446.8. Every time over the past four years when I’ve opened up Strava, I’ve seen that figure as my longest ride; 446.8 km. There it was, looking at me; the longest ride I’ve ever done and the ride that took me off the bike for two years due to overwork, bad planning, inexperience, broken accessories, injury and good old bad luck.
For those four years, I’ve wanted to top it, and after completing successful 400’s since, the next logical distance in audax would be 600 km. Now, 600 km is another beast altogether when you compare it to a 400, especially a 600 with little to no sleep, which is what I ended up doing anyway. Blame the Audax Hotel.
Way back when I started entertaining the idea of cycling longer distances, Chris Herbert was doing the Flatlands, a 600 km audax from Great Dunmow, Essex to Goole, Yorkshire and back again. I was open-mouthed at it all. There and then, I told myself that this was the goal, 600 km was where it was at – if you could do that, you’d have a decent chance of (250 km – 300 km) multiday rides. Do a 600 km ride and you’re good for ultradistance stuff. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that 600’s are ultradistance stuff!
Not to say that doing a 600 automatically means you can do TCR, but its a good place to get to if you’re considering multiday rides that might run into a thousand kilometres. Start doing those 1000 km and more rides and then maybe TCR will be seen as a blur in the distance, rather than just a dream.
Chris was one person that was good to me when I first started doing longer distances and was leading up to and during London-Wales-London 2018, he’d tweet me things like this:
And on the day of the ride itself:
And on Chris’s 600, I’d tweet him things like this:
4 years later and I’d be riding my first 600, The Fenland Friends, which, coincidentally was Chris’s 600 ride in reverse. Probably 2 years later than planned, but that’s injury time for you!
So, the last ride I wrote about here was The Kingdom Of The East Saxons, a 400 km ride that was a very important one for me, as you’ll know if you’ve read that entry. It was a chance to break the boundary of overcoming failure: a gateway to big rides, or what I’d call big rides, anyway.
Since then. I’ve bought myself a single speed bike to use for my day-to-day commutes and shorter rides, a new challenge and I told myself that if I could hit 100 km in one ride, that would be good. If you don’t want to read about the single speed, you can just skip to the rest of the ride info.
Obviously, you now need to see some photos:
So, it’s a second-hand Pearson Touché, spotted by Andy, who I work with. Andy has a great eye for bikes and rides a single speed to work himself, keeping his much more expensive geared machine perhaps for “… fair-weather riding; a luxury reserved for Sunday afternoons and wide boulevards.“, as per rule #9. I decided this was sensible stuff, and also wanted to see how I coped with the little bit of elevation (110m, or 4m/km) I have during the commute, I seem to have become very lazy when on the geared bike, so how would it be with me and one cog against the commute? I sensed fitness improvements.
As it turned out, the commute was easy enough, so it was time to push things a little higher in terms of distance and elevation.
First off was to knock out 100 km on the single speed, so I did that on 03 April 2022, with 750 m of climbing. 100 miles would be next (160 km), so a month later I did that, with about 950 m of climbing. I got a chance to ride Ride London-Essex (100 miles), so I did that on 29 May 2022. I also rode to the start from Essex and then rode back from the finish – 205 km in all with 1400 m of climbing. I was getting good at single speed!
Since I seemed to have a bit of a knack for single speed, I thought I’d challenge myself to a 300km ride – Hereward The Wake was the obvious choice, 1941 m of climbing – a nighttime ride kicking off from Great Dunmow and passing near to Peterborough (north) and then Milton Keynes (west) before heading back to the start again. It was a ride I had enjoyed on the geared bike while I marvelled at those on fixed, so this was my turn to see how me and my one gear held up. It was a great ride and one that also qualified me for my first Super Randonneur.
Well, enough of the single speed, that’s not what you’re here for, but it needs a mention as its now my go-to machine for all sub 300 rides, especially the commute. Fitness wise, I have seen improvements and the simplicity of it all is very inviting.
The day dawned for the 600 km helpers’ ride for the Fenland Friends; a helpers’ ride being one that takes place in advance of the actual audax event in order to route check and make sure that all the control points are accessible and to warn them that they may see lots of people on bikes during the night or during the day of the event. Helpers usually man control points on the day, too – I was unable to do this due to family commitments. The organiser, Tom, was kind to let me take part in the helpers’ ride anyways, since I couldn’t make the ride on the day.
