The Poor Student 200km audax

In some end of 2016 festivities with the wonderful Broken Spoke Team Beryl folk, someone mentioned their intention to go on a ride in early January. This ride would be 200km long, in a triangle starting and finishing in Oxford, an audax known as ‘The Poor Student‘. I’d heard of audaxes before, but the mind boggling distances and feats of endurance had never before appealed. I was still unsure what exactly an audax was. All I knew was that it was a very long cycle.

It was, however, a few glasses of mulled wine past sensible o’clock, and when a friend said they wanted to do it, but only if someone would do it with them, I found myself raising my hand. I believe my words were “as long as we can eat a lot of cake”. Before the weight of the mince pies could slow my enthusiasm, I entered online (for the pricely sum of £8). In comforting quaintness, audaxes provide written shorthand routesheets for you to print out, as well as GPX files.

A few days before the audax was scheduled on the first weekend of January, I finally admitted I’d been in denial about how bad my ankle was. I’d twisted it in Morocco in November and whilst I could walk okay, it hurt when clipping out of road cleats. Trying to ride 200km like that would just be foolish. I emailed the organiser and withdrew my entry.

Fast forward to a sunny Sunday in August, ankle now healed, and weather much more appealing to be out all day, I decided I’d have a go at the route by myself. I’d spent the last 2 weeks “dot-watching” my friend El and others in the Transcontinental Race from Belgium to Greece, and was feeling somewhat inspired. I’d missed a group of Condors doing the route the week before due to mechanical issues with my bike (needed a new bottom bracket), so it was third time lucky at getting to the start line.

The official route starts from the Park & Ride, but I wasn’t doing a proper DIY audax (where you can send off a completed brevet card/receipts as proof) so decided to keep it simple and head straight out of town.

Official Poor Student 200 route

I was riding it anti-clockwise, heading to Chipping Campden first, with the idea that it would get the hilly Cotswolds out of the way in the first half, with the run back from Malmesbury being flatter and with a tail wind. I left at 8am in bright sunshine and wound through the various roadworks on quiet roads out of Oxford towards Eynsham.

I didn’t have a garmin/GPS to show me a map of where to go, so did some studying of the route the night before, and had it loaded on my phone along with printed out routesheet. This meant I was stopping fairly frequently to check the way, mostly memorising the next couple of villages/towns to go through. I only went the wrong way four times I think, but there’s nothing worse than starting up a massive hill not quite being sure if it’s the right way. I tried not to stress too much about the route though, as audax routes are only suggestions of how to get between the control points at Chipping Campden and Malmesbury.

I stopped in Moreton in Marsh for elevenses after ~60km. The main issue I found with riding solo was being paranoid about my bike – I couldn’t find any cafes with off-road outdoor seating so dashed inside to order coffee and cake then back out to my bike. I didn’t have enough cash and they had a card limit so I bought a spare brownie for later. The guy behind the till kindly let me bring the bike inside when I used the loo.

It wasn’t far to Chipping Campden afterwards, where the route turned south-west towards Malmesbury with a big hill drag out of town. At one point I heard the whirring of wheels behind me and was soon overtaken by a pack of Mickey Cranks riders – a club based in Witney, meaning they were regular competitors with the Condors at local races.

“Condor! You’re even further from home than we are!” the lead rider shouted in way of greeting as they rolled past. They offered to give me a tow, but they were going a bit too fast to me, as well as in the wrong direction. Still, nice to see friendly clubs when out and about!

I’d reached the hilliest section, and it was a case of climbing in my lowest gear with heart rate soaring, then descending as quick as I dared (read: not very quick), and repeat.

I got to the last of the bunch (highlighted on the elevation graph above) and was grinding away in my lowest gear, wondering if I could make it all the way to the top or not (see above heart rate at 193bpm), when a car came down the single track road and basically forced me off. Having stopped, there was no way I could start again on that gradient, so I walked about 100m until it flattened out slightly.

Thankfully after that it was a long gentle descent almost all the way to Cirencester, and on one road making navigation simple. I was getting pretty peckish at this point (around 2pm) so was looking for somewhere for lunch. I got a little lost trying to follow road signs, and hadn’t seen anywhere suitable for my bike in the centre. I had a quick look on google maps and found a pub which said it had a small back garden, which was just down the road. I pedalled over and it was perfect – a garden that I could wheel my bike in off the road and quiet enough that others in the garden had seen Me and My Bike.

They had officially just stopped serving food, but let me order the spaghetti and I got a pint of orange juice mixed with lemonade. However hungry I was when I started, I only managed two thirds of the bowl that appeared. Spaghetti’s not something that travels well in a cycle jersey either…

Cirencester marked the rough half-way point, and leaving a bit after 3pm, I thought 8pm might be a good finish time, at 12 hours. A fairly flat 15 miles later, I proceeded to get trapped in Malmesbury’s one-way system, before getting spat out at the market square. There were a pair of cycle tourers at the square, so I risked a dash into the corner shop for an ice cream. I sat in the sun for a while with my legs up on the stone seats.

I was now onto the last side of the triangle, having turned east onto the ‘home stretch’ back to Oxford. It was still about 50 miles, having done 80 so far, and I was a bit tired but feeling good.

This leg was flatter than the previous two, as it had one third of the distance but one fifth of the elevation. The flat sections didn’t seem to agree with my legs however, or the distance was just taking its toll, as a dull pain started at the front of my left knee.

I started taking frequent mini breaks with my legs straight which seemed to help, or at least for the pain went away for the next 20 minutes or so. As if in punishment for lamenting the flat sections, I passed a road called ‘Lower Pavenhill’. Hmm. As suspected, the road started climbing up Pavenhill, until it found ‘Upper Pavenhill’.

From here I was soon skirting around the top of Swindon, including going the wrong way into a new development of houses, which resulted in a little sit down in the grass as I decided I probably needed to eat something again. I managed to take the long way through Highworth as well, and these little navigation errors were starting to frustrate my tired body. My average speed had been dropping considerably, and I stopped in Shrivenham for a proper refuel.

‘Proper refuel’ in this case meant asking in Co-op if they minded me bringing my bike in, and buying a strawberry protein milkshake, an orange juice to put in my water bottle, a boost bar, and a mars bar. There didn’t seem to be any benches on the high street, so I leant my bike against a post box and tucked into the calories whilst sitting on the pavement. It wasn’t my bike; it was comfy.

Feeling refreshed, and resetting my knee for a while, eventually the road wound it’s way to Gainfield and Pusey. I was now only 15 miles from home, and on a road I’d ridden many times. I’d like to say that it gave me a new burst of energy and I sped up, but that didn’t happen. I stopped again a bit beyond the A420 to give myself a little pep talk. In this time a car drove past, stopped, reversed back towards me and asked if I was okay. I’d lain my bike a bit haphazardly on the side and was stood on the grass verge staring vaguely at the setting sun with my hands on my hips, and covered in a film of dirt. I guess I looked rather odd. He already had a bike in his boot, so it would have been very easy to say no, and let him give me a lift home. I’m not entirely sure why I didn’t say that, but instead found myself saying I was fine.

I cursed myself slightly as he drove away, but decided that my response must mean I could do it. Back on the bike.

I had one more little sit-down and turning my lights on before reaching Cumnor, relieved that I would soon be home. I gently pedalled through town, bemused how full of energy I’d been earlier in the way when I’d been heading out of town to start (was it really the same day?), and how knackered I was now. Due to my knee issues, I completed the 130 miles (slightly more than mapped out) in around 13 hours.

I walked in the door, greeted by my housemate “How was the ride?”

“200km is a really long way”.

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