For the last couple of years it’s been in my mind to crack a 400 km audax. It had until now remained something I was never sure I’d do. Since October last year I’d completed a few 200s, a couple of 300s and a 600. I planned and had a five-hour break on the 600 so that was always two long rides to me really rather than one really long one. With the 2015 audax year drawing to a close at the end of September it was becoming a now or never decision to get the 400 done and complete my first SR series.
This particular 400 is a permanent. That means I could complete it any time I liked as it’s a 100% unsupported self-reliant ride. So it was at the start of the third week in September I climbed on my bike at just gone 3.00 am in Tonbridge to set off on the longest continuous ride of my life. I was feeling good about getting it together enough to do that never mind anything else at that stage.
When I mapped the route I broke it down into separate .gpx files to match the distance between each control. A control is a place defined by the organiser of the route where you have to get a proof of passage (on this ride that meant a till receipt / ATM receipt with the time, date and place-name on it). The idea is to stop anyone taking a short cut. The distance is more manageable chunking it up this way.
Stage 1: Tonbridge to Sturry – 71.2k / 44.3 miles | Total 71.2 km / 44.3 miles
I love riding at night. The roads are quiet. The air is often still. The quietness accentuating the sound of bike tyres on the road. I love that sound. The sky was clear. The stars shined brightly. The occasional owl hooted from the woods which lined the roads most of the way into Canterbury. Every now and then I’d pass through a cold spot as the road dipped down which was then matched by a warm spot on the other side. I sank into a deep reverie and felt content. When I got to the control at Sturry railway station I found there were no shops open or ATM’s close by.
The back up plan to buy a permit to travel from the ticket machine was also scuppered as it was out-of-order. I took a few pictures and crossed my fingers that they and my .gpx track would give proof enough of my arrival.
Stage 2: Sturry to Sandwich – 20.5k / 12.7 miles | Total 91.7k / 57 miles
Soon after leaving Sturry the darkness receded making way for dawn. It was a gorgeous time of day. Far off on the horizon the clouds shined a warm red backlit by the still to emerge sun. Red sky in the morning shepherds warning did cross my mind though I’d committed to the ride come what may. The fields were often blanketed by low-lying mist creating a wonderful eerie atmosphere.
September is a great month to ride through rural Kent. There are many orchards heavy with apples ripe for picking. I picked a big red one and munched on it as I rode. It was cold, crunchy and delicious. I swear it was the one of the tastiest apples I had ever eaten. I got to the control at Sandwich in just over an hour I think. What people I saw were quick to tell me that it would not be open until 10.00 am. No bother to me. The ATM worked fine. I would be long gone by then.
What with my scrumping and snapping pictures from the saddle my pace had slowed down a bit. No worries though as the time allowance on these audax rides is generous enough to allow even the slowest of riders a good chance of finishing within time so long as they keep peddling.
Stage 3: Sandwich to Rye – 65.2k / 40.5 miles | Total 156.9k / 97.5 miles
The second long stretch. Up and out of Sandwich past the old pit villages of Adisham and Aylesham and the long derelict colliery works. Leaving them behind and forwards to the beautiful undulating stretch of countryside through the Kent Downs and towards Romney Marsh.
As I got close to the Hythe turn off I spied another cyclist closing in behind me. He soon caught up. I asked if he’d mind if I tucked in behind for a little while. He was gracious enough to agree. I immediately felt the benefit of following in his wake. As sods law would have it he took the next left for Hythe after less than a quarter of a mile. I’d be staying true to the unsupported spirit of permanent audax rides then!
My respite did come soon after though. Within a mile (1.6km) or so there was a sweeping 7 -10% descent from 340ft (106m) down to just 9ft (2.7m) above sea level. The flatlands of Romney Marshes awaited. With the wide open views here you can see far off into the distance you’re heading. Thankfully there was very little wind. I put my headphones on and listened to music. This helped distract me from the never-ending feel of this stretch. I was starting to get some hunger pangs now. I had thought of having a good feed at the control in Rye which would be 100 miles (161km) done. Before I got that far nature looked on me with kind eyes and supplied bushes of juicy blackberries. I stopped for five minutes and had my fill. Peddled on for a bit and then with just 7 miles (11km) to go I came across Jo’s Cafe. An oasis of big breakfasts and hot sweet cups of tea. Glorious!
After 30 – 40 minutes rest and feeling fully satiated it was with some alacrity that I hopped back on the bike and knocked off the short distance left to bring me into Rye.
