That shot was taken in a rare gap in the relentless rain - it was a day of intense weather on 2nd Jan, a perfect opportunity to start the new year off with a challenge.
I often tackle these events underprepared, but I was a total chancer on this occasion - no proper long rides since August, just three or four 2 hour sessions and a 5 hour run at Christmas with a 2 hour meal with my brother and his wife in the middle of that (so not really ideal prep for 11 hours in the saddle). The plan was to load up with food at the first stop and try and keep the calories coming in steadily to avoid an energy crash - I was hoping my knee niggle and undertrained legs would simply forget the situation and let me get round. In the event it went well - with the usual epic challenge in the last session.
Rolling out of a rain-soaked Tewkesbury at 7am I was in a group I'd estimate at around 50 riders, but I didn't actually count so I could be way off. Soon a lead pack developed and a second group which I tagged along at the back of. I was in full fluoro kit and had lots of lights - that combination of darkness and persistent rain isn't something I'll take chances with. I had a heavy rear pannier with the usual tools and tubes, batteries, energy bars, 2 nuclear caffeine gels I'd been given to test (SIS/Run and Become) and a change of kit - gloves, baselayer, jacket, gilet, socks, sealskinz socks. By some way the biggest load I'd carried on the bike since I was a kid and went camping with old school panniers and a hike tent! As you can see I was expecting to end up wet through and have to get into a dry set of gear at some stage.
The first hour it was all darkness and gloom - I was glad to be following rather than navigating. I had a clipboard fixed to the bars with the routesheet but in the darkness that's not an easy thing to read, especially without a head torch (something I really should have brought). There were familiar place names like Shuthonger and Pershore, waking memories of my time on farms round here back in the 80s, picking spring onions and planting cabbages for crazy low wages. As light began to seep through it was clear that we weren't going to see anything much brighter than dusk all day - the swirling cloud was low and thick and the rain was varying from drizzle to persistent spray to spattery-annoying-shower. Never a full on storm but it was relentless. The pace was brisk by my standards and there was a tailwind some of the time, so it was no surprise that we reached the first check at the 2 hour mark. I swallowed a big portion of baked beans on 2 toast and a bakewell tart with a mug of tea then it was time to get back in the saddle and head off, solo, into more rain and the expectation of headwinds now that we were turning the corner and heading east. On this second leg I navigated round without pushing the pace to hard, then tagged on to a group of 4 who were steaming along nicely and overtook me in the second half of the stage. A few ups and downs but it was mostly flat, with more in the way of big roads (quiet A roads and good quality B roads) than your usual Audax - the route has clearly been chosen to be passable even in nasty weather, which is good news.There wasn't that feeling of remoteness that I've had on previous Audax routes - this is the heart of England and if you stick to the main routes there is a lot of population even in the small villages. Every so often we took a quiet road and I caught sight at one stage of a sign that showed we were crossing Icknield Street and later Fosse Way. Some history here then.
The M40 services was a strange experience - after hours on the road, mostly solo or in a silent mini-peloton in darkness and gloom, it was a bit mad to be in Starbucks on a Saturday with thousands of people swirling into and around the service station. In an attempt to avoid too much sugar too early I went for a mozzarella ciabbata and a big decaf latte made with soya milk - all good complex carbs. The customers stared at a line of bikes outside the services, wondering how cyclists had ended up on the M40! I didn't stay long and I was eager to get stuck into the next stage.
Heading off solo from the services I was getting a fatigued and "empty" feeling in my hamstrings - no surprise given the fact that we'd done 107K and I was, as I've already said, a bit underprepared. Navigation was a bit strange at first but I found my way to Gaydon through roadworks and diversions and saw Edge Hill looming ahead. The hill itself was a real battle, as you'd expect, with the strange "castle" at the top a more than welcome sight.Again I latched on to a pack of riders for a bit and this helped keep the pace up, but when we got to Shutford I let them go, pausing to take a caffeine gel, take a photo and note the name of the pub for the info control. Back in the saddle I felt a bit of zing from the gel and I needed it for the 18K slog along sodden A roads to Chipping Norton. With the rain refusing to slacken off and the afternoon heading quickly towards dusk I was very glad I'd opted for the fluoro kit, especially the helmet cover (it may not look cool but I keeps your head dry and gets you seen). Chipping Norton arrived just as I was really starting to feel the fatigue. By now my gloves were wet through and the rest of me was pretty wet too, but with the air temperature unfeasibly mild for early January I was surviving OK. A cream tea and 15 minutes sitting down revived me enough to head out the door, solo once again, for the crux of the ride. The last stage was to be 60K over the Cotswolds.
Up until this point it had felt a bit lightweight - I hadn't hit any extremes of cold, exposure, fatigue or navigational problems. As you'd expect it would all hit me had in the last stage!
From Chipping Norton I eased my way out of town into the gathering gloom and rain which was still not heavy but somehow seemed wetter than before and was seriously penetrating my layers of kit. First came a long grind along lanes then a nasty A road to Stow (once again glad of multiple lights and bright kit) then I pulled over to check the route - someone helpfully called out "they've all gone that way" and I thanked him before heading down a steep hill out of Stow into a dark valley of woods threaded by a muddy road. I was expecting a single, tough climb over the main masif of the Cotswolds but I'm not sure why. I soon remembered that the Cotswolds are more of a plateau bisected by numerous valleys and that's exactly how it was - like riding over the fingers of an outstretched hand, endless ridges with steep climbs then down to dark valleys with slippery and potholed descents. Sapping is the word. Night fell sooner than it should have done thanks to the impenetrable cloud. I found myself in that cycling trance - cold, wet, tired, weak, but relentlessly turning the pedals, slowly but surely. Kilometres began to feel like miles, then each one felt like several miles, the distance ahead seeming to stretch further and further into the night. Finally I got to Guiting Power, an ancient settlement of honey-coloured stone houses, then plodded on towards Winchcombe. This stretch was the hardest and seemed to go on for ever. I passed a ghostly village on the other side of the valley, no sign of life, no sound apart from a single, futile bark of a dog echoing through the gloom. The whole world seemed asleep or unconscious. Ups and downs came, the ups steep and the downs seemingly steeper, the road narrowing with muddy verges creeping in from the edges making it hard to pass the occasional car that came towards me wanting the full width of the road. Suddently Winchcombe appeared like an oasis and I allowed myself the second and final gel. The boost of 150mg of caffeine was dramatic - I sped up, warmed up, began to forget the fact that I was soaked to the skin. From here there was no more climbing - a nervous search for a pub name (the last info control) was the only challenge for my tired brain. Once I saw signs for Tewkesbury it all seemed easy, someone had even had the forethought to put a cycle lane on the A38 to make it much more rideable. I was a bit disorientated and did 2 full lengths of the main street before I asked someone for help to find the arrivee but before I knew it I was rolling through the pub garden to the back doors of the Royal Hop Pole.
Fantastic ride - Audax never disappoints. Vive les randonneurs!
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