“No, they can’t have, surely not? Yes….yes, they’ve definitely left me behind.” That’s me in disbelief at the first checkpoint at the Pinfold café near Nantwich, 55km into the Chirk 200. They would be waiting at the first junction, surely? No, nor the next. Should I chase on, assuming they had gone ahead, or did I just miss them back there somehow?
The Chirk 200km audax is a popular early season run out, enabling you to get some miles in or tick off your first 200km without much climbing, described by Darryl Nolan, the helpful organiser as “Almost entirely flat across Cheshire Plain to Wales and back, via Nantwich, Chirk, Beeston.” It didn’t feel that flat when Dan Shackleton, not content with riding a good 10 the day before, and riding 19 miles to the start, still had itchy pedals. Within the first kilometer he was complaining “We can’t ride at this pace all day, shall we press on?” behind a couple of hapless audaxers; and once the first lumps arrived (the ‘almost’ before entirely flat should be kept firmly in mind) I was at my limit and Andy and Norman were past theirs and wondering what kind of a hellish pain-fest was ahead. I could see Dan in aero tuck speeding off the front on a long downhill, so I caught him up to review his well-meaning plan to ride as a bunch to Chirk. “I didn’t pedal you know” he claimed in impish mitigation. The road to hell is paved with good intentions however, and it was clearly going to be particularly Hades-like trying to hang on to Dan, best if he, Jon Dance and Hayley (a 2.40 marathon runner and strong on a bike), pressed on ahead.
Robert could probably have lived with them, but he was stuck with us as we were his lift, and we settled in to a nice medium pace as the sun gradually burned off the freezing mist, the silhouettes of farms turned into glows of crumbling orange, and the rolling fields and woodland emerged around us. Ah, Cheshire! At home riding from Littleborough we are hard pressed to find an easy ride, and it was lovely coasting along the complex lanes, with main roads only featuring as crossings on this well-planned route throught the best of Cheshire.
It would have been even more relaxing if my (insert preferred expletive here) new GPS unit was working. I’d invested in this for just such days after the comic navigational capers of the Centreville YHA weekend to Wilderhope, but I hadn’t got to grips with it fully….ok, at all, and it wasn’t tracking my position, just sitting on the start. Fortunately I had the turn by turns elastic banded to my arm (and the route on my smartphone, and a paper map), so along with the help of other audaxers we rode with, we got to the Pinfold Café. It was here, after catching up with Dan, Jon and Hayley who were just leaving after a frappa-cappa-chinos with organic wild almond faux-milk, that I was doing a bit of faffing, all innocent-like, with the GPS. After pressing a few buttons and talking to it nicely it leapt into life, and I looked up in triumph to find….no-one.
Just to be clear, I was the navigator: Robert, Andy and Norman did not have an instruction, a map, or a GPS between them, and they leaped off to follow Dan and co, with whom they couldn’t keep up anyway. Perhaps not the brightest move ever. Hmmm, better phone them. No answer. Grrrrr. I eventually got a sheepish call from Andy. “Where are you?” “Well where are you?” “What can you see, are there riders coming past you?” and so on, until we agreed to meet back at the caff. They’d gone off course. “Just remind me Andy, exactly what the ethos of the Sunday club rides you’ve come on for the entire last year is, again?” “Erm, no one left behind.” ” Exactly Andy.” “Sorry dad…” Kids, I don’t know, you have to wonder sometimes, and Norman a retired head teacher and all: “I’m not angry Norman, I’m just disappointed.”
Still, no harm, no foul, and they made ample amends when I stupidly bonked on the approach to Chirk and circled back for me while the gels were kicking in. The organiser Darryl appeared to have playfully moved the Chirk café without mentioning it, but the upgrade from greasy spoon to paninis was good. Still feeling bobbins I was severely tempted (to keep up the satanic metaphor) to make use of Robert’s fiendish information that there was a railway station near his dad’s nearby house with direct trains to Wilmslow. Get thee behind me Robert. As soon as we set off I was fine, and we loved the prettiest section of the route through Pont-Y-Blew with a stiff little wooded climb following Morlas Brook marking the England-Wales border. Now a rural backwater, Pont-y-Blew is the site of one of Wales’ first iron forges, which produced from 1630 to 1870. Fittingly Robert rode up this on his 531 bike, with a guy from Bury CTC riding his father’s 1970 Mercian, still going strong.
A crisp afternoon of blue skies and fluffy clouds unfolded, heavenly cycling weather, especially after we have paid our dues riding through sleet, snow and icy blasts over the winter. The GPS’s batteries were still pretty full and all was well with the world. The ice cream farm checkpoint was achieved, with it’s motorway service station ambience it at least has it’s route-side location to commend it. Beeston Castle perched on it’s crag is another high point of the route, aesthetically and literally. Built in the 1220s it was last used in the Civil War and is, as Marie LLoyd sang, “One of the ruins Cromwell knocked about a bit.”* It’s reputed to contain a secret hoard of Richard II’s treasure, but more to the point, do they sell flapjack there?
The 60km back to the finish felt more like 100 to our tired legs as we chased our shadows up the road and gradually put back on the layers we had peeled off, lane after lane unfolding and Andy and Norman looking like they were going to finish their first 200km rides in fine style. Planes roaring up from Manchester airport away to our left showed we were nearly there with our somewhat lower carbon footprint. The last 20km felt like 40 and I tried to remember to look at the GPS, even though Robert was chatting to me; we had noticed that riding with Robert has the effect of making you forget to look where you are going: he’s just too damn interesting and he caught a few riders out that way over the course of the day – we should use him for black ops to send other clubs the wrong way!
A club from Sheffield whose kit broke several barriers of taste and decency (but who would definitely be noticed by drivers even though they might wish they hadn’t) came up to us, and I rode on the front with a woman who was rightly very chipper and enthused to be finishing her first 200km, and fellow first-timer Andy surged up to the front in the last kilometre having hidden all day like a seasoned pro. We turned into the darkened car park, and one of the Sheffield lads quipped “Where is everyone?” Like Dan, Jon and Hayley, they had all ridden faster than us and gone home mate, all gone home.
Thanks to Robert, Andy, Norman, Dan, Jon and Hayley for the company, kudos to Dan for his big ride, and many thanks to Darryl and team for organising a great audax: highly recommended.
*Spookily, Marie Lloyd was born in 1870 the year Pont-Y-Blew forge closed. Beeston Castle was put back into use in 1643, 13 years after Pont-Y-Blew forge opened: 13, no ordinary number. Coincidence? I don’t think so. What other DaVinci Code-like conspiracies are hidden in this accursed audax? Better ride it again to find out….
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