As if this Audax lark weren’t hard enough…
Winter is a bad time for cyclists. We sit looking out the window, wondering when the light will come back and trying to stay motivated by picking up short rides where we can and by keeping on with the endless round of commuting. The worse thing about this is that the imagination starts to get going and, having forgotten the oaths and pains of long summer rides, we get itchy for action and start to have ‘plans’.
This year I was thinking about how to liven up the Essex SR series. Not that it needed livening up, it’s perfectly good as it is, but just, y’know, because.
Why not do it fixed? I thought.
I’d done a couple of late-season 200s last year on my crappy old Lemond and discovered some interesting things. First was that I was faster on my fix than my Kinesis ATR. This is nothing to do with the relative qualities of the bike, it’s do do with what riding fixed is like – you don’t really get a chance to take those mini-rests you get on a geared bike. You tend to watch to ride in the sweet spot of the gear. With a 44×17 (69) the riding is best between 25 and 30 kph, so you tend to want to stay there. The Kinesis ATR seems to have a sweet spot just on 25kph, and I am never pushing up hills on it, it’s just not that kind of bike.
I wondered whether I could do this for a longer time. Surely if Tom Deakins or Marcus could do PBP fixed and actually enjoy it then there must be something in it for the long distance rider.
So, Essex SR Fixed became the ambition for 2016, and here are the ‘learnings’ as they say in corporate land that I have taken from my first 300 and 400 on fixed this year.
Tom was doing the helpers ride on his fixed so I thought it would be good to ride with him as he would at least be ‘in the rhythm’ of fixed on the early rolling hills on the route. Going down hill is – obviously – a little slower on a fix but you carry a lot of momentum into the bottom third of the climb and then you have to crank the top third and without the option of backing off and conserving yourself. Consequently you are often at the top of a rise a good bit earlier than the frees around you.
The others we set out with ay midnight from Manningtree Station are all good riders (Kate, Karl, Roger and Scott) so we all stuck together for the first good while as curry’s settled in tummies and we gauged the wind and temperature.
It was cold, round 4 or 5 degrees with windchill, so no one was hanging about. But the (very unusual) northerly was pushing back and we ended up riding hard to keep temperatures up for a pretty slow average speed. The reward of a tailwind home also beckoned so there was no real need to ‘save matches’.
Once over the early rollers and after a short stop at a Service Station for brevidence we settled onto the flat for the run in to Barton Mills – an exotic name for a set of 24 services on the A12 to Lincoln.
Tom’s events are X-rated, which means not much in the way of pastoral care. His rides from Dunmow are more civilised, starting with tea and toast in the church hall, but the Manningtee rides kick-off from the railway station and head straight up towards Norfolk. There’s not much that stay’s open, so you take what you can get where you can get it, and that means ‘services’.
Usually Barton Mills is a coffee grabbed from a machine and couple of bars munched while standing shivering on a forecourt, but this time we were in for a treat. This is a major stop on the route to Norwich and competition is hotting up in the UK for luxury service station stops. It started with Costa machines in service stations, but now the game at barton Mills had been taken to a whole new level. A new McDonalds had opened. 24 hour.
Audaxers know that 24hr McDonalds are a little oasis of heat and carbs on a cold and windy night. I am never in one in town but tonight it’s a sudden and welcome revelation. There is a McDonalds on the outskirts of Swaffam that opens at 5am (such are the things that Audaxers know) but right now this one is perfect. We line up our bikes and flop onto hard banquettes, grateful for the warmth.
We turn a blind eye to the other punters just as they turn a blind eye to us as we draped pieces of sweat-damp lycra over the backs of chairs. No doubt they would wake a mid day and ask ‘were there really a bunch of idiots on bikes in maccas last night?’
Back out into the night and we notice that Karl is riding bare handed. He forgot his gloves. He is trying on some giveaway forecourt plastic film gloves. They last a couple of minutes and he’s back into the misery of freezing hands. My feet are blocks of ice – I’ve got big wool socks on but my riding boots aren’t breathable and the sweat hangs about. It’s like having your feet in cold water. I spend some time trying to calculate what speed my toes are moving at, but give up. I’m not sure I really want to know.
After the dead-flat and spooky leg past Lakenheath air base and through Swaffam, we strike left and up towards the Norfolk West coast. Through the bit that Karl thinks looks like America and I think looks like NZ (pines!) the sun comes up and we are slowly surrounded by a gorgeous soft dawn. The wind has dropped away a little and high cloud hangs in the sky, lighting up as the sun comes up over our backs.
