Wednesday, June 14, 2023

Paddington Express 400km audax 22nd-23rd April 2023

I took Paddington to meet Paddington. The legs took the strain from Bristol to London and back again. It was more Cross Country in style than Express in nature. There were delays due to unscheduled stops, equipment and driver failure and not much coffee nor cake. It was one heck of an adventure to the Big Smoke and back in just less than 27 hours on a bike. If there had been an easy way to scratch, I would have taken it.
Paddington Jnr on his way to meet Paddington snr Photo: B Hafford

I have completed 2x Randonneur Round the Year’s (RRtY) They keep me fitter, in the zone and dissuade couch potato like tendencies. It’s easier to thrash out a monthly 200 than starting over at my age. During my first RRtY in 2019, I offered to help Will out and stamp brevet cards on the 400km Paddington Express, at the first control in Swindon, still in shock I had managed 4 monthly 200km rides at that point, through winter, I didn’t think I was able to cope with much night riding. Riding a 400 was for proper audax cyclists, an achievement way off my radar, entering never crossed my mind. Imposter syndrome off the scale.

Riders appeared at The Swindon and Cricklade Railway centre in Blunsdon, I was encouraging Audax Club Bristol (ACB) friends who were taking part. Whilst taking care of Brevet Card admin, I computed they were 60km in to a 200km ride to Paddington Station. That’s doable. Why did I not just enter and ride to London contemplate the unknown on the return, or catch the post train home if need be? I did not realise at the time that Paddington Express is only on the calendar for Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP) qualification years, so every 4 years. Next one was scheduled for 2023. A lot has happened since then, but I never forgot that deluded romantic notion I could possibly have a go.

Riding to the capital is a satisfying aim. Although I’m not keen on London and I rarely go there. It’s been 18 months since I rode my first 300, an overnight 300, in November 2021, because I’d forgotten I’d entered the previous year and the entry was carried over. Why not make life hard for myself? I somehow got round Moonrakers and Sunseekers in 2021 with a 22.30 depart and somewhat dispelled the myth that I could not cope with night riding. Totally on the wire and I was Lanterne Rouge. Moonrakers kicked off my second RRtY, finished in October 2022. I then fell off the wagon and didn’t restart a new RRtY this winter, a string of viruses, weather, other commitments, holiday, I made all the excuses.

I needed another goal. PBP chatter started up and I saw Paddington Express was back on the audax agenda in April. I had not ridden a 200km audax in 4 months. A mad plan was hatched for the next three weekends to ride 2 x200s and then my second ever 300, GWR Railway Connections, in mid-March. After all I had said after Moonrakers that "I'd do some training beforehand next time." 

My legs felt much better by the 300. It was quite tough as an early 6am start to fly out to Didcot and loop through the Cotswolds (snow on the ground) and then into the dark and fog after Tewkesbury to conquer all the hills in Forest of Dean through Ross and back to Chepstow and a return to Bristol over the Severn Bridge at midnight. A long day, cold, wet and windy at times, but I made the arrivée by the skin of my teeth at 1.45am. As ever I felt my best later and finished strongly. I was not last. I should imagine a proper sports coach may not have approved of my logic, but it worked for me. 

I felt happier to contemplate entering Paddington Express, my first 400. I had 5 weeks to consolidate before departure on the audax train. I ticked off Butt Buster 200 and then spent Easter in Cornwall, so plenty of stabby hills were thrashed. I carefully did not ride a 200 in April to give me extra motivation to finish my 400 and rest the old body. Real sports people call this "tapering." A sports psychologist would have a field day with my sports science theory.

Audax snacking preparation

Nervous but very happy that Paddington Express, organised by Will Pomeroy of Great Western Randonnées (GWR) and ACB, was a mid-afternoon departure. I’m better at staying up late than early starts. I rode the 9 km into Bristol, after a substantial lunch, to calm my nerves, check everything was ok, and loaded my first ride of seven onto my Garmin. A pre-ride coffee and pastry at The Bakehouse was the plan but my stomach was far too twitchy to risk it. I told myself it was a 60km ride to Swindon after collecting my Brevet card and greeting fellow audax friends from Bristol and beyond. Will sent us off with cheery waves and a very British “see you later” as if we were meeting at the pub in an hour or two for a “normal” Saturday night. The precise familiar metallic snap-clack of all the clipless pedals being attached to cycling shoes swirled into the reassuring whirl of freehubs, accompanied by the sing-song of bike computers being released joyfully into the wild. We were off.

Picking up brevet cards at the "Depart"

As someone said "did you bring your own bike stand?" He was looking forward to a peaceful weekend and counting down to my "off"

The first three hours were fairly none descript. Concentration on the city roads towards Bath and once the first climb was over groups formed, and most had passed me, but I was swishing into the early evening with others still around. Some chat was in evidence as we relaxed whilst establishing that rhythm required to propel us into and through the night. I pulled into Blunsdon Station and smiled, here I was riding and not stamping. Will was stamping and I deftly ordered my jacket potato and tea before getting my card stamp. Ablutions were completed whilst my order was prepared. I am very aware that a good strategy as a full value rider is to reduce faff time.

