The weekend of 28-29th May saw the first Scottish 600km audax of the season, and so for many the earliest opportunity to close off qualifying for Paris-Brest-Paris 2011 by completing the ‘grand slam’ of 200km, 300km, 400km and 600km rides.
A large field of 37 riders assembled on a typically sharp and windy Edinburgh morning for what would turn out to be an epic ride – just 28 would go on to finish.
Superficially the route was simple – out of Edinburgh on the A701, through Moffat onto the former A74. At Carlisle, take the A6 to Preston – and then return! But despite one of the simplest route sheets in all of audax and the basic fact that there were only four climbs (two hills in each direction) this was going to be a toughie…
At 6am there was no traffic to speak of (in fact, I’m not sure a single vehicle passed me between the bypass and the junction at Leadburn). The sparse sunlight experienced that far soon gave way to brooding clouds and the first rain fell on the long climb up to the Devil’s Beeftub, combining with the wind to create an environment that felt more like late February than the last days of May. The descent of the Beeftub was fast and ferocious – an average of 29mph for 5.5 miles into the teeth of a blustery wind – but a bacon and egg doubler and pot of tea was waiting in the Rumblin Tum cafe as a reward.
Now, followers of the Rapha creed will know no epic ride is truly epic without the protagonist having made some classic and entirely forseeable error which will go on to be the root of their misfortune, and this was no exception. Just 24 hours earlier I had snapped a cleat commuting home from work, and was forced to fit the replacements and ride ‘on sight’.
Naturally I was careful, but despite the tiny distance covered thus far, immediately out of Moffat I felt one knee was distinctly tender. I stopped for a couple of minutes to adjust that cleat and even made a careful study of the boom, to try and ensure it was as vertical as possible. Well, it would have to do (otherwise I’d have to ride back to Edinburgh anyway, and then do another 600 a couple of weeks later!).
Fortunately the bike was in excellent mechanical shape, largely because of the generous support of Laid Back Bikes who donated a new rear wheel (after my 400km qualifier was blighted with torrid and unceasing mechanicals) so that was one thing I didn’t need to worry about!
The old A74, now virtually deserted as a result of the parallel motorway, is like an audax expressway and sometimes seems to feature in half the rides in the south of Scotland. 50km of virtually flat riding brings you to Gretna, the gateway to Englandshire. The road drops around 200 feet with some small undulations en-route, of which the motorway overpasses are about the steepest!
Fortunately there were only light showers on this section, although the wind was unhelpful. Still, despite the wind and having to spin lightly to keep the pressure off my knees, this was prime territory for recumbency, and I was averaging 17.5mph for hardly any effort. Between Gretna and Carlisle, however, the heavens opened which put a damper on things, and I arrived at the Carlisle truckstop soaked through as a result of ill-advised “it’s just around the corner”-ism which kept my waterproof in the tailbox for longer than was prudent.
Weapon of choice – the Raptobike lowracer
The truckstop cafe was opening early and late especially to cater for our event, so I joined a few of the usual suspects in a “lock-in” style fried breakfast (the fat is what keeps body and soul together). The weather showed few signs of abating, so after allowing myself a full half hour I was back on the road, now having put almost 150km behind me in just over 5.5 hours (plus an hour in total off the bike) – things were not going too badly.
Unfortunately there had been a smash in the centre of Carlisle, as a result of which traffic was stationary on the A7 all the way back to the motorway. A lowracer is not ideal for skimming past crowds of frothing motorists in an unknown urban centre, and despite filtering adventurously at times, I spent half an hour getting just over 3 miles through the carnage. On top of this, my knees were seriously hurting after the long break and I ventured onto the road towards Penrith feeling quite nervous of the overall outcome.
At this point, to be fair, the weather was not too bad and I was able to amuse myself swooshing past what looked like a local club time trial – although with my knees I could hardly bear to keep a respectable speed up for the required length of time, and was lucky to have a slight gradient to compliment my performance. Both the aero-helmeted disc wheeled posse and my flat-capped faux vintage jersey’ed self seemed mutually amused, and this helped the slightly lumpy (by comparison with the A74!) section to Penrith go by quickly.
