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Durham & Northumberland 200 (redux)

entries: http://www.aukweb.net/events/detail/20-338/

Route: https://ridewithgps.com/routes/27948575

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on the high passes

My very first Audax UK event was a Joe Applegarth event, in 2009.

My mate Martin suggested it as my first, and I rode the 40 km to Newbottle Village Hall, near Sunderland, to ride Gilpin’s Gallop 200. Martin had to remind me to go and collect my brevet card, I was that green.

I remember Joe being very offhand about the route, which was south, down the Vale of Mowbray and the Vale of York to Boroughbridge, then back again. I liked the vibe, and the mix of cyclists, bikes and attire on the road, from full-on roadies carrying nowt and riding with their clubmates in matching kit, to tourists with wooly hats and mudguards.

When I came back to ride Joe’s other 200, I realised why he’d been a bit dismissive of the route. His heart wasn’t in flat main road bashes, he wanted us to go up into the hills. Actually, I remember meeting Joe that year while on a different ride, from Wigginton near York, which went around the Howardian Hills and through Oldstead and Kilburn, which is pretty-much the foot of White Horse Bank. Joe went and rode up White Horse Bank to the Gliding Club cafe at the top, on his tourer, with a single Carradice pannier on the outside. No one else did.  I think Joe’s comment was “I may as well make an interesting ride of it”.

Joe’s other 200 was the Durham and Northumberland, also from Newbottle*. It wasn’t up n down the Vale of York, it was definitely a ride full of interest, going west and north, to where the hills are.

I couldn’t find the routesheet, but I’ve dug out my brevet card, and I think this is pretty close to the route: https://ridewithgps.com/routes/31788089

Photo on 20-01-2020 at 23.10 copy

I asked Joe for his permission to re-use the name, and he was happy for me to do so, but said that the route was nothing like his. You can kinda see what he means, but there are similarities, and it’s the same terrain once you sub Darlo in for Sunderland. I’m pleased to miss out Ebchester Bank as a climb (I hate that climb), but it’s still in as a descent.

Joe also asked me to remind any prospective riders not to bring an old routesheet. I nearly pointed out that hardly anyone uses a routesheet nowadays, but I quite enjoy writing routesheets, and there will be one for you on the day, to guide you through the southern edges of the Durham coalfield where you’ll pass through Bishop Auckland, Willington, Cornsay, Lanchester, and around Consett to cross the Tyne at Stocksfield.

The terrain of this part of County Durham is best described as “choppy”. It’s constantly up and down, with some steep thrown into the mix.

Across the Tyne Valley, to the lovely cyclists’ cafe at Capheaton and back to re-cross the Tyne at Hexham, it’s rolling, but not tough.

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Northumberland skies

After Hexham, things start to get serious. You’re straight up Gallows Hill, then up and down some more, crossing the watersheds between the major valleys of the Tyne, the Derwent, the Wear and the Tees, the great northern rivers, and never far from the watershed between the Irish Sea and the North Sea.

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down to Weardale

The route tops out at over 600 metres at Swinhope Head between Weardale and Teesdale. Here, you can relax into the final control at Middleton-in-Teesdale. Well, relax apart from the gate on the descent. From Middleton, you’ll just have to get up Toby Hill and up to Folly Top, from where it’s downhill all the way to Darlo (with just a few clicks along the way to keep you honest).

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I should say that spring is my favourite time in Teesdale, when the gentians and other ice flowers bloom, and when there’s still a hint of snow on the tops.

We’ll have some decent scran at the finish – like Joe’s events, I can guarantee pease pudding sarnies and cake, and there’ll be some other stuff too. I hope to see you there.

*I rode through Newbottle the other week, and was saddened to see that the village hall, which doubled as Houghton CC’s club room, is no more, and has been knocked down. When I mentioned the place to my dad, he went off into a reminiscence about a dance up there in the Fifties, and how the local miners had to put them up when their bus home broke down.

Steele Roads & Woolly Hills 400

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Entries here: http://www.aukweb.net/events/detail/20-589/

Steele Roads are lead miners’ roads. The lead ore fell off the wagons and was beaten into the tracks by boots and hooves over the course of years. It glittered in the trod, like forged steel.

Woolly Hills – well, you’ll find out about those.

This will be a ride of lead miners’ trails, Roman roads, shootin’ tracks, and hills. You can dodge most of the offroad if you really want to (though why would you enter a ride promising offroad and then dodge it), but you cannot dodge the Coldberry End track, the highest through road in England.

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It’s 400 km, to be completed under AUK rules, and that gives you* just over 28 hours to complete it. Have no doubt, this will be tough, but I love these hills. I want you all to survive and as many as possible to complete within the time limit, so only about 10-15% is offroad. But I suspect that’s the 10-15% you’ll remember.

A gentle start takes you along the Tees Valley, before the hills and the offroad start to kick in as you climb over the Stang to Arkengarthdale, over Surrender Bridge and the first stretch of lead mining country into Swaledale, then up Summerlodge Dene via the Crackpot shootin’ track to Wensleydale. In the early days of satnavs, the farmer made a roaring trade out rescuing stranded drivers up here.

Out of Wensleydale, the route follows Cam High Road, the Roman Road from Bainbridge to the first checkpoint in Ribblesdale. You could imagine some deranged Roman sergeant, here on the fringes of the Empire, standing on the tops of the fells and commanding that the road go Straight Up There. Which is pretty much what it does.

There’s a roady section up to Newby Head and down through beautiful Dentdale to Sedbergh and around the Howgills to the next control at Tebay J38 services. If you’re really keen, then the Dales High Way is a well-marked offroad route, but I’d not recommend it. I’ve tried to choose tracks that are ridable on your tourers-with-28mm-tyres.

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Dent Viaduct. Roads!

The lovely farmtrack-y valley trail up Borrowdale (no, not that one, this one is in the Shap Fells) is the last bit of offroad for a while. There are no offroad sections in the Lakes, partly cos nearly all the trails are just too rocky, but mainly cos you may be getting there in the dark, and I didn’t want anyone offroading in the dark. So the route through the Lakes is all on-road. A mix of lanes and main roads, plus a ferry.

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Borrowdale

The control at Greystoke will offer food, drinks, a bag drop and possibly the chance to sleep, but that’s up to you.

It’s a simple route through Penrith and over Hartside to what will be the late-night or early-morning control in Hexham. All roads, and hills, and more of the same until you climb up out of Weardale and up to Coldberry End. I hope you enjoy it, I spotted a lenticular cloud lurking over Cross Fell the last time I rode it.

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Coldberry End – you can just make out the radar station on Great Dun Fell

You’ll probably stop in Middleton for breakfast, to gird yourself for the last bit of offroad along the old miners’ trail from Eggleston to Copley. Last time I rode this it was February, I’m sure it’s even more gorgeous in June.

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Steele Road out of Eggleston

And that’d get you back to base. The ride starts in Darlo, which is dead easy to get to by train, and it comes with an 11 am start to make transport to the start easier.

The route is here: https://ridewithgps.com/routes/29657320

Hopefully I’ll see you there. If you don’t fancy it, there’s also the 600, and on the Sunday, a 200 and a 100. These are all on-road, and by definition, much less interesting.

*Yes, you, if you’re reading this

Borders of Belgium 1000 (2016)

I rode this in 2016 – Rohnny and his brother Francis ran it again in 2018, and it look as though it’s on again in 2020. I’m quite tempted, it was a great ride.

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L-R – Rob, Lindsay, me

Belgium, Land of the Chip

I entered Rohnny’s Borders of Belgium 2016 early, as I’d missed the previous versions in 2012 and 2014. I love cycling in Belgium, from the canalbanks and cyclepaths of Flanders to famously friendly Limburg and from picture-perfect Brugge to gritty Antwerp. We’d get to see all of it, and all of the different cyclescapes of Belgium.

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pre-ride, we toured down from the ferry via Brussells, and my mate Sven (left) took us out for chicken n chips in Euroland

The ride was set up with a range of different options, Ryanair-stylee. At its most basic, you could enter the ride for 10 Euros and make all your own arrangements out on the road. However, for those who entered early enough, Rohnny, his brother Francis and family laid on accommodation, food and bag drops at the controls. I booked every option.

