Author Topic: The National 400 2016  (Read 2038 times)

The National 400 2016
« on: August 05, 2016, 12:53:54 am »
   Peak Performance – The National 400  30-31 July 2016

   Suddenly, it's over.  The event for which we have planned and prepared for over a year has been and gone – in a flash.  Peak Audax's turn at staging the National 400 is now history, when for so long it was the future, full of intriguing problems to be solved: planning a route; securing control venues and volunteers to run them; transporting matresses and blankets and catering requirements around the route; publicising the ride and keeping it publicised.  All to do – and now it's done.
   For me, it was always going to be a high point of the year.  I enjoy helping on events and, having ridden the National a couple of years ago and experienced the excellent work of VC167, I was anxious to return the favour.  My task in the preparations had been to help with the publicity and to that end I placed an article in the Audax magazine Arrivée and had another rather grudgingly accepted and chopped about by Cycle, the magazine of CTC, who this week are called Cycling UK.  As the months went past, devious but simple methods were used to keep the event high on the relevant boards of the internet.
   I live in Rochdale and so my plan had been to ride down the Rochdale Canal to Manchester, take a train to Buxton and then ride from there to the event venue at Biggin near Hartington in the staggering Peak District.  The weather looked like being good for the whole weekend – but not for my ride down the canal.  And so it proved.  It rained steadily for an hour or so as I wove past the huge umbrellas of the anglers, who looked even grimmer than usual.  I had to stop under a bridge to get my over-trousers on and the cobbles at the locks were so greasy and I so cautious that I missed the train I had intended to take.
   Still, I had plenty of time before the next one and turned the interval to good use by learning how to operate the self-service ticket machine, then buying a pasty and coffee, before settling down to do some people-watching.  Manchester Piccadilly is more like an airport than a railway station now, and there is some serious flaunting of wealth to be seen.  This was cast into pathetic relief by the workers of the Trussell Trust, who were trying to encourage travellers to donate to their foodbank collection, with not too much success, it seemed to me.  It's hard to put a hand in your pocket when they are both clasping expensive flight cases or phones.
   Wheeling the bike onto the platform, I was pleased to see that there was still evidence of the earlier appearance of the station, in the ornate ironwork of the train shed pillars and their cuffs, and the ochre and red brickwork around the windows of the outer wall.  I love rail travel and the line from Manchester to Buxton is fascinating.  It is almost a miracle that after only an hour you have been transported across one of the biggest urban-post-industrial sprawls in Britain to the misty and mysterious primeval coral reefs of the Peaks.
   As I rolled out of the station at Buxton, I was feeling hungry again but decided to push on to the superb bookshop at Brierlow Bar, only a few hilly miles away, where there is a café and where I might pick up a Christmas present or two.  I did pick up a couple of books but was disappointed to find that the café has gone hip and only offered drinks and cellophane-wrapped biscuits from Artisania.  I was quietly seething with disappointment (and hunger).  I wanted to say, “Have I got a beard, do I have yellow shoes and a man-bag?!”  But I just kept quiet and ordered a coffee – which was excellent.
   Consoling myself with the knowledge that I could get something to eat at the cycle centre at Parsley Hay on the High Peak Trail, I rode on across the switchback roads to Earl Sterndale.  Climbing the road above the village I was so taken aback by the views of Parkhouse and Chrome Hills across the valley that I had to put a foot down and just gaze.  I suppose, being ancient coral reefs, that it is wrong to call them arrêtes but they certainly remind me of them, sharp ridges thrusting up from the fields, like emerald stegasauruses.  Amazing.
   A few hundred yards of stony cyclo-cross brought me to the current start of the High Peak Trail, where I paused at the gate to remember the late Alan Smith, whom I'd last met at this place.  Pressing on, I exulted in the kaleidoscope of colours in the verges of this old mineral railway.  Purples, yellows, blues and whites studded the grass on either side of the narrow ribbon of crushed aggregate.  Clovers red and white vied with the yellow meadow vetch and cat's ear.  Purple knapweed, blue geraniums and white ox-eye daisies lorded it over the creeping bacon and eggs at their base.   White and pink yarrow pushed through wherever they could find space and later on there were drifts of harebells and the lavender-coloured scabious.  In several places, the magenta spikes of the willowherb towered over the lot of them.
