NRC’s intrepid long-distance cyclist, Gideon Rabinowitz, has been out again, this time laying to rest the demons of a recent 335 km ride, aborted just 15 km from the end. This new 605 km challenge around Wales, which Gideon also completed in 2022, is a qualifier for one the world’s toughest events, Paris-Brest-Paris, so there was lot at stake. In his own words, Gideon relives the ride…
The ‘Benjamin Allen (Final) Summer Outing’ – Take 2
"It’s now my second year of Audax and the novelty still has not worn off. It’s also my second go at the 600km ‘Benjamin Allen Summer Outing’. This is the last time it will be staged, as the effects of running a long distance Audax across rural Wales would take its toll on anyone, as you need to be on the go from before 4.00 on Saturday morning, all the way through to past 21.00 on Sunday evening. That’s one tough gig (even without the cycling), especially for the organizer Mark Rigby.
For me it was a bit of a proof point. In early May, I was doing a ‘London-Wales-London’ event for the second time, to find myself running out of steam at Lambourn at 335km, only 15km from a warm bed which beckoned, and I bailed. With hindsight, I’m not sure why, as I had the best part of 9 hours to complete the remaining 50 or so lumpy miles. But sadly, temptation got the better of me… and my wife Ruth picked me up in the early hours. I’m not sure how I felt at the time, apart from tired and annoyed at the hassle of having to get the car the following day. A bit numb really.
I’d already provisionally booked two 600km rides in May – The ‘Benjamin Allen’ and The ‘Brian Chapman’. So, I opted to see if I had not lost it by choosing the former, which also is a lot less hilly than the Brian Chapman. I spent two weeks recovering, getting some exercise and moderating my work so I could at least have the chance of some energy. Last year, I had a dream job that let me cycle almost every day! Not so in 2023, such is life.
And so it begins
So, The ‘Benjamin Allen’ it was, and I booked the Royal Hop Pole Hotel, Tewkesbury, from the Friday night which, for those who know Mark Rigby’s events, is the start and finish on many rides and in this case was the location of the ‘Arivee’. I’ve normally only seen this place empty except cyclists at 6.00 in the morning and moderately busy, but on Friday night the car park was rammed, so I parked near the Abbey, a 5-minute walk to the bouncer guarded entrance. A small single bed was fine for the night, and I had my fill at the local curry restaurant a few minutes away.
Bed at 21.00, alarm set and I tried to sleep against the noise of Friday night, but it soon passed and 3.30 arrived. Alarm off and up I get, quick pasty for breakfast, cream up the vulnerable parts and off to the car to assemble the bike, before making my way 2 mins down the road to the start at around 4.15 to be met by Mark and a couple of riders. It was wonderfully quiet but it soon filled up with about 60 or so riders, including some familiar faces like Ivor and Peter. 4.55 briefing and then 5.00 we were off.
The first controls
For the first 10 or so miles it felt like a Peloton, but it soon thinned out. I was in short sleeve top, arm warmers, gilet and mitts, so was a bit chilly to start with, but warmed up with the fast initial pace. The route took us off through some familiar territory towards the Forest of Dean before cutting down to the first info control at Symond’s Yatt at 47 Km. Then it was off on the rough track section along the river and then some flat sections across the River Severn into Monmouth, then cutting west and following the river Usk taking us to the 2nd control at 107km Tal-y-bont on Usk. I learnt my lesson from last year and filled up on beans on toast and some bananas to carry. The place was empty, pleasant surprise from last year when it was heaving.
Across the Usk and to some lovely rolling roads towards Llandovery across a valley floor, but also some nice climbs. One called Sugar Loaf finished with a wonderful long smooth decent where we hit some outrageous speeds of over 40mph, (this was ‘hell’ for those on fixed gear bikes as they had to avoid getting their legs shredded by the pedals or just ow slowly!), before we landed in Llandovery making our way to the West End café. Mark stamped our cards and I gobbled up steak, pie and beans – we cyclists really know how to live! The beans were for purely propulsion purposes, not nutrition. I hooked up with a fellow Audaxer Jo, and we toddled of to the next info control at Llanbydder.
Now to beat last year’s demons
I knew from last year there were some sharp hills so had equipped the bike with some very low gears but, before we could get going up the hills, Jo stopped. I circled back only to find his gear cable had snapped, fatal on a ride like this but, being the over cautious type, I thought hard and offered him my spare cable! He had external routing so didn’t need more help and I toddled off only to conquer some of the hills that had beasted me the year before.
Llanbydder came mid-afternoon, quicker than expected - another info control then off on the valley floor and onto Tregaron free control, where more grub was purchased and many of us sat on the benches in the town square before making off on the lumpy section to Machynlleth. Like last year, in the Spar there was a shortage of beer, much water and it was also full of teenagers with copious amounts of bum fluff on their faces trying to pass off as 18 years of age, which the checkout lady was having none of!
The route was lovely and flowing until we hit the hill up to Devil’s Bridge, another hill that defeated me last year, but which I mastered this time, much to my satisfaction. The roads of the top were smooth fast and flowing great fun. As the route neared Aberystwyth we caught sight of the coast as it headed north and then started to head north east. Lovely views as the light started to fade and a light mist giving the photo stops a special quality. (When I had finished, in my Newbury Road Club WhatsApp Group there was a comment from someone who was on holiday in the area, who was surprised to see some Newbury Kit, then unsurprised it was me. It’s a small world!). It was still daylight, but it was getting colder quickly. The next ‘free’ control was really just the large Spar, nowhere to sit, but the dark drew in and we put our warm layers on before heading off to Newtown.
