Audax is a form of cycle touring where riders aim to visit a sequence of controls by following a suggested route. It's not a race, although there is a time limit for completing the ride which places riders under a certain amount of pressure.
Audax rides can be mass-participation events on a specific day, with over a hundred riders taking part and a staffed control point (usually with refreshments) at start and end. This is known as a "calendar event", and CTC Cambridge members took part in two such events last month: the Cambridge Spring Dash 100 and the Cambridge Pork Pie 200, both on 18th March.
Another type of Audax ride is known as a "permanent". In this case riders choose a route from a pre-defined list and nominate the day on which they will ride it. At the start and finish, and at each control point along the route, riders collect shop or ATM receipts as proof of their progress or, in some cases, answer a question set by the route planner. There are currently eight permanent rides starting from the Cambridge area, all of them devised by local Audax enthusiast (and CTC Cambridge member) Nick Wilkinson. Several CTC Cambridge members have ridden "perms" taken from this list and written up their experiences on this website.
Today was an opportunity for two of us to try out the newest "perm" to be announced on Nick's Camaudax website: the Cambridge Chiltern Pathfinder Perm 200. This is a 130-mile loop from Cambridge, heading south-west towards the hilliest area in this part of England, the Chiltern Hills. That link takes you to Nick's beautifully-written description so I won't attempt to describe the route here.
Originally four of us were planning to ride the route on Saturday 16th April, but the weather forecast was rather poor for that day. Alex resolved to ride anyway, and you can read his excellent report here. However the forecast for the following day was superb, and so Gareth and I did the ride on Sunday 17th April.
I got up early and set off from Cambridge at 6.30pm towards the official start point in Great Shelford. It was very cold, only just above freezing, but the sun was shining brightly in a cloudless sky.
The busway south of Cambridge at 6.35am. Bright sunshine and a temperature of 1C
Gareth was already waiting opposite Lloyds Bank so we obtained ATM receipts and set off. The time on my receipt was 6.52am.
6.52am: Nigel at the ATM in Great Shelford, obtaining a balance statement as evidence of the time of start
The first stage of today's route took us south along familar roads to Ickleton and then over Coploe Hill, Telegraph Hill and Quicksie Hill to Arkesden.
Gareth on Telegraph Hill south of Littlebury Green
In the early morning sunshine, and with hardly any cars on the road, this was a delightful start to the day. A flat run to Clavering brought us to our first control of the day, the supermarket in Clavering, which we reached a few minutes after it opened at 8am.
First control at M&M's shop in Clavering.
After making token purchases to obtain receipts we continued on our way, now turning south-west towards the Chilterns. We were still on fairly familar roads which took us through Berden and Furneaux Pelham to Braughing, where we joined the B1368 for a short run down to Puckeridge.
Cycle path leading under the A10 at Puckeridge (Photo: Gareth Rees)
We crossed beneath the A10 (using a cycle path that I remember from the great days when Mike Stapleton led rides down here) and continued through Dane End to Watton-on-Stone, and beyond the limit reached by normal club rides.
Still riding almost exclusively on country lanes, we picked our way west through the countryside south of Stevenage and north of Welwyn. Despite the relatively
early hour (by now it was about 10am) there were quite a few cars about on the narrow roads, and this was the only part of the ride where I was bothered by motor traffic.
We continued west to Harpenden, which we passed through easily before emerging into the countryside again, and a few miles later at Gaddesden Row we entered the Chilterns.
Gaddesden Row, a few miles before the control at Great Gaddesden. This is typical of the roads on this route: wet, enclosed by trees and with a terrible road surface
We found ourself riding along a narrow lane almost totally enclosed by a tunnel of trees. The road was still quite wet due to runoff from the previous day's rain, and we found ouself splashing through puddles, some of them quite large, and cycling on a road surface which was broken and pot-holed. We would be riding on roads like this for the next few hours.
Nigel baptises his new bike in a small flood after the descent from Gaddesden Row to Great Gaddesden (Photo: Gareth Rees)
A short descent brought us down to the little village of Great Gaddesden, and our second control of the day at a garden centre. We wheeled our bikes to the cafe and went inside to order toasted sandwiches and coffee.
