Having decided not to race this year’s Brighton Big Dog I helped taping out the course, then faffed about taking photos, filled tea urns for a bit, and then helped untape the course. Stunning day for it this year, mostly sunny for spectators but shaded over for an hour or two mid-afternoon so it was a bit cooler in the woods for the racers. Saw and chatted with lots of friends, and drank tea and beer with them too. Photos were mostly badly exposed and out of focus so dropped them into Lightroom and applied every filter I could think of. Full set on flickr.
“Please take a banana. I hate them.”
I chase wheels through the southwest fringes of London, from Richmond station over the Thames, out through Bushy Park and over the Thames again by Hampton Court Palace and then through leafy suburbia. I know that I am riding a bit harder than I want to be and should be. There’s a chance I’ll pay for this later. I ride in various clumps of riders but eventually settle into a loose group with a couple of guys in Audax Club Hackney caps, one of whom I later discover is called Ludwig, and a woman called Judith, and we ebb and flow through the green belt.
Crossing a main road the trees wrap around and close in on me as I start to climb. Branches and foliage overlap and tangle above me. It’s instantly recognisable as the start of the North Downs. Sunlight sparkles like constellations through tiny holes in the dense verdant canopy overhead. Spots of light scattering across the road as if I’m riding through a light shower of photons. Looking up brings to mind ancient beliefs about the stars in the night sky being light from our sun piercing holes in a dark dome over the Earth. These roads aren’t as old as those beliefs but exposed tree roots and sunken ways give away a history, thousands of years of footfall carving these routes through the hills. I climb up and down and across the downland, gently climbing the dip slope and cascading down the escarpment side.
After the first control at The Milk Churn in Rudgewick I ride on alone out towards Petworth on roads between roads I know. One of the best thing about audaxing is finding the bits between the bits you already know, piecing together new routes like a jigsaw map. I’m into the weald now, the not-so-lumpy clay bit that sits in the gap between the chalk hills of the North and South Downs. Maybe not so lumpy but sharp climbs are found, sapping energy from the legs. The lanes are still as dark as on the North Downs. Signposts and junctions are obscured in undergrowth and branches, lanes linking and intersecting others that I vaguely know, I’m riding a bit far west for it to all be familiar. Names printed in bold on the routesheet appear on signposts but we never quite touch them, we skirt around them, sticking to the edges, out of sight in the unknown spaces between the known.
Over Duncton Hill the landscape opens out into the familiar forms and colours of the South Downs, it feels like home even though I’m a way from home. Out in the open with no shade from trees I realise how warm the day is. At East Dean I cross paths with Felix on his Blue Riband that he’s had since 1961, with no gears and no bar tape. We chat and ride together past Halnaker Windmill and Goodwood then around the walls of Chichester to the next control at Fishbourne.
Fishbourne Roman Palace. Distant memories of school trips flicker across my brain. Not specific memories but simply knowing that I did come here some time in the past. Somewhere in a shoebox there’ll be a leather bookmark with the name gilded in gold, the things I collected before accumulating records and then bikes and distances. The cafe has the look of a temporary classroom. It only enhances the feeling of being on a school trip.
Again I leave the control alone to head north and west, further away from home and not the shortest line back to London. Direct routes don’t enter into the language of audax. The landscape widens out and the greens fade to yellows and golds, wheat and stubble on the flatlands before I start to climb back over the South Downs. I cramp on the way up to Harting Down, a sure sign that I’m not drinking or eating enough which I already know. I knew I’d pay for going a bit hard out of London too. It’s a long slow climb before I drop sharply down the scarp edge through the trees into a land of blind corners and wild flowers in high hedges.
I’m back in the shadow of the South Downs traversing the weald. Somewhere between Midhurst and Petworth I pass the first village shop I’ve seen since Fishbourne control and pull over to grab a snack and an emergency can of Coke. I refill my bidons with refrigerated bottle water whilst reading the notices on postcards in the shop window, “Potato pickers needed”. I wave as Felix and then Ludwig and Judith ride past.
Soon after I’m climbing again and I’m plunged back into deep green tunnels that smell of warm earth and bark. My second visit to the North Downs. Barhatch Lane I know by reputation only. I’ve never ridden it before and to be honest still haven’t. The sign announcing 21% at the bottom is not what I want to see with 160 kilometres in the legs and as soon as the incline increases I clamber off and walk a hundred metres or so. I can walk as fast as I can pedal anyway. Fortunately the next control is a pub in nearby in Peaslake. Pete from Milltag, who I rode my first audaxes with a couple of years ago, is manning the control so I sit in the sun and chat with him whilst downing yet more Coke and a packet of crisps.