   My progress through God's jewellery took my mind off my hunger but by the time I passed the stone hut (a gift from Croatia on joining the EU – remember that?), at Parsley Hay, I was ready to take advantage of the excellent café.  It was shut.  You wonder at the business sense of some people: four in the afternoon on a sunny holiday Friday and the café is shut.  There may have been a perfectly good reason for it but I was in no mood for charity and stormed past the hordes of cyclists outside the hire shop (still wide open) and onto the junction where the trail splits into two.  I took the westerly, Tissington branch and before long arrived at the village of Biggin.  My total cycling for the day amounted to about thirty miles on varying surfaces and together with the connecting train journey qualified as an expedition.
   I met organisers John Perrin and Mike Wigley sauntering down the road in a pretty untidy fashion and before long we got stuck into the business of setting up the overnight accommodation for the riders who would be trying to sleep in the village hall.  But first there was the magical appearance of that Fairy Godmother's coach of isolated villages – the mobile chip shop.  What I needed was in large letters on the board: cheese pie and chips.  No cheese pie because the proprietor hadn't brought the generator for the microwave.  I began to wonder if I'd got the date wrong and it was really Friday 13th.  But the chips were marvellous and hit the spot – with a hollow clang.
   With the help of arriving riders, we soon had the inflatable beds up in the hall and the catering organised for breakfast.  Leaving John to meet and greet, Mike and I wandered down to the local, The Waterloo, and spent an hour or two talking to some of the riders, including Dean and Dale, who had arrived in the late evening only slightly daunted after riding 200k over the Pennines from County Durham (all stand, please).
   We walked back under a glorious sunset and before long I lay down for what I hoped would be five hours sleep before getting up at 5am to help with the breakfast.  For once the conditions were perfect: I had my own room behind the kitchen, with my sleeping bag on a camp bed kindly provided by John.  If there was any snoring in the main “dortoirs” I didn't hear it and nobody slammed doors.  I didn't sleep for a second.  Was it the beer?  Or the adrenalin?  Who knows?
   There was a real buzz before the départ.  There were so many riders I knew and so many that I was seeing for the first time.  We had entrants from Scotland, Cornwall, Cumbria, the South East.  There were at least two tandems, a trike, a Moulton and Robert Webb's beautiful Pashley, surely one of the only machines ever to have been constructed out of a single piece of lead.  After all the efforts and anxieties it was gratifying to send over 120 riders off to ride what I knew to be a magnificent route and on such a beautiful morning.  And Mike had about 40 entrants for his 100k companion event which would be off later in the day.
   For the first half of the event, John and I would man the legendary “Van of Delights”, John's red camper, laden with cake.  We would set up at two controls, at about 60 and 160k, respectively.  We were joined in this by Sean Towneley (with his Van of  de White).  Under normal circumstances, Sean might well have ridden this, backwards, with his eyes shut and doing a crossword, but to our great advantage, he was injured a week or two earlier. 
   We had not long been set up at Carsington Water, when the first group of riders arrived.  We looked like being in for an interesting day because the field was spread over the whole control period, which must be unusual for such an early check.  In fact, one poor rider, Les, had a saddle malfunction and had to abandon before Carsington – rotten luck when he had travelled so far, and been so helpful at the village hall. 
   The spread of riders meant that we had to wait till the bitter end before we could set off to the next control.  Then we ran into the only serious glitch of the operation: diversions and other delays (including a stop at the Anslow Hall, where John's family (Elaine, Clare, Roy and John) and other helpers, including Alan Smith's widow Marj and son Si, were doing a tremendous job, especially considering that the riders on the 100k were also routed through here and had already arrived when we visited).  We eventually parked the vans red and white on a grass triangle near Telford and repeated the Carsington Protocol.  This included gentle musical persuasion to keep the control flowing in the right direction.  Audaxers are a mixed bunch and while some shot off at the first few chords from my ukulele, others were on the phone for the men in white coats.  You will be able to decide for yourselves if my sleepless night had been totally in vain if I give you a taste of the songs I wrote to while away the hours till dawn:-

