Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Invicta 600 Audax, 11/12 June

I wrote most of this over a week ago, but never got around to posting it. Better late than never!

The Audax Men in Black were working overtime last Sunday (the 12th). Normally it takes until at least a few hours after a long ride for the memory of the pain to start to recede and the satisfaction to tempt you into enjoying the thought of the next one.
Not so this weekend. After approximately 620km of a non-stop (if only varying in intensity) subconscious train of thought enumerating all the ways in which I was not enjoying myself, it was with the final 15km of dragging through the rain that I suddenly realised that, actually, yes I would be doing it all again next weekend. Clearly those Men in Black hang out in Tunbridge Wells on their day off, or something.
The ride started out pretty average. A 4am alarm call had us in the car well before 5, and and so the tandem was unloaded and we were happily slurping tea in Seven Oaks Weald scout hut before most of the field rolled up. The route was more or less the same as we had completed 2 years ago, as our first ever 600. One significant difference was the start point had moved down the road from Otford, and this presented the first shock: climbing up Glebe road to join the previous route is quite a brutal way to start out a ride, and within a few hundred meters we were down in the lowest of our "super granny" gears; one of only three outings for her all weekend.
At 16km we had our next concern - a flat rear tyre before we'd even reached Otford. This can either signify a pure random occurrence, or the beginning of the end of a Gatorskin tyre were it has been known to pull itself appart in just a few hundred kms. With over 400 to go before we returned to the HQ and our spare, we wondered if we'd made an error. Fortunately things picked up after that and we were able to settle into a better rhythm for the first few stages.
I was now able to make some observations about how the body was looking like it would hold up to the challenge. I knew from our previous weekend's extremely enjoyable if quite tough 200km in Wales - the enticingly titled Cambrian 2B - that I should now be able to manage the condition of my right knee. On occasion it would tingle or give a sudden twinge of pain, but not the slow creeping warmth building to a sustained hot pain I had before. And I when I notice it, I can concentrate on using my quads in a more controlled and applied manner, and it will subside. So, not 100% back to normal, but bearable, and under control.
More of a concern was the severe crick I'd put in my neck in the middle of last week, that severely restricted my range of head movement in all directions, and could be extremely uncomfortable. This was an unwelcome re-occurrence of an issue from last year that I'd seen an Osteopath about and thought was solved. Ironically, I think this round was set off by swapping to a new pillow I'd bought specifically bearing in mind said Osteopath's recommendations! (That being, to use a firm pillow that supports side sleeping). Don't change your pillow before a big bike ride. This pain in the neck came and went all through Saturday, but I was able to gradually work it out and loosen it up. The biggest gain came on Sunday though, when a mis-executed U-turn after a wrong turning resulted in us almost spilt across the road: the adrenalin rush was like no other remedy I've tried at loosening the muscle and removing the pain. Amazing, wish they could bottle that stuff.
Back to Saturday, we went through the motions of making our way around. The other big change from 2 years ago was a doubling of the number of "information" controls: it now boasts an unprecedented dozen of them. As I joked to Steve the organiser that it's part bike ride, part pub quiz.
We completed about 6 infos in the first half of Saturday's ride, thankfully giving a clear run back to the HQ without the need to find numbers on signposts in the dark. We managed to miss one heading into Petersfield and then miss the turning, going a small 10km out the way and then navigating back into town via the wrong approach meaning we missed the official control point too. This was the peak of faff for the day, and we left feeling a bit weary for it, and with - for us - the toughest stage of the day to come next. Dragging along the north "foothills" of the South Downs is indeterminable in distance in the twilight, and passes some wonderfully cozy pubs as it goes. It was here in 2009 we had to resolutely stare the other way and treat discussion of such hostelries as taboo, lest one of us should fold and we find ourselves abandoning for warm comforts. Not so this time: I brazenly pointed out to Emma that here we were again, and wouldn’t it be nice to just stop and let go all these crazy cycling PBP plans. And then something unexpected happened that defined the ride.
