… aka East Anglia Isn’t Flat
It was around 9:30pm as I rolled out of the 4th control on the Asparagus & Strawberries 400. Wells Next The Sea had provided a warm fish and chip shop, a very welcome helping of pie and chips, and some stunning sunset views out over the mud flats to the North Sea beyond. Now, back on the bike, with 220km ridden, the long night time stretch across Thetford Chase lay ahead.
A few kilometers outside Wells I pulled over to the side of the road – a rickety gate stood lopsidedly guarding an otherwise nondescript muddy entrance to a farmer’s field. The location may have been random but it had a very specific purpose. The sun was down and the light fading fast, a perfect time for a quick goodnight call home to Yoli before darkness engulfed my ride.
We chatted hastily about the ride so far – somehow I had messed up the live GPS tracker, so only the few photos and messages I had sent from earlier controls had kept her in touch with how the ride was going. I’d flown a long way from South Africa to do this ride. OK I’d used the excuse of visiting my mother and cousin Bron, but a significant factor was the opportunity to get a long Audax under my belt. The Cape Winter would soon close in and shutdown any local long distance rides, and I desperately needed to restore some confidence before PBP qualifiers started. Yoli would want to know the journey and time out to do the ride had been worth it.
The ride had started earlier in the day, a very wet 9am departure from Manningtree Station. Despite the inclement weather, a large gathering of riders were already on the station platform as Phil and I wheeled bikes down to where our controller, Tom Deakins, was dishing out brevet cards. We gathered ours, wound our way back out of the station, mounted up and headed off. I knew we wouldn’t be in company for very long with our different riding speeds, but we managed some lively banter for the first 20km or so before inevitably the bunch started to fragment and I found myself slowly slipping backwards in the jettisoned tail. I made no effort to keep up – I had every intention of using as much of the time allowance as I needed to complete the 400km ahead.
The rain persisted for the majority of the first 56km to Ixworth control. With no cafe open, the village shop was overrun with fellow riders grabbing snacks and the all important till receipt containing date, time and location to mark proof of our passage. It had stopped raining briefly as I stood outside the shop eating a pork pie and drinking a strawberry milk – another resolution from the Joburg DNF was to eat and drink well at every control.
The weather gradually lifted along the next leg to Halesworth – at first becoming showers, and then drying up to a beautiful sunny day. The wind however was rather less pleasant. The route had swung east for this part of the ride, placing us almost directly into the wind, bringing my speed down drastically. A couple of times I hooked briefly onto the tail of a passing group, but on each occasion the need to conserve myself for the rest of the ride overtook the brief respite from the wind. I knew we’d swing north and then west again after the control, so I only had to survive these few kilometers of slog before getting a break and an easier run.
Solo riding was something I’d enjoyed on LEL, and it was a concious decision for the day to ride along at my own speed regardless of that meaning I would mostly be riding alone. I wasn’t feeling hugely energetic, and there was still almost 300km to go. Any attempt to ride at someone else’s pace would spell certain disaster later in the ride.
The section to Acle was a true delight – glorious weather, sublimely picturesque villages, and the ridiculously quaint Reedham Ferry carrying us across the western edge of the Norfolk Broads. The day had warmed enough to lose a few layers, and my South Africa shirt now being visible drew some interesting comments from the other riders crossing the ferry with me. I don’t think many actually believed me that I’d flown over from Cape Town to do the ride, aside from Tom who knew differently having swapped emails with me during registration. There was also the usual mix of bemused looks from the car drivers we chatted too on the ferry when they discovered how far we would be riding. Audax distances just don’t make sense to normal people.
Acle control was unremarkable – a small triangle of village green outside the local shop littered with fellow riders chatting, eating, and relaxing in the late afternoon sun, . It was pleasant but also sadly becoming actually littered by us as the bin filled to overflowing with empty sandwich packs and bottles. Each of us did our best to squash them down and limit the overspill. After collecting my receipt, I stuffed down a Thai chicken wrap and another flavoured milk before heading out again.
I’d been looking forward to reaching Wells all day – both for the mental lift of turning around half way and heading south again, and also for the chance to sit down to a hot meal. As it turned out, this leg of the ride proved unexpectedly hard. Although having no actual climbs, the East Anglian terrain had risen and fallen all day, and this stretch seemed to be one long continuous stretch of short but challenging rollers. With my Garmin displaying it’s usual map and no distance indicators, I’d also mistaken the distance of the leg too. In my head I’d imagined it around 50 or 60km, but in fact it was closer to 80. By the time I reached Melton Constable this was beginning to play on my mind. I still wasn’t really feeling that strong – any attempt to raise my effort level felt almost impossible. I knew it would be a mistake to slog on, so I pulled across to the village shop for a short break.
The storm clouds had returned – it had rained on me heavily before the stop, and was raining again as I stood outside the shop drinking a Powerade and eating a Snickers. I was wet already though, so standing in the downpour really made no difference to matters and the sugar rush was doing wonders for my spirits.
