On becoming a super randonneur

 

©Douglas Carnall 1999

 

At the end of August I rode a bike from Paris to Brest, and back again, a distance of 1216km or about 750 miles in a little less than 85 hours. The purpose of this text is to explain what motivated me to do it, and share what I've learned about riding a bike. On the road, cyclists tend to communicate in short considered en passant bursts of speech, which lends road wisdom an aphoristic nature which is pleasing to me. The aphorisms of the guru that have stuck punctuate this text. There's a glossary here for them's as needs it.

Some personal history

I learned to ride a bike when I was four years old, and I've been a cyclist on and off ever since. Like most people I usually ride my bike over short distances, for utility and pleasure. My ride to work is a little less than 7km, and I use the bike for most shopping and leisure trips. I've got a trailer that can carry loads of up to 100kg, so we rarely need to use a car. At the time when I could be bothered to have a speedometer on my town bike, I found that my average speed around time was about 17km/h, and that I generally rode about 100km/week in the course of my activities. My girlfriend rides for utility as well; and about half of our holidays involve cycle touring at the relaxed pace of 30 - 50 km/day, though we have been known to manage 100k in a single day.

I don't generally think about cycling like this--I just like to ride my bike, for all the usual reasons: convenience, economy, the environment, physical fitness, and so on. But it may help you to evaluate my claim that I hardly train--which I don't. My fitness (such as it is) is basically built-in to my lifestyle.

It was Patrick Field's unique Dunwich Dynamo event that got me into the long distance stuff, luring me out of London one moonlit summer's evening a couple of years ago. There was tea and cake at the controls and a sag wagon following up the rear provided psychological reassurance for the novice. I rode the 200km in about 12 hours, had a few problems with my guts, my rechargeable batteries, and stiff knees, but it felt like a satisfying thing to do. And it wasn't as hard as I thought.

Cycling is between 2 and 3 times more efficient than walking, which means that the moderate pace of 15km/h is equivalent to walking at 5 - 7.5 km/hour or about 3 - 5 mph. Keeping this level of effort up for long periods does require modest fitness, but it is not the stuff of athletic legend. If you ride a bike every day around town you could almost certainly complete a basic Audax 100km event. Qualifying for the 100 brevet means finishing the ride within 6 hours and 40 minutes of the start, which is a brisk afternoon's riding, but easier than you might think.

If you use a speedometer to measure your average speed round town you will rapidly observe that although you can blow a gasket trying to get your average speed up between stop lights, what actually determines your average speed is how long you spend waiting to move when you do not have priority--a fact that every cycle courier knows. Acceleration is extremely wasteful of energy: the energy used in stopping and regaining cruising speed could propel you a further 70 metres along the road. So for every 14 junctions that require you to stop on a short urban journey, you get another 1km for free in the countryside. Audax routes are out in the countryside, so stops required by traffic measures are few and far between.

Why do it? If you ride a bike you'll know: if you don't it's hard to explain why, but I'll try. Out on the open road, the constant rhythm of your legs and your breathing is very relaxing. You can do just as much work as you want to, and then maybe a little more uphill, a little bit less downhill. Cycling uphill gets you high and cycling downhill gives you a thrill, and the rush of air blows all the bad stuff away, leaving you alive and alert. If you like to tour the country, cycling is the most pleasant way to do it, especially on a recumbent: a steadily changing vista of hills and trees and rivers and big skies. Picturesque villages and towns, come, pass by. You are like the wind, and as free.

Achieving this level of consciousness requires a little attention: to fitness, to navigation, to the mastery of cycling technique and mechanics; and regular practice. Modern life offers many distractions from the true path; so much so that many never even discover the bicycle for short trips, let along ride free in the country.

Being a super randonneur also provides new possibilities in the economic sphere: if I decide to ride from London to Edinburgh to see my family I know I could be there in 48 hours. A long distance cyclist connects physically and mentally with the reality of distance, and has the tools to master it, personally. Most people are not so independent. Travel is necessary to fulfil human potential, but if that necessity is unsustainable--and there is little doubt that motor travel has done much to corrupt and pollute the world we live in--then we need to look for alternatives. Sure, most times I travel to Edinburgh I will take the train, but weighing the price of the ticket against the experience of cycling provides a measure that values human strength against the exigencies of the global economy and sets me free from it.

