If I wasn't falling asleep on my keyboard - I'd be bouncing with joy at the fantastic cycling event I've just taken part in: Chris, Mike, Richard and I have just finished a 24 hour Audax - the 'Easter Arrow', we covered 425km cycling non-stop.
We weren't the only people riding today; about 20 teams of 3 to 5 men and women have covered distances between 360km and 500km all meeting at the 'Punchbowl' Wetherspoons Pub in York
. Our team was known as 'the Pilgrims' because we were not just riding this Easter Arrow
- we were on a spiritual and physical pilgrimage to remember Jesus' death on the cross. This may seem a bizarre combination of activities, but it has been one of the most deeply emotional activities I've experienced to date.
We four, plus another cyclist (Rob), met up through a cycling internet forum when I asked if anyone wanted to ride an Easter Arrow and include a series of deliberate acts of worship to respectfully incorporate the Christian understanding of Good Friday into the cycle ride. Over the course of a few months, we put in place plans for the route, the team, how we could faithfully weave Christian devotion into this, and to invite others to ask for prayers or pray for us. We have been moved by the respect and love we've been shown by our friends on 'Yet Another Cycling Forum (yacf)
I fancied a nice warm ride, and thought it would be fun to ride from somewhere in the balmy south of England up to York - Rob suggested St Albans and Richard pieced together a stunning route. The plan was to ride east to Chelmsford, then turn north and join the London-Edinburgh-London route through St Ives, Kirton, Market Rasen, and over the Humber Bridge before turning west to Howden and finally north again to York. Although the official shortest distance was 402km, we knew that we'd be covering more like 425km as our preferred roads avoided ugly main roads. Unfortunately for Rob, with only a couple of weeks to go he realised his knee injury wasn't going to be resolved in time and regretfully pulled out.
At a hotel in St Albans 'the Pilgrims' had breakfast and then started our day with Morning Prayer from the Church of England's Daily Office App
Over the last few years I've found myself intellectually and spiritually connecting with the Daily Office in Morning Prayer; I find the Psalms occasionally resonate with something I might be worried about during the day, or the Bible reading may come back to my mind in analogous situations. The Psalms can be troubling to read because there is often 'lament' in them, and sometimes the psalmist cries out in anger to God; calling for justice. In those moments I just hold the grief of the writer in my heart as I pray for them through their own (admittedly harsh) words, and sometimes I imagine the words of the Psalms are like a snowflake in the palm of my hand, being gentle melted in the warmth of my prayers.
Our chosen start time was 8am and we gathered for the obligatory group photograph, pleased that despite his bad knee Rob had been able to join us for prayer and wave us off.
We set off at 8am and headed for the Abbey because it felt that riding from St Albans Abbey to York Minster would have a nice symmetry to it. [Edit: I fell asleep while trying to write this... 11 hours solid sleep, a massive cooked breakfast and a Sunday service later I'm trying to remember where I got to with this blog!]
Normally I would be able to write about the route we took, where we turned and interesting things along the way, but this blog is forced into being different: for the most part I had no idea where we were or where we were going! Richard had planned the route... and it was an excellent route, but I didn't really have a mental map of the placenames we were passing through, or their geographical relation to each other. This is embarrassing, because I used to drive all over the country for work purposes.
The four of us had gps devices on our bikes, and it soon became obvious that the most reliable device was on Chris' bike. Richard was using a beta version of RideWithGPS and at every junction the map was replaced with a pop-up instruction, which ironically obscured the map and was counter productive. My little garmin 200 was struggling with the 425km route and although it recorded my journey well enough, it froze instead of giving me directions.
At first I felt we were riding through a never-ending stream of built-up areas, but Richard had a treat in store for us; a short section of off-road. The rain from the night before had left big puddles, but the dry weather prior to that meant the path was at least navigable by bicycle.
We then passed through Welwyn Garden City and reached Hertford. We stopped on a tiny patch of grass next to a dual carriageway, beside a multi-story carpark - opposite All Saints' Church
- because 9am on Good Friday is the time Christians associate with the crucifixion of Jesus.
This tiny patch of grass became 'Holy Ground' for 10 minutes as we stopped to read Scripture and pray.
As they went out, they came upon a man from Cyrene named Simon; they compelled this man to carry his cross. And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots; then they sat down there and kept watch over him. Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, ‘This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.’ Then two bandits were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.’ In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking him, saying, ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, “I am God’s Son.” ’ The bandits who were crucified with him also taunted him in the same way. (Matthew 27:32-44)
We prayed together for all those who suffer in the world. Prayer can be considered a deliberate act of witnessing or acknowledging to God that the world is in need, knowing that God is already aware but that the action of prayer draws us in and changes us. We took time to remember that because Jesus experienced suffering, God genuinely understands our human suffering. We were aware that this bicycle ride was going to involve some suffering - nothing like the suffering of those fleeing war-torn countries - but a voluntary and personal experience of fatigue, pain and exhaustion. We prayed for all the other Audax teams setting off for York.
