A few days ago I rode my first Audax event. As far as Audax rides go it was a short one at only 106km (65 miles); however it was not an easy route. Chunky climbs, horrendous headwinds and cold temperatures ensured nobody got round the course without burning thighs and wind burn on their faces.
Whilst the parcours promised to be challenging, we were also in luck. The forecast for a strong Easterly wind, temperatures below 5℃ and constant drizzle did not come to fruition; well except the wind, which despite being strong, was not quite as bad as predicted. In fact, despite the layer of grey cloud over our heads for the first two-thirds of the ride, it remained dry. It was milder than forecast too, until the skies cleared and the sun dropped below the horizon in the late afternoon. This was a massive relief. However, based on the weather forecast and that of the previous few months, I rocked up in three base layers and a long-sleeved jersey with a heavy, wind and waterproof jacket and gloves over the top. Because of this I was seriously over-dressed. So, before the start of the ride, I removed the outer of the base layers, rolled it up and put it in the back pocket of my jacket. Despite this I was still too warm for the majority of the ride. However, around 3:30pm, when the sun started to go down, the skies cleared. At this point we were also riding into a stiff headwind and it was a cold one. Some people I spoke to later said they were very cold by the finish, after riding for 60kms into a cold headwind. At that point I was glad of my winter attire.
1500 metres of climbing is a fair amount for such a short course; especially as the majority of the ascent was done in the first third of the day’s route. Our départ was in the heart of Musselburgh’s old town at the hardly nose-bleed inducing height of 6 metres above sea-level. The highest point of the course was at the summit of Redstone Rigg, at a lofty 426 metres; just 34km into the course. This equated to doing all the hard climbing early on. So by the time we got to the first café stop at Dunbar, just over halfway through the route, our legs were already tired.
The most challenging climb of the day was Redstone Rigg which marked the finale of our long ascent onto the Lammermuir Hills. Redstone Rigg has a reputation amongst road cyclists in the Edinburgh area. At a strength-sapping 9km it is certainly not a short, sharp effort. Despite it’s relatively shallow 4% average gradient, the three kilometer crux of the climb culminates in a 500 metre wall that varies between a lactic acid filled 10% and a stomach-churning 20%. I knew what was coming, so I was prepared.
My fellow two-wheeled warriors and I gathered outside Musselburgh’s Old Town Hall, waiting for our names to be called by the marshals who were starting us off in small groups. I arranged to ride with one of my compatriots from the cycling club I am a member of. Knowing that he is faster than me I told him not to wait for me if I got dropped. Sure enough, after about 7 kilometres I decided that I was not going to use all my energy trying to keep up with our small group of riders, who were riding faster than I was comfortable maintaining for 100 kilometres. So I eased off and rode on my own at a slightly easier pace; knowing what was to come. As the climbing continued and we made our way up on to the Lammermuir Hills I passed several people who had been in the group I had started out with, who could not maintain the pace they started out at. Once we had reached the summit of Redstone Rigg and had our brevet cards stamped at the first checkpoint the parlours changed from mostly climbing to a mixture of fast descents and flatter terrain. Those riders I had passed or had been with me at the first checkpoint, who were in the fast group that I had dropped out of, now no longer had the stamina to maintain a fast pace and I became the faster rider. Throughout the rest of the course I never found a group who were riding at the same pace as me. I passed a lot of slower riders, who had started in earlier groups and, on one occasion, was overtaken by a slightly faster group. I tried to get onto the back of one such group and join up with them, but again found that I didn’t want to expend that amount of energy to keep up with them.
Once I reached Dunbar I stopped at the second of three checkpoints. This time it was a café stop. Inside the bustling café there were three queues. One for the counter to order your chosen refreshments, one to get your brevet card stamped and the third was for the toilets. There were a few bemused and frustrated customers, who weren’t cyclists and just wanted a quiet lunch, looking around at all these lycra-clad people and wondering what was going on. Whilst I stood in the queue, waiting to order a coffee, I thought to myself that this must be one of the busiest days of the year for this place, as I watched the staff hurrying around, excusing themselves as they squeezed passed and gently pushing aside an array of cycling helmets and bags lying on the floor. Once I had ordered I sat down alongside another of my club-mates, who had started earlier, and asked how his ride was. Once he had left and my coffee arrived I struck up a conversation with a chap who had ridden a lot of audaxes. We chatted about the ins-and-outs of riding long distances and as soon as I had finished my coffee I said goodbye and went on my way. From then on the roads seemed quieter.
A lot of riders seemed to have made themselves comfortable in the café and seemed to be in no hurry to leave. I, however, was keen to press on as I wanted to be home to enjoy dinner with my wife and daughter. There seemed to be two style of rider in the audax field. The kind that wanted to test themselves or finish within a fairly small timeframe and those who were happy to saunter along and enjoy the countryside and chat with their fellow cyclists. I was in the former category. I seemed to be in the middle of the faster riders; the quicker of whom were ahead of me. I set off from Dunbar with a couple of Spanish lads, who clearly didn’t know the route and were relying on me for directions. Once the road started rising away from the coast and we were riding into a cold and stiff headwind I dropped them as they were struggling with the wind. I felt a little guilty about leaving them behind and their not knowing the route, but I knew there would be other riders, not far behind, who would guide them at junctions. Once again I was on my own feeling conflicted. We were facing 60km of headwind. Should I ease off and wait for the Spanish guys and ride with them, sharing the duty of being on the front in the wind whilst helping them with directions? Or should I continue on my own battling the wind. I don’t like to hang about when I’m on the bike and whilst I sometimes enjoy riding with others and chatting with them, I much prefer riding alone, with my own thoughts and songs in my head. I’m a solo rider at heart and on this particular Sunday afternoon I couldn’t be bothered trying to have a conversation whilst the wind was blowing by our ears muffling our voices and making it hard to hear my companions. So I pressed on with a twinge of guilt in my chest and my head down; ducking out of the wind.
At Haddington I stopped at the third checkpoint and second café stop. This time the cafe was much quieter. I could see a few cyclists here and there, but nothing like the mêlée of the first café. This time I got my card stamped, had a quick conversation about the headwind with a fellow solo cyclist I had passed on the road and got back on my bike. I wasn’t going to hang about. We were on the last leg now. I was thinking about getting home.
From Haddington I was, once again, climbing. The course took us over Bangley Brae, the last climb of the day, before descending to Ballencrief and a left turn along the coast back to Musselburgh. As I made the left turn I heard a loud twang as my front wheel hit a small pothole. I looked down to see that I had snapped a spoke. My thoughts took me back to the Friday before when I had sat, with a bottle of beer, a wheel truing jig and a spoke key, truing and adding tension to the spokes in my front wheel. I must have over-tensioned a couple of spokes. I cursed my ineptitude, stopped to assess the damage before riding on into the fading light and biting wind feeling tired and hoping the now far-from-true wheel wouldn’t fall apart on me before the finish.
Another forty minutes later I rolled into Musselburgh feeling far more tired than I usually do after a 100 kilometre ride. When I stopped outside the Old Town Hall, to hand in my brevet card and get my finishing time, I realised that my front wheel, which was buckled as a result of the earlier broken spoke, had been rubbing on my brakes more than I thought. The upshot was that I had needed to work so much harder than normal, even more so than working against the headwind I’d just been wrestling against. No wonder I was knackered! Despite that, I was hooked on this audaxing and I can’t wait for the next one.
The tea and cake being served by the lovely folks at Musselburgh Road Club certainly helped ease the tired legs and after a call for help to my long-suffering wife I was soon home enjoying a hot shower and a well earned hot meal.