The Wiltshire White Horses Audax

"Left...LEFT!... LEFT!! " The tandem in front of us went straight ahead, while the rest of us foll

"Left...LEFT!... LEFT!! " The tandem in front of us went straight ahead, while the rest of us foll
By Jeff Jones

"Left...LEFT!...LEFT!!"

The tandem in front of us went straight ahead, while the rest of us followed the directions and went left.

This was part of my experience in my first ever Audax ride, the 202km Wiltshire White Horses, on March 17. I'd been asked to do it by Paul Vincent, who was going to be stoking a tandem with his mate Nigel. Yes, the very same tandem as the one above. I had been pre-warned.

Getting to the start in Down Ampney (the birthplace of Ralph Vaughan Williams) was not easy, thanks to the ever-reliable British railways and a fairly bad hangover. I'd had more Leffes than hours of sleep on Friday night, and that was not a good thing. It goes without saying that the train to Swindon to Gloucester was cancelled, so I had to convince a taxi driver to take me from Swindon to Kemble as part of the wonderful First Great Western service. I did manage to, because the driver was a former bike rider, and he even had the decency to bend the rules and drive me straight to Down Ampney for the trifling sum of 10 quid.

That meant I got to the start with 15 minutes to spare, only to be informed that the field was full because so many people wanted to qualify for Paris-Brest-Paris this year. That was OK. I just wanted to do it for the 200km and experience points, not really for a brevet. Paul and Nigel had the same problem, as I found out when I met them at the start. Still, we were allowed to ride around the route and do everything without the official stamps. It was a decent day for a ride too: quite dry, plenty of sun, and a stiff southwesterly.

One of the last to leave, I set off 15 seconds behind Paul and Nigel on their very swank Cannondale tandem. I was immediately into the red zone trying to catch them. 40 km/h into a block headwind and a hangover? Ouch. My task was made easier at the first T-intersection after 2 miles, when they went right and I went left - following a number of other cyclists who seemed to know where they were going. Hah, now I was ahead!

They quickly caught me and I got on their wheel as we ploughed through everyone who started before us. We had an average of 35km/h after the first half hour, and I was thinking I could do this all day and be back by 2pm. But I was ill-prepared for an Audax, as I had no way of attaching the cue-sheet to my bike. So I was relying on the tandem for directions as well as a draft.

This worried me.

Luckily, a group of four (well, five, if you count the tandem as two) of us formed after about 30km, all fairly well matched in terms of riding ability. Alex and Jerome made up the rest of the bunch, and I now had three people who could navigate. I could have done the commentary job:

"We are now passing through Avebury. Note standing stones on your right and on your left."

We made it to the first check point in Calne, the very budget Cafe Marden, two minutes ahead of the fastest 'allowed' time. But a restorative cup of Nescafe instant and a bit of food killed our average enough so that we could continue to the next leg to Amesbury.

The tandem had no time for such fripperies as Nescafe instant and cake, and had set off several minutes before us. Actually, by the time we left the cafe, about 20 riders had come and gone while we were soaking up the olde worlde ambience of the Marden. We caught most of them on the first hill. But the tandem was nowhere in sight, even though I had a feeling we'd be seeing it again.

We rode past the first of several white horses at Pewsey, through the imposing rolling hills of Wiltshire and across Salisbury Plain, trying to avoid being run over by tanks. There were still three of us, and we caught Paul and Nige's tandem after it stopped at a pub to refill water bottles. Unfortunately, we gapped them coming out of Haxton. When we took a tricky left hand turn, they didn't, and ended up doing an extra four miles. We were just leaving the second check point at Amesbury as they came in, looking slightly annoyed.

We headed back northwest across the Plain into a nasty headwind. Jerome told Alex and I to go on, as he felt a little stretched by our pace. I always think it's better to sit on a wheel if you can, but if that's too hard, then you definitely have to go at your own speed. We didn't find it easy at all as we bashed our way back via Tilshead and West Lavington. Our average speed took a bit of a pummelling, as did our faces. There was no relief until we turned left towards Edington and more tree-lined roads.

We caught the last rider, a seasoned Audaxer by the name of Topping who preferred to go at his own pace, somewhere near Keevil. We'd finally turned east and had a tailwind behind us and made good use of it. Until we went up a hill that we shouldn't have at Seend. It didn't really cost us any extra distance, but we were passed by Mr Topping again as we tried to figure out where we were. That made it easier, because he knew where to go. Together, the three of us reached checkpoint three back at the lovely cafe Marden in Calne. 162 km down, 40 to go!

Alex and I opted for the cup of tea and hot cross bun, while Mr Topping got another headstart on us for the final and shortest leg. We'd had an hour of stops in total and were in no danger of cracking the 30km/h average speed limit. Especially as our on the bike average was still below 29.

The last part of the ride was beautiful. We had the wind mostly behind us, and could sense the finish. Alex and I swapped off at 40 clicks an hour through Wootton Bassett, Ashton Keynes and the Cotswold Water Park on dead flat, quiet roads. It was a brilliant finish to a very enjoyable ride. We were the first back into Down Ampney at 3:45pm, and had tea and chocolate digestives to replenish our tired legs while I contemplated the 10 km ride back to the station. The tandem bearing Paul and Nigel made it back by 5:30, after a fairly leisurely last cafe stop in Marden and another detour.

It goes without saying that my train home was delayed, and the theoretically warm waiting room at Kemble was locked.

Just ride yer bike.

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