There were about 90 riders at the start – loads of Brits, obviously loads of Belgians, a few random others, and a few Germans including Heinrich, the utter misery of a recumbentist. We were chatting about how so few Belgian cyclists had waved or nodded at us on the road, and I asked his opinion: “Hey Heinrich, do German cyclists wave or acknowledge one another on the road?”

NO, I WOULD NOT LIKE THAT”, came the booming Bavarian reply. On the ride, we waved to everyone, and called it the Heinrich manoeuvre.

We asked other riders about their plans for the ride – with a 2pm start on Thursday afternoon, and no manned control until 560km, the majority seemed to be planning to ride through the first night. Fast Bruno had booked a hotel in Roubaix (240 km) for a few hours’ kip, Tom the Velomobilist just rode straight through, going Full Euro (bib shorts and nowt else – it was a popular look in the 30-degree temperatures we were having).

I rode with Rob Wood and Dale Ramage, and we carried bivvy bags so we could have a couple of hours’ kip to break up the first night. Given the pan-flat nature of the start, this seemed entirely possible, and we hooked into a large group until the first town. We peeled off to top up our bottles, and to escape the large group, which seemed to be teetering on the edge of catastrophe, blatting along two-up on narrow bike lanes and overtaking slower cyclists, of which there were plenty.

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not Fast Bruno, some other Belgians

We settled into a steady rhythm around the Belgian coast through Knokke-Heist and past the ferry port at Zeebrugge where we’d disembarked a couple of days ago. De Panne was actually a control, though the official cafe was closed, and we wrote our back-up info answer on the card. The card was an interesting difference from UK audaxes – you wrote the controls and times in yourself rather than it being pre-printed. Yet more different was that De Panne at 140 km was the first control, and the next control wasn’t until Houyet at 450 km.

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sunset at De Panne

That took some getting used to – we stuck to the (mandatory) route, but we rode 450 km with no more than a bit of information from the monument at De Panne, and it was almost a relief to get a proper stamp at Houyet the next day. Pity poor Rohnny, who had no idea where any of his riders were between setting off and the sleep stop at 540 km – that’s a 24-hour window where anything could happen.

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Menin Gate

Night came, and we expected few or no places to eat en route. Ieper/Ypres was probably our last chance to eat, and we all ordered varieties of kebab in the Last Chance Takeaway. We needn’t have bothered, as we hadn’t reckoned with the multiplicity of vending machines in the tiny villages, vending everything from fresh bread to roast chicken, strawberries and, in the middle of the night somewhere in ridges of Wallonia, enough fresh veg to form the basis of a nourishing stew which Dale brewed up on his stove, an hour or two before our bivvy stop in a quiet churchyard. Quiet apart from our snoring, that is – Dale said it was so loud that he feared we’d be found, but I was too fast asleep to notice. Dale had been careful to bed down at a spot away from Rob and I, but apparently not far enough.

The Ardennes

Come morning, places started to open, and we ran into Lindsay and the slightly bonkers German Sounds for Children rider. I wanted coffee after only a couple of hours’ kip, so it was lovely to walk into a garage and get a big hug from Lindsay. Not from the German fella, though later on he did say that he’d seen me sleeping, and also that he’d also videoed me sleeping, which is the most sinister thing anybody said to me on the ride. Imagine it in a German accent to feel the true horror. He packed in the end, after trying to blag a lift from Chris Smith, who was trailing the route to offer support to Lindsay and sarcasm to the rest of us, and who had no space in the van for an extra bike (he said).

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Rob and the Sounds for Children man

The roll of the land became far more noticeable. A deceptively easy section along a ravel, or old railway line, led us gently into the proper hills, and after crossing a valley, climbing a 10% hill into a town, then up and over a ridge, down into another valley and up again, Dale declared “that’s it, I’m calling this the Ardennes”.

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Dale nails a descent in the Ardennes

Not only was this definitely the Ardennes, it was definitely warm. We did have a bit of kip in a shady spot along the ravel. We had the time, and it was lovely, especially for the likes of me who are acclimatised to UK weather and consider temperatures in the high teens to be unreasonably warm. We weren’t the only ones to spend the afternoon napping in the shade, and finding a quiet corner was tricky amongst the snoozing crowds of randonneurs.

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Belgian randonneurs do it side-by-side

I’ve ridden in the Ardennes before, and the long ridges and broad valleys were no surprise to me. The secret to easy riding is to follow the ridges, or follow the valleys, so naturally enough we did neither as we were following the border. There were some big valleys, and an especially big, big valley to cross. Rob was good enough to provide a running commentary on the upcoming hills from his Garmin, even after I asked him not to.

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local rider, Full Euro

The sleep stop at Habay broke up the hills nicely, and Rohnny’s hospitality at Habay was excellent – loads of food, beer for sale, and he gave us the penthouse suite. Solo riders had a room to themselves! Like a lot of hilly places near populous areas, the Ardennes is a mix of wilderness, remote communities and tourist hubs. My Belgian mate had told me there were bears in the Ardennes a few years ago, though I decided not to mention this to my riding companions. We didn’t see any bears, but in the pre-dawn on the edge of a sleepy tourist town, the three of us had to brake sharply to avoid a herd of wild boar bursting out of the hedgerows in a regimented line from largest to smallest like an Asterix cartoon. The fifth in line performed a scrabbling u-turn in front of my wheel before retreating – probably muttering “these cyclists are crazy” to itself.

Welcome to Germany (or not)

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Rob in Monschau

Another ravel didn’t lead us out of the hills as the first one had led us in, it was merely a lull amongst the hills and the heat. Dale went for the world’s most tenuous claim to have visited Luxembourg, nipping off over the border and searching in vain for a Welcome to Luxembourg sign. I visited Luxembourg too, not to mention France, Germany and the Netherlands, at least according to my mobile phone provider. Later, we entered Germany properly, but not before entering the German-speaking part of Belgium, where I’m pleased to report that the German approach to customer service thrives, and peremptory demands for exact change and refusals to top up water bottles for free are the cyclist’s lot. We controlled in Monschau, which was a frustrating chocolate box-looking tourist hell under the blazing sun, at the foot of a narrow gorge surrounded by medieval buildings where no wind blew to ease the heat, and the sound of oompa bands lingered in the air. We ate an overpriced meal in the unpleasant heat, then when we left the Altstadt and climbed the hill, we found an entire, proper town where the real people live with loads of supermarkets and even a McDonald’s.

We stopped at a handy Aldi to top up with suncream and snacks. Despite the grotsome nature of Monschau and the lack of shade, Aachen was appearing on the roadsigns, and as well as sounding like a Dutchman clearing his throat, Aachen nestles up against the Dutch border, and we all know that the Netherlands are flat, so our mood was uplifted even as our wheels were downward-headed. We knew we were about to start leaving the hills and back into Flanders, where the roads are flat and the cyclepaths are easy.

And this was where Rob’s freehub decided to give up the ghost. The thing had been grinding away for ages, but as we could do nowt about it, we chose to ignore it and hope that it would last the ride. It didn’t. Rob could nearly ride his bike, as long as he didn’t mind stepping off, lifting the rear wheel and unjamming the chain after every half-turn of a crank. He was, I think, resigning himself to checking into a B&B in Aachen and training it back to the start, but he’d reckoned without the intervention of Our Mr Smith, who not only came out to meet Rob en route, but lent Rob the bike he’d brought with him for the odd chance he’d have for a bimble himself. We had checked with Rohnny that this was OK and permissible within the rules, and of course, since Rohnny is a top bloke, he merely told Rob to do what he needed to do to keep riding.

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Dale on the unadvertised comedy offroad section – this was edited out of the official route, but we were touring and didn’t get the memo

The Miracle of Lommel

Dale and I left Rob to wait for Chris, and left him without Hope (Rob refused to let Dale lend him one of his spare lights). Despite the delays, we had plenty of time in hand, we were about 100 km from the final sleep stop at Lommel and about 250 kom from the finish. Confident we’d finish in time, we went in search of chips in Vise. After ten minutes, we found a tiny friethuis on the edge of town, much to the annyance of the young lad serving us, who wanted us to get out and harrumphed and cleaned around us until we went to finish our chips outside.  He probably had a date – everyone else was enjoying their Saturday night in Vise, but we still had 200 km to go.

