Scotland

Scottish Borders Randonee 200 km

24/03/18

An adventure often calls to mind, or requires, or both, a book.  This ride was to be a little adventure, and a little book was borrowed from the library; John Buchan’s John Macnab.  Sir Edward Leithen and friends are experiencing what would probably be diagnosed today as ‘mild to moderate depression’ and end up playing poachers on three Scottish estates.  Being away from their usual surroundings, physically challenged, and engaging in (what they perceive to be) a high-stakes game has the effect of making them feel ‘alive’ and improves their mental health. Now I find it an over-simplification to say that cycling keeps me sane, or that getting out on the bike makes me feel better; my current bout of depression started while I was riding more last year, increasing my distances in preparation for LEL. The lead up to and start of a ride are usually stressful times, not so much a question of physical ability (I’m reliably full-value, reasonably confident in my own slow ability) but social anxiety.  The early stages can be uncomfortable with riders in close proximity, but as groups form and people find their pace I usually get my own little space and settle in to riding alone.  Seeing people up on the road ahead, out of touch but a reminder of being on the same ride, is all I need.  In general I find audax psychologically beneficial on a longer timescale than the ride, and sometimes not during the ride at all.  It’s the sense of achievement, and in retrospect the shear bloodimindedness of it all, that I value. Some rides I hate the majority of the time I’m there (I won’t name the only one that I’ve resolved never to do again), but other times I do experience absolute joy in the moment. Like Leithen and his friends, once we sign up for a challenge something about the commitment keeps us going, no matter how foolhardy and indeed unnecessary it is.

cycling silhouette

So it was that I came to be emerging from my frosty tent on Selkirk leisure centre’s campsite one Saturday morning in March. There were no other campers and I had the newly refurbished facilities to myself, indeed I should have come in and slept in the warmth of the toilet block, but instead I wriggled into a down jacket and woolly hat at 4 am.

Selkirk campsite Selkirk campsite

After the past few weeks of cold and snowy weather which had resulted in a number of audaxes being cancelled and the innvocation of the ‘severe weather policy’ it was a pleasant surprise to see the sun. It was too late for the original route of this ride though. We were riding the ‘snow edition’, with the road from St Mary’s Loch over to Tweedsmuir remaining closed because of snow. We missed nothing though, this was a cracking route and that sun stayed out all day. There were a couple of ice patches in the morning where the road was in the constant shade so I could see how those high narrow roads could easily stay blocked for some time.

A708

Navigation was not demanding on this ride, and a good part of it was familiar. Essentially ‘left out of Selkirk sp Moffat, 53 km’ was the first section. The A708 is a great road, I’ve ridden it in the north west direction twice before so it was great to be going the other way – of course you see everything from the other side, but also the climbs where you can see the landscape more slowly are reversed. The sun was high enough and the road often on the southern side so that we were mostly riding in the sun. My left foot was quite happy but my right in the shade was still numb with the cold. The roads were in pretty awful condition in many places, here the problem was less large potholes but more the general overall lumpy surface. The route slowly climbs through snowdrop-filled Yarrow, then becoming more moorland.  The hills slowly closed in, but stilll the narrowing burn flowed down, down; back the way we had come.

St Marys Loch

Eventually the top arrived, and the border with Dumfries and Galloway. Here were a few patches of ice but I was happy enough that just going straight and braking in between them would avoid any problems, especially with the road quiet enough to move right out when needed.

Top of the Pass of Moffatdale

There were patches of snow on the hills all day and at the tops of the passes we rode alongside them. Keeping the right temperature was a balance all day long, climbing in the sun was warm but as soon as a shadows and descents appeared zips were pulled right up again.  Stretches of the road around Grey Mares Tail had been fully resurfaced recently and the previous vibrations were soon forgotten, although there were still a few lumps and after one I noticed a rubbing noise. I’m having an ongoing battle with rear mudguards and on stopping in Moffat I realised this was yet another break.  This is my third rear guard of the same type…what’s the definition of a fool, someone who keeps doing the same thing and hoping for a different outcome?  I think I should just switch to gaffer tape suspended by mudguards stays, which is more or less what I have now, albeit interspersed with bits of actual plastic.

Moffat was a trip to the Rumblin’ Tum, reliable as a quick provider of nice grub and possessor of a stamp. The controls were nicely spaced on this route, all about 50 km apart and before a climb. This climb was the Devils Beeftub (A701), local from my youth when I was fat and unfit, and being driven/driving up this way I always dreamt of riding up here one day. Having done this with 600 km in my legs on LEL I knew it would be fine, and it really is a great climb, on and on but never too steep.

Devil's Beeftub

Over the top and the road meets the start of the Tweed, to be followed now as far as Innerleithen. I thought about crossing it yesterday by train in Berwick, and wondered how long it would take the snow patches that were melting today to end up in the sea off the east coast.  We briefly cross Scotland’s watershed on this ride, which coincides with the regional borders around Moffat.  I wondered whether it would have been any different in Buchan’s day; probably not much, the snaking burn and road and the shape of the hills must be fairly unchanged.  The roads were still quiet, among the few cars passing I noticed a Bentley.  After a little while I met it again along with another car, stopped in the road, and realised there was a third in a low ditch on the other side. It had gone through a wall and was lying on its side with the windscreen smashed out. I stopped to see if I could help but they said they were fine, there was someone still in the car but they seemed to be engaged in banter with one of the others (“at least it’s not raining” etc) so I hoped that was a good sign. Soon after I set off an ambulance passed and then a couple of police cars.

Just before Broughton we turned off and I was now on unknown roads towards Peebles. There was a mountain bike event on, and I think full suspension would have been useful just for the road surfaces here. I was generally uncomfortable now and a little miserable, and looking forward to a stop in Innerleithen. I’d calculated that Melrose, the final control, would be too late at my speed for a cafe so wanted to sit down and have a warm drink here.  Some sort of cyclists’ gravity means that those of us who are slower needed to ride further to find a cafe with space, but the Whistle Stop Cafe was a nice find even if their till clock was running an hour fast on the receipt (stilll within time limits!). My back was sore, which I know is because I had done no core exercises recently, so I had some ibuprofen here (bad habit from LEL) and it was much better for the rest of the ride.

