The 2011 Paris-Brest-Paris campaign kicked off for me Saturday with a ride through farm fields, past postboxes, and into a Mordoresque gloom with an occasional wrong turn and some unexpected sights.
There are certain things you expect to see when walking into London’s Liverpool Street station before 5 a.m. on a Saturday morning: The nano-skirted post-club woman giving the few station denizens a flash of bare buttock as she perused pastries at the coffee stand? Yes. The cyclist with a fully kitted steed complete with mudguards, rack and stuffed rack-top bag? No. Except he was catching the same train as I was, to Elsenham in Essex for the Shaftesbury Springtime 200, my first audax of a PBP 2011 campaign.
I found an open space on the train and motioned my fellow cyclist to join me, confirming he was headed the same way I was, and we whiled away the trip trading randonneuring tall tales on the 50 minute ride up to our destination. Once off, we spun easily the last two kilometers to the ride start, knowing we would be an hour early but also knowing the next train would get us in with only a few minutes to spare before the house. Overshooting the start, we doubled back to the Shaftesbury Cycling Club’s “hut,” one of several nearby bungalows owned by East London or formerly East London cycling clubs as homes away from home for traffic- and smog-free training. (Several consecutive audax weekends are being run from the same general row of bungalows.)
Inside, the ride director hadn’t arrived, but the kitchen crew had, boiling water for tea and instant coffee. We took a load off in the overstuffed couches, continuing our chat. The place was part hunting lodge, part clubhouse: trophies and photos scattered about, an electric fireplace, a few beds in a back room, changing rooms for both genders. Danny, a friend from Cambridge, arrived, along with a growing number of audaxers. Soon enough, the audax director arrived, set up shop in the men’s changing room; then we gathered on the front lawn and were sent on our way.
It was an overcast, still day – a big change, I learned, from the previous week’s populaire, where riders were lashed with stiff winds and rain. We spun on narrow lanes through farm fields, the riders with more event miles in their legs sprinting ahead, while Danny and I were plenty happy to lope along easily in the small ring. It was a figure-eight loop taking us first into Essex before turning back to the bungalow. As such, it required four controles per 100K, two information controls and one commercial control in addition to the HQ. The first info controle (Saturday mail pickup at a postbox in Pleshey) was passed at 26 km, then onward through the fields, with occasional shallow dips into stream valleys, to the café at the Dutch Nursery in Coggeshall at 58 km, where we arrived after about two and a half hours. A rather long queue awaited coffee and cake at the till, so Danny and I bypassed the coffee for a quick controle stamp and a snack from our jersey pockets – and passing a dozen or so cyclists in the process.
The terrain was starting to grow a little more challenging; whether it was the size of the hills or the cumulative riding, it was hard to say. Danny was beginning to feel it more than I was. He was training for a three-day sportive in late May, so he had yet to get a fully century, with a 100K ride being his longest so far. Not long after the second information control (the phone number – written in squint-o-vision – of the church in Shalford) he told me to go on. Briefly, I rode along with another fellow Ancien planning a PBP run – he said he hadn’t seen me at the Coggeshall controle, where I informed him I considered speed a little more important at that point – but before long his pace was a little more than I wanted to take on for my first 200K.
I arrived back at the Shaftesbury bungalow after about four and a half hours and just over 100K. I got a stamp and then bought a ham sandwich and coffee. Danny rolled up and informed me he was planning to simply ride home for 80 miles on the day. So I would be on my own for the afternoon. I rolled out under skies looking darker by the moment. The second turn was onto a busy B road, and the third turn was a “no signpost” turn, which is always a suspicious one. I stopped near what I thought was the turn, pulled out by iPhone and took a look at the directions. Seemed right. About the time I made the decision, another apparent audaxer rolled along and made the turn. I chose correctly. Next turn, not so lucky. I missed it and ended up in the centre of Standsted Mountfichet, and had to double back for some bonus miles. I cursed, knowing that I needed to be very attentive to the route sheet for the remainder of the ride.
We were now heading west into Hertfordshire, more familiar territory for me. And with a small bit of local knowledge, I knew that the terrain would be less forgiving in the afternoon (total on the day was 1,800 meters, according to the ride director). The hills grew more challenging – nothing long or steep, just persistent. Throw in some ever-so-mild winds, and the day grew long. I was passing riders in ones and twos or small groups. A third info controle (again, Saturday postbox collection time) awaited at Walkern, a familiar town from my weekend London-based rides. Onward to Baldock under dark skies; there was a hint of moisture in the air as a Mordoresque fog drew over the countryside.
The Baldock controle at 150K was a chip shop (Fish ‘n’ Chicks) where I ordered chips and a coffee and collected my receipt. I looked at the time and had a realization – while I’d packed a full set of lights and even backup batteries, I had assumed that I would finish before nightfall, and thus had failed to bring along a way to illuminate my route sheet. If night fell, I’d simply have to wait for slower cyclists and finish with them. I had a further realization – London-bound trains stopped at Elsenham only once per hour, at 19 after, and I knew the latest one I really wanted to catch was at 6:19. I was 50K out and decided it was time to go hard.
Awaiting me, of course, was the hardest climb of the day, and I did know it was coming – a long two-mile slog to Therfield, through Royston Heath and its golf course. But once at the top, I knew we would be heading east toward the HQ and I could go into time trial mode. The final hour of the ride went past rather quickly – a quick stop at the final info controle at Guildern Morden (again with the postbox), and a quickly detected missed turn outside Clavering, but mostly just pounding the pedals in a race against darkness. With less than 2K to go, droplets finally starting materializing in the Mordoresque gloom, just enough to wet the skin. I finally arrived back at the bungalow at just after 5:40 – after turning in my card, that was enough time for another instant coffee as other cyclists bent over beans and toast, before rolling back to the rail station in Elsenham.
On the platform, another nano-skirted woman waited with her boyfriend for the ride into London. A few minutes before the London trains arrival, a group of four cyclists, the diners from the bungalow arrived. One looked at me and said, “You should have stayed. Much warmer back at the hut.”