The Great Escape

June 2, 2015

[April’s Dodecaudax wasn’t interesting from a writing point of view, as I repeated the same route as February to Eastbourne and back via Brighton. I found a way of cutting out the unpleasant footpath section and all was well.]

Riding out of London through Epping Forest on a Sunday morning in a huge pack of riders is about as big as it gets in Audax terms, short of the ‘big one’ itself, Paris-Brest-Paris. That this was ‘just’ a run-of-the-mill 200km indicates how big a thing cycling is becoming in London these days, and we could take that for granted if we forgot that it wasn’t always this way. When I started cycling here in 2005 there were nothing like so many cyclists on the roads, I think it’s going in the right direction now but when you visit some continental European cities you see that it could still be so much bigger.

Anyway, there I am in Epping forest, we’re two abreast and all I can see in front is riders. I’m near the back of the pack and the pace, while not exactly scintillating by road race standards, is enough to put me under pressure. I’m concentrating on keeping my nose out of the wind and trying to save energy, but it’s harder here at the back amongst the stragglers. You always seem to get a few riders in a group who don’t get the idea, who allow gaps to form and who, instead of keeping the rhythm, insist on making changes of pace. When you’re struggling to keep up, those little accelerations kill you a little bit at a time, and when you know you’ve got miles left to do today, it can get a little bit stressful.

Still I held on to the fast wheels along the long, straight, gentle drag through Epping Forest, and after the sudden right turn that signalled a total change in character. We’d worked our way out of town through suburban high roads, then that arrow-straight tree-lined run for miles, and now we were in lanes. Lanes, everywhere in England, do roughly the same thing. They are narrow, they twist and turn, they go up and down, they have blind corners and big potholes and nasty bits of gravel. Following a group of fast riders you don’t know through such terrain is stressful when you’re on top form, but when you’re working hard to hold the wheel it can be a slow agony. Still, I have a lot of pride, so I ignored the burning legs and the heaving lungs and the pure fear and I clung on for dear life for about the first sixty kilometres, and when I eventually let discretion be the better part of it, it wasn’t because I was exhausted, oh no, it was on a matter of principle, of course.

All Audax events have ‘controls’. They are there to provide you with a bit of respite, to reassure you that you’re on the right road, to reassure the organisers that you’re still on the ride, but most of all to check that you are actually completing the course. Most frequently, you get a staffed control, which in its least elaborate form is one person with a stamp, who applies that stamp to your brevet card, makes a note of your time, and sends you on your way. Less frequently, you get an ‘information control’ and it was because of a difference of opinion about these, and certainly not because of a lack of physical capacity, that I parted company with the faster riders on this early summer’s Audax.

A bit like in alleycat racing (as described here: https://selhurst.wordpress.com/2013/04/28/allez-cat/), information controls ask you a simple question about a place you ride through. It has to be said that the ones on this ride weren’t dramatically challenging: ‘what is the name of the second pub on the right after you enter the village?’ sort of thing. As far as I am concerned, however, ignoring their existence completely was disrespectful to the spirit of the event, and so I insisted on stopping to write down the information requested at each control. Ah, but, you might say, why not just read the questions beforehand, remember the answers, and write them down at the obligatory stops for the staffed controls? Well now, I retort, you’re missing the point. Doing it this way I had the opportunity to not have to follow riders who are far too strong and fast for me for the entire 200km, and so I never blew up embarrassingly and exhaustingly.

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/).

It only remains to say that Islington CC organised the event, and did a good job, and that the start and finish were at the well-know Central London venue Look Mum No Hands, so you can see a more official write-up and some photos on their site: http://www.lookmumnohands.com/blog/essex-adventures.

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