Out of Innerleithen and we were again on a bit of LEL. This had been the end of a beautiful stretch back then, and I remember how weird it was descending these deserted moorland hills to suddenly find a golf course. Again it was great to experience the roads in the opposite direction, and as the road climbed along the Leithen Water and the hills drew closer in I decided this is definitely one of my favourite roads.  The sun was sharp on the moorland hills and the roads empty, and I choked up a bit at the beauty of it all. It seems that the only thing that makes me cry these days is cycling and associated reminiscences.

Leithen Water Dewar Swyre

Then we turned off towards Heriot for an info control, before heading south for Stow. We followed the railway line for a while, which had brought me down yesterday and would take me away again tomorrow. This is the most ‘new’ (previously Beeching’d) railway line built for a considerable time, and if it didn’t exist I wouldn’t have been up here riding. Thanks to the Scottish government, and David Steele if I remember correctly.  So far the route had been steady climbs and descents but after Stow (unless going off piste which was an entirely reasonable option, good choice Lucy McTaggart) there was a shocker of a hill which had me cursing at the org at the top. Apparently this featured in the Scottish hill climbing championships in 2017. I soon forgave him as there were some great views here.  Passing a wind farm I heard the whoosh-whoosh-whoosh as the blades of a close mill rotated.  I’d heard similar before, unheralded, in the dark, but never before had I ridden through their shadows, racing towards and through the shadow of my bike going in the opposite direction.

Now we could see the Eildon hills above Melrose which would be visible for most of the rest of the ride. I got a bit confused with the route sheet (my confusion not the directions) and then there was a road closure but the guy working on it let me through and a local reassured me I was going in the right direction. I’d had a walk around here when I camped for last years Moffat toffee so once I could see the Chain Bridge I knew where I was going and headed straight for the Co-op, and crossed paths with Lucy. I’d done pretty well so far not to over-eat but here I had a sandwich and a big twix which I pretty instantly regretted; riding on a full stomach is never comfortable.

Eildon Hills Bridge over the Tweed

The final leg went out to another info which was a bit confusing as the route sheet described it as a T-junction, which did exist a bit further up the road. It took me a while further along the route to be convinced that I’d made the right choice. Lucy had left Melrose before me and arrived at the finish shortly after with an extra few kms so it seemed I had done. As usual the final 10 km seemed to go on forever but once again there was no navigation required so I didn’t bother with my head torch and so couldn’t see how far was still to go or how fast (or indeed slow) I was going, I just practised a bit of being in the present, which I’ve been working on recently. Keep going and you’ll get there. Sure enough almost out of nowhere a T-junction with the A7 appeared and there was the arrivee right next to it – I’m glad I was paying attention and didn’t sail on back down the hill to the town centre only to have to climb back up again, like a few others. Plenty of food at the finish which was great, and I did it in 11 hrs 30 which I was pleasantly surprised by.  Then a freewheel down to the campsite, shower and bed. I was quite happy that the clocks went forward as it meant one hour fewer in a frosty (again) tent before getting the first train to Edinburgh from Tweedbank the next morning.

John McNab

Leithen and his co-conspirators fully exercise and exorcise themselves in John MacNab.  Taking themselves out of their usual surroundings and putting themselves ‘in danger’ was sufficient to shift their minds.  I was actually surprised by the turns the story took in the later stages; [spolier] the recognition of friends and the security that their place in society provides (so not actually ‘danger’).  You can’t read John Buchan now without gagging on the racism, classism and misogyny, but this one has a strong female character and at least some self-awareness at the end.

It’s an over-simplification to suggest that feel bad -> go for an adventure (long bike ride) -> feel better always works.  Perhaps it’s rather that making myself do these things keeps a wolf from the door.

Scottish Borders 200 km map

207 km, average 21.6 kph, 9:42 hrs riding time; 11:30 total time

 

Blackpool – Glasgow – Blackpool…no SR for me…

22/09/17

Train to Blackpool; at Hebden Richard gets on and squeezes his bike in the passageway, this being one of the refurbished northern trains with a bizarre bike enclosure where two bikes can barely be properly contained, and there is no flexibility to add a third. Still at least the train staff don’t seem to mind. We get into Blackpool in plenty of time, I had planned on twiddling my thumbs in the station waiting for HQ to open but it’s fairly deserted and we head straight to Bispham Community Centre and discover we’re not the first to arrive. Plenty of time for faffing, tea, and an ‘I can’t believe it’s not butter’ sandwich.

At 10 pm we start, the group of twenty-something staying together for a little while, setting a fast* pace. I soon find myself at the rear and concentrate on following the person in front as I think we’ve detoured from the routesheet and I’ll be screwed if I get lost. Me and the person in front are going at a similar speed, and after a while I become aware of a light behind. A late starter? It turns out to be Richard who must have taken a slightly different route. He and the chap in front (who I realise must be on fixed going by his downhill cadence) settle together at a speed slightly above me, but remain in reassuring sight for a while. At one point I am sure we are about to witness a smash; a car begins to overtake me on a blind corner, I’m far enough around it to see there’s a breakdown truck coming the other way. Surely it’s going to plough right into the front of it?…I brake, the truck brakes, and the car squeezes through between the two in front and the truck, and speeds off to live another day. But not many more driving like that. It takes a while for my adrenalin to subside.

I stop to turn my route sheet over can see the pair in front no longer. After Kendal it’s a long but steady climb up and over Shap summit. I try to use the big ring on a rare dip but the chain comes off so I pull in at a farm entrance to replace it. I’d just replaced all my cables but hadn’t had enough ‘breaking in’ time, and they behave rather differently on a stand than when used in anger. I’m worried about it coming off the other side as well so as it turns out I don’t use the smallest cog the whole ride – there are no really steep sections and in fact the worst turns out to be going up to Dalruscan from the A701 when I went off-piste for a sleep.