The section after Vise was all canals. Big canals, carved ten metres deep into the surface of the earth with gaping cliffs reflecting the arc lights and running lights on the massive container ships. The still, dark water made me very uncomfortable, and I asked Dale to ride between me and the water. In reality, it was a good surface and a wide path, but even so. Then the water was at both sides. I just concentrated on the pool of light in front of me.

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We expected Rob to catch up in Lommel after we’d been abed for an hour or two. but as it turned out, he was there five minutes after we arrived. I hadn’t even had time to grab a beer when he rolled up out of the darkness, and I spent ten minutes gaping at him before I could really believe it. I didn’t think we’d faffed all that much, but clearly queuing at two different friethuisen before getting our chippy goodies had given Rob the edge, as he simply hadn’t stopped. It was a heroic effort.

The True Belgian Experience

I had a change of clothes at Lommell, as did Rob. Dale, I believe, wore the same clothes throughout. I’m not here to judge.

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Dale and Lindsay (and a random local) in Antwerp

With 150 km to go and time in hand, we were relaxed about the finish, and I was looking forward to riding through Antwerp again, especially the tunnel under the Scheldt.

Second breakfast came in Turnhout – at Barzoet, which was also the answer to the info question. According to one of the local riders, this translated as The Pub’s Kiss. Though I misheard this as The Pup’s Kiss. Either way, it was too early for booze for me – not for some of the locals, mind, whom we saw supping on beers at 7 am.

I had to wait until Antwerp for beer – the route took us through the middle of the city, across wet cobbles and slippery tramtracks. It was brilliant. We stopped at a bar for food, where the waiter refused to serve me the beer I first ordered as it was too strong, instead relegating me to a local brew which was a mere 8%. And we spotted the living meme sat nearby, who very obviously disliked us trying to take photos of him, so we had to stage ride-pasts with him prominently in the background.

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The finish was due west dash along the Flandrian canals into Antwerp, straight into a headwind straight off the sea. It really is flat around there, and there‘s none of the UK topography which creates gust and swirls and shelter. Along the canals, I saw one lass going the other way who used her brolly as a sail.

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Someone somewhere had flicked the switch on for WIND, and it was a solid wall of effort to fight against. Rob said after the ride that his favourite part was seeing Dale’s enjoyment of the whole thing. It’s fair to say that Dale loved loved loved the finish, due west into a headwind straight off the sea. He was having a blast, shouting about echelons and cadging a tow off a handy local, then taking turns with him into the wind.

The highlight was the gangs of locals out on their Sunday morning club runs – every group was dressed in matching kit, right down to the socks and aftershave.

And that was it! We picked up Lindsay on the way and finished with a comfortable three hours in hand in mid-table obscurity, and cheered the rest of the riders in while we tried to run through the range of Belgian beers on offer at Puyenbroeck. Rohnny had even arranged for cyclists to be able to use the pool in cycling kit for just one day – Dale and Lindsay went Full Euro, and went for a dip.

It was my favourite ride of a year with lots of great long rides. I’d recommend it for anyone thinking of riding in Europe, and my top tips would be to enter early and take advantage of all of Rohnny’s organisation rather than trying to make your own arrangements, to build up time in the flatlands to make up for the hills out east, and to ensure that your bike is thoroughly serviced before the ride (sorry, Rob). Oh, robust tyres as well – there are a fair few cyclepaths which are fairly well-surfaced, but they still have more detritus on them than most roads, and there were a fair few punctures. But ah, those vending machines. 

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Northumbria SR

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This is an award for riders who complete a full Super Randonneur series of rides within the ancient kingdom of Northumbria.

The rules are pretty simple; to qualify, you would need to ride events of 200 km, 300 km, 400 km and 600 km, all of them starting and finishing in Ancient Northumbria (basically the historic counties of Northumberland and Durham, i.e. north of the Tees, south of the Tweed and east of the Pennines), and/or spend a bunch* of time in the kingdom.

*technical term

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Northumbria did once spread from the Humber in the south to the Forth at the north, and out to the Solway Firth at the west, but there are no plans to re-colonise Lothian, Deira or Rheged. Yet.

As with other SR awards , you would need to ride all events within one season to qualify, and longer rides can be substituted for shorter rides.

It’s for calendar events only, so no DIYs, but as you can see, there’s no real shortage of events to choose from.

Some of these are new events, but many are classics of the AUK calendar – the Hartside was first organised by the much-missed Graham Wanless and recently marked its 25th edition, and the Chevy Chase has been around long enough that its name was probably a bleeding-edge reference at its first running. Both the Durham and Northumberland redux and Peewhits and Curlews 600 owe much to classic events ran by Joe Applegarth as well. Joe, along with Nigel Hall and Hugh Harrison, kept the audax flame alive in the north-east when things were quieter and it wasn’t rare to have fewer than half-a-dozen finishers on a ride. Not just cos they were tough (though they were), by the way – word just hadn’t got out, but we’re all lucky to now have so many opportunities to ride long distances on the best roads around.

Here are the qualifying rides for the 2020 season.

200s:

Yad Moss/St Moritz from Darlington on 18/01/20

Newcastleton and back from Ponteland on 29/02/20

Durham & Northumberland Redux from Darlington on 04/04/20

Chevy Chase from Walbottle on 02/05/20

Dales, Steeps and Vales from Darlington on 20/06/20

Hartside 200 from Aldbrough St John on 27/06/20

The Four Tops from Ponteland on 05/07/20

Cheviots, Coast and Castles from Alnwick on 05/09/20

300s:

Second Class Return to Scarborough from Darlington on 27/03/20

Longtown Way Round from Ponteland on 11/04/20

Solway Coast C2C from Cresswell on 25/07/20

400s / 500s:

Steele Roads & Woolly Hills 400 from Darlington on 20/06/20

Annan Other Borders Circuit 400 from Ponteland on 11/07/20

Borders Five Hundred from Ponteland on 15/08/20

600s / 1000s

Highland Fling 1000 from Darlington on 07/05/20

Tour of the Borders & Galloway 600 from Ponteland on 30/05/20

Peewhits & Curlews from Darlington on 20/06/20

Yad Moss/St Moritz 200

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This ride began during a conversation with Graeme. A lot of my rides are, basically, Graeme’s fault – he comes up with the ludicrous notion, and I make it reality. I can’t remember which of us thought an out-and-back over The Highest Road in the World* in winter would be a good idea.

But here we are, and here it is, due to run as an event on Saturday the 18th of January 2020: http://www.aukweb.net/events/detail/20-838/

As a penance, I’m making Graeme come up and do the route check with me before the day. This isn’t strictly necessary – not only is it not a penance to ride your bike in the best place in the world, it’s a dead simple route, with just a dogleg on the way back to give you all a few little clicks to keep you warm. It will be winter, after all.

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Graeme in Teesdale. Yeah, he’s always like that.

The halfway stop is Hallbankgate Community Hub, and there’ll be food at the start and finish. Basic breakfast at the start, I’ve been threatening to slice up some more porridge, and the finishing spread will include such local delicacies as leftover Christmas cake with cheese, and pease pudding sandwiches. And my mate Mark has promised to make some veggie curry, which really is the best curry in town.

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Anyway, if anyone does fancy 200 km over Yad Moss, then back over it again, then entries are still open (for now). Don’t fret too much about the weather, and don’t take it too seriously, it’s just a bike ride.

Route here: https://ridewithgps.com/routes/29217177

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*Yad Moss isn’t the highest road in the world, or even the highest road in England, but my mate Martin always called it that, and at more-or-less 600 metres ASL, it’s pretty high for the UK.

 

Postscript: 51 riders started on the day, and 47 finished. It was chilly, with a light headwind all the way to Hallbankgate, and they even survived a brush with the Witch Tree of Kinninvie.

 

Lanchester 400 2011: from Langley Park to Moffat

Another one from the vaults – I think I’ll keep adding these epic – no wait, epic’s the wrong word, I think we need a word that’s to epic what bathos is to pathos, and I suggest pathepic – tales as I stumble across them.

Having to pedal downhill is a soul-crushing experience.  After slogging my way to Hartside Top, I rewarded myself with my last bit of food, stared vacantly at the panorama of rainclouds scudding across the Lakeland Fells, and tried to summon the fortitude to carry on.  Then I re-mounted and pedalled down the pass, into the wind.