 

About 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:-

 

Event

Distance to 1st control (km)

Time to first control (hrs/min)

Average speed (km/hr)

Cushion (hr/min)

200

45

2hrs00

22.5

1hr00

300

78

3hrs32

22.3

1hr40

400

63

2hr32

24.9

1hr40

600

34

1hr20

24.8

0hr56

1200

141

6hr15

22.6

3hrs15

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.

Tools of liberation

Obviously, you need a bicycle, though there are those who prefer three wheels, for reasons I'm not entirely clear about--the advantages seem mainly to come when the trike is stopped, and I don't ride fast enough to be able to let that happen for long.

Bicycles may be regular or recumbent. The history of the bicycle is a long old story, but it's enough to know that the early designers were heavily influenced by the horse culture prevailing at the time. You straddle a horse, so you straddle a bicycle, right? Invent a chain and some gears to enable the drive wheel to be a reasonable size and, voila, there you have it, the diamond-framed safety bicycle, still the dominant model today.

If you were starting from first principles you wouldn't build a bike like that for a couple of reasons. First, most of the work your legs do against the pedals is spent on pushing the air aside. One way to deal with this is, as we have already suggested, is to ride with cyclists of a similar velocity; another would be to tilt the long axis of the human body through 90 degrees to present a lower cross-sectional area to the air. This position, supine, feet first, is known as the recumbent position, and it works very well. All of the human-powered vehicle records are currently set with vehicles that are variants on this theme, and such bicycles are becoming widely available commercially. The innovation has been slow to develop because it was banned from competition by the conservative cycle racing authorities in the 1930s, divorcing it from competition and making it the province of nerdy record breakers.

Second, the upright position has a number of ergonomic disadvantages. The body weight is transmitted to the bike through three points: the wrists, the saddle, and the feet. With the right shoes the feet can look after themselves, but your wrists and your bum just weren't designed for hour after hour of this thing, and problems can develop. Numbness, tingling and pain in the shoulders, neck, wrists and hands are routine for long distance cyclists. Taking frequent "butt breaks" (rising from the saddle to relieve the pressure on the perineum) is also essential if you're going to keep the skin of your backside free from boils and chafing, but this puts even greater demands on your stamina and upper body strength.

The only down side of the recumbent position is acceleration up hill. Because it is not possible to rise from the saddle, you can't manipulate much upper body strength into the riding action, which means that hills have to be taken at a steady pace. Still, that's what your gears are for: just choose a low one, and twiddle it up. As the guru says: "Think leg speed, not road speed." Fast legs are very important for riding a bike: if you want to transmit more energy to the road, it's a lot easier to give the cranks another turn than it is to increase the force you apply to the pedals. And so you will find it is with the recumbent up the hills. PBP is fairly hilly throughout its course, but there is nothing so devastatingly steep that you have to get off and walk.

The machine I used for the long events, HP Velotechnik's Street Machine, has not only a reclined riding position, but also full suspension, was a very comfy beast indeed. On the ultimate test: the Paris-Brest-Paris, which I completed in 85 hours, I had very little discomfort in any part of my body. In contrast, the painful hunched postures of some of the riders who had completed the PBP on regular bikes, with strapping and dressings protruding from their shorts was awful to behold. Cycling is good fun, but you don't want to pay too high a price for it in your nether regions.

On the shorter events, provided it is mechanically reliable and fits, the kind of bike you ride doesn't really matter too much. Lighter is obviously better, high pressure tyres that minimise rolling resistance are useful, as are handlebars that permit a variety of hand positions. On the whole you want lower gear ratios than for road racing.

"Anything that does not kill me makes me stronger"

Getting fitter involves pusher your body just a little harder than it wants to go for a little while, then relaxing and allowing optimal conditions for it to recover. It's a very natural thing, and I've had very few problems. On the PBP I had a deep ache in my quadriceps muscle at the front of the thigh from about 600km to the finish, but it disappeared when I got off the bike to rest. Some say that if your legs don't hurt when you're actually riding a bike you're not doing it right, but the pain should diminish considerably within minutes of getting off your bike. On the 400 qualifier I started too fast and developed some knee pain which was due to inflammation of the structures that help the tendons slide smoothly over the knee when it is bent (pre-patellar bursitis). It didn't affect the ride too much: I was still able to finish in good time, and make a dash for the last train home. I took it easy for a week: it settled down.

