“Double Dutch” audax

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Martin Malins has been organizing the “Double Dutch” 200 km audax for four years now. I rode the first edition back in 2011, when we had the most amazing luck with the weather, and I was looking forward to riding it again. The route is a tour of the Fens: starting at Huntingdon, you head north-east via Ramsey, March, and Nordelph, then north up the River Great Ouse to Kings Lynn for the fourth control and lunch. Then you cross the Ouse and head northwest to an info at Holbeach St Matthew close to The Wash, southwest to the sixth control at the Springfields shopping centre in Spalding, Lincolnshire, and back to Huntingdon for the finish.

I set my alarm for 06:00 but woke at 05:58, turned it off, quickly downed a cup of tea and some breakfast, and crept out of the house as quietly as I could at 06:20. The ride over to Huntingdon has got so much better since the last time I did this ride, due to the completion of the cycle path beside the Cambridgeshire Guided Busway. In 2011 the busway was not yet open: the contractors (BAM Nuttall) were in dispute with Cambridgeshire County Council, and had blocked all the entrances to the busway with massive concrete blocks that stopped buses using it, but cyclists like me could sneak past and trespass safely along the narrow concrete rails. Now there’s a smooth wide tarmac path all the way to St Ives.

Near the Fen Drayton lakes I was passed by Nick Jackson. I jumped on his wheel, but he was doing a steady 35 km/h and in less than a mile he had shaken me off and ridden away into the distance! No matter: I had plenty of time in hand, and took the Thicket Path from St Ives to Houghton, and then the quiet road through Wyton, arriving at the railway station in Huntingdon at about 07:30. Time to get a coffee from the station café and rest up before the start of the ride proper. There were a lot of riders, perhaps as many as fifty.

The ride starts with a tour of Huntingdon’s dreadful one-way gyratory system, and then there’s a little climb, barely worthy of the name, out of town and up to the A141/B1090 roundabout. But because I climb better than average, I found myself close to the front of the field through Kings Ripton and Wistow, hanging on to wheels for dear life as the north-easterly headwind began to take its toll, and so group by group I dropped back through the field. Something similar happened last time, I seem to recall.

Headwinds are my nemesis: at least when climbing hills one eventually gets to the top, but in a headwind the fatigue just builds and builds until I have no more power to give. I put my head right down and hung on as long as I could and when I couldn’t hang on any more I dropped off the group and stopped for something to eat. These enforced rest stops provided good opportunities to try out the panorama feature on my phone, and see if I could capture something of the relentless bleakness and flatness of the fens.

Upwell Fen near Christchurch. 54 km.

With the relentless wind in my face, and struggling to do more than about 16 or 17 km/h, it was difficult to keep up my morale. Even though the sun had come out, there was too much wind chill to take off my jacket. I started to contemplate abandoning the ride: there’s a tempting train home to Cambridge from King’s Lynn. But then at Nordelph I ate a banana, and on Barroway Drove shortly afterwards I met a couple of riders who were going just slowly enough for me to keep up and with a generous wheel to follow I gradually began to recover my spirits and even do a turn on the front. Thank you!

I do like the run-in to Kings Lynn from Stowbridge. The high bank of the Great Ouse provides some protection from the wind, and as you cycle along you can contemplate the fact that the road runs more or less along the zero contour, and many square kilometres of farmland in Marshland Fen to the west are below sea level.

At Wiggenhall St Germans, the route crosses the Great Ouse, and I stopped to take photos. The river was fast-flowing, muddy and turbid.

River Great Ouse at Wiggenhall St Germans. 77 km.

A couple of kilometres later the road crosses the parallel flood relief channel, which was built after the great flood of 1953. In combination with the Ouse cut-off channel, it takes waters from the Rivers Wissey, Lark and Little Ouse, preventing the Great Ouse from bursting its banks between Downham Market and King’s Lynn.

On the waters of the relief channel, there was a pair of great crested grebes doing their courtship dance, each one bobbing its head in turn.

At King’s Lynn Power Station, memorably described on the route sheet as a “large Chernobyl type building,” we turned left onto National Cycle Route 1, which runs along the bank of the relief channel to its confluence with the Great Ouse, and then along the riverbank, under the A17, across the outflows of the Rivers Nar and Gaywood, and into the historic centre of King’s Lynn. This is a much nicer place to control than in 2011, when we were directed to a Tesco superstore over on the east side of the city. Possibly the reason for this diversion was to make up a little extra distance: with Google Maps in “walking” mode, this year’s route comes in under distance at about 195 km by the shortest route. (Someone who actually rode the shortest route—making use of the A17, the A151, the A16—would have a miserable time and miss out on the best bits of the ride.)

In King’s Lynn, there were some tempting cafés, but I could see that the next stage on the route was the ferry across the Great Ouse, and since the ferry runs every twenty minutes, I could save time by getting a take-away and eating it on the quay. In fact, it was only about five minutes before we could hear the ferry start its engines and begin to cross the river to us.

So strong was the flow of the river that the ferry had to come across crab-wise, with its bows pointed almost directly upriver, with a slight angle to ensure some sideways progress. There were six cyclists in the queue, and with some careful organization we managed to stow all six bicycles safely about the tiny ferry for the crossing.

River Great Ouse, approaching Kings Lynn. 82 km.

I looked at the time as I set out again from the ferry car park in West Lynn: it was 13:00, so I had averaged only 17 km/hour for the first five hours of the ride! But from here on, I didn’t have any trouble: my morale improved and even though there were a few more slow sections into the wind, I never doubted that I’d be able to finish.

From West Lynn the route ran west, parallel to the A17 on the old course of the road (now a decent cycle track), and crossed the Nene Outfall Cut on the old swing bridge at Sutton Bridge. Then it turned north and climbs onto the west embankment of the Nene: up here there was some difficult riding with the wind blowing straight off the North Sea. It was a huge relief to reach Holbeach St Matthew, turn to the southwest, and put the wind behind me for most of the rest of the ride. Now at last I could get into the big chainring and make some progress: there’s nothing better for morale than seeing the countryside going past at 35 km/h!

I stopped for a quick meal at Spalding and then set out on the best section of the ride, the cycle path that runs along the top of the dike on west bank of the River Welland. Here I was passed, for about the fourth time that day, by one of the riders who had towed me from Nordelph to Wiggenhall St Germans, and we chatted for a bit, but then I stopped at the bridge Crowland to take a last panorama, and he sped off towards Thorney.

The long B1040 from Crowland to Thorney to Ramsey St Mary’s was a bit of a drag as usual, but with the wind in the northeast it was not nearly so soul-destroying as it usually is. Nonetheless it was a relief to get off it and into the hills north of Huntingdon at Upwood. I say “hills” but the high point is at just 44 m near Sapley: nonetheless this seemed quite exciting after spending 150 km below the 10 m contour line!

I got to the finish at the George Hotel at 18:50. The hotel was also hosting a wedding reception—I wonder what they made of the stream of tired and dirty cyclists coming through the courtyard? I ordered a bowl of chips and chatted to a couple of audaxers who had come down from Sutton Coldfield, and then it was back on the busway to Cambridge. Along the way I surprised an unwary heron, and saw a barn owl sweeping low over the meadows. Home at 20:45, having cycled 265 km (165 miles).

Lighthouse at Guys Head, north of Sutton Bridge on the Nene Outfall Cut. 105 km.

River Welland near Crowland. 154 km.