Sunday, 18 September 2011

Final Thoughts

·      If I had more time, it would be nice to take more time and see more of the country. There were times that I felt slightly pressured to carry on to reach my destination in good time. On the other hand, I could have done the journey quicker, it just depends on what you want to achieve. I tried to get a balance of a physically challenging ride and enjoying the countryside on the way up.
·      I found it very useful to book accommodation in advance. As I had arranged to be at the end on a certain day, having a target to aim for each day helped with motivation.
·      Use B&B’s not hotels. Every one is different and you will meet some great people. Most were like a home from home which is what you want after a long ride.
·      Using the gps was great. I plotted all my routes before I left but there were a couple of times where I changed my plans and it helped me to find a different route.
·      Don’t stick rigidly to routes if you fancy a change.
·      Treat each day as a separate ride. If you look at it as one ride, it does seem quite daunting!
·      Split each day down so always somewhere to aim for. I split each day into 3 or 4 parts so that I had between 20 and 30 miles between stops where I could refuel.
·      Pack as light as you can, I took no spare cycling kit, washing it each evening. My luggage fitted in a 11 litre Vaude rack bag and weighed 4 kg
·      Write a diary at the end of each day otherwise you will forget all the little things along the way that make the journey so special.
·      Don’t underestimate what you can achieve but also respect the importance of preparation and training.
·      I completed ride on a single speed On One Pompino running a 48x18 gear. Running a geared bike would have been easier (obviously) but if you have trained for such a ride, one gear was usually enough. It is lighter, quieter, stronger and less to go wrong (and therefore less spares to carry). If I was to carry camping gear too, a geared bike would be much more sensible (or a lower geared single speed!)

  • Finally, I am hugely grateful for all the support, donations, offers of meals, places to stay and overall generosity of  everyone involved in helping me accomplish this ride.  


Day 10 Inverbrora, Highlands-John O’Groats, Caithness

Friday morning had arrived! The final chapter in what had been a long and tough 10 days.
I set off a little later than planned as we got talking to the other couple that had been staying that night. They lived in a houseboat in Burton on Trent and were travelling round Scotland whilst it was being repainted.
I left at 9.30 following the A9 north. The south westerly wind I had enjoyed yesterday had unfortunately disappeared and had been replaced with a steady drizzle but that wouldn’t dampen my spirits.
There are 2 infamous climbs on this last section of the end to end route, Helmsdale and Berridale. So far, I hadn’t had to get off and push once so I was going to make sure it didn’t happen today either. Helmsdale itself wasn’t too bad although there was a much longer hill out of Navidale that I found more tiring than the shorter sharp hill in Helmsdale itself. On the approach to Berridale, I was faced with a huge downhill from about 600ft down to 14ft above sea level. The opposite side of the valley consisted of a series of switchbacks that went on for around half a mile. Just as I thought I was at the top, another rise would appear. I did feel a bit better when I passed 2 other LEJOGers who were on fully geared road bikes with no luggage. I saw their support car on the previous day by Deephaven and I was to pass it again several times today aswell. I gave them a friendly hello as I went passed but I’m sure they weren’t very happy about being overtaken! Dunbeath threw another long hill at me, but after that the gradients calmed down a bit and I was left alone with the wild and desolate rain soaked landscape.
Wick was the final landmark of the journey, about 20 miles from John O’Groat’s. On entering the town, it was strange to see an Argos, Pets at Home and Tesco so far from civilisation (maybe not the latter), I could have been back home if I’d half closed my eyes.
Just after Wick, Mum and Dad passed me and gave me a wave. I knew I was on the final straight and was counting the miles down. I started thinking back over the journey I had made. Cornwall seemed so long ago, meeting Tim in gloriously flat Somerset, cycling 220 miles in a weekend with my uncle and aunty and being grateful that my fall didn’t meant the end of my ride or worse. Sometimes I see a map of the UK (especially when watching the weather forecast!) and think ‘how did I cycle all that way?’ On 1 hand it is, by any measure, quite a long way to cycle but the UK is also a wonderfully compact country. At the end of each day, the countryside, buildings and accents were different and I feel privileged to have been able to sample all of this in such an intimate way.
As I crested the last hill and rolled into John O’Groat’s, I thought about everything I had been through but also why I had done this and my 10 days of hard work does seem insignificant in comparison to the strength and courage my sister Jen and other cancer sufferers have to show week after, month after month, year after year.

