Monday, 28 January 2013

A Mere 200 Audax

There was a moment on Friday night, as I drove my car between Ashbourne and Leek, when I wondered if I'd be (in ascending order of melodrama), a) thawed out enough to ride on Sunday, b) sufficiently trusting of the state of the roads to want to ride, and c) alive. Yes, I got caught in the snowstorm from hell - I was the first person along the A53 going west, and it was virtually impossible to identify the road, let alone keep the car from sliding around on it, such was the depth and ferocity with which the snow came down. Just after Leek the snow turned to rain bizarrely (as it was still -3c), but at least getting home was less of a challenge.

Rolling the clock on 36 hours, and I thought things would be fine for the annual running of the 'A Mere 200' audax. There are actually two events run on the same day; the '200' (km) starts at 8 am, and the Mere Century (miles) starts at 8.30. I - foolishly after not riding 100 miles since October, and then in balmy autumnal French sunshine - elected to do the 200km. Or 206km according to the route sheet. Or 210km as it turned out after two diversions, one through a minor map reading mistake and one because there was one flood that defeated even the most foolhardy of us. More of that in a moment...but first, a word on the cunning name of the event. There are many places in these parts that have 'mere' in their name, meaning basically a lake (this proved very prescient in the middle part of the ride), and the ride is a carefully constructed tour of most of them.

Anyway, the ride starts in Cheadle, just south of Manchester, takes a westerly route through Cheshire and Shropshire down to Ellesmere (not Ellesmere Port, just Ellesmere), and an easterly route back from there. Very nice it is too under normal circumstances. And for the first 50km yesterday, we had no reason to believe circumstances were anything other than normal. Then came the twin challenges however - ice and floods. The route, like many audaxes, is predominantly on back lanes, of the sort that don't see much salt and grit when the weather is bad. And the sheltered ones don't see much sunshine either, meaning that despite the above-freezing temperatures, there was about 30km of icy dreadfulness in south Cheshire and north Shrops. It was also windy, meaning that eight of us were working together to get some shelter and respite. That was great, and the group was really good in calling out the ice, potholes and other obstacles, but there were still occasions when your front wheel would catch a patch of ice, and some frantic bike handling was needed to stay upright. Fun, it was not.

And then...after the turn north at Ellesmere we started encountering another hazard: flooded roads. The water must have covered the road a good two dozen times, and on five of those occasions, I was deeper in water than I'd ever been before on a bike. The flood was such that you had to pedal to get through it rather than freewheel with your legs out of the way, and to give you a better idea of its depth, both of my waterbottles were, as it were, under water, as were my knees on the down pedal stroke. It was astonishing, mad, and quite frankly a miracle that I didn't stall, fall or puncture. On reflection, however, unlike the ice, it was fun - there being no danger of imminent collarbone breakage.

There was one flood, however, that did defeat us, at Wybunbury (pronounced Wyn-berry) in Cheshire, where the water was bottom of the ribs-high. I know the area quite well so was able to divert easily, and others followed either my lead or their Garmin's instructions. One hardy soul though, who 'won' the event (you don't win audaxes or sportives, but there is a competitive element to be sure), was out in front on his own without a map, so elected to wade through with his bike held aloft. (He confessed this to me at the end over a hot soup, which had almost never been more welcome).

The wind was a pain in the you-know-what in the morning, but moderately helpful in the afternoon, and I managed to not stop for three hours on the run in to the end partly as a consequence. I was pretty pleased with my overall performance - I did the 131 miles in 7 hours 50 riding time, 8 hours 15 start to finish; just under 17mph average was a fairly respectable effort in the conditions and over that distance. As ever, I felt rubbish quite a few times in the middle of the ride, and dropped behind on a few of the climbs (though my fellow riders didn't have a none-too-streamlined Carradice saddlebag), but kept going and gradually hauled in everyone apart from the Burnley-based, floodwading nutter. The two of us managed to finish ahead of all the 160km starters too.

Anyway, some days challenge your mental stamina, some your physical stamina, or your route following skills, or your bike handling ability, or your judgement...you get the idea. Yesterday, apart from aptitude at roadside mechanicing, it felt like the lot. But it was all the better for that. A good January runout.

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