The importance of people

On Saturday, I rode my first 400km audax and subsequently my longest ride ever. The event was London Wales London which started at 6am in Chalfont St Peter out to Chepstow and back. The route meandered through the Chilterns and Cotswolds meaning hills would be a common grind.

Lorna drove us down to her friends’ house in Staines (about half an hour from the start) on Friday afternoon where we were greeted by some of the best hospitality I’ve received from strangers. Graeme and Sarah had prepared a pasta bake, salad and wine, which we gratefully indulged in. They had moved into their house just two weeks earlier, yet they still welcomed guests into their new home despite us using it for just a few hours kip before waking up at audax o’clock not to be seen again for 24 hours.

Car loaded and ready for the pilgrimage to the south

Lorna barely slept that night. Nerves of her first audax, first 400, longest ride ever coupled with the excitement of seeing her friends for the first time in a while. I managed to get about five hours, which I know isn’t ideal before riding a bike for a whole day but it was better than nothing at all.

We got ready with an audience of bikes already prepared for their day ahead. The click of shoes into pedals, velcro of bikepacks, clicking of boa fasteners, clomp of riders walking to and from the community hall to get their brevet cards echoed around the chilly car park with the breath of riders checking each other was ready and excited for what was to follow.

I knew a few others doing this audax: Andy Matthews, Jo Burt and Gavin Peacock. We were also joined by their friend Adam so the six of us formed a neat little peloton ensuring we could work together and get everyone around in one piece. Thankfully for me after I stupidly relied on one 400km route on my Garmin, I had to rely on everyone else for the route. Lorna was using a Garmin she’d never used before and therefore didn’t know how to work the thing so together, we were a bit of a shambles! I made sure I took turns into the wind to thank the guys for their guidance, support and directions throughout the day.

Somewhere in daylight

After a couple of hills scattered all the riders, a few had latched on to the back of us but none willing enough to take a turn for our bunch. As this is against the rules of cycling etiquette, we quickly managed to shake them off as they lost concentration from chatting too much sitting in the wheels. Soon enough though, I was chatting with people I’d never met before, asking their experience of audax and whether this too was their first 400. Surprisingly, it was a lot of people’s first time doing a distance this long so I wasn’t the only one out there popping the proverbial.

Yellow fields = hayfever

Despite only having met Jo, Gav and Adam for the first time that day, we soon became very comfortable around each other discussing all sorts of topics, burping, tweaking our kit (this is the polite version) in the middle of a school car park, explaining indigestion, sleeping and crying in front of each other. OK, most of that was Lorna who’d never met any of these people before but this is what cycling does. It brings down barriers and puts you on a level playing field with everyone else you’re with. We’re all human.

What a good looking information control

My longest ride prior to this was Manchester to London back in 2015 which was 355km in one go. I felt good after this ride and given my time (with stops) was 15:30, I figured I’d have finished this 400 in around about 20 hours. I was so wrong. I learnt early on that 400s are a different ball game altogether. From the off, you have to prepare yourself for very little sleep and complete exhaustion. There were sections of our ride where we barely spoke a word to each other for a good couple of hours. Everyone was trying to focus on the job at hand: riding a bike and not falling asleep. As dusk came down on us, we knew this would only get harder and harder. The section from Chepstow to Lambourn was 100km and tough terrain with sharp hills when we already had 300km+ in our legs. I was losing my mind and really needed a nap to continue. Thankfully Lorna got a puncture so I got my head down for 10 minutes while everyone else sorted that out and I felt instantly better. I managed to carry on for a while until we got to Lambourn where I had some hot food and lay down for half an hour.

I talked to one of my closest friends who was about to go to sleep in his warm bed while I lay on a cold concrete floor. I was having a bit of a personality failure and needed someone to talk to. I wondered why I put myself through this kind of experience, why I couldn’t get the same satisfaction from 100km rides as I did out of these rides. I talked to him about what goes through my mind when I ride: my family, work, bikes, life. Even as I write this, I can feel myself going through the emotions all over again. Time to crack on before it gets real deep (and also to allow said friend to sleep while the six muskateers ride their bikes until his alarm goes off).

I can sleep anywhere

Night riding was new to me. I’d never ridden tired at night before with 300km behind me. The trees arched over the roads, our lights made great shadows of us and the only sound for miles was the gentle buzz of our rear hubs. Trying to concentrate on cycling while tired was extra difficult and before I knew it we had another little stop near some benches so we could all complete the final stretch. Andy was struggling, I continued to struggle and the others seemed fine though I like to think it was a facade. 

