York Arrow 2024

“Arrows” are 24-hour team events. The objective is to ride as a team of up to five, attempting to cover the longest distance possible, within the allotted time, departing from different locations and converging towards York. Arrows are modelled after the Flèche Vélocio, the oldest events created by Audax Club Parisien, where teams journey to the traditional Easter cycling rally.

This year, a team of five club riders signed up. As the team captain, it would be my second time. However, this year’s challenge was longer, wetter, and noticeably more potholed. For the others, it was their first time. Joe, Sam, and Reece faced a significantly longer ride than they’ve ever attempted before. Even for Ray, an experienced Audax rider with several far longer events under his belt, the stringent time limits imposed for the 24-hour duration posed quite a test.

Sam reported:

The York Arrow was by far the biggest cycling challenge I had ever faced- the route being over 100mi further than I’d ever ridden before. I was a little aprehensive as to whether I could keep riding for that long, but we had done a couple of long training rides including through the night, so I was as prepared as I could be. I did know that to avoid cramping I would need to be taking it really easy up the hills right from the beginning.

Bright and early in the morning on Good Friday I set out from Lyndhurst with our excellent organiser Phil to meet the other three riders, Reece, Joe and Ray at our official start of Budgens in Cadnham at 08:30. It was cool and grey, but with a very brisk Southerly wind which pushed us to the start in great time. Reece, being too enthusiastic as ever was 30mins early after riding up from New Milton due to the tailwind.

We bought our small chocolate easter bunnies from the budgens at 08:30 to get recipts to prove we’d been there, posed for the start photo and set off, straight into drizzle and the howling wind.

We made good progress at first thanks to the tailwind, ripping up the Test valley and into the North Wessex downs. Just as we entered the hills I had my first mechanical of the morning- one of the saddle loops my large old school saddle bag attached to came loose, and I had to use all my cable ties plus one of Joe’s to fix it in place and stop it swaying- a problem I hadn’t had on my test rides. It was a little embarrassing having it break so quickly though! The rain held off until around Wilton windmill where we were caught in our first downpour of the day. Fortunately Joe spotted a suitable hedge/ tree for us to shelter under while the worst of it passed, and most of us avoided having to put waterproofs on which was great as the sun came out soon after.

On one of the climbs towards Great Bewyn, I had my second mechanical! The roads were covered in debris from the stormy weather the previous day, and a stick got flicked up into my rear derailleur and I lost the use of my lowest gear- not ideal when just about to head over the highest point on the route! I was also consistently the slowest climber throughout the whole event in an attempt to save energy and stave off inevitable cramps.

We made it to our first stop- the Great Bedwyn shop/ Post Office- about 5 mins ahead of schedule. Joe worked out that my B-limit screw wasn’t tight enough which got my gears back in about a minute, but unfortunately the break in the showers had all the locals come out to the shop at the same time and it took a while to get our reipts, and we left 5mins behind schedule. The amount of time we lost from staying still was quite worrying as we were keeping up a good pace on the bikes.

We had some more climbing to do through the still fantastic scenery of the Berkshire Downs through more light showers and sunshine, and eventually after several false hopes of being at the top, finally crested the ancient Ridgeway to look over the vast flat plain of the Thames valley beneath us. Once into the flat lands our speed really shot up with help from the tailwind, and we made it to our lunch stop- the Cherry Tree Cafe in Eynesham (very close to Oxford) nearly 30mins ahead of schedule. We were feeling pretty good at this point- the sun was out, we were well ahead of schedule early in the ride and the worst of the hills were behind us…

The first couple of hours after lunch were glorious- we were in a pocket of sunshine despite the menacing clouds all around and we were making good progress through gently rolling countryside with lovely views, although we were steadily climbing out of the valley and into hillier country. At some point the magic ended with an incredible downpour just as we hit a relatively big descent leaving us totally soaked and seeking cover under a building in the village below, and proved to be an omen of what was to come.

The light started fading as we made it to Daventry, and we had our first MacDonalds issue of the evening, it was about 6pm and was full of teenagers and was impossible to get the recipts we needed. Instead we headed to the petrol station next door but it added onto faffing time. We also managed to split the group on the by-pass with some heading down the main road with the others on the cycle path away from the road, and took a few minutes for us to find each other at the other end. All the while, a drizzle had started (the forecast was originally for the showers to peter out about now) which got harder and harder as we pushed into the hills between us and our dinner stop at Market Harborough. We had a lot of single track road to negotiate, and with the downpour I could barely see the road surface even with my 1200 lumen front light on full blast, so not only was I crawling up the hills, but also very tentatively descending. It was best described as an hour from hell and I was very relieved to make it to the dinner stop in one piece.