The remaining 20km or so to Wells was a shower dodging experience, the route seemed to follow an almost exact line under the break between the storm clouds and clear skies. At times I was on the wrong side of this line getting drenched again, at others I was bathed in a warm orange evening sunlight. I don’t remember many details of the scenery along this stretch, but I vividly remember seeing a sign saying Wells Road. It was on top of the last roller, and as a result rather unnecessary. Ahead and slightly below me I could already see the houses of the port and the coast beyond. The negative feelings and doubts that had traveled with me for the first half of the ride to this point vanished immediately, and permanently. The mood of my whole ride changed there and then as I freewheeled down to the quay side and the welcome sight of the warm and inviting fish and chip shops. I used the cheapo lock to chain up my bike before heading in – not because I really believed I needed too, but more to justify carrying it on the ride.
Fish is a problem for me. Not as a general thing, I love it. But when it comes to Audaxing, it carries an unpleasant memory. It was the last thing I ate on LEL at Market Rasen before getting sick. Despite looking delicious, I simply couldn’t bring myself to order it. There is no logic to this. The pie and sausage I ordered instead were probably loaded with things more likely to make me ill. But I had no desire to jinx my ride having just got my spirits back on track. A couple of local lads were in the queue behind me looking at all these odd people in wet and ragged cycle clothes. After asking me about our ride, one of them offered to drive me back to Manningtree for 60 quid. They weren’t joking either. I was very glad for my improved mood – if I’d met them outside the shop in Melton Constable, I may well not have been able to resist their offer.
Soon after I was standing by the farm gate, quickly updating Yoli on the ride so far. I was glad to be able to genuinely sound in such good spirits as I delivered the edited highlights. It was a rather odd feeling. She would going to bed after our call, whereas I would be riding on through the night until she woke up again.
The change into thermals and a warm shirt at Wells was perfectly timed, but I was still rather chilly. It was a worry because I knew the forecast was for the night to grow much colder. The temperature was probably around 9C by this time but a low of 5C had been predicted. It had definitely been a planning error not to include leg warmers, even though I’d have struggled to fit them in my new saddle bag. The only option was to pick my pace up and pedal a bit harder to warm myself up from the inside.
Luckily the food from the Wells control was delivering plenty of energy to help me do that. Also fortunate was that the terrain became much gentler a few kilometers outside Wells, varying from slight undulations to almost totally flat. There was no wind either. All of this added up to a magic feeling of flying along into a tunnel of my own light ahead. In some ways it reminded me of the time-trial stretch into Moffat on LEL, but it was very different too. I vaguely remember the orange streetlight glow of the odd town or village on this stretch. My overriding memory though is riding alone, with long sections flanked by trees – wonderful damp woodland smell surrounding me, the silence of my thoughts only occasionally broken by a hoot or screech of an owl. At one point I’m sure I heard the distinctive call of a nightjar also.
It was a long and peaceful leg, but eventually I found myself circumnavigating an enormous airfield – even before the signs I recognized it as RAF Mildenhall. Unlike most things from your childhood though, this felt way bigger than I remembered. It seemed to take an age to cycle past the airstrip and all the various entry gates. The time taken was probably something of an illusion – I knew Barton Mills control was not far beyond, and the impatience of wanting to get there probably made the remaining distance feel greater than it actually was.
I rolled into the garage forecourt to a very welcome sight – other riders were inside. The control was more than just a receipt with a time. It was actually open. As well as food, there were chairs and warmth inside, and some company. I can only recall seeing one other rider on the previous – coming out of a farm gateway from a nap. I’m sure there were more, but it had been a very solitary section. Some banter would be very welcome, not least because we were now past midnight and the brain could do with some exercise.
We sat, and ate and chatted quite a while at the garage. The night outside was cold, and time was still on our side. There was little benefit in getting to Saffron Walden too early, and tales were told of a good breakfast cafe in a village beyond which would be just opening if we timed our departure right. One of our fellow riders brain was clearer than mine, and they bought a carton of milk to go in our coffees, all of which were black as the only option the over-stretched Costa Coffee machine was still able to serve up. Sometime in the small hours of the morning as we kitted up to depart, a couple in full party dress. It was hard to determine who’s clothing was more out of place – ours or theirs. One thing I knew though, to paraphrase my mother, the girl would catch a death of cold dressed like that.
Somewhere along the next section, I think it was passing through Newmarket, we encountered more glammed up locals spilling out onto the streets as pubs and clubs closed. I remember fat pink thighs in too short skirts shouting at their beaus – maybe they were casting for a new show, The Only Way is Norfolk. At the traffic lights just beyond this were a couple of parked police vans, with bobbies standing alongside and around them. There didn’t seem to have been any trouble though, The policeman were chatting and joking and asked us about our ride as we stopped waiting for the light.
