Of all the events on the audax calendar, I fear the 400 kilometer brevet the most. Unlike the shorter 200K and 300K rides, which are long and longer day rides, the 400K is the one you will most likely finish in extended darkness. There is no sleep ‘till the end; you’re on the road until you ride the whole distance, for which you’re allowed 27 hours. You can’t race it – all the discipline in the world forces you back onto the saddle whenever you’re tempted to sprint a hill, or lightens your pedals when you want to press into a headwind. You’re always reminded of how far you have to go.
Plus I’ve never had a good 400K ride.
I’ve had 400Ks in which I finished alone on dark roads in bucketing rain. I’ve had 400Ks where I fought nausea all day long. I’ve had 400Ks where I spent 12 hours pedaling alone, spending the day with my thoughts and finding it strange to speak to another human when my rolling isolation ended. The 400K is the ride that tests my will more than others, and it is the one where the act of handing over my card to be stamped at the start causes me to wonder at my love for this sport.
So it was when I found myself rolling out toward a turn point 200 kilometers away from Chalfont St Peter in London’s Buckinghamshire exurbs, the day after a prince of Wales celebrated his nuptials at Westminster Abbey. As with many of the villages on the way, the streets of Chalfont St Peter were decked out with the Union and England flags as we rolled toward the Chilterns. And as usual with many of these Audax UK events, a few speedy folks rode hard toward the front while a peloton interested in conserving energy formed up. I found myself a few wheels from the front of the peloton, as usually happens, except … I felt unusually flat. The burn of lactic acid rose with even the smallest rises, and I slipped toward the back.
On a gradual climb through a Chiltern valley, there was the abrupt call in front of me: “Hole!” followed by the swerve of a bike in front of me. Ka-whump! I felt a water bottle against my calf, my knee, and then underneath my rear wheel. I slowed to a stop, sighed, and picked my bottle up. I took up the chase but … reminded myself of how far I had to go and backed off. Guess it will be another lonely 400K – but I might catch up at the first controle.
Under a rising sun and with a rising wind behind us we passed through a valley west of the Chilterns. We were passing through pastures and fields, green and yellow with rapeseed plants. After a pause for photos in the valley I rolled to the first control in Woodstock, home of Blenheim Palace, homes of the Dukes of Marlborough and birthplace of Winston Churchill. Whilst I was thinking coffee and cakes were in order, I was of a mind to do some catching up to the group I had lost, I moved on to the next challenge, the Cotswolds.
I knew from the organisers preview that the Cotswolds would be the toughest section of the day, at an average gradient of 11 meters per kilometer, and it did not disappoint. Plus I was feeling as thought I’d really failed to fuel property. I was rooting through my jersey pockets to keep going, and rising through repeated steep rollers that were putting me on the limit. I was feeling other limitations: my hands and wrists were starting to get sore, much earlier than I expected, and for the first time in wearing the shorts I was using I started to have, er, contact point issues. I was beginning to wonder if the Cotswolds would be my Waterloo, but at last they ended, with a steady 10 kilometers of tailwind into the controle at 145 kilometers in Tewkesbury. I decided that fueling up was a good idea. Coffee and a jacket potato fit the bill.
Finally well fueled and onto flatter roads, we were now in the valleys of the rivers Severn and Wye, two major watercourses that rise on the same mountain in Wales and meander a hundred miles from each other through Wales and the West Country before coming together near Bristol. I began picking up and passing riders along the way, and we began to approach the big challenge of the day, a climb called Yat Rock, a ridiculous 20% climb to throw into a 400K. The entry into it was a silly single track paved road, and in the first 30 seconds of the climb a ridiculous number of cars for such a road came past me. It was steep enough I could feel the yo-yo of my speed with each pedal-stroke, and at last the steep ramp hit. Out of the saddle, squat and unweighting with each pedal stroke – it was just good fortune the steep bit was short, probably less than 200 meters, but it was an effort that left my legs burning and my lungs desperate for breath. It passed, and it was an easy few wind-aided miles into the turn point at a Tesco in Chepstow. I picked up a fellow audaxer, a veteran of PBP, Perth-Albany-Perth, Mille Miglia and countless other rides who the previous weekend had ridden both a flêche and a 400K. Hardcore.
