At Gareth's suggestion we rode the route in reverse. I can't remember Gareth's exact motivation for proposing that: this is the hillest of all the local permanent Audaxes, and I think he was curious about whether that the climbs would be easier that way. I didn't have a strong preference, but I was happy to agree as I knew that this would have the effect of making this feel like a completely new ride.
We entered the ride in the usual way and requested the approval of organiser Nick Wilkinson to follow the route in reverse. He readily agreed (and even provided a GPS route to follow), but sounded sceptical, warning me that a "widdershins" route might prove slightly more difficult, with what are normally steep descents turning into difficult steep climbs. But I wanted some hill-climbing practice and wasn't put off.
On the way to the start: a dull but warm morning in Cambridge
The day started dull and overcast and remained so: I don't think we saw the sun at any stage during the day. However the temperature was typically warm for July, starting at a comfortable 13C when I set off from home at 6.30am and forecast to rise about 23C by mid-afternoon, and I was rather glad that we would not be cycling under a burning sun.
I made my rendezvous with Gareth just before 7am at Lloyds Bank in Great Shelford. We each used the ATM to obtain proof of the place and time, and then set off towards Little Shelford.
The first stage of our "reverse" route involved following the B1368 for about an hour through Newton, Fowlmere, Barley and Barkway. This was a long but very gradual climb, into a light but persistent south-westerly headwind. Just beyond Barkway we turned west to Wyddial and a few minutes later arrived in Buntingford, our first control. It was 8.15am and we had completed 28km: a good start considering the headwind.
After a ten-minute stop at Sainsbury's Local in the High Street to obtain receipts and to consume a quick coffee and pastry we set off once again. For the next stage of the ride we turned west, passing around the northern edge of Stevenage before turning south-west once more towards Harpenden. As we rode along the roads became successively narrower and quieter: an A-road to Cottered, a B-road to Cromer and from there onwards minor lanes all the way to the edge of Harpenden. There had been a few showers of rain predicted for the morning, but when they arrived they amounted to nothing more than a few minutes of light drizzle and we didn't even bother to put on waterproofs.
Whiteway Bottom, Beds. The end of the Luton Airport runway is 2km to the west
We reached our next control, a Tesco Express on the edge of Harpenden at 10.15am. After visiting the ATM we rested for a few minutes before setting off once more.
Controlling at an ATM in the suburbs of Harpenden
Our next destination was the visitor centre at the top of Dunstable Downs, 15km away. The scenery was beginning to get hillier now, but what climbing we had to do was gentle and easy. I remembered our visit to Dunstable Downs last time had been followed by a long, enjoyable, descent along quiet roads all the way down to Markyate. Today, riding in the reverse direction, the same road presented a long but very gentle climb, and we reached the top of the Downs quicker than I expected. Gareth and I both agreed that this was a much nicer way to approach the visitor centre than the busy B-road we had climbed up when riding in the "normal" direction.
Lunch at Dunstable Downs Visitor Centre
It was still only 11.15am but we decided that this was a good place to have an early lunch, and I ordered a plate of sausage, beans and chips, the same as last time, whilst Gareth ordered a slice of quiche. Our orders were served almost immediately, and within 45 minutes we had eaten, digested our food, and rested, and were ready to move on.
After lunch we set off down the B4541 towards Whipsnade. Once again, doing the ride in the reverse direction worked very well, replacing what had been a bit of a slog up a busy B-road with an exhilarating high-speed descent. After passing through the Ashridge Estate we arrived in Tring. As we entered the town from the east we passed hundreds of people walking to the site of the Chilfest Music Festival on the edge of the town.
As we rode through the prosperous streets of Tring my mind turned to the challenge ahead, the climb up from Tring to the summit of The Crong, the highest point on the ride. This was about 130m above the town at the top of a steep slope. Last time this had been a scarily-precipitous descent along a narrow and wet lane, and with the OS map marking the climb as being steep enough to merit a downward-pointing arrow I was rather anxious about what it would be like to climb up it.
In the event it wasn't as bad as I had feared; the very steep section was only a couple of hundred metres, and after a pause half-way up I made it to the top with just a bit of straining and pushing. And unlike in April the road was completely dry.
Gareth approaches the highest point of the ride on The Crong above Tring
This was an info control, so we noted down the answer to the question on our brevet card and carried on. This was mostly a long gentle descent through Cholesbury which turned into a much steeper descent into Berkhamstead. Like Tring this was another very prosperous-looking town, with traffic levels to match, and we were briefly caught up in slow-moving traffic along the main street before we could turn off east.
Crossing the Grand Union Canal in Berkhamstead
Berkhamstead is at the base of a steep valley, so once we had crossed over the canal we began the second big climb of the ride. A steep climb out of the town was followed by an easier section, followed by an even steeper climb (the second on the ride to merit an arrow on the OS map) to the top of Piper's Hill.
