The original plan was for us all to start from Girton at 22:00 on Friday but as the chosen date neared the plans refined. Phil got the afternoon off work and started shortly after lunch at 14:23; Nigel and I stuck to the night-time start but wanted to ride the course in reverse. We guessed somehow we might all cross paths en route.
Phil W newly in Suffolk, on Trotting Horse Lane
As the day of the ride neared I dutifully did the things one is meant to do in preparation: drank a lot of water so I was properly hydrated, laid off the booze, and had a very good solid night’s sleep on Thursday. For supper on Friday I ate an enormous curry (with extra rice) – remembering from last year that I found curry and rice to be good fuel for such rides. And then I had some cake and tea for good measure.
At 21:45 Nigel and I met at the cashpoints in central Cambridge, got advice slips as Proofs of Presence, and set off into the night. We cycled through Girton, took the busway to Longstanton, and then turned north, heading for the first control of March.
The wind was from the South West and providing good assistance, and so with only moderate effort we were able to speed along. It was already quite cool though, making me wonder if my choice of open-toed sandals – even with thick wool socks – was a wise one.
Nigel and I are both fans of night-time music, so for a while we enjoyed his collection of mellow disco-centric 80s-ish tracks until his Bluetooth connection faltered. Since I was wearing long fingered gloves which don’t work on touch screens, I used my nose to operate my own phone to bring my music online. But nasal imprecision led me to select the wrong folder and so we found ourselves listening to Philip Glass as we sped along, which was more than usually surreal.
We reached March (@ 49 km) at 23:39 – a good start; after only a brief pause we re-mounted our bikes and set off towards Swaffham (@ 105 km), which we had earmarked as our first sit down stop. We now rode into the Fens proper, and although the wind was mostly still in our favour, on the few occasions when we changed direction against it we felt glad to be riding the course in reverse: heading back toward Cambridge this way would be a grind. Nevertheless we pressed on to keep the pace high.
A familiar audax scene: March, but it could be anywhere
The temperature as reported by my Garmin fluctuated between 3 and 6 ° Celsius, confirming that my footwear choice was sub-optimal: my feet were numb with cold.
As Swaffham we controlled at the town cashpoints, and then deviated from the official course slightly to visit the Swaffham McDonalds (now open 24-hours). It was deserted, leading Nigel to worry momentarily that it might be closed. But no, we had it to ourselves. As we ordered food Phil W turned up: by happy chance we had coincided our rides almost perfectly.
Alex at McDonald's, Swaffham, 02:30
I ordered a cheeseburger and coffee but found the burger quite hard to force down: it clagged on my gullet like East Anglian clay sticking to a plough blade. Nigel and Phil had gone more … supersized, with a Big Mac and fries each. After a good long rest and a pleasant chat we set off our separate ways into the night. Phil seemed fairly sanguine about the headwind, knowing he’d scythe through it on his low racer recumbent. I wondered what Nigel and I would be facing tomorrow when we turned for home on our upright bikes.
Nigel and Phil at McDonald's, Swaffham
Along mostly very quiet lanes, the world belonged to us alone. Occasionally our lights illuminated the eyes of unknown creatures reflecting back from the verges; badgers, hares and rabbits hopped in the road in front of us; an owl flew majestically alongside for a few moments.
We discerned the sky gradually lightening ahead and cocks started crowing as a prelude to the dawn chorus. It was still quite dark as we reached Norwich (@ 154 km) and climbed the hill to the castle (a shock to the legs after so much flat riding). We got ATM receipts from the centre of the city and then headed south for another McDonald’s stop on the outskirts.
Knowing I am prone to a “dawn dip” I opted for a large coffee and a sugar donut in an attempt to stave it off. Nigel said he wasn’t sure if he was hungry but nevertheless chose a large chocolate cookie to accompany his coffee. We had cycled through the night and covered 156 km – not even half way on our 323 km route.
As we left, it was getting light. A good day was in prospect and we would soon have the advantage of riding in the sunshine. But we also faced a triple hazard: tiredness from riding through the night, the slightly more undulating terrain ahead, and that firm south-westerly wind which was now distinctly unhelpful.
As it brightened, Nigel called for a break to rest on a bench in Fritton (@ 173 km): it was evidently he was who has having a dawn dip, I thought, mirroring last year’s Asparagus & Strawberries 400 km when I suffered from sleep deprivation while Nigel remained relatively fresh. I was carrying an emergency can of Red Bull in case I needed a caffeine dose, but knew now I wouldn’t need it. I offered it to Nigel and watched him drink it, wondering if it would work for him.
Nigel contemplates a can of Red Bull
We pressed on and at last the warming sunshine came. I reached down and switched my lights off to reduce dynamo drag (every Watt counts!) and unzipped my gilet a few cm in celebration (thereby increasing drag, d’oh). There is always something special about riding through the night into a new day and this was a glorious one, despite the chilly headwind.
Nigel rides into the new day (photo: Alex)
Alex rides into the new day (photo: Nigel)
We reached the next control, Framlingham (@ 210 km) at 08:37 and installed ourselves in the 221B “Artisan bakery and bistro”. I ordered bacon and scrambled eggs; Nigel smoked salmon and scrambled eggs. I tucked in with gusto, I was really hungry – but as I glanced up I saw Nigel pecking rather forlornly at his food: he had lost his appetite.
