Chalfont St Peter, May 4
There was one thing I took away from riding 40km of the 407km London-Wales-London audax one cold, windy day in May, after the ensuing violent crying in my car, the sort of crying that shakes your solar plexus as well as your shitty old Nissan Almera Tino. Without consciously realising it I had thought this ride would make me all sorts of things, prove all sorts of things, and justify the choices and actions of the woman who decided last summer while staring down the barrel of the long, bleak, arduous aftermath of a dead marriage that she wanted to be the kind of person who rode 400k audax.
The violence in the crying was the relief, the realisation that all those things I thought that ride would make me, I was already, all the things I thought it would bring me, were already here.
Once all that was out of the way enough clarity of thought emerged for me to realise I truly believed I could ride this distance.
Stumbling straight out the blocks isn’t brilliant but let’s not start telling myself more stories about what I’m not. I’ve learned enough in the last year to know when to give myself a big hug, stroke my own hair, send myself home for tea, bath and bed and then put on my big girl pants and work out what I’m going to do about it.
Cyclopark, Gravesend, May 11
Right, this is much better. I am here, correctly attired, in good time, with my bike packed and set up and ready to go, and no possible further opportunity for faffing. If I say so myself my preparation this time has been exemplary, other than the fact I forgot toothpaste but did remember the chamois cream so currently my crotch is more minty-fresh than my mouth, however because I was in good time, I was able to stop at a garage and pick up toothpaste and my toothbrush is in my drop-bag so we’re ALL GOOD.
Tea, toast, teeth, bit of banter with the assembled, and a bit of AWE at the geezer having a cheeky fag before the off (‘everybody tells me off for it now,’ he confides between drags, ‘but by 3am they’re all asking me for one. Don’t worry.’ He pats his jersey pockets. ‘I’ve got enough for all of us’). I’m just about to propose to him when somebody admires my Eastway. Somebody always does, and as well they might, as it’s an absolute mile-eating monster these days and I fancy that it’s starting to get a bit of a retro vibe to it. OK it’s not getting any younger, but then neither am I and I’ve never looked better either. Anyway. We’re away.
I’m in the front bunch, with the chap who said this was his first 400, filling me with hope that I would not be the only one without a previous under my belt, only to casually add he frequently does 24-hour time trials and anticipates completing the entire ride by 3am. That’d be impressive. We didn’t start until 9am.
The final control is at 342km and that’s where my bag will be, so I can sleep if I need to, so instead of thinking about this as a 400km ride and falling to pieces again at the sheer enormity of the task, it’s broken down into a 300 plus a recovery ride home. And a few more k.
The route for Invicta Phoenix - incidentally my favourite name for an audax ever - goes through Kent, Surrey, Sussex and Hampshire. I know most of it and there is no point in the route that doesn’t hold the comfort of familiarity and the knowledge that I am not too far away from my children.
One of the dark niggling thoughts I carried for my short attempt at LWL was ‘what if you get a mechanical outside Wales? You’re a long way from your daughters.’ It’s impossible to circumnavigate the tug of my children, the yearning for their presence even when I know they are safe and well and cared for, the way my thoughts return to them the second I feel under threat. It’s beyond rational thought, it’s pure biology, every cell in me is created to protect and nurture them, it overrides reason and fact, careful argument. It just is, and it can’t be argued with or denied. Instead I have to find ways to work around it, to stretch those invisible threads between them and me, to work out how far away I can go, for how long, and how much risk I can accept, before my structures crumble and I am nothing but an animal, a wolf-mother howling for her cubs, violent crying in a Nissan Almera Tino.
Torrential rain before the first control at Edenbridge, proper biblical stuff, but that’s OK because I have my rain jacket, and spare socks and a change of jersey in my seat-pack, it’s fine. I’m all prepared. A bit of flirting with one of the old men on steel at the first control because our drops have got tangled up. ‘Oh look, we’ve hooked up,’ I trill. ‘It’s too early for any of that,’ he protests. Oh come on mate. It’s never too early.