Stage 4: Rye to Tenterden – 16.8k / 10.4 miles | Total 173.7k /107.9 miles
This was the shortest distance between controls. Not much to report other than a few hills. Unsurprisingly the big breakfast repeated on me most of the way!
Stage 5: Tenterden to Tonbridge – 36.9k / 22.9 miles | Total 210.6k / 130.8 miles
Tenterden High Street was a lot busier than I had expected. It’s a haven of small independent shops, cafes and the like. A paragon of middle class well to do Kent life.
Tenterden – The Jewel of the Weald
As anyone who has visited the town will tell you the picturesque ‘Cinque Port’ of Tenterden has every reason to declare itself ‘The Jewel of the Weald’. Its fine High Street must rank among the most attractive in the Country with historic houses, shops, restaurants and pubs separated from the carriageway by wide expanses of tree-lined grass verges. – http://www.tenterdentown.co.uk/
It was a lovely morning and the locals / visitors were making the most of the early autumn sunshine. No lounging about for me though or time to slurp coffee and scoff croissants with the towns patrons. I found an ATM, got the required proof of passage and I was off again.
I have little recollection of the ride to Tonbridge. Going by the elevation profile I can see it was a bit lumpy. I also know I must have felt pretty good because when I got to Tonbridge I had no urge to fill up with food. The stop at Mo’s café had put some strong stuff in my legs! I nipped into Cycles UK shop on Tonbridge High Street to get the control receipt. I treated myself to a new water bottle and a small tube of go faster / go longer tablets. The old squash bottle I’d been using had sprung a small leak in the bottom back in Tenterden. The contents had been slowly dripping away and were nearly depleted by the time I replaced it with a flashy new Camelbac Podium. Proper cyclist now!
Having now covered over half the distance, the time at just gone 1.30 pm, and feeling up for some more miles the thought did occur to me that I might just do this! With that in mind I set cheerfully off towards Lingfield.
Stage 6: Tonbridge to Lingfield – 30.8k / 19.2 miles | Total 241.4k / 150 miles
I was ruminating on getting past the Wheatsheaf pub in Bough Beech. This was where my earlier attempt at the ride had come crashing to an end. I had a go at it last year in June.
It became the only audax to date I pulled a DNF (did not finish). I got to just over the 240 km mark (150 miles) before crashing off on wet and slippery drain covers as I cycled to the Lingfield control. It was pouring with rain. I was not dressed for it, soaking wet and cold. I’d not injured myself much but decided it would be foolish to continue. It was past 8.00 pm and the weather meant I was not going to dry out and warm up quickly again. One of those occasions when good sense presided over ego. I rode the 10 miles or so back to the car in Tonbridge and called it a day.
This year was different. The weather had been good to this point. I was seven hours ahead of my previous schedule. Clouds had formed a bit though and I’d felt a few drops of rain since leaving Tonbridge. Remembering the red sky I saw in the morning I did start to wonder whether I would be seeing those drain covers wet and slippy again. Fortunately the rain never became anything more than an occasional light spatter and so it was in the dry that I nonchalantly passed by the nemesis of last years ride.
The route from here took me past Hever Castle and the Henry the Eighth pub. It prompted me to think about Britain’s royal family, its history pockmarked by sociopaths and dripping in blood, yet still revered by many. Kick down the statues and consign them to the history pages. Riding solo for many miles creates much time to mull over such random topics.
It was close to 3.00 pm when I reached Lingfield. My pace had slowed a bit. I was starting to feel hungry. A conversation I’d recently had with a friend about cyclists referring to fuel and hydration came to mind. It seemed fitting that the control I chose was a filling station. I filled up!
Stage 7: Lingfield to East Peckham – 39.1k / 24.3 miles | Total 280.5k / 174.3 miles
The road surface on this section was awful. A patchwork of poorly finished topping from a myriad of different utility works over the years. It was the only time all day that I cursed the inanimate. The contents of my handlebar bag were rattling about. My palms kept going numb with all the shaking. My backside felt all the bumps. It was horrible for around 20 miles or so. It was so much of a distraction that I rode right on through East Peckham and forgot about stopping at a control. I don’t even remember passing through the place. I know that I did though thanks to the track created by my Garmin as I rolled along. I never realised my mistake until I stopped at a shop near to Marden where I found out that I’d overshot the control by nearly nine miles. I stocked up again with food and drink. Had to go back in to ask for a receipt as I’d forgotten to do so when I paid for the goods.
