Over the weekend Julie and I decided to give our Transcontinental bike and kit set-up a decent trial run on the Hot Trod 400km Audax which starts north west of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and heads out west into the Scottish Borders and over to Lockerbie, before heading north east to Moffat and along the Tweed valley to Peebles. Finally heading back into England via Cornhill-on-Tweed and down to Morpeth.
It was Julie’s first 400km audax and, understandably, she was a bit apprehensive. 400s are never easy, even after you’ve got a few under your belt and you know what’s coming. A 300 can be completed in a (long) day, even if it’s a tough one and you’re a slow rider but with a 400 the time allowance is 27 hours, so unless you’re a super-speedy rider, you’re almost certainly going to be riding into the dark and possibly all the way through to the following dawn.
The Hot Trod starts at Kirkley Cycles, a farm that also happens to be a great little bike workshop and cafe around 10 miles north-west of Newcastle. It’s a 400 with a few differences and it bills itself as a great ‘first time’ 400 event.
First up, it starts at a very civilized 9.30am which, on the surface, sounds great but starting late start also means finishing late. The 27-hour time limit equates to a cut-off time of 12.30pm the following day. As it usually takes me around 23 to 24 hours to finish a 400, that meant a finish time of around 9.30am the following morning, riding all through the night, and with heavy kit on the bikes it could be even longer. However, the second difference is that the Hot Trod provides a rest stop with an option to sleep at the 314km mark in Cornhill-on-Tweed Village Hall. Most 400s don’t provide a sleep option because they start at 6am and riders are expected to push on through to finish in the early hours of the next day.
The route is very straightforward to follow as it sticks to major roads for much of the time. This could be a problem in many parts of the UK but up in the Borders there aren’t really that many roads to choose from and most of them are pretty quiet. The route has also been very well thought out so that the A-roads that are likely to carry more traffic are tackled early in the morning or late at night for the majority of riders.
We travelled up to Newcastle by train on the Friday afternoon and rode the 15km to our overnight bunkhouse accommodation at Houghton North Farm in the village of Heddon-on-the-Wall. After a quick wander around the village to find the eponymous ‘wall’ we retired to The Swan for a bit of carb-loading with a giant sized portion of fish and chips plus pudding.
After a very early night we were up early to pedal the 10 miles up to Kirkley. We’d arrived with a good 45 minutes to spare and the cafe was open early so, after signing in, a couple of strong cappuccinos were ordered to help us start the ride with a bit of a caffeine kick.
Around 50 riders had signed up for the event and we bumped into lots of friendly faces. John Rowe and his mate from Stocksbridge CC were riding as well as John, Ian and Gordon who I met when we all rode the PBP with back in 2015. Audax, especially the longer distance events, is quite a small world really so you’ll often end up bumping to the same bunch of people throughout the year.
At 9.30 we were set off by the race organiser and the 50 or so riders were soon dispersed along the B-road that led us over to the A696, so Julie and I were pretty much riding alone from the off. After around 20km we were caught up by a group of riders from the VC167 club including my mate Gordon so we had a bit of a chat with them (mainly about our new Rapha bib-shorts and comparisons with Asos!).
Julie and I had a bit of a game plan as our bikes were fully-loaded with our TCR kit and were very heavy, so we wanted to pace ourselves at a steady 20km an hour, limiting our stops to 30 minutes, and ride alone rather than get caught up in a group and ride at someone else’s pace, so when the group stopped to put on rain jackets we carried on down the road although they soon caught us up and passed us on the steady climb up Carter Bar and the Scottish border.
It had been drizzling slightly all the way through Kielder up to the border, where we stopped to take the obligatory stop of the bikes by the border stone, but as soon as we crossed into Scotland and turned on to the A6088 to Hawick it was like someone had turned the hose on and the rain came down hard, stinging our eyes and causing us to be more cautious on the descents. Thankfully my old and slightly worse-for-wear Endura waterproof did what it does best and kept my core dry but hands and feet were not so lucky. I’ve really put that poor waterproof through it’s paces over the past three years but it’s never let me down.
Eventually the rain eased off but not before we were completely soaked. By the time we arrived in Hawick, the second control and first major stop at 89km we’d more or less dried out except for our very wet and cold hands and feet. I’d decided not to bother with bringing any overshoes as it was just more weight to pack but I was starting to regret that decision.
Morrison’s supermarket cafe had been suggested by the race organiser and as we pedaled into the car park and saw all the bikes leaned up against the shop window it looked like everyone had followed his advice. We arrived at 1.30pm – the height of lunchtime for hungry Saturday shoppers – so the queue was long and service was pretty slow-going but we managed to get fed and out within 45 minutes.
After Hawick the route took a turn on to the scenic and deserted B711 and despite the overcast skies and on-and-off showers the landscape was beautiful. Eventually we turned south on to the B709 and climbed steadily, following the the course of the river Ettrick Water upstream to the village of Ettrick. As we started to descend into Eskdalemuir I noticed lots of brightly coloured flags fluttering in the distance by the roadside. As we got closer we were greeted by the very surreal sight of a golden buddha sat in the middle of a pond. We learned that was the Kagyu Samye Ling Buddhist Monastery. This was the first Buddhist monastery to be set up in the West and it’s pretty easy to see why they chose this beautiful, quiet valley to host their retreat.
At Eskdalemuir we turned onto the B723 which was to take us into Lockerbie and the next control stop. We got caught in yet another rain shower on the way down and by time we arrived in the town it was 6pm and we were wet, cold and hungry. We stopped at a cashpoint to get a control receipt and Julie’s hands were so cold that she couldn’t manipulate her fingers to use the machine. The recommended food stop, Lockerbie Truck Stop, was still another 7km up the road.
