The Border Raid

The Border Raid Audax
608 kilometres. 378 miles.
40 hours allowed
35.5 hours used
~5000m climbing
~12,000 calories used
The data for the Border Raid 600km Audax is loaded with factual meaning, but barren of emotional content. What does it feel like to ride a 600km Audax?

It starts with butterflies and anxious energy, with the seemingly boundless energy of spinning cranks by supple legs. There is the camaraderie of the group and the fleeting distance to the first check point. Decisions decisions: to carry on alone or stick with a group. There is the headwind and the hills. The early tiredness in the face of the longer distance. The questions asked of yourself. The hills. The wind. The sun. The fields. Getting lost. The endless road. The second check point. The wait for food, the food, the escape. The hills. The wind. The sweat. The views. The endlessness. The balance point where you find you could ride forever. The tiredness. The third check point. The dusk. The hills. The reformed groups. The dark. The lights. The rain. The speed to the fourth check point. The exhaustion. The food. The decision. The doziness. The restart. The rain. The hills. The wind. The long road. The views. The other riders. The empty roads. The pre-dawn quiet. The fifth check point. The shops yet to open. Its all downhill from here. The hills. The wind. The sun. The heat. The cold. The views. The groups. The riding together. The sea! The downhill with the wind in your hair: arms outstretched. The joy. The thankfulness. The fast road blast. The sea. The sixth control. The fish and chips. The last leg. The hills. The wind. The sun. The tiredness. The pub stop for a beer. The burst of energy. The hills. The tiredness. The end is in sight. The jubilation. The final check point. The coffee. The cake. The celebration. The mutual understanding…. The sleep.

Although the nuance of each rider’s audax experience is varied, they share the camaraderie of endurance. We will all have experienced the tiredness and the joy. The hills and the wind and the rain and the sun and the quiet and the noise. The exhaustion. The sense of achievement which wipes out the mid-ride doubts. Many people have written that audaxes are not races, and this is of utmost importance to communicate. There are minimum and maximum time limits. It makes no difference whether a rider finishes before everyone else, or finishes in the closing seconds; the event is complete, the experience has been shared.
Perhaps I think too much.
It was a six o’clock start from Kirkley Cycles, and of the 69 people who paid to ride, 42 started. The collection of machines included a recumbent, a trike, a tandem and a tandem trike. The eclectic choice of machines representing the diversity of riders styles and preferences: from lightweight carbon-fibre, fully loaded with camping gear; fixed gear steel; titanium; dynamo lights; GPS or route sheet “held to forearm with elastic bands”. There is no ‘right way’ to audax. Audax: do it… or don’t.

There was a super fast dash past St James’ Park football ground and over the High Level bridge across the River Tyne. I was in a group with two members of the cycling club VC167, Dean and Steve, along with two other riders. The roads were empty and I was able to cross the High Level bridge in the middle of the road.

Through the empty streets of Newcastle and Gateshead we kept together and climbed past the ‘Angel of the North’ before dropping to Chester-le-Street and joining the A167 southbound. There is a cycle path next to the road, but with two nice wide lanes and very little motorised traffic we just decided to stick to the dual carriageway. There was no sense of danger as anyone with a motorcar gave us wide berth. We did get a little split up here and I chose to drop off the pace of Dean and Steve as they are both much faster than I am.

The sun was out and the day was warm. It was glorious enough for me to be in short sleeves, shorts, and fingerless mitts. I felt really happy to be riding again and the fears of the Mosstrooper were ebbing away. I was confident that this would be an easy 600km cycle, with only the crossing of Garsdale Head (between Hawes and Sedbergh) to trouble my climbing legs.

After 40km I passed my front door in Durham and continued along the A167 to Tudhoe and the climb past Kirk Merrington; this was to be the only significant climb between Kirkley and our first planned stop at Topcliffe (127km in to the event).

As I was off the back of the lead riders, I was caught by the second group on the road; Gordon’s posse! Another large VC167 turnout were motoring along in a double paceline and I was swept up and onto the back of this. I met with Rob, Paul, Gordon, Dave and several others who’s names I’ve lost in a mind-fumble. As we rode on together I gained some confidence and took a turn or two on the front. This is nice when riding in pairs because you don’t have to work out the pace alone.

