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Go West. And then come back.

VecchioJo rides the London-Wales-London audax and not much happens

This might be a boring read for some people. There is no compelling story arc of hope and dreams, then downfall, struggle, despair and a final crescendo of success and some kind of personal resolution. There is no cycling jeopardy, there is little in the way of pushing on through against the odds, there is not much fighting against the pedals in a gritty battle, nor is there sobbing in the gutter and no Damascene revelation, there is however a lot of napping and food. And just getting the job done.

Of course there should have been all of this and it had every right to be an absolute mess. This is the story of half a dozen disparate people thrown together by planning and chance and attempting the London-Wales-London, a 400km audax out west and back again. The main protagonists all have their separate compelling back-stories for the real possibility of failure and potential tall tale of disaster in the pub later. We’ll start with Gavin, the man who’s my Transcontinental partner. This event has been marked down the calendar in thick pen as a necessary training goal for that event but Gavin has done a couple of 400km audaxes before and has had a terrible time on both, emotional scars have been left and it is on record that he absolutely hates them. 400km is a ways to go and the Rules of Audax are so that there really isn’t much space in the schedule for a proper rest and you have to tap the kilometres out at a regular pace to get round in time. As such the distance is recognised in these circles as a tough one and proper hard. But for Gavin and I it is necessary that it is done for training purposes and nervous pre-ride chat sees us agreeing that Just Getting Round will be good enough thank you.

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Adam is nervous because it’s the longest ride he’s done and to add to this his back has been playing up recently so he’ll probably be relying on painkillers to make it round. Despite him being a cycling drugs cheat Gavin and I have to kind of stick with him, or at least be very nice to him as he has the car-keys. Adam is notionally paired up with Andy today as they’re riding the Tuscany Trail together later in the year and this is a preparation of sorts, and they’re sharing a room the night before which officially makes them a couple. Andy is the wild card in the bunch in that he’s not voiced much concern or laid out excuses early but he rode the 200km Dirty Reiver gravel event the weekend before so he’s either a bit tired or firing on all cylinders.

Also in the anxious camp is Grace as it’s the furthest she’s ridden as well, but she’s also down to compete in the Transcontinental so the distance needs doing, and she’s entered the fearsome Bryan Chapman Memorial 600km Welsh End to End so this is an unavoidably useful stepping stone. She has brought her friend Lorna with her, for which the L-W-L will be the longest ride she will have done by a good factor of two. It’s going to be fine.

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And finally there’s me. In the short van journey up to Uxbridge the night before I’m tired, achy, lumpy in the stomach and quiet in conversation. A week ago I fell off the training cliff and rode the last five miles home, cold, exhausted and wanting to fall asleep in the gutter. I have spent the days up till now mainly eating, sleeping and trying to recover and I muttered round a quick exploratory 100km yesterday to check that my body was working again. It was, sort of. Still, I’m not confident about tomorrow because I feel very much below par and even lower than that in confidence. I ponder possible alternatives like wandering around town for the day or just following the audax in the van and offering support and succor at strategic points. I am not in a very happy place but I keep shtum and luckily a couple of beers and a nice pie in the en-suite Beefeater to our overnight Premier Inn do something to settle these issues and after the few too short hours of sleep my body wakes up feeling a little less wretched.

Between us then there’s an extensive menu for possible meltdown and mild catastrophe at some point somewhere, betting men should be studying their form sheets with a keen eye, there’s money to be made here lads. We have never ridden together before either, some of us haven’t even met and while there was no plan to ride as a group, at least I don’t think anything is said, I assumed that we would naturally just split into our pairings as the ride, different paces and stopping needs progressed, but we stick together as a mini-peloton for the whole ride. And it is all the better for it.

