The Longest Day (on a bike): The Amesbury Amble – a 312km Audax

The past eighteen months have been a bit shit, and I’m seriously considering a move back to Wales in the upcoming months. My late mother’s house sits empty and unsold, and it seems mad to keep paying rent in London when I can write in Aber. What has kept me here is the inconvenience of moving, and some great, supportive friends.

My body has been rebelling – the hips and ankle/foot have been a nightmare in recent months – so when I signed up for the 312km Amesbury Amble, I vowed to not put myself under pressure. I would only do it if I was feeling up for it. And, for a tenner (plus a couple of quid to Audax UK for temporary membership), it wasn’t much to risk.

Kingston Wheelers Audax Chapter (“KWAC”) had organised the Amesbury Amble in response to a growing demand from club members for longer rides. The challenge of audaxing intrigued me, and I’d followed the thread on the club’s forum. The event scheduled for Saturday 1st July fast approached.

I only decided mid-afternoon on the Friday to have a go. And promptly headed for the local community centre to print out the directions. Next, off to Evans for a top tube bag.

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*shudders*

Call me a bike snob, but sticking something otherwise known as a “tri bag” on one of my machines really pained me. However, I knew I would struggle to carry enough in my pockets. My bike’s geometry won’t fit either a handlebar bag or a frame bag, and I didn’t want a backpack. I also needed to stick my portable battery in something while it was charging my Garmin.

Next to Sainsbury’s for a few snacks: jelly babies, flapjacks, and some sausages for breakfast. I was set, what about my boys?

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The boys: Toby and Bouncer. They were my late mother’s companions but now live with me in London.

Time to stick them in the shower and pack a doggy overnight bag. Earlier in the week, I’d asked a friend if he fancied canine company over the weekend and fortunately, Barry was still willing and able. I’d planned on calling a cab to drop them off, but it being Friday night, assumed the roads would be busy. So, after they had dried off, I stuck them on leads, got my bike and made my way to Surbiton via the Thames Path and a couple of trains.

Much cuteness and aahing of clean and fluffy woofsters later (and that was just strangers on the train!), I was cycling home, in the rain, at half past eleven. This late return did not bode well for the next morning.

The unexpected shower meant my ‘best bike’ was now filthy, and the dry lube I’d applied had attracted a layer of grit. So, at midnight, while cooking the aforementioned sausages, I hosed it down in the garden. After a towel off (both me and the bike), I plugged in a wide variety of lights, put my clothes in a pile for the next morning, and was out like a light.

5am alarm. Yuck.

I’m not at my best first thing in the morning. In the past year, my preparation for club runs has improved, so as to dress and take the boys for walkies before disappearing for the day. I missed having them following me around, pinching my socks, gloves, and anything else they could abscond with.

The morning was damp, cool and overcast. Not what I expected.

I added a base layer to my planned outfit, chowed down a couple of the precooked sausages and spent more than ten minutes futilely looking for my Wheeler arm warmers. Slinging on a convertible rain jacket instead and stuffing a few last-minute items in my already-full pockets, I set off, cursing that I would be late. A quick zoom through Richmond Park (good morning, deer!) and down the A3, and I found the Scout Hut with five minutes to spare.

Bikes. Bikes. Bikes.

Arriving at these events always entertains me. At the Richmond Park Time Trial last week, there were mostly the serious TTers in their super-aero gear, and the still-serious roadies. Only a few years ago, audaxing was apparently known as the haunt of mostly men over a certain age. This appears to have changed.

The age range was massive – from pre-teen to OAP – and so was the range of bikes and kits.

Normal-looking road bikes, but also classic tourers with a multitude of different bags attached. Bulging pockets (like mine!) and slimmed down, hardly carrying anything except the ubiquitous credit card. There were many, very-experienced audaxers, but also some total newbies. Before Saturday, my longest ride was 168 miles – when I did the overnight Dunwich Dynamo – so I counted myself as one of them.

Been a while since I’ve been a newbie of anything cycling-related.

I barely had time to register and scoff down a banana (and one of my sausages from a jersey pocket) when riders started rolling out.

0km – Départ: Raynes Park – 6am*

*hereafter, all times will be approximate

Eep! I stuffed another banana in my pocket, my jacket down my jersey, grabbed my bike and pedalled.

