Reflections on failure

Despite the negative connotations of this title, I’m trying to see the positives.

I decided this year to dive head first into the weird and wonderful world of audaxes. An audax is a non-competitive, but timed, long-distance bike ride. It features several control points which are only open for limited time windows throughout the day, where you can get your brevet card stamped, or buy something in the area to retain the receipt as proof that you’ve been there. Success comes from completing the ride, having made it to all the checkpoints before they closed.

Easing in

I actually did my first one back in December with Adam, our friend Julien, and a couple of my Bikeradar colleagues, Aoife and Felix. We completed the Abbeys and Minor Roads 100km together with barely 15 minutes to spare at the end, thanks to the final 40km consisting of open and flat roads with a vicious headwind that had us crawling along at less than 10km an hour.

Aoife, myself and Felix setting off on our first audax together. Photo by Aoife Glass

Following on from our success in December, and despite not riding very much at all over the Christmas period, I was signed up for the Chalke and Cheese 200km on 12th January, and I knew I had my work cut out for me.

At the end of December and over the New Year period, Adam and I embarked on several long rides to get ourselves ready for the Chalke and Cheese. We had several failed attempts. A 100km ride was cut short because my lights were failing and it was getting dark, while a 160km ride ended at the 100km mark when I had a rather traumatic encounter with an HGV that left me desperate to get home.

Along comes the 200k

Before I knew it, it was the 12th January, and we rocked up to the Warmley Waiting Room at 7am with the rest of the day’s riders. Despite the failed warm up rides, I was feeling pretty positive. I recently learned how to pedal more efficiently by favouring a low-geared spin over a high-geared grind (to any experienced cyclist this will sound ridiculous, but it really was a revelation to me).

The first 55km of the ride was great. We all set off in a grand départ down the Bristol-to-Bath Railway Path, through the Two Tunnels Greenway and out towards Salisbury. The flat and fast start was a great confidence boost, and we stayed with the bulk of the group for a long time.

As an aside note, I love the diversity of audax riders. All ages, all bikes. I saw people on carbon road bikes, hybrid bikes, fixies, and even one guy on an ElliptiGO.

First stop at 55km – I was damp but feeling happy

So far, so good

We reached the first control point with an hour to spare, and found that loads of other riders were still there. I found it hugely reassuring to see so many of them, because it told me that we were on track. We had coffee, flapjacks and a packet of crisps, I said hello to Fiona, and soon we were off again.

The next control wasn’t far off at that point, and I was so confident that we had bags of time. I pushed up the climbs and let go on the descents, and felt I must have had a really good pace, since I was keeping up with Adam.

Disaster soon struck, though. Following a slightly off-road section, we passed a couple of cyclists who were fixing punctures by the side of the road. After offering a sympathetic look as I passed, I became all too aware of my suddenly deflating rear tyre. Clearly this road was not kind to cyclists.

I was one of three cyclists who stopped at Puncture Central.

Since I’d packed my tools deep into my seat pack, I decided to take the opportunity to eat my way to them by munching on a sandwich. I guess I was so complacent about the extra hour I felt we’d gained, that it didn’t occur to me how long we’d stopped. We ate, I changed my tube, and eventually we headed onward.

A short burst of control points

The next stop was an information control at the 73km mark, where you have to find an underlined piece of trivia to make a note of, usually from a community noticeboard. From there it was a mere 11km to the next control at a village hall in Broad Chalke, where we stopped for a drink. At this point we overheard a fellow cyclist saying that he had to scratch, because he’d had six punctures that day already. I felt bad for him. I felt like we had lots of time still.

From Broad Chalke, however, it was another 85km until the next stop. We had about four hours to do it in. We knew we’d be fine, because we only had to average just over 20km an hour. That’s easy, right?

Taking a step back

What I hadn’t factored in when I embarked on this adventure, was the fact that Adam is a lot faster than me. He’s a faster climber, and he has a naturally faster cadence than me on the flat. Granted, I can catch up on the descents, but he really can push himself a lot further than I can.

I also hadn’t factored in the wind. For a good chunk of the ride, we were battling 35km/h headwinds.

As we traversed Cranborne Chase, the distance between us began to widen. He began waiting for longer and longer at the top of hills as I very slowly made my way up. For him, he was being slowed down, so once I’d caught up with him he was eager to crack on. For me, I was over-exerting myself, and I never had the opportunity to recover after a massive climb. I very quickly lost all my momentum, and mentally broke down as well.

Somewhere in Shaftesbury, I asked him to pull over by a war memorial and I began to cry uncontrollably. I told him I couldn’t do it. He told me to eat. I sobbed as I shoved dry flapjack into my face, not feeling the slightest bit hungry. He waited patiently. I could tell he was anxious to get moving, and I was holding him back. We still had about 60km to go until the next control in Wedmore.

Back to the grind

The next 25km were awful, for me. I kept eating though I wasn’t hungry, and I felt sick, weak, and empty. Without realising it, in my efforts to keep up with Adam, I’d returned my old habit of pushing the highest gear possible. Despite my efficient spinning at the start of the day, by this point my legs were aching and I had nothing left.

I thought I’d had a second wind as we went through Bruton, but then we had a horrendously long climb up into Evercreech, and it felt like forever before I got to the top. Adam had been waiting for a while, and had been doing the maths. When I finally reached him I asked to stop and recover for a minute, and he said we wouldn’t make it.

We decided to call it a day, after 140km and nine-and-a-half hours of solid riding. We escaped to a pub for warmth, until it was time to catch a train back to Bristol.

Rescued by chips and tea at The Bell Inn, Evercreech.

