I had been rather anxious about this ride all week, because the Met Office were forecasting rain and strong north-easterly winds, force 5 gusting to force 8 (gale force). With a strong wind from the northeast, the third leg of the ride (from Olney in Buckinghamshire up to Sawtry between Huntingdon and Peterborough) would be really grim. But on the day, the wind had swung around to the north-west, so the bad leg was the first one to St Neots. And anyway, once I was out on the road, my problems were reduced to relatively simple ones, like keeping pedalling to the next control, and the anxiety disappeared.
Four of the twenty or so riders were regulars with CTC Cambridge: myself, experienced randoneer Tony, and Nigel and Chris, for whom this would be their first 200 km ride. A baptism by wind and rain!
On the way out to St Neots Nigel and I got into a group that was going much faster than I consider sensible, so I sucked wheel for dear life and we covered the first 50 km in just over 2 hours, despite the stiff wind in our faces.
Simon had been very conscientious with the design of the route, and with the details on the route sheet. It seemed that every patch of gravel was mentioned, and every time we crossed a main road we were advised to take care. Which, of course, we did. His original plan had been for the route to visit Oundle in Northamptonshire, but he couldn’t find a way to route it that avoided sections on busy A-roads: “The route was hamstrung due to being quite stretched out: it was only feasible to avoid the nasty bits if I got rid of either Olney or Oundle. I decided to ditch Oundle in the end.” The revision must have left the route a bit short, so there was a dog-leg south of Cambridge to Thriplow and Bassingbourn instead.
Another odd diversion was on the way out of St Neots, where we bypassed a section of the B1428 on some back streets. Simon said that this was to avoid a hazardous set of cycle lanes scattered with concrete obstacles.
From Sharnbrook all the way to Olney (and back) the route followed the course of the River Great Ouse, and from Turvey to Newton Blossomville the river could be seen through the trees on the right of the road. Beans Café in Olney was warm and dry, and it took some determination to venture out again into the rain. “It must be some kind of cycling club,” I heard one patron say as he eyed the bicycles lined up outside the café.
The leg after lunch was very long (77 km) and very damp. The rain ran the gamut from scotch mist, through drizzle and light rain to the occasional short downpour. But after a few hours in the rain, you can’t get any wetter and at least it wasn’t cold. For this leg, Nigel and I gave up trying to stick with the faster cyclists, and proceeded at a rather more sedate pace. The route went back up the valley of the Great Ouse, this time on the north side of the river, and retraced a section of the the morning’s route from Sharnbrook to Riseley.
After the info control in Swineshead I got separated from Nigel. I thought he was behind me, but when he caught up, it wasn’t him, but another cyclist in similar clothing. (I had had to take my glasses off because of the rain.) This leg would have been grim with a north-easterly wind, but with the wind in the north-west it wasn’t too bad. There were a couple of tasters of how bad it could have been, when the road took a turn to the left. The worst of these was over an exposed farm road near Stow Longa, where I was head down and struggling to keep above 15 km/h. I kept my spirits up by feeding myself a fig roll every ten miles. I have to say that I’m not all that keen on the countryside north of Huntingdon. It’s too flat for there to be interesting views, and it’s too populous to have the bleak beauty of the fens proper. Maybe it’s nicer when it’s not raining.
There was a nice little section towards the end of the leg, where to avoid entering St Ives on the busy A1123, we cut through Houghton Mill (the last working watermill on the Great Ouse) and across the lock, before touring the pretty villages of Hemingford Abbots and Hemingford Grey to St Ives. At the Local Café in St Ives, the staff were really enthusiastic and made sure everyone got their sticker. Clearly they felt some responsibility as a control on a 200 km audax. The stream of damp cyclists were well catered for here.
The last leg of the ride was the wettest of the four, with the rain increasing steadily under dark evening clouds. Here the wind was a big help, and even with tired legs it took less than 90 minutes to do the last 37 km, and there were Chelsea buns and cups of tea at the finish.
Thanks to Simon for the smooth organisation, and to George and Peter for manning the St Neots control. I had 148 miles for the day.
Update: Nigel’s account of the ride is at the CTC blog and Chris’s account at his personal blog.