For most of my cycling life I’ve ridden a bloke’s bike with a bloke’s saddle but that changed back in 2014 when I tried out a Fizik Arione Donna saddle. All of the previous women’s-specific saddles I’d tried were either too wide at the nose and too padded at the rear for my liking but the Arione Donna was based on Fizik’s men’s race saddle, the Arione. It was stiff rather than spongy but it flexed instead, it wasn’t too wide and it had a channel down the centre to relieve soft tissue pressure. For the following three and a half years my Arione Donna and I did a lot of miles together – over 22,000 in fact – and we’d been fairly happy together.
However, in an ideal world, saddles need replacing every couple of years and I decided that before the TCR I should invest in a new one and get it worn in in good time. So imagine my dismay when I learned that Fizik had discontinued the Arione Donna and replaced it with their new women’s specific Luce.
Fizik’s UK distributor, Extra, very kindly gave me a Luce (pronounced Loochay – Italian for ‘light’) to try out. Fizik have spent a lot of time developing and testing the Luce, consulting women riders of all types throughout the process and it is aimed at a much wider ‘all-round’ audience compared to the Arione Donna which was primarily aimed at the racing market.
When the Luce arrived my initial thoughts were a little sceptical as the shape is quite a radical departure from the Arione Donna. The Luce comes in two different widths and I’d been sent a regular but it is still wider than the Arione Donna and has much more pronounced, angular ‘wing flexors’. It also has a narrow nose and a thin central cutaway area. However, I was pleased to see that the overall stiffness of the Luce is very much the same as the Arione and it is also very light, weighing in at 230g for the alloy version.
I fitted it to the bike and tried it out on indoor sessions for the first two weeks in order to make sure it was set up correctly before venturing out on a longer outdoor ride. Despite my reservations about the different shape my first impressions on a 100km ride were very positive. I was especially happy with the narrow nose and cutaway and I found that I didn’t need to keep repositioning myself very much at all to relieve soft tissue pressure toward the end of the ride.
After a few more successful shorter distance rides it was time to up the mileage. I had 300km and 200km back-to-back audaxes so this would give me the opportunity to try out the Luce on two consecutive long days in the saddle. As expected the first 100km were very comfortable, in fact the first 160km were, but beyond this distance I started to encounter a bit of soreness just under my bum cheeks where the very angular wing tips kept digging in. This slowly built up from a mild annoyance around 200km to full-on chafing at 300km and it wasn’t helped by the fact that the wing tips seemed to line up perfectly with where the pad was stitched into my bib shorts causing the stitching to rub against my skin.
The last 50km of the ride was a very wriggly affair as I squirmed around trying to prevent the tips from digging in and doing any further damage. Needless to say I was pretty disappointed to discover that the saddle that had been pretty much perfect for 160km was no longer fine at 300km, especially considering most of the riding I currently do is over 200km a day. I certainly wasn’t looking forward to getting back on it to ride another 200km in the morning.
The next day, a long shower, a liberal application of Doublebase cream and some fresh bib shorts made all the difference and getting back on board was nowhere near as bad I as I was expecting it to be. In fact I began to wonder if I’d imagined some of the pain as everything was feeling pretty comfortable in the rear end department. Again, all was good for around the first 160km and then the discomfort started to set in as those wingtips started to dig in. Thankfully, the ride was hillier than the previous day and that enabled me to spend a bit more time in and out of the saddle so things didn’t get quite as uncomfortable.
Since my long audax weekend I’ve spent a bit of time readjusting the saddle position slightly – I’ve moved it back on the rails by around 3mm and lowered it by 2mm – and have since been out on a few other 200km-plus rides but the pattern keeps repeating itself and I never manage to get much further than 160km before those angular wing tips get me squirming around to find a comfortable spot.
For me personally this really is a saddle of two halves. The nose and cutaway area is amazingly comfortable – much more comfortable than the Arione Donna was in this area – but the Luce’s wide, angular wing tips at the rear are perhaps a little too wide for my sit bones. Although I’ve got fairly chunky thighs, my hips are on the narrower side compared with other women and I think that a narrower saddle, or at least one that sits within the confines of the pad on my bibshorts, would suit me better. I’ve tried numerous pairs of shorts with it and the edge of the pad always seems to line up with the edge of the wing tips. Unfortunately the Luce only comes in two fittings – regular and wide.
Maybe I’m expecting too much to find a saddle that is both light and comfortable over very long distances. A saddle that’s comfortable for 100 miles isn’t necessarily comfortable at 200 miles and because the majority of us don’t ride 200 miles in one sitting it’s probably not something that a saddle manufacturer takes into consideration too much – women’s saddles (and probably quite a few men’s) just aren’t designed to be ridden ultra-endurance distances. I guess if I’d never have ridden on the Luce for more than 160 kms in one go then I too would still think that it’s a great ride.
