(As featured in Arriveé Issue #136, Audax UK’s quarterly members magazine, May 2017)
Members of Audax Club Bristol have been riding over 300km in February to tackle one of the Shropshire Hills’ mightiest beasts for years. Given the readership of the Arriveé, this may sound pretty tame, but for any Audax newcomer it’s a pretty daunting prospect.
It was 5.30am at the Fishponds Fish, as one by one the group gathered. Thirteen riders togged up and ready to roll, all mad enough to take on the challenge. For seven it would be the furthest ever ridden in a day, losing their 300k virginity. However there was assurance that this year would be easy – for the past two years snow and no less than thirteen punctures had caused mayhem, costing time and bringing the troop back into Bristol nail-bitingly close to the points cut-off time.
Organised this year by Transcontinental hopeful Alex Bend, a slight variation of Will Pomeroy’s original, the 320km route headed North out of Bristol and up over the Gloucestershire Cotswold hills, then North West into rolling Herefordshire through Ledbury and Bromyard, briefly through Worcestershire and into Shropshire to tackle Clee Hill.
The climb up to Clee Hill Moor, the highest A-road in Shropshire, is a 435m ascent over 12km, averaging 4%. Sounds manageable? Throw in legs with 160km of hills already in them and suddenly it’s a little more challenging. Climbing through the mist up onto the common past the sheep and disused mining works, you’re quickly transported to a wild landscape, typical of Dartmoor or the Peak District. Not being beaten by stopping at the end of the paved road, noble steeds were hauled over the kissing gate to take the muddy footpath past the observatory right to the very top. On a clear day, we are assured that the views here are phenomenal. Alas, today was not a clear day, instead battered by a strong wind and thick wall of bright white mist.
Having summited Clee Hill, the route then heads home, passing through Leominster and following the Wye Valley back South. After some flatter respite, the hills soon kicked up again past the Forest of Dean and the cruelly steep Symonds Yat climb left many cursing the route plotter’s name. Descending into Chepstow for a very brief nod to Wales, then the route passed over the iconic Chepstow bridge, now onto the home straight. 20km or so on the back lanes and into Bristol, and the deed is done.
What I learnt on my first 300km
There are both practical and mental factors that make a 300km ride so different to its 200km predecessor. Here I analyse each, what worked and what I’d do differently next time round.
Moving from 200km to a 300km ride, one of the most important differences is purely the time in the saddle. Unless riding at some pace in the summer months, this will involve riding in the dark, at one or either end of the day. I suppose the rule ought to be always pack for the worst case scenario, so at least 2 sets of lights or a method of recharging is crucial, as I found out the hard way. Same rule applies for your GPS device; a mobile battery pack is ideal, especially if doing a DIY where you’ll need to submit that precious GPX file!
Pedalling for 14 hours or so also requires a huge amount of fuelling. Even though there are shops and cafe or pub stops along the way, I was glad to be well prepared with a saddlebag laden with snacks. A variety of sweet cake slices, flapjacks and savoury sausage rolls and pies kept the legs turning between mealtimes. If ACB is representative of the community, it seems that Soreen is the randonneur’s diesel of choice.
The saddlebag was invaluable, holding a small battery pack, a thin extra layer and tools as well as snacks. Those layers are critical too, as you’re likely to experience a range of temperatures (and potentially weathers) when riding from the early hours to late at night. The additional storage also frees up jersey space, making those long hours in the saddle a little more comfortable.
The most staggering thing that I found from the 300km ride was the mind’s ability to stretch to the challenge in hand. When I completed my first Audax, Pat Hurt’s ‘The Poor Student’ 200km in January, I gave almost all I had both physically and mentally to complete the challenge, further than I’d ever ridden before.
Facing the next step head on a month later, the best advice I was given was to break it down into bite-size chunks. We had 100km already under our belts before we stopped for (second) breakfast in Newent, then another 100km as we conquered Clee Hill and headed into Leominster for a late lunch. The final 100km was split in two, into 30km and 70km with gallons of homemade soup and pints all round in a gorgeous country pub in between.
It was remarkable how achievable such a long distance (to an Audax newbie, remember) became when broken down like this. Before you know it, 200km has come and gone, every kilometre is ‘new territory’ but knowing of the remainder of the ride to come, mentally you seem to be so much stronger than on the previous 200km target.
I’m convinced that the largest single factor that got me through my first 300km ride was the people around me. Half of the group were new to the 300km distance, with the other half hardened masters of long distance cycling. Putting faith in their experience and advice was invaluable, not to mention the energy saving benefits of riding in a bunch of double figures! The Audax Club Bristol riders couldn’t have been a friendlier or more considerate bunch, without thought taking it in turns to help me out whilst falling back on those testing Herefordshire hills or taking it at my own pace up Clee Hill.
One of my highlights of the ride was the moment when the sun had set on Herefordshire, following the Wye for some faster, flatter miles in the pack as the light faded. It was a quiet and peaceful time of the day, the bulk of the kilometres behind us and the prospect of night riding ahead. Cruising alongside Alex Bend, he recounted his first 300km with Gareth Baines, how he’d struggled and how exhausted he’d felt by the time he was done. Just hearing this from someone that I respect as an accomplished long distance rider was so reassuring. I may not be there yet – but even the best riders find it tough to start with.
In terms of mental preparation for the ride, I perhaps could have looked more closely at the challenge ahead. A quick glimpse of the route and elevation profile highlighted three main hill sections; the Cotswolds, Clee HIll and the Forest of Dean. What I hadn’t realised was that even though the rest of the ride had seemed ‘flat’ on the summary (skewed by the peak of Clee Hill), in reality there was a whole lot of climbing. 4500 metres, in fact. There certainly are easier 300km rides to start with; perhaps it was better that I was unaware just how hilly this would be!
Finally, I was surprised by how easy getting up so early seemed to be. A 5am breakfast and out the door was no problem, with the milder weather and the prospect of meeting up with some good friends contributing I’m sure. There were already quite a few miles in our legs before the sun rose; what a treat.
A huge thank you to Alex Bend and Audax Club Bristol for organising this DIY and for the incredible support that you all provide to welcome so many new people into Audax, not to forget Tony Hull, our South West Audax organiser.
Thinking of trying your first 300km Audax this year? Go grab a great bunch of friends or tag along with a club, pack those snacks and hit the road! You won’t regret it.
Photographs courtesy of Paul Rainbow.