Llanfair audax

The start of an audax is quite a subdued affair: Mike said, “off you go then”, and this adventure was underway for the seventy men and women who would be out cycling all day and all night: from Poynton to Holyhead and back, effectively non-stop.

Route of the Llanfair 400 audax © MapTiler ©OpenMapTiles ©OpenStreetMap contributors

This cycling event was taking place over 25th/26th May, which includes Trinity Sunday, so it wasn’t a day I could take off to ride. Instead, I chose to volunteer, both as route-checker and as a helper at the start. I love volunteering on audax events and meeting people who are taking on these long distances, many of them are friends from audaxes-passim. Of the riders I met at the beginning on Saturday morning, there were more than two dozen who had never ridden the Llanfair 400 before, and for whom this was their longest ride to date. Some were understandable nervous about riding such a long way and through the night, but they were in good company, because riding a popular audax like this means you’re never really alone. The company of others on long events is significant, the distances drift pass as you casually chat to others, or daydream while enjoying gorgeous scenery.

The company of others would have been nice for me too, but because I couldn’t ride on the day I chose to ride it beforehand and check the route for Mike. Although company would have been ideal, the reason I keep coming back to this audax is the scenery: this excursion along the north Wales coast is littered with wonderful views and points of interest. I’ve yet to be bored while riding – even in the depths of the night.

My daughter and I have been enjoying time riding mountain bikes together in Delamere Forest, and we’d talked about the fact that my long distance rides had brought me through here as well. I feel like I’ve developed some familiarity with the local roads – the red lines below being a record of where I’ve cycled.

VeloViewer image: © Thunderforest, Data ©OpenMapTiles ©OpenStreetMap contributors

I paused to ask a couple of walkers for my photograph so I could message my daughter with it, before jumping back on the bike and riding to the next significant point – the Chester Millennium Greenway. Delamere forest and the Chester Greenway are perfect places for families to cycle together, building strength and confidence, so I wasn’t surprised to find them busy. I love seeing others experiencing the freedom that cycling brings, so the busy-ness didn’t bother me – I’m not in a race and it is no hardship to slow down around children cycling, dog-walkers and others. I know some people really like to ride fast, but audax has never been a racing competition, so using these busy routes just adds to the interest. The Greenway takes this route into Wales and we don’t meet traffic again until Connah’s Quay, and after about 80km it is a great place to find some refreshments.

Mike Wigley is fairly relaxed about whether riders follow his route or not, so long as they visit the control points and thereby assure him that they’ve covered the minimum distance for the event. The official route is, of course, brilliant; but if riders want to bash along A-roads instead then that’s up to them. The official route normally goes uphill from Flint over Halkyn Mountain, but there are other choices. I personally love the Halkyn climb, despite the narrow gravel lane. Some people prefer the flat route around the coast, and this year the official ride was rerouted to Bagillt before climbing to Halkyn.

When I speak to non-cyclists about long distance riding, I’m often asked if I use the motorway, or other major routes. To those who drive everywhere, it is hard to visualise that there are pretty country lanes running the length and breadth of the UK, and in a way I’m glad about that. Most traffic is kept far away from these rural lanes and apart from local traffic the lanes are usually peaceful. It is wonderful just how far it is possible to cycle without seeing a car or lorry. The Llanfair audax uses these quiet lanes, but also some glorious cycle paths too, especially the long section from Pensarn to Rhos-on-sea where we cycle the coastal route.

The experience of this ride is one delight after another: the crossing into Conwy is overseen by the castle, and the daunting climb to Sychnant Pass. I prefer to use the cycle path both ways, bypassing the pass (so to speak). I just love the cycle route around the rocky cliffs and prefer to choose this for the pleasure it brings me. I also love arriving at the Menai strait and a daytime view of Menai bridge. I may have written before how the Bryan Chapman audax brings me here in the dark, and therefore seeing it in the daytime gives me a boost – as though I’m ahead of schedule. It is a silly self-deception but one that I indulge anyway because of the emotions I feel.

There is a Co-Op at Llanfairpwllgwyngyll, and I find this location perfect for me; I stop for some food and drink, ride to Holyhead and back, and then stop again for more food and drink before the evening sets in. This gives me a refreshments at 170km and again at 230km. The view of the Snowdonia mountains in the setting sun usually captivates me on the return leg. There are also the views of the Menai strait while cycling back to Bangor that I love as well – and the fabulous way the sun is usually hitting the horizon as I reach Conwy for the second time – this whole section is part of what makes the Llanfair audax so special.

Darkness falls – and the next section of the ride takes advantage of the quietness of the main roads. There is very little need to navigate, as once we’ve passed Llandudno Junction we have another 60km of flattish roads back along the north Wales coast, through Prestatyn and Flint, over the river Dee to Shotwick. From here on there are great quality cycle routes alongside major roads, so tired cyclists can take it easy to the final checkpoint at Elton services on the M56.

I had been travelling a bit faster than usual, and reached Elton just after 1am – which was a surprise to me. I was a bit tired, and I’d been thinking about whether to sleep at the end of the ride before driving home. On Mike’s events, he provides sleeping facilities for riders afterwards: a simple mattress in a quiet place to recover before going home. However, as I was route-checking, Mike wasn’t waiting for me, there was no breakfast at Poynton, and nothing for me except a cold empty Nissan Micra. There was no one to welcome me back… I realised it made sense for me to have a bit of a nap here in Elton rather than rush back to a cold pre-dawn carpark. I closed my eyes and fell asleep instantly in the glare of the gaudy McDonalds.

I woke 20 minutes later to find a drink and a note from the McDonald’s manager saying to take my time – and enjoy the free drink if I needed it. What a wonderful gift! I drifted back to sleep for another 20 minutes, and then woke for some breakfast. And then slept again for another 20 minutes. It was 3am before I got going again; my knees and thighs had stiffened up, and started to ache. I was very cold. I was wearing all the clothes I’d brought with me as I shivered my way out into the early morning, and was thankful for the effort of cycling to warm me up again.

The final stretch of the Llanfair 400 would be very easy with fresh legs, but there is a gentle undulation to the hills which feel more difficult than normal on tired legs. However, the tunnels under Manchester airport become a point of focus, something to look forward to and I find myself singing as I ride through them: childishly enjoying the echo along the length of them.

That’s it really, after that we’re back in Poynton. The seventy riders on the day of the event would be welcomed back to food and warmth, to a chance to sleep and chat to others. I had an empty car – but thanks to the sleep in McDonalds was plenty fresh enough to drive home. I usually get to the end of these rides tired but happy – and the Llanfair 400 is one of those events I love to do again and again.