London Wales London is the creation of Willesden Cycling Club and now run by Liam Fitzpatrick. A well established Randonneurs challenge that starts in Chalfont St. Peter, just outside the M25 in Buckinghamshire, goes to Chepstow crossing the Cotswolds and the Forest of Dean and then turns back via the old Severn Bridge and the Downs. In keep with the rules, the 407 km route needs to be completed within 27 hours.
But that was not our challenge!
Not happy with the distance alone, with Sean we had kind of planned to be back before midnight, because that’s when the local pub shuts and it would be nice to finish a ride with a pint. Given the 6 AM start, we had 18 hours in our hands to go to Wales and back… not impossible, but not easy either.
I slept on the floor of the Community centre, to avoid driving in the middle of the night ahead of a long day. Turned out to be a good strategy, as I managed to get 4-5 hours of poor quality sleep, which is not bad ahead of a long Audax.
After way too many slices of toast with jam, I was ready to go. Sean arrived straight from London and at 6 AM sharp we were on the road. A beautiful morning and a forecast of a cloud free, warm day left us wondering what could possibly go wrong.
The first few hours went by very quickly, as someone at the front (apparently in training for the LEJOG record) was pushing a hellish pace of well over 30 km/h. I decided to slow down before Thame, as my worry was to get to first control in Woodstock way too early and have to wait there (in a Randonnee, the cumulative speed at control points cannot exceed 30 km/h or be less than 15). I turned out to be wrong, as despite getting there at opening time, someone had already had a second (full English) breakfast and was about to set off again.
The second leg to Tewkesbury involved a crossing of the Cotswolds, via Stow on the Wold and Winchcombe, the ancient capital of the Kingdom of Mercia. All in all, we still kept a very solid pace and by my calculation we were 45 minutes ahead of schedule after 140 km… happy days, maybe a pint could become two!
After a short break at the local branch of Greggs we set off again, as the day began to warm up to over 20 degrees. The third leg turned out to be very hard, with relentless ups and downs and the steep climb to the Yat Rock and through the Forest of Dean. I was looking forward to the forest, but it turned out to be the most disappointing part of the journey, with very little in the way of ancient trees or indeed shade!!
Our speed began to fall, but we managed to get to the third control in the outskirts of Chepstow with our 45 minutes margin still intact. After a hearty meal of overcooked and under-seasoned pasta and a lovely slice of cake (or was it three?) we set off again.
The crossing of the Severn bridge over the M48 cycle path turned out to be one of the highlights, there is always something special in crossing an estuary and entering a different land.
This leg turned out to be no less undulated than the previous and progress began to slow. Once we cleared the busy A road west of Swindon and the giant roundabout where Sean went the wrong way, we joined quieter B roads and after well over four hours we arrived at the last control point in Lambourn. By then our pub margin had shrunk to 30 minutes and after 317 km, we needed a longer rest. We ate soup and bread rolls and more cake, before setting off for the final 90 km stretch.
The temperature was beginning to cool and the evening light was showing the Wessex Downs in all their glory. This turned out to be the most pleasant part of the route on quiet but well paved roads with stunning views of yellow fields and rolling hills.
As the sun set, the temperature plummeted and in the wooded lanes it was beginning to get very cold! We layered up and set off again, our speed becoming slower and slower. Every incline required a much bigger sprocket and by the time we reached Goring, only the 32 sprocket could get me up the hills.
Our margin was shrinking fast… by my calculation we had 15 minutes left in Henley and 12 in Marlow… but we were not far, just one climb left!
The last few miles involved some narrow, dark lanes, with unnerving patches of gravel to avoid… then the last descent into Chalfont. We parked the bikes in front of the White Hart at 11:51 PM. Walked inside, among the astonishment of the last few (drunk) customers and ordered a pint…
The last order had already been called… don’t you just love England, where you can get away with murder but not with selling a pint to a thirsty traveller 6 minutes after the last order has been called?
No other option than heading back to the community centre, get our brevet card stamped for the final time and… wait, Liam had a cold beer in the fridge… this is Audax for you!
And a home made curry… to complete an almost perfect day.