The National 400. A 400km Audax from Fife to the Cairngorms and back. July 8th 2000.
Long before the cutoff date of 23rd of June, I'd sent off my 8 pounds to Lorraine Brown of the Fife & Kinross DA and began my preparations for the CTC's National 400. Well, my training consisted of cycling to work, a round trip of 26 miles and a couple of weekend day rides. Nothing more than a hundred K. I'd done the "12th tour of East Lothian" 100km in February, a week's cycling round the islands at Easter and the "Covenanters' Trail" 100km in May, I think. Then I'd cycled over to a friend's BBQ, over the Campsies and struggled back over the high road with a bellyful of grub and apŽritifs! Then, with a week to go, I was nervous and agitated. I couldn't get the 400 out of my mind. What would it be like? It was twice as far as I'd gone before. Could I do it?
I checked the bike and left around 11am bound for Fordell Firs near Inverkeithing. I was going fine until almost there when the police closed the road and I got lost in Dunfermline, ended up in Cowdenbeath and eventually made it, with a violent left swerve into the hidden entrance around 12:30. Parked the car and got my ticket for the bike check - lights and mudguards and lazed around the car waiting for the start. This is always the worst part of an Audax. Getting there early and lying around doing nothing! 96 riders were for the off and we left in 28 groups, with me and another chap in the last group. Move up to the checkers, flash lights and show mudguards, wait for it, wait for it, and we were off, at 2:27. The police were holding the traffic for us out of Fordell Firs and we waved him in thanks as we sped off up the hill with a tailwind, past a white stretch limo. The hill up to Crossgates was remarkably easy and I soon realised I had a tailwind, which lasted for the next 200km to Stonehaven!
Unfortunately it had also started to rain and that continued all the way to Stonehaven too! I was going the usual twenty-odd speed at the start and caught up with a sole rider just before Kelty and together we puffed up the Hill of Beath and joined a larger group of cyclists and ambled along at a nice pace. I was determined not to make my usual mistakes, like not eating\drinking properly and going too fast at the start and so I decided to stick with the group even though they were taking the hills quite slowly. I soon got used to it and the pace suited me in the end.
It was in this group that our little peleton became acquainted - myself, Steve, a chap from Gateshead, John from Liverpool and a lady whose name I forget but will forever be grateful to for showing me how to pace myself! The four of us cycled together across the Cleish Hills, with the roar of the Knockhill track filling the air, on up through Powmill, Rumbling Bridge and Yetts of Muckhart to Glen Devon and the gentle wooded climb up to the watershed and the long downhill through Gleneagles. It was raining steadily but I didn't really notice it after a while as we were all talking away merrily. Myself and John were 400 first timers and we kept asking the old hands the tricks of the trade. Anyway, we soon rolled into the quiet village of St. David's and the village hall packed full of steaming cyclists, hot mugs of tea and tons of rolls! A pound got you a mug of tea, a roll, piece of cake and a banana - value or what! I had seconds before we were off again, on the 42 miles to Forfar. We were generally following the line of Strathmore and the roads were long and straight, mostly flat and of course we still had our tailwind so we made good time through the rain to Forfar. In the distance the Sidlaw Hills were swathed in cloud and the trees swayed gently in the strong breeze blowing from the south west.
It was on this stage that we were joined by another group, swelling our numbers to about a dozen and with the tailwind we were hurtling along at a fair old pace. I couldn't tell what speed we were going as my computer had packed in at 30 miles due to the rain but we sped past rural cottages with the occupants sitting down to dinner or lazing in front of the telly. They all looked up, some stood up and stared as our chattering gaggle flew past their front window! Normal people doing normal evening things. Wonder what they thought of us. This was one of best moments on the trip. Because of the tailwind the only sound, even at this speed, was the babble of conversation up and down the group, cycling two abreast, with the spirr of chains and the whirr of spokes providing the background music. This was cycling at it's best and it seemed a shame to split the group up when we reached Forfar. Ah, but many were the miles we still had to go.