In short, if you regularly ride distances less than 160km and / or you have wide sit bones then the Luce will probably be an excellent choice for you.
As for me and the TCR, it’s now less than a month away so I’m going to stick with the Luce and grin and bear it. I don’t have the time to try out another saddle at this late stage and the Luce’s front end is still so much more comfortable than my Arione so I’m not inclined to put my old saddle back on either – I’ll let you know how I get on.
If you’ve been keeping up with previous adventures you’ll know that Peter, Julie and I successfully made it to Teddington earlier this month on our DIY 300km ‘Sheffield to London’ Audax. After a short but restorative night’s rest at Peter’s sister’s house we were up early again the following day, back on the bikes and on our way over Richmond Park to Wimbledon Common and the 8am start of the Ditchling Devil 200km audax.
The 205km audax route takes riders through South London and over the North and South Downs the outskirts of Brighton, taking in Ditchling Beacon along the way. From Brighton the route climbs back up over the South Down to Devil’s Dyke before descending into West Sussex and Surrey before climbing over the Surrey Hills and following the Thames into Richmond.
With a £15 entry fee the Ditchling Devil is a little more expensive to enter than your usual audax, which is usually around six to eight quid, but for the additional entry fee the organisers provide food, with the help of local community groups, at three village control stops along the route.
Crossing the Thames at Teddington
Getting over to the start of the audax was enough of a challenge in itself as rather than pedal all the way around the Common we decided to try and take an off-road ‘short-cut’. When I lived in London I used to run with Belgrave Harriers and their club house is based in Wimbledon. Every Saturday morning my club mates and I would run across the common and over to Richmond Park for training, so I knew which direction we needed to head in, but let’s just say that it’s much easier to get up to the windmill in a pair of trainers than it is on 23mm tyres.
After our wibbly-wobbly detour through the woods, we finally emerged at the top of the Common and into the Windmill cark park to be greeted by literally hundreds of cyclists. The three of us were a bit taken aback by the sight of so many riders at the start of an audax as we are accustomed to seeing around 50 or so riders at the starts of most of the events we take part in. There had to be well over 300 cyclists milling about, eating donuts and waiting for the 8am off. We started to get the feeling that the Ditchling Devil 200 might not be quite like your usual run-of-the-mill audax events.
We parked our bikes and took our place in the line to sign on while each stuffing down a donut. We were a little disappointed not to have coffee at the start but I guess providing coffee for this many riders at an outdoor sign-on would’ve been pretty hard work logistically. After picking up my brevet card I took my place in the queue for the ladies toilets. Yes, that’s right, a queue, for the ladies. All female audax cyclists will know that we never have to queue for the ladies toilets, there just aren’t enough of us usually taking part – in fact we usually have to kick the blokes out of our toilets at most events. However, the Ditchling Devil had a lot of women entrants, which of course is great to see, except that they all seemed to be in ahead of me in the toilet queue.
We decided to hang back at the start to avoid the crowds as we sped away from the common down Wimbledon hill and started our journey through the suburbs of south-west London. This audax definitely had the feel of a sportive to it and despite trying to hold back the three of us inevitably got sucked into a few of the big groups of riders on the road as small groups jockeyed for position, getting bunched up at red lights then trying to out-sprint one another on the green signal.
The sheer number of riders led to a few uncomfortable moments at junctions, especially when a lot of cars and buses were also queuing to get through, but as we left the suburbs behind and headed to the hills of the North Downs the bottlenecks soon settled down as the stronger riders pushed on up the first couple of hills and riders started to spread out along the route. The first big pull came at Chipstead and despite riding on tired legs from our 300 the day before, the three of us were climbing pretty well and did our own fair share of overtaking other riders on the hills.
Once we were beyond Reigate the hills settled out into a more gently undulating landscape as we headed toward the first control and feed stop. The control appeared out of nowhere as we were guided into a field at the crest of a country lane where a couple of people with lists of rider numbers applied stickers to rider’s brevet cards. We were advised that the first food stop was a couple of kilometres away in the village of Highbrook and with the promise of egg and bacon sandwiches ahead we were off down the road.
It was pretty easy to spot the food stop as there were so many riders spilling out of the farm garden and into the lane. We had a little chat with the farmer who told us that the whole village come together every year to help feed and water hungry riders who are in search of breakfast. After our egg and bacon roll and a cuppa we thanked him for his hospitality and were back on our way pedalling through the Sussex lanes toward the South Downs which sat on the horizon like a big green wall – a wall we needed to climb up and over before our descent into Brighton.
Ditchling Beacon, the famous climb over the Downs that features in the London to Brighton bike ride is not to be underestimated. At 1.5 km long it might not be in quite the same league as a few of the tougher climbs we have up here in the north but it’s still a formidable 16% at its steepest gradient and averages 9% overall, so on a hot day it’ll certainly make you sweat a bit and get out of breath.
