Doing the ACU National Road Rally on the RD400

Nothing could be easier. A gentle 290 mile on one of the longest summer days of the year visiting various control points and all to be completed in 10 hours. Do the maths and all you need to do is keep to a constant 29mph – easy or so I thought.

The ACU National Road Rally is one of those events that has been going on for many years and it was something I always wanted to have a go at but never seemed to actually do it. Well early in 2012 there was an article in the BMF Riders magazine about a riders experiences in the event, which had the events web address at the bottom so it was not long before I was on the website checking out more of the details and rules!

What is the National Rally – It's a navigational scatter rally, which is defined as a rally with numerous controls but no specific route. The idea is each participant works out their own route dependant on the award they are aiming for. The awards are for anything between 200 and 540 miles. What is a Rally Control – it can be any type of place as long as it is off the public highway and you have permission from the owner to use it. Some are in pubs, clubs, fuel stations, caravans or tents in a lay-bys etc as long as it is within the control area required. Opening times of the control points can range from between 2pm Saturday through to 10am Sunday, depending where the control is in the matrix across the country. Control point closing times can vary and this is finalised a couple of weeks before the rally and your route has to be planned around these times. Each rider has the important orange control card, which is checked and filled in at each control point, and then stamped with the official location stamp. Riders also have to sign on the control sheet provided by the rally organiser at each control point and include the time visited. These two items are proof of the rider completing the rally so he can get the award at the end.

There are basically four different options you can enter with Gold, Silver and Bronze award options available. The Sunrise Rally starts on Sunday 1st July and last just 6 hours it is ideal for beginners but starts at 4am and you ride a minimum of 120 miles up to a maximum of 180 miles.

All the other categories start from 2pm on Saturday 30th June. The Daytime Rally lasts for 10 hours and finishes at midnight, you can also start and finish close to home. You must ride a minimum of 200 miles up to 290 miles maximum. Next is the more serious National Rally class that lasts 20 hours and will mean you ride overnight. Riders who want a leisurely ride can start between 2pm and 10pm and ride 200 miles for a Finishers' award, 300 miles gets a Bronze award. Riders starting between 2pm and 6pm can ride 400 miles for a Silver award. Riders starting at 2pm can ride 500 miles or 540 miles for the Gold or Special Gold awards. The really serious riders do the National Rally - Platinum Category. On the Saturday morning the riders take some special tests at the Mira test track near Leicester, then they start at 2pm and ride 540 miles, taking in as many controls as possible. Apparently this is ideal for all extremely experienced riders who wish to ride overnight. For safety reason minimum rest breaks have to be taken and details are in the regulations.

All rallies end at a specific Finish control of your choice at 10am on Sunday 1st July 2012, except the Daytime Rally where you can even finish at the Control point you started from which is the only time you may visit a control point twice. An Individual Entry Fee by post £29.00 or online its £28.00, the rally is classed as a sporting event so riders insurance may be void so the ACU offer you an insurance option to cover you in the rally for just £9.

After a few days considering the rules and the options I took the plunge and entered online and became rider number 299 on a 1976 Yamaha RD400C. I enjoy riding the old 400 and saw it as more of a challenge to ride it than to take the XJR1300. I even put the bike details in full for all to see on the online entry list, some people merely wrote – Honda or Suzuki. What did that mean, was it 50cc or a 1000cc, was it classic or modern! There was now the very long wait for the all important control point matrix plan to arrive so you could plan your route. This is only issued after the organisers have got all the volunteers to man the control points, which must be a major headache for the organisers. The control points are all manned bike volunteers from various motorcycle clubs and they must be congratulated for the work they all do. The English summer made a few brief appearances but on the whole it mainly consisted of wind, long spells of rain or very heavy showers culminating with the wettest June on record!

Three weeks before the off, my all important entry pack arrived with the matrix of control points and mileages between each one. This was the first chance to see where my nearest control point was and there it was, number 11, in my hometown of Chippenham. Yippee, I could do the leisurely daytime run of 290 miles and be home well in time for a cider! In fact there was a control point (16) at Devizes, it was listed as Devizes, but as with many other locations it could be a few miles from the towns listed. The Devizes control point was 4 miles away at The Three Magpies pub near the village of Seend and was manned by volunteers from the Bath Classic motorcycle club. On the events official matrix, Chippenham and Devizes had a 25 mile value. These mileages are predetermined by the organisers and cast in stone and that's the one that counts on your scorecard. I live between the Chippenham and Devizes controls and can do the two in only 12 miles. So between some control points you can accumulate miles easily while others can be a lot further apart than allowed on the control matrix.