Needless to say, it was raining as I entered the most northerly car park in the UK. I headed towards the iconic signpost where we took a few pictures before taking shelter in one of the cafes.
After a drink and half a rock bun, we left John O’Groat’s and headed south. After cycling constantly for 10 days, it felt strange being driven in the car and not having to put in physical effort to make progress! I liked it.
64.9 miles, 3 hours, 54 minutes, average 16.61 mph, 5426ft of ascent

Total: 886.1 miles, 56 hours 3 minutes, average 15.79 mph, 51,837ft of ascent

Day 9 Inverness, Highlands-Inverbrora, Highlands

I awoke on the penultimate morning very worried that I wouldn’t be able to move. Fortunately I didn’t feel too bad (good old red wine) and my hands certainly felt a little better.

Getting my now holey cycling kit on proved quite slow and painful but after hobbling downstairs, I said my goodbyes and slowly headed out over the Kessock bridge, following the cycle track. Although this was slower, today was my shortest day so wasn’t in a rush and I wasn’t quite ready to mix it up with the traffic until my body had loosened up a bit. 

Strangely, I found today one of the best. This was down to a combination of factors including flat and beautiful terrain and also not having the pressure of completing another century ride, only 58 miles today.

The wind was also in my favour for most of the day and I crossed over the Cromarty Firth and the beautiful Dornoch Firth where I stopped briefly for a drink and flapjack. From here, I followed the coast up past Loch Fleet, Golspie and Dunrobin Castle. From there it was only a few miles to my destination at Inverbrora.
I found a note on the door of the B&B telling me to go to the sheepshed if there was no answer. This I did and I was welcomed by a very English farmer who showed me round the B&B. My first priority was to test out the 6ft bath that I think proved to be the best bath I have ever had. I lay there and soothed my knee, feeling relieved that I only had 1 single day of cycling to go!
Later on, I made the 10 minute walk into Brora for another good meal, this time chicken stuffed with haggis! The evening was wonderfully calm and peaceful as we walked home and I fell asleep listening to the cows and sheep in the surrounding fields.

58.4 miles, 3 hours 38 minutes, average 16.03 mph, 3431ft of ascent

Day 8 Pitlochry, Perthshire-Inverness, Highlands

The end was now in sight. After a good breakfast and a chat with a touring Australian couple, I got underway and headed out of Pitlochry towards Blair Atholl where I met a lady cycling to work. I asked her about the quality of the cycle track ahead and she said it should be fine for a road bike. I had read differing views in the past but it was a better option than staying on the main road. I told her what I was doing and she wished both Jen and I lots of luck.

Once again, the rain came and went but I was in good spirits. I stayed off the main A9 until the cycle track ran out and I then joined it, rising ever upwards to the Pass of Drumochter. Although this was the highest point of the entire trip (at over 1500ft) the ascent had been quite gradual since I set out of Pitlochry.

On the way down the far side of the Pass, I noticed the cycle track had returned, this time as pristine and smooth tarmac. I quickly got off the main road and enjoyed a traffic free ride down towards Newtonmore. Unfortunately, my enjoyment was soon to end as just after a small bridge over a stream, the track dog-legged left and then right. The kink was hidden by the bridge so I didn’t see it and therefore have time to slow down (from about 20mph). As far as I can remember, I skidded briefly before realising I wasn’t going to stop in time and by that point I was heading into a ditch where the cycle track should have been! I remember the ground rushing up to meet my head, landing (not very gracefully I would imagine) and found myself lying in the ditch with my bike underneath me.
After sitting there for a moment, checking I could still move everything, I slowly got up and eventually climbed out of the ditch. I immediately noticed that my right knee and both hands were very sore. Once I had got the bike out of the ditch, I checked it over, I was most worried about the carbon fork receiving most of the impact and being split or snapped but thankfully they were intact (it seemed that I had taken most of the impact!) The only damage was the bars, which had been bent inwards by about 10 degrees, nothing that would prevent me riding.