The skies were clear blue, the sun was beating down and making us warm, we were enjoying our hobby of cycling a long distance, and we were deliberately and consciously worshipping God and giving him thanks for the freedom we have. Our route continued through Ware and over the River Lea, through Sawbridgeworth and under the M11. The suburbs dropped away leaving us in gently rolling countryside as we approached Easter. Good Easter is a small village in Essex on the outskirts of Chelmsford and it was a happy coincidence that our route weaved through - clearly this photo-stop was called for.
The weather was so good and we'd made quite a fast pace to reach Chelmsford ahead of our schedule. We picked up some receipts to prove we'd been here, topped up our drinks bottles and moved on quickly. Our route was now turning north and we stayed on quiet country lanes, and it felt to me that for the next few hours we passed through an endless supply of archetypal English country villages. This part of Essex has expensive looking thatched cottages and beautifully kept gardens and greens. We passed so many welcoming pubs... but we kept on going. Between each picture perfect village was wide-open rolling farmland drenched in glorious sunshine!
Our next devotional stop was planned for 12 noon and we'd cycled 83km as we reached Ford End. We stopped on the grass outside St John the Evangelist Church
- the church was open but our stop was only going to be brief, so we read a passage from the Bible and prayed. This is the time during the crucifixion of Jesus when his death was approaching and 'darkness covered the land'. The bells struck 12 as we read:
It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two.(Luke 23:44-45)
The juxtaposition of our situation and Jesus' situation was stark. There was not a cloud in the sky and yet we were recalling Jesus' last moments. We prayed for all those who feel oppressed by darkness in whatever form that takes. We took time to remember that later in the day we'd be cycling into the darkness along with the other Audaxers so we prayed for protection for us all. Even though we were deliberately focused on the death of Jesus, we understand that we live 2000 years later, in faith that God defeated death in the resurrection of Jesus. We humans are no longer alone: God walks with us in our darkness, Jesus is our light that will never go out.
After 4 hours cycling our stomachs were beginning to tell us to eat, so we rode onward looking for somewhere to grab lunch. Then, unexpectedly, we found Paradise! Paradise Cafe to be exact - and for an Audaxer it was a dream cafe. There was hot food delivered quickly and inexpensively. I ordered a baked potato with cheese and a full-fat soft drink - for less than a fiver it was just what I needed.
While we ate, we had a bit of a frank discussion about the ride so far. The four of us had never ridden together before so we had to make sure our communication was top-notch. It became clear that I was pushing the pace a bit too hard. Actually, I was pushing hard enough to make Chris and Mike feel uncomfortable and worry that they would be unable to complete the whole 24 hour event. I'm really sorry - I think the joys of Spring sunshine had got into my legs. The challenge ahead of us was specifically a team event and riding with a team is often more difficult than riding alone. Alone you can ride fast or slow depending on your mood or legs. In a team, it is most likely that each rider will feel strong at different times, and perversely the riders who need to ease off a bit are being stretched to keep up, even in the beneficial drafting of a paceline. This was a good conversation to have over lunch because we affirmed the desire to ride together and look after each other properly. We'd had a good rest at lunchtime and set off again continuing our pilgrimage northbound.
At 3pm we were stopping for the next point of devotion: remembering the death of Jesus. As we approached Duxford we saw a War Memorial on a green outside St Peter's Church
and pulled over - before we read the Bible and prayed we agreed that for the next 15 minutes of so we would ride in silence (except for safety or directions).
At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, ‘Listen, he is calling for Elijah.’ And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, ‘Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.’ Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’ (Mark 15:34-39)
We prayed for those who are dying and for those who have lost loved ones, then we remained in silence as we rode on.
The crowds of Cambridge were quite a thing to be riding into the midst of as we came out of our period of silent contemplation. Our route follows the London-Edinburgh-London
route that I'd been given by the organiser, Danial, and my goodness what a superb route! Through the heart of beautiful English countryside and right through the centre of Cambridge. Wonderful, we really felt we'd been treated to a blessing of a ride so far - and there was even better to come.
To reach our next control we used the Cambridge to St Ives cycleway. A fully paved, smooth surface route alongside a dedicated bus route - no motorcars - just walkers, horse riders and cyclists, with the buses on a dedicated concrete guided path. We travelled rapidly - taking care to slow down for horses and walkers - all the way straight to St Ives and our control stop at a supermarket just inside the town. The sun was heading for the horizon, it was about 5pm as we left thinking that an evening meal stop at 8pm would be a good idea. Richard knew of a Wetherspoons in Spalding.
This was the flattest part of our route - about 40 miles of well surfaced roads in long straight lines. I loved the way the setting sun caught our paceline and laid out four shadow-riders keeping us company.
On the outskirts of Crowland we met a couple of cyclists coming the other way, it turned out to be Martin and Anne - the organisers of the Double Dutch 200km Audax doing some final route checking. We passed them at a closed section of road - only passable by levitating over the 'Wet Cement'.
