This is the third time I’ve done LWL (or Severn Across, as was), so I shan’t bore you with ALL the details. Suffice to say, I once again missed my target of getting back before 9pm – this time due to sheer stupidity and deciding to wear in a brand new pair of kicks.
My Giro Empire SLX gave up the ghost a few days before LWL. I was changing out the cleats and noticed a lot of flexibility in the sole… closer inspection revealed a pretty terminal issue. In fairness, the shoes have covered some absurd mileage, but it’s still an expense I can scarce afford in the run up to TAW. I’m pretty keen on Empires, but with no good deals on SLX, I had to resort to a cheaper version (albeit, with a funky reflective finish).
This was also the first proper ride on the new Fairlight Strael v2. The Strael didn’t have the easiest birth – my rotor crank wouldn’t fit in the BB shell alongside Di2 cables, so I had to buy a new powermeter with a 24mm spindle and was beginning to resent the bike for costing twice what it should have done. I’m also used to incredibly stiff bikes, so the Strael feels quite flexy, which my body interprets as slow. No matter how much I want to believe that it’s flexy in all the right directions, but stiff in all the others, the floaty back end hadn’t been floating my boat.
The ride started as usual, with a mass start from the Chalfont St. P car park. I’ve learned from previous years that there’s always an ‘exuberant’ start, so positioned myself at the front to make a quick escape. This is part of my training for TAW, so I was keen to ride solo and (perhaps counter-intuitively) it’s easier to do that off the front than dropping back.
I’d somehow avoided bumping into anyone I knew at the start (despite being papped at close range), but after about 5 minutes looked back over my shoulder to see a massive group bowling down the road toward me and was fairly certain I could see some familiar jerseys amongst the rabble. I’d settled down after a swift start, hoping that getting out of sight quickly would mean no one was trying to ride me down, but the group felt like bloodhounds following a scent and I ended up pushing rather harder than I’d hoped to stay out of touch and avoid getting mixed up in the wheels.
Fortunately, by the first control the group had thinned significantly. They followed the official route, accessing the control by the rear exit, whereas I popped around the front. I was hoping once again to slip out unnoticed and be able to settle into an easy pace. For the most part, this seemed to work. I plodded off down the road and took things fairly easily as we neared the first lumpy sector.
I was on my own, the sun was shining, the views were as stunning as always… and I dropped the pace to the point where I was suddenly aware of a group behind me again. Oops. Fortunately, there were now only four of them. I recognised Darren and Jasmijn and figured it looked like a safe enough group to get caught up in, but was still hoping to keep banking the solo miles, so gave it a little kick to see if I could stay out in front.
Luckily they didn’t seem to be in the mood to chase. I got to Tewksbury, raided the OneStop and was pretty much ready to get moving again just as they pulled in. We had a brief chat, but I was being a bit of an antisocial arse and beat a retreat as quickly as possible to avoid sharing the work and decreasing the training value of the ride. I shoved a range of drinks down the front of my jersey and pedalled off up the road, spilling chocolate milk and Monster as I went.
I quite like the section past Tewksbury, up over Yat Rock and down to Tutshill, and settled into a very swift pace, effortlessly ticking down the miles and stopping for nothing. This was the highlight of the ride. I was untouchable and full of the joys of Spring. Or at least I was up until shortly after summiting Yat Rock. The heat was getting to me, I’d run out of water and I hadn’t really been eating. I went quite light headed, downed all the food in my pockets and started worrying about whether I should stop somewhere before the control to sort myself out.
Luckily, another rider came to my aid. Struggling up yet another climb, I looked over my shoulder to see a solitary rider not too far behind. Darren, perhaps? How the heck had he done that? I forced myself to up the power a little and tried to get back in the zone.
About five minutes later, a cheery ‘hello’ and there was a young rider at my side. Phew. Not an audaxer. Turned out he was a young racer, out for a training ride and keen to have a bit of a chat. This gave me the excuse I needed to ease off and release some of the pressure. There’s always a nice mental boost that comes with answering questions about where you’ve come from and where you’re going when you’re on an audax. ‘250km in mate, about 200 to go’ ‘what?!?!’ *detach Elemnt and show data fields* ‘bloody hell’.
I left him to get on with his ride at Tutshill, pulled into the control and got my bottles filled and grabbed some food for the road. I also downed a couple of cans of coke and enjoyed a cheeky ciggie before the next group of riders pulled up and I decided to get back on with it.
As I was leaving, the owner spotted me in the road, recognised me from last year (“first again?! I recognised the beard!”) and grabbed a quick picture before I dropped down into Chepstow.
It’s a very long way to the next control from Tutshill and it’s along roads I’ve ridden so many times I honestly find it a little soul destroying these days. To make matters worse, my Elemnt was gently losing charge and it turned out I’d packed a lightning cable instead of a USB. I stopped a couple of times in Malmesbury, but nowhere seemed to have one. Typical.
Last chance saloon was the petrol station just outside Wootton Bassett. Luckily, they had a cable and I had a proper 5 minute stop to collect myself, drink ALL the fluids and have a late lunch. I also decided the AA-powered USB charger wouldn’t make the TAW cut… it was charging the Elemnt slower than it was draining.
My feet were also starting to kill. The new Empires were too tight over the toes, the left one was digging into my ankle and the soles of my feet were on fire. I had to keep telling myself that I was getting all the pain out of the way now, breaking them in to be super comfy for all future rides (yeah, right!). The pain meant I took it really rather easy heading toward Lambourne and once again I saw some riders over my shoulder (although in retrospect, I’m not 100% convinced it was Darren, Jasmijn, et al).
By the time I got to the control it was looking possible, but unlikely that I’d be back for 9pm, so I said a quick hello and dashed straight back out the door… only to stop an hour or two later to loosen my shoes, stretch and curse. And then again in another hour (although I did at least take the opportunity to put on some more layers before the sun completely disappeared, saving a bit of time in the long run).
In the end, I rolled into Chalfont St. P at about 21.10. Every cash machine I could find said no receipts and no statements, so I ended up rolling past the community centre to a petrol station, where I was able to buy some food and get a receipt. 21.20. Good enough!
Despite missing my main goal for the ride, I came away pretty happy. The Strael had finally grown on me. That springiness under power disappears at audax cruising speeds and the ride becomes ridiculously comfortable. I tend not to end up feeling beaten up after audaxes, but there was definitely an extra layer of comfort and I felt a lot fresher riding the following day, despite having (very slightly) beaten my 15 hour power record.