Today our ascent was further complicated by a steady stream of Sunday drivers all out for a day in the sunshine. The climb’s not quite wide enough for two-way traffic and bikes and some drivers were taking quite a few risks overtaking cyclists without giving them much room. Around half way up the traffic ground to a halt in both directions as a bloke on a bike had to pull up suddenly due to severe cramp. A concerned driver in a Range Rover parked up and jumped out to check that he was ok, which was very good of her, but her vehicle was blocking the road in both directions, causing trouble for drivers and cyclists alike.
After a few starts and stops – never a good thing on a 10% gradient – we managed to weave around the static traffic and make it to the top where we took in the fantastic 360 degree view across the Downs to the Sussex coastline and sea beyond. From here the road descended into the busy outskirts of Brighton before climbing back up a few sharp little climbs, one at least 20%, to the top of the ridge and on to Devil’s Dyke where we were rewarded with another fantastic view and an info control.
After a quick breather and photo stop we were soon descending back down into the lanes of the Weald. Drivers taking part in the London to Brighton Classic Car Run were passing us going the other way and we got to see fine examples of classic vintage motors as we pedalled our way west for a much-needed lunch stop at Upper Beeding. Every now and again mini pelotons of club cyclists would speed past us and it was hard to resist the temptation to speed up and jump on the back but with 300km in our legs from the previous day I don’t think we’d have held on for long.
Lunch was being provided for us in the event organiser’s home. The whole house and garden had been turned into a giant feed station with lots of volunteers preparing and serving industrial-sized quantities of pasta, chilli, bread and rice pudding and riders were scattered everywhere inside and outside the house. The afternoon heat had picked up considerably and I sheltered in the lounge to get out of the sun after lunch while Peter and Julie stayed in the garden. We hung around a little longer than we ought – Peter even thought he might’ve nodded off for a while!
Much of the next section of the ride was on fast main roads and we had a few scary encounters with close passing traffic. These encounters seemed to increase once we crossed over into Surrey, with much swearing and hand gestures – mainly from me! Riding through Surrey was a real trip down memory lane for me as I lived in the village of Alfold for a while when I first started working in London in the 1990’s and once I’d moved into the the city I’d often return to this part of the world for training rides. The villages haven’t changed much but the drivers have definitely got more impatient.
Our final food stop was in the village of Chiddingfold at the cricket club. Once again we were supported by a host of volunteers handing out cups of tea and coffee and a fantastic selection of homemade cakes and biscuits – just what we needed to get us through the last 40 km over the Surrey hills as the three of had started to flag a bit by now. Many of the other groups of riders were also taking their time at this food stop, maybe in anticipation of the few remaining hills ahead.
Julie and I had been keeping a sharp eye on Peter for most of the ride as he can be prone to missing turns and pedalling off in the wrong direction. He’s also managed to cultivate faffing into an art form, leaving gloves and water bottles in his wake at controls. This feed stop was no exception as we handed his gloves to him again. We were starting to wonder how he would manage without us when he rides LEL this summer!
I knew that even though we only had 40 km left to ride we still had the last of the big climbs ahead – Combe Lane at Shere. It starts off relatively tame but banks up to 18% by the swtichback at the top and on our tired legs it was really tough going to drag ourselves over the summit. After Combe Lane it was all plain sailing back over the M3 and M25 into the outskirts of London and we managed to cover the flatter terrain pretty quickly by working together taking turns on the front. I managed to get all the way to Kingston before blowing up after a fairly long stint on the front and had to limp home on the back being pulled along by Julie and Peter along the Thames to Richmond and the finish at the Rose of York pub.
We clocked in at the pub just a little after 7 pm, pleased with our efforts considering that we’d now clocked up over 500 kms of riding in two days. We all agreed that it wasn’t really like any audax we’d done before but we’d really enjoyed it. The organisers really do deserve a big ‘thank you’ for the amount of organisation that went in to providing food and assistance for the huge number of riders taking part – an absolute bargain for the 15 quid entry fee. Cafe stops on audaxes can often result in quite an expensive day out but I’d only spent 75 pence all day!
If you live in the south and haven’t moved up to a longer distance audax yet then this 200 would be a great one to start with. It’s a long way to come for an audax if you live in the north but it’s definitely one to make an effort for, experience some of the best bits of the North and South Downs and make a weekend of it… just make sure you’re prepared for that toilet queue, ladies.
Over the weekend Julie and I decided to give our Transcontinental bike and kit set-up a decent trial run on the Hot Trod 400km Audax which starts north west of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and heads out west into the Scottish Borders and over to Lockerbie, before heading north east to Moffat and along the Tweed valley to Peebles. Finally heading back into England via Cornhill-on-Tweed and down to Morpeth.
It was Julie’s first 400km audax and, understandably, she was a bit apprehensive. 400s are never easy, even after you’ve got a few under your belt and you know what’s coming. A 300 can be completed in a (long) day, even if it’s a tough one and you’re a slow rider but with a 400 the time allowance is 27 hours, so unless you’re a super-speedy rider, you’re almost certainly going to be riding into the dark and possibly all the way through to the following dawn.