I start to get that gritty eyed feeling as we grind up and down the rollers on the Norfolk ridge. It’s hard work into the continuing headwind and I find myself looking down at the Garmin, willing for the purple line to turn right, the sign we are ready to roll down to the coast. The compensation is the landscape – it’s always a great treat to be riding in amongst the flint cottages and villages of North Norfolk in the early morning. Eleven hours I ago I left work on Aldgate right in the dark heart of The City of London. This is a tonic.
It’s Tom, Scott and I riding together by now. Kate is riding with Roger who is grumbling about the speed and Karl has disappeared backwards as he started the rollers – victim of his bicycles leisurely nature (he has a Kinesis ATR too).
The cafe at Burnham Deepdale on the coast starts serving at 8 and we are early at 7:30. They let us in and we have a luxuriously long breakfast. They have a gluten free breakfast (YES!) so I am very happy. It’s a nice time this, just chatting about past rides and getting to know people a little more. Despite having ridden a good dozen of Tom’s events in the last few years this is the first time I have actually ridden with him. There ar plenty of comments on YACF grateful to Tom for being dragged around a long ride by him and I see why now. He’s a very steady and resolute rider – I have no doubt he could just continue at our current pace for many hundreds of kilometres more. More importantly he doesn’t get grumpy if you sit on his wheel for kilometre after kilometre, I think once he joked on YACF that he went to the front to calm the pace down.
We set off at the turn and immediately pick up speed with the wind on our backs and shoulders. It’s still a cool day and the temperature doesn’t crack ten for many hours. I take the front occasionally and it settles into Scott, Tom and I on the front with Kate and Roger catching us up every now and then.
I am feeling good right up to 200km and then strange things start to happen. The saddle I am riding (a very cheap Planet X model) and on which I have previously done 200 fixed and 300 free suddenly starts to feel awful. I am also aware that keeping up with Tom downhill is taking its toll. I am having no great difficulty on the ups and alongs, but I am beginning to dread the drops. Tom, having many years of long-fixed rides under his belt, just glides down them at great speed, his legs a blur. My descents are less elegant. I am no stranger to fixed riding (this Lemond is my daily commuter) but this is new territory and my legs and arse are beginning to complain. Loudly.
There is a blissful hour where the sun comes out and suddenly it feels like summer, but soon after this the cloud comes in and the temperature drops again.
Finally, on a long descent, I give up on keeping up with Tom and Scott. I grad a fistful of brake and pull the speed back to the low 30s rather than the 38 or so Tom can keep up downhill with ease. At the next woody glade I pull over, change some clothes and then rummage around in my saddlebag. I have a memory of some kind of soothing gel in there. Yes! Voltarol gel. Whatever that is it will do. I walk to somewhere private and apply some liberally to the afflicted areas and climb back on the bike. There’s about 60km to go – I know I’ll make it but I am not sure how much pain it will entail.
A couple of minutes later, bottom suitably anaesthetised, I feel a lot better. There are a few more drops coming into Needham Market but I take them slowly. Coming into town I catch Tom and Scott at a railway crossing – they must have been there for a good while! Soon after that Kate catches us at out last convenience store stop (ice cream – nom nom nom) and the four of us tick through the slightly grim kilometres around the outskirts of Ipswich before heading briefly into the lovely bluebell wood near Bentley.
There are two proper (for Essex) climbs to finish off and I have plenty of ‘up’ left in my legs so can comfortably take them, and then we have a last epic spin down into Manningtree and onto the station where we have a celebratory round and wait for Roger, who, despite muttering about the high speed the whole way round, takes a whole ten minutes to catch us. It should be noted that Roger is 25 years my senior – Chapeau!
If ever there is a 400 for fixed this is it. Like the A&S above it heads up to the Norfolk Coast from Manningtree (9pm rather than midnight this time ), swings out towards the East norfolk coast and the broads before getting to Norfolk, then on the way back it heads over to Saffron Waldon before coming back ‘down’ the Colne valley. I say ‘down’ because that last 50km from Sible Headingham is choppy. It was here I knew the real challenge would be.
There were a lot less people at the start this year. Last year this was a key ride for many in qualifying for PBP so it was packed. This year there were around 40. I also knew a lot of riders much better than I did last year so had a few more Audax buddies to say hello to at the beginning.
I ended up setting off with one of them, Ian, who sensibly eschews winter riding and starts to appear about this time of year. I hadn’t seen him since shaking his hand near the start of PBP which he succeeded in and I did not, so we had a lot to catch up on as we took in the early Essex rollers up towards the first stop at Ixworth. The wind was not too bad so most people were getting there about quarter-past brevet o’clock. Last year I think everyone was under time due to the monster tail wind.
