The distance of dreams

Three year’s ago the madness started. Despite knowing almost nothing about Audaxing, or long distance cycling for that matter, the thought stuck in my head that I wanted to take part in Paris-Brest-Paris – the world’s oldest organised bike ride. At a distance of 13 times further than I’d ever ridden, it was a preposterous idea really. As the clock ticked past midnight and 2015 rolled in, we are officially in a PBP year – the once distant dream is now just 7 month’s and 16 days away.

phareOf course I don’t have an actual place reserved yet, and with interest in Audaxing growing rapidly around the world, there’s no guarantee I’ll manage to bag one of the 6,500 available places. I’d feel a lot more comfortable to have that Joburg 600km pre-qualifier on my side. Maybe the difference between being able to register on May 3rd rather than May 10th won’t be significant, but it’s a shame to take that chance. At least in the failure, a lot of valuable lessons were learned. They’ve come back to me many times on the Cape Audax rides of the last few months – in fact pretty much every time I’ve felt the urge to push the pace harder than I knew was wise. The simple fact of knowing that I have the strength and endurance to complete the longer distances well within the cutoff time as long as I stick resolutely to my own pace has been an enormous boost to morale.

Even with the added week before being able to register, dropping back to a 400km brevet for the pre-qualifier was a good call I think. I have Yoli to thank for that moment of clarity. Successive failures on 600km rides within the course of a couple of months could have been a disastrous setback to confidence. Whereas completing the shorter distance comfortably within the cut-off time restored a great deal of self belief. There was more to the ride than simply getting my pre-qualifier too. In a year of many great rides, the  Asparagus & Strawberries 400km can hold it’s own as a wonderfully memorable event and one that I would definitely ride again given the chance. At times, especially in the early and late stages, it was rather more challenging than I had imagined. But ridden at my own steady pace throughout, it restored faith in my ability to endure and prevail at the tougher end of randonneuring. The long, largely solo dusk ’til dawn leg is still vividly imprinted in my mind: the hooting of owls and haunting call of a nightjar in the cold, damp woodlands of Thetford Chase; and the slightly surreal vision of the enormous, brightly lit, but somehow ghostly Lakenheath air-force base in the middle of the night.

2014 wasn’t totally about getting in shape for PBP – OK, that’s a lie, it was actually all about PBP. But at least it also provided an excuse to head off the tar and back onto the trails. It’s both odd and wonderful how everything is inter-connected, and Trans-Baviaans is a perfect example. The basic idea in riding it was a way of staying fit through winter, and at the same time not becoming bored and burnt out from endlessly riding the same routes on road. But the inspiration had come several years before from my brother-in-law Hendri. His descriptions of this mega offroad marathon had put Trans-Baviaans on my bucket list. Left gasping at the top Pausing of even relatively tame climbs, I was rather awestruck at how anyone could tackle such a monster. And here’s where the interconnections start to happen. Hendri is mountain biking again after many years away from the trails. He is doing so on my old Specialized Stumpjumper, which I only decided to sell because I had bought the Giant Anthem as a more appropriate machine for riding long distance offroad events. And the guy who sold me the Stumpy, Eugene, who I have hardly seen since I bought it, suddenly resurfaced to join us on the recent 600km Cape Audax. Take away any of those connections, and I might not have been lining up to ride Trans-Baviaans last August, and Hendri may not have rediscovered his love of mountain biking. The most beautiful part is how the bikes themselves fit too. I’m no downhill flyer, so the Stumpy’s long travel forks and aggressive geometry were never really a match for me even though I enjoyed the setup. They suit Hendri’s riding style and preferences perfectly though, whereas the Anthem is a mile-eating monster, perfect for my love of marathon distances. By the oddest of paths, we both ended up with the right bike in the end.

One aspect of qualifying for PBP which I’d always assumed was that there would be a Cape Audax series for local riders hoping to qualify. I’d read enough reports to know this had been the case for past PBP editions back at least as far as 1999 and possibly earlier. What I didn’t expect was to end up quite so much in the thick of actually organizing the required 200km, 300km, 400km and 600km rides. Not that it’s been a chore – in fact quite the reverse. Working over route ideas and understanding how to take them from ideas to actual events has been a lot of fun. Luckily we’ve had great support from our country co-ordinator, Eddie Thomlinson, in terms of what is both necessary and acceptable for a brevet to qualify as a BRM event. With his help, the small team of us locally have managed to pull off a complete Cape SR series for 2014 – although Nico stands alone in completing all 4 events as a rider. It’s perhaps fitting the Nico should be our sole All Cape Super Randonneur too – since he’s provided so much support for each of the rides, hosting the start and finish at his family’s farm, and providing accomodation for us mid-way through the 600km brevet. Missing one of the rides was unavoidable for me, but I did at least manage to achieve my first Super Randonneur Series courtesy of the UK 400km.

In theory most of the hard work of the 2015 SR Series should be done, aside from the not-so-minor task of actually completing the rides. With the 400km and 600km already done, I’ll need a further 2 of the remaining 4 events to complete the qualifying set needed for PBP. Obviously the ideal would be to achieve this with the 200km in January and 300km in February, but there are at least additional options beyond these in case of mishaps. Nothing is ever certain in Randonneuring, and one should never really plan further down the road than the next control, so I certainly won’t be taking them for granted, or making the mistake I did in March of 2014 and under-estimating them. There’s still a couple of extra incentives too – if I can complete 3 of the Cape brevets plus PBP, that would also equate to a Super Randonneur set for 2015. And I have a confirmed entry place for the 36One mountain bike event on 17th April. I’ll only be able to use this if I don’t have to take part in the 600km brevet the following weekend to make up for a missed or failed qualifier. I would of course give up the 36One place if necessary to keep the PBP dream alive, but I’d rather not. Trans-Baviaans used to lay claim to being the longest single stage mountain bike event in Sotth Africa. There’s a narrow window before The Munga gets going where the 36One now holds that honour. It would be nice to take part and complete it whilst it is still the longest. Plus it will give the Anthem and I another healthy dose of off-road endurance riding.

The first few months of the year should prove interesting and challenging from a training perspective too. On the last few rides of 2014 I was already starting to feel the benefits of Erica’s grand plan – strength from the hill intervals gradually beginning to translate into speed on everyday rides. My moving average for the last solo 50km ride of the year was just shy of 25km/h, the last third of which was into a significant headwind. That’s not a speed which will win me any races, but it is significantly quicker than I was before and a welcome step towards the kind of fitness and preparation I’m aiming at for PBP and beyond.At some point during this year’s blog entries I’m going to have to start to discuss what that ‘beyond‘ represents – a dim and flickering, dream which is every bit as ludicrous and beyond my abilities as PBP was three years ago. It’s just as firmly stuck in my brain though and until something shows me it’s impossible, I suspect it’s unlikely to budge unless I act on it.

For now, I’m not going to stray into such thoughts and plans further down the road than completing the dream that kicked off the whole endurance cycling obsession. I will be in Paris in August, and hopefully I’ll be there for PBP. I do have an awesome fallback plan, and that will be to go to Euro Disney with Ben and Yoli instead. Having seen Ben wide eyed at the Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park over the Christmas holidays, I can honestly say it’s not a bad consolation prize. It wouldn’t be what I’d hoped, trained and planned for of course, but you can’t take anything for granted in cycling, you have to hope for the best and just keep pedaling.

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