Poor Student 2014
For many long distance cyclists, the first weekend of January signals a renewal of the 200km Poor Student audax which starts and finishes in a paradox; the quaintly named but prosaic surroundings of Pear Tree car park, situated just north of Oxford.
This Saturday was my tenth consecutive crack at the ride which suggests either a lack of imagination on my part, or a love of the event. It’s probably a bit of each, but the ride offers a singular challenge following on so close after the festive season. Let’s just say that it’s a good barometer of fitness, both mental and physical.
This year was slightly different in that I was joined by four friends who had never ridden an audax before, and who had never ridden 200kms in a day. In preparation, I sent a group e-mail with clear details of what to expect, e.g. headwind, rain, maybe ice, changes in temperature, steep hills, bring food, lights….concluding with ”this ride has teeth”.
Suffice to say that the forecast was pretty awful, 20 mph SW headwind, heavy rain until at least midday, and a maximum temperature of 7 degrees, but feeling like 3 degrees with windchill. The guys were up for it. Alex, Hugh, Saul and Pete all arrived bang on time at 6 a.m in Muswell Hill, North London. We loaded up swiftly and had a good run down the M40 reaching Oxford at 7.20 a.m.
At 8 a.m., it had begun raining in earnest , but we set off in good spirits. Almost immediately, Alex, Hugh and Saul decided that my conservative, energy saving pace was too slow, so they proceeded to up the speed taking turns on the front in the manner of a Team Time Trial. This pattern continued all the way through rolling lanes to Malmesbury, some 80 kms distant. We did enjoy a communal glove wringing session just before Purton which was a bad move as we shed warm water from the gloves only to be replaced with fresh cold water.
At least the high pace helped to ward off hypothermia. The kilometres flew by and we made a snap decision to bounce Malmesbury town centre because it would have been awful to have to remove cold and wet clothing only to have to put it back on again. That, and also the fact that it took forever to coax wet gloves back onto cold fingers.
And so we marched on. The lanes became more and more waterlogged as the land struggled to cope with the amount of water tumbling from leaden skies. Just beyond the hamlet of Oaksey, the road had been replaced not by a lake, but something more akin to angry Scottish loch. We pedalled through but the water was at least a foot deep. I hit a hidden pothole which flatted the front tyre and forced me to walk through the remaining few metres of flowing torrent.
Saul stayed behind with me while the other guys pressed on. He was so cold that he performed some press-ups to keep warm. He said twenty, but I only counted nineteen, the consummate hyperbolist. His encore was to piss on his fingers to keep them warm. I was so cold that the whole process was a frozen fumble. Just removing the dust cap was an Herculean task. Replacing the Schmidt contacts with winter gloves (and without glasses) proved impossible, so I had to bite the bullet and remove gloves, find glasses and then, worst thing of all, attempt to put the sodden gloves back on.
Finally, after much effing and blinding, we resumed our bicycle ride. Saul set a scorching gallop to try and keep warm, his rain jacket billowing in the wind like a parachute. This boy would be the fastest thing on two wheels in a softshell jacket of the correct size. We encountered more humongous billabongs en route to Cirencester, one of which took a sharp turn to the right causing me to hit the bank forcing another feet first episode.
Pete, Alex and Hugh awaited us in Cirencester. We took stock of the situation. Hugh was nigh on hypothermic, Alex wore the expression of someone resigned to his fate, that is riding another 100kms in the rain. Pete had assumed a Jack Nicholson like demeanour. If Nature wants to dish out the pain, then Pete is gonna suck it up and spit it right out. Saul and I ate croissants.
We climbed the ancient Whiteway, warming up a little in the process. Hugh punctured halfway up the hill. A speedy repair was performed. The boys absolutely crashed up the second half of the climb, we were at the triangle of green, signposted Chedworth, in the blink of an eye.
Before long, I was left alone to grovel up the Alps to the A40, Alex recording the joint best time of the day on Strava. The hills came and went, but they felt easier than ever before when tackled in a group of five, even if I was a distant fifth. Hugh suffered another puncture near Temple Guiting which necessitated a new tyre and a bit more standing around in the cold. The boys roared off to keep warm which made the normally endless drag to Chipping seem to fly by. The descent to Chipping Campden in the gloom is always edgy, one for Peter.
We filled our stomachs in the Bantam tea rooms with pea soup, sandwiches, cakes and warm beverages. In the midst of our banquet we were pleasantly surprised by a visit from three former conquerors of this ride staying in nearby Ebrington, including Mr. Philip Sudell of PBP and LEL fame.
Calories consumed, we set off into a darkening but beautiful sky via quiet roads towards the sting in the tail, Batsford Hill. I must ride this route in the summer months, having only seen the ribbon of tarmac that connects Moreton-in-the –Marsh, Evenlode, Addlestrop and Kingham at nightime. The climb up to Lyneham Ridge was not too bad and we headed home through Leafield, Finstock , Hanborough and Cassington . The latter drag strip was taken at about 40 kmph. We returned to Pear Tree some 11 hours after setting off with about three hours off the bikes.
Virgin audaxers no longer, the boys were fantastic company, enduring with humour, riding for each other and all the while observing the audax code. This was a memorable ride, a character building start to 2014. Thanks to Pat Hurt for organising it once again.