A chap with tri bars passes me, but he doesn’t pull too far away. I am eventually joined by a Suave Older Gentleman who is beautifully spoken and an all round delight, and we swoop down to the second control at Rudgwick at a decent pace, joined by another chap whose Garmin doesn’t work. We form a nice peloton, Suave Older Gentlemen introduces himself as Martin and we all take turns at the front. I know how this works now. Apparently get enough miles under my belt and I can finally ride in a group.
After some stunning, if salty, cheese on toast at Rudgwick we’re off again but after a while Martin says the pace is too much for him to keep up all the way round, and he drops back. I’m pretty much on my own for this stint, tri guy and I pass each other a couple of times and somebody joins up with me for a while but their chain creaks like nobody’s business and I’m quite glad when they peel off at a bike shop. Christ, it’s hailing. England in May, eh?
Ten minutes later it’s glorious sunshine and that’s how it stays all the way to Hampshire. That cheese on toast was so salty I’ve gone through both of my water bottles so I hunt out a tap. Just outside Winchester tri guy and I finally align and we roll in together at what I can only describe as a blistering pace. He says he’s called Richard, is doing Paris-Brest-Paris, has teenagers, and other pleasantries.
Winchester, Tesco, a wrap I don’t really want but I need to keep eating, some summer-fruits Oasis, tea. Time to push on to Petersfield. I lag. I feel a bit flat. God, we’ve only done 170km. Richard is ahead with a few other riders and I’m off the pace and slumping. We climb, I catch up with the bunch, then drop off again at the descent. This isn’t great, but don’t panic, just get to the next control. Richard leaves the group to ride with me, and I pick up a bit, and we get to Petersfield at 7pm. 200k in ten hours, MacDonalds, have to force it down, have to keep eating. Richard says he’ll need to slow the pace a bit for the night section, but he’s happy to stick together.
We roll through the South Downs at sunset and it’s quite magical. Red kite overhead, tail twitching in the air. That MacDonald’s has sorted me right out. Keep eating, keep drinking, keep pedalling, all will be well. I feel a bit cocooned as the light fades, knowing I’m about to become part of the secretive world of the night. I have layers for when it gets cold. I have good lights, spares, a dynamo, a battery pack. I am happy and at home on my bike, I’m happy to be riding with Richard, who is an experienced audax rider and an excellent wheel to follow and mercifully seems content with very little chit-chat. Quick stop to turn on lights, we’re good to go. Through woods and winding roads. A barn owl swoops into our path.
As it gets darker I take over pacemaking and we pedal on and on. Our next stop is Lewes and at 89k this is the longest single section of the route. There’s a Co-Op at Steyning and we agree to stop there to put on night-time layers and for a snack and drink. But by the time we arrive, it’s closed. We dither a bit about whether to press on to an all-night garage half an hour down the road or get sorted here. I’m beginning to faff, Richard looks a bit tense, so I make the call. Night-time garb on here. I put on a long-sleeved base layer and thicker jersey, some dry socks, adjust my legwarmers, this, that, the other. Eat some ginger cake. Richard definitely wants to get going, he’s getting cold and eating lots. Back on the road. An hour or two to Lewes.
I feel fine but Richard is flagging, he’s cold and he’s getting a slump. He drops off my wheel several times but we keep going, and then the signs for Lewes start to appear and I shout back to him - five miles. Four miles! We’re nearly there. Into the 24-hour garage at Lewes at just gone midnight, Richard smashes down two coffees, I buy some chocolate-coated peanuts, a cup of tea, go to the toilet, faff a bit. 60k to the final control at Rye where hot food, my drop-bag and a nap, if we want one, awaits. We have a brief strategy chat. Should we nap at Rye? No idea. Let’s get going.
Richard’s still tired and I don’t feel like I am but I’m aware I do better moving than I do stopping and the faff levels are shooting up, so I am obviously flagging on some level. Time to take drastic action and do the conversation bit. I start asking Richard about his kids, and the miles fly as we chat - we talk about kids, schools, work, I take a brief 20-minute break from pretending I’m a normal human to descend into Rant Mode and give him chapter and verse about getting divorced, he looks mildly alarmed but at least he’s awake. He wants to think himself lucky he didn’t have the misfortune to encounter me on an audax six months ago, he’d have had 400k of this bullshit to pedal through.
