It came to my attention but a few weeks ago that I was one 200 ride away from an AAA-SR (the others being Yr Elenydd 300, Bryan Chapman 600, and LEL): when I started the season, I didn't have AAA anywhere on my list of goals, but as the season draws to a close it's time to cross the i's and dot the t's, as they say.
Note: this ride report is a mild rewrite of my submission to yacf, here. Codified names are the nicknames of people on the forum, sorry about that. The post date has been changed to the date of the ride.
I live in Cambridge, which is flatter than a flat thing, and so AAA in my home county was not going to happen. Neighbouring Essex is lumpy, but it still doesn't qualify for AAA, no matter how contorted a route I came up with. So it was time to resort to a perm, and this Cat & Fiddle 200 caught my eye: hilly, but not Hillbilly-hilly, and starting not too far away (in the grand scheme of things).
I was going to ride it at the beginning of September, but poor weather, a wedding anniversary and a funeral somewhat got in the way, so here I am in the last few days of the season faced with a solo perm up and down some hills.
Friday night I looked at the weather forecast, decided Saturday looked marginally better than Sunday, got the requisite permission, and slunk out of the house at some ungodly hour to drive across England to Wolverhampton. Under normal circumstances there's not much that would convince me to drive to Wolverhampton, especially not at this hour, but here I am, parked in a housing estate, hopefully safely, and about to trundle down to the garage that marks the start.
This route starts in Wolverhampton, heads up through Staffordshire to the Cat & Fiddle pub in the Peak District 10km or so East of Macclesfield and back down through Cheshire to the start (finish). On paper it looks like the first and last quarters of the route are flat(-ish), the second quarter goes up and the third quarter goes down (with a small amount of what looks like Essex-esque lumpiness). On paper it doesn't really look worthy of AAA points, but I want those points, so I am going to let sleeping dogs lie, so to speak.
Riding out to the first control, it feels like riding in Norfolk. Admittedly there's a bit of a drop down out of Wolverhampton to the point where we cross under the M54, and I will have to climb back up that way later on, so what goes around comes around. But I am feeling good: I haven't ridden for three weeks since completing a very windy and quick Flatlands 600, and the time off the bike has been welcome. I ride alone in the cool morning air across Staffs and arrive at the first control, Amerton petting farm, just as it opens. I pet some goats* while I drink my coffee and contemplate that that wasn't bad: a nice spin in the country. The next control soon comes to pass: the Salt Box Café in Hatton, near Uttoxeter, again a fairly uneventful run, topography-wise. Baked beans on toast.
According to the elevation profile, the climbing starts now and goes on for near enough 50km to the top! However, even as my GPS beeps to tell me this (because I told it to), the terrain appears flat: not pan flat, but not rising upwards to any great extent. TBH it feels like the first two legs. I spin on, bemused. Eventually it becomes evident that I've been gently ascending, because there's a sudden, sharp descent into Ashbourne.
The route sheet gives the instruction "join Tissington Trail", which turns out to be a disused railway that has been converted into a gravel-surfaced path that winches its way up into the foothills of the Peak District. Although it's gravel, the surface is very smooth and mostly hard-pack, and it's possible to get a good speed up: I've seen a lot worse tarmac; in fact large roadstone surfaces are rougher than this! The gradient is very gentle, and also very consistent: the elevation chart shows an almost-straight line for nearly 20km! Once the initial tunnel is out of the way, I drop just one gear and get into a rhythm: I am flying up this hill! There are hundreds of families out on bikes, lots of senior citizens too (something about the country air?), and plenty of walkers. I use my bell judiciously for those who hear it; I use my air horn for those that don't; I pass on the right over and over and over. Occasionally I check over my shoulder: surely someone's going to see me as a target and try to take me? Nope, nobody serious on this trail and I climb away from them all (towards plenty of others). After a good half an hour the route opens up near the top of the slopes and I and blown around by a strong wind: fortunately it's an easterly, so although it's hurting a bit now, it should be good for the push up to the Cat & Fiddle.
At the end of the route (or at least the bit where I have to leave it) there's an enormous crowd: people on bikes and on foot everywhere. This is a seriously popular weekend occupation and is clearly successful at drawing in the crowds, kudos to whoever organised the construction of the trail. Someone in full Wiggle-Honda team kit who looks suspiciously like Laura Trott is wandering around (the one on the left): too much in a hurry to stop and ask.
Just 20km to go now to the top. Which starts with a downhill: urgh, this is beginning to feel like a bit of a con, surely the only way is UP?! Never mind, I whizz down the hill and then start the inevitable climb. And then I'm descending again, and climbing: I am beginning to feel it in my legs, but once we get to the Cat & Fiddle then it's all downhill from there. The terrain is looking distinctly Peak District. In fact, as I turn a corner it takes my breath away: the hillsides almost sheer, humped one behind the other, it's a fantastic sight. I decide not to stop and take a picture: I am sure StreetView's got it covered (not so much: the light was much better yesterday).
