Isn’t it all downhill to London?

Last weekend I got the opportunity to cycle down to London, something that has been on my ‘to do’ list for ages but one that I’ve never managed to get around to planning.

Thanks to our friend Peter, this time all of the planning was taken care of and Julie and I had been invited along. He is currently training for LEL and, just like us, trying to get some big miles in when the opportunity arises. Peter had arranged to pedal down from Sheffield to his sister’s in Teddington in a day and then take part in the Ditchling Devil 200km audax from Wimbledon on the following Sunday, clocking up just over 500km in a weekend.

Peter designed the Sheffield to London route to be ridden as a 300km DIY audax, which is basically an audax that you plan yourself.  When you design a route you must plot the shortest distance between two points, so if you want to avoid main roads you can put in a control stop wherever you need to change direction. Peter had managed to plot a pretty straight route down through Bolsover, skirting around Nottingham, Northampton and Milton Keynes before heading slightly south-west over the Chilterns to Beaconsfield, Windsor and finally following the Thames to Teddington.

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Early morning sunshine on the lanes outside Bolsover

We met up in Nether Edge at 5.30am on Saturday morning outside the Sainsbury’s cashpoint where we picked up out first control receipt of the day. After a night of heavy rain, the weather was looking good and the wind wasn’t too strong so we expected to make good progress. The roads were deserted, giving us a pretty-much, traffic-free run all the way to Staveley for our next control receipt before heading on through Bolsover and the quiet lanes of north Nottinghamshire. Early morning rides are a great opportunity to catch some wildlife and en route we saw a barn owl and a young fox playing in the road.

The odd stretch on a busy road is often unavoidable on an audax, especially when you need to get across a river. We’d planned our Breakfast stop at Bingham, a village east of Nottingham, 75 km into the ride and our third control of the day. This meant crossing the Trent at Gunthorpe on the A6097 which is a straight, fast road with heavy traffic. Although it was only around 9am the traffic had picked up enough to make it a fairly unpleasant experience as the road is narrow in places and impatient drivers don’t like being held up by bikes, so we were all pretty glad to get to the roundabout turnoff to Bingham.

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The Picture House Cafe, Bingham

There are a few cafes to choose from in Bingham and judging by the amount of cyclists we saw arriving in the village square it’s a popular meeting place for local cycling clubs. Our cafe of choice was the Picture Cafe on the square, lovely decor, a good menu and, most importantly,  good, strong coffee. We were all impressed enough to consider planning a future day ride from Sheffield.

Keeping an eye on the time we were back on the road for just after 10am and on to the quiet country lanes that run parallel to the A46, through Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire. At Market Harborough we headed off-road on the Brampton Valley Way. This 14-mile cycle trail runs from Market Harborough to the outskirts of Northampton along the track bed of a disused railway line and is part of National Cycle Route 6.

Traffic-free route always sound like a good idea – and they are for leisure cycling and family days out – but when you’re covering big miles, often the surface can be a little hard-going on a road bike and they can slow you down quite a bit so we all found the 14 miles pretty tedious. We also encountered some unexpected tunnels – long, muddy, unlit tunnels that were pretty impossible to ride through on skinny 23mm tyres so we had a bit of pushing to do too.

This was also the first long ride on my new Fizik Luce saddle and before hitting the trail, the first 100km had been a comfortable ride but the new saddle has quite angular edges on it’s ‘wingflex’ system and, jiggled around on the bumpy trail surface, I found that the angular edges on the saddle’s ‘wings’ were starting to rub on the back of my legs when I sat back in the saddle. As I still had nearly 200km to go, this was a bit worrying.

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All Saints Church, Northampton

The route spat us out on the outskirts of Northampton, our fourth control of the day and destination for lunch. We’d lost a bit of time on the trail and were around half an hour behind schedule, arriving in town just after 2pm, but we were all pretty hungry and ready for a spell off the bike. We headed up Gold Street to All Saints Church and settled for lunch in the All Saints Bistro which is part of the church building. There’s plenty of covered, outside seating which was good for keeping an eye on the bikes locked up in the church square.

