How many sportives have you done that start in a pub with free tea and bacon sandwiches? In my case it was none, so if this was an audax vs sportive football match then walking into the warm and cosy confines of the Barn Owl in Exeter at 7.30am to find just such a spread was the equivalent to audax snatching an early goal. As it’s not a competition, let’s just say it made a good impression.
Too good, perhaps, as we were still sipping and chatting when the official start took place. This was to be my first audax event – an organised 200km long-distance ride without signage but with a printed route sheet, without chip-timing but with a brevet card to be stamped at each control point to prove you’ve gone the distance – as I gear up towards the legendary 1200km Paris-Brest-Paris event in August. And seeing as getting lost was my number one fear, despite the torn pages from a road atlas and that route sheet in my pocket, not setting off with everyone else was asking for trouble.
One further potential issue was that in my early morning muddle-headedness I had forgotten to pack my helmet. This being an audax event, it soon emerged there was no problem with me riding lidless (I wasn’t the only one) but it did feel strange after all this time and I’ll pack it for the next one.
Fortunately I soon ran into Jon (from Farnham) and then the Sid Valley CC collective (Nigel, Martin, Andy, Richard) and settled in with them for the day. The early hours of the ride flew by as we dipped down to the south coast at Budleigh Salterton and then began heading north.
We were blessed with lovely sunshine on the first day of March as we cruised up to Tiverton and the first control at the Canal Tea Rooms, where a warming cuppa was necked al fresco and the Tea Rooms’ resident cat was fussed.
From there it was a long but stunning ride along the Exe valley, gradually climbing up onto Exmoor, from where the descent from Wheddon Cross made me grateful we’d come the way we did. The road down was much steeper than the long climb we had tackled from the south.
As we dropped off the moor we hit the chocolate box town of Dunster, where the closed roads required by the controversial work to replace the picturesque but awkward cobbled pavements with something more modern were just about navigable by bike. From Dunster it was a blast past the fairy tale castle, followed by a quick up and down into the small coastal resort of Blue Anchor for lunch. The control was at the railway station, part of the West Somerset Steam Railway, where we had to wait for a locomotive to pull in before we could cross the level crossing (no dipping under the barriers for us, Sir Wiggo). While we were getting our brevets stamped, another train came in from the other direction. With the number of steel-framed bikes around it was a journey back in time to the days before the car was king (or should that be dictator?).
From the station we nipped to the Driftwood Café on the seafront for lunch; we were over halfway through our ride now and feeling good. I was under orders to take on board hot food and drink whenever possible, so as fish and chips orders flew in I joined the fun and plumped for ham, egg and chips and a mug of tea. This was proper ride fuelling!
Unfortunately, while we tucked in the weather turned. Outside the window things got progressively darker as visitors raced for their cars, and by the time we were ready to hit the road again we emerged into cold and rain. Conditions got markedly worse as we climbed out of Blue Anchor, rode along the coast to Watchet, and then climbed again up towards the Quantock Hills. By now the rain was freezing and lashing in sideways across us thanks to a fierce onshore wind. Hands and feet went cold and then numb, and even as the weather began to improve as we climbed through the gnarled trees to the high Quantock moorland it was clear that our soaked through gloves, shoes and socks were not going to offer any warmth now. It was after a steep descent back down, as we waited to regroup, that my more experienced companions started producing dry spare pairs of gloves from their substantial saddle bags – note to self, get with the programme before tackling 300, 400, 600km and more.
Where 10km chunks had seemed to fly by in the morning, they started to pass very slowly now. All day I had been promised something special from control number three, at the house of John and Margaret Paramore. It seemed to be 10km away for about 40km, time passing so slowly as I pedalled on with the blocks of ice that had replaced my feet towards what began to feel like a mythical nirvana.
As daylight started to fade we arrived, and there was nothing mythical about the sight that greeted us. Having had our brevets stamped in a garagethat brought on mass workshop envy, we walked into a kitchen where three different giant pans of soup warmed on the hob, beans on toast were being dished out to all takers and the tables groaned beneath the weight of homemade cakes and hot cross buns. Warmth, both literal and emotional, was also in great supply. This home was a genuine slice of heaven for cold, wet cyclists, selflessly created for no other reason than a love of the sport and a desire to support it. Tea, soup, cake and a bun were consumed as life finally came back to my feet in the conservatory, a small donation was proffered to the Devon Air Ambulance and half an hour later we were on our way again, attaching lights to our bikes to illuminate us for the final 40km, much of which was now going to be ridden in the embrace of darkness.
Pothole = puncture
By now our only thoughts were of pressing on and getting back to Exeter as soon as possible, but the conditions would contrive to slow our progress with two punctures – the first of which was mine. Filled as it was with muddy water in the dark, I didn’t see a vicious pothole as we pressed on but I heard and felt the massive ‘thunk’ as my front wheel smashed into it. Just as I felt confident enough to answer the shouts of “everything okay?” with a “yes”, the telltale sounds of a flat came into earshot.
At this point, the camaraderie of the audax collective kicked in again. Apart from removing the wheel I did nothing in the fixing of my flat! Instead, like a Formula One pit-stop crew my riding companions took a task each – removing the tyre and old tube, putting a little air in the new one, refitting the tyre, pumping it back up – and we were back on the road in minutes. Unfortunately Nigel then suffered a puncture of his own, but with the team again leaping into help this one didn’t hold us up too long either.
Desperate to finish, we pushed on into the darkness and could spot the lights of Exeter in the distance. Willing them closer, by now the weakening legs were kept going by the energy of that hot cross bun and the knowledge that if we just kept pedalling we’d make it.
Back at the Barn Owl, we were given a warm welcome from organiser Pippa Wheeler who told us our 11-hour ride has been a good one for a first ever audax. It sounded like a long time to us (and felt it too), but where on a sportive we’d have paused for five minutes at feed stops to cram an apple pie and a gel down our necks, today we’d stopped for tea, egg and chips, soup, cake, buns, tea and more tea.
We learnt that there were plenty more people still out there in the darkness (we passed a couple on our way in), and that not even all the 100km riders made it back before the weather turned. “We do have a broad spectrum of abilities,” Pippa told us, “and everyone is catered for.”
Talk turned to reminiscences of the day and, as always with these things, the worst, bleakest sections of the ride were relived with the broadest smiles. Back at Margaret’s house I questioned my sanity for wanting to do more of these events, culminating in a ride six times as long, but with the warmth back in my fingers and toes and a smile on my face I’m looking forward to the challenge, and to meeting more of the great people I met today.
For details of audax rides in your area, check out Audax UK at www.aukweb.net
Despite this seemingly inauspicious start, we did make it to Paris, and you can read about our PBP experience here.