Around 8:30 we reached the big hall in Forfar and I settled down to two plates of soup and some more tea. Again we didn't stop long, just enough to stock up on fuel and off into the gathering dusk towards Montrose. It must have stopped raining by now because I put my shades on as the night air cooled a little. The ride to Montrose was mostly on a downwards trend and we caught the last of the watery sunset on the steely grey waters of the Montrose Basin before speeding over the bridge and through this quaint coastal town. Quite nice in fact. Stopped here to note the answer to the info control and turn on lights for the hilly section to Stonehaven. It seemed to be mostly uphill, with a long line of flashing red LEDs disappearing into the mist which had descended to cover the highest part of the road. I was surprised at how quiet the road was and it was nice to cycle next to the sea, even though it was barely visible in the gloom of the murky night.
We had a parody of the Tour de France going through Inverbervie. You know, where crowds of well wishers and fans line the streets and dispense drinks and encouragement. Well, we were treated to the sight of Saturday night drunks clinging to lampposts and staggering down the street, cheering and clapping as we cycled past! It's culture Jim, but not as we know it! Finally reached the top of the last hill and sped down into Stonehaven and the scout hut for a baked potato with tuna and beans, coffee for the night section and some cake and banana. Someone had reported glass at the mini roundabout up the road, the work of more drunks no doubt but forewarned is forearmed. It was on with the race cap under the helmet, on with the lights - one steady LED and two flashers on the back, a flasher on the helmet, a yellow flasher on the front and a Cateye halogen as well, which I only used two or three times when we hit tree lined parts of the route. Off into the night, we headed for the Slug road and the high Cairngorms. The rain had stopped and the wind had died completely. The sky was almost black but not quite. In fact, to the north it was still silvery high in the atmosphere and stayed that way all night. The Slug climbed higher and higher, but at a nice easy gradient and I settled into a relaxing rhythm, muscles working perfectly after the first 200km and my body used to the continual aerobic excerise. Senses alerted by the anticipation of my first "all nighter".
The three of us stopped en masse for a pee and a quick look at the map and an owl hooted from darkness, the sound carrying easily on the still night air. Mildly warm and midge free. I couldn't quite tell what the gradient was now as it was too dark to see the road, but not dark enough to have to use the Cateye, though I had the front flasher on which helped when local farmers' trucks met us head on without dipping their main beams. This happened two or three times. What's up with these people? Anyway, we hit some steep uphills, enough to get me honking in the black and racing down the other side, Cateye blazing a narrow beam, swinging from side to side for the sheer fun of it. Going through an avenue of dense forest, the beam the only light, I felt detached from everything. I was the bike and the beam followed my every twist and turn of my body. Man and machine in perfect harmony. This was travelling. Eventually we neared Strachan after passing through some freezing cold mist down in the glen which started my knees creaking a bit but the pull out of the village soon warmed them up again and it wasn't too long before we pulled into Aboyne and possibly the poshest place I've ever parked my bike, at the village hall. A friendly chap met us as we arrived and directed us round the back with the bikes and I felt a bit guilty at letting go a gigantic ripper of a fart! It always happens after a few hours of climbing. I get bunged up and it exits explosively when I come off the bike! The hall was amazing inside, very warm, wood lined and full of Auks in various stages of relaxation and sleep! The only thing I didn't take to was the array of stags' heads round the walls. I rather prefer to see them on the real thing thanks very much. Anyway, another friendly chap was sitting doing the crossword and also dishing out tickets to people with their name on and time of awakening. The aforementioned people would then disappear up the steps to the curtained off area of the stage and lie down under a blanket for some shut eye. I had some toast and beans and took my ticket for a half hour rest, my time being 4am to be wakened. I walked up the steps into what looked like a morgue - about twenty odd Auks were lying on their backs, some under blankets, some without but all with a ticket at their feet announcing their name and wake up time (or was it time of demise?!) The blankets had run out but I didn't care and the hard floor felt like crushed velvet after so many hours in the saddle. Steve lay down and wrapped the curtain round his head! I lay down next to a gently purring Auk and dozed fitfully until the awakener roused me at 4am. I felt a bit better after that and we collected our gear from the radiator, checked our moving parts to see if they could still move and we tottered past the giant switching gear in it's glass case out into the cool morning air and forced complaining bums onto complaining saddles and wobbled off into the grey morning.