I came into this ride already sleep-deprived and suffering with toothache (the cause of the sleep deprivation), and on the climb out of Renwick to Hartside I told Alex that he could scarper if he wanted, as I was holding him up.  He politely refused, but I was climbing so slowly at that point that he had little choice.  The climb was steep, into the wind, interminably long, and lonely. I spent most of it eyeing up every patch of vaguely-dry grass behind dry stone walls as suitable sleeping quarters.  On the descent to Garrigill, I had to stop for a catnap, otherwise I would have fallen asleep on the bike.  I found the driest spot I could find in the lee of a wall, pulled my cap over my eyes and drifted off.  I don’t know how long I was asleep, but when a passing car awoke me, I dashed onto the bike and pedalled onward, convinced that I was out of time.

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random Geordie tri guy and Billy Green

But that’s not the whole story.  Things had started well, a gentle tailwind across the tough North Pennines landscape to Alston, past the detritus of redundant industries: abandoned mines, collapsed mine shafts, ruined arches.  Tea and scones and beans-on-toast at Alston, the Cumbrian Pantry does an especially fine beans on toast, which I can recommend highly.  I was controlling my toothache with alternating paracetamol and ibuprofen, the moors road from Newcastleton to Langholm was a wild delight, and there was even a welcome laid on for us in Moffat with chinese lanterns and bagpipes.

However.  However.  Throughout the ride, apart from one downpour on the tops between Blanchland and Alston, we’d been staying just behind the rain, but when we left Moffat we rode into a cloudburst.  Huge drops were bouncing off the road, water was pouring out of the drains.  Marcus, Alex and I tried to wait it out at Johnstonebridge Services, while a Glaswegian driver whom I nicknamed Mr Jolly warned us of the horrendous storm with hail and gales which was moving over Carlisle.  It hardly stopped raining throughout the night, but we waited for it to ease from Biblical to merely torrential before we left the services.

Of course, the other issue with turning south from Moffat was that we were then headed into the wind, and the ride increasingly became a war of attrition, or an experiment in coping strategies.  At Southwaite Services, where the beans on toast were mediocre at best, I simply wanted to sleep, and wait for the trains from Carlisle to start operating, and go home, but as we were three-quarters of the way completed, I couldn’t quit, having invested so much in the ride.  A ten-minute nap wasn’t enough, but it was all I could afford.

One other reason for my reluctance was that I remembered the route from last year – the climbing around the Eden Valley is steep, but unadvertised.  As I said to Alex, you can prepare yourself for the headline hills such as Hartside, Bollihope and Yad Moss, but it’s the unknown ones that sap your strength.  Where’s the glory in climbing an unnamed, unspectacular lane in Cumbria?  The pull up from the Eden at Armathwaite felt like I was being slowly murdered, entering a grey zone from which there would be no return, and the most terrible thing was that I was doing it to myself.  Since it doesn’t seem to have a name, I decided to call it Bastard Bank.  The climb out of Staffield was shorter but steeper, and I’d forgotten it since last year; the less said about that the better, but to fix it in my memory and to avoid confusion I christened it Bastard Bank.

Another drenching.  Then came the climb to Hartside Top, which was both the highest and my lowest point of the ride.  There was no way except on and no alternative to finishing except possibly laying down on the verge and giving up, but I still only managed to get up it by telling myself that I’d have the reward of food at the top, and thought no further than that.  I couldn’t use that strategy more than once, since I had no food left, but I winched myself up the steep road out of Garrigill while telling myself that Marcus would have done it on fixed, and Yad Moss was straight into the wind, and pure denial.  I plugged in my earphones and pulled my buff up over my mouth and nose and ears to block the wind.  It went quicker than I’d feared, but still I had tears in my eyes when I saw the County Durham sign which marked the top. Homecoming, and downhill all the way to Middleton-in-Teesdale.  An old boy overtook me on his Sunday morning 20-miler, wearing shorts, a t-shirt and a cheerful grin.  I was still wearing all my clothes against the rain.

I continued to count off the hills and miles after Middleton-in-Teesdale, 25 miles and 4 hills, swooped down the descents as the route turned back north and the wind was finally at my back.  Bollihope Common, Hill End, Frosterley, into Weardale, and a couple of miles of flat riding to Wolsingham.  One more hill.  What a cruel sting in the tail; the surveyors had only measured it at 8%.  8%!  However, the cruellest part was the other two hills still to come after the summit.  I’d somehow forgotten about those.

If anyone from Durham Police is reading, I did not nearly fall asleep on one of the long descents, nor did I set off the speed warning sign at the bottom of the bank in Lanchester.  But I did claim my receipt at the Spar in Lanchester with a luxurious 35 minutes in hand.  I knew I should have had that ice cream at Wolsingham.

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Ben, Alex and Rookhope Arch

Explanatory notes: Joe Applegarth organised the Lanchester 400 twice, once in 2010, and once in 2011. I rode both editions, the first time with my mate Martin (who’s hardly ridden an audax since), and occasionally with Peter “Two-Coats” Coates (who nobody has seen at all since). This is the second edition.

I was riding as a qualifier for Paris-Brest-Paris 2011, which put the pressure on to start with, but I also had an abscessed tooth which swelled up pathepically after the ride. Ben Taylor also rode both editions and got around fine, as did Alex, Billy Green finished out of time, Alan got a train home from Brampton, the random tri guy didn’t even get that far (relentlessly sucking Billy’s wheel was not a winning strategy), and Mike Thompson finished in a disgustingly quick time. Oh, and Marcus Yeo rode around on fixed.

And I forgot to mention that Joe and Caroline met us on the moors above Newcastleton with Tunnocks Caramel Wafers.

Finally, if anyone didn’t get it, the title is a reference to Prefab Sprout’s classic Eighties album From Langley Park to Memphis (I rode through Langley Park on my way to the start).

Paris-Brest-Paris 2011 (part 2)

If you’ve just landed here, you might want to read part 1 first

The Mel and Tim song tends to go through my head when setting off again in the mornings. It takes a while for my legs to get going again, and it seemed especially so on that Tuesday morning out of Loudeac.  I felt as if it was going uphill forever, until I limped into a roadside cafe/tent at Merleac, which was a haven in the darkness. It’s a temptation to describe the controls and wayside stops as refugee camps, as they have that air of transience and desperation, with riders slumped at tables and stumbling in covered in grime, rain and the detritus of endless hours on the road, or shovelling food and fuel into themselves.  I got myself a coffee and a croissant and watched the other riders come in, or pause and shake their heads before riding on. The roadside support was fabulous, but you couldn’t stop at every one.  When I returned, I slowed to a crawl as I passed St-Martin at 3 in the morning, where the villagers had set up a massive canopy in the square outside the pub, with an enormous sound system and the enticing aromas of beer and barbecue, and were inviting riders in. It was a massive bouncing party which was only just getting going, but I shook my head and rode on rather than stopping, as I feared I wouldn’t be able to leave. Someone compared it to the sirens, luring careless riders onto the rocks.

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I was still half asleep, but the coffee had perked me up a bit.  I was still a long way from Brest, and I did start to feel the pressure of time, as I rode very slowly through the grey morning. The cloud was low and mizzle hung in the air, clinging to my specs and making it impossible to see. I rode for a while with Alaskan Buzz, but I had to keep stopping to clear the moisture from my lenses, or riding very slowly without them. I was also feeling very sleepy again – I had vaguely planned to coincide my sleep stops with my usual dip at around about 6 am (I still find it hard to believe that there’s more than one 6 o’clock in the day, and the one in the morning is definitely the wrong one), but this hadn’t worked out, so I took a nap at the least-damp spot I could find, which was someone’s driveway.  No one in the house seemed to mind or notice, and I was only asleep for ten minutes or so, which was enough to let me pedal on to the next control, at Carhaix.

Carhaix. It was grey, and bleak, and concrete.  I couldn’t see anyone I knew in the hall, and none of the food was appetising, and I could barely eat the soup, so I had a measly meal of bread and rice pudding (remembering that riz au lait was the French for rice pudding was a godsend). The place was busy, as the quicker riders were making it back to Carhaix, having already been to Brest; I saw Andy Clarkson come in, but I couldn’t be bothered to go and talk to him. I did speak to Greg Melia and Lindsay as I left, but I probably made even less sense than usual. I at least had the energy to put in my contact lenses, as the persistent mizzle was still persisting, and the sun showed no sign of breaking through the murk.  I was glad to leave the place.

