An entry to the Kennet Valley 200km Audax was to be my first serious venture into longer distance cycling, I had completed 100 km rides but this was a first step up to the longer distances. For those that have not come across Audax before it is a cycling event where participants try to cycle the distances within a prescribed time limit. It is not a race and success is just completing the distance within the specified limits, distances range from 100 to 1200 kilometres.
The longer 1200 km events can see competitors cycling for up to four days and grabbing sleep wherever they can which may be 20 minutes in a bus shelter or even sleeping on a grass verge by the side of the road.
For each ride participants are issued with a Brevet card which they must get stamped at control points along the route, there may well be a series of questions to answer about points along the route. i.e. The name of a shop in a village along the route or the distance to a certain town displayed on a signpost, anything to confirm you have ridden the correct route. Audax was invented in France, hence the reason they measure in kilometres and the first event was ridden in 1897.
Unlike the modern popular sportive where you pay a large fee to enter and have a fully signed route and mechanical backup, Audax is a very self-sufficient event and breeds some very resilient cyclists, the longer distances require mental strength and an unrelenting powers of endurance.
I had watched the weather forecast all week and the last forecast the night before the event was for a hard frost and a band of rain or snow reaching the area just in time for the start accompanied by a strong northerly wind.
The alarm clock was set for 05-15, the 07-30 start of the event saw a heavy frost and unexpected mist but no rain or snow. After joining the other starters in Grazeley village hall I collected my Brevet card and waited for the off. At 07-30 on the dot the flag dropped from the ice-covered car park, I started my Garmin to follow the route and record my ride, I was a bit apprehensive and decided to just follow the pack for a while.
As we all rolled away the pace was quite sedate with a few sprinting away but the majority were taking it very gingerly on the first 50 km leg to the control point at Hungerford. After a few kilometres I found myself behind a group of riders whose pace I found comfortable. The most efficient way to ride is within a group with each rider taking a turn on the front and so shielding the riders behind, this can result in a 30% saving of energy so if you can buddy up with other riders you can make the ride a bit easier.
The first control point was at the Tutti Pole cafe in the centre of a very busy Hungerford High Street where I was happy just to get my Brevet card stamped and carry on after quickly munching a banana. Just after restarting my Genesis Equilibrium developed an annoying rattle and looking down I discovered my rear mudguard had snapped so after a Heath Robinson repair I pushed on now on my own.
The next leg was to the furthest point at Bratton, the route was along the scenic banks of the Kennet and Avon canal and we had a brief sleet shower as we passed through the Wiltshire Village of Pewsey. I caught up with another group of 3 cyclists and took it in turns with one of them to share the lead, I had found good company in Dave from Brockenhurst and we chatted as the kilometres passed. Dave was an experienced Audaxer who had completed Paris Brest Paris last year and was a mine of information for a novice like me.
On reaching Fitzroy Farm, Bratton the cafe was busy and after securing the stamp on the record card Dave said he knew an alternative cafe at Market Lavington about 8 km on the return route. We rolled into Market Lavington to the St Arbucks (novel name) coffee-house and community hub. The cafe was staffed by volunteers who served up great value coffee and bacon rolls and we provided entertainment for the locals who seemed to think it hilarious that anyone would want to cycle from Reading to Bratton and then straight back while dressed in lycra, it was all good humoured.
Suitably refreshed we resumed our return leg to Hungerford, the clouds were getting darker as the wind picked up, as we followed the Kennet canal it started raining, the sky was black and as we entered Hungerford the roads were awash, we had missed the deluge but took the opportunity for a coffee break at the control point.
The final leg back to Grazeley was the hilly bit of the course and into the wind, the last hill at Bradfield College was a landmark that signalled the end of the climbs and a fairly flat last 12km with a tailwind to the end. The village hall was a welcome sight and the organisers provided refreshments of soup, cakes and the Audax favourite of beans on toast with cheese and a large mug of tea.
A first 200km Audax completed, it was not ideal conditions but very enjoyable all the same, I learnt a lot from the experience and benefitted from the company en route. There is a lot of discipline needed to complete these events and it essential to make sure you eat and drink enough, a full day in the saddle certainly burns the calories and I look forward to participating in a few more Audax events.