I was still over 50 miles from my destination so I knew I had to get back on and moving before I seized up. As soon as I put my hands on the bars however it was clear that they were too painful to put any weight on, forcing me into an uncomfortable position of holding on with just thumb and forefinger. My knee, whilst not too painful pedalling in the saddle, felt very sore and unstable when I had to pedal harder out of the saddle.
I limped on and stopped in a Newtonmore diner for haggis lasagne (yes, it’s as good as it sounds) and a hot chocolate. I was feeling cold, wet and sore and looking forward to reaching Inverness, still some 40 miles away. I took the B9152 and B9153 through the Spey valley, Aviemore and Carrbridge. Due to the weather and earlier incidents, I probably didn’t fully appreciate the areas beauty as much as I could have, I was thankful however for the relatively flat terrain up to Findhorn Bridge. 

It was at this point that I had planned to bear west and come over the hills and into Inverness from the south. This route however would add several extra miles and some steep ascents; things I didn’t feel would be particularly good for my knee. If Inverness had been the end of the trip, I probably would have taken the original route, but as I still had over 100 miles to go over the next 2 days, I went for the damage limitation option and rejoined the A9 for my final descent into Inverness.
I was welcomed to the B&B by the promise of a hot shower. Once I had collapsed on the bed, I could inspect the extent of the injuries. 2 cut knees, one worse than the other, 1 cut elbow, bruised ribs and arm, 2 very sore hands and wrists and a grazed forehead. After my shower, I felt really sore but we decided to limp into town for some supper. Once sat down again, I felt better and I enjoyed steak and red wine followed by pudding and a whisky. When I came to leave, it was raining hard so I got a taxi home. Although very friendly, I was sure the taxi driver must have been an ex racing driver and I got back to Ivybank Guesthouse almost before we had left the restaurant. I tipped him for not killing me.
88 miles, 5 hours 55 minutes, average 14.86 mph, 7622ft of ascent

Day 7 Peebles, Borders-Pitlochry, Perthshire

The owner of the B&B had very kindly washed my cycling kit for me and it was nice to put on properly fresh kit rather than just a quick hand wash in the sink!

The first part of my day saw me climbing up and then descending down past Penicuik and into Edinburgh. I used my GPS to plot a quiet route through the suburbs and keep me off the busy dual carriageways. After passing through the wild and open landscape of the Moorfoot Hills, the outskirts of Edinburgh seemed a world away, grim, grey and depressing, the persistent drizzle not helping matters.

Passing the airport to the south, I arrived in Queensferry and out over the Forth bridge. I stopped to take some pictures but in the stiff westerly wind, the bridge shook and vibrated a worrying amount, so I pedalled on and over to dry land once again. From here, I headed north, parallel to the M90, through the sad grey villages of Crossgates, Kelty, Kinross and then past Loch Leven. I then turned onto more minor roads through Glenfarg and Dron before reaching Perth, a town (or city?) of nice architecture bordering the river Tay.
Heading north on the A9 I had no option but to join a section of dual carriageway. Although busy, the extra width of the road meant that cars (and large lorries) were able to give me plenty of space, something not so easy further north on smaller section of the same road. At Bankfoot I followed B roads up the Tay valley, past Dunkeld and Logierait. 