In audax, what comes down must go back up again, preferably on lanes with the word "chapel" or "church" in them, and so it goes. I climb back upwards, heading for the pub (but still 10km away) and I have my eye on a radio-controlled aircraft that's buzzing around the hill top, trying to work out whether it's supposed to be a scale model of a motor-glider or a seaplane. Also, where's the pilot? I can't see anyone, so I assume they're on the hill opposite. I carry on … next thing I hear a buzzing from behind and duck as it passes over me a bit close for comfort! I raise my arm in what is hopefully a friendly wave: I would've done the same thing had the roles been reversed; I mean, who wouldn't?!
One final climb to the pub, except that it's not. I can feel my legs are nearing their limit now: the gradient of these last few hilly sections has been a bit steep for my gearing and I haven't been able to find a rhythm, so I am cranking up slowly. As I have said before, where others can find a gear for the hill, I have to find a hill for the gear, but not for much longer.
I cross the A53 and climb the singletrack lane up the side of the moor. A BMW starts to overtake a bit close to a corner just as a cyclist shoots into view in the opposite direction. So he waits until we are actually in the corner, which is blind, in order to overtake! We have a horn-honking and friendly-waving session with a few choice words thrown at each other and thankfully lost on the veritable gale that's blowing up here. Bastard! He looked about 18: I wonder if his dad knows he's out driving his car?
Once on top, the wind's now behind and I can spin up to the pub: that's it, I am at 515m and that's the serious climbing over for the day. Time for a cup of tea and a piece of cake. Except that they don't have any receipt rolls, so they can't do me a receipt. "We couldn't do you a VAT receipt anyway, because we're not VAT-registered!" … erm, as any accountant will tell you, and I am married to one, you don't muck about with the VAT man: if you think you're going to hit the threshold in the trading year then you must register for VAT immediately, not when you hit the threshold, and any pub that doesn't hit the threshold isn't going to be in business for very long!! Anyway, she just works there, so there's no point in giving her a hard time about it. When I explain what I need and why, she kindly rips an event poster off the wall and attaches a handwritten receipt as brevidence.
Back out onto the bike and with glee I start the second half, which should be downhill to Stone (with a couple of minor Essex-sized lumps to punctuate it, but it's really really all downhill, honest, the elevation chart says so) and then a flat run back into Wolverhampton with that final climb to the finish. The first section is a blast: the wind's behind me and I am absolutely flying along the main road, before turning left and dropping like a stone into the valley: it occurs to me, as I break my speed record on this bike achieving 81.5kph, that there's no way I can afford to lose this much altitude so quickly if I'm going to be rolling downhill all the way to Stone, the angles are all wrong, I must've been fiddled! But the road continues to head downhill for another fair few kms, and it's nice and easy (when the wind isn't channelled into the valley and pushing against).
And then it goes up: not seriously up, but enough to find I don't have the right gear and I am honking in bottom and then cranking slowly. But hey, it goes down on the other side, no? Yes, and then it goes up again.
At this point I check my times: it's a 200 (although over-distance at 218km), which by strict rules gives me 13.5 hours or so. It took me 6.5 hours to get to the top, so I have 6.5 hours to get to the bottom, which I could do if only the route didn't keep demanding that I get back to the top again! It's a con! I now have 80km to go, which on my baseline 20kph would be manageable, but my uphill speed is barely 10kph, and the downhills don't last long enough to counter this, so it's looking like it's touch and go. Um! There's nothing to be done except to push on and make the most of it.
As an aside, for the first time on an audax I am not staring at the numbers on my Garmin: I have the map showing and I just ride at a pace that feels okay and hope I get back in time. I haven't finished out of time yet this season, although I have been close on all of my other AAA rides and one or two others, so I figure I have it in me to just ride and enjoy it and let the numbers worry about themselves. The Garmin will tell me what I was doing when I drag the activity file out and load it up in RWGPS. So I don't really have much of a sense of how I am doing, except for occasionally checking how far left to go and what the time is.
These hills are pretty sharp: 10% and worse. I am almost track-standing the bike to get my breath back before carrying on. The grim part of me thinks I am going to fail and is coming up with excuses; the determined part of me is keeping the pedals turning, slowly. I am thinking that the Tour of Britain would've been much more interesting if they'd brought the pack up these lanes: then Quintana might've had his day. I keep pulling into passing places to let patient motorists pass me by: I am moving so slowly that I don't actually need to slow down any further to give them time to pass.
I've been hoodwinked! Who's idea was this?! I thought this only carried 1.75 AAA points, but this feels like it should be more like 3.5! However, I take back what I said earlier: I feel like I am definitely earning these AAA points fair and square! I take pleasure from knowing that even if I finish out of time, at least (so far) I haven't put a foot down on any of the climbs and the 24" has stayed unused today, which is better than all my other AAA-earning rides. But my legs are shot, I have nothing left, I am cranking up each climb in bottom hoping that this climb is the final one (and all but the final time it wasn't, of course, and even then there was more).
