YOUR GUIDE: Ben Hallam
DISTANCE: 31 miles (50km)
MAIN CLIMB: Strethall Fields and Coploe Hill
TOTAL CLIMB: 267m
ACHTUNG!: East wind will make hills a grovel
This circuit has been the basis of my training ever since I was 15 years old. It’s just over 50 kilometres round, and now I tag on a loop before it, and one after if that’s what I need, but it’s still at the heart of what I do,” says Ben Hallam before showing us his favourite ride in the rolling, open countryside just south of his home near Cambridge.
If you’ve been into bike racing for a while, the name Hallam will be familiar. Ben is the son of Stuart Hallam, the man behind countless racing projects, and nephew of Ian, a track world and Olympic medallist from the Seventies and a multi-world masters champion in the Nineties.
“Yeah, it’s only in the last couple of years that I think I’ve become Ben Hallam, and not Ian Hallam’s nephew,” Ben tells us when asked whether going into a sport in which a close relation has done so well is a blessing or a curse.
“It’s in my blood though, so there’s not much I could do about it,” he responds.
“It does have a good side, it opens doors for you. I was able to get my place in a French club when I raced there through Ian’s old coach, Norman Sheil, for example.”
Not that there’s any suggestion that Ben is living off the reputation of his uncle. He’s a former junior national champion in the pursuit, and lists a top six placing in the European Under-23 Track Championships among his many accomplishments.
BACK ON TRACK
Track racing is what Ben is aiming for now, after concentrating on the road for the last three or four years. “I really want to find out where I am in the pursuit. I have a personal best of 4.37 from 2002, but I’ve done so much more road racing since then and I’m a lot stronger. I know I’ve got a ride in me.
“My target for this year will be the National Track Championships. We have a fantastic set-up in this country and I want to see if I can break in. I feel I’ve been just behind the people on the World Class Performance Plan ever since I started, so now I’m making a big push to get there,” he explains.
If he doesn’t succeed it won’t be for of lack of trying. After a full road season last year, which included riding the Tour of Britain, Hallam was very disappointed at the way he was dropped by the DFL pro team, but was the ideal man for Glendene CC to pick up in their plans to develop young talent from Essex and the surrounding area. Hallam has already raced with some success in Belgium this year, and when we visited him he had a busy weekend planned with the Kent round of the Rudy Project time trial series on Saturday, and the opening Premier Calendar race in the North-East on Sunday.
We start the ride in Little Shelford, but as Hallam points out: “The circuit is within cycling distance for a lot of people living around here, and the route lends itself to using parts of it to make up loops of your own.”
The first part of the ride is a pan-flat bit of fenland that lies to the north and east of Cambridge. A mythical beast called the Fen Tiger is rumoured to skulk in the flat fields and high dykes around here, and in Fowlmere, through which we pass on the B1368, there have been a number of sightings of what witnesses describe as a huge black cat. We didn’t see him, but the traffic on the A505 could give you a nasty bite, so take care when you cross it at Flint Cross.
After the crossroads the route becomes more like Hallam’s favourite racing terrain in Belgium, as the road climbs up to the village of Barley, then dips up and down, goes this way and that, sometimes exposed, sometimes sunk between deep banks. In the background are open fields and hilltop villages, and windmills punctuate
Even though his big aims are on the track this year, Hallam tells us he won’t be abandoning the road. “Road races push you to make big efforts, and Bradley McGee has shown how good they are for pursuiters by coming straight out of races like the Tour de France and doing really fast pursuit times.”
The most southerly point of the route is the village of Clavering, where the Cricketers pub is the family home of TV chef Jamie Oliver. From there we turn north to Arkesden and its unusual war memorial, which marks the southern end of another journey.
The memorial is carved from a huge stone of a type known locally as ‘pudding stones’ and there are loads of them dotted around in the fields and gardens. Geologists call these stones ‘erratics’, and they were gouged out of very different terrain many miles north of Essex by advancing glaciers during the Ice Age, then carried south and dumped here when the ice melted.
Descending swiftly from Arkesden, Hallam’s progress is nearly interrupted by four deer, which hop over a bank and cross the road just after he flashes by. Under the M11 and the route joins the B1383, which runs parallel to the motorway. It’s a bit noisy and busy, but it’s worth it for the view you get of a very fine old country mansion, Audley End House.
You quickly turn off the busy B1382 at Littlebury, then climb a narrow exposed section under some pylons, and up to cross the Icknield Way long-distance footpath, which is thought to be the oldest road in Britain.
Then after a short descent we are on Hallam’s favourite bit of the whole ride. “If I ever win the lottery I’m going to have it paved with cobbles,” he says. And that would be perfect because, but for the surface, this hill wriggling up between exposed beet fields is a perfect Flemish climb, a sort of Kwaremont College, Cambridge, where Hallam comes to study for his Belgian trips.
From the top you can just see the old university city, and the marvellously named Gog Magog Hills. The hills are another mysterious place with a rash of crop circles, and even claims that they were once the location for the city of Troy, presumably before the Trojans got fed up with the weather and fled south to the Med. Consensus though is that the hills are named after two biblical giants.
Back under the M11 again, the route passes through Duxford, where a First and Second World War airfield is home to the Imperial War Museum’s aircraft display. And from there it’s best to turn left on the A505, go a couple of hundred metres to the roundabout and come back, instead of carrying straight on over the dual carriageway, which is a bit risky, then to Whittlesford and back to Little Shelford.
“I never get tired of riding here, it’s so open and you get a great feeling of space. It’s the perfect place for me to ride, too. I don’t like long hills because I’m a bit big for climbing, but on the other hand that means the winds around here don’t bother me much,” Hallam tells us after the ride.
Start Little Shelford, go south-west out of village and under M11. Turn left (TL) at T-junction with B1368. Go through Newton and Fowlmere. Turn right (TR) and TL at staggered junction with A505 (CARE).
First TL in Barley, TR on B1039 and 1st TL on to unclassified to Shaftenhoe End. Go through Langley, Roast Green and Stickling Green. TL entering Clavering to Arkesden.
Join B1039 1 mile before M11. Go under M11 and TL on B1383. Turn off B1383 on unclassified at Littlebury, then pass over M11 past Howe Wood. TR at Icknield Way sign over Strethall Fields and Coploe Hill, through Ickleton and Duxford.
TL on A505 and around M11 roundabout to retrace (CARE). First TL to Whittlesford and Little Shelford.
BEN HALLAM: THE FACTS
* 24 years old, lives near Cambridge with parents
* Former national junior pursuit champion, third in senior title 2002
* As a schoolboy rugby player, scored the winning try at Twickenham in the pre-varsity match
* Won a Radio 1 contest as a Prince Harry lookalike
* Rides for Glendene CC, sponsored by Specialized, Bike Tracks and Bio Racer
(This article originally appeared in CW April 6, 2006)