Offa’s Dyke & the Flatlands – 600km at the second attempt

Having failed to complete Offa’s Dyke, my attempt at a 600km ride earlier in the year – I thought I’d have a go at the Flatlands – a far less hilly ride up the east of England, from Essex to Yorkshire and back.  It was also an excuse to get back out on my bike for a long ride to ease withdrawal symptoms from the Transcontinental.

There was a pleasing symmetry to it as Offa’s Dyke had been my last big ride before I tapered for the TCR and the Flatlands was my first big ride, a month after I had finished.

Offa’s Dyke

Offa’s Dyke is a hilly 600km which starts near Shrewsbury, goes down to Chepstow, then round Wales a bit, back to Upton Magna, then has a loop north on the Sunday.  I had, somewhat optimistically, decided to make it a bit harder by riding out overnight from London, an extra 250km or so.  I was going to use the weekend as a last long workout for my legs, and also to try out plan B bike luggage, which consisted of getting rid of my Alpkit Possum frame bag, which I’d found didn’t hold much, and my Apidura saddle bag, which is a pain to access, especially when full. For this trip they were replaced with a small triangle bag between my bottles and a rack and rack pack – not so trendy and a bit more weight but a lot easier and quicker to use.  I was also trying out a phone mount with OSMAnd maps as my back-up navigation

Riding out

A few quick sums told me that I needed to set off at 2pm to make it there for the 6am start and get some sleep beforehand.  At Great Missenden, about 4okm, the bike started making a noise.   Stopping to check I realised that a bolt holding the rack had gone loose and fallen out.  This was a bit of a problem but I managed to steal one from somewhere less critical on the bike, replace it with a cable tie, and use its bolt for the rack.  That worked but wasn’t perfect so, seeing a garage on the other side of Great Missenden, I stopped to see if they had a bolt of the right size in their drawer.  They did, and they had some threadlock too, so I got back on the road happy with my set-up but having lost half an hour.

My route headed on in a straight line, through the Chilterns, past Banbury, Bicester, Stratford on Avon and so on.  Some roads were familiar but, increasingly as I headed away from London, many were not.  Night fell and I found myself on some lovely, deserted and completely dark lanes, bypassing Birmingham to the south-west.

At one point I managed to navigate myself onto a pretty busy, major A-road, but I got off it fairly soon and it was fine.  At Telford, which I reached after midnight, I’d planned to get onto some fast A roads and made good progress.

I passed the Shawbirch roundabout where the 24-hour time trial normally has its southern turn, and saw that it was completely dug up – hence the course change for this year’s event.  And, shortly afterwards, I rolled in to Upton Magna at about 2:30am.  I went into the field behind the village hall where people were camping and got out my bivvy things and climbed in – looking forward to a couple of hours’ sleep.

Sleepless night

Just as I’d settled, it started raining.  It didn’t rain much, and fortuitously, I was under a tree, which kept most of it off me.   But the noise or the rain, and the fear that it would get worse, just annoyed me enough to keep me awake for the next couple of hours.  So I got up just after 5, got ready, went in to the hall, signed on, grabbed a couple of pieces of toast, filled my bottles, said hello to a couple of people I knew and got ready to set-off.

The ride

6:00 came and I was off, in a group of about 20, making good pace down the lanes.  For about six minutes.  Then I realised that I’d not put my bottles back on the bike.  I could press on, and use a mineral water bottle when I found a shop.  But there’d be nothing open for hours.  So I turned back, got my bottles and set off again on my own.

Slowly.

Having lost the group, I was more conscious how tired I was feeling.  Also the countryside was like corrugated iron in profile – up – down – up – down – up …

I didn’t catch anyone else up all day.  Notable high and low lights were:

  • Getting to the first checkpoint to find that I was so far behind everyone else that the organiser, assuming everyone was through, had packed up and left.
  • Losing my brevet card after about 50km, then retracing back (down a hill) and finding it – as well as a few golf scorecards and takeaway menus – at the side of the road
  • Getting completely soaked in a really heavy downpour just before Hay on Wye
  • Exchanging greetings at the top of the Gospel Pass with another rider who reached the top coming from the other side at exactly the same second
  • Being in a lot of pain from my neck on the long descent from the Gospel Pass and thinking that I was really going to struggle with descents in the Alps.
  • Finding myself on some roads, going through Raglan and heading south, which I recognised from the Welsh 12 hour.

I don’t usually like abandoning things that I’ve committed to, but my motivation to complete the ride was starting to unwind.  I usually make decent time on audaxes but, today, the hilly terrain, 250km overnight rather than sleep, and lack of company all day, meant I was really bumping along on the time limit.  This was ok, but I’d booked a train back at about 6pm on the Sunday evening.  And, having not slept, I was going to need to sleep that night.  As I needed to be back for a meeting at work on Monday, there wasn’t time.  It was clear to me that I was going to have to abandon the ride at some point, so I decided I’d call it a day at Chepstow.

That made it just over 400km in just over 24 hours with more than 5000m of climbing.  That was enough of a ride.  The sun came out, as I considered the new plan – long descent into Chepstow, train home, sleep in my own bed and free day tomorrow!  As I did the descent, I saw lots of other riders climbing back out of the town to continue.  I realised I wasn’t far behind them.  But it was too late; I’d made my mind up – I was going home.  Oh, how I enjoyed waving to them all and shouting greetings, and wishing them luck!

The Flatlands

The TCR came and went, I was in great shape and missing being out on my bike.  I looked at the Audax calendar and saw the Flatlands temptingly in early September, and I was in.

