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Audax: a long weekend

David Kenning
19 Aug 2015

Audax may seem an eccentric niche, but as Cyclist finds on the 624km Windsor-Chester-Windsor, it offers a blend of history and adventure.

Riding a bike from Windsor in Berkshire to Chester in Cheshire and back again in the same weekend sounds just a tiny bit crazy. That, however, is exactly what I’m intending to do as I join around 140 other riders at Old Windsor Memorial Hall on a Saturday morning in late May for the Windsor-Chester-Windsor 600km audax. 

Audax may lack the high profile and glamour of racing, or the mass appeal of sportives, but it’s a corner of the cycling world that has been quietly ploughing its furrow for around 125 years. Like time-trials, it’s a niche interest whose participants are viewed by other cyclists with a mixture of admiration and suspicion. It lies somewhere on the cycling spectrum between sportives and touring, and while it emphatically isn’t a race, there is a time limit – in this case, 40 hours for a ride that clocks up 624km  – a little over the distance in its title. 

The 2015 calendar of Audax UK, the governing body of long-distance cycling in the UK, lists 16 events of 600km. Windsor-Chester-Windsor may not be the prettiest – that would be the Bryan Chapman Memorial 600, a there-and-back route between Chepstow in South Wales and Anglesey in the north, via the magnificent scenery of Snowdonia. Nor is it the most difficult – that’s the Pendle 600, which takes in the Pennines, North York Moors and Lake District, with more than 10,000 metres of climbing. It is, however, the most historically significant. Established in 1976, the original Windsor-Chester-Windsor was set up to enable British riders to qualify for the 1,200km Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP), the flagship event of the international audax calendar. 

Carradice bar bag

The roots of PBP go back to the mid-1880s, when Maurice Martin, founder of the French cycling newspaper Véloce-Sport, invented a new type of long-distance cycling event. Known as a ‘brevet’ (certificate) after the card that riders carried to be stamped at control points on the route as proof of passage, the challenge was to complete extreme distances within a time limit but in a non-competitive spirit. The term audax, from the Latin for ‘bold’, defines a slightly different type of event invented in Italy around the same time, in which teams of riders complete a fixed distance at a set pace, led by a road captain. Audax is the term that has stuck in the UK, though brevet is still preferred elsewhere.

It’s no coincidence that many early brevets were sponsored by newspapers – coverage boosted sales enormously. In 1891, Pierre Giffard, editor of Le Petit Journal, organised the first Bordeaux-Paris brevet (560km), which proved such a success he put on a bigger event later the same year. And so PBP was born. Now held every four years, the next edition is this August, when an international field of up to 6,000 riders will set off from the French capital to ride to the western tip of Brittany and back inside the 90-hour time limit. These days, the entry requirement is a ‘super randonneur’ series of rides, comprising brevets of 200, 300, 400 and 600km, and for many of my fellow riders, today’s event is the culmination of the qualifying process.

So what’s the appeal?

‘It’s not exclusive, it’s not about how fast you can go and it’s a great way of seeing the British Isles,’ says James Fairbank, head of marketing at Rapha, and part of a Rapha team that entered the last PBP in 2011. While some in the audax community viewed Rapha’s interest as a cynical marketing exercise (it developed the Brevet jersey and gilet on the back of its involvement), you sense a genuine feeling of warmth and enthusiasm from Fairbank. ‘Riding such a long way can be a struggle, but the rewards for sticking your neck out are commensurate. I’ve made some lasting friendships and had some amazing experiences. The Bryan Chapman Memorial is one of the most fantastic rides I’ve ever done,’ he adds. 

Audax in Oxfordshire

We set off from Windsor in two groups, the first at 6am and mine at 7.30am. Riding with the bunch for the opening few miles, I soon hear a beep from my handlebars to warn me of a missed turn. Unlike a sportive, an audax isn’t signposted, so today I’m using my Garmin, although many audaxers still prefer to stick to the traditional printed routesheet taped to the handlebars. 

The original Windsor-Chester-Windsor route was a functional bash along main roads, and died out by 1991 due to a combination of increasing traffic levels and an expanding calendar of events that offered more attractive alternatives. Revived last year, the new incarnation sticks mostly to country lanes and quiet villages, though a few short stretches of main road such as the A44 are inevitable.

a rider using this event as his final PBP qualifier suffered a catastrophic crack in his bottom bracket around 450km into the ride, only for a fellow rider to donate his bike so he could complete his qualification.

‘Devising a route between Windsor and Chester that kept off main roads and still came in under 630km and which is pretty was a tough challenge,’ says organiser Danial Webb. ‘It took about seven full days to devise, write, ride, revise and finalise, and probably another day’s worth of last-minute checks for roadworks.’ 