After Penrith the first real climb beckoned – Shap on the A6. This winches up to around 1400 feet and has one of Britain’s last “suicide fast lanes” (a fast lane shared by both directions of traffic, with a single crawler lane going either way at the edges). The wind was horrendous now and combined with the increasingly dire state of my knees to reduce me to twiddling in bottom gear for long stretches. Luckily I have modified the bike to run a low gear of ~25″, which makes all the difference when at one’s physical limits!
It took me an hour and twenty minutes to reach the summit from Penrith centre, an average of just over 11mph. The descent was sketchy with severe gusts reflecting from the cliffs at the start and furious storm showers that left me huddling under thick foliage at a couple of points – by the time I got to Kendal I had done 225km in 11 hours (9 of those in motion). I was behind, but not badly behind and I was hanging in there…
A large mocha and traybakes in Kendal helped restore my vitality, as I steeled myself for Satan’s Own One Way System. Even with a mapping GPS *and* a routesheet I found it horrendously annoying, and this combined with the cold and wet ride down from Shap and the frustration of my agonising knees caused me to choose my second diversion, taking the short stretch of A591 from Kendal to rejoin the A6 directly, rather than the organiser’s preferred route of the A65/A6070 through Burton in Kendal.
I immediately began to regret my boldness as I dropped down the slip road onto something which reminded me strongly of Edinburgh City Bypass! I actually don’t mind riding on dual carriageways at all (after all, it’s a small increase in traffic speed but an immeasurable increase in road quality and visibility – no blind corners to meet an idiot at 10mph over the speed limit on the wrong side of the road, etc) but the volume was just too high to allow vehicles in the slow lane to move into the overtaking lane easily, and that just makes it a little tense.
In any case, I took the lane and deployed the Hand of Fear and put the hammer down as best I could – covering the 2 miles of dual in five relatively stressful minutes. (To be fair, I didn’t get anybody try to overtake me in the same lane and the only real annoyance was a campervan who cut me up a bit trying to get into a garage). From then on it was a dream, the A6 very quiet and gently rolling with a good period of late evening sunshine to lend, if not warmth, then moral fortitude.
With the wind backing around to the west and good surfacing, this section also went quite quickly, and I made Lancaster at 260km by the end of hour 13, zoomed around the built-for-boyracers one way centre and was winching my way south in reasonable spirits. At some point people have tried to install cycle lanes on the A6 here but while being much better than they might be, it was noticeable how much closer the traffic started passing (and of course, they disappear at every traffic island or narrowing – see the remarkable alternative to the dedicated right filter lane in the pic above!).
In fact it was still light as I made my way through the urban maze of Preston (thank goodness for the provided route!) and arrived at the turn control, very kindly volunteered by audax legends Damon Peacock and Heather Swift (with assistants).
I had made it 300km in just over 15 hours, of which 12 were on the bike. This was respectable going for a solo rider given the weather conditions and 7,500 feet of climb. (Yes, it’s pretty flat – but not actually flat!) and I had somehow caught up with some of the faster boys – although many like Alf, another recumbent regular, had apparently managed to sleep! – so I spent a whole hour refuelling on the excellent provisions.
(shamelessly pinched from a forum post by Damon Peacock – author in yellow)
Next came the only real drama of the ride. I left the control without my brevet card, but realised after only a couple of hundred yards and turned back for it. Alas, in this period Damon had scrambled out into his car and roared off into the night to intercept me – but as the route went through a pedestrian underpass our paths never actually crossed. He hadn’t paused to take a mobile so the controllers were helpless to intervene, and for a time it looked as though they’d have to post the card to the organiser, loaning me some cash to get me back to Edinburgh and collect the remainder of the receipts!
By sheer luck, however, I met Damon just after the underpass on my woeful way, and swapped said cash for my brevet card (bank card, etc.) – 40 minutes lost, but no real harm done.
(When the going gets tough, deploy more cable ties!)
The night was not too wild and my knees, though painful, were reasonably bearable provided I kept in low gear. The A6 was almost deserted and at 1.15am I was at Burton in Kendal services, 365km behind me, 235km to go. I found a sofa in the closed up Costa and curled up to try and sleep. Strangely for once I found this difficult – the lights were too bright and the staff too raucous, and I drifted in and out unsatisfactorily until my alarm went off just after 4am.
