The Poor Student 2014

One of our members, Mike Conway, has written the following report for The Poor Student ride on 4th January:

Long bike rides are typically made memorable by two factors that the rider can’t control – terrain and weather. I’d been checking the weather for a week before the traditional pain- fest of an early January 200k, the Poor Student, and by 24-hours to go, the prediction was for 2-hours of rain in the morning followed by intermittent light showers and a bit of wind from the south west. I knew about the hills, and when I’d done the ride two years previously, managed them without completely ending up on my hands and knees, so everything was OK to go for the 2014 edition – and no reason not to press ‘Buy now’ on the £24 return train ticket journey.

I met Rimmas on the train ride out to Oxford from Paddington station, and being seasoned audax riders we indifferently dismissed the weather and terrain factors before getting stuck into the important conversations involving choice of saddles, tyres, wheels and clothing. Rain was falling steadily on arrival in Oxford, and we had 6k to cover through the town to get to the start and 10-minutes to get there. A tailwind and some fast pacing with another rider got us to the start only a few minutes late and with only around 20 of the 50-strong field having departed already, we were in good company for the start of the ride. The temperature remained below 5 degrees for the day and the rain didn’t stop.

Riding with Rimmas is a lesson in torture – a fast rider and always happy to take the lead, riding at 32kph plus into the wind, and then only slightly slower on the up-hills. I was worried about being able to keep up 5km into the ride, but my body soon became accustomed to the high pace and we eventually gathered a sizable group of around 10 on Cummnor Hill, which leaves Oxford behind and lead us out into the countryside. The wind was in our faces for the first 75k to Malmesbury, but Rimmas and Colin Bezant (another audax regular around the south-east) were quite content to assume the patron roles at the head of the group with brief work-sharing done by me and a few others before Colin and Rimmas assumed the lion’s share.

Anton Blackie was in the group – I’d ridden the Poor Student with him and James Fairbank in 2012 in much more favorable conditions – and he was once again on a fixed gear bike. I jokingly told him he hadn’t learned his lesson with his gear choice. The joke was about to be on me, however. The rain increased in it’s ferociousness, and at the halfway point to the first control we were all completely drenched and having to ride hard just to keep warm.

We also picked up a Dutch woman, Bonnie who was on her first audax ever. She was meant to have been joined by a few of her Oxford based club-mates, but they all abandoned on seeing the weather. A tough rider she was, and I was even more in awe when I heard she’d run a 30-mile marathon a few days before. Audaxing always seems to attract the nutters.

At Malmesbury, the traditional cafe stop was foregone in favour of a quick sandwich at the Co-op next door. The sight of a dozen cyclists standing in the rain shoveling sandwiches and chocolate into their faces must have been something for the local inhabitants. After 10-minutes of consumption we were on our way again. I’d forgotten to refill my one empty bottle, and resigned myself to rationing the one 750ml bottle until the next cafe stop in 70k time in Chipping Campden. Our group was now down to just five. Anton, Bonnie, two other riders and myself.

It was during the next 20k stretch between Malmesbury and Cirencester that the ride took a turn for the completely insane. We came upon flooded roads in earnest and at regular intervals. Before this winter, any puddle longer than about 10-meters would have seen me turn around in an attempt to find an alternative. I’ve seen a rider take a fall into an unseen pothole and break a collar bone in such rides of bravery / stupidity. What we accomplished over the next 20k was more marine-based than cycling based. Sections of flooding lasting over 100-meters and in parts having to refer to the GPS to decipher where the next road-turning was, as intersections were completely submerged. The levels of water at their worst were up to our knees, pedaling in deep water. This was insanity on the next level.

Thankfully no-one in our group took a tumble, but there was a moment where I followed one rider’s line and saw him bouncing around – clearly in unseen pot-hole territory. I duly picked another line, more in the center of the road. I wasn’t so lucky a few minutes later barreling down a sketchy, narrow descent that resembled a river more than a road, and hit a small, sharp pothole at speed, making my front wheel twang with a sudden metallic jolt. Amazingly no puncture, but it definitely had a bit of a wobble to it.