The route out of Northampton took us south, just skirting the edge of Milton Keynes, We were heading into commuter belt and the villages were starting to look a little more well-kept the further south we traveled. The village of Stewkley stands out as a lovely example with some fine old houses and thatched cottages. The cars were also getting bigger and more expensive but unfortunately the drivers’ manners weren’t improving any  and we had a couple of near misses with people taking crazy risks to overtake us rather than wait behind.

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Enjoying a drink at the Half Moon Pub, Wilstone

The fifth control of the day was The Half Moon at Wilstone, a traditional english pub with friendly staff who were interested to know where we’d come from and where we were going. We were met with the now fairly familiar cries of  “Where? Sheffield? Today!”. It was 4.30pm and we were hot in the afternoon sunshine so we ordered large, cold drinks all-round. Peter pushed the boat out with a lager shandy. We weren’t quite ready for a pub meal and there wasn’t a shop so we had to make do with the emergency bagels we’d been carrying around with us all day.

For the most part, once we were away from Sheffield, apart from the trail, the route had been pretty flat and fast but we were now heading into the Chilterns and that meant a few hills. Nothing by Sheffield standards but when you’ve already got 200km in your legs even the smallest incline can be a be a bit of hard work. Peter had done his best to keep the route off the main roads which meant that we found ourselves on some very narrow and not very well-kept country lanes. Some of them were so badly potholed that we gave up trying to negotiate the holes and got off to push for the second time in the day.

The sky had been growing progressively darker and by the time we got to the outskirts of Beaconsfield the heavens opened, and boy, did they open. We were absolutely soaked through to the skin in seconds. The force of the rain hitting the hot roads made the surface water frothy and visibility was poor. It rained solidly for a good 15 minutes but we pedaled out of it and by the time we’d reached the next control point at Dorney the roads were completely dry.

We definitely got a few funny stares from the early evening diners as we entered the Palmer’s Arms in Dorney. We were soaking wet and bedraggled and the rain hadn’t reached the village yet so outside it was still a lovely summer’s evening. We didn’t plan on stopping around long but we needed a control receipt so we ordered drinks and crisps and made good use of the facilities before heading through Windsor and on to Staines.

Old Will the Conqueror certainly knew what he was doing when he chose Windsor as the spot to build a castle. As we pedaled away from Dorney, across the plain of the Thames, the castle was the focal point of skyline, shining gold in the setting sun. We paused for a quick photo stop over the bridge at Eton before climbing on up to Windsor town centre, full of tourists and people partying on an early Saturday evening.

Next stop Staines. We were all pretty starving by this point as we’d not eaten anything substantial since we’d polished off the emergency bagels. On long rides Julie and I have gotten ourselves into the rhythm of eating something small every hour even if we don’t feel hungry, in order to keep blood sugar levels as even as possible to prevent bonking out.  It seems to work well for us but relies upon us topping up our food supplies whenever we get the opportunity. Peter doesn’t seem to need to eat as much as we do and was managing ok by just eating at controls but we were unanimously thrilled to see a Sainsbury’s petrol station the minute it came into view.

Peter’s sister had dinner waiting for us in Teddington as we’d planned to arrive for 9.30 but as it was already 9pm and we still had 20km left, we needed something to tide us over. I opted for a bag of popcorn to fill me up and a carton of iced coffee for a caffeine hit while Julie and Peter shared a sandwich. The cashiers were pretty impressed by our achievements so far and wished us well on the final leg of our journey.

Staines on a Saturday night is quite a rowdy affair so we were glad that we’d not needed to stop in the centre of town. We were hitting the outskirts of greater London now, roads were busier and traffic lights slowed us down quite a bit making the last 15km pretty slowgoing as we rode through the suburbs of Ashford and Feltham.

By 280km the back of my legs had pretty-much had enough of those angular edges on my saddle and I had to keep continually repositioning myself, which was a real shame because the nose of the saddle really was very comfortable.

We finally made it to our destination on Teddington High Street at 10.24pm. We needed to make sure that our arrival was documented so we immediately found a cashpoint to validate our journey of 301km before heading over to Peter’s sisters. We were given a  very warm welcome by Alison and Michael, along with plenty of food and a lovely, hot shower.

By 11.30 we were in bed as we needed to get a few hours of sleep in preparation for our next adventure, the Ditchling Devil 200km to Brighton and back on Sunday… but that’s another story.

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