Mostly, this is random stories from my various trips as I collect them, but I've a wee backlog to get through too and those will pop up occasionally.

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Monday 22 July 2013

Pushing the envelope

Kirkudbright - one of the many lovely coastal villages on the route
This seems to be my year for trying out new ways of enjoying the outdoors. This time I found myself wanting to see how my endurance and stamina were doing. This was all brought about when I started to follow an "event" called the Highland Trail 400. This is a self-supported mountain bike route through Scotland. The theory is that anyone can set off to do it anytime they want, but in May this year a couple of dozen riders set off to do it as a race. I was initially very sceptical about this; something about racing through the lonely gems just jarred with me. However, as the start day approached I found myself getting increasingly caught up in it. What made it even more fascinating was that the competitors were carrying Spot Tracker devices so that their progress could be followed by folks at home. For the 5 or so days it took, I found I was constantly updating the website, keen to see how they were getting on. What became very apparent is that most of the riders were surviving on very little sleep, riding well into the night and getting up at dawn. What's more, they were obviously pitching up in all sorts of unplanned locations. 

Now, to me, this is a complete anathema. My various trips are planned out in military fashion. Ride times are calculated, maps are studied, overnight locations are carefully chosen and very, very seldom does it involve riding after dark. Another difference is that these folks were going out much, much less laden than I would with kit stripped back to the minimum.

With a few days of warm, dry weather promised I thought this was the perfect time to try out this more unplanned approach. I'd already started to consider some of the challenges. I thought I'd stick to the roads for this first attempt and instantly had a route in mind. I bolted on an extra water bottle cage (nowhere to fill up overnight) and took enough food to get me through the 12 hours or so between opportunities to shop. My overnight kit was basically reduced to a bivvy bag and a sleeping bag. I reckoned I'd be too warm and dirty for the latter but at least it might provide a cosy mattress. 

Heading out of the station at Carlisle I was once again into the land of NCN signs. It seems that every spare sign Sustrans had ended up here and they point everywhere. This'll be the third time if cycled from Carlisle and I'm still no clearer as to the best route out of the station. However, I soon locate the route North and arrive at Gretna, safely back in Scotland.

Last time I was here I headed East across the borders, this time it was all the way West and I opted to follow NCN 7 as it ducked and dived through various stretches of farmland and campsites. It's slower than sticking to one main route but I reckoned my planned overall average of 15kph wasn't going to be affected, despite the occasional missed turning and short back-track. The day was heating up too. I was aware of a mild tailwind that made pedalling slightly easier but this also served to keep me warmer than I'd have liked and it was with some relief that I reached Dumfries for a quick food/drink stop. The only problem was finding somewhere cool to eat and I eventually plonked myself under a tree in a car park.

The section to Dalbeattie is one I'd cycled previously as part of a sportive. The major change in the scenery here is that Criffel, having been the commanding landscape feature all day, is now hidden and the road meanders more following the coast. I was happy to see the campsite at Sandyhills for an ice cream, a cold drink and a water-bottle top-up before carrying on into more unfamiliar territory again. Just before Dundrennan, I spotted some going on in a field. It turned out to be preparations for the annual Wickerman festival.

Passing through Kirkudbright I was beginning to think about food again. I didn't want to miss an opportunity for a decent meal but I didn't see anything that really took my fancy and as I set off West again I was dreaming of a country pub. As luck would have it, that's exactly what I discovered in the little hamlet of Borgue so I was able to kick my feet up for a little while and enjoy some chat with the owner over a spot of food. 

Dinner was assimilated
I was now heading into more unknown territory. Not in a geographical sense so much as a psychological one. With the sun slowly setting and nowhere planned to stop I was beginning to feel a little uncomfortable and started setting some interim goals in my head. The first of these was to decide on a route beyond Gatehouse of Fleet. There are three options here; the first is to stick to the coast as closely as possible. That means the A75 and with warnings from the owner of the pub in Borgue still in my head I decided that wasn't going to work. NCN 7 takes a leisurely diversion to Creetown, sticking to the valley on a quiet road. However, I had been intrigued by a middle way - the Corse of Slakes Road. This is an old military (though not Wade/Cauldfield) road that took to the higher ground. My curiosity being what it was, I opted for this and made my way uphill to Anwoth Church. I was then faced with a rapidly deteriorating surface, a sign saying "not suitable for motor vehicles" and a couple of gates, one of which required a lift over. This wasn't what I'd expected at all and as I made my way along I was already contemplating a strategic withdrawal. However, despite the lack of grip and suspension I teetered along until it eventually caught up with another tarmac road. I'd hoped for some great views up here but the surrounding hills were just a little close and I pressed on reaching the fast downhill into Creetown. 

I was relieved to have got this section over with just as the sun was finally setting and then NCN 7 then put in a re-appearance to provide a good route into Newton Stewart. I made it here at 10:15, just minutes before the filling station closed for the night. That made it possible to have another snack and a final take on of fluids. It also gave me the opportunity to fit the lights that would be needed until I decided to stop. This next, night-time, session was actually one of the most enjoyable of the whole trip. It was cooler - though I was still only wearing a short-sleeved top - and the roads were completely dead. That wonderful feeling of cutting through the night was with me all the way to Isle of Whithorn and then I knew I was heading North again, much closer to my original 300km goal. 

As the miles clicked by, I started to think about where I would stop for the night. The road started to hug the beach for a while and I began to see the occasional camper van. All I needed was somewhere I could hide the bike out of sight and then I finally saw a section of tall, grassy dunes that would be ideal. There wasn't much prepping to do. I hauled the bivvy bag out of the saddle bag and lay it on the beach, put some legwarmers and a jacket on - as much for cleanliness as for warmth - and crawled in to lie on top of the sleeping bag. It was around 1:30 and though I didn't actually feel that tired, I wanted to get a couple of hours of sleep so that I could be up to see the sunrise.

As it was, I slept fitfully, eventually being woken by an invasion of midges that I'd failed to prepare for by not zipping up the bivvy bag. No matter, a quick splash of Smidge and I got my few possessions packed away before starting off on the bike again. I was feeling pretty good too. The sun was just beginning to come up behind me and it was much cooler than it had been the day before. I watched 300km come up in 20.5 hours of riding and was pleased I'd managed to maintain a 15kph overall time. However, on the last, hilly, stretch to the Mull of Galloway I could feel my strength slowly ebbing away and I knew I really needed to get some food in me. I made it to the Lighthouse before having to stop. 

I figured that the optional Stranraer-Glasgow ride was not going to be enjoyable so settled in for a slow day round the Rhinns of Galloway instead. Although pleasant enough, the scenery here wasn't a patch on the previous day and, being so early, I was finding nowhere open for breakfast, or even a cup of coffee. It was therefore with some enthusiasm that I found myself hurtling down into Portpatrick. knowing I'd get a decent feed.

With a relaxing hour or so spent over breakfast I was eventually happy to progress round the final section of the Rhinns round to Stranraer. With 390km on the trip computer I thought I might round it off with a wee 10km loop but I arrived at the railway station just in time to catch a train and with a two hour wait for the next one declined this opportunity to round it up. Besides, that leaves a target for the next long trip.

390km and 26 hours of squiggly road
All in all, not a bad introduction to a bit more endurance riding. Not having done even one 100 mile ride this year I was happy that I managed almost 250 and I reckon I've picked up a few wee tips of how to cope with longer, multi-day trips of this kind too.

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