It was now light, and the glen was filled with a gloomy mist rising half way up the wooded hillsides. After a few steep bits we soon reached the flat part of the route and our greatest hardship now was trying not to fall asleep and come crashing off the bike into the dew wet grass by the roadside! It's a lovely part of the country but at 5am, weary and bleary eyed, all we noticed was the rough surface and bounding monotony of straight lines of trees. The summits were cloaked in thick mist but the high corries looked inviting, just right for a nice heathery bed and a snoozeÉwhoa, watch it, quick shake of the headÉupright again and we're at Braemar.
The place was dead as it was about 6am and I gorged on all sorts of goodies in the village hall, had a quick splash of water on my face and lazed around and relaxed while the others caught a ten minute nap. I didn't much feel like a sleep now and with the new day now properly started and a light drizzle refreshing my dreadfully wizened features I felt better and ready for the penultimate section over the Cairnwell.
I considered this section to be the crux as we were to climb to about 2500 feet into a head wind and the forecast was for more rain. Well, here we were, cycling steadily up beside the Clunie Water. The rain was fairly light as was the wind and the morning mists were rolling hauntingly round the summits on either side of the road. It was very pleasant cycling as our group of three, going up the glen, blethering away and watching the deer round the burns, down from the tops, a sure sign of bad weather. I was just getting used to this when we reached the car park at the foot of the climb and I had to suddenly granny down and grind up at 6mph for the next few miles. Yet again my weary legs burst with vigour anew and a climbed steadily all the way to the ski mess at the top of the road. You can walk from here to the summit of a Munro in 45 minutes, the easiest Munro in the country, The Cairnwell. Today, though I didn't fancy it as the wind was now howling over the pass and we experienced that strange phenomenon where one side of the glen is sheltered and dry while the other is open to the full blast of the vicious sou'westerly roaring up the road into our faces. So, I stopped at the top to put my goggles away and batten down the hatches for the long awaited highlight of the ride - the descent of the Cairnwell, the old Devil's Elbow, now straightened into a screaming race track from summit to floor in an unbending ribbon of tarmac. Well, I was expecting 50mph+ here but in the end, due to stinging rain, heavy gusts of wind and suicidal woolly grass munchers half way down I only managed 42mph! Oh, and got well and truly soaked into the bargain. It peed most of the way to Blairgowrie, along the humpy route with it's abundance of tourist coaches. I passed Jack Eason on one of the uphills as I employed my usual tactic of pedaling like crazy down one side, clinging to the bars for dear life and hurtling up the other side, honking in top gear until I had to fall back onto the saddle and into the grannies before repeating the procedure on the next downhill\uphill combination! I'm sure it doesn't get me anywhere quicker but it sure cuts out the grind of the steep hills! We rolled into Blairgowrie just as the heavens opened but we didn't care as we took shelter inside, paid our two-fifty for all you can eat and I downed two plates of soup, a cheese omelette, a plate of trifle and two mugs of coffee! Then yet another friendly chap appeared behind me and proceeded to give my seized neck a stiff massage. Ooh, what a relief. I could move my neck again!
