Saturday, 16 April 2016

16 Apr: Alex's Chilterns Pathfinder Perm 200km Audax

Alex writes: Lingering over breakfast and faffing with my bike meant I didn’t arrive at Great Shelford – the official start point of this audax – until 08:20, later than I had planned. As a result I was now facing, at the end of the ride, some night-time cycling, and the need to be getting food and drink well past shop and café closing time.

The forecast was for a grey, wet and windy day and this was what I got as I set out on the familiar first leg to Clavering over Coploe Hill, Telegraph Hill and Arkesden Hill. It’s that word “hill” that gives away the raison d'être of this course: to give Cambridge flatlanders an opportunity for climbing experience, course designer Nick W has crammed in as much ascent as possible – it’s hard to conceive of a 200 km route out of Cambridge that would have more.

At Clavering I bought some sweeties and ate a leerdamer and prosciutto croissant I had brought as part of my rations. Then on, through still-familiar roads, past Braughing and Dane End, heading west over the A1 and M1.

Beyond Whempstead

All the while the terrain was getting appreciably more lumpy until, at 88km, the Chilterns forcefully announced their intent with Piper’s Hill, a sharp climb on a rutted and muddy lane, followed by a hairy descent. I was glad to have this behind me though my legs had little respite as it was followed by a long drag up to the outskirts of Berkhamsted.

Piper’s Hill – so good I climbed it twice

Here an uneasy suspicion clouds my mind. Wasn’t I meant to have controlled by now? I looked at the route sheet and found I had overshot the Great Gaddesden control by several kms. There was nothing for it but to double back and redo part of the route: – including Piper’s Hill. This was harsh punishment indeed for my (admittedly terrible) navigational blunder.

This unwelcome detour had added around 40 minutes to the ride, scuppering any chances of completing the ride in anything other than a generous time. My attitude changed: instead of pressing for “a time” I’d take it easy, take some photos and enjoy myself. As if in sympathy, the rain stopped, and as I zoomed down into Berkhamsted and then climbed (ouch!) out again, the sun started to struggle through.

I pressed on, swinging north to climb up to the highest point of the ride, a transmitting station on Bottom Road.

Highest point

This was followed by another difficult descent. The descents through the Chilterns section of this ride were particularly testing, characterised by narrow, heavily cratered roads often with a strip of slippery mud down the centre. The wet weather had made this worse, with flooding in the dips and so much running water that I felt I was cycling along a stream-bed at times. I had several “death grip” moments struggling to keep the speed under control. This is a ride where it’s necessary to make sure the brakes are in top condition before setting out.

Tricky descending

Around Tring I realised that if I wanted to get to Dunstable Down before the café there closed at 17:00, I would need to get a move on. I duly lit the afterburner and upped the pace – inasmuch as this was possible when some testing climbs stood in my way, notably Tom’s Hill, Pedley Hill and the final climb onto the downs. By the time I arrived there at 16:45, I felt I fully deserved my pastie and cup of tea. By now it was a glorious afternoon. I sat outside in the sun admiring the extensive views and watching the gliders pass.

Does what it says on the sign

Dunstable Down

After Dunstable there was a short leg to Harpenden. With the sun on my back and a tailwind I felt I was making good progress and that cycling was the best fun in the world. I bought some fruit juice from a garage in Harpenden and then started out on the 40km leg to Buntingford, and back into more familiar territory.

This section of the ride saw dusk and sunset, and very pretty it was too with the low warm sunlight on the undulating fields, and then a pink sunset. The terrain was becoming less lumpy although Nick had still found a few short sharp shocks to keep the legs guessing. By the time I arrived in Buntingford it was properly dark. I enjoyed a machine-vended coffee and packet of pork scratchings from a garage and then, feeling slightly queasy, began the final 28 km home. This took a course through Barkway and Barley and at last the route relented, becoming mostly a long gentle descent to Fowlmere and thence to the arrivée. The dark made what otherwise might have been an over-familiar section something of a novelty, and I was conscious I had enjoyed a cracking ride as I arrived back in Great Shelford, 13 hours 32 minutes after setting out. After getting a cashpoint receipt I turned round and noticed, for the first time, a kebab van! What better way to celebrate completion than with a bacon roll? It had been a long ride but I still felt relatively fresh and powerful, and looking forward to leading tomorrow’s CTC ride. Overall I had conserved energy to get to this position, taking care to pace myself on the climbs, but the disadvantage of this approach is that it’s rather slow. Why can’t long rides be both fast and easy?

Journey's end

When I got home I found I had ridden 241 km (150 miles) in the day, and climbed 2,560 m (8,400 ft) – comfortably my hilliest ride ever. The Strava report is here.

Overall the Chilterns Pathfinder is an unmissable route for anybody fancying a challenging hilly 200 km out of Cambridge. It’s got it all: leg-sizzling climbs, nerve-wracking descents, great countryside and a backbone of sensible controls. Strongly recommended.


  1. You are truly mad, Alex! Well done. It certainly would have been easy to postpone until Sunday!

  2. Great work, Alex, both the ride and the writeup.