Rise of the ultra-cyclists: a new breed of riders go the distance

With no spectators , no bags of freebies and no medals, the 400 km London-Wales-London ride provides a welcome antidote to overblown sportives

” Cycling far ?” asks a woman in the bakery as a group of us queues for coffee and sausage rolls, as well as an all-important receipt to prove we passed through Tewkesbury.

” Er … London to Wales ,” responds a cyclist behind me. A intermission.” And back .” It must be hard not to look smug- he’s probably been dying for someone to ask him that all day.

Some 130 of us are doing just that. We’ve been over the Chilterns and through picture-postcard Cotswold villages. Soon we’ll labour up the 24% ramp of Yat Rock, whizz down the Wye valley to Chepstow, nip into Wales and traverse back into England over the old Severn bridge. Then it’s up past the Somerset monument, across the North Wessex Downs, over the Chilterns again and we’re done. At 407 km, the London-Wales-London ride does have a genuinely epic feel.

This is my first taste of audax: a noncompetitive form of long-distance cycling that traces its history to the 1890 s , not long after the invention of the modern bicycle. I was expecting old men on steel-framed bikes with calves cast from iron and glasses held together with gaffer videotape, cake and clipboards in dusty village corridors, and checkpoints on bleak petrol station forecourts. Only part of that was true.

A few years ago I wouldn’t have been far incorrect. The London-Wales-London ride had been running for decades under the name of Severn Across, and until recent years the average turnout was around 35 riders.

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But ultra-distance cycling has surged in popularity. Just as runners who have tackled a few regular marathons might guess” what now ?” and have a go at an ultramarathon, increasing numbers of cyclists are looking for something more than a 100 -mile sportive. This appears to be down partly to self-supported races like the Transcontinental across Europe and the 6,800 km Transamerica, partly to the profile of riders like the late Mike Hall and partly to that familiar human exhort to try for a little bit more.

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Riders before the start of London-Wales-London 2018. Photograph: the5milecyclist

Spend any time looking into ultra-distance and audax events and you’ll soon hear about the 1,200 km Paris-Brest-Paris and the 1,400 km London-Edinburgh-London, which are both held every four years.

Last year, organiser Liam FitzPatrick rebranded the Severn Across ride as London-Wales-London. This year the event sold out in under eight hours. FitzPatrick opened a waiting list but shut it once he had another 75 names. The flow of emails from disappointed riders continued right up to the big day.

So what I got when I arrived at Chalfont St Peter community centre at 6am on a bright May Saturday morning was a lot of fit cyclists, some expensively cut Lycra and merino, a clutch of carbon bikes … and the odd crusty old-timer.

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Riders cross back into England over the old Severn bridge.

Conscious that it’s all too easy to overdo it early on- a lesson learned from a few ultramarathons– I pottered along comfortably enough to the first checkpoint at Woodstock after 70 km. I was somewhat surprised to be greeted by a full fry-up- some of the old reputation clearly still rings true- but I’d missed breakfast so wasn’t complaining.

There is time to chat to fellow riders, so I struck up dialogues, asking people about their setups( plenties had dynamo hubs to generate electricity for suns and GPS units) and trying to pick up ideas for future events. Many are aiming for Paris-Brest-Paris next year, and a fair few tackled London-Edinburgh-London in 2017. The growth of ultra-distance cycling can be seen in the participation numbers for that event: 29 starters in 1989, 1,500 last year.

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A completed brevet card. Some controls are staffed; others are’ free'( riders collect a receipt) or’ datum'( riders answer a question ).

FitzPatrick had cautioned me before the event that the mental challenge could be tougher than the physical.” What makes it difficult isn’t so much the velocity, it’s that you’ve got time to think ,” he said.” If your thighs hurt or you’ve got saddle sores then you might have another eight hours of this, grinding you down. When it’s three in the morning, when you’ve had a couple of punctures, when it’s cold and wet … that’s when it gets to you .”

His advice for finishing successfully was to pay extra attention to staying hydrated( easy to forget on long events) and not to expend too long riding alone, especially at night.

Following his first suggestion, I stopped to refill my water bottles outside the three staffed checkpoints- which meant I did spend some time on godforsaken petrol station forecourts. For the second, I teamed up with fellow rider Alex Kew when we detected ourselves at the same pace.

It’s not always easy to know when to hold back or when to press on, but I eased off when he was fighting up Yat Rock; he paid that back many times once he’d recovered. As a day trialist, Alex couldn’t help himself every time we hit a long straight -Aroad- he was on the front, head down, powering away, and all I had to do was stick to his back wheel. The miles flew by.

Darkness fell. Surrounded by stillnes but for the whirr of wheels and the voice of breathing, we negotiated gravelly, potholed single-track roads at 30 mph with simply a pair of small lights to fight the pitch-black night. The company took a lot of stress out of it.

London-Wales-London is not a race( technically it’s a randonne ). Riders are free to complete the 407 km at whatever speed they want so long as they average 15 -3 0kph. That stimulated a very early permissible finish 10.30 pm; the latest was 9am the next day.

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London-Wales-London riders feed up. Photo: the5milecyclist

With no serious mechanicals, Alex and I rolled into Chalfont just before midnight. The fastest riders- including world 24 -hour time trial champion Jasmijn Muller– were back before it get dark. The last rolled in at 8.20 am.

London-Wales-London( or Chalfont-Chepstow-Chalfont, as one wag had it) certainly lives up to its epic new name. Whether you’re an old-school audaxer or someone dressed head to toe in Rapha with a fetish for sleeping in bus shelters, it’s a welcoming way to explore.

And it’s an antidote to overblown sportives. Rolling in after 407 km, we got our brevet cards stamped and tucked into warming bowl of homemade daal. There were no spectators lining the finish chute , no suitcase of freebies , no medals- but it was all the better for it.

London-Wales-London 2019 will run on 4 May

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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