What is Audax UK coming to? Is it sinking into middle-aged decay? Has it lost the spirit of adventure? Is it true that the days of just having fun riding a bike over silly distances are gone?
Do you remember the days when riders, armed with nothing more than a set of grid references, a map, and a banana, would set off happily for a weekend's soaking? Rain-drenched woollen clothing sagged down over knees, cotton-duck saddlebags filled with water, and copper-rivetted leather saddles developed strange groin-numbing ridges.
Routesheets as we know them did not exist; Lycra had not been invented, and in any case no self-respecting randonneur would have been seen dead in skin-tight shorts - What would people think? A lump of hard cheese, a Mars bar, and some Ribena in the bidon were the nearest things to today's energy bars and isotonic drinks. Gears were at most five in number, and brakes worked but feebly in the wet (which it was most of the time, though the sun did shine occasionally).
Can you recall when an event usually began with the riders tearing up the road in hot pursuit of one another? Complete exhaustion in the first half hour of an event was the norm. Tactics were used by the more experienced riders to reach controls early in the hope that a few morsels of food might be available. One traditional trick was to start a 'move', and then drop back in time for the next junction, whilst the bunch sprinted straight on, oblivious in their enthusiasm.. The lavish spreads at today's events would have astonished them.
To finish an event in any state other than utterly shattered was the sign of a wimp. The great randonneurs of yesteryear developed haggard weather-beaten features while still in their twenties. Some of them were so knackered they were scarcely mobile off the bike. There are modern riders who exhibit superficial signs of this, but that is only because they have Look cleats.
Compare this description with the sorry state of Audax today. It is impossible to open Arrivée without being affronted by mollycoddling advice. We are told how to feed ourselves. All the good stuff, fish and chips, Mars bars, fried breakfasts, is now taboo. Then, no-one worried if their legs felt funny after a good spread; they struggled round regardless. Does anybody remember the pleasure of the five minute rush of power after eating a Mars bar? Or the dead legs that followed?
We are now told how to clothe ourselves to keep warm and dry. As far as I can see, a day out in freezing wet clothing is a character-building experience. A touch of frostbite never hurt anyone.
We are even told how to ride our bikes! No burn-ups in case your legs get tired; stick to low gears in case your knees wear out; warm up, and warm down, in case you pull something; descend carefully, in case you hit something. What happened to the old days, when, as a newcomer, you hung on to the bunch as best you could? Once dropped you might have found yourself lost in unfamiliar countryside, with an unhelpful routesheet. It happened to me, and the person I asked for directions spoke in a dialect so broad that I could only go by his hand movements. I got there, though, with minutes to spare, and the next time I was more canny, and watched how the others rode. After a few years I could tear up the road with the best of them, and they even started speaking to me. But the only advice I was ever offered was a gruff, "Keep pedalling, lad." I would not have welcomed more.
There is, however, hope. There are still a few less-than-sensible randonneurs doing things the wrong way for the sheer hell of it. A dwindling band of trikies still heft their machines around the lanes, spraying road-dirt at all in their wake. Several Auks have claimed sightings of a somnambulant rider pushing a 130 inch fixed gear endlessly around the country. He is, allegedly, attempting to complete 10,000k every week this year. Of course, he may be just a figment caused by too much Red Bull, but I would like him to be real. Fixed wheel riding is having a small renaissance. If you are a cautious descender, you might find yourself passed by a frantically pedalling fixer, legs ablur, eyes bulging, and teeth rattling in time with his (or her) pedals.
Finally, I must not forget to mention the mad aviator, on his flexi-framed Bickerton, equipped with flying goggles and Elastoplast-patched jacket (he is not out that often, but, once seen is never forgotten).
My good advice is: Ignore all good advice and get on yer bike.
The Amnesiac Auk.