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I really did intend to keep to my announcement at the end of the 2012 rally, that I was retiring from competitive rallying, and would not be taking part again in the Brit Butt. If nothing else I reckoned 5 years without a mechanical breakdown or major problem was pushing my luck far enough, and both I and the GS were getting old enough to start creaking and struggling to be able to keep up the same pace needed to be a front runner in these events. There was also a certain attraction in being able to quit having won every one of the five rallies run and retire undefeated.
But then, as the day got closer I started to think more and more about the rally, and what I would feel like if I didn't try it once again - and I must have started thinking out loud too much because one day Stacey turned round and told me to just get on and enter - I guess she always knew I would!
Prior preparation for the rally amounted to little more than booking the Premier Inn I have used for the last two years (not the rally hotel) and packing all the stuff I would need to take with me. I had ridden the GS in two rallies already this year; the SWPR at the beginning of April, and the Welsh earlier in May and nothing had gone wrong with it this year so I reckoned it would be okay. In the year since the proviou srally I had nothing to it except a service and making a plate to fit on to the rear footrest hanger to carry a large drinks flask. I didn't even get around to checking it over until the Thursday night before the rally when I found the tread on the front tyre was pretty low, so first stop on the way up was going to be Wheelhouse Tyres in Coleshill for a new Tourance. I did find time to finish the job of decorating my white Arai Tour X which my 2 year old daughter had started by drawing all ovr it with Sharpie pens - I had used the same helmet for all the previous BBRs so I did reckon this was going to be its last outing.
I left home at 8.30 on the Friday morning, got to Coleshill for 9 and was on my way with a new tyre before 10 (having also changed my gas and electricity supplier while I was waiting :)). The ride up the motorways to Castleford was very blustery and wet; all the way the GS was being blown about and I was struggling to keep it in one lane; I just kept hoping the forecast of improved weather for the weekend was right!
I got to the hotel about midday, went across to the pub next door for a bite to eat then got my head down for a few hours rest before the madness started. The evening meal, after which rallybooks would be given out, was at 7pm but before that I had to get registered and go through technical inspection. I got to the rally hotel just after 4pm, filling both tanks with fuel on the way. Registration over and start photo taken, I rode the odometer check route - this seemed a bit pointless to me since there was no minimum mileage needed to qualify as a finisher any more - and then sat around catching up with people, and getting another half an hour's sleep in a corner of the bar.
The evening meal had been brought forward to 6.30 and I hoped this meant the books would be distributed sooner and we would be able to start planning earlier. In the event the meeting went on far too long - I could understand that the organisers Phil and Chris wanted everyone to be very clear about the rules, especially after some poor behaviour following a misunderstanding the previous year, but there seemed to be a lot of interruptions and unnecessary questions.
Following the previous year's introduction of a theme to the rally, this year's rallybook was entitled 'Where the 'Fugarwi' Rally' - with each of the bonuses located in remote places, and often on remote or unmade roads, although Chris assured us that all were accessible by motorbike and nearly all had been visited by him on his Pan-European or Royal Enfield. One of the things that was explained was the inclusion of a pink balloon in the list of items to bring to the rally. The balloon had to be blown up to a certain size (set as being able to just fit through the hole the rallymaster had cut into a sheet of cardboard) that evening, marked with an inked stamper and then be carried throughout the rally to the end. It would also have to be photographed at certain times during the rally. I had anticipated this might be the case, and as well as bringing some balloons, had also fitted an empty rack bag to the top of the auxiliary fuel tank and brought some plastic balloon clips. These meant I did not have to tie the balloon but could put more air into it of it went down - some probably thought of this as cheating, I considered it forward planning. The rally rules dictate what you can and cannot do to gain points, and should be followed to the letter - but this does not mean it is possible to think of something the rallymaster has not catered for and make life easier for yourself.
I got back to my room just before 9pm and started the planning routine. First job was to read through the book carefully. I had already labelled each page during the riders' meeting, but checked the different ways to gain points. Apart from the points available for each of the 65 landmarks (worth between 150 and 3500 points), there was also the usual fuel log (worth 5000 points); the compulsory sleep bonus which had to start between 11pm on Saturday and 6am on Sunday and last for at least 3 hours (worth 5000 points); a compulsory bonus location, one of five tidal islands which had to be visited at low tide (also worth 5000 points); the pink balloon challenge, the balloon having to be photographed at the compulsory bonus location, plus one other, with each being on different days (as the rallybook said, 'an easy 5000 points!'). There were also a number of combination bonuses, where you could gain extra points by visiting two or more specific locations; and lastly there were two timed bonuses, which involved you taking a photograph of a clock on a 'solid structure' at 10:20 and 23:36 - each photograph being worth 750 points.