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There is a small amount of pre-ride faff as is standard procedure and we’re late out of the gate by a good 15 minutes, we still really haven’t got the hang of this audax lark, but we’re not quite the last and our pelotonette pretty soon picks up riders along the fast and empty 6am weekend roads away from Chalfont St Peter. We crack the early miles off pretty swiftly despite saying frequently and repeatedly beforehand that we need to make sure we don’t start too fast. We all know in the back of our heads that we’re going too quick too early in the day but it feels an easy speed, we can chat and pedal at the same time and no-one voices their concern so we carry on regardless.

Poke around in the rear pocket at intervals for the pre-prepared ham/jam/cheese combo croissants that survived the early breakfast force down with some smoothie. Recent experience has taught me that constant fuelling is the key to success at these events and you can never eat too much, or too soon. Our little group of old and new friends clips along and it’s a pleasure to be alongside people that know how to ride in a bunch, take a turn at the front if you want, sit in the back and chat if you want. We sweep up slower audaxees in our bow-wave of mild exuberance and there are times when we get quite the convoy going. The first control is at about 70km in Woodstock and is also home to a fine breakfast buffet; big plates all round.

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Sausage, bacon, mushrooms, beans, bread and butter. Tea. Walk-by sausage on the way out.

With a 400km film of the ride stored on the hard-drive in you head it’s hard to remember everything that’s rolled by but in the days that follow the memory randomly regurgitates moments that make you either smile or groan. The next section across to Winchcombe for me is a list of remembered names from when I briefly lived in this part of the world, a recalled muscle memory of the shape of the hills, fuzzy recollections of Hell Of The North Cotswolds roads that suddenly turn left onto dirt and the funscary descent off Sudely Hill. Those moments it all went a bit sportive as the rider we’ve been yo-yoing with for a while overtakes me on a descent on the wrong side of the road on a right hand bend and later being quite scared at the rider happily on the tri-bars in the middle of the group that had swarmed around us. I’ll just move to the front for a bit now.

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We pause briefly in Winchcombe to stock up on water and snacks, I start on the scotch egg that’s been warming nicely to body temperature in my back pocket over the last few hours. I’d sacrificed a packet of pork pies that were already out of date a few days ago to the Premier Inn bin earlier in the morning as an offering to the Salmonella Gods so I should be fine. The hearty lump of the Cotswolds out of the way it’s a pretty flat scamper into Tewkesbury, the second control point of the day and something like lunch. We avoid the café that has piles of bikes stacked outside and nip round the corner to a quieter food place called Crumpets. None of us have crumpets. Buck Rarebit and tea, and what’s left of Lorna’s unwanted baked potato until I gag a little.

Food receipts kept for brevet validation and back out of town towards the purply thump of the Malverns, I get Pavlov’s Dog pre-race tummy-tingles icky-feel from having driven this road too many times in the past on the way to race in those hills. Thankfully we veer left and start to curve generally southwards towards Chepstow where it becomes clear that we’re now a long way from home as the earth has changed colour to a deep russet and the increasing hills are unfamiliar in lump and curve. Our little group is still a vaguely viscous lump as it strings out and reforms over the miles, sometimes we’re together chatting, or it is quiet, or we’re dotted along the road but still together in heart and spirit.

It’s tricky to unwrap moistly sticky slices of malt loaf from silver foil.

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Somewhere about the post box information control I think, the memory sometimes switches to shuffle for no reason, Lorna says this is the furthest she’s ever cycled ever, then she says it again, and 100 yards further on she says it again. And then again. Either it’s genuinely funny of we’re starting to get tired and giddy.

The second half of that scotch egg, like a hamster.

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The Symonds Yat climb pops up at pretty much halfway and it’s a suitable way to celebrate. A mile long and tightening up to 20% in places as you thread through the steep sided gorge it’s a little bit of a shocker, not helped by traffic trying to squeeze past on the very singletrack road. It’s about now that the audax starts to nibble at people and someone pulls the switch on Gavin somewhere on an unremarkable steady drag through some unremarkable houses where he rapidly disappears off the back, the hurried application of food sees a return to form and the next control at Tutshill after a lovely swoopy descent offers some much needed refueling for everybody.

