It all started on a cold Friday night in November. A couple of beers in and in good company I spouted the words “Yeah I’d love to”.
4 months later there we are hurriedly arranging forms and routes and timings and average speeds and bags and spares and food and lights and anything else that might be of any use to us still essentially blind to exactly what we are letting ourselves in for.
The Easter Arrow is an event organised by Audax UK where teams of up to 5 ride from where ever they are in the country to York. The rule is that you have to ride a minimum of 400km (250 miles) and you have to finish in your 24th hour with no stop taking longer than 2hrs. So if you live in York you have to ride 200km the other way and then back. It’s not a race, it’s a test. A test of just about everything!
Bit early too early for a spare tube
So if you are regular readers of the journal you will have read our previous blog “Type II Fun” a while ago. So you can see how this predicament has unfolded. We’ve done cycle touring before, we’ve done multi day rides of over 100 miles a day, we’re no strangers to riding bikes for a long time but this was quickly going to turn out to be quite different.
Our team was made up of debutant Audaxers and we have to put our cards on the table here that we didn’t adhere to the rules totally. Half our team were nervous about riding through the night which was fair enough. On the face of it riding through the night on unlit unfamiliar roads wasn’t everyones cup of tea so that meant for a bit of varied planning, but more on that later. Our team consisted of your scribe; Nick, Jon, Lisa and Emily. The girls were both based in London so they rode from there and we started in Chelmsford meeting nearly 70 miles up the road in Huntingdon. First thing to note is that Audax seems to always be measured in km. Unsure whether this is because of the continental roots of the discipline (most likely) or because it just sounds further (also very likely) but it was to lead to quite a lot of confusion in both the planning and the execution of ride, especially at night when a combination of cycling a really long way and not sleeping a lot plays havoc with your mental arithmetic.
A park near Peterborough, close to a dual carriageway that you shouldn't really cycle on.
Huntingdon was our first ‘control’ a series of places that we told the event organiser we would be. Evidence of our presence in these places in the form of till receipts and alike would form a paper trail to confirm we had completed the course in the correct time stamps. The girls took a little longer to arrive after they had a minor mechanical and then ridden into each other and crashed, not a great start! Lisa later described it as her worst morning of cycling ever, so the only way was up! After a coffee in Huntingdon we were ready to go! Audax is relatively leisurely. As such we were feeling pretty decent, off the top of my head we had averaged an Audax’y 16mph and it was nice not to be racing about at full whack all the time and enjoying the journey a bit. We were however now out of range of where we would ever normally cycle and the Garmin really held our only clue as to where we were going. This fortunately only really became evident when we entered the dual carriageway on the outskirts of Peterborough. This wasn’t ideal, but once we realised what was going on there wasn’t a whole heap we could do so we cracked on and before we knew it the Garmin then took us onto a bridleway next to a fishing lake. In 400kms this was really the only route error. So if you do decide to follow the route we took watch out for that. A paper map might have been more traditional to lay our confidence in but we trust in technology now, right?!
The only way is (out of) Essex
So our plan was to ride to Lincoln where we would say goodbye to the girls who would ride to Gainsborough (175 mile day) to get there just after dark where they could get some rest, not have to ride through the whole night, and then meet again early in the morning, around 6am in a fabled 24hr McDonalds in Goole around 20 miles from York. The journey actually went quite well and we were basically on time for the girls to get in and up to Gainsborough for 8pm ish but it did mean riding steadily, which fortunately was going ok. A welcome stop in the lovely town of Stamford for some sugary treats and then onto Grantham. The key here we knew was to keep eating, not try too hard and as such most of us stayed religiously in the small ring, apart from Lisa who was brutalising the top three cogs at an alarmingly slow cadence.
The route was relatively flat, once out of Cambridgeshire the midlands can be pretty flat, but still the miles were racking up. By the time we got to Grantham the light was beginning to fade but there were still pastries left in Lidl and by that time it was irrelevant whether they had been hanging around all day or not! At this point were around 120 miles in and had another 40 or 50 to go for the girls to get to their stop.
We left Lidl in a few more layers than we arrived in, the light began to fade and water began to fall from the sky. At first it wasn’t a problem but by the time we got to Coleby, around 20 miles up the road it was raining pretty hard. This wasn’t in the forecast and with light nearly gone we decided to stop as a group. We were 140 miles in and a little short of Lincoln, we were probably ok to stop but the girls had to push on if they wanted to get some rest. We all stopped as a group, soaked but in good spirits, to wait for the rain to pass in a pub called The Tempest in a little village of Coleby.
140 miles is a long way and although we were feeling good in ourselves we were pretty wet and it was dark outside. We looked like we had ridden 140 miles. So there shouldn’t have been any surprise really to the reaction that we got from the staff at the pub.
“Essex!? What, today?”
“Yes today, we’re on our way to York, is it ok if we dry out a bit and have some food?”
“York? When today? What tonight? [long pause] I don’t wanna be rude but… is everything OK?”
I guess she was entitled to ask. It was at this point that the girls decided that despite the rain they were going to press on and get to their stop. Jon and I were happy to wait it out. How very chivalrous of us! The girls disappeared into the night for a leg that they were to later describe as being almost hypothermic; we stayed in the pub, plugged into the wifi and ate a burger.
