The Audax UK “Easter Arrow” is a 24 hour team cycling event covering at least 360km and typically ends in York at a Wetherspoons Pub. There are more than a dozen teams which set off from all over the UK looking forward to a tough endurance event and a great social gathering to share heroic stories when they gather on the Saturday morning.
Dean invited me to join a team he had brought together with Lindsay and Chris on a tandem, Mark and I riding solo cycles, and Dean himself captaining our team on a fixed gear bicycle. I am really pleased he invited me; this was my first experience of a team event and the route he planned looked like an easy 400km, so I felt confident that I could complete the distance easily, enjoy some company on the ride and meet up with a horde of fellow audaxers for a beer at the end.
As the day to start drew closer, the winter of 2013 was not letting go; the UK was gripped in a frosty east wind bringing bitingly cold air from Siberia to meet wet air from the Atlantic and bury us in a tonne of snow. The soothsayers and entrail-readers of the Met Office forecast doom and gloom, the BBC said there was “worse to come”. We were offered an opportunity to change the ride date, but we all agreed that it would hardly be audacious to hide from a bit of cold. The only condition we were fairly agreed on was that slippery and dangerous weather would rule out a start on the day. If it was just cold – we would carry on.
Good Friday dawned bright, cold and looking like it would be dry and start to warm up in the sunshine. I caught the 06:08 train from Yarm to York in order to gather with the rest of the team for our 9am start time.
Chris and Lindsay had stayed overnight with Kat, so I rolled up to Kat’s home for her famous hospitality; coffee, bacon rolls and pre-event nervous conversation. Chris surfaced first for a zero carbohydrate breakfast, followed by Lindsay and then Mark arrived for coffee and a bacon roll too. Finally our captain, Dean, arrived and we had our final “start-line faffing”.
At 9am we coasted over to the petrol station to get a receipt and the proof of our start date and time. Kat waved us off and we were looking forward to seeing her at the ‘spoons again, at 9am the following morning.
image courtesy of Kat Chandler
Dean and Mark had planned out a route which took us in a 400km loop from York to York. Our first target was Thorne, south of Selby, then we were heading for Hornsea via North Cave and Beverley. From Hornsea the next stage took us up the coast to Bridlington and then we turned inland to head for Malton and Thirsk. After Thirsk, the plan was to turn north for Yarm and Durham Services on the A1. This would be the furthest north as we would come back via Ferryhill to Darlington and Boroughbridge before finally making it back to York. A sketch of the planned route is below:
The A19 south from York is not as unpleasant as the A19 north of York; although people driving cars still travel very fast on what is basically an ordinary road for ordinary road-users (like us).
We had a good view of Ferrybridge and Drax power stations and the plume of steam rising from the cooling towers. The land south of York is pan-flat and there are long views to distant power stations which are the only monuments standing proud of the ground.
There were also numerous cute little villages and I was reminded that it was Good Friday as we passed through Escrick and saw a church community walking behind the cross. Each little village we passed through had a traditional church building and they all looked at the heart of each community:
We crossed a bridge in Selby and passed the Abbey before turning left and leaving towards Snaith. The flat land was crisscrossed with rivers, drainage ditches and canals, and here we passed over an iron bridge into Snaith.
Our next stage was Thorne to Hornsea, and it was to take us into a direct headwind for most of the way. We took advantage of Chris and Lindsay's generous draft and sucked their wheel as much as possible. I did occasionally offer to take the lead but I wasn't making a big enough hole to help them out. Dean and Mark took their turns - but really there was little we could honestly offer them. We saw a familiar face speeding in the opposite direction; Greg was out for a time trial and we took the opportunity to make fun of his sartorial inelegance: especially the combination of aero-helmet and tracksuit bottoms. Seriously though, it was nice to see him and say hello.
We decided that lunch in Beverley would be nice and I envisaged a stop at Nellys or another public house... my penchant for a pint of beer while audaxing and soaking up the holiday atmosphere raised my enthusiasm so I rode with anticipation. We hit North Cave and the "rat run" from Beverley to the M62. This section of road had some of the most aggressive people we met; driving their cars exceptionally fast and very close. We honestly felt like we were not humans, but simply road furniture to be avoided (if possible).
The climb from North Cave to the top of the hill outside Beverley is long and gentle, giving us a chance to enjoy the views and the snow lying by the side of the road.
