For various reasons too tedious to list here*, I wasn’t able to ride a 300 km qualifier for Paris-Brest-Paris. To qualify, you have to ride a 200 km, a 300 km, a 400 km, and a 600 km, all within designated time windows.
Luckily(!), you can qualify by substituting a longer ride for a shorter, and as I’d already entered two 600s, that seemed to be the path of least resistance. Even more luckily, I was organising a flat 400 which would be bugger all use as training for PBP, but it would tick the box for qualification, and I managed to get around the route check of that only 4 weeks after my knee-knack.
Tour of the Borders and Galloway 600
I rode my 400 one weekend, was busy with running it the following weekend, and I took the next weekend off to let the swelling around my knee go down, and the first of my two 600s was Andy Berne’s Tour of the Borders and Galloway. As I expected from Andy, it was superbly organised, including the most lovingly-detailed pre-ride briefing notes I’ve ever encountered.
Pre-warned and pre-armed, and filled up with fish n chips at Seaton Sluice the night before with Anne & Ulrich & Steve & Angela, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what to expect – some familiar roads, some new ones, and not-too tough terrain around the Borders and Northumberland.
I had a less-than-perfect start. On the ride up the day before, something cut my tubeless tyres, and it was too big a cut to seal itself. I tried putting in more sealant and it seemed to hold overnight, but it was going down on the ride down to the start at Merton Hall in Ponteland, in the monied part of Northumberland. As I was early, I had time for some breakfast and to bang an inner tube in, which held for the whole ride (Andy lent me the track pump he’d thoughtfully brought to the start).
That was pretty much it for mechanicals on the ride, apart from a loose mudguard bolt – a victim of some of the shocking Galloway roads. Given the size of some of the potholes, it was a small price to pay.
The ride started at 8 am, which is a lovely, civilised start time. However, as every other 600 I’ve ridden started at 6 am, I always had the nagging sense that I was two hours behind schedule. It’s a funny thing about audaxes – even when you have plenty of time in hand, you’re always aware of the clock ticking down.
I tagged along with the front group for a bit and chatted with Duncan before the little rises (Northumberland is all little rises, apart from the big rises) took their toll, and I dropped off the back to ride at my own pace. Another rider caught me up, and asked if he could follow me as he didn’t have a gpx or routesheet. I reluctantly agreed, but I was relieved when he decided that I was too slow and went off to sit on someone else’s wheel.
This was the point in the ride when you start to settle in with the bubble you’ll see for the rest of the ride. Dave Crampton and Jay caught up with me, and we rolled along chatting for a bit, until Jay went through the red on a temporary traffic light. To be fair, you could see it was clear, and he’s from Bradford, where they probably still have a man with a stop/go sign on a stick directing traffic. The motorbiker coming the other way bellowed incomprehensible objections at me from underneath his helmet, until I pointed out that I’d fucking stopped.
The first control was Alnwick, which can be a pain to get through. It was.
But then it’s out onto the open roads and across the Cheviots, the magnificent Border Hills. The control at Morebattle was a community cafe in what looked like a church undergoing renovation. Just a quick stop. Jay and I were riding together at this point – we’d ridden together on the Border Raid 600 last year and though he’s a fair bit stronger than me, he had All Points North from the weekend before in his legs, so we were well-matched. We had broadly similar aims of not stopping too much, but I needed to break up the long slog into the headwind from Morebattle to Moffat. Most riders seemed to stop in Selkirk, but we took a punt on the Glen Cafe at St Mary’s Loch still being open, and grabbed a can of Coke and a cake each. I needed that for the long drag over past the Grey Mare’s Tail. It’s a standard route on Borders rides, and a lovely road, though I think it was the first time I’ve ridden it in that direction.
We made it to Moffat just in time for everything to be closed. Well, nearly – a friendly cafe owner stayed open, and prioritising coffee, I sat with a good coffee and a lemon muffin while Jay went off looking for chips.
My chips had to wait until Biggar, and at least this section saw us being pushed along by a decent tailwind. Of course, we turned back into it at Biggar, and along the B7076, which I’ve whinged about before. But it’s been a while, and it’s quick, easy miles, and it took us to Lockerbie Truck Stop, where the food is plentiful, and cheap, and they DGAF when you bring your bike inside.
