The Flitchbikes being a 200, and Great Dunmow being 51km in Google from my home in Cambridge, I decided to ECE the ride to 300, as it would take only an extra 45 minutes each end compared to waiting for and catching the train. The forecast was for a bout of wetness with possible thunder and lightning in the morning, with sun in the afternoon. And wind – oh, how I love wind!
Note: this ride report is a mild rewrite of my submission to yacf, here. Codified names are the nicknames of people on the forum, sorry about that. The post date has been changed to the date of the ride.
TL:DR Just for you who can't be bothered, I rode with a number of friendly regulars, completed it in a good time (for me), and there are lots of photos here-clickety (there are rather more on Flickr than in my report).
I set out from home before 6am to ride the 51km to the start of the Flitchbikes 200. I first rode the perm of this route as my very first audax in November 2012 and it rained hard and blew a gale – having undergone 13 hours of sodden misery, audax just felt like a good fit This was to be my first outing on the calendar ride.
The weather at home was a balmy 16ºC with no wind and high cloud. I wore a summer shirt plus arm warmers. The run down to Great Dunmow from Cambridge is benign and unchallenging and at this early hour I used a series of fast B roads to Newport and cut across country through the lanes to Dunmow. Taking my time to look around, I was amazed at the number and variety of quaint and traditional houses and villages so close to home that I'd never really "seen" from the car!
Towards Dunmow I could feel the wind picking up and just at the roundabout before Dunmow the heavens opened and I got a bit damp. Nevertheless, I arrived with plenty of time to spare.
It was a warm welcome from Tomsk and Junior-junior Tomsk at the church hall, with second breakfast laid out and plenty of time to have a chat — Fidgetbuzz, HK, LittleWheelsAndBig, Bikey Mikey, Denise, the bhoot tandem and plenty of others I know by face but not name. This wasn't going to be a huge ride, with about 30 starters (IIRC), but Tomsk was running a 100 and 150 on the same day, so overall a good turnout, especially given the weather forecast.
After a gentle pep-talk from Tom in the shadow of the church, we set off. The ride starts in Essex, which is lumpy: not big enough to hurt, but not really big enough to recover on the other side. On the turn from the start the road started to climb and the riders started to string out: as I wanted to try to take lots of photos, I stayed with the quicker bunch snapping happily, figuring that as I slowed down then other riders would catch me up. Unfortunately, this exuberance would haunt me later, although I did get a lot of pictures …
The route is cross-country westwards to Buntingford and then north-west to Potton, before turning north-easterly and heading across the rather flatter Cambridgeshire to St Ives (of seven-wives fame, allegedly) and into the fens to Chatteris. And then returning via a number of significant lumps to the south-east of Cambridge and then via Saffron Walden, Thaxted to arrivée at Great Dunmow.
I stupidly managed to sit on the front of the group with Bikey Mikey to Stansted Mountfitchet, taking rear-facing pictures (not specifically of my rear, although occasionally ), but stopped at the top of the first Chapel Hill of the day to remove my waterproof. I managed to make contact with the group and stay with them for a while to Manuden, taking time to grab a gratuitous selfie with Bikey Mikey, but was eventually gapped again and was unable to hook back on.
A quick stop in Buntingford to re-oil my chain (tut: I should've done this after BCM) and Fidgetbuzz caught me. We chatted together through the lanes, it was good to catch up, to the next control at Potton, including the optional ford crossing. At some point HK caught us up, but no sign of LWaB — apparently one breakfast isn't enough and he'd stopped for another
By now the rain had really started to feel properly wet, so the waterproof went back on. Fidgetbuzz and I headed off, leaving LWaB (who had caught up with us) and HK to faff, but the B roads to St Ives are fast and busy enough to deter side-by-side riding and pretty much any conversation, and we rode mostly in silence. However, given Fidgetbuzz's recent protestations at being too unfit for audax, he tidily kept me at my upper limit without hardly breaking a sweat!! Clearly his training is paying off
HK and LWaB caught us in St Ives just after an old geezer drove past beeping his horn (no idea what for: simply hates cyclists?). And it had stopped raining.
St Ives is alleged to be that St Ives of seven-wives poetry fame, although this is an unresolved debate. You can say, however, that it's famous for Oliver Cromwell being a resident, for a famous historic chapel built as part of the ancient bridge (and was used as a toll booth as well as for services!), as one of the homes of Clive Sinclair's ("inventor of the pocket calculator") business, and being quite a picturesque old town.