Going up and up the A6 and there are only a couple of vehicles. It starts getting misty. I have no idea where I am relative to the summit, and stop in a lay-by to have a drink of water (descending the next day I spot the lay by and realise this was almost the top). It is thick fog here now. I am aware somehow of a steep drop to my left. There is a patch of world illuminated in front of me by my light, and a feeble red glow at the rear, but behind that absolute nothingness. I am aware that I exist only in this tiny impenetrable world, and no one else is aware of my existence.

I move off again and soon the fog thins and the pedaling gets easier. Was that the top? I have no way of knowing. I am enjoying night riding this time; in contrast to sections of twisty minor roads, on this A road I can see further ahead, there are white lines and cats eyes, and even the occasional car, and we have mutual and advanced awareness of each other. I love my water bottle glowing in the light of my headtorch like a G&T under UV, and the tiny fireworks that drops of water form as they spray off the front wheel under the headlight.

The first control is Penrith, and I stop at an Esso garage where a few others are.  They seem to have had almost all of the sandwiches already, so I opt for crips and coke. The very friendly guy working there has learnt all the rules of audax by the time I approach the till and I have no need to ask for a receipt.

Riding through the centre of Penrith I recognise it slightly from my JOG trip, and especially the climb out of town where the peaks of the lakes would be visible in the daylight.  It’s a short stage to the next control, a 24 hour Asda on the northern edge of Carlisle. This being England, 24 hour in fact means that it closes some time on Saturday evening and has to keep Sunday hours before opening again early Monday morning. It seems I’ve already lost track of what day it is, and reading the opening hours expect it to be closed. One of what becomes the advance party is sitting on a mobility chair waiting for the others, fearing they have become lost in the hugeness of the supermarket. He reassures me that it is open, and I remember that it is early (5 am) Saturday not Sunday. I go in search of what I would really like, which is coffee and a croissant, but it’s a bit too early for the bakery counter so I come away with a sandwich and flapjack. The supermarket is occupied almost entirely by staff, filling the shelves.  Later another rider says we should have just ridden around the aisles. There is a guy in front of me at the till who is clearly plastered, buying a litre of vodka. The only other customer is a Stobart driver, who during the course of my conversation with the checkout-assisting member of staff (fortunately she reminds me I need my receipt, which I am on the verge of forgetting) comments that buying food in Abington services, the next control, is best avoided for financial reasons. The others have left so I take my place on a mobility scooter seat and enjoy my sandwich.

Sitting on a mobility car in a supermarket

Leaving, the birds have started but it’s still pretty dark. The road out of Carlisle is familiar but only as a busy car queue, one of the main routes in and out of the centre. Now it’s deserted. This section is familiar from my trip to JOG, and I stop once again at the Welcome to Scotland sign.

Welcome to Scotland, Gretna

After Gretna we’re on a section of the LEL route, it seems strange to be here again. It’s proper dawn now and I keep looking behind me to see the growing glow of the emerging sun. Again (after LEL) I notice a splendid tower/castle and make a mental note to look at a map and work out what it is, I think it’s Robgill Tower but I’ll look into it properly. Soon we go through Lockerbie and I make a point of going through the town centre just because I know it and I can. Then it’s the tortuous B7066 to Beattock; featureless apart from the road surface, which has way too many features, every centimetre or two…the only consolation here was that I knew I wouldn’t have to take the same route going south.

A mental switch happens at the Beattock roundabout where the route shrugs its shoulders and settles in for the journey north, along the valley which is shared by the M74 and the west coast main line. I love this corridor, it’s familiar but enchanting.  I always like riding routes that I’ve worn well by car or train, to experience them at the ‘proper’ speed of the bicycle is to properly enjoy them, and the next time I’m passing on the train or the motorway I’ll be eagerly looking out of the window and saying ‘I cycled along that road’ to any unsuspecting travelling companions.

Beattock summit

Somewhere along here we pass the house I vaguely remember from LEL with the wooden orang-u-tan in the garden. It’s a bizarre marker of the worst road surfaces. At Abington I catch up with the advance party, which turns out to be a pattern over the next few controls. Being cheap (remembering the advice of the driver in Carlisle) I opt for a filter coffee and this turns out to be an expert move as the waiting time is much reduced, and I’m most of the way through my fruity toast before Richard’s latte appears. The effect of a proper stop and food should not fail to be appreciated, I felt at my best just after this stop here and on the return leg.  I leave alone feeling slow, although I see Robbie (who I met at the start) and riding partner arriving just as I go.

After a little while I’m not too far behind another rider, but never too close. We flirt with the cycle path, constantly checking whether it or the road offers the most comfortable ride. Faithfulness is impossible until after Lesmahagow, where a splendid new section has been laid and can be committed to. Slowly civilisation builds, and eventually the route becomes a string of traffic lights, often challenging as ‘straight on’ requires taking the right lane.

Glasgow is another Asda, in Toryglen – a less likely name for an area of this part of the country I cannot imagine. The advance party are here when I arrive, and leave before me. It’s around 13.30. A couple of local boys ask about the ride and I do my best to enthuse them, one of them tells me about his wheelie expertise so I bow to his greater skill. I feel no great achievement at this point, it’s just a case of turn around and get on with it.

The next control is Abington again, so onwards and upwards. On the climb out of Glasgow I start to feel very strange, disconnected from myself. My body is doing all the right things, my legs keep pedalling as I know they will, and even my head is processing the routesheet instructions as if on autopilot. In part this is good, because I’m sufficiently spaced out that any pain or discomfort goes almost unnoticed.

But I don’t really like it.  I remember a conversation at the start where someone talked about singing, so I try that. Now I can’t sing at the best of times, and now I’m out of breath and I realise I don’t know enough words, but it is more or less doing the trick and I feel more normal. It only works when I’m at least mouthing, if not singing the words out loud; just humming a chorus isn’t good enough. I discover that I really don’t know all the words to anything, but the best I can do, and so becomes my repertoire, are: Bread and Roses, Dream a Little Dream, and No Children. I resolve to properly learn these and others for future reference.

