Rain, Hail, 50mph Gusts and the Start of Summertime Specials

April 20, 2015


A bike on a train in the early morning. Must be an event somewhere. Actually, I was in good company on this particular Sunday morning, mildly hung-over and distinctly underslept thanks to a very badly-timed clock change. On the platform at Stevenage it turned out there were half a dozen of us on this particular train, heading for this particular brevet. To say nothing of two racers who got on at Finsbury Park and off again for their event in Welwyn. And this despite the fact that this is the one Sunday of the year when daylight saving robs you of an hour’s sleep. Not to mention the weather. “Heavy drizzle” is the best description I can come up with. It wasn’t hard rain, but it made up for in persistence what it lacked in commitment.

The start, signing on, brevet card, bikes everywhere, handlebar bags and saddlebags, mudguards, map holders. The major of Stevenage sends us off. She says she’s happy because afterwards she can go home. I’m happy because I’m actually starting the brevet at the same time as everyone else, as opposed to being delayed by more than an hour on the start of my last attempt at one of these. I am determined to finish this one within the time delay, something I barely cared about as I rolled out from Newport in January.

Suburban main roads, couple of roundabouts, and “out”. Instantly into country lanes, scenery, twisty corners. Rolling, not flat, terrain. Easy little ups and nicely freewheeling downs. Sometimes I hang off the back of the group, sometimes I move up. I look for good wheels to follow. You want to be riding in the slipstream of someone good, but not too fast, also someone who is alert. Who’s pointing out the potholes in good time, who knows where they’re going, who’s easy at speed and who’s working hard to keep up. The first twenty kilometres are knocked off easily, and swiftly, as I expect. First control’s in a café, and this is where me and the group part company.

I’ve been up since five in the morning. I did, indeed, have the comfort of breakfast in my own kitchen after feeding my own cat. (Only just, the cat got up just in time to see me off.) Breakfast, however, was a long time ago, and since it’s not yet time for elevenses it must be second breakfast that I’m sitting down to in the Silver Ball Café on the A10 at Reed End. Its name suggests to me a song by The Who, but there are no pinball machines here. It looks like it was last redecorated in 1961, and that probably corresponds to when the (motor)bikers who are the core clientele were born. It is old school. I have scrambled eggs on toast, with baked beans. It is exactly what I need and I feel brilliant, and don’t regret for a second having ducked out of a group whose pace, if the truth be known, was probably too fast for me over 200km anyway. In the café toilet I take off my socks, one by one, wring them out in the sink and dry them under the hand dryer.

I set off again, on my own. I’ve written cue cards for the navigation. They give the distance to the next turn-off, change of direction, or landmark, somewhat like rally pacenotes. I find this very helpful, and can visualise the map in my head as I read them. This is just as well, because I don’t actually have a map. The next thing that happens is I come over crest into a dip, and see three cyclists standing in the road on the rise up out of it. This is silly, I think. Whatever problem has happened, you shouldn’t stand in the road to solve it. Drivers coming in each direction will see these guys from about 50-100 metres, and that’s not far enough. To make matters worse, they are only just uphill from a layby. I stop, and try to find diplomatic words to tell them what a pointless risk they are taking. I persuade them to stroll downhill into the layby, and offer assistance with the broken chain which is the cause of their stop. Memories of improvised chain repair in the snow in New Deer (Which I described in this post) were passing through my mind as I tried to give calm instruction in the use of the chain tool. Eventually a repair was made, and I wished my new acquaintances luck and set off, in the company of another rider with whom I fell into conversation. He was moving well, and we covered ground quickly to the next control in Thaxted.

The rain stopped shortly before the control, but began again heavily soon after it. I had parted company with my erstwhile riding companion, and found myself alone for the run to Lavenham, the longest stretch between controls and also the part of the route with the least navigation to do. Sometimes the halfway point of a long ride passes almost unnoticed, but here the character of the ride changed dramatically. Having had a strong tailwind for the outward leg of the journey, at Lavenham we turned through 180 degrees to ride back to Stevenage into the wind. At the same time, there was a change in the weather. Relentless drizzle gave way to sunshine, with the howling wind bringing in fierce but brief squalls of rain as well as a little bit of hail. At the checkpoint in the medieavel Guildhall, I met up once again with my rapid acquaintance of earlier, and we agreed to ride the next section together as I was afraid of getting lost. It soon appeared that I had made a poor choice of riding companion, however, as we next wasted twenty minutes repairing a tyre with a rubber “boot” kindly donated by another participant. The time I had lost with other people’s mechanical problems was now seriously eating into the otherwise comfortable margin I’d made myself, such that fast riding was now a matter of necessity, rather than choice, in order to finish inside the time limit. So off we set.

One of the great things about cycling is the people you meet. I greatly enjoyed the next few hours in the company of someone I’d never met before. We only bothered to exchange names shortly before arriving back in Stevenage, yet riding together was an absolute joy. We had similar speed, and a good sense of when to swap over turns riding into the almost unbelievably strong headwind: we would be told on arrival that there had been gusts over 50mph. We kept each others spirits up in spite of the rain and the hail, swapped cycling stories, checked each other’s navigation. Feeling the effects of sleep deprivation as well as physical fatigue, the companionship was extremely welcome to me, and although I’m sure I would have completed the ride anyway, it was what made the experience a pleasure. About an hour after it got fully dark, we arrived back at Stevenage with about twenty minutes to spare before the cut-off time. I could count my this my second successful completion of a 200km brevet in my life. The first one was seven years ago. Of course, it also counts as the second leg of my dodecaudax.


One Response to “Rain, Hail, 50mph Gusts and the Start of Summertime Specials”

  1. […] Still, it wasn’t only because the route was quite flat that I recorded my fastest ever time for a 200, completing the course in just over 9 hours including stops (and getting lost once into the bargain). I like cycling quickly and I think it’s an important part of Audax riding, but I also like the element of discovering territory, and taking in your surroundings, and just having to stop in these little Essex villages to write down the names of their pubs and the saints of their churches added to that for me. I feel that I’m starting to get to know an area that I would otherwise hardly have a reason to visit, especially where some of the route this time took in places already visited on the 200km from Stevenage I rode earlier in the year (https://selhurst.wordpress.com/2015/04/20/rain-hail-50mph-gusts-and-the-start-of-summertime-specials…). […]

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