It started with an invitation to a surprise 40th birthday party in Glasgow, and the crazy idea of cycling there. I was desperate to complete an Audax after missing so many calendar events due to illness or bad timing. However, phrases like, “I could ride there” should really be treated with caution and suspicion; just because you can doesn’t mean you necessarily should. I don’t remember why I shared the idea with Greg Melia, but he was immediately supportive and offered to join me, so via facebook we made arrangements. This was my first DIY and my first Audax, so Joe Applegarth had an opportunity to demonstrate patience and grace in guiding me through the administration. Although “my house” to Glasgow was almost 300km, it was actually about 296km; so I needed to plot a route which was a little further. By setting my start point about 14km south of me, in Stokesley, I was able to ensure a guaranteed 300km minimum distance, and I set my check points at Ferryhill, Alston, Brampton, Moffat, East Kilbride and the city centre of Glasgow; ViaMichelin gave it as 302km.
As I was going to a party there were several complications;
- I needed to carry a complete set of smart clothes and some shoes so my Carradice Barley wasn’t going to be sufficient. On went the rack and two Ortlieb panniers, perfect for touring.
- If you have luggage space you tend to fill it. I did.
- It would be a Saturday late night party with a bar, so I needed to make sure I got to Glasgow early and had some sleep. I aimed to get there at lunchtime.
Greg and I calculated a 19:00 Friday start from Stokesley to allow plenty of time and for the extra fun Greg decided to make his ride a DIY400 by riding up from York to Stokesley. We’d meet at 18:30 so he could eat and then get moving again on plan.
I mentioned that illness or bad timing had stopped me getting to the start of my other Audax rides; I failed to start the 200k Roses to Wrags because I’d been working away from home a lot and needed to spend some time with my wife and kids. I failed to start the 300k Plains because I had a nasty cold which wiped me out for 2 weeks. I failed to start the 400k Severn Across as my wife was suffering from the same cold that ruined my 300k Plains and I wasn’t about to abandon her. So fitting in Audax around family and work is just not easy and family comes first. Sure, I might have been a bit teenager-stroppy at missing the rides but I managed to get over my selfish behaviour eventually. In the week running up to this DIY300 all was going fairly well, until my wife Carol thought she needed a decent head injury to spice up matters. She’d passed out in a secluded location where no one could find her but thankfully the cut to the head didn’t need stitches and with a week before the ride she was glued back together. I had a week working from home and was able to keep a much closer eye on her after this, so by the Friday morning of the Stokesley/Glasgow ride I was happy that Carol and the kids were happy and well, I’d done the weekly shop, tidied the house and got everyone as comfortable as possible. This felt like a green light for a bicycle ride! With a 30 minute ride to Stokesley from my home, I was just about to apply the Assos cream and get into my cycling gear when Greg phoned to say he was an hour late setting off, so could we meet later. Okay, no problem, we had plenty of time in hand.
At 19:30 I was standing in the cold easterly wind in Stokesley square when Greg’s second phone call came through. The strong winds had slowed him a little coming over the North Yorkshire Moors and he was going to be late. I have to admit to being surprised he’d chosen to ride over the moors as his first 100km when a route around via Thirsk and Northallerton would have achieved the same distance and especially before a planned night climb to Alston Moor, but Greg is clearly a tough rider so I didn’t question his choice.
My parents live in Bishop Auckand, just near our planned route along the A689 and they had kindly offered coffee and thick bacon rolls as a treat before the isolation of the Stanhope to Alston section, so Greg suggested instead of waiting in the cold at Stokesley he’d catch up with me there.
I set off from Stokesley at 19:44, with a receipt from a cash machine to mark the start, and followed familiar home roads over Seamer hill and Leven Bank to descend into Yarm. I was cautious through the busy Friday night pub crowds and then swept out north along Durham Lane towards Stockton-on-Tees. Turning towards Longnewton on Darlington Road and then crossing over the A66 onto Sandy Leas Lane at the cycle crossing took me onto the peaceful country lanes towards Sedgefield. The wind was blustery from the northeast and kept me pegged back to 25kph. I joined the A689 at Bradbury to cross the A1 and then took Gipsy Lane into Ferryhill. As I climbed Broom Road to Ferryhill centre I realised I’d packed for a touring holiday not an Audax.
With a cash machine receipt obtained after 36km in Ferryhill at 21:42, the now friendly tailwind took me effortlessly to Bishop Auckland through Kirk Merrington in 30 minutes. It was 22:10 and I was happily settling into the warmth of my parent’s home with fresh coffee and tasty bacon in a brown roll. Thanks Mum and Dad! I was warm, cosy and well fed. The easiest thing would now be to cancel the ride, sleep at my parent’s home, ride back to my house in the morning and drive to Glasgow for the party. The longer I waited for Greg to join me the more enticing that became. It was about ninety minutes later when Greg arrived for his turn at my folk’s hospitality and I tested the water by suggesting that we call the rest of the ride off. His look was enough to persuade me otherwise. I would have bailed if I’d been alone, but being with Greg sort of ruled that out so at 00:15 we set off into the drizzle and the cold.
Our route was an easy one to navigate, following the A689 all the way to Brampton. Although it was slightly drizzling with rain, the wind was to our backs and we made good pace to Stanhope where we stopped to don rain-legs and extra layers. Our next section involved the climb through Weardale Forest to the summit of Alston Moor. The rain was much more consistent now, but Greg’s unfailing conversation, jokes, and encouragement kept me in good spirits. In the dark we were trying to guess where the top of the climb would be and we knew that the chevrons on the map had indicated a decent incline, so we also kept wondering whether each climb was enough to justify the chevron. Soon I realised I was cycling along in a cloud of my own steamed breath and some of the rain wasn’t falling directly down, it had a snowy zigzag look to the way it was falling. As we kept going my misty breath was joined by actual clouds but the warmth of the effort was keeping the cold out of my bones.
As we passed the Killhope Lead Mining Centre I thought we must be getting near the moor top. In the dark and the clouds it wasn’t possible to see anything other than the road in the headlight. I was surprised when in the clouds above us lights appeared, high enough above us that it must obviously be a light aircraft. It immediately swooped down towards us on a strafing run, disappearing briefly below us and then reappearing again directly in front and coming straight at us. Okay, it was a car. So now we knew exactly how steep the road ahead was. Click, click, click – down went the gears.
It was a pure slog to the summit. Greg had no gearing choice but to shoot up the road ahead of me.
One of the best things about cycling uphill is the view you are rewarded with. The next best thing is the descent. We were treated to neither of these in this wee small hour of the night. The icy cold rain really goes through you when descending and on wet roads, in the fog, and in the dark so Greg and I took it very easy. I remember the 18% descent sign followed by the road disappearing below my wheel. Those SwissStop Green brake pads are expensive but worth every pound right at that moment. My Dinotte headlight was superb too whether on dipped or main beam the road was well lit.
The road was not all downhill (is it ever), and we undulated our way to Alston for another cash machine receipt at 03:37 at 106km covered. Stopping to put more layers on and eat something I think Greg and I were at our coldest. I was shaking with cold and wet right to my core, so much so that I decided to don some of the clothes I’d brought for the party. Anything to layer up. My gloves were the cheap and excellent Aldi specials. I don’t know about Greg’s gloves, but for some reason his fingers were bare; it must have been agony for him.
From Alston we followed the A689 to Brampton and I think we found the sneaky flat and downhill route out of the Pennines. Along River South Tyne and Coalfell Beck, the road was those perfect little rolling hills which you can swoop up and down. In addition the dawn light was coming on now.
We shared the road with wildlife and the scenery was beautiful.
05:20 in Brampton and 136km completed, we were too early for a teashop but at this early hour a newsagent was taking his paper delivery and the instant coffee from the machine in his shop was exactly what we needed. This was Brampton News on Front Street, the early opening and instant coffee is worth knowing about because there is nothing else available.
Off again, this time following the A6071 to Longtown. Greg regaled me with Time Trial tales from the 24 records, telling me who had ridden what distance and some of the stories of the quest for the 500 mile record. Our spirits were rising with the increasing light and Greg’s company was deeply appreciated.
Another town and still too early for breakfast, Longtown held nothing for us, so on to Gretna. We made a diversion looking for breakfast at the Outlet Centre, but again we were still too early. Thankfully just north of Gretna on the B7076 was an access route to the motorway services and we finally managed to stop for a proper breakfast. I celebrated with beans and egg on toast, a sugar free redbull, a coffee and a smoothie. I topped up the water bottle and dropped a couple more zeros in. Before setting off we also did a little maintenance. I was carrying a bottle of oil and some rags and we were able to treat the rain induced squeaking of Greg’s chain.
From here our route followed the A74(M) / M74 mainly on Sustrans route 74 and the B7076. Only about 160km to go! Looking at the cycle computer I’d been averaging about 21kph and estimated another 8 hours riding ahead. This was definitely touring speed and I wasn’t going to be troubling the upper limits of Audax pace.
Our next goal was Moffat at 208km. We passed Lockerbie and the B7076 trundled straight along switching occasionally over or under the A74(M). The entire stage from Brampton to Moffat was 70km but as it had been broken up with breakfast and plenty of small towns, the distance dropped away. There were times when I couldn’t really hear what Greg was saying due to the side wind, or dropping away from him on inclines, but I found the existence of company very helpful and we even took turns to draft and conserve energy. I’m afraid I wasn’t much to draft behind on the gentle climbs as my knees were beginning to niggle and my pace was sometimes down to 14kph. But the weight of the luggage really helped on each descent, so I could pedal easy and still keep momentum. There are long sections of very straight and dull road along the side of the motorway, lined with half hearted efforts at cycle lanes. The usual glass and rubbish eventually did for Greg’s rear tyre and we were delayed for about 20 minutes while he fixed this. From then we just stayed out of these awful cycle paths. The road surface was not designed for pleasure either; it was that rough top surface that unrelentingly vibrates every bone in your body.
