"Each step forward has a sacred meaning of its own"   Sri Chinmoy

Poor Student Audax 200k, Oxford, 2020

This was the last of my 9 challenges for the Christmas / New Year period - 6 goes at the Peace Statue Challenge, 2 hilly running races and a single, solitary Audax to get me back on my bike. I hadn't had a long ride since the CAL 75 miler in the summer, and the last few months of 2019 hadn't included anything over 2 hours riding. I was going to have to do this one from memory...

The start was in the semi-darkness from a Park and Ride on the Oxford ring road. I followed a few who seemed to know the way through town, weaving through the one-way system past the Martyr's Monument and along St Giles then out of town on a minor road. A big peloton, around 30 strong at a guess or maybe more, cruised past me after around 10k and I decided to go for it and try and stay with them. This meant getting out of my comfort zone as they were riding 18-20 mph on the flats and I don't get near that pace riding solo for 200k! Anyhow I went for it and each time I fell off the back of the pack I rode hard to get back on board the train. I managed to keep this up, riding at the back of the peloton until around the 70k mark when I finally gave up the struggle and rolled the last 10k to the control in Malmesbury at a more comfortable pace. I'd done the 80k in a shade over 3 hours, which is pretty good for me seeing as it included the traffic lights of Oxford and plenty of short drags and digs on the lanes.

Malmesbury's main street was filled with riders leaning their bikes up and finding eateries - there was plenty of choice. I went for Coffee #1 and it was a good option - tuscan bean soup, bread and butter, a flat white and a cake. That ticked all the quick-release, slow-release, hydration and stimulant boxes. I left riding solo and was treated to amazing Cotswold scenery in the sunshine. Much of it was bleak and exposed but the wind wasn't strong - I was staying warm despite temperatures in very low single figures. There were gorgeous villages that for once weren't familiar, as I usually ride the Cotswolds from the other (Bristol) side and on this occasion I was seeing the area from a new and different angle. The route went past the gothic churches of Hankerton and Oaksey then on through Poole Keynes, then into the ancient town of Cirencester. I was loving the GPS - after so many rides off a routesheet it was a rare luxury to have the turns so easy to pick from a screen on the handlebars. Bike GPX was free but I paid a one-off 3.99 for turn alerts, though these were pretty hit and miss. As the sun picked out the Cotswold Stone of barns, farmhouses and manors they shone like golden palaces.

Following the red line through the streets of Cirencester was easy enough though, even from a low res GPX file. You can feel the age of these streets - there was a town here on the Roman frontier in the first century and the road layout is ancient, following the lay of the land as modern roads never do. We climbed out of town on one of my favourite roads, the Whiteway, but what came next was new - not a turn to Calmsden as per usual but an unexpected swing off the road through the gates of Salperton Park, down the driveway then through the parkland around the manor house. I was wondering when the energy-crash would come, and with 40k of the second stage behind me I felt pretty drained, but a caffeine gel gave me the boost I needed to complete another 26k to Chipping Campden. The main hills of the route were packed into this 66k stretch from Malmesbury and that had been starting to take its toll. I rode through Temple Guiting recognising another fragment of another Audax that I'd ridden in the opposite direction years before - I half expected to see myself riding towards me in my old gear. That's the fatigue state of mind....but the gel took hold and freshened up my perceptions as well as my legs so I found myself riding strongly enough into Chipping Campden, one of those Cotswold gems that gets packed with tourists in the summer but today was pretty empty. 2 stages down and one to go! Refuelling in CC I went for the same combo as at the first control - soup and bread with a tea and cake chaser. Seemed to work again as I was soon back out and trying to get some KMs in before night fell..

Out of Chipping Campden I rode another familiar lane through Broad Campden and out through Draycott, with some short but sapping uphill drags that I hoped would be the last of the genuine hills. There was light enough to ride with only flashing lights through Evenlode and past another gothic masterpiece of a church at Kingham. The evening light picked out the ridges of ridge-and-furrow fields that were many centuries old and the towering spire of the church at Leafield. Sunset came at 4.09 but it wasn't genuinely dark until after half past, at which point I realised I could push on and finish in under 10 hours, a good personal target. The run in was fairly free of hills which was a relief - at times I was back up to 18mph which surprised me. A long stint of A road was not that welcome but there was a shared use pavement so I tried that for a while - it was too much hassle so I nipped back on to the road which was quiet enough. The distances stretched as time wore on but I made it, tired and stiff, with 5 mins to spare. A wonderful ride in enchanting countryside and a decent test of legs and lungs after quite a while without long rides. As so many times before I had a chance to ride alone and connect with the lanscape - the vastness of the skies and wide horizons puts you in mind of infinity, while the ancient churches, walls and fields radiate a sense of the huge expanses of time that have elapsed since they came into being. Infinity and Eternity in the space of a single bike ride through the lanes - very William Blake.....

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