I see other bikes at Abington, but not their owners until they leave. A visit to Burger King takes a bit longer than I’d like but it’s worth it for something warm eaten sitting down. Down to Beattock, some of this stage is nice and fast. Here I leave the route and stay on the A701 towards Dumfries, to my parents house.  I wasn’t particularly looking forward to this road as the traffic can be fast and it isn’t that late, but taking the back roads involved too much faffing and risking wrong turnings in the dark. It’s ok and goes by fairly quickly. After the traffic lights at St Ann’s three deer run along on the other side of the road, going my way, before jumping over into the field. The turning off presents the steepest hill of the ride and it’s a fair honk up without my smallest chain ring. Then the nice descent home, it’s 8.30 pm and my parents are away so the place is in darkness and deserted. Not even the cat appears. This is good because I don’t want her to sneak in and then to spend my precious time-in-hand chasing her out again. The aga is on so I take off my damp bits (there has been a bit of light rain, but it’s mostly just general sweat and outdoor sogginess) and hang them up. I’d planned to just get a blanket and sleep on a sofa but I see the bed that my mum has made up and decide I can’t resist, so climb in as soon as I can with my alarm set for 12.30 am, having calculated that I need to leave at 1 am to make the next control before cut-off. As soon as I hit the pillow my brain stars whizzing, and although I fall asleep fairly quickly even my dreams are busy.

Clothes drying

The alarm goes and I jump out of bed before I can reconsider. I try to be as quick as possible with a cup of tea and bowl of muesli but still leave a little later than planned. It’s warmer than I was expecting and I have to stop and remove a layer at one point. The little roads to Lochmaben are of course deserted at this time in the morning, and the A709 to Lockerbie is very quiet (again I wouldn’t fancy it during the day). A bonus of my detour is that I miss the tortuous B7068, and it probably brings the route over 600 km: Andy Corless the org had struggled to convince the good people of AUK that his original route was over distance and so had been forced to give us a little detour into Longtown to make it up, which of course I still had to take, but maybe next time I could offer to run the ‘rents place as a control?!

In Longtown the petrol station (of an LEL visit) is long closed but I spot a slightly dodgy looking cash machine on the outside of a nearby shop, and obtain my proof of passage. I don’t normally look at them but this time I glance at the place and time info, and am surprised to see I’m 6 minutes over time at the control (3.26 am). The last stage hasn’t felt fast but I didn’t think it was that bad…maybe my calculations were wrong. I’m not sure how fussy Andy, or AUK would be about this sort of thing, but I am already formulating my excuses (mainly centring around the very last minute route info – I was laminating my routesheets at work at 4 pm before the 10 pm start).  I see another rider, going the wrong way so I assume he is searching out the cash machine, but when I turn back to wave he has already disappeared.

Now it’s off to Carlisle, I’m happy that we don’t just retrace the last little bit because I always hate doing that (…ok, it’s an out and back route, but that’s not quite the same), just follow the A7. No need to control in Carlisle so the next stop is Penrith. After we cross the motorway I spot another rider (igauk from yacf I think) and pass him as he stops. There’s a bit of a climb before we get to Penrith; the traffic is sparse. The sky is clear now and I tilt the brim of my cap up so I get a better view of the stars. I’m getting sleepy, try a bit more singing and also slapping myself in the face. Focus on Penrith as a nap stop – maybe there will be somewhere to sit and nod off at the petrol station? Back after leaving Longtown I spotted a couple of randonneur-occupied bus shelters, but there is nothing here; each lay-by has a bus stop sign but nothing else.  That is until I approach one and notice a large black object in shadow at the far end of the layby, possibly in the adjacent field…maybe a bit of farm machinery? Suddenly it’s alive, a glowing, sparkling almost, white dragon…so vivid, believable and disturbing until the last minute when I pass it and it resolves itself into a tree, illuminated by the headlights of a passing car. The shock of realisation wakes me up for a while, and I’m a little pleased that I’ve had my first audax hallucination.

Glowing dragon

A while later and I’m sleepy again, when my steering feels odd. I’m just passing an isolated house so I stop and take advantage of their outside light. My front tyre is soft, but not flat, so I pump it up and hope it will get me to the Penrith control where I can change the tube. Again this wakes me up and I get to the edge of town, but then it’s suddenly very flat and I have no control, so stop annoyingly short of the petrol station and sort it out. Checking the tyre for sharps I discover that it’s actually worn through at a spot, so deploy an emergency boot of section of old inner tube plus gaffer tape. I can’t have refitted the wheel very well because now I have a rubbing brake.  Clearly I’ve also done a shit job on the brake cables, as the straddle cable on the canti is simultaneously slack and almost too tight to use the quick release. Sunrise and daylight happens while I’m fiddling, I turn off my head torch part way through.

At the petrol station I meet igauk again, he’s almost ready to leave. Chatting it turns out that he lives in Glasgow, so he’s driven to Blackpool, cycled home for a few hours kip and is now cycling back to his car…we are an hour out of time by this point but he needs to get back to the arrivee for his car whatever, and I reckon there is enough time for him to get there within the cut-off. There’s a costa machine so I enjoy a hot coffee and a sandwich while considering my options. In theory I should be able to cover the remaining 100 km in time, but I’m not sure how I would stand with the out-of-time controls, and I know that theory doesn’t always hold up when you’ve hundreds of kms in your legs and you’ve had less than four hours sleep over the past two nights. Also the way my bike is feeling at the moment I would have no confidence in going much further. As an extra minor irritation my bike computer (cheap Halfords cable model bought in an ’emergency’ come time ago) has stopped, reading 499 km.  Penrith has a main line train station, and I’ve learnt my lesson and haven’t left anything in Blackpool so I could head straight home (but this may be expensive). Igauk leaves, and I remove and refit my front wheel, taking a bit more care to tighten both side nuts evenly. It spins without rubbing on the brake blocks. How about the tyre boot, will that hold? I realise that, after LEL, I have a strong desire to complete the distance even if I’ll be out of time. And I have all of today, Sunday (it’s currently 7 am), to get home, plus Monday off work. It’s also a gorgeous morning, and I’ve got a ride that takes me through upland England…it would be daft to miss out.

