Want to know what it feels like to ride the Flatlands? Set your turbo up facing the most featureless wall in your house and ride continuously for around 30 hours. No coasting, but you can climb off every few hours to get some food and drink.
I knew what I was letting myself in for, but I entered anyway. Apparently 50 audax points means another random accolade and a combination of the Flatlands, Rowlands Ramble and Greenwich Mean Climb would tip me over the magic number. It’s going to be a tough month.
After failing to sleep in the hall in Great Dunmow last year, I decided to wake up earlier this year and ride to the start instead. London to Great Dunmow is a route I’ve pretty much perfected these days and it’s a nice gentle warm up with plenty of 24 hour petrol stations en-route to grab some breakfast.
Coming into Great Dunmow with a good time buffer in hand to get signed in and set up, it suddenly started raining heavily. Odd, viscous white rain. Waitaminute… something big had gone through my front tyre and I was getting a lovely ‘Stan’s facial’. Luckily there was enough air left to get to the church, but pretty much all the sealant escaped before the hole plugged, so I had to use my time buffer to fit a tube, finally setting off a few minutes after the main field.
Despite the whole ‘not-a-race’ ethos, starting at the back definitely saw me setting out a bit hard. I settled into the aerobars, expecting a long chase, but before long was at the front of the field, chatting to Tim. At some point I’d evidently passed Oli too… at any rate, this was the last time I’d ride in company. Come Finchingfield, my route diverted from the official course and onto some slightly faster roads.
For some reason I couldn’t get comfy on the new aerobars and ended up barely using them. The extensions are long enough it looks like I’m compensating for something, so hopefully they just need a trim in order for normal service to resume. Riding on the tops and drops knackered my triceps and by the end of my ride I could barely support my upper body; weedy cyclist problems.
Much of the route up toward Boston was still fresh in my mind from LEL and I found the flatland boredom setting in earlier than usual. With the only scenery being occasional houses, trees and wind farms, it’s easy to lose the will to pedal… add in sore legs (seems LEL wasn’t quite as distant of a memory as I’d thought) and I found myself dawdling on the way to Kirton in Lindsey. When a particularly heavy thunder and lighting storm rolled through, I took the excuse to take shelter and have a break. When the rain finally eased, in one of those bizarre ‘it could only happen on an audax’ moments, the Red Arrows roared by.
As I was finishing my Co-Op control smash and grab, another audaxer arrived and we had a quick chat about the weather. It sounds like those of us at the front missed the worst of the weather, but the mid-field and back markers were getting a soaking. While we were talking I spotted my rear light hanging limply from my bike and started absent-mindedly trying to correct the angle of my dangle. Half the light bracket promptly pinged off down the road and I cursed my stupidity relying on a light with no easy/obvious ways to attach it to anything other than its magnetic bracket. Oh well, into the frame bag and I’ll think of something at Goole… or get a full night’s sleep and set back out when the sun comes up.
The road into Goole starts by promising distractions and things to look at – this year the Tour of Britain had even been through and there were green bikes everywhere. Don’t believe it, it’s a trick. You turn a corner and suddenly you’re on another long, straight highway to hell. By the time you finally reach Goole, the various bridges and lumps you have to cross feel like Alps and you’re glad of the chance to change your cadence and vary your power output. Your knees yelp in pain. Riding endless tempo with little or no variation has knackered them.
Luckily Glews Garage sells Ibuprofen and all the supplies you could possibly need to see you through the night… apart from red lights of any description. They do, however, stock electrician’s tape, which is a godsend when the tape you’ve wrapped around your pump has dried out and wont affix your light to anything. It ain’t a pretty fix, but it got me home.
My route out of Goole once again diverged from the official route. I wanted to go down a few more of the ToB roads, so headed toward Doncaster, sweeping back around for Gainsborough. Unfortunately, the rain had also decided Doncaster and its surrounds would be a great place to waste a few hours and I got utterly drenched. Between the road spray and downpours, there was no opportunity to recharge my Wahoo Elemnt and I ended up hiding in a garage forecourt creating a waterproof cover from a plastic bag.
This is perhaps the main positive I’ve taken away from this ride. I’m finally learning just to get on with things when the ride starts unravelling. I’ve made pretty dumb choices in far less adverse conditions in the past. I still felt like the world was going to end (mostly out of fear of slowing down, rather than any mechanical disaster), but I was in control.
At Gainsborough, I once again shunned the official route, following the A156 before heading into Doddington and around the outside of Lincoln. The A156 was pretty foggy in places and I found myself wondering if I’d made a mistake, but traffic was light and between the massive reflectors on the back of my bike, very bright and large rear light and reflections of my front in the fog, every single car gave me a very wide berth. Somewhere around here I also realised I have an irrational fear of wind turbines… cycling under them seriously gives me the willies… no idea why. Perhaps I’m remotely related to Don Quixote.
Perhaps controversially, considering an incident later in the night, I rode the A15 into Sleaford. It’s a long, straight road with good visibility and I’d used it the year before with no issue. In the full length I travelled, I saw maybe 4 cars and they all passed wide and safely.
I had flashbacks to trying to sleep in Sleaford last year and being awoken by the students at kicking out time. This year, I stopped long enough to get proof of passage and did a runner. It was getting properly late (/early) and the Fens are always colder than expected thanks to the lack of features to trap heat, so I was keen to clear them as quickly as possible.
The plan started slowly unravelling around the time I reached Pinchbeck. My mind had gone, driven out by the lack of stimulation and the cold was starting to settle into my bones. There was a freezing fog over the fens and I just didn’t feel safe continuing to push on when I could feel the cold working its way to my core. I flirted with a few bus stops before eventually hiding in the warmth at Thorney and refusing to move until sunrise.
After a surprisingly good sleep, I made good time to Chatteris and stopped at a petrol station to grab some breakfast and have a bit of a clean up. Visibility was maybe 100 metres when I entered, but by the time I came out the skies were clear and the sun was shining. Couldn’t have timed it better if I tried. I gorged myself on apple pies and set off for Cambridge.
I took my usual adapted route through the outskirts of Cambridge to avoid traffic and then followed my own interpretation of the ‘flat’ route to Great Dunmow. My Wahoo Elemnt had already ticked over 600km some hours ago and I wasn’t in the mood for adding any more difficulty to the ride. I stopped frequently and generally had quite a leisurely ride back to the start. Good for the soul, but I didn’t exactly make good time. Somewhere around here, on one of my many food and sunbathing breaks, a few riders whizzed by.
By the time I reached Great Dunmow, there was a small collection of riders milling around and while I was (ever so gracefully sprawled out on the floor) completing my brevet, Oli appeared and offered me salvation in the form of train advice for getting home (as Bishops Stortford wasn’t running services to Liverpool St). We bimbled off down a rather busy A road toward Chelmsford and my mileage ticked over 700km. The ride was done.
Only, at Waterloo, there were no services to Epsom. FFS! Nothing for it, I hopped back on the bike and fought the fierce headwind all the way home. Then, moments from my front door, a gust of wind caught me as I was clipping in at a light and I stacked it, grazing my knee and bruising my elbow. Flatlands, I love ya, but let’s see other people next year, yeah?