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...two great universities, two great cycling cities

Route facts

51

Length: 102 miles

Difficulty: Moderate

GPX file: Download

Nowhere in Britain does cycling better than Cambridge. Bikes throng the roads both there and in its great rival, Oxford. So why not take a weekend to cycle between the two?

The 100-mile journey is one of historic churches, village greens, country pubs and tiny shops – a very rural ride. The towns of Bicester, Milton Keynes and Bedford punctuate the trip. There’s a distinct railway flavour to the journey, too, as you crisscross the old ‘Varsity Line’, closed in the 1960s.

The signposted route between the two cities is National Cycle Network route 51, a well-chosen if occasionally circuitous collection of minor roads and cycleways. But to save a 15-mile detour, we suggest you swing off onto the National Byway into Cambridgeshire, which brings you closer to the city on some lovely lanes.

What sort of bike?

Any bike will be fine. Bar a few short stretches of unmetalled path, it’s tarmac all the way. Nor are there many hills, with an average of just seven metres’ climbing per mile.

How many days?

We’d suggest two days for a fit cyclist, breaking the route into 50-mile halves with an overnight around Milton Keynes. Leisurely riders will want to take three or more days. Oxford–Cambridge can be ridden in one day, but we wouldn’t suggest following NCN 51 in that case – it’s a bit too fiddly and indirect for fast cycling. Instead, check out our alternative route following more of the National Byway.

Is there an official route?

Yes, National Cycle Network route 51, signposted throughout with the standard blue signs. Of course, you never need to follow a signed route religiously, and in this case we’d add two provisos.

The first is that NCN 51 takes a long detour after Bedford, heading north to St Neots and Huntingdon. Although this gives you a long stretch on the butter-smooth cycleway beside Cambridgeshire’s new guided busway, it’s 15 miles that you don’t have to ride. Instead, we suggest taking the National Byway (also signposted) until a few miles outside Cambridge.

The second is that the urban stretches of route 51 can be circuitous even by NCN standards. If you don’t particularly want to see the suburbs of Kidlington, Bicester or Milton Keynes, you can save miles (and navigational angst) with a few well-chosen shortcuts.

Which direction is best?

Oxford to Cambridge, so that the prevailing winds are behind you. Battling a headwind in the flatlands of Cambridgeshire is enough to make you abandon your ride almost before it’s begun.

How do I get there?

Oxford and Cambridge have direct trains from both London and Birmingham. The route also crosses mainline railways at Milton Keynes, Bedford and Sandy. There’s no direct railway between Oxford and Cambridge, but the X5 bus runs every half hour, and takes bikes for no extra charge.

How much traffic is there?

Route 51 does a good job of finding the lesser-used roads, but the truth is that this is a car-clogged area. On a few roads between Bedford and Milton Keynes you’ll meet a stream of rush-hour traffic; near Bicester you’ll have the roar of the A34 beside you, even if your own road is clear. This would make us wary of recommending it for an absolute first-timer. That said, there are some really beautiful lanes on this route where cars rarely venture.

Can I avoid the towns completely?

By all means. If you’d rather skip Bicester and MK, we reckon this alternative route will be more to your taste. It still passes through Bedford (with its lovely riverside cycle path) but otherwise it’s rural all the way. There’s a little more climbing and the roads are slightly busier, so we’d suggest it’s best suited to more experienced touring cyclists.

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