Leaving the pub I’m immediately back in the dark of sunken lanes and when I arrive in the village of Shere I realise that Coombe Lane must be the next climb. It’s by no means the hardest climb along the escarpment of the North Downs but there’s something about this hill I don’t like. It may be that I have invariably only climbed it when audaxing and with many kilometres in the legs. Yet again it doesn’t disappoint and I cramp as I turn the final steep corner. Yeah, I still hate this hill.
Over the top I take a turning I’ve never taken before which leads me onto a open ridge. The skyline of London sticks up from the horizon to my right and to the left Guildford Cathedral stands over the town (In hindsight I realise this was the first time I’ve seen Guildford Cathedral without the soundtrack to the Omen playing in my head). Where the horizon curves across the front of me I can see dark lumps which I figure are the Chiltern hills, or maybe even the North Wessex Downs but surely I can’t see that far? All of Surrey and Berkshire must lie in front of me. I grew up somewhere out there, not far from Guildford, I must have climbed this ridge many times as a teenage cyclist, but I’ve never seen this view before. Out there are places my younger self knew but this view surprises me, it’s almost uncanny.
I descend from the ridge back into suburbia and follow the last few routesheet instructions until I’m back on the same roads I rode out on this morning. Ludwig has been sitting a couple of hundred metre ahead of me since the road into Esher but there’s little strength in my legs to catch him. Eventually I jump on his wheel along side the Thames in Twickenham. By the time I reach Richmond again I’m empty. I climb off my bike feeling exhausted and a little faint, so close to bonking. Ludwig buys me a pint and I order a pizza.
All thoughts of riding back to Brighton are instantly banished from my mind.
My route (including a couple of wrong turns)
“Not here, you need to be at the North Terminal”.
I really should have checked my boarding pass before I joined the huge queue to drop off my bike bag. Thirty minutes later I’ve dropped my bag at the right terminal and find my way to the departure gate for Geneva. A few hours after this I’m in a van with some of the other riders on my way up to Morzine in the French Alps for a weekend of cycling and Tour de France watching organised by Rpm90.
On arrival at the chalet introductions are made between riders and the Rpm90 crew. I don’t know any of the other riders but I know most of the Rpm90 team as they are local friends. Bikes are unpacked and rebuilt for a 40 kilometre spin in the afternoon before a three course meal, wine and chat in the evening.
Rain is falling as we eat breakfast. There is muttering about the planned ride.
We head out of Morzine in the dry though, arm warmers on to take off the chill of the morning mountain air. We gently climb to Les Gets where arm warmers and gilets are thrown in the back of the Rpm90 van or stuffed in back pockets. Dropping into the valley of Le Foron at Taninges we follow valley roads until the climb towards a lunch stop in Megevette starts. After lunch we loop around a couple more valleys, first heading north before turning south back towards Morzine. A few kilometres short of Morzine, in the town of Montriond to regroup to decide what to do next. There are a few options; the flat(ish) ride into Morzine, up the hill to Lac de Montriond and down to Morzine, or the 11 kilometre climb of to Col de la Joux Verte and the long, fast descent back to the chalet. Along with most of the others I opt for the big climb, which will add 20 kilometres to the 80 already ridden.
The road angles up out of the town before levelling as it skirts the edge of the lake. Then the climbing starts again, initially quite steep through a series of hairpins through the forest before steeper and tighter switchbacks up to the “goat village” of Les Lindarets. Which each turn the view back down the mountian is more beautiful, the filtering of sunlight through cloud effecting delicate and subtle patterns on the hillside greens. The road flattens again for a short section through a ski station before ramping up again for the final 6 or 7 kilometres to Joux Verte.
Popping out on the main road from Morzine just below Avoriaz we are greeted by the Rpm90 van where we can grab cans of coke for sustenance, and jackets to keep warm on the fast descent. Before this though a few of us climb the final couple of kilometres up to the empty ski resort of Avoriaz at the summit for a coffee. It seems daft not to ride to the very top seeing as it’s just there. As we leave the town we see Morzine far below sitting in a puddle of sunlight, and can see the road to the chalet. We seem to reach that road very quickly on the rapid descent, far, far quicker than we climbed up here in the first place.
