Wednesday, 20 January 2016

19 Jan: Cambridge Diss’d Clare - 200km Audax

Alex writes: As a goal for 2016, John R and I have decided to have a go at gaining a RRtY (“Randonneur Round the Year”) award. To get this one must complete a qualifying audax ride of at least 200km in 12 consecutive months. This is an account of the first of these …

We had both signed-up for the “Cambridge Diss’d Clare” permanent ride last month, but because of poor weather and the chores of Christmas hadn’t been able to coordinate a day for riding it until now. As it turned out we picked the coldest day of winter so far – but at least it was forecast to be dry with virtually no wind and maybe some sun.

My alarm went off at 06:00 and after a look at the frosty conditions outside I decided to don deepest winter clothing: two merino base layers and a winter jacket, two layers of socks (and my beloved SPD sandals) inside fleecy wind-proof overshoes, and merino undergloves inside my normal winter gloves.

John and I met at 07:00 in central Cambridge, got some cashpoint receipts as proof of presence, and then set out east through town on the A 1303 heading toward Newmarket. As we left the city limits the sky was already beginning to lighten into a pink glow and by the time we reached the Suffolk border this has ripened into a beautiful rosy dawn.

Approaching Newmarket.

We continued east past Newmarket up the drag to Ashley and Dalham. It was bitterly cold (my Garmin has the ride average at -2° C with a low of -7° C) and although the roads were mostly dry there were patches of ice where water had run off the fields and at some junctions, requiring extreme care. By the time we reached Barrow, the first control, both of our water bottles had effectively become granita bottles – I quite liked this as it improved the taste of my sports drink considerably. We found the local shops and bought some items to get receipts. I chose apple juice and John selected a long-life pie for an authentic “taste of audax”.

The taste of audax.

It was so cold after stopping, the only way to warm up was to peddle furiously to get the heart beating so that at least some slow reluctant blood would pump round to the extremities. We continued heading east, past West Stow and into landscapes unfamiliar to CTC rides. We had planned a “two stop” strategy for the day, aiming to have a proper break only at Diss and Clare. This meant the first leg to Diss was 85km (53 miles), so by the time we dipped into Norfolk and reached Diss at 11:15 we were quite tired and ready for a spell in the warmth and some hot food.

We had pre-planned to stop at Morrinson’s which was predictably efficient, if charmless, and after some jacket potatoes and pastries we out on the road again at noon, heading south. It was still very cold and Diss itself seemed rather grey and grim, especially since the promised sunshine had not appeared. Still, “the only way out was through” so we got our heads down and cycled south through Eye to the next control at Debenham, the ride’s half-way point.

The sun breaks through.

After Debenham we turned west heading back towards Cambridge. The sun started to struggle through the cloud layer and by the next control at Elmswell (130km, and more cashpoint receipts) it was fully out. We now had another 40 km to cycle to our second proper stop and the warming sun was most welcome as we made our way through the gently rolling landscape. The course designer, Nick W, promised “big skies” on this route and these were now much in evidence as the sun began sinking. It was evident this part of Suffolk had also had some snowfall, with patches on the verges and some slush on the road to be wary of.

Under big skies.

By now John and I were getting quite tired and started musing about pots of tea, then cake, then several cakes, and then “hot food” – yes, that was what we needed, hot food! As we plodded on and started cursing the gently rolling landscape this thought kept as going: at Clare we could be warm and well-fed.

We reached Clare just as the sun set, and burst into The Bell burbling about hot food. The landlord looked at us pityingly and pointed out that 16:20 on a winter weekday was not really a good time to expect to be served hot food, either at his establishment or anywhere in Clare. Still, he said, the butcher’s shop sold good pies (he was right) and was prepared to let us eat them in the pub. So, suitably victualled with these and with the best pot of tea ever, we thawed out and contemplated the final 40 km stretch to the arrivée.

Clare. This audax lark would probably be easier if I lost a good 10kg.

By the time we left Clare at 17:10 it was properly dark, and we forwent head torches and routesheets to take the lazier option of following the Garmin. John and I both have modern German dynamo headlights so at least the night held no terrors, with the road ahead well enough illuminated for us to be confident of spotting potholes or ice patches.

Cycling for long periods in very cold conditions had proved surprisingly fatiguing, and both of were now down on power, riding at a steadier and more sedate pace as we ground out the miles home. We were however now back on familiar territory and before long we arrived in Balsham and felt the end was in sight. After the usual speedy descent to Fulbourn and a trip along Fulbourn Old Drift and the Tins we passed triumphantly along Mill Road back to central Cambridge. We had completed the 211 km course in 12 hours 20 mins (14 hrs was the maximum permitted). We had been moving for 10 of those hours at an average moving speed of 21.5 km/h, a notch above usual CTC pace. We were both exhausted.

For me, the ride had several lessons for the next audax:
  • For food I had tried to eat while on the bike (dried apricots and roast almonds) while cutting back on big meals at the stops, in an effort to prevent digestive peaks and troughs with their attendant discomfort. This seemed to work well, and could be carried further I think with more on-bike eating.
  • It will pay-off in future to plan better how to use controls: where exactly the shops are in the village, what one can expect to do, etc.
  • I was pleased with the bike and my clothing, but developed, as usual on these long rides, some tightness across the shoulder blades – this may just be lack of conditioning or it may be some tweak to my bike fit is required.
  • Get fitter and lose weight! Although this pace was fine to complete this event, it is nowhere near fast enough to build the kind of time buffer needed on longer events to allow for sleep stops.
  • Don’t underestimate the difficulty of long winter rides.

Steel steeds: John's Condor Fratello and my Genesis Equilibrium.

In all, the ride was a good experience, especially in retrospect! Thanks for Nick W of Cambridge Audax for designing and running it, and thanks to John for being my wheel mate – and especial kudos to John for also having to complete the additional 40km round trip between home and central Cambridge!

My Strava report for the ride is here.


  1. Well done both — that sounds like it was a proper winter ride! It is indeed very tiring in the winter, because you're doing a resistance workout against your thermals, and I find I dehydrate, because the cold makes it painful to drink from the bidons. 12h20m is an okay time nevertheless — not the quickest, but certainly not the slowest either.

  2. Well done to both of you!

    Like JR's top, you either 'love it or hate it' and I think that I know in to which camp I fall....& if that makes me a whimp, so be it. I'll stick to shorter rides! Looking forward to reading the February AUDAX blog and supporting your endeavours throughout the year.