So at 6.50am on Saturday morning I cycled the short distance from my house to Alex's and loaded my bike into the back of his car for the 75-minute drive to the start of the ride.
6.50am: Cambridge. Alex has laid out a thick duvet for my bike
Our destination was Manningtree Station in Essex. This was same start point as for the Green and Yellow Fields 300; both rides are organised by leading Essex Audaxer Tom Deakins. We arrived there shortly after 8am, giving us plenty of time to visit the station buffet and enjoy a cup of coffee and a bacon roll.
8.55am: Manningtree Station: Getting ready to depart
As 9am approached about fifty riders gathered outside the station, collected their Brevet card from Tom, and prepared to set off. However when the time to depart arrived, and organiser Tom quietly announced "you can go now", no-one moved. For about half a minute there was something of a standoff, with no-one wanting to be the first to ride away. Then someone rode off and the rest of us followed.
Although I was new to this distance, it was obvious that the key to a successful ride was to get the pace right. Ride too fast, or push too hard up hills, and you'd burn out. Ride too slowly, or spend too long at controls, and you'd not get round within the time limit. In addition, since Audax rides have both a minimum and a maximum time to reach each control, if you ride too fast at the start there's a risk of reaching the first control too early.
For all these reasons, the first stage of the ride, which would take us 49km (30 miles) from Manningtree to the first control at Ixworth near Bury St Edmunds, was ridden at a very sedate pace, with bunches of riders happy to take their time behind whoever was setting the pace at the front. We were heading into a light north-westerly wind but with so many riders I hardly noticed it, and the first two hours passed by very easily and agreeably.
After two hours we arrived at Ixworth, our first control, and stopped at the village stores to make a token purchase and receive a printed receipt to prove our time and place of passage. Alex announced that his strategy for eating would be to alternate between eating sweet and savoury, so I followed his lead and started with some confectionery.
11am: First control at Ixworth
Control points are usually places where the ride changes direction, and at Ixworth our direction changed from north-west to east. This gave us a slight tailwind for much of the next stage, a 58km (36 miles) run to Halesworth.
11.50am: On the road near Gislingham: Rob from Portsmouth (left) and Alex
We reached Halesworth at 1.30pm. This is a small town rather than a village, large enough to have a choice of cafes, and a good place to have lunch.
1.30pm: Nigel "controls" at an ATM in Halesworth (Photo: Alex Brown)
By now the sun had come out, marking the end of two weeks of unseasonably cool weather in Eastern England, and the temperature quickly became quite hot as we sat outside Pinkie's Cafe eating our lunch. After about a quarter of an hour John S arrived with his Suffolk chums, a pattern that would be repeated at stops for the remainder of the ride.
1.40pm: Lunch in Halesworth
For our third stage we changed direction once again, this time riding north for just 42km (26 miles) to Acle. This took us into Norfolk and across two of the rivers that form the Norfolk Broads. At Beccles we crossed the River Waveney on a bridge, whilst at Reedham we crossed the River Yare using the delightful Reedham Ferry.
3.40pm: Waiting for the Reedham Ferry
We had seen virtually no hills anywhere on the ride so far, but for this section through the Broads the landscape was pancake-flat with only a slight headwind slowing us down. Nevertheless, we knew we had a long way still to go, and resisted the temptation to ride too fast or catch up with other riders ahead of us. Instead we took every opportunity to sit behind another rider and conserve energy.
4.10pm: Shamelessly catching a tow from a tandem between Reedham and Acle
We reached our next control at Acle at 4.30pm. Before the ride Alex had carefully planned a spreadsheet showing the time we needed to reach each control, and according to that plan we were now 30 minutes ahead of schedule. This was a fairly brief stop (Alex had suggested "20 minutes max"), involving another visit to a shop and a lie-down on the grass outside. According to Alex's plan of alternating sweet/savoury, this was a sweet stop and so I ate a yoghurt.
4.30pm: Relaxing on the green after "controlling" in Acle
We'd had quite an easy ride so far, but we knew that the next stage would be rather more difficult. We'd cycled 149km (92 miles) so far, which on a normal day would be a substantial day's ride, and our legs would before long realise what we had been doing with them. In addition, our next 68km (42 miles) stage to Wells-next-the-sea would be directly into the north-westerly wind.
We weren't out of the Norfolk Broads just yet, and had one more river to cross: the River Bure at Wroxham. Although my legs were still feeling fairly strong, for the past hour or so I'd been experiencing some pain in my right knee, and when I spotted a pharmacy in Wroxham I stopped to buy some painkillers. It turned out that Alex's capacious pannier contained a packet of Ibubrufen so I swallowed a couple of pills and we carried on.
