A DIY 200 from Cambridge to Milton Keynes

It's not the most obvious choice for a route: right through the middle of Milton Keynes.  It hadn't ever occurred to me, either.  However, a regular rider of one of my routes bemoaned the lack of any permanent routes in the MK area, so I set off to try to put something interesting together.

With any route you have to start with an idea: what is this ride about?  What are we trying to achieve?  The main point of the route I designed was as follows:

  • Starts and ends in Girton, Cambridge
  • Uses the track alongside the Cambridge Guided Busway for a fast, flat lead-out and return
  • Passes through the countryside between Northampton and Bedford to the far side of Milton Keynes
  • Turns back towards Cambridge and ascends Church Road in Bow Brickhill, which is a stiff 1-in-8 climb with 100m of ascent
  • Shortly it then passes up through Woburn Park, along the edge of Woburn Safari Park
  • Uses the Bedford Country Path — 10km of secluded activity path from the centre of Bedford towards St Neots

These aren't such exciting reasons for the route, but this is more of a training route than a full-on expedition route, and there are plenty of safe, gritted roads to use in icy conditions and still visit all the controls.

Whenever I put a new route together, I have to ride the route myself to check the safety and signage before submitting to AUK for approval.

I had been in touch with Alan and he said he'd ride out along the reverse of my route and meet me near Grafham Water in the morning and then ride me back to his house — the route passes quite close.  He then invited Idai out too, so it would be three of us: those two on Elliptigos, and me on a Brompton.

I wanted this ride to be very much a light training ride: to ride at 140bpm heart rate except on the big climbs.  As far as pace went, I wanted to hit steady 20kph moving rate all the way around.  I can achieve quicker times, and usually my average HR is only a little below 140, but for the sake of experience I wanted to see how I felt after spending a relatively easy day on the bike.

An easy spin in the early light

I set off a little after 6am in the early light and still air of a cool — but not cold — spring morning, and settled into a steady 24kph at 130bpm.  This is a super-flat section of the ride, using the Busway to St Ives and then following the Gt Ouse and so remaining straight and level.  At Huntingdon the route heads more westerly to Grafham water: I've never ridden, or driven, out this way and so it was interesting to ride new lanes.  As the route heads west from Huntingdon then it rises gently and this could definitely be felt.

After Grafham, the road joins a couple of B-roads and as I turned at a junction in Great Staughton, I came across the unmissable sight of two guys standing up, jogging slowly on their 'bikes' — Alan and Idai thumbs up

We stopped for a chat and to swap cold-weather gear for cool-weather gear.  The day was turning out nice: the breeze was a light tailwind and the sun was up — a beautiful spring day to be out on the bike!

And then there were three … to Northampton

Alan and Idai had met up at almost exactly 6am and so were a good 20 minutes ahead of me — even though I am quicker than them, they had still made excellent progress and got really far to the east in the time.  After a few minutes chatting, they turned around and we began heading westwards again.

I have done a lot of lonely winter miles, riding on my own — over 1,000km this winter, in fact! — and so it was a raelly nice change to have company on this ride.  I don't know this South-East Midlands hinterland that well, so I had the experience of new terrain, aas well as the fine weather.  This is what audax is about smile

The terrain from Huntingdon to Northampton isn't flat, but it isn't hilly: it's quite like Essex, but the up-bits are quite so sudden.  The traffic was light and we soon headed off into the lanes — I had chosen a route that is about 10km longer than the absolute minimum, but those 10km allow the routing to take in a lot of lanes as opposed to A- and B-roads, especially on this section.

We spent a delicious couple of hours working our way through the lanes westwards: lots of pretty little villages, old churches, open views across rolling countryside.  And because we had started out early, very little traffic.  It was over all too soon, though, and we had a B-road blast of a few kilometres to the control in Wootton Fields, Northampton.  We didn't need to stop, but I wanted to grab a receipt from the cash point to check that it includes an address/town name for future validation purposes (I was riding a DIY-by-GPS to check the route).

We had passed Alan's street, but refused the proffered cup of tea in order to keep Alan with us: once he returned home that would be the end of his ride.

Milton Keynes, here we come!

The next stage is short, but mostly main roads: from Northampton to Milton Keynes, using the V6/Grafton Street right through the middle of this new-town metropolis to the ancient Watling Street … where there's a McDonald's wink  Partway along this stage, Alan hung a sharp left — as sharp a left as you can hook on an Elliptigo — and Idai and I rode on.  Riding through MK is an experience in itself — it felt like riding through the industrial suburbs of a small American city!

Idai was focused on his meal as that was the end of his ride, with just a short ride back home for him … I was only just over halfway, though.  We spent a good hour in the sun chatting before we went our own ways.

A couple of stiff climbs to Bedford

The next stage requires a sobering traversal of the A5 roundabout — but it's now a doddle since it has become lights-controlled, and cycle crossings added all the way around for the less-confident.