This was the point at which it was easy for me to ride home, have a shower and go to bed like a normal person. I loaded up my second route that was the longest (at 99km) of the 7, all the way to Eton/Windsor. It was very comforting to be riding in a three with two ACB club mates. We were all quite contemplative, but we automatically took turns into the headwind aiming for Didcot, we’d been here on Railway Connections a few weeks earlier. I knew there was a McDonalds but didn’t want to risk losing too much time early on. However, not eating sufficiently can cause problems and perhaps I should have “jumped” eating at Blunsdon and waited to the 100km milestone at Didcot for my audax supper. I was beginning to doubt my fuelling strategy. Our peloton of three had dissolved and I paused outside the railway station to eat a cheese roll, turn off my daytime flashing usb lights and swap to dynamo lights as dusk was falling. People were milling in groups off to the pub and I slunk off into the other audax world, the parallel detached universe. My Garmin was in night mode, switching off when not required and I was hoping that a 20 minute charge at Paddington would keep it navigating for the night until I could swap back to the dynamo to charge it by morning. I had a chuckle to myself that who did I think I was to make it to Paddington and out of London by the time the real world was waking up again, never mind worrying about charging my Garmin.

It was properly dark by Henley on Thames and after navigating theatre goers and crossing an illuminated bridge a long climb ensued. I buckled down and plodded up, felling quite nauseous but religiously taking something form my snack bag and eating every 20 minutes. At some point, as I’d been following lights in the distance, I noticed my Garmin wasn’t illuminating to navigate. I stopped and pressed everything, swiped the screen in all directions and a little flutter of terror shot through my stomach. It was dead. Some other riders passed and said to ride with them. We swerved into an express supermarket at 22.10. I remember the time as the door was being locked, the assistant did not want to be delayed by any more cyclists raiding the shelves! I googled “Garmin hard reboot” as I could not remember the process. Depressing the power button for 10 seconds worked, it sprung back to life, recovered navigation and had just lost about 10km that had not recorded. My back up Strava recording had stopped itself 15 km earlier. No worries, it meant I could continue. I am not fast enough to rely on being in a group with others.

Now I was solo, presumed last and determined to keep an eye on the time and procrastinate no more. Once through Maidenhead and the count down to the information control at Eton. I never did see Windsor Castle but the reassuring figures of others finding the trivia to record on our brevet cards was comforting.  I loaded course 3 of 7. Less than 40km to Paddington Station and the halfway point. I thought I might make it in 2 hours by 1am and was overjoyed, cut off time was 4.20 and realistically I’d hoped for 3am when planning.

The road surfaces in Buckinghamshire had been dire, potholes to drown in, rough jarring surfaces and the killer longitudinal slits that you can wedge a tyre in. Rain had set in. I was riding a relatively smooth back road near Heathrow when my front wheel crashed through a rogue pothole. I just about managed to stand up, but the back wheel thumped down hard and immediately deflated. My utter worst nightmare. I walked back to a couple of lampposts (very lucky) and got my bike upside down removed the wheel and started extracting the blown tube. Un beknown to me a couple of heroes were not far behind and stopped to help. I got the tube in but reseating the tyre is my nemesis even in a warm kitchen, my hands seize and I invariably pinch the inner using tyre levers. They managed to prise the tyre back on using strong fingers and we took turns to pump it. I thanked them profusely and sent them on their way whilst I rehung my pannier, ate something and calmed down. I did not want to jeopardise others’ rides. A food delivery scooter appeared and slowed down. He checked I was ok too, lovely humans are everywhere. Kindness lurking in Hounslow at 1am.

I was low on water and quite worried that if the water refill station at Paddington was out of order I’d be stuck. I stopped at a garage and had a surreal chat with a group of lads who had obviously escaped parental clutches whilst celebrating Eid, so smartly dressed and they apologised profusely for holding me up whilst deliberating on their purchases. I stashed the rest of my 2 litre bottle of still water after refilling bidons bid the lads a good night and eventually started rolling through London Town. This was the part I had dreaded, presumed route finding in the city would be impossible. Naturally, every light pretty much turns red as you get there, an out-of-control jeep roared at stupid speed up Chiswick High Street but other than that all very quiet. The London Marathon was due to start in a few hours. After what seemed an eternity of clipping in and out at traffic lights, and the tail end of the riders ahead passing over the other side already on their return leg, I arrived at Paddington. I remembered Platform 1 and scooted left along the platform only to be shouted at for not dismounting properly, whoops!

Just before departure of the slow train home in the middle of the night

I knew Chris would be there with marmalade sandwiches. A familiar face, with a calm reassuring manner. Turns out I’m not the last in and it’s just gone 2am so I have 2 hours 20 in reserve. I am managing myself ok except for my stomach. I cannot face sweet stuff so eat more rolls and drink the coke I bought at the garage. The Platform 1 toilets shut at midnight so I walk over to Platform 12 and have the standard conversation with the cleaner, he asks if it’s a charity ride and I say no, he then says, “why are you doing it then?” I couldn’t give a rational answer. I’m lucky and privileged that I can have a go.

Paddington meeting Paddington, the marmalade was already there

 A snatched photo with the bronze Paddington statue that was smaller than I expected, and I leave into the fluorescent night. More traffic lights and gyratory systems and eventually I realise I am back towards Heathrow and onwards to the Wessex downs. The fluid movement of time has washed over my brain and I try to eat and drink regularly. I’m not being very rational and know there is no way to get home easily. The quickest way is to keep on going. I’m crawling now feeling very sick. I passed Ascot Race course and start climbing into the dawn. Just me and the birds tweeting.

I turn into the scout hut complex for the breakfast control and proceed to take several minutes finding the correct hut in my delirious state. I was so surprised to see so many bikes outside still. I wasn’t making much sense, but beans on toast and a mug of tea were placed before me by Will again, he’s on his third control! I can’t work out how, I thought he was cutting cross country on his bike from Swindon. Another lovely controller tries to encourage me to go and sleep for 20 minutes. She assures me she will wake me up, but I had no problems missing a night’s sleep on Moonrakers and know I can’t “nap” to order so I decline. She was right. I contemplated pro plus I was carrying, I’ve never taken them and have no idea why when they were needed that I didn’t take them.

