I look in the mirror for it, close my eyes and look inside my head for it, I even look at Strava statistics but I just can’t find it. Granted, sometimes I forget what I’m looking for and that is probably a sign in itself.
Everyone else can see it.
It creeps up on you, like a serpent in the undergrowth.
I’ve been cycling a lot lately. Sunday mornings for a regular 80 kms ride, Wednesday mornings for 50kms and early Saturday mornings for a full on blast around Regents Park Outer Circle. The group has bonded firmly and our speed has sky rocketed in the last eighteen months. It is both exhilarating and painful, but totally different to the long distance stuff which caught my imagination in 1999 and with which I have been intermittently absorbed ever since.
So our group covers an age range of 18 to 56, with the majority of us over 45. It has been a pleasing revelation to witness the commitment to cycling in all weathers which has reaped this great improvement. With this in mind, I decided to tackle a ride called the Severn Across. This is a 406 km audax event which departs Chalfont St.Peter at 06:00 a.m, and reaches Chepstow at 218 kms, just over the Welsh border, before the returning back to Chalfont. I have completed this event five or six times, always finishing in about 24 hours.
This time was going to be different.
Older (but in denial), wiser, lighter and faster.
The weather forecast was good. Sunny, not too warm, no wind and no rain. I decided to ride my carbon Giant Advanced TCR SL racing bike with top quality Dura- Ace C35 wheels. The gearing was just about low enough to winch up the 23% incline of Symonds Yat. A few minor modifications to accommodate lighting and a slightly more upright riding position had to be made, but when all was done, I determined on finishing in less than 20 hours.
Gadzooks, the morning of Saturday 3rd May was cold. Perhaps the coldest morning of the year. The 40 assembled riders shivered in unsion like a huge jelly tipped out of a mould.
We set off towards Great Missenden, I briefly forgot about ‘setting a time’. However, we weren’t going fast enough to keep warm, so I pushed on in pursuit of three riders who had hared off into the distance. About eight more jumped into my slipstream and before you could shout ‘choo choo train’, we had a respectable chaingang going, with about four of us taking turns to blast a hole into the oncoming air.
It was like being in Regents Park with the boys. These young whippets were hunting down an imaginary prey. The temperature had stubbornly refused to rise, but our express traversed the Chilterns, sped across the vale of Aylesbury and headed towards Woodstock, just to the north of Oxford, all the while in bright sunshine..
We stopped at the Tea Rooms in Woodstock to have our cards stamped and scoff some baked beans to stoke the furnace. An agreement was made to temper the pace a little so that we might carry on working effectively together as a group. I felt honoured to be included in this invitation. These guys were good.
And so we headed towards Stow on the Wold and the lumpy Cotswolds. The villages of Charlbury, Ascott under Wychwood, Lyneham and Bledington came and went. The rolling ridges wore a mantle of yellow rapeseed, and hawthorn blossom weighed down the hedgerows adjacent to the road. As we passed through a wood, bluebells carpeted the ground like spun floss. We all acknowledged this scene, it strengthened our common bond to enjoy such beauty.
We had been whittled down to a group of four. Stuart, Javier, Gavin? and me. The others were stronger climbers. I feared being left behind on the ramps of Lower Swell and Campden Lane, but the the racing bike and the ‘new for old’ legs did a good job of hanging on to the young bucks. We descended gingerly into Winchcombe, where finally it was possible to remove some of the warmer clothing.
A truly scintillating stretch of group energy blitzed the tarmac from Winchcombe to Tewksbury where we were joined by Pete K who had polished off a late brunch. The rhythm was maintained as we crossed the Severn for the first time and followed the route to Corse Green, Upleadon, Newent and Micheldean. The Forest of Dean beckoned. Thick ripe cowslip lined the the grassy banks of the lanes which were sprinkled with daisies and dandelions, it was a fecund feast for the eyes.
The guys nursed me through a bad patch. I hadn’t eaten enough and our bodies demanded fuel for this rampant expenditure of energy. At 185 kms into the ride, we crossed the River Wye and my chain broke. My companions, deep in concentration, were unaware of this as I was just a few metres behind them.
I fixed the problem as quickly as possible with a chain tool and spare link, but my gruppetto had departed, leaving me to face the steep ascent of Yat Rock alone, with blackened and sticky hands. The narrow and twisty road was chocka with metal boxes, though everyone behaved in a perfectly civilised manner as I winched my way up the slope which hits a maximum gradient of 23%. In truth, the climb continues for a couple more miles up to Coleford, but by this time I had been reduced to a crawl.
From Coleford, the B4228 is a roller coaster road to Chepstow, and I briefly spied my erstwhile companions on a hill in the distance. All at once I came across Pete K sitting by the side of the road like he was waiting for Godot. We teamed up for the next 100 kilometres, enjoying a late and filling lunch at Aslan’s cafe and experiencing the loss of my Visa card in an RBS machine, and a puncture and split tyre at the foot of the 17 % climb to the Somerset Monument near Hawskesbury.
In between, we blazed a trail over the Severn Bridge, careering through Thornbury, Wickwar and Inglestone Common. We crested the Hawkesbury climb and smashed on to Malmesbury via Sherston before taking refreshment in the Co-op at the 267 kms marker. The ensuing climb to Wootton Basset was the first time I had experienced this in daylight, and there was plenty of time left. Wroughton, Chiseldon and Hinton Parva were left in our wheel tracks as we climbed across the flank of the Downs in the evening sunshine. The right turn to Bladon signalled a long drag up to the twinkling red siren lights of the telephone mast adjacent to Membury Service station, our next port of call.
Pete was sleepy tired, and I needed more food and a good cup of coffee, but our pace never wavered. I recalled one year when I rode this climb in my tiniest gear, but on this occasion the chain stayed lodged in the mighty big ring. Before long we turned off into the service road and re-fuelled our bodies.
Pete decided to linger, but I had my 20 hour deadline, which had been compromised by the broken chain, lost card and split tyre threesome. I set off preferring to follow the routesheet’s menu of winding lanes and remote villages. Peasemore, Beedon, World’s End, Hampstead Norreys, Crays Pond….see if you can find them on a map, and then imagine riding there in the dead of night. A wonderful experience.
By the time I had climbed away from and beyond Goring, tiredness had set in. Great care was needed not to take a wrong turn, but I had passed through Sonning Common and Harpsden many times before at night and the path was wired into my brain. Devil’s Hill leads to Harpsden Bottom, which in turn is followed by Gravel Hill and hey presto you are in Henley, like a man sawn in two halves and put back together again.
The remaining 32 kms from Henley are quite tiresome. By this time, I just wanted the ride to be over, but still had the infernally steep Holtspur Lane to overcome. There were plenty of revellers on the streets of Marlow, but by the time I reached Wooburn to face the bloody climb, all had gone quiet. There was another clansman from the audax club clawing his way up the hill. I caught him in Beaconsfield. He had taken the main road route which is perfectly in order, but proved significantly quicker than the lanes. Frank kindly towed me back to the clubhouse finish, where we were looked after in regal style by Liam, the organiser.
The finishing time of 19 and a half hours was most pleasing considering my earlier travails, and the arrival of Pete K some ten minutes later was a welcome sight. He probably got sick and tired of towing me all over the gaff…but that’s audax for you!