Non-essential Travel

A Faithful Account of the Condors Virtual Easter Arrow 2020

At the height of the COVID-19 lockdown in the UK, Bob Donaldson let his imagination run away with him and imagined the audax Easter Arrow that was planned to be over the long, hot Easter weekend. The team was made up of three members of Cowley Road Condors Audax Club (which is based in Oxford), and Arrow newbies: Liz Bruton, Arne Wolters, and Richard Horton, and former work colleague of Bob’s, Tom Perry (who had taken part in both LEL and a previous Arrow in 2018).

We met at Oxford station just before eight. Overnight there had been some rain and the roads were still a little wet, but the air was fresh and clear, and the blue sky had only a few clouds moving along in an easterly direction.

Tom was his usual cheerful self and had a new set of wheels – an S-Works Tarmac with very little additional baggage. It looked as light as it was. Liz had the Bob Jackson she’d been riding when I met her earlier in the year on the Poor Student – downshifters, Brooks B17, steel frame. Way up on the cool ratings. Arne, the Dutchman, towered over the rest of us and had the sort of firm handshake that could crush bone. I’d only met him once before while crossing the Severn Bridge on The Dean. He was a seriously strong rider and had selected an ali GT Grade with handlebar bag, saddle bag, frame bag and snack pouches. He looked like he’d come prepared for The Transcontinental, but pointed out that he was in training for the Race Around the Netherlands and planned to ride back to make the round route up to 1000km. I’d never met Richard before, but he struck me as an amiable guy who looked well-prepared for the next 24-hours. He was riding his one and only bike, a Kinesis T3 aluminium frame equipped with hand-made wheels from Spa Cycles, Brooks saddle and a Carradice bag. I was riding my main audax machine – a 2018 Flying Gate, with which I’d successfully completed PBP the previous year. I’d brought along my handlebar bag in addition to the one I carried on my rear rack, as experience had taught me that it was well to come prepared for an Arrow.

The Easter Arrow is a very special event which is ridden as a team of 3-5 machines. As most people ride either a bicycle or a tricycle this equates to 3-5 people. Tandems afford greater numbers for those dark, cold overnight hours. The team must ride a minimum of 360km with no maximum distance – for this is essentially a 24-hour team time-trial (although the team must declare their intended position during the 22nd hour when submitting their entries to the organiser, Andy Uttley). The team organizer plots a route which must include controls and be pre-validated to ensure that it meets the required length. The arrival times at each control are recorded in a brevet card along with a receipt to confirm the time of arrival.

The route I’d suggested was the route that I’d successfully completed in 2016 when I rode with Stephen Rogers, Ben Hudson, David Smethurst and young Adam Clark, and was 409km in length – 4km shorter than the original after a couple of tweaks to avoid main roads.

After getting our first receipt we headed out of Oxford centre and clambered up Headington Hill following the cycle route towards Wheatley. Then we switched onto country lanes that would have been familiar to anyone who had ridden The Four Minute Mile as we set out for Long Crendon, then swept over a few rollers as we kissed the Chiltern Hills (the views were magnificent and the air bursting with all of the sounds of Spring), before sweeping down to cross the busy Aylesbury Road after skirting around Waddesdon Manor (one of several mansions owned by the Rothschilds – bankers to royals, governments and the super-rich the world over).

The next leg, to Whitchurch, gave us an opportunity to enjoy some more fine Chiltern scenery. The first of the new leaves were beginning to unfurl in the hedgerows and blossoms were in their abundance, as bumblebees drunk with pollen wove among them. A gentle south-westerly breeze pushed us along. We were starting to get warm beneath the rising sun and pulled over to take off some layers and reveal a flash of white skin.

We swept passed the fine farm shop I sometimes call into and swooped and climbed over a few more hills and then into Stewkley. Just before Stewkley, and after Cublington is a little coppice on the right – a memorial to the airfield that used to be on the right of this road. If you look closely you can still see evidence of the old domed hangers now used for farm supplies. One of many airfields in this part of the country.

Now we are up on a ridge with fine views all around. We are making good time and conversation opens up. The sun brightens the spirits and the stories start to do the rounds. Other audaxes. Other audaxers. Comments and questions about Liz’s Bob Jackson and my own Flying Gate.

