Tuesday 27 July 2004

A Journey to the Bottom of the Sea

Over the course of this year I've been hearing about audaxes and thinking about trying one. Finally, one came up which was reasonably near home and a manageable distance: 114 kilometres. I took my twelve-year-old Raleigh Record Sprint, which is not really a very good bike in a lot of ways but is fast and comfortable for long distances. It was pretty much standard apart from a Brooks saddle and Shimano SPD-R pedals.

An Inauspicious Start

Start was at Coldingham Beach at 9.00am. I arrived at 8.30, unpacked
my bike from the car, assembled it (carefully, I thought), walked
over to the control table and signed my name on the sheet. Sitting on
the grass by the control table was someone with a long black ponytail
who was clearly Jon Senior, so I greeted him and we chatted a little
and then I started organising my gear - again, carefully, as I
thought. Finally nine o'clock rolled round, and Bruce Lees (the
organiser) said his bit, and the whole bunch - about twenty five
bikes, including one tandem - set off. Up the first hill was fine.

As soon as we started the descent the back of my bike started making
seriously unhappy noises - noises that sounded like an imminently
failing rear wheel bearing. I stopped, got off, and messed, and Jon
stopped to offer support. I couldn't see anything (apart from a
sticky rear brake caliper, which I knew about) wrong. After a bit of
fiddling we set off again. By now the peloton was out of sight. I was
pretty doubtful about my fitness to complete seventy-five miles, and
really didn't want to be dropped - I wanted to stay with the bunch
for the morale advantages that offers. So I sprinted for a mile or
so, until I'd caught the rear of the peloton. And then I noticed Jon
wasn't with me, so I eased up, and he still wasn't with me, so I
circled back. I found Jon with a broken front deraileur - the bolt
holding the band had pulled out (Shimano 105: cheese, or possibly,
given its provenance, tofu). Jon screwed the bolt back in and we
continued on a mile or so, by which time I had become aware that my
computer wasn't working... because I'd put my front wheel in back to
front, so the magnet wasn't on the same side as the pickup. And I
hadn't got my mitts on.

Jon's front deraileur band failed a second time and I used the
opportunity while he took it off to turn my front wheel round. From
this point on my computer was working, athough I had to add five
miles to the distance it showed to get our true distance. We set off
again, by now a long way behind the main pack. Jon navigated, and I
was glad to let him. We carried on at my best pace (which was clearly
less than Jon's) for some miles until we caught up with another
straggler. I told Jon to go on and not wait for me, and for some time
I and the straggler (a serious looking cyclist with a good audax
bike, but looking ten years older than me) carried on together for
some miles. As we crossed the Tweed on an old suspension bridge she
said to me to go on ahead, and I did so, arriving at the village of

Before leaving home I'd printed out the route sheet (which had been
emailed to me) several point sizes bigger than the official one so
that I could read it without reading glasses, and I'd tucked it into
my map slieve behind the map I'd printed out and marked as best I
could. Here, though, the map was ambiguous, so I looked behind it for
the crib sheet... and it wasn't there. I remembered I'd tucked the
hotel booking in with it and I assume I'd pulled it out there and
then left it. Panic! The straggler caught up with me, and, as we
consulted her sheet, Jon (who had taken a wrong turning and got lost)
caught up with us too. We went on, and I stayed with Jon, cycling
through gently rolling countryside towards our first control point at
Etal. At Etal we found that we were not, after all, last - three
riders were still awaited. I was given a new route sheet, but found
that, without reading glasses (which I'd purposely not brought) I
couldn't really read it.

This was the point at which a sensible person would have given up. I
couldn't read the directions, I had an undiagnosed but serious
sounding mechanical problem with the bike (and suspected it was the
drive side rear wheel bearing), and I was clearly not fit enough to
stay with the main group. However, we'd done OK so far, and so I
decided to carry on at least until the next control.

A Senior Moment

At this point I should stop and say what an excellent riding companion
Jon Senior was. I had never met him before. He was a lot fitter than
me and climbed much better - he could easily have left me on any of
the climbs, and probably on the flat. He waited for me again and
again when he could have gone on with other riders. And he took the
full burden of navigation. Of course I physically could have
completed the course without him. But I would not have. By myself, my
morale would not have been good enough, particularly in the last
twenty miles, when I suspect I was probably pretty whiney and not at
all good company. Jon stuck with me, and I'm very grateful to him.

Straight On at Crossroads

The next few miles from Etal were very pleasant riding. The wind,
which was clearly sturdy, was at first a crosswind and then
increasingly a following wind, and the terrain, although rolling,
tended downhill. Soon we crossed a ridge and could see causeway to
Lindisfarne ahead of us. The minor road we were on descended fairly
steeply towards it, and the wind was helping us down at a good 35

The next guidance on the cribsheet was 'SO at Xrds'.

Well, I knew my brakes were pretty much crap. They're old Weinmann
single pivot calipers, and the return spring on the rear caliper has
lost most of its spring. I had been planning to treat myself to a
really good set of new brakes for the trip, but it hadn't happened.
And anyway, there was probably some flat land at the bottom of the
hill to slow down. And anyway, a crossroads, 50-50 chance we'll have
right of way, and if we don't, these little country roads don't have
much taffic on them...

Hang on, that's the A1!

