As part of preparation for London Wales London (LWL) in May (400km audax) I had signed up to the Dean in March, a 300km audax. However, I bailed after just 100km of the Dean, when I was unable to satisfactorily answer my own question of “what am I doing here?” as I got clean blown off the road by the storm winds for the second time.
I still wanted to try and finish a 300km ride ahead of LWL, so signed up to the 3 Down at the start of April. They were full but still accepting entries from women which was a nice gesture, and a couple of friends were riding it too. Audaxes are the bastion of the old, white and male, so it’s heartening seeing events encourage female entrants in this way. LWL has gone a step further, capping male entries at 50%. It’s now sold out, and I think the start line of the LWL will feel very different to your typical audax.
I got the train to a hotel in Gerrards Cross on the Friday afternoon, and was up at 5am to ride to the start in Chalfont St Peter for 6am. I went to bed early and slept pretty well, but when the alarm went off at 4:50 I still had that little voice in my head go “Why don’t you just stay in bed? It’ll be much more comfortable.”
There were 5 controls on the 3 Down, 40-70km apart, down to the New Forest and back. The controls opened and closed at certain times and you needed to get a receipt from somewhere within the control town to prove you went there within the time period, or a stamp if the control was manned by volunteers. There was a 20 hour time limit to the whole ride, so I had to be back at Chalfont St Peter by 2am on Sunday. I tried not to think that far ahead as it scared me somewhat, instead focusing on just the ride to the next control.
I met up with Barbara, Camen and Liz, friends from Oxford, at the start and helped myself to a banana and cup of tea. After some initial faff we set off as the sun started to rise. Well, I assume it did, it just got slightly less grey.
The ladies set a pretty speedy space and as much as my ego would have liked to have hung on, I let myself drop back. We got separated by traffic lights and I felt more comfortable riding at my own speed. With 300km to go I just wanted to get round in one piece!
I had already committed one of the big sins of events – using kit that I hadn’t properly tested before – as I’d changed my saddle without doing a long ride on it. The saddle felt fine, but due to the different profile from my previous one, I needed to raise my seatpost. I already had, but evidently not enough. As I stopped to adjust it I noticed with dismay that the seatpost clamp bolt was starting to round out, and I wasn’t confident I could tighten it enough. I did get lots of “Everything okay?” from other audaxers that passed me though.
I fell “in step” with another rider around Henley and we rode together to the first control at Pangbourne village hall, hosted by Willesdeen cycling club. To my surprise the ladies had only just arrived, having eased off after the initial excitement. We tucked in to a second breakfast of beans on toast, jam and porridge.
Setting off together 20 minutes later, we got pedalling on the hilliest section over the North Wessex Downs. The four of us had different tactics on hills, and Barbara and I pulled ahead, making the most of the generous tailwind. We started recognising riders that we kept leapfrogging. My seatpost was slipping down again, and I worried about hurting my knees from riding lower than comfortable. I amused myself for longer than I should admit trying to guess how to pronounce various village names we passed through. Where-well? Were-will? Were-well?
11:30am saw us wheel into Stockbridge for another manned control with a fantastic spread of scones, sausage rolls, cake, fruit and a dedicated barista making us all coffees! Only could have been improved if we were inside as we started to cool down. Camen and Liz arrived as we were still in the queue, and I looked on google maps to try and find a bike shop near the route for a replacement seatpost clamp bolt. It wasn’t looking promising, until Liz mentioned she had a bag of spare bolts with her. Legend. I had a rummage and found one the right size, squealing my adoration of her preparedness across the cafe courtyard. Guess what I’ll be taking with me from now on.
It was only 40km to the next control, and half way point, at Fordingbridge. We paused en route to remove some layers at it was warming up and the sun even made a bit of an appearance. There were some lovely lanes and the route through the New Forest was gorgeous with the ponies and donkeys roaming around people’s gardens.
We needed receipts from now on, so some riders would choose to buy something quick from a petrol station and crack on, but we wanted a bit of proper lunch so rode over the bridge and found a cafe. I charged my GPS and checked the weather forecast. As we were packing up I realised I’d forgotten to actually get the receipt, so went back and they helpfully rescued one for me. Phew.
