This is a cracking ride! The new AAAnfracuous is Manotea's old Anfractuous with a bit of extra "goat-iness": the main addition being a run down into High (Low?) Wycombe and a stern climb out again, which neatly avoids the flatter rat run to Marlow. Plus the climb up Welders Lane at the end.
I started the season in 2012 with an Essex run that felt to me like a ride through the mountainous bits of Wales, but a year of audax has moved my fitness on and, feeling adventurous after a AAA perm last weekend, I thought I'd start the new season with something a bit bigger. As an aside, Grimpeur d'Anglia d'Est isn't going to catch on any time soon and us flatlanders don't get to practise AAA that often, so it is a bit of novelty for us
Having collected my brevet from a cheery MarcusJB, we gathered in the morning gloom for an earlier-than-advertised start. A bit of joviality set in: "are you turning left or right?", with left being the AAA route and right being the Less(er). It's not a race, and you can't get extra points for being hillier-than-thou, except that you cAAAn
A bit of lethargy in the legs of quicker riders and I find myself on the front of the fast-road run to the left-turn-and-start-climbing: safe in the knowledge that it's only a temporary situation and I'll be going backwards soon enough. My aims are simple: to ride up every climb to the top, and to finish during daylight, which is about 11.5 hours; I later amend the latter to riding at an overall average 20kph, which is about 10 hours 25 minutes. Starting quickly while I am able to means I should have a bit extra time in hand to throw at the climbs, which are going to be very very slow: with a 34-inch climbing gear I am going to be with the fixies in terms of climbing technique on the bigger climbs. Sure enough, we turn left, drop down a little and then turn right and start to climb: at this point a group of riders pass and leave me to eat dust and leaves, but it's okay, that's in the plan.
There are three major controls on the ride, and numerous info controls on the four stages in between. The first leg to Benson has just the one significant climb out of High Wycombe; this leg includes the on-paper onerous climb up Christmas Common, but in reality it's just a long draggy climb, nothing too painful. The second leg to Wantage includes the attention-grabbing climb out of Streatley, which is a tough climb, and the rest of the leg feels flat by comparison. The third leg starts with a long 5-10% gradient with a long, fast drop off the back to Lambourn, and the rest of the leg is completely benign and on average downhill to Pangbourne. The final leg is the hardest leg, starting immediately with a stiff climb out of Pangbourne and includes several 10%+ gradients such as Fawley Hill and Colestrope Lane, with several shorter grimps worthy of mention, such as Welder's Lane.
After the first climb I found myself with James and Anthony and we bimbled along happily. James noted that it's only when he comes southwards that features called "grassy triangles" appear on the routesheet: apparently this is a southern thing. James stops to mark his brevet with the info at Penn, I take a photo-on-the-go for later and ride on, finding myself suddenly alongside somebody else. On the fast downhill from Penn I catch and pass a group – definitely gravity-assisted! before we turn left and right for another uphill. Inevitably I am caught, but 9.8ms-2 drags me off the front again on the descent down into High Wycombe (oxymorons abound) until the lights at the bottom. I lead the group to the bottom of the next climb and up it for, in a generous spirit, a good 20m before I am spat out the back: these Hackney goats attack in herds! I take a couple of photos to make it look like I intended to go backwards, but I know they know it's not true.
I grimp to the top with my heart-rate hitting 177 – and that's on only the first serious climb of the day! As I get there James catches me up and we ride on together. It's nice to have company, as the last few rides have been DIYs or perms. A missed direction on the GPS before we get to Marlow and James again stops at the info control to mark his brevet and I again grab a photo-on-the-go and start the long climb up Christmas Common. I figure that if I make progress now, I will be caught later anyway, so no harm done. The first part of the climb winches up between steep banks in the way that many ancient roads do in these parts. The road surface is shocking and so I take my time. Eventually the gradient levels off a bit and I hit third gear (out of six) and settle down for a spinning session.
The weather is very pleasant for cycling in: it's overcast and the temperature is around 14ºC. Having moved the ride a few weeks earlier in the calendar from previous years, autumn hasn't made itself felt yet, so the views of forests – and there are a lot of forests in these parts – are picture-postcard Green and Pleasant Land. The ancient lanes that we are riding pass through many of the forests and inside the way is gloomy, like something out of a remake of Robin Hood, and the sides are steeply banked for some traditional purpose. It is truly gorgeous in a way that the Chilterns do so well.
Occasionally on the climb I can see a glimpse of a bike light behind me, but they never quite catch up, go figure: not trying hard enough methinks. As I pass through Christmas Common a bit of drizzle starts. I curse as I realise I didn't bring a waterproof: the forecast said I didn't need one Never mind, it's only water. It doesn't last long anyway, but a reminder that we are now in autumn and a 'proof of some sort is required, just in case.