Beverley is where my daughter was born, and it was nice to swoop down over the Westwood past the golf course and the race course with the Minster ahead of us; Beverley is a really nice market town with great shops, pubs, restaurants and local countryside.
I was disappointed with our choice of breakpoint though, we headed for the M&S cafe which was just rubbish. Dreadful food, busy, slow and we couldn't even put the chairs together to sit as a group. The staff were doing their best, but the whole experience was a let down after I had built up a pub lunch in my mind. To be fair to the rest of the team - I didn't actually tell them what my hopes were, and a fast food cafe is usually a good idea. What also let us down was the tiredness from riding into a headwind. We spent far too long in the M&S cafe, mainly faffing because we were recovering slightly. We should have bounced this horrible place. Never mind, you live and learn.
We got underway again after lunch with a hard ride to Hornsea. The prevailing wind was tough and I took to the front trying to find a pace which would help the team, but it is difficult when you are tired and when there is a side wind. Ideally we should have been spread across the road in a echelon but this simply isn't possible in busy traffic. We did catch and pass an older gentleman on a sit-up-and-beg bicycle, Dean offered him our wheel and he happily drafted us to the next roundabout.
Hornsea was bounced as quickly as possible, we just grabbed a cash machine receipt and forged on to Bridlington along the coast. Carol and I have been touring around here in previous years and we stayed at Barmston, the village with the road which disappears into the sea, and ate at the excellent Italian Restaurant on the corner, it used to be called Dolce Vita, but seems to have changed hands or been renamed. By the time we reached Bridlington we want to get in-and-out quickly so headed for the supermarket for a short break in the car park. I had a delicious meal of two scotch eggs, a chocolate bar and a can of sugar free red bull. When you are stuck outside, you pick anywhere you can find to sit down comfortably:
We had a wonderful tailwind from Bridlington pushing us along at 30+kph all the way to Malton on a quiet B road with a fairly nice surface. This was my favourite section of the ride as we could chat comfortably while whizzing down the road, or up the road as it was predominantly uphill. At a turning for Settrington we stopped to work out the best route, whether to stay on the B road or take the narrow country lane - the narrow country lane won as it was shorter and we remembered that Chris Crossland's "3 Coasts 600" takes this path. We were separated from Lindsay and Chris on the tandem because their speed is (in Lindsays words) "tectonic uphill and ballistic downhill".
And as the sun was setting I caught this good photograph of Mark
A stop was required in Malton to help me fix my rear mudguard, the thin metal bracket holding it on had snapped and a couple of cable-ties solved the problem. As we left Malton on a pretty nice B road it was getting darker and we had to light our rear and front lights for safety. This presented a new challenge as both Dean and Mark's rear lights are very bright so i found it easier to ride in front of them. We were making for Thirsk via Coxwold and the last lumpy bit of the Wolds and Howardian hills were all that stood between us and a meal at the 'spoons in Thirsk.
Forgot the flash was switched on.. couldn't see for a while.
Climbing in the dark is a great experience; you can hear the wildlife around you and try to guess what it is; we heard bats, owls and belching nocturnal pigeons. We saw rabbits and foxes, and the occasional alligator. Occasional alligators are like regular alligators but have little white tails and bounce along the road like rabbits. The stars were out and we could make out Orion and his belt, as well as the dangly bit he calls a "sword" but innuendo and tiredness led us to refer to those stars as something different. Of course, the clear skies meant it was getting colder... and colder. My feet were becoming blocks of ice, apparently two pairs of woolen socks and neoprene overshoes are not sufficient for a late March evening. Everyone was feeling the cold as we hit the A19 and became spread out. I put my best time trial effort in to keep the pace at 30+kph all the way into Thirsk but we became strung out and I was no longer helping Dean or Mark. I also made a significant navigational error as follows:
Dean, "Which way are we coming into the market square?"
Me, "All roads in Thirsk lead into the market square, we'll be alright"
Dean, "Why are we leaving Thirsk?"
Me, "Ah. I'm lost, this wasn't the market square."
We retraced a bit and used the one-way system in the wrong direction to reach the market square and find Chris and Lindsay.
I ordered two pints of Hobgoblin and a plate of Chili and Rice. I drank one pint of ale on the way back to the table, and when my dinner arrived I sprinkled cashew nuts on it and tucked in. With plenty of pepper. I was famished and ate like the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal. I removed my shoes and tried to warm my feet up by rubbing them against the carpet and my hands; I was expecting the locals to be put off by our behaviour, but honestly - they were all so drunk no one noticed us. I took my shoes to the restroom and held them under the hand-driers until they were steaming hot, when I popped them back on my feet to toast my toes. This had a remarkable effect, I warmed up very quickly and was full of energy and keen to press on.