The group I’d left the Barton Mills control with broke up after a while, or maybe I just slipped behind – I do remember leading the pace for quite a while but then feeling it was a little too quick, and dropping back. I didn’t ride solo for long though. Just before dawn, I found myself riding with Richard again who I’d shared a table with for the lunch time stop at Halesworth. Seeing the sun come up again on the ride was rather special, realising that aside from a stop for snacks at the control, I had ridden the entire night through – a section of around 140km from sunset to sunrise. The dawn was still cold, in fact it felt even colder than the night. And there was still work to do – we wound our way through a number of small villages and long leafy lanes as the remaining kilometers to Saffron Walden counted slowly down. Richard was navigating from the printed route sheet, and it saved me from a nasty diversion up a muddy lane in the village of Linton – the proper route taking us around rather than over the hill in front of us.
Eventually we were in the outskirts of Saffron Walden, and I clearly remembered the directions having studied this part on the GPS map. We swung right into the town, and then left down to the market square. A handful of riders were there, some at ATMs getting receipts, and a couple sitting in doorways resting or catching a nap. Nothing was open though, it was cold, and the benches were still wet from the previous day’s rain. Our controller Tom was one of those there, and whilst we paused for breath and chatted he confirmed details of the cafe they had stopped at for breakfast on a previous ride. It was around 40km further along the route in the village of Sible Hedingham. The time was now around 5:30am, so if we took it slow we’d arrive in almost perfect time. Tom also warned us that the ride had a sting in the tail, describing the final few kilometers as ‘rather lumpy‘.
Rather lumpy was an understatement. None of the hills were long, but they were short, sharp and very frequent. It was extremely tough on tired legs, and Richard’s knees were starting to suffer with having no gears to help light the load. A few times he slipped back, but we caught up at the top of each hill. He called for a brief break alongside the road at one point, but collapsed to one side before he’d actually managed to stop and dismount. An attack of what Audax riders call ‘the dozies‘ had overtaken him and he’d lost concentration, falling as he almost nodded off. The tumble had broken the brake cable clean out of the lever on the handlebar, and neither of us had the mechanical skills or clear enough brains to fix it. It wasn’t as much of a disaster as it would have been for most riders though – as the fixed gear allowed Richard to use his pedals to control the speed downhill. Nevertheless we rested for a few minutes, took a drink, had some snacks, and enjoyed the views and the slowly warming sun of the morning. It was shaping up to be a beautiful blue early summer’s day.
The short sharp hills continued, but as much as they toughened the route, they also added some interest and variety. Sible Hedingham on the other hand was something of a let down. We arrived in almost perfect time for the cafe to open at 8am, only to find they now opened later. Instead, I had a cup of machine hot chocolate, a bag of crisps, and a snack bar from the village garage opposite. Eating them whilst sitting on a wall outside the cafe wasn’t quite the breakfast I’d been looking forward too. At least the garage sold Rennies, which was a massive relief to the pot of acid now slowly boiling up in my stomach. And a toilet, with a door that locked and toilet paper. I guess in hindsight, maybe I was a little harsh on Sible Hedingham. It had met pretty much every need of an over tired and hungry Randonneur with a severe case of reflux.
We rolled out of the village under clear blue skies and in great spirits – the stretch ahead was the last one, and however hilly it proved to be, it was also only 40km and we had 4 hours in hand. I get nervous so close to the end of a ride in case of a visit from the mechanical or puncture fairies, but despite a shaky start it really did look as if my UK 400 was not going to be a repeat of the Joburg disappointment. The remaining few kilometers rose and fell sharply, and our group swelled to three riders although I’m sad to say I can’t remember the name of our new riding companion. It was mostly uneventful aside from one rather nasty shock.
Just before a notorious climb called Burnt Dick Hill, we rounded a corner to flashing blue lights, ambulances and fire engines. There was a wrecked car wrapped around a tree in the hedgerow. I kept expecting to see a mangled bike with one of our fellow riders injured or worse, but as the emergency crews signaled us through and we edged past there was none. It didn’t quiet my nerves though. Even though no rider was down, the lane was very narrow and the thought occurred to me that the car had come around the bend at speed to find a rider and swerved into the tree avoiding them. We later learned that this was not the case either – the driver had had a fit at the wheel. A couple on an orange Tandem who I’d shared a table with at the Barton Mills garage came upon the scene soon after it happened, called the rescue services and waited until they arrived.
There was one last nasty sting in the tail. A steep hill back up to join the road into Manningtree. It seemed painfully unnecessary as it immediately dove back down into the town losing all the height we had gained, in this case on foot as Richard’s knees had by now given up the fight. It didn’t matter though. A few minutes later the three of us stood at the Barclay’s ATM in the town getting our receipts – all stamped 10am. A bit later than I’d expected to complete the ride, but still two full hours in hand.
It had been a ride of firsts. Most obviously in distance (414km) and time (25 hours) it had been my longest single ride to date. But probably the biggest highlight was the new experience of riding right through the night. My first dusk til dawn and a successful return to Audax riding.
All photos by author.