The Audacious Ones

For many the epitome of grace is the sight of a skinny bloke on a carbon bike carving their way down some alpine pass, the switch of the hips, the life on the rivet thrill of it all, man and machine as one — an utterly exhilarating sight…so how come this same machine turns into the most ungraceful of things in my hands as I attempt to quietly get out of the door without waking the whole of the house. The obstacle course of avoiding the chainring catching coats on the newel post; pedals scratching skirting boards; handlebars snagging on anything and everything as I grapple to find keys buried deep in a crammed kitbag, shoes and helmet now spilling out. Invective and vituperation at my own idiocy ringing in my ears as I finally negotiate the hundred metres to the car…and now the fun really begins, harder than putting a babygrow onto a toddler I attempt to load the unwieldy thing into the back of the car — a push-me-pull-you game with much cursing and regret over not having a roof rack — a sense that I am missing a trick, that others would do it all much faster and with less blood loss and their knuckles intact.

The question at this stage might well be, why would anyone put themselves through such an ordeal? Surely you only have yourself to blame Jenkins! True, too true, but the reason for this personal calvary is the chance of cycling redemption and a glimpse of a promised land for today I have signed up to join a new cycling tribe, a veritable sect with its own rules, its own traditions and arcana. Today I plan to complete my first audax ride.

An organisation which oversees long distance cycling events which are self supported, originally the idea of Audax was first formulated in Italy. Participants had to swim, run, walk, or cycle a set distance in 14 hours which was approximately the time between sunrise and sunset. The distance to be covered by cycling was 200 kilometres. That was back in 1897 and whilst we can leave that other nonsense to filthy triathletes, not much else has changed. Participants are presented with a brevet card and a route card at the start of the event and a series of checkpoints to pass through which require either an answer to a question or an acknowledgement stamp. It is not a race, in fact riders are given a minimum and maximum time limit, this is cycling reduced of competition other than with oneself and I have been looking forward to becoming part of it this year.

I have decided to start at the beginner’s end — just the 100k — a distance I have done plenty of times round my pocket of Essex but, as I expected, much more challenging when the ground won’t stay flat and the wind blows hard from the Urals. We set off from a church car park in Great Dunmow, a picture perfect town on the Essex/Suffolk borders — think flint and pargeting on pink cottages and you won’t be far wrong. We are a mixed bunch — a few well heeled types on snazzy bikes and wearing the latest Rapha gilets; people like me in club colours, of a certain age and facial hair and then the diehards on ancient bikes, trikes and recumbents in an array of gear more suited to a textile bank (yes, there was a slight whiff of unwashed kit!)

We rolled out onto potholed lanes and away from traffic towards Thaxted, a genuine jewel but we have other places we need to be and before long we have joined a chain gang working through and off, chatting to old boys from the esteemed Crest club, keeping one eye on the route on my Garmin and trying not to do anything which would single me out as a neophyte. I think I just about pulled it off. We left the gang in Saffron Walden just before the ancient maze and pushed on towards Newmarket.

My companion for my first step in this potentially confusing world is the Wing-Co, a veteran of many audaxes, a ‘600k all weekend, sleeping upright in a bivvy bag’ kind of guy — the perfect mentor, although the idea of dossing down in a bus shelter is never going to appear appealing to me, no matter how he may attempt to spin the glamour. I set my pace off him and we picked up another rider as we passed through our first checkpoint in Linton; we were to remain with the enigmatic Dave for the rest of the ride, in fact he only really perked up when he found out the Wing-Co was an expert on epoxy resin — possibly a misspent youth with Uhu and a bread bag, maybe?

Anyway…after stopping in Newmarket for a mug least likely to be identified as a flat white, we headed back — the wind on our nose and our legs feeling every last rise. Tapping out a steady rhythm, we rolled on through km after km of empty lanes with snowdrops and crocuses for company. I had slipped the old toad work and inhabited that space that comes when no thought other than that subltle interplay between bike and me happens — I am sure buddhists have a name for it but whatever, it was bliss — March and incipient Spring and all its promises just for me.

As we rounded the corner back into Dunmow, I thanked the lads for a great day, walked up the stairs to get my brevet stamped and there was a spread of builders’ tea, cakes, soup, fruit, chocolate and a few weary blokes beaming from ear to ear, everyone congratulating each other for finishing and enquiring which events they’d be doing next, the camaraderie of teh road in full effect. As I said goodbye to one and all, I was asked if I’d be back for more next week — I was one of them now. With a spring in my step I rolled the bike back to the car — it went in first time, no bother. I’m sure there’s probably a metaphor in there but I wasn’t going to risk spoiling the moment searching for it. I turned on the ignition and turned for home.

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