On the control point matrix the mileages between points start at 25 miles and go thru 30, 35 and 40 miles. On my chosen daytime rally I could start and finish at the same control point so I was looking to do a circuit and end up near home in time for a cider. To get my silver award I need to work a route out that was from 275 miles up to 290 miles, any more and I would be disqualified. It turned out to be a lot harder than I thought; as I kept working out different routes only to be five miles under or over my required amount. My first initial correct route took me up past Worcester, Wolverhampton and across the top of Birmingham before heading south and home. I studied the maps and discover that a big portion of the northern section was heavily built up roads and not pretty riding roads. I spent a few more days plotting different routes before I stumbled across another route that took me south of Birmingham and added up to 290 miles.

With the route finalised I set about finding the exact control point postcode locations on a map, then I copied sections from my road map and marked my route with a highlighter pen, no fancy sat navs for me! I soon had a series of orderly numbered route sheets, which I got laminated just in case it rained – little chance of that in June!

In the week before the rally the weather was really bad with some areas having record rainfall and severe floods, things were beginning to look a little grim for the rally. On the day of the rally a big belt of heavy showers passed over Chippenham in the morning and it brightened up a bit, but the forecast was for heavy showers later. Steve Perkins, a fellow member of the Aircooled RD club had decided to come with me just for the ride but was not going to risk getting his immaculate RD400F wet and dirty so he decided to bring his classic 1986 Honda VFR750.

Before leaving home for the 2pm start I checked the rain radar and could only see a belt of showers passing to the west of me. Unfortunately showers can actually develop quite quickly whereas belts of rain are easy to track on the radar. ( - is a very handy biker tool)

As I left to meet Steve at my chosen start in Devizes (16) I could see the sky was black and heading my way, luckily, my start control point was 9 miles away out of the path of the storm.

I was joined by Steve and just one other entrant who was Jez Martin (382) from Yeovil; he was attempting the 540 miles in 20 hours on a Kawasaki 1100 Ninja. It was also his first time and he was going the opposite direction to my route via Romsey and Milton Keynes finishing at the finish control point at Frome. I see from the results that he did it and got the gold award. We were busily taking photos when Judy Dommett- Knight who was the control point official, and a veteran of many road rallies, came out and told us to get on with it as it had passed 2pm.

We wished each other good luck and headed off into the wild blue yonder till we went around the first bend to be greeted by black skies and you could see the falling rain a few miles ahead! Six miles in and we hit the storm and got a soaking, I was not yet wearing waterproofs so we stopped under a road bridge on the Chippenham bypass to let the storm blow over as it was now lashing down and my jacket was beginning to soak thru. As the crow flies I was only 2 miles from home!

When the rain eased off we rode the last few miles on sodden roads to the Chippenham (11) control point, which was manned by members of the Moto Guzzi club. Now with the card stamped I could use local knowledge and country roads to cut past Castle Combe to get to Chipping Sodbury (12) my third stop.

The country roads were very wet and muddy and then we hit the edge of another storm giving us another soaking. At the next junction I said to Steve. "I bet you wish you had never come now". He merely nodded back. We headed onwards and would you believe it we came upon two- community policewomen blocking the road. There had been an accident ahead and the road was blocked. We were sent off on a diversion that seemed to take us a long way towards my fourth control point in Stroud (48). Anyway we turned back to Chipping Sodbury and found the control point at Wickwar Rugby Club, it was now 3.30 and we only had 50 miles on my card. The young lady there told me it had rained all morning there.