Having transferred the digital files from the USB drive handed back with the rallybook onto my Samsung netbook, I then went through the gdb. file in Basecamp and renamed all the locations to the naming convention I had used in my rallybook. This file was then transferred to both my satnavs (BMW Navigator II and Garmin 2610), and exported as a gpx. file into Microsoft Autoroute 2010. Each of the locations was then put onto a paper map of Great Britain, using green stickers for locations worth below 500 points; blue stickers fro those worth between 500 and 1000 points; and red for those worth more than 1000 points. Then I made myself a coffee and studied the map. There were clearly five clusters of red controls - several on the South East coast; a number in Wales; a few more in the South West; a couple in the Lake District; and then seven in the Highlands of Scotland. it took me 5 minutes to decide I was going north, with the aim of picking up most of the Scottish locations, plus the two in the Lakes, and a number of smaller value bonuses in Northumberland and North Yorkshire in between. Othere reasons for going north were the fact that there was a high value combination bonus for getting to Rannoch and Altnabreac stations worth an additional 3400 points, plus the fact that good weather forecast for what was a Bank Holiday weekend would mean that roads in the south would be much busier. I was really glad as well to be going to Scotland for the first time on the rally since 2008 - at least I wouldn't need a passport!
I spent the next few hours working out what seemed to be the optimum route, using Autoroute to calculate times and distances and different options. Eventually I decided on where I was going, including where I could stop for my rest break, and wrote the locations, distance and times for each bonus onto my pre-marked Tyvek sheet to use as a roadbook. My route basically took me up to Edinburgh; through the central Highlands to the north-west coast; across the north of Scotland to the north east coast then down the A9 to Inverness; over the Cairngorm and down to Kinross service station north of Edinburgh; then on Sunday morning down through the Kielder Forest and over the Lake District before returing to Castleford via three small value bonuses in North Yorkshire. My only concern was that although my route had me getting back at 3pm on Sunday, i had no real options to gain extra points although there were two possibilities - one invloving picking up a bonus on the west coast of Scotland at Lochaber (which would also mean getting a ferry across to Skye from Mallaig), or picking one up at Flamborough Head (and having been there, I knew the roads around there are slow and would be busy with traffic). Adding either one had me getting back after 5pm when you would start to lose points for each minute back late, so while I feared someone else might just be able to get to one of them as well, I decided it wasn't going to be me! I packed everything up and was in bed by 11.30pm.
I got back to the start for 5.30am the next morning and, although I had intended not to be the first away this year, the organisation of the start meant I had no choice except to park at the front and lead off the pack as 6am struck. I was straight onto the M62 and then off onto the A1(M) heading north. For the next hour and a half I sat there, with two bikes behind me, whom I recognised as two German riders, one Gerhard Memmen-Kreuger (one of the only two other riders to have taken part in all six BBRs) riding a R1200GS, and the other Robert Koeber riding a Honda XBR500 with over 300,000kms on the clock. I was surprised at how well Robert could stay with us, but knew that both are very good rally riders - amongst other achievements Gerhard had come third in the BBR the year before, and Robert had been placed second in 2011. Just after Stockton Gerhard came past us both and I did not see him again on the rally. Robert stayed with me past Newcastle and I was starting to think we were following the same route, when we got to the junction with the A696. I turned off and Robert carried on up the A1. I had turned off because at the end of my planning time I had added in a slight detour to pick up a bonus worth 275 points - I hoped this meant I had stolen a march on him.
The first bonus was the Winters Gibbet (275 pts) in the Cheviot Hills above the village of Elsdon. I had been to it several years before when it was used as a landmark on the Round Britain Rally. I arrived at the first bonus just before another rider, Dave Winter on his FJR 1300, who had come second in 2012. It was clear that all the top riders would be in Scotland this year. It was likely all would be picking up the same big bonuses, which made collecting a few smaller bonuses all the more critical since they would make the difference. Dave and I took our photos - I shot off before him but then missed a turning in the village and ended up behind him for several miles before he surprised me by turning off. I had assumed he was heading for the same next bonus as I; the compulsory bonus of Cramond Island just outside Edinburgh, worth 5000 points.
I saw one more rider on the road into Scotland, passing a Yamaha Tenere, which I found out belonged to David Baker when I again took a wrong turning near the bonus and met him at the causeway to the island. He kindly took my photograph, complete with pink balloon standing on the causeway which was fully revealed at low tide. This was David's first rally but he was to go on to finish in third place, ahead of many more experienced riders. I had also seen Robert coming away from Cramond as I headed towards it so knew he was on the same track and about ten minutes ahead of me. Mainly thanks to that early blast up the A1(M) I arrived at Cramond having covered 220 miles, at 9:24, over half an hour ahead of my schedule; it is always encouraging having some time in the bank for later mishaps and unforseen circumstances.