The miles tick by and we are soon swooping down to cross the Stoke Hammond bypass, the West Coast mainline, the old Stoke Road and the Grand Union canal, by The Three Locks pub. At this point someone normally refers to how good the food is in the pub (for we are all starting to get a bit peckish). The canal joins the capital with Birmingham and has numerous junctions to other canals and branches. Before the railways came it was the main artery of the country carrying a wide assortment of goods. Today it’s a popular haunt of walkers and boaters.

Now we clamber up towards Great Brickhill. It’s a tasty climb and at the top is a pleasant village with a central shelter where we once fettled Tom’s bottom bracket on an earlier and unsuccessful Arrow (the team then comprising Stephen Rogers, Ben Hudson, Vicky Lawson from Didcot Phoenix, Tom, and yours truly). On that occasion the weather turned cold and wet after reaching St Ives and we didn’t get too much further before it was more than a puncture that deflated the spirits and the hypothermia started to set in. We retreated to Peterborough station dripping and shaking uncontrollably!

Our route led further up the hill towards Little Brickhill which hugs the side of the old A5 or Watling Street as it is more properly known. Where the old garage used to stand, some luxury homes have now been built. We cross the new A5, ignore the signpost indicating The Greensand Way cycle-route, and cut through the woods bordering the vast estates of Woburn Abbey, seat of the Duke of Bedford, who owns pretty much all of this surrounding land. After a short bite to eat at our first control, the humble convenience store with the picnic table outside, we cross the vast deer park catching sight of a herd some distance off, where the for the eighteenth-century mansion lies hidden from view, over the rubble of the former twelfth-century abbey from which it took its name.

 Up and over one of the few remaining hills on this carefully crafted Arrow and over the cattle grid where we suffer our first mechanical – a pinch flat on Tom’s rear. Spotting my metal tyre-levers he declines my offer of help and struggles for the best part of 20 minutes to grapple with his tyre which appeared to be surgically attached to his rather classy deep-rimmed carbon rims. Queue the inevitable discussion around tubeless versus clinchers, tyre pressure and rolling resistance – a way to wile away the time while checking out Tom’s repair technique. Meanwhile Richard shares around some classy energy bars made by veloforte (#fuelbetter). Mmmmm

But it’s a fine day with only the odd fleeting cloud floating over the Bedfordshire landscape as we set off again in a north-easterly direction. After a short while we are in the thrum of Ampthill, passing the café I often use when riding this route on my annual pilgrimage to the Cambridge Autumnal – one of my favourite calendar-events of the year, which I make a long-weekend of – cycling back on the Sunday. It’s an event that seems to wrap-up the summer, if not the audax season – Framlingham’s classy Bakers café and bakery, with its sumptuous leather sofas and, at the end of the journey, Ewa’s delicious soup and homemade cakes well worth the trip.

A few lanes later and we pass the majestic grounds of Haynes Park which dominates the landscape to our left. A subtle change in landscape as we seem to come off the hills and find ourselves among a slow moving convey of misty-eyed mechanics trundling along the roads of their steam-driven contraptions puttering and rumbling along the narrow lanes at about 5mph. Richard is keen to stop and take a few photos, and I join him, enjoying nothing more than to marvel at the raw natural power of those dinosaurs of the first industrial revolution. Arne starts looking a bit edgy, so we resume our ride having slipped under a railway bridge that once carried the original Varsity line. I wanted to mention this to the others, but they have paced on ahead with Arne leading the charge. We get a good train going along the flattened lanes that take us across the A1 and into Sandy. A small diversion takes us over a railway bridge over the East Coast main line and up a heavily rutted road through fine woodland. Bluebells are in evidence as we join the road to Everton which has, I can’t help noticing, a fine wooden bus shelter.

Now we enter Cambridgeshire and surge towards Gamlingay and a host of villages that appear in quick succession (more bus shelters noted), crossing, as we do, the route of the 2017 LEL near Bourn. Eventually even Tom joins the cycle-path that leads us to our first major milestone – that fine city of Cambridge (although not quite as fine as Oxford, we agree) and our first proper meal. Being Good Friday, regular pubs and cafes can be a bit hit and miss. I’d therefore planned for us to visit the Weatherspoons in the old Regal Cinema. It was, as always, packed with punters. Liz secured a seat near the rear (where we’d parked our bikes) and the plates of Full English soon followed washed down with copious amounts of refills of tea and coffee.

