Oxford to Cambridge 2013 – 90 miles into a headwind

Saturday morning dawned rather early and after a lot of faffing installing a new bike computer (and giving up on installing aero bars), we finally left for the short trip to the start in Oxford.

Lesson #1: Get bike prep done the night before.

After briefly forgetting our Oxford geography, we made it to the start at the Iffley Road Sports Ground, where Sir Roger Bannister ran the first four minute mile. We were emulating his efforts to get to the start, thinking we were late; supposedly it closed at 8.30am, but on arrival we were calmly directed to apply numbers to bike and backs and head for the start gate. Boo got her own number for the day, which puzzled us both. We mused the possibility of us getting separated, which would leave us each riding unicycles to Cambridge!

In the rush to head off we failed to get half of the basic supplies we needed, but resolved to catch up with our support vehicle at 19 miles where we could be suitably replenished. The only problem was we made better progress than expected. It seems Oxford really is better suited to bikes than to cars. Support vehicle murmured something about queues in the Co-op, but I think a little geocaching also contributed to the delay.

We made quite good progress in the early miles, the spirit was willing and there were plenty of other cyclists willing to share a wheel, especially in return for a chat about the quirky engineering of our ‘kiddy crank’ setup. Near Bicester I realised that in the rush to get started I had neglected to fire up our Strava GPS log and did the necessary.

During the first stop we felt so confident in making progress (despite Boo’s sneezes) that we agreed upon meeting at the Rufus Centre, our 55 mile marker. This provided opportunity to replenish supplies of both diesel and comestibles. Unfortunately, due to unforeseen circumstances (closed roads due to an accident) our support vehicle was unable to follow our route and had to make her own way to our rendezvous. Therefore, we got an anxious phone call at about 45 miles, just when morale and edible supplies were running low, in the midst of a series of tough climbs through Great & Little Brickhill. Not happy cyclists!

Progress was definitely slower than planned during this phase of the day, as energy waned and the forecast 12 mph headwind continued unrelentingly. When finally we did battle to our lunch stop’, we were pleased to find our support vehicle had made it there before us, just!

Lesson #2: When riding ‘point to point’ headwinds can seriously mess with your timing, and energy levels.

Lesson #3: Expect the unexpected with support vehicle navigation – have a FULL map in the car.

Finally remembering to check tyres

I knew this seemed harder to pedal than I was used to, I just put it down to the headwind!

On arriving at the lunch-stop the first priority was to consume all the available calories, although for Boo, her cold seemed to limit this to cocktail sausages and jelly. Once the desire to gorge had subsided, thoughts turned to trying to maximise the efficiency of the bike. Hence, the need to check on the tyre pressures, which were found wanting, by our handy trainee mechanic. Once refueled, some enthusiasm for the road returned.

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The next section of the route took us through a number of quite busy little towns which posed their own challenges. Notably, when traffic ground to a halt whilst pilot was in the middle of drinking, leaving a shortage of hands for adequate braking power. Hairy moment was deftly handled with a little judicious filtering around stationary traffic and we were on our way again, shaken but not stirred. Our next meet up was the Crown Inn in Northill, at this point my ongoing battle with temperature control took another turn leading to my third change of outfit of the day, requiring short sleeves as the day continued to warm, and I worked ever harder on the hills.

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Before & After: It is amazing the rejuvenating power of a chunk of fudge on a small person

This next stage took us through a short section off the public highway, through Sandy Country Park. Whilst a very pretty little climb through a tree-lined path, we were not thrilled to find our route obstructed by a succession of five or six tree trunks which had been laid across our path. I was intrigued by the group of three young men who had been leering at us as we approached the Park and can only assume this had been their handiwork, attracted by the nicely waymarked route, they thought they would ‘have their fun’. We picked our way through, clearing the obstacles and were rewarded by a swooping, roller-coaster ride of a descent as my small stoker described it. The next stop-off was at the Wheatsheaf in Gamlingay, (75 miles) where I decided it was time to go for broke administering some more gels and changing into outfit number four.

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Clearly Boo’s confidence on the back seat means more than one contact point with the bike is entirely optional. She still hasn’t realised how much her movements affect the balance of the bike, so she now seems to believe I have eyes in the back of my head.

From here the miles became rather tough. We knew we were going to finish, but hoped it would come a deal sooner than it actually did. This feeling was mainly due to the nature of the terrain. The Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire area is well suited to arable farming, being flat, with large fields and minimal field boundaries, making for little cover from a relentless headwind. Added to this was the fact that our delayed start and multiple stops meant that the number of cyclists remaining on the route was dwindling, so we had less camaraderie or other riders to pursue. At least earlier in the day we had regular encouragement from others, seeing a cyclist so young participating. This included a father and son team on a tandem, who were clearly interested to see our use of the kiddy-cranks on a Dawes Galaxy, which apparently was the same set-up that they had started with some ten or more years earlier. Does this mean Boo and I will still be looking for joint challenges in a decade? If so, I’ll need a comfier seat, but it seems from our interested companions that at least I still get to man the controls!

We agreed upon an optional stop just outside Barton, with about five miles to go. The last few miles were seeming fairly interminable for us both by now. For me, mainly because of my discomfort with the saddle that has seen better days and for Boo with general fatigue after the longest day in the saddle she’s experienced in her short life. So, we made a quick stop, grabbed a few supplies and some hugs of encouragement, then pressed on for Cambridge. The roads in the last few miles were quite kind, with more shelter from buildings and cycle paths providing protection from vehicles in the dwindling light. There were also a few more cyclists around by the very nature of travel in Cambridge. I started to see roads that I recognised from visits to Cambridge and knew the end wasn’t far.

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The light was failing fast but we started to see a few cyclists coming the other way giving encouragement, so we made a last push for the line. Boo was trying to encourage a final Cavendish style sprint and bike throw, but my excuse was the finish line was immediately after a sharp left turn. So we made a graceful deceleration to a halt on the line to collect medals and water.

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We made it!

A long day…90 miles, nine hours, around seven in the saddle, an average speed of 12.5mph (a bit slower than planned – I blame the easterly headwind), but a satisfying max speed of 40mph on the downhill. However, it did all take it’s toll.

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And this is the thanks, I get. I take a moment to stretch out on a bench, whilst watching the lady doing massages take her table out to the car, and darling daughter tries to push the tandem over onto me. Still, I think she was enquiring after my health, so I guess she means well.

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Light fading fast, two hour journey home and two hungry cyclists to feed. It was time to load the tandem on the car. Suddenly, it seemed harder to benchpress onto the roof than it did this morning, no idea why?!

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