Someone at Merleac had mentioned a huge 4-kilometre climb before Brest, so I was contemplating that as I rode away from Carhaix, but my legs had finally woken up, so I was fair shifting, and I got riding with a couple of good groups on the long, easy climb over one of the valleys. There were loads of riders coming the other way at this point, returning from Brest, and it was fun to spot fellow Brits and other riders I knew, and shout their names – the others in the group seemed impressed that I was so well known.  I got to the front as the road kicked up a wee bit, and led our little grupetto to the top of the climb which turned out to be Le Roc Trevezel, the dreaded climb of climbs.  We’d caned it. 

I let the group go on the descent, and peeled off the road to get out of the way of some fairly impatient wagon drivers, but I caught them up again in the village of Sizun, as I saw Andy stopped in the square, so I stopped to chat and take in the atmosphere.  I brought my spork into action on a yoghurt from the supermarket.  It was another of those villages which seemed to celebrate the passing of the riders with a quadri-annual carnival, so I enjoyed sitting out there and watching the crowds cheer the riders past. 

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Sizun

I rode the last 50 k or so into Brest with Andy, who was in much better form, but still struggling to keep anything down (or up, as the case may be).  About 10 km from Brest he dropped back to get a bit of, erm, privacy.

The roads were still busy with wagons which struggled to overtake the lines of cyclists. There was one huge convoy coming the other way, with a special load travelling at a relatively low speed, and I was amused to see a lone cyclist in the middle of the convoy, slipstreaming one of the trailers.  Some people will do anything to get that little bit extra.

The entry into Brest was wonderful – a downhill swoop onto a fine old stone bridge, with a grand view of the new bridge next to it.  We stopped for the obligatory photos. Unfortunately, I felt as though my legs had stopped at that point, and the route through the middle of the city to the control seemed to take an age and to cross about seventeen million billion level crossings, each of them at a more dangerous angle than the last.

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me n Andy crossing the harbour into Brest

Andy and I went to find the restaurant when we eventually got there, and we did eventually find it, after answering the three questions posed by the guardian, braving the mystic maze and descending the stairs of doom.  OK, I exaggerate, but it was a bloody long way to go, especially when the queue was massive and they didn’t have free beer, which someone had told me they gave you at Brest.  OK, OK, so Ian gave me his beer, so I did get free beer, but not quite as advertised. I’d thought that it was low alcohol stuff, but it was definitely the full-blooded variety, which might help to explain my jelly legs as I rode away from Brest, again over all the level crossings, again besting the guardian of the dreaded portal, again back up past the old city walls and the church… and back out at last onto the open roads. Andy had stopped for some much-needed kip, but I was keen to ride on, as I was feeling good and relaxed at reaching the halfway point, where the time limits became less severe, and I could have an enjoyable cruise back, which I did.

Peter the Mad Magyar Messenger caught up with me riding away from Brest – actually, not long after I’d stopped for a roadside kip in a sheltered wood.  A bunch of Danes had woken me when they stopped for a piss nearby, and I rode dopily up the road, had a conversation with a pair of children and their grandfather in dopy French, and when they asked when I expected to get back to Paris, I replied “Ce soir,” as I couldn’t remember the French word for “Thursday”. They smiled, and the little girl gave me a flower.

The fog was finally starting to lift, and climbing back over Le Roc, I was amazed to see views, and a mast at the top of a hill, and the hill itself, which had all been grey blankness that morning.  There were some quite spectacular masts on the ride, notably the fine example atop Le Roc, and another which we circumnavigated near Tinteniac.  For the most part, PBP isn’t a ride memorable for spectacular views and vistas, but Brittany did look delightful that afternoon.

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Charlie climbing Le Roc

“Jeudi!” I shouted down the road.  That being the French word for Thursday, which I’d finally remembered.

Peter the Mad Magyar Messenger had told me to expect a sort of mental countdown on the return, as I re-visited all the controls which I’d already seen, but mostly I felt that they were all completely different, none more so than Carhaix on that Tuesday evening. I had an urge for chips as I rode towards the town, resisting the signs for McDonalds, and grabbing a portion of chips at a local kebab house*, which I sat and ate on the grass outside the control while listening to the Breton pipe band in the warm evening sunshine. It was a perfect moment, and a complete contrast to my experience of Carhaix that morning. I especially enjoyed the riders who came over and asked longingly if they were doing chips at the control. Sorry pal, but no, and these are mine.

When I left Carhaix and took the turning for “Paris” rather than the turning for “Brest” – well, that felt good too. I was astonished, though, at how many riders were still heading west. Coming into Carhaix, I’d stopped to take one of the “Brest” waymarkers as a souvenir, but a Swedish rider interrupted me to check that it was the correct way to Brest (the routes diverged at that point, so he was seeing a stream of cyclists coming from a different direction to the one he was supposed to go, which was worrying him). I didn’t point out that he’d be hours out of time before he got there, I just reassured him that he was on the correct route, and asked if there were many still behind him. “Yes, lots,” he replied.  I left the waymarker where it was.

I continued to see riders still heading west as I rode away from Carhaix, though they became more infrequent and progressively more worn out as I went further east.

I was still buoyed by a glow of happiness which mostly stayed with me to the end of the ride. Again, I was overtaking loads of riders, especially on the hillier bit towards Loudeac. I was also being overtaken in turn by a few of the faster riders from the 84-hour group which had started seven or eight hours behind me. Feeling fit, I did try to grab onto a few wheels, but since I was topping 40 kph to catch up with them, I generally let them go before long. I was going well, but I didn’t want to waste myself too early. 

I stopped again at the hilltop cafe in Merleac, to grab a coffee and a bite to eat to get me on to Loudeac – I’d already decided to sleep there again. My memory had erased much of the 10 km or so from Loudeac on the previous day, so that I remembered it being all uphill to Merleac, and therefore all downhill on the way back – I expressed this opinion to a couple of Americans who were struggling with the hills.  I do hope they’ll forgive me, asit wasn’t entirely gravity-assisted to Loudeac, though – like the rest of the route – I didn’t find it particularly challenging. I was tiring a bit and ready for some sleep, but not so much that I lost all my faculties, as when leaving Merleac, I was riding behind a German, and we saw another rider come flogging up the hill in the other direction, then a group ahead of us stopped and turned back. We passed them, then the German lad stopped, and asked me “Have we gone off route?”** I shook my head, as I didn’t think we had, and even in darkness, it looked kinda familiar. He was keen to ride back up to the village, but I said we should just stop, and wait, and if any other riders came down the road, we’d know it was the right road.  It was less than thirty seconds later when a few lights came along, so we rode on. Not bad thinking, for after midnight. I’m probably far too sensible.

The crazy chicken-run through the chicanes into Loudeac seemed a little less challenging than it had the previous night, but otherwise my routine was much the same. A bit of beer and food and a chat with a few other riders at the cafe, then off to the dorm for sleep. I slept away five good hours, during which I stirred not even once.

A shower and more riz au lait for breakfast with mondo coffee, then I was away again. I’d probably have made a very obedient squaddie, as I awoke immediately and said “merci” as soon as I felt the waker-upper’s hand on my shoulder. If there is an advantage to being completely rubbish in the mornings, then it’s the slow response of non-essential thought processes and reactions. Before my brain lurched into life, I was up and getting dressed and in the shower, all on near-automatic.  Nothing really filters through until the second coffee, I always feel.

This does have disadvantages, too.  The nights are long in France in August, and it was still dark when I left Loudeac, so it’s probably not totally surprising that I followed a couple of cyclists off route, and completely the ignored the friendly French driver who tried to shepherd us back onto it. However, when he stopped me and a couple of Americans, between us we had enough French to realise that we were off the route, heading towards the motorway, and he’d point us back in the correct direction. Merci, mysterrious strrrangerrr.

Daylight came on and I began to notice the areas the route took us through more – around Loudeac and Quedillac it was very rural, lots of picturesque ramshackle houses, with a few better-kept than others. Someone pointed out that the better-kept ones were probably owned by Brits, and there were a couple of villages en route where the voices shouting out “Bon courage” and “bonne route” were in strongly accented British. They’d obviously picked up on the whole roadside support ethos of most of the places en route, which was a big part of what made the ride such a buzz – I was floating on a wave of gentle happiness, apart from being stung on the tongue by an insect near Fougeres, which was an altogether different kind of buzz.