   To the tune of Stir It Up by Bob Marley

   Gear it up............little darling
   Gear it up..............................
   Gear it up............little darling
   Gear it up..............................
   This is a long, long ride
   But you have lots of  time
   Ride with your mind on fun
   Forget your pride
   When all is said and done
   It's just a ride

   Gear it up..... etc.

   To the tune of  Take Me Home Country Roads by Bill and                                                                                 
                                                                                          Taffy Danoff
   Rocky Road, take me home
   Try some fruit cake – or a scone
   Get some in yer, squashed banana
   Take me home Rocky Road

   To the tune of He'll Have To Go by Joe and Audrey Allison

   Get your toe-clips, and your Garmin, and your phone
   The cake's been good but now you have to move along
   You've heard the man play on the uke-box soft and low
   But saddle up, the road is calling, you'll have to go.

   You can't stay stuffing your face all day,
   Just as if you were at home
   So go on, get out, just go away
   'Cos I vont to be alone.......

   Occasionally it was necessary to deploy the harmonica.  When that failed, running out of water did the trick.
   Sean, whose efforts were greatly appreciated (he'd left Colne near Burnley at dawn, to arrive for the start), set off for home while John and I headed off on a tour of most of the other controls.  As we passed through Ironbridge I was again taken aback by just how small the famous bridge is.  At Upton Magna, outside Shrewsbury, the control was being run by John Hamilton, who is one of the most experienced organisers in the business.  His helpers included the stalwart John Clemens, who had ridden the route-check a few weeks before.  I braced myself for the journey out to the turn at Llangollen with a bowl of excellent soup.
   On our way across the Marches, we took a direct route which crossed the 400 often enough for us to feel in touch with the riders as they popped up here and there.  On the drop down to Llangollen I I stupidly shouted encouragement to Julian and Steve on the tandem.  Julian would have recognised the V of D and my film star looks but Steve is blind and it was a sheepish helper who apologised to them in the car-park.  Julian was unfazed, "Don't worry - just thought it was some idiot."  Llangollen was run as efficiently as you might expect by Danial Webb and his team, including Damian and especially John Jackson and Mike Roberts, two illustrious Macclesfield Wheelers, who had also been at Anslow in the morning.  Danial doesn't mess about: he not only threw us out of his kitchen, leaving us to fend for ourselves, but sent John straight off to the shop to get more beans.  We were left resorting to the chip shop across the road (which was excellent).  The highlight of the Llangollen visit had to be the chap in the chip shop queue who broke into an impromptu Irish dance as I regaled the staff with the harmonica.  Next time they'll be quicker.
   The sun was setting as we climbed back up the long incline out of the town.  The cyclists we passed all seemed to be going well, refreshed after their stop.  There is something mystical about a chain of red rear lights at night, something bizarre – like Eddy Merckx breaking through the cloud at the snow-strewn top of an Alpine climb.  I suppose it's to do with it being so far removed from the experience of most people, a kind of magic.
   Less impressed was the bad-tempered and murderous lorry driver who swing his huge artic. out onto our carriageway, lights blazing, in his frustration at having to wait to pass riders still on the descent.  It is a narrow road but the riders were all in single file and with nowhere else to go.  It was a really stupid manoeuvre and even the phlegmatic John raised an eyebrow as he was forced to veer out of the way.
   We headed on through the night to the final control at Alton.  I'm never less than impressed by John's knowledge of the countryside; it is evident in the routes he constructs.  But sitting next to him as he weaves his way through the maze of narrow lanes, first in the twilight and then the starry, starry, night, is an eye-opener – which is handy if you've been awake for 40 hours.  This is all done without a satnav. or even a road atlas.  It might well have been “turn left at the next badger”.   I saw several lying in the verges and we just missed one as it lunged out of the undergrowth. 
   They have a curious attitude to maintaining country lanes in these parts of Cheshire and Staffordshire.  First they fertilise the surface with slurry, then they encourage the hedgerows to meet in the middle, so that the fermenting tarmac is protected from the elements.  It was often like travelling along an ancient sunken track.  And it rolled, too.  I was beginning to feel sympathy for the riders, intead of merely resenting the fact that they were riding and I was not.  This part of the run-in had switchbacks worthy of the nearby amusement park, though hopefully they would be less accident-prone.  On reflection, it's hard to see how you could plan a flat ride over this distance, except in East Anglia.
   We pulled into the Alton village hall just as the first few riders were leaving.  The control was in the capable hands of Denise and Tim Hughes, who've done such sterling work on Peak Audax rides and at Eskdalemuir on the London-Edinburgh-London ride.  I was a bit peckish again by this time, and an instant pre-prepared meal was put in front of me before I'd even reached for the harmonica.  Staffordshire oatcakes, tomatoes and mushrooms went down without touching the sides before we headed off into the night again.
   Blinking like rabbits in the carpark, we saw Robert Webb's Pashley on its elegant stand.  Robert's efforts deserve a special mention.  When we'd been at the Upton Magna control, near Shrewsbury, Robert had decided to abandon because he was feeling out of condition.  He is a vastly experienced rider, with Paris Brest Paris (and bar) and L-E-L to his credit, so he knew what he was doing.  His intention had been to ride home to Worcester (50 or 60 miles?) and come back to base to collect his car the next day.  So John and I were pretty surprised to recognise, even in the dark, his characteristic riding style, as we came up behind him on a rise towards the control at Alton.  Presumably he had decided to change his arrangements and was going to ride all the way back the the start at Biggin for his car.  This must mean that he had “abandoned” at getting on for 200k, then ridden a further 100k back to the finish.  That is really responsible stuff: judging that you are not going to complete the whole thing, yet still having enough stamina to deal with the circumstances. Chapeau (a trilby, I think), Robert!
   Returning to base at Biggin, we were again beaten to it by the fastest finishers, who had got round in an impressive time.  “Refreshed”, they promptly set off to ride home to Sheffield, an additional night crossing of the Pennines.  I decided to try for a few hours sleep and the next thing I knew it was 5am and the hall was full of enthusiastic riders telling fishermen's tales.  Not long after the official closing time of 10am, everyone had been accounted for and people were dragging their weary limbs back to car or campsite, while we got on with clearing the hall.  It is astonishing that everything we used disappeared into either John or Mike's van – and astonishing how much effort it takes to make that happen.  Lots of riders pitched in to help before and after the ride, with special mentions for James Bradbury, Mike Lane and Les Hereward, who had suffered the broken saddle.
   I saw so many riders I knew but haven't mentioned for fear of offending the unmentioned.  The same is true of helpers at the controls, almost all of whom looked a lot more sprightly at their posts than I felt by the time I wished John and Mike farewell and rolled my bike out into the light of day.  My journey home was the exact reverse of my journey out, except that it didn't rain and that I was shattered.  The Rochdale canal was a bit more irritating on the way home because it was Sunday and the sunny weather meant the towpath was very busy.
   However, I'd succeeded in combining what I knew would be a great weekend with friends past and future with a fair amount of cycling on my own account.  In short – a proper adventure!


