25 September 2012

Ride report: the Milton Keynes 600 (or how I became a Super-randonneur)

It seems that 2012 has been (and still is) a good year for me. I have managed to fit in quite a lot of long rides, including 200s, three 300s, one 400 and two tours, with getting my PhD. But my other big objective for this year was to become a Super-randonneur (or SR in Audax terms). For no long distance cycling nerds, that is riding a 200, 300, 400 and 600 events all in one season.

Back in October 2012, Lucy and I gave it a go at our very first 200 km audax event. It was tough, and we did not have lots of time in hand by the time we got back to the finish, but we had been bitten by the long distance bugs. Since then, we have a good number of similar events under our belt, and 200s no longer seem as long as the first one.

My plans had gone ok, but the PhD viva was set just two days after my planned calendar 600. It did not seem to be a great idea to go for it and then have your brain fully ready to be able to respond to questions about your last 3.5 years of research. Fine, important things first. To my disappointment, there were no other calendar events left that I could join, and a DIY 600 seemed a bad idea for a newbie like me.

However, Steve, a nice chap who got the most points on an Audax season ever (riding >40.000 km in one year!), has been running his own DIY 600 from his house late in the season, for people who could not fit a calendar event earlier in the year, or were not fit enough. His aim is to help first timers achieve their first SR series. Great plan. Did not take me long to sign up for it, although back then I was not sure about my touring plans just the week earlier.  May not be an ideal plan to be riding in Scotland for 10 consecutive days, and then, ride a 600 with 4 days in between...but there was no other choice.

I took it very easy during the 4 days preciding this ride, only commuting to work. Started filling the gas tank a couple of days earlier but massively failed to get good sleep. The bike was fully ready on Thursday and I was up in Milton Keynes for dinner with the other participants on Friday night. There were 12 of us signed up for this, and amongst those, 5 of us were undertaking this ride as our very first 600 km.

Lights, GPS, Carradice bag, 2 bottles. Good to go.
After we stuffed our faces with a Sunday roast on a Friday, we all hit our beds by 11 pm for a 4:45 am wake up call. The ride would start at 6 am sharp, with British punctuality, of course.

I did not get very good sleep as it usually happens before new events. Maybe managed to get 3-4 hours throughout the night. I was glad I was not the only one though. Coffee, bacon roll and a few chocolates and we were off after collecting our first ATM receipt, which indicated 6:04 am. We had 42 hours to complete the 630 km.

From Milton Keynes to the Red Lodge Café, we rode the 110 km at a relatively fast pace, averaging more than 25 km/h without putting in much effort. The delights of group riding! The tailwind helped a bit I guess, and we were eating our second breakfast minutes after 10 am. Although this was the longest stretch of the whole ride, it felt easy as we were all fresh, and it probably was the best decision to get all those km out of the way sooner rather than later. Unfortunately, my rear hub started playing up just 5 miles after the off, making an incredibly loud noise anytime I freewheeled, which was also accompanied by a not-to-reassuring vibration of the whole bike. I had had the same problem a few weeks earlier in the Kidderminster Killer, but I thought the problem was gone now. It definitely was not. The bike was still functioning, yet I needed to pedal at all times, which essentially made me ride on a short of fixed wheel. It was not a ride-ending mechanical though, so I carried on annoying my companions whenever I attempted to freewheel. On top of this, my butt was not feeling comfortable on the ride, starting to hurt before we even hit the first 100 km. Not being able to freewheel was not going to make things any easier...

Peloton riding on towards Red Lodge
The next stretch to Eye involved another 60 km of flatness and wind-assisted riding, so we got there in very good spirits. Got a receipt, and carried on.100 miles done, and I did not feel tired at all, except for the sore butt. Again, I believe Audax has a massive mental component, as 100 miles (160 km) out of 400 miles (630 km) does not seem so much.

Steve had planned a proper stop with a sit-down meal near Norwich. It was at roughly 200 km into the ride, which was ideal, as it also coincided with Spanish lunch time. We were still doing a respectable average of 24 km/h and everyone was well, except Jethro, one of the experienced riders, who was having some knee problems.

On towards Norwich, a few of the guys diverted off to the hotel which would serve as our overnight stop. They went to pick up the keys for the rooms so that there would not be any faffing when we got back there at night. The rest of us pressed on for some well-deserved food. Jethro finished his ride here as his knee did not seem up for another 400 km.