Most people I rode with commented on the atmosphere: Aussie Tony said that riding down the hill into Villaines, amongst the cheering crowds and into the scrum of a press pit where riders were being dragged off their bikes and interviewed, was like being a rock star. The Famous Hugh Porter shook his head when he saw me at Villaines and said “I don’t know what they told these people was supposed to be happening”. To my relief, the guy in the red velomobile was being interviewed on my way in, and the girl in the array of flowery dresses who rode along with flowers in her basket (as well as many changes of clothes) was being interviewed when I left, which spared me from having to attempt any French. 

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Sven (the Flemish Hipster)

I spent most of Wednesday and Thursday riding with Sven the Flemish Hipster, and they were both good days. I’d had plenty of sleep, including an extra doze under the trees at Fougeres while Sven went for a massage, and about half an hour in a field after Villaines, and the roadsides were littered with people taking impromptu naps, in a variety of poses, from carefully perched atop a dyke, to the “fell-asleep where he fell”, and a couple of more outré poses, such as asleep in the road, as in on the road itself. One advantage of the recumbentist made itself clear in this situation: stop, park, sleep.

And the ones who had stopped to sleep were the sensible ones: there were plenty of riders who must have been pushing the time limit, or had convinced themselves that they’d be OK to the next control, who had a tendency to weave about the road unpredictably, and generally wouldn’t listen to advice to stop. You kept them where you could see them, or rode away from them as quickly as possible.

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“look like you’re having a really miserable time”

The last control before Paris was Dreux, which was dreur. Dreary Dreux. Depressing Dreux. Don’t do Dreux.  I had my only moments of real irritability on the ride, after failing to get much sleep in the busy control. I was asleep upright in a chair, and falling to my right, but I was dreaming that I was asleep between two other people and leaning on the shoulder of the person at my right… but luckily a volunteer propped me up before a tumble onto the creaky floorboards. That was the only positive thing to happen to me at Dreux, and I was immensely pleased to leave.

So, the last leg. We had time aplenty, and were aiming to finish at about midday, when there’d be crowds and people to cheer us in. Sven was limping a bit, so I fed him some good drugs and we rode slowly across the plains, under a huge sky. He was too tired to stop to piss, so he was experimenting with pissing while riding, which drew one or two comments from a couple of American riders, so I told them they weren’t taking their training seriously enough: it’s not just about riding your bike loads, you also have to think about saving time in other ways. They said they’d take my comments on board.

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Sven again. Not pissing, which I didn’t photograph.

Sven bought a bottle of cidre doux, and we passed it back and forth between us on the road into Paris, Tour de France-style. There may be photos out there somewhere***. The sun was out as we rode down the boulevards (I only slowed to do up my jersey for the photos), the crowds were twelve-deep in my imagination, and Alex and Steve and a few other familiar faces were on the corner, and of course there was free beer at the end. I felt as though I’d surfed into Paris on a gentle wave of happiness and achievement. And even though Sven was suffering a bit, he did mention “Next time” once or twice.  Damn right, next time.

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finish line – photo by Velocia. Thanks, Lesley x

*Mainly because I couldn’t summon enough French to order any of the other goodies on offer. I could manage “frites”, though.

** In perfect English, after first uttering German which I clearly didn’t understand. Git.

*** A couple of Yorkshire riders did take photos, and said they’d pass them to Chris Crossland, but did they?

Paris Brest-Paris 2011 (part 1)

A ride report from the vaults. May contain useful advice, but probably not.
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This is my frame number. There are many like it, but this one is mine.

“Hey man, it’s just a ride – the world doesn’t stop for it”. So said Peter the Mad Magyar Messenger, but it’s easy to forget that the world’s still turning when you’re so caught up in the bubble of the ride, when cheerful French supporters line the route and  lean out of their houses to cheer you along, and whole villages party through the night to celebrate your passing. Actually, never mind just riding; there were times when you had to stand back and remind yourself that all this was for you, you weren’t an interloper but someone with a gilt-edged invite to the whole shebang.

There was, however, the prospect of having to ride 1200 km. This was twice as far as I’d previously cycled, and I’ll admit to some nervousness at stepping into the unknown.

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pre-ride prep. I was so much older then etc.
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More pre-ride prep – Andy on the Champs. Later, we sat in a park drinking wicked strength lager.

The first night was stone starking bonkers crazy-insane.  After a day’s dossing about and wasting nervous energy and watching the other starters depart, I rolled up to the stadium with Alex at about a quarter to nine. Boab and the Elgin CC lads were already there, waiting for the off and awarding marks for how well people rode down the ramp onto the track. As everyone in front of me dismounted and walked down the ramp, I didn’t have chance to ride down it and, naturally, I felt I deserved a proper go. I received raucous applause from the spectators for my re-entry into the stadium, but getting back up the ramp had been the most difficult part.  Lindsay accused me of being an exhibitionist, and oddly it wasn’t the last time this accusation was levelled at me on the ride.

me and Alex at the start

The advantage of the 9 pm 90-hour start* was that it was smaller, so we avoided queues at controls, and avoided being on the road with three hundred others of varying abilities.  It seemed to be very much in favour amongst Brits.

It also meant we weren’t waiting long in the stadium, unlike the previous groups which were held for hours in the blaze of the sun while endless ceremonies went on, conducted by a booming Frenchman. “And now, the mayor of Loudéac! His deputy! His deputy’s cousin’s eldest son who once went to the supermarket sur velo! And now, the same again in English! German! Swahili!” etc. They skipped the ceremonies for us and just chucked us out into the night in groups of twelve or so.

 

I was behind Lindsay and Alex and the Elgin lads in the line, ahead of Danial Webb and Julian Dyson – the same booming Frenchman gave the bikes a once-over to make sure our lights and hi-viz jackets were in place, then booted us out into the crepuscular gloom.  There was a red phallic Velomobile starting with us, struggling with the wee ramp, so I weaved my way around him and onto the road. Filled with adrenalin, we set a blistering pace and we were soon catching up riders from previous groups, snarling at the frustrating red lights which cropped up every couple hundred yards (we stopped at most of them, honest!), and struggling not to be overwhelmed by the experience of dashing into the dark with still-cheering spectators and the hiss of the pressure valve threatening to overload. It’s a long time in coming, PBP – it only happens once every four years, and there’s at least a two-month gap after qualifying before the event itself.  For me, that first run into the darkness was a great release of tension. 

There was a group of mostly Irish who were cranking up the speed, and shelling riders behind them up the hills. I had to stop as my rear light was flashing (event rules stated: no flashing rear lights, else suffer a time penalty), and since it happened just at the point where the traffic lights ended at the Parisian city limits, I was using myself badly to try to catch up with the group. The pace they were setting was so high, there was no chance for slower groups to form, as everyone was trying to keep up.  I rode along with them for a while, but when Julian eased off I did the same.  Going off too fast on the first night was one hazard I wanted to avoid.  Turns out, this wasn’t an issue for me.

I had been worried about getting water and provisions, as there were 190 km to the first port of call, but everyone said there was plenty of roadside support, and they were right. At about 70 kms a little girl filled my bottles, and at about 100 kms I stopped at Thymerais where the Sports Bar was open all night and there was a wild atmosphere.  The waitresses were all in fancy dress, a guy from the local news was filming the scene, and cyclists were draped about the chairs and tables, sleeping and snoring and sweating in the humid night.  I got myself an espresso and watched the riders milling around, already looking a bit spaced out, and I wondered what I’d signed up for.  I was bouncing with caffeine and adrenalin – everything seemed to exist in primary colours, which might have been the effect of some of the more out-there club jerseys.  Not to mention the compulsory hi-viz jackets of shame which we were obliged to wear during the hours of darkness.  I generally took mine off as soon as daylight came around – not that I found its weight a problem, but I preferred letting other people see my club jersey, and I would have preferred seeing other riders’ club jerseys to the great wash of Health and Safety yellow which greeted mine eyes, even during the day.  So, first thing Monday morning, I sat up on my bike and de-hi-vizzed myself.  A broad Aussie voice behind me shouted “You effing show-off”.  I shrugged.  Riding no-handed was to prove an exceptionally useful skill, as I could take the pressure off my hands, take off or put on my jacket of shame, and even stretch a bit while riding the bike.  And of course, it looks damn cool.