When I get to Watlington, I decide it's time to put the hammer down a bit: I have a plate of beans with my name on it at the control and I want to be ahead of the queue. I pick a higher gear and get my race face on: it's gently downhill for much of the way, but the occasional uppy bit needs a push. I can't see anyone else behind me as I get to Benson and I get served immediately, it was worth it I bump into Pppete at the control: he rode the Less and got there a bit earlier, and we are joined by MattC, who's out for a ride, just not this one, and Lars.
Pppete and Lars leave before me, and I set off on a mission to catch them. I can see a rider that looks, from the rear, like it's Pppete, but as I close in, less so: I meet PhilW for the first time, and we chat to Goring. We compare tactical notes on Streatley Hill, which is the big climb of the day at 125m over 1.3km and getting steeper all the way up to 1:6 at the top. Phil's going for a low-gear spinning approach; I am going for a lowest-gear grind (34", remember?). When I rode my first AAA, Yr Elenydd, earlier this year, I would've had to have walked a good deal of this hill, but I threw everything at it and got to the top of Streatley in one go, yay Phil has gained 100m on me and the "Green Love" rider (I'm not sure that's an accurate translation) has caught and passed me.
We regroup a kilometre up the road and pass Pppete as it looks like he's fighting a bag of Jelly Babies; he quickly joins us. We pass Teethgrinder sat on a park bench in Compton tucking into a bottle of ginger beer by the look of it. We don't stop at the info control: somehow I forget to photograph it later, minor paranoia sets in as I try not to forget At some point I find myself unable to match the gear of the other two and I end up riding off the front of the group, expecting them to catch me on the next climb.
In West Isley I catch up with the Hackney Goats group, who stopped for something. I pace the group up the hill, but they're a shade slow for the gear I am turning so I leapfrog them on the climb. They pace me for a while, but get bored and I stretch out. We're near the control now, and again it's time to put in a burst to beat the queue. It's a very open run down into Wantage and I manage to stay clear out in the front, just getting caught by Green Love at a red light in Wantage. There's a large pile of bikes outside the control, but the queue isn't huge in the museum; however the guy at the front, a family man, appears to be ordering a 3-course dinner for ten, dish-by-dish, aaargh!
By the time I do the control admin and eat a piece of cake, Pppete and PhilW have caught me up. We debate the difficulty of Streatley: I reckon it's not as hard as Llancloudy on the BCM, they reckon it's harder. On paper they're very similar, but I walked Llancloudy, I rode Streatley The wait for Mr Family Guy has cost me a few minutes and my overall average speed is slightly under my target 20kph.
Out of Wantage there's a long, steep, open drag and I can see groups of riders up the hill ahead of me. One of the riders looks suspiciously like Teethgrinder: you can tell by the panniers. I pick a low-low gear and settle in for 15 minutes of spinning. From the top it's a long gentle slope down to Lambourn. A quick snap of the info answer and I double back to a chippie that's still open: this grimping requires a decent amount of input! The rest of the leg to Pangbourne is relatively benign with just a couple of short climbs, but the scenery is very lovely and the roads are quiet. I catch up with Teethgrinder again, as he'd passed me when I stopped for chips. We pretty much pace each other, as he is having a leisurely day on the bike: I have no doubt that when he starts grinding teeth properly then I won't be pacing him!
TG's being so leisurely I ride off the front, pass a group of riders who turned left on the downhill before the easy-to-miss left on the routesheet: if it's easy to miss then that really obvious left should be the wrong one, no? I lead by example and turn left at the not-so-obvious left and ride on to Pangbourne, where I think I spot Sir Wobbly at the pub? I grab a sticker and some milk from Henry's. From Pangbourne, the real climb-after-climb section starts with a stiff one up the valley. I grind my way to the top with quite a few riders passing me: I am both tired and over-geared. To cheer myself up, I take a couple of photos, make it look like I am slow with a purpose
I catch up with TG again – he really is taking it easy! – and we ride together for a bit, me leapfrogging him when the gradient is exactly right for me, and he riding ahead the rest/most of the time. At Fawley Hill, the first of the steepety-steep climbs, TG grimps ahead out of sight and the next flattish section isn't long enough for me to catch up with him again. I won't see him again until arrivée. I am now on my own. I keep looking behind to watch for the next rider to pass me, but by now all the quicker riders are ahead and all the slower riders are behind, so I am in a world of my own. It's very peaceful in the lanes, the weather having brightened somewhat from earlier and autumn hasn't quite caught hold, absolutely lovely! I don't mind the solitude.