Lucy had very kindly brought our bags up from the start with spare clothes etc as well as holding down a table with a perfect view of our bikes from the Loungers bar/ restaurant we were in. It was lovely to change into dry socks, gloves and jacket, although a little tricky in the restaurant toilets. Our table was a scene of barely contained chaos as we were all diffing thruogh bags, sorting clothes and charging electronics while also trying to eat dinner. I am very thankful to Lucy for all her help though- without the change of clothes it would have been a very cold and miserable night- the stars started coming out as we left heralding the end of the rain but the start of a cold night.

The section after dinner had most of the remaining climbing to do, with our next stop in Grantham due around midnight. By this point the tailwind had died back and although it felt like we were making good progress, we rolled to the control behind schedule- the hills in the dark had eaten away at our time advantage. I was also getting the first signs of cramping in my legs on the last few hills, which was an ominous sign. Again, we were stopping at a MacDonalds which was full of older teenagers this time, and we had to ride down the road to a 24hr petrol station, again adding to our stopped time. We were all starting to feel tired by this point, and I was also feeling a bit sick, having retched badly on one of the last climbs before the stop and couldn’t eat much. I knew the next 40mi stretch to Grantham was going to be a slog.

We did make good progress on that leg, and I also passed my all time distance ridden in a day. The roads were bigger and better surfaced, and were starting to dry out so we could see clearly with our lights. However, I knew that others must have been tired as we were silent for most of it- Joe’s lack of signing was particularly worrying. It was somewhere around this leg that I found out that most 400k audaxes have longer than 24hrs to complete, and we had also added on another 30k to our route so I realised just how tough this was going to be to make on time, desipte being relatively flat for the distance.

My morale improved when we rolled into the petrol station in Gainsborough only 5 mins behind schedule- we had starting making up time on the flatter roads and now had a chance of making the 22hr checkpoint in Selby- another 40mi in about 2.5hrs, just about on the edge of what was possible for us at that point.

We started seeing light on the Eastern horizon at about 4:30, and by 5am when I asked for a stop to stretch and cram some more jelly beans in my mouth it was starting to get light enough to see the road again. Phil was worried about making the 6:30 cutoff for Selby (we were scheduled to make it at 6:08 on our pre-estimated timetable) so I put in my first hard stint of the hour to get us up to speed before Joe and Ray took over. With 10mi to go near the Drax power station I did another shift on the front, going into as much of TT mode as I could after 240 miles! But I blew myself out after that, and had to leave it to oe and Phil to pull us home.

But the effort was worth it- we made it to the McDonalds in Selby at 6am, 8 minutes before planned! We knew we’d made it by then, as it was an easy 20mi spin mostly along the old railway line trail, and the sun had properly come up (although still bitterly cold). The breakfast menu and a quiet restaurant was a very welcome break before pressing onto the finish.

When riding along the rail trail we spotted a model of Saturn on a plinth, and a few minutes later Joe asked what scale I thought it was- I didn’t know what he was talking about but after a few more minutes we saw Mars, Earth and the rest of the solar system, with a gigantic bronze Sun hanging over the path as we approached York. It turns out there is a 1/575872239 scale Solar System installed by the York University Physics department, and we were riding the equivalent of 15 times the speed of light! Unfortunately I was too tired to appreciate it at the time.

We weren’t the first group through our final control at a local Morrisons Daily on the outskirts of York as one of the staff congratulated us as we walked in! The final stretch through the city centre was getting a little busier with traffic, but we all made it to the Postern Gate where Lucy was waiting for us without issue, at 8am with 30 minutes to spare.

Overall it was definitely the hardest thing I’ve physically done, but was surprised at how good I was feeling (or at least, not too terrible!). Although the next day all the aches and pains had really started coming up!

I have to give a lot of thanks to all the others who took part- there’s no way I would have made it by myself, and indeed was probably the weakest of the group being pulled most of the time. And a special thanks to Phil for organising the route and making us all route cards, and to Lucy for kindly taking bags up for us and meeting us half way and at the finish with out extra gear after a lot of driving in an unfamiliar car.

Would I recommend trying something like this at least once? Absolutely- yes! It’s surprising just what is achievable with a moderate amount of fitness, and with a team to help you can probably go much further than you thought possible.
Will I do this again? When I finished I thought absolutely not, but even just a couple of days later it’s changed to a solid “maybe”.

…and Reece added:

What can I say about the York Arrow a few days after completing it, other than I’m still sore in certain areas and that I’ve eaten enough oats for a lifetime. I really enjoyed the daytime part of the ride, and the HS2 crossing was rather funny, but by 3 in the morning, I was going into crisis mode. With my hunger growing and electronics dying, I gathered some watts to TT to the next petrol station for an emergency picnic of two ham sandwiches. I spent the next few hours in low power mode and just pedaled on with ever-growing pain and lowering mental function causing me to start seeing bats instead of the light shades. I also nearly followed Phil’s lead and hit a parked car, but luckily my arms still allowed me to swerve out of the way and onto the finish for some much-needed sleep. 10/10 experience; would do again, but I think I’ll focus on those shorter events for a while and leave anything longer to the other lunatics in the club.

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