After St Ives there are a couple of small hills on the route and Fidgetbuzz demonstrated that while he's quick on the flat, he's a bit more patient on the hills still† and we soft-pedalled to allow the group to reform. The ride across the fens to Chatteris is a frustratingly winding road raised a couple of metres above an extraordinarily flat plain: when the fens were drained from the 17th century, the sodden fen soil, now with water removed, shrank, causing the only solid ground in the region to remain several metres above the new level, high and dry. These solid areas were the old river beds and that's why the road meanders across the plain instead of a straight there-and-back. What this means on a windy day — and every day is a windy day on the fens – is that the direction of the wind is always changing, made worse only when it's also raining! Fortunately the rain had stopped, so LWaB took first wheel and we careened across Chatteris Fen and Colne Fen to the "island" of Chatteris itself.
As this was the halfway point for me, I decided to have a sandwich, to the obvious disdain of the other three But I had to fuel up for another 160km and Fidgetbuzz left quickly, shortly followed by HK, both muttering that we'd catch them, as we were now turning into the wind. The bhoot tandem passed us heading into Chatteris as we were setting off, now in hot sunshine
The return leg starts with the meandering wind-fest in reverse and this time we were predominantly into a headwind. This was fine until we caught HK, but then I rode off the front … for about a mile before I was passed by the LWaB train. I'm just not as fit as I like to think, and I hate headwinds!
From this point on I rode on my own. We had passed quite a few riders who were still on their way to Chatteris, so I knew I wasn't lanterne rouge, and I kept checking over my shoulder expecting to be caught and passed, as the wheels had fallen off my wagon, but just empty space. A quick roadside break before Swavesey and a control at the Post Office saved valuable minutes compared to controlling at the A14 services (it's quite a big site), so I thought I might've made up time on the others, but as I passed the services I couldn't see anyone at all. In fact I rode on my own for another hour and a half before seeing another audaxeer.
The section after re-crossing the A14 starts to rise up out of the fens: the A14 pretty much delineates the flatlands in these parts. The slope is ever-so gentle, but you can feel it in your legs, as the roads often appear to be flat, but the elevation profile reveals the lie. By now my quads were shot, as I think I overuse them when spinning, and taking photographs of other cyclists while climbing even small hills is quite inefficient.
I was slow.
There aren't many hills near to Cambridge and one of note for training purposes is the other Chapel Hill, this time at Barrington. It's not very big: if you live in Wessex it's not even a speed bump. And without a cyclist in the shot exerting themselves then it's hard to even see it as a hill unless you're there:
I climbed the hill patiently enough and looked back to see the sights of Cambridge: you can see them there, just over the top of the hedge, if you know what you're looking for: St Peter's Church, University Library tower, Kings College Chapel, and St Mary's Church. Cambridge isn't a very tall city: the University reigned over the planning committee (allegedly, and possibly still does, allegedly) and didn't want any buildings taller than King's College Chapel (apparently). They also refused to have the station near the city so as not to encourage students to travel to London to cavort with commoners and the like. And we still don't have an ice rink, although they did allow a bowling alley a few years ago. Odd, but it does keep the city looking and feeling a bit unique/antique compared to so many samey towns these days. Unfortunately for this sort of shot you need a tripod and a decent camera with a half-decent lens on the front, which I don't carry on the bike, but here goes (this just doesn't do it justice):
After a quick spin down the other side, I opted for what I think is the nicer route through the length of the lovely village of Barrington, built along both sides of a huge open green, and crossing the railway at Shepreth rather than Foxton: it's no different distance wise, but a lot nicer IMHO. When I rejoined the route in Fowlmere I was expecting to see more riders, but still nobody. I rode out to the crossing of the fast A505 and came across a road closure on the route. Actually, although the road was closed, there were no no-entry signs, so technically, as a pedestrian, I would be able to pass and continue. Sod that, I rode through anyway and proceeded with caution: it's a very wide lane with good visibility and set up as a one-way system for an agricultural show. I could see another rider ahead and caught up with Fidgetbuzz at the info control: it appeared that the almost imperceptible but constant incline had brought out his patience. Well met, though, because the whole point of riding the calendar version was to ride with people, I can ride the perm on my own any time!