I was carrying out rough calculations in my head, and I thought we’d get to the sleep stop at Colvend (380 km) for about 2 am. A fair few riders had already booked beds at Lockerbie, which was at 320 km, and it’s cheap, and does mean a few hours in a proper bed, but with the 8 am start, that would make for a long day 2, and a late finish. I had work the next day, and aims of finishing not-too-far behind local rider Paul Roberts, as he could then give me a lift home (the alternative being a 15-mile ride down from Ponteland to Newcastle Central to negotiate my way onto a train). We pushed on.
Night sections have a certain allure – the lonely road and a pair of lights blazing into the darkness, and the occasional glimpse of wildlife. Not to mention the glimpse into how other people spend their Saturday nights. We grabbed a quick ATM control in Dumfries city centre, and over the road there was the sort of mob queuing outside a nightclub that just needs a spark to enflame it, and I was relieved that they never saw us, even if I was slightly tempted to see if they’d let us in.
About a mile down the road, I wished we’d asked – that was where the rain started. And what rain it was, proper thick drops straight off the Irish Sea. I remembered (too late) that the wettest I’ve ever been was during a family holiday on the Solway Firth.
Luckily for us, it only truly set in when we arrived at the sleep stop to be greeted by Tania and Matt, and to be told that we were either the back of the first wave or the start of the second wave. Jay asked about how he could be guaranteed inclusion in the first wave while I tucked into some soup, and one of the earlier riders who’d just woken up asked me how the rain was. I paused, so that he could hear the sound of it bashing the roof of the hall, and told him “I think it’s that wet rain I’ve been hearing about”. I think he went off into the night anyway, but Jay and I went off for a couple of hours’ sleep.
The Colvend control was superb – menus on each table laid out the options, and when we left just before first light, they insisted on filling our pockets with food, as there would be nothing open until 9 o’clock, and the next proper stop was 100 kms away.
This 100 kms was a loop around Galloway, and the rain just sat on it. I again insisted on 5 minutes off the bike, which we spent sheltering under a cafe alcove in New Galloway. I checked, and it was officially three hours before they opened. A couple of later riders did manage to convince them to open early and let them in out of the rain.
I’m sure this loop is lovely, but all we saw was grey, every shade of grey. Low clouds, high clouds, drifting rain, flooded roads filling the potholes to the point where you couldn’t see them. Dumfries McDonald’s was a haven. We got the last breakfasts they served, and I was very pleased to tuck into some porridge.
After nipping down to Bankend to pick up the coast road back east through Annan, things gradually started to improve. A rising cross-tailwind, and progressively less rain. We even dared to eat outside in Longtown, and the layers were coming off.
Jay had been suffering with his hamstring and treating it with copious amounts of Good Drugs, but even so, he was faster than me up the hills, and after I started playing the accordion on the first little pulls towards the Military Road, the elastic broke, and I waved him off on his own.
I was after somewhere to get my head down for ten minutes, but the pull up Greenhead Bank woke me up, and I rolled along happily on my own. The last real obstacle is the Ryals, at about 590 kms, but I know what to expect from the Ryals, and with a tailwind it’s not a bad climb. Or series of climbs. I did wonder how anyone who didn’t know it coped with coming over the top of the first Ryal to see the second Ryal looming ahead. But realistically, the first is the worst, and Andy had warned us all about this, both in his copious pre-ride briefing notes, and in his verbal address to the masses before the start.
The best thing about finishing up the Ryals is that it gives you a long, lovely, gentle downhill more-or-less all the way to the finish. Assuming you don’t miss a turning, which I did, but I worked it out and re-routed back to the finish through fulsomely expensive Darras Hall (where my mere presence probably knocked a quarter of a mill off house prices). Jay was still there, faffing, and best of all, so was Paul, and I got a lift home.
Here endeth the first 600.
North Coast Classic 600
After the TOBG 600, my knee did swell up a bit, but I got it down with ice and was walking and riding normally by the Thursday. I’m sure I still had the weight of all those kms in my legs, but I had been looking forward to this ride as a bonus post-qualification ride for PBP. With a hotel booked in Inverness before and after, I had no plans to rush around.
