Monday 1 August 2016

Flat Fenland Foray (C#26)
Friday 29 July, 105 Miles

As regular readers of this blog will recall I’ve poked my pedals onto the edges of the Fens a few times. So I felt the time had arrived to go the whole way and have a full-on Fenland ride. Resting on my bookshelf is a copy of Best 100 Mile Bike Routes by Chris Sidwells. Now already I can feel you thinking "He’s got a book, this is becoming an obsession.” Well, obsession or not the book is quite interesting even if I'm unlikely to ever ride most of the routes described – there are a small number that I may be able to ride in time. But one of them caught my eye.

Bikes locked and loaded
Now the Fens can be a bleak and lonely place so I decided to do the ride with Daren, a friend and fellow Bianchista. We loaded our bikes onto my roof rack and drove over to the start of the route at Wisbech.  Wisbech is the capital of the Fens and in the past a thriving port. The town is closely linked to the development of the Fens, which at the time was fiercely opposed by local people (the Fen Tigers) who sabotaged much of the drainage works during the Civil War – Oliver Cromwell put the Tigers in their place and the drainage works then proceeded apace, creating the flat landscape of today. Agricultural land prices here are the highest in the country and crops are grown on an industrial scale.

After saddling up we headed north out of Wisbech aiming towards The Wash. We had only gone a few hundred yards when Daren experienced what cyclists refer to as a 'mechanical'. In a nutshell, something seemed to be out of alignment with his drive train which was emitting a loud clicking noise every time he pedalled hard. Riding behind him I could see his chain and rear derailleur arm jumping. Well, we tried all the obvious things without success and not being a quitter, Daren resigned himself to a less than ideal ride with the possibility of a repair bill at the end. There was also the risk of terminal damage along the way but perhaps rashly, that didn’t really feature in our thinking as we continued on our way.

We were soon across the River Nene at Sutton Bridge and over the county line into Lincolnshire. There was an increasing sense of remoteness and isolation as we rode along a quiet county lane which had just been tarred and chipped – the bane of the road cyclist’s life. We could sense, if not actually see The Wash a few hundred yards away – we were riding pretty well at sea level with a high embankment between us and the sea. About 12 miles to the east we could see Norfolk where the land rises gently upwards.

Definitely in The Fens

Turning gradually westwards we had our first taste of what was going to prove the major challenge of the day – wind. At 12-15 mph it had a significant effect on our progress. Pedalling directly into the wind on long straight roads with no shelter whatsoever became both a physical and a mental struggle. As we made our way towards Spalding our average speed ebbed away. What kept us going was the prospect of eventually turning east and getting the benefit of a tail wind. But the 30-40 westerly miles between Holbeach and Market Deeping were some of the hardest I had ridden for a long time.

We stopped for an alfresco lunch at Cowbit where the local village store and garage provided a sandwich and drink for us to refuel on. The garage forecourt had the usual bucket of cut flowers wrapped in cellophane on sale. But as this was the Fens there was an additional local speciality – leek plants wrapped in cellophane. I couldn’t help thinking that arriving at any of my friends or relatives bearing gift wrapped leeks was likely to be met with a degree of scorn. But maybe it’s the custom in these parts. And I haven’t got a clue if the leeks are meant to be eaten or planted!

Right turn in 6 miles!
Eventually we dragged ourselves back to our bikes and set off again for the final push west before, hopefully, being able to turn out of the wind. Our mood lightened considerably once we arrived at Market Deeping and turned south east. And our speed quickly picked up. When planning the route, I had noticed a long straight level road which I was keen to try out. By 'long' I mean 6 miles. By 'straight' I mean arrow straight. And by 'level', well the road drops 17 feet over the 6 miles. I know because I've measured it!!

By the end of the straight we were happily whizzing along at around 20 mph, interrupted occasionally by the clicking and clacking sounds of Daren’s chain. I was certainly glad that we hadn’t ridden the route the other way round because I'm not sure that I would have managed the 6 mile straight in a headwind.

The last part of the route back to Wisbech was relatively straightforward. Daren even tried to entice me to sprint against him at one point. (I declined.) We both agreed that it had been a unique experience, but not necessarily a wholly enjoyable one. This had also been Daren’s longest ride ever so was a cause for celebration. My suggestion of doing it again on a wind-clear crisp winter’s day was met with less than enthusiasm by Daren. Hmm.

And by way of a footnote. The cause of Daren’s mechanical turned out to be a broken bearing in the hub of his rear wheel.

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