The stragglers had mostly left. Beans on toast and tea would normally revive me but not today. I was riding into the headwind and it was lumpy terrain again. No rain and the sun did start to peep out but I never did take my leg warmers off, there was a nip in the air. I kept blanking, exhaustion was making me cold. I didn’t fall off but was seriously worried. I hallucinated slightly and it was light. It was 67km to Great Bedwyn Post Office and the chance of a latte. I spied a bench by a post box in a little village called Brimpton. I stopped and tried to eat something and laid down and shut my eyes. Probably 15 minutes, without actually sleeping, but it was just enough to risk continuing without crashing.

Then I passed over Greenham Common, remembering vividly the decade of demonstrating camps when I was a student in the 80s. Another place I’ve never been to before. My motivation was picking up very slightly. I had managed to work out that the Post Office was over 300km. I’d be into the last 100km. I saw a sign for Great Bedwyn which had a red railway sign on it. Befuddled brain cheered, I can get a train home and not make the call of shame for a lift now I’m close enough and it’s morning. Comically, around the next bend, a rail replacement coach passed me and dashed my cunning plan. No bikes allowed on rail replacement coaches.

I prop my bike up at the post office, another sleep deprived soul is there. I was momentarily gutted to see it wasn’t a café too, as I had presumed. However, they had a coffee machine, and I bought a latte, spooned in some sugar and had my card stamped. These wonderful people had opened very early to cater to the pointy end, audax heroes. A lovely array of pastries were on offer but I couldn’t face them and ate another half roll. I remembered my green gunge smoothie I had carried since the start. Easily absorbed calories. I downed that too on the bench outside. I was back in a normal functioning world at 11am. Route number 6 is 54km to Corsham. Perhaps I can do this?

Bluebells can't fail to lift the spirits

My brain is fizzy, but my legs start working and my speed is improving. I haven’t had to walk anything and I am pushing uphill steadily. The Pewsey area is lovely, feels like big sky prairie and the rape seed is blinding. I’m riding amongst 3-4 others, we hop each other at intervals and life is less lonely again. I fall into a rhythm with one of the guys and we are very evenly matched. He stopped in Corsham village, and I climbed up to the co-op garage that I’d used as my end of route marker. Another coffee and a timed receipt stowed and I sat on the forecourt floor eating my food and messaged home. ETA 5-5.30 cut off time was 18.00. Messaged my daughter that I was sitting on a garage forecourt floor and she presumed that meant I’d given up. I felt the best I had since early evening and as I got back on my bike the same guy is just approaching. He’d stopped in the village and with the final 38km route loaded we rode on together in good spirits, I was confident we could coax each other home.

Box Hill down. Wow, such fun. I was aware now, through gritted teeth, that punctures and accidents had to be avoided so was reasonably careful but what a rush. I’d never ridden the A4 back through Bath to Bristol so was none the wiser. A few more #wills_hills to conquer and a lot of Saturday traffic plus more traffic lights. My middle three left toes were cramping from the unclipping for the London lights and were suddenly very painful. Eventually my Garmin pushes us out onto the Bristol to Bath Path for just the last mile. The Bakehouse café arrivée had shut at 16.00 and moved to the Brewery tap around the corner for the last 2 hours. 

Blitzed but still standing after cider!

I was mightily pleased with 16.50 as my finish time all things considered. Somehow Will was there again! Far better to celebrate with a pint of cider after all. It was lovely camaraderie with earlier finishers. We had passed my two puncture rescuers in Bath who were charging a Garmin, so we were also not last back. We finally exchanged names and started chatting freely. In answer to the cheerful night cleaner at Paddington I did it because I can. I am very lucky that I can. I do remember saying “no way though am I ever attempting a 600………”

About 10 out of 79 Pad Ex finishers were not men. I’ve contacted some of them “up the road from me”, for their perspective of Paddington Express.

“Hearing the familiar beep from my Garmin I glance down to register my 320th kilometre: an invisible finish line in a series of invisible finish lines, but one to be celebrated with a snack, all the same.  Like clockwork I eat every 20 km, so in a well-rehearsed and robotic routine I unzip my top tube bag and reach for the Kendal Mint Cake I’d been looking forward to since I’d set out from Bristol, 15 hours earlier.  I bite off a large chunk, but not before an even larger chunk flies straight from my hand and into a puddle.  RIP, there’s no rescuing that. I had plenty more with me, but that’s not the point.  I’d spend the remaining hours back to Bristol thinking about that lost square…gone but never forgotten.

Those final hours passed in a blur of sleep-deprived nonsensical conversation, as I linked up with some others and rolled into the Arivée feeling satisfied in a way only possible through physical exhaustion.  Now with only one ride left to get my Super Randonneur, I made a mental note to bring plenty more Kendal Mint Cake with me on that one.”

- Vic

“It was a tale of two rides. The first 200k was fast, with fresh legs and impending rain clouds speeding me into London, but the second half was a slow grind. The views on this route are not spectacular, and apart from a dry chain, I didn’t have any memorable mechanicals either. This meant I had a lot of time to overthink – about my week and life – until all conscious thought was replaced by autopilot, and I must have reached a meditative state of being comfortable with discomfort.

Now I was thinking about it, it was the easiest night ride I’ve done despite the nausea. Because much of it was through London, which was still lively, I never had to deal with my 2am demons on some lonely country lanes. And it wasn’t cold. I think after PBP I won’t do night rides anymore – I don’t enjoy them.”


