Saturday, 15 April 2017

14/15 April: Easter Arrow to York

Alex writes: The Easter Arrows to York are team events organized by Audax UK. The rules as written are complicated, but the upshot is that teams from all over the UK, each of up to five riders, converge on York over the Easter weekend, each aiming to ride around 400 km within a 24 hour time limit.

This year Cambridge was represented by a four-rider team, the “Cambridge Express” containing three club members: Nick W (captain), Alex, and Nigel. Joining us was Pichy, a rider based around Edinburgh and who was – as Nick put it – our “secret weapon” …

Each team’s composition, route and plan has to be submitted to Audax UK for approval and as team captain, Nick had been responsible all the preparation. Since all of all us of have entered London-Edinburgh-London (LEL) his concept was to shadow long stretches of the LEL route, and in order to make up sufficient distance we would first perform a large “orbit” of Cambridge before heading North for the Fens. The overall cycling distance turned out to be 415 km (258 miles).

Ready for the off

And so at 08:00 on Good Friday the team assembled in central Cambridge, got ATM receipts and cycled East out of the city. Nigel and I were both on carbon geared machines; Nick and Pichy were riding fixed: Nick with 72 gear inches on aluminium, and Pichy 79 gear inches on steel.

You can tell it's going to be a long ride ...

We had all been carefully watching the weather forecast in the run up to the ride, and as promised there was a firm wind behind us from the West. We found ourselves clipping along easily at around 30 km/h – but none of us was under any illusion that we’d be still be doing this by the following morning.

Breakfast at Red Lodge

After breakfast sitting out in the sunshine at Red Lodge (33 km), we turned south and got a taste of the crosswind that was to feature for much of the ride. The pace was still fairly quick and we were now entering some of the lumpier terrain hereabouts around Dalham and Gazeley – however Pichy pronounced himself delighted with the novelty of what was for him a flat ride, and when the road started going up Pichy and Nick didn’t seem to slow down; I puffed effortfully in their serene wake.

Pichy!

At Haverhill (65 km) a wooden stage had been erected in the town square and an insipid preacher was talking apologetically about sin over a PA system. We controlled and moved on now directly into the 20 km/h wind. Progress remained brisk as we worked over familiar terrain towards Saffron Walden and I began to wonder about the effect such intensity would have on me in the hours to come. Nick was banking time and this was however wise: we had to ride as a team so any mechanical or other enforced stop would affect us all, so Nick was aiming to arrive in York at 07:00, keeping at least an hour’s buffer to allow for this. With the distance to cover in (effectively) only 23 hours that made the minimum average moving speed (including stops) ~18 km/h, a much sterner target than the more usual 15 km/h. Add to that that 400 km is commonly thought the toughest distance – long enough to need a sleep, but not long enough to allow one – and all the ingredients are there for a testing ride indeed.

I was certainly feeling a bit tested as we pulled up at the Tally Ho pub in Barkway (105 km). As Nick dismounted he winced in pain – something was up with his ankle. A couple of hours earlier Nick's bike had touched wheels with Nigel's and he had put his foot down to avoid falling over. Although he hadn't noticed it at the time, this had made his ankle painful to walk on, though fortunately it didn't seem to be a problem whilst actually riding the bike.

Nigel continues: It was now 13:00 and time for lunch. This was my first visit to the Tally Ho, though the pub was familiar to Nick as a control on his “Cambridge Spring Dash” 100km calendar event. We all ordered fairly light meals (and two of us ordered beers) and were there for almost an hour before Nick indicated that it was time to move on.

Our departure from Barkway came as something of a relief, since after having spent the morning on a big loop that had taken us first east, and then south, of Cambridge, we were at last heading north in the direction of our ultimate destination. We were also now on the official LEL route north: Nick's plan was to follow this as far as the Humber Bridge, though he mentioned that we might take a few short-cuts along the way.

We started with a fast descent down the B1168 to Fowlmere, where we turned left, towards our fourth control point in Barrington. As the village shop was closed today, we paused in front of the village sign and Nick took a team selfie to prove our passage.

Controlling in Barrington


Barrington

As we approached Chapel Hill I explained to our guest rider Pichy that this 61 m summit had an iconic status amongst Cambridge cyclists, and that despite its modest elevation (less than half that of Barkway) we considered this our local mountain. I suspect he thought I was joking. We made short work of the climb up its “easy” side, and from the top we could see the towers and cranes of Cambridge. This would be our last climb until we reached the Lincolnshire Wolds six hours later.

We reached St Ives (154 km) at 16:00, and rather to my surprise Nick proposed we stop for tea at the River Tea Rooms.

Tea in St Ives

Once again, there was a sharp cry from Nick as he dismounted from his bike and was reminded that he had hurt his ankle. As we sat drinking tea and eating some huge portions of cake Nick examined his injury, and the rest of us remarked that despite having been riding for eight hours we were still only 25 km from Cambridge ...