I hadn’t really noticed how flat the route had become until it wasn’t. This is very rolling, it’s pitch black and quite foggy in places so it’s impossible to judge really what’s coming up, or how big a climb is, but the legs know. There is a lot of up, and a lot of down, and the up is hard and sweaty and the down is freezing cold, so all in all we’re definitely night riding. It’s fine though. The legs are fine. The chat is fine. Outside Battle we climb Mount Everest and at the summit I feel the telltale signs of a bonk coming on. Oh, not now. I don’t want to eat, but EAT. Drop the bike, stagger about a bit, sit down, raid the frame bag. A Clif bar, will do, tip a sachet of energy drink powder Duncan forced upon me into my water, drink half of it. Richard’s at the top now, he enquires after my welfare and waits patiently while I blether, stuff food in my face, glug my drink, and then we’re back on track.
So much snot. Richard’s a spitter, he’s doing it almost constantly now, and I can’t stop firing snot rockets into the ether, the bottom of my nose is sore from all the wiping, aren’t we just the most attractive pair? Richard shouts that dawn is breaking and he’s right, to our left we can see clouds, and the sky is beginning to glow deep red. We’ve made it through the night, and all of a sudden there’s signs to Rye - SIGNS TO RYE - and we pick up the pace considerably. As we roll down into Rye we cheer and I announce that we are a pair of legends. Richard agrees wholeheartedly.
The control is warm and people are asleep. I don’t think I need to sleep and neither does Richard so we both do a bit of staring, and drink some tea, and faff a bit, then beans on toast, and then I look at the time. 4.50am. ‘Leave by five?’ Richard’s game. I get changed out of the spare clothes I put in my drop-bag in case sleep was required. Faff. We go outside to get going. I need the toilet. FAFF. Back inside. Time trial guy was asleep and has just woken up, blinking, along with a few others. Somehow there’s quite a lot of naked chest going on. Back outside. Let’s go.
It’s cold, and foggy, but it’s light and it’s glorious. Thick blankets off fog rolling across fields, mist rising from the ground, a perfect dawn, a perfect day. I’m losing Richard up the hills and there’s plenty of them, there’s still 80k to go. I soft pedal for a while to let him catch up, then more climbs, and I eventually decide to just push on because I feel strong and I want to get as far up the road as I can, and the night is over and he seems fine and so off I go.
It’s all a bit of a blur. Tiny village after tiny village, left here, right here, fog, Downs, up, down, big climb, little climb, cardboard box. Am I there yet? DON’T check your GPS. You don’t want to know. Don’t check the time either, you’ll be disappointed if you’ve only been riding an hour and you think you’ve done at least two. More villages. More climbs.
Bloody hell this is a lot of climbing. I’m slowing down now, average pace is dropping, even my climbing pace is dropping but I’m still going, I still feel OK, my legs hurt and I can feel my knees but oh look, here’s another monster, god am I going to be climbing forever? But I’m still going. I’ve come too far now, I’m going to make it, am I there yet? DON’T CHECK YOUR GPS. Sign for Meopham. That’s only 5k from the end. Why am I climbing? Why am I still climbing? IS THERE GOING TO BE A FUCKING RAMP UP TO THE TOP OF CYCLOPARK AT THE END? Sign for Cyclopark. Huge roundabout, get out of my way, speed hump, here I am, 426K later, 4,140m of climbing, 24 hours and 16 minutes, everybody all smiles, sit down, might never get up again, somebody brings me a cup of tea, am a completely bloody legend, fucking knew I could do it, thank u, next.
(Richard gets in about half an hour after me and is magnanimous about me blatantly dropping him. Time trial guy gets in about half an hour later, just as I’m getting ready to go. ‘Did you sleep?’ he demands. I say no. He looks incredulous. ‘How did you not sleep?’ Mate, I say, I’m a parent. I haven’t slept in seven and a half years. Richard nods with the knowing of a man who has fathered teenagers and hasn’t slept since the turn of the century.)