“After a few years of certainty that 300km was the longest distance I would ever want - or be able - to ride, I finally threw caution to the wind and signed myself up to the Bryan Chapman 600. The Paddington Express seemed like a fairly safe option for some 400 practice in the lead up. Propelled by a healthy tailwind and tucked in behind my partner, Nick, the ride to Paddington was hugely enjoyable. Hurtling along lanes in better-than-expected weather, we flew to the outskirts of London.

The first to reach Paddington, we didn't stop for long. Bits of rain started to fall as we left the city lights behind, and the roads became lumpier. Reaching Pinewood Scout Hut just before 1am, I realised tiredness and disorientation had crept up on me. After a welcome warm up and beans on toast, we carried on our way.

Now blasting Abba into the night, my pace began to slow. Not long after, breathing became more difficult and nausea set in. A quarter of a cereal bar fuelled the rest of my ride, which slowed to a stop and a fairly major meltdown with 70km still to go. It being 4.45am on a Sunday, the only choice was to carry on, and we crawled home as the sun rose. Rolling downhill along the Bristol and Bath Railway Path to Bakehouse, the arrivée, I thought I might burst into tears at the end. Instead, a restorative croissant was placed into my hands, and I promptly fell asleep. 17 hours and 18 minutes after setting off, we were the first back. Next stop, the Bryan…”


And finally, from Will, the organiser:

“It was a joy seeing everyone get round especially for those challenging their limits and doing their first 400 or through the night ride.” 


My original “railway journey” style notes for context from IG:

Depart Bristol: Sat 22nd April 2023 15:00 @bakehousebs2

Swindon -jacket and beans/cheese


Henley on Thames -Garmin fail



Hounslow for LHR -pot hole puncture



Shepherd’s Bush

Paddington Station -marmalade sandwiches


Hounslow for LHR

Ascot -baked beans on toast for Ladies' Day

Brimpton -driver fail village bench for 15 mins attempted zzz

Greenham Common

Great Bedwyn -1st coffee

Corsham -2nd coffee

Box Hill -wheeeeeee



Arrivée Bristol: Sun 23rd April 2023 16:50 @lhgtaproom Brewery CIDER 🍏🍎🍏

410km 🚴‍♀️

3000m 🏔️

20hrs 30mins 🚴‍♀️

25hrs 45 mins

🐻 2

Adventure Level 10/10

Thank you @gwraudax for one heck of an adventure that I’m still processing. 80 minutes inside cut-off and didn’t keep you waiting as not quite last!

My longest ride to date. Super Randonneur or SR progress:





#parisbrestparis2023 pre qualification

3/12 for my third #rrty

Missing 10km and another 300m climbing!

A few weeks later my ratified brevet card appeared in the post. I had not noticed the Paddington Bear stamp!

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Moonrakers and Sunseekers 309km audax 19th November 2021

Next time I’ll do some training.

My first 300km audax and first time riding over night (and into the next night!) Jelly baby reflux is a thing. What did you do on Friday night?

Spoiler alert - my completed brevet card

Why? I was not certain I could do it. I was very certain 300km as a daytime distance in summer was a possibility back in 2019. That was the year I pushed myself way beyond what I thought my limits were and completed my first RRtY (12 consecutive monthly 200km rides.) I signed up for Moonrakers and Sunseekers in 2020 after a reasonable summer of pushing myself on longer multi day solo camping trips. A 300km in November is mad. For reference I have a 14 yo right knee replacement that I want to last as long as possible. There is also the slight problem of being partially sighted which makes night riding extremely hard (almost impossible in rain) and slows me even more as I can't let go downhill. I'm slow enough anyway. We all know Moonrakers wasn't held last November as we were in national lockdown (I had covid, we forget it was lockdown everywhere as we didn't leave the house for nearly 3 weeks) and that was the start of my fitness flight. I totally forgot about Moonrakers until I realised it was on my Audax UK list in September. I had let my second RRtY "go" in July so my last 200 was June and I'd ridden one 100km ride in the previous six weeks. I would not be starting unless the weather conditions were as-perfect-as-you-can-get in November. No rain, ice nor wind could be mentioned on the forecast.

The weather forecast was perfect, very low chance of rain and 9-12 degrees for the whole of Friday night and into Saturday evening. After backing out of an overnighter earlier this year when the weather conditions were also good, I had to go for it. 

I packed my disabled rail card and battery bank. Jelly babies were stashed along with cheese rolls, cheddars, marzipan, cereal bars and salted peanuts in my bar bag. There were 3 overnight controls with food available but as ever I made sure I had enough to survive. Imagining all the worst case scenarios I had a padded jacket, ski gloves and commuting rain jacket in one small pannier. If my night was to be spent in a ditch or the colder weather forecast for Sunday moved in early, I would survive.

I volunteered Steve to help at the depart/start, mainly so I had no excuses to bottle. We rode slowly into Bristol for 9pm to settle my nerves, following the last 10km of the route I'd be doing tomorrow and know well. I would be riding past home at 298km. After all the hardest part is starting. It was great to see a few familiar faces and collect my brevet card, knock back a mug of tea and munch a banana to calm the nerves.

21.40 group start aka the fast ones (my start was an hour later)

I started in the last bunch to be let loose (170 starts in 4 groups from 21.40-22.40) so already I'm an hour down. In theory it doesn't matter, it's not a race, but when you know you will be riding full value on the limit of the audax time limits it is a demotivating fog to wade through. Immediately I was phased by flashing rear lights of some of the other riders and I didn’t jump a red light to stay with the bunch, so that was it, at the back after 5 minutes and still in Bristol. I resigned myself for a steady warm up to Devizes, not caring about resorting to the granniest of granny gears for the big pull out of Bath. Conditions were very good and warm. An occasional late starter wafted by and eased off into the distance. 