I decide to press on, and see how the tyre and wheel feels; if it’s no good I can just head back to Penrith. I’m now resigned to ‘tour’ back, and I stop in a layby to let Andy know I’ll be a DNF, but the theoretical possibility that I can still finish on time stops me sending the text message. But I’m clearly in touring mode as I stop to photograph the hills to the east, I reckon Yad Moss must be in there somewhere.

Pennines from Penrith - Shap road

I’m also tired again, so I stop in Shap to make use of the facilities: recently repainted interior, stone flagged floor, wooden bench, east facing so some nice morning sun but a little noisy from passing traffic and pedestrians. No buses. This time I do send Andy a message to tell him not to wait for me, especially as his hire of the hall in Blackpool only lasts until 8 am so he’ll be sitting in his car waiting for the stragglers after that.

Next it’s the climb over Shap Fell, with its warning road signs about bad conditions in winter. I think this is my favourite bit of the ride. I’m piecing together my experiences of the way north on the previous day (or day before, who knows at this point) in the dark and the fog, with the clear daylight and the views that are here now. It could be another world, but in time I spot the place I stopped, isolated from the world by fog. The road is quiet, the views are splendid, the hillsides wild, just as I like them.

View from Shap Fell, east View from Shap Fell, south

Over the moorland top, down into the next valley it seems like another world. This is the descending I like, the road is safely wide with good visibility. Then through Kendal, where I lose touch a little with the routesheet but following signs is good enough and I’m soon on the way to Carnforth. Here the control is at a truck stop, and I no longer bother to ask for a receipt. The woman running the shop is friendly and talkative, it doesn’t sound like she’s had that many of us through (not sure of this is because they came through earlier before her shift started, or they have stopped elsewhere) but she seems unfazed by the oddness of the enterprise.

I leave a little uncomfortable and tired, for the final section. Navigating through Lancaster poses a couple of problems but it is me at fault. At one point I just don’t have the energy to move across a couple of lanes of traffic to take the correct position at some lights, so stop and go via a pedestrian crossing. Then I turn too early, resulting in catching up with the chap who I spotted in the darkness of Longtown. It turns out that he’d missed the final version of the routesheets, so had passed Longtown then somehow learnt that it was a control and so headed back, doing an extra 30 km in the process. Now he’s going much faster than me so after a brief chat and some encouragement that he can get back in time I leave him to it.

The last section, as almost always, is a struggle.  It’s now normal-people’s daytime and the road is busy.  I experience the highest concentration of shit driving ever, with so many close passes including someone who seems to be attempting to shave my legs with their wing mirrors. A couple of cars have stopped at the side of the road and seem to be doing the exchanging-insurance-details thing, which comes as no surprise. This is a flat section and I’m unpleasantly reminded of the LEL Fens. Similarly tired now I take a turn off for some villages near Pilling – or maybe Preesall? –  to have a snooze on a bench next to a bus stop sign (very poor accommodation but it’s dry and the sun shines on my face).

On the final stretch to Blackpool I start to follow signs for the seafront rather than the routesheet, and finally get there about 3 pm, an hour later than the arrivee closure. In some ways this is better than I thought, probably without the flat tyre and with a little more effort I could have finished in time. But I didn’t, so I haven’t managed an SR. That was my aim, but I’m not too upset, and happy that I pressed on and at least finished the distance. I turns out that Blackpool on a Sunday afternoon – during illuminations season but too early for the lights – is a bit weird. I get some chips and a cup of tea near the tower, and eavesdrop on the conversation of the lad serving and his two mates loitering for free food; it sounds like a tough place to grow up.

Blackpool seafront Blackpool Tower

Heading back to the train station for home I have trouble locating the entrance, and a woman passing notices my confused expression and offers help; so I am reminded of the friendliness of northerners, even towards the Lycra-clad.

* or ‘relaxed’, as another rider’s account described it. Bastard.

Blackpool - Glasgow- Blackpool route

618 km, 41 hours

Moffat Toffee and Broughton & Back

01/07/17 Moffat Toffee 200 km

My second outing on this ride – it was my first 200 km a couple of years ago.  This time serendipitously (my train was fairly late back on Sunday as it was cheap) I was able to make a proper weekend of it.  I took Friday off work and an early train to Edinburgh and then along the new line to Galashiels, then rode to a campsite in Melrose.  Plenty of time for a mooch around the place: Abbey, Hills that would be nice to walk up with appropriate footwear (and less cloud) and the river Tweed.

Melrose campsite Melrose Abbey Eildon Hills, Melrose Bridge over the Tweed, Melrose Bridge over the Tweed, Melrose Bridge over the Tweed, Melrose Bridge over the Tweed, Melrose

We started an hour earlier than usual as it was the same day as Galashiels’ Common Riding, but even so there were some early band members about already.  On the first stage I saw Julian who’s been on quite a few of the same rides as me this year.  I told him I’d entered LEL but that my training hadn’t gone entirely to plan; he said he’d be volunteering the time round, having ridden it multiple times he thought it would be good to ‘give someone else a go’.  Jolly decent chap.

Galashiels Moffat Toffee 200 km Moffat Toffee 200 km Moffat Toffee 200 km

I rode the section into Eskdalemuir with a chap (sadly forgotten his name) who was training for the Etape du Tour, a similar distance but considerably more climbing.  Eskdalemuir Community Hub was an excellent  control once again, and it was exciting/daunting to see a list of LEL volunteers up.

Eskdalemuir Community Hub

Next top Langholm for an ice cream, then on to Moffat where I had planned to meet my Mother at the control cafe.  I sincerely hope that her paying for my sustenance doesn’t contravene any AUK rules about ‘support’.  I can predict my timings reasonably well now and since she is always late I suggested I’d be there 15 minutes before I expected to arrive…typically for the only time ever she was early and spent a while standing outside the cafe and chatting to other riders.  On the way up to Moffat I could just see the hills near my parent’s house, although they didn’t make the best photo.

