Into day two and with not enough sleep I was a couple of hundred yards into my thousand yard stare when I was beset by The Red King.
He’d been out in front for an hour. First a match-strike of red in amongst the earthy tones of autumn, then a lingering glow, finally a block of red in an Audax England shirt.
As I winched my way up to him he looked across at me. I was expecting the craggy, weather beaten face of the hardened Audax rider, but instead the rider had a smooth visage, a fine English face with a narrow nose and high arched eyebrows. There was no sign of exertion on it at all and when I looked at how he was riding he was sitting head-high and spinning freely, like he was a minute into a ride to the shops for a bottle of gin, not a day and a dawn into 600.
“Oh, hello!” His voice was high and plumby. He could be a barrister, or a queen’s counsel. Perhaps a Judge. And then it struck me - he was The Red King from Alice in Wonderland.
It made perfect sense. If Lewis Carrol had been a sportsman surely it is Audax that would have appealed. Here we were racing around the chess-board plains of Linconshire, engaged in an ultimately pointless pursuit that had no value other than the literary-picaresque and the practicing of mathematical mind games where somehow 200km to go was far worse than 400km ridden.
I glanced across at him, tireless and aloof. What did he want of me then? Was he trying to lure me off course? Would he get eight punctures in a row and demand all my spares? Would he cast subtle but permanent doubt over the accuracy of my Garmin? Worst of all, perhaps he would try to make me confront the truth of what I was doing and, like a collapse of a house of cards, my enjoyment of this Audax thing would be removed in a moment and I would be left naked in the realisation that I was, as many have said, mad.
Maybe he was the Protector of the Spirit of Audax and this was some hideous test for people on their first 600, a form of drip-feed torture. He would ride beside me for the last eight hours looking perfectly fresh and sane while I descended into madness and delirium. I might finish the ride but I would be broken, cast back into the world of Sportives, claterring on to anyone who would listen that I once used to do proper long rides and telling people that they really should use mudguards and reliable 8-speed transmissions.I had to escape. If he was the King then there was no chance that I, a humble pawn, would be able to defeat him in a head-on battle. I subtly upped my pace as much as I dared and waved a cheery goodbye.
Now began my slow escape. Every five minutes I would look back and The Red King would be a little further back. Not enough! Over half an hour I managed to get him properly behind me, the flicker of red flaring less until it was finally smothered by the hedges and low trees of the windy plains.
After an hour, felling relaxed, I took a toilet break. I got to an intersection, found a bridle way, stopped my bike and relived myself into a hedge. Turning my bike, I pushed off, clipped in and just about clattered into the Red King.
“Oh hello!” he said, all innocent and seemingly good-natured. His pleasant banter wasn’t fooling me, he was trying to lead me to my doom.
I muttered something back, rode past and began the task of slowly putting him behind me, realising that I couldn’t stop for several hours now if I wanted to stay out of his clutches.
An hour and half later and beginning to feel like I might have given the devil the slip, I momentarily got lost. I knew where I was and had been faithfully following the purple line on my GPS but I must have been lost because a quarter of a mile in front there he was again. My god, the man had control of my GPS now and had re-routed me in a circle to come up behind him and was waiting for me to catch him up.
I was cleverer than that. I decided to slow down a little and maintain this safe distance. After all I had good sight of him and could take evasive action if he tried anything sinister. So I backed off the pedals a tiny amount and tried to stay back. But even this seemed difficult and after a while I was crawling along, the Red King still the same distance in front. The deviousness of the fellow was admirable, he was deliberately slowing. If we kept this up we would both finish outside the time limit.
I started to panic. What could be done? I could re-route around him but I was in no fit state to take on that level of navigational prowess on roads I didn’t know. I could try a ten mile stretch at time-trial speed to leave him behind, but that would be aerobic suicide. And who was to say that we wouldn’t simply keep up? He seemed capable of anything.
No, I would have to wait for a group of riders to come past, slip onto their rear wheels, change my jacket and hope he didn’t recognise me. En-passant.
I looked backwards. There was only empty Lindonshire roads, low trees, desolate farms and endless fields of tubers. No riders coming up behind. We were alone out here, on this endlessly repeating landscape. My GPS was telling me that I was getting nearer and nearer to Cambridge, but I didn’t believe it. He had me trapped in an infinite loop of turnip fields.
My head drooped towards by bars in despair. It seemed now that I wasn’t traveling over the surface of the board but rather that I was dragging the board under my wheels. All of it. Pedal stroke by agonising pedal stroke.
Did I say board? I meant Earth. Dragging the earth under my wheels.
I had to get a grip. It was time to do or die, the time for high-stakes action. With a fresh determination borne entirely of forgotten square of flapjack, I raised my head high and looked for the foe, ready for a direct confrontation.
But he was gone. The Red King had disappeared and, no matter how much I looked for him as I rode, he remained unseen through the last hours to Cambridge and made no appearance at the ale house at the final control.
I must have vanquished him. Maybe I was a knight after all, not a mere pawn. Maybe I had some power. I smiled a hero’s smile into my half of sweet cider.
It was only later I realised where the Red King had gone. As my head hit the pillow and my body slipped into the warmth of a long sleep I found myself looking backwards. And there he was, in my nightmare, a flash of red, his eyebrows raised, his now devilish smile playing over his face.
“Oh hello!” he said. “Thinking of the french ride are you? Well let me tell you all about it...”