I don't often take a day off work to ride, but I just felt like riding and I had what I thought an exciting DIY route in mind to get some pork pie from Melton Mowbray.
The minimum route was 102km each way, but with a couple of diversions around footpaths (no cycling!) and busy roads (what's the point?) then it came in at 106km there … and some scenic aspirations on the return leg boosted that to 110km — 216km for the price of 204km.
I set off from Cambridge just after 6am and it was still dark. Although the thermometer outside our back door said it was -2ºC, it felt slightly warmer than that. The weather forecast warned of freezing fog — there was certainly fog, although freezing, not so sure.
The route, as do most routes from Cambridge, started flat — really flat: about 150m climbing in 50km of riding! So it was easy to keep a decent pace going. This can be a bit dull, but I tend to listen to a lot of podcasts to while away the time.
By the time I got to my breakfast stop I was coated in a layer of frozen water: the fog really had been freezing! I had had to remove my glasses due to the water condensing out and obscuring my vision and I rode all day without them — I always ride with glasses (not spectacles) to prevent grit getting in my eyes, because I wear contact lenses and grit is a big no-no. Not today, though.
I was feeling good at this point and enjoyed being off the bike for 20 minutes. The route from here starts to climb steadily, so I knew that I was in for some work for the next 100km …
The run to Harringworth is fairly benign steady climbing for an hour before we drop down into the village, under the magnificent railway viaduct that spans the valley, and then face the steep climb out of its gravity well. As I am riding on a close-range Brompton this year, in preparation for Paris-Brest-Paris, my familiar low-range climbing gears from 2013 aren't available and I have to honk painfully to the top. I make it, and I still have enough in the tank to keep going, but I just know this is going to be a struggle … Within a couple of miles I have to do it all again to cross another steep-sided valley!
As the road climbs and the fog clears, the scenery is lovely. I don't know whether red kites have been re-introduced to this region, but at one point I had three beautiful specimens circling just over my head — absolutely huge and graceful, and a bit worrying! I also saw quite a few smaller falcons, kestrels perhaps, hovering over hedgerows. In all I must've seen 20 or more birds of prey a-wing while I was out.
Fortunately there aren't any more steep hills on the run to Melton Mowbray: yes, there are more climbs, but they are all so-so and I don't lose too much more time. I get to the turn by about midday, so that's six hours to ride 106km, which is about right for me at this time of the year.
I didn't know that Melton holds its market on Tuesdays, so the town centre is chock-full of market stalls and the old, retired, and unemployed are wandering around without any sense of urgency. I know there's an award-winning butcher in the middle of town who sells traditional pork pies, but I can't get to him because of all the blue-rinsers and neets taking their time — my time — passing aimlessly from stall to stall. I get there eventually, but then it's into a queue before getting a couple of small pies to take home — the £6-for-two offer looks tempting, but I would then have to carry an additional kilogram of mass on the bike back to Cambridge and I don't really fancy the scenic climbs with the extra weight, so I settle for two small ones. I am not worried about them being out of the fridge, as it's colder than that in the open air anyway, brr.
The climb out of Melton Mowbray isn't huge by Welsh standards, but it is an omen of things to come. It's a steady climb without a false summit, so it's gone in a few minutes, but provides a nice warm-up. I ride to the junction, left, and head on and am then faced with a gated road — that's unexpected! It's okay, though, since this is a National Cycle Network (NCN) route then the tarmac continues through the fields and so do I. A few more gates and a steep drop down to another left and I'm back on the proper road network.
This section I chose specifically because of its scenery: the one thing we flatlanders lack is access to decent hills (by definition, really), and this looked like a great opportunity to get some training in. What I hadn't figured is just how much effort it would require, especially as my shortest gear is something like 44 inches (a good climbing gear is more like 32 inches) and my bike weighs over 20kg or 3st (a typical racing bike would weigh half that).
Early-season climbing always feels like hard work — is hard work, especially for us flatlanders — as we all try to shed Christmas pounds and improve cardio response. It doesn't help that in winter we have to wear thermal leggings, which impede leg flex and sap energy. We also wrap ourselves in many layers up top, which induces heat build-up during climbing, resulting in over-heating and immediate loss of power, as well as sweating, causing the chills for the next half-hour.
I have to admit that there were times I thought I'd bitten off more than I could chew! The hills went up and then down and then straight back up again — nothing monstrous, but short and very, um, sweet! On one of the longer, steeper drags I ended up doing the fixie thing of tacking from side-to-side to reduce the gradient (at the cost of riding further, albeit not by much in either direction). But it's always a goal of mine to ride up every climb without putting a foot down, and I did manage to achieve this
As I sat on the bike, I spent the time calculating and recalculating average speeds, times, distances and realised I would only just be in time at this pace
After 30km of stiff climbing, the route tends downwards again towards Oundle, but the climbing never really ceases until about 5km away — 50km of ceaseless up-down. A quick pitstop for calories in Oundle and then it's back on the bike to Cambridge. I had clawed back a little time, but not that much, it would be touch and go.
The run from Oundle to Cambridge drops back onto the edge of the fens, although interrupted by a couple of short up bits (only 10m elevation or so — a mountain to a flatlander!). Ignoring the ups, it's 50km of dead-flat. In fact 30km of it barely breaks out of 10m of altitude! I got into a steady rhythm and kept the pedals turning: so long as I maintained a steady 18kph or so, I would be fine. Fortunately the sugar boost in Oundle kicked in and I did better than 20s.
All too soon I crossed the ancient bridge in St Ives, turned right through the town centre onto the busway and then it's a smooth, traffic-free run all the way to arrivée: I made up literally hours in the flat run back in and finished with a couple of hours in hand:
- 216km in 11h55m — not troubling the time limit at all
- Average moving speed 20.7kph — for a route involving significantly steep climbing, on a Brompton with close-range gears, I'm happy with that
I enjoyed this route so much, I turned it into a proper permanent event, the Cambridge Pork Pie 200, which anyone can ride, even you. Just remember to bring me back a pork pie