The Hot Trod starts at Kirkley Cycles, a farm that also happens to be a great little bike workshop and cafe around 10 miles north-west of Newcastle. It’s a 400 with a few differences and it bills itself as a great ‘first time’ 400 event.
First up, it starts at a very civilized 9.30am which, on the surface, sounds great but starting late start also means finishing late. The 27-hour time limit equates to a cut-off time of 12.30pm the following day. As it usually takes me around 23 to 24 hours to finish a 400, that meant a finish time of around 9.30am the following morning, riding all through the night, and with heavy kit on the bikes it could be even longer. However, the second difference is that the Hot Trod provides a rest stop with an option to sleep at the 314km mark in Cornhill-on-Tweed Village Hall. Most 400s don’t provide a sleep option because they start at 6am and riders are expected to push on through to finish in the early hours of the next day.
The route is very straightforward to follow as it sticks to major roads for much of the time. This could be a problem in many parts of the UK but up in the Borders there aren’t really that many roads to choose from and most of them are pretty quiet. The route has also been very well thought out so that the A-roads that are likely to carry more traffic are tackled early in the morning or late at night for the majority of riders.
We travelled up to Newcastle by train on the Friday afternoon and rode the 15km to our overnight bunkhouse accommodation at Houghton North Farm in the village of Heddon-on-the-Wall. After a quick wander around the village to find the eponymous ‘wall’ we retired to The Swan for a bit of carb-loading with a giant sized portion of fish and chips plus pudding.
After a very early night we were up early to pedal the 10 miles up to Kirkley. We’d arrived with a good 45 minutes to spare and the cafe was open early so, after signing in, a couple of strong cappuccinos were ordered to help us start the ride with a bit of a caffeine kick.
Around 50 riders had signed up for the event and we bumped into lots of friendly faces. John Rowe and his mate from Stocksbridge CC were riding as well as John, Ian and Gordon who I met when we all rode the PBP with back in 2015. Audax, especially the longer distance events, is quite a small world really so you’ll often end up bumping to the same bunch of people throughout the year.
At 9.30 we were set off by the race organiser and the 50 or so riders were soon dispersed along the B-road that led us over to the A696, so Julie and I were pretty much riding alone from the off. After around 20km we were caught up by a group of riders from the VC167 club including my mate Gordon so we had a bit of a chat with them (mainly about our new Rapha bib-shorts and comparisons with Asos!).
Julie and I had a bit of a game plan as our bikes were fully-loaded with our TCR kit and were very heavy, so we wanted to pace ourselves at a steady 20km an hour, limiting our stops to 30 minutes, and ride alone rather than get caught up in a group and ride at someone else’s pace, so when the group stopped to put on rain jackets we carried on down the road although they soon caught us up and passed us on the steady climb up Carter Bar and the Scottish border.
It had been drizzling slightly all the way through Kielder up to the border, where we stopped to take the obligatory stop of the bikes by the border stone, but as soon as we crossed into Scotland and turned on to the A6088 to Hawick it was like someone had turned the hose on and the rain came down hard, stinging our eyes and causing us to be more cautious on the descents. Thankfully my old and slightly worse-for-wear Endura waterproof did what it does best and kept my core dry but hands and feet were not so lucky. I’ve really put that poor waterproof through it’s paces over the past three years but it’s never let me down.
Eventually the rain eased off but not before we were completely soaked. By the time we arrived in Hawick, the second control and first major stop at 89km we’d more or less dried out except for our very wet and cold hands and feet. I’d decided not to bother with bringing any overshoes as it was just more weight to pack but I was starting to regret that decision.
Morrison’s supermarket cafe had been suggested by the race organiser and as we pedaled into the car park and saw all the bikes leaned up against the shop window it looked like everyone had followed his advice. We arrived at 1.30pm – the height of lunchtime for hungry Saturday shoppers – so the queue was long and service was pretty slow-going but we managed to get fed and out within 45 minutes.
After Hawick the route took a turn on to the scenic and deserted B711 and despite the overcast skies and on-and-off showers the landscape was beautiful. Eventually we turned south on to the B709 and climbed steadily, following the the course of the river Ettrick Water upstream to the village of Ettrick. As we started to descend into Eskdalemuir I noticed lots of brightly coloured flags fluttering in the distance by the roadside. As we got closer we were greeted by the very surreal sight of a golden buddha sat in the middle of a pond. We learned that was the Kagyu Samye Ling Buddhist Monastery. This was the first Buddhist monastery to be set up in the West and it’s pretty easy to see why they chose this beautiful, quiet valley to host their retreat.
