I was equal parts teeth-chatteringly cold and blinking in and out of sleep. It was 0500. Water was rationed, and food was dwindling. I’m in real trouble now… But there’s nothing else to do save grind on and count what’s going right. Courage!
This post is about my (so far) hardest ride, my first 400 km brevet in Belgium and France. I hope it will give you a laugh but also function as a cautionary tale lest you approach a low-countries audax as somehow an ‘easy option!’
I’ve done some big bike rides but there’s (thankfully) only one in which I thought I was in a genuinely nasty spot – and it was entirely of my own making. It wasn’t in tora bora, or the arctic circle, or the Atlas mountains; it was in rural France. But 101 years to the day, the place I was shivering, tired, and increasingly a little bit scared was one of the most dangerous places in history; the frontline between Australian, Canadian and German forces in late-stages, but no less deadly, First World War front line.
I had roped myself into the 400 km Great War Remembrance Brevet after seeing it advertised in an English-language cycling forum. I’d been warned that the 400 km distance is a very fearsome step up from 300, and thought this would be an ideal opportunity to get my ‘upgrade.’ 7 euros to enter and shortly after my last exam and deadline in my Master’s programme, just a short ferry away, nice flat profile, back in time for tea and medals. What could go wrong?
I jumped on the train to Dover on Friday May 10th, and arrived in Dunkirk in the small hours of Saturday 11th at 0200. But I had my new secret weapon with me; a gore tex British Army bivvy bag, which an English seagull had pooed on for good luck. I am quite a shy sleeper, and rode outside of any towns before finding somewhere I felt out-of-sight in which I snuggled down for 4 hours of quality snooze. Some audaxers will audaciously bed down in a bus shelter or just on the roadside; I’m one of the shy sorts that likes a modicum of secrecy. The next morning went fantastically to plan. If you’ve been to rural France you’ll know that by contrast to the rest of the country, bakeries open very early, and the local spot did not disappoint, with a fine spread of des pain-au-chocolats and hot strong coffee. The French were wandering in and out with baguettes tucked under their arms. Some grinned at me and gave the thumbs up, knowing what my game was from the clothes (and perhaps the smell).
The crossing point from northern France into Belgium is always a great experience, and this time the sun was out, the wind was still, and I congratulated myself on my excellent taste in holidaymaking. So far, so bon.
The brevet’s start point was a Flemish pub/café in Oudenberg. I turned up far too early; where most audaxes start bright and early, this 400 km started at 1800. 400 km ride organisers are often torn as to whether to start their rides at 0400 or in the evening. On one hand, an 0400 start means people can have a fairly sensible day before the ride, and not disrupt their personal lives so much. On the other, a 1800 start means riders can get the night riding ‘out of the way.’ You can argue either which way which is best. I am hugely grateful to the locals for strongly advising me to stock up on food from the supermarket for reasons that will become clear later in the read! The pub generously let me dump some belongings in the garage for safekeeping – one of the Belgians remarked that he recognised my bivvy bag from his national service.
Weight shed, I collected my card, got lined up and headed off with the big mob. Within an hour or two I’d located the one other Brit (easily spotted due to his Carradice luggage). I’d come to be hugely grateful for his being there within a few hours. I tried to head off with the ‘hares’ as long as I could, thinking that with flat terrain I could ‘hang in’ and get pulled along, but upon encountering the first rolling hills, decided to quit while ahead and ride my own pace. Later, I found that two riders had completed the brevet in an incredible 16 hours, averaging 25 kmh throughout. An effort to keep up these guys would have not gone well!
Around four hours in, I began to get my first inkling that this may be a difficult ride. Firstly, there were not seemingly many supermarkets, cafés, or, really, anything. Petrol stations were universally just a self-service machine. Not even a 7-days croissant to be had. I crept into front gardens to top up bottles from taps, hoping that my London-hardened stomach would be up for a scrap with whatever might be lurking in the Flandrien pipes.
It was while topping up that I was caught by Englishman John and a small group of Belgians going at a civilised randonneur pace. I was shouted an invitation to jump on, which I duly did. I rode with the group, and while I was having a grand old time, realised that actually, my 4 hours sleep in a hedge was probably not doing my ride any favours. We’d crossed into France, and John bought me an espresso (which I still owe…) – this was a practice for the summer’s Paris Brest Paris for him. This is where the ride started to get tricky for me. We got to the midway point, the Australian war memorial, and as it was dark, I started to get cold. I’d not brought enough insulation. I had on a short sleeve base layer, summer jersey, arm and leg warmers and bibs, plus a white rain cape and a black Decathlon rain jersey, and I was slowly, but surely, chilling. I had researched what the weather would be, of course, but I hadn’t realised how cold I would get while moving on the bike. I spotted a vending machine’s beguiling white glow, and made tracks, and then said some rude words when I realised it was a machine for those walking tour audio doohickies. The organiser, Luc, had driven down in his van, and topped us up with bottled water. This was beginning to transition from type 2 to type 3 fun.
