I had just left the fabulous gravel trails of Norway’s south behind me when I arrived in Peterborough on Saturday afternoon to talk about gravel and adventure cycling with Liam Yates and Juliet Elliott at the Tour of Cambridgeshire Expo. At first sight the sheer size of the East of England Arena and Events Centre which hosted the event was a bit overwhelming. It was a massive step up in size from the events I am used to, gravel and bikepacking events that at best attract about 250 people.
Inside things felt much cosier though. Rapha had pitched up with their free coffee van, Canyon had some lovely bikes on display, amongst them Jan Frodeno’s time trial machine, and about two handfuls of other exhibitors used the event to speak to people and give advice on anything from performance enhancing honey to bikes.
The Tour of Cambridgeshire is a weekend of closed road events, and in that its main attraction lies to me. I had been to East Anglia beforehand, riding the longest route in my new book ‘Great British Gravel Rides’ with bikepacking racers Josh Ibbett and Gail Brown. And with the wind forecasted to be fresh, I had no doubts that cycling in this, rather flat, part of England will be a challenge. There are no hills, small lumps at best, but what I remembered from my last ride was that I was constantly pedalling.
I had ridden a number of other sportives, but none with almost 7,000 riders. But the sportive, which comes in 50, 70 and 100 mile lengths, was only one part of a weekend of fully closed road cycling events. There were individual and team time trials on Saturday, the UK’s biggest. 16.4 miles of racing on closed roads wasn’t my thing, and there had been way too much sitting around editing films and books lately. There was also the Gran Fondo, in which people could qualify for the World Championships in Italy, as well as the road race.
Next to the expo, within a big hall, the grounds also featured a food fair, live music, entertainment, family activities, camping and glamping. I had opted to book a small hotel in Market Deeping, a small town north of Peterborough about an hour away by bike, but If I had wanted to, I could have spent the whole weekend surrounded by people, food and bikes – a rather nice thought after two years of limited social contact. There were also a number of Canyon bikes to test, and thanks to them one of them was mine for the rest of Saturday evening and Sunday.
The ride out to Market Deeping was like a mini version of the 600km gravel route in my book, passing through fields, past pretty man made lakes and ponds, small villages and alleys lined with trees. After a veggie burger and a pint it was bedtime soon, the England-Italy game, broadcasted in a large beer garden outside my room didn’t keep me from an early night.
Sunday started with a 5.00am start, and a highly enjoyable ride back to the grounds. The roads were quiet, the early sun dipped everything into warm colours and I could spot only a handful of people on my way to the East of England Arena and Events Centre. Just before arriving I left my planned route to follow the sweet smell of freshly baked croissants. Unfortunately they hadn’t made it to the shelves of the local Tesco Express yet, but a fresh coffee and a veggie toasty from one of the food stalls lifted my mood instantly.
The fact that I could explore the roads of Cambridgeshire without having to mingle with cars was the main attraction for me, and I wasn’t disappointed. I had given up road cycling a while ago for gravel riding, but it was fun being back on a bike that did not just feel fast, but actually went fast too. Waiting with 1000s of riders made me wonder how much space I would have on the roads, but apart from the odd group of very fast riders passing at speed I had enough space to enjoy myself.
In the towns and villages that I passed people seemed to enjoy the tranquillity. I wondered if car-free Sundays would be a welcome change every now and then, or if we should at least close certain roads on Sunday to give people more space to enjoy not just their own front gardens, but others’ company too. People were sitting on the roads, enjoying the sunshine, clapping, and having a few drinks. Some decorations from the Jubilee weekend were still up, all together it was a lovely setting and an atmosphere to enjoy.
It was the strong wind that made the 50 miles I rode more of a challenge than I had initially thought. Throughout the whole route I tried to figure out where the wind was blowing, but it seemed like it was constantly changing direction. While the fresh grains danced in the field next to me, my lack of training and the effort I had to put in despite being on a, for me at least, rather fast bike resulted in a quick episode of cramping close to the finish line. I stopped short of the next marshalling point, and after a few minutes stretching I was back on my bike.
The finish was celebrated with a cold alcohol free beer first, followed by carrot cake and coffee. Secure bike parking from Pedal Cover would have been ideal to hand my bike over and enjoy the friendly festival atmosphere, but I had the luxury of handing my borrowed bike back to Canyon and enjoying the atmosphere. And while I am not entirely sure if I would trade in my solo adventures on a gravel bike for riding on roads any time soon, events like the Tour of Cambridgeshire make for a nice change of my normal cycling routine. If you want, find out yourself, entries for 2023 are already open here.