At Eskdalemuir we turned onto the B723 which was to take us into Lockerbie and the next control stop. We got caught in yet another rain shower on the way down and by time we arrived in the town it was 6pm and we were wet, cold and hungry. We stopped at a cashpoint to get a control receipt and Julie’s hands were so cold that she couldn’t manipulate her fingers to use the machine. The recommended food stop, Lockerbie Truck Stop, was still another 7km up the road.
We piled into the warm and welcoming truck stop cafe and ordered two massive portions of food and steaming mugs of strong tea. A lot of the other riders were in there so we all had a good old moan about the weather and lined our gloves, socks and buffs across the radiators. The lorry drivers didn’t really bat an eyelid but I bet they all thought we were completely bonkers.
We left around 7.15pm and headed up the road to Moffat which wasn’t an official control but was our last chance to stock up on nibbles before the climb up and over the Devil’s Beef Tub, or to use it’s far duller name, the A701, to the next control at Peebles. The sun was starting to set as we reached the top of the climb and started the long descent along the Tweed Valley and the sunset through the stormy rain clouds reflected up from the puddles making the roads glow with pink light.
By the time we reached the valley bottom it was starting to get dark. I often find the time between dusk and proper nightfall the hardest time to ride through. It’s not completely dark but not light enough to really make anything out. My eyes don’t seems to adjust very well and it’s harder to see the road surface ahead even with good bike lights. My pace always slows down at this point and this night was no exception. Peebles never seemed to get any closer and we finally arrived in the town at a few minutes to 11pm.
We found a group of riders huddled outside a McColls which was planning on closing at 11pm. We quickly leaned the bikes against the shop window and rushed in but once in there we were both so tired and disoriented that we didn’t really know what to buy. It didn’t matter really, I just needed some sugar and a receipt so I bought a packet of Jelly Babies and a large bottle of Coke. Outside I realised that Julie had decided to leave without buying anything and by then they wouldn’t let her back in to get a receipt, so while I fumbled with my supplies and downed half the Coke, Julie went in search of a cashpoint.
Peebles and the 18 miles to Galashiels was probably the low point of the ride for me. I had a real dip in energy, Julie was riding a good 200m ahead and I just couldn’t muster the energy to try to to catch her up. I rode with a friendly Welsh guy for a while and he spurred me on to Galashiels where we found an all-night garage with a toilet and a Costa coffee machine – heaven! It’s amazing just how much a warm building with a toilet and rubbish coffee can perk you up at 1 in the morning.
Now it was proper dark and we had around 30km to go to the rest stop at Cornhill. The route out of town was well-lit on a main road with street lights almost all the way to Kelso which made the going a bit easier. The coffee had perked us both up and we were doing alright. After Kelso the roads were unlit again but by now in the total darkness my eyes had adjusted to it and I’d settled into a good rhythm. We were joined for a while again by the VC167 group and we hung on the back for as long as we could before their red tailights disappeared into the distance.
At the village of Cornhill it took us ages to find the control as the village hall was tucked away on a side street and we were getting a bit flustered in our tired state and kept missing the turn. The sky was just starting to get light again when we eventually arrived at 3.15am. Once inside, we had our cards validated and were offered a macaronie pie and baked beans. We sat down at the long table with a big group of riders, most of them from VC167. We were all in good spirits considering we’d all been awake for a very long time and were kept entertained by Gordon and his banter. Wet socks, shoes and gloves were removed and piled up on the radiators to dry.
The Cornhill control was at 314km so Julie and I figured that we could get our heads down for an hour and wait for a bit more daylight before heading off on the last 90kms which we’d reckoned on covering in around five hours. And, seeing as we’d carried our sleeping bags and bivvys all the way around the route it was time that we put them to good use! Even though we were indoors I couldn’t be bothered to pull the sleeping bag out of the bivvy and just crawled inside the lot, which meant I’d totally overheated in the next five minutes and had to start wriggling around like a demented caterpillar removing bits of clothing while inside.
I’m not sure that I slept really but Julie was convinced she’d heard me snoring, anyway just being horizontal for an hour was a welcome rest. We were up again at 5am and after a bit of breakfast we thanked the lovely support crew for their help and were out of the door by 5.30am to be greeted by a beautiful, sunny morning.
The route back south was very straightforward, along the rolling A697 which skirts the edge of Northumberland National Park, through Wooler and on to Morpeth. However, to make up the distance there was a final info control at Ulgham which meant that we turned off the A-road at Longframlington and back on to the B-roads. these proved to have a sting in the tail with a couple of short 10% hills on poor road surfaces – not exactly pleasant on tired legs and one hour’s sleep. Along the route we caught up with a father and son pair. The little lad was only 13 – what an amazing achievement to ride 400km through the night at that age and what a great bonding experience to have with your dad.
