On Saturday July 1st 2017 I took part in my first National Road Rally, partly to prove to myself that I could still ride a decent distance in a day after 30 years driving around in tin boxes, but mainly to raise money for East Anglia's Children's Hospices.
I have created a video (below) documenting my experiences. You may want to put the kettle on before you begin to watch it though, as it's 20 minutes long… and you don't even get an award if you watch it all the way through!
Although the rally is now over, you can still donate to this worthwhile cause via my Just-Giving page
First held in 1933, the National Road Rally is an annual event where motorcyclists from all over the UK take part in a 'scatter' rally. There is no set route and it is not a race. Indeed, to obtain an award in the event riders need only average less than 30 mph, and anyone charged with committing a motoring offence (e.g. speeding) is immediately disqualified.
Riders may choose from a variety of options from the Sunrise Rally (6 hours / 120-180 miles), the Daytime or Moonlight Rallies (10 hours / 200-280 miles), or the full National Rally (20 hours / 300-540 miles).
Entrants are actively encouraged to raise money for charity - with their entry fee being refunded if they can show that a set level of fundraising has been reached.
Approximately two weeks before the event entrants receive their paperwork. This consists of the regulations for the event, a sticker for the front of the bike, the control card (for stamping at checkpoints), a detailed list of all checkpoint locations, plus the all important checkpoint matrix.
Entrants have several options on the distance and/or duration of their rally, but all follow the matrix. When planning their route riders have to visit a required minimum number of checkpoints, with their total mileage falling within specified parameters. They may only travel between checkpoints that are linked by a red line, and must not visit a checkpoint more than once. Mandatory rest breaks must be taken after a specified time. Mileage is calculated using fixed distances shown on these red lines.
Riders tackling the full 20 hour rally must also finish a specified finishing checkpoint.
Checkpoints are manned by hardy volunteers, mostly from motorcycle clubs, but other organisations such as scout packs also man some. Without these unsung heroes there would be no rally.
In the example above, a rider wanting to travel from Checkpoint 22 to Checkpoint 25 could not do this directly, but would have to travel via Checkpoint 17 or 41 for a distance of 55 miles or 50 miles respectively.
Each rider has a personalised control card with their name and entry number printed on it. This card has to be presented at each checkpoint they visit. The official then stamps the card with the name of the checkpoint visited, and enters the mileage travelled from the previous one, and the running total mileage.
I had already thought that I was probably better off tackling one of the 10 hour rallies as a first attempt, and having only ridden the bike twice at night I decided that the daytime rally was the best option. The fact that a BSB championship round was taking place just 25 miles from my home on the Sunday also had some bearing on my decision. Coming from Norwich, and being actively involved with ACU Eastern, my initial plan was to find the nearest checkpoint to my home and set a circular route, taking in as many ACU Eastern clubs as I could.
Once the paperwork arrived, the attached checkpoint matrix made it clear that this was not going to happen. Disappointingly, just three ACU Eastern clubs were actually running checkpoints (hats off to Braintree, Ipswich and Bury St. Edmunds motorcycle clubs). No matter how I juggled it, I could not take these all in and, with the addition of other checkpoints, find a route that would meet the requirements for a gold award - if you're going to do it you might as well go for gold.
I am fortunate enough to have the excellent BMW Nav V satellite navigation unit by Garmin fitted to my bike, so I decided that the best plan of attack would be to manually work out a route that would give me the required number of checkpoints and mileage, and plot these 'waypoints' into the software that came with the unit. After checking out the exact location of each checkpoint on the street-view feature of Google Maps I entered them into the software in the order I wished to visit them, together with any breaks I wanted to take. I then had courtesy of the Garmin software a route plan, complete with estimated arrival times at each checkpoint, ready to download into the Nav V.
It was interesting to note that although the 'official' mileage was 275 miles, the actual mileage for the route was 331. Add the mileage from my house to the first checkpoint, and the mileage from the last checkpoint back home, and my total mileage for the day will be over 450 miles!
I know some people feel that the use of sat-navs is tantamount to cheating, but I do not agree. I am almost 60 years old and, with my much-reduced ability to multi-task and increased volume of traffic on the roads, I consider anything that reduces the need for me to take my eyes from the road as a safety aid. It also means that I don't have to allocate any of my limited number of brain cells to working out if I am on target, or where the next junction is. Heidi, as I have christened the nice lady in my Nav V, takes care of that and keeps me informed via the bluetooth headset in my helmet, allowing me to keep an eye out for kamikaze car drivers. It also helps with things like the nearest filling station etc. if you are in a location that is strange to you.
I set off for my first control at Wisbech, 60 miles from my house, early enough to allow for a decent break before the 12 noon start. I was actually at the control point at 11am, before the Wisbech & DMCC had even started to set up! Of the 500+ riders entered, only two of us were starting from this control, unbelievably on the same model, year and colour of bike! This meant we had the undivided attention of the lovely ladies from the Wisbech club, and the kettle was soon on.