We’ve timed it perfectly, it starts to hammer down just as we unclip.
A helicopter appears around a corner out of the gloom and the anticipation rises exponentially…
We’ve been waiting atop Col de Joux Plane for five hours. We sweated our way up in sunshine but the forecast storms arrived not long after. We have been cowering in whatever clothes we carried up with us, bin bags, and bright yellow Tour de France branded capes, in the hope that the rain may ease. Every time the sky seemed to lighten, the edges of cloud distinct rather than a shroud of grey around us, there was hope it might stop. Then there would be a flash almost instantly followed by a crash of thunder. The storm is simply swirling around us. We have no idea what is happening in the race.
…the sounds of excited and drunk fans sweeps along the roadside towards us, just ahead of the TV cameras, in turn just ahead of Nibali, Pantano, and Izagirre who crest the summit in a mess of noise and rain, jerseys filthy from whatever the alpine weather has thrown at them all day. There’s no time for gilets or jackets to be grabbed and put on. This is the race for the stage. They disappear out of sight, sucked along in the tunnel of noise of cheering and slapped hoardings. It goes quiet(er) again but excitement lingers in the air. Who will be next? What’s the gap?
Motorbike headlights emerge from the grey corner and the wave of crowd noise starts again, quietly in the distance blown around in the wind, then louder and louder as it nears us. Team Sky are next, guiding Froome safely to the finish. I don’t remember who else was in the group and I’ve still not seen the highlights of this stage. What’s actually going on in the race is secondary to just being here, to witness.
Riders continue to come past in dribs and drabs, spent domestiques and those dropped by the earlier breakaway sitting in the no mans land between the contenders and those being chased by the time cut. The race has been blown apart by the parcours and weather. These riders don’t even have camera bikes to keep them company. Official tour vehicles and team cars squeeze past them to catch what is happening further ahead. These are the heroes, the unsung ones, the ones who do this day in day out for someone else’s glory.
The grupetto appears and slides past silently, their joy that this is the last mountain of the tour seems to have been heavily dampened by the conditions. We think it’s over but then the solitary figure of Bernie Eisel appears. However he’s not last. The broom wagon metaphorically nudges Tony Martin up the last little bit a few seconds later.
Then it’s over. And the rain stops.
Sunday. A tale of four mountains.
It’s our turn to ride the queen stage of this year’s Tour, to follow in the wheel tracks of the riders we cheered on yesterday. There are four climbs all with varying Tour histories, steeped in legend and reputation – Col de Aravis (40 Tours), Col de la Colombiere (21 Tours), Col de la Ramaz (4 Tours), and Col de Joux Plane (12 Tours).
Like the pros we have team support and domestiques – two Rpm90 vehicles and Jo and Dan on bikes with us. We’ll try to keep together over the first climb as far as the bottom of Col de la Colombiere where inevitably we’ll split into two groups. Before we start I know I’ll be in the second group. There’s no way I’ll get through today if I try and smash my way round. As if I could smash my way round anyway.
Col des Aravis
The Aravis is a pleasant introduction to the day to come. The sun shines on the names painted on the road, a reminder that just yesterday the peloton rode these very same roads. After an initial ramp from the village of Flumet the gradient eases and then drops for a kilometre or so before a bridge over L’Arrondine river where the road starts to rise again, through the village of Les Giettaz and beyond into mountain pasture and meadows. At the top we regroup at a cafe for a coffee and to decide which group we might want to ride in. The plan being we’ll aim to get to the bottom of the Colombiere together before dividing. This doesn’t quite work and we split somewhere between here and there. I’m in a group with Tom, Andy and John with Jo on domestique duties.
Col de la Colombiere
The climb itself is lovely but oh man, the descent! It’s spectacularly fast swoopy and brilliant and twisty and terrifying and goes on forever and ever and ever. Sublime.
Col de la Ramaz
The bottom section isn’t so bad but the sun is beating down, the heat sapping energy needed to climb. I can smell warm tarmac as I twist and turn through switchbacks. In my head I’m Contador dancing effortlessly on the pedals but I know the reality is more an overweight Froome mauling the bike whilst staring at the stem. Out of the tight turns and trees into a gorge and it all goes revolting. Rocks and weather are closing in on me and I’m hating every second, the tunnels are no better as the sound of motorbike engines echo and buzz around me. It only adds to my annoyance, anger even. This is shit. No, I am shit. Every pedal stroke is pain. It’s an ugly bit of mountain in more ways that one and is followed by a scruffy bit, but then turning a corner, literally and metaphorically, it opens out into a picturesque plateau. Pain and hate subside in direct proportion to the easing incline. Sunshine returns along with my happiness. Three down, only one more to go.