I had one plan for the day: to stay out of the red zone.

I hadn’t thought much further than that. I knew not to push as hard as a club run – the worst I could think of happening was to bonk in the middle of nowhere. Well, second worst – the worst was having an unrecoverable mechanical and losing my Uber cherry getting home or to the nearest railway station. (Yes, I know the ‘real’ worst is probably blue-lighting it to the nearest A&E, but I prefer to not think like that.)

I also knew that I couldn’t push my dodgy ankle and hips. Really steep climbs force the ankle to collapse, so spinning was the order of the day.

I hadn’t planned on riding with anyone in particular, though I knew several Wheelers were taking part. I thought I’d tag onto their group on the way out and see how my legs felt. After winding out of the suburbs to some epic tunes (Middle of the Road’s Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep was one highlight, and an earworm for later in the day), we hit the still-quiet A roads.

We flew along for a while, overtaking several other groups, scooping some up and losing others off the back. A missed turn meant turning around and overtaking a group we’d only just passed. My legs were coping well, until we navigated the undulating one-way system outside Farnham. Red zone approached, and the other Wheelers pulled away up the next hill.

Spin, spin, sugar: I spun up the incline in bottom gear. Slowly. On my own. Up another rise. And then ate a flapjack.

The next half an hour consisted of taking it easy and finding a speed at which I was comfortable. The quiet country lanes enabled us to ride two abreast for most of the time, so I chatted with several other riders overtaking me, and ones I overtook.

After a while, I found myself pacing with the same two riders – Eric and Paul. They were experienced audaxers, but even they later admitted they had gone out too fast.

73km – 1st Control: Lasham Gliding Society – 8.55am

We arrived at the first control around the same time, and one of the fellas mentioned that he wasn’t going to stop for food. My stomach was grumbling, but not in a hungry way – the sausages last night and in the morning ensured I didn’t need any more fried food.

We’d also arrived just after a couple of large groups, so the breakfast queue was long. After getting my Brevet card stamped, I popped to the loo and straight back outside. Don’t get me wrong – the food looked lovely, but my legs felt good and I was keen to keep going.  I met up with Eric and Paul and we departed.

About fifteen miles later, we passed through the small town of New Alresford and our group called for a quick supermarket stop at a Tesco Express.

Most of my time in the aisles was totally wasted: I wandered, futilely searching for a small bag of crisps but saw only nuts. Grabbing a pack of salted cashews, I re-joined the others and had a few handfuls. Combined with a mouthful of flapjack, they were surprisingly tasty. I stashed the packet down the front of my jersey, to join part of my jacket which wouldn’t fit in my pockets.

During our stop, many of the other groups had passed including my “noisy clubmates”. There was a chap in red who we passed and cycled with us for a while – Eric and Paul seemed to know him. Others we passed and passed us throughout the day. We talked about routes, and I discovered my companions only calculated in kilometres.

Ummm…

A Garmin 800 is known for being a bit flaky on long rides, so I’d uploaded the route in five segments. It was also set to imperial units, and I had cycled to the start. Combined, it meant that the written route directions were impossible for me to work out relative to mileage completed. Doh!

Note to self: next time, attach list of route bullet points to top tube. 

All the information I could access was miles left to the end of that segment. When it came to the first information control, I was lucky that the boys were alert.

95.2km Information Control: Name of brewery for pub –Wadworth

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Squint and you’ll see it. Unfortunately, the only photo I thought to take all day.

The lanes we mostly rode on were rolling. Some piles of gravel, but nothing major. A light breeze shook loosened remnants from the previous night’s shower off overhanging branches. We greeted some other cyclists and I struggled to remember it was still morning, not afternoon. It felt like I’d been up for hours. I realised I had been.

I was curious about the bikes the other two were riding. Both had dynamo front wheels, powering their permanently on lights and route guidance. Eric rode a normally geared road bike, but Paul’s had hub gears and a “chain” akin to the fan belt on a car. Their gearing was lower than mine, so I tended to leave them behind on the downhills. Either that or it was my lower centre of gravity – their geometry was far more upright.

When the roads widened, Harry B’s skinny racing pack drifted past us with some cheery ‘hellos’. For some reason, this brightened me up. Thanks, boys.