Even with clouds clinging to the conifers and hills, the views were beautiful and there were several rainbows across the valley. There was a short steep climb at this point, which my tired legs protested at but still got me to the top. I was feeling pretty tired by this point but I rolled into a soggy Pitlochry after 94 miles of hard cycling.
I had an hour until the owners of the B&B were home so I found a nice little café (Café Biba) which provided me with some much needed calories and somewhere warm for me to recover for a while. Unfortunately, my B&B (The Dell) was right at the top of this hillside town, which involved some more hard climbing before I could finally rest for the evening. And rest I did. The wet weather seemed here to stay and I couldn’t face another soggy walk into town so the B&B owner very kindly made me a tray of sandwiches, cake, yoghurt and fruit, just what I needed. I sat on my bed nursing my sore quads watching red squirrels in the back garden, a lovely end to another tough but enjoyable day. Tomorrow should be my last hard day, round the Cairngorms to Inverness, climbing over 7000ft.

94.5 miles, 6 hours 16 minutes, average 15.07 mph, 5503ft of ascent

Day 6 Carlisle, Cumbria-Peebles, Borders

After another broken nights sleep, I had breakfast with the B&B owners 2 cocker spaniels looking longingly at my plate. There was a guy from Dundee there too who was a long term guest, doing some security work at a building site. His thick Scottish accent made me realise how far I had come and how much I was looking forward to getting north of the border.
Before leaving, I arranged to meet Mark & Lou in Langholm, 20 miles north before we went our separate ways. Yet again, I managed to arrive in Langholm before Mark & Lou! Passing into Scotland was a big boost for me, it was also a cue for the weather to worsen and I got my overshoes and waterproof out for the first time.

Louise went to buy me some energy drinks whilst I sat in the car with Mark and warmed myself through. After a banana and some photos, we headed off and I continued north on the A7. I was originally planning to take the B709 up through the hills but the clouds were low so I decided to stay in the valley and continue on another smooth, quiet A road.

Although the rain continued on and off all day, I was in good spirits as today was my first slightly easier day, just 74 miles and as it turned out, also one of the most picturesque rides yet.

I stopped for a sandwich in Hawick, a typical bustling border town brimming with tartan and cashmere based shops. From here, there were some long climbs out of Hawick and over the hills before descending into Selkirk, the town with the worst road surfaces in the UK. I got through the town without losing any parts off my bike and joined the A707, which was much better, and the views were lovely – the rain had stopped by this point and the clouds had lifted. 

As I turned west to Innerleithen, I was faced with another stiff headwind that made the day tougher than I was hoping for. I arrived at Craiguart B&B a little earlier than on previous days, allowing me to enjoy a cup of tea looking out south over the Tweed valley.
I met up with an old university friend for tea in Peebles where I sampled my first haggis, neeps and tatties of the journey. I then followed this up with a great sticky toffee pudding and finally a measure of Laphroaig whisky.
74.1 miles, 4 hours 48 minutes, average 15.41 mph, 4672ft of ascent

Day 5 Euxton, Lancashire-Carlisle, Cumbria

I woke up on Sunday to find the sun shining but my legs as sore as they had ever been. Today would see us covering over 100 miles and climbing over Shap and on to Carlisle.
We finally departed at 9.30 after repairing a puncture and getting our bikes ready for another tough day.

After safely making our way through Preston (glad it was Sunday!) we joined the A6 and headed north. We made a couple of quick stops just south of Galgate, the first to buy a new tyre for Richard’s bike and then a refuel stop with Andy. 

Once we reached Lancaster, we left the A6 and headed north east and up into the hills towards Kirkby Lonsdale. We passed into Cumbria just before reaching Kirkby where Andy once again provided us with some sandwiches and drinks. The hills continued as we gradually got closed to Shap but the views were amazing and the minor roads were wonderfully empty as we passed through Beckfoot, Tebay and Orton. We both agreed this one some of the best cycling we had ever done and was worth cycling the length of the country to experience.

After some more tough ascents, we finally reached Shap summit, 1070ft above sea level. From here we coasted back down to the A6, meeting Andy for another refuel just south of Penrith. After Penrith, we decided to stay on the A6 rather than cross over to a minor road, as the A6 was quite quiet and well surfaced. Unfortunately, there were some long hills along the way that wasn’t what our already tired legