On the 26th April I took on my first 300km audax of the year. Oasts and Coasts 300. The ride pretty much circumnavigated Kent taking in a sliver of East Sussex for good measure.
The ride was scheduled to start at 6.00 am. I planned to cycle the 12 miles from home in Chatham to the start in Meopham. This was simply to bump up the total miles for the day to just over 200. With that intention I made sure to get off to bed the night before soon after 10.00pm to give me at least five hours sleep before getting up at 4.30 am. As it goes I woke early before the alarm and was up at 4.00 am. Shower, coffee, porridge then off out the door at just gone 5.00 am. I had prepped my bike the previous day; cleaned, drive train lubed, tyres pumped; emergency tools and puncture outfit packed in my handlebar bag along with a bit of cash. Food and hydration sorted; caffeine loaded electrolyte enhanced drink tabs and a dozen potato and spring onion frittatas.
The sun was just coming up as I set off. By the time I was closing in on the start the sky had taken on a beautiful red hue. As gorgeous as the light was it gave away the weather to come which had been forecast as rainy all morning with sunshine and clouds throughout the afternoon. I arrived at Meopham Scout hut for registration about 15 minutes before the off. There was a good few others there before me. A decent spread had been laid out with plenty of bananas, chocolate, glucose sweets and other goodies to stuff our pockets with. Teas and coffees on the go and the usual shuffling about and modest chatter by the riders making their final preparations before setting out on this audacious ride.
Along with others I grouped up and come 6.00 am and a typically informal count down we started out on our journey. It was just 15km to the first check point at Farningham. The short distance was on account of a route change at this point from the previous years run and to make sure all the riders took the turn required to stay on course. Not sure how necessary the check point was given the route sheets and gpx files in hand however if the organisers thought it wise, I with my limited experience of such things, was in no place to question their planning.
This first section covered roads I was very familiar with through Longfield and South Darenth. Though I had not and never set out to lead the way I soon found myself setting a speedy pace at the front. I was more than aware of the total distance to be covered but it just felt right to ride as fast as I found myself doing at this point. I had soon ridden out of sight of all but one other rider and it was together that we arrived at the checkpoint at Farningham. We were not far ahead though because within a minute we were joined by half a dozen others that had also found a brisk initial pace suited them to.
Brevet card stamped and off again. I found myself leading the way once more as we headed down through Eynesford, past Shorham and on towards Otford. I took a wrong turn here but thankfully I recognised my mistake within a couple of hundred meters turned around and got back on track. This was not such a bad thing as it resulted in the next two riders along getting in front and prompting me to tail them and slow down a bit. I knew that I was riding too fast but with no one in front I’m rubbish at pacing myself. Lesson one: make sure there is at least one person ahead of me at the start.
It was not long after this and about 25km into the ride that I felt the back tyre suddenly become rather bouncy and a lot more squashy than it should have been. I had a puncture. The rain had come down in a misty drizzle from nearly since we set out. I was riding on 38mm Compass Bicycles Barlow Pass ultra light tyres. Since swapping to these from the bomb proof 40mm Schwalbe Marathon Plus Tours which never punctured, and having punctured the front tyre while out riding in dry conditions a week or so before in Gloucestershire, I was conscious of their vulnerability to road shrapnel. The wet conditions and road surface were not great and the almost inevitable happened but rather sooner than I would have hoped for. I pulled over flipped my bike and set about making repairs. As I did the necessary all the other riders were soon passing me by in intermittent groups calling out to check I had, “…everything you need?” I did and so on they all rode as I would have done in the same situation. There was not much anyone could have done to make less of the task and would only have stood around watching and making small talk so I was quite pleased really to have been left to my own devices. Mending the puncture was a simple enough job. The tyre casing is extremely supple and they have a folding bead which together as well as making them a joy to ride on also makes taking them off and putting them back on again child’s play. You can remove them almost without tyre levers. You certainly don’t need the leverage to put them back on. Although the Marathon Plus Tours never had to come off in such circumstances the weight of them, the comfort, cornering and rolling resistance are not even close to that offered by the Barlow Pass. The odd puncture now and then seems a fair compromise to me.
So with the tube patched I’m soon back on the road. Although there was no need I wanted to make up for lost time. I had a narrow escape from a nasty mishap at the top of Toys Hill. A young deer leapt out into the road just a metre or two in front of me. I was riding close to 30 kmph at the time and it was only good fortune that kept me from taking a tumble. A few seconds earlier and I’d have been out of it. Regardless I rode hard for the next 40km down through Hever, Hartfield, Maresfield and into Uckfield where the next control was. I had quickly caught up with the last of those that had passed me and made good ground on most of the others that were now in front. On reaching the control I decided to just nip in the café get a stamp for my brevet card and do the off. I am clear that audax events are not a race. To be honest I want to work on slowing down and taking in the scenery a bit more than I do. I guess that will come with experience but for now I was on a mission!
I necked a couple of the frittatas I had stowed with me and a small chocolate bar then set out again but this time with a couple of other riders one of whom had led the way in the Man of Kent 200km audax I had completed in March. I forget his name but I will not forget his pace. I kept up for around 15 to 25 km but his and his friends hill climbing left me standing. I was well and truly dropped! It was time now for me to wind it back a bit and to take up a more realistic approach to completing this 300. For the rest of the way to the next stop at Battle I rode on my own and did not pass nor was I passed by any other riders. The drizzle had continued unabated hence I was fairly wet and beginning to feel a bit chilly on reaching there. This was a free control meaning you just pick up a receipt or other such proof of passage. I passed by all the obvious stops in the town including the castle and places which were understandably popular for their historic charm and aesthetic quality. I rode right through until recognising unless I stopped at the next opportunity I would end up having to turn back. Luckily at a junction out of the town was a greasy spoon aptly called ‘My Cafe’. I took a break here. It felt good after 100 km of hard riding through miserable weather. I got myself a bacon roll and a large coffee. I had a couple more of the frittatas then was off again after about 15 minutes off the bike.
As I was just setting out I saw another rider whizzing past off down on the road I was to join. I had a feeling he was also riding the audax. I felt no compulsion to try to catch him. I was now settling down into this ride and was adopting a more sensible approach to the energy I was expending. I had slowed down. This was a good thing. Although I had eased it up I rode the next 20 km or so into Rye on my own without being passed or seeing anyone in front. Soon after passing through Rye and near to Camber I saw the rider that had swooped past me at Battle. He was looking at his phone by the roadside. By this time I had settled down into a good comfortable pace and was enjoying eating up the miles. The rain had stopped and I was slowly beginning to dry out. I passed him by without much thought with my head down and on the drops as I took on the flat drag and cross winds past Camber and to the next control at Hythe which was just past the half way mark at 154km. It was a pleasant thing then when I was joined by this unknown rider who I came to know as James. We rode together pacing each other for the rest of the way to the control. We matched each others speed chatting as we rode. Being the way I am and probably the way he was to we upped it a bit because… well just because we’re blokes I guess and are like that sometimes! The thing though he was probably at least ten years younger than me and riding a carbon road bike. I was as usual on my old alloy tri-cross. Around 10 km from the control I really started to feel it. I had stupidly not kept eating and I had allowed my sugar levels to drop to a level where I could feel a crash coming on. I was slowly but gradually being left behind. I think it was just a combination of my stubbornness and pride mixed up with his own fatigue and graciousness that kept me with him until we finally reached the control at the Light Railway Station in Hythe.
When we arrived I saw the two riders I had left Uckfield with. They were both looking in considerably better shape than I felt and were just about ready to set off again on the next leg. I on the other hand was ready to drop and delighted to be able to have a rest and fill up on food. I ordered myself a big plate of sausages, chips, beans and eggs washed down with a couple of cups of coffee. We sat together but I was not much company to be with. I knew I was not able to talk much sense at this point and was in that state of mental isolation that comes with being close to exhaustion and hypoglycemia. Not sure how James felt. I’ve a feeling he was not far from the place I was. We both filled up and recomposed ourselves. James was evidently in better shape than I though as he prepped to go as I was still gearing myself up for the second half. We bid each other well as he took to the road again and I ordered another coffee. I was however feeling alive again and the prospect of completing the ride seemed once again a viable prospect. It was not long later that I made my way out of the café and to my bike heading now to follow the coast 40 or so km to the next free control at Deal.
