Asparagus & Strawberries 400 perm — a weather-beaten route check

I checked the weather forecast: a typical south-westerly with a forecast of rain around lunchtime.  This meant it was going to be a tailwind for 200km, a cross wind for 70km and a headwind the rest of the way around.  I planned for this … a plan never survives contact with the enemy, so to speak facepalm

I was down to ride the A&S as a proper helpers' ride, this being my 400km qualifier for Paris-Brest-Paris, but a lack of train service on the Saturday morning meant I wasn't able to.  I had to ride the perm instead, riding from home in Cambridge down to Saffron Walden to start my day with my first stage being the final stage for everyone else — it's a rules thing.

The organiser, Tom's rides are well known for having a little bite towards the end: Essex hills tend to be short and sharp, so it's not really out of any sense of malice, more a sense of Essex, but as you get closer to one of Tom's arrivées then the terrain tends to go up and down more.  This meant I would be riding the hilliest part of the ride first, getting it out of the way while my legs were still fresh.

Finchingfield in the early morning light

My aim for this ride was to ride approximately a steady 20km/h pace with reasonably efficient controls.  However, controlling quickly just meant to practice the inevitable kit-changes and repacks quickly, since if we were having fun then what would be the point in rushing a leisurely lunch?  I wanted to get around in 22 hours, if possible, as I had to ride home to Cambridge from Saffron Walden afterwards, an extra 30km, meaning I didn't have to hang around for the Station Buffet to open in Manningtree.

I checked the forecast: a steady south-westerly turning westerly in the early evening; temperatures between about 8ºC and 14ºC; rain before breakfast and again around lunchtime.  Lightweights should be okay.  Unfortunately the weather turned out to be a little different …

04:00am start

I set off from Cambridge a few minutes before 4amshocked and rode the 30km to Saffron Walden at a steady 25kph pace: I needed to make sure I controlled at SW around 5am to give myself the necessary time to ride 70km to Manningtree over the lumpiest section of the route and still have time in hand for breakfast.  Important stuff!  I duly got a cash machine receipt just a few minutes after 5am and set off in the dark for Manningtree.

I had intended to ride this as the helpers' ride, but a couple of things made me ride it as a perm, meaning I have to ride it again in a couple of weeks' time:

  • There were no trains on the day, due to engineering works, so there was no way I could start from Manningtree
  • I need the long-ride and overnight practise to get ready for PBP
  • With 200 other riders booked, it looked like the calendar ride would be fun with plenty of company — and likely to be my only proper calendar ride this year!

The climb out of Saffron Walden to Radwinter is one of the longest drags of the whole ride, but it just flew by — the advantage of fresh legs.  I now had the wind squarely behind me for long sections and I set an easy pace.  As I counted down the kilometres to breakfast, it looked consistently like I would arrive between 8.15 and 8.20, so plenty of time for a full breakfast thumbs up

Crossing the River Stour in Bures

I stopped a few times to annotate my routesheet — the purpose of riding the helpers' ride at all was to check the GPS track that I'd created for Tom, and to help Tom check the routesheet, so I would be sending these annotations to Tom later.

I took my time up all the climbs — I still had well over 350km to ride even after finishing this stage — and rolled down to Manningtree station at about 8.15am.  A quick hello and I ordered a “half breakfast” that looked like a “full breakfast” to me, with a receipt.

And then there were 7 … er, 8

It turned out there would be seven of us today: Tom, Nik (tippers_kiwi), Dave and Caroline on the bhoot tandem, Phil Whiteley, and Lesley and Andrew from the One Year Time Trial team.  And me.  Eight of us today.

From the go Phil and Nik disappeared off the front of the group, leaving me tagging onto the tandem.  Unfortunately, early-morning rain meant the roads were still soaking and the tandem was kicking up spray, so I wasn't able to take full advantage of the tow without eating grit.  We rode together, echelon-style, until the first control, but the pace was a little hot for me and although I kept up, at times that was only because they slowed down to let me hook back on.

Caroline and Dave on the bhoot tandem

At Ixworth control, I shooed the tandem off — I would ride solo for a bit, find my own pace.  We had bumped into Nik and Phil at Ixworth just about ready to leave, so in spite of all their effort, they were only a few minutes ahead of us.  I took my time through the control and Lesley and Tom rolled up just as I was about to leave … so I left.

