FFS (Flatlands, fixed, sodden)
August 2016
Ride report from the 2016 special wet edition of Flatlands

As I was browsing in my lunchtime Evans I saw some arm warmers, Endura, water repellant. I know that’s a lie, even with modern materials being as good as they are we all know that water repelling and waterproof mean the same thing – will be good for an hour at most, then you might as well be wearing a cotton shirt.

I bought them anyway.  The hollow promise helped me overcome the urge to pack The Flatlands. I could make the start line in my new arm warmers then everything would be ok from there, right?

After some late minute drama with a chain on my fixie I had everything ready to go about 9 on Friday night. As usual I had started with a ‘go light go fast’ packing list carefully fitted into a small rack bag and then, as the reality of what I was about to do kicked in, I dug the large saddlebag out and loaded it up with those extra bits and pieces that accompany a long and rainy ride – an extra pair of socks, a second top, the battery charger plug etc.

And as usual I didn’t get a good sleep. On account of the early start I had been banished to the living room and its not-so-comfy sofa. Waking at 4 I wheeled old reliable to the car and drove out into Essex.

I was meant to arrive early and help out at the Arrive but managed to be perfectly on time instead. I had a couple of minutes with a cup of tea, saying hello to my riding buddies Ian and Jonathan. Turns out their plan was exactly the same as mine (hotel off-route in Scunthorpe). Great middle-aged minds think alike. After the good field had set off I stayed behind and helped the ACME crew tidy up and then we formed a small posse rocking the dips to Red Lodge.

The rain stayed off for about an hour, and what a nice hour it was. No one was in a desperate hurry and there were three of us fixies in the bunch of 8, so the pace up and down was sensible. Nik B, out on his fixie for the first time on anything over 200k, had packed light and was planning to make it through as best he could. He’s a powerful chap and was pushing a higher gear than me 74 to my 72.

I had, despite all the ‘learnings’ I had acquired last time, set off on my higher gear in the naive belief that there would be a tail wind – as forecast with the rain.

By the time we hit Red Lodge it was raining properly. I had a couple of peanut butter sandwiches made with my precious gluten free bread, and one instead of bothering with a breakfast, my plan was to bounce and get to Whittlesey ASAP.

Ian and Jonathan had elected for the breakfast and, as chance would have it, were ready to set off at exactly the same time as me. This is how we met and how we keep riding together – we seem to keep a similar pace and schedule on many rides and even if we start at separate times or on a different pace we often end up together. Ian and Jonathan are great company too, entertaining and voluble, a good foil to my often grumpy, long-suffering and silent ‘distance mode’.

This is one of the undiscussed benefits of Audax – riding with and slowly befriending people from very different backgrounds who you normally wouldn’t meet. Here we were, about to get soaked to the skin for the next ten hours; me, a web guy from London via NZ, a programme manager for BT living in  the lovely village of Dedham in Essex and a social services manager living in Swaffam. Conversation can veer from the Suffolk drug trade to corporate boardroom power struggles to my pitiful moaning about my own hectic agency job. And because we are all safely middle aged and superfluous to a society based on youth and folly, we can can talk about all manner of silly things without worrying about offending anyone, or being taken seriously.

We did the boring bit from Red Lodge to Whittlesey at a decent pace. It had been wet but a few k out from the village, out on the long straight familiar from the Hareward 300 not so long ago, it really opened up. It’s not often that rain in London actually runs off you like you are being rinsed under a tap, but that’s what is was like.

So we arrived like a comedy act at the cafe. Ian and Jonathan were going to bounce it but were seduced by a cup of tea while I had my breakfast jacket potato. We had a charming waitress who waved us in and pretended to find the sight of three lycra clad dripping wet middle-aged men normal, then proceeded to line us up with a good breakfast. We were so wet after after Ian walked to the toilet she placed a ‘caution wet floor’ sign in his wake.

Roger (fidgetbuzz) joined us at the table before doing that thing he does with time and space where he suddenly disappears and teleports 40k up the road where you overtake him an hour and half later.

Then the really boring bit through to Boston. B road boredom and wetness. Passing the usual flatlands comedy moments (the Mountain Rescue depot, Peak Hill). Jonathan was already grumbling about the bloody boring roads. He’d done this before, he knew there was worse to come…

I didn’t see much apart from mudguards and rain dripping from my cap for the next few hours. It wasn’t too cold – though not as warm as expected – and the tailwind provided occasional respite but most of the time we were plugging away at a steady pace. Jonathan would get bored and hare off for a few minutes and then Ian and I would sequentially fall off his wheel until he realised he couldn’t keep that pace up for the next 450km and would drift back to us.

Rinse repeat until Weatherspoons at Boston. The spoons has come a long way in a couple of years. they actually have a gluten-free menu and this year had GF apple crumble. Awesome! I had to have some of that. And a curry on rice. I knew this was the last decent meal before breakfast at Sleaford some 14 hours in the future. A quick stop at Holland and Barrett for me to pick up some GF bars and off we went again, this time in a larger group, which Jonathan proceeded to fracture by getting bored and racing off the front. So it wasn’t just Ian and I that he found too slow.