Things again went slightly awry on the ride up to Durham to meet Rich for my lift – again, a tubeless tyre was cut too badly for the gunk to do its work. It was the front this time, and if I’d noticed how worn it was, I wouldn’t have taken it around a 600. But again, I put a tube in, and again, it held for the ride.
A pattern was developing – on the night before, we again had fish n chips.
Our hotel was right on the A96, but dashing along the A9 to the start wasn’t a problem at 5.15 am (it was a bit shit on the way back, mind). Andy Uttley had a warm welcome for us, though I never saw the promised porridge.
The week before the ride had been one of weather-watching. Early in the week, the forecast was appalling. Heavy rain all Saturday and Sunday. This gradually improved, and on Saturday morning, there were high clouds and milky sunshine. Sadly, the forecast did put off quite a few riders, and there were only 37 of us at the start. To puncture my pride at riding back-to-back 600s, I saw two riders from the previous weekend’s TOBG, and both of them had yet-another 600 lined up the following weekend. I did ask Neil what he had planned for his fourth 600 to get his name on the Hyper Randonneur list, but his only reply was a Sphinx smile.
Again, I tucked in with the fast group before dropping off to ride a bit with Rob, Rich and Andy (organiser of last week’s 600), also of VC167. I’ve ridden in the area before, and probably annoyed them all with recitations of previous rides and a rough guide of what to expect. The first stretch over to Ullapool looks terrifying on the map, but it’s just a long drag over the middle of the country without any serious steepness. That was yet to come.
I find a lot of the cross-country routes a little dull (or far too interesting – Affric Kintail Way, I’m looking at you), and the Garve to Ullapool road is no exception. It’s perfectly pleasant, and seemed lovely that morning, but I’ve always ridden that way back to Inverness from the west coast, and when you’ve been riding round the coast, everything else is a let-down. Everyone else was taking loads of photos, but I was looking forward to the coast.
I think we had a bit of tailwind to Ullapool – my average speed of 28 kph would certainly suggest so. As it happened, I arrived at the cafe at the back of the group, and used up so much time queuing to be served, then waiting for my food. As I pointed out to the others before they left, all that queuing was good training for PBP.
When I eventually left, I checked my brevet card to remind myself that I had loads of time, but I still felt the push of time, and the agony of time wasted. An hour is a bit much.
Ullapool, as I’d warned my clubmates, was where the hills started, and they wouldn’t let up until we passed Dounreay, about 200 km up the road. Andy U was stamping our cards, and when he mentioned that we’d all been earlier than he’d expected, I pointed out the tailwind, and commented that we’d pay for it before too long.
There was a gently rising northerly, but barely noticeable as I rode along the inland roads past Coigach and Assynt, remembering lovely tours around the gnarly peninsula roads. I was both pleased and disappointed that we weren’t riding those, as they’d have looked stunning under blue skies and sunshine, but it’s tough cycling terrain.
Turned out, I needn’t have worried too much about time – my clubmates were still waiting for their food to arrive at the campsite restaurant at Scourie. I just had snacks, and I wanted to ask if the Angus was still there, who’d ran the campsite when I last camped there nearly ten years ago, but I didn’t want to ask in case he’s dead. Hopefully he’s still pottering about.
I quite enjoyed playing the old lag, as this was all new terrain for my clubmates, but it really has changed from the quiet roads I first encountered. Used to be, you’d get the occasional campervan, and a few motorbikes, but also hours on your own. The North Coast 500 has really changed that, and the insfrastructure obviously struggled, especially on the singletrack roads. On bikes, we want to keep our momentum, and you can spot the local drivers, as they know how it goes – on our bikes, we’ll approach a passing place, indicate to pull in, and the drivers’ll put their foot down a bit to shoot past, and we barely have to slow down if we time it right. Tourists are a different story, and it takes a fair bit of negotiation. Objectively, it’s still not a busy place, but it’s busier than it was, and busier than a lot of northern England.