From the Scottish capital I continued north. The weather was getting warmer and sunnier, making it a beautiful day for riding. Considering I thought many riders would be following a similar route I was not to see another bike on the rally for the next 300 miles. As I got to Perth and the clock turned on to 10am I started thinking of the clock bonus for 10:20; I thought it would be critical to get both these bonuses. I remembered there was a big church clock tower I had seen before in Dunkeld, a 5 minute turn off from the A9. I got into Dunkeld and stopped opposite the clock at 10:15, had a drink and some oat bar (I must confess after last year's fiasco I had not made my own flapjacks this year), took a couple of practice shots to make sure I could get a photo of the clock and my rally towel in together, then headed back to the main road, another 750 points in the bag.
The next bonus was the railway station at Rannoch, probably the second most remote station in the whole of Britain, located as it is in the middle of Rannoch Moor, a very desolate area I had walked across many years before. It was worth 2300 points by itself, but was also part of a combination bonus with Altnabreac, probably the most remote station in Britain; getting both was worth an extra 3400 points. I stopped in Pitlochry for my first fuel stop, filling both tanks with 38.72 litres of petrol. The road from here to the station was great; 34 miles of single track road, constantly changing direction and passing waterfalls, forests, castles, lochs, and above all a ring of snow-clad mountains on either side. Indeed I was so surprised to see so much snow on the hills that I stopped and took several photographs on the way back. I got to the station at 11:38, now 40 minutes ahead of my schedule. It was deserted apart from two other bikers, not on the rally, walking up and down the station. I walked over the bridge and onto the platform to take my photograph of the station sign, stood for a minute listening to the silence, then got back on the bike and headed the way I had come - there is only the one road to Rannoch.
Half an hour later I was back on the A9, passing Dalwinnie, Aviemore and Inverness before crossing the Moray Firth and taking the A835 past Dingwall and the mass of Ben Wyvis, one of the 122 Munros I have climbed ( a Munro is a Scottish mountain over 3000 feet, so called because they were first listed by Sir Hugh Munro in 1891; the current list shows 282 of them - I long ago gave up on the idea of climbing them all!). I turned off onto the A832, following it past An Teallach, one of the most impressive looking mountains in Britain, consisting of two Munros linked by a steep and difficult traverse, especially so in the middle of winter; in 1994 I spent a very long, very cold day on it with my friend Simon, who later died in a climbing accident in the Alps. I stopped for a minute below the mountain and took my helmet off to remember him and that day.
I followed the road down to the coast and then through Poolewe and Gairloch as it started to cloud over and rain. Here I turned off on a 10 mile very bumpy single track road leading to my next bonus. I met another rider coming the opposite direction, recognising the R1150GS of Dave McGrath. Dave is also lives in Wolverhampton and I had encouraged him to take part in the rally, so was pleased to see him and that he had got so far already. Dave is originally from Stornoway on Lewis so was, I guess, relatively close to home out here! At the end of the road I came to Rua Reidh Lighthouse, a daylight bonus worth 2600 points which I photographed from the road above it. Heading back the way I had come I stopped in Gairloch for fuel and for some inexplicable reason switched my brain off and only filled up the main tank of the bike, putting just 14 litres in, although I had been running on the auxiliary tank. I think part of the reason was that I had started to worry about the bike - the gearbox was playing up and I was finding it increasingly hard to find 2nd gear. For whatever reason this mistake was to cost me time later on.
I rode back past An Teallach and joined the A835 again, this time turning north towards Ullapool. Somewhere between Ullapool and Inverpolly I passed Dave's GS and then turned off the road to take a series of single track roads through a forest and over the mountains - my GPS obviously considered it a worthwhile shortcut - all I know is that after half an hou r of throwing the bike from one corner to the next I came back out on the main road immediately behind Dave. The only good thing about the road was that it took me through the Inverpolly Nature Reserve and past my favourite small mountain, Stac Pollaidh which I have run up several times in the past (in the days when I could do such a thing!). The next bonus was a bridge at Lochan Saile (2500 pts), a beautiful area of Western Scotland, known for salmon and trout fishing (or so the rallybook would have us believe). As we approached it my GPS got very confused, trying to send me down non-existent turnings - Dave's was probably doing the same becasue we ended up tkaing differnt turnings, the second of which led me to the bridge, looking decidely unscenic with the support work which was going on to it. I photographed the GS on the bridge, nearly dropped it turning around and just missed Dave coming around the first bend as I headed off.