The Long Miles

The thought of cycling 120 miles  and more probably sounds gruelling and a litttle crazy…well…it is!

The ‘early 20 boys’ – happy times before the chain gang!

For some reason I was never keen on racing or time trialling. However long distance cycling appealed to me. When I started on the road bike I thought it was important to get in lots of miles so I could improve my stamina for club runs.

As it happened there were a few guys in the club who loved doing long miles. Ian Harkness and Les Kerr had recently completed the legendary Paris Brest Paris Audax – 1200 kilommetres in no longer than 90 hours. Their stories of this event really charged my imagination; man and bike against the elements, falling asleep on their machines, night riding, a fabulous mass start and cheering crowds at the finish.

Ian suggested that before our Saturday club runs, we cycled 20 miles to build up my endurance. These early morning loops (sometimes taking in 30 miles) were and still are among my fondest times in cycling. We were joined by Alastair Johnson (another fan of the long miles) and some other cyclists. The joking and general banter filled up the hour of spinning. Then came the main club run giving me a total of cycling of 70 – 80 miles. We’d then sometimes stay out and add on some more miles and follow that with a 10k jog.

Ian encouraged me to check out the Audax calendar. Their website was an amazing thing to behold, a long list of long distance events (with jaw dropping distances) all wonderfully titled – The Nyctophobic, Border Castle Randonee and my favourite Etal-U-Can (which I actually completed)!

We chose a couple of events starting with a 160 kilometre event up in Strathaven then I graduated up to 200 kilometre rides. Riding an audax is a world in itself. An almost unimaginable range of bikes and recumbents, special little pens, on the road quizzes at key landmarks, collecting receipts, getting stamped at certain distances, cool badges posted to you after the event with your brevet card.

I had got myself a second bike, an all purpose Edinburgh Bicycle and Les lent me a good sized saddle bag. Thank god I fitted guards as most of the audaxes I cycled involved lots of rain! But I think my abiding memory of audaxes is cycling through the beautiful Scottish countryside and approaching various towns and the smells of those towns, the bakers mainly!

My sister in law has a favourite phrase ‘a bonny looking chooky’ – well on audaxes you definitely meet some bonny looking chookies. I remember one audaxer whom I saw on several events. He was like a dejected Bjorn Borg complete with head band and flowing locks. He never cycled with the bunch but beside us if that’s possible, a rider apart. There was another randonneur who was famed for his spotless bike. I never believed what I had heard until I saw him myself lifting his bike over puddles!

Another was a well known audax man perhaps its most famous exponent, George Berwick. He definitely had his own style. He never looked as though he showed up more like he’d just emerged from another long run. A tremendous athlete and cyclist.

These audaxes played a huge part in my early cycling life. There was so much to learn. When you’re at mile 80 and you know there’s another 45 miles to go, what do you do? Keep cycling! You learn so much about the psychology of cycling and the determination needed for endurance events. Ian, Alastair and I all felt the gruelling nature of these events but we relied on each other and the guys on the road with us to make it to the end and the food and hospitality at the HQ.

Stopping for something to eat was always a pleasure as you got the chance to talk to some of your fellow cyclists and have a good look at their bikes. Lunch needs a bit of thought though. On my first audax we stopped at the Green Cafe in Moniaive. I could’nt resist the carrot cake. When we re-commenced we had to immediately climb the leg breaking Dunreggan Brae. I remember thinking the Carrot Cake was a bad idea as I searched for my granny ring!

It was one of our club members, John Sturgeon (having himself completed the epic 1400 kilometre Edinburgh-London-Edinburgh with tremendous panache) who first posted on our forum about a new concept, the Sportive, several years ago. He encouraged our club members to try out this new, long distance endurance event.

Our club decided to try the nearest Sportive at that time which was over at Brampton. We cycled over for a reconnaissance, doing half the course and then cycling back; 135 miles in total. 130 of those miles were in dry conditions, the last 5 a torrential, Old Testament downpour. That’s long distance cycling for you.

We all gradually gravitated towards Sportives which were tremendous challenges, well organised, competitive and at times brutal and exacting. Despite all this they never had, for me, the idiosyncrasies and the sense of cycling community of the audax. In compiling this post I checked out the Audax site after many years of neglect. Happily it’s still going strong with wonderful event titles and info for those preparing for the 2015 Paris Brest Paris.

Earlier this year my wife and I having waved my daughter off at the airport, were driving down from Kilmarnock to Dumfries. Weaving along the roads the memories of audaxes came back to me. I remembered suddenly those roads round Dalmelington and Cumnock. The minute we were home I text my old audax buddy, Ian…the smells of the bakeries were coming back to me with the rainfall.

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