There were some jokes about doing 30+kph (20mph) on an audax, but at this time we’d the benefit of a side breeze and undulating roads on very familiar ground. Not only had we passed my house, we seemed to be passing a lot of VC167 homes. We were also the first group to cover the 127km to Topcliffe and the first Control which was hosted by Lynn. As with a lot of audax rides, the volunteers had provided a fully catered Control for us; I chose the lentil soup instead of the tomato soup, and the bacon sandwich. Pudding was a banana and flapjack, washed down with a can of sugary fizzy pop.

At the Control points some riders were charging GPS devices from portable power packs, I was running a usb charging cable from the Luxos U switch to the GPS. The Garmin 200 will last a good 8 hours even with the backlight running, but for an event like this I had chosen to keep it topped up along the way. I had also left my smart phone at home; I only wanted a phone for emergency contact so brought my battery-efficient Nokia. Text only communications with Carol allowed me to keep her posted with my progress and reassure her I was okay.

We knew that the next section was likely to be tough. The weather forecast predicted strong winds from the west, and we had 90km to ride westbound – to the next Control at Sedbergh. I didn’t meet anyone keen to ride it alone, and I looked to stay with the group I’d joined down to Topcliffe. I was fooled by the conversation about “taking it easy into the wind”. Cyclists have no frame of reference but their own, so when they tell you its “all down hill”, or “I’m going to be taking it easy”… don’t believe them! 

Steve, Rob and Paul took long turns on the front of the group and we negotiated some of the wiggly country lanes to cross the A1. There were some discrepancies between the GPS track and the route sheet instructions, but we avoided joining the A1(M) southbound at Rainton. We also nearly reached Ripon, and nearly reached Masham, but while taking the shortest route to Middleham, we found ourselves on a narrow singletrack lane with lots of horses coming the other way. We slowed and gave them plenty of space and eventually realised we’d missed a turning. The good news was that Rob had a GPS track which showed we could take advantage of a better shortcut and join the main road further along. Brilliant; except that we were being warned by the horse riders that the road ahead wasn’t a road… it was off-road. commonly known as “Comedy Off-Road” (or COR).

We were out to ride 600km, and after only 140km Rob, Steve and I were negotiating a muddy lane. I was certainly pleased to have 700×28 touring tyres and super-low gearing to get me through the mud. We agreed after this: no more short cuts! The COR had whittled down our road team to Rob, Steve and I; and this was going to be a problem because they are both so much stronger than I am.

I really enjoyed riding with Rob and Steve. We crossed into Wensleydale and the route sheet instructed us to “Turn left and continue straight on for 51km”… this would take us along the A684 from Wensley to Sedbergh, through Hawes and over Garsdale Head. Along the road, on either side, travelling people had set up camp as they headed for Appleby Fair. We even had to overtake a few horse drawn caravans which were making their way along at walking pace. At Hawes Steve decided to continue and Rob and I chose to stop for a bite to eat. I really wanted a coffee, but instead ordered beans and egg on toast at the ‘Penny Garth Cafe’ – I was very tired and no longer able to contribute to the pace.

Garsdale Head isn’t a difficult place to cross, I’ve cycled over there several times, but this time it felt much harder than before. Rob was really helpful and kept me company on the climb, we chatted a bit as I had breath available and I reassured him of the “all downhill” section to Sedbergh.

I must have something wrong with my head. I’m sure it is all downhill from Gardsale Head to Sedbergh… but for some reason on Saturday I found much more uphill than I had ever seen before. So much that I wonder if the road has been moved. I’ve cycled down this hill numerous times and absolutely nailed it to Sedbergh, but this time I found climb after climb and continued to lose speed. I was now looking for a proper rest at a proper Control!

Cafe Duo had an influx of smelly cyclists this Saturday afternoon. I ate again, just soup as I hoped the beans and egg from earlier just needed to be digested to give me strength. I didn’t want a full tummy before the climb up Ravenstonedale past Cautley Spout. It was about 4pm and we’d covered 217km (135 miles).

All audax rides are different, and cyclists have different strategies to get through them. A 300km event could be a daylight ride if easy enough and at the right time of year. A 400km event usually takes riders through the night. 600km events can be done in one go, but often riders will cover 350-400km and stop for a longer rest, or a snooze, before completing the 250-200km remaining. I had planned to close my eyes for two hours in Lockerbie at the Truck Stop. I’d even booked a twin room with Aidan. There was only 143km (89 miles) now to get from Sedbergh to Lockerbie, but I was setting off at 4pm with 217km (135 miles) already in my legs. This was going to be hard.