At 12 noon on the dot we said our goodbyes and set off in opposite directions. My first stop was at Stibbington, so I set off across the flatlands of the Fens. Despite all of the technological gadgetry at my disposal I still managed to sail past the turnoff for the first control, fortunately soon recovered with only a small loss of time. After struggling with the on-board cameras I was using to make a video of the event, and the bluetooth connection between the sat-nav and the helmet intercom, I decided to just concentrate on the road before I became too distracted. The second control point was quickly followed by a stop at Langrick and I was feeling pretty con dent as I headed off for the fourth control near Grantham. My route took me through the picturesque town centre of Grantham and on to the village of Barrowby, where the Druids MCC were running the checkpoint in the scout hut. Possibly because the 30 minute break gave me time to actually talk to the Druids, I found this to be one of the the friendliest control points I visited; nice people, and not a druid’s robe in sight.
Refreshed with coffee I was off to the Syston control, run by Black Pigs in the car park of the curiously named ‘The Gate Hangs Well’ public house. By now I had made up the time lost earlier in the day and was feeling pretty pleased with myself - never a good idea. The trip to the next control should have been a simple blast down to the AJS & Matchless Owners Club control at Kettering; I say ‘should’ because it didn’t quite work out that way. I had not travelled more than a couple of miles before being greeted by a ‘Road Closed’ sign. A quick diversion and I rejoined the B6047, which has to be the best biking road of the day. An abundance of roadside signs foretelling doom and gloom for those on two wheels is usually a sign that you are about to enter a stretch of road that reminds you why you love riding a motorcycle, and this road does not disappoint.
Right, a quick blast down the A6/A14 and I would be at Kettering - wrong! I had only been on the A6 for a short time when I was greeted by another road closure, which I was later told was due to an accident. I followed the diversion signs diligently, and 15 minutes later was back where I started. This time I ignored the of official diversion, and plotted my own course down to the A14. From Kettering, it was on to the Bedford control where I was greeted by the familiar face of our president, Alan Penny, who I believe is the secretary of the event.
I had always planned to take a second break at the St. Neots control, as there were a couple of food outlets there. The road closures were now making me regret my decision to spend so long at Grantham; I had not eaten for more than 10 hours, and with several more to go before getting home I knew I could not cancel the break at St. Neots. After getting my control card stamped I was informed by the solitary BMF guy running the control that I had reached the 200 mile mark, which apparently would earn me a ‘finisher’ award. Buoyed by this information I decided to take out a mortgage for a celebratory sandwich at the adjacent Subway. While tucking in to this sumptuous repast I was joined by the rider who had left Wisbech with me earlier in the day. He had already been through the Ipswich, Thetford and Girton controls where I was now headed, and informed me that the A14 had a temporary speed limit of 40 mph for long stretches between St. Neots and Cambridge - just what I did not want to hear.
After getting my control card stamped for my bronze award by Susie and Kate from the Moto Guzzi Owners Club at Girton I was three checkpoints away from gold. I knew that I should be able to make this in the 2 hours remaining. I also knew that any more hold-ups or diversions could see me fail to make the final control point before 10pm, which would result in disqualification. A decision would have to be made at Bury St. Edmunds to declare a finish for the silver award, or risk all and go on to Ipswich for the gold.
With the British Super Bikes being at Snetterton that weekend, I was wary of the main roads possibly being heavily stocked with boys in blue, complete with their unsporting technology for catching speeding road users (oh for the ‘good old days’ when they used to follow you for quarter of a mile to give you the chance to moderate your behaviour). My 8.35pm arrival at the Theford control left me with a decision to make... declare myself finished and carry on up the A11 to get home, or do a ‘U’ turn and head for Bury St. Edmunds. Deciding that the gold should still be easily ‘do-able’ without any further unplanned holdups or excursions, I took the latter option.
Some spirited riding saw me at the silver award level, and back on the bike ready to leave the Suffolk Advanced Motorcyclists control at Bury St. Edmunds with one hour to make my final control just over the Orwell bridge - easy peasy, lemon squeezy! An uneventful trip down the dual carriageway saw me pulling off into the lorry park at the crossing just half an hour later. By the time I had parked the bike and shared pleasantries with the fine folk from the Triangle club I signed off with 25 minutes to spare before the 10pm deadline. After a well-earned mug of coffee and a natter with the Triangle members it was back on the bike for the trip up the A140, walking back through my front door 13 hours and 463 miles after I had left.
Looking back on the day, I am glad that I have done the rally, and am delighted to have raised almost £500 for the childrens’ hospices (and still rising at the time of writing). Would I do it again? I’m not sure. Personally I found it too much of a solitary experience for my liking. Had I not been so focussed on reaching the gold award I would have had much more time to stop and chat with other riders and those manning the controls - this would probably have made it a far more enjoyable experience. It would also have been a more social experience riding as part of a team rather than solo. I must admit, I do like the idea of the Sunrise Rally (2am - 8am) with the roads being less busy, but would probably treat it more as a gentle ride with time to chat at each stop.
For those who suffer from insomnia there is a video of the event below.