Poorly ankle

As we left St Ives and made our way north towards The Fens, it felt to me that the ride was at last beginning. Eight hours after we had started, we had at last escaped the gravitational pull of Cambridge and were now on our way to York.

The next two hours took us across the Cambridgeshire Fens to Ramsey Heights, Whittlesey and Thorney. The B1040 was flat and straight, perfect for peloton riding. Nick and Pichy set a fast pace at the front, with Alex and I taking an echelon position behind to gain the maximum protection from the persistent (and rather cold) westerly wind. The pace was definitely faster than I would have preferred, with long sections at over 30 km/h, but Alex and I managed to cling on at the back and the four of us made good progress.

We crossed into Lincolnshire and after passing through Crowland (famous for its medieval “bridge to nowhere”) we found ourselves following a deserted road alongside the River Welland to Spalding. Along the way we found another Easter Arrows team, the Kingston Wheelers, temporarily at a halt whilst one of its members fixed a puncture. A few moments later it started to rain a little, and it began to get dark.

We arrived in Spalding (217 km) just after 7pm. It was time for dinner, and after checking out Wetherspoons and finding it too busy we decided to eat at the Tulip Tandoori a little further along the street.

Curry surprise in the Tulip Tandoori, Spalding

Alex continues: As we departed Spalding Nick mentioned that we should all be “soft pedalling” for a while to aid digestion, however the speed soon crept up above 25 km/h and we resumed our places in an echelon-like formation: this was a cruising speed, it seemed, at which we felt comfortable. I was in good spirits: my tummy was full of curry and my heart had slowed allowing me to make progress feeling nicely relaxed. I knew however that the next act of my body would be to cut power – I hoped I’d have enough for the remaining 200 km …

The rain was beginning to ease as we reached Kirton (237 km) at around 21:00. I queued in the Co-op behind one guy buying crates of Budweiser and another – tattooed, pierced and twitching – buying a bottle of vodka for his suspiciously young female companion.

Kirton

The temperature was now dropping and by the time we reached Horncastle (272 km) my Garmin was reading 5°C. It was 23:00 – I plinked a caffeine tab into my bidon as a ward against sleepiness. Nick forewarned us that although the next stage to Louth was only 21 km we should expect it to take around an hour because things were about to get lumpy …

Controlling in Horncastle

Sure enough, as we hit the Lincolnshire Wolds my legs – used to riding on the flat for hours – were shocked to find the road going up – and quite seriously too. A sustained stretch of 12% incline on Cawkwell Hill even saw the fixies falter and start to grind to a halt. Somewhat relieved by this sign that Nick and Pichy were human, I spun past (pushing about  their gear length) and enjoyed a fast blast downhill with Nigel whose bike was now pulsing with pop music via his Bluetooth speaker.

We controlled in Louth town centre (293 km) at around midnight just as the local clubs were turning out. “What the @*#! are you doing on your bikes at this time of night?” shouted an inebriated youth. It seemed a pertinent question.

A little out of town we pulled in to a 24-hour garage. These often function as a kind of Shangri-La for tired audaxers, offering an array of unhealthy snacks, a seating area, loos, and a semi-decent Costa coffee machine. Sure enough, we found an Arrows team for Lincoln already huddled inside. I ate some crisps, drank a coffee and added another caffeine tab to my water. 120 km to ride with plenty of time in hand: how hard could that be? I called the ride as in the bag. Nick however, cautioned against over-confidence: it wasn’t over until it was over …

Midnight garage fun

Nick continues: Just under 300km done, about 115 km left to ride to York. Midnight-o’clock, so eight hours in which to ride it. Something like 15 km/h should do it. It’s easy to think the ride’s done-and-dusted at times like this, but all it takes is a couple of punctures, or someone feeling the strain and slowing the pace, for all that to change.

After 25 minutes or so in the services, we started moving out — by now the team could sense when it was time to go without being told. I could’ve really driven the teams through the controls, but we were at least as good as target times with some judicious use of route-options, so no need to upset the steady mood in the team with unnecessary hurry-ups. Outside the temperature had fallen further, so no hanging about.

My planned route for this, the longest, stage was to follow the scenic lanes over the Lincolnshire Wolds, but I had a shortcut in my pocket in case we needed it — use the main A18 along the edge of the Wolds to within spitting distance of the Humber Bridge. The overall distance would still be well above the 400 km minimum, but we would save several kilometres of riding and 200 m of climbing, and it seemed prudent to take it. The advantage of night-riding is that there is very little traffic — even though this is one of the main roads in the Wolds, we would see but a handful of very respectful cars.