The info control is at the foot of the easterly end of the Chilterns (IIRC), barely a ripple by comparison to Berkshire, but still mighty for us flatlanders. The turn at Chrishall Grange put us onto the ancient Icknield Way, and a couple of kilometres later the road ramps incessantly upwards to the steepest gradient of the day: 10%. The sun was out and the temperature in the low 20s, so it was bit of a struggle, but the total elevation change is barely 30m. Tomsk claims this 10% is in Cambridgeshire (!) and it is — just! The Cambridge/Essex border is the hedgerow along the summit ridge. Fidgetbuzz demonstrated the utmost patience in his climbing and I still had trouble keeping up
The drop down the other side is potholed and gnarly: I warned FB, but it was me that succumbed, earning a snakebite visitation, my first with 700c wheels. FB demonstrated a distinct lack of patience at this point and left me to fix it on my own‡: 15 minutes, because it was my first with skinny tyres and sticky tubes, during which time I was passed by HK and LWaB (I thought they were in front of me), as well as another couple of riders (I had been expecting to be caught so much earlier!), and a van driver who stopped to check I was okay
Once back on the bike I climbed up through the woods and over the top of the M11 for a fast descent to Littleport. From Littleport it's a main road dash to Saffron Walden, passing Audley End House on the way: in the glorious sunshine a couple of teams were thrashing the willow in a game of cricket. It looked almost staged the fact they were all in perfect whites right in the front of the view across the lawn to the house itself.
The climb through Saffron Walden is sudden and sharp, but out of the way soon enough and then it's a B-road drag to Thaxted: anyone who has ridden more than a couple of rides in Essex will have passed through Thaxted. It's a very quaint little town with a spired church in a grand setting on top of the hill, a rather steep hill, but hilly downwards. A right turn followed by a left and it's a grotty, gravelly, potholed lane back to Thaxted. I paused on a rise to take in a small view and was passed by the one and final rider of the day, meaning that I probably saw only half the field all day, which is a decent measure for me. A quick spin back up the hill into Dunmow and down again to the church hall and arrivée: 212km in about 9:45 hours, 8:45 moving, 15 minutes of visitation, so 45 minutes in controls (or stopped on the road), and my quickest attempt at this ride by quite a chunk of time.
Senior-junior Tomsk was waiting at the door of arrivée welcoming riders home and instructing dad to put more pizzas in the oven, a helper I don't know checking brevets, and a veritable crowd hanging around upstairs taking it easy. Lulled into comfort by Pringles, pork pies, pizza and coffee, I spent nearly an hour at arrivée, but since I still had 50km to ride home for my ECE, this was in effect a slow control and I could feel myself getting colder. So with some regret, I ventured back out on the bike in the evening sun – it was now about 19.15 – for an easy blast home. The 'rules' of ECE meant that for the whole 300km I would have 21 hours, so I could afford to get home around 2.45am, meaning 50km in 7:30 hours, I could walk it! No worries, just an easy ride home.
I had chosen a route through lanes I'd not ridden before and it turned out to be a bit of a gem: at this time on a Saturday the B road to Thaxted (again! the photo above is Thaxted from afar, recognisable to all Essex audaxers) was quiet and after turning off into the lanes at Howlett End I saw hardly any traffic until the A1307 at Abington, passing through numerous picturesque and peaceful villages. From there it was a very fast (for me) ride along the A1307 over the Gog Magogs (famously Cambridge's biggest hill; it's 63m tall!) – considering I had over 300km in my legs at this point, I was very pleased to feel I can continue to deliver, even if not quite on the same level of output as LWaB or FB.
I got home well before 10pm, giving 16 hours on the road for 322km, moving 13:20, stopped 2:40 (visitation plus half an hour at the start, plus arrivée dawdle accounting for well over half).
Having ridden the ECE legs at an easy pace, I was surprised at how much new scenery there was that I hadn't seen before. Cambridgeshire and Essex really are very beautiful counties in a traditional countryside sense, rather than the rugged grandeur of, say, Wales, or the Himalayas. Across every other hedgerow and gateway, the vistas were captivating. Perhaps the early-morning and late-evening light really helped to bring the landscape alive, but as ever, it's harder to take good landscape pictures than you'd ever have thought, so I included only a couple of vignettes of country-esqueness. I set out with the aim of taking photos of lots of fellow riders; what I ended up with is lots of photos of a few fellow riders – on reaching the first control, the quickest typically bounce the control never to be seen again, and the slowest hang around for second breakfast, not to be seen until tea time, and I spent a good chunk of the afternoon riding on my own in what seemed to be a huge gap between the quick and the slow Still, I'm happy with the pics I got and bit of self-indulgence on the colourise buttons nicely hides the poor quality of the camera (and photographer).
Many thanks to Tomsk and his helpers all for a fun ride and welcome spread before and after
I now have the 200 and 300 events completed for my Essex SR. I don't know if I can mentally handle the Flatlands 600 again, but RL permitting I will try, and I am planning a DunRun-esque DIY for the 400 as I missed A&S.
† I have no doubt this will improve.
‡ Edit: just to be clear, I wouldn't expect anyone to hang around for anything less than a broken arm or severe blood loss, or similar; this was an observation not a criticism