Over 100 people thought that riding 300km in November, starting at 10pm, sounded like a fun way to spend a night (and a day). The brainchild of Will Pomeroy from Audax Club Bristol, the 2019 event was only the second running of the Moonrakers & Sunseekers audax but drew an impressive entry given the time of year and weather conditions. I think the number of women might even have been in the double digits.
After the faff and stress of getting bikes on trains from Oxford to Bristol, and then finding our way to the industrial estate that the départ cafe was in, Barbara and I met up with Liz. Liz and Barbara are much more experienced audaxers than me and I was glad to have their company on what we all knew would be a tough ride.
We set off at 10pm in light drizzle. I got separated from Liz and Barbara by some traffic lights so pootled along by myself for a while.
It’s pretty lumpy between Bristol and Bath so I checked my pace, careful to not get swept up at someone else’s faster pace as they whizzed past, rear lights blinking. The start of an audax can pass relatively quickly as there’s lots of riders around to chat with.
On the descent through Newbridge we were rewarded with views over a flood-lit Bath in the valley below.
“Hole left,” I called out to a rider behind me.
“Kat, is that you?” called out the rider in front. I’d caught up with Barbara and Liz.
We rolled through the centre of Bath around 11pm on a Friday night. It was slightly surreal to see others heading for a night out in clubs and bars whilst we were planning to ride through the night.
Bathford hill is a category 4 climb and usually the night hides how big the hill is, but at the early stages of an audax riders can still be bunched together so I had a string of rear lights rising up to the sky. I sat in my lowest gear and span slowly up.
We were riding through familiar villages and towns to where I grew up, skirting Corsham and Melksham. If you told me then what I would be doing now I’m not sure I would have believed you.
The first control was at the Moonrakers pub in Devizes. Cheerful volunteers stamped our brevet cards and we ordered coffees to go with the biscuits and flapjack provided. I removed my second pair of socks as they were making my shoes too tight, and my feet were plenty warm enough with merino socks and my waterproof overshoes. We left at 00:48.
Devizes to Amesbury was mostly on the A342 and A345. At this time of night they were delightfully quiet and fast. It rained on and off and the roads were very wet, but we had a beautiful tailwind as we headed south.
Barbara and I settled into a steady rhythm with another rider (whose name I’ve forgotten!) whilst Liz would bound ahead for a while then drop back to wait for us.
It was only 30km to the next control: the McDonald’s at Amesbury services. I haven’t been to a McDonald’s in years but at 2am chicken nuggets and chips went down rather well. It was hot food. For a service station at the edge of town at 2am there were a surprising number of drunk and boisterous men around. How had they got here? Were they about to get into cars on the same roads we were on?
We stayed on similarly large but empty A roads through Salisbury, Fordingbridge (where we’d stopped on the 3 Down in April), and Ringwood. The rain varied from light drizzle to heavy showers. My jacket was doing a great job at keeping me dry and it was only really my face that was exposed to the elements.
The A roads in the dark weren’t particularly exciting but we ate up the miles. At some point, the rain stopped. The clouds fractured and the bright moon made an appearance.
We had all mis-read the information control question on the brevet card, and were searching for a pre-historic creature not a pre-historic feature on road signs. We were cycling south at 5am trying to make animals fit the description. Cat = sabre-tooth tiger?
“Is that the sea?” Barbara called out.
We could hear the waves on the shore as we turned onto the coastal frontage. We had ridden through the night to meet the sea. The route went along the promenade and we had been warned that it was quite sandy.
There was a lot of sand in some places so we took it steady. I apologised to my bike for all the sand that was getting into the drivetrain. A job for another day.
As I reached the end of the promenade I stopped to look back at the lights of Bournemouth. There was the slightest start of a sunrise in the sky. I stood for a moment to take it in, then sped after the others to Lilliput Sea Scout hut in Poole.