The plan was to ride straight round, get back to Great Dunmow for breakfast or brunch time on the Sunday, have a nap, then drive home when I felt ok.

It didn’t work out quite like that as I had a day when lots went wrong which led to me doing an extra 70km over distance, but enough went right for it to work out.

I was delayed at the start trying to fix my front brake which was rubbing after I put the wheel back in.  That meant I missed milling around and chatting to people, and also that I set off 5 or so minutes late, on my own again.  But this time, I was going well.  I quickly caught and passed most of the field by the first control at Red Lodge At one point I passed a group of 12 riders who were, rather uncharitably, drafting behing a trike.  I was also overtaken by one rider going very fast who I didn’t see again.

The rain started just before Red Lodge, and fell steadily for a couple of hours.

At the second control I chatted to Chris Philips, who I had last seen at the start of Offa’s Dyke, outside the shop at Whittlesey.  I wrongly predicted that we had had most of the day’s rain!  Then my navigation started to unravel.  First, on the way into Boston, my Garmin said it couldn’t see satellites (it was wet and cloudy, but it’s a pretty critical requirement for a GPS).  I just followed signs for the town centre, and dived into Marks & Spencer for food, and to set up my back-up navigation on my phone.  This wasn’t such a problem as I have a waterproof bag that the phone goes in, in the mount on my bars.  But the touch-screen doesn’t work well with waterlogged fingers, so I struggled to find my way out of Boston with a few wrong turnings.

Eventually I did, and met three other riders: CET, Flandlander and Burlycross at some lights on the way out of town, just as someone’s bag dropped off onto the road.  We rode together loosely for a while.  I dropped back when I couldn’t close one of my bags after getting a rather yummy M&S pain aux raisin out!  Then I caught up, and just before Kirton Lindsay (the next control), I was riding with Burlycross when my phone battery died.  The waterproof bag doesn’t allow me to plug in a battery pack, so it would be a bit of a hassle to get it sorted.

Losing my way

I then committed the cardinal sin of audax navigation – relying on someone else for navigation – and said, ‘I’ll just follow you to the next control’ – which I was expecting to be about 10 minutes, based on our time and quick tailwind-assisted speed – ‘and I’ll sort out my phone there’.  Signs for Kirton came and went.  At one point I said ‘some vandals have turned that sign round the wrong way’ when I saw one pointing backwards.  Then there were no more signs.  ‘How far is it to the control?’ and ‘This is a long 90km’, I said.  But still we rode on, enjoying what was, for me, new countryside, chatting away and enjoying a pleasant ride.  Eventually, just before 6:15pm, it became clear that he hadn’t realised there was a control at Kirton and we were almost at Goole!

My heart sank.  Goole was the next control, at which point the ride turned back to head south.  What to do: Just ride on and not bother about validation?  Plead with Tomsk, the organiser, that I’d done the route just not got the receipt?  No – I decided I’d do it properly and ride back.  I thought it might be an hour.  It was an hour and a half.  I waved to all the riders going the right way.  The first few I knew: Chris Herbert – riding well after having a nasty shoulder injury a few weeks ago – Flatlander, CET, Chris Philips….  Then loads of others – probably most of the people I’d passed on the first leg to Red Lodge!

I made it Kirton Lindsay at 7:45, as dusk was falling.  It turned out we’d actually missed the town out on the way out, so it was good to see it.  While eating a sandwich in the town square, I was grateful to a couple of riders who kindly indulged me by listening to my story.

I set off back for Goole, now properly in the dark.  At 9:30pm I passed the point where I’d been at 6:15 – and was pleased to be, once again, moving forward – but was now seeing the stream of riders passing me in the other direction once more – this time only as lights in the dark.

Next, my phone batteries started to fade again.  My phone has become quite picky about which wires it will consent to take charge from.  I had three battery packs, but only one wire, which it was happy with on the TCR and which it had taken charge from earlier that day but, now, it was not having it.  I was down to 20% battery, and thought I’d have to buy elastic bands at Goole to strap the route sheet to my arm.  However, I gave the Garmin another try and, with the now clear night sky, it picked up satellites again, and I was back in business.  Navigationally at least – there was still a bit of riding to be done!

Back on track

It was a cold night.  My gear wasn’t warm enough to sleep out and I was still fresh when I got to Sleaford at about 4:30am (and visited the McDonalds, where I saw the guys bedding down on the benches).  An hour after Sleaford, though, I started to get sleepy, and started to look for a spot.  I reckoned that, if I stopped for an hour or so, the sun would be up when I woke and it would be starting to get warmer, so I would  be ok.  That worked well (although the benchless bus shelters of Lincolnshire are not up to the standard of ones in Croatia, Macedonia and Greece that I have slept in recently!).

I enjoyed riding through the fens in the sun on the way back, with hardly any wind.  The stretch back from Chatteris was a highlight as I recalled it from my first 200km ride – the Flitchbikes in 2010.

The road surfaces either side of Cambridge were awful!  The famous busway was closed for maintenance so I had to go through some rutted back lanes to Girton.  On the way out of the city I helped rescue a woman who had come off her bike when some gladioli she was carrying in her basket fell out and went into her front wheel!

The last hilly bit – around Saffron Walden and Thaxted – was good fun and I enjoyed attacking the climbs, before getting back to Dunmow just after 2pm.  I felt pretty fresh, pleased to be back out on my bike and happy to claim my SR.  The next day I heard that one of the other riders had beaten the course record, getting back to Dunmow well before breakfast time.  I also claimed a course record, having ridden 70km further than everyone else!

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