I hadn’t planned to do another 600 between last month’s Tour of the Borders and Galloway, and PBP next month. However, when my friend Dave suggested we do The Border Raid I figured it would be good to get some more miles in before the big one.
This was a challenging ride in lots of ways. Plenty of highs, plenty of lows, but at just over 400 miles it was my longest ride to date.
We set off from Dave’s house in Newcastle at about 5.25am, to ride to the start at Ponteland. I got a puncture before we even got there, so we started the official route at 6.15am, 15 minutes behind the rest.
The route took west across the country towards Dumfries on the Military Road, close to Hadrian’s Wall. It’s home territory and very familiar, but I wasn’t looking forward to this stretch as I knew a headwind and heavy showers were likely. The Military Road is very exposed and can be really hard if you’re riding into the wind. It was actually a lot better than I expected, the wind wasn’t strong and we made good time, meeting some fellow audaxers along the way. We got to Longtown at around 10am – I got some hummus, oatcakes, peanuts and a can of coke from the Spar.
After Longtown the wind picked-up, and showers were frequent and heavy. But it was warm, and we soon dried-out when we got wet. Just after Gretna I punctured again. I could see that a small tear in my tyre was causing the issue, but thankfully I had brought a spare tyre with me (smug feeling at having been well prepared!).
We arrived in Dumfries at lunchtime, but just as we rolled into the town my chain snapped. Again, I got to feel a bit smug at having brought some extra links and a chain tool, so after a rather messy repair we were able to continue. We found a Halfords where I bought two new tubes and new chain (just in case).
Then came one of the highlights of the ride – discovering The Frothy Bike Co cafe. Everything about this place was perfect – bike parking inside the cafe, usb ports to charge devices next to where we sat, and amazing food. I had the special of the day which was a super food salad with beetroot pakora and mint raita that had been made with vegan yoghurt. That was followed-up by a seeded vegan scone. It’s like someone designed my perfect cafe stop.
The next 75k from Dumfries to Newton Stewart was hard work. The headwind was relentless but we pressed-on and kept up a decent pace, taking turns to sit on the front. These were mainly new roads to me as we rode through Galloway Forest Park – it was kinda hilly, but quiet and really beautiful.
It felt like the headwind was never going to stop, but we got to Newton Stewart in good spirits, and it was good to sit down outside the Co-op for more hummus and oatcakes. From Newton Stewart we were heading north, so the wind became less problematic. I started to flag a bit, but a caffeine gel helped give me the boost I needed to get me to Girvan – the most westerly point of this ride. The view coming over the hill and down into Girvan was stunning. I love the Firth of Clyde, having lived on the Isle of Cumbrae for a while. Girvan is right opposite the moody looking uninhabited island of Ailsa Craig, which I had never seen so closely before. We found the ‘Auld Acquaintance’ cafe in Girvan for some dinner. The very friendly owners made us a veggie biriyani and made us feel very welcome.
From Girvan we headed back east towards the regular audax stopping point of Lockerbie Lorry Park. East – that means tailwind, right? Well, no, not really. The sun had gone down and the wind had dropped. Sure, there was no longer a headwind, but there was not much to blow us along.
The next six hours were probably the hardest of the ride. The road surface in South Ayrshire was dreadful, we were tired and the terrain was a bit lumpy. All in all this meant that progess was slow, and I felt very disheartened to realise that we were going slower than we had been when we had the headwind. There was also the worry that we might run out of water – there are basically no night-time facilities for 130k. Somewhere east of Dalrymple my chain snapped again.
The low-points of a long ride can be hard to manage, especially at night time when you’re in the middle of nowhere. A few things helped me to feel better. The first was having to stop and replace the chain – I don’t really know why this helped, but it broke up the monotany a bit. The second was finding a pub open at about 1am to fill up our water bottles. The third was adjusting the angle of my saddle. It had been pointing slightly downwards, which made me naturally want to lean forward and have my hands on the drops all the time. As a result my legs were a bit squashed and were not working very efficiently. Once I straightened it out and found a more upright seating position I felt a lot better.
I think we got to Lockerbie at around 4.30pm, Dave wasn’t in great spirits. We had a bit to eat (beans on toast) and chatted about what to do. I wanted to get some sleep, he decided he was going to call it a day. Another audaxer kindly offered me the room which he had been sleeping in, and Dave managed to blag a lift back to Newcastle.
I slept for an hour and three-quarters, and woke feeling a lot better. I had clean clothes to put on (helpful bag-drop service on this event) and the sun was up. For breakfast I had four Weetabix onto which I poured some Alpro chocolate soya milk – sounds weird but it worked!
I set off solo just before 8am, 220k to go. It was a beautiful morning. I was feeling refreshed, and the wind was picking-up from the west, blowing me up ‘Grey Mare’s Tail’, past St Mary’s Loch and down to Selkirk. I got to Melrose at about lunchtime, and stopped for some excellent food at the Greenhouse Cafe – avocado on sourdough toast and a dairy-free smoothie.
The tailwind continued, and I felt good riding to Kelso and then Wooler. Immediately after Wooler I learned an important lesson – read the routesheet, don’t just rely on the GPS track. There was a mistake on the GPS, it took me up a seriously steep climb (0.7k, 13.5% average, 26% max) and then down a long off-road stretch through some fields. I wasn’t happy about that bit. The next couple of hours to Alnwick were really hard. This is a lumpy bit of Northumberland, tired legs were struggling.
At Alnwick my Garmin decided to crash and I had to restart it. The result, as you can see, was a long straight line all the way from Lockerbie. Damn it.
I had a falafel and hummus wrap and some veggie spring rolls from the Co-op in Alnwick and then checked the train times. My plan was to cycle to Prudhoe from Ponteland to get the train home. There was a train at 8.17pm – less the four hours away. Do-able, but tight.
After the not-insignificant-climb out of Alnwick the roads to Ponteland are fairly level. However the wind was now coming from the south, and I was in a hurry. I went hard for the next two hours, keen not to miss that train. Four miles before the finish my new chain snapped, the quick-link had sheared in two. I got it fixed in about five minutes and carried on to the end, getting back to Ponteland at about 7.15pm. After quickly checking-in at the finish I set off for Prudhoe. I couldn’t remember exactly how far it was, so had to push my tired body to make sure I got there. I made it with about 8 minutes to spare.
What a ride. I’m chuffed to have broken 400 miles for the first time. The wind and issues with the bike made this a real challenge. But it was what all good audaxes are: an adventure.