Towards the Barr Hill In Moffat

The final leg from Moffat is one of my all-time faves, up the A708 passed the Grey Mare’s Tail and over the top to St Marys Loch.  I’d remembered this stage getting quite cold last time and had worried about gloves, until I realised that the last time I rode this it was April, not July.

A708 Moffat to Selkirk A708 Moffat to Selkirk A708 Moffat to Selkirk A708 Moffat to Selkirk A708 Moffat to Selkirk A708 Moffat to Selkirk

It was nice to finish feeling good and ‘ready’ for the 100 km the following day, compared to my previous Moffat Toffee when I was wiped out.  After stopping in Moffat for longer than I’d normally spend I had a fast ride down on the final stages and finished earlier than expected.

Moffat Toffee route

208 km, 11 hrs 27 mins

 

02/07/17 Broughton and Back 100 km

Although much tamer than the real thing, this was LEL practice of sorts as it was the first time I’d done rides on consecutive days.  Today’s 10 am start was almost a lie-in, but I did have to get up and pack up my tent before riding to Galashiels.

The only parts of this route that were familiar were the first few and last kms (as they were the same as yesterday) and Broughton itself, which I’ve driven through numerous times on the way to Edinburgh. It was a nice route which essentially follows the river Tweed all the way up to the A701, although it’s not always visible.  There was even a bit of sun.

Broughton and Back Broughton and Back Broughton and Back

I finished in plenty of time for the train home so had a bit of time to kill in Waverley station.  There were three people with bikes that were entirely different beasts from my trusty Hewitt, who appeared to be on their way home after a triathlon.  It was a pleasant evening’s journey home and I saw the river Tweed once more as it finally found the sea in Berwick.

Berwick upon Tweed

Broughton and Back route

117 km, 5 hrs 55 mins

Port Navigation

01/04/17

 

I saw this event on the audax calendar some time ago when I was planning the year’s rides (with LEL training lurking in my mind). It was both on my 40th birthday and visited Mull, where I had a fantastic holiday a couple of years ago, so I couldn’t resist.  Clearly a long weekend would be required, and when I looked at train tickets an even longer one was needed to avoid the cyclists enemy, the rail replacement bus service.  If my LEL preparation had gone to plan I would have completed one if not two 200 kms by now, but life being what it is I only had my disastrous painful slog to go on.  But I had done one before, so I ‘knew’ I could do this.

Friday was spent travelling by train to Fort William.  Not the best of beginnings, as I had mis-remembered the time of my train from Leeds by half an hour and had to make use of my ‘contingency’ time; thinking that getting up at 5.30 am would allow me a leisurely preparation it became a case of having to forget about that second cup of tea.  It takes a long time in Leeds station to get up and down in the lifts so an early arrival is necessary.  Train one, Leeds – Edinburgh, was an old Virgin with those doors that need to be opened from the inside via the window, which although rather nice are also rather deadly and I thought had been outlawed some time ago.  Bikes in the ‘guard’s van’ which was also doing time as storage space for bottles of water, one of which was in the way of the bike rack and happily found its way into my thirsty pocket.  No problems unloading in Edinburgh and I had intentionally booked trains to allow plenty of time to change.  Then a short trip to Glasgow Queen Street for the connection to Fort William. There were a few other cyclists at Queen Street and I started to wonder how we’d all get on the train, but it turns out they have superior capacity with 6 bike spaces (per 2 carriages I think, certainly 6 to Fort William on this one).  I had an advance ticket and hence a booked seat, so I didn’t see the other cyclists once I’d sat down.  The journey north past Loch Lomond, on to Crianlarich and then across Ranoch Moor is splendid.  It was pretty wet but I did much more window-gazing than book reading.  There were lots of deer, mostly stags, not easy to spot as they are the same colour as the land.

Rannoch moor from the train Rannoch moor from the train Corrour from the train

Arriving in Fort William I did a decent amount of faffing but it still continued to rain as I left the station, which seemed rather a convoluted route through the nearby supermarket car park, and although I came straight out onto the A82 I was keen to make sure it was going in the right direction!  Riding out of town I was amazed at all the B&B and Guest House signs displaying ‘No Vacancies’ (how many people are riding this audax?), it was only much later that it occurred to me that they were still closed for the winter.  Not the nicest of roads as the traffic was quite fast, and it was raining quite a bit so just a case of head down and get on with it.  About half way the rain stopped and by the time I got to Ballachulish the sun was out.

Approaching Ballachullish

I spotted the turn-off that I’d need tomorrow to find the start, and the campsite I’d identified wasn’t much further on. Invercoe Campsite is open all year and the owners seemed very relaxed, I had to make a point of remembering to pay before I left.  Beautiful location and nice facilities.

Loch Leven from Glencoe Village
Loch Leven
Loch Leven from Glencoe Village
Loch Leven

My parents were not letting me entirely ignore my birthday so had planned to come up from their home in Dumfries and Galloway in their camper van and visit.  Usually anything involving timings goes to pot but they surprised me by driving past my campsite (they were staying at a different one) just as I had started putting up my tent.  Once they’d installed themselves we had a few drinks in the Glencoe Gathering pub before a not-too-late night.

I was woken a few times in the night by rain, which was still falling on and off when I left for Ballachulish Village Hall.  The campsite had a shelter, intended for barbecuing when the weather has other plans, but the owner recommended it as somewhere to keep bikes overnight and when I went in to get mine I found a couple of other randonneurs having a fight with a stove in an attempt to cook pre-ride porridge.  I hadn’t brought any food or cooking stuff with me, and had spent the past three weeks mostly avoiding carbs, so this was to be a ride without relying on sugar and starch if all went to plan (although I had emergency jelly beans and gel in the rack bag).  I was at the hall in plenty of time and had a couple of cups of tea, before heading off in the first batch of riders dismissed by organiser Graeme.  This was a logistically complicated ride but it had been very well explained by Graeme, with ferry times for fast, medium and full value riders indicated, however we were all supposed to get the same first ferry, the 7.50 from Corran to Ardgour (mainland to mainland).  When I heard that we’d all (about 70 riders) fit on the one crossing I was surprised, but there was plenty of room and the ferry staff, who had been well-informed of our arrival, were excellent all through the ride.