Re: The National 400 2016
« Reply #1 on: August 05, 2016, 01:06:13 pm »
An excellently penned outing and thanks for all the help.
Think I escaped the "music" bar a couple of bars on the way out of Ryton.  :hand:


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Re: The National 400 2016
« Reply #2 on: August 05, 2016, 07:48:26 pm »
I love that other-world-ness of cyclists on a long journey at night; the combination of lights and bikes and a sense of purpose as they ride along. Thanks Peter.
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Re: The National 400 2016
« Reply #3 on: August 08, 2016, 11:44:24 am »
Terrific Peter. One of your best  accounts yet.

Re: The National 400 2016
« Reply #4 on: August 08, 2016, 11:52:05 am »
Great read, Peter, thanks. I am pleased it was a magical weekend from all angles!


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Re: The National 400 2016
« Reply #5 on: August 08, 2016, 11:05:32 pm »
A nice read and reminded me of the badger I found sitting in there misled of the road. I stopped, unwilling to push rudely past and it sauntered into the bushes.

Thanks for your work making this great event happen.

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Re: The National 400 2016
« Reply #6 on: August 14, 2016, 07:21:01 pm »
Great account Peter. Personally I loved the musical accompaniment. Cheered me up no end.

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Re: The National 400 2016
« Reply #7 on: August 14, 2016, 07:29:36 pm »
Great account Peter. Personally I loved the musical accompaniment.

Same! Great read Peter  :thumbsup:

Re: The National 400 2016
« Reply #8 on: August 14, 2016, 09:15:51 pm »
Thanks!  Hope to see you all around.

Re: The National 400 2016
« Reply #9 on: September 03, 2016, 08:40:12 pm »
This ride will forever be in my memory as one of the best rides I've ever done, something to tell the grandkids about in my old age. Sitting in the ford neat Alton at 2:45am after taking a tumble will always bring a smile to my face.

Roll on the National 2107