All of a sudden I came over all tired. Waves of exhaustion swept over me. I felt completely spent. I sat down for 10 minutes or so pondering on the next 30 miles to the next to the last control back down near Folkestone. The weather was still good. It would be dusk by the time I got there if I cracked on. With that goal in mind I willed myself on and got back on it with it.
Stage 8: East Peckham to Westenhanger Services – 60k / 37.3 miles | Total 340.5k / 211.6 miles
Walkers ready salted crisps, Dunns River Original Nutriment drink, a vegetable samosa and a bit of determination all brought on my second wind. Oh my oh my was I pleased about that! Amazing where it comes from but as quickly as I had wilted I was back in full flourish. This was great I thought. I was riding slightly below my average speed of around 15 mph but the perceived effort was a great deal less. I think it was as much to do with not being shaken to bits by the broken road surface as it was about anything else. The scenery had improved and with the evening light turning slowly to dusk. This was a great time and place for riding. Knowing that after this bit I would be on the last leg was a big moral boost. I knew now that I was going to do it. The 400 and the SR would be mine! I rolled into Westenhanger Services absolutely feeling like I’d done the 210 miles to that point but with the happy crazies that perhaps only come with endurance events. I was loving it!
The control seemed surreal. It was 8.00 pm and just past nightfall. I was in a daze. Bright lights and shiny stuff surrounded me. The services are huge. Loads of lorries and cars. Travel weary folk just off the ferries or Eurostar and those buzzing with excitement heading to embark. I felt like an alien in another world. I was experiencing a sense of derealisation and depersonalisation. I’m among the odd ones who find such things quite enjoyable. I immersed myself in it and let it all wash over me. I had what seemed a disjointed conversation with the fellas behind the Subway outlet. They looked amused so I suspect they might have thought so to! It’s been ages since I’ve bought anything like a Subway. At the time it was the most appealing option available. It took me a long time to work out the menu and prices. What really puzzled me was why anyone would buy anything other than a small drink when refills were free!? The staff assured me that people did though. Perhaps it helps if you are a bit psychotic to get the most out of these places.
This was my longest stop. I was in there for nearly half an hour. The road was calling though. I had just over forty-five miles to go. I bumbled out with my bike, switched my lights back on and was off.
Stage 9: Westenhanger Services to Tonbridge – 75.2k / 46.8 miles | Total 415.7k / 258.5 miles
As soon as I came out of the warmth of the services I noticed I was feeling a lot colder than I had felt when I went in. Right then; time to warm up. I stood up to ride and quickly picked up the pace. A couple of miles in took me down a service road past a barrier and towards some farmyard outbuildings. I feel a bit nervous in these places. Many a time territorial hounds have chased me barking loudly and snapping at my heels as they protect their turf. Thankfully that was not the case on this occasion. After just a few more miles I was back on the road. Properly warmed up now I was in the zone and remained there for the next three and a bit hours. I surprised myself with the pace I was managing after so many miles. Kind of on autopilot. As was the experience nearly twenty hours earlier that day I was largely on my own under clear star filled skies for much of the way. The air was still and the tyres audibly hummed once more. I felt invincible. Full of vitality and life. There was no place I’d rather have been. No thing I’d rather be doing. Cycling at it’s best is a meditation. This was one of those times. Wholly consumed in the present without a distraction in the world. Drugs, dis-ease, a monastic life or a very long bike ride. I know which one I prefer to get to this place.
As a drew near to Tonbridge I emerged back into the world of what was and what could be. It was a rude awakening. The last four or five miles were tough going. They did not last long. I was back in Sainsbury’s car park! It was just before midnight. Just under 21 hours from when I’d set out. Moving time was nearly 17.5 hours. Average speed 15 mph. Total miles 261. Total elevation 10,450 feet. See the ride stats here on Ride with GPS.
When I left home from Chatham to drive to the start in Tonbridge I grabbed a banana on the way out the door. When I got there I put it up on the roof of the car as I got myself sorted for the off. The idea of course was to eat it. After a few miles riding I realised I had left the banana on the roof of the car. I thought little more of it at the time. A couple of times en route I did wonder if the banana would be there when I finished. I took this picture at 11.56 pm. The banana was still exactly where I left it after all that time. I still drove off forgetting it again. I never did get to eat it!