Sunday, 1 May 2011

Cambridge to Hitchin via Ashwell. It's a bit hilly.

Recalling from my last post, I had already travelled from Cottenham (north of Cambridge) via Potton to Hitchin on my road bike, clicking up 67km in 2hr20m with the plan to cycle back via Ashwell.

This was Easter Sunday and I was visiting family so there was plenty of time to refuel, rest and have fun.

A slight interlude, I forgot a highlight of the journey to Hitchin. I am new to skinny-tyre road biking and I am pleasantly surprised by how quickly mine accelerates especially down hills. Whilst descending into Potton on the B1040 I was actually doing a constant 30mph inside the 30mph zone. Even then, somebody did a risky overtake. It is amazing how strong the 'gotta get past cyclist' force is in some people. :-)

Back to the route. This particular one I love, I think because of just how quiet it is between Cambridge and Baldock, and because I live on the edge of the flat Fens, the hills. I think the combination makes this route one of the best routes I have found for road cycling near Cambridge. I always see a lot of other cyclists too so it seems popular.

Click to view in BikeRouteToaster

The first time I did this route I went with a list of places to travel through in my pocket, which goes like this:

Cottenham, Histon, Cambridge, Barton, Haslingfield, Barrington, Shepreth, Bassingbourn-cum-Kneesworth, Littlington, Steeple-Morden, Ashwell, Bygrave, Baldock, Letworth, Hitchin, Ickleford.

I was a bit daunted by this as the distance struck home - 58km.

The great thing about this route is that it runs quite parallel to the main train line so you have a safety net to fall back on, or you can do it one way and return by train.

To those living in Cambridge, this is quite a hilly route. To me, the hills that pass by Luton, Hitchin and Royston are in effect an extension of the Chiltern Hills. The Chilterns are really quite hilly - they don't go high, but the number of hills and steepness really adds up and will having you climbing the same as you would in Welsh mountains ranges for the same distance. It's not quite that bad here but to the average Cantabrigian it might as well be mountains.

This route has a couple of peaks of note.

Chapel Hill between Haslingfield and Barrington.

Click to view in OpenCycleMap

Non locals will scoff at our hill but it is the nearest steepest undulation we have near Cambridge. It's only a 40m climb but its enough to get the heart pumping. The Haslingfield side is pretty steep too. It's 1 in just about doable without a granny gear. My cycle touring partner went over this 40 times in a row whilst training for a Welsh cycle camping tour.

The second peak is Claybush Hill near Ashwell where you can reach the dizzy heights of 100m !

Click to view in OpenCycleMap

Ashwell is a pretty village. I often get distracted and miss my turn here because of the pretty houses. My absolute favourite road is Springhead which is full of pretty houses and is baeutifully tree lined at the top. Here is a fab picture of the spring which I only just realised was there despite the road name. It is the source of the River Rhee, which is one of the tributaries of the River Cam.

Whilst route planning in a new area I often start with the National Cycle Network. There are some really well chosen quiet routes for recreation. Sometimes however, I am frustrated by the lack of routes in some areas.

Those that are on the network are very safe (there are bound to be exceptions!) and I wish for some further routes that are perhaps less safe but will get you somewhere rather than meander.

Here is the National Cycle Network SW of Cambridge:

The red routes are the main network. (The dark blue are local routes and the light blue is the National Byway).

It would be great to fill in some of the National Cycle Network. The route I take past Royston is quite and very good if you are a confident rider so I wonder if another sort of Cycle Network is required. Some sort of Road Rider Network for those wanting to get between major towns and cities.

I did the route in reverse, from Hitchin to Cambridge. As soon as I started it, I realised I had a head wind (for the next 58km) and I was feeling a bit stiff. That feeling normally wears off after about 30 mins.

Luck was against me on this day however. On Claybush Hill just before Ashwell I was running low on gears due to the hill and headwind. My road bike's lowest gear has a 25-39 tooth combination. In real terms 16kmh (10 mph) is the lowest speed this is geared for. I had to stand up to pedal (I do that alot) which is when a low level knee grumble turned into a return of an old injury - ITBS.

I pushed on for a bit, mostly just pedalling with my other leg and at one point the other dangling unclipped. At this point I looked down at my GPS and realised I had 32km to go. I also have a one week cycle tour in France to look forward to in 6 weeks time. Not wanting to risk the tour, and realising that one leg cycling for 32km was possible but silly, I gave up and called for backup.

My wife wasn't far behind me in the car and I managed to arrange a pickup 20 minutes later at Bassingbourn-cum-Kneesworth. I had to relay that location through my 8 year old on a mobile with plenty of car-road-noise. This proved to be the most head-banging game of Chinese Whispers ever! Next time I will stop somewhere with a simpler and less amusing name.

95km done that day. Great cycling until I aborted. Such a fab route.

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