There were to be four of us, the organiser (Tom) and two other members of our cycling club (Mick & Ian), and me. These were all long distance regulars, having ridden much bigger distances than a 600 km and having battled adversity in the forms of sleep deprivation, foul weather, hunger and injury on levels that were way, way above anything I have encountered. Sadly, Ian had had to pull out, leaving Tom, Mick and myself to make up the team.
It was the usual low-key start for a journey that most people would think twice about driving; I met Mick near to Tom’s house at about 0640 and shared my trepidation as I got the bike out of the car and reassembled it – Mick gave me some kind words and we headed off to meet Tom, who handed out our brevet cards. We all shook hands, got on our bikes and headed off.
This was the first major milestone in long distance for me; this was the ride that would be the starting block of becoming ultradistance material. Or not. All the 200’s, 300’s and 400’s; all the setbacks, all the thinking, planning, commuting in vile weather, battling headwinds, being scorched in the heat, being cold and numb, the injuries, the aches and pains, the hills, the mornings where I dragged myself out on the bike and left the motorcycle in the garage: all of it led up to this.
The clock eased past 0700, the weather was good, with light winds and about 17°C as we made our way toward the first control point at Chatteris, about 80 km away. The temperature built steadily and we made sure to keep drinking our fluids, by the time we hit Chatteris, it was in the low 30s.
So it was into Greggs for the standard service station refuel.
We sat and chatted for a while, and as I eyed the two of them, I thought idly that if you’d have cut either of them in half at the waist, you’d probably had found the word ‘tough’ running through them both, like you find in a stick of rock. I wondered what they’d make of this observation and it made me smile a little to myself, but neither of them noticed. Probably they’d have laughed it off in an “oh-no-we’re-definitely-not-that-special” kind of way.
Control 2 lied in Sleaford, at 172 km on the brevet card and as the temperature rose, we stopped off in Billingsborough at the Co-Op for water refills and an ice cream each, we felt we’d earned it.
Mick and I chatted about distance and how to cope with longer rides – discussing our own preferences and also about some guy that kept passing us, driving up and down the road in his car, with a bike on the roof. I wondered why he didn’t just ride his bike instead of dragging it around the place in his car on such a hot day. Indeed, it turned out to be the hottest day of the year that day – challenging temperatures were ahead for riding my first 600 km.
Our journey north next saw us pass through Lincoln (about 200 km) and then the Gainsborough control (3) at 229 km. Lincoln was probably where the day got to its hottest. I ran my hand around the back of my neck and it came back with the grittiness of those small granules of salt very apparent. The sun beat down upon us as we slogged our way through the relentless heat, where the breeze was hot against our skin, guzzling fluids and stopping wherever we could to replenish.
Here, I really started to feel it, the heat was cloying, my feet felt swollen and the numbness had crept in. memories of London-Wales-London emerged and pressed on my confidence. I didn’t feel too good. Despite the constant downing of fluids, I was still thirsty, my mouth dry and my throat like sandpaper, I felt sick so I was delighted when Tom lead us into a service station at Lincoln.
“How are you”, asked Tom. “I feel like I’m going to throw up”, I said, which was true. Tom suggested I eat and drink, which I really didn’t fancy but it did make sense. Off we went into the service station and bought some treats. A pastie, a wrap, a milkshake, and Tom suggested salted crisps, which was a good idea! I sat down with my two companions on the forecourt and we watched some guy trying (without success) to start his scooter. We discussed the heat, I took off my shoes so my feet could breathe and went about eating, which was more enjoyable than I thought it would be. Mmmm, pasties, eh?
20 minutes later and that guy managed to start his scooter next to us, sending a huge plume of two stroke smoke our way, ha ha ha. I’m glad the poor guy got it started, I’ve been there many times before with cars and motorbikes! Up we got and I felt renewed – its amazing what a little bit of TLC (and some salt) will do for you.
So, Gainsborough came and went, with a quick stop at another service station for proof of passage and some more delightful cuisine, you excuse me for forgetting what I ate there. This was around 1810, so we were nearing 12 hours riding at this point and there seemed to be no let up of the heat.
I think it was about 1930 when I realised that temperatures had dropped off and I relished the cooler air on my skin. Its difficult to put into words the relief, I had stopped a couple of times to lather up with suncream but had neglected some areas (especially my legs) and I had angry red patches here and there. The night air cooled my skin and definitely saved me from sunstroke after hours of riding into the beautiful cool night. We hit Goole control (4) at about 2100, as far north as we would venture but not quite half way at about 280 km.