Back to the road, and approaching the hundred-mile mark, I was developing some discomfort, mostly due to the aforementioned geometry.

About my steed: the frameset is a second-hand Kinesis Racelight T2, which I impulse-bought off eBay a few months earlier. It came with a 105 groupset, 40cm bars and narrow-as-hell Bontrager tyres. I upgraded to an Ultegra 6700 groupset, fitted narrower bars and added Arc Ultrawide rims with Conti GP 4000s II tyres in 28c. There had been a plenitude of spacers below the stem, but I’d slammed it for the previous week’s time trial in Richmond Park. My position is naturally aggressive and it had been fine for the 65-mile club run afterwards, so I hadn’t moved them back. It also has a carbon seat post – which I was hoping would help with the inevitable arse ache.

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Kinesis Racelight T2 in 48cm. I really like the ride and handling.

However, an audax is quite different to a TT or club run, and it wasn’t my arse which began aching first. I kept reminding myself to loosen my upper body, hence started considering those spacers and what I could do to increase my comfort.

Years ago, on my first ever road bike ride, I’d bruised my left elbow joint. Hitting a few bad potholes months later aggravated the soreness, and on all long rides since, the elbow plays up. I had to remember to bend it, and my other arm wasn’t much better.

My hands had gravitated to the tops and my neck was starting to get really sore. I needed to do something about that. My bottom was also starting to get a little tender – my hip problems mean I don’t ride out of the saddle much, so I miss the circulation that standing on the pedals brings.

As the sun eventually peeked through the clouds, I decided a list of priorities for the next stop, apart from devouring food and refilling the water bottles:

Sorting my pockets out, so I could grab what I needed and not lose anything. Moving the spacers to lift my bars up. Finding a loo and applying some chamois cream to my rear. Resetting my Garmin 800, plugging in the portable charger, and starting a new ride. Checking my saddle wasn’t slipping back, and that my chain hadn’t gunked up.

I just needed a quiet few moments to do it all!

150.5 – Information Control: Name of cottage on corner – Crockers Cottage

Paul and Eric had batted around possible names for this, but it wasn’t what any of us expected. We saw a massive hill ahead. Eric reassured me it wasn’t part of the route. Instead, we wound around it. Relief.

157.2km – 2nd Control: Amesbury – 1pm

Over 100 miles and I was surprised how good my legs felt. Yes, my upper body wasn’t so good, but I knew with the help of a multitool, I could sort that out.

The café stop was busy, so we parked our bikes outside a bakery. A futile sortie confirmed they had no gluten-free savouries, so I hobbled to the Co-Op instead.

Another supermarket, another aimless wondering wander down the aisles (this felt like the theme for the day).

I went for water, cheese and chorizo, aping another passing rider, but on my way to the checkout, I spotted a pack of onion bhajis. I discarded the cheese. The bhajis were just what I needed.

An audaxing friend had advised me to listen to my body, and my body wanted spicy and fried Indian treats. Weird.

The cashier offered me a receipt. I automatically said no, then shouted, “Yes!” The cashier laughed along with other cyclists in the queue – I wasn’t the first cyclist that day to need that proof for the organisers.

While scoffing, I decided some reorganisation was in order, and emptied my pockets into the Co-Op bag. At that point, I found the sample packet of chamois cream, and placed that where I could easily find it again. My tender arse required comfort.

Eric held the wheel and bars and spacers while I rejigged my setup. 1.5 centimetres upwards didn’t sound like much, but I hoped it would minimise my upper body torture.

The draft plan was to find a hedge for a loo stop, but we were parked conveniently outside a pub. I nipped inside to pee and apply some of the aforementioned cream. Not being a regular user of the stuff, I didn’t really know where to put it, and couldn’t identify the sore areas while standing. It stung a bit. I read the packet – it advised to apply before a ride. Not after over 100 miles. Whoops.

Back outside, the chorizo went in one of my rear pockets. A couple of other cyclists laughed at the randomness. Though, it made me feel like a proper audaxer.

And we were off again! At shortly before 1.45pm.