I built up a bit of good karma when I left the Sports Bar: a rider asked if I had spare batteries for his light, and since I had batteries to spare, I gave him a couple, and refused his kind offer of payment. It was that kind of convivial atmosphere. Loads of people were cheering you on, who all wanted you to succeed. And it turned out, I had the favour returned to me later on.

By this time the groups had fragmented, so we were a bunch of individuals on the road.  I rode at my own pace, overtaking a few riders. One Italian rider grabbed my wheel as I passed him, which was fair enough, but after seven or eight clicks I decided to let him do some work – he got the message when I almost pedalled to a standstill.  After my next turn, I simply swung off and he came through – we seemed to be working well together, though we spoke barely a word of the other’s language. Grazi.

I was about to let him go, expecting him to descend faster than me when we were hitting the rolls about 50 km from Mortagne-au-Perch.  There were a couple of other cyclists around – I could see red lights streaming into the distance.  It was a ride where you would never be alone, unless you wanted to be.

Sadly, one of the riders up ahead took a tumble on the descent. I was about two hundred metres or so behind them, and either there was a touch of wheels between him and the rider close by him, or he fell asleep (though it seemed very early in the ride for that to happen), or a small animal ran into his wheel… I have no idea. However it happened, he took a header off the road and landed heavily. The other rider had already picked himself up by the time I got there, and a few others gathered around, and we called an ambulance, and the control at Mortagne to let them know what was happening. As it happened, an English doctor was riding, and he came along to the scene. I generally felt useless, but at least I could explain what had happened and advise English-speaking riders to keep moving on. The injured rider was Taiwanese, but unfortunately no other Taiwanese riders came along.  One rider asked if it was a secret control – I don’t know if it was the ambulance, or the guy on the stretcher, or the pack of paramedics which gave him that impression.  I shook my head and waved him on. 

Along with the other riders who’d been close to the accident, I waited until he was packed off in an ambulance, and rode on, hoping that he was OK. There was, sad to say, one fatality on the ride, but I haven’t heard anything about an injured Taiwanese rider.  I asked at a couple of controls, but no one had any information, so I hope that no news is good news.

I was a bit weirded out by the whole thing, and Mortagne couldn’t come soon enough, where I hoped to get some coffee and a sit down and a bite to eat with familiar faces.  The route was rolling still, but I wasn’t paying much attention, until I passed a rider who was walking his bike at the side of the road.

“Are you OK?” I asked.

“Erm, no,” he replied.

So that was how I met Alex from Bangalore – his front mech clamp had snapped, and he couldn’t even pedal the bike.  He refused my offer of help at first and insisted that I would make myself late, but I had the tools and know-how to split his chain, remove the mech and leave him with the use of a single chainring, so it would have been daft not to, especially as it saved him a 25 km walk, and only cost me about 25 minutes, including riding along with him a bit to make sure he could pedal. And to be honest, I was pleased to have something I could actually do, after feeling useless and helpless for more than an hour.

But being a good samaritan only goes so far – I got Alex riding and pedalling, then buggered off to Mortagne in search of coffee.  Caffeine dependency is a cruel mistress. 

I rode into Mortagne-au-Perch with a Canadian chap – I never caught his name, I only know him as the famous Hugh Porter, as his frame bore the name Hugh Porter, he complained that some people called him Hugh Porter, I mentioned that some people had asked if my name was Dave Yates, and I even made the mistake of asking who Hugh Porter was (the name did ring a vague bell), only to be told that he’s a hero in my country.  Well, not in my fucking part of it, matey.  Such conversations are the stuff of night time rides.  I caught up with him later, shouted “Ah, you must be the famous Hugh Porter!” and carried on the conversation from before. It was only when the breaking daylight improved and allowed me to see his USA jersey, and I surreptitously took another look at his frame, that I realised it was a different, if similar, rider. I blame it on the hi-viz jackets of shame.  Dashed decent of him not to point out that we hadn’t had a conversation previously, though.

I probably shouldn’t mention the incident in the ladies’ bogs at Mortagne – hey, it wasn’t my fault.  There was a beardy bloke washing his face when I went in, so I thought it was the gents’ and wandered in, but when I came out of the cubicle a female rider was giving me a very strange look. An honest mistake, m’lud.

I also saw some of the stars of the ride at Mortagne – Team David’s Salon sat at the table next to me while I guzzled coffee and pastries and tried to get my shit together.  David is a British ex-pat who set up a chain of hair salons in the Phillippines, and in order to qualify he had to set up the qualifiers and create a long distance riding scene in the Phillippines.  He’d brought over a number of ladies from his salons (actually from the accounts department), and the plan was to ride as a team, in matching outfits.  I don’t think it quite worked out, but when I saw them at Mortagne they were seated together, with David at the head of the table and the female riders flanking him.  I imagined that they went on the road in much the same way, David at the back and twin lines of ladies in front of him, riding a disciplined line and listening for his instructions to swap places.  Leader of the Pack came over the sound system, which seemed apt, especially after the line “They told me he was bad”, which David echoed by saying “They told me it was flat!” Last I heard, David had packed, but he was cheering his remaining riders on from the roadside.

I left the slightly surreal scene behind, and I was very pleased to see Alex from Bangalore come into Mortagne just as I was leaving – he handed his bike over to the mechanic, hopefully for a more permanent repair. I wished him well, and at this point, I was simply hoping that the rest of the ride would be straightforward and simple, no more adventures or extraordinary happenings or chance meetings. A simple, easy ride back in, without any dramas.  Maybe I could handle a puncture, or a bit of rain. Be careful what you wish for.

Still, the riding itself was easy – for most of Monday morning after the sleepless night I was steadily overtaking other cyclists. The night had been warm and I’d drank six bottles of water, but the dawn was overcast and the day proved to be much cooler than the previous days.  Andy and I had ridden into Paris on the Thursday, when it was 35 degrees C. The ride would have been a very different experience if that had persisted.

I did my bit for UK-Taiwan relations (don’t ask – or if you do, ask me in person, as it’s a much better story when I can mime the actions), then for most of the rest of the day it was just a matter of pedalling, eating and shitting.  The squatting toilets at Villaines were a bit too much for me to cope with at that stage, but that’s the great thing about a shite – sometimes you can hold it in (though don’t tell Andy Wills this, as he had a very different experience on the ride). I commented to Sven the Flemish hipster on the second or third day that these rides tend to reduce you to your most basic needs – get something to eat, have a piss and a crap, get some sleep, possibly have a shower, and keep going.  So if I do write a book of it, I’ll want to call it “Eat. Sleep. Shit. Ride.”

There was a brief rain shower, when I sheltered in a barn and ate the last of Kat’s chocolate flapjack, which I’d carefully hoarded for such an occasion. An Alaskan named Buzz agreed with me that it was too warm for a rain jacket, as we rode past lines of cyclists donning all sorts of wet weather gear.  Later in the ride, I was inbetween Neil from Sunderland, who was sweating in shorts and short sleeves with the zip of his jersey right down, and his Porto Rican mate, who was icily cool in full length arm and leg warmers. That was one of the best bits of the madness, the array of nationalities riding, and the pleasure of company from different parts of the world. Apart from Alaskan Buzz, there was Geert the Smoking Dane, Sven the Flemish Hipster, a pair of US ex-pats living in Singapore, one of whom had the most fabulous full-of-attitude New Yoik accent. I could have listened to him all day.  As well as a rich mix of French, Italians, Japanese, Spaniards and Dutch, and a lesser-spotted Hungarian, Peter the Mad Magyar Messenger, who worked as a bicycle courier in Berlin, had ridden to the start, and rode around in a knackered old wifebeater and a pair of corduroy shorts. I asked him if he hadn’t had time to get changed into his cycling gear that morning, and he replied “Hey, this is how I roll, man”.  I even rode with people from such exotic and faraway places as Kent and Wakefield.

