600km audax – Ben Allen’s Summer Tour

Another update from David, our Audax Correspondent:

I’m sure everyone has something they say they’ll never do, whilst knowing deep down they’ll change their mind at some point and do it anyway. I certainly do, as that something was a 600km audax.

In case you don’t know, audaxes are simply rides of a set distance that have to be completed by passing through a number of checkpoints (controls) along the way. It’s definitely not a race – all you have to do is complete the ride within a set time limit to succeed – and there is a strong emphasis on self-sufficiency: you navigate for yourself and most of the time fuel yourself with whatever sources of food you can carry or buy on the route (although sometimes food will be provided at controls, and where it isn’t, the route will nearly always take in a decent cafe or three). My first audax was about six years ago now, and despite many 200km, 300km and even the odd 400km, I’d always sworn off going any further than could be covered in one (albeit sometimes very very long) day. A 600 requires either stopping to grab some sleep, then rising again to complete the ride on already tired legs, or – for the hardiest few – riding straight through from start to finish and spending 24+hours on the bike in more-or-less one go.

And yet now I’d signed up to that thing I said I’d never do, and found myself setting off, along with 150 other souls, at the ungodly (but nothing unusual by audax standards) hour of 5am on Saturday morning from a village hall just outside Tewkesbury, on a winding route across mid Wales and back that would hopefully see me back where I started sometime on Sunday.

I rolled off at what I hoped was a pace steady enough to be sustainable for 600km, sitting in a few groups of other riders as they came and went. The first 100km took me along roads largely familiar to me, initially from other audaxes (and at one point, from a road race), and once the route entered Wales near Monmouth, from some of our longer Sunday club runs. After a huge breakfast at Talybont on Usk I’d ticked off 110km by 9.30am and headed north on more familiar roads as far as Builth Wells, before an hour and a half of lumpy slog into the wind to reach Llandovery. Indeed, the next 24 hours would hold a lot of ‘lumpy slog’ in store: although the route only featured one really big climb, there’s no particularly flat way to ride around mid Wales.

With almost 200km and after another cafe stop, it was straight uphill out of Llandovery, but on quiet and picturesque lanes. The next 200km through the afternoon and into the evening was some of the most enjoyable of the route, helped by almost perfect weather: warm but not hot, bright but not too sunny, and a gentle breeze that gradually went from headwind to tailwind as I struck out for the west coast, skirted along it and then turned inland again. I took my time, took in the views and marveled at the almost total absence of traffic. A flatter section, again familiar from other audaxes, took me north again, through Tregaron via a quick pitstop for coffee and to refill the jersey pockets with food. Soon the road started up again towards Devil’s Bridge, and after a long, and steep in places, climb I crested and followed the edge of a ridge in the early evening light with views out to the Irish Sea. Skirting the edge of Aberystwyth I was now as far west as I would go, but still not quite halfway – that point lay another hour up the road at Machynlleth. When I reached this point it was 7.30pm, so I made another quick pitstop for food and pressed on to make the most of the daylight, as the next control – and a few hours sleep – was still almost 100km away.

Fortunately the going was good to Newtown, on fast but quiet roads with a gentle but nonetheless welcome tailwind. I shared the work with a few others and 50km was covered in next to no time, before my companions turned off for a refuel at that audax fixture, the 24 hour McDonalds. I pressed on in the fading light to tackle the biggest climb of the ride, up to Dolfor and beyond.

By the time I crested the top of the climb the last of the sunset was fading on the horizon behind me, but it was now only 40km – nearly all downhill – to the overnight control. First I just had to make it down a steep and technical stretch of descent in the darkness. Fortunately no bends were overcooked and no wildlife leapt under my wheels – although once the gradient eased to a more gentle downhill, I was treated to the sight of a barn owl taking flight from the tarmac in front of me and flying ahead of me, lit up by my lights, for a few moments.

With the descent out of the way I stopped in a sleepy village and sat in a bus shelter for a snack. I’d now been awake for 20 hours and in the saddle for most of them, so I made sure not to got too comfortable for fear of nodding off. I got on my way again and reached the overnight control – a village hall in another sleepy village – at 11.30PM. After gratefully shovelling down plenty of hot pasta, I changed into clean kit and lay down on one of the row upon row of airbeds provided. Incredibly it took me a while to get to sleep, and before I knew it the 3.45am alarm was going off and it was time to tackle the last 200km.

The “bike park” at the overnight control

The 150km covered that morning were more slog, either into the wind or up and down hills. Physically, I had reached something of a ‘steady state’: my legs were tired, but not really getting any more tired as the distance racked up, as long as I didn’t try to push hard. But my upper body, particularly my hands and neck, was protesting in ways I’d never experienced before, and I was finding it difficult to hold an efficient position – or any one position – for long before I’d have to get out the saddle and stretch. My spirits were also dampened by a lack of decent food on this leg of the route. A 4am breakfast seemed a long time ago, and in rural Hertfordshire in the very early hours of Sunday morning, there’s a distinct lack of places open at which to refuel. I eked out what little food I had over the 75km to the first control, but this was just a petrol station offering very nothing I really felt like eating. I promised myself a cafe stop at Mitchel Troy garden centre an hour down the road: this would come at 100km to go, and a good meal there would see me through to the finish. To my dismay when I got there it was still too early and they were closed! Making do with an eccles cake and half a Mars Bar bought earlier I had no option but to forge on.

The next hour to the Severn Bridge was a low ebb. This was the last hilly stretch of the ride and it was a struggle, compounded by the wind and now occasional rain. I was relieved to hit the outskirts of Chepstow, knowing that just a few km of being battered by crosswind on the Severn Bridge separated me from easy, flat roads all the way to the finish. I finally reached a cafe (that was open!) at Shepherd’s Patch, the last control, but with barely 40km to go I settled for a quick coffee and pressed on to the finish, arriving just before 3pm, 34 hours after setting out.

Cardiff Ajax has lots of active audax members and many events start from the Cardiff area. You can find out more about audax and find local events here: https://www.audax.uk