As you have probably figured out by now the ‘rhythm’ of my bicycle acquisition changed around ten years ago. Up until 2008 I had or two one bikes at a time. But then middle age hit.
No tomato red sportscar, no collecting vinyl or Manga or creating EDM on my macbook. No discovering gardening or dogs or baking or going to Brixton Academy. Middle age for me meant still riding bikes, mucking about with computers and writing - pretty much the exact same things I had been interested in since I was 14. What was different now is that I was able apply an actual income to these pursuits.
When it comes to bikes I am no retro grouch. I don’t feel the need to recreate my youth. I don’t have a craving for an old ALAN bike to hang on my wall and my experiment in classic bikes had ended very badly (see last episode).
Things I learnt from my sons obsession with Top Gear: Jeremy Clarkson is both entertaining and insufferable at the same time and a modern Ford Fiesta eats a Ferrari from the 70s for lunch. Things, material things, have got a lot better. Those of us who grew up with British cars in the family will remember just how terrible cars were through the 70s. The Marina. The BMC Leyland. Just like the empire they were unfit for local conditions, overpriced and aesthetically poor.
And when Chris Boardman said his entry level road bike from his inaugural road bike range way back in 2005 was as good as the bikes he used to ride the Tour de France on back in the 90s he was absolutely right. Today you can step off the street and buy a decent bike for £600. Sure you can go to £6000 and beyond but you are not getting ten times the bike. I would rather have six one thousand pound bikes than one six thousand pound bike. Six bikes at once would be about right - a track bike, a fast road bike, a tourer, a rigid adventure bike, a MTB and a town bike.
So bikes were better and I wanted more of them. I was slowly working my way into a position where I had five bikes on the go at the same time and parts for two or three more in the attic. To help you keep a track on this I have produced a spreadsheet. To be honest I had to create a spreadsheet to remember which bike I bought when. It’s a spreadsheet of shame, a register of time wasted online looking for parts, of endless searching for a perfect bike, that thing which can never really exist because bikes are continually developing at the same time as what I am riding them for shifts too.
My chosen channel of acquisition at the time was the for-sale section on cycling forums. I had found my Rock Lobster on the Singletrack forum and it was a stellar buy at £150. My next bike frame, The Salsa, I found on the Bikeradar forum for £90, a stupidly low price really. Of course to get the good buys you have to hover endlessly, like some 19th century opium soaked dandy forever wandering the upper reaches of Holloway Road (I’m look at you, De Quincey).
And when you buy old bikes off forums you can’t really be looking for an exact model, so there’s a bit of a race on when you see something you fancy; you have to quickly check to see if it’s the right size, try and find some reviews, imagine the build, pitch it against current and future requirements and then commit to adding your friendly ‘I am a reliable chap who is going to get you the money for this without mucking you about’ comment. LTB.
And why was I even looking? What was wrong with the Kinesis I was riding that made a new bike essential? Well nothing much beyond catastrophic collapse or theft makes a new bike essential, we all know that. But what led me to buy it?
I wanted something that was a proper road bike. The Kinesis was great but it was also overkill for the road and the steering was a little slow and dull. If the Kinesis were to appear on Top Gear it would be a Transit van. I wanted something that a little more like a car that you might want to take out for fun.
And there it was. Sometime in 2011. A Salsa La Raza for £90, about 5 years old. The Race - a classic road bike shape and design. For the bike-curious that means classic geometry, about as close to the doric ideal of a road bike as it is possible to get: 73% parallel, with a flat top tube. And mudguard clearance. Worth a punt right?
When you build a bike up yourself the first ride is something special - did all that time spent thinking about parts and combinations of parts make a difference? Is the result something coherent as a personalised riding experience or would it have been a better idea to go down to Halfords and buy a cheap, mass-produced bike and save yourself all the bother?
I am happy to say that the minute I scooted this one down the road I really liked it. That classic geometry meant that it felt like a good, updated version of the old steel race bikes I used to ride. It was smooth, sharp handling and, to my eye, looked good. Most definitely a connoisseurs bike. Something I wanted to ride rather than something I had to ride.
