23 June 2012

Ride report: the National 400 Audax

 The National 400 was back on the calendar this year. Apparently it used to be an annual 400 km ride organised in a way to help new riders complete their first ever 400. It sounded good for us Audax newbies, yet the distance and time on the saddle is quite considerable. 400km, or 250 miles, is roughly equivalent to a ride from Madrid to Valencia (and a bit more, yet not as hilly), or from New York to Washington DC (and again, a bit more). The ride was intended to be pretty flat and looped around East Anglia as seen below:

On Friday eventing, after a pleasant train journey through Suffolk and Norfolk, we arrived in Norwich, from where we cycled down the 17 km to Seething, location of the hall that the organisers had arranged for the pre-ride dinner and overnight stay. Most people were either camping or staying in their campervans, but we, poor youngsters, chose the hall. It turned out to be a good option actually, as there were only a few of us there and the snoring was not too bad. Despite the ride being targeted at unexperienced audaxers like us, we had the impression that everyone was pretty hardcore when we were chatting over dinner.

Saturday Morning - by 6 am people started to get ready. Despite the horrendous weather forecasted for the weekend, it was warm and with relatively calm winds for the start. During breakfast I was asked if I was eating my toast the French way. As it happens, people do not dip their toast in their coffee here! After some last minute preparations, we headed over to Hempnall, the official start of the route. Getting there 20 minutes prior to the off, we met a few familiar faces, got our brevet cards and left minutes after 9 am. A good day of cycling awaited us.

The luxurious Hempnall Hall at the start, 8:45 am
Hempnall to Thordon (81 km)

75 of us rode off at 9:01am. 402 km ahead of us.
Initially we got rolling with a large group, which ended up in 15-20 riders. Similarly to my Dean audax ride in March, people tend to stick together until the first control. With them we made very good progress despite the persistent cross winds coming from the south. The route headed east towards the coast, where we found the first info control, some 32 km into the ride. This control was in Dunwich, a mini coastal town that we have visited on two occasions already, famous for being the end of the Dunwich Dynamo.

Roads leading up to Dunwich
 The riders in the front of our mini-peloton were working hard against the wind, and we, at the very back, enjoyed a very pleasant tow. At some point I decided that I should also do my turn at the front, so there I went with another fellow audaxer. We were so focused on keeping a good pace that ended up missing a turn, although luckily, the rest of the riders did not follow us. Playing catch up proved a bit hard, and at this point I started to see that Lucy was finding it hard to keep up. She's still not very confident with group riding, and the pace was just a bit outside her comfort zone. Despite all our efforts, we had to let them go and rode the last 15 km on our own. Even then, we averaged above 25 km/h and it was a very fast 81 km, quite possibly the fastest we've ever done together!

Thorndon control
The control was in a village hall (as were all the controls on this ride) and had plenty of cake and drink. Good fuel for audaxing. Everyone was (still) in very good spirits, fresh, and smiley. Got our brevets stamped, ate some cake and left half an hour later. From here on we would just set our own pace, which in a way, worried me a little because of the winds we will later encounter. Riding in a group is always much easier, especially against the wind.

Thorndon to Long Melford (81 km)

With sugar levels replenished, we set off into the cross winds again. The terrain was quite familiar to us, and it looped around the north of Bury St Edmunds to then head back south and finally east. That meant we would, at some point, encounter the promised head winds. We would also be passing through Hartest, a nice little town that we visited a couple years ago when Lucy's parents came over to visit her and some of their friends.

Superb lanes of Suffolk
Despite the winds, we managed to stay ahead of our initial plan, which was to get to Hartest between 5 and 6 pm. After a little detour, we were knocking on the door of Lucy's parents' friends to say hi just past 4:30 pm. It felt a little weird, being in audax mode, smelly, full lycra, and still with 240 km ahead of us, talking to other, more civilised people. The usual questions arose: are you doing it for charity? where are you staying overnight? when did you say you started this morning? where are you going now? and best of all...why? I let Lucy answer to all these questions. We filled our water bottles but didn't stay long, as we had the steepest hill in Suffolk coming up just past Hartest.