After a short optional tour of Devizes, I found the Moonraker pub at 51km which was the first control. More friendly encouraging kind people stamped my card and handed me a kilo of flapjack. A couple of other late starters caught up. David left the control with me and we rode all night together, we were total strangers at that point. It was awesome. I was extremely close to just turning right and heading home. Thanks to David I didn't.

I watched David power up the inclines on his fixed gear, obviously capable of powering off into the night and being back in Bristol for lunchtime. We talked about many of our cycling experiences. Tales of iconic ultra distance races; Trans Continental Race, Pan Celtic, Pyrenees (David) and All Points North (both of us) The stuff of cycling dreams. A quick stop at an audax hotel to bolt some carbs but no time to sleep.

Audax Hotel

Salisbury control at 91km was a wonderfully random gazebo set up next to a roundabout with Will and helpers reappearing and the best mug of tea ever (and more flapjack) Surreal at 3.30am or whatever. The only traffic had been perturbing blue lights of the emergency services looking after everyone and the odd very considerate lorry passing wide and slow. 

A couple of hours evaporated in exciting bike chat and we rode the whole length from Christchurch illuminated by a watery sun rise through Bournemouth to Poole. A lot of seafront bike path next to a glassy and slightly foggy sea with beach huts like paint charts. I was flagging big time. Halfway welcome 153km in at the Lilliput Sea Scout hut by another army of intrepid lovely volunteers who had been preparing and cooking all night. I was the last of 150+ breakfasts served at 8am. It was epic.

Audax breakfast in Poole

I needed a good break as my Garmin needed to recharge as well as me, it was on 20%. I waved David off and was honoured to meet the legendary Mike Sheldrake who gave me a massive hug and sent me on my way at 9am with encouraging wisdom. It was chilly and the drizzle very persistent in the never ending rolling hills to Podimore services at 227km. Totally solo, no sign of audax life. My legs worked but only at one speed, setting 1 on the food mixer. I'm still riding to time limits but needing to boost my Garmin charge, I allowed myself a latte to wash down more of my cheese rolls. The server helpfully pointed out that everyone else passed through hours ago. 

Glastonbury was where I believed I might make it, all familiar ground now. I was held up by cattle droving near Godney with a queue of cars. It was dusk at the start of the gravelly Strawberry Line in Axbridge with dog walkers dressed in black with black dogs and a huge struggle to see where the path was as everything was covered in pretty leaves. I've no idea how I survived the horrific mud slide at Thatchers' new diversion but somehow I stayed upright. I should have been back on the road to avoid that section but hadn't paid my Garmin much attention as I know the Strawberry Line. 

I totally crawled in the pitch black and eventually made The Strawberry Line Cafe in Yatton 15 mins after closing at 5.15 although technically on time, just. I flashed off a quick pic for evidence, and a quick message to arrivée to say where I was and to apologise for keeping them waiting. Thank goodness for no punctures.

Strawberry Line Cafe Yatton 5.15pm

Now the thrash to get back "on time" fuelled by jelly babies, as they were all I could manage on the go. Local knowledge helped for the ride through Nailsea but not rarely dipped car lights dazzling me on the lanes. Riding past home at 298km was torture. A final fling of navigational ineptitude getting the route onto the B2B Railway path wrong having ridden the section last night and losing another 5 valuable minutes.

I made it back by the skin of my teeth to cheers from Will, Holly and Steve, embarrassingly my moving speed of 19km/hr at Poole had dropped off to 17.7km/hr by the finish. Audax allows about 15km/hr including stop time. A plate of fantastic dahl was handed to me and tales of the day were told. Given my fitness levels and circumstances a full fat value ride was plenty good enough for me. Who am I kidding? I should have been back by 5pm. 

Bristol Somerset Wiltshire Hampshire Dorset - 5 counties in one day

Epic organisation and control teams by Great Western Randonées. I'm regretting not picking up a Strawberry line stick to whittle into my wooden spoon. I was the person who spent the longest time by far in the saddle. Another "lanterne rouge" for my collection. The jelly baby reflux lasted several days. I was staggered that the lack of sleep for 36 hours didn't impact me until I was in the bath later that evening.

Am I imagining things? Did I say "next time I’ll do some training" rather than "never again...?"

Monday, September 21, 2020

Not All Points North 2020 #NotAPN20 5th-7th Sept 2020

Now I’m beating myself up. It was only a couple of hours to turn the pedals to the Kirkstone Pass Inn and I took the easy option of a left turn to Oxenholme station in the pouring rain instead on that Monday morning, and thus scratched from (Not) All Points North 2020.

Descent to Kirkby Stephen

I only managed 25% of Not All Points North 2020 #NotAPN20 over 2 days. I could not face the thought of another wet night that night stressing over finding a camping spot knowing my tent was soaked. I was worrying about that night at 8am in the morning.

Rewind less than 2 months to July 2020. I became aware that the “All Points North” event that had been scheduled for late May had been postponed to September, due to Covid-19, and was now being held as an informal event for anyone who wanted to devise a route and visit the 10 controls spread over the North of England.

Not a race. No entrance fee. No tracker.

No mass start.

No fixed start place or time.

A very generous 12 days to “count as a finisher”. Normally the expectation is to finish in 72hrs.

I had been planning to ride another event as my first “multi day event” this summer. Suddenly the dream of me trying something way out of my comfort zone was on again.

Most importantly I had a week's leave coincidentally booked from 5th Sept. Originally we planned a cycling/sailing holiday in Greece in those long gone days when you could plan holidays, Greece wasn’t happening. 

