Gavin's audax experience

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There are three kids of sportive; there are the small - intimate club style sportive. These are well supported by local cycling groups, have excellent - if not overly signed courses - along routes that have been refined over the centuries by clubs that are older than the ancient hedgerows they run alongside.

Next there are the mass appeal sportives. These can be sponsored by widely circulated cycling magazines or popular cycling retail outlets. They are ideal for the newcomer who likes his route well signed, the finish line saturated with rock music and a shiny generic finishers medal. These are the kind of events that are likely to wake the neighbours.

Lastly there is the mega sportive - closed roads can feature in these events such as Etapes, Dragon Rides and the RideLondon-Surrey 100. Participants are strongly urged to train for them, there is an allocated start slot and they can receive national - if not international coverage. The routes - may vary in difficulty - but what they all have in common, is a vastly impressive organisation. The neighbours are not only wakened - but likely to be encircled by road closures and shoals of whirring cyclists. These events are often supported by big names from the cycling world and can be augmented by other sports' celebs, politicians and next year's Strictly Come Dancing cast.

But before the dawn of the sportive - there was something else. If you have ever passed a bus shelter in the early hours of the morning - and seen a cyclist cat-napping next to his steel bike - directions taped on to a handlebar bag - then the chances are - you are witnessing an endurance athlete taking part in one of the oldest of cycling traditions . . . the Audax.

Audax's are deeply ingrained in cycling traditions. They will not trouble the neighbours, in fact - the elderly gentleman who keeps his lawn pristine, or the lady who bakes cakes at the local WI is highly likely to be a participant. But please - do not be fooled by the refined demeanour. For these cyclists are demons - they will drop you on a climb as soon as look at you - and quite happily cycle 200KM before lunch on nothing more than a fixed wheel bike and a jam sandwich.

And so it was that last Sunday I attended my first Audax - the infamous Tour of the Hills. I casually informed my wife that - as it was only a 67 mile ride - I would be back shortly after lunch. Some six hours later, face blackened and 2,300 hard metres of elevation wrecking my ability to stand let alone converse - my world had been turned upside down.

The Tour of the Hills - run by Don Gray - has been running since the ‘70s. In that time the number of participants has grown and the field of 150 riders on Sunday was one of the largest - clearly reflecting the growing appetite for self sufficient riding in what Don describes as a "mildly competitive arena". The format for an Audax is simple, each rider receives a brevet (card) and follows directions (or memorises the route). Along the route there are a number of controls where the brevet will be stamped.

This particular Audax has legendary status among the regular Surrey cyclists and crams in thirteen of the toughest climbs in the Surrey Hills area. Riders were dispatched from the genteel surroundings of the Village Hall in Shere - where a nutritionist had prepared some fantastic fuel - and excellent instructions as to how and what to take - clearly labelled as Pre-Ride, During-Ride and Post-Ride.

The route consisted of two loops taking in (among others) Box Hill, Leith Hill (from two directions), Whitedown before reaching the crescendo at Barhatch Lane at Hurtwood (I am sure the jokes have been made many times before). I understand that not all audax events have this amount of elevation - like sportives - they each have their own complexion.

The riders I conversed with had been looking forward to this event for some time - even the cyclist who conquered the Stelvio had this day marked out and must have thought that he was back on the Italian mountain passes as the roads soared high above the Surrey lanes.

Based on Sunday's experience - I will certainly be seeking out more of these events - certainly if they pose as much as a challenge and are backed by as friendly a support staff as the Tour of the Hills.

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