It was my default bike for a good period, I did everything from commuting to weekend rides to fun rides on summer holiday in France.
But the most important riding I started doing on it was exactly that thing I swore I would never do again. Audax.
Middle age is pretty cruel on athletes. After 35 your muscular power drops and as you drift on through your forties you realise that, while you are riding as hard you used to perceptually, objectively you are slowing down. You simply don’t have the ability to sustain top-end power - you no longer have that edge you arrogantly took for granted in your twenties.
But your endurance, the ability to ride at about 70% effort, stays about the same right into your sixties. Throw in a little painfully acquired patience and life experience and it becomes conceivable that you might challenge yourself not to ride faster but to ride further.
Which is the formula for Audax (from the latin for audacious). Non competitive long distance riding. If you crossbred endurance riding from the 19th century with The Scouts, added modern bikes, rolled the riders around in a surplus store of day-glo lycra and then took away sleep and reason you’d end up somewhere near Audax.
The basic idea is that you get a fixed envelope of time to ride a fixed distance. That time includes stops, so you can ride as fast as you like and have lots of coffee stops, or slug away with no rests, the rules don’t care about how you do it. The standard distances are 200km, 300km, 400km and 600km. To assure the official body that you have completed that distance the organiser of the ride sets controls (manned stations, most often cafes) and ‘infos’ which are questions like ‘What colour is the house next to the Church’. The minimum standard time for a 200 in the UK is around 8 and the maximum is around 13:30. I have never taken less than 9 hours (8 hours riding and one hour off the bike).
Like all sports it’s a set of totally arbitrary rules that people willingly submit to for the sake of enjoying themselves away from their rule-heavy normal lives. Go figure.
On top of that you add the ‘series’ awards. Not content with riding stupidly long distances Audax riders like their badges. There are badges for everything from a ‘Super Randonneur’ series (200, 300, 400 and 600km in one year) through to multi year awards where you have to do a number of rides inside a set time. An example of this is 25,000kms inside 5 years where you have to ride 5000km a year of which three rides have to be over 1000km. There’s even a 300,000km award. You get all your life to earn that one though.
At first this seems completely bonkers. At first it’s enough to just get through the mental and physical hurdle of riding those distances just once. Then you ride a 600km and it’s not so bad and you wonder if you could do it a bit better next time…. After a few years of working out that you really can ride that far, the sequences start to motivate you and you build runs of results that you don’t want to break. One of those (which I don’t do) is to complete a 200km minimum ride in every month of the year. That’s a tough call in December and January in the UK, when the gritters are out and there is 7 hours of daylight and you are doing a 9 or 10 hour ride. I am on my fifth Super Randonneur, get ten and you are an Ultra Randonneur. That’s got to be better than being a middle age project manager right?
The experience of riding an Audax is varied.. It ranges from a pleasant spin along country lanes to sleepless epics where the only thing that gets you through is bloody-mindedness. Often you start in the former state and end up in the latter. Let me tell you about a couple of early rides that I did on my Salsa which sum it the challenge pretty well.
The first was an early 200km from a small place called Witham; a ride up into Essex and then down to the coast and back in a big triangle. In terms of riding challenge it was about average for a ride in East of England - a few slopes, nothing that you would call a major climb. However on the day one of the largest storms to hit England for decades swept over the landscape creating flash floods, washing all manner of shit onto the roads and causing drivers to behave in desperate and erratic ways.
There were meant to be 60 people doing the ride but the conditions were so bad only 6 people set off. I started in full wet weather gear but was soon soaked to the skin and freezing. Wind and rain tore over the road cutting visibility to nothing. It was more cold bath than bike ride. The only way to keep warm was to ride as fast as possible which meant I kept blowing up and having to crawl along for half an hour scoffing food and risking exposure. Every couple of hours I stopped at a control and have a cup of tea, shivering and grim, dripping dirty road water onto the floor. The ‘highlight’ was riding under a railway bridge with a hundred yard flood in it wondering how deep the water was. Turned out to be over the axles - and I had to pedal, immersing my feet in the freezing water.
So, a wonderful experience all round. I do like a bit of weather, but that was a lot of weather. It’s still a benchmark ride to this day; when things are bad I think back to the Witham Wanderer. The ride just about broke me and it did break my wheels.