Piper's Hill, Great Gaddesden (Photo: Gareth Rees)
However once we had reached the top of Piper's Hill all we had to do was to freewheel downhill for about a kilometre before we reached our next control, the garden centre at Great Gaddesden. It was now 2.21pm. We went in to eat: Gareth purchased a milkshake and a cake whilst I ordered a fruit smoothie, a cake, and a coffee.
All along the ride today we had seen various types of bird sweeping through the sky above us, and Gareth had been doing his best to teach me how to identify them. Unfortunately his efforts met with limited success; I think we need a simple birdspotter's guide for this website which demonstrates how to spot the difference between, say, a red kite and a buzzard. However, when we noticed a small bird at the next table at the garden centre I was able to confidently name it.
A robin waits for our crumbs at the Garden Centre, Great Gaddesden
After finishing our food we set off once more, starting with a pleasantly wooded and relatively straightforward climb to Gaddesden Row. We then dropped back down to Redbourn for a rather tedious section along relatively busy main roads to Harpenden. Once through Harpenden, however, we were back on quiet lanes.
We continued east, passing through Wheathampstead, Woolmer Green and Watton-on-Stone to Puckeridge. We were now feeling tired but we now had a tailwind to help us on our way back home.
Mill Lane, Watton-at-Stone (Photo: Gareth Rees)
After passing through Puckeridge we turned onto the B1368 in the direction of Cambridge. We could have stayed on this road all the way back, but we had one more control to visit and so after a couple of miles I turned right into Braughing. The road through the village was closed because of a village fete, but the marshall staffing the closure point was happy to let me ride through. We've visited Braughing many times and I think I've cycled through the ford here once or twice. However today the ford was much too deep to cycle through, as in an inspired act the villagers had built a low wooden dam just below the ford which increased the water depth sufficiently to create a paddling pool for young children, and built a sandy beach on one side.
The ford at Braughing. Note temporary wooden dam on left.
For the last hour or two I had been riding a short distance ahead of Gareth, and as we continued towards Furneaux Pelham the gap between us opened up rather more and I decided that this would be a good point on the ride for me to break away and continue at my own pace. Just like the last time I rode the Chiltern Pathfinder, I looked at the time and decided that, if I put in some effort I might be able to arrive back in Great Shelford with a time of less than 12 hours.
Now riding as fast as I could, it didn't take long for me to reach the final control at M&M's store in Clavering. I didn't need to stop so after making a token purchase of a Kit-Kat I decided to "bounce" the control and set off again immediately.
The normal Chiltern Pathfinder route is mostly downhill for the final 20km; a long, fast descent from along the B1368. However in the reverse direction the route ended with three more hills. Quicksie Hill at Arkesden seemed just a pimple after what I had climbed earlier, though Transmitter Hill up to Littlebury Green required me to patiently winch myself in low gear. Finally I was climbing Coploe Hill before storming down towards Ickleton and a final stretch on the flat to Great Shelford.
When I arrived back at Great Shelford I stopped at Lloyds Bank and obtained another balance slip to establish the time. It was 6.48pm, giving me an official ride duration of 11h 50 mins. That final spurt of speed had paid off with a time that was faster than my earlier, "normal" Pathfinder, but I was now exhausted and lay down on the grass opposite to wait for Gareth. He arrived a short while later, and we relaxed and chatted for a while before setting off home. Including the short ride to and from the start, my total distance today was 228km (142 miles).
Completed brevet card ready to submit for validation
So, now that we had completed this route in both directions, which was better? Gareth and I discussed this briefly and agreed that there wasn't a lot of difference between the two: both directions involved the same amount of climbing, and visited exactly the same lovely countryside and used the same combination of quiet lanes and busier roads.
I think that anyone tackling this ride for the first time should definitely follow it in the "official", clockwise direction: that's the direction followed by the instructions on the routesheet. However for anyone who wishes to repeat this excellent ride might well enjoy the novelty of taking it in the reverse direction.
Those who prefer their climbs to be short and steep might quite like the reverse direction, though I suspect most people would find the longer but gentler climbs of the normal direction to be rather easier. The normal route ends with a long descent along the B1368 from Barkway, whereas the reverse route ends with the lovely descent from Catmere End to Ickleton, which is no less enjoyable. One important thing to keep in mind if you use the reverse direction is that the shop in Clavering closes fairly early in the evening (7pm on Saturdays). We reached it at about 5.50pm, but if we had started at 8am rather than 7am, or had ridden more slowly, we would have been cutting it fine.
See also Gareth's assessment of the route in the comments below.
Download GPS track (GPX). This is Nigel's GPS track (starting from Mill Road, Cambridge).
GPX and TCX files for this route (in the normal direction) can be downloaded from the CamAudax site here.
I hadn't expected any help from Nick Wilkinson in navigating the route, but it turned out he just happened to have a reverse route that I could download from here. This was just the route, without notifications of controls, but it worked just fine for me. Nigel Deakin