Tuesday, 8 September 2015

5 Sep: Mr Pickwick goes to Hay in a day - 200km Audax

Alex writes: On Saturday I rode a 200 km audax, Mr Pickwick goes to Hay in a day. The course started in Tewkesbury, headed fairly directly west to Hay-on-Wye, and then looped to the north, returning to Tewkesbury via the Malvern Hills.

For anyone not familiar with audaxing (a few audax ride reports have been posted here recently) the goal is to ride a set course within a set time, passing through designated points ('controls'). For detail, there is an excellent explanation of the rules on the Cambridge audax site.

I was to ride with my Bristol-based cycling chum John, an experienced audaxer fresh from his success riding Paris-Brest-Paris - probably the most famous audax of all and, at 1200 km, one of the most challenging. After an early breakfast we headed up the M5 to Tewkesbury and assembled in a car park with, I estimate, around 50 other riders, ready for the 0800 start. We would have to be back here by 2140 to be in time.

At the départ

As usual the field set off at a cracking pace and, rather than struggle to hang on I was happy to trundle along more sedately, reasoning that through canny energy conservation I'd be likely to overhaul riders later. In fact this hardly happened – this field seemed a bit nippier than some I'd encountered in other audaxes; either that, or I was going more slowly than usual – which is entirely possible given that the previous weekend I'd ridden my first 300 km audax and was maybe still a bit tired.

The forecast was that there was a chance of rain, and soon the grey cloud cover started discharging enough heavy drizzle that we stopped to don waterproofs.

After 55 km of flatish riding along a laney route – not too dissimilar to those we ride around Cambridge - we arrived at the first control, Lock's Garage. While to the untutored eye this might appear a normal petrol station, it styles itself 'The Fortnum and Mason of the Borders'. Whatever: after an indifferent vending-machine hot chocolate and a rather good locally-produced wodge of flapjack we were off again heading west.

At the départ the organizer had promised us better weather and some 'pipe opening' climbs en route to Hay, and the latter part of this package was soon in evidence with some ascents through woodland necessary before we could drop down into the Golden Valley and thence Hay. While no climbing was particularly steep (a section of 12% was the steepest) there seemed a lot of it - at least to a Cambridge-based flatlander like me. The reward for climbing is of course scenery and, with the sun finally breaking through, we were compensated with views of the Wye Valley as we swept around and down into Hay: at 84 km the second control and a convenient lunch stop (where, coincidentally, some Cambridge CTC members were also eating – obviously our influence spreads wide!).

After lunch the 122 km back to Tewkesbury was via a route north of Hereford. With the day becoming progressively more summery we headed north east down into the Wye valley and crossed the picturesque Whitney Bridge (no toll for cyclists) before turning eastwards in the direction of Worcester.

By the 109th km it had got pleasantly warm, so we stopped in the village of Weobley, distinctive with its black and white timber-frame buildings. We de-layered and ate ice creams. The village has a connection with the Cambridge Civil War audax I rode earlier this year with Nigel and Gareth, since it is where Charles 1st stayed after the battle of Naseby.

Magpie statue in Weobley

It was then 30 km to the next control at Bromyard, where John persuaded me a Herefordshire cream tea was in order from Flowerdew's tearoom. While we ate it the village was in the throes of their annual hop festival and enthusiastically cheering on the teams competing in the unusual sport of hop pocket racing.

By the time we left Bromyard it was 1700 and so we knew we'd not make it back to Tewkesbury before nightfall. This last section of the ride featured the lumpiest landscape through the north of the Malvern Hills: this entailed a long sequence of puffing up slopes then descending at high speed, only then to be confronted with another climb. My 32 tooth sprocket – never needed round our part of the world – began to see regular use and I was glad of the ability it granted to spin up the climbs without grinding – albeit slowly.

John patiently rode with me and, although I was now finding the going quite challenging, for him it was more in the way of a recovery ride. He enlivened the atmosphere by experimenting with a new miniature Bluetooth speaker, allowing on-bike music without the distraction of headphones. As we passed through villages, accompanied by Donna Summer's I feel love as a strangely effective pedalling accompaniment, we drew some quizzical glances from the locals.

At the top of Crew's Hill

It was growing dark by the time we reached Pershawe (178 km) and the Abbey looked imposing as it glowed warmly in the last rays of the setting sun. A mist was now beginning to form on the hills and in the dying light softened the landscape to pastel pinks and greys, making this final section the most beautiful of the ride.

A little further on, we saw a bike light coming towards us. The rider – a fellow audaxer - skidded to a halt, hailed us and said he thought there was a problem with the route sheet. While we were pushing on towards an information control at 186 km (which required a question to be answered about a phone box) he reckoned the distances were mis-stated and the question in fact applied to a phone box some way behind us. This was a blow – there's nothing like having to retrace one's steps on an audax to eat time and sap morale. However, our companion kindly volunteered to do the leg work and fifteen minutes later returned with the information we needed to be sure how to proceed.

It was now properly dark and the temperature was dropping below 10 degrees C. We upped the pace a little and had an efficient run along the flat final section into Tewkesbury, making the arrivée at around 2030. This was located in the wood-panelled interior of the The Royal Hop Pole bar, and the scene was a convivial one, making me wish that I could have a pint and pie there and then, rather than having to drive back to Bristol.

However, the advantage of 'pleasure postponed' was that it allowed for a scrub up and to feel a bit more civilized before heading out for an enormous Chinese meal. Overall, this was a most enjoyable ride offering a variety of attractive countryside, a good choice of controls, and some stern - but not too difficult - climbing. On finishing I had ridden 206 km (128 miles) and climbed 1,700 metres. My (metric) Eddington number is 63. Alex Brown

Download GPS track (GPX).

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