In that same year I decided to try a 400km ride. It started in Essex then went up to the coast at Norfolk, then back - a classic route which gives you the carrot of a sea view at the halfway mark and the pleasure of some properly rural riding.
The tricky thing about riding 400km is whether and where to sleep. If a ride starts around 9am on Saturday morning you get to around about 300km in the very late evening. As this was my first 400 I thought it was obvious that you needed a sleep before you set out to finish the last 100km or so. The organisers of this ride had hired a hall about two-thirds of the way around and I decided that I would try and sleep there.
By the time I got there the ‘beds’ (piles of blankets) were all taken and the room was full of riders in various states of Goya: Heads collapsed on tables, leaning back like corpses in chairs and snoring, splayed out on the floor. I lay down on the wooden floor in pursuit of the sleep I desperately needed.
And could I sleep? Of course not. I spent ah hour on the floor. An hour of shivering. An hour wondering what the hell I was doing. An hour looking at the variety of aging and old cyclists dotted around me all of whom seemed utterly miserable. Even the ‘hale fellow well met’ types seemed to me just to be pretending to be happy. It was categorically not possible to experience any feeling of enjoyment in that situation.
Giving up hope of any sleep, I set off on the road again around 4am. Into a brisk head wind. I wasn’t carrying enough food and kept bonking. My hands were numb and tingling from the constant buzz of the road through the handlebars. I was willing myself from village to village, then from tree to tree and finally from one push on the pedals to the next. But I finished and I was by no means last, which was a surprise.
To balance all this self-inflicted punishment there are the magic moments; times when you round a corner in an unknown area and get hit in the face with an unexpected view; meandering along sunny back lanes that look more suitable for horse and cart than car; finding those weirdly remote patches of the UK where the 70 million others seem a very long way away; riding into the small hours when all the cars disappear, on into the the dawn chorus, then into the first low sunlight of the day with no one else around you for hours on end. There are many rewards, and you really earn them - sometimes you have to go through the middle of the horrible bits to have them.
Here’s a piece of writing about my first 600 ‘The Red King’ which gives something of the flavour of the mind games that you go through on a long ride. https://audaxery.wordpress.com/2014/10/02/the-red-king/
Possibly the best thing about Audax is that it teaches you not to make assumptions about people. You learn not to write off old folk or big guys or tiny women or people on old bikes or even new bikes. Those big guys can roll on the flat like bombers, the tiny women overtake you up steep hills with a cheery hello, barely seeming to sweat. They all teach you a lesson - everyone attempting to ride 200km or more deserves your respect.
I had seen a guy at the start of that 400 above who I assumed must have been one of the organisers. He was wearing a stripy business shirt, trousers and hard black shoes. His hair was tied back in a pony tail giving him the look of a math savant, or someone who had worked in the local council for a very long time. He had no specific cycling gear on at all (helmets are not compulsory in the UK).
Not thinking any more about him I went slack-jawed when, taking a rest around 350km into the ride, he passed by riding an old Dawes, still in shirt, trousers and shoes.
That was my first view of a proper Audax eccentric. I have met many more since and grown very fond of them. I am self-aware enough to concede that anyone who rides 600km for ‘fun’ could be labelled eccentric, so let’s revise that and say I have grown very fond of all of us.
There’s the one who rides very long distances indeed, between 25,000 and 30,000 km a year, who had a bike accident many years ago that means he tends to forget things, like how long he’s been riding for. That’s quite a useful quality in a long distance athlete.
There’s the rider who forgets immediate short-term things. He needs to be chaperoned around courses as he often just forgets where he is meant to turn next and shoots off in the wrong direction. People have had to chase him over many kilometers when he has missed a turn.
There’s sweary man who no one wants to ride with because he shouts and swears at you for not riding ‘the right way’. I hope he has a back story that explains his outbursts, otherwise he is just a horrible person.
I have chatted with people who are disgruntled and bitter and I have chatted to eternal optimists and to people who are obviously a little socially challenged - Audax is a good place for people who need a given structure to their weekend and lives (the Scouting aspect). And while one’s job is not referred to much I have spoken to writers and artists and researchers and people in pest control and gadget creation and builders and retired accountants and people who work in warehouse. And an awful lot of project managers.