I had thought of taking Old Carlisle Road into Moffat but I must have missed the turning as we eventually came to the A701 and approached with the Saturday tourist traffic. It was nearly 10:00 and I’d worked out a cunning control point. I wanted to buy a bottle of Scotch as a present for my friends 40th Birthday, so we called in at the Moffat Woollen Mill and Whisky shop. The ensuing tasting session was probably ill advised. A dram each of Highland, Islay and Speyside was required to choose a bottle for my friend and it seemed sensible to treat myself to a present from Scotland too. As I stood at the counter to pay I realised my stomach only contained Whisky.
So, fully laden with two bottles of Whisky in the panniers, we called in at the bakers for some warm savoury food and by the time we were done it was 10:40. Greg realised that he was now on a very tight schedule to catch his return train and he needed to average 25kph to make it in time. My average was more like 21kph so I told him to leave me and try to cover the last 106km to Glasgow in 4 hours. Greg had been great company and without him I simply wouldn’t have been there, but with the night complete and a lovely Scottish journey ahead we said our farewells. Despite saying goodbye, we immediately hit a long gentle incline leaving Moffat on the A701/B719, so I could see Greg ahead for a while. I twiddled the gears at about 13kph the whole way but once over the top it was into the big ring for a 46kph descent on the smooth swooping surface. The last I saw of Greg he had crossed over on the bridge ahead and was on the next climb of the B7076. He texted me later to say that he made it just in time.
It was a long lonely 16km to Abington, although the views as I passed through the Lowther Hills were beautiful. I was feeling fine and nearly passed the general store without stopping, but I’m glad I changed my mind and picked up a BLT sandwich. The A702 lead to the B7078 and the most isolated I’d felt all morning. It was a long section of perfect constant gradient where I could tap out a regular rhythm on the pedals. This is one of the many things I love about cycling in Scotland, the cycling rhythm and the views while doing so.
Unfortunately the worst section of road was just ahead. There is a dual carriageway section from Happendon through Lesmahagow towards Kirkmuirhill which I had expected to be fast. What I hadn’t anticipated was an almost abandoned road with practically no surface to ride on; this route cannot possibly be called a road, off-road more like. Here a full suspension MTB would have its work cut out keeping the vibration down and I reached the point of shouting impotently at the world how dreadful the road was, how Sustrans must delete route 74 from its maps and how much Scotland must hate cyclists and want them to turn around and go home. Honestly, if you ever get a chance to ride this section of road, just don’t.
From just before Kirkmuirhill there was a short sharp ascent on Teiglum Road to Strathaven Road and then onto the B7086. The wind which had been from my front left (the northeast) since Gretna was now behind me and I zoomed up to 46kph all the way on rolling hills to Strathaven. As slow and awful as I had felt on the unmade dual carriageway I was now elated to be riding properly surfaced, fast and grin-inducing roads. Talk about an emotional rollercoaster! After Strathaven I kept a nice 28 to 32kph into East Kilbride over more gently rolling hill and after 288km arrived at East Kilbride to collect a 50p Pay&Display ticket from the Sainsbury’s car park. This was a fast and convenient way to get a receipt especially as everyone was outside due to a fire alarm in store.
I knew time was tight and didn’t stop in East Kilbride; instead I hit the final stage to Glasgow following the dual carriageway A749 and A730 downhill right into Glasgow Central. I stopped at every red traffic light but enjoyed the cut and thrust of weaving through busy city traffic easily moving faster than the queuing cars. I sighted Glasgow Central Station and grabbed a receipt from a cash machine; 302km at 15:44; exactly, to the minute, 20 hours from Stokesley to Glasgow.
Now I just had a late night birthday party to get ready for! As I was much later than hoped, a quick internet search on laterooms revealed a good price at Jury Inn next to the station so booked a room and wheeled my bicycle through the door. The lovely lady on reception did not bat an eye at my appearance and was even happy to offer a secure place to lock up my bicycle. I hit the shower, set my alarm for 18:30 and went to bed!
The birthday party at the Grahamston was wonderful – northern soul at full volume and plenty of drinks and food. Word was out that I had cycled and I had one shouted conversation (over the music) after another about just why I had cycled through the night to get there. Honestly, I don’t think I have a good answer. But after a few drinks and a few more drinks I couldn’t feel my knees anymore. At 01:30 we said our farewells outside the Grahamston and I crashed into bed at the Jury Inn.
I popped up feeling rosy at 08:30 so treated myself to an excellent cooked breakfast. I then packed and took my bicycle out for a pootle around the sunny and bright streets of Glasgow on this wonderful Sunday morning.
Before I forget anything, I’m just drafting this story on a blackberry keyboard while on a Cross Country train down to Darlington. The sun is shining, it is a beautiful day and the North Sea is glittering in the midday sun. I’d covered 331km including riding down to Stokesley for the start, been riding for 15 hours and 31 minutes, burnt 9800 calories and had a completed my first Audax, a DIY300 in exactly 20 hours and been to a late night party in Glasgow. What an excellent adventure.
Update 04 June 2012… it’s official!