Once over the other side, I had a short run before turning R @ mrbt and then R on LHB to Church Road: this is a steep, stiff climb up what looks like an ancient drover's road to the top of the ridgeline, although is probably just the path up to the church, as its name suggests.  It's a climb of only 70m, which by Welsh or Scottish standards isn't that much, but for the Midlands that's a pretty good climb.  Better still, the gradient gets to steeper than 1-in-8, so it's tough on the quads. 

Thanks to Google for this image

I managed it on 46" (that's my lowest gear) in five minutes from the junction to where it levels off at the top — that's a VAM of about 850m/h.  My heart rate I thought before I started the cilmb would max out around 180bpm, but in the end it reached only 167bpm and within 60 seconds of cresting the climb had dropped back to 120bpm — that's a good sign for me this early in the season.

The drop down the other side is easy riding before turning right towards Woburn, for no other reason than the road out of Woburn to Ampthill climbs through the lovely Woburn Park — a little scenery for the pleasure, thereof wink

I do enjoy riding this section on my own, but it's not necessarily conducive to side-by-side riding: the midlands tends to have a population density — and therefore vehicle density — that means most of the direct routes have long been converted from mere rights-of-way to B-, or worse, A-roads.  There's no avoiding it though: it's best to just pick a day and time when traffic is going to be light.  Today this wasn't an issue, because I was on my own, and TBH the traffic was light and well-behaved.

The climb up through Ampthill is a bit odd: this is the main road up through the town, which itself is build on the side of a hill.  The elevation change is certainly noticeable on the elevation profile, as it's the second biggest climb of the day!  Half of the climb is out the other end of town and is followed by a brisk descent onto the Bedford plain: the posted speed limit is 40 and to the following drivers' amusement I did briefly touch it! 

Ampthill is the last significant climb of the day.  From there it's a flat run to Bedford, before joining the Priory Country Park path, which is one of those converted railways.  From the map I thought this looked like an interesting distraction on the ride: 10km completely isolated from traffic, but …

The B530 from Ampthill to Bedford turned out to be an A-road in all but name, with fast-moving traffic.  Most drivers were considerate, but it's no pleasure on such a straight, dull road to be passed by traffic at 60mph, even when they give plenty of space.  In Bedford there's a buslane for much of the navigation, so I was racing the stop-start queue of traffic into the centre. 

An experiment along a country path

The country path starts well with a good surface, but quickly became crowded with families taking youngsters out for a stroll, which was good to see, but means this path isn't suitable for audax.  Later on there's a section that is footpath only, and towards the end the surface has been lifted by tree routes into a series of harsh speed bumps.  It was an interesting experiement, but it's back to the drawing board for this section.

There was then a main-road dash into St Neots, another fast, flat spin with traffic, before popping out the other side for definitely the final climb of the day: just 30m back up onto the western-Cambridgeshire plateau. 

The final run down to Cambridge

The route here takes a right then a left into territory I've not cycled before around Graveley, before heading back towards Fenstanton and then Girton.  The traffic level dropped immediately the other side of St Neots, giving a lovely late-afternoon finish to the ride.  The drop back off the plateau was a nice, smooth easing of the legs.

I had been aiming to ride at a steady pace of 20kph or so, but so far I had sat a bit above this.  I could feel it now and was finding it hard to maintain 21-22kph, which isn't that quick at all.  Clearly I still need to work on my fitness for PBP.

From Fenstanton, the obvious route back to Cambridge is via the back lanes.  I've ridden this many times, but it's fairly characterless with some uncomfortable surfaces.  It was nice to reel in some other cyclists out and about, but I prefer riding the busway.

Arrivée

And back into Girton, Cambridge: 217km in 11h55m (18kph), 10h6m moving = 21.5kph.  Either of those speeds is plenty for PBP, I just need to work on a steady pace that I can maintain for four whole days: 20kph is my baseline target, as that would give 61 hours' riding over 1220km, with 29 hours for controlling, eating and sleeping.  Quicker would be better: if I could maintain 20s with controls on long rides then that would be ideal.

On the heart-rate front: I rode a steady pace all day and kept my HR around 140 for most of the day.  In terms of standard training zones, 144bpm is the upper limit for fat-burning for me (zone 2), so the numbers pop out of the metrics: I spent 43 minutes in zone 3 (aerobic, above 144bpm) and 3 minutes in zone 4 (anaerobic, above 157bpm). The rest of the time was split evenly between zones 1 and 2.  My average for the day was 129bpm, lower than other rides recently, but not significantly so — more study needed here, methinks.

Overall a very lovely day out — the weather was so nice I burnt my face slightly!  I had good company for half the ride, which after a winter of DIYs was a big plus, thank you Alan and Idai! thumbs up

Postscript

I have since revisited this route and removed the Bedford section, using sections of two other rides I know well to move the final control to St Ives.  I am waiting for approval from AUK to turn this into another new permanent ride.

Nick Wilkinson

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