Riders on the Corran ferry
Corran ferry
From the Corran ferry
From the Corran ferry
Riders leaving the Corran Ferry
Riders leaving the Corran Ferry

Somehow I managed to be first off the boat, but keeping out of the way to let the few motor vehicles off I ended up towards the back of the pack.  And there I was to remain!  Graeme had come over on the same ferry by car and passed us before heading to Lochaline to sign brevet cards at the first control.  On leaving Ardour we had the option of following the routesheet, which directed us via the more scenic route towards Strontian before quite a climb, or taking a flatter coast road which we were warned was of very poor quality.  I didn’t see anyone taking the second option.

Cyclist on Ardgour
Ardgour
Cycling on Ardgour
Ardgour

Having been warned of a ‘bastard hill’ I thought the first one wasn’t too bad, but I was soon to realise which was being referred to.   Once the road turned south-ish towards Lochaline it went up, and up, and up.

Looking towards Strontian
Highest point of the ride (272 m) and tough climb up to it

Eventually it must have started to go down but I don’t remember that quite so clearly.  I’d passed a couple of riders (unusual for me) but coming over the top and feeling a bit of rain (and not being very warm) I stopped to put my waterproof back on and they went by. Sometime around here I started thinking about the next ferry; I’d thought that I’d make the 10.35 am from Lochaline to Fishnish (Mull) based on my usual speed, but I could see it would be tight.  As it was the rear doors had just been raised and the boat started to move as I descended to the control…very frustrating.  But Graeme was there to not only stamp my card but impart relaxing words, and I was soon joined by Marcus, another rider.  It turned out that two people had made the early crossing, everyone else was on the one we’d just missed, and there would be two of us bringing up the rear for the remainder of the ride.  The folk running the cafe at the Lochaline ferry terminal were just getting their breath back after the onslaught of most of the field so I think were quite pleased that it was just the two of us now, and we had plenty of time to wait for the next boat.  I looked for a low carb something to eat so went for lentil soup, and a coffee, because I think I should need one at this point.  I had a marmite cheese that I’d brought along with me too.  It didn’t take long for me to start feeling sick, and there were moments when I thought I would suddenly reproduce the soup on the nice clean gravel outside the cafe, but it stayed down.

 

Once the 11.10 very arrived we were asked to board before the cars and put the bikes in a couple of wheel racks – goodness knows where everyone secured them on the previous boat.  We’d been instructed to buy a ‘hopscotch’ ticket onboard which would get us back to Oban later, at £5.60 this is the same price as a foot passenger.  Once on Mull I recognised the roads for a short time until we turned off for Salen.  I’m not very good at riding with other people and found I was going very sightly faster than Marcus, although he would catch me on descents, but after a while I had lost sight of him so I waited at a junction so we could continue together.  After Gruline the road clings to the coast and we were treated to some great clear views, although the wind was not exactly helping.

Shore of Loch na Keal, Mull
Shore of Loch na Keal

The Treshnish Isles were visible in the distance, some distinctive outlines which I recognised from my previous visit. The road then turned inland and we started playing hare and tortoise with a van full of birdwatchers for the next little while.  I lost sight of Marcus again but decided to press on and wait at the next control.  On the whole the descents on this ride were excellent, as the road ahead was in full view so no braking was required, but in this stretch a heavily pregnant cow and later some calves caused some cautious slowing down.  The road meets the shore of Loch Scridain and then the main A road.  Our control was at the Pennyghael Stores, and once again I recognise the road from my earlier bus journeys.  The shop had a very friendly ginger cat, as well as stickers to mark our passage and tea/coffee plus a roll which was included in our entry fee.  This is the sort of thing that I’d never ‘expect’ on a ride and is much appreciated.  As it was I just had the tea, and feeling better had some nuts and a bit of cheese.

Pennylghael stores, Mull
Pennyghael stores
Loch Scridain by Pennylghael, Mull
Loch Scridain near Pennyghael

I had previously travelled the whole of the next section to Craignure by bus, during which gradients are of course less noticeable, but the climb up Glen More was a pleasant one in the continuing sun.  I passed the lochs that I’d walked along on my previous visit and then Loch Spelve where I’d waited (quite happily) two hours for a bus.  I arrived at Craignure a little before Marcus, we’d both realised at the previous control that there was no chance we’d make the previous ferry so it had been a fairly relaxed leg and we had a bit of time for a cup of tea from the shop.  The ferry staff asked how many more of us were expected (none) and commented on how many riders had been on the last crossing.  We were entertained by watching the ferry approach, trying to work out which end was going to open and being amused by the technique of making contact with the jetty and using it to pivot around to line up with the landing stage.  There was a section for bikes in the centre of the vehicle deck, again I wondered where they had fitted everyone in on the previous crossing.  Marcus and I went upstairs for a comfy seat and discussed how we’d got into Audax, followed by discovering we have a few colleagues in common.

Craignure ferry, Mull
Craignure ferry

Back on the mainland in Oban and we knew we had 60 km to do in x hours, which was achievable for us both although we couldn’t hang about.  Out from Oban the route follows a road to a car park and then an odd section of cycle path to rejoin the A85.  The cycle path had the most crazy steep sections, including the final bit where a boy who saw us struggling opened the gate to let us through.  The final crossing of the day took us on Connel bridge over Loch Etive, then all the way along the side of Loch Creran to answer an info control.