Apart from this, I have suffered very little. On the 600 it rained and I developed some chafing in my groins which was due to wearing damp lycra. I treated this with sunblock lotion at the time, which was all there was to hand, and it worked OK, but the best thing for it is Vaseline. On the 1200 I put some Vaseline on my groins, perineum and scrotum after every shower and had absolutely no problems whatsoever. Perhaps the most serious problem I developed in the 600 and 1200k events was numb 3rd and 4th toes on each foot, due to prolonged local pressure on the digital nerves as they pass under the arch of the foot. This has happened with two different sets of shoes, and I haven't managed to solve it yet. Presumably there is some combination of shoe, insole, cleat and pedal will prevent it, but I haven't worked out what that is yet. The numbness wears off over the next few weeks, and doesn't really interfere with my quality of life in any way, so it doesn't worry me too much. On the 1200k ride I also started to develop a blister on my right fifth toe which I managed to avert with vaseline, sticking plaster, and changing to thinner socks.

Because of theft of one of the recumbents I did attempt a 600 on a regular touring machine. This was actually going fairly well from the physical point of view. I was feeling very strong at 200k, and my strategy of always making ten revolutions out of the saddle before dropping into a lower gear on any ascent was keeping my bum in fine fettle. Unfortunately my rear derrailleur mechanism fell apart at 220k on a steep descent and I lost a jockey wheel. I managed to bodge 4 gears by swopping the remaining jockey wheel into the position of the one that was lost, but the loss of precise choice of cadence was putting a lot of strain on my knees, and I had lost all of my time cushion trying to fix it. By the time I was got to the 300k control I was getting a bit of neck and shoulder pain, but I think it would have remained manageable if I'd been able to carry on for other reasons. Unfortunately, though not unreasonably, no one in the control had a spare rear mech, so I decided to pack.

"The game has many subtleties," said the guru, when he heard my story, and this result was proof that although cycling a long distance seems to a straight forward matter, there are many ways in which things can go wrong. Almost all mechanical problems on a bike can be anticipated and prevented by careful inspection, and because I'd taken the bike in a rush this hadn't happened. I'd noticed a bit of clicking and clunking in the changes on the few kilometres before the jockey wheel fell off, and I'd taken a few minutes at the previous control to check things over, but I failed to make the diagnosis. It was an instructive episode.

Talking of failure, the only other time I failed to make the time was due to getting lost. Cycling in the wrong direction is a surefire way to reduce your velocity in an Audax event. Stopping and starting to read the map is tiring and reduces your average speed. Most regular Audaxers have some sort of clipboard on their bars, and often laminating their routesheets to make them weatherproof. On a recumbent slinging a map case round your neck seems to be the best bet.

Riding at night

In summer 200 km events can be completed without venturing into the hours of darkness, but longer events, and 200s at other times of year all require night riding. Night riding is generally a pleasure: it's cooler, quieter, and picturesque if moonlit. Feeling strong as the pale, flat light of dawn wears on, and the details start to resolve out of the landscape is a unique sensation, though it has to be said that if you're going to have a low time on a ride it will also generally be at this time, circadian rhythms being what they are.

Riding at night involves an element of sleep deprivation, and knowing how this affects you, and what to do when you feel tired is a major part of the achievement of completing long Audax events. It is important to make the distinction between physical and mental fatigue. Physical fatigue involves wear and tear on the muscles and connective tissues, plus the heart and lungs, and tends to be very predictable. (After 100k my knees will start to hurt a bit, but then it won't get any worse after 150k etc.) I embrace physical fatigue with pleasure as I know that after I have eaten and rested I will be even stronger.

Mental fatigue is much harder, linked as it is with mood and cognition. Tackling the extreme forms is straightforward. Even the brightest dynamo lighting doesn't create that much contrast, so resolving the shapes throws more load on the processing power of the brain. There comes a point, if you cycle all through the first night, then into the second, when the road becomes indistinguishable from the verge, which is itself indistinguishable from the trees. The shape of the night sky through the trees takes on human form and swoops low to arrest you. The bike starts to wobble, and gear changes get inexplicably inaccurate. This is mental fatigue, and the treatment for it is sleep.