There are multiple people with minor disabilities, lesser mental health issues (I guess I am one of those) and people for whom the framework of Audax provides a proxy social life that doesn’t require a great deal of effort to maintain (I guess I have a little of that too).
The common denominator is enjoying the challenge of riding an unfeasibly long way on bicycles. That’s how cycle sport started of course, the 19th century obsession with applying machines that exaggerate speed to the boundary of distance. Indeed the Audax ‘Blue Riband’ event, the 1200km Paris-Brest-Paris has been ridden in one form or another since 1891.
That first 400 was seven years ago. Since then I have become a regular middle-hitter. While most ordinary people are pretty astonished when you tell you ride 400km in under 24 hours pretty regularly and over 1000km on occasion most of my Audax buddies see my kind of milage as pretty average. For the record I don’t even bother to think about sleep on a 400 now, I just ride right through, maybe having a doze on a bench when the sun comes up.
As for the question about what kind of bike is right for Audax, that’s a tricky one. Audax is not about going fast, it’s about being quick. Riding at a decent lick and not stopping for too long, that’s how to ride them. On an Audax the racy riders who bash out twenty miles an hour then stops for expressos average about the same as the person who rides solo at fifteen miles an hour but only stops to buy supplies when needed and eats on the bike. As for the right bikes to ride Audax on, there’s no simple answer. I’ve seen some 24hr time trial folk start a 400km Audax on a full TT bike ‘for training’, there are plenty on carbon racing bikes with all manner of small bags strapped to them, some ride ratty old Dawes tourers. There are a surprising number of Audax riders who ride fixed-wheel (we’ll come back to that), a good few on hybrids. Some people set off with enough gear to go camping for the weekend, some look like they are going around the block. There are a few recumbents and tandems, plenty of high-end titanium road bikes and lots of people on the kind of steel bike that the Salsa was: Fast enough, comfortable enough, well used.
Well equipped but no facility for mudguards
Mercian - a classic steel lightweight
Genesis with reliable but heavy 11speed back hub
Not hanging about...
Bob Jackson - another hand-made English classic
400k on a stiff aluminium frame with stiff alloy wheels? No thanks.
Old carbon racing bike being contorted into a Audax bike with strap on mudguards
Really. Someone rode 400km on this. Makes you feel sane.
Another classic English marque - a Roberts
Another Roberts - note colour coded mudguard extensions
When I bought the Salsa I was enthralled by it but I wasn’t then thinking about long distance cycling and it has a single fatal flaw that has meant that it’s been sidelined over the years - not enough mudguard clearance. In the UK mudguards are pretty much essential for long rides. It’s not so much about the rain it’s about not kicking streams of farm slurry into the face of your ride companions and putting your ‘badger stripe’ soggy arse onto the seats of the cafe that has agreed to host dozens of riders on the day. I have had four sets of mudguards on it over the years but none of them has given quite enough clearance and they have all driven me slightly mad. I have spent quite a bit more on mudguards than I have on the frame itself.
I have retired the Salsa in pursuit of other bikes around five times, yet always come back to it. Even now the frame sits in the back garden (alongside the Kinesis) waiting for another build idea to strike me. It’s such a lovely thing to ride and has held its place in my heart against much more modern and much more sophisticated bikes.
Sometimes even though you know that something else is better you still find that you really like it more. That’s the thing about bikes, it’s not about what is best overall it’s about what is best for you, at that moment. Based on that criteria the Salsa, a £90 purchase, had given me probably the greatest amount of pleasure per pound of any bike I have ever owned. With the sole exception of the mudguard clearance this bike is the one of the few I have owned where I thought it would last me decades rather than years. When I look at new bikes (and I have bought four since then!) I use the geometry as a baseline reference. I have even thought about handing it to a bike maker and telling them to make one exactly like it but with mudguard clearance - I would be content with that.
Fast enough, comfortable enough, well used.
Perhaps that is what I should have engraved on my tombstone.
Next: The precious one