After a steep, brake-wearing descent, and a right-at-T, I arrive at the bottom of Colestrope Lane. On paper this climb is a bit of a git, and I take heed of Sir Wobbly's wobbly-related comment on this hill, up-thread. It's 103m over 1.5km, so on paper it's less difficult than Streatley, but most of the elevation gain is in the last 500m, making this an absolute brute. I settle in for a 5kph grimp that should take about 15 minutes, so long as I can keep rotating the pedals. The start is benign enough and gradually steepens before levelling off a little. The road itself is enclosed in another woodland, not so ancient this one, but deciduous rather than a Welsh or Scottish ever-green variety, so really lovely and mysterious.
Just past the new, modern-style construction on the left, the road ramps up and I am honking out of the saddle, and then back down as the front wheel starts to lift. This is really hard. The back wheel is starting to slip on the wet patches, I am wobbling all over the place and my speed is now hovering around 3kph. I can hear a motor behind me, but. I. Am. Going. To. Make. It. To. The. Top! I pull into a passing place and let the white van past without putting a foot down and continue grinding.
I can hear a bigger engine behind me now: a big Range Rover. I shake my head: I am not going to give up this hill for some Chelsea tractor. Eventually the gradient eases, we've reached the top and another passing place, and as I inch across to it and wave the RR through, I lose control on the dirt and have to unclip: my only foot-down all day! They refuse to pass me, so I clip back in and ride on: they immediately pull in to the farm next to where I'd waved them through. Bugger. Still, the phone box at the top is a pleasant sight: you don't see too many of those these days, a lovely homage to another time. Probably doesn't work.
After this I drop back down to Marlow, right and over the Thames, before left and a stern climb up Quarry Wood Hill: the gradient isn't really that much until you get to the hairpin and at the apex it's tremendously steep, so I follow the centreline around the corner: I'm lit up like a Christmas tree and it is an allowed manoeuvre, but there aren't any cars around anyway. It's getting a bit dull riding on my own now, so I take a picture of the hill and another of today's "office"
A quick stop at the top to double-check the info control question and it's a fast descent back down to the Thames on the other side of the hill, snapping the info control on the way past. Then a main-road drag out of Cookham, before turning right up Hedsor road towards Harvest Hill. At this point the road is completely blocked with cars to the point I can't even squeeze the bike through: gridlock. The whole thing caused because some 18-year-old demanded that he had right of way and absolutely refused to go backwards, didn't understand the word "gridlock", and couldn't see that the quickest solution for himself was for him to reverse. And then started mocking my bike: from a spotty oik in a Nissan Micra that was taking the biscwit Worse, his dad appeared to be standing behind his son's car in shame, trying to not get involved: yoof of today? Or just a random twat? I eventually found the necessary gap and rode on up the hill, the adrenalin putting a massive grin on my face as I honked up Harvest Hill and considered all the retorts I should've used had my wits been quicker (choice insults really aren't my thing).
Now at the top there are only a couple of iddy-biddy climbs left, so when the route spits us out onto the busy A355 over the M40 and then right onto the A40, I don't feel the need to hold anything back and time trial with the traffic. All the cars pull over into the outside lane to pass and I dare the cars on the roundabout to pull out in front of me. Left towards Jordans and then a bit of a lump right up Welder's Lane and we are spat out at the top of Chalfont, giving us a nice, fast descent into Chalfont St Peter. Left, left, left, left and left again and here we are at arrivée!
So, how did I do? 10 hours 45 minutes – 20 minutes outside my own 20kph target time: I lost time at the museum control with the queue, at Henry's when I put the water in before the protein powder (and it just takes ages to get the powder into a full bottle of water) and the final stage was about 1kph slower than target, boo! But I am very pleased with that, because it's still a respectable time for me, and it was very much daylight when I finished
That was a fantastic day on the bike and I really enjoyed it! The route was intricate enough to be interesting all the time, yet not so intricate you got lost. The terrain and scenery were lovely. The climbs were hard and very satisfying. And best of all I didn't have to drive very far to take part, so was home in time for supper
The negative result from this self-harm we call audax is a significant Achille's creaking and soreness, so I may be off the bike for a week or three.
A couple of heros at the finish: the chap on the left rode is Jeremy who rode his 1952 bicycle around The AAAnfractuous, dressed like he was when he bought it (although I am not sure clip-in pedals were around at that time, and possibly neither was he), and zigzag standing on the right apparently rode the AAA in 8.5 hours SINGLESPEED! And the chap in the middle is Von Broad of broken-frame fame, so truly another hero!
Thank you Paul for putting the event on — I will definitely be looking at riding it again next year. Thank you Marcus for being cheery both ends of the day with the brevets. And thank you the two in the kitchen who gamely debated the relative merits of bacon butty versus cheese toasty with me at the end