At the turn point, a significant group was lunching and preparing for the long leg home. For me? A triple sandwich, two packets of crisps, some pocket food and water for the next 200K. The next leg started off with a crossing of the Severn River Bridge, and with the tailwinds we had been getting I could only imagine what the notoriously windy bridge would hold. It did not disappoint, either: A howling crosswind made conversation all but impossible. Finding that I had a bit of a gap on the group on the England side, I paused for a few moments to take photos, then discovered the group long out of sight. Knowing the value of keeping with a group in winds like that, a brief chase ensued. I caught back on, but then … the stomach felt slightly bad, I caught a bad case of the sleepys, my hands, wrists, neck, back, and bum all were complaining, and the progress was slow, so slow, in the winds. The winds. The winds. Howling in the ears, pressing the chest, jerking the helmet. The next 40 kilometers to Malmesbury seemed an eternity in the winds and the Cotswolds slopes – in the shadow of the Malmesbury abbey, I finally had to pull off and stretch uncooperative muscles and take a naproxen. There goes my good group again – but with the setting sun, I could hope for the winds to slacken and maybe, just maybe, a bit of an easier ride.
The bulk of the next 17 kilometers were spent in the self-declared “longest village in England,” a village so long I’d forgotten I was still in it by the time I left. At a petrol station, my group was stopped and fuelling. I quickly grabbed some food and fluid and got ready for night riding. At the back of the group I was happier once again. At dusk, we climbed through a valley with the first artificial lights of a town below flickering on and the final glow of the setting sun reflecting off the yellow of a rapeseed field ahead. Then dark.
There were some miles until what would be our final stop at the Membury Services, off the M4, in which I hovered between strength and weakness. The pain had faded – I could thank either the pain relievers or the stretching – but the sleepiness came and went. But we pulled in through a back entrance and grabbed some food. It was 9:30, and we had close to 100K to go. At Membury, there was a long war council around a table in the petrol station. Some navigational decisions were being contemplated by the group. No slaves to the “route as written” as in other countries, Audax UK riders can take any route between controles, as that’s the reason the controles are put there anyway – to make sure you complete the distance. The danger of following the designated route is it traveled minor lanes: with darkness, poor signposting and blind junctions, the chance of missed turns was high. Not to mention the dips and climbs of the small roads. The group leaned toward A-roads. Late at night, with a large, well-lit group, we were as safe on the big A roads as we were on the less-traveled lanes.
Not much of the last 100K is memorable. We passed through Newbury, Reading and Maidenhead on our way home, briefly losing two members in Reading before reuniting under a bus shelter. I just remember the pain creeping back and the desire for the ride to be over growing. The sleepys came and went. I occasionally took at turn at the front. The veteran I’d met on the road, he of the flêche and 400K the preceding weekend, worked hard to keep us together in a smooth-riding group, conserving as much energy as possible. My turns at the front were ragged. I never felt the right speed, always speeding up and losing the group, then slowing to a snail’s pace and annoying subsequent wheels. I was trying, but my body didn’t have much finesse left. My hardcore buddy admitted weakness at last – nausea was creeping in. “I don’t do well after midnight,” he said. In Henley, two wandering youths shouted in disbelief at the sight of group of cyclists out at that hour and asked if we were Jesus. We climbed into Gerrard’s Cross, then enjoyed the final two kilometers’ descent into Chalfont St. Peter. It was 20 hours since we’d left. In the village hall at the start, those of us who didn’t know each other finally introduced ourselves. I forced some high-fives on some reluctant Britons; my hardcore companion was already on the floor trying to sleep. I shook hands with him; at last, I was back. My warm bed in the nearby hotel awaited. Another difficult 400K was done. One of these days I’ll have a good one.