You may have heard horror stories of audax rides where participants were reduced to dining on pork pies and bottles of chocolate milk on garage forecourts and sleeping in bus shelters, but this is a different kind of ride. Webb, who also runs Audax UK’s flagship London-Edinburgh-London 1,400km (next edition 2017), has booked six village halls along the route and roped in a legion of volunteers – many of them experienced audaxers themselves, all unpaid – to provide food and sleeping facilities. It’s a remarkable enterprise, all the more so when you consider the modest entry fee of £30. 

The first stages take us through the Chiltern Hills, skirting around Oxford then through the quaint honey-coloured stone villages of the Cotswolds. Despite a headwind, it’s a fine day for a bike ride.

Audax countryside

The climbs aren’t the biggest but I take them slowly, mindful that there’s a long way to go. Pacing is an art on a ride of this length, but shortly before the second control at Weston-sub-Edge (130km), I start to catch the stragglers from the 6am start, including a team of ElliptiGO riders. These mobile elliptical trainers demonstrate that there’s no such thing as a typical audax bike. Most of today’s peloton is admittedly more conventional but still includes everything from vintage steel tourers with down tube shifters, mudguards and pannier racks to high-end carbon and titanium bikes. 

I enjoy the ride up through Droitwich to Hartlebury and Lilleshall in the company of a fellow rider called Aidan, chatting about other rides we’ve done as we take in the glorious British countryside. The only hazards on this stretch are a few lumpy bits and a couple of fords. Progress is steady but I’m falling a little behind my schedule, partly thanks to that headwind and partly due to the lavish catering at the controls. It’s hard to resist the temptation to linger and stuff my face with cake at every stop. By the time we leave Lilleshall (240km), dusk is approaching, but the forecast rain is holding off. For now at least.

Preparation is king

I’m still about 30km from Chester when I feel the first spots of rain on my face, but fortunately not heavily enough to justify stopping to put my waterproofs on. Self-sufficiency is one of the key principles of audax – there are no support cars, mechanics or medics en route, so my Carradice Barley saddlebag is loaded with all the spare clothes, first aid essentials, inner tubes and tools I might need for roadside repairs. Hopefully I won’t need most of them.

It’s also about this time that I start to encounter the headlights of the faster riders on the return leg. By the time I reach the turn point at Chester, there has already been a steady stream of riders heading in the other direction, and a steady stream of water falling from the sky. Several riders are crashed out on camp beds at one end of the hall, but I’m keen to break the back of this ride, so after filling up on food (again) and changing into my warm, weatherproof overnight gear, it’s back out into the rain.

Audax food

The going is tough at first, but I link up with another rider and the company takes my mind off the suffering, despite the continuing rain. Dealing with these mood swings is as much of a challenge as the physical side of such a long ride.

Just before 4am I reach the sleep stop. I hang up my wet gear to dry out and doze fitfully in the darkened hall/dormitory. When I hit the road again shortly after 6am, the rain is still falling and doesn’t stop until late morning, but by the time I reach Weston again it’s turning into a pleasant afternoon.

Next comes the return leg across the Cotswolds. With 500km in my legs, the rollercoaster terrain that didn’t seem so bad on the outward journey now feels like hard work. The hours in the saddle are taking their toll and by the time I reach Chalgrove my left knee is complaining loudly. But with 570km completed I’m not giving up now, and before long the scent of the finish line gives me the impetus I need to put on a final spurt. To emphasise the point that it isn’t a race, publishing finishing times on audax rides is strictly forbidden, so I won’t reveal the time on the clock when I arrived back at the Memorial Hall. It isn’t important anyway. I’ve made it within the time limit and that’s all that counts. By now the riders are so strung out – both along the course and psychologically – that the back of the field is still some four or five hours away from Windsor, while the fastest riders returned to base several hours ago and are already well on their way home by now.

I find out later that of the 137 starters, 117 finished, 15 failed to finish and another five finished after the 11pm cut-off time. A reasonable attrition rate, showing that a ride like this pushes many cyclists to their limits, but most remain undaunted. 

To demonstrate the audax spirit, I’m told that a rider using this event as his final PBP qualifier suffered a catastrophic crack in his bottom bracket around 450km into the ride, only for a fellow rider to donate his bike so he could complete his qualification. Can you imagine that happening on a sportive?

The Details

If you like the sound of riding all day and all night...

What: Windsor - Chester - Windsor audax.
Where: Windsor, Berkshire.
When: The next event isn't until 2019 (to coincide with Paris-Brest-Paris). The 1,400km London-Edinburgh-London audax is planned for 2017.
Price: £30 (in 2015)
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