Col de Joux Plane
By the time we hit the Joux Plane I am running on little more than fumes. It doesn’t start well with the first couple of kilometres being at an abrupt angle up though the houses on the edge of Samoens and then it all becomes an arduous slow motion blur. Our little group has separated on the lower slopes and I am hanging off the back, staring at the tarmac just ahead of my front wheel. Tom I can see ahead when the road straightens for long enough, John has disappeared. Andy and I sit about 20 metres apart, Jo riding back and forth between to make sure we’re okay (or rather that we don’t give up). I tack into the gradient on one particularly steep part, out of the saddle, breathing heavily. I am sure the views from up here are stunning but I have tunnel vision focused on the bit of road in front of me. There would be some photos of this climb if I wasn’t concerned that the effort required to pull my phone from my pocket will inevitably end with me lying crumpled on the floor.
Into the the trees and it starts to rain. My gilet is in the Rpm90 van that is up the road somewhere so I grab Jo’s as he is wearing his rain jacket. More hairpins and the smell of wet pine, then we’re on the side of the mountain again. The view is obscured by cloud again, much like yesterday. The road snakes for a few kilometres and every corner I think, I hope, is the one we saw the helicopter come around yesterday. That would mean less than a kilometre to go and once I get to Mint Sauce I know it flattens enough for a brief respite. But no, there’s still two or three kilometres to go. By now everything hurts but I am gaining on Andy who is gaining on Tom. I concentrate on pedaling, there can’t be much further to go. I might even be able to big ring the last few hundred metres like the riders yesterday. I try and fail, clicking back down again before slumping over my bars as I cross the white King of the Mountains line painted across the road. I stare at my feet and swear quietly to myself.
As we set off for the final descent I realise my front disc brake has failed. It makes a hideous squealing noise but otherwise is completely ineffectual. Having ridden down here yesterday I know that it is going to be sketchy as hell with just a rear brake, especially in the rain. Marvellous, I was hoping for an easy ride back into Morzine after that last ascent. Thus follows eleven kilometres of me dragging the rear brake almost all the way, occasionally needing to let go so my cold hand doesn’t cramp, picking up speed at an alarming rate before clasping the lever again. Jo and I stop under some trees and I pull the front cable through the caliper vainly hoping it starts working. It doesn’t. Three corners on Jo grabs at my rear pockets to stop me falling off the side of the mountain, before riding just in front of me elbow out so I can lean into it to scrub yet more speed off. Into a sharp hairpin nearing Morzine I bounce my right foot along the grass verge so I make it around upright. Tired and cold I stumble and shuffle down the mountainside into town. I thank Jo for helping me to not die.
A bracing swim in Lac de Montriond before saying goodbye to the mountains.
Thanks to Nick from Rpm90 for organising a brilliant weekend, and to Angela, Jo, Dan, and Nick’s mum and dad for team support all weekend (special mention for Angela for shouting/screaming encouragement and handing out Haribo all the way up Joux Plane). Thanks also to all the other riders; Andy, John, Tom, Dan, Mark, Greg, Simon, and Matt.
An overwhelming desire to be somewhere else. The overnight ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe. 130 kilometre potter around a corner of Normandy. Lunch and a nap on a beach. The evening ferry back to Sussex. Stopping off on the way home (avec vin, formage et saucisse) to meet friends in Hidden Valley. Waking up on the side of a hill.
Riding on the edge. Not the ragged edge but the blurred edge of what I think is possible.
Travelling along ancient ways, drove roads and holloways. Ignoring the red and yellow lines on the map, following the narrow white lines left behind, the back roads and short cuts. Forgoing busy thoroughfares as if using a map from another era, reading a deeper layer of information, one buried in time, less frenetic. A list of coded instructions and matching place names with raised letters in flaking paint on wooden signposts entangled in, and being pulled into, overgrown hedgerows. Pointers fallen out of usefulness, only locals use these roads and they already know the way. Main roads are sometimes crossed; underpasses, bridges, crossroads. More often than not they are witnessed as sunlight glinting from car windows somewhere over there in the distance or a muffled noise beyond a treeline.
