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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.