The fact that the miles were now counting down from the half way point and not towards it and what with being very familiar with this part of the world both these things had a very positive impact on my sense of well-being. The scenery up till this point had been classic Kent countryside and very nice for it. The outlook now was quite different but none the less equally attractive to pass through. The coastline past Folkstone, into Dover and then round the South Foreland Point is wonderful and a lovely contrast to that which we had passed through in getting this far. I write we as since arriving at and leaving Hythe I had found myself back among other riders, either riding close by or not far in front or behind. As I took on the climb out of Folkstone I joined up with another James and one other rider whose name I regret I cannot now recall but who had a lot more experience than I of completing audax events and who was full of interesting conversation and information about these endeavours. It felt great to be riding with these guys whose pace was more in keeping with me enjoying the ride and not enduring it! The James on this occasion was another of the riders I had met on the Man of Kent 200km. He too had set out fast and was the second to pass me by when I had punctured way back at the 25 km mark. As I recall he was also one of the front-runners at the start of the Man of Kent event to. Though it seemed there were similarities in our approach to these rides his efforts were somewhat greater than mine; on that ride and this he had ridden to the start from Westminster in London and at its conclusion back again adding I guess another 50km or thereabouts each way to the total distance. He was wearing it well and did not seem to have felt it in the same way that I knew I had. I guess though we all have our own story to tell.
The ride had now become a more social occasion and I was really enjoying the company and knowing the places I was passing through. On climbing the hill out of Dover and past the castle who should come hacking past but the James I had ridden with into Hythe. Not sure how he managed to end up behind me but whatever it was I was not about to catch up with him again as he rode on by. I called out a greeting which was returned as he sped of into the distance. This would not though be the last time we would meet. Coming down into Deal the route took us along a unadopted road where the surface was unprepared, stony and full of ditches and holes. Riding on 38mm tyres for a 300km audax might not be everyone’s first choice but riding down here they certainly seemed a good choice to others now and not just me. Though cautious of the risk of puncture I was able to enjoy the stability and comfort they give on such tracks.
Wheeling into Deal brought me to the first of the possible family drop-ins I could have indulged in. I have a sister who lives here and the route took us within a few hundred meters of her house. Given that I had not scrutinised the route before hand and so had not spoken with her about my passing by I chose to keep on going with James and the other rider I had been with now since Folkstone. We rode along the sea front before taking a left as the promenade came to an end and within a very short time arrived at the next free control. It was at a small corner shop where other cyclists on the ride had and were already buying their token purchases to grab the receipt for evidence of their visit. After my spend in the café at Hythe I only had a bit of small change left on me. Just enough to buy a pint of milk which I greedily consumed outside the shop. As we milled about for the next five to ten minutes who should pitch up again but the original James on his carbon machine. Enquiring what had occurred he told me that he had also sustained a puncture at some point between us seeing him in Dover and now. I rashly decided to set of with him again however that idea was soon quashed as when I got on my bike I noticed the rear tyre felt a bit squashy again. The guy I was riding with whose name I forgot mentioned it had looked a bit like that since Folkstone. I had in all honesty thought it felt a bit bouncy but my optimism had won out over my paranoia hence I had ignored the signs and just kept peddling. If I had punctured again it was a very slow one but I was not convinced. I quickly sold myself the idea I’d just not pumped enough pressure into it after the repair. The verge I was on at the time was not ideal and I had hurried the job to get going again and not stay at the impromptu pit stop in the rain for any longer than needed. I should really have pumped it up harder at any of the subsequent controls but the momentum and mindset I maintained persuaded me not to bother. Silly really. Another lesson to apply next time it happens. So it was now that my pump came off again and the tyre pressure increased closer to the 75 psi specified.