I had feared that since we broke our unblemished 100% finish rate last year, we might become soft to this. I’d managed to put the Mille Cymru DNF down as a one-off, and unavoidable as I was literally at the point that if we continued and my nose bled became any worse, we’d need to call an ambulance as breathing was getting problematic amongst the warm red rush down my throat. However, April’s second DNF, on the Brevet Cymru (see the pattern in the ride names yet?) was fully elective. Sure my knee was hurting, but at 30km it wasn’t that bad. We could have gone on until 150km and it became completely intolerable. Or who knows, perhaps it would have most improbably disappeared? Anyway, we’re now no strangers to just deciding to pack a ride as it’s not going right, and so maybe we can do it again. Maybe even make a habit of it...
Back to us on the road outside Amberly in the fading dusk, Emma replies: “Yes, we could. But I’d be very disappointed if we didn’t finish this ride”. There. She enunciated the other half of the unspoken contract we each hold the other too: if you give up, I have to give up too. I don’t know how solo riders get through their dark moments like this - even more so those most hardy folks who ride completely self organised (“DIY”) events of this distance. I don’t think I could do it. I know I don’t relish finding out. But on the tandem, there you have it: a partner to support, encourage, entertain, provide solace in these moments. And when necessary, employ guilt to bind you to continue. I was so grateful for it then, and only now realise how important this was.
We were glad to reach the Pyecombe A23 services, which proved to be a challenging shopping experience. It claimed 24 hours, but service window only and the man was not interested in serving the dozen riders coffees who had got there just before us. Oh that we’d been a little quicker on the previous stretch we’d not have been passed by them (for about the 7th time in our hare-and-tortoise progression that day) and got through before them. It turned out for the best though, as their de-facto group leader (alas we picked up no names) asked us if my GPS could confirm a more direct main road route to Turners Hill, avoiding some dark lane navigation at night. We know the route well enough from FNRTTC, and coupled with the GPS could led a good peloton up through Burge’s Hill and Hayward’s Heath.
At Turners Hill we let the group head on; we fancied a stop for a sandwich and felt we’d be happier completing the final stretch back to the night stop at our own pace. Reaching Sevenoaks Weald, just after 400km, was a very welcome sight just before 3am. We managed to not hang around grabbing some food and managed a good 3 hours of sleep in the back of our car. I had worried that it would be a cold night, but if it was I didn’t notice it sleeping solidly from the moment I hit my bed.
In contrast to twilight struggle past Amberly, there was never any question we would not set out again Sunday morning. It’s amazing just how recovered you can feel after a few hours sleep! This often seems to be the hardest part for folks - leaving the comfort of the hall and proximity of their car and heading out for a second day of riding, but I didn’t find it so bad: knowing you “just” need to ride a 200 to make the previous day’s 400 count seems a reasonable trade.
The early stretch out to Sittingbourne went without too much problem; we know this loop well from several prior rides so knew to expect the Stede Hill climb. The soup laid on there was as amazing as ever it was, and we were saddened to hear this is the final time the Phoenix Centre will be used as the controller is retiring to the North.
After that the day continued much as it had 2 years ago! Rolling terrain out to the Whitstable bay coast, interesting and old familiar sights as we went. A difficult to find info control at Reculvor (a question I’m sure we’d had before, but the cottage had changed name and no-one could find the correct answer!). Then the long drag over Wingham towards Ashford. At this point we were right into the headwind, and it started to spot with rain too, but we knew once we turned at Ashford we’d be on the home straight and with the wind behind us. We took a longer break at the Westenhanger services, knowing we had sufficient time in hand, and then indeed got a very pleasant tail wind most of the way back to the Arrivée, more than making up for the more persistent rain that set in as we worked our way back.
So it was likely this smooth run home that put me into elevated spirits, such that before even getting there I’d already changed my mind around fully and was starting to think through what needed doing to prepare for the following weekend’s 600.

As it turned out, Emma developed a cold in the following week, so we weren’t able to ride our final qualifier last weekend, and instead are now planning to head to the Netherlands for the Merselo-Venray 600 this weekend instead. But that’s a story for another day!

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