by John Ewing
An Audax is an audacious bike ride. This does not necessarily mean extreme, but it does mean that a certain level of performance is necessary. Audax clubs typically organize group outings of 100, 200, 300 and anything up to 600 kilometres, and the ultimate Audax is the great 1200-km run from Paris to Brest and back.
Last year towards the end of a solitary ride my attention wandered, and I smashed my collar-bone and ripped up a good deal of soft tissue. Out of serious cycling for six months, I found when I got back in the saddle that I needed a target, and decided that the Paris-Brest-Paris, a.k.a the PBP, would do. The next Audax-formula PBP will be in 2006, but I thought that this year would be the best time to find out if I could hope to do it.
This is the story of my first attempt, a 200-km loop with an Audax club from Mulhouse, Alsace - where the Peugeots are built - down into the Swiss Jura and back.
The night before: Driving into Mulhouse on Friday evening under a louring sky with a violent wind gusting from different directions as a front arrives from the south-west: wondering how the hell we are going to cycle anywhere if this keeps up. Looking for the hotel through a maze of streets in a large town for which I have no street-map and which has major roadworks and diversions.
Waking up at ten to five next morning, wondering where the night went. Sorting out and repacking equipment to ride in the sag van, so brain-dead that I have to unpack stuff again twice to be sure I had packed it in the first place. Walking through the hotel in cycling gear (so tight I could tell his religion, someone remarked a while back) and street shoes, feeling daft.
Driving to the start through more of those uncharted streets, heading for a sports stadium in a suburb, following a plan drawn by the organizer. It turns out that he has drawn it with north at the bottom and hasn't bothered to say. "But you can't miss it," he had said on the phone, "there are signs pointing to it all over." Yes, there are signs, and if you already know the way and are on the right road they are very clear, just like his map.
Setting up the bike in the car park. Everything here except whoops, I have left my water-bottles in the hotel bathroom. The chap setting up beside me says "not to worry", and gives me one of his. His name is Marcel. Thanks, Marcel! I'm John. Handshake.
Setting off through the streets at 7 a.m. The air is a bit chilly but not too bad. It's a strange feeling: it seems that traffic-lights only apply to the leaders of the pack. Once they are over, the rest of us (I later work out that we are over 120 strong) simply stream behind, no matter what the lights are showing. This is fun. At one intersection we hang a left across the opposite lane, and a corporation bus has to wait for us. What dulcet pleasure!
I feel a bit shaky at first. I rarely ride this early, the leaders are setting a reasonable pace, about 28 kph, and I think to myself that if we keep this up I'll be dead before long. Especially since we hit a few of those nasty little steep hills that some towns seem to hide round incidental corners, and we take them with no visible slackening. But then we come out of town onto smooth tarmac: the going gets easy and the pace feels quite reasonable. Last night's pasta kicks in and I begin to feel good.
Riding in a pack is new to me. Usually I'm solitary: I set my own pace, look at the scenery, accelerate and brake when I want to. The pack, though, moves like an accordion: when the leaders accelerate it takes a while for the new pace to percolate through to me at about 3/4 of the way down, and when they brake up front a compression wave moves back and we brake a good few seconds later. Because people react with different speeds, after a while the accelerate/brake phases have no apparent logic to them, with the result that I have to concentrate on what's in front of me rather than admiring the scenery. I find myself throwing away energy in accelerations that are cut off short, then resumed as we pick up again. I feel a little worried by this: but after a while my hindbrain takes over, and it begins to feel natural.
People. Ages seem to range from 30 to 70+. Our road captain, Jean-Luc, is a round-faced Superman figure (without the cape), all in close-fitting blue and one of the youngest here. He looks as if he could ride for ever: later, in the hills, when we stop at the top to let the stragglers catch us, he will turn, ride down again, and ride up with them at their pace. At the other end of the scale we have a wonderful couple in their 70s on a tandem, going like a train. Most seem to be in their forties, quite a few in their fifties and sixties, though: age doesn't seem to make all that much difference. Most are slim, although a good handful have perceptible guts; but everyone has a weathered face and calf muscles that ripple with every pedal-stroke. Lot of big grins, too.