Continuing on, I got to 0430 and realised that I wasn’t comfortable with John and the gang’s pace. I said that I was going to leave the group to ride my own pace for a bit but that I would be fine. Fundamentally as much as I was feeling pretty poor, this ride was called the Great War Remembrance Brevet and I should count myself fortunate that I wasn’t dodging shrapnel, contracting trench foot, or living under occupation by pillaging soldiers, and I could cope with being a bit chilly for a few hours. Thankfully I had listened to the locals and filled my saddle bag with riz tarts, a kind of custard tart combined with a rice pudding, which is true cyclists’ ambrosia. But I was very cold and while I’m used to riding big distances, I was having to focus hard to control my panic at having to ration my food and water consumption for the first time. Even worse, I was beginning to really feel the ‘dozies’ – I’m sure that I microslept on the bike, my eyes were heavy. It was not nice. I pulled in to a train station waiting room and tried to nap, but it was little more than a bus shelter. I was soon cold and so had no choice but to ride on.
I began looking at things on the roadside wondering if I could burn them, or stick them inside my clothes, for extra warmth. The route took me past nothing that was open or hospitable. There was nothing for it except to keep the pedals turning, and count what was going right. I had enough battery for my lights and the GPS. I was not completely out of food. I was in a safe country and there were no hostile drivers. It was mostly flat. And, most importantly, my bike was performing sterlingly. All I had to do was grind for a few hours more, and the bakeries would fling their doors open before me.
Hours passed, and the sun began to rise. Thank god! However, what I didn’t reckon on was the instant cold snap. The sunrise is actually the coldest time of the day – it’s the longest time since the sun was setting, after all, and the cold was suddenly worse than it had ever been. I was shivering like a leaf in the wind and my teeth were hammering out a satanic rhythm. I wouldn’t wish that time on an enemy.
I would roll past a bakery seeing the chaps getting ready for the day, but knew better than to demand early service from the French. At long last, I ground my way up the incline to Notre-Dame-de-Lorette, the world’s largest French military cemetery. The sun had finally come out, and with its rays warming my back, I rolled into the café atop the hill. I bought four pastries and two hot drinks, locked my bike to my right leg, scoffed the lot, set an alarm and crashed out on a picnic table within seconds.
I woke up about 90 minutes later. Everything had changed. It was warm. Birds were singing. Tourists were wandering around with cameras. I realised that I had broken the back of the ride, and had just 103 km remaining. I jumped back on the saddle and rolled down the hill, cheerily waving at people walking up it. It was surreal.
The remainder of the ride was just like any well-organised audax. Great weather. Plentiful food and drink, interesting historical landmarks. Luc’s route passed through many places which warned that leaving the road could put you among land full of unexploded ordnance. When going through Vimy Ridge, the ground is lumped up-and-down from the savage fighting from the last century as if by huge moles. It has to be seen to be believed. I rolled into the arrivée, ordered a big dark Belgian beer, and reflected. It had been a really, really hard ride for me. I’d done much hiller routes, routes in much worse weather, and over cobbles, but it had pushed me right to the edge. I had underrestimated the night time conditions for sure, but had ground my way through anyway and learned a lot. Firstly, I would from this point, beware of the cold. In rides where I suspect there might be chill, I now pack an excellent synthetic down jaket that I got off Facebook for £25, which is super snug. I rarely actually wear it for longer than 15 minutes at once, nearly exclusively at stops, but my 400 experience taught me the hard way that I cannot be cold. Secondly, to beware of assuming everywhere has the English availability of food and drink 24 hours a day – this was nearly a dangerous assumption.
After picking up my bits from the pub’s garage, I was kindly offered a room by a local for the night, which I took gladly. After taking a wash I don’t remember getting into bed. After a refreshing breakfast of eggs, bread, and lots of fine coffee, I rode to Dunkirk along the coast, en style touriste, got on the ferry, and the train from Dover to King’s Cross. For a lot of people they don’t think of France or Belgium as terribly adventurous places to go, but I had been taught a lesson that you can find yourself pushing at new limits in the most innocuous of places. I’d done my first 400, and after validating it with Audax UK, it was the 400 I needed to complete my 2018 Super Randonneur award. People look at me a bit funny when I say that I love holidaying in Belgium and France – really you have to go there and experience riding there yourself to see where the equal parts charm and hardship are.
Thank you to the capable and formidable Luc for organising the ride and being a gentleman. You can look at the route I took here: https://www.komoot.com/tour/105503168 . You can check Luc’s his audax website here: https://audax.jouwweb.be/ , or http://www.randonneurs.be/page/home to find out more about audaxing in Belgium.