This was my second attempt at this ride. In 2013 I didn’t start, as the morning of the ride there was a foot of snow on the ground outside my house. I didn’t even get out of bed. All was well this year until I got off the train in Cambridge to a cold, heavy drizzle; I decided to ride to the start and see if the weather improved.
I got to Hauxton village hall with half an hour to spare, and the rain had stopped. Things were looking up. The organisers had laid on toast and other breakfasty things, so I had some of those, and then we set off. The first section was a nice ride through little villages: Shelford, Whittlesford, Strethall, Duxford....By the time we got to Whittlesford (about 2km in), the rest of the field had vanished ahead of me, and I was in my usual place – at the back.
The Right Way to Thaxted
The first challenge was the (in)famous Coploe Road, a steep, single lane that goes over the chalk ridge that separates the fens from the rest of the land. This hill feels like it has been transplanted from Yorkshire – it is steep, and there is a proper sweeping view from halfway up. I hauled myself up there, very slowly. Eventually I made it, and continued on past Audley End House to the first control. This was an Info control, where riders have to note down the answer to a question that is on their card. There had been dire warnings at the beginning that if this wasn’t filled in there would be no validation of the ride! I met another rider here who had had some mechanical problems, and we figured out what we had to write down. That done I headed off through Thaxted (of course) and the Bardfields to Finchingfield. This road was much nicer to ride than it was on the Shaftesbury Spring ride as today I had the wind behind me!
Bolts from the Blue
I didn’t stop at this control, and carried straight on. Up until now, the weather had been alright – a bit of a breeze but nothing too worrying. But at this point the clouds started to become darker and more threatening. As soon as the sun disappeared the temperature would drop ten degrees, and the wind would whip up a little, and this seemed to coincide exactly with the bottoms of steep hills. I began to think the clouds must be stuck to the hills, hovering there to catch the unwary cyclist. As the route took me back over the chalk ridge at Hundon, hail started flying sideways towards me from one of those lowering storm clouds. I stopped to put on some waterproofs and eat some chocolate.
Crawling the next few kms, I started to have some of the odd thoughts that are sometimes created in your mind when you’re out riding alone. For example: one instruction on the route sheet that led me up a particularly steep incline was 0.6km in length. Usian Bolt, I reasoned, could run this very quickly. In 60 seconds, in fact. Or, as I decided to call it, 6 Bolts. So a long section of 3.4km could be described in terms of 34 Bolts, i.e. not very far at all. He could do it in about 3 minutes (maths is not my strongest subject). I think I was in dire need of food by this point – the 24 Bolt (2.4km) stage up to the next control at Adam’s Cafe nearly finished me off. I got there and ate a huge piece of cake just in time!
Race to the (Six Mile) Bottom
The next stage defies reasonable description. It started well enough, through some nice little villages and past names like ‘Trotting Horse Lane’. All very nice. But over my shoulder was another towering storm cloud, and ahead of me was the road to Six Mile Bottom, through Brinkley, a winding, hilly, windy tortuous route over the top of an exposed hillside. Dead trees bunch together for warmth like inmates of the gulag. That cloud was perched on the hill, off to the northwest, and the wind was howling out from it across the tops, throwing needles of sleet into my eyes. This was 10km (100 Bolts: too bloody many) of hell on wheels, it felt like it would never end. At one point I was grovelling along downhill at 5mph, yelling something incomprehensible at the weather goddess.
Reaching the Six Mile Bottom junction I had a decision to make, as if I couldn’t speed up, I was going to be out of time. This would be a good bail-out point, if I was going to quit. I didn't want to quit. I decided to press on, braced for the continuing wind....but it had vanished. Here, it was still, it was calm, it was warm. The storm really was waiting on the hills, and it didn’t follow me down to the flatlands. Riding swiftly through the Wilbrahams (55 Bolts) and Fulbourn (35 Bolts) and back up to the Shelfords, I realised that I should be in time. A last gratuitous hill and a nail-biting wait at the level crossing (why does it close when the train has stopped?!) meant that I really did have to do the last few kilometres at Bolt-speed, but I made it, last of the 100km riders to make it back, with nine minutes to spare.
That’s about 54 Bolts.