There’s no rush unless I want there to be. I need to be somewhere by some time, not a specific time but a window of opportunity. Names in squares on a card in my pocket match co-ordinates on a map. These points matter and don’t matter in equal measure, they are visited to collect stamps and receipts, or scribble down information from postboxes and pub signs. New places as well as those once visited, memories of varying vintage triggered by words on signposts, names signifying more than simply a place. New connections are made between here and there. These places are chosen not to be visited as such but to prove I rode between them, it’s the spaces between these places that really matter. I’m reading between the lines of the routesheet. Skirting the edges of places, the outskirts and perimeters. Scruffy bits and suburbs, 24 hour petrol stations next to industrial estates.
I ride with my shadow but the sky ahead is a charcoal smudge across the horizon. Land melds into air with no clear delineation and then I feel spots of rain, leave shadows behind for a while. The rain ceases and my shadow returns to slowly drying roads. I have a tailwind for now but I know I’ll run out of land soon and have to turn along a coast. I’ll no longer be chased by the weather but will confront it head on, hopefully a gentle play fight rather than a right good kicking.
There’s no order to start and end of days but a slow transition between light and dark, part of a larger cycle. Our star is replaced by millions of suns wheeling around the darkened sky until the horizon spins into light again. Dawn and twilight, transitory times of desaturated hues and soft focus. Three dimensional space blurs and morphs as the light dissipates, soon becoming silhouettes that dissolve into the night sky. My headlight finds a seam in the black, cleaving open the darkness. The palette changes, surrounded by black the colours in my light beam are intensified and accentuated, unreal, hyperreal.
It’s at this times that things don’t always appear to be what they are. The narrowing field of vision concentrates the view, things glimpsed on the edges of sight become other things, my mind fills in the gaps, plays tricks. Memories long buried creep to the surface, unexpected thoughts fill the parts of my head not concentrating on keeping me upright and moving forward. Like the lanes I follow my thoughts twist and turn away from the main thoroughfares, finding lost thoughts and buried memories, more old ways and dead ends. Things I hoped I’d forgotten or wish to forget crawl from the recesses to the front of my mind. Tiredness creeps into my being, time becomes malleable. If time is a line on a piece of paper it’s as if the sheet has been scrunched and folded like the route sheet in my pocket, but unlike that list time is disordered and non-linear, it seems to be in flux, I lose and gain and lose time in unexpected chunks. I want to stop but I carry on regardless.
I hear dawn before I see it. Birdsong fills the sky calling the light. Day slowly pulls into focus allowing my mind to do the same. My body and resolve are refreshed by the light, the ride becomes maybe not a joy but at least feasible again. Another county border is crossed, in a way I’m back where I started but there is still a way to go. The doubts creep back, it would be so easy to just stop. It makes so much sense to stop. However I’ve got this far, I can’t stop now. There’s a handful of instructions left, only one more box to stamp.
There’s an emptiness when I finish and not just physically. That last stamp is like the last sentence, the last word, in a book I’ve got lost in. Closing the cover that world I inhabited alone is consigned to memory. A brevet card to add to the pile. Another story on the bookshelf.
biplanes over rolling Cambridgeshire fields, skylark song the aural equivalent to the shapes of the wind in the crops
outrunning thundering clouds along the northern edge of Essex
an ancient Ford Excort smelling of spliffs and knackered gaskets
rainbow fringed clouds and dark watercolour smudges across the endless horizon
the smell of a two-stroke triggers memories of riding a Vespa to the ferry at Harwich
actual white stilettos in Essex (Clacton-on-Sea, Saturday night)
losing my way and my temper in Wivenhoe
on the path along the river in the pitch black not sure who was more freaked out, me or those deer
thumping bass bins and snarling exhausts in Braintree (one in the morning)
really not sure i want to do this anymore
tea and pasta in a candlelit village hall surrounded by snoring randonneurs
i’ll just lie on the floor for five minutes
an hour later
the undersides of clouds glowing red then pink then orange as blue light creeps into the sky as the dawn chorus fades out
the Danbury mountain (copyright Alex Dowsett, i think)
staring at my feet on a petrol station forecourt
this road is starting to get tedious
audaxing is ridiculous. absolutely stupid.
i quite fancy a swim in that river
disc wheels and pointy helmets. a cheery “morning” from a hi-viz marshal
slow rolling over rolling countryside
a place name on a signpost signifies more than simply a place
the final stamp, a sausage sandwich, a pint of coke