At this point we are comfortably within schedule and an air of bonhomie enters the camp. As we get up to leave, we spot another team weaving between the drinkers and heading for the bar. Among them I spot David Smethurst (part of the 2016 Arrow Team), Geordie Johnson, Andrew Preston, Judith Swallow and Adam Watkins – an unlikely combo of seasoned southern audaxers who had set off at the crack of dawn from the south coast and were making a beeline for York via a chain of Weatherspoons. Using an app they had already pre-ordered their meals and wasted no time in tucking in to the same, shaving valuable minutes off their effort as they did so. Meanwhile the whole event was being captured for later YouTube consumption by Adam’s cam – this was audaxing for the new era.

Our route out of Cambridge takes us over the Cam where the other sort of punters, punt their punts in the afternoon sun. They are watched by ice-cream eating tourists and selfie-takers oblivious to our progress as we weave around them. Along Histon Road and over the A14 and we are soon onto the busway that follows the route of an old railway line. While this offers few points of interest, it makes a beeline for St Ives where we locate our next control at the Waitrose. This lifts Liz’s spirits significantly. Being vegan and highly principled, the Weatherspoons experience had been a bit of a low point for her (although I was surprised to learn how extensive their vegan and vegetarian options were, including the Beyond BurgerTM). After drifting around the aisles, we all emerged with something with which to itemise our receipts. I noticed Liz stuffing a couple of packs of vegetable samosas into her Carradice – emergency rations for the dark hours that lay ahead. I stuck to my promise and handed everyone a Cadbury’s Crème Egg to mark the first 100km of the ride (even though we had done over 150k by this point).

Our target time for St Ives had been around 5pm, but it was now only 3:30 thanks to the tailwind and the great teamwork out on the road. What was more, the climbing was now behind us with little more than a pimple to climb at Lincoln, all we had to do now was coast along for the next 16 ½ hours. What could possibly go wrong?

The land flattens out considerably after St Ives making the sky seem to reach right down to the earth and fill the vista with unimaginably wide horizons. Desperately dreary places like Chatteris and March (where we obtained a control receipt in the Tesco petrol station) come and go, offering fleeting respite from the monotony of the wide, expansive and heavily industrially-agricultured land that dominates this part of the country. Our flying Dutchman exclaimed how lovely this area was and how much it reminded him of the area he grew up in, and how much he looked forward to cycling in the Race Around the Netherlands – a 1900km challenge that goes under the abbreviation of RAtN.

Just before sunset, of what had been a glorious day, and after crossing the Welland, a brief, and unexpected downpour featuring both heavy rain and giant hailstones forced us over to the side of the road to hastily don waterproofs. Lasting little more than 15 minutes it nevertheless gave as a good chilling soak and turned the road a little icy. We were very glad, once again, to find ourselves in another Weatherspoons (the Moon Under Water) in Boston to get dried out, warmed up and refuelled for the night ahead.

As we began to groan from the vast calorific intake who should we spot but some be-caped audaxers from Audax Club Hackney – among them Tom Solesse (of Steam Ride renown, and more recently, organiser of The Dean), Jim Cope and Justin Jones. These urban hipsters frequently sporting liberal sproutings of facial hair can often be detected by their distinctive livery – a black jersey with a massive, multicoloured HACKNEY spelt out in retro-rainbow coloured lettering reminiscent the cover from “Now That’s What I Call Music 1975”.

We exchanged a few stories from the road, before Arne indicated that it was time to head out into the evening air. The light had completely drained from the sky which was clear, starlit and cloudless. Once away from the hubbub of Boston, the air grew considerably cooler and the darkness wrapped around us. We entered our own little bubble spinning along through the Lincolnshire countryside. The wind which had blown us all the way to Boston had blown itself out in the hailstorm, and now the air was still and calm allowing our thoughts to float like moths through the night air.

It was Tom who broke the spell as he recalled that Boston reminded him of LEL in 2017. After straying off route, and falling off in the middle of a treacherous ford, he had seen most of his valuables float off down stream as he lay stricken, awaiting an air ambulance which flew him to Boston hospital and an unscheduled two week stay while his broken hip recovered from hip-replacement surgery. It had taken him six months to fully recover. Many people would have given up audaxing for good after suffering such distress. Tom bounced back and was looking forward to more suffering.

Perhaps the most challenging part of the Arrow using a relatively flat route, is killing time during the night sections. We only needed to travel at 17km per hour (including stops) to keep on schedule, but under benign skies and gentle rolling terrain there’s little effort required to coast along at a comfortable pace. This means that at night you cool down and, without sufficient layers on, that can become a chilly problem. The alternative method is to ride more quickly between controls and kill time at the controls. As Tom had decided to travel light (and his teeth started chattering while Richard pulled on his Lowe alpine synthetic belay jacket, woolly hat and spare gloves, we opted for the latter approach.