At Cirencester we were at the half-way point with 100km covered. There was no turning- back now. My legs were jelly from the hard pace and cold of the last 4-hours and I was fearful of the hilly section after Cirencester, the infamous Compton Abdable Alps which came after the 10km uphill drag of the ‘White Way’.

We’d picked up a few more riders including a few ‘hitters’ who immediately cranked up the pace on the lower slopes of the hill. Something in me gave up at that point – I drifted back in the group and let the last rider overtake and slowly pull away. The rain fell steadily as I pushed on, occasionally seeing the red-tail-lights of the group getting further and further away. The pain of the gradual gradient was taking it’s toll and morale was at rock bottom. Near the top I pulled over for a natural break then pressed on to face the hills alone.

The group I’d been with was the first on the road and the next group didn’t catch me for a good 2 hours, which gave me the time to achieve a whole new perspective on the day. With a drop in speed, and lower heart-rate, I began to notice the countryside – bleak skies and sweeping hills were inspiring at their summits, terrifyingly steep ascents and equally butt-clenching on the ways down. I was now out of water completely – very frustrating given the abundance of moisture all around on the ground and falling from the skies.

I rode on for 10km trying to ignore my mild dehydration until I finally encountered an open pub at Kineton – a very small stone village that seemed to be caught in a time- bubble in the 15th century. A glowing fire place warmed the pub and a few locals were nursing pints of Ale and chatting away in hushed tones. I immediately became the focus of attention – a shivering lycra clad, mud-caked figure with ‘wild-eyes’. The landlord was an Irish woman who’s first words were ‘Are you insane to be riding a bike out there today where have you come from?’ I told her and she dismissed my answer like I’d completely lost the plot. I had a refill of water, thanked her for the trouble and rode away to face more hills.

The rain was subsiding and eventually stopped, though the roads were still water- logged and extremely sketchy. I noticed my front brake blocks were worn down way past the ‘wear limit’ and threatened to wear all the way down to the metal holders – not a good sign. I began slowing with more advance and using the back brakes more frequently.

With another 10km before the second control in Chipping Campden I was caught by the next group on the, comprised of 3 riders of Banbury CC and one other. I immediately took to Adam and Justin from the club, being impressed with the Pinarello Sestriere that Justin rode. These guys were strong riders and were well versed in club- etiquette slowing or stopping on the tops of hills for everyone to catch up before pressing on. Keeping the group together at this stage of the game was a good idea – safety in numbers and the best way to keep the ride pleasant and not make it a death-march for anyone. I liked this group and my energy levels started to pick up along with the pace of the group. At 143k into the ride we rode into Chipping Campden and waved at the group I had previously been with as they made their way out of the town.

It was now around 3pm and the rain was definitely now over, but the temperature was dropping along with the day-light. Eating a cold chicken and bacon pasty outside another Co-Op with shivering hands was so grim it was funny. The absurdity of the day had got to all of us and all we could do was laugh at ourselves. With the majority of the ride behind it was now time to get stuck into the final job of completing the last 60km. I made sure my bottles were both full and I changed my wet cycling cap for a dry warm one that I had stashed in my saddle bag. If only I’d remembered to bring a spare pair of gloves…

In my mind the last stretch was a ‘flat run home’. I recalled in 2012 how Colin Bezant and I had ‘bossed’ the last section working together and completed the ride in a blaze of energy. This time round, however, huge steep hills seemed to spring out from the landscape unexpectedly and the wind always seemed to be in our faces. Justin unfortunately managed to pick up two punctures in short succession and we waited without discussion – keep the group together. The day had taken it’s toll on me and with 30km to go I was dropping behind on the hills, going to my lowest gears on even the slightest of drags. I was far from the blaze of energy in 2012. After eating a banana to pick up my sugar levels, we kept together with Adam and Justin doing much of the pace-making. The last hour was spent at an easy pace with lots of chatting amongst us to keep spirits up.
Eventually we were on the main drag back to Oxford and finished at the Peartree services at 5.30pm – collecting receipts at the gas station to prove we finished the ride within the time limit. After exchanging Strava- recognising details with the Banbury boys, we went our separate ways. I wolfed down my usual post ride chocolate milk at the services before pushing on to Oxford station and managed in the nick of time to get on the 6pm to London. Rimmas was on the same train and we caught up – reliving memories of a day and a ride I’ll not forget.