We set off to Stroud using the back roads, after our bad start the weather had brightened up and only very distant storms were visible on the horizon. Coming into Stroud I realised my maps and memory of the route was going to be a problem as I struggled to recognise the route, everything looks so different in real life. Luckily the control point members had put some advance arrow signs out pointing the way so we easily found BVM Moto and got the card stamped. We were met by Paul Freeman who is an Aircooled RD club member and had come out especially to meet us. We were so far behind schedule that he was close to going home thinking we were not coming. Paul was amazed to find I was doing the rally with no back up vehicle! Cheeky sod, the old RD's are a lot more reliable than you think! It's surprising how the minutes can tick away as the paperwork, chat, loo breaks and a few photos soon means you have used up 20 valuable minutes and at each control point these minutes can soon add up. More than once an enthusiastic person would come to look at the RD and utter those words... "Not seen one of those for years, I used to have a 250 or 400, etc" but I had no time to stop and chat.

Anyway from Stroud we hit the M5 and headed north for Worcester (60), the official card only credits you with 25 miles when it's really 41 miles but at least its relatively quick miles if a little dull. In Worcester we miss the turning and get lost again and end up in the town centre. We finally realise my mistake and backtrack to find the clubhouse of the WAC Motorcycle club.

There is a Yamaha RD400 in the car park which belongs to Aircooled RD Club member Martin Payne and as I enter the building I find that he is the official that stamps the card. There is a tempting BBQ going outside to feed the riders but we have no time to waste and we must push on. There is just time to look at a Triumph fitted with a DIY sat nav box with clock and its all colour matched to the bike.

Martin finds a stand in and he guides us to a local garage for much needed fuel and then takes us back to Junction 6 of the M5 from where we can head across country to Stratford upon Avon (47). Things are looking up because the early evening weather is now bright and the road flows and winds nicely for bikes and even my damp jacket is drying out. Entering Stratford we find it very busy as the river festival is in full swing, we end up missing the turning for the control point that was at Long Marsden drag strip.

The junction we needed had roadworks and the direction signs were missing. After a quick stop we follow three other riders on modern bikes and we are finally heading south again towards Burford (10). Things are looking good now but as we cross the high ground before dropping down to Burford you can see the horizon all around and ahead the distant storms have re-appeared in the direction we are going. We stop for a moment for a wee in the bushes to see rainbows from a small storm that was passing very close to our left. It's amazing how five minutes before, the weather looked so good.

I decided to pre-empt the rain and put my old Belstaff rainsuit, which turned out to be a good idea as we rode into some rain again a few miles later. The Burford (10) checkpoint was being run by the Oxford BMW club and was 4 miles south of Burford in Carterton next to Brize Norton. We made a relatively quick stop there and after a quick look at the maps we left to make the short and simple journey to the Abingdon (1) checkpoint. As the crow flies the distance between the two checkpoints was only 12 miles but the mixture of A and B roads and my maps got us lost again, even a passing taxi driver gave us wrong directions when he stopped to help.

The Abingdon control point was at Shell garage at Frilford and was manned by members of the Oxford AJS and Matchless club. This control point was very busy as it was on a major crossroads and was connected to five other rally control points so there was a constant stream of bikes coming and going from all directions. At this control point you get to see some of the vast array of bikes that take part in the rally. There are the really serious riders in all the expensive kit on the fully loaded modern bikes covered in panniers and modern electronics and sat navs. After them the range of bikes goes right thru all forms of biking and a special word must go out to the determination of the classic riders who take on the challenge every year. I saw many old classics at various checkpoints.

For example, Judy Dommett-Knight from the Devizes control point told me Nick Alcock (257) who was registered on a little 1958 100cc Laverda. He was using paper route map in one of those plastic roller things but also had a sat nav that he planned on using when it got dark. However it only had a couple of hour's battery life so he had a hulking great battery strapped on the back seat ready and waiting to connect up to the sat nav when required. He did the full 540 miles in 20 hours, putting me to shame, and got a well deserved Gold award.

There was a chap on an old Velocette LE and he said it was overheating before he left Southampton and he was planning to play with the ignition at some stage to get it running better. The top box was crammed full of spares and he had his route written on a book inside a plastic bag strapped on top of his tank bag. This was his 1st attempt and he was doing the full rally.

