My first 400km Audax ride, also taking in a British Cycle Quest checkpoint!
Without a major cycling objective for the year I had spotted this local Audax being organised by my club as a potential big ride out for the summer. Not only did it start just 4 miles from home and at a relatively respectable time of the morning, but it wasn't too hilly and it went within a mile of a cycle quest checkpoint that I needed to collect. It also took in the upper Tweed Valley which I had wanted to revisit having last cycled down it in 2017 during my End-to-End ride.
I took some effort to prepare my bike for this ride. An early decision was to ride with tri-bars to give me an alternative riding position that would relieve my back should it start to niggle. I had my front lights from my 24 hour time trials, and my rear light that I use for all time trials. I intended to take some video clips throughout the event, and to fit the lights as well as the camera I had made an extra mount made out of an old mini-pump to fit between the tri-bars for the front lights. It was my first time riding with a bike packing bag behind my saddle, which proved to be ideal for a ride like this, giving me enough space to carry some warm clothing ready for the night time as well as room for extra bits of food bought along the way. I also had a bento bag for quick access to energy bars and gels.
On the morning I had a leisurely ride to the start in Ponteland, arriving in time for a cup of tea before the ride. There were about 20 riders in all lined up at 8 am, and I made sure set off in the wheels so as not to get carried away early on in the ride. A large group formed along Limestone Lane and I was happy to sit in to Cheeseburn where the group had to filter single file across the bridge that was undergoing repairs. Here a few riders clipped away off the front but it made sense to stop in the group which included a father and daughter (aged just 15) from Derby.
Over the Ryals and through Barrasford the group started to split up. Some riders were pushing the pace on the climbs and then hardly moving on the descents, so I eventually left them near Bellingham so I could ride at my own pace. You'd think with so few riders on such a long route that you might not see anyone again, but that couldn't be further than how it played out.
Past Falstone and alongside Kielder Water I was mostly on my own, but chatted for a bit to a Scottish rider who had also ridden in the last 24 hour TT I rode in 2015 - small world! At Kielder we turned in along a road through the village I'm not sure I have ever used before. A receipt was required from Kielder as a control, and I chose the Post Office for a quick stop whereas i think everyone else went to the cafe. Having bought a second class stamp and got my receipt I was quickly back on the bike and heading into the rain to the Scottish Border.
Being a warm day I didn't put my cape on and not far into Scotland the rain eased. Approaching Newcastleton I had decided I would stop there for an early lunch, but a sudden heavy rain shower soaked me right through meaning I would get cold if I stopped and so the only sensible thing to do was to continue a further 15 miles to Longtown. Turning back across the border into England the rain eased off and the sky was brightening up. The minor roads from Kershopefoot and through Nicholforest were new to me and really enjoyable to ride.
Reaching Longtown (75 miles covered at an average speed of 16.4 mph) I ordered beans on toast, followed by a scone, at the Sycamore Tree cafe and was shortly joined by a young rider who has previously ridden the (European) Transcontinental Race and would be doing so again this year. Pretty hardcore stuff! With Mick arriving a few minutes later and then a steady trickle of other riders. It transpired I was the first rider to Longtown having passed those in front at Kielder.
Leaving Longtown on my own it was a hard ride into the wind to Annan via Gretna. I was caught by a group not long before Annan, but they pulled into the Tesco whilst I continued into the town centre to collect a receipt for the control there. With the route turning North Northwest I was hoping for a break from the headwind but it wasn't to be. It was a grind up past Lockerbie and then along the road parallel to the M74 to Beattock. It is a miserable stretch of road with a poor road surface (chippings) and constant noise from the motorway. I last road this route on my End-to-End ride in 1997 in a howling gale and heavy rain and the sunshine and warm temperatures really didn't make much difference to how unenjoyable this road is!
Reaching Moffat town centre I was greeted by a road closure for what seemed to be some sort of local parade. I found a way through to one of the cafes where I sat outside in the sun for a toasted teacake and tea. I was probably stopped for half an hour, and with my water bottles refilled I felt a lot better as I set off again and straight onto the climb of the Devil's Beeftub. At more than 6 miles in length and climbing 1,000 feet it is a substantial but well-graded climb and I climbed it at a good pace, stopping a couple of times along the way for photos. Part way up I passed Mick, who seemed to be struggling a bit.
Over the top, the descent of the upper Tweed Valley towards Broughton was one of the highlights of the ride; wonderful scenery on a long descending road on a warm and sunny Saturday evening - what could be better?
