An Attempted Audax

April 19, 1998

In short: I signed up to do a 67mi off-road ride. But the conditions were pretty bad (lots of rain), so my buddy and I wimped out and only did 50 miles.

In long: I tried to do my first Audax yesterday, April 18th. An Audax is a long ride. You have both minimum and maximum times to do the course, and they are such that if you're reasonably fit and have enough endurance to ride the distance in the first place, you'll finish in the right amount of time. It is not a race; there are no winners, and the Audax organization doesn't release the times. It's strictly for your own benefit.

When you start you get a brevet card, and at several predetermined places (called control points), and at some secret places, you get your card stamped to show you've been there.

This event consisted of 100 and 200km on-road rides, and 50, 108, and 135km rough stuff rides. My event was the 108km (67mi) rough stuff route. Rough stuff means that it was mostly off-road, at least as much off-road as they could make it and still get you in a nice loop. It took place in Norfolk County, which is quite flat, with sandy soil in many places. The off-road bits were either double track (used by farm vehicles) or single track in grass. None of it was in the slightest bit technical. This was a test of being able to turn your pedals enough times, not of mountain biking skills.

The course was roughly like this: start in Castle Acre, go north and a bit west for 25 miles to Hunstanton, then make a big loop to the east and back, then head south and a bit east back to Castle Acre on the Roman Road. Yes, the Roman Road is the remains of a road that the Romans built. There are lots of them across Britain, and like all of them this one was dead straight.

I was a bit unsure whether I was up to this ride. It had about 6 months since I'd done a ride longer than 40 miles, and I'd never done an off-road ride longer than 30 miles. But the people who go on the Tuesday/Thursday evening off-road rides with me said, as long as you go slowly, you can do it. So I trusted them. However, I took this as an excuse to put a suspension fork on my bike, something I had been contemplating doing for awhile. I knew it would smooth out the ride considerably and make me much more comfortable.

I carpooled to the event with Jacob, one of the regulars on the Tuesday/Thursday rides. He's usually a fair bit slower than I am, but I haven't been doing nearly enough long rides this year, so I felt that I'd be happy to go at his pace. Also it would give me someone to ride with. On long rides it's much better to be with other people, because the rides are inevitably plainful, and just having someone with you to share your suffering seems to make it more bearable.

It had rained during the drive to the start point, and as we entered the parking lot we passed one of our bunch leaving: he'd decided at the last minute not to do it. We parked and got the bikes and ourselves ready. The rain was lightening up.

I did something really silly. My usual costume for riding in iffy weather is my old reliable Gore-Tex jacket with a couple thin layers underneath. I had chosen a Coolmax T-shirt and thin long-sleeve cycling shirt with a hood. I had also taken along in the car a warm fleece jacket to wear after the ride, since I knew I'd be cold. Jacob had a thermometer in his car, and we watched it as we drove to the site. He kept on saying ``Ooh, only 5.5 degrees, not very warm out there.'' And I got paranoid. So before we left the car I put the fleece on under the Gore-Tex jacket.

We went to the check in, got our brevet cards, and started off. It was slightly past 8:30, the official start time for our ride. The rain was petering out. About 3 miles into the ride I took off the fleece jacket and tied it around my waist, where it stayed for the rest of the ride. Oh, why did I take it with me? Silly...

Jacob and I weren't going very fast, so people would often pass us. I knew that I couldn't go much faster and have much of a hope of finishing, so I let them go and stayed with Jacob.

At mile 15 I was starving. I had eaten most of a malt loaf (a small sweet bread, sort of the consistency of banana bread except alot more chewy) during the drive up, but I should have eaten much more. The only food I had bought with me was a water bottle stuffed full of ceral (granola) bars. I thought that since I had a water pack (like Camelbak, but a different brand) full of Gatorade, and we could buy food at the control points, that would be enough. It had started to rain a little, so we stopped in a bus shelter to eat. I kept on eating ceral bars. I ate five, then discovered I only had 3 left. Ooops. Not good. Also, the zipper tab broke off my jacket, making it much more difficult to move the zipper up and down. Boo.

We got going. As we rode I kept shifting in my saddle, trying to find a comfortable position. The suspension fork was doing a good job of smoothing out the bumps up front (thus making the ride much easier on my hands, arms, and shoulders), but when the back wheel hit a bump it was still transmitted to my bum. Suddenly I found my sit bones. The theory for comfortable long-distance rides is that your seat should be relatively firm, so that your sit bones, instead of your soft parts, support your weight. I guess I had never quite figured what this meant in practice. But with my entire bottom area sensitised by bumpy off-road riding, I felt where they were, amd I made sure they were on the saddle. It wasn't exactly comfortable, but it was far better than the alternatives. So in fact my crotch hurt far less in the second half of the ride than in the first.

