Thrills and Spills in a Life on 2 Wheels (continued from the 2020 Wheelers Magazine)

On the Rivet

It does become a bit of a pain in the proverbial riding 265km a day on one of the ultra long distance events as the Calais-Brindisi had been in 1984 after so many continuous days in the saddle. So it was going to be five years before I attempted another one. It was time for something completely different. Sportives existed only in Europe in the 80s, not at home. The attitude of the authorities here towards cycling of any kind was, as we know only too well, so negative. In Scotland one Audax organiser was even threatened with prosecution if he ran his event! Was it therefore any surprise when the World Road Championships were staged at Goodwood in Sussex in 1982 that Italian fans were arrested and detained for painting the names of their heroes on the road? Bastardi! The international cycling press was outraged. Britain did not host the event again until 2019. But Britain’s Mandy Jones did become World Champion winning the women’s race. I wrote to her with congratulations, and she replied!
The 80s were for me and my generation of AUK riders a golden age. But having seen what the continent had to offer I looked for more foreign events to ride. The prospect of being allowed to ride with 5,000 other riders on the roads of a one-day Classic like Paris-Roubaix was very exciting. It was time to get filthy on the cobbles! Forget Boscawen Street. We are talking SERIOUS cobbles, uneven, with gaps, sometimes missing, shaped by centuries of use as farm tracks. The French call it the Hell of the North. To ride the cobbles I learnt that instead of ‘twiddling” the only way not to be shaken apart was to ride a high gear, and ride hard, till you reached the end of that section of pavé, and keep your mouth clamped shut to keep the mud out and your teeth in. The four of us became the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, catching and trying to pass riders ahead of us. The conditions were hellish too – drizzle and liquid mud. It was so easy to lose control and crash. I did see one broken frame. This was before the advent of the proper helmet but on that ride I did wear the nearest thing to it in those days, a racing “hairnet”. As we reached the last few sections of pavé near Roubaix we were amazed to find the verges crowded with excited spectators cheering us on. We pressed on even more fuelled by adrenalin, dropping our shoulders to avoid the fans leaning in from the verges. At the finish we were covered in mud from head to foot. It would have been even more glorious if we could have had a shower! We rode it again two years later. It was dry but the mud was sticky this time so they allowed us to finish on the famous Roubaix velodrome like the pros. Each successful rider gets a small piece of pavé and I still have mine now on my desk.
It is a real buzz to ride in such large bunches in what were the first sportives. In the next few years I tackled uphill cobbles in the Tour of Flanders (Ronde van Vlanderen) in Belgium and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. (It is a pity Cornwall is so far away. I know Wheelers who would love such events). But I had never raced. I did dabble in a bit of time trialling in 10s and 25s but I had never tried a mass start race. I was now living not far from the Welwyn Garden City velodrome in Hertfordshire and was a member of the Hertfordshire Wheelers. So with a lot of trepidation I had a brief go at track racing. Well, I raced one Devil Take the Hindmost at Welwyn lasting about 4 or 5 laps before the accumulated effort of having to sprint on each lap left me severely in the red and I was out. I did have a go at one road race on a hilly circuit and actually led after the first downhill section but then quickly got dropped on the next climb. I soon realised that I should have taken up this sport at a much younger age! I had a number of Audax friends in the Willesden Cycling Club and so I joined their club. Every year they held their club track championships. By now I had a track bike. But I was short of time on the technical preparation of my wheels before the race. Anyway I did race in the 3 man sprint and just took the win. However as I eased off on the banking I came together with another rider and slid down the banking with the tub coming off the rim. I was unhurt but my rim revealed the tub had been stuck on with Sellotape. An embarrassing moment after the technical lecture we had had from the track guru in the club the week before. I still enjoy riding the ‘G’ track at Newport even now. There is an almost balletic, elegant smoothness about it, on a bike that is beautiful in its simplicity. I recommend having a go. (Ask Sonjia!) I still enjoy a sprint for village signs on an OGIL ride (getting one over on Ian takes some sneaky cunning!). Another aspect of track racing I never imagined I would ever be involved with was in 2018 when Robin asked me to manage his attempt on the age related world hour record at the Newport velodrome. That was an experience and a half not to be forgotten!