You can sleep anywhere, but the discerning Audax rider likes to shelter from the wind and rain in bus stops or agricultural buildings before taking a nap. Carrying a reflective space blanket is recommended by some, and indeed they are quite effective at retaining heat. The problem with them is that they are entirely impermeable to water vapour and get very sweaty very quickly. I just use mine as a ground sheet and wrap it loosely round my body. I bought mine before the 400, having been up all night partying the night before and knowing I would need to take a nap at some point on the ride. Because it was very neatly packed in the box I didn't take it out to check it before the ride, which was a bad mistake. The box claimed that it was a sleeping bag 220cm long, but when I opened it out it only came up to my chest and was fairly ridiculously wide. This was a dispiriting discovery at 0430hr at some god-forsaken services in East Anglia, but I crawled in, and set the alarm on my digital watch for some two hours hence. Forty-five minutes later I woke up drenched in cold condensation and feeling stiff as a board. One of the few consoling thoughts at the time was that I had not actually yet died of exposure and exhaustion. There was no prospect of further rest, so I staggered round to the services, reconstituted the dust at the base of two plastic cups of coffee and drank them while I stuck the nozzle of the hand dryer in the toilets up my Goretex jacket. This was an improvement, and it looked like the only thing to do was to get going, so going I got, very slowly and stiffly. Fortunately the weather was kind and a beautiful sunny morning developed. About 1100hrs I started to wobble off into the verge again and my eyes wouldn't stay open. By this time it was beautifully warm and I lay down in a field, set my watch to beep in 45 minutes and had the power nap to end all power naps. I awoke completely refreshed and set off knowing that mental fatigue would not prevent me from getting to the finish.

I followed the same tactics on the 600 and the 1200 and it worked very well. Considering how much we do of it, sleeping has not been much studied, but most people know that there are different types of sleep: REM and non-REM sleep. REM is the interesting bit where dreams occur, but the essential bit for avoiding fatigue seems to be the non-REM sleep. This develops in phases, with the deepest (phase IV) sleep at the start of a cycle of sleep gradually lightening over 60 - 90 mins through phases III, II AND I to a period of REM sleep. At this point, you either wake up, or enter another cycle of deep sleep. The key to taking a power nap is to time your waking to coincide with the lighter phases of sleep (I, REM). The best way of doing this is to resolve to wake up in about an hour, and set your alarm for an hour's time. I find that I wake up a few minutes before the alarm goes off through effort of will. Maybe someone will invent an alarm clock that measures your EEG and wakes you up at the right time, just as you're coming up through Phase I sleep to REM. Long term use of such a device will turn you into Maggie Thatcher and is not recommended.

The moments of disorientation if you are woken from deep sleep can be confusing, but the world generally swims back into view within a few seconds. Being permanently disorientated must be terrible, but it's not entirely unimaginable. I wonder if some of the other cognitive deficits described in the dementias are in fact some sort of denial type defence mechanism. It must be hell. On the 1200 you can stop to sleep in a "dortoir": usually a large gym hall with judo mats laid on the floor for a couple of hours of kip. The organisers have a system for waking you at a stated time, but this has the disadvantage that you are likely to be woken from deeper sleep, and to you can wake up feeling more hellish than might have been the case. Or maybe it's because it is comfortable and warm you fall into a deeper sleep. After a while though it's all one: never abandoning yourself to sleep is an interesting sensation, but you can't keep it up indefinitely.

Stimulant drugs

Stimulant drugs undoubtedly help you stay awake, but they don't help your personality any, so I confine myself to cups of strong coffee. Some swear by Guarana, which is some sort of stimulant you can buy in herbalists, but the one time I took it I developed a headache for the rest of the night and felt worse than usual. Before the PBP I abstained from all caffeine containing drinks for ten days before the start of the event and didn't drink any coffee until the 700k mark. At this time I had a large and delicious cup of coffee, a chicken and mushroom galette and a banana and honey crepe. This light and stimulating repast enabled me to cycle the next 161km in around 8 hours, with no assistance from any group, which felt like pretty good going. By that time it was three in the morning and I was starting to feel a bit flat. In retrospect I wish I'd stopped for a nap at that control, but instead I had another cup of coffee and pressed on. This cup of coffee didn't have such miraculous effect.