Firstly I had to climb the A683 from Sedbergh to Ravenstonedale past Cautley Spout, and past the Cross Keys Temperance Inn. I set off with Rob who wanted to ride at a gentle pace, Dean who was happy to ride with anyone, Gordon, Dave, Paul and a few others. Dean and Rob made the acceleration look easy as they disappeared. Gordon came past and said, “Graeme is my plan B – if I’m in difficulty I’ll ride with him.” Oh how humiliating – nevertheless, even when you are someone’s “plan B” all you can do is get on with it.

The ascent was steady, gentle and enjoyable – not fast – but certainly doable. I actually enjoyed myself and started to feel a bit stronger as I continued. At the top were more travelling people with brightly decorated caravans – I upset one of them by taking photographs as I came past. I think I was too close to the horse – sorry about that.

Surely now we had a downhill section? Surely now we could rest a bit? Not really, the B6261 crosses open moorland and follows the contours of the land. At one point this little lane is surrounded by the M6, with the southbound lane to our right and the northbound lane to our left… cycling in the central reservation! And more and more climbing: Dean and Rob had long ago disappeared into the distance but Paul was in the mood to talk and happy to drop down in pace to match mine.

As we approached Penrith, Gordon, Dave and a couple of others caught Paul and I, and we formed a team to use the A6 across Shap, along the main road and down to Penrith where we stopped to grab a quick coffee from the Service Station. There was plenty of banter between Gordon and Dave. Dave’s front light had worked loose, but he didn’t have any tools to fix it. Gordon had tools and lent them to Dave, and in true audaxing spirit teased him about the lack of self-sufficiency.

In Penrith we were joined by two gentlemen on a tandem and upped our pace for the section to the official Control at Exelby Services just outside Carlisle. I had basically been riding with others all the way so far; this was a new experience for me. Most of my audaxes have been lonesome affairs. I’ve not kept with others in a group but this experience of riding along through beautiful countryside for hour after hour with fellow cyclists to keep each other company and to chat about everything and nothing. This was really enjoyable!

At Exelby Services we caught up with Rob and Dean and now had quite a large group. We rested briefly together and agreed to stick as a group on the road at least as far as Lockerbie, this was going to be a night section and we needed lights on.

Riding in a group at night, all lights blazing, loaded with luggage for light touring; I’m sure we looked like something from the past, perhaps from the golden era of cycling when loads of cyclists thought nothing of riding into the night. We were beginning to look out of place as we passed through small towns, passing through Gretna Green, passing pubs with ‘normal’ people drinking, getting drunk and shouting at us as we silently whooshed through.

Nothing had prepared us for the culture shock which awaited in Lockerbie. Aidan had arranged for us to have a Control point at the 24hr Truck Stop. There was food available all day and all night, there were rooms and showers. What we had not expected was a disco. With a Rod Stewart tribute singer. Imagine the scene: two groups of people utterly confused by each other’s presence. Here we are at a Truck Stop in the middle of nowhere. At midnight a bunch of cyclists covered in road grime, sweaty, smelly, tired and with thousand-yard stares arrive at a Truck Stop – a stop for truckers. We are met by a disco, with ‘Rob Stewart’ singing his heart out and loads of people on the dance-floor. It was a meeting of cultures so totally unexpected we simply had to pretend each other didn’t exist!

I had a portion of macaroni cheese. Then I had another plateful. Then a beer. Then a bath. Then I went to bed at 1am and failed to sleep thanks to the noise downstairs. Aidan and Judith; riding the tandem trike arrived and Aidan came up to the room at 1:45am. I finally managed to sleep as I listened to rain and wind batter against the window. My alarm was set for 4am, but I woke naturally at 3:30am, so got up and put some fresh cycling shorts on and headed down for scrambled eggs on toast. Gordon, Dave and Paul had carried on into the night, as had the tandem team: none of them had slept!

