The truth is, the Dean appeared to be one of the must-do events on the Audax UK calendar. The numbers were quite intimidating though: 307 km, 4000 m of climb, and in March. At the time, I had only one 200 flat-ish event under my belt, so it really looked like a serious challenge.
Came March 23rd, and we were in Paddington Station, minutes before the rush hour, on our way to Oxford. I had managed to convince Lucy to come with me, although she would not be riding the event this time. The Dean is named after the Forest of Dean, where the ride goes through in the first half. It is a loop starting from the North of Oxford, to Chepstow in Wales, and back. For the curious, the route looked like this:
We arrived in Oxford in time to grab some dinner, cycle around a little, and head up to the room. While in town, I managed to spot what it looked like audaxers: mudguards, steel frame, cap, bright lights, all qualify as attributes to long distance machacas. Upon arrival in our hotel, we met a couple on a tandem, who were also doing the ride. Was in bed by 11 pm, set the alarm at 5:15 am and tried to get some good sleep. At 3 am I was already awake, thirsty and nervous.
No need for alarm ring, as was awake by 5:00 am, but not out of bed until 5:30 am. Shortly afterwards I started to hear fellow riders wheeling their bikes out of their rooms. I was running late, as always. Left the room by 5:50 am to find out that the start of the ride was not where I was expecting it to be. And it was very foggy. Luckily, saw a couple other riders who pointed me in the right direction. 5:55 am and I had my brevet card in my jersey pocket. According to the organiser, some 75 hard souls were awake on a cold, foggy Saturday morning, in a random location North of Oxford, ready for more than 10 hours on the saddle. We do this for fun. And it is so much fun, honest. With English punctuality, Andrew, the organiser, waved us off at 6 am.
|5:55 am, 2.5 degrees, 307 km ahead. Note the machacas on fixed wheel|
The first leg of the ride went by pretty quickly. It was rather cold and everyone, or at least the group I was in, pressed on. For the first 30 km or so I averaged more than 29 km/h without putting in too much effort. Had an interesting chat with one of the riders, a PBP finisher, and a five times Dean finisher. He emphasized on the importance of keeping yourself hydrated, and I was more than happy to take on all his advice. After all I am just a newbie in this world. As a consequence of this, I guess, I was soon needing to go for a pee, which dropped me off the main group. Although I tried, I could not manage to get back to the fast peloton, and so I rode the remainder of the 14 km by myself. The sun was trying to come out, and at some point I had a great view over the valley, with the thick layer of clouds at the bottom.
|Fog and the sun trying to come out. 7 am|
|Rolling hills and the fog I'd just left behind|
Got to the first garage control, minutes after it had just opened, and in good spirits, although a little chilly. My hands were so cold that I could barely bring the bike to a stop at the garage, and almost had my first fall of the day. Luckily this did not happen. I was soon in possession of a receipt and carried on.
Stow to Newent (57 km)
We were now entering the Cotswolds. That meant more ups and downs, which was good, as I was still a little chilly. Although I started off with two riders, I soon had to let them go, as they were putting a pace that was not realistic to keep up for the whole day. Behind me was Frank, a rider that I knew from other long routes, and another veteran of this long distance thing. It was on one of this hills when I saw a guy riding a frame that I had been looking at in the past. The temperatures were rising now, and the three of us made our way through the Cotswolds chatting about the usual: bikes, rides, and equipment.
When I looked at my computer, I had clocked up more than 100 km in 3h and 40 min, without pushing too much. Group riding makes it a lot easier, and this was my fastest ever 100 km. Shortly afterwards, we stopped at the next control, where I stocked up on water and grab some food. Frank had already left before we even realised. Experienced audaxers do not faff around controls!
|Quiet lanes, fog is clearing up now|
The next leg involved some little climbs, mostly through the Forest of Dean. I departed Newent with Ulfson, who happened to be my companion for the rest of the ride. We were soon following other riders, and cought up with Frank. A bunch of us navigated our way through dense pine forests. I was quite impressed by this little forest, and reminded me of my travels in Sweden. Despite what we were told, the roads were not actually that steep, or maybe it was because it was so nice that we were not even bothered? The traffic had been pretty much non-existent up until here.
|Entering the Forest of Dean|
|Already on t-shirt|
Once in Chepstow, we got a bit lost trying to find a decent cafe with cooked food. We had put in 150 km and were incredibly hungry. We ended up playing safe and had a full English breakfast in a nearby pub, where a couple of drunkards showed interest in our bikes and got confused when we told them that we had cycled from Oxford and intended to ride back as well.
