Riding with Audax UK

Audax UK co-ordinates most of the ultra-long distance rides in Britain. The point is to ride long distances at a measured pace. This involves cycling independently, and neither too quickly nor too slowly along a pre-determined route, without getting lost, tired, or demoralised. The fitness levels required are attainable by just about anyone: all of the problems in the sport are mental.

Why do it? From the start I didn't plan to set any records. The rules of Audax, with its maxima as well as minima, specifically make it clear that it is not a race. The average speed of the elite cyclists of the peleton in the Tour De France is 38 km/hr. They are athletes, I am a tourist. The rules of Audax encourage organizers to choose interesting and scenic routes. I planned to complete the rides in as enjoyable and relaxed a fashion as possible. Any surplus time inside the minimum was a bonus, and I planned to use it for eating and sleeping as luxuriously as possible. I have yet to actually divert to tourist attractions as I pass, but speed-touring stately homes might be an amusing sub-routine in the activity.

Off the road, in the controls and roadside cafes Audax riders are a loose knit kind of club, friendly enough without going out of their way, superficial, ordinary, though for some reason the incidence of beard wearing is greater than that of the general population. On the road, in a head wind, bonds form and reform promiscuously: group work cuts the effort required from each individual by as much as half. If you breakdown someone might stop to help you... or they might not. There are no rescue arrangements, though there is generally a phone number to call if you have to "pack" and call it a day.

I've only had to pack once--due to mechanical failure--but I managed to limp round to the control. Twenty quid for a cab fare to the nearest station and a credit card for your ticket home, or maybe an emergency hotel room should see you through most difficulties. The hard core Audax rider eschews organized tourist accommodation in favour of bus shelters, agricultural outhouses, and, at a pinch, a space blanket in a ditch.

Audax rides have controls. Most are staffed by volunteers sitting in a village hall, or in a van, or a friendly pub. They stamp your brevet card and note the time: which is how your performance is validated. Although food, drink, and possibly a shower may be available at controls it is important to use your time strategically at them. It is best not to spend longer than a couple of minutes at the first control: having a cushion of an hour or two is psychologically and therefore physically relaxing. The best chances of a tow from a group also occur from the start to the first control. If you find a bunch riding just a little bit quicker than you like to ride and tuck in the back, you will find you can cycle quicker than you ever imagined was possible.

On my own, my natural riding speed is about 17 - 19 km/hour. Analyzing my brevets shows that the effect of riding in a group to the first control is highly significant:-



Distance to 1st control (km)

Time to first control (hrs/min)

Average speed (km/hr)

Cushion (hr/min inside closing time)


























The "cushion" is the time you have before the control closes. Providing you don't overdo it, early briskness with similarly paced cyclists has a lot to commend it. You need some time in hand to guard against mechanical failure, and, on long rides, to stop for food and rest. In an hour you can eat a large meal, have a brief nap, shower, change your clothes, refold the map, and still not have to battle the clock before the next control. That one hour converts your ride from a battle against the elements to luxury travel at your own pace, in your own time.

The beauty of this approach is that it subverts traditional notions of "fitness" and athleticism. The freaks on display at commercial sporting events have long since ceased to represent the pinnacle of any sporting ideal: instead they have come to represent the ultimate representation of the application of technology to the human body, with their science-based diets, training regimes, and drug taking. They are single-minded cyborgs whose metaphors, while interesting for their strangeness, have limited application for ordinary people. It's as though only professional athletes are allowed to be physical, whereas plainly every human being has a physical form which can perform.

The physiology of sport and exercise is a fascinating subject, and there is much that can be learned there that can be applied to the activity of Audax, but the point is to finish, not to win. This makes the sport beautifully anti-competitive and anti-commercial, which can only be a good thing. That is not to say that the whole thing is completely stripped of competition: two times are of relevance to each participant--the time of the fastest rider, which is a nod of recognition to those other worlds of cycling, and the time that you personally last completed such an event.

As a young man just past the physical prime for cycling (33) I suppose I could go on some chase to be the fastest and the best, and maybe with a couple of seasons of single minded, painful training I might be a good enough rider to cling on to the back of some club events, to have a time in a trial published in Cycling Weekly that was respectable enough, maybe even get placed in a carefully chosen race. But why bother? I don't ride my bike because I want to do it faster than anyone else. I like to ride my bike because I like to ride my bike.

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©Douglas Carnall 1999