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!

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