The route to Newtown started off with some nice ‘A’ roads but then diverted off onto some single lane tracks which have a special quality when there is pure darkness around you. At points you could see the ‘A’ road run parallel and then some signs of civilization. The decent into Newtown was like ‘out of the dark into the light’. I knew the McDonalds would be slightly off route, so I gingerly went through the Town Centre full of drunk teenagers, (well that’s what it looked like) so I went off route and saw the ‘Golden Arches’.
Newtown was a ‘free control’, replacing the info control that everyone seemed to miss last year, but hitting it at around mid-night meant it was either the BP Garage or McDonalds and being closer the Golden Arches won the day – or should I say morning by this point. I was with another fellow Audaxer, I’d bought a large tea and apple turnover but my fellow rider had gone for the works. I said “that’s a bit ambitious”, at which point the bag was discarded as being “way too much”!
Ablutions completed we set off and back on route to get the road to Knighton. Last year this was via a really narrow steep lane, and as I later found out, I was not the only rider who did it on foot. This year Mark had relented and sent us up the ‘A’ road, 7 km of long slow climb, nice surface. At the start we bumped into a fellow rider looking for the MacDonalds and we had to tell him he had to go down the hill again. I felt quite heartless, but I couldn’t’ magic him a Big Mac meal (or more importantly that all important receipt). Up the hill we went. My mate cruised on and I just engaged the easy gear and span up to complete the 500m of climb hill and over the cattle grids which signaled the start of a 14-mile decent.
How to Freeze Dry!
Although I had about 5 layers on my top, and some winter gloves, the 14 miles were a slog as at this point the body has stopped making heat so I quickly froze. I was just wondering when I would get to Knighton which never seemed to come. After a sharp right turn to a narrow road the mist started to fall so I was both cold and getting rather blind. Fortunately, with not far to go and I pulled up at Wigmore Hall at 405km at 04.00, just over 24 hours since I had risen on the day before. Tea consumed, card stamped and off to find one of the many sleep mats. Finding a mat was hard. When they opened the hall door you could see where you are going then, just as you thought you saw your place of rest, the door shut rendering me as blind as a bat, having no idea who’s head I might inadvertently kick.
I found a part-inflated mat, (well it was pretty flat) but enough air to support my head and so, shoes off, I laid down, for two good hours. The light came up, I consumed my now cold tea and felt ok to move, it was now just after 6.00. I managed a couple of slices of toast, another banana and I was back on the road by 7.00.
Lovely rolling roads where I stopped to delayer several times, before turning across the rickety toll bridge to take me to Hay on Wye. I knew the drill, found my info control and off I went on the section which ended up at Allensmore services, the next control at around 470km. I missed this control last time as I was expecting a café, not just a shop with cyclist taking up the parking area. It was so easy to miss (as I did last year), but this time I nabbed it and consumed the first of several ice creams that day, as nothing else seemed to appeal.
Off again, big rolling descents and some sharp hills before we got to the top of Monmouth, going through the town I had the pleasure of being sprayed by a car windscreen wiper, not fun…can’t understand why people don’t think, but then again, I’m just being a cyclist with a grump! By this time I was with two others, one of them, Dai, I’d met a couple of times and first met when I did the Full Fat Festive 500 in last December.
Back across the river them to the rolling river-side road, fast and smooth which took me to the bridge across the river only to find myself literally repeat in myself, (hiccups!), as I’d done last year, but at least it was not as violent. This section I remember well as the climb to Chepstow and I knew it would be a long drag, but by breaking it with another ice-cream stop it soon passed and I was on my way down to the Severn bridge for the next info control. At this point I decided to take it easy and let Dai and the other rider pass on ahead.
Back to England
Back in England – almost home with 70 km to go, rolling road transitioned to flat lanes before getting to 570km and the Black Shed café – next to the canal full of screaming children, exhausted parents and happy-go-lucky grandparents. The older men seemed to enjoy chatting up the café staff much to the bemusement of their families and the annoyance of us cyclists who just wanted to get our stamp and order refreshments. At 570km my sense of humour had well and truly evaporated and what remaining energy was used in controlling my obvious irritation! Never mind, can of pop, cup of tea, Victoria sponge, glass of water and I was set.
Now off down some very familiar roads – the canal full of walkers, remembering to be courteous (to avoid being pushed in the canal), some rolling road before coming in the center of Gloucester and the ‘tortious’ route which takes you past the magnificent abbey, before hitting the A38 to Tewkesbury and home. There were four of us and we all had the same adrenalin hit as we blasted down the ‘A’ road to make it the Royal Hope Pole hotel for 6.00, 3 hours before the cut off, in a good time, when it was still light and warm. I had made it and the ghost of London-Wales-London was truly vanquished.
Farewell to the Benjamin Allen Summer Outing
Cards handed over and nice drink with Jo, who offered to pay for the gear cable. (and at £50, I thought he got a bargain… I’m kidding of course People have bailed me out in previous rides, it’s the least you can do to help your fellow mad cyclist). So, a bit of socialising and back on the bike to the car park to find the car, unpack and get ready to drive home.
A slow careful drive and back home by 20.00. Now I’m beginning to understand how my body changes with such long rides, so it was case of shower, bed and sleep. I took the precaution of taking the next day off as I was in no state to work but hey, enough to get the bike kit washed before heading off to the working week.
Oh and the stats, (if you really wanted to know), max speed 42.5mph, 377 miles, 25,000 feet of climbing, 29 hours in the saddle and within the cutoff time by 3 hours, that will do me. Another Paris-Brest-Paris qualifier in the bag. And, unlike last year, my rear was not ‘on fire’ – a result!
So that’s it, all in all bloody good ride. Now set up for my revenge of my failed London-Wales-London – which is a ‘bare bones’ re-run of the event i.e. for those who like a night ride and who are not worried about the total absence of refuelling stops in the small hours of the night. I’m looking forward to it.
It should be mad … well I am anyway!"