Royston audax

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In the UK, audax is a form of organized long-distance cycling. Riders aim to complete a route within a time limit. It’s not a race: everyone who finishes within the time limit gets the same number of points (1 point for each 100 km in the course length).

Each year the organizing body, Audax UK, awards victory to the rider with the most points. The winners cycle astonishing distances: in 1996, Steve Abraham won the championship with 287 points, representing 28,700 km of cycling. The sport is equal-opportunity: in 1995 Liz Creese won with 222 points, easily beating the runner-up, David Lewis, with 120 points.

Which is a prelude to telling you about today’s audax, “Spring out of Royston”. This was a short ride (as audaxes go), of 107 km, from Royston to Longstanton via Chrishall and back via Gamlingay. This had a generous time limit of 8½ hours, corresponding to a minimum average speed of 12.5 km/h. But the time limit includes all stops, so you can’t linger too long over lunch. There were about 40 riders. [ETA: actually 34.]

The ride started out with an ascent of the hills on the border of Hertfordshire, Essex and Cambridgeshire, soon reaching the high points of Cambridgeshire (Great Chishill, 148 m) and of Essex (Chrishall Common, 147 m). The day was sunny but cool, and there were beautiful views north towards the green farmlands of south Cambridgeshire. I’m quite good at hill-climbing, and for a while I was fourth in the whole field. But the ride descended to the plains of Cambridgeshire and I soon got overtaken.

Royston audax 2008

One of the nice things about taking part in audaxes is cycling with people who are fitter and faster. When I’m on my own I tend to slow down but when there’s someone in front to follow I can put in a lot more effort. Today I found that a couple of gentlemen in their sixties were going just a little faster than me and gave me a good target speed for the first 50 km, as far as the checkpoint at Longstanton.

This section of the ride was very familiar to me, on roads I’ve cycled many times, and the kilometres went by pretty quickly. These were lots of well known landmarks: the Barrington Cement Works, the Ryle Telescope, Madingley Hall. And then the flat fields of fenland, yellow with rapeseed and green with brassicas.

Long-distance cycling really makes you realise the extent to which your body is a machine for turning carbohydrates into work. Even if you have a big breakfast, you can’t store up enough energy for the whole day. So you have to keep eating on the ride. On the other hand, digestion takes energy too, so you can’t eat too much at a time. Chocolate bars give you a quick burst of energy but are soon gone, so you need complex carbohydrates too.

I enjoyed the ride as far as Gamlingay, but the final 20 kilometres were straight into the easterly wind, and were a bit of a pain. My bum hurt, my legs were like lead and I hadn’t eaten enough on the ride (a banana, a piece of fruitcake, and a snickers). So I stopped by the village sign in Bassingbourn to eat another banana, and that provided enough sugar to get me to the finish with a time of just under 5 hours.

If you’re keen to try an audax, the next one in the neighbourhood starts at Hauxton, on 28 September. This has a bit of a tighter time limit, just under 7 hours.