I sat slowly trying to wake up properly. My head was fluffy and dozy and I figured the best cure would be to head out into the wind and rain to wake up. Although I had a raincoat and my trusty rain-legs to keep me dry, I had no overshoes. So I put a plastic bag over my socks and then into my shoes, hoping to create a waterproof layer. Aidan was awake, as were Rob and Dean – but I wanted to be alone for this next section. I wanted to ride at my own pace and wake up as I rode.

In the cold morning I felt good wrapped up with lots of layers and waterproof outer garments, but was still fighting off sleep. I relished the rain on my face. I now had the A708 from Dumcrieff to Selkirk to ride, so faced a climb which took me along Moffat Dale and climbing to and beyond the Grey Mare’s Tail Waterfall – this was impressively in full flow.

Beyond Grey Mare’s Tail Waterfall, the road really started to get steeper. Ahead of me I spotted another cyclist; a gentleman on a recumbent. He was looking very tired and didn’t even acknowledge me as I passed and said hello. I was slightly worried that a recumbent looked like a tempting bicycle to fall asleep on while riding. Having said that – it wouldn’t have been possible with the rain pouring down on us both as it was. The rain was now quite heavy now and on the descent from the top I was feeling the cold on my chest.

This lonely ride took me all the way along St Mary’s Loch on Scottish roads, some smooth, some horribly uneven, through Selkirk to Galashiels and another Control point. It was 8:30am and I was ready for a proper breakfast. 444km (286 miles) covered and at this time on a Sunday morning the cafe in the supermarket wasn’t quite open. Dean and Rob and another rider all came in at the same time so we faffed around until 9am when they opened. This was an opportunity to take off my sodden socks, as the plastic bags had not worked. I changed into a dry pair and put fresh plastic bags in my shoes. I added layers of clothing as I cooled down and started to shiver.

Only another 160km (100 miles) left to go. We set off from Galashiels together and while Rob and (I think) Michael from Edinburgh RC found a pace which suited them; Dean and I found a pace that suited us. This audax wasn’t following an easy flat route at all. There have been three versions of the Border Raid, and although this wasn’t the hardest iteration, I was finding the constant choppy up and down exhausting. I didn’t need to try too hard anymore though and settled into a familiar style of riding along with Dean. He was riding a fixed wheel bike as usual and we’ve ridden many miles together, so knew what to expect from each other. We were enjoying the countryside too. More wonderfully beautiful scenery. Eventually we spotted the sea and Holy Island was before us.

We had now turned south and were following the coast to Seahouses and a final Control before the finish. With a choice between quiet little hilly country lanes, and a short fast blast down the A1, we opted for the A1: it wasn’t a long section, the road surface was buttery smooth and wide. Traffic wasn’t very heavy. In no time we reached the Bamburgh turn-off and back onto isolated lanes.

In Seahouses we stopped for Fish and Chips: and it was excellent! Not only was the quality good, but the food reached our table before we did – we ordered and paid at the counter while a waitress took our food to where we planned to sit. Brilliant service! Rob and Michael had opted for a cute little cafe and ordered omelette – which seemed to be taking ages and gave us material for banter on the ride away from Seahouses.

Now there was merely 66km (41 miles) left down through Warkworth and Morpeth to Kirkley, but with a strong headwind we found it easier to stay together.

We were determined to stick together and finish as a group; Rob had spent a significant amount of time on the front of every group he’d ridden with and it was only right to give him any shelter he wanted on the final roads. Our spirits were high as we accelerated towards the end. With a kilometre to go we were fairly racing along the approach to Kirkley. We finished at 5:30pm; 35 hours 30 minutes after starting. A warm welcome awaited! Complimentary coffee and cake, hero stories and room to collapse. Tim and family really helped us to unwind and Anne had ridden out to meet us.

I look back on this and remember the most sociable audax I’ve ever done. I remember feeling utterly exhausted and wondering what I was doing. Sections of road that were 50km long. Hills I struggled up and hills I flew up. Exhaustion and exhilaration.

600km audaxes are not easy. Why do them? I’m not sure I can answer that question – but as I sit at home, intermittently falling asleep on the sofa and looking out the window at the wind blowing in the trees I realise that I feel different. I feel more aware of my vulnerability. I feel more aware of the environment; both the risks of being out alone and unprotected, and the depths we can go in our own strength while still being okay. Discovering how alive I feel.

Oh and by the way… I did get a pint in:
The Hermitage Inn (Warkworth) sells a mean pint of Jennings Cumberland!

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