Lighting

There's a whole discussion list about bike lighting on the net. Yer gnarliest randonneurs have both a head torch and generator lighting on the bike. For the BPB I was equipped with a halogen front light powered by a Schmidt hub generator. This was superb: quiet, fairly light, easy to push, and you could switch it on and off without dismounting from the bike. In the qualifiers I used a Petzel head torch powered by 3 C cells. This was fairly heavy, but it chucked out a lot of light when the batteries were fresh, and has the advantage that the beam points wherever you look: useful for spotting signs. These measures are more than adequate for tackling even the steepest descent in confidence in the darkness. Even if you only use the generator you need a small torch for finding things in the dark, reading the route sheet and so on. I used a 2 AA cell Maglight with a Velcro headband for hands free operation.

Dazzle

Oncoming cars with badly adjusted headlights form the most serious hazard, as the dazzle can momentarily disconnect you from all of your physical surroundings. Shouting at the f*!@$&s to dip their f*!@$&g lights doesn't really help you or them, though it's an obvious thing to do. The recumbent postion, which allows your eyes to look straight ahead more naturally may actually be a disadvantage in this situation. The best tactic is to hold your offside hand up to shade your eyes from the direct brilliance of the lights and fix your eyes firmly on the nearside road edge. Practicing cycling with your eyes shut when the road is quiet also helps you deal with such situations. Don't keep them shut for too long!

 

"You can never eat too much, only cycle too little."

When I started out riding, I would quite often start to feel trembly and weak after as little as thirty kilometres. That trembly hungry feeling is called "bonking." It is to be avoided at all costs. The physiology of the condition is that the muscles have exhausted their store of glycogen, and start to switch to burning fat. Fat has more energy gram for gram than the carbohydrate based glycogen, but using it requires almost exactly twice as much oxygen as sugar. As the amount of oxygen that can be transported from the lungs to tissues by the cardiovascular system is the rate-limiting step in any exercise (getting fit means increasing this oxygen transporting ability), switching to fat metabolism generally means slowing down drastically. As you get fitter, the muscles adapt to burning more fat, and the margin between sugar and fat metabolism is smoother.

The start of my PBP preparation almost a year ago was a little 100km spin through Kent known as the Ride of the Falling Leaves. It was a crispish day, and a bit breezy, and by the time I got to the control at 50k I was very definitely in the mood for a sandwich. Two attractive young people were serving up such delicacies as roast pepper and mozzarella on poppyseeded white, so I bought two, and set off up the hill. Trying to eat while travelling uphill is a big mistake: you could choke on a crumb while you're breathing heavily, and I was concentrating so hard on not doing this that I missed a navigational arrow and shot off down a long hill in the wrong direction. After that I took my own sandwiches, so I would always have one handy on a downhill stretch.

"Eat before you get hungry,drink before you get thirsty"

Eating small amounts of carbohydrate little and often prevents the sugar stores in the muscle and liver from rapid depletion. You could eat anything with sugar or starch in it, including very expensive sports drinks, but I prefer to lash out 72p for a box of oatcakes. Each cake is 50 kcal, and I eat about 6 cakes every 50k, alternating with either Tunnock's caramel logs or a McVities cake bars. Some nuts and dried fruit are nice to have along for a bit of variety. All of these things have a good calorie/weight ratio and are compact enough to stuff in a pocket, or map case.

After while I listened to my body and ditched the cheese sarnies, because I found it hard to handle much fat while in the saddle. Fat provides plenty of energy and makes food taste good, but it is hard to digest. If there is a lot of fat in the stomach, the food hangs around there for longer, which is bad news if you need the energy straight away. It may even slow the absorption of water from the stomach, which could lead to dehydration. That said, it's hard to avoid fat altogether, and not to take advantage of the sterling efforts of the feeding crews at the controls seems to me to be rude and neglectful. I generally pick the highest carbohydrate option on the menu and then plan to cycle at a 15k pace for the next hour to allow my guts a bit of leeway for digestion.