The wind was north-easterly all day, which meant the remaining 150km was going to be all into a headwind. The return across the open moors of the New Forest was brutal, and we were all glad that there were 4 of us to share the front as we crawled across. We saw one rider sheltering behind some gorse for a rest. Across the other side a while later we had a roadside pit stop for a nature break, and a break from the wind. Our chat had diverged to the consensual aspect of animal mating patterns, as one does, when Asif appeared and joined us for a break, having battled the winds by himself. He carried on soon after. Something we said?
It was 68km from Fordingbridge to the next control at Alresford, but to break it up there were two information controls at 10km then 40km, where we had a bit of a break as well. These are questions you get at the start of the event like “What’s the distance to X on the signpost at Y?” or “What’s the animal on the pub sign at X?”. Google streetview has the potential to ruin these extra controls, but an audax would be an odd thing to cheat on, given that it’s not a race and there are no prizes for finishing.
The wind and the hills were getting tiring, but as we overtook a couple of familiar guys again I looked over my shoulder “Race you to the Fish & Chips!”. They arrived soon after at the chippy in Alresford. At 217km, it was my longest ride, and anything further would be breaking new ground.
We set off slowly, trying to ease the digestion, and stopped just as the daylight was fading for a last adjustment of my seatpost. It was 53km to the next control at Winnersh and we were now a group of 5, having picked up Asif at the chippy – much easier to ride in a group in the dark than by yourself. You can pool lights to see the road better, you’re more visible, and having multiple GPS devices and navigators makes missing turnings in the dark less likely.
My knees and bum were pretty sore by this point, and our hill pace was at a crawl. One up-side to riding at night is you can’t see how big the hills are, so you’ve just got to keep pedaling until it’s over, rather than be intimidated in advance. We reached the top of the last big climb and got a panoramic view of the lights of Basingstoke (probably looking it’s best in the dark). The descent the other side was more cautious in the dark, but the road was delightfully smooth.
We stopped at the Coach and Horses pub near Hook some time after (piecing the last third of this ride together in chronological order is surprisingly hard, I had to look at when we stopped on Strava flyby) as Liz was running low on water, and we all took the opportunity for a bathroom break and a bit of warmth. The barman was very nice to us considering we only bought a bag of crisps, and we headed back out into the night. We did get a few “You’ve cycled HOW long?” from pub goers.
About an hour later we reached Winnersh. At 22:20 the only place open was the kebab van, and the guy must have signed over 50 brevet cards that day. I had a headache and was a bit nauseous, so bought a can of coke and ate some of my own snacks. Liz and I sat on the kerb by the van, waving as the guys appeared after. It was freezing sitting still, so I put the rest of my coke into my empty water bottle, and we cracked on. It took 5 minutes for my teeth to stop chattering, but I wasn’t cold when riding.
We rode on along empty country lanes in the dark. Another benefit of cycling with friends is that you can chat about anything to help keep you awake and keep your concentration. Being perpetually scared of the dark was a good incentive to keep the legs turning and keep up with them.
We hit Maidenhead at 23:30 and searched for somewhere selling tea, but after two petrol stations turned out to be closed we ate a few mini eggs and carried on. My knees and bum were not in great shape, and my arms felt weak just from the tiredness of keeping me up all day. My stomach was okay but I probably hadn’t eaten enough out of fear of upsetting it. I’d ran out of M&Ms.
I think it was only when we got to Gerrards Cross (and waved to my hotel on passing) that I knew I would finish. A final downhill to the community centre for a wonderfully non-fanfare finish. Brevet card stamped and completed with a simple “Well done” from Ian the organiser, we finished with an hour and a half to spare. We cheered Asif and the guys when they came in a little later, and our rag-tag bunch were the last finishers. The organiser’s after-event email said we were “surprisingly cheerful”. Delirious, maybe?
After some rest and much eating of soup, cake, fruit and samosas, I thanked the volunteers, bid farewell to the others and dragged myself back up that hill (which had grown to enormous proportions in my mind whilst at the finish) and sunk gratefully into bed at about 2am. I made full use of check-out being at midday.
At the end of the ride I had been fairly sure I was going to withdraw from the LWL as I couldn’t comprehend cycling any further than I had that day. Just two days later once my body was recovering I had turned back around to the view that I might as well give it a go. These audaxes are a dangerous thing.