Every year, Audax UK throws its weight behind a “National 400k”. It started about 20 years ago, and I’m not sure why the 400km distance was selected, although it’s a good test of your average audaxer, requiring some night riding and possibly an overnight rest stop. There was one year recently where we had a whole range of “National” rides: 200k, 300k, 400k and 600k, but the 400 has always been the main one. This year it was an event out of Dingwall, near Inverness, taking in some of the most scenic roads in the very north of Scotland. It was scheduled for the end of July, so an ideal time for me to be testing myself and my PBP kit and also a good way to celebrate my 51st birthday just a few days before.
Work had gone a bit crazy lately and I couldn’t take much time off so I drove up on the Friday to a Youth Hostel in Inverness. A long drive, which I wasn’t looking forward to on the Sunday later.
Saturday dawned clear and crisp and while the rest of the country was battling storms and rain we were blessed with fine weather, albeit a little chilly – I had long sleeve tops on and legwarmers, in July. Some riders were only in jerseys and shorts but maybe they were a bit hardier than me and I was certainly not keen to have my achilles tendons twanging in the cold air. Off the 10am start I had a leisurely hour or so, jumping through a few groups and chatting to some familiar faces. We had a bit of a shower along here, the only rain we had all weekend, and then to the first control at Lairg. After that the roads quickly became even more rural – single track, snaking between magnificent hills and mountains. We were climbing and descending, but mainly following the valleys and the lochs. You’d often go an hour or more without seeing anything more than the odd isolated farmhouse or two. I saw a couple of snow patches up high too – a sign that this hasn’t been the best Scottish summer this year.
After the next control at Achfary, our route took us on a long excursion around the north-west coast, through some spectacular coastal scenery and on to the rollercoaster road to Tongue where I stopped for a hot plate of pasta and Bolognese. The catering on this event was second-to none. We’d paid a bit more than the usual Audax entry fee, and everything was thrown in – I didn’t spend a penny all ride:
As I was sitting down to eat my meal, four or five other riders rolled in. I was keen to keep moving and although the next section was constantly up and down and quite wearing, the views across sandy beaches and headlands more than made up for it.
Eventually, after another control at Strathy where I was surprised to find Phil Dyson (from just down the road from me in Didcot but here in Scotland on holiday) ready to stamp my brevet card, we turned inland, across shallow moorland territory. The sun was setting and adding vibrant colour to the sky and the land. Deer scampered across the road in front of me and others watched my passing from high on hilltops around. There was quite a bit of standing water here and I was aware that midges were in the air all around me – I’d better not tarry too long (although I had a midge net in my saddlebag in case I needed to stop)!
I rolled into the hall at Kildonan, and quickly scarpered inside – midges were everywhere. It was nice to stop for a cuppa and some delicious trifle before heading out to tackle the hard climb, south out of the control. This climb, over a place called Glen Loth I think, was the hardest of the route (it’s the spike at 300k on the map profile) and it was good to be able to tackle it in a little bit of daylight to be able to see the rough surface although by the time I struggled to the very top it was dark. The descent on the other side was also uneven, and covered in sheep! I couldn’t afford to take too many risks, they can be unpredictable beasts. Eventually the lane popped out on to the main A9 and I had a smoother passage through Brora (a fair was still going strong) and then Golspie (where I had to put on a bit of a sprint to avoid being snared by the drunks turning out of the pubs).
The route took a right turn shortly after on to the A839, back to Lairg. This road was coated in the roughest tar-and-chip surface I’ve ridden in a long time, and it just sapped all your speed, so I was very happy when I eventually made it to the last little descent into Lairg and a welcome cuppa, at about 12:30am. I didn’t wait too long here, ready to nip outside with an extra layer on for the cold night ride to come. That last section, back to Bonar Bridge and over the Struie, was freezing cold. Rain had clearly fallen earlier and now it was rising from the road in great swathes of fog and mist. My headlight was just reflecting back. It wasn’t until I was on the lower road and heading for Dingwall that I started to feel more comfortable.
I rolled into the finish hall just before 3:30am, to a welcome cuppa and a bacon sandwich. After getting changed I headed upstairs to the quiet room to get a few hours kip before the long drive home. It’d been quite a ride – some amazing views and some fantastic roads. I hope it won’t be too long before I return (and hopefully just as lucky with the weather!).
Strava data is HERE, map of the route and altitude profile: