Cambridge Four Counties 200 audax


The Cambridge Four Counties 200 is one of four 200 km permanent rides starting in Girton (near Cambridge), organized by Nick Wilkinson. It visits controls at Huntingdon, Wootton Fields (near Northampton), Watling Street/A5 services (near Milton Keynes), Sandy, and St Ives.

It was raining, there was a cold wind blowing from the north, and as I rode up the busway towards St Ives I was regretting my decision to wear shorts. What happened to the summer? Two weeks ago it was 30 degrees in the shade, now it felt distinctly wintery. At Huntingdon there was a café full of cyclists, but it felt too soon (29 km) to stop, and instead I stocked up on cakes and set off west towards Grafham, where the visitor centre was shut (opens at 10:00 in the summer), so I sat by the lake and ate my breakfast, watching a big flock of house martins skimming round and round over the grass.

On the road to Keysoe, I caught up with a group of ten cyclists who were out for a spin from Higham (which I think must be the Higham Ferrers near Wellingborough), heading for morning coffee at Harrold–Odell Country Park. It would have been cheating to take pace from them, but they stopped for a pee on the road to Riseley, saving me from having to make this ethical decision. On the road from Riseley to Sharnbrook I saw Steve Abraham1 coming the other way, pedalling smoothly and comfortably, unlike me. The countryside here in Bedfordshire is gently rolling: continually climbing or descending, but never steeply, with the occasional view from the top of a hill over the valleys of the Great Ouse and the Nene. There were flocks of chaffinches foraging in the hedgerows that fled as I approached.

It was a long leg (68 km) from Huntingdon to Wootton Fields on the southern edge of Northampton, so I was looking forward to a sit down and a coffee, and it was a bitter disappointment to find that the control had only a cashpoint and a Co-op. There’s a lesson here: I should have done a bit more research. If anyone else is riding this, I think the best option may be to push on another 7 km to the Forest Café at Salcey Forest.

After Salcey Forest the route crossed the M1 into Buckinghamshire and then boldly sliced through Milton Keynes. The route sheet offered a choice between following the dual carriageway via Milton Keynes’ many roundabouts, or using the redway system of cycle paths. This was the first time I’ve been to Milton Keynes so I thought I’d try the redways. But the route sheet was a bit vague about the route to follow: all it said was, “follow signs for Bletchley then Granby or Denbigh, ending up on Watling St heading east”. But at the point you join the cycle path there are no signs to any of these destinations. I took a gamble and followed “CMK” and then “CMK West” until signs to Bletchley started to appear, and this worked for a while, but then I found more junctions with none of these destinations. I followed “MK Bowl” for a bit, but then these ran out too and I was lost in a maze of twisty redways, all alike. It took a lot of retracing of steps before I finally came out on Denbigh Road heading for the A5 services. I can’t say that I recommend the redways for audaxing: they are constantly twisting and turning and climbing and descending, meaning that you can’t keep up any kind of speed, and the signs are small and hard to read meaning that you have to slow up at every junction to check them. A puncture did not help, and I was suffering from a sense of humour failure when I finally got to the A5 services. “Nearly 15:00 and only just over halfway round” was my somewhat despondent thought.

The next leg, 42 km to Sandy, was very pretty and did a lot to restore my spirits. First, there’s a lovely steep climb out of Bow Brickhill. This climbs 65 m in about half a kilometre for an average gradient of about 13% (and a couple of sections must be substantially steeper than that). At the top of the climb All Saints church stands near the edge of the summit plateau. Once it must have been visible for many miles, but now it is hidden in the trees.

After an exhilarating descent through the woods to Woburn, there’s another climb through Woburn Park (where herds of red deer graze beside the road), a descent across the M1 to Ampthill, and then gently rolling lanes of southern Bedfordshire through Haynes and Old Warden. I arrived at Sandy at 17:15, by which time all the cafés were shut, so there was nothing for it but to get back on the bike and head north into the wind to St Ives on the dull but efficient B1040. Arriving in St Ives at 18:45, the route sheet said, “Note nice café imm on LHS at end of bridge” but the River Tea Rooms close at 17:00 so you would have to be much faster than me (or starting somewhere other than Girton) to benefit from this instruction.2

From St Ives it was a fast ride down the busway with the setting sun casting long shadows ahead of me, and I was at the finish in Girton a couple of minutes before it set. What with riding to the start and home from the finish, the substantial over-distance on the ride itself, and a few navigational errors, my total distance for the day was 238 km (148 miles).

This ride has some great sections (Huntington to Wootton Fields, and Bow Brickhill to Sandy) but for me it was spoiled by the trip through Milton Keynes and by the facilities at the controls. It would be nice to have one point on the ride to sit down for coffee and cake, but Huntingdon is too early, Wootton Fields has nothing, the A5 services has only a McDonald’s, everything is shut at Sandy, and St Ives is too late. So if you ride this, do some research beforehand and make a better plan than I did.

  1.  Steve Abraham is currently trying to break the record for total distance ridden in a year. Today he rode 314 km!

  2.  (Update 2019-11-01.) The situation is even worse now, because the River Tea Rooms have been replaced by the River Terrace Café, which closes at 16:00.