Touring comes in many forms. It is the one type of cycling that appeals to every cyclist, be they recreational riders or pros. I have cycled in most of the countries of western Europe as well as Greece and even Hong Kong. My first tour abroad was crossing France for a week to visit friends in preparation for the 1979 PBP. I discovered the delights and freedom of being able to turn up somewhere and finding a room in one of those small, family run, inexpensive hotels which there was no shortage of in France at that time. No booking ahead was necessary. I learnt my next lesson in the heat and hills of the Massif Central. Drink enough! Regular sips from the bidon – and it helped having at least four bowls of soup with the evening meal. The quiet roads, the simple but delicious food and wine and the respect from motorists on the road were all new experiences I will never forget. I had become a Francophile. France was a paradise for the cyclist. I think it still holds that position today.
I love maps and still prefer them to a “dashboard device”. Just spending time working out the most scenic, cycle friendly route for a new ride is very absorbing. I did this in creating a new, more scenic route for the Calais Brindisi route which is now an AUK “permanent”. I rode this new route in 1998 with Peter Hansen and John Rivers (JR) at the AUK Randonneur standard of 200km a day. (You can also ride it at Tourist standard of 100km a day). It was hard but we got into a good routine and had time to enjoy a relaxing meal and a bottle of wine. Once again time ran short near the end so we had to ditch our panniers in a hotel and then on the last morning my bike with passport, money, camera was stolen. But that’s another story. We made it with 10 minutes to spare after 13 days on the road. Another memorable ride which I later extended to 4,000km across Greece and onto Istanbul – the Orient Express. Another AUK permanent I devised and run is the Roscoff-Nice. Again JR and I rode this in 2000 at 200km a day in order to then ride the Tour of Corsica. This is a magnificently scenic ride with high jagged mountains, narrow roads with little traffic and the odd dog asleep in the road, and sparkling deep blue sea. 1,000km spread over 10 days. Now that’s touring! Another was when four of us decided not to start a 600km Audax ride in Scotland we had entered having just discovered the delights of Scotland while riding a 300km Audax event the same week. We went on a gentle tour of the Outer Hebrides instead. We saw sea otters, we heard crofters at work on their hand looms producing Harris tweed and we island hopped with our bikes in small boats. What a delightful rest from Audax!
One local permanent Audax ride I organise in Cornwall is the Tour of Kernow. It is 450km in 4 days or if you want to go mad like John Morse or Robin, 30 hours. That is not touring! But it could be for 4 days. It was 1989 again and I was ready for another long ride. I found the Paris Gibraltar. All these rides run by the French had their romantic names as well. This one was “The Route of the Capitals of the South”. It was designed to be ridden at an average of 200km a day. This sounded better than 265km a day, more like a tour, with a bit of pressure, but we could still hopefully enjoy the ride. With the consent of the French organiser we extended his route from Trafalgar Square to Cape Trafalgar on the tip of Spain opposite N Africa. There were dramatic distant vistas and towering cliffs and villages that seemed to just grow out of the surrounding brown landscape. Spain is a big country. Riding such a distance day after day sounds hard. After the first few days I found I got into the routine of it, getting up early, but not at “ridiculous o’clock” this time, and riding before a stop for breakfast worked very well. It is true to say that by the finish I did have a bit of a pain in my backside but sipping the bubbly standing in the surf at Cape Trafalgar made it all worthwhile! It was a wonderful ride in great company of four others which I will never forget. We had seen much of the beautiful, remote parts of Spain. We had climbed as far as the snow allowed us on the highest road in Europe on the Pico Veleta. We had seen some of the old Moorish cities like Zaragoza, Toledo and Granada where we did think we should pause for longer in future. Greg LeMond was about to win the Tour de France by 8 seconds. In 2010 I had just stopped working (I don’t think the word “retired” seems to fit somehow). I started going out more regularly on my mountain bike and testing my nerve on some of the more technical bits of the Bissoe Trail known locally as Mars. Peter Hansen mentioned “that new club”, the Falmouth Wheelers, were organising a 24hour Cyclethon around Pendennis Point. It sounded like our type of event especially if we rode through the night and could enjoy the dawn over the sea. I decided to do that and aim for doing 200km. It was during the early hours that I ran into Robin whose house I had bought a few years before. I soon realised as we rode along that he was completely taken over by the cycling bug, he one-legged on a Dahoo fold-up bike. His enthusiasm was infectious and he spoke about the spinning classes he and Gill regularly attended at Tremough. It wasn’t long before I too was spinning twice a week and had then enlisted in the Falmouth Wheelers. Before long I was riding every Sunday and to the pub on Wednesday evenings. My fitness and strength was returning fast. The rides were not that far but perfect to recover proper fitness and gradually build up the miles in the legs. The company wasn’t bad either once I had penetrated the set of noms de guerre of my new club mates. They didn’t seem yet to have heard of Audax rides but they were keen and friendly and the group kept together