Much nicer roads now, with the rain finally easing. I was still ok on the 72 and peddling steadily. By my count there must have been around 8 fixie riders this year. It is the perfect 600 in some ways. There no no hills to speak of. The downside of that is that you spend a lot of time in your saddle. You don’t get those micro-rests and moments where you can lift your bottom to relieve the pressure. When you add a steady stream of water into your shorts the irritation level rises and even on the trusty Brooks I was already beginning to suffer from saddle discomfort, despite the application of gentleman’s comfort balms.

But what was I going to do, turn back?

No I was not. I had started this ridiculous idea of doing an Essex SR fixed and I really needed to finish it. It’s just a lot harder riding my fixed than my road bike. I suspect that’s because my fixie is an old pig-iron bike with heavy commuting wheels on it. It’s about as fast as my Kinesis ATR, but nowhere near as comfortable. It’s comfortable as my ageing Salsa La Raza with it’s lovely light wheels, but nowhere hear as fast. So it’s the worst of both worlds then!

The good thing about riding fixed is that you pace gets dictated to you. You just have to keep your cadence until otherwise interrupted by a hill or wind. There’s no thinking about backing off, or racing ahead, you just ride.

Perfect for the Flatlands then. A perpetual motion machine for an event where you can often feel like you are totally still and pulling the world beneath your wheels. If Flatlands were a movie it would the boring bit of a western where they ride across a plain, endlessly looped. It it was a book it would be a phonebook. If it were breakfast cereal it would be porridge with a slick of milk on top.

If Flatlands were a moment it would be the existential crisis of realising that you were alone in the world without a god to save you. The challenge of Flatlands is working out what to do with that feeling. Do you just try and go as fast as you can? Do you spend time looking around you and noting the different textures in the fields, becoming an expert in brassica appreciation? Or do you just ‘zen’ it?

This year my strategy evolved with the people I was riding with, and became a dance between resignation, fantasising about the delights of the next control (hard at Goole, to be sure) and generally trying to keep a sense of humour. Shouting ’scenic attraction’ as you pass over a irrigation canal, ’strava’ as you up and over a railway bridge.

On Sunday Ian actually shouted ‘Pumpkins!’ with an unusual degree of happiness.

But we haven’t reached that monumental highlight yet, we’ve still got to get to Goole. The rain, which had been giving us some last friendly cuffs around the head, finally stopped properly and we actually saw the sun for a few minutes as it set. We burrowed into the darkness and made the run into Goole around eleven and, after I collapsed onto a Pig Shake, we took a well-earned breather.

Nik B was there, as was Mike Lane, so our pace must have been ok. At this point I knew that I had taken the right idea my booking a hotel. There was no shame in it, both Steve and Judith were doing the same, so who’s to argue when such fine riders have the same strategy?

Having botched my hotel booking last year and spent time shivering in a bus shelter I was not keen to repeat the experience – it just made the whole second day a misery for me. So it was with a great deal of happiness that we rolled in at the beige-cladded horror that is Scunthorpe Travel Lodge. I bid Ian and Jonathan good night (they were relieved to discover they had a twin not a double) and wheeled my bike into my room. First thing I did was change gear, down to 69 in readiness for tomorrow, then took a shower, draped clothes over the heater and plugged my cache battery into it’s charger and fell to sleep.

A second later I woke up. No, it was three hours. Ok. I had 20 minutes to get all my stuff back into the saddlebag and get outside to meet the others. The heater, overwhelmed by soggy clothes, had switched itself off and my clothes were no drier. I treated myself to a merino base layer and new socks, then dragged on my shorts, wincing as they settled into old wounds. This was going to be An Issue.

5am Sunday morning in Scunthorpe. Don’t say Audax doesn’t open out new experiences to you.

We had a choice of track. Jonathan’s route took us straight down the A road to Gainsborough which is a bit lumpy. As this was the site of my slowest and most miserable hour on a bike this side of the day of my birth last year, I was keen to avoid it and had lined up a route along the flat riverside road. I won, I think only because my track was right there and my Garmin (unusually) was behaving perfectly.

I struggled on this bit and I&J had to wait for me once or twice. This was my mid ride, dawn time dip. I was hoping it would pass as 20kph all the way home would be pretty tedious.

After a quick stop at Gainsborough we set off on the Lincoln road, where the first challenges for fixie riders lay. In fact having to tackle the hill up onto the Lincoln ridge meant I was up and onto it before I really noticed it. I had definitely picked up some energy with the sunrise and the lovely dawn promised a hot and cloud free day. And maybe a headwind.

After briefly losing Ian in Lincoln because he didn’t want to ride down the cobbled streets (!) and naffing about with selfies we headed on the road to breakfast, arriving at Sleaford at 9:30. Last year I was here on the dot of 8am – but then I hadn’t had three hours sleep and was feeling awful. This time I just felt tired and hungry – the default for a long ride so a good result.

