Steam Ride London Oxford London

I had been looking forward to the London Oxford London audax for weeks – my first audax of 2016 and motivation to put in the miles despite the weather.

In preparation, I rode a hilly century to Brighton and back on the Saturday. I was slightly annoyed to ride this solo after offering it as a club run, but I suppose it’s good practice riding long distances on consecutive days under my own steam. It certainly felt like a tough ride (my power meter gave up the ghost 3/4 of the way around, so it’s possible I eased off) and I expected Sunday to be all about getting round, rather than getting around quickly.

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Throwing my leg over the top tube in the morning, it certainly felt like it was going to be a slow day. I switched my Garmin to the map, ignored the numbers and set off for Ruislip, enjoying the sunshine and quiet roads. Tim, the organiser, had posted that he would be hanging around for late starters, so I wasn’t too worried about making good time. I was rather surprised, therefore, to arrive at the cafe almost exactly on time and having averaged just shy of 20mph.

At the cafe I spotted a bike I recognised from Strava photos – a Canyon Aeroad with yellow finishing, belonging to another TCR entrant. I decided to hang around and introduce myself to Darren and we ended up setting off together, about 5-10 minutes down on the main field. He’s recovering from a crash at the velodrome and I found myself gapping him on the climbs, so decided to push on and see how much time I could make up on the way to the first control.

Riding through the fog out of London and its surrounds was truly magical – twinkling red lights appearing in the distance, slowly growing brighter as I caught the groups down the road. I settled into a rhythm and slowly passed bigger and bigger groups, before finding myself completely alone in a fog filled park, revelling in the empty roads and making a note to find them again on a sunnier day.

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Leaving the park and passing through a small town, I realised I’d not checked the brevet card and had no idea where the controls were or what to be looking out for. I stopped at the side of a road, compared mileages and felt the cold dread of a missed control… Quainton Memorial Hall was supposed to be approximately where I was and I hadn’t checked village signs… no reception on my phone… turn back? Suddenly a large group of riders thundered past with the customary ‘everything alright mate?’, so I put in a chase and asked if anyone knew if Quainton was ahead or behind. ‘Quay what mate? No idea! We’re just following Garmins’. Balls. Luckily, the next cross roads had a big sign for Quainton and I made the control 5 minutes after opening (to find just two riders there already).

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Leaving the control, I quickly caught the two riders ahead and overtook them on a short sharp climb. I was making pretty good time myself, so was rather surprised when I saw them barrelling down on me another couple of miles up the road. A bit of company evidently spurred the chap on to pushing somewhat harder and I tucked in behind to enjoy a cheeky tow. Even sat third wheel, the watts were creeping up and his female companion was increasingly letting the gap open and clearly finding the pace a bit too hot. She eventually had to slow to take on a gel and I kicked on to Oxford alone.

I reached The Head of the River in Oxford within minutes of the control opening and sat to catch my breath and have a quick chat with Alex and Jasmijn. As the pub was yet to open and Oxford town centre was busy, the consensus appeared to be that Didcot was the better bet for a spot of lunch, so I made my excuses and set off again.

Anyone who’s been on one of Tim’s Steam Rides will know he likes a bit of off-road and I foolishly remarked in the pub garden that there had been very little so far. Oh you fool! The path down the side of the river was great fun, but rough and full of sharp pointy things and I was convinced it was a matter of time before I’d get a puncture. Fortunately I made it through unscathed and it looks like the alternative, paved route added a fair chunk of time and distance.

Didcot wasn’t as pleasant as I remembered, but I found a nice bench by the station and stuffed my face with fruit pastilles and a sausage roll – healthy! Three other riders came through during my stop, but evidently preferred to find something a little less hobo-chic than my bench and disappeared into various side roads. My back and shoulders were killing by this point, but I figured sitting around on a cold bench wasn’t going to make it any better and jumped back on the bike.

The next leg of the ride was a completely different beast – headwind (a perennial fan favourite) and lumpy, cutting across the Chilterns.  I struggled to find a comfortable position on the bike; tops, drops and hoods all made different parts of my back and shoulders ache and I kept finding excuses to stop for a quick stretch. The scenery was beautiful, but without the earlier fog, the hills were visible from miles off and every time you crested one, you could see the next not far off in the distance.

Fortunately the fierce winter sun and exertion from climbing warmed my aching muscles and it wasn’t long before I’d forgotten about my various aches and pains and managed to settle back into it, enjoying the rapid changes in scenery over every rise. Chinnor arrived suddenly and I stopped more out of obligation to get a receipt for the control than any actual need. I bought a sausage roll, but could only force one bite down and ended up discarding the rest. This isn’t the first time I’ve had difficulty eating on a longer ride and something I need to address before the Transcontinental.

The climb out of Chinnor was a tough old bastard and my left hamstring cramped in protest. I dropped it into the granny ring and succumbed to my fate… I’m sure others have climbed that hill slower, but it felt like an eternity and took a great deal of restraint not to get off the bike at the top for a celebratory sit down.

The next fun came around Wycombe, where Tim had devised a clever route to avoid the busy main roads. I’m sure it was fantastic, but I wasn’t checking my Garmin and didn’t notice I’d gone wrong until long after the turn. No choice but to commit or retrace about 5km, so I naturally stuck with the busy roads. After being close passed endlessly for what felt like ages but was probably only a minute or two, I finally noticed a bike path heading off in the direction of the official route and bailed… only to get stuck in an industrial park for an eternity before finally finding a way through. Another lesson for the Transcontinental – when even moderately tired, my problem solving skills apparently turn to utter shit. Of course, I should already know this from the time I climbed out of Richmond Park only to watch someone walk through the open pedestrian gate. Sometimes I am not a smart man.

The last leg took us through Burham Beeches and plenty of small, busy paths and really helped provide a bit of a warm down. I arrived back at Ruislip feeling quite fresh, 8 hours after setting off and first back. Alex and Jasmijn arrived about 20 minutes later, quickly followed by Darren. I was rather impressed to see Darren back so quickly – evidently a masterclass in pacing and limiting stopping time. As we reflected after, it’s not necessarily about being the fastest, it’s about not being slow – time in the saddle inevitably puts you nearer the finish than an extra ten minutes at every stop.

All in all, a brilliant day out and lots of fun. Certainly good training, but I need to start riding with aerobars and more of my TCR kit in order to adapt. I’ll also need to start thinking about consecutive days in the saddle and pacing appropriately.

LOL

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