We were very well looked after by the volunteers who had been there for hours – tea, jacket potato, beans, sausage, mushrooms, banana, toast. My face tingled from being out of the wind. Brevet card stamped and 155km done. Fresh contact lenses. We headed out into the chilly sunrise.
Our route turned northwest and into the next block of hills. It was sunnier than forecast which was welcome, it made it feel more like a new ride rather than halfway through a 300. But there was no escaping that we had missed a night’s sleep.
This was a long stretch between controls and straight into a brisk headwind. On audaxes you have to go the checkpoints but there’s nothing stopping you taking additional breaks as long as you’re inside the time limits. We pulled into a little corner shop barn near Hazlebury Barn and had a cup of tea on a picnic bench in the sun.
We rode through some gorgeous villages and autumnal country side. The Abbey near Milton Abbas was beautiful in the morning sun.
The gradient of the hills gradually became less vertical and more manageable to climb in a steady rhythm. I started to feel surprisingly good and pulled ahead from the others for a while. There were some delightful descents and I found I still had some power up the hills. Was this what they called a second wind? Riding through the night felt like a long time ago.
We regrouped at the next control; lunch at Podimore services. Another ‘free’ control so we just needed a receipt to prove we were there within a certain time. I got a coffee and sausage roll from Greggs, and a couple of snacks from the shop.
From Podimore we resumed our tour north, riding through the middle of Glastonbury with a nice view of the tor on the approach. Out the other side it was across the levels with a stiff headwind that Liz towed us through. We were all fading somewhat and paused a couple of times at the side of the road to eat and wake up body parts. Audaxes are an exercise in endurance eating as much as riding your bike.
The Mendips loomed rather alarmingly and we were relieved to find that we joined the Strawberry Line old railway path which climbed gently through a gorge rather than up and over the hills.
I gather some riders didn’t enjoy the off-road section too much but I thought it was great; nice to be away from vehicles and it was a pretty smooth surface most of the time. Yes it was muddy but it’s November; that’s what mudguards are for.
We reached the final control, the cafe at Yatton station, at 15:30. A final coffee and cake. There were still riders around our pace and we knew some were behind us too, which made a change from being the lantern rouge. Tauntingly, there was a train leaving soon from Yatton to Didcot Parkway, and I’m proud and a little surprised that none of us seriously suggested that we get on that instead of getting back on our bikes.
The temperature was going to fall sharply as the sun set so I swapped my gloves back for my thicker pair before we started on the final 28km to Bristol. My gloves were the only clothes I changed during the whole ride.
Some more quiet lanes, another off-road tarmac’d route, and I could tell the fatigue was hitting hard as I watched my heart rate struggle to get above 130bpm.
It was a fun sweeping descent through Long Ashton as it got dark. The stretch by the River Avon was a bit hectic with big roads and lots of traffic so it was a relief to get back to the bike path that we had started on over 19 hours ago.
We pulled into the finish cafe with 45 minutes to spare. We had been out for 20 hours; 15 in the saddle and 5 off. Will had made dahl for the riders so we tucked in and toasted to ourselves with mugs of tea.
Liz summed up our feelings as we parted ways back in Oxford:
“I had a great time. Let’s never do it again!”
I find the psychology around long distance sports fascinating.
Cycling humbles you. There is always someone doing something bigger than you. Just among my friends in my bike club this summer – two rode the whole of the Tour de France a week ahead of the pros, two entered Paris-Brest-Paris, one raced in the Transcontinental (for the second time), one raced in the TransPyrenees (and came third woman) and two are currently attempting to set a tandem round-the-world record.
For me, it is the uncertainty of whether I will make it across the finish line that draws me back again and again to endurance activities. I truly didn’t know whether I would make it to the end of New Zealand when I started; it wasn’t until the last few days close to Bluff that I started talking about when I would get to the end, rather than if.
I plan on doing more long rides and audaxes. Just maybe ones with less sleep deprivation.