I don’t know if I really wanted to ride my bike today; I feel anxious and tired before I even set out. I’ve also been trying to shake off a low level feeling of being unwell: stuffy nose and headache. To top it all off the doomsayers of the BBC weather service are urging everyone stay indoors and watch more news. Snowmageddon is on the way! However, I seem to be on another “Randonneur Round the Year” (RRtY) attempt. This is the long-distance sport of cycling at least one 200km event every calendar month of the year. Two years ago I rode my first RRtY because it seemed like a fun idea, and last year I rode it again because it was part of my training plan for ‘London-Edinburgh-London’. I don’t know why I’m doing it this year. I think I started it by accident, meaning that I had ridden 200km events in August, September and October so felt I ought to ride in November. Here I am in December wondering why I’m going out in the cold.
I catch an early morning train to Doncaster and then change for Durham. I’m reading ‘Morning Prayer’, “The night has passed and the day lies open before us”... except I look out the window into the darkness and think ‘no it hasn’t’. As we leave Doncaster the rain is blattering against the carriage windows but by York snow is falling heavily, in big lazy flakes which settle like a frozen game of ‘prickly pile-up’. Through Darlington the rain and snow have stopped, and as we arrive in Durham the sky is cloudy but bright. The most important feature of the weather was the wind – which was now going to be in my favour for the whole day. 200km with the wind mainly behind me.
This is winter audaxing: I would be using main roads because they are gritted and likely to be ice-free and safer than country lanes. I’d pieced together a route which was just over 200km and used roads I knew well.
The A177 to Coxhoe, Sedgefield and Stockton-on-Tees: the tailwind was helping as I passed over the highest point on the route. I could see that the local lanes were completely covered in snow and ice justifying the main-road decision. Despite this, I found myself riding in the tyre tracks of the motor-vehicles as the slushy snow was piled up on either side of the road: getting splashed by passing trucks wasn’t pleasant. Stockton-on-Tees was warmer and friendlier as I stopped by the world-famous “Sound It Out” record shop to let my wife know I was safe and on my way.
I intended to make the most of the sunshine and north-west wind by riding on as much as possible and stopping as little as possible during the day, so I continued to Yarm and my next control point. Yarm is a popular market town but feels like a motoring nightmare to me – I grabbed a fresh bottle of water and a couple of bananas from the supermarket and continued as quickly as possible.
From Yarm I needed to head west to Catterick and my next control point, so followed a series of B roads through Low Worsall, North Cowton and Scorton to get there. The road surface was broken and bone-shaking, and what was harder was that the wind was slightly into my face and felt like hard work. The forecast had been 15 mph winds and the wind-chill was noticeable. At Catterick the only point of interest worth photographing was the racecourse. This was certainly not a scenic ride!
The fun started at Catterick though, with a 40km stretch of the A6055 and the wind directly to my back. It was wonderful to be whisked along at over 30kph for an hour or more. I made up a huge amount of time and passed the 100km mark in less than four hours. It was time to refuel, so I stopped at ‘Bowe & Co’ cafe for soup, coffee and cake.
It was 14:45 when I left ‘Bowe & Co’ feeling very well refreshed and warm but the sun was racing for the horizon. I set off slowly, to let the food in my stomach digest, relaxing so the tailwind could do the work. Passing Cattal Station I picked up speed and arrived in Tadcaster just as the sun was setting. There was a burnt orange glow in the clouds above the Breweries which was quite pretty. I stopped for another coffee, this time at the 24hr garage on the south side of Tadcaster.
That was my last control-point… next stop was home. I knew, however, that with the dropping temperature I was likely to need more coffee before I reached my front door. I was now onto the only section of country lanes: from Tadcaster through Cawood and on to Selby. The sunset was slow, and the shadows long as I kept away from the verge of the road. I could see the edges of puddles frosting over and hoped that I could keep up the high pace to get to Selby before the road became an ice-rink. There were simply no cars on the road – I had the experience all to myself.
It was dark by the time I arrived in Selby, but I wasn’t ready for another stop just yet. There was now a 10 mile section of fast main road to hurtle along. The A63 from Selby to Howden. At rush hour. It sounds horrible, but actually the traffic wasn’t very busy, the road surface was smooth and the wind was directly to my back, so the 10 miles took less than 30 minutes.
Now it was coffee time. At the 24hr garage in Howden. I met a motorcyclist in the garage who told me that heated-gloves are the best thing ever… but that he’d had to stop because his knees were frozen and he couldn’t shift gear or brake properly. I reflected that I’d chosen my clothing perfectly. My toes were cold but not frozen. My thighs were cold, but not frozen. The rest of me was toasty and warm: and I do believe that having a tailwind instead of a headwind made a big difference to how I was feeling.
With only 25km left to go I set out onto the newly resurfaced B1230 from Howden to North Cave via Gilberdyke and Newport. As I approached Brough it was about 7pm and the temperature was down to -0.5C, but on the road down to the town, in about 1 mile, the temperature dropped by another degree to -1.5C – the drop was so fast it was noticeable on my chest an in my breath. The road was frozen and I became increasingly cautious… eventually walking the last few meters to get home.
… Am I pleased I’ve done it? I don’t know. On one hand a 200km ride with a tailwind is great fun. On the other-hand, what have I actually achieved? Is it cheating to ride with a tailwind all day? The sunset was beautiful. The night sky with the stars shining brightly was awesome. I rode through places I know and love. But I’m very tired now. I couldn’t have done it the other way around. I couldn’t have faced 200km of cold headwind. Now I’m 5 months into an RRtY and January is around the corner… I don’t know if I can face two more cold months of long distances.