We had a good rest here and regrouped after losing one of our number on the Cairnwell. We were going to wait at the top but it was wild and cold and the bottom wasn't much better and the distinct lack of shelter forced us on to the control. So, we piled outside into a downpour of tropical proportions (tropical in the quantity department, not the humidity one!) and negotiated the traffic out of town and on towards Perth. We covered this part of the route in what seemed like no time at all, belting along in an expanded group of half a dozen until I had to shout "stopping" and pulled up for a pee. This meant racing for about ten minutes to catch the group up again. I was determined to finish with them as three of us had stuck together for the whole route. Steve navigated easily through Perth, past the court building where my friend works, defending the "down on their luck" drug dealing fraternity of the "Fair City" and out along the riverside and up the steep climb past the prison. All in teeming rain. The next few miles were misery though, on long, straight and busy roads. In teeming rain. Eventually though, the traffic all veered off onto the motorways and we were left to climb the long incline of the wooded glen up to Glenfarg in the mist and torrential downpour. Just as we reached the foot of the glen, the chap who had paced us from Perth dropped to the back and I took my turn at the front and we plodded gracefully up the hill, after hill, after hill.
By now my arse was raw and I took to honking in a high gear just to get some relief and blood back into the nether regions, despite the two pairs of padded shorts! The rain was incredible now and I was getting sprayed from the chap in front. One thing I learned was that those great big flaps some people have on their back mudguard might look dreadful but they're sheer luxury when you're cycling behind someone who has one! You don't get ANY spray. You do get spray from normal flapless mudguards. Take my word for it.
Eventually we breached the gloom and crested Glenfarg, rattled down the other side and sped on our way to Kinross. Well, what a hell hole that place was. I'm sure it's not always like that but today it was just sheer bloody misery. T in the park was a muddy quagmired washout and thousands of pop pickers were jamming the rutted and broken roads, clogging up the roundabouts and screaming past our little bunch, strung out in a line for safety. I've never understood this and I challenge any motorist to explain it to me in non-moronic terms to my satisfaction - why oh why do these pillocks insist on blaring their horns before zooming past in the middle of the wrong side of the road, aiming straight at an oncoming vehicle. Is it because they think they've got right of way when they're overtaking a bike? Do they do this when overtaking another car? Quick blast on the horn and swerve into the path of oncoming traffic with carefree abandon? "It's OK I've blared my horn so I have full use of the entire road surface". Do they hell. My theory is they're just brainless twatts who deserve to hit a brick wall at a speed which will ensure a not too hasty hospital discharge. They're just another of the 3P hazard system - Potholes, Peds and Pillocks!
We went off route towards the end and ended up in Cowdenbeath, in the rain. Then headed for Crossgates and the final downhill to the finish. The road was fair flooded in places but it was now downhill all the way, for about a mile and we all braked in unison and swerved en masse to the left, off the public road system and into Fordell Firs. I whooped with delight and honked up the final wee rise to the big barn, parked my trusty steed and triumphantly stepped inside. From wet to dry, cold to steamy! Well, that was it. My first 400km, and in 24 hours exactly too! I had soup and a blether with my new found writer friend, collected my picture in which I was snapped cycling out of the start with another cyclist who turned out to be Robert Webb and we said our goodbyes, promising to meet up on another Audax if we saw each other. I slept for a full twelve hours that night and the next day it dawned on me what I'd actually done. 240 miles in 24 hours. Twice as far as I'd gone before and I felt fine at the finish. So fine in fact that I'm planning my SR series for next year! In truth though, what made me feel fine after such a long period of constant cycling was the sheer professionalism of the organisers. They were utterly fantastic. Cheery to the last. From the ladies dishing out tea at St. Davids to the kitchen crews at Stonehaven and Aboyne processing weary cyclists and giving sterling words of encouragement, relaying hazard warnings from further up the route. I'll always be indebted to the chap who gave my neck a massage at Blairgowrie and the staff there were superb, personally serving us at our tables as we sat, propped on chairs at crazy angles and spooning grub down our thrapples like a scene from Night of the Living Dead! Every ounce of praise these people got they earned and deservedÉand more! I'll be doing next year's National 400. I just hope the organisation is as good as this one.