well and no one was left behind. Unusually they didn’t do any racing either. It seemed to be a social club with a hangup about cycling (that’s what it says on the trailer!). I thought that would sound very attractive to anyone thinking of trying cycling and joining a club. They also liked some quite adventurous club tours. The trip to the French Alps was very memorable during which the Wheelers famously acted as carrots for Bradley Wiggins and the Sky Team as they trained on Alpe d’Huez. We enjoyed some truly thrilling fast descents on a number of the legendary Tour mountains which were a welcome reward for the arduous climbs. I have always felt the buzz of real fitness. In 2013 I could tell I was ready to have another crack at a 400km Audax ride (sleep or no sleep!). That New Year, Dale mentioned he wanted to have a go at the London-Edinburgh London and having to enter that early helped us because we were then committed to ride the event in August. So it happened that Robin, Trevor, Martyn and myself did ride what is I believe the world’s longest Audax event at 1,400km. It is the same distance as Lands End to John O’Groats. I had those rather dismal memories from the 80s of riding through the night. But I was now 35 years older and there would be 4 nights to get through. As it turned out I treated each 50 mile stage between controls not unlike a Sunday ride with a good feed at the end. I rode nearly 200 miles in each 24 hour period and managed a good 3 to 4 hours of sleep over the same period. Although there were some difficult patches on the way back in extremely hot and humid conditions, overall I have to say it remains one of my most enjoyable Audax challenges. And all that steady riding in the months before had paid off. It was also a very pleasing accomplishment for the FWs as a club. We had all helped each other through the low spots and enjoyed the sense of disbelief that we had all been successful when the failure rate for the event had been surprisingly high. We had all met and ridden with a wide variety of people from all over the world. It was another experience never to be forgotten. Chris Froome had just won his first Tour de France. In 2014 the club rashly elected me as the next Chair. I just made one condition, namely that the club constitution which existed on paper must be activated and a proper committee elected. We now have an annually elected committee of four who share the responsibility of running the club. It has greatly encouraged debate amongst members and helped develop the club’s cycling activities. These things take time to evolve. Most members who ride regularly find how what they would never have thought possible some years ago has now been achieved. The factor of getting older is little or no hindrance to what they might dream of achieving. In my cycling life there have been quite a few such moments when an idea has excited me but at that moment I am not ready to tackle it. But I have just had that feeling that as long as I feel it is a possibility then I probably will do it. It is easy to forget that success is not the be all and end all of life’s experiences. It is the taking part and having a go that is its own reward. So aged 71 why am I still riding my bike and still behaving badly (sometimes I admit) on it? Because I have kept riding really all my life off and on I feel the need to get out in the open air and turn the pedals uphill and down dale. It’s not to keep fit as such. Whether I am riding alone or in a bunch at a bit of pace I don’t feel my age. On the bike I genuinely feel about 30. My senses feel alert. My balance feels good. The rhythm of riding at the optimum cadence feels just right. Feeling the wind and rain on my face and getting the smells of the countryside around me put me in touch with the beautiful environment that sustains me. I am doing what my body is designed to do, to move efficiently and enjoyably.
How long will I keep riding? For as long as I can without some hiccup. My regular cycling has kept me in shape for my hill walking which in the last 5 years has taken me high up into the Swiss Alps. It is a newly discovered world of truly unspoilt wilderness and high above the paraphernalia of mass skiing. When I leave a mountain hut before dawn with a helmet light on it does remind me of those ultra long rides I did years ago when we would be up and on the road before first light.
One unexpected aspect of my cycling life occurred in 2013 when with 123 other AUK riders between the ages of 55 and 80, Robin and I were part of a medical research project run by Kings College London. It was about finding if the natural ageing process of the human body could be slowed down by exercising at the optimum level possible throughout a person’s life. For me the idea of living a long life is only something to be hoped for if the quality of those extra years is as good as possible. We are animals who are designed to move and be active. If we don’t it usually results in our health being affected and a diminution in our quality of life. Regular activity which raises the heart rate helps to get the right amount of oxygen to all parts of the body including importantly the brain. Riding with our club mates (with some exceptions some would suggest!) also provides that vital human connection for our mental wellbeing. Since participating in this medical study, I was anxious when I was the club chairperson to encourage members to go that extra mile and venture outside their comfort zone. I have realised how cycling can play such an essential part in our lives by continuing to keep our whole body in good shape, physically and mentally. As a certain Red Leader once said, and it is worth repeating: “you never regret going”.

Simon Jones

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