Across the fenland we went, passing signposts to unlikely-sounding places like Anton’s Gowt, the charmingly named Dogdyke near RAF Coningsby, and Timberland – presumably named after its rich, lush forest – joke! After the excitement of reaching Metheringham had passed (or was that just the twitchy feeling of crossing the railway crossing at an acute angle? – easy there, Tom!), a strange sensation crept into our consciousness. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, we were climbing. This was duly noted by Tom’s chain which took the opportunity to part company with his bike just few miles before we reached Lincoln. It took us the best part of 5 minutes and the beam from Richard’s Petzl headtorch to find it again among the roadside gravel (no doubt trying to make an escape into the long grass).

Although Tom came equipped with neither a quick-link nor a chainlink tool, Liz, who carries a mobile workshop in her saddle bag (including, we noted, spare mudguard bolts), and doesn’t even have an 11-speed chain on her bike, nevertheless had the correct spare link and proudly showed the boys how deftly she could reconnect the chain too.

While I offered the everyone another Cadbury’s Crème Egg (we had already covered 300k by this point), Arne reached for his boterkoek. This caused some infantile sniggering, and maybe even a little concern, until he revealed that they were nothing more than Dutch biscuits with just the right amount of flour, sugar and butter. Like most things Dutch, they were perfect for cheering our spirits in the wee small hours.

Rechained and remounted we were soon over the lip of Canwick Hill and bombing passed the International Bomber Command Centre (a relatively recent museum which celebrates the roll Lincolnshire – also known as “Bomber County” – played in the Second World War, before legging it through the outskirts of Lincoln to the McDonalds near to the university.

Despite Tom’s latest mechanical, we were still an hour ahead of schedule and decided to linger a little longer over our meals amid the throng of drunken students. Richard picked upon the background music and it’s similarity to one of his favourite hard bop jazz tunes (I think it was Reggie of Chester), but I must have drifted off as the next thing I remember was seeing the face of audax legend, Steve Abraham, gurning at me as I jolted awake. He had joined up with a team that included Phil Whitehurst (who was riding his latest bent, and was the organiser of the Four Minute Mile, referred to earlier) and Nick Wilkinson from Cambridge (organiser of the previously mentioned Cambridge Autumnal), and Richard Lake (who was busily vlogging into his camera). Somewhere along the route they’d lost one member of their team to suspected food poisoning. We chatted for a while about various dodgy audax foods we’d eaten and lived to tell the tale, when Arne reminded us, with inimitable Dutch efficiency, that we ought to press on.

It was only 30km further to Gainsborough and it didn’t take us very long, it seemed, to get ahead of schedule again and arrive before the 3am target time. Here the Jet petrol station provided the setting for our brief pause. We had reached that point in the ride where nobody really wants anything to eat, but chews on whatever seems appropriate anyway. The guy behind the till allowed us to loiter in his shop while we slowly sipped our coffees and responded to his various queries. Was some special cycling event going on tonight, he wondered? Richard joked that it was an Easter egg hunt and we were trawling the country in search of mini-eggs. He helpfully pointed to a stack of them by the till and each of us obligingly bought a pack, before bidding our farewells.

This part of the country suffers badly from flooding, being either on the Trent, Don, or their various tributaries, and was once again rather flat and featureless. It was thus that we noted a signpost to Fishlake that had made the news earlier in the year because it had turned into an actual fish lake, which seemed to surprise many of the residents. We ticked slowly along while Liz told us about how wonderful it was to cycle in Ireland, particularly those from the northern province from where she hailed, and how she was looking forward to riding the epic that is the Wild Atlantic Way Audax which weighs in at a mere 2,300km. Arne tried to enthuse us about cycling around his own country. Did I mention that he was treating the Arrow as a warm up ride? I sensed from Richard and Tom’s silence that such adventures were far from their thoughts (or maybe they’d entered the dozzies?)