Chorizo chili, cup of pasta with basil and pine nuts, flapjack, banana, tea, coffee.

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After some frankly unnecessary, desperately inappropriate and amusingly unexpected for both an audax and a school car-park female fumbling to get some leg-warmers to stop chaffing somewhere delicate we’re back off again and spirits seem to be a little higher with the psychological boost of turning for home as we cross the iron bridge over the Wye at Chepstow and loop into Wales for a short stint and cheeky climb only to cross right back over into England again via the slightly bigger Severn Bridge. There are brief flashbacks to when Gavin and I rode the 600kms to Wales and back last year and a faint familiarity to some of the roads we’re doing now with the sun disappearing over our right shoulders whereas we were heading straight into it back then. With a faint but welcome tailwind we fairly tank along to Malmesbury where there are anguished shout outs for proper food and our group halts for the replenishment that’s going to see us into the night.

Large chicken shish and a can of Sprite, sat under the cross in the middle of town. There’s glamour for you. The sauce is quite spicy on cracked lips. The left over bits of other people’s pizza.

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Lights and extra layers on we push on into the thickening spread of darkness. There’s less than 150kms to go, what’s that? A nice long Sunday ride. Easy. This is my mental barrier, we can all get home from this. But things tend to happen when it gets dark; cold, tiredness, demons, unraveling. Despite not having filled up on food that long ago we pull into the bright inviting lights of a petrol station Spar somewhere and stumble around the aisles looking for anything, we’re not quite sure what but we’ll know it when we see it. I look at my right glove and it is damp and red, it appears that what I thought was just a runny nose for the last few miles, dripping freely in the cold night air, was in fact a nose bleed. My face, jersey, shoes and bicycle all have varying amounts of dried red on them so I quickly retreat to the toilets for a clean up and to plug my still leaky right nostril with loo-roll. I must be running beyond my engineering limit. Carry on.

Pork scratchings, salted cashews, almond cake thing in the back pocket just in case, half of a large coffee.

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This section paralleling the M4 proves to be hard as it trends ever upwards to struggle over the Lambourn Downs. One too many times there’s a line of red lights hovering above our heads to give an indication of where the road goes. Unable to see tilt of tarmac or the hill we have to rely on our other senses, mainly the feeling in the legs to let us know where the steepness is. Look down at the computer screen, have we got 100km to go yet? Have we got 100km to go now? Hidden in the sodium sleepy maze of a housing estate in Lambourn is the final control in a sports club where there’s time for food and maybe the suggestion of a kip. Riders are slumped on tables, others curl up on the floor for a brief recharge. There is a hushed atmosphere and conversations are conducted sotto voce. There is brief discussion over whether we want to swing south a bit and take the A4 option back into London, it’s potentially quicker, probably flatter and at this time of night empty of traffic so pretty safe. This is the way of choice for the audaxer that wants to make time but we decide to stick to the proper route.

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Veggie chili, bread roll, banana custard, tea, mug of squash.

Set a time to leave and stick to it, brace yourself for the cold and dark, it will be fine once you get pedaling again. Andy has his single headphone in and is off the front, he’s let us know that he needs to do this to get through his nighttime and tiredness issues and we’re all fine with that. There is the quiet security that we’re all looking out for each other in our bubble of light and camaraderie, a look over the shoulder to check, a wait at the top, nothing needs to be said. We’ve got this far together and no-one’s getting left behind now. Old-school road rules.

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Somewhere about sometime in the dark Lorna punctures on a drawing pin, on a lane in the middle of the countryside. Many hands make the inner-tube change a quick one but it’s still long enough for Grace to curl up in the verge, the soft comfy welcoming grassy verge, and grab a quick sleep. This is most amazing piece of power-napping I have ever seen in all my years. Respect to the girl.

Clif bar.