Chepstow to Malmesmury (49 km)
After almost 1 h of total faffing, and to our surprise, without seeing other audaxers, we left Chepstow. This town lies on the western side of the Severn river. To get on to the other side, you need to cross the Severn bridge, and that involved a sharp climb that my stomach did not seem to like that much. Got on to the cycle lane and enjoyed a very calmed river crossing.
|Crossing the Severn bridge|
Half way through this leg we ended up forming a mini-peloton with two other guys from Dorset. I was quite nice to work with them, and together we battled some slight headwind without a problem. The guys were doing the Easter Arrows event from Dorset to York in a few weeks time, so were happy to do some fast miles with us. Next stop was Malmesmury, where once again we stopped in a supermarket for some food. It had been my quickest 200 km, in just over 8 h of riding time.
Malmesmury to Membury (56 km)
The Dorset riders had warned us that a few hills awaited us. Although we stuck together for quite some time, we dropped them in the second of the hills. I can adapt easily to other peoples paces in the flat, but find it hard on the uphills, so we just kept going up at a comfortable speed. Sunset was approaching and Ulfson and I wanted to arrive at the next control before it got completely dark. The scenery was really nice in the Malmesmury Downs area, with some amazing descents.
|Somewhere in the Malmesmury Downs|
And so we did. I knew about Membury since Lucy's grandad, an army pilot for the US army in WW2, had been based there during the war. However, nowadays, I could not see anything from the roads, although apparently the runway remains. Crossing over the M4 and into the service area, we stopped there for some more food and a receipt.
|Always nice to see the sunset from the saddle|
We turned into night mode here. Lights and warmer clothes on. GPS screen backlit. All good to go for 2 h of night riding.
Left the service area in complete darkness at 7 pm. Had spoken to Lucy and agreed to meet in Oxford for some dinner, so food was calling. This last bit of the ride was quite benign, with only a little hill shortly after the stop. It was here where we picked up our first flat tyre of the day. Minutes before we had been talking about how great the Gatorskin tyres are for UK conditions. Oh well. Fixed it as quickly as we possibly could (it was cold when stopped!) and carried on. Frank and the Dorset riders passed us here, and we did not see them again.
The night riding section went pretty well, with the exception of the flat tyre, and we pulled into the Oxford suburbs 20 min before 9 pm. We pressed on as we tried to complete the ride in less than 15 hours. A few traffic lights slowed us down, and we got our receipts just a couple minutes past 9 pm. Ulfson and I shook hands and congratulated each other on a great ride. It truly feels good to complete this, 2h earlier than I had anticipated. Quite surprisingly, I did not feel any pain and legs were still going strong. Yet.
Lucy was waiting for me in town to go out for dinner. I would not take a shower and would turn up in lycra. Not that we ever go to anything too fancy, but still...
We're known to be crap with directions, so ended up looping around town until we found the noodle bar that we were looking for initially. Ate compulsively all the food they served and Lucy's leftovers as well. When I stood up, everything started to hurt.
The ride back to our hotel room was the worst 15 min of riding that I can remember. Could not even sit down properly on the saddle, the wrists hurt, and I was feeling really tired. Somehow managed to have a shower, write some notes, and collapse into bed. Lesson learnt: no prolonged stopping in long rides, unless is strictly necessary! Luckily, I felt perfectly fine the following morning!
All in all it had been an amazing experience. One of my favourite rides, if not the favourite, with great companions. Weather could have not been better, which definitely helped a lot. In previous years, they had snow, hail, rain, and wind. Some seasoned riders took more than 20 h to complete it, so I was very pleased we did not have any of that.
The stats for the day:
- Total 308 km
- Moving average speed: 23.6 km/h
- Maximum speed: 63.6 km/h
- Moving time: 12 h and 48 min
- Stopped time: 2 h and 12 min
- Average speed (including stops): 20.1 km/h
- The climbing is a bit controversial. Despite the official 4000 m, I reckon we did not do much more than 3000 m, but still, not a flat route
- 8 water bottles drunk. At least 8 times I had to pee.