 Swooping tractors

The next stage I rode mostly solo — I had a tailwind and it was easy riding.  It's nice to break off from someone else's pace and find your own.  I wasn't riding quickly, but I wasn't riding slowly either, I was just trying not to exert myself, to save some for later.

The final run to Halesworth swoops through the grounds of Heveningham Hall, which is a very pleasant visual diversion.  I was being tracked by a huge tractor at this point, but he dropped back and let me get on with it — I kept the pace high as a way of saying thanks.

The café stop in Halesworth

In Halesworth I rode slowly and carefully the wrong way down the high street to the café, where I found the tandem still eating, along with Andrew, who'd bounced me at Ixworth.  I joined them for some beans on toast.  And while I was eating, Tom and Lesley arrived, so I hadn't put any great distance on them — I think my early morning start and extra 100km in the legs was taking its toll.

Herman: if you need extra proof I was there, this supplements the dodgy receipt the café handed mewink

The tandem left ahead and the four of us rode out together, me riding with Tom for a while.  Tom's a veteran audaxer and club cyclist and easy company to ride with, especially as he rides fixed, so he has a very consistent, steady pace.

Ferry crossing

One of the oddities of this ride is the use of a chain ferry to cross into the Norfolk Broads.  The ferry only moves about 20m from one side of the river to the other, but the alternative is a very long diversion through Great Yarmouth on some fast A roads, one of which is dead-flat and dead-straight for over 10km, except for a single corner!  Fortunately the ferry was fine and we crossed sedately.  At the other side Lesley wanted food in the pub, but as we were only 10km from the control, we persuaded her to continue.

Tom on Reedham Ferry

In Acle, we did the usual stop on the village green, where we bumped into the tandem and Andrew.  Nobody was in any particular hurry to move off, so we fed, watered, fettled Lesley's luggage, and made use of the facilities.  This was turning out to be a pretty civilised ride, without the usual rushing around that certain septugenarians insist on when riding with … it turned out that certain septugenarian had bumped into the tandem as they were crossing on the ferry in the opposite direction and we missed them by literally only a minute or so!

Not hilly … but not flat, either

We left the control as a four, the tandem again making hay before it started pissing down, but Tom shortly disappeared backwards and sent Andrew to the front to ride with me: something about not letting the OYTT riders stay together.  The weather was suddenly sunny and much warmer, so I had ditched my extra layers and was riding in a short-sleeve and shorts.  As we headed further north into Norfolkshire, the route gets lumpier — never hilly exactly, just a definite attempt at not being flat.  Andrew and I headed on, making just a couple of minor navigational errors, which we corrected immediately.

Tom a-wheel

Andrew was clearly stronger than me, and I told him I didn't mind if he rode off ahead, but he swore he was only speeding up because he thought I was, so was pacing me.  I was speeding up because he was speeding up and I was only pacing him, but I was beginning to run out of steam.

We rolled into Wells-next-the-Sea just after 8.30pm to find the tandem couple still eating fish and chips.  The wind had swung right around from a south-westerly to a northerly in the final half hour of our approach — we would have a tailwind going southwards! — and in the few minutes it took for us to ride through the town to the sea front it had started to spit.  It was also dark.

Andrew and Lesley

As we stepped in, Caroline pointed out they were clearing up, so I stepped straight to the counter and ordered, followed smartly by Andrew.  Caroline pointed out the window — the rain had arrived in a huge torrent and it looked like it was going to be a soaker on the way back southwards.  A few minutes later Tom and Lesley arrived and we hurried them in, but they weren't going to get served, so they headed on to a pub in town.


We finished up and headed out into the night: fortunately the rain had ceased and we got a clear run out of town.  Although the road was filled with large puddles after the storm, after a few miles there wasn't any sign of rain at all, simply localised storms.  We rode with the tandem, but eventually Andrew and I unhooked, as the pace was proving too hot.  We had planned to stop at The Fox & Hounds, Weasenham, so we knew we'd catch them for a swift half.