6.20pm: Blickling Hall, Aylsham
The painkillers did their work and, although I felt the need to take more pills later in the ride, my knee never became a serious problem. Nevertheless, we were beginning to tire, and as we approached Wells we were ready for an extended break. We were due to arrive in Wells at about 8pm, but instead of eating fish and chips on the Quay we though it might be more relaxing to stop about 20km earlier, at a Thai pub/restaurant in Thursford. This turned out to have been an excellent decision: we spent about an hour there, enjoying a substantial two-course Thai meal which was as good as any I have had in Cambridge.
7.40pm: Alex has a traditional Thai dinner in Thursford
For me, one of the most interesting things about this ride was that I was able to preserve my appetite for food all the way to the finish. This surprised me, since I normally find that being on a long, tiring ride makes me lose my appetite. Perhaps the difference today was the careful attention to pace in which we made a conscious effort to conserve our strength for layer. Alex suggested that his alternating sweet/savoury strategy might have helped as well, though I was less convinced. In any case, I was able to consume a large two-course meal, including a huge portion of rice, without difficulty despite having cycled over 200km.
When we left the restaurant and got back on our bikes something amazing happened. We felt almost as fresh as we had felt at the start. A proper, hour-long break, with good healthy food had renewed us. We set off and continued our way into Wells for our next control. We stopped at the co-op to "control" (i.e. get a receipt) and stock up on food for the night stages ahead of us. John S, who had caught up with us during our meal stop, was eating dinner outside.
8.40pm: John S has a traditional Audax dinner outside the Co-op in Wells (Photo: Alex Brown)
9.45pm: Bikes rest on The Quay at Wells before the return journey (Photo: Alex Brown)
For the fifth stage of the ride we turned south-west for the 68km (42 mile) run down to Barton Mills near Mildenhall, following the B1105 as far as Fakenham and then a long section along the A1065 through Swaffham and Brandon. This is quite a major road, and during the day would be busy with fast traffic, but in the late evening it was almost empty, with cars passing only every few minutes. This was no accident: although well-designed Audax routes will use country lanes and minor roads as much as possible during the day, at night they often use the A-road network at a time when it has little traffic. This makes navigation in the dark much easier, and allows the use of roads which tend to have a better road surface.
Even in the dark, riding along main roads can get a little dull. Fortunately Alex had just the gadget to combat the boredom of overnight cycling: a small loudspeaker attached to his rear rack and connected by bluetooth radio to his mobile phone, and during a pause for water a few miles beyond Fakenham he announced that now was the time to switch it on and play some music. Alex had mentioned this in his reports of earlier overnight rides, and I had been looking forward to it. The result was as fun as I had expected, and our pace increased noticeably as we sped along with a playlist of lively 1970s and 1980s pop classic booming into the night. Power in the darkness, indeed.
Midnight: to the sound of pulsating disco music, Alex powers down the empty A1065 from Fakenham to Barton Mills
Alex was riding quite strongly now, with help from a light tailwind, and was in the lead almost all the way to Barton Mills. I moved to the front a couple of times but found it hard to judge my pace; I also discovered I couldn't hear the loudspeaker when in front, and I quickly settled back behind him to enjoy the music, and the ride.
Eventually we reached Barton Mills and stopped for our next control, at the 24 hour McDonalds by the A11 roundabout. It was 1.15am. This would be our last opportunity for hot food and drink for almost seven and a half hours, so we parked our bikes and went in for an extended meal break.
1.30am: A haven in the darkness at Barton Mills
There were more than a dozen other Audaxers already inside and there was a rather cheerful atmosphere, with some riders chatting amiably to the other diners about what we were up to, and others sitting slumped with their head down on the table. My first reaction to this was surprise that so many other people had been overcome by tiredness, but then Alex pointed out they were simply trying to get a few minutes of sleep "in the bank" in preparation for the long miles ahead.
2.20am: John S (second from left) with Suffolk chums Ian, James and Jonathan at McDonalds
We were in no hurry to move on and it was over an hour before we set off once more for the next stage of the ride, a 47km (29 mile) ride to Saffron Walden. This would continue the same south-westerly direction that we had been following all the way from Wells, but our A-road bash was now behind us and we would now be on much quieter roads, many of them familiar from local rides from Cambridge.