Countryside: South of Mulhouse we have soft rolling hills and fields, with a village every five km or so. We follow the smaller roads when possible, avoiding the traffic but finding the bumps. Everything smells of spring: everything is fresh, vibrant green, and the meadows are full of flowers that will not be cut for a month or two yet. The villages are simply clusters of houses at significant intersections, with maybe a zigzag round the church and cemetery. Agriculture is everywhere, including the air: as we round one memorable corner a waft of pungency draws startled grunts and makes some people swerve.
First halt. About 8:30 a.m., we pull up outside a café. Wise members lean their bicycles against the wall in quick order. Those of us who take a moment to realise that it's not just a momentary halt are hard put to find a place. Once dismounted we mill about, swapping notes. Most people are happy, even one lassie who took a tumble into a ploughed field and came up a bit dusty (in spite of that horrible sky last night, it didn't rain. The sky is getting pretty dark and wet-looking now, though). I take my one and only photo. Some folk disappear into the café, most do not. I eat a dried fig for form's sake: I had a good breakfast and do not really need anything, but struggling with food wrappers in the pack is not a skill I want to learn just yet.
On we go. For the next three hours the script is as follows: Pedal. Pedal some more. Drink a bit. Natter with neighbours. Pedal. Don't stop. Pedal, natter, drink. As the hills (we call them bosses, with the last letter silent: it means lumps, or the humps on a camel) become more accentuated, this becomes pedal, pedal, pedal, drink, pedal, pedal. Then someone says "This is Switzerland" and sure enough, a cow just over the fence rings its bell.
First real climb. We begin a bosse that doesn't relent and flatten out after a hundred metres or so. Lots of clicks and clunks as chains are lifted to bigger and easier back sprockets and smaller easier front ones. A few nasty rattling noises as ill-adjusted chain-shifts take time to move. Knees start going up and down like pistons for most of us. A few hardy souls simply stand up. I flip back and forth between both modes. The 70+ tandem is alongside me, still going like a train. What wonderful people these are!
Still climbing. The pack is straggling out now as the people who have been training longer and harder draw away, and the rest of us realise that home may be nice and warm but it doesn't do much for legs or lungs. We see light up ahead and think summit, but when we get there we find that the road simply went round a bend, after which it keeps climbing. This keeps happening, but hey, it's not so bad any more: long-distance spin mode is not the same as climbing mode, and although it was hard back down there, it's getting easier now as we remember how to do this thing. We're breathing harder, certainly, but the pulse hasn't yet hit one-eighty so who's worried? Nice scenery here, too. Could do this for ever...
Up top. It wasn't that much of a climb, about 7% at the worst, and only a few hundred metres in height. And down the other side there is a lovely swoop, long curves and smooth tarmac. I have lots of room around me now, so I get down on my aerobars and really zooooooooom. But I do see the sharp bend in time to brake. You expect them, anyway.
We zip back into France, but nobody remarks on it. The cows don't go bong any more.
Another climb. Same as the last one, but easier now we're in the way of it. It's funny, the first climb always leaves you wanting more: high on endorphins, probably. This one goes pretty quickly for me and the folk around me: very nice. At the top we find that the leaders have halted to regroup, so we sit and look at the scenery for a while: a broad green valley opens in front of us, set in a ring of hills. There is a village, farm houses, and lots of horses. Trees in blossom, fresh smells of greenery. There are worse places to wait for people.
Jean-Luc heads back down the hill, coming back five mintues later with the sag van and a bunch of riders. One of these, a big chap, has his shorts in tatters, and the view through the hole is pretty bloody. His elbow looks nasty, too. He didn't make that bend. He keeps riding, though. He'll be sleeping on his left side for a week or two.
A couple more ups and downs. The rain set in a while back, but nothing too dire. It'll make the road slippery if it keeps up, though. We avoid the white line in the middle - the paint is much smoother than the tarmac, and when wet is a major cause of spills.
Then suddenly we have 111 km under our belts and it's lunchtime! We pull in at a sports club where a great banner says "Soyez les bienvenus" (welcome) and the nice thing is, it's for us. They have even set up crowd barriers in parallel rows outside for us to lean our bikes against - what nice people. We take our bike speedos off and lock up all the same: not everyone in the neighbourhood is a member.
