Horses for Courses 200 perm — a snowy ride

The Horses for Courses 200 perm we rode yesterday turned into a slog-fest in the end for me.  It had strong similarities with my first ever 200, another of Tomsk's perms: strong winds, significant precipitation, and a feeling for half the ride that I'd be out of time (for the first time ever) …

Note: this ride report is a mild rewrite of my submission to yacf, here.  Codified names are the nicknames of people on the forum, sorry about that.  The post date has been changed to the date of the ride. 

I started from Cambridge just after 5.30am for a 25km ride out to my start point on the route (it's a perm), leaving me with another 25km or so to meet up at Tom's.  The temperature was -2ºC and the lane outside our house had patches of frost, which were a bit skitty, but the road at the end of our lane was gritted and clear.

The ride from Linton down to Great Dunmow was on a mix of lanes and B roads, most of which should have been gritted.  However, the rivers of ground water washing across the road from field to field had removed the salt in places resulting in clear patches of scrunched up ice: there were no black ice surprises, just short sections of extreme crunchy wariness.

After a hard-earned bacon butty — thanks Tom! — we set off, five of us (not sure on all the yacf handles, apart from tippers_kiwi).  This is where my troubles started (I believe): I've been riding solo 200s (and a solo 600) for the past five months, which meant that I'd ridden to my own pace, which itself has been gradually slowing down: if I ride a stage above 20kph then I am happy with that.  I've always put this down to winter fitness and solo riding.  However, riding with Tomsk, who was on something like 64" fixed (judging by my comparative gearing), the pace was rarely  below 24kph, only helped by the fact we were still below zero, so mitigating the additional heat build-up for me.  I can usually maintain this sort of pace for 100km or so — when I first started this mallarkey in 2012 then 50km was my blow-up point.

In the map above you can see the 20-odd kilometre there-and-back from Cambridge to Linton; the rest of the course is the actual Horses for Courses 200.

The first section of the ride is a classic B-road Essex run to Suffolk — if you've ridden the Dunwich Dynamo then you've ridden most of this leg: Gt Dunmow, Gt Bardfield, Finchingfield, Sible Hedingham, Castle Hedingham, Sudbury, Lavenham.  No matter if you've ridden this route before, it's picture-postcard beautiful right the way through.  Topped off with a bowl of soup and a slice of caik at Chili & Chives café.

We were unsure whether we'd be able to ride the prescribed route from Lavenham to Snetterton Park (next door to Snetterton circuit), because this section involved quite a number of lanes that were off Suffolk and Norfolk's gritting maps.  We'd have to suck it and see … as it turned out, apart from a few field-run-off sections that were visibly crunched up, the roads were all clear.  This is a lovely, laney stage across old, abandoned airfields with wide-open vistas in all directions.  If the wind's up then it's going to catch you, because the final 25km are there-and-back, so you'll get it one way or the other.  For us we got the wind both ways as a nasty, bitterly cold crosswind.

(image © Nik Brunner, used with kind permission)

This was the point I blew up: with just 10km to go to the control on a short, gentle incline, I had no power.  I bonked, hit the wall, whatever.  Four red lights disappeared over the brow of the hill, while I struggled up in bottom gear.  145km of riding and nothing left.  The group waited for me a few kms further on, for which I was grateful, but I waved them on, as we were so close to the control: I would only be a few minutes behind them.

After they had left me, it started to rain, and then started to snow, so I stopped to put on a waterproof.  This was going to be interesting if the snow stuck!  I slowly ground my way past the back end of Snetterton Circuit with the sound of highly tuned street cars (I think) buzzing around the track.  I caught up with the others for lunch and we had a decent stop — beef curry, yum smile

While we were sat in the café, the snow turned into a bit of a blizzard, with huge, fluffy flakes falling and everyone crowded up against the window to watch.  This looked like it was going to be a tough stage because, apart from the initial 20km of cross wind, we'd be turning into the wind and whatever it was carrying into our faces.

(image © Nik Brunner, used with kind permission)

We set off together, but I made it clear I would probably drop off the back and catch them at the next control, or not.  I stuck with them for 5km, before failing to develop enough power to stay attached.  It was going to be a long and lonely ride back into the wind and the snow.  I had 100km to get home, 75km to get to my virtual arrivée.  I sat on the bike calculating and re-calculating distances, average speeds, and cut-off times: I figured I would have to bounce the next control and maintain at least the minimum speed to just scrape in, which is much closer than I ever like to be.  I had had three long stops where normally I'd pretty much bounce through, so I had almost no time in hand.

