rideable on 25mm tyres. And you get to see parts of Essex you wouldn't normally see on a bike unless you lived there.
All in all a great addition to the calendar and a great introduction to the 400km distance
Many thanks to Tom for organising and all his helpers — Nik + 2 girls, Alotronic and his mum, GDP & Raymond, Dave (without Caroline), Tom's sons Dan and Jake (plus a mate who was helping him in the car park, I think) — thank you
A grand couple of days on the bike, the completion of my Super Randonneur award for the year. It was also the completion of my Essex-SR award, although I'm riding Tom's Hereward the Wake overnight-300 in a couple of weeks as well, just to make sure
At some point I need to write up my kit list for the ride, because it was pretty much exactly what I needed and there wasn't much — except emergency gear — that I took but didn't use at least once.
Strava here: strava.com/activities/629137726