The Full Fat Festive 500 has been an annual Christmas Audax since 2014. Billed as an X-rated event for experienced randonneurs and endurance cyclists only, entrants need to be prepared for anything: from freezing cold to winter sun and blue skies to hurricane winds and rain. Newbury Road Club’s Gideon Rabinowitz is no stranger to ultra-long distance riding. But deep winter brings new challenges. Curl up by a warm fire and enjoy his blow by blow account of a ride to remember …
Full Fat Festive 500 (or FFFH for short)
I know many people like to read very quick short bike ride reports, of “we went here and there” … and so on. For me a big event like the FFFH was a biggy so more explanation is needed to impart the pain and lunacy involved. As it’s a ride at this time of year and the weather can only be described as dire –a stronger profanity springs feels more appropriate! Also, as the weather was truly awful, I have no fancy pictures apart from yours truly with the throng at the start and a lovely flood in Islip!
The 500 is an unusual Audax distance, not a 400 or a 600 or even half a 1,000. It is probably named after the Rapha Festive 500, where you need to ride 500km between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, earning a digital Strava badge. That’s providing you choose some overpriced kit from Rapha and let’s be honest, who hasn’t and called it a bargain!. (OK I’ll admit it, I did get a cap this year).
The Route : https://ridewithgps.com/routes/31391401?lang=en
Meet Will Pomeroy of Pedalution and his Orange front door
If you want to do 500km without absorbing the whole break with rides, upsetting your nearest and dearest in the process, there aren’t many alternatives apart from doing it in one hit. The Full Fat Festive 500 is organised by Will Pomeroy (of the famed bright Orange front door), it’s an X-rated Audax which means no support… none of your RAB luxury here. You can read about his event here:
Starting at 6.00 am meant getting up at around 3.00 ish to get to Bristol, so it was going to be a long day. I parked about 3.5 km from Will’s and followed a RWGPS map, which in practice at 5.00 in the morning was a challenge … going through parkland and exposed canal path I succeeded in going head over heels. Not a great start to the day with a wet bum
"...going through parkland and exposed canal path I succeeded in going head over heels..."
Outside Will’s house there was the massed gathering, well about 33 riders in a narrow street. It was dry, dark, cold and we were ready to go.
Hills – what hills?
Off we started and up one of the numerous hills that Bristol has to warm you up, none of which my Wahoo even registered as one of the 33 hills for the route.
December 29 is just like any other December day, as in cold and wet and there’s not much else to do apart from mad stuff like this. It started raining and as we made our way I could see the lovely plume of spray being illuminated by my light, like a mini star show. Brighter the more it hammered down, for which there was limited novelty value.
I’d made the mistake of starting with my normal glasses, as a result everything looked like I was going uphill, which is surreal when you are accelerating. Also a number of street lights had multiple heads. Just to add to the misery I had to hold my head just to see where I was going. After a bit of self-reflection, thought this was foolish as I started not to see where I was going… not a good idea. On went the bifocals from the rest of the ride and relative normality returned.
Rain, rain and more rain…
The thing about the downpour that ensued is all the rubbish washed onto the road accompanied by dead animals if different states of decomposition, not something you want to trip over. The dark receded slowly after two hours to be replaced by depressing greyness of an English winters day. We made our way through the Chilterns, passing some of my NRC club ride routes and up to Farringdon by about 10, soggy, ready for food and sadly only a third of the day’s riding done.
Then off to Winslow at around 150km, varied route of main roads and backwaters where I bumped in Reading rider Tim Maw exchanging tales from LEL. There were lots of riders exchanging tales of LEL, mainly not finishing so, as the apprentice, I thought I should keep my mouth shut.
Eventually I rolled into the town to find a village café and more grub and probably the best. One of the riders thought we would be in St Ives by dusk. (ha-ha on what planet?, I thought). However there was a great tail wind to Cambridge via Oxford, and the next 70km was covered at speed on a flat route, barring the odd pedestrian in the city centers. Cambridge offered more grub, but I had to slum it in a Café Nero with a cheese toasty with a fellow Audaxer (Jerry), then onto St Ives via the guided bus lane, which was great fun and got overtaken by Tim again. It was quite magical following the little guiding lights on the cycle path, occasionally hearing the whoosh of a bus passing by. The tail wind had become a cross wind and would soon become a headwind by the time we got to St Ives.
The interesting flood in Islip, which apparently is quite a common occurrence, you can see a nice wide path to get past.
Three hours overnight in Northampton
St Ives was dead, so shops were duly plundered for coffee and that all important receipt. I don’t remember much of the hard slog to Northampton at 333km except it just didn’t seem to end, but at least it was dry and the park section plus muddy path at the start made it interesting, especially navigating a dropped chain when the dynamo stand light is facing the wrong way. I was struggling and questioning my sanity more than ever, when the outskirts of Northampton beckoned a welcome McDonalds … duly consumed with the company of fellow cyclists who seemed to be bedding down for the night. I’d got another 10km to go to another McDonalds …where my Travelodge awaited. By half past midnight after a couple of diversions I’d made it to my room, for three hours of kip and the opportunity to stop shivering. Best £30 spent ever!?