What a turn around. I immediately dropped the ten control coordinates into Komoot and started plotting a route. I had a goal again. We could choose in what order to visit the controls, as long as a loop was completed.

I know Cumbria and Northumberland/Tyneside well enough that there would be regular “more familiar” bits but I’ve never really been to Yorkshire at all, certainly not cycling. At the end of July we had had a week touring #upNorth riding a Dales and Lakes Loop and then C2C and Hadrian's Wall which was already planned before Not All Points North was on my radar.

As I've never toured/bikepacked on my own over multi days I also planned a long weekend to complete Lon Las Cymru in August sandwiching our holiday and NotAPN20, allowing three weeks tapering before NotAPN20. I completed the route in pretty wet conditions, I had to adapt the original plan and didn't make two x 200km DIY audax as hoped but I did prove I had the capacity to set out and survive on my own in bad weather. The wild camping was particularly testing. I also crashed 10 miles from the end, resulting in a knee injury that very nearly jeopardised NotAPN20.

Starting and finishing at Sheaf Square outside Sheffield Station the extreme points of NotAPN were Silloth on the west coast and Berwick upon Tweed on the east coast, tiptoeing into Scotland. My route came to just shy of 1000km and 10000m of climbing and clockwise was chosen so I was getting the tough Yorkshire Dales done (Arnicliffe and Keld) whilst fresh then familiar Cumbria (Kirkstone Pass) and a visit to Silloth AONB and across to Kielder Forest for a different kind of wild, hopefully with a “recovery” tailwind.  After Berwick I was planning to track the coast on NCN1 (via an optional side trip to Lindisfarne if tide suitable) onto Amble then heading inland to cross the Tyne at Wylam, where we’d camped in July returning from C2C. Down and up to Blanchland/Draycott Water and the last very tough push through N York Moors via Rosedale Abbey and Castle Howard and back to Sheffield, hoping being so close to completion would wind me home. 6 days/5 nights with a day spare to flex into if needed. My route clockwise (we had to keep our route private, no help allowed with formulating your route.)

My planned route Not All Points North 2020

I knew there would be some walking, I’m a plodder. I knew I found wild camping stressful, not the lack of facilities/roughing it aspect but the fear of being able to find somewhere suitable to pitch before dusk and being discovered. I was buoyed up I managed to get campsites booked at Troutbeck nr Penrith, Kielder and Amble so only the first and fifth nights were “wild”.

Mistake 1 Rigid plan

I planned like “we” do for tours, but on tours mostly you’re being fairly conservative each day so when you have bad weather/mechanicals/hills are hillier than they appeared on paper there is time to regroup and still make the plan. I was planning to average 100mile days which is not much for others but not tested on multi back to back stints for me. My eyesight is poor, so I keep night riding to a minimum.

Mistake 2 Overpacking

I knew others would mainly be bivvying and carrying less even though I had pared down my kit. It always rains and/or there are cyclist eating midges when I tour and I need a sleep mat so a lightweight tent it is. Bikepacking bags do not fit tent/mat/sleeping bag/winter clothes/some food on an XS frame, so I just went with smaller front panniers on the back with a bar bag. I’d treated myself to a dynamo hub and usb charger set up as my birthday present. Brake pads changed, bike serviced, I'm an incompetent mechanic so that gave me some reassurance. I also bought myself a Brukit, so I could feed myself and make hot drinks in the tent and perhaps even en route at the top of a stunning climb? However much I analyse it for me the only thing I should have left behind was the Brukit, it was never used. I bought a lighter sleep mat but can't justify the £100s for ultra lightweight sleeping bag and mat.

CP1 My starting point the steps of Sheaf Square outside Sheffield Station

Mistake 3 Starting too late - Saturday

We could start anytime from midnight, but it didn't matter as it wasn't a race. If I'd caught the train up to Leeds (from Bristol) on Friday night (rather than Saturday morning) I could have started at 7 and would not have been caught out in the Dales in the dark not being able to find a camp spot. So I would not have been so wet, and would have started promptly on Sunday morning. I'd also have left my post ride bag at my daughter's in Leeds rather than carrying it on my back up to Wetherby where we arranged to meet mid afternoon to hand it over. Keep post race plans out of race logistics! Do not ride with a rucksack for 70km! I found out afterwards that I would have broken the rules in the regular event as you have to finish with all the kit you start with. Lesson learnt.

Panniers off for the reserved bike space on Cross Country Trains Bristol Temple Meads to Sheffield
The curved mirrored walkway at Sheaf Square is not flattering to short rotund cyclists!
The ride from Sheffield to Wetherby was a little tedious, I was right to treat that as "getting it done" so the more pleasant roads after Wetherby were much appreciated, especially as I'd left the rucksack with my daughter at the cafe where I devoured a baked potato with beans and cheese, classic audax fare. 

Traffic density plummeted and it was a tonic to be leaving the conurbations behind. Studley Park was the first control and all the NT staff were racing home. It was 6pm already. I walked round and round that church trying to find the opening times, in the end I took pics and googled them. What a waste of time, I hadn't used the time to fuel so a dead 45 mins. Studley Park was lovely though.
CP2 St Mary's Church Studley Deer Park near Ripon

I pushed on towards Pateley Bridge, I had been sensible and looked up "resupply" when planning and knew the Spar in Pateley Bridge was open until 10pm.