We’d been in Framlingham for around an hour when we set off, and the temperature had climbed into double digits. After another 8 km Nigel said he’d like to try and sleep on the grass. We still had plenty of time in hand so this seemed like a wise tactic to see if he could get his mojo back. So on a green triangle between Hoo and Monewden Nigel lay down for a nap; I found a nearby barn wall and sat against it in the sun immersed in the internet (phone coverage yay!)
Nigel resting on a green triangle
After half an hour or so Nigel stirred and said he hadn’t slept but hoped the rest would do him good. We set off again; Nigel was evidently well down on power and so making slow progress, especially uphill. I felt it was unfair to ride behind and let him take the brunt of the wind, yet when I took the lead despite a steady pace I’d glance in my mirror to see him dropping back. Thus we yo-yoed to Ipswich (@ 236 km), where, on the outskirts, Nigel’s bar tape started unravelling, so he stopped to make a temporary repair. I looked in my tri-bag and found some dried apricots and nuts left over from some former ride. I ate some – they were yummy! My body was telling me it liked food, so I ate some more and made a mental note I’d need to eat properly again before the ride was done.
After ATM receipts in Ipswich we turned west for Cambridge and climbed out of town into the ever-blowing wind. Shortly after Burstall (@ 246 km) Nigel announced that he was now feeling really lousy and would try and find somewhere to have a proper sleep to see if he could recover. He bade me go on alone. I said I intended to stop for a while in Lavenham, so might see him there, and continued solo …
Nigel continues: I had been struggling for the last few hours: with the wind, with sleepiness (which I think was the least of my problems) and with a growing nausea whose root cause may or may not have been eating too much at McDonalds in Swaffham. That half-hour lie down after Framlingham had alleviated the sleepiness but I was still feeling sick and weak, and I found my speed becoming slower and slower. Alex patiently adjusted his pace to stay with me, but about 10km west of Ipswich I decided I was spoiling his ride and invited him to ride on without me. I said I would carry on at my own pace. We had about 80km to go, but with the 7pm cut-off time still six hours away I was still hopeful of making it in time.
I limped on slowly for another hour, but despite another half-hour lie in the warm afternoon sunshine I found myself getting slower and slower. I reached Lavenham (@ 266km) at about 14:30. With 55km to go, and over four hours left, I would normally have had no difficulty in getting back to Cambridge in time. However the last 29km from Ipswich to Lavenham had taken me two and a half hours and so I decided that rather than face a miserable final four hours to Cambridge I would order a taxi to take me home instead. As I sped home along the A1141 and A14, whatever was ailing me evaporated, and I arrived home suffering from little more than a bit of jetlag.
Alex resumes: Wondering what would happen to Nigel, I continued on at only a slightly faster pace: the wind and tiredness were taking a toll on me too. Still, it was a glorious day and I was soon in the familiar countryside around Kersey: I felt I had the ride in the bag.
At Lavenham I stopped and made straight for the National Trust tea room where I ordered a cream tea, which was delicious in the way food only can be when you’re really hungry. Gratifyingly I was asked if I’d cycled far, which allowed me to do my audax humblebrag thing: a randonée is not complete without this!
55 km to go, on familiar roads. By now I’d got into the zone, all initial aches and pains had settled and pedalling had devolved to an autonomous activity even on the (grind-grind-grind) hills, of which Nick had managed to find a good sampling through Hartest, Hawkedon and so on. The landscape was spring-fresh and pretty, and life was good – apart perhaps from the wind: in addition to the resistance it was also noisy, and I was conscious that for hours I was listening to nothing but the wind buffeting my head.
No matter how long a ride is, it is often the last few kms which seem hardest, and today the Wilbraham Road – never a favourite – seemed especially bad with its rutted knobbled surface jigglier and more speed-sapping than ever. But then, Cambridge! and aware I was tired I made a conscious effort to raise my alertness to stay safe in the traffic. I arrived back in the centre and got an ATM receipt at 17:12. I had ridden 323 km (200 miles) making this my third-longest ride ever; it had taken 19:27 hours, by some measure my slowest 300. A link to my Strava record of the ride is here.
As I rode home I heard a familiar voice behind me compliment my saddle bag. It was Nick! We stopped for a de-brief and he cheerfully reminded me that as members of his “Cambridge Express” team Nigel and I would be repeating the experience (“with an extra 100 km”) in two weeks’ time for the Easter Arrow to York. Great ☺
For me this was an audax done by the book, and so I think the principal lesson is “do this again” (apart from wearing sandals through a cold night). In particular
- Be well rested
- Be well hydrated
- Be well fed
- Take regular stops through the ride, and keep eating and drinking.
A study in moderation
Nigel adds: This was the third time I had attempted this ride, but the first time I had failed to complete it. It's still a mystery to me why I ran into trouble on this occasion. I don't think it was the distance, nor the overnight riding. I'm more inclined to blame some freak digestive or dietary issue which disappeared after few hours' rest. For me the lessons learned are:
- occasionally things don't work out
- be careful what you eat
- a good rest may be all that you need (which is worth remembering for LEL).
For a map of the official route see Nigel’s report of his ride from last year. For more details of local audax rides visit the Camaudax site.