Concrete makes a great bed

Birds began to announce themselves, the sky became slightly more blue than black, the world was waking and we hadn’t yet slept. This was the final 20km but it felt like the longest. We enjoyed a few fast roads before turning a corner out of Beaconsfield where a hill raised itself in front of us. I had to pull over to take a minute. I was completely exhausted and the last thing I wanted to do was climb another hill albeit a lot smaller than some of its predecessors. Jo rode with me while a few tears rolled down my cheeks. He reassured me that we’d all felt like this at some stage of the ride, my time was now. As we crested the top, we shook hands.

The English Welsh border

This whole experience is why I ride. I ride because the people I meet are always amazing, they support me when I most need it and I return the favour. They put their noses into the wind in order that I have a slightly easier ride. They talk me through the hard parts and make me laugh during the easier sections. They take photos so that I can take memories away with me. Most of all they’re just great people to share the road with and I can’t wait to ride with these delightful humans again. 

Today is Mike Hall’s funeral and while I’m taking time off the bike to recover, I’m confident he’d have let me off for it having achieved something huge last weekend. With Mike in our hearts and minds, he’ll be there to help us through the tough rides and there to enjoy the better ones with us forever.

Visit Gav’s blog for more photos.

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  1. A 400 under the belt; a 600 to come? Glad to hear you all enjoyed it. We spoke briefly as we were leaving Woodstock and i told you the next stage would be “rolling”. I thought you were brave to ride with the camera around your neck, given the state of some of the roads, but it’s good to see the action shots.

  2. Cracking effort guys and those pictures capture the joy of Audax 🙂 The smell of the pizza when we entered the square at Malmesbury was very enticing, well done on picking and completing such a challenging first 400km!

    If you fancy a trip to the seaside, then we (ACME) have got a 400km running in June from Manningtree in Essex, up to the coast for fish & chips and then back again, not as much TLC but not as much climbing either 🙂 Asparagus & Strawberries 400km,

  3. fantastic blog. it brought all the memories back and although we all looked like swans at the start I was sure all our bellies were turning somersault. the trip home was really hard (hills hills and more hills) blew my legs off in the end and I had to walk up the hills out of Pangbourne and Marlow so chapeau if you rode all the way.

  4. We kept leap frogging you most of the way round. Sitting outside a cold Esso garage between Chepstow and Lambourn, and Malmesbury, being two of many cross over points. We also arrived at the finish close together. But we noted your group were still smiling and joking whenever we saw you. Well done for completing your first 400.

  5. It’s not so bad eh Grace?? Know when we first met almost 2 years ago Oli and a few others couldn’t comprehend that I in the not so slick clothing and bike with no idea of fast group riding could have cycled from the top of Wales to the Bottom..or indeed complete M2L!!

    Congrats indeed a lot of people find 400s the hardest distance…I like it…look forward to next report from BCM..unfortunately I wont be there even though I thought I would be at RCCMCR pasta and use the house sunday evening – I have a new #bemoremum – your blog has inspired many and I’m going to use some of my time to briefly compose a blog on madness,bikes,beers and adventure alongside children/chickens & chaos!!

    See you soon Mad Gibbo (akaMark)

    • Thanks Mark. Definitely #bemoremum – sounds like you’ll be the one doing the inspiring next time.

      Very nervous for Bryan Chapman. It’s such a huge ride and I can barely get my head around it! Wondering whether I’ve bitten off more than I can chew.

  6. Hi Grace. Lovely write up of what turned out to be quite the epic all-nighter none of us could see coming. Great blog and an inspiration to people getting their toes dipped into the weird and wonderful world of the long-distance bike ride.

    Hope the Bryan prep is going well and I think you will absolutely love it! It is a beautiful route and the transition from one scenery to the next is best viewed at cycling pace. Remember, if at any point it gets a little too much, there’ll be a wheel to sit on or a shoulder to lean on or an ear to have a rant at! When it all settles, the mantra is “Push the right pedal down. The left comes up. Push the left pedal down. The right comes up. Repeat.”

    See you at the Bulwark community centre on Saturday morning.


    • Ahh yes! I’m really nervous for Bryan. I don’t know why. I just want to ride my bike and get on with it now because I’m sick of making last minute kit changes! See you on the road

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