We were starting to get tired and on the approach to Spalding. Richard, who'd been pulling long turns on the front of the group, started to fall away from the back of us. This rang warning bells and we slowed right down. Richard's energy was all gone and the evening meal stop looked like being just out of reach. He held it together for a moment longer - getting us to the Ivy Wall Wetherspoons
pub. We were glad to make it as Richard was in a very bad way at this point - totally exhausted. He needed food urgently and we decided to stop for a long rest. We were doing very well for time as we'd had no significant problems and after riding for 12 hours we'd covered 225km. We only had 200k left to go and another 12 hours to do it in. We found a table hidden away around the corner because we certainly felt out of place here.
The Ivy Wall seemed to be a great place for Audaxers to congregate and this was starting to be a very sociable Audax. There was an Arrow team from Dulwich, one of two teams that had set out from London an hour apart and we also met the Audax Club Hackney team. Our routes were all slightly different but we were planning to be in York between 8am and 9am the following morning. All of us had the long Good Friday night to get through.
Richard had recovered well in the hour we were stopped, so at 9pm we set off again for our next control in Kirton. There was a darkness covering the land and our earlier Bible readings and reflections were brought back to mind.
Kirton was not very far from Spalding and we arrived at 10pm to find a grocery store still open. We expected this to be our last chance to stock up with food and drink for the night so I bought a bunch of bananas and plenty of water.
There is something otherworldly about riding at night, it feels safer because there are no cars around, but all you can see is picked out by your headlight. The rear light of the cyclist in front becomes hypnotic and as tiredness oozes through my muscles I find myself fighting off sleep. We were still blessed with flat fenland roads which all ran in a fairly straight line beyond Hubbert's Bridge and then up onto the riverside bank at Dogdyke. We passed well to the east of Lincoln and stopped briefly for food and extra warm clothing at midnight. We paused to pray for all the Arrow teams at this the 'darkest hour' of the night.
Our next control was Market Rasen. I'd noticed on the route that there was a massive climb ahead - with the route profile jumping out of the flat fenland like Ayres Rock from the Australian desert. We grabbed a cash machine receipt from Market Rasen and as we left the town we found the hill. The climb was fairly simple and a nice steady gradient, but it warmed us all up so much that when we reached the top we foolishly shed some layers. I say foolishly because we now had a massive - and wonderful - descent which seemed to last for tens of kilometres. Ahead we could see the pylons of the Humber Bridge and to the east we could see the Disneyesque spires of Immingham.
We crossed the Humber Bridge in darkness and the tailwind we'd been enjoying for quite some time was howling in the massive concrete pylons to the accompaniment of the whistling from the high tension steel cables. It was about 4am as we reached Welton and the church where I hope to be serving as Deacon after Ordination in July.
We were riding so well together, after the concerns expressed in Paradise the team had communicated pace and energy levels really well and stayed together. I felt like I was riding with old friends - we were so well matched. The flat riding continued all the way to Howden where we found the second Dulwich Arrow team resting at the 24hr petrol station. It is difficult to be cheery in the face of exhaustion but we managed to grunt hello to each other over the top of machine-made coffee. The sun rose while we used caffeine and matchsticks to keep our eyes open.
Dulwich left ahead of us and with only two hours left in our twenty-four hour event, we headed back out into the cold air of a new day. Easter Saturday and we'd made it through the night - but we still had 20 miles to go. I couldn't face the navigation of quiet country lanes anymore and led the group along the A63 to Osgodby and then turned north on the A19 to York. At this time of the day there was little traffic and we had a great run in to York. We headed for the Minster to complete the St Albans Abbey to York Minster Pilgrimage. This turned out to be a very emotional moment as we knew we'd completed an amazing adventure together - we travelled through the story of Jesus' death and resurrection, we'd been travelling companions who ridden from one day to the next, through the night with God as our companion. In the words of the Shema, we'd expressed love for God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.
All we needed was proof that we had completed the ride within 24 hours, so we headed to York Station for a photograph together before finishing off meeting all the other Audaxers at the Punchbowl Wetherspoons.
The 'spoons was totally packed with riders who'd come from the whole of Great Britain to meet up this morning - so many friends and familiar faces. The Chairman of Audax UK, Chris, had come along as well as Audax Ecosse organiser Martin. The famous Steve Abraham
arrived too - taking it easy after his One Year Time Trial
. VC167 was also well represented and the results are in - there were 78 finishers, and 13 of them were VC167, the largest representation by any cycling club!
When I set out to ride an Easter Arrow and deliberately remember the Religious aspect of Good Friday, I wasn't sure the idea would be welcome or that anyone would want to do it with me. I am delighted to have made new friends and experienced a 24 hour pilgrimage. I'm also delighted to put previous failed Arrows behind me (2013
God bless you all, from your exhausted Blogger.