It was Alex’s idea in the first place. He needed a 200 km ride in January to keep on track for a “Randonneur Round the Year” award, and he had spotted that the weather forecast for Saturday was for overcast skies and 3 to 5 degrees: cold, but no risk of ice. The ride he suggested was Nick Wilkinson’s “Cambridge Diss’d Clare 200” which heads east into Suffolk, Norfolk (if very briefly) and Essex, with six controls at Cambridge, Barrow, Diss, Debenham, Elmswell, Clare, and Cambridge.
Four of us signed up: Alex, Nigel, Seb and me. Three of us had previously ridden the route: Alex in January 2016 with John Ross, and Nigel and me in April 2016. Seb was new to the ride, but he had done the similar “Suffolk Eye-full 200” in February 2016 in very cold conditions.
As the week went on, the weather forecast became less optimistic, with clear skies and a hard frost predicted for both Friday and Saturday nights. So I made a careful selection of clothing layers. Feet: Sealskinz waterproof socks, shoes, and neoprene overshoes. Legs: cycling shorts, Lowe Alpine thermal underwear, cycling leggings. Body: Lowe Alpine thermal underwear, winter jersey, Altura high-visibility jacket. Head: snood and fleece-lined hat. Hands: Altura winter gloves. I run quite hot when I get going, so three layers worked well for me: even though the air temperature dropped well below freezing, I was comfortable throughout the ride. My hands were cold when starting out after each stop, but I am used to this and after about ten minutes of exertion they suddenly heat up as vasodilation allows a flow of warm blood from my core.
Nick Wilkinson came to the start (08:00 in St Andrew’s Street) to see us off, and then we set out east on the A1303. In Newmarket we turned up into the hills, on a long steady climb to Ashley before descending by the windmill to Dalham and then climbing again to the first control at the Premier store in Barrow, where the coffee machine was very welcome. We didn’t stop for long, and soon were on the road again, heading north-east to Risby and West Stow. The sky was cloudy thus far, but we could see brighter skies on the south-eastern horizon, beyond the towers of the sugar refinery at Bury St Edmunds.
Crossing the A134 eastwards brought us into pig-farming country around Great Livermere. The field across from the pig farm was full of birds: mostly gulls and crows and rooks, but there was also a flock of peewits (also known as plovers and lapwings), dark-green-and-white birds with big wings and a crest on the back of their heads. Then a commotion among the rooks revealed the presence of a buzzard that had managed to slip in among them. Rooks really don’t like having a buzzard around them, and they harrassed it continually until we had cycled out of sight.
In the lanes around this part of the ride we encountered places where water running off the fields had frozen solid in shady north-facing hollows, and in a couple of spots we had to get off and walk. But there was little or no black ice, and we all stayed upright, reaching Diss (85 km) at around 12:45. In Diss the traffic was jammed nose-to-tail along the A1066, so we abandoned the road and walked the last few metres up Mere Street to the control.
Leaving the café we found that the clouds were clearing and the sun had come out, but there was a long way to go: Diss feels as if it ought to be the mid-point of the ride, but in fact it’s only 85 km in and there are still 130 km to go. The route turns south-south-east from Diss towards Eye and Debenham, and the easterly wind was still troublesome and kept us slow. At this point we were attracted by the possibility of hot food at Dorothy’s Café at Elmswell, where Nigel and I had hot apple pie and custard back in April of last year. The café’s Facebook page said they closed at 16:00 so there was a good chance that we could make it if we put on a little extra speed once we got the wind at our backs. But it wasn’t to be. We got to Elmswell about 15:30 to find that the café had closed at 15:00. This was a big disappointment, though we tried to put a brave face on it, and a banana in the parking lot of the Co-op was no substitute for a hot meal and a sit down. But there was nothing for it but to put on a cheerful face and head southwest towards Clare, 40 km away, as the sun set in the west.
Near Rattlesden we surprised a great white egret fishing in the ditch by the road and it took to the wing and fled as we approached. Soon it was getting dark, and with the clear skies the temperature dropped rapidly. Venus was bright and low in the western sky and guided us to Clare, where we arrived around 18:30. But here the advantage of going so slowly came to light: the pubs were now open and serving hot food. So we went into the Bell and, craving for fat (as you do in bitterly cold weather), we all ordered cheeseburgers and chips. All, that is, except Seb, who protested that he was not hungry, and could not be persuaded that a hot meal was essential when there were still 40 km of Essex and Suffolk hills to cross.
It was nearly 19:30 when we set out again, heading north from Clare and then west towards Kedington and Great Wratting. The skies were clear of cloud, and away from the lights of the towns, the constellations of Orion, Ursa Major, Cassiopeia, Cygnus and Auriga were bright and clear. We could have navigated by the Pole Star if GPS and route sheet had failed us. The temperature continued to fall as we crossed the high ground Wratting Common, reaching −5 °C according to the thermometer on Seb’s Garmin, and there were patches of frost on the road, so we took the downhills somewhat gingerly.
Seb’s speed dropped along with the temperature, and we started to worry a bit about the time limit. Fourteen hours from setting off would bring us to 22:00 and so it was clearly going to be a bit tight. We got to St Andrew’s Street with less than ten minutes to spare. But audax is not a race, and the important thing is that we survived and completed the ride. I learned a few things about pacing myself in the cold, and the value of a hot meal on a winter night. My total distance was 222 km (138 miles). You can see tracks on Strava for Alex, Nigel, and Seb.