By the time we hit Morpeth around 9.30am we were very glad to be on the home stretch. Up to this point the roads had been very quiet but there was a bit of traffic in the town centre and a couple of pretty impatient drivers in 4x4s made our lives a bit difficult on the climb back out of the town. The final stretch of road back to Kirkley was into a slight headwind and it felt really tough. I have to say that the Brevet shorts that we’d been given by Rapha had held up really well but no shorts are ever going to feel pleasant after you’ve had them on for 24 hours and 395km so we were getting up out of the saddle quite a bit at this point to ease the pressure points. After a quick glance at our watches we realised that we could just about get in before 10am if we picked up the pace for the last couple of kms, so we managed to find a bit of extra from somewhere and made it back to the farm gate by 9.57am, 24 and a half hours after we’d started.
We were warmly welcomed back by the VC167 crew and cafe staff, very tired but very happy with our time and satisfied that the kit we’d carried with us had done the trick. After a good hours rest with big mugs of tea and bacon (me) and fish finger (Julie) sandwiches we were back on the bikes to Newcastle and on the train to Sheffield.
We’d both had our low points on the ride, sometimes at the same time but not always. We’d battled the lousy Scottish weather and got horribly soaked but we’d cycled through some stunning scenery on deserted roads that were still beautiful despite the cloudy, heavy skies. We ate our own body weight in junk food and shared the road with friendly, supportive riders – and that’s what audaxes are all about.
I enjoyed it so much, I’m already thinking about going back to do it next year.
For the last month or so I’ve been trying to make sure that my weekly mileage is hitting the 400km mark and that usually means getting at least one 200km ride in every week. I like to go on varied routes in order to try and avoid the boredom of repetition but planning rides, especially long ones, can take up a lot of time and sometimes the last thing I want to do when I’ve been at work all day is sit down in front of the computer plotting out more routes. So when the opportunity to ride a mid-week audax comes along it’s definitely one worth taking.
Such an opportunity presented itself this week with the ‘Ice Cream Wensdae’ 107km audax from Marple so I decided to book a day’s annual leave to do it. All I had to do was figure out the route over to Marple from Sheffield and the rest of it would be mapped out for me. To bring the distance up to 200km I decided to do the event as an official extended ‘ECE‘ ride which means that I’d need to plot a route to the start of the event that was at least an extra 100km and send it off to Audax UK to be verified before riding it.
I needed to make sure that the route out and back was at least 50km in each direction and I decided that I’d just ride the same route and and back so that I’d only have to plot the one route. I also wanted to avoid busy roads like the A57 and A623 as much as possible as the audax started at 10am so I’d most likely be travelling there and back during rush hour periods.
The audax itself was a pretty flat route out over the Cheshire plains so I figured that plotting a reasonably hilly route to get to and from Marple would be ok and my U-shaped route took in Eyam, Tideswell, Wormhill over to Chapel-en-le-Frith, New Mills and finally Marple, clocking up at 61km each way, giving me a total mileage of 230km.
I’d planned to set off from Sheffield at 6am for the 10am start, leaving lots of time for any en-route mechanicals. My other-half, Ken, was coming along for the ride and we’d arranged to meet my Transcon partner, Julie, and two other regular riding buddies, David and Peter, along the route at Windmill as they didn’t fancy riding the full 230km with us. This was to be Peter’s first major solo ride since recovering from a broken collar bone earlier this year but as he is hoping to ride LEL in 12 weeks time he is trying to build up his mileage fast.
Now, anyone that rides regularly with me will know that I like a nice hill but in order to make sure that my friends keep riding with me, occasionally, I have to tone my routes down a bit. Trouble is, I’m not too good at checking hill gradients when I’m route planning and this can sometimes get me into trouble. Let’s just say that my route over to Marple was a wee bit hillier than expected (1200m of climbing) and by the time we’d arrived at the start of the audax everyone apart from Ken had already decided that they weren’t going to be riding the same route back with me.
Despite the hills we arrived with plenty of time to grab a cup of coffee to warm us all up before the event started as it was a chilly five degrees. The audax route headed out through the villages of Poynton, Wilmslow and Knutsford and before long we were deep in the heart of WAGland, cycling past huge houses with Bentleys sat on the drive. Coming up to the halfway mark I wondered why I was finding it such hard work keeping with the group until I realised that I’d got a slow puncture so we took time out for me to sort it out before pressing on to lunch.
The turnaround control point and cafe stop was at the Great Budworth Real Ice Cream Farm, that gives the audax its name. Being Easter-week the cafe was pretty busy and although I’m sure they were glad of the extra custom, having another 47 cyclists turn up all at roughly the same time meant that the kitchen staff were struggling to keep up with demand. This meant that we had a slightly longer-than-planned lunch stop and were all ready to gnaw the waiter’s hand off when the food finally arrived. The temperature had now warmed up to a balmy eight degrees – just the right temperature for ice cream and it was well worth it. The rum and raisin was super-yummy and Peter tells me that his blackberry was pretty delicious too.