We piled into the warm and welcoming truck stop cafe and ordered two massive portions of food and steaming mugs of strong tea. A lot of the other riders were in there so we all had a good old moan about the weather and lined our gloves, socks and buffs across the radiators. The lorry drivers didn’t really bat an eyelid but I bet they all thought we were completely bonkers.
We left around 7.15pm and headed up the road to Moffat which wasn’t an official control but was our last chance to stock up on nibbles before the climb up and over the Devil’s Beef Tub, or to use it’s far duller name, the A701, to the next control at Peebles. The sun was starting to set as we reached the top of the climb and started the long descent along the Tweed Valley and the sunset through the stormy rain clouds reflected up from the puddles making the roads glow with pink light.
By the time we reached the valley bottom it was starting to get dark. I often find the time between dusk and proper nightfall the hardest time to ride through. It’s not completely dark but not light enough to really make anything out. My eyes don’t seems to adjust very well and it’s harder to see the road surface ahead even with good bike lights. My pace always slows down at this point and this night was no exception. Peebles never seemed to get any closer and we finally arrived in the town at a few minutes to 11pm.
We found a group of riders huddled outside a McColls which was planning on closing at 11pm. We quickly leaned the bikes against the shop window and rushed in but once in there we were both so tired and disoriented that we didn’t really know what to buy. It didn’t matter really, I just needed some sugar and a receipt so I bought a packet of Jelly Babies and a large bottle of Coke. Outside I realised that Julie had decided to leave without buying anything and by then they wouldn’t let her back in to get a receipt, so while I fumbled with my supplies and downed half the Coke, Julie went in search of a cashpoint.
Peebles and the 18 miles to Galashiels was probably the low point of the ride for me. I had a real dip in energy, Julie was riding a good 200m ahead and I just couldn’t muster the energy to try to to catch her up. I rode with a friendly Welsh guy for a while and he spurred me on to Galashiels where we found an all-night garage with a toilet and a Costa coffee machine – heaven! It’s amazing just how much a warm building with a toilet and rubbish coffee can perk you up at 1 in the morning.
Now it was proper dark and we had around 30km to go to the rest stop at Cornhill. The route out of town was well-lit on a main road with street lights almost all the way to Kelso which made the going a bit easier. The coffee had perked us both up and we were doing alright. After Kelso the roads were unlit again but by now in the total darkness my eyes had adjusted to it and I’d settled into a good rhythm. We were joined for a while again by the VC167 group and we hung on the back for as long as we could before their red tailights disappeared into the distance.
At the village of Cornhill it took us ages to find the control as the village hall was tucked away on a side street and we were getting a bit flustered in our tired state and kept missing the turn. The sky was just starting to get light again when we eventually arrived at 3.15am. Once inside, we had our cards validated and were offered a macaronie pie and baked beans. We sat down at the long table with a big group of riders, most of them from VC167. We were all in good spirits considering we’d all been awake for a very long time and were kept entertained by Gordon and his banter. Wet socks, shoes and gloves were removed and piled up on the radiators to dry.
The Cornhill control was at 314km so Julie and I figured that we could get our heads down for an hour and wait for a bit more daylight before heading off on the last 90kms which we’d reckoned on covering in around five hours. And, seeing as we’d carried our sleeping bags and bivvys all the way around the route it was time that we put them to good use! Even though we were indoors I couldn’t be bothered to pull the sleeping bag out of the bivvy and just crawled inside the lot, which meant I’d totally overheated in the next five minutes and had to start wriggling around like a demented caterpillar removing bits of clothing while inside.
I’m not sure that I slept really but Julie was convinced she’d heard me snoring, anyway just being horizontal for an hour was a welcome rest. We were up again at 5am and after a bit of breakfast we thanked the lovely support crew for their help and were out of the door by 5.30am to be greeted by a beautiful, sunny morning.
The route back south was very straightforward, along the rolling A697 which skirts the edge of Northumberland National Park, through Wooler and on to Morpeth. However, to make up the distance there was a final info control at Ulgham which meant that we turned off the A-road at Longframlington and back on to the B-roads. these proved to have a sting in the tail with a couple of short 10% hills on poor road surfaces – not exactly pleasant on tired legs and one hour’s sleep. Along the route we caught up with a father and son pair. The little lad was only 13 – what an amazing achievement to ride 400km through the night at that age and what a great bonding experience to have with your dad.
By the time we hit Morpeth around 9.30am we were very glad to be on the home stretch. Up to this point the roads had been very quiet but there was a bit of traffic in the town centre and a couple of pretty impatient drivers in 4x4s made our lives a bit difficult on the climb back out of the town. The final stretch of road back to Kirkley was into a slight headwind and it felt really tough. I have to say that the Brevet shorts that we’d been given by Rapha had held up really well but no shorts are ever going to feel pleasant after you’ve had them on for 24 hours and 395km so we were getting up out of the saddle quite a bit at this point to ease the pressure points. After a quick glance at our watches we realised that we could just about get in before 10am if we picked up the pace for the last couple of kms, so we managed to find a bit of extra from somewhere and made it back to the farm gate by 9.57am, 24 and a half hours after we’d started.
We were warmly welcomed back by the VC167 crew and cafe staff, very tired but very happy with our time and satisfied that the kit we’d carried with us had done the trick. After a good hours rest with big mugs of tea and bacon (me) and fish finger (Julie) sandwiches we were back on the bikes to Newcastle and on the train to Sheffield.
We’d both had our low points on the ride, sometimes at the same time but not always. We’d battled the lousy Scottish weather and got horribly soaked but we’d cycled through some stunning scenery on deserted roads that were still beautiful despite the cloudy, heavy skies. We ate our own body weight in junk food and shared the road with friendly, supportive riders – and that’s what audaxes are all about.
I enjoyed it so much, I’m already thinking about going back to do it next year.