In spite of this being the low-road, there were still several uppy-bits and Pich and I on fixed-gear leapt up them, keeping “on top of the gear”. Nigel and Alex were riding spinny gears and lighter bikes, but it was clear they were really beginning to feel the distance, not helped by a slight turn into the wind, and we rolled off the front from time to time and stopped to regroup several times.

One of the special features of my route was an early-morning crossing of the Humber Bridge — the longest cantilever suspension bridge in the world that you can cycle over, apparently. An obligatory stop for a team photo — I brought a micro-tripod just for this occasion — but requiring two locations to frame the shot.

If I can just lie here for a while ...


On the Humber Bridge

After the bridge it was 15 km on the main A-road into Beverley — during the day I wouldn’t take the team anywhere near this road, but at 3am it was very quiet, and drivers were still showing a great deal of respect with proper full-lane passes, so a nice, fast ride into town. We bumped into an Arrow team from Suffolk on the way in, but they stopped for a bus-stop rest while we rode on. I even recognised one of the riders from only my second 200 km audax back in 2012!

We ignored the tourist route and headed straight into town for a receipt. Nigel was showing the signs of extreme tiredness and was almost asleep in a shop doorway, so for once I didn’t let us hang about. Alex asked about another rest stop, but I cast firm doubt on that — not particularly for time, although that would later be a factor, but because I thought that once Nigel hit the warm air then that would be his first Arrow attempt over, so better to deal with the tiredness on the bike as best we could and keep moving in the cold air.

At this point I was extremely cold, but to put thermal tights on would’ve cost too much waiting time for the rest of the team, so I braved it out. I knew we would start with a long, draggy 13 km, 140 m climb up and over Weighton Wold, ideally suited to warming up on fixed gear. As we started the climb, I could see the two geared riders dropping backwards. Halfway up I turned back to ride up with Nigel, definitely fatigued, allowing Alex and Pich to keep on up the hill and I knew they’d wait for us at the turn-off into Market Weighton, if only I could cajole Nigel over the hill. No words spoken, I just gave Nigel a light to follow, even if at times he couldn’t keep close to it.

There are many factors to fatigue: lack of available energy, dehydration, sleepiness, saddle sores, low sodium level, hunger, tummy troubles, need a pee, and on and on. Endurance riders have to experiment to learn how to tell the difference. And everybody is different — it’s hard to read another rider’s fatigue, but a guess at sleepiness, dehydration and low-sodium is a good start, so I offered Nigel some sodium-plus-caffeine-tabs for his bidon, which he took.

Nigel at Market Weighton, the final control before York

And there we were: 30 km to go and 2.5 hours to do it. Time for a coffee at the services? No way was I going to let the team stop now! Our pace had dropped to around 20 km/h and we had to work with what we had, so I declined the offer and pushed the team on. It was now the final main-road shortcut all the way to the finish — the weight of the traffic was bearable, like the A10 to Royston very early Saturday morning, but any heavier and it would be horrible.

Unexpectedly, Nigel found his legs and disappeared off the front of the group on his own, perhaps the tablets, perhaps something else. When this happens it’s usually a temporary situation, so better to burn slower and longer; I chased him down and steadied his pace, giving him a wheel to follow at a stately 22 km/h directly into the wind. Ten minutes later and he’d dropped back into the group.

The final 20km to York just seemed to go on and on — the ring road took forever to appear on the horizon, especially into what was now a slightly abated, but more annoying, headwind, but once over the ring road, with still over an hour left, we knew we had done it, we could walk it from here. Alex started joking about punctures, tempting fate …

A few sets of traffic lights and a straight-on thru the old Walm Gate to enter the defensive walls of York, then a left to cut across what’s now a residential area within the walls to the Postern Gate diagonally opposite, and we’re there — Wetherspoon’s Postern Gate, open for breakfast and expecting possibly 150 tired and hungry cyclists over the next few hours. We were the first team in and had the pick of the place, but groups of cyclists continued to turn up over the course of the next few hours and we might’ve filled the place!

415 km (258 miles) in 23 hours — the 24th hour was in the pub at the finish — on less than 19 hours’ riding. We managed to sit down for a leisurely breakfast, lunch, and dinner and a half-decent supper, which was exactly to plan, as the weather had been relatively kind — I’ll take a stiff crosswind over a headwind any day!

Thoughts on the ride from Alex

Alex writes: I’d only ridden one 400 km audax before, and afterwards I thought I’d never do one again – it’s such an unpleasant distance with its final hours dominated by sleep deprivation: much better to ride a 600, when there’s time for a rejuvenating sleep!

So a chief goal for this ride was to avoid the “dawn dip” which I achieved through being well rested beforehand and drinking caffeinated drinks through the night. I also think riding the final 120km without a proper stop worked well. If I’d got comfy somewhere it would probably have been unpleasant/impossible to restart. This is my lesson: when pushing on for a proper rest, push on all the way and don’t treat yourself to an interim stop as it will likely kybosh you. Oh, but also remember that doing this into actual doziness is dangerous. Balances, balances.

As well as being a journey to York this was also, for me, a journey to somewhere outside my comfort zone: I didn’t think I would be able to ride for so long at a brisk pace and left to my own devices would have taken a much more conservative approach on the road – which may not have been enough to finish the ride in time. I feel I’ve found an extra gear as a cyclist – so thanks to Nick for pushing me.

Given the nagging wind it was great also to work as a team and have the help of Pichy and Nick who were often just in front functioning as a wind-shield. In particular it was marvellous to ride those final 20 km to York into a block headwind hiding in Pichy’s wind-shadow while he tapped out a steady 22 km/h – our “secret weapon” was powerful indeed!

And finally, thanks to Nick for all his efforts captaining the team. As well as all the organization and paper work I felt this was a good route from Cambridge that had the advantage of previewing LEL. In particular I am in awe of Nick’s ability to stay frosty and on top of decision-making on all aspects of the ride even in the small hours of the morning after nearly a day on the road. Chapeaux all round!

Thoughts on the ride from Nigel

Nigel writes: The first 300 km of the ride (Cambridge to Louth) was hard work, tiring and, as is so often the case when riding with others, much faster than I would have ever managed on my own. But the final 100 km from there to York was probably the toughest I have ever done, with an intense attack of sleepiness leaving me feeling disoriented and totally devoid of energy. If I had been on my own I would have certainly stopped for a lie down by the side of the road, though – as Nick firmly explained at the time – it was much too cold (5°C) to sleep and all it would have achieved was to put our timely arrival in jeopardy. So for a couple of hours I plodded on behind the others, hoping I wasn't slowing them down too much, and wondering when the right time would be to tell them to go ahead without me. When we stopped to control in Beverley, Nick revealed that he was taking caffeine tablets: would I like some? He popped a couple in my water bottle, and I glugged down about half of the resulting sweet fruity fluid. I struggled on to the penultimate control at Market Weighton. This felt like my lowest point, and I slid down to the ground beneath the ATM to close my eyes for a minute or so. But we had only 30km left to go, and as we made our way out of town I suddenly found myself feeling stronger, and I realised that I was going to make it.

I'm not sure whether it was those caffeine tablets kicking in at last, or the sky getting lighter, or perhaps simply the terrain getting flatter, but my sleepiness subsided and my speed increased sharply. Pichy caught me up and exclaimed pleasure at my “Lazarine recovery”. I started to flag once more as we approached the outskirts of York, but I was able to keep up with the others as we entered the City Centre and made our way to The Postern Gate. As I spotted the pub at the end of the street I shouted with delight that “I never thought this moment would arrive”. But it had arrived, and with a whole hour to spare.

I did a 400 km Audax last year (the same as Alex), and also a 600 km, and I had no particular difficulties on either. I now realise that I had been lucky on those rides, and have discovered quite how tough these long distances can be. On the other hand, this particular ride would always be a hard one, with a time limit much shorter than the usual for a 400, and with low temperatures taking their toll overnight.

Thoughts on the ride from Nick

Nick writes: For most audax riders, the 400 km distance is the hardest, because it’s too long to avoid riding through the night and yet too short to accumulate enough time-in-hand for a decent sleep. Add to that the fact that for this Easter Arrow event we were targeting 400 km in 24 hours — nearly three hours quicker than we would have to ride it on a normal audax event — and that we had to ride it as a team, then it was always going to be a struggle.

Captain and crew

In the end the team rode together well. While Alex, Nigel and myself know each other reasonably well, Pichy was a last-minute addition to the team and an unknown quantity for Alex and Nigel, as they were to him, but, if anything, that helped.

It was clear that the presence/absence of gears across the team brought an extra dimension to the riding. The unrelenting flatness of the Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire Fens plays to the metronomic strengths of the fixed-gear bikes, and the heavier rides atop them, so for much of the time Pichy and I shared the duties on the front of the group, as I expected we would. However, once we hit the sudden, but expected, climbs up the side of the Lincolnshire Wolds to get to Louth then the two plastic, geared bikes — with significantly lighter riders — disappeared up into the darkness, leaving us heavier fixed riders to our grunting and gurning; both of us had to concede defeat and walk for a few hundred of the steepest metres, and the other two had to wait several minutes at the top for us to catch up.

Towards the end everyone was tired in both the legs and the head, but together we manage to keep our resolve to finish within the time limit. It was a proud moment for me to see the team achieve what it set out to do, without any real dramas, and pretty much to plan. We weren’t lucky with the weather — but we weren’t that unlucky either.

Chapeau to each of the members of the team for a ride well ridden! Bring on Easter 2018 — perhaps we’ll manage to get TWO teams riding from Cambridge?!

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