It was Roger's fault! We were having an in-depth discussion about the merits of something or other and both of us missed the signal on our GPSes telling us we were off-course. It was about 1.30am by this point and I had just dropped a bidon and we'd had to turn around to pick it up at just the wrong moment …
Note that I was unable to write this post at the time, due to a serious illness in the family. I just found all the photos and so I am writing this in February 2015; however, the date of the post has been changed to reflect the date of the ride.
Hereward the Wake, another of Tom Deakins’ Essex-series calendar rides, starts from Great Dunmow at 9pm after a curry at a local establishment in the town. Curries and evening starts feature in two of Tom's five calendar events, adding an interesting twist to these rides that stands them out from others that start at 6am, 7am or 8am. 300km-distance rides are okay to ride, so long as you don't go out too quick at the start, and you just have to keep pedalling, keeping stops to a minimum. But 300km overnight rides are that bit harder, because of sleep-deprivation issues, coupled with the fact that most riders are slower in the dark, simply because it's dark. Fortunately this ride occurs just after the summer solstice, so the night is short.
Since the distance (as I've mentioned previously) from home to Gt Dunmow is almost exactly 50km, Tom's rides are ideal ECE candidates, thus taking this ride from 300km to 400km for me. This was important, because I had been unable to ride Tom's proper 400, Asparagus & Strawberries, because of family commitments, so I needed to make up another Essex 400 to qualify for the Essex SR. I arrived at the curry house a few minutes late, but still in time to order. I was delighted to see Roger (Fidgetbuzz) there, as he's the scoundrel who introduced me to all this audax mallarkey.
After the curry, we headed down to the start at Churchend in Dunmow to meet up with all the other riders.
This ride is a big triangle with 100km sides and a control on each corner. This means the ride divides nicely into three distinct parts, and, as it turned out, three different types of terrain.
The first 100 — tailwind to Whittlesey
From the start I wanted to stay near the front to get photos of riders as they came past. I spent the first 20km to Saffron Walden riding ahead and stopping to photograph riders as they came past, knowing that I would use up more energy early on than I would like, but eager to bag some good photos. As it happened we had a decent tailwind all the way northwards, so it was easy riding. By the time we got to Saffron, the light had dropped to a level where photographs on the move on a little pocket camera were unviable: all shake and no shimmy.
I had specifically avoided coming down this route on my outbound 50km ECE leg so the GPS track would clearly separate out my ECE from the main event, but ordinarily I would've done, as it's the shortest quiet route to Dunmow. We rode straight past the first info control, memorising the answer, and rode in a big, fast bunch to Cambridge.
In Cambridge, where I live, I knew exactly which route to take through the city and where I wanted to control: the NatWest cashpoint just off Market Square. This is exactly on the route and would give us a quick turnaround. Roger joined me in this and together we effectively bounced through with just a couple of minutes stopped, while the rest of the group milled around not sure where to go and several who joined us on the climb up Castle Hill (it's about 12m tall, so more of a bump) dived into the Esso garage and we left them behind.
Local knowledge definitely helped and together the two of us rode side-by-side and chatted. Occasionally I took the front when we turned into the wind, as Roger's not quite as strong. Another info control in Willingham before heading out onto the fens proper.
Tom's route heads out onto the dreaded Ramsey-to-Whittlesey road: it's dead-straight and dead-flat for about 20km, although we joined it halfway along. It's very exposed, so if you have a headwind then you'll feel it, like we did on LEL in 2013. Fortunately this morning we had a strong tailwind, so we spun along easily.
I had been watching for the chasing group to catch us: so far we had seen nothing of the group we had dropped in Cambridge, but they were clearly faster than us and ought to have caught us by now. The straightness of the Ramsey road meant I spotted them several kilometres behind us, but more importantly they would have spotted us, and I was certain they would take aim and reel us right in quickly. I know it's not a race, but …
In Whittlesey we turned left with the control being a 24-hour service station 1km from the town centre. The chasing group almost had us, so I put on a spurt and rolled onto the garage forecourt just ahead of the lead chaser! That small achievement in the bag, we spent 15 minutes eating and drinking and sorting out clothes for the next stage to Newport Pagnell services on the M1, Roger even pausing to allow me to sort out my arm warmers (he's an inveterate bouncer-of-controls and gets quite impatient when held up).
The second 100 — Lost and damp
I find night riding a real joy: when you have good dynamo lights then the darkness holds no power over you. And after midnight the traffic levels drop to almost zero: on a good night ride we might see five cars all night, whereas during the day we might see at least one every minute or two. There is a real surreptitious pleasure riding through sleeping villages knowing that everyone's tucked up in bed and we're the only ones prowling around outside.
Roger and I settled into a steady rhythm: the fast run up to Whittlesey from Dunmow, the first 100km of the ride, had knocked the edge off our speed, and anyway now we were turning southwards and then south-west, straight into the wind. We were also forecast rain at some point.
While we were chatting, about 5km out from the control, I dropped a bidon and had to turn around to pick it up. I think my GPS may have beeped to warn me I was off course, but I knew that and I ignored it. That turned out to be a mistake: the GPS was warning us that actually we had missed a right-hand turn. Normally the GPS would keep warning us, but on this evening neither mine nor Roger's complained any further as we continued. When we got to the end of the road, a T-junction, the instruction didn't make any sense.
It was at this point that I broke out the paper map and checked road numbers: the instruction didn't make sense, because we were at the wrong junction! We had come out back onto the Ramsey-Whittlesey road. The question was what to do next: trace back to the missed turn and follow the suggested route, or devise a new route to rejoin the main route further on. We opted for the latter, as the navigation looked simpler, if a kilometre further. Checking the numbers after the ride, we had added on probably another 6km to our distance.