As we emerged from the pub into the night air we were instantly cold again. Chirs was clearly unhappy. My stomach was beginning to complain about the torture I had applied in the form of chili, beer and cashews in swift succession. Mark seemed okay, Dean was beginning to develop a "thousand yard stare", and as captain, on familiar roads he was supposed to be encouraging us. Oh dear.
I was feeling dreadful, in my stomach. The food was fighting to escape and I was fighting to hold it down and "keep bloody pedaling". I stared at the word "Lezyne" on the rack pack of the tandem and listened to Lindsay's disco beats pumping from her super-woofer mounted on the bars. Riding towards midnight following a tandem powered by DISCO was a totally weird experience. Holding down the urge to vomit we reached Northallerton and took the ring-road past the prison and out onto isolated country lanes from Brompton to Yarm.
We all became a little more cheerful at this point, our conversation picked up a bit and we were doing much better. We knew how close Yarm was and that after this we could take an extended break at Durham Services. Unfortunately, after Appleton Wiske there was a section of the Worsall road which was frozen with slushy ice.. and it started to snow.
We took a detour to avoid the worst of the slush and I was nervously following Dean's tyre tracks in my headlight. We reached East Rounton and I immediately knew we'd missed a turn and were going the wrong way - it was a pity I didn't figure it out earlier, that we were following the "Tees and Cake" route. A quick backtrack and we weaved past the turning for Crathorne and met up with the Kirklevington road by the A19. This short main road blast brought us swooping down into Yarm at half eleven in the evening.
I have never been a fan of Yarm, and after seeing it at 11:30pm I like it even less. There were as many taxis as people, there was a deficit of clothing on the women, and a plethora of drunken louts encouraging each other to f*ing do something-or-other. We grabbed cash point receipts and dashed uphill to Stockton as swiftly as we could manage.
We followed Durham Road through Stockton and out to Sedgefield, and then onwards and upwards past Hardwick Hall Country Park up to the high point on our route by the disused pub on the A177 by the Fishburn/Trimdon turning. The snow was starting again, and I'd been exceptionally nervous about the icy looking roads. The temperature was very low and it had taken its toll on everyone; we had become spread out on the road and needed to get to the services as soon as possible. It was 2am.
We brought I bicycles inside and headed immediately to get something warm to eat, between the Costa and the McDonalds we found enough grease and warmth to heat us up. We talked about the next stage, we had covered 310km and had only to do another 50-60km to reach the minimum distance to complete the arrow. And we had about 100km back to York... with 7 hours to complete those last kilometres. We had the end in sight and decided to take a longer break to recover a bit. The plan was to rest for up to 2 hours, the maximum allowed, and then see if we could complete the minimum distance before rolling in steadily to York for the celebrations in the 'spoons.
I managed to sleep for about one hour, but when I woke up I was surrounded by a dozen policemen. Ahhh! What was happening? They had simply come in for the early morning coffee break. We checked the weather and outside it was snowing heavily. We checked the temperature and it was -5oC. The roads were frozen and the snow was falling thickly. This was the most difficult decision to take, should we carry on - it is only 50km... or should we pack in.
We took it in turns to head outside and make our assessments, my personal assessment went like this:
"I'm warm and toasty. I have tonnes of energy. I am ready and raring to go! (step outside...) Argh! It's cold!"
Within moments of stepping outside all the heat in my bones had drained away. I was worried that we would get 5km down the road, have a slip on the ice and, instead of being warm inside the service station, we would be 5km from warmth and possibly hurt. I really wanted to complete this ride, and I had the energy - but common sense was weighing on me and... we decided to pack in. 310km in 17hours. We had a great time, really hard, challenging, exciting, great views, wonderful distance, brilliant company... but we had to call it quits instead of risking out lives for the sake of a few points.
Dean was not the happiest person on the planet...
I want to come back and try this again in 2014, and I'd love to have the same team if they can put up with me. Here was our final route, an unfinished arrow, an arrow which missed it's target, but was an excellent experience. I'm glad we tried, and even though we failed, I'm glad we tried and failed rather than not trying.
Labels: 300km Audax, Easter arrow, Long distance, Long distance cycling, overnight ride