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The Brevet Cymru: 600km audax ride across Wales

16:21 24th June 2013 By Fi Spotswood
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Audaxing: It’s only kinky the first time

By Matt Edwards and Fi Spotswood

All sports are tribal. They have uniforms, unwritten codes, histories, languages and stereotypes. Audax cycling is no exception. Audax means steel bikes, beards, and lovely Carradice saddle bags. The average age is…civilised. Audaxers are disproportionately male; softly-spoken, friendly, unstoppable and physically tough. There is a calm presence amongst Audaxers, irrespective of gender – no messing, no excuses and none of the nervous energy that infects Spor4tives. Just solid, sensible bikes and solid, sensible miles.

A more than slightly bleary-eyed looking Matt refuelling en route.

A more than slightly bleary-eyed looking Matt refuelling en route.

‘Audax’ refers to long-distance reliability cycling events where there is no prize for first place and the job is to just to complete the route within a generous cut-off time. Cake and tea stops are integral. No whistles, very few bells. Start pedalling; keep steady; eat, drink, and finish sometime later.

Rides are organised all over the country almost every weekend, with distances starting at 100k and crescendoing at 1200k with the London-Edinburgh-London. They tend to attract fields of around 100 riders, sometimes more, as with my local favourite ‘Barry’s Bristol Ball Buster’ (from near Bristol in March). All sorts of riders and bikes will show up – tandems, recumbents, fixed-gear, the occasional carbon frame and, most definitively, steel road or touring bikes. Beards, hairy legs, high-viz, mud-guards, brooks saddles and hefty saddle bags will be in abundance. Weekend warriors in replica kits battering to 40 miles without looking behind them and then blowing up are not. These people live on their bikes. Audaxer and bike are one.

Audax is kept simple and low cost. Events up to the 200k mark cost 6 or 7 pounds to enter, with tea and cake often available for a small donation. For the longer events – 400k and up – the entry might rise to a still-modest £25, but for his hot food is often on offer in at least one village hall or Scout Hut, as well as some basic sleeping space. Mechanical support, rescue wagons, route signs, finish gantries, certificates, puzzling goody-bags, massages and extra portaloos are definitely not on offer. Without the bells and whistles, the charms of the Audax are about simplicity. There is the challenge of the distance and people to share time with. The wheels go round. You sit on your bike. It’s pure and brilliant.

Brevet Cymru and the Bryan Chapman Memorial

This is the story of my 600k Audax; the Bryan Chapman Memorial. But it’s been a steep learning curve from my first Audax. I was under-dressed for a snowed-in Gospel Pass in February. I skittered along on my carbon soled shoes to within what I later discovered was 200m of the pass, but turned back when my freezing feet got too painful. Coming the other way, also pushing his bike, was the Typical Audaxer; steel tourer, hairy face, hairier legs, home-made wooden bar box full of cake. “What’s it looking like?” he shouted over the wind. “Not great, I’m going down. Getting too cold” I replied. Grunt. “What did you expect – the English Riviera?”

Six years on I have learnt many more hard lessons about Audaxing and certainly never expected The Bryan Chapman to be a breeze. I expected (and got) 600 hard, windy kilometres; emotions, pain, elation and fear.

The thing is, a 600k is easier than a 400k. Most people sleep a bit on a 600, but for 400 that’s about 20 hours so no need to sleep really.

And so began my entry into the weird world of proper long-distance Audax cycling. As a reasonably experienced cyclist of the racing, time trialling and triathlon variety, I am at home in the saddle. But riding for more than 6 hours, or even 5, is not something I often tackle. I once covered 138 miles in a day, during the Tour of Wessex, but if I’m honest it had an emotional end. The notion of pedalling for four hundred miles from the bottom to the top of Wales and back was a bit like trying to multiply 137×43 in my head; dizzying, but somehow addictive. It got under my skin, and as I popped my entry in the post, I held tight onto the thought that ‘if other people can do it, it must be possible’.