Back to the rally, we had a bit of break at the Frilford control point, as the rules require, so we had a sandwich and a drink. It had now got dark and was wet and at this point Steve was thinking of taking the direct route home towards Salisbury. I must admit things were grim and I was beginning to wonder what I was doing here. On the scorecard I had done 8 control points with a total mileage of 185. My wife had text me to say it was pouring with rain at home and it was heading my way.

It seemed a shame to come so far and not get any award so I decided to get to Basingstoke (7), which was next on my list and would give me a total of 215 miles and a bronze award. We set off down the main A34 in the dark and into the heavy rain mixed with the drenching spray from supermarket trucks.

It was grim and hard to see as my 400 only had the original 70's lighting and I can honestly say my own mind was saying "what the hell am I doing on the A34 in the rain on a Saturday night – I could be sat at home with a cider". Steve was planning to peel off at Newbury and head for home while I would go left on the A339 towards Basingstoke. When we reached the Newbury split Steve actually kept left and turned for Basingstoke as well. As he said to me after. "I have come this far"!

It turned out to be a blessing for me as I would never have completed the rally in time without his guidance in Basingstoke as we struggled to find the control point, when my maps failed to match the roads again.

The control point was in a Wickes car park and the Thames valley Advanced motorcyclists were manning it. It was now 10.40 and too late to make the last three control points before midnight. I told the official that I would never make the Romsey, Amesbury and get back to the finish at Devizes so I better declare myself finished so I would get the bronze award. He then informed me that Romsey was a virtual checkpoint that was now closed so I did not have to go there. All I had to do was tell the Amesbury official that I was declaring it, and he would fill it in on my Control card and include the mileage.

Me and Steve looked at each other and thought that just perhaps it was possible for me to make it in time, plus Devizes was on my route home anyway. I was a bit worried about having enough fuel but the Amesbury control point was at some services with a garage. So off we went and Steve guided me onto the A303 for Amesbury. It had now stopped raining so things had got a bit better. Half way to Amesbury Steve peeled off to head home and I headed on into the dark all alone.

The Amesbury control point was manned by a member of the AEM who was all-alone with only a gas lamp to see by inside his little gazebo attached to a little caravan. The official route plan said that fuel was available; unfortunately the garage here was closed. I had no choice but to carry on as a top up was only to calm that nagging doubt about the fuel that I had left.

My control card was stamped in at Amesbury at 11.22 so it was still possible to make the finish deadline of midnight. I got back on the A303 and soon peeled off onto the A360 at Stonehenge. It was so dark as I passed Stonehenge I could not even see the standing stones, there was no time for a midnight photo anyway!

I was trying to keep a good pace on the 400 and did not want any hold ups, so would you expect to come on a very slow line of cars on a winding road at that time of night. Well I did and at the front was a Ford Fiesta with L-plates!

I got past that frustrating roadblock after a couple of miles and headed onwards with no idea of the time. The 400's headlight does not give out much more than a glow so there was a few dodgy moments coming into some of the bends and see the dry lines to follow. I came thru Devizes dodging a few wobbly drunks and rode into the Three magpies car park at Seend. I walked into the control point marquee and was officially signed off at 11.55pm. I had done it, 290 miles on my control card with just five minutes to spare.

Judy told me that during the course of the rally they stamped 129 control cards and they even had a BMW engined Grinnell three-wheeler come through, the driver had no tonneau only bike waterproofs.

From Seend I headed home, the bike went on reserve with just 4 miles to go, I got in at 12.30 with a very dirty RD400 that never missed a beat. I may not have been to the Romsey control point but me and my bike had still covered 335 miles. Now it was time for a cold cider – with a straw!

It was time to post off my completed control card and a few months later a nice little event plaque dropped thru my letterbox with a result sheet. The level of riders doing the rally in 2012 was down on previous years with only 487 taking on the challenge of that 88 were classed as DNF. Maybe it was the constant wet weather that put a few off but in the previous years there has been around 600 entrants. Best solo went to entrant number 2, Martin Dunham, basically he dropped the least points in the special tests at Mira. I don't have a clue what the special tests involve but perhaps next year me and the RD400 better step up to that level and find out. That will make another story. I also see the 2013 rally is to be held on the 6th and 7th of July which just might coincide with the Club rally. Now that's a real dilemma. Anyone fancy manning a control point?
Del Freegard

ACU - Bikesport GB