Head of Loch Creran
Head of Loch Creran

Soon it began to get dark, and it was just a case of head down and keep riding. Sometimes I’d pass Marcus on a climb and then he’d catch me, eventually I pulled ahead but could see him not far off when the road allowed.  At last I arrived at the road works outside Ballachulish centre, and I thought Marcus would catch up while I waited at the red light, it would have been nice to finish together, but I rolled into the hall complete with fairy lights at 9.xx pm.  Marcus eventually arrived with literally minutes to spare, having had to stop for cramp near the end.  Graeme and crew fed us, I had some soup but still felt nauseous so didn’t risk the cake.  My parents who turned up to wish me happy birthday were generously looked after, and we celebrated properly the next day.

Loch Leven from Glencoe Village
Loch Leven
Daffodils by Loch Leven
Loch Leven

Birthday cake and champagne

At Glencoe visitor centre
At Glencoe visitor centre

An early start on Monday morning to catch the first train back home and another fantastic journey for window-gazing.  A different route home taking the Carlisle – Settle line which had just reopened a couple of days before.

Deer running from the train, Rannoch Moor
Deer running from the train
Railway between Bridge of Orchy and Tyndrum
Railway following the contours between Bridge of Orchy and Tyndrum
Garsdale station
Garsdale station

Route of Port Navigation 200 km ride

200 km, 13 hrs 50 mins

Isle of Mull

27/08/15 – 04/09/15

Isle of Mull map

 

 

Craignure

Train to Oban via Glasgow (note the change in cuisine).  Ferry to Craignure and a night at the campsite there.  A nice spot with great clean facilities, including a common room with wood-burning stove.

Haggis crisps Sound of Mull Sound of Mull Craignure campsite

 

Tobermory

The bus services on Mull are great, and the Craignure – Tobermory route uses a double decker so you can get a great view.  The majority of the roads are single track with passing places, so it’s a nice slow journey.  Spent some time watching gannets diving into the sea while waiting at the bus stop.  I was told that the ones around here nest on St Kilda; that’s 140 miles as the gannet flies, a long way for a fish supper.

Tobermory Tobermory harbour Tobermory harbour Tobermory harbour Tobermory harbour

 

Rainy day activities: distillery and museum.

Rain drops on tent Tobermory whisky fast river Peaty water

 

A boat trip to Staffa via the Treshnish Isles, featuring a white-tailed eagle, gannets, kittiwakes, shags, seals, a minke whale and maybe some porpoises.  And exciting rocks, of course.  Very smart boat and knowledgable crew from Staffa Tours, happy to spend time detouring to follow the minke.

Rubha nan Gall, Mull Treshnish Isles Seals, Treshnish Isles Seals, Treshnish Isles Staffa Staffa Fingal's cave Fingal's cave Fingal's cave Fingal's cave Staffa Staffa Staffa

 

 

Fionnphort

Amazing campsite at Fidden farm, right above the beach.  The sun came out and the sea was irresistible.  And freezing, obviously.

Fiden Farm, Mull Fiden Farm, Mull Fiden Farm, Mull Shells Shells Swimming, Mull Swimming, Mull Erraid from Fiden Farm, Mull Fiden Farm, Mull Fiden Farm, Mull

 

Moonrise and sunset.

Moon landscape, Mull Fiden Farm, Mull

 

Views from Fionnphort.  The strange shaped island beyond Iona is The Dutchman’s Cap, one of the Treshnish Isles.  The others were named by Vikings, not contraceptives.

Fionnphort, Isle of Mull Fionnphort, Isle of Mull Sound of Iona

 

The tidal island of Erraid as featured in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped.

Erraid, Mull

 

 

Iona

First stop the nunnery.  A carving over a window shows a voluptuous and accommoddating woman, apparently keeping those inside safe from such temptations.  One tiny room of the whole complex had heating – they must have been some tough nuns.  Today was very sunny (i.e. I got burned) but required all layers and a hat because of the wind, and that was the tail end of summer.

 Iona nunnery Iona nunnery Iona nunnery

 

The Abbey; journey’s end for many, be they pilgrims, coach trippers or important dead people.  In front of the abbey in the grass is the Street of the Dead (Sràid nam Marbh), after it passes the burial area (Rèilig Odhrain).  There is an exhibition of ancient stone crosses, where I learnt that the circle was an addition to support the lateral arms which could otherwise be heavy enough to cause the stone to break.

Iona abbey Iona gravestone Iona gravestone Iona abbey Iona abbey Iona abbey Iona abbey Iona abbey Iona abbey Iona abbey Iona abbey Sound of Iona

 

Views from Dun I, the highest point on the island (101 m, so just a HuMP).  Excellent visibility, Cullins of Skye spotted.

Sound of Iona View from Dun I, Iona

 

There is a green colour in the rocks found in abundance in St Columba’s bay, apparently from chlorophyll.  I should have brought my accommodation with me, it would have been a lovely spot for the night.

Beach on Iona St Columba's bay

 

 

The three lochs

A short-ish but tussocky and boggy walk followed by a very wild camp.  Nice evening with ever-increasing wind.  Met an adder shortly before pitching for the night on the only vaguely suitable ground.  Previous choice was under a sheltered rock, but a deer had obviously had the same thought when it was unwell and consequently expired there.

Glen More, Mull Glen More, Mull Loch Àirde Glais Gleann a' Chaiginn Mhòir, Mull Adder, Mull

A peg was blown out into the burn at 5 am, so that corner of the tent was anchored with the water bottle and I waited in the sleeping bag for enough light to pack up and walk down towards Loch Buie.  I serendipitously found the peg while rinsing out my mug before I left.  Walking to the main road I missed the bus by a minute or so, the next one was two hours later so I sat by a sort of estuary where the river Lussa enters (the sea) Loch Spelve, watched the birds and had tomato soup.  I think I spotted an eagle.

Lochbuie, Mull Loch Uisg, Mull Kinlochspelve, Mull

Balure cemetery, Loch Spelve, Mull Hills on the mainland from Mull Soup on the shores of Loch Spelve Route of three lochs walk, Mull

 

Oban

Back to reality…the first establishment encountered on disembarking from the ferry in Oban is a Weatherspoons.  But the place did have some more individual touches.

So long and thanks for all the fish; Oban