Another win for The Spoons – GF porridge. I felt like a corner had been turned. I would have been better off with an English, but the novelty was too much and I had the porridge – I should have had three bowls though. The usual array of shattered full value riders came and went, all looking grateful for a decent meal and a nice seat and trying to avoid thinking about what lay ahead.

I took off the merino and arm warmers and we headed back out on the road. Everything but my shoes and socks was now dry and the day itself was lovely. The only problem is the route to Chatteris. It’s a long leg, 90km, and you retrace a lot of the previous day’s route before taking in some very long and very dull straights across the Fens.

The Fens, home of winds with no barriers to break them, home of the massive agrifarm, home of the road raised above the damp and into the wind. I was in a play once called ‘Fen’ where an angry farmer kills his wife with an axe. It made sense now.

A highlight was being told off by a man for leaning my bike against his wall next to a convenience store. He was so enervated that he could barely summon up the anger to bark at me. He just kind of resignedly told me to get my bike away from his house, as if it was a job, a task he had committed to many years ago and now performed as a chore. What would happen if he stopped doing it? In that moment would he discover that there was no god, that hating cyclists was not enough and maybe he would discover a new and rewarding role in life. I sincerely hope so, for the man was a dough of dislike mixed with a leavening measure of tedium.

The Fens, where the trivial blooms and then rots under the endless cheap plate of sky, where the earth really is flat.

And so we rode on.

The gentle headwind was just enough to be irritating and took our speed down a few clicks. Of course we all knew we would make it now, just on 170kms from Sleaford home, but there is that feeling when you just want to be done with it all. And it’s as this feeling kicks in that the challenge of the Flatlands becomes apparent. There might not be hills, but there is a special kind of challenge in riding on endless roads that feel like they were ruled onto landscape by a particularly exacting draughtsman. Their very straightness reveals a kind of illness – it’s like having to live in the mind of a habitual train spotter for a day and being confronted with the kind of consciousness that only sees linear sequences and direct causality. It’s an acidic mix of the perfect chasing the efficient.

And it’s this that makes the field of pumpkins so notable. You are surrounded by nature in The Fens and yet it seems entirely synthetic, almost alien. Seeing something properly organic and colourful is a shock of pleasure.

“Pumpkins!” shouts Ian, with a degree of happiness in his voice. The boredom is broken for a second and then we are back to the fields of cabbage.

Meanwhile Jonathan was suffering with ‘Fendomination’ the most, or at least was being the most vocal about it. He lost a bit of puff on this leg. And to be fair he had been the strongman out of the three of us thus far, so Ian and I took more turns, slowly criss-crossing the fields in towards Chatteris in an unusual silence. It was about here that the inevitable avowals to never again do 600s came into my head. But the truth was I was doing just fine – I found myself remembering my slow deflation on PBP last year and realised that, even in our silence, just sharing the ride with people I know and liked made it so much better. Not that there isn’t a joy in solo epics, but when the going is tough – when the rains kicks in, the night comes on or when you get a case of the negatives – then good company is a winner.

After a leisurely stop in Chatteris we started discussing which route to take back – the short busy horrid road from Saffron Walden, or the longer route via Ugley. I wanted the longer route but quickly gave in – actually what I wanted now was the quickest possible end to the ride, and the ‘correct’ route offered that.

After the busway and then the all to brief scenic distraction of Cambridge we were onto the Saffron Walden road. What a dismal riding experience that was. Tons of cars, people anxious to get home for Bake off or whatever is on TV on a Sunday night, and a twisty lumpy road. After Saffron Walden it got even worse – steeper hills, and even more cars, an endless stream of them.

At least the hills meant I could get off my bum. I’d had to resort to using Voltarol below to ease the pain, but any relief was most welcome. And I almost welcomed the chance to give my legs a good spin out on the downhills.

We got into Dunmow around 7:30. I fully expected Roger to be there, ready to buy a round in celebration of his Ultra. He had set off from Chatteris before us but somehow his time and space trick hadn’t worked and we didn’t see him on the route. Congratulations anyway Roger!

I didn’t hang around for long. I wanted to get home quickly so that the urge for sleep that I knew was coming wouldn’t turn me into a driving danger, so after a quick debrief with Tom I bid the boys goodbye, realising as I did so that I probably wouldn’t see them for a few months. Ian eschews winter and Jonathan has rides to run in Swaffham – I guess we’ll start hatching plans for LEL training in the new year.

Comparing experiences over the last three runnings of the Flatlands I can say that this one was the easiest. Last years lack of sleep made it a very unpleasant solo death march, and the year before that (where my hotel stop worked) I finished about the same time as this year, give or take, but it was my first 600 and I was nervous, not really sure how I would cope and where I would find food.

And fixed? Well it did my undercarriage in but other than that it was a good experience. There is something nice about knowing you’ve done every damn metre of a distance, and the momentum helped me through the dark moments. The hated feeling of being on a hamster wheel which I suffered from in earlier, shorter rides, didn’t catch me out. So yes, a good ride.

Next year? Well no. LEL takes us through a lot of this territory so I have zero desire to do Flatlands proper. Not unless I want to go back into the land of the Red King again – and what, other than curiosity and the masochistic charms of self-loathing, would make me want that?