It seems an appropriate time to look back over 2018. It’s been quite a year on the bike! I’ve achieved more than I set out to at the start, and far more than I could have imagined when I started cycling about three years ago. I’ve covered a very similar distance this year compared to 2017 (just over 6,500 miles). I won’t bore you with all the rides I’ve done, but five in particular stand out as highlights.
My plan at the start of the year was to ride bigger distances than I had done before, specifically doing audaxes. An audax (think ‘audacious’) is a non-competitive long-distance cycling event. Audax has an old-fashioned feel to it; riders are typically expected to submit proof of passage through certain control points (a stamp, receipt etc.) rather than using GPS. Audax riders are well-seasoned cyclists, often to be seen riding steel-framed bikes laden with leather saddle bags.
The gold-standard in audax cycling is to complete a ‘Super Randonneur’ series: four verified rides of 200, 300, 400 and 600 km in one season. At the start of the year this sounded ludicrous. I had done one audax in 2017, the Humber Bridge 200, and before this year the furthest distance I had ridden in a day was 144 miles/232 km. Back in January I decided I would have a go at a 300 and maybe a 400 in 2018.
In March I decided to throw myself in at the deep-end and enter the annual ‘Easter Arrow’ to York. It’s a team event, where groups of 3-5 riders must arrive at York the day before Easter, the aim being to cover as much distance as possible in 24 hours. I joined a team starting from the Lake District, and our aim was to cover 479km – more than twice what I had done before.
It didn’t go so well. We had fine weather on Good Friday, covering plenty of miles around Lancashire, but as we headed up into the Dales from Sedbergh it started to hail. The hail passed but the rain continued. I was poorly prepared, and didn’t have the right clothes; I got very wet and very cold.
I decided to give up at about 2.15am when we stopped at a 24-hour MacDonald’s near Selby. Frustratingly, I knew I had the energy to continue, but I was so cold that I knew it would be dangerous to carry on. On reflection I think I was close to hypothermia; it was about four hours before my body was able to regulate my temperature properly.
It was a learning experience; a tough but important one. I was disappointed not to complete the ride, but I did cycle further than I ever had before – 203 miles/326 km.
The Cumbrian 200 Audax
This was an audax organised by one of the Easter Arrow team, starting from Windermere in the Lake District. I stayed with a friend in Carlisle on the Friday night and got the first train to Oxenholme and then rode to Windermere. It was a fantastic day, beautiful weather and stunning scenery. As well as the well-known Kirkstone and Newlands passes, the route took in some less famous but equally challenging climbs. By the time I had ridden back to Oxenholme station it was 150 miles/241 km, and more climbing than I had ever done before in a day.
The Mosstrooper 300 Audax
Having done over 300k on the Easter Arrow I knew this would be a distance I could cover, but I knew it would still be a big challenge. The ride started from Kirkley in Northumberland, went over the North Pennines to Penrith, up through the Scottish Borders, past Kielder Water and then back through Northumberland to Kirkley. I ended up riding most of this solo, never really finding anyone else whose pace was similar to mine. The tailwind that blew me across to Penrith became a brutal headwind cycling past Kielder. I hadn’t been able to take the car to the start, so had to cycle about 40 miles home afterwards, taking the total distance to 240 miles/386 km – my biggest distance to date. It was midnight as I passed Hexham on the way home, and the locals looked a bit bemused when I called into the chippy for some food.
The Hot Trod 400 Audax
Seeing as my ride home from the Mosstrooper brought that ride up to 386 km, I went into the Hot Trod knowing I could do 400 km. This ride also started from Kirkley; it was a baking hot day, and thundery showers were forecast. Sure enough, as we crossed into Scotland at Carter Bar there were rumbles of thunder. After a fry-up in Hawick, the rain began. I was prepared this time and had a decent waterproof. We got very wet, but it was warm, so didn’t really matter.
Unlike the Mosstrooper I found a riding companion whose pace was similar to mine, who actually turned out to have grown up in the same town as me. We dried-out at Lockerbie Truck Stop, before heading north to Moffat and over the ‘Devil’s Beef Tub’, and then followed the Tweed valley through the dark of the night. A welcome rest was had at Cornhill-on-Tweed, before we headed south through Northumberland in the murky grey morning. My companion was struggling a bit, so I was glad to be riding together to make sure we both got back safely. The rain and the all night ride made this an intense experience, but a good one nonetheless.
Ride to the Sun: DIY 600 Audax
As I said earlier, I didn’t start 2018 planning to complete a Super Randonneur. Trouble is, once I had done the 300 and 400, it seemed a shame not to complete the set. I decided to do this as a DIY audax – basically one where you plan your own route and have it validated. The plan was to add sections to the start and end of the ‘Ride to the Sun‘ event to bring it up to 600 km. Ride to the Sun is a fantastic free event that happens on the closest weekend to the summer solstice; hundreds of riders cycle 100 miles through the night from Carlisle to Crammond beach near Edinburgh, aiming to arrive in time to watch the sunrise.
My mate Dave and I set off from his place in Newcastle at 9.30am and headed west to Carlisle and then round the Solway coast to Maryport. The headwind was tough and relentless, and we were pleased to turn round and head back to Carlisle to tag on the tail-end of Ride to the Sun. The route goes over the Devil’s Beef Tub – it’s a straightforward climb, and one I had done before, but having already ridden 200 miles it really wiped me out. I struggled on to Crammond, we arrived just after the sun rose. It was good to stop, I had some food and about 10 minutes sleep.
Leaving Edinburgh we were joined by another friend (Paul) and we headed south. I knew we needed to climb over the Lamamuirs, but my legs weren’t happy about it – they just didn’t want to go uphill. A well-timed caffeine gel gave me the boost I needed for the climb, and I was able to enjoy the beautiful descent to Duns in the borders. Breakfast in Duns must have had some sort of secret ingredient because somehow I found my strength again. The route south through Northumberland was a relentless succession of hills, but somehow I felt fresh and able to take them on, especially after a 10 minute nap under a bush. By the time we got to Alnwick Dave and Paul had had enough and decided to get a train home. Sadly for them they weren’t allowed on without a reservation, but by that point I had continued on solo. I got back to Newcastle at about 5.30pm, utterly exhausted. 600km – I honestly don’t know how I did that.
So despite not planning to, I completed my first Super Randonneur series. It’s an achievement I would never have thought possible a few years ago, and I’m so proud of it. So much so I felt the need to get the medals that go with it!…
There have been many more highlights, but I won’t bore you with those (to be honest, well done if you’ve read this far!). I haven’t even mentioned Zwift and the amazing community that is Club 3R and our regular morning Volt rides (more on that in due course). There have also been some great rides with my real-life club Allen Valley Velo, and another highlight was founding Velo Club Greenbelt at the wonderful Greenbelt Festival.
It’s worth noting that all the big rides I’ve mentioned were done before going vegan. I was a little hesitant when I did some 200k audaxes in the latter part of the year, unsure of how my body would respond. I needn’t have worried – I am entirely confident now that endurance cycling is in no way hampered by a vegan diet, in fact it may well be of benefit.
Having set a benchmark in 2018, I guess I need to improve on it next year and do so powered by plants. I’ll write more about my plans for 2019 soon, thanks for reading and following – Happy New Year!