At this point Ian’s regular riding compadre, Jonathan, turned up and had his ritual early flat tire. I was not in the mood for waiting around, so skipped off ahead and started out on the next leg to Halesworth on my own.
The wind was on the quarter and not strong and I felt a bit impatient. I generally suffer from impatience and it’s not a good thing to have on the second 50km of a 400 as you are in danger of overdoing it. So I stormed the 56k over to Halesworth at at average of 27.3kph. I even denied myself a comfortable ride by pulling out of a pee stop 30 yards ahead of a group of ten riders and deciding not to let them join me – nope I pushed on, slowly crawling off the front. The final miles into Halesworth are beautiful rolling parkland and a real joy. I still had plenty of ‘stamp’ left in me for the hills, though I wished (as I always do) that I had left some kit at home and lightened up the bike a bit.
At Halesworth I learned my lesson from last year – don’t bother with town and go straight up to the relatively deserted Co-op cafe. This means I can get a quick GF baked potato and stock up on bars and juice for the next two legs. This does mean denying yourself a bit of sociability but I was out of lunch in 40 minutes, and ten of that was a chat with a local cyclist.
More rollers out of Halesworth on a slightly unpleasant B road leads you onto the very tail end of the Norfolk flats, and soon enough I was buzzing along at a lovely steady rhythm towards the chain ferry at Reedham.
From there it’s a flat run to Acle, where I joined a number of riders flopped out on the grass triangle opposite the store. This leg was straight into the wind, so my average for this leg was 24.6. Still pretty good for me.
I got chatting with the riders around me – no one was looking forward to the ride up to Wells. Everyone remembered this leg from last year where it was a real fight with the wind. I set off with a group of three other riders who I would spend the next 150k or so with – Andy, Gadget from my nominal club ACH and Norwich Jonathan (as opposed to Swaffam Jonathan) who is a regular rider and many would know his name.
The pace was a bit more leisurely than I was feeling like pursuing, but good sense also dictated an ‘easing’ of the intensity at this point and we averaged 23.5kph for this leg – a solid number for a light headwind. Good company too and Andy (very knowledgable about these parts) took us on a lovely laney route around rather than through Wroxham.
At Wells I also didn’t bother with the scenic wharf area at Wells and instead just had a camp dinner at the Co-op. Plenty of others were doing this to. For me Wells has nothing in the way of fast GF food and last year I had been left in a restaurant waiting and waiting for a meal in amongst Saturday diners.
So this year I set off by myself on the long leg to Barton Mills a good couple of hours earlier than I had last year. Soon enough (as these things are want to do) after a pee break I came out of the bush and there were Andy, Gadget and Mr Norfolk riding by. I latched on and we all rode rest of the leg together.
While this leg is ‘flat’ it is not ‘flat flat’ and being on B roads there are a lot of very small rollers. Keeping pace with the others on these was proving difficult, specially as I had taken a vow to keep below 35kph on the downs in order to save my legs. I was yo-yoing a bit and beginning to pay for the earlier ‘hot’ legs a bit. I had also changed my saddle from the cheap plastic saddle to my Brooks and this meant I had made it through 250km without any problems, but now I was getting a little uncomfortable.
Andy’s local knowledge meant he found us a quick cup of tea at a chippie in Swaffham just before 10pm and then it was the flat run to barton Mills (the reverse of the leg on the 300, as above). The only problem with doing it earlier was that it was quite busy and the long straights mean traffic is moving quite fast. I was really tiring by the time we got into Barton Mills but still we had done the leg at a steady 25kph average. My overall average was just on 25kph too which was really good – that’s the kind of speed that I do 100km at in the early season training rides and I had kept it up for 300km.
I certainly wouldn’t have been moving at this pace on my Kinesis. Having to keep on top of the gear was really keeping my average up and I was riding with people a good ‘rung’ above above my usual pace.
The Barton Mills McDonalds gave me a chance to apply some of that Voltarol gel to alleviate some minor pain below, wolf down a thick shake (heaven!) and stock up on Coke for the bottles – nothing better for the early hours of the morning. Unless you are taking a leisurely outing on this ride there is only the early services stations in Newmarket to top up in, but they are not far down the road – otherwise there are no supplies from here to the end of the ride.