At this point I encountered a tandem couple who had been turned away from their Travel Lodge room (knowingly oversold) and were consequently right up against it – I later heard they packed in Kendal. For my own part, I limped out into the pre-dawn at 4.15am, exactly three hours down. The A65/A6070 was painfully lumpy and I really struggled, making Kendal at an average of less than 12mph, for all it was (in day trip terms) practically flat! My right achilles was hurting too now, having probably suffered for 20 hours taking the strain off my knee!
Given that I had ridden 1600km of qualifiers thus far with hardly any discomfort, this was a real blow. To add to my misery, it was extremely cold and the rain became sustained and heavy.
Shap going north is much worse than Shap coming south, and Shap going north in a storm with 400km in your legs and shrieking knees is really something. Character building, I suppose. In any case, the severe rise at the finish was too much even with a 25″ gear and I was forced to walk lest I had to pack altogether, the ultimate humiliation for any long distance rider. At this stage the cloud base was several hundred feet below me and the wind, temperature and saturation was such that I started to fear the possible outcome of a puncture or mechanical. It reminded me of a nasty day Munro bagging except that, of course, I would never risk being caught in the hills with such a slim margin of safety.
In the end, Shap telephone box (immortalised in audax fame for such situations as the one filmed below, in which the weather conditions are considerably better) provided shelter while I rung out clothes and put on my last spare layer. The ride was now getting truly epic – a Rapha rider would be running out of thesaurus pages – but I had to push on, for fear of needing to ride another 600 in early June if nothing else!
(00:00 – 01:30 Shap phone box in typical conditions…)
Carlisle proved frustrating again with a good dose of rain and an impenetrable section where I ended up looking at the big gyro by the bridge from the wrong side of a continuous barrier fence. Too tired and hurting to care to find the proper road, I simply lifted the bike over and climbed across! There were a handful of riders at the truckstop already, and it was the scene of collected pain, misery, and exhaustion – I had to have a hot shower to try and dispel the bone coldness that had been with me since Shap, even though I had no dry clothes to change back into…
By now I was down with the tail markers and only leaving promptly kept me from the lantern rouge (randonneurs, like all cyclists, have to adopt a minimum amount of pretentious French loan phrases). The access road to Gretna was a hard ride with gale force wind cutting across at ninety degrees. It got little better once back on the familiar terrain of the A74, making the headwind that had been struggled into the day before seem ever more futile. Such is the glamour and challenge of audax in the UK, I suppose…
It took a hefty 3 1/2 hours to make Moffat from Carlisle, a dismal average of 11.1mph on a flat section of road! Still, the end was in sight and I stocked up on painkillers (to see if I could only master the Devil’s Beeftub!) What took ten minutes to descend took an hour to ascend, but fortunately the gradient is gentle and my knees held up with plenty of spinning. The descent off the back was a great relief, with the feeling that after 350 miles, Edinburgh was almost in sight…
(Damon’s excellent little EPE video – unfortunately I’m not in it!)
Unlike at 6am the previous day, there was plenty of traffic on a Sunday teatime and I was reminded why the road between Penicuik and Edinburgh is renowned as one of the worst designed and least pleasant for cyclists anywhere in Scotland. The motorists (many of whom are cyclists returning from the 7stanes with evidence on their cars) really struggled and I had to guide one or two forcefully until I made the turn-off for Hillend and the last run into the control.
At this point I started to pick up tired riders who were, perhaps, a little baffled at finding their way through Edinburgh’s western maze to the finish. Armed with local knowledge (and GPS), I think there were five or six following me when we reached St. John’s road, and the almost friendly howls of “it’s a one way street” from the locals (despite the fact that it is, in law and by signage, only a one way street after the first corner).
We were welcomed at the arrivée with chilled refreshments and excellent omelette – just the thing when you’ve put nearly 400 miles into your legs in the last day and a half!
– 390 miles (including riding to and from the start)
– 4,500m of climb
– 37:06 (26:05 moving)
– 14.5mph moving speed