Cycle on whisper-quiet roads through some of the prettiest countryside you’ll find anywhere in Britain, riding from village to village guided by church towers, spires and steeples
When is it?
Saturday 17th September
The start and finish are at Huntingdon Race Course, less than a mile from the A1 and A14. It’s a short ride along the B1514 from Huntingdon railway station.
There is a Holiday Inn at Huntingdon Race Course, PE28 4NL. As we went to press, twin rooms were available for September 16 for £60, or £72 with breakfast (www.holidayinn.com).
Rider reviews suggest that the Steeple Chase is a popular sportive for cyclists taking on their first century ride. There are no easy 100-mile routes, but the absence of prolonged climbs makes this a manageable challenge, and you will still accumulate the better part of 900m (3,000 feet) during the course of the day. There are shorter routes of 48 and 61 miles if the epic distance feels out of reach.
There are three feed stations on the longer ride, but it’s still worth packing gels or energy bars.
This is a non-competitive event, and the roads are open to traffic, but chip timing will record your speed. across the full route.
Into rural England
With me is my immediate next door neighbour Zac, a podium-bothering duathlete and triathlete. While I might feign shivers at club ride coffee stops, in the hope that another rider says, “Oh, are you cold? I thought you were looking thin. Have you lost weight?”, Zac really is that lean, hence his arm-warmers as we start this ride on an overcast day. We leave behind the ghostly-quiet Huntingdon Race Course, hop over the A14, and cruise through Brampton. A small bridge lifts us over four lanes of thundering traffic on the A1 and drops us onto a singletrack road, flanked by shoulder-high cow parsley, nettles and wild grass, backed by dense hawthorn and blackthorn hedges. The contrast between this head-clearing peace and the roaring Great North Road is as dramatic as it is delightful. As yoga instructors unfailingly seem to say at the start of a class, “Deep breath, and relax…”
Dilly-dally in the shadows
We skirt the footings of Grafham Water, catch the briefest glimpse of Grafham village church, sail past a field of linseed as blue as the Mediterranean, and dive headlong down a double-digit descent on our way to Kimbolton.
A school in magnificent grounds stands at the edge of town, gatekeeper to a high street of shops, cafes and pubs rendered in bright colours. At the end of a street an ancient oak lynchgate stands before the stunning St Andrew’s Church, and as we dilly-dally in its shadow, a woman emerges from the Old Swan Pharmacy opposite.
Leaving Kimbolton, we pass an industrial estate built on a former airfield where the US Air Force’s 379th Bomb Group was stationed during the Second World War. A memorial commemorates their deadly exports, 330 bombing missions between 1943 and 1945, rather than their friendlier imports of the jitterbug, Coke and nylon stockings.
We’re heading towards the square-towered church at Stow Longa as we pedal north. The moment its tower slips below the horizon behind us, the steeple of Spaldwick’s church rises to guide our navigation. From here it’s a short hop over the A14 again and a chance to gloat at all the drivers beetling along a road that seems to feature daily in traffic bulletins. A short, sharp climb forces us out of the saddle and delivers us to Barham (tiny, ancient church, no steeple) then on to Buckworth, where the tip of the spire claims to have been the highest point in Huntingdonshire for longer than seven centuries.
On our skinny wheels we’ll have to leave such point-to-point riding to our knobbly-tyred, mountain biking brothers, but it does feel as if the towers, spires and steeples are points in a giant dot-to-dot, connected by a trace of tarmac that leads us from Cambridgeshire into Northamptonshire.
Crossing the county boundary also signals a change in village architecture. Geologists would identify Northamptonshire’s local stone as oolitic limestone, but in layman’s terms think honeyed Cotswold stone and you’re bang on the money. Some of the houses are drool-inducing; in Fotheringhay and Cotterstock there’s not a home that would look out of place in the opening pages of Country Life. There are royal connections, too, with Shakespeare’s hunchbacked villain Richard III born in Fotheringhay Castle, and Mary Queen of Scots beheaded there. The castle is long dismantled, its stone and timber used to build the Talbot Inn, in nearby Oundle.
Uncleat and admire the view
Fotheringhay church remains, however, and with its tower and octagonal lantern above it’s the most beautiful of any we see on this Steeple Chase. Zac and I uncleat for a moment as we cross the River Nene, to look back and admire the church perched above a water meadow.
The route planners of the Steeple Chase sportive suggest the ride’s elevation profile resembles “a collection of holy roof structures”, each short, sharp climb and steep descent represented as a steeple-shaped triangle. On the road, none are overly arduous. There are no sustained efforts or killer ascents, but there are just enough contours to separate one view from the next. The subtlest changes of wind and gradient are enough to alter our speed from a steady 17mph to a brisk 23mph, with no extra effort. There are few descents steep enough to induce braking or even stop pedalling, which means that by the time we reach Oundle we’re feeling pretty peckish.
Straight outta Pilton
As we leave Pilton, the road straightens Roman-style, and nudged by a tailwind I can sense Zac’s temptation to flatten his back and time trial the better part of 10 miles to the horizon. During university holidays he would return to the area, smash a handful of Strava KOMs, then steal away to his studies like a modern-day Scarlet Pimpernel. His focus is on half and full iron distance triathlons, and even 50 miles into a ride he would normally be hurtling along roads like this, stretched out on aero bars. So it’s something of a relief that I don’t watch a fluoro yellow blur vanish into the distance.
The route sneaks into Bedfordshire, past more jaw-dropping houses, more churches, more steeples to chase, until we eventually rejoin the outward section of our route just south of Grafham Water.
1 Belton’s Hill to Barham
This cheeky little ascent, directly after crossing the A14, will force every rider to stand on the pedals. Its gradient hits 15 per cent in places, and averages seven per cent along its 300m. Strava KoM: 35 seconds.
2 Lutton Road, Polebrook
Typical of the climbs on this sportive, this innocuous one-mile ascent averages just three per cent. Be warned, however, that the steady accumulation of one uphill after another brings to mind a war of attrition. Strava KOM 2.16
3 Pilton to Old Weston
A Strava segment in waiting, this is a long straight, and with a tailwind and a group of riders prepared to work together, it’s an opportunity to turbo boost your average speed along almost
4 Catworth Climb
Select the correct gears and you can stay in the saddle as you spin up this hill, but with more than 60 miles in your legs it’s two-thirds of a mile that will sap your energy reserves. Strava KoM 1.40