After our allotted couple of hours we moved into the night. A feed and a bit of a rest was really what we needed and the rain had passed so we were drier. We lit ourselves up like Christmas trees and headed to Gainsborough. The night shift was the bit I was really dreading; it was probably going to be cold, I was certainly not going to sleep, I would definitely have had enough of cycling by then and trying to get into the 200th mile in the early morning just didn’t sound that attractive. Most were true. Some became more quickly apparent than others. In fact the first part of the night ride went really well. So well in fact that when we got into Lincoln, amongst the sea of Friday night detritus, Jon and I tried to make a diversion from our more direct route to take in the Humber Bridge. Yeah it would be longer and we would have to slog into the gentle westerly on the way to Goole but we were feeling good, we could probably cycle into next Tuesday if we ate enough Haribo and my toothache had subsided so if that wasn’t a green light to consume Mentos by the packet then I don’t know what was.
We reset our Garmins and headed to the Humber Bridge.
Don't follow me I'm lost
3 laps of Lincoln town centre and a couple of residential areas later we accepted that perhaps we had gone a bit delirious and that maybe our night time navigation wasn’t up to scratch after all. We reloaded our original route and decided it was best to stick to the plan. 150 miles into our journey we left Lincoln.
The next 20 miles to Gainsborough went well despite our best attempts. We didn’t feel too horrid and kept a decent pace. The night was actually pretty good to ride in. We were both lit up pretty brightly and we barely saw a car especially out of the towns. High on sugar and only mildly hallucinating we continued and got into Gainsborough in the dead of night. The only downside of this was that we had to communicate with people again.
“Are there any more of you?” the petrol station attendant asked.
There had been others, come in the middle of the night. They had come for Mini Rolls and Cola. They were wearing high viz gilets and helmet covers. Like us they also had flashing lights on their heads. They passed an hour ago. We were not alone.
This particular Jet station had an extremely comfortable pavement and that was where we sitting when they came… flashing from the darkness 4 men in high viz searching for pre-packaged cake. We were told there were others but this was our first contact. Where had they come from? Where were they going??
Turns out they came from Harrogate, which was at least in a neighbouring county, but in the spirit of the ludicrousness of this event they had cycled to Norfolk and back and were on their way to a services that we had never heard of but pretended to have done. Bet they had never been to Beaconsfield services though. What I would have given at that point to be near Beaconsfield services. The jewel in the crown of British motorway services.
And so to Goole. The plan was to meet the girls at 6am in the 24hr McDonalds in Goole at around the 200 mile mark 30 miles from our current location. It was to be the longest 30 miles either of us had ridden. It’s after 20 hours of no sleep and that your eyes start to play tricks on you. Spray from wheels turn into something that makes you sit bolt upright thinking it’s a bird or a bat or something and there was a point when we both nearly ran into an abnormally large dead badger at the side of the road that was the size of a small bear.
We both cracked at around 3am. It was after the long straight forest roads, it was where our route started to follow the path of the river and the slight westerly became a headwind that was just enough to take our Audaxy pace below anything that was considered acceptable or indeed worthwhile for the amount of effort being expended. Goole was not far but the talking had stopped and it was all we could do to just get to the next point where we could wait for the girls who had no doubt had time for a full English and maybe a spa while we had been going slowly delirious in the woods.
There are others
We got into Goole at 0430 to check our phones. The girls had left Gainsborough at 0330 and were on their way. They might have got their heads down for a couple of hours, not long. Jon and I decided that we probably made the right decision despite it sounding like the worst one initially.
We saw the sunrise from behind the glass of a McDonalds in an industrial estate. There was no romance. Our proximity to York now meant that groups of riders were now descending from the night in search of caffeine and a McMuffin. Had these people nothing better to do? Nowhere better to go? Was something wrong with them? Oh, wait. You’re one of them. They are probably thinking the same thing of you! Think back to Coleby. Think back to the other day outside Brighton when you told the shop assistant you were riding back to Essex. Remember the look on her face?
The girls arrived, spurred on by the thought of breakfast and hash browns. This was Audax and by now you’d eat your best friend if you thought you could get away with it.
The final 20 miles (sorry 30km) to York was at least in daylight but was very hard indeed. But we got into York at around 8am as scheduled to be met by Tom, Jason, Nik and the rest of the ACME groups who had got in either that morning or the night before having done their night shift first, which was probably the more sensible option (having said that one group did the whole thing in a fixed gear, which sounds less than sensible). There was never really a question of not getting to the finish line, but it was certainly really difficult, especially during the night.
The Easter Arrow is one of many Audax events that are hosted by Audax UK and they range in distance from 54kms to 600km or even more. 400km is far enough to start and really push yourself if like us you know you can ride 100 miles. Either way there is an event for everyone or not all of them have to be ridden through the night, which is a bonus. The Arrow as an event has an intriguing history some of which can be found here. A final thank you to Tom and the guys at ACME who talked us into this! You can find them on Strava and are easy to search for on the Google. I was also able to use a couple of fine bike packing bags from Miss Grape Bikepacking which certainly made my life a lot easier so thank you to those guys as well. We must note at this point that due to our group splitting and starting from different points we did not apply for our Arrow randonneur badge as strictly it did not qualify for the team event.
We’ve never ridden this sort of distance before and certainly wouldn’t do it again next week, or maybe even next month. If you asked me immediately afterwards I would have flatly refused. But the following day my girlfriend caught me watching this and I feel dirty.