"By half past midnight I’d made it to my room, for three hours of kip and the opportunity to stop shivering."
I was up and on the bike by 4.30am , just over 24 hours from my start in Newbury. My Wahoo was more disoriented than I was, which resulted in me cycling the wrong was down a dual carriageway only to be stopped by the police. Blue lights flashing I had not been expecting, more an indignant X5 driver with associated cyclist-phobic language!
After a short stint on A-roads, the route went all rural which, in the pitch black of the morning, is interesting to say the least. Not much rain, bit a bit of wind, I thought I would be lucky. I eventually ended up at a garage at Fenny Compton, (I think) at around 380km to meet Dai and Alex, who I’d seen yesterday. I thought I was being my normal ‘slow self’ but they were in the same Travelodge at 1.30 am!
"Blue lights flashing I had not been expecting, more an indignant X5 driver with associated cyclist-phobic language!"
Friday brings headwinds home
Darkness slowly turned to grey and the headwinds forecasted returned. Not a lot of fun for cycling, but rolling and fast roads to eventually landed me in Tewkesbury. I spotted a Starbucks where I could sit and recover, only to find other riders had gone to the Petrol Station just in front of the coffee shop. Well, I may be unsociable, but at least I was seated and drier! Oh, and yet another cheese toasty.
Now the hard part, at 445km the A38 from Tewkesbury, through Gloucester and then Bristol. This I can only describe as a ‘slog’. Gusts, rain, intermittent cycle lanes and very fast-moving traffic … it was definitely the most challenging part of the journey, but it passed and I survived. The hills were reducing in both number and gradient, a welcome change for my tired legs. I spotted a couple of riders both in Orange jackets who I stayed with. Obviously Orange is the next jacket for me (but not front door as I think that is a very ‘Will’ thing).
At 500 km we came off the A38 and routed around the east of Bristol, (I think), to pass under and over some motorways and I was having the vague hope of both making the cut-off time of 17.30 and getting back to the car in daylight. It was far nicer than the A38 that was looking very hilly to me, at the time my Wahoo said ‘take a flatter route’. Clever these Wahoo’s you know.
I arrived with two other orange-jacketed riders at the Orange door, at what my Wahoo said was 526km to be greeted by Will where we rested and exchanged stories. I was shattered so required some persuasion to leave but, before I did Tim, followed by Alex and Dai arrived…plus another lady rider who’d had the misfortune to have three punctures. I have to admit being rather unchivalrous passing her in Tewkesbury, shouting “are you OK?”, only to peddle a bit harder to avoid the reply. (Does everyone do this or am I just a complete……… Err don’t answer that) We’d all made it and had tales to tell of rain, more rain …oh and more rain.
Back to the Orange Front door …
On extricating myself and bike through the Orange door, I gingerly followed my route back to the car, still none the wiser of where I was. Thanked the owner, who did tell me they were worried they were getting a booking starting at 04.15 in the morning and thought it rather odd, I can’t think why. But it was a nice conversation and use of the loo was much appreciated.
Time to unhook the electrics, dismantle the bike and slump into the car. I was homeward bound, feeling the effects of 500km and extreme sleep deprivation. Enroute I talked to family about things at home. It’s hard for me when I am tired. I can talk, I can hear, but I can’t process as my mind is on the job at hand, which is not to drive into another car.
Home was sometime later, around 20.00 I think. Gear off, showered and into bed. Trying to sleep was a bit useless really, with a completely messed up sleep pattern and more natural stimulants running around my body than I care to think of, plus an attack of hiccup. It was not a case of instant sleep so the following day was lost with recovery, not the ‘one-hit’ I had hoped for. (Note to self, must learn from own experiences…again and again and…..)
So that’s it for 2022, there was Banjo’s ride in the morning, but it was wet, so cancelled – not that I would have made it anyway. I reflect that this time last year, Dragon Devil and Yorkshire Beast had been booked and by January I’d booked myself on LEL in a moment of madness. I’ve been told by a number of Audax riders who actually know what they are doing (as against yours truly) that they took several years before contemplating the rigors of LEL or FFFH. I’d gone from Reading Arivee to appearing and mentioned in dispatches… nice man with an Orange Bowman – LWL.
"So, there I go, headlong into challenges I know nothing about until it’s too late..."
See you Full Fat Festive 500 in 2023?
So, there I go, headlong into challenges I know nothing about until it’s too late and end up the other end, a bit older, more knackered and unfortunately not much wiser. I can only thank my family for their patience and support in my crazy endeavors.
I often make light of, “If a fat old git like me can do this stuff then you can”. Well I fail to take into account the words I used recently to describe myself in my new job – Driven, caring, clearly unhinged. Can you too be unhinged in 2023?
Happy 2023 and here’s to new adventures.
Gideon Rabinowitz. December 31 2022.