We were well in advance of the control closing at 0032, so we took our time – I even treated myself to a wash in the loos and freshened up a bit, rinsing the salt from my skin with cool water – its the simple pleasures in life, you know?
At around 2200, we pointed our bikes south and started to head home, I was still in shorts and short sleeves, relishing the cool night air as darkness started to close in. It was lighting up time for us and we illuminated the road in front of us as we silently sliced through the night. It was getting to that time, 15 hours in the saddle, give or take, and the tiredness really settling in: conversation is at a minimum. You always know when to shut up.
Probably night riding is my favourite: fewer cars, lighter winds and for this ride comfortable temperatures. What’s not to like?
75 km later and it was time for a nap, using facilities I had not yet encountered. Yes, it was time to try an Audax Hotel as us long distance riders call them. To anyone else, its a bus shelter. The route sheet had guaranteed us the five star experience though…
… and we were not let down. Look at how sad Mick was to be leaving.
Our accommodation was situated on a fast B road. Mick took the left bench, Tom the right, and me on the middle one. Having dragged my inflatable matress around with me for 20 odd hours, I was determined to use it, huffing and puffing whilst my companions bedded down. I marvelled at how quickly it inflated, but cursed the fact that it was too wide for my bench and winced everytime I moved on it as it rustled loudy. I was aware that this might disturb Tom & Mick, so stayed still until my arm went numb and I was forced to move again.
Tom had set the alarm for 0300, I think I got about 8 minutes sleep before the alarm sounded, my sleep punctured with the occasional car flashing by and random bouts numbness.
Back out into the night, but this time with long sleeves – we headed for the info control (5) at about 330 km, stopping at a service station to replenish fluids at about 0330 at then McDonalds in Lincoln about 15 minutes later to witness the late night brigade who I was once a part of myself: seems so long ago now. I wondered at the pointlessness of all the slurred conversations, stumbling about and the general drunkedness, seen so differently through my sober eyes until Mick pointed out that much the same could be said about our antics that night! How right Mick was. We fuelled up and got going south – there was much distance to cover yet.
The road to Boston control (6) at about 420 km was uneventful. Through the night we went, which is short-ish in June, so we were probably seeing first light at about 0430, meaning that it was full daylight again by the time we reached Boston. Still well ahead of schedule, we stopped for another MacDonalds for about 45 minutes and I had a wash there, too – just to freshen up. The good thing about MacD’s is that you know what you’re going to get. The food is always the same, the loos clean and there will be hot water. You can get cleaned up while your food is being prepared.
Whittlesey control (7) came next at about 475 km and I stopped for a photo as we reentered Cambridgeshire. Hills were coming, so it was time to dig deep and finish this.
It was an omlette and chips in Whittlesey that I couldn’t finish – most unlike me because I’m greedy and I love chips. Still, I felt okay so it was off to Red Lodge control at 545 km where I got convenience store junk food to eat and a text from my sister-in-law, Ann.
Ann was right on the money, the hills at the end had kicked in and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t starting to feel it at this point. Still, I knew I had it in me, I knew I could finish and I had what I needed in the tank – just needed to tap those last few miles out, so we headed for our final control in Dunmow, where it had all started so long ago. I myself, was headed for glory.
The last leg saw me lose touch with Tom and Mick a few times. I usually insist people don’t wait for me if I need to go to the loo, or faff with things on the bike, and I’ll just catch them up. At this point in the game, and with the elevation after so long in the saddle, I wasn’t so much my spritely self. No matter as I’d round a corner or crest a hill and there would be Tom and Mick, outside a shop eating an ice cream or something, waiting for me to catch up – top lads!
We reached Clare at about 1645 and, with only about 30 km to go, we were greeted by Rob, from our cycling club, who had been following us on our tracker. Rob was on his fixed bike, out of the saddle on the inclines and making things look so easy. It actually looked like he was enjoying riding his bike!
We rolled into Dunmow at 1720 and that was that – it was done and I wasn’t going to need two years to recover from it. Chris Herbert was right: “Mighty oaks from little acorns grow…” Finally, I had achieved.
We all shook hands; Tom, Mick, Rob and myself and sat down for a drink before I rode back to the car park. I soon found a quiet road and got some sleep before heading home.
I want to thank everybody for their support and encouragement, you know who you are.
Another Super Randonneur next season and I’ll qualify for PBP. What do you think? 😉