Fed and watered, we were ready for the return leg, through the villages of Lower and Over Peover where we stopped to take photos of an amazing little tree house that had been carved into an old tree stump and on through Prestbury to our last control at Bollington. We were all a bit knackered by the time we arrived back in Marple just after 4pm and were glad of the sandwiches that had been laid on for us by the Ring O’Bells pub.
After a bit of a rest we still had that minor issue of the return leg to Sheffield to deal with. Unfortunately I’d not managed to convince anyone to change their mind and join Ken and me on the hill-fest home. Instead Julie, Peter and David came with us as far as Chapel (which was still pretty hilly) and then went home via Rushup Edge. David and Peter opted for a descent down Winnats Pass while Julie got some extra miles in down Mam Nick and through Edale.
I think I’d blanked out just how hilly some of those hills were, especially the climb out of Chapel and the pull up out of Monk Dale which is 20%, just what you need after cycling 190km. Ken is a much stronger rider than me and by the time I’d got half way up Grindleford he was just a speck in the distance.
I made it home for 8pm, around 15 minutes after Ken, but just long enough for him to get the tea on.
Following on from Team Sheffield CTC’s resounding success in the Audax Easter Trail last year, I was keen to get another team together to defend our title this Easter weekend.
I should probably point out that the reason we won last year’s Trail was mostly down to us being the only team that entered, but not to be deterred by that minor detail, I planned a 255km route to York and roped in three other teammates to join me.
For those of you wondering what on earth I’m on about, the Easter Trail is a team event organised by Audax UK and last year was the first time that the event took place. It’s the lightweight cousin of the well-established, and much more hardcore, Easter Arrow event where teams set off from 6am on Good Friday and ride 400+ kms through the night from anywhere in the UK to arrive in York by the following morning between 8am and 11am. The team that clocks up the most miles ridden wins.
In comparison, teams taking part in the Easter trail event only have to ride between 201 and 360km but must factor in a stop for a minimum of eight hours overnight on the Friday evening. The team still needs to arrive in York between 8am and 11am the next morning and again the team that clocks up the most miles ridden wins.
Where a team starts from and the route it takes to York is entirely up to the team captain who plots the route in advance and sends it off to be verified by Audax UK a few weeks before the start of the event. There are a few more rules that teams need to adhere to but basically that’s the gist of it.
I’d plotted a route from Sheffield of 255km taking in control stops at Howden, Easingwold, Horsforth (in Leeds) to our overnight eight-hour stop in the village of Cullingworth near Bradford. Cullingworth just happens to be around a mile away from my dad’s house in Denholme where we were guaranteed a good feed and free bed for the night (thanks Dad). The only downside to this otherwise perfect overnight location is that my dad lives at the top of a very big hill. Like ‘all the way from the Aire Valley to the almost the highest point in Bradford’ big.
I’d tried my best to plot a decent route with some nice, cafe-based, control stops that avoided cycling on busy main roads like the A19 and A59. The main thing to take into consideration when plotting DIY Audax routes is that you can only claim distance for the most direct route between any two locations. Taking direct routes usually means travelling on busy roads so if you want to try to keep off main roads then you have to add extra control stops, or you can (within reason) just suck up the few extra kilometres to take diversions on to quieter roads. However, because you’re limited by time constraints, adding too many extra kilometres in this way can really slow you down as those extra kms add nothing to your final distance tally.
This meant that our team’s official distance of 255km would actually be more like 290km but I reckoned that wouldn’t be too much of a problem as a good chunk of our route would be ridden in the flatlands to the east of Sheffield and around York.
Our team, consisting of me, my Transcon teammate Julie, my other-half Ken, and Julie’s other-half Simon, met at Sheffield train station at 7am on a rather chilly and overcast Good Friday morning to collect our first receipts of the day for our brevet cards. Every rider has to collect a receipt (either from a shop or a cash machine) from each control in order to document what time the team arrives.
The route we took out of Sheffield to our first control at Howden is a familiar route out east for us and once we’d climbed the few little lumps out over Wentworth and around the back of Barnsley, after Hooton Pagnell the route flattened out.
We had a quick cafe stop at the Lakeside Cafe at Askern which is a regular haunt for many of the cycling clubs around South Yorkshire, especially those fond of a bargain as the price of a mug of tea and a toasted teacake is just £1.60.
With a tailwind to help us along we made good time to Howden, arriving at 11am. That Tea Room in Howden is another one of our fave cafes and with another 50km before our next stop at Easingwold we decided to call an early lunch. If you’ve not been here I can definitely recommend it as the food is lovely and the staff are always very welcoming. They also have a big room upstairs that you can book in advance if you need to book a big group in.
After lunch, the next leg of our journey took us north, skirting around the edge of York along the B1228 up to the village of Easingwold. Even though it’s a B-road it was pretty busy, probably due to bank holiday traffic heading into York, and as it’s quite a straight road it means that the cars can pick up quite a speed so we had a few unpleasant moments with impatient drivers having to slow down (or not, in some cases) to overtake us. We were all pretty glad to get back on to quieter country lanes north of Stamford Bridge.