The rain remained steady. Then it picked up. The ground, which was soft to begin with from all the recent rain we'd been having (resulting in floods in many places in Britain ), got softer. Luckily the ground was sandy so it didn't get too gloopy, but it certainly slowed us down. I was completely drenched, and was getting very cold and tired. Coming out of an off-road stretch, Jacob suggested a shortcut. The route had us going west to go up the coast on a path. Jacob suggested staying on the road and avoiding that off-road bit. I felt miserable enough to agree to this, even though it was cheating...

So we went on the road to the first official control point, in Hunstanton, a town on the Norfolk coast. The road was bad enough, battling a headwind and cold rain. Finally we got to the control point (a cafe). As we leaned our bikes against a picnic table, I don't know who suggested it first, but we both had the same idea: we've gone 25 miles already, we're cold and beat. Let's just go straight back to Castle Acre, cutting out the extra loop. So I wouldn't complete the Audax, which was too bad, but I thought that discretion was in order here. I was relieved by this, but I still felt horrible, and I must have looked it.

The waitress offered to mark our brevet cards as we came in, and all I could think was that I wanted to sit down and get some hot tea, and then I'd dig it out. So I did.

I meantioned to some bikers in the cafe that we were giving up and were heading straight back. Well, they'd had enough too, but they were giving up right then and there. They offered to take one of us back to Castle Acre to get the car, but I really wasn't interested. That that would have been far too wimpy. Not even to make it back to the start point on my own power: no, I'd have to be in much worse shape to contemplate that.

Jacob and I both got fish and chips and tea. When it came out we ate with enthusiasm. I don't think fish & chips ever tasted so good. During all this I was sitting in my muddy jacket, because if I took it off, without a zipper tab it would be very difficult to put back on. As we ate we looked over the map I'd bought with me and plotted our route back. Before we left I bought some food for the trip back (wrapped up cookies and cakes) since I wasn't sure that the fish & chips would give me enough calories to make it back.

We noticed that the rain was slackening off, but it was still sprinkling as we left the cafe. Before I got back on the bike I squeezed the water out of my gloves. I was shivering badly, and I pulled up the hood of my bike shirt to keep in more heat. We followed the official Audax route out of Hunstanton, which was mostly off-road, then went on the road a few miles to pick up the Roman Road that is the last leg of the official route. We cut off a ~20 mile loop to the east in doing this.

By this time the rain had pretty much stopped and we were warming up. I took off my hood. Well, most of us was warming up. My feet were still cold, but this wasn't too bad: they felt cold, so they hadn't gone numb, which is far worse. I began to feel guilty about quitting the course: the rain was over, I could have finished. But the weather was still uncertain. And anyway, the ground was still very wet, which slowed us down considerably. It would have been very difficult to finish the route, especially given my lack of distance training.

The Roman road took us back to Castle Acre. It was prefectly straight, a no-brainer, just required turning the pedals around, which we did (not very fast). Eventually we saw guy pushing his bike ahead. When we caught up to him he asked if we had a pump. His had broken as he tried to inflate his tire after a flat. Well, we both had pumps, but they were set to Presta, and he had Schrader. But I remembered how to reverse mine to the other setting, so I got to it. Some grit got into the way of the cap that holds everything in place, so at first it didn't work. I took off the cap and tried to clean it up as much as I could, and when I put it back together it worked. The guy inflated his tire and was soon pedalling off.

Jacob and I kept at it, listening to the gronch gronch gronch of the sand in our gears... It started raining again as we approached Castle Acre. Finally we were back, at about 4:15pm, having ridden 50 miles that day. We sat with the guy we had helped and chatted a bit. Several MTBers came in; they, like us, had just come straight back from Hunstanton. Roadies were arriving too, but I guess that they had actualy managed to finish: they would have gotten as cold and as wet as we did, but they wouldn't have been so slowed down by the surface conditions as we were. It's funny, the roadies and us MTBers were distinguishable with half a glance. They were clean and had florescent yellow jackets, and we were muddy and had dull-colored jackets. Well, in that weather, I wouldn't want to be out on the road without a bright jacket...

We went back to the parking lot and got ready to go. Just as we were leaving, Jacob saw someone coming in that he recognized, Brian. Brian had originally planned to do the 135km off-road ride, but had switched to the 108km when he signed in. He was moving at a pretty fast pace, so I could believe that if he didn't stop too long, he could have done the whole thing...

So we went home. I felt a bit bad about not completing the entire course, but we did do 50 miles, most of it off-road, in really awful conditions. And many people who had completed it before didn't this year, including Jacob and the guy we helped. So, well, maybe if I'd done more long-distance training I could have done it anyway, and if it hadn't rained I certainly would have finished. Well, there a similar event on July 11th, maybe I can find people to do that one with me.

More ride stories