I check my time: I seem to be dropping away from target 20kph, but not by much, I must be doing better than I feel I am doing.
Eventually I drop down onto the road into Stone, which is the final control. In town I play leapfrog with impatient drivers: they can see there's a queue ahead and they will have to stop, but let's overtake the cyclist first and stop in front of him, why not? And as it's a downhill through the town, it's not as if I am going slowly at all. Twats! A quick Mikey-esque milkshake and it's back on the bike to, er, climb out of the town! Aaargh! Not only that, but it's dark now, so I don't notice until I hit the hill that the road surface is like a pockmarked moonscape, ouch! There was a warning on the notes, but nothing in the routesheet to say exactly where this short rough bit was, and I just found it! It doesn't last long, if you call 3.5km in the dark on a surface designed for full-suss "not long". Blah, no point complaining about it, the alternative is a long dog leg, and this route is already over-distance.
The run to the end really is flat now: not pan flat, but rideable from the saddle without too many gear changes. It's also nicely cooled off: not cold, though. As has happened on so many previous rides, Veloman can testify to the most recent, when I am in the home leg and it goes dark and cools down, for some reason I can kick again and bring my pace back up. And so it was: I was now spinning along as happily as I had been this morning, following the map on my Garmin, occasionally double-checking the routesheet, counting down the kilometres: it's looking like, barring mechanicals or accidents, I will be home after 12 hours and maybe 15 minutes, so within the time limit. I make a couple of wrong turns in the dark, but always the Garmin beeps its retribution at me within a few metres and I set it right. And now I recognise where I am: the outward bit in reverse, close to home.
Soon HMP Featherstone appears on the left, I am just coming into Wolverhampton and those climbs back up to the top. But the memory belies the truth, which isn't as bad: the climbs are gentle and suit my gear, so I spin up and over. The return route is also slightly different to the outward one and the big, steep drop is bypassed with a steadier climb through the estate: I wait for the impact of a bottle or can from the yoofs catcalling from the bus shelter, which doesn't happen, but the thought of it spurs me on and I spin quicker. One roundabout, two roundabouts and then there, I recognise that garage: arrivée. A quick receipt and back up the hill (another one) to find the car: I had to ride the hill twice, because I couldn't find the car, as I was looking to the right but had parked on the left, doh! The car was as I had left it.
In the end that took 12 hours 21 minutes, which I am relieved about, but a bit disappointed as I thought I would do 10-11 hours. The third quarter with all the sharp climbing I averaged at 21kph, which really surprised me, as I winched up those hills so very very slowly, and there seemed to be an awful lot of them, and in fact that was quicker than the final quarter when I felt really really good spinning back to Wolverhampton on the relative flat in the dark. ETA: looking again at the track log, there's two hours' stoppage in there, most of which was in the Salt Box and the Cat & Fiddle: service wasn't particularly quick in either.
Now in the cold light of the following day, still quite dehydrated, I can look at the data and try to work out who fiddled me and how. Firstly, let's check the brevet (which I had with me all along, but didn't think to check): the ride is 18km over-distance and the minimum speed is 14.3kph, which gives a maximum of 15 hours and 14 minutes: wow! I had just under three hours in hand at the end! I needn't have worried, although the sense of urgency is a great motivator.
And download the activity from the Garmin into RideWithGPS: ah, I see. All along there was me, a mere flatlander, thinking that all hills are built equal. But of course, as anyone who comes from a hillier realm will note, it's all in the scale of the thing. If I had stretched the scale of the elevation chart so that Essex lumps looked like Essex lumps normally do in elevation then the full height of the chart would've taken up most of the screen and the climbs would have been totally obvious. And so it looks like a case of mea culpa: I had fiddled myself!
Ah well, it was a lovely ride with a bit of everything and a fair amount of climbing (more than I was expecting!). I would say that it's probably not the best profile of ride to do on a Brompton, as my lowest gear isn't quite low enough for this sort of terrain, but the steeper climbing aside it was eminently doable. The climb up Tissington Trail is rather special, particularly since I passed so many other people without one person trying to pass me back – I even saw another Brompton up there and we cheerily exchanged pleasantries! I would recommend attaching a bell for this ride, just for the Trail: you really will pass a very large number of people who won't be expecting you to be moving at anything above fast-walking pace, amd an early warning was appreciated/tolerated by everyone I passed. Up in the Peak District, the scenery is spectacular: not Wales or Scotland spectacular, but a lot more so than Cambridgeshire or Essex.
For me, I think this is a ride to be revisited on a full-size bike for the comparison: my climbing on the Brompton is better now than it was on my first AAA ride, Yr Elenydd (when I walked an awful lot of the headline climbs), and I rode everything this time, albeit slowly. But I would be very interested to make the comparison with having more gears and a lighter bike. And perhaps a lighter me wouldn't harm the attempt either.
- No I didn't.