Onwards, nothing to look at, just other people’s lights and the bigger holes in the road, with no distractions thoughts turn to distance and just ticking the miles off, just ticking them off. Ticking of freewheels. Carrot and stick psychology comes into play and we plan on a brief rest stop in Henley before the final push for home. The picnic benches outside the Three Horseshoes are surprisingly comfortable. A trio of passing drunks ask us if we have a lighter although they figure pretty quickly that we’re probably not the types to have a lighter on them. One of them gives us a pound in 20p’s for sponsorship of our ride. That reminds me, I need to put that in the Cancer Charity tin.

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Bits of cheese straws and chunks of chocolate.

As light starts to push the night upwards there’s a quick emergency stop in yet another petrol station, a wait while a young lad gets a frozen pizza, a bottle of vodka and some tonic water before we can buy our cans of coffee and crisps. Classy times. Grace is power-napping again, sat on the wall with her head resting on her bike saddle but we have made it through the dark. There have been no tantrums and no teddies have been thrown and the pace has merely dipped rather than just staggered to an impatient crawl. We have all had our ups and downs over the ride and we are all quite tired and all a little cold but we have pedaled on through totally fuss free. Dark places may have been wandered through but no one has had to be dragged along or soft pedaled alongside or politely waited for at the top of a climb, even Lorna who is pushing well past her furthest distance now is still cracking along, although she might be showing a little less ebullience than at the start. If people are having the kind of hard time you’re meant to have on a bike these days then they were keeping it well hid beneath the Rapha.

Crisps, half of the back-pocket almond cake, dirty can of coffee.

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We leave in two minutes. Shuffling. We go. In time we can turn our lights off, we guestimated that we might be done by about 2am and that deadline has been and long gone, as has the Maybe 4am one as we ride back into the daylight. Despite things taking much longer than expected morning brings with it a little enthusiasm boost and we clattertired over the very particular form of pothole that the outskirts of London bring at still a respectable pace. As a group I don’t think we could have gone any faster, we seem to have spent much of the time going too fast anyway, or we’re actually better than we think we are.

There’s a naughty little hill in Beaconsfield that breaks the straw on Grace’s back and she pulls to the kerb, puts her foot down and has a moment. We’re not going to let her get away with that, we’re probably into single figure kiiometres to go now. It’s always hard to know whether to say some encouraging words at times like these, and whether those words might sound patronizing or just plain trite and maybe it’s best just to say nothing at all, and in an awkward mix of all of those we get to the top. Everyone is going to get home together. There are a couple of frustrating fussake last minute country lane climbs and then we’re dropping into a roundabout that’s suddenly recognizable as the one just outside the community centre where we started earlier in the day, yesterday.

Tea, more tea, toast and jam.

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And that was it. It was a hard 400km without a doubt and we’ve all had to plunder both mental and physical reserves, but none of us are totally broken and now it’s all over there is fine banter. We did ok. It took significantly longer than any of us expected but no-one was after a gold time or in need of a medal. You don’t get them on an audax anyway, maybe a nice sew-on badge though. For something that could have gone terribly wrong, might have verged into the Epic and easily could have had an incident unfold that would slowly pass into oft-repeated anecdotal legend and less than fond remembrance nothing really happened. And yet everything did. Quietly. For a ride that should have been strung with effort and struggle and peppered with tedium and a large dose of unhappiness we probably had too much of a good time and laughed too much, and this is what makes the ride worthy of telling. Because of the London-Wales-London I will pedal alongside these five other people again, any time they care to ask.

Macaroni cheese suitable for four for supper. One can of beer (unfinished). Wake up on the floor two hours later, go to bed. 

London Wales London

Jo Burt has spent the majority of his life riding bikes, drawing bikes and writing about bikes. When he's not scribbling pictures for the whole gamut of cycling media he writes words about them for and when he's not doing either of those he's pedaling. Then in whatever spare minutes there are in between he's agonizing over getting his socks, cycling cap and bar-tape to coordinate just so. And is quietly disappointed that yours don't He rides and races road bikes a bit, cyclo-cross bikes a lot and mountainbikes a fair bit too. Would rather be up a mountain.

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