Lunch: an enormous plate of salad with an anonymous fish fillet broken up over it, followed by a chunk of roast pork and a heaped helping of spaetzli - Alsacien pasta, what else? Sweet sugary pink desert with custard. Lots of bread. Beer for those as wants it (quite a few) and bottles of red and white wine on the tables. The wine is Californian, which draws a few phunny remarks: this is Alsace, land of wine, for Pete's sake. I stick to water.
My table companions are the 70+ tandem team. With their rain-jackets off, they are sporting old club shirts - his is just a local club, hers is a Tour of Sardinia souvenir. Both have the modest word Audax on them. I find the mix of 70 and Audax sheer bloody marvellous. We talk about how long we have been cycling: 7 years for me, he has been at it all his life, she started eighteen years ago when she couldn't ski any more. "I was 1 metre 68 back then," she says: "I'm 1m62 now. Age does that to your spine, isn't it funny". It's welcome to mine if the legs can go on as long as hers.
We sit for a very short hour and a half, then Jean-Luc shouts "Time!". A few repairs are effected before we move off: I see a four-minute tyre-change - these people are good. We wobble off down the road, stiff legs looking for blood supplies from a heart that thought it had done its work for the day. There is a merciful downhill, for three whole minutes...
One more hill. Two more. The acid comments on the wine are turning to acid stomachs for a few people, but everyone keeps going. At the bottom of the next valley the rain decides that it's time to get us, and the wind gives it a hand. The road turns glassy and we start getting water up our noses from the guy in front's back wheel. Fortunately, the manure spreaders have not been out too recently.
Horses. Over every hedge now there are horses: mostly light riding-horses, but in one field a group of three heavy draught horses prick up their ears and come belting across to watch us go by. Some are Palomino-coloured, others a beautiful chestnut. There are not so many greys or blacks. In one field a mule lifts its head and hee-haws as the entire stretched-out pack goes past. Many of us reply in kind. The countryside is so beautiful it hurts.
It gets wetter, and the wind is blustery. But it's behind us, and we sail along at a great lick. The geography relents and gives us just one long, long shallow hill, downwards towards Mulhouse. This is great. We are warm, the going is easy - why not ride to Strasbourg?
Then cramp. I had had a foretaste on the first climb, but now it kicks well and truly in. The strange thing is, though, I can ride through it. For the next km or so I shift most of the load to the other leg, and stretch the cramped one by simply not pedalling and straightening my leg. Gradually, it fades, and I go back to feeling warm and powerful. It's still fun.
An hour, then another. The cramp comes and goes a few more times. We have another café pause to top up on coffee and water. The patrons of the café, a couple of wrecks in a corner dragging on cigarettes, look at us in wonder. Their smoke makes some of us cough.
Closer to home now: The beautiful countryside vanishes behind us and we see a sign off to the left saying Mulhouse 16, but we ignore it. We ride a long stretch north of Mulhouse and then turn south again, straight into the teeth of the half-gale and enthusiastic rain. Gradually, the world around me dwindles to the wheel in front and the raindrops and mist all over my glasses. Every so often I hook a finger inside a lens and wipe, then I can see for another hundred metres. Then the world narrows down again.
Suburbs. Traffic. Again, the pleasure of streaming through on the red light, a couple of riders stopping broadside on across the waiting lanes of cars to make sure none of them try to force through. But they won't: through more than one windscreen I see smiles and waves. This is a cycling country, after all.
Slowing down. We turn off left through a gateway, into the parking lot of that well-signposted stadium. It surprises me this time, too. We've done it: 200 km. We stop. Grins, handshakes, laughs.
I slide the bike into the car, change wet socks for dry, put on my daft shoes. Arrange a towel so as not to soak the upholstery when I sit down. All done.
Marcel in the next space is putting his bike away too. I give him back his bottle. "So, John," he says, "this 300-km trot in June, shall we do it?"
"Certainly, Marcel," I reply.
I get lost going back to the hotel.
John Ewing is a software engineer in his mid-fifties. Diagnosed with diabetes in the early 1990s, he took up road cycling in 1997 as a means of keeping fit. He lives in Alsace, France.