We made good progress on our 20km detour, even into the wind, although a good 7-8kph slower than when we had been with the wind earlier, and within an hour we had rejoined. This was shortly after crossing the A1(M), and as we'd done so, the clouds had loomed ominously in front of us: the weather got decidedly moist at this point; not exactly raining, but definitely precipitous.
A couple of riders popped out of the correct road a few hundred metres in front of us, but this isn't a race, and so I resisted the urge to try to join them, as that would've meant dropping Rog, who climbs patiently, and we'd just left the fens for some bumpier territory.
We rode side-by-side or line-astern as the mood took us, but by now we were chatted-out and riding in quiet contemplation. This is no different to riding long distances solo, and we are both comfortable with this. I like to think that I keep Roger's pace slightly higher than he would do on his own; Roger definitely keeps my pace more consistent: when I ride with Rog then I stay within my capabilities and go further faster, although it doesn't always feel like it at the time.
At some point in the early dawn I knocked the lamp off the top of my helmet and had to turn around to pick it up. It was looking like a clumsy ride.
At the info control in Lavendon, it turned out that there were two possible answers to the question, depending on which sign you looked at. I took pictures of both to show Tom.
Between this info control and the next the rain really started to come down. We were still half an hour from the full control at The Pag, but we pushed on rather than stopping to get 'proofed up.
At The Pag, we rolled our bikes into the main concourse and piled into Starbucks, aiming for the wooden chairs at the back so we could easily wipe off any dripped water for other customers who followed during the day. It was panini time and we tucked into a somewhat unhealthy breakfast. But it was nice to be off the bike for a little while and to warm up. We were joined by a few others, names now escape me. We had ridden 200km to get here.
The third 100 — patience and breakfast and brunch
The next leg turns eastwards back towards Essex, with just Northamptonshire and Hertfordshire in the way. As it turned out, both of these counties are lumpy rather than flat, and so Roger and I had a patient ride up the hills, pacing ourselves and conserving energy. I was very glad of this, because once we would arrive at the finish, I knew that after a brief stop I would have to get back on my bike and ride another 50km home, alone, so I didn't want to completely spend myself on the main feature.
Aside from an info control, the next full control was a mere 30km away in Biggleswade, and we both figured we would probably bounce through, which indeed we did: a cash point receipt and onwards. We did, however, stop briefly at a garage just on the edge of town for some final-leg calories. After a few minutes we were moving again.
It's always around this point that Roger urges me to ride on, because he thinks he must be slowing me down. It's simply not true: certainly not true enough to warrant splitting up, as from experience I know that I would only gain a few minutes on him, so not worth it. I test myself on all the climbs, getting to the top as quickly as I can, and then I wait for Rog, using the time to bring my heart rate down.
We stop for a quick coffee at the Silver Ball Café in Reed, a well-known stop on several audaxes, but the service is lacklustre and they seem to resent us being there. We avail ourselves of the facilities and beat a hasty retreat to the bikes.
The final run to Dunmow is across familiar territory getting progressively more Essex in nature until we get into Essex proper at Ugley. And then we know we're almost home: it's a 30-minute ride from here to Dunmow along well-worn lanes and gentle climbs and we coast in to the arrivée at around 12.20pm — 15h20m on the road. Given that we'd had a 6km detour and ridden 316km, I was happy with that as a steady, sustainable performance. And as Rog mentioned on yacf, he was happy with that, too
We assumed that our performance, while steady, would place us in the middle of the pack. However, when we were validating our cards we asked how many had come in before us and the answer was "you're sixth" … "what, as in six riders came in before us?" "Nope, five in before you, you're sixth." Speechless! We had ridden a very fast first leg and then reeled in the pace for the second and third legs. We hadn't pushed ourselves up the hills. We had stopped at all the controls, and yet here we were well-placed at 15h40m — a BRM 300 allows for 20 hours, so we had finished with over four hours in hand. Blistering
We were then treated to brunch by Tom and his helpers, which was most welcome. We sat around chatting with some of the other riders as they came in, before Rog offered me a lift home: thanks but no thanks, I have my ECE to complete. I had to get out on the bike soon or I would start to sieze up. But it was now a fine day and I could put away the 'proofs and get on with the task in hand.
This had to be the most relaxed ECE leg I could possibly have. ECEs are measured at 14.3kph, which gave me about 28 hours to complete. I had started at 16.30 the previous day, so I had until 20.30 — that was still 7.5 hours in the future, allowing an average speed of less than 10kph, simples. I could have a complete bike write-off and have Mrs W deliver me another and still take my time. As it turned out, though, I enjoyed the weather and rode the 56km in a leisurely 2h30m, averaging 23.4kph — which after 350km in the legs, and no sleep the previous night, showed me that I was still fit, considering the distinct lack of riding in 2014.
I have to say that I do enjoy these overnight rides: the serenity of the roads, the lack of traffic, the quietness of the countryside, the amazing views (although you need a bit of a moon to appreciate them fully, but there's a lot more ambient light at night than most people really believe), and the sheer oddness of being out of bed when clearly everyone else is in theirs. This particular ride I enjoyed because of the route, which is fast and not particularly hilly, as well as Roger's company
- 112km ECE from Cambridge to Gt Dunmow and back
- 316km for the main ride, in 15h40m
- Stopped time of 1h50, so average moving speed of about 23kph
- Left home about 16.30 on Friday; home again exactly 24 hours later, with four hours in hand, in spite of total stopped time of over five hours — a 19-hour 426km ride for me is spectacular, particularly as it started at the end of a working day and included a curry partway through