Lessons learned

Since posting on social media about my failed attempt, and chatting to colleagues about it today, I’ve spent some time reflecting on what went so wrong. Despite the strong start, I just fell to pieces. Here are some of the realisations I’ve had, and some lessons I need to take with me to the next attempt.

False confidence

The Chalke and Cheese audax starts on a flat, traffic-free route and remains that way for a reasonable amount of time. Enough time to become complacent, and rack up a decent pace that isn’t sustainable for a cyclist at my level of fitness. Nevertheless I persisted. With my newfound wisdom regarding high cadence and efficient pedalling, I felt I needed to maintain this pace for as long as possible. My much-fitter-than-me boyfriend was fine with this. It was my body that bonked first. I let myself get cocky, and I overdid it from the get-go.

Individual needs

I wanted so much for us to ride these audaxes together. Not just out of necessity (we have one Garmin between us) but also for the company. We now know this isn’t possible for us. We’re incompatible when it comes to timed events. Adam needs to go at his pace, and I need to go at mine. This means really that we need to invest in another GPS device, ride to the start together, and reconvene at the end. It’s a shame, but it’s the only way.

It’s in the mind…

I hate admitting this because I know that I cave very easily under pressure. I do have to acknowledge though that there are mental barriers aplenty to overcome when trying to push yourself to your limit. Yes, I needed to stop and cry, but I also needed to suck it up and get on with it. I’ve ridden 200km before, and I can do it again. But I need to stop telling myself that I can’t. I need to get on with it.

…and the body

That’s not all, though. I need to address a serious issue I have with taking in enough calories to keep myself going. I burned about 4,500 calories on that ride, and there is no way in hell I ate that many on the day. My problem isn’t forgetting to eat, though. We stopped frequently for snacks, and I carried a bag full of PB and banana sandwiches, flapjacks, medjool dates and fresh fruit. We bought cake in the morning, and crisps at the first stop. The problem is that I can’t take in enough. By the time we reached Shaftesbury and I had my meltdown, I was cramming food down even though I felt sick. I think I need to find really calorie-dense snacks that I can eat less frequently.

I need a lot more practice

Way back when I was first really getting into cycling, I took myself out on some solo weekend rides to build my confidence. I need to start doing that again. And it’s not just about building my confidence, but also my stamina. I’m making a vow to get out every weekend (except when I genuinely can’t), and aim for at least 80-100km each time. Why, you may ask? Isn’t that overkill? Do you really need to do that much? Well…

The next attempt(s)

I’ve set myself some pretty huge goals this year. In April I’m signed up for a 300k, 400k in May, and then a whopping 600k in September. After this weekend, if I’ve got any chance of making it through these, I’m going to have to seriously up the ante.

As you can see, my next audax is another 200k in February: the Efengyl. I have six weeks to get ready. Wish me luck.

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7 Replies to “Reflections on failure”

  1. Good luck! 200km after that experience is strong. I did an Audax a couple of years ago, loved it but despite trying to do so again, life and lack of time has got in the way of repeating my local one. I couldn’t have sustained my pace for the 115km but stumbled across an old timer who is an ex racer. He was way slower than me but we had plenty of time and chatted all the way around the route. It was fun to ride with someone with so much knowledge & stories. My accidental discovery was to slow down and if possible ride with someone slower to reign my instinct of going faster to get there. That way, I got to take in the sights…Well done, you’ve made me commit to one again!

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  2. Hi RG. I’m sorry to hear that the Audax went badly. You did have nasty weather.

    Keeping your glycogen tank topped up is important. Perhaps nibble on something more regularly. Something that you can pop in your mouth while you are riding, rather than waiting until rest stops.

    The key thing for me is to remember that I have a fixed number of metaphorical matches to burn in a day. If I burn them all too early in the ride it will be a miserable effort to finish. So it is all about metering your effort to make sure that you have a match or two left at the end, or near to the end, or the ride. Which means riding at your own pace and not getting sucked into going too hard while you feel good.

    Good luck with the next Audax.

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    1. Thank you! I think you nailed it with the advice to keep eating on the go. I do have a top tube bag that I hardly ever use, but I think the last time I managed 200km I had it full of chunks of various bars, dates, etc. I’m telling myself that I need to eat more, less frequently, but that’s probably spelling disaster!

      I like your analogy of having a fixed number of ‘matches’ – I’m definitely going to take my time next month and try not to match anyone else’s pace. Hopefully that should help.

      Thanks so much for your thoughts!

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  3. Hi Dred, I enjoyed your write-up. Thanks! C & C did seem very hard… I took 12 1/2 hours and did a few 200s last year, all between 11 and 12 I think. That wind on the long westerly leg was a killer. And punctures eat time. You’re right that finding your own pace is the way to go; I don’t measure heart rate but if you’re panting you’re probably going too hard and will pay later. Look forward to seeing you at Brevet Cymru! (I think we said ‘hello’ and something banal about raincoats at Broad Chalke 🙂
    Rob

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    1. Hey Rob, thanks so much for your comment! Glad I wasn’t the only one who struggled, and kudos for getting through it. Definitely seems practice is needed! Your point about heart rate is very true – I need to work on that. I shall look out for you at BC in May – provided I’m brave enough to actually show up to the start! 🙂

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  4. Good luck with all those distances!
    They seem to huge to me to do in the allocated times. So I already think you’re doing very well 🙂
    It’s also all a learning curve. You will inevitably fail at times but that also means you will learn and be better prepared for the following ride.
    I look forward to keeping tab on your progress. Audax always seem to much fun.

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