After a pleasant ride through wooded lanes south of Barton Mills we arrived in Newmarket, where we stopped briefly at a 24 hour garage before cycling through the town centre. Newmarket appears to have quite a night-time economy, and at 3am there were plenty of taxis plying for business, and several boisterous youths for the police to deal with as well.
From Newmarket we followed the B1052 to Saffron Walden, through a succession of familar villages: Dullingham, Brinkley, Balsham and Linton. This is gently rolling countryside, and the countryside would continue to roll for the remainder of the ride. After the flatness of earlier this came as a bit of a shock.
Somewhere between Weston Colville and West Wratting I heard what sounded like a small explosion behind me, and Alex called out "puncture". He was riding on tubeless tyres, which are supposed to be self-sealing, but the tyre had sustained quite a long gash and an attempt to re-inflate it failed. You can't repair tubeless tyres on the roadside as easily as you can with conventional tyres, so Alex had to replace the tyre with a normal tyre and tube that he was carrying as backup. The whole operation took about 25 minutes, which I took as an opportunity to rest, eat a sandwich, and spoon down a pot of rice pudding. Whilst we were stopped a group of Audaxers rode past, and before long we were on our way as well.
4pm: Alex changes a tyre near West Wratting
The hills along this section began to take their toll and for the first time since Wells my legs began to feel tired, with the long climb from Linton to Hadstock and Little Walden proving quite a slog. Fortunately this was followed by a long descent down into Saffron Walden and our final control before the end. Nothing is open in Saffron Walden at 5am, of course, so this involved heading to the Market Place to visit one of the ATMs there.
5.25am: At the final intermediate control we have the Market Place in Saffron Walden to ourselves
We rested in Saffron Walden for about twenty minutes before setting off on the final stage of the ride, which would take us 70km (43 mile) leg east to Manningtree.
The hills continued to roll, through the familar villages of Radwinter, Great Sampford, Finchingfield and Wethersfield, and for the first time the tiredness in my legs began to be accompanied by the tiredness that causes your eyes to close. Apparently this is the stage in the ride when some participants look for an "Audax hotel" (bus shelter) and lie down for a snooze. In fact our routesheet had recommended the bus shelters of Balsham as being particularly suitable for a sleep. However Alex and I were able to shake off our growing sleepiness and press on.
The sun had now risen and it was beginning to get light, but there was no sign of the predicted sunshine and the air was dull and misty. After a couple of hours we reached Sible Headingham. We were too early for the Corner Cafe, but Londis at the petrol station opposite had opened at 6am and we stopped to obtain a weak shot of caffeine from its coffee machine.
7.45am: Breakfast in Sible Hedingham
The final run back from Sible Hedingham to Manningtree took us onto unfamiliar roads once more, and for the final 20km (12 miles) we were riding along the valley of the River Stour, also known as Dedham Vale. However this wasn't the flat cruise to the end that we would have preferred: instead the road ran along the edge of the valley with what seemed like an endless sequence of short, steep climbs followed by short descents. We'd heard that the end of the ride had a few surprise hills, but this was rather more punishing than I had expected, a definite sting in the tail at the end of a long ride.
On one of these short climbs, about 15km before the end, we found a photographer, grinning as he snapped us struggle up the slope. This was Nik Brunner (tippers_kiwi) from the local Audax club welcoming us back at the top of one of the most notorious short climbs, Burnt Dick Hill.
9.15am: with just 15km to go, Nigel climbs Burnt Dick Hill Photo: tippers_kiwi
Alex on Burnt Dick Hill Photo: tippers_kiwi
With Burnt Dick Hill behind us (and yes, that's really what it is called) I had hoped that the terrain would become easier for the final run home to Manningtree Station, but it didn't, with the final climb only a couple of kilometres from the finish. Fortunately my legs had recovered somewhat and, with no need to conserve power any more, I found I had enough strength for a fairly strong finish, which was rather unexpected after 250 miles.
Alex and I arrived back at Mannningtree Station at about 9.50am. This was the final control and I went into the buffet to order a coffee. I asked for a receipt: the staff member who served me knew exactly why I wanted one and carefully wrote out a receipt, added the time, and signed it.
10am: The arrivée at Mannningtree Station
We sat outside in the sunshine with the other riders, and after a short while John S arrived together with his cycling companions from Suffolk.
Alex and I had completed the 416.6km (259 miles) in just under 25 hours and well within the time limit for this event of 27 hours. Nigel Deakin
Paperwork ready to send for validation
The map shows Nigel's GPS track. GPS and TCX files for this route (prepared by Nick Wilkinson on behalf of the ride organiser) can be downloaded here.