I was feeling really cold when we stopped at pub, even though I was wearing all my layers.  I took my GPS inside to charge it from a battery, but when I came to put it back on the bike I discovered it had switched off — and kept switching itself off every time I switched it on, bollcks!  This is exactly what happened on The Flatlands 600 last year and I lost both the route I was following and the track I was recording.

From a navigation point of view, though, this wasn't an issue: I already know the route up the A1065 to the next control, and I know most of the route from there to the subsequent control, my final control.  Not only that, but I had a complete routesheet and reading light set up, as I was checking the routesheet for Tom.  And I have a spare speedo fitted to the bike, with a backlight.  So I knew I would get to Saffron Walden, my arrivée, but I also knew I would probably lose any tracked data, which I wanted to use for working out moving time/pace for PBP planning.  Never mind, can't be fixed now.

Tom and Lesley arrived before we set out, but we didn't hang around: Andrew and I set off together.

Unfortunately, now I had run out of steam.  I had nothing left.  I knew I could twiddle along at less than 20kph and still finish, but it's tedious like that.  And it was slower than Andrew could ride at, as he was still fresh and going strong.  I urged him to ride off on his own and find his own pace, but he refused, so we rode together to the next control.  I kept having micro-sleeps on the bike, which was disconcerting — Andrew refused to let me ride on the right-hand side, to stop me sleeping into the traffic.  Tom and Lesley caught — and passed! — us, going like a train.

Sleep is what I needed most!

We bounced the Barton Mills control, because the garage was closed up, window-service only.  In Newmarket we caught Tom and Lesley up again and I told Andrew to join up with Tom and Lesley, as I was certainly holding him back.  I wanted to get to Balsham and sleep in the 5* bus shelter — sleep is what I needed most!

I rode on and for a while I was catching the others up the long drag out of Newmarket, but they soon reached the top and started to stretch away.  The next time I saw them, they were sat side-by-side in the 3* bus stop in Balsham — Tom quietly mentioned they'd left the other one free for me to sleep in, woohoo! grin  I got my sleep mat and pillow inflated and broke out my sleeping-bag liner and settled down on the bench for a sleep.

And sleep I did — I hadn't set an alarm, but awoke when it got cold and looking at my watch discovered it was 5.30 — I reckon I was asleep for between 1.5 and 2 hours, an age on an overnight audax.  I felt much better, much more awake.  I quickly packed my bed away and set off — I had just 16km to go to get to the end of my ride and then I could relax.  I had joked with Andrew that I would call a taxi from Saffron Walden to home in Cambridge, but now that I felt less tired, I figured I would ride it instead. 

There's a significant drop down to Linton: in the cold morning air I felt the chill run right through me.  What goes down … out of Linton there's a long, winding climb back up again and this took a while!  But from there it's nearly all downhill to Saffron Walden.

And I'm done!

Shortly after 6.15 I rolled into the square and grabbed my proof-of-passage: 25 hours plus change for a ride that had started out very quick, but slowed significantly at the end.  But I had taken my time at all the controls: where I would've taken 10 minutes, I had actually taken 30.  Where 30, an hour.  So I had spent a lot of time stopped.

I had finished: now I just had to get home!  I rolled out of the square and turned right towards Cambridge.  It was still early-hours on a Sunday, so I stuck to the quiet main road.  I could feel the sleep-dep catching up with me aagain, though, now that the pressure of finishing was lifted and towards Whittlesford I was beginning to micro-sleep again, so I stopped at the McDonald's for breakfast and texted Mrs W: she offered to pick me up, I couldn't refuse.

Ride summary

And that, as they say, was that: I had ridden over 460km in something like 27 hours, the ride itself in 25h10.  From the receipts that I sent to Herman for the perm I rode I reckon I was stopped for about 5.5 hours — meaning I had ridden the 417km of the event itself at about 21.5kph average moving speed, result! thumbs up

We had been fairly lucky with the wind: it had been largely a tailwind all the way round except for 70km to Wells.  However, the extra push tended to flatter the speed and I think contributed to my lacklustre performance on the southbound leg.  I also completely shattered my quads: I think my saddle was an inch or so too high, so it was a quads-limited ride, rather than glutes-limited, and the glutes can go for much longer than quads, at least mine can.

Now I have to ride it all again on 9 May to get the necessary BRM points and qualification to PBP facepalm

Nick Wilkinson

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