11am: Breakfast at the garden centre in Great Gaddesden
After breakfast we left the garden centre and immediately embarked on a short but steep climb to the top of Piper's Hill followed by an equally steep descent, after which a series of further climbs and descents brought us into the prosperous-looking town of Berkhamsted.
Another steep climb up a residential street took us out of Berkhamsted and back into the Chilterns, in a hilly loop which would be the highpoint of the tour. At the western end of this loop was a wooded summit called Bottom Lane, where we stopped for our third control of the day. This was an "information control" which entailed answering a question on our brevet cards.
Bottom Lane above Tring: at 247m this was the highest point in the ride
The descent from Bottom Lane down to Tring was described in the route sheet as requiring great care, due to its steepness, sharp corners and potholes, but thanks to the new brakes on my brand new bike (and a very comfortable frame) I descended without difficulty and after the gradient slackened Gareth and I enjoyed a fast run into Tring.
On the outskirts of Tring, with the edge of the Chilterns in the distance
We were now past the halfway point, but before we could head for home we had just one more diversion to make, through the Ashridge Estate and north onto Dunstable Downs. This is a splendid spot, a large area of grassland at the top of the scarp slope that forms the north-western edge of the Chilterns. It's all owned by the National Trust, who operate a large visitor centre and cafe, and it was here that we stopped for a late lunch and to obtain receipts for our next control.
2pm: Admiring the view before lunch at Dunstable Downs Visitor Centre
Afterwards a long and enjoyable descent from the Downs marked the start of our return back to Cambridge. This took us back in a north-easterly direction, roughly parallel to our outward route but about 5-10 miles to the north which meant that this time we would be passing north of Stevenage rather than south of it.
Markyate, at the end of the long descent from Dunstable Downs
With nearly 90 miles behind us now, this is the time of the day when tiredness normally begins to set in and today was no exception. However since this was such a hilly ride we had paced ourselves very carefully on the climbs, using all our lowest gears, and as a result my legs were still in fairly good condition. We were now riding with a slight tailwind, and although the sky had clouded over somewhat, there was still plenty of sun around.
Flapjack break at Preston, west of Stevenage
After a brief stop to "control" at an ATM in Harpenden we headed directly north-east towards the narrow area of countryside that lies between Stevenage and Hitchin before turning east towards our final control at Buntingford.
When we reached Buntingford we stopped in the High Street and obtained receipts at the Sainsbury's Local there. This is almost next door to Buntingford Coffee Shop, and if it had been open we would probably have gone inside for coffee. However since today was Sunday it had closed so we instead found a quiet corner nearby to rest for ten minutes and munch our remaining flapjacks ahead of the final leg home.
Suitably rested and fortified, the final eighteen miles back to Great Shelford along familiar roads was easy and fun. A combination of this morning's early start and the time of year meant that I was completing a 200km Audax in daylight for the first time, with the low sun casting long shadows over the fields. The road from Buntingford to Wyddial had only the slightest of undulations, and and after turning left onto the B1368 the 30m climb to Barkway was nothing compared to what we had experienced earlier.
When I reached Barkway I looked back; Gareth was out of sight. I glanced at my Garmin: it was about 6.05pm and I had about 13 miles to go. Since this would be mostly downhill or flat I realised that, if I kept my speed up, I might be able to complete the ride within 12 hours. This was a perfect opportunity to put my new bike through its paces and so I made a conscious effort to keep my speed high for the whole ride back through Fowlmere, Newton and Little Shelford. With the assistance of a slight tailwind - and a superb new machine - I managed to keep my speed close to 18mph for most of the way, arriving back at the ATM in Great Shelford at 6.50pm exactly. This was two minutes under twelve hours (and two hours under the Audax time limit).
Gareth rolled up a few minutes later and we relaxed by the War Memorial for a short while before setting off for home. The Kebab van that Alex had found irresistible yesterday was parked a few metres away, but I ignored its temptations and rode on into Cambridge. It was still well before sunset and the sun was still shining. I arrived home at 7.30pm, having cycled 140 miles. Today had been a cracking ride, one of the best I can remember, and due to a combination of superb weather, a brilliant route and a delightful new bike, my most enjoyable Audax yet.
Completed brevet card and receipts ready to send off for validation
This is Nigel's GPS track (starting from Cambridge). GPS and TCX files for this route can be downloaded from the CamAudax site here