So it was with my two ad hoc audax companions that I set off again from Deal and off towards the first info control of the ride at Birchington about 25 km away. The riding was perfect. We had a slight tail wind pushing us along and what with the increased pressure in my back tyre the going was now easy and enjoyable. We had been joined by another rider as we rode out of Deal and so now we were four. It’s at times like this when everything is humming along smoothly that the joy of cycling really jumps up and gives you a great big hug. The endorphins were flowing. I felt like I could ride for ever at this point and so it was with that feeling I continued all the way through Sandwich, Minster, the control at Birchington and onto the next stamped control in Herne Bay which marked 225 km behind us and just another 75 km to go. The stretch from Birchington to Herne Bay took us along the sea wall. Though the wind now cut across us from the south-west it did not dampen down my mood and the sense of well-being that had come over me since approaching Deal. Again my familiarity with this area and having ridden the roads between here and Medway on various iterations over the years gave me a confidence boost that I was going to crack this ride and in a respectable time to. We arrived in Herne Bay at some time shortly before 5 pm putting my elapsed time so far at around 11 hours.
The control at Herne Bay was in a classic sea-side café. As we pulled up who should I see tucking into a big plate of chips with his shoes off airing his feet but James again. I was enjoying these intermittent reunions and checking in on his progress. He told me that he had another unplanned stop close to Birchington to reseat his tyre which had popped off the rim. Not something I have ever experienced and not something I’d like to either especially at anything over 15 kmph. Before leaving James reminded himself of the make of my tyres seemingly interested by my waxing lyrical about their qualities as we rode together in our approach to Hythe. I’m pleased that the puncture and slowly deflating tube did not put him off considering the Barlow Pass as something worth finding out more about. They really are the best tyres I have ever ridden on and I happily recommend them. Before entering the café myself I nipped up to the nearest cash point to withdraw a bit more money so I could indulge myself with a large coffee and a caramel slice. My riding companions and the other randonneurs that were now passing through also took advantage of the extensive menu with everyone seeming to find something tasty to dig into. A quick phone call home to let my family know I was still alive and well and on course to finish between eight and nine pm. The last time we spoke was in Hythe where I may well have sounded rather depleted given the state I was in when I got there. So it was from here I set out again with the two I had ridden with since Folkstone off on what I could begin to call the start of the end run home.
As we made our way towards Whitstable it occurred to me that we had lost the fourth member of our small group. It turned out that he had ordered himself a full English breakfast in Herne Bay and had only just started eating it as we rolled out. As we rode passed Tankerton and through Whitstable the second and third opportunity to call in on family presented itself. For the same reasons as I peddled past my sisters in Deal I carried on through with just a nod in the direction of my parents house and younger sister’s abode who all lived within a reasonably close distance from the route we were taking. Cycling up Whitstable High Street I started to notice that now familiar bouncy sensation from my back tyre. I did not stop straight away and continued riding with the others for a short distance. It was ironically along Joy Lane which takes the route past Seasalter and towards Faversham that I conceded I needed to stop and reinflate the tube. I pulled over and with good grace was joined by the other two. I started to pump and as I did I urged them to keep going stating my intention of catching them up. As they wheeled away the fourth member of our informal cohort joined them once more and so it was here I saw the three of them cycling off into the distance. I had really appreciated the benefit and pleasure of riding with others and did not especially want to lose the group. I pumped the tyre as hard as I could and set off at a ferocious pace to catch them. For the next 10 km I sped along breathing rhythmically the Obree way which I have found works very well when pushing myself along the straights and up hills. It was a tease being able to see them all riding ahead in the distance now and then only to disappear out of sight once more with the turns and bends in the road. I kept up the pace and with about two of three km to go before the right turn towards Faversham I caught them. I felt pretty pleased with myself but now started to feel the effect of the exertion on my stamina. All of a sudden the ease of which I had ridden with since Hythe began to fade. Though I still had some left in the tank that sprint had taken its toll. Together again we skirted past Faversham into Ospringe and then a short distance later turned left into the approach which would take us on through the Kent Downs, an area of outstanding natural beauty.