Whatever I eat, I enjoy it immensely. There is nothing like the accentuated appetite after your muscles have burnt off a lot of fuel. The most mundane foods take on miraculous flavours; eating becomes intense, serious, necessary. You get hungry; your hunger is satisfied. Such simple gratifications are rare in late twentieth century Britain.

I mostly drink water on the way round, generally getting through about a litre every 50k, more if it's hot. It's definitely possible to overdo it: on the PBP I was anxiously overhydrated at the start and had to stop three times for a piss in the first 100k, which is a bit of a waste of time and effort. Still, better that than any distance in the opposite direction. Most of the water you lose from your body while cycling is from sweating. Sweat has to be manufactured by the sweat glands, which in turn get their fluid from the extra-cellular fluid, which is in turn in equilibrium with the blood stream. All of the cells in the body, including the muscles operate best within quite tight physiological parameters. If the water being lost from the cells is not rapidly replaced from the extracellular fluid and in turn the blood stream then the muscles will be working in sub-optimal conditions. By the time you feel thirsty it's too late.

Much is made (generally by those with a financial interest in their sale) of "balanced isotonic" drinks and all the rest. It is true that drinks with a little sugar and rather less less salt are more readily absorbed from the gut, and treatment with such oral rehydration solutions can be lifesaving in cholera. Cycling a few hundred or even a thousand kilometres is not getting cholera, and your guts are perfectly able to cope with plain water. If you like the taste, and you like to spend your money on such things, splash out, otherwise, find the nearest tap.

Clothing

You've got to wear something or you'd be cycling naked, which is unheard of, though I'd do it for a bet over short distances. Much of the clothing specifically designed for cycling is garish and ludicrous in appearance. Unfortunately, it also has specific properties that make it almost essential. As we already know, most of the energy of the cyclist is spent displacing air. The design of the bike can reduce this a lot, but so can the right clothing. Smooth lycra garments that allow air to slip non-turbulently over their surfaces can make big differences to cycling efficiency. Unfortunately, a lot of this clothing is made with the riders of regular bikes in mind. One of the commonest countermeasures to the pressure of the saddle on an upright bike is to wear shorts with padding in them. These are ubiquitous and cheap, but the padding is counterproductive on a recumbent, leading to chafing and over heating. Ordinary athletic shorts made from Lycra are fine, but watch out for thick waist seams which can create pressure on the skin in the small of the back. In reality this isn't too much of a problem providing you turn the waistband up or down every 100km or so, but it would be nice to have some specialised clothing with either no seams, or very thin seams at the back.

While air resistance must not be forgotten, I cycle in all weathers, and the prime purpose of clothing is to keep the rider warm and dry whatever the prevailing conditions. My basic garb is polypropylene fibre underwear made by the Norwegian firm Helly Hansen. Its principal property is to wick sweat away from the skin to the outer surface of the garment. This really does work. The only downside from the stuff is that after about twenty four hours it starts to smell pretty bad, and after forty eight it's bad enough for you to start to fear the company of anyone other than farm animals. Fortunately you can wash it easily on the move. Just wear it into the shower, soap your armpits twice, once with it on, then, once with it off before rinsing it out in a wash basin. Wring it viciously with your bare hands and put it back on, and it'll be dry in about thirty minutes. There's generally no need to wear Helly longs in summer, but I take them along to put on before sleeping.

My outer shell consists of a Gore Bikewear jacket which is excellent for recumbent wear. It's a bit on the large size because it also incorporates a zip-in fleece which is great in winter but a bit much for the rest of the year. Without the fleece it's a bit flappy and unaerodynamic, but you can minimise this with drawstring adjusters and it's very comfortable. The pockets are great pockets, and the hood that you can zip on in a thunderstorm has a peak to keep the rain off my glasses and is cut away at the side to maintain peripheral vision. I have a pair of Pertex longs that are fairly close fitting, and work well. I used not to believe in Pertex, thinking well, what's the point if it's not waterproof? Well, the point is, it's very light, very smooth, pretty hard wearing, completely breathable, almost entirely windproof and therefore warm, and if it rains the moisture wicks out in the fabric and evaporates almost immediately. I have been cycling in temperatures as low as minus 20 degrees Celsius sandwiching a thin pair of cotton lycra leggings requisitioned from my girlfriend, and I was toast.