At the front of Lucy's friends' cute cottage
Contrasting colours
We left Hartest the hard way, up Hartest Hill. This would be the only hill that would test our legs on this ride, especially since our legs are still used to the hills of Spain!

Lucy machacando Hartest hill
The last 10 km into the control were tough. Lots of wind and my energy levels dropped very suddenly. I started to sweat quite a bit, feel sleepy and super tired all of the sudden. I had to stop and get some snacks in or else I was seeing myself bonking. I slowed the pace and hoped to get to the control as soon as possible. Luckily we got there and the food was plentiful. Very good job by the Sudbury CC, they had even printed out menus...all included in the entry fee.

Menu at the 2nd control
Somehow I managed to refuel by eating 5 sandwiches, beans on toast (a classic!), 4 or 5 cakes, rice pudding with strawberry jam and some other snacks that I thought would do me good. Shortly after indulging on all this, I had to visit the toilet 3 times in a row. This seems also a classic on all my long audax outings, and have yet to figure out why or what ingredient causes it.

Long Melfod to Barnham Broom (82 km)

Left the control just before 6pm hoping to do this stage in daylight. We would now be wind assisted all the way to the coast, so that would help us keep the momentum going, and probably up our average speed a little. 

Rolling terrain on the way to the north of Norfolk
The km seemed to fly by, and we managed to keep 25 km/h for almost the whole leg. It started to get dark towards the end of the stage, and that was one of the best moments of the ride. Rolling on quiet lanes, with no one else around. Sometimes one thinks that this whole 24 h riding thing is pointless, but in moments like this it is all worth it. Speeding up the lanes into the sunset was great, and we arrived in good spirits into the control. A wonderful hot soup was waiting for us, along with the usual cakes. Here we caught up with one other rider who was also doing this as his first 400 and who had also ridden the Green and Yellow fields 300. He reckoned that at our current speed we will be well within the time limit of 27 hours, despite already being at the back of the peloton. By the time we left it was past 10 pm and completely dark, so all night riding gear on and lights ready to go.

This says it all. Riding into the sunset.

Barnham Broom to Salthouse (75 km)

Left the control with another couple. They were following their routesheet and at some point we parted ways. We followed the gps track and they apparently followed the routesheet. We do check the routesheet, but at night it becomes tricky unless you wear a headtorch as well, so we stick to the GPS and its backlight. 

Despite that we told them that we were pretty certain that they were taking the wrong turn, they carried on their own way. They had a map, so we did not worry much about them, and also seemed very experienced. Our GPS however indicated that the road they took lead nowhere near the route. Oh well. Lucy and I carried on from here until Salthouse completely on our own. We both love night riding, and even better when it's only us and nothing else on the roads.

Night riding deceives you into thinking you're going much faster than you are. We still had a tailwind, but were not going any faster than 20 km/h on the flat. It took us quite a while to hit the north, where we had to work a bit to find an info control. Sleep deprivation and dark was not a good combination to find the road sign in quesiton, but we somehow managed after having double back a few meters. 

Lucy in night riding mode
After a right turn and a quick incursion in Cley-next-the-sea (which actually looked nice in the middle of the night) we progressed along the coastal road A149. Normally busy, it was completely empty at 2 am. Not a single car for almost the last 2 h into the control.

The A149 was really enjoyable, but we were also looking forward to stopping for some tea and coffee. At 2:45 am we pulled into the control to find a bunch of bikes resting outside. Some fellow riders were getting ready for the final leg into the headwind, while others, apparently, were having some sleep inside. We were warned of the snorers.

A hot drink and some cereal were most welcome. I still find it amazing that 4 or 5 people were there waiting for us, in a random town, in the middle of the night, to give us hospitality. I could not thank them enough. 