The route of the Audax turned right towards Peebles just before reaching Broughton, but here I detoured off the route for a mile to collect my cycle quest checkpoint. I stopped for long enough to eat some of the fruit cake I had with me before retracing to rejoin the route. Here I encountered a group of three riders I had last seen in Annan, and ended up arriving in Peebles with them and just behind Mick. I'm not sure where they stopped in the town but I opted for the petrol station at the far end of the town to buy a sandwich and cookies, plus some water to refill both bottles, and of course to collect my receipt for the control.
Sitting on the grass eating my tea I was approached by a man asking how far I had ridden. A little apprehensively I replied that I had ridden 140 miles (it was actually 149) - you never know what sort of reaction such a distance will cause! Of course the next question was how far I was going to ride... It turned out he was a cyclist as well so the distances were met with a certain amount of respect. I had arrived in Peebles at about 7pm, so 149 miles in 11 hours is a pretty good ride in anyone's books.
Feeling refreshed I headed on my way, to find a queue of traffic about 3 miles further on. Word from drivers who were turning around was that the road was closed due to a fatal accident. It didn't seem possible to proceed, and fortunately a driver who must have been local was able to point me in the direction of a gap in the hedge into the grounds of the hotel, and onward to the cycle path that follows the River Tweed to Innerleithen a further 3 miles or so downstream. Even better, the cycle path was nicely surfaced and so little time was lost regaining the route. I later discovered the accident had involved a police car, and whilst there were injuries fortunately no-one died.
The road onward to Galashiels was remarkably, but I suppose unsurprisingly, quiet. Mick and his group again caught me just before Galashiels and I tagged along with them for a few miles before their pace became a little too hot for me. One of their number (Craig) also got tailed off and we rode together for the next 25 miles to Kirknewton. Dark clouds were gathering as we rode on towards Kelso, and a few spots of rain prompted us to stop for capes - no good getting wet and thence cold at this time in the evening.
The ride to Kelso was pleasant but became somewhat harder thereafter as we climbed out of the Tweed valley. I had turned my rear light on as we passed Melrose but held off on my main front light until I really needed it. Riding into the darkness at one point I had a bat fly into me, and a little later in complete darkness saw an owl cross over the hedgerows in front of me. I enjoy night-time riding for the peacefulness and experiences you just don't get in daylight.
The only hiccup came a couple of miles before Kirknewton. I clearly hadn't studied this part of the route in enough detail beforehand and assumed I would automatically be on the road to Wooler when in fact it is necessary to turn off to the right. Tiredness added to my confusion but with Craig we worked it out between us and arrived at Kirknewton village hall at 11pm, with 201 miles covered in 15 hours. Andy and his team had put on soup followed by sticky toffee pudding and custard - just what I needed.
The group that left me near Galashiels had been about 10 minutes ahead of us, and another rider arrived shortly after. After a 45 minute stop during which I changed into my long sleeved jacket and donned my knee warmers, we all set off pretty much as one group. Once again the pace of the group felt inconsistent and by Wooler I was with just Mick and one other, and then found myself alone in front along the A697 for a few miles. This section of the route is flat and suited me well, but once we turned off for Eglingham and Alnwick the hills found me out and I tailed most of the others into Alnwick where everyone stopped at Macdonalds for quick refreshments and another receipt for the control.
Starting up the hill to Shilbottle I knew I had little hope of staying with the group, so made my own pace expecting to complete the rest of my ride alone. My legs were tired but able to hold a reasonable pace, but I was saddle sore and needed to get out of the saddle regularly. I hadn't been eating much, if at all, since Kirknewton, relying mostly on energy drink. On familiar roads from Acklington I made good progress and picked up two other riders in Morpeth only to get dropped again climbing out of the town. I finally caught them again at Kirkley Hall, riding with them to finish at Merton Hall at 4.10 am.
After a quick drink I pedalled the final 4 miles home and made it into bed at about 5 am. 264 miles for the day including the ride to the start and back again afterwards. It was a cracking day out but the final 40 miles were tough. I was very lucky with the weather, having missed downpours in Northumberland which caught the first rider on the road and those who finished later. And I collected another Cycle Quest checkpoint with my additional two mile detour - surely the last checkpoint I can get in a day ride from home!
Footnote - sadly the battery life of my video camera didn't allow me to collect sufficient footage to compile a video of the ride.