A Snowdonian climb

A Snowdonian climb

Like many of life’s big challenges it took more than one person to take the leap, and my hands were firmly held by my friends Marcus Mumford and Jonathan Williams as I stepped out over the edge. For them it was about using the Brian Chapman as a qualifier for the 2015 Paris-Brest-Paris. I just thought I’d find out if it was actually an enjoyable experience to ride that far. Around Christmas I announced the happy news to my wife that I had committed to doing two long-distances Audax rides: the Brevet Cymru (405k) as a warm up, and two weeks later the big one, the Bryan Chapman Memorial (620k).

Brevet Cymru: 0600, Saturday May 4, Bulwark Community Centre, Chepstow

You know something reasonably foolish is about to happen when you get up at 0430 and put on your cycling kit. But I wasn’t alone, and as I drove past a line of hi viz and red lights pedalling slowly over the Severn crossing to the start, I realised I was in top-drawer mad-hatter company.

Conversation at the event HQ was wind direction, weather and tea. We collected our Brevet cards (to get stamped at control stations), settled in for the event briefing. “Morning everyone, hope you have a good time. Remember the new control at Talybont. Right, off you go”.  Subtle glances amongst friends. Is that it? No fuss, off you go.

The roads were wet as we passed Monmouth and the rain began to fall pretty heavily as we approached the Golden Valley up towards Hay. But the temperature stayed reasonable and the cloud was breaking all the time. We got to Hay fast, still buoyed by adrenaline, chatting away and enjoying the ride. From Hay to Llandovery was a bit of an unexpected struggle; a stiff head wind, a somewhat featureless A-road in places, and probably for me a lack of food early on. Too much chat. I had a dark moment or two but settled back into my happy place after a jacket potato and a cup of tea.

From Llandovery out towards the coast, the route was a great mix of long shallow climbs and fast lanes. Some steep lumps just before Newquay on the coast were a reminder that 400k is a long way, and the chicken curry and chips I inhaled here, the turn-around point, sat heavy for a while but soon found its way to my legs. Long distance cycling is punctuated by food and every chip was a solid reminder that Audaxing is approximately one third legs, one third mentality and one third food. (But despite the curry, I was beginning to wonder how I would make it through the next 180k, let alone roll up to start a 620k in 2 week’s time).

The return journey back to Llandovery finished with a long descent and a flat finish as the sun was setting. But the Gods were not having us take it easy and about 10 miles from Llandovery Marcus snapped his handlebars. We repaired them with two sticks and some cable ties. No fuss. Pedal on.

Llandovery Take 2 was bacon sandwiches, tea, rhubarb tart and custard; lights on, extra layers and darkness. The A40 down to Brecon is a fantastic road to ride at night – quiet, smooth and swooping. Beyond Brecon we hit the lanes through to the last control at Talybont on Usk, by which time (about 10pm) I was feeling groggy. This was new; a 4.30 wake up call, 300km in the legs and another hefty stretch to go.

No need for fancy energy gels and potions on an Audax, think more like chocolate milk and sweets.

No need for fancy energy gels and potions on an Audax, think more like chocolate milk and sweets.

Haribo bingeing kept me going through to Usk, although not without a sugar crash and ‘melancholy moment’, as it’s poetically described. By the time the lights of Chepstow grew bright, I was ready to get off. My hands and feet were sore; bum the same, eyes drooping with sleep. I rolled to a welcome halt just after 1.30 in the morning.

The Brian Chapman: 0600, Saturday 18 May, Bulwark Community Centre, Chepstow

A certain sense of déjà vu…

The two weeks between Brevet Cymru and Bryan Chapman had not been going smoothly. I’d been having some fairly significant discomfort in my right knee, probably something to do with the 400 kilometres of pedalling the fortnight before. I got what help I could – massage, k-taping, and a supply of ibuprofen and Co-codamol for emergencies. I even tried to grow a beard to make me stronger. On the Thursday evening before the ‘big one’ I tested my leg and it hurt. The sensible option would have been not to ride, but there are rare occasions when you just have to throw sensible in the bin.