Most riders were having some sleep in one way or another. It was very funny to see their faces as they fell asleep on the table or anywhere really. Some were snoring quite loudly and seemed to be enjoying some good rest. We were not sure whether to give it a go or not to having some rest on the floor, but figured we'd rather sleep at the control than carry on and then have to nap later on out in the cold. Lucy went first. I tried to follow, but due to the adrenalin and also feeling a bit worried about oversleeping, I could only shut my eyes for a few minutes. 
Lucy sneaking in a nap
After 30 minutes, we had some more coffee and chatted with the helpers as we got ready for our final leg. One interesting fact is that the first rider in to this control left it at 21:15! So that is more than 6 h earlier than us. Very fit people out there. 

Salthouse to Hempnal (82 km)

Past 4 am we made our departure after thanking the controller and the helpers. They too seemed very tired. One thing I love about audaxes is the normality of everything. Despite the length of the ride, and silly hours, the cold, and sometimes the rain, it all seems normal and you don't get any "well dones" or anything like that. There's no reward other than your own achievement. There's no record of the rider's time after the event. They don't publish the order you've finished the ride in, just your name if you have completed it.

A few meters after the control the road went uphill. It was not a "massive hill" as other riders had described it , but it had us on our lowest gear pretty quickly. We were tired, a bit cold and about to face some headwinds for the last 80 km. Luckily, the sun was rising quickly and we no longer needed our front lights. When I looked back I could see the sea, the green fields and the sunrise. We were lucky to be at the right place at the right time I guess!

Climbing up away from the sea. 4:30 am
The terrain in northern Norfolk qualifies as rolling, so more ups and downs came while we made our way back down to Hempnall. Not surprisingly, given the time and it being a Sunday, we did not see a single car until 40 km into the stage. However, we had to stop more than usual as Lucy was feeling quite tired. We ate our snacks and kept pedalling. Eventually we made it to our last info control and turned East towards Hempnall.

On one of these roads we saw three guys on triathlon bikes flying, quite literally, in front of us. Pretty impressive speed, but surely they had not been cycling for 24 hours. At 9:43 am we got to the hall in Hempnal, where Keith (the main organiser) kindly validated our cards and gave us the commemorative key ring. That meant 24h and 43 min to complete the 403 km of the event. Another 7 riders were still behind us, but most seemed gone by the time we arrived. Our train back to London was not due until the afternoon, so we took it easy, ate and chatted to Tim, a guy we know from the Fnrttc who had also been riding all night in his own 400 km DIY event from the Easternmost town in Wales to the Easternmost town in England. 

This was my longest day on the bike and overall I really enjoyed it. It was tough at times, especially since we were on our own on the windiest bits, but we do not this because it is easy or comfortable, do we? It certainly felt a lot easier than the 300 we did in April, the Green and Yellow Fields. Maybe the reasonable weather helped a bit. Surely the great organisation and plenty of food/beverages did. I am now looking forward to riding the 600 km event I have planned in September. Lucy has decided not to do any more 400s until at least 2015 (that is Paris-Brest-Paris year!).  


Our souvenir 

All in all the stats said:

- 406 km (plus another 40 km on the day)
- Moving average: 20.9 km/h
- Overall average: 16.7 km/h
- Max speed: 56.7 km/h
- Total moving time: 19h 27min
- Total stopped time: 4h 50min


  1. Brilliant effort. Well done! On a 400k Audax I did in Scotland, it rained for 22 hours...... Coming out of the 3am control, wet and cold, I said to a companion "Never again will I do this!" and he replied: "That's right, never again....until the next time". And, of course, he was right!

    1. Thanks Frank! I think you're right, it is addictive stuff despite the difficulties. Your Scottish ride sounds a lot tougher though, but surely much more scenic. Have to do a tour in Scotland. Any places that you can recommend from experience?

  2. Well, if I found it tough to do a 400 in good weather (albeit with a little bit of wind), I can't imagine what it would have been like in foul weather!

    I know it's likely I'll be convinced to dabble in a 400 again at some point, but for now I've decided I'll stick to 200s and very special 300s. Alberto probably could have finished four or five hours earlier without me, so I'll let him do the 600 by himself and he can get more sleep!