Long distance riding is getting a lot of attention at the moment. The Transcontinental and London-Edinburgh-London have captured imaginations; quite a few riding mates are emailing each other with details of possible challenges which they might just dare to tackle. Suddenly riding an audax doesn’t seem such a wild idea. So what exactly is an audax and what is the point? Veteran long distance geek Liam FitzPatrick tries to tell it how it is.
I remember it like it was yesterday. In February 2003, I was waiting around in the carpark of a carpet warehouse before dawn and wondering what I was doing entering a 125 mile trek around the wintery countryside.
The organiser appeared from his car, handed out some brevet cards for us to record our stops on and told us all to sod off and not come back too quickly. That was it, no ceremony, no timing chips, no offer of a pre-ride warm up massage. Welcome to the world of audax.
I can’t say I was particularly well prepared. My cheap lights died before dawn and I spent the rest of the day admiring everyone else’s dynamos. I was carrying one spare inner tube and little else of use in the event of a mechanical. If it hadn’t been for the company of two much more experienced riders I doubt I would have managed to get around at all.
When I got back, to the barely welcoming organiser, I felt like a king; a master of the hardest of hard core cycling.
It seemed strange then, when all the other riders melted away after a few chats and couple of handshakes. Apparently, our measly entry fee didn’t cover the cost of an extravagant after ride party or a goody bag full of gels and flyers for rides we’d never do or performance trainers we didn’t need.
That’s because, when you’ve been around the clock a few times, it seems that the only adulation needed is the nod of recognition from other long distance geeks. Before I rode an audax I expected it to be a physical battle; a test of fitness. I quickly discovered that if your main reference point is a video of expensively kitted riders adopting an exhausted Dunkirkesque stare you may be in for a surprise.
After riding 200km or more, it seems that strength matters but mental stamina matters more. It is somehow wrong to brag about the very personal inner demons you have dispelled on the road. Explaining what you have done isn’t easy; yes the miles and the tarmac covered can be enumerated and the aches and pains catalogued. But that doesn’t quite capture the experience.
Audax is almost designed to defy a sensible explanation.
Events are certainly not races; minimum and maximum times make sure of that. They hare only sort of physical challenges; most people with an average level of fitness can keep the pedals turning through events lasting ten, 15, 27 or even 30 hours. Assuming nothing breaks, that you keep eating and drinking and you don’t get taken hostage in the wilds of Lincolnshire, the bit where you use your muscles will probably be OK.
But fitness isn’t enough to get you through the moments when you hate your bike, when you think you can not ride past another railway station or when battling rain and a headwind has gnawed deep into your self esteem. Knowing how to manage your mind and its moods at three in the morning can be the hardest test you’ll encounter on or off a bike.
The bare bones approach of audax organisers reflects the fundamental honesty of the discipline. The only person you have to beat is you and that voice in the back of your head telling you how cold and miserable you are and how nice it would be to see when the next train home is from that station up the road next to the chip shop which looks so warm and bright.
It’s cycling at its simplest; it’s a challenge for people who don’t need medals or to pretend they’re the heirs of Eddie Merckx. It’s a challenge for people who just want to get themselves around and around themselves.
And the tests come in a number of sizes. Although shorter distance events are organised, the 200km ride is really the first step on the rocky path of obsession that leads to ultra rides like the iconic 1,200km Paris Brest Paris.
Tackle one or a whole series? It’s up to you. Many riders attempt to complete a Super Randonneur series each season by riding a 200, a 300, a 400 and a 600 event while others focus on completing a 200km event every month around the year. There are awards for people who spend their lives on their bikes but most audax riders pick a target that fits in with their own tastes and the demands of life.
Whatever the goal over a season, it all starts with a single ride identified from the Audax UK calendar. Rather like the sport it represents, there’s nothing fancy about the audax website. However, anyone with a Paypal account can enter most events online for a ridiculously small sum.
Those entry fees don’t extend to a ‘free’ t shirt or a route that is waymarked every 25 yards. What you do get is a well thought out route and the company of like-minded people. Some organisers include a choice of PG Tips or Gold Blend at the start and a calorie replacing feed at the end. But don’t expect haut performance cuisine or barista nurtured espresso; you’ll get what you honestly wanted after a day and a night on the road – food out of tins.
There will probably be a GPS file but don’t count on it. In fact, even though you will get a a turn by turn route sheet its actually up to you whether you follow it or not. If you know a better way to get around the prescribed checkpoints; go knock yourself out. It’s a style of event that owes it heritage more to the 1950’s idea of urban escapism than it does to the marketeers image of slick and sleek.
And that’s part of the charm.
Most of the time you’re on your honour to get a receipt from anywhere in a particular town or you find yourself developing a deep appreciation for village halls and parish rooms occupied by a controller offering to stamp you card and ply you with a bowl of hot pasta.
Often, a checkpoint might just involve collecting a piece of information like a distance from a signpost or the colour of a lion on a pub sign. If you miss it, don’t worry, another rider will tell you or the organiser might write it in your card anyway at the end. Hey, no one’s going to cheat are they? What’s the point when only you know why you’re riding the event?
However, you are rarely left to yourself to deal with the challenges of an audax.
Rides are meant to be self-supported; there are no mechanics following and few bike shops are open in the depths of night in sleeping Oxfordshire villages. But there is a convention in audax circles that you don’t pass someone in trouble without at least asking if help is needed. Once, I had another rider demand to fix my puncture in the dark because, he said, he liked doing it with his eyes shut.
The risk of trudging through the night to the next 24 hour McDonalds and a pleading conversation with your partner for a lift at 3 am are lessened by the collective kindness of strangers and your pride in not starting with out a decent supply of tubes and at least a basic bike check.
Which is why audax increasingly is attracting a broad spectrum of cyclists. They range from fully Rapha’d dentists on the finest carbon to one rider who builds his own frames from the contents of local skips. On an audax you may meet people with a trainspotter’s obsession with the technicalities of gearing or you might make a friend for life. I’ve ridden with QC’s and painters, with a world famous cardiologist and with a plumbers. On the Paris Brest I rode with a Breton fisherman and a Danish professor of pharmacology; café stops and long hours on the road throw people together.
And listening to someone else is a great alternative to listening to yourself at your most defeatist.
Advice for the would-be endurance cyclist is plentiful. There’s an Audax facebook page and a dedicated section of the occasionally pedantic YACF online forum (but hey, it wouldn’t be an online cycling forum if it didn’t provide safe haven to a few nerds). However, the only way to find out about long distance cycling and you is to jump in. Sign up for one and see if your inner monologue likes it.
Try a 200 and see where it takes you
Every weekend there are long distance events organised all over the country; full details are given on the Audax UK website
If you don’t know where to start perhaps take a look at Thanet RC’s 200 run from Hearn Bay to Hastings and back on 2 September. Over 2,000m of climb in rolling Kentish and East Sussex lanes but the finish is conveniently at a brewery. Details here
Western–based riders might fancy a trek from Tewkesbury to Hay on 2 September. The £6 entry fee includes the Wye Valley and the Malvern hills and just 1,900m of climbing. Sign up here
If your climbing-legs are in good shape, there a chance to chew though 3,150m from Richmond North Yorkshire on a route through some of the finest cycling country in the UK on 9 September. Entry here
Liam FitzPatrick organises London Wales London a 400km run that links the edge of the capital with the edge of Wales every May.
Picture credits Matthew Scholes and Gavin Peacock