A lasagna and plenty of bread kept me fuelled for the next stage. By the time we left it was almost 6 pm, and so we had a bit more than 90 min of daylight, and yet another 160 km to cover before the night stop. All in good spirits we said goodbye to Norwich and went onwards to Sheringham, on the coast. I was looking forward to this section of the ride, as it goes through some nice countryside that Lucy and I have cycled in a few times, and it's not as flat as the previous stages. It also meant cycling into the night, which is one my favourite times for being out on the bike.

Sun, tailwind, warmth
Sheringham was only 40 km from the lunch stop, and we got there when daylight was fading. I started to feel very sleepy, having not had very good sleep the previous night, and being more than 15 hours since I woke up. It was not too bad for a stop, so I pressed on with the group thinking about the nice hot coffee that I will down at the next control. At Sheringham, rather than going into town and the shore, we diverted off to the first garage for our proof of passage. I would have liked to have a quick look at the shore, but the clock was ticking. We were also unsure as to whether we would get another feed opportunity at Heacham (the next control) and so I ended up stuffing my saddle bag with bread, cheese and salami. Unfortunately, the coffee machine was out of order, and they did not sell any other sort of caffeinated drink, other than coke. So the third coke of the day it was...

Upon leaving Sheringham we entered into night riding mode: lights, high-vis vest, GPS backlight. All on. A few km later, I had to put leg and arm warmers on, but it was still rather pleasant out. The roads got a bit more rolling, with fast descents and very little traffic. The next control, some 300 km into the ride, was at Heacham, where supposedly Lyndsay, a very kind woman on her weekend off of audaxing, was supposed to be waiting for us with a boot full of delights. However, the last word from her was that she might not be able to make it in the end. With that in mind, we carried on hoping to find something open in case she did not turn up.

Riding into down, some 280 km after our departure. Still 350 km to go!
By 10 pm we hit Heacham, and quite amazingly, Lyndsay was there, waiting for us, in the middle of a dark country lane. Her boot and kindness made our day. All kinds of good audax food was made available to us, washed down with coffee, tea and rice puddings. I could not believe how kind some people are. It certainly made our last stage of the day a lot easier, and surely much faster. She and her daughter also acted as controllers, so no need to pop into the actual town for a proof of passage.

In very good spirits, yet a bit tired mentally, we set off at 10:30 pm for the last 65 km to our night stop. Steve had arranged proper beds and a few hours of much needed sleep.

Night riding is fantastic and I am a great advocate of it. Yet after a long day of cycling it was not as appealing as usual, knowing that our average speed would drop quite a bit, and that I would take us a bit longer to cover those km. I was also ready for bed. I tried to make conversation with my other companions, but I could see I was not the only one who was feeling a bit weary. At times, there was no conversations, just steady red and bright lights going ahead of me.

Just minutes past midnight, Steve started singing happy birthday to Denise, one of the experienced riders of the group. It was her birthday on Sunday, and I thought it was a nice gesture and felt very special. I would certainly not mind having my birthday while on the bike, quite literally!

At 1 am I started to see the blurred orange skies that you clearly see when approaching large towns. It was a sign that we were not too far from Norwich! The last 20 km felt very long and I was so ready for a quick shower and bed. At 1:45 am we hit the Travelodge and quickly got into our rooms. In 15 min I was showered, fed, and asleep. Alarm was set for 6 am.

It did not feel long when my phone started beeping. It had been less than 4 hours since I fell asleep and I was not in the best of my moods or states to continue on cycling for another 270 km. I shared the room with Tom, who has got a few Paris-Brest-Paris and London-Edinburgh-London on his legs, and he reassured me that it is tough but that soon I will be ok back on the bike. A coffee and some biscuits did the initial trick, and by 6:30 we were all ready to go. Quite amazing I thought, everyone seemed happy and ready for another long day on the saddle, having only had 4 hours sleep.

6:30 am, the start of the second day
The first stage of day 2 would take us to King's Lynn, a not particularly nice town on the Norffolk coast. But breakfast there made it look a bit more appetising, and with a slight tailwind we made our way there, hitting the town centre just after 9 am. Initial plans were to go for a full English breakfast in a pub that was meant to be on the route, but after some way finding and faffing, we could not find it. A diversion was made and we went to an OK cafe somewhere in town. I was quite surprised I had made it here without much food since the night before, and so I treated myself to plenty of English delicacies including eggs, bacon, sausages and beans on toast.

With a full stomach, we started to head back down to Milton Keynes. Now the wind was against us though, and would be for the remaineder of the day. It was so bad at times, that we would not average more than 15 km/h even when riding in a group. The next control up was only 20 km out of King's Lynn, but we needed a quick rest.

As we left Sutton Bridge, the wind got quite bad along the Lincolnshire flatlands and on to the Cambridgeshire Fens. It was also quite warm again. On a couple of occasions I stopped for a quick pee and found it very hard to get back to the group. The roads were also straight and featureless, and this was probably the toughest and most boring part of the whole ride. The strong guys sat at the front of the peloton and the rest got going behind them.

In Ely we stopped one more time for some more food, being all quite weary after the headwind. My stomach had been behaving itself quite OK during this ride, and it was craving for something sugary and filling. A couple of pancakes arrived on my table, literally swimming in gross Maple Syrup. Took me a while to realise that it's never a good idea to order adventurous stuff in a typically English café, so immediately afterwards I ordered a bacon bap, which was much nicer than the pancakes. With a full stomach, we left for the next control. Still more than 100 km to go, as the whole route was already being over the official stated km.

Lucy had been sending texts from Philly throughout the ride. Although I could not answer them, they did give me the motivation to carry on. Especially this one. My butt was extremely sore by now, and on a number of occasions I was really wondering why I was doing this. But her text saying "go go it's only a 100 km Sunday ride" lifted my spirits.

The next section crossed some familiar territory that I had cycled in one of the 300 km rides, and found it nice back then. The winds eased down quite a bit, and we had an easier ride from here on, yet had to stop a few times for a quick rest. It was on one of those rests, that an ambulance happened to come past us, saw one of the riders laying on the grass, and attempted to stop thinking there was an emergency, only to be waved by us with an "it's all OK" sign. Strange things happen while audaxing!

Having one of multiple rests
Biggleswade was the last control before Milton Keynes. For at least five of us this had already been the longest ride ever, at more than 550 km. More food supplies were needed for the last stretch of roads.

I cannot remember much other than I was again in good spirits, especially after Rob had kindly lent me some sudocream which I had high hopes would help with my saddle sores. The end was also in sight, with "only" about 60 km to go. Not that this feels like much on a normal day, but trust me, it felt like a long way to me on the day. At least 3 more hours or riding, again, into the night.

The last rest stop
I am not sure if the sudocream did a good job or whether I just blacked out my sores for a while, but made some interesting conversations with my companions and the km seemed a lot more pleasant now. Bad thoughts of "maybe I will ride another 600 km again" or "perhaps I should sign up for London-Edinburgh-London next year" sprung to mind again. None of these had even crossed my mind during any of the previous hours on this ride...

Milton Keynes outline started to appeared on the GPS, and Steve took us on some faster roads rather than on the lanes as to get some speed for the final 20 km. I started to feel strong again, and the realisation that I was actually going to make it till the end seemed real. The last few km into Milton Keynes I spent talking about the Bryan Chapman Memorial ride (a 600 km even that crosses Wales twice) with Matt, who almost nearly convinced me that 600 km are the best rides. 

The group dropped me off at the train station by 9:45 pm. Almost 40 h and 630 km since we started on Saturday. We had made it round, still withing BRM time. I was feeling ok, not particularly sleepy or tired, and was very pleased with myself, having had the rear wheel problem and the sore butt all the way. Also, I was surprised I was OK on only 4 hours sleep. 

Shook hands with everyone and thanked them all for being such a great company. Steve did an excellent job of arranging the hotels, route, and stops. It was a great pleasure to ride with a bunch of very experienced (long distance) cyclists and with 4 new Super Randonneurs. Well done to all of us!

After a bit of arguing with the Virgin Trains manger at the station, he let me on the train without a bike reservation. The train had no bikes on it, but apparently it's company's policy to not let anyone on without a reservation. I begged him, explained that I had been riding for 40 h almost non-stop and eventually he opened the bloody bike storage door. 

By 11 pm I was having some pasta at home and thinking where I could get some sudocream first thing on Monday am. My feelings about doing longer than 400 km rides were very mixed up during the ride, but I was now savouring being a new super-randonneur. Even considering doing another 600 km in May. I am now having two weekends off the bike which will probably get me all anxious about long distances again. It had been the most challenging ride for me thus far, not quite physically, but mentally. 

The stats for the even were as below

600 km ride stats


  1. Congratulations great cycling year Alberto (and it is not finished yet).

    When I finished my first, and only for now, 600 I was told I was ready for PBP. It felt an exaggeration but I later found out that it was true. It is just a longer brevet ;-)

  2. Many thanks Javier! I am not sure I am quite ready for the longer events though. Neither mentally nor speed wise. This 600 was totally flat, with good weather conditions, and with a friendly/experienced bunch of randonneurs. A long event in the rain, wind and potentially on my own may prove a different experience all together ;)

    Are you doing LEL, or even better, MGM in 2013?

    Wish you an speedy recovery