Scourie to Durness was where the wind started to pick up from the north-east, and it was a bit of a slog. We did get a fast tailwind stretch around Loch ‘Orrible**, but I was eyeing up the road along the other side of the loch the whole way, which was straight into the wind. It can’t be that much effort to knock up a bridge, can it?
The next stretch of the north coast was new to me – I had ridden from Durness to Inverness before, but went down via Glen Hope and the Crask Inn. I actually thought the turn-off for Achnasheen at Hope was the top of the hill. Turns out, it’s about 200 metres below the top of the hill. No wonder it’s called Hope, though there were no road signs as they keep getting nicked. I thought all Hope was gone, especially when my Hope Vision 1 unscrewed itself and bounced away down the road, but I managed to retrieve it.
It was hard going for a while. But you really don’t want your qualifiers to be too easy as that’s no sort of preparation for PBP. I recall a weekend where we rode the (hilly) Mosstrooper 300 on the Saturday, followed by the (hilly, headwindy) Chevy Chase 200 on the Sunday, and after that, PBP was a breeze.
So I was quite enjoying the challenge. I took five minutes off the bike to let the others roll up the road to the next control at Bettyhill, and met them to find them grumping about the wait for food, which was becoming a theme. Mine didn’t take too long, and even less time to eat. For some reason, Andy couldn’t order a main and a pudding, and ate two puddings.
The overnight control at John o’Groats was quite early, at 340 km from a 6 am start, but that was quite far enough, thanks. I arrived about midnight, a little behind the others, and realised I hadn’t read the ride notes quite as carefully as I should have, as I hadn’t included a sleeping mat or bag in my drop bag. Ah well. I pulled my buff down over my eyes, draped my rain jacket over my legs and made myself as comfortable as I could get against a wall.
I woke up at about 2.30, surrounded by bodies. I extricated myself from my space, and Ian came over to offer a friendly smile and tea or coffee. Coffee, definitely coffee. When I turned around from my seat, someone had already taken my space.
I set off at 3.30, as the others were clearly more determined to sleep than I was. I plodded along under steely Caithness skies, but had to stop for a nap, upright in the corner of a bus shelter. That was enough to refresh me for the rest of the ride, along with other riders catching me up – I chatted with them to keep myself alert, whether they wanted me to or not.
The wind hung northerly for the rest of the ride, and made a useful companion of itself at last. The four of us pretty much rode in a group to the finish, shuttling with a few others. The east coast isn’t quite as spectacular as the north or the west, but it does have seals, and good bridges, and wow, that pull over to Dingwall*** was a bit of a shock, as I’ve only hacked along the A9 for that stretch previously. Of course, as we were now on the wrong side of the Black Isle, we had one last hill to ride over to the finish at North Kessock. Did I mention it rained before Dingwall? It did, and it was some more of that wet rain, but it was the only rain of the ride.
It is a great route, and Andy U mentioned changing it in future editions to avoid a dash along the A9. I didn’t mind that stretch as it made for fast, easy-rolling miles. However, the alternative would likely go to the Crask Inn, which is a classic location. Go, if you haven’t already been, or go again if you have. Hopefully he’ll still avoid Struie Hill – I’ve always ridden over Struie to or from the north, and it made a pleasant change not to have to ride it this weekend, especially as it would have been about 520 km into the ride.
Of the two, I was most pleased with the North Coast – not only because it completed my qualifying, but travelling a fair way for a ride felt like a holiday, if an intense one. Having ridden PBP in 2011 and 2015, I’ve often told people that qualifying can be harder than the event itself – you have to ride events within what suddenly feels like a very narrow window, and time presses down on you. It’s a relief to have qualified, and to have two months to relax, to ride without time pressure, and to get some form back in the hills. I’d recommend riding either of these 600s in future years, but maybe not both together,
*Non-cycling-related knee injury – long-term damage from football, badminton and sisters, and inherently shit knees.
** spelt Eriboll, but definitely pronounced ‘Orrible
*** pronounced Dingwall, which we clarified with a local after Rob persistently pronounced it Dingle – but Scotland is full of traps for the unwary pronunciator, and the Scots’ favourite pastime is correcting English pronunciations of place names, so it’d be a shame to spoil their fun