The meet up at Chepstow for our 620k adventure was similar to last time. In fact, identical. Same riders, same steel bikes, same talk of the weather, same beards. There was a little more daylight, though, and very quickly a glorious day dawned; cool but sunny and still. Into a windless morning we pedalled with little interruption to the first control at Bronllys. Then heading generally North-Westwards through Builth Wells, Rhayader we tackled some beautiful climbing to reach the second control above Machynlleth.

The weather stayed good; a head-wind building but not gusty. On the nose of 100 miles my knee announced its presence, slapping me hard around the face and taunting me with thoughts of ‘packing’. But I was in the middle of nowhere and the views were stunning so I eased onwards to the youth hostel outside Dolgellau for a 3 course meal with a desert of strong pain killers.

Leaving l, I told my knee to feel better, and it did. Still, the route up the coast from Barmouth to Harlech was hard. A head wind made progress slow and in a few dark, hilly places I was worried about completing.

At Harlech we turned inland and headed for Beddgelert in Snowdonia. This was a memorably beautiful section, with twisting, smooth roads in amongst beautiful woodland and lakes. From Beddgelert we faced the challenging climb up to Pen Y Pass just below Snowdon itself, and while the weather was still good, dry and not too windy, it was gloaming somewhat. Just before Pen Y Pass I called ‘half way’ in my head. Though slightly under this in terms of distance, I had moved from ‘will I do this?’ to ‘it’s just a matter of time…and cake’.

When we crossed onto Anglesey at the Menai Bridge, we were met with another set of friendly volunteers with a hot meal, cake and tea. Rolling back out at around 8pm and heading south felt really good. The knee had settled and we had a flatter route back to Dolgellau with a slight tail-wind. We made good time on the return route through Beddgelert, though any climbs started to bite quite a bit and in my head the question had moved on from ‘shall I stop to sleep?’ to ‘when shall I stop to sleep?’

At Dolgellau (Take 2), I treated myself to a clean pair of socks and brush of the teeth. Not exactly a new man, but slightly fresher. The first hour back out of Dolgellau felt entirely uphill, and the total darkness meant no end came into view for a long, long time. We were getting on for 1am by now and nature’s sirens were singing me to sleep. As we pushed onto Aberhafesp (which no non-Welsh speaker can pronounce) things became a bit ethereal – dark, featureless, sleepy, thirsty, drifting, drifting… At the next stop, the 450k mark, I was given a bacon sandwich and pointed to a very comfortable camp bed.

I woke after 2 hours, just as it started to get light. I felt slightly cranky but improved as I pedalled into a quite brilliant, clear-skied dawn. Knowing that the last 100 miles would be warm and dry was a comforting thought. After Newton came Knighton and then I was into the familiar, if rough and changeable, Herefordshire lanes. I toiled my way to Weobley, now only 50 miles from home, and re-stocked with croissants and snickers, before a final push to Monmouth.

By the final climb out from Tintern, my regular roadie stomping ground, I was counting down the hills (3 to go….2 to go….), but I was also enjoying the satisfaction that was gently starting to nibble at my toes. I rolled back into the Bulwark centre just after midday, 30 hours after the start. I was meant with the perfect Audax welcome: “Oh hi. Would you like a cup of tea?” Under-stated and absolutely what I wanted to hear.

It’s only kinky the first time

Being out on my bike for 30 hours and cycling 400 miles has a certain brain-scrambling effect. Memories of times, places and landmarks have a tendency to skip around out of chronological order: A kaleidoscope of flashbacks, shape shifting through patterns of beauty and darkness. But as the pain, callouses and tingling nerves fade, I realise my brain, at least, has been permanently rewired. I have a new kind of normal.

The learning is also permanent. I’ve learnt that the trick to completing this kind of endurance challenge is the deliberate drifting out of the keenness of normal consciousness. Lose awareness of where you are, how you feel, how far you have gone, what distance remains. Just pedal and be.

My Bryan Chapman experience was the daftest and most completely unnecessary thing I have ever done. It was also a defining adventure. And so on to the next. As my Gran used to say: It’s only kinky the first time.

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