Through Newnham and Doddington we rode towards Hollingbourne and then the last stretch into the North Downs and the Pilgrims Way from Detling to Meopham. At this point we had just another 50 km to go. Just another 50 km. A distance which I would normally consider a modest ride but with 250 km behind me I now gave slightly more respect. The road to Hollingbourne is a great route to follow. Even with the surface being pretty poor in places and gravel and debris coating the middle section of it the trail cut a flattish path through the natural contours of the Downs and through countryside and woodland that would win prizes if they were awarded. It was along this passage as I reached Ringlestone Road that I was to bid my fellow travellers the last farewell of this ride. Once more I needed to stop due to the back tyre losing pressure. I was fearful when I traversed the road at one point across the shrapnel down the middle that I may have risked a flat. It turned out I was right to be concerned. No slow puncture this time. It was going down fast and with that I called out that I needed to stop and make repairs. The tyre came off and on went my spare tube. I was now close enough to the finish to not worry about repairing the hole. It did not take long but in the time that it did I was passed by about another half-dozen or so other riders again calling out as they went to check I had everything I needed. I wonder what the reaction would have been had I not. Helpful no doubt but possibly mixed with a tinge of disapproval for setting out without the means to repair a flat. Hopefully I will never be in that position.
As I put the wheel back on and flipped the bike over I noticed I had in the time between stopping and that point developed a pounding headache and a grumbling feeling of nausea. I have put this down to the overuse of caffeine enhanced electrolyte drink tabs which I had guzzled along the way and a recent overindulgence in glucose tablets prompted by the fear of bonking again. Back on the bike again but really beginning to feel it. My pace had slowed as a result of leaving the company of my informal team. Though there were other riders about I did not feel the connection I had established with my now familiar randonneuring buddies. I stuck with it and raced down Hollingbourne Hill completing missing the right turn past the info control and to the Pilgrims Way. I quickly turned and headed back noting the figure required and was back on route. It had now become a slog. This was a shame as I was on home turf and so close to the end. By the time I passed through Detling and Bluebell Hill I had really started to flag. I stopped off at the Shell Garage and topped up with an isotonic drink really just for the variety and the hope that this would not make my head and stomach feel worse than it did. I phoned the missus to let her know I was closing in and to ask for a pick up from the scout hut in Meopham which I estimated I would arrive at in about an hours time. So close but still so far was my thinking now.
For the last 15 km I was on autopilot. I had ridden these roads countless times before. Whilst this was in some ways a positive I was also visualising every inch I had to peddle and anticipated every known incline with a crushing sense of despair. It was now getting close to nine pm and was dark. I did not bother with following the GPS as I knew the way. What I did not realise was the way I knew did not follow the planned route. I missed a turn and followed my nose. Though it got me to the end and I still clocked up the required miles the final 5 km were of my making and not that of the organisers. This was pointed out to me by another rider closing in on the finish the same time as I but with him coming from the opposite direction. I was not in a state to give any considered reply when he suggested I may have taken a short cut! Anything I might have said at that point would not have been polite! On riding up to the hall I saw my wife in the car with two of our kids in the back and was uplifted by their congratulations as I finally and thankfully ground to a halt. I staggered into the hut to register my completion and was greeted by the two I had covered much of the second half of this ride with. Congratulations were exchanged however I regret to say I was in no condition for any extended pleasantries. After handing over and having my brevet card checked and signed off I was out of there. Bike lifted up and secured on the roof of the car and then collapsed into the passenger seat and home for a shower and straight to bed. I’d done it. My second 300 km ride and the first of this year.
In total I covered about 306 km / 190 miles. With the 12 miles I rode to the start in the morning the days mileage was just over the 200 mile target I had set myself. The total elevation was around 3,178 metres / 10,000 feet. My Garmin recorded a moving time of 12 hrs 19 min. The elapsed time was 15 hrs 22 min. Average speed was 15.4 mph / 24.7 kmph.
I’m pretty pleased with all that. Lot of lessons which I had learned before but failed to apply on this occasion hence my suffering at the mid way point and the end. Pace myself better. Eat more often on the move. Do not over use caffeine. Be mindful of over indulging in glucose tablets. Repair the tube and fit the spare.
I took the next day off but the day after I rode the finish section again and covered the final 5 km which I had detoured from on the day. It seemed like the decent thing for me to do. It is fitting that this post has taken me almost as long to write as the route did to ride. If you have read to the end I guess you can count yourself among the few who do in keeping with the minority of crazy cyclists that take on these long rides. The following weekend I completed a more modest 100 km audax; The Hell Forest 100. That was another great ride which I thoroughly enjoyed to the end. An account of that will be forthcoming in my next post.