I’d decided to have a big eat at Fougeres, to shelter from the rain (which had stopped before I left), and this was the right place to eat, as the food was plentiful and not that expensive. Mind you, you probably needed a three-course meal to set you up for the walk from the control, to the restaurant, to the toilets, all of which seemed to be as far away from one another as was possible.  On the way back, I rode my bike up to the control, then to the bog.

Full of food, I enjoyed the grand ride past the chateau out of Fougeres in the sunshine.  I missed a turn in one of the villages, but thought to myself “not a problem – I’ll just nip across this car park and back onto the route”. Unfortunately I’d forgotten that the French don’t do dropped pavements, so I took the entrance to the car park with more speed than was probably wise, and earned myself a snakebite puncture.  It was easy to fix, and I was managing fine, until a local came along and insisted on helping. He was most insistent, and I didn’t really have the French or the heart to tell him to piss off and let me do it by myself.  I replaced the tube without a problem, but I made a right cock-up of re-setting the wheel. Riding fixed, this is a bit of an issue, and I noticed that my chain felt extraordinarily slack. I stopped pedalling, the sprocket unscrewed itself, and I came stupidly to a halt. Not in itself a big issue – there was no damage done, and I decided to flip the wheel to use the sprocket I had on the other side. With an audience of amused locals, I didn’t find this especially simple, so my chain was still exceptionally slack when I set off, as Alex Greenbank was kind enough to point out.

This was merely the first incident in a chain of punctures and mechanicals, all of which were simple enough, but in total they were a bit disheartening.  The low point was sitting in a field east of Loudeac, with one unpatchable tube, two tubes in which I couldn’t find the puncture, and rumbles of thunder coming closer.  I didn’t want to be stuck in a field in the rain, trying to bodge a repair, or have to take a ride with the motorbike support crew, who were hovering like vultures, or so it seemed.  Luckily enough, the first cyclist I flagged down had a spare tube which would fit my tyre.  Paul from Canada, you are a gentleman and a scholar, but fuck knows why you had that tube when it wouldn’t have fitted anything on your bike.

I vowed to buy more innertubes when I got to Loudeac, and rode on while the storm was still brewing.  Seems that the delay was a blessing in disguise, as it gave Andy a chance to catch up – he’d been having a torrid time with his digestion, and I think I’ll leave it at that.  We rode together into Loudeac through an immense storm, which I found utterly wild and hilarious. I couldn’t see a thing with my glasses on, as the rain covered the lenses, and even with my glasses off, I couldn’t see far.  I soon lost Andy, and I thought he’d gone off the side of the road when someone shouted what I thought was my name and waved me down.  But it was just an over-enthusiastic local, crossing the line from friendly and supportive to annoying and intrusive (I had a wonderful ride, but that was one of the few moments where I became a bit irritated).  I rode back up to Andy and let out a series of whoops and exclamations to echo every shout of thunder, which must have made the experience exceptionally mad, as even he remembers it, in the blur of shitting and struggling to eat and sleep deprivation which was his ride. He got around, though, and I was there to cheer him back.

I was, I think, starting to suffer with sleep deprivation, since I’d been awake for 40 hours or so.  The lead-in to Loudeac was a bit of an assault course in the dark and wet, a series of narrow chicanes inbetween crash barriers which funneled us into the control.  There were bikes everywhere, Neil was just leaving, looking a bit tired, knackered in fact.  I would probably have told him to stop and get some kip instead of carrying on, but I wanted his bike space…

Andy was pushing the time limit and was a bit concerned about getting sleep, so we went and found Julian Dyson, guru of timings on PBP, who told Andy how long he could afford to sleep. I saw Andy to his dorm and some much-needed rest, decided that a quick beer would send me off to sleep and sat in the cafe to guzzle it before following Andy into the dormitory.

Though I had a lot more time than him, I think I’d picked up on his sense of urgency, so I asked for a 3 am wake-up, which was far earlier than I really needed, and I spent a restless night waking up every half hour or so, probably not helped by the epic snoring and general noisiness of the place.  One guy took a phone call in the middle of the night, and only hung up when his neighbour asked “Dude, what the fuck?” Someone came to wake my neighbour at about 2.30, then started to have a conversation with him. I gave him a look filled with as much disdain as I could manage, which I think is quite a lot, even at dark o’clock.  Anyway, I took it as my cue to get up, get eating and get gone.

Part 2 here

*This option doesn’t exist any more, it seems to have been a 2011-only thing.

A Tale of Two 600s (or Andy B vs Andy U)

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.

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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.

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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.

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No sign of the beeftub, but I tried to convince Jay that this was the Devil’s Breath, an even more rare phenomononon

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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? 

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Loch ‘orrible (with the wind)

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.

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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.

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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

Offroad audaxing

100 (and a bit) kilometres of bastard hills around the North Yorks Moors, including offroad climbs and descents, deserted moors, abandoned railway lines, hidden valleys, forestry trails, and at least one pub which is more than a little reminiscent of a certain werewolf movie…Don't Keep to the Road 2021 just wolf

 

 

Enter Don’t Keep the Road here: https://audax.uk/event-details?eventId=8970

I love the film American Werewolf in London, obviously. It scared the shit out of me when I was too young to see it, but watched it anyway. It’s fairly common among my mates, when we wander into a pub and feel the atmosphere crystallise as everyone turns to stare at the New People, for one of us to mutter “bloody hell, it’s like the Slaughtered Lamb in here”. If you don’t know the film, here’s the scene.

I know, I know, it’s a total misquote, but Don’t Keep to the Road stuck as a name.

I occasionally wonder where the idea for this ride came from. My mate Graeme reckons it was during an abandoned Easter Arrow, when I suggested that we ride home from the Lion via the old railway line, and down Ingleby Incline (which was an interesting experience on fixed). We riffed on names, but Lion and Lamb never came to be, as neither of us could find a suitably-located pub called The Lamb, despite extensive research which continues to this day.

Now, the Lion isn’t quite like that, but when you’re riding up there in thick fog and it emerges out of the gloom – well, it has something of that atmosphere. Of course, everyone thinks the pub in the film is Tan Hill, but that’s the fault of a terrible Vodafone advert with poor Kyle McLachlan.


DSCF5677.1 - Rob.jpg

The Incline which takes the old railway line up to cross the watershed between Baysdale and Farndale to Blakey Ridge and the Lion is definitely the centrepiece of the ride. Hat tip to Andy Wills, who pointed out to me that the old railway was ridable, and also mentioned another abandoned railway project across the Moors which never went further than surveying – I’ll ask him about it next time I see him. Things that used to be, or never came to be, are endlessly fascinating. I was trying to find out more about the history of the track between Farndale and Bransdale (access to grouse butts, I suspect – most of them are), and came across the story of how Farndale was nearly drowned to make a massive reservoir.

And the Rosedale Railway was an amazing piece of infrastructure. When you ride up or down the Incline, imagine it in the days when steam locomotives were winched up and down the slope to take their cargo of ironstone to the furnaces on Teesside, it being far too steep for the engines to make it up themselves. You do have to remind yourself that this used to be a heavily industrial landscape. Scroll down to “crash scenes on the Incline”.

I was certainly daydreaming about the ride when I rode this to check out an offroad route from Yarm to Ingleby Greenhow. But I wanted a route ridable for the audaxers-on-classic-tourers who I imagined would ride it, and it was a bit sloppy, and the roads around there are too lovely to need a diversion.

The first year I organised the ride, it turned out to be a royal mix of bikes – all the way from high-end full-suspension MTBs through a classic Moulton to your actual factual carbon road bike with not enough spokes front and rear.  

Of course, they all got around OK, and in 2018 I added Moor Gravel Forever, with an extra loop out into the Moors, but in 2021 it’s just the perfect loop of the 100 km, and we get to miss out the lowland tracks, which can be very sloppy. Generally the upland tracks are ridable year-round. 

It’s still quite hilly – both rides are. It’s the type of riding I love, and I don’t think these routes came from any one source of inspiration. It’s the kind of riding I’ve always done, mixing on- and off-road, with a bit of “ooh-I-wonder-where-that-goes” thrown in.

Aidan Hedley and Rik Legge on Ingleby Incline.jpg

PS Chris was one of my early victims/route checkers, and he only went and took his camera round. It was December, or late November, so late spring will probably provide finer weather and visibility, but it gives a great sense of the DKttR route: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I0FBqIF5nPQ