Mistake 4 Carrying too much food

I've always toured in the wilds of Scotland/Wales/Lakes/Pennines etc and often there are no shops/cafés for hours or over a day at a time. With Covid this is even more relevant as I had found on my previous two multi day trips this year. So I was carrying enough food to manage for nearly a day, inc a back up pouch of dahl. I was worrying about fading light, couldn't stop for a pizza in Pateley Bridge and rushed round the spar buying random sardines, tea cakes, butter, bananas and a 2l bottle of water etc and then had to carry them in a musette I had bought for just such emergencies. I strapped the water bottle on the rack with a bungee, I'd had to do that in Wales.

Then the hill out of Pateley Bridge was straight up. I wanted to get to the reservoir to camp but by the time I was up the top and could contemplate some flat land it was dark. My new dynamo lights were good but don't stay on walking so I put the spare blinkie on too. I nearly lost the water at one point, all this faff = time. It was raining.

I could see I was at my route end near the reservoir but couldn't see where would be ok to camp, it was very marshy. So I rang a B&B but it turned out their availability calendar was wrong. He took pity on me and said I could camp in the garden if I had breakfast in the morning. It took another 45 mins to get to Grassington, tent up and the very kindly B&B owner made me hot chocolate and a huge slab of cake was brought out. I only had use of a cloakroom and didn't like to wash so it was wild camping really.

Mistake 5 Starting too late again - Sunday

It rained overnight and I packed up a very wet tent in the rain as early as I dared, and had a fantastic breakfast whilst stressing about time. I stashed the food I hadn't eaten from the Spar in panniers and bungeed the wet tent on the rack. 

If only I'd been away at 7.30 and not 9.30. I was repeating my mistakes. On the other hand I needed that breakfast, it was stupendous. A nice level ride out to the 2nd control at Arnicliffe to warm up. The rain was easing.

There was a cyclist lurking, taking pictures of the pub (we had to take a pic at each control, and answer the relevant question, see image above) I took my photo as evidence and she said "are you Fiona?" Turns out it was Sarah, my online cycling/audax friend from Lincoln, we had never met nor had we shared we were entering NotAPN20. This was a big highlight of my weekend, meeting a real live "other nutter but very normal like me" person on the road. We both had the same tent and Sarah had camped near the reservoir and got away much earlier. We both thought we were carrying too much. I think I ate a banana and we nattered a short while and she mentioned something about her route avoiding Butter Tubs. I knew I had big hills all day but did not know if Butter Tubs was one.

CP3 Arnicliffe
Sarah at Arnicliffe
Sarah left a couple of minutes before and I passed her not long after, now I know our routes deviated after that. I was heading towards Fleet Moss and Hawes, another legendary climb I didn't realise was on my route. A brief speedy downhill section and a couple hailed me as I passed "are you actually from Bristol?" I stopped and said "yes" So were they, a few seconds chatting and it turns out he was the Golf Captain at the club Steve plays at, 5 years ago. They were walking the Dales Way and completed it. His wife very kindly found me on Instagram and forwarded the only photo of me (I had declined Sarah's kind offer to take a photo at Arnicliffe.)

I slogged my way up what I now know is Fleet Moss. I was quite glad I hadn't realised the names as I may have psyched myself out. Walking was involved. 

Then a whoosh into Hawes, a touristy busy place that I certainly didn't want to stop in. I knew there was a hill up the other side, a little hill called Buttertubs. 

I took a wrong turn in Hawes and ended up in a café/museum car park with public toilets. Never a pass a public convenience without using it on a bike. I came out and found 4 cyclists, then (too late) I spotted they were from VC167 the arch rivals of Audax Club Bristol whose shirt I am sporting. Colin is the points champion and they dethroned us as national Audax champions last year and luckily they were pretty friendly and I didn't get lynched. They knew all about NotAPN20 as the organisers are in their club (I think) They wished me "bonne route" and said very nice things, very nice folk.
Mistake 6 Not Eating Enough

Buttertubs was conquered very slowly, with more walking. I was hoping for some food at the 3rd control in Keld, an unscheduled tour down into the village looking for the phone box that was on the road at the top. The pub only had tea/coffee and crisps so I drank a pot of tea huddled in the porch as non residents were not allowed to stay inside. I ate some of the rolls I still had from home, but didn't eat enough. I found it hard eating all day.
CP4 Keld
Rolling climbing continued but eventually (4pm?) I could see the Lakeland Fells in the distance and was on the descent to Kirkby Stephen. The vista was just stunning. A highpoint of my weekend. I finally had phone signal so rang my parents in Penrith to say they wouldn't be meeting me for a pub meal in Troutbeck (the Penrith one) tonight, I was way behind! I needed a proper sit down meal and I whizzed down to Kirkby Stephen, an endorphin boosting descent ruined by a beeping car who yelled obscenities at me when it was OK for me to safely pull in to let them past, it was the 3rd car in the queue. The others thanked me. People ugh. But as always, the vast majority are lovely. That was my only incident. Traffic was exemplary otherwise.
I pulled up at the first café in Kirkby Stephen, the White Hare Café. Benches outside, a track stand pump and a very welcoming owner. it was gone 4.30 (Sunday closing time) and his final customers were departing. That was no problem, I was welcomed with open arms, well if we hadn't have been social distancing and all that. I had another baked potato beans and cheese the same as yesterday, brought out in minutes with a huge pot of tea. Maz was concerned at my dilemma re where to camp that night and rushed off to google campsites (which I was also doing!) After a lovely chat and quite impolite shovelling down of food, I paid up and thanked Maz. I used the facilities and on departing he insisted I took a paper bag with a ginormous piece of flapjack in "for the tent later", I had said I would be wild camping somewhere as no campsites on my route. People are just so lovely. I inelegantly pulled on legwarmers and thermal arm warmers to beat the evening chill, the wind was affecting perceived temperature as I was still quite wet. I set out rejuvenated, things were getting better.