I set off by myself again knowing that the next 115km would be very hard, but also that I wouldn’t be seeing much in the way of cars as the route swings back onto quieter roads. Quieter usually means hillier and so it proved. Once you head out of Newmarket the route is all up and down. There is a long slow drag out of Newmarket up onto the South Cambridge Ridge (what’s it’s proper name?). This was a proper grind on the fixed, but it was breathtaking scenery wise. A night fog had settled and the next hour or so was spent in a dense, close fog. It was surreal, pushing a small nimbus of light into the washed-out grey of the fog. It felt curiously alpine.
I got into Saffron Waldon around 3:30am, the leg ticked off at a steady 22.5kph average – there goes the 25kph average! I knew there would be nothing to do or see in Saffron Walden. Saffron Walden is too genteel to have a 3am clubbing crowd, and the small town square is completely deserted. I grabbed my receipt, ate a gluten free roll carefully saved for the occasion since Wells, and moved on quickly.
This last leg is really beautiful. You make your way over through to Finchingfield, the Sible Heddingham before turning off the main road, climbing up to the head of the Colne Valley and then there is a steady diet of short climbs, most less than a minute, some three or four minutes at most.
Dawn is always a bit tricky on the sleep front – it’s when I feel the most dozy. I knew I was riding safely and was well within the parameters of control. Last year I stopped on this leg and did my first proper ‘Audax Hotel’ experience and laid down in a sunny bus shelter and had a 30 minute nap. This year I was putting off my sleep until I got back to the car.
Around four the aural assault of the dawn chorus kicked in. Living in the city you don’t get to hear this much, but out in the country it’s properly loud. With the tiredness this becomes a little surreal, like someone is playing a soundtrack of the country to you while you are riding through it.
As I reached the ups and downs of the Colne valley I was tiring fast. I wasn’t looking forward to it, but I knew I would probably walk at least one of the climbs in the last 15k – there are a couple that are steep and sustained enough to be good training on a fixed if you were fresh, but I was anything but fresh now. My seat was ok and the speed-limit on the downhill legs meant that my legs were still turning, but I had now started to run out of ‘up’ as well. I had raised my bars and fitted a slightly shorter stem so I had less shoulder fatigue so everything was ok, I knew I’d make it.
And here it is, my first walked-hill in Audax. Aptly named ‘Burnt Dick Hill’. I was fortunate that Nic Brunner had yet to get there with a camera – he caught the pain of later riders but I was saved photographic evidence of the walk of shame.
There is always a peacock on this hill, just beyond the house with the white gate. He took great delight in strutting around and then running easily off up the hill in front of me. Show off.
Something I didn’t really know about fixed riders and Audax is that they often walk up hills. Someone earlier in the day told me about riding with his good friend who is a very well known fixee-artiste and how he often walked hills. Well if it’s good enough for him...
From there it’s up and down through the really gorgeous area of Dedham Vale – I’ll be coming back here later in the day for a shower and a cup of tea with some of the crew behind me – Ian is hosting a BBQ later in the day – huzzah! By now I was properly wrung out – not in danger of totally falling apart, but watching the clock and wondering why it wasn’t moving faster. And eventually you drop to the river, and everything is done. Phew.
Inevitably this was the slowest leg of the trip coming in at a meagre 21.6kph average for the 70km. But I was in just before 6:30 for an elapsed time of 21:20 and an average speed of 23.9kph. I’ll call that 24.
The year before on the carbon race bike I’d managed 23 hours elapsed and an average of 23.2kph – though I rode more of that alone.
So a little faster on the fixed than my geared Orbea, but most of the overall time gains were in less naffing-about. Hand on heart I would say the main difference is that I am fitter, earlier this year. Last year I had a horrible wisdom tooth that took the early couple of months to sort out and I was always a little off the boil.
So, that leaves a 200 and a 600 to pick up on the fixed for the SR. Am I looking forward to it? From the safety of a week later the answer is yes. I couldn’t really walk down stairs for a couple of days afterwards and had noticeably more wrecked legs than usual, but that’s not a surprise. Flatlands really is epically flat for big stretches so it will be more about the wind than the bumps, though I suspect there is one hill that will scalp me (that rise coming out of Lincoln). And there are, as on all Tom’s Dunmow rides, some inevitable Essex rollers in the last 50km.
In the meantime I am planning another 300 and 400 on a geared bike (Hareward and the new Kingdom of East Saxon) so it will be interesting to compare the results… I guess I am kind of honour-bound to go as fast on the geared bikes now right?
When did this turn into a race? I’ll be looking at the Veterans Time Trial Association pages next…
And here is the 600 ride report