It’s not easy designing a “DIY” audax route. The way these rides work is that you nominate a series of controls, then you ride around and visit each one in turn, collecting “proof of presence” in the form of receipts or cashpoint slips. The tricky bit is that you only get credit for the shortest distance between each pair of controls. So you pick two nice cafés about 50 km apart, but then it turns out that they are only 40 km apart via the A1, so that’s all you get credit for. Add up all those little diversions, and soon your DIY 200 is actually 240 km.
On a calendar ride, the organizer can put in “information” controls anywhere on the route (or at least, anywhere that it’s possible to ask a question), and so bring the distance ridden closer to the nominal distance. When I ran a calendar event a couple of years ago, with judicious placement of controls I managed to get the distance ridden down to 200 km exactly, and so reasonably friendly for beginners. But that’s not possible on a DIY.1
So it was only after many experiments with Google Maps that I settled on a route with five controls:
Which comes to exactly 200 km by the shortest route. But how far was it to ride? Read on and find out!
Stage 1: Cambridge to Whitwell (62 km). I controlled at the cashpoint at 07:41 and then rode down to Brookside to meet Nigel from CTC Cambridge, who had very generously agreed to ride with me. Nigel has a steady temperament which is ideal for an audaxing companion (unlike me: I have a tendancy to mood swings which must be trying). There was a light breeze from the south-southwest, which was a good omen for this ride: we’d have a headwind outbound and a tailwind for the return. We set out quickly, passing another cyclist on the A603 near Barton, but he jumped on our wheels and rode with us to Haslingfield, where either he went the other way, or else we dropped him going up Chapel Hill. We took the familiar route through Barrington, Shepreth, Bassingbourn, Litlington, and Steeple Morden to Ashwell, and stopped at Days bakery for breakfast at 09:20.
There’s a sharp climb out of Ashwell, a rolling road through Bygrave to Baldock, and then the handy Baldock Lane, which crosses over the A1 and skirts the south side of Letchworth to Willian. We climbed the small hill at Redcoats, descended to the B656 and then set out on the long climb through St Paul’s Walden, reaching Whitwell at about 10:30. Emily’s Tea Shop is hidden away down a side street (The Valley), and if you didn’t know it was there you’d never think to go looking for it. I found out about it from browsing the South Hertfordshire CTC ride reports (for example) and I can recommend it: the location is perfect for cycling, surrounded by quiet hilly roads. There were eight cyclists already there when we arrived, and then another group turned up while we were eating.
Stage 2: Whitwell to Wendover (44 km). This stage was the main point of the ride: I have long wanted to head west across the Chiltern Hills and see what’s on the other side. The climbing started immediately, with a steep drag up the B651 to the water tower, where we turned right onto roads that were new to both of us. Soon we were picking up signs for the Chilterns Cycleway, so we knew we were on the right track. After Chiltern Green, the road drops about 60 metres into the valley of the River Lea (or Lee), crosses the river and an off-road section of National Cycle Route 6 (from Harpenden to Luton), and then climbs steadily back up into the hills. This is fantastic cycling country: the hills are wooded to shelter you from the wind, but every so often you get a view out over a valley to the next hill. We were making good progress, climbing steadily and descending as fast as we dared (which was sometimes not very fast, with blind bends and potholes and piles of gravel to beware of).
There was a steep descent into Berkhamsted and then we crossed the Grand Union Canal (which I barely noticed as I was trying to navigate the confusing maze of streets), before climbing again into more hills. A couple of kilometres east of Cholesbury I noticed a tempting shortcut over a hill by a farm, and the lane looked good as far as I could see, but when I got to the top I realised that I had been fooled: down the other side of the hill the lane was unsurfaced: ridable with care at first, but then it steepened and became utterly unridable. Still, the map suggested that there was only about 500 m to go, so I started walking. The photo should give you some idea of the conditions, and no doubt Nigel was cursing me at this point. But it was very short, and we were soon back on tarmac again.
The road climbed steadily as we headed west from Cholesbury, touching the 240 m contour at St Leonards. A sign saying “Wendover 6” puzzled us: surely it couldn’t be nearly that far? No more than 3 miles, surely? But all was explained when we reached the turn and found a sign saying “not suitable for heavy goods vehicles”. It was an exciting descent: narrow and twisty and gravelly and brakes all the way down. I’m glad we didn’t meet any vehicles coming up the other way.
Whitewaters Deli Café was a fine place to stop: would visit again.
Stage 3: Wendover to Marston Moretaine (50 km) We set out from Wendover at about 14:00. Six hours for 106 km is not too bad given the wind and hills and café stops: averaging nearly 18 km/h. Now we were heading north with a tailwind and we could expect to make better progress. The only slight worry—and with hindsight this was always a flaw in my plan—was that the Forest Centre at Marston Moretaine stops serving food at 16:30, so we were under time pressure.
The B4009 headed north from Wendover along the side of a hill. To start with it was wooded, but then the view opened up to reveal an expanse of flat arable plains. We turned left and descended the steep scarp slope of the Chiltern hills to find ourselves in a landscape similar to that of western Cambridgeshire. We swapped leads efficiently, made short work of the roads to Soulbury, and then descended into the valley of the River Ouzel, where the Grand Union Canal runs alongside the river between Leighton Buzzard and Bletchley.
After crossing the Ouzel, we climbed into another small range of hills around Woburn (part of Greensand Ridge) before crossing back over the M1. Originally I had thought of taking the direct route and crossing at junction 13, but Nigel thought it would be better to avoid such a busy junction, and go round via Ridgmont instead. (I sometimes wonder if motorists realise how much work cyclists put into planning our rides so as to avoid them? I guess they neither know nor care.)
We arrived at the Forest Centre at Marston Moretaine at about 16:07, so we were in plenty of time for food. But we were both feeling pretty tired, and it wasn’t until about 16:40 that we set out again.
Stage 4: Marston Moretaine to Cambridge (67 km) The shortest route home from Marston Moretaine, according to Google Maps, is to go through the centre of Bedford and then out along the old Oxford–Cambridge railway line (now part of National Cycle Route 51) to Sandy. But I didn’t fancy this: getting into Bedford and out again is tricky, and the cycle route is narrow with a gravel surface in places, and one section where you have to walk. So we opted for the longer, but more straightforward, route through Houghton Conquest, Haynes, and Southill to Biggleswade. There was one last sting in the tail as we had to climb back onto Greensand Ridge south of Houghton Conquest.
We made a final refuelling stop at the Co-op in Gamlingay (this is the advantage of doing these long rides on a Saturday instead of a Sunday: there are village shops open in the evening), and then it was back on the road to Longstowe and thence through Toft, Comberton, and Barton to Cambridge. These roads are very familiar so we just got our heads down and turned the pedals in the gathering gloom.
For a while I thought I had a chance of finishing inside twelve hours and this spurred me to make a little extra effort. I couldn’t remember exactly what time I had controlled in the morning so the outcome was in doubt for me until the very last minute, but my cashpoint receipt said 19:47 so I missed it by six minutes.
The total distance was 224 km (139 miles), well over distance, but a very satisfying ride. The Chilterns are fantastic cycling country and I will be back for sure. And thank you to Nigel for your company, encouragement, and help with the navigation.
↩ There’s an alternative form of DIY that uses a GPS track as proof of presence, and this allows you to nominate controls anywhere you like and so get the ridden distance close to the nominal distance. Maybe if I ever buy a GPS.