I found that my brakes were a little better than I had thought they
were, if you really try. Across the A1, across a level crossing
over the East Coast Main Line, and out onto the sandy, open littoral.
By this time it was clear that our tailwind is really sturdy. We tore
down the road and out across the bottom of the sea at a steady, easy
27mph - on the dead flat. The surface on the causeway itself - which
I'd been anxious about, since the tide sweeps across it twice a day -
was excellent. Across onto the island, and the wind still with us we
continued to tear along. Now we met the leaders of our audax heading
back, and exchanged greetings. At the post office we had our brevet
cards stamped again, and I asked Jon what he planned to do. We agreed
we'd head back more or less straight away.

Blow Wind and Crack Your Cheeks

Well, we knew we had a wind to face. Out across the island towards the
causeway I worked downwards through all the gears I'd got, one at a
time, until I was in my lowest (which, at 42x21, is still 56" so not
very low), and the speed was down to under 10 mph. On the causeway it
was clean, laminar wind, very steady; but blowing at least force
five. It was frankly a battle. Ahead was a yellow jacket, which we
were gradually chasing down. Finally we caught up to a much older
rider on an old but good tourer, exchanged a few words, and passed
him. Back across the railway, back across the A1, and back up that
long hill into the teeth of the wind.

It felt like too much. It felt like I couldn't do it. The old
gentleman on the tourer passed us, and before long the newspaper that
had been in his saddlebag came drifting back to us one sheet at a
time, as if he was throwing out ballast. As the hill steepened Jon
was creeping away from me. Finally I cracked. I could not do it. I
got off and pushed up to the top. And at the top, Jon was again
waiting, cheering me up and urging me on.

At each bend the wind seemed to move with us, making each turn of the
pedals a struggle. Even the downhills were hard work. We reached the
50 mile point, and I was very much aware that my legs were now in
uncharted territory - I hadn't ridden so far in one go for at least
ten years. But mostly I felt OK. I wasn't feeling too tired, and,
apart from one thing I'll come to in a minute, I wasn't really sore.
I was, however, aware that I was slowing Jon down quite a lot, and
that I should tell him to go on - and also aware that if he did I
would probably give up.

Yo' Feet's too big

The real problem that was sapping my morale was a very painful left
foot. I have short but wide feet. I had only one pair of cycling
shoes which are extremely comfortable - my winter SIDIs. But the
weather forecast was for sun and gentle winds, and I'd assumed they'd
be too warm. So, in Edinburgh on Friday, I'd gone to look for a pair
of summer shoes which would fit. The only pair I could find that were comfortable were a
beautiful pair of don't-look-at-the-price SIDIs. But they didn't have
an adaptor for ordinary SPDs, so I'd had to buy a pair of pedals as
well (I bought SPD-Rs, mainly because they were cheaper than any of
the other pedals which would do, and the bill was looking very

Obviously it isn't sensible to go for a long ride with new shoes and
an unfamiliar cleat system, but...

At about fifty miles my left foot was really hurting - very painful
indeed. Eventually at an information control I got off the bike, sat
down and took my shoe off. For five minutes I wiggled my toes in
bliss, and then faced the issue of putting it back on again. I
loosened off the ratchets, slipped my foot in, and... comfort. I'd
obviously just overtightened it before. We rattled down into Berwick
and caught up with some other riders at the control there, and things
started to look brighter. But then the route took us inland again,
once more climbing steadily into the wind. As we came to the A1 the
routing instructions were ambiguous. Jon and I got lost, and then
just about caught the tail of the bunch at the crossing of the A1.
From the A1 the route climbed on, and Jon was keeping with the group.
I couldn't. Once more I was being dropped.

I must go down to the seas today

I struggled on up the hill, and at the top Jon was waiting again. I
was getting slower and slower on the climbs, and recovering slower
and slower at the tops of them, still fighting into the wind. Finally
the route turned from northwest to northeast, and we started to
descend again towards the coast, and once again the wind was with us.
I didn't exactly feel tired, and I wasn't any longer uncomfortable,
but my legs seemed to have lost their ability to clear lactic acid.
Fortunately the climbs got fewer and shorter and the descents longer.
Eventually we descended through Coldingham village, down to the
beach, took our shoes off and wiggled our toes in the sand.

At the end we didn't do badly. We finished at 4, seven hours on the
road. It was an hour longer than I'd hoped. We averaged 12.1 miles an
hour while we were rolling, and 10.7 mph (17.2km/h) over all. That's
not a good time for an audax, of course, but even the experienced
audaxers had found the wind tough going. Control was, I believe, still waiting
for another twelve riders (out of about 25 starters) when we loaded
the bikes into the truck and left. So that counts as mid-table

I did enjoy most of it and I'm glad I did it. It was much tougher than
I expected, and I'm not certain I'll do it again. Certainly not
without a good riding companion, and probably not without knowing the

Lessons learned? Prepare. Jon and I were the only first-timers and the
only people (so far as I know) to suffer mechanical problems. My
mysterious noise appears to be something to do with a mis-adjusted
front deraileur; in addition the cable clamp bolt on my rear
deraileur was slipping through the day, but fortunately not so far
that I couldn't select all gears and the joy of non-indexed
deraileurs is they don't go out of indexing. My front inner tube also
had a slow leak which necessitated three or four pumping stops,
although I was able to do all but one of these at controls. Finally,
doing an audax on a bike which is really not set up for climbing was
a mistake. I should have fitted much wider range gears.

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The fool on the hill by Simon Brooke is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License