I never feel so alive as when I'm riding in cold weather and feeling toasty warm. As the guru says, "There's no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing."

I carry/wear the following:

From Novermber to March I carry the fleece liner to my jacket and I definitely plan to get some overshoes: when your feet get wet on a chilly spring day, it doesn't take long for the wind and the slipstream to make them very cold indeed.

"Find the shoes you like; the pedals follow."

Shoes are vitally important also. Cycling is all about the smooth transfer of energy from your legs to the road, and one of the weak links in this process is the interface between your foot and the pedal. A shoe that is too soft forces the small muscles of the foot to tense in order that the force is transmitted to the pedal. Much better to support the whole of the underside of the foot with a very stiff sole and allow the large muscles of the leg to take the strain.

The toe clip and strap is practically obselete as a way of transferring energy to the pedals, though the toe strap still has a multitude of handy uses in cycle maintenance. Most cycling shoes come with a variety of holes for attaching cleats, which in turn attach to the pedals using springloaded bindings analagous to ski bindings. It takes a few minutes to get used to the sensation of externally rotating your hip to bring your heels out and snap the binding off the pedal, but it soon becomes an unconscious action. And yes, the couple of times that I've crashed the bike, my feet snapped out of the pedals in a satisfactorily automatic way.

There are many pedal systems, but I have experience of only one--the ubiquitous SPD ("spud") or Shimano Pedal Dynamics. These have the advantage of only requiring a small cleat on the shoe, which means that shoes can be constructed to nestle the cleat within the sole, and allow you to walk easily off the bike. The disadvantage of the shoe is the small cross sectional area of the cleat and pedal generates more pressure on the centre of the foot than the sides. On the longest events the 3rd and 4th toes of both my feet were numb for a couple of weeks after. Although a rigid sole did seem to minimise this, it's still a problem, and it may be that a Look-type cleat with its cross-sectional area almost as great as the entire ball of the foot would lessen the problem further.

Mechanics

When you enter an Audax event you sign an undertaking that acknowledges that you are on an independent ride. You and your bike need to be entirely self-reliant. This obviously means carrying a puncture repair kit and pump, and enough tools to keep you going in an emergency. Naturally, you'll want to carry the bare minimum for reasons of weight. Here's my list: I've used everything except the emergency spoke.

I recently ditched the woodsaw variant of the Swiss Army knife in favour of the one with a Philips screwdriver and a magnifying glass. I could get the weight down a bit more if I splashed out on a cool tool.

First aid

Most injuries in cycling involve road rash after a surface related spill. As the treatment for this is basically to give it a good wash and a scrub to remove all particles there's not a lot of point in carrying much additional kit for the eventuality. I was glad of a few plasters when I started to develop a small blister on my right little toe at about 800k on the PBP, and I treated a fellow cyclist who cut his finger changing gear (?!) on the 600. Here's what I carry:

Anything that lot doesn't handle and it's off to hospital, which is the only honourable way not to finish an Audax event.

Personal hygiene

Most of the events have involved being away for at least the weekend. Even though it's been a point of pride to ride to and from the start as much as possible, it's still possible to end up sharing a railway carriage with the general public. Fresh sweat doesn't smell: it's the bacterial degradation of it once it's hit the surface of your skin that causes odours. Clean clothes put on after a shower give you about 8 - 12 hours grace however hard you exercise, but after that it's a bit mediaeval not to shower. The essential item is the shampoo, used for washing clothes and body alike. You're eating so much that it's generally pretty unpleasant to go without brushing your teeth for longer than 24 hours. Not surpisingly, prolonged exercise seems to increase intestinal transit time, so apart from the one ride I did with incipient gastroenteritis, I've never been caught short in the country, but having the tissues along seems a good idea just in case.*

*I completed the 200km Dunwich Dynamo in 1997 despite fairly severe diarrhoea. It had just started as I was about to leave the house, but I thought it was a one off. Unfortunately not. Still, it was easier to keep riding than to pack. It's more convenient to leap off a bike and behind a bush than sit in the sag wagon.

©Douglas Carnall 1999

Thanks to Bikefix for lending me the Street Machine.