The next stretch, part of which went through the North Wessex Downs, was my favourite. Rolling roads, some Roman, some even more ancient lanes, no painful climbing to hit the legs, and some fun descents. Glorious English countryside in shades of green and yellow stretched for miles. We crossed the military areas, passed a tank zone, and some parachutists. Cars were few and far between.

I was smiling broadly. The impromptu bike refit had worked and my upper body was much more comfortable. Some Wheelers who caught and cycled with us for a while commented on how happy I looked, and I was – utterly content.

Those miles to the next stop flew by. Hot, lush, rolling miles. The pace we travelled was perfect – I was happy to share the work and even happier that I didn’t need to ask anyone to wait for me. I had the odd weak moment, but so did the others – the strongest rider alternated between the three of us.

188km Information Control: Postbox Collection time  – “4.15pm”

Again, I was glad I was with experienced audaxers. Just after we got back on the road, a group of Wheelers overtook. It was plain they hadn’t stopped for the information on the postbox!

The chaos of a missed turn amused village pub goers. I wasn’t jealous of our observers, enjoying their leisurely pints in the golden afternoon sun. Honest.

212.8km – 3rd Control: Whitchurch – 4.10pm

It was hot. Really hot. I was feeling the effects of the unrelenting sun. I hoped the out-of-date Ultrasun Sport 30 still worked. We didn’t find the Mill control, instead rolling along to yet another Tesco Express. I’d made another mental list of everything I needed to do, and top was reapplying sunscreen. Second was more chamois cream, though my bottom wasn’t half as sore as earlier. The warm chorizo slices from my jersey pocket were inhaled. And I realised I could still strip off my base layer. I hid behind a delivery rack while I pulled it over my head. Strangely, it wasn’t that much cooler without – the base had been designed for hot weather. It went down the front of my jersey, to join the cashew nuts.

Eric wasn’t so shy – he brought out a pot of cream and scooped a handful down the front of his bib shorts. That absurd moment gave me the giggles, as other car park users stared or looked away.

Having a couple of spare minutes, I managed to get out my phone and check for any messages from Barry. I felt guilty I hadn’t had the time to do this earlier, and was relieved to hear the boys were behaving themselves.

the boys on barry's sofa

Making themselves at home. Pic thanks to Barry.

Phone away, and at 4.35pm, we rolled out of Whitchurch and up what felt like a nasty hill.

Maybe it was a hill, maybe it was barely a rise, but my legs didn’t enjoy it. My companions had mentioned the road to Bracknell had a few more hills, and I was chewing jelly babies like they were going out of fashion. I knew this stretch would be the most testing. I consoled myself with the thought that the remaining miles weren’t much longer than a club run.

I told Eric and Paul to go on without me if at any time I was holding them back. They refused. I kept up. (Though, I did start talking bollocks at one stage.)

Coming to a junction where the route doubled back, the penny dropped for my companions: we were on part of the “Chase the Sun” route. And therefore, there was a nasty hill ahead. A “wall”.

Eep.

Another jelly baby. A mouthful of water. I changed down early, and hoped my legs wouldn’t fail me. I didn’t break any records, but I got there.

At the top, I saw three Wheelers with a mechanical. My “need anything?” didn’t get a response, so I continued upwards, to see my companions had stopped to catch their breath. I obeyed a call of nature and shakily scaled a nearby high gate (always use the hinge end, peeps – it’s usually the most stable!). Some lizards or other fast-moving creatures in the field of crops weren’t pleased at my intrusion, scattering away. I took a few moments to enjoy the peace and quiet, before more gate-related acrobatics and remounting my bike.

A few yards later, I blinked. I’m sure they’d said we’d finished the hill, but the section ahead appeared far more daunting. (Strava concurs – over 15% in places.) My legs screamed, and I came closer to climbing off a bike than I have in years.

Much swearage abounded.

Mental fatigue was the next concern. Several miles later, I overshot a left turn, just as the mechanically recovered Wheelers overtook us. My late turn gave the driver of a car a shock. I mentally kicked myself. We would be soon hitting busier roads, so I needed to be more alert.

I wasn’t the only one struggling. The Wheelers ahead took the wrong turn at the next junction, and I was surprised that it was several miles before they caught us again. When they did, their numbers had doubled.