The next section is a mostly laney run through the lanes south of Thetford and generally more closed-in by hedges than the previous stage, which provided at least some cover from the ferocious winds, which were 20-25mph slightly-off headwind.  And by now the roads were waterlogged with huge puddles extending from side-to-side of the lanes; fortunately the lanes in Norfolk have a significant camber, so the centreline wasn't too deep, but occasionally I'd have to play chicken with on-coming traffic (who were very conscientious).  Although I was wearing closed-top shoes, they aren't designed to be waterproof and my toes were damp, although not soaking, but cold, bitterly cold.  The temperature had barely broken into positive numbers and was now settling back below zero!

(image © Nik Brunner, used with kind permission)

After an hour or so I came around the corner to the sight of four cyclists standing about, one of whom had an upside-down bike and a wheel in hand: it turned out the puddles had hidden a pothole and tippers_kiwi had suffered a double-puncture.  In the cold and wet he had proceeded to fix both of them without removing his gloves!  I took a welcome break from the solo drudgery for a chat and when we set off again I quickly dropped off the back of the group: we were still 35km from the next control, that's how slowly I was moving by now!

The snow at times was blowing so hard into my face that I had to wear my yacf buff like a mask, as it stung so much.  Fortunately the snow was slush when on the ground and melting quickly, so this wasn't a safety issue.  My chain was toast, though: the wet and the scrog had got caught up in it and even though I re-oiled it halfway around it got washed off, resulting, inevitably, in immediate wear and stretch.  I had known the chain was near end-of-life, but it was now over-life and I lost the ability to change on the derailleur: I was stuck in high range, so hills were even harder.  I could've gotten off and forced it onto the bigger sprocket, but I had lost the ability for rational thought and was focused on getting to my virtual arrivée before running out of time.

I had forgotten how hilly the approach into Newmarket is: I've ridden this road once in the opposite direction and it felt fine, but of course it was all downhill then.  Now it was all uphill and into a strengthening headwind: I was in bottom gear and struggling to maintain 14.3kph.  I was losing time!

I caught up with the others as they were finishing their stop at the Newmarket control and by now it was pitch dark — it's winter.  I bounced through, just getting some happy food for the final run.  From here I had some 20-odd km and I had around two hours to do it in: I should be okay, so long as I could maintain an average above the minimum, and without visitations (but since I ride Marathons, these are somewhat rare: one in 10,000km).  A quick shufty at the map and Tomsk pointed out an alternative, slightly straighter and much safer route back to my personal arrivée along a good B road: where they turned left, I would head straight on.

I rode out with the others and we clipped along nicely for the first 5km or so, which nicely boosted my average for this stage.  As the road started to climb I ran out of low gears and dropped off the back, but to my surprise I still had one of the others behind me, barely catching me, so maybe my winter fitness isn't so bad … it didn't last long, though, and he passed me to latch back onto the group, no names, no pack drill and all that.

I spent the next hour counting down the kilometres: 15, 10 — I though I'd arrived, but I'd forgotten that I passed through Balsham before turning left towards Linton.  Bummer!  Fortunately the road to Linton felt flat-to-downhill and I maintained a steady speed to R@T and there it was, in all its glory: The Co-Operative (food).  I checked the time: about 13 hours, I had managed to salvage an hour in hand in the final 75km, in spite of complete lack of power, result!  thumbs up

At this point I was still 22km from home.  I texted Mrs W to tell her all was well and I was soooo tempted when she offered to pick me up.  But, no, in for a penny, in for a pound and all that!  She was like, "whatever".  I dragged my broken body back over the Gog Magogs towards Cambridge, having to pedal downhill, that's how strong the wind was!!  I span along at 18kph in bottom gear, the jump to the next gear up being too great in this blow.  I made it home in a disrespectable 75 minutes, averaging a disappointing 16.something kph!  But by now I was off the clock and it didn't matter, except to my own pride  facepalm

Horse for Courses 200 perm — and The Horsepower 200 calendar ride, Sat 7th March — is a good, quick ride … if you have the legs for it, of course.  The route is classic Essex for the first 50, wide-open Suffolk for the next 50, Norfolk hedges and lanes for the third 50, and finally a quick B-road run through Thaxted for the final leg to Great Dunmow and arrivée.  This is an ideal early season run or a first 200, as it's challenging enough, but the final leg is quick and so favours tiring legs.  The scenery is great in the wide-open-skies and rural-hedgy-lanes sense … and of course the classic, pretty, thatched-Essex sense.

Thanks Tom for another “fun” day out on the bike!  A little less weather next time, please wink

Postscript: the others took some photos, hopefully we'll see some here soon.  Me, not any for a change.  Thanks to Nik Brunner for his kind permission to use his photos — his blog is here.

Nick Wilkinson

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