Being nestled in a neat loop formed by the M18 and M180, Thorpe was probably always destined to be home to the twilight zone. We rolled into town shortly after four and were spoilt for choice – a Jet garage or a McDonalds. Having time in hand we opted for the latter, which had a steady trickle of van drivers calling in for an early breakfast or perhaps a late supper. We were all feeling a little dazed, and so it was quite a relief when Arne opened up about his squirrel called Nuts, after Liz had asked him why he had a toy rat dangling from his aerobars. I’ve never been big on lucky charms myself, although I did once carry a St Christopher around my neck until I came off one cold winter’s night. Smacking my head earthwards on icy tarmac I was too dazed by the floating stars to notice that it had become disconnected from my person. Liz, to no one’s surprise, carried a four-leaf clover, and Richard mentioned that he always carried a pebble that he’s secured while scaling up Snowdon in a blizzard when he was into mountaineering. Tom neither carried a lucky charm and thought it all a load of nonsense. Thus spurned, Arne put his Nuts away.

We lapsed into silence again until a chill blast signalled that the door had been opened again revealing a group from VC 167. These hardened Northerners were frequently to be found near, if not at the top of the club points leader-board, and evoked awe among all they encountered. I recognised Aiden Headley beneath his distinctive cap (out on his trike), Anne Young and Cat Archer. Cat had managed to get around PBP within time, despite suffering from severe stomach problems – which neatly encapsulated the spirit of VC 167). They’d set off from Newcastle the best part of a day ago and had been riding around in ever decreasing circles around the north of England ever since, harvesting on McDonalds as they went – this was to be their sixth, or was that seventh?

We decided to bid them farewell and set out again to a noticeable lighter sky. The last stars were fading fast as the eastern sky glowed a faint shade of orange. Our spirits lifted as we got back into our stride and pointed north over the M18, then shortly after the M62 and, as the sun broke on the horizon over the Drax Power Station, a sight welling up of tears to the eyes (or was it just some coal dust?) – we were emerging into the North Proper.

Just after the A63 roundabout, before Selby, we found the 22-hour control at, you’ve already guessed, the McDonalds. Richard discovered some rather squashed hot cross buns in his rear pocket and offered them around to no takers. Liz had a couple of samosas she offered, but to no interest. Even Arne’s remaining Boterkoeks didn’t inspire any interest. And then I remembered that there was still the hoard of Crème Eggs. Slightly squashed they went down a treat with the bitter coffee giving us the final kick we needed for the final 26kms to York. We crossed the Ouse at pretty Cawood, and joined the cycle track just after Naburn. After a short spin on the gritty track we made it to the Tadcaster Road, passing the racecourse on our right, and pulled up right outside The Punch Bowl pub, which had bikes strewn all around it. It was just before 8am. We were overjoyed to have completed the ride in the prescribed 24 hours without major incident – high fives all around! The weather had been near-perfect and we were all in high spirits if not a little tired. By the time I’d locked my bike Liz had already ordered in a round. The bar was full of cyclists exchanging stories from another Easter Arrow successfully completed.

Here were those we’d met on the road and more. There was a team or two from Bristol who had chosen to ride the whole way on fixies – Jon Banks, Paul Rainbow and Eleanor Jaskowska among them. Also cycling up from Bristol were a team of tough wheelers in the form of Lee Killestein, Ivor Peachey, Ian Fairweather, Kevin Talbot, and Ricki Goode. They’d selected the route with the most climbing just for fun and were now onto their third round and in very high spirits.

But our greatest surprise was yet to come. Who should walk in the door in a shock of Condor’s pink but Cheryl Reid, with young William Ray, Barbara Wyatt, Will Parker and Kat Young in tow. They’d secretly formed another team from Cowley Road Condors and had tailed us all the whole way from Oxford!

After enormous Full English breakfasts, the Condors waved Arne off on his 600km return leg before going back inside for another round.

*

When I awoke on the train, sometime later, I saw a flash of uniform and the sound of a metallic voice crackle my name at the other end of what appeared to be a walkie-talkie

“Been enjoying ourselves then have we, sir?” I rubbed my eyes. The policeman appeared to be addressing me as I appeared to be the only person in the carriage.

“A nice little bike ride to York, was it?” intoned his colleague.

The tones were friendly but firm with a hint of menace about them.

“O yes”, I replied. “We rode for 24-hours day and night and ….”

“Now listen here, sir”, the tone of the first officer had hardened. “The thing is this. We’re arresting you for non-essential travel. You don’t have to say anything, but anything you do say…..”

*

I woke in a sweat with a start. My hard was pounding and I was breathing heavily, as if I’d just ran up the stairs.

“What is it, darling?”

“Err, it’s nothing, it’s just I was having this long audax ride and met everyone on the way and then, well, I was on the train and then. And then I was just about to.”

“About to what?” 

“Are we still in lockdown, dear?”

One thought on “Non-essential Travel

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