The lanes and quiet roads couldn’t last forever. They dwindled as we approached Bracknell. Instead of rolling countryside, we travelled through industrial estates and dodged Waitrose lorries. My Garmin didn’t like the light, so I relied on Eric’s navigation. We emerged from a catacomb of subways to see the petrol station control, and bikes stacked around it.

270.1km – 4th Control: Bracknell – 5.10pm

For the first time that day, I found a normal-sized packet of crisps! A chocolate milkshake joined the Walkers. Both tasted wonderful. I loaded the last route segment, and was delighted to find only 25 miles remained. I knew the roads wouldn’t be great – it was Saturday night – but I could bear that. Light began to dwindle. Rear light on, I changed the lenses on my glasses from dark to yellow.

Shortly after my quick strip in the field, it had felt like there was grit in my gloves. It was just a seam rubbing, but I stuck some chamois cream inside my gloves too. It did the trick.

The Bracknell control felt like our longest stop of the day, but it wasn’t – only 25 minutes later we were rolling out and navigating towards Ascot. These were roads I semi-recognised, even the horrendous ridges through Thorpe. Though I’d warned them in advance, my companions weren’t expecting the dig over Chertsey Bridge. The traffic-calming bumps through Shepperton weren’t terribly enjoyable for my sore bits either. I turned my front light on, and was dismayed to find low-battery red shone a few minutes later.

Don’t panic. Do not panic. It’ll be fine.

The boys went in front of me, just in case the light failed. Hampton Court. Sunday evening traffic in Kingston. Finishing felt close enough to touch. A last effort on Coombe Lane, and we were freewheeling along the path to the Scout Hut. Blazing lights welcomed us.

312.3km – Arrivée: Raynes Park– 9.15pm

Just in time to bag the last bowl of Spanish pork and bean stew (which was fortunate as food sensitivities meant I couldn’t handle any of the other options). I completed my brevet card and handed it in. I was sad to see it go.

I perched on the corner of a chair and contemplated the bowl of stew, my first proper meal of the day. Tipping some salad over the tasty stew was my pretence at eating healthily, after the assortment of bizarre, calorie-laden foods I’d eaten that day. Our little trio wasn’t far behind many of the Wheeler packs, and many were still there eating and chatting.

I wasn’t sure if I could finish the stew, but it was delicious and just what I needed. Bowl emptied. I spooned fruit salad and yoghurt into another. That too was demolished.

I idly wondered if my calorie intake balanced my expenditure.

I had been stuffing flapjack in all day – the tri bag did its job, and it was definitely easier to pick snacks from there than bend my tender elbows enough to reach my jersey pockets. Eric asked if we felt like we could do another 100km. At that time, I shook my head.

However, would I do it again?

Yes. I’d even think about going longer. With some considerations:

  • I’d aim to get more rest/sleep the day/night before.
  • I’d lift the stem up before I started, and ensure the reach was comfortable. (I suspect the saddle had also slipped back on the rails, which didn’t help.)
  • I’d sort out possible layers the day before, and wear my most comfortable shorts.
  • I’d apply chamois cream before I started.
  • I’d pack better – I hate overflowing pockets – and really think about what I did and didn’t need. For a longer ride, I’d need to somehow fit a bigger bag on that frame, though I think the only option would be a larger saddle bag, Apidura style.
  • I’d ensure my lights were fully charged, for no nasty surprises.
  • I’d take more photos. (I can’t believe I didn’t take my phone out more than once.)
  • I’d change my Garmin to kilometres, not miles. Plus, I’d have notes on my top tube of where the information controls were. I know some that completed the course didn’t stop for the extra controls, but for me they were an essential addition to the day. Part of the fun of audaxing.

And it was fun. Well, the bits which weren’t painful were fun. Honest.

Thanks to everyone who organised the day, and to Eric and Paul for keeping me company. And to Barry for looking after the boys. 

Kingston Wheelers Audax Chapter (KWAC) are organising a Super Randonneur (SR) Series of rides for 2018 and 2019. They have the following dates pencilled in for the 2018 SR ride series:

200: Sunday, March 18, 2018
300: Saturday, April 14, 2018
400: Saturday, May 19, 2018
600: Saturday, June 16, 2018

Contact audax@kingstonwheelers.co.uk for further information or visit their website.

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