The ride across the moors towards Orton was spectacular, we were here on our Dales and Lakes loop at the end of July.

Mistake 7 Not setting up camp early enough - again

I promptly repeated yesterday's mistake. I could have camped on Orton Moor but I was motivated to get as much done to recover the day as possible to make tomorrow less daunting. 

Sunday 6th was also #RaphaWomens100 day and I was not at 100km. I had that motivation to push me on riding with Emily Chappell's "Invisible Peloton", or more accurately my invisible peloton of people who inspire me on the bike. I "rode" with other women around the world vicariously and made my 100km even if not the 100 miles that had been the aim.

The evening sun was stunning, my thermal arm warmers were pushed down. Through Tebay then the drag up on the wide but empty road running parallel to the M6 southbound. I hauled myself up high and finally turned westwards away from the motorway din. Both the light and weather were closing in, I took a side road and stopped at the first decent looking field with a big wall to hide behind with the sheep. I dead lifted my bike over my head, threw the luggage over and carefully climbed the gate near the hinges, only to find a very marshy sloping field with lots of sheep poo. A theme of my wild camping spots it seems. The flattest driest bit was still a sloping and diagonal pitch. No hope of lighting my stove for a drink again. I ate some more rolls from home and the flapjack and tried to sleep. The inside of the tent is also wet from packing it up in the rain this morning.

I started to sort myself out at first light, I had slept very badly again, pulling myself up the mat all night and listening to the persistently heavy rain. This was my view when I thought about a mug of tea at 6am, the rain in my face, I quickly gave up on that idea, it's not safe to light up under the very small porch. My left knee was very sore, there was nothing wrong with it last night, my right knee has been the worry after the accident on Lon Las Cymru 3 weeks ago.
So so wet at dawn on Monday I had 2 tea cakes with slabs of butter for breakfast. This is what it's really like bikepacking. Not staring wistfully at a beautiful sunrise as other bikepacking blogs have you believe.

I was packed up for 7.30, not late today, but I was absolutely drenched with all my cycling kit on including thermal arm warmers, leg warmers, rain jacket. My shoes have been soaked since Saturday.

Mistake 8 Giving up without taking time to regroup

In my head I had already given up. I hadn't considered giving up last night so I didn't even sleep on the idea. I just could not face camping wild again tonight as I was now behind my campsite reservations and it was impossible to rely on getting a site on spec at present due to Covid limitations. I needed dry shorts and a shower as I was suffering already with saddle sores, which has never been a problem for me before this summer.

I huddled under a tree and put Oxenholme station on google maps and listened to the directions. I passed one other cyclist in the opposite direction who turned out to be another All Points Norther, I didn't know at the time, but it was a lovely cheerful greeting from another human. My legs were weary. I turned off my NAPN route. If I'd cycled the same distance west rather than south I would not have been far from Windermere or a cafe or a supermarket. Then I could have regrouped, looked at my phone in the dry so I could see it, realised that Kirkstone was easier than yesterday's hills (which I did know but I wasn't processing) Mainly I could have eaten something and possibly booked some dry accommodation for that night. I would not have scratched so early if my head had been playing ball.

I rolled into Oxenholme, bought a ticket and sat down on the platform to wait an hour for the train to Penrith. I felt a bit pathetic. I do know that I doubt I'd have made the whole course, perhaps across to Berwick and down to Durham but my saddle sore problems were ramping up. I need to get that sorted out. It was just ironic that the injured knee that nearly prevented me starting was absolutely fine. The other knee had swelled sleeping at an angle over night, I couldn't walk on it once I stopped cycling and it was OK 48 hrs later. I think my sort of cycling is more about damage limitation.
Scratched and waiting for a train at Oxenholme

Mistake 9 Having comprehensive bail out plans

Perhaps my head failed me because it was easy for me to bail at that point. I had my parents in Penrith to descend upon, if I'd got to Blanchland my route then went past my brother's house in Durham and my daughter lives in Leeds. I had my railcard and lots of stations to get a train from. 

Not All Points North was my first ever multi day endurance cycling event. So perhaps it was an inspired way to learn. After all, my first multi day solo trip had only been 3 weeks before and I had been injured for the intervening tapering period. That certainly did not leave me in the ideal focussed frame of mind. I'm certainly less fit than I was in March going into UK Lockdown as I have had no access to the gym up to now, I don't own a turbo trainer and have ridden less miles than normal too this year.  I was very cross with myself on the train, it did not occur to me to get off in Penrith buy another ticket and go back to Oxenholme and just get on with it.

I have not been put off, I will apply myself and give myself a better chance next year. I am not in it to win it, just in it to prove to myself that I can get round without relying on anybody else. I will down that emergency gel before deciding I was too hungry and lethargic to just continue slowly until I eventually came to a café.

Thank you to All Points North organisers for opening up an informal event in this strange disjointed year, not charging a penny for the great privilege of taking part and making it a really special accessible event. I loved it, even if their were times I questioned my sanity that is what endurance cycling is about. I have written this blog post to remind me next time what not to do.

The biggest hurdle was entering, and actually starting. So really I'm pretty proud of myself for psyching myself up. I didn't think I'd meet another participant and I did and the social media interaction made me feel like I was part of the event even if I felt a bit of a fraud entering. 

I'm wistful that I didn't see the AONB around Silloth, didn't make my planned sidetrips into Kielder Forest and Lindisfarne, nor the fantastic café at Blanchland my brother had told me about. I still haven't been to the Yorkshire Moors. I will return. I love it #upnorth