As none of us had been to Easingwold before we were happy to take a stop here and explore the village a bit. We had a decent, strong coffee and cake at the Olive Branch, a quirky little shop with lots of adjoining rooms that sells all kinds of interesting stuff with a cafe at the rear. After a quick pedal around the village, which definitely deserves a future visit, we pressed on west for our penultimate control of the day in Horsforth.
The day started to get a little tougher as we were now traveling directly into the westerly wind that had been helping us out so much in the earlier part of the day. We decide to start taking turns on the front to give each other a bit of respite across the vale of York to Wetherby but we were still going strong and making good time.
After Wetherby the landscape became a little more rolling with a few punchy little climbs, dropping us down into the Wharfe Valley north of Leeds. These are all familiar roads to me as I grew up in the area between Leeds and Bradford so I knew what to expect. Our first tough little hill of the day, Weardley Bank, climbs out of the Wharfe Valley into North Leeds. At the top of Weardley is green wooden bench placed there by Leeds St. Christopher’s Cycling Club to honour the memory of club member Peter Gannon. LSCCC was also my dad’s cycling club and Peter was my dad’s riding buddy back in the 1960’s so I always stop and take a moment to have a rest on Pete’s bench and today was no different. After pedalling 70 km into a headwind for the past couple of hours it was a pretty welcome rest.
We dropped down into Horsforth at around 6pm and grabbed some supplies and a receipt from the local Tesco. From there it was only around 30 km to my dad’s but anticipating the climb ahead I tried to convince the rest of the team to take on some sugar for a bit of an energy boost as we were all feeling the effects of the headwind. Convincing Ken to eat is never really a problem but Julie struggles to find the right kind of food to keep her fuelled up and by this point was a bit fed up with all of the over-processed, sugary crap that we’d been piling in to keep the speed up.
I swapped the water in my bottle for Lucozade for the final 30km and I’d still got a few lumps of flapjack in my little top tube bag in reserve just in case. The final leg of the day took us through the north Leeds suburbs that drop down into the Aire Valley at Apperley Bridge and on to the main road through Shipley and Bingley. It was pretty busy and we encountered a few more inconsiderate drivers – they’re always a bit harder to negotiate when you’re tired.
The final big pull of the day started in Bingley with a steep, twisty 10% climb out of town up to the village of Harden. At this point it started to rain pretty heavily but climbing was hot work and with only a few uphill miles left to ride it didn’t seem worth stopping to put on a waterproof. We pushed on through Harden to the final control of the day at Cullingworth Co-op, arriving by 7.15pm. Our official milage between the four controls was 190km but the actual distance we’d covered was 220km.
We were done for the day in terms of recording distance but to get up to dad’s we had one final climb, Manywells Brow. It’s less than 100m long with an average gradient of 8% but it gets steeper as you climb, topping out at 15% around two-thirds of the way up so it’s a bit of a killer even on fresh legs, never mind ones that had 200km of cycling in them, but the Lucozade in my water bottle worked a treat and gave me enough energy for that final push.
Manywells conquered, we piled into dad’s for a hot shower, plenty of pasta and a good night’s kip, albeit a short one as we needed to be up around 5am to finish off the last leg to York.
We awoke on Day two to be greeted by a pretty impressive sunrise and after a huge bowl of porridge we were back out on the road for 6.15am. After heading back down to the Co-op in Cullingworth to pick up our only receipt of the day, Saturday’s route retraced our steps as far as Adel in north Leeds before heading east around the north of the city, through the village of Thorner, over the A1 to Boston Spa, Wighill and finally to York. Our official ‘shortest route’ distance from Cullingworth to York was 64km but we were actually going to ride 75km.
The first few climbs of the day were pretty tough on tired legs but we soon got into our stride. Retracing our steps meant that most of the climbs were done with in the first 15 miles and with the help of a fierce tailwind we were soon flying along the flattish roads through north Leeds. We’d planned a quick cafe stop at another fave cafe, Moo in Boston Spa and got there in good time just before 9am for warm scones and strong coffee.
From Boston Spa, we only had 25km to go and we pushed on through at a blistering pace (well, blistering for me). The end was in sight now and still aided by that tailwind we managed to cover the final 25 in 50 minutes, arriving in York just after 10am with an hour to spare and feeling pretty pleased with ourselves.
Another Easter Trail in the bag for Team Sheffield CTC, we headed over to Your Bike Shed cycling cafe for a celebratory bacon sarnie and our final receipt to prove we’d made it. As there was no formal finish control this year we don’t know how any other teams took part or whether our distance of 255km will be enough to retain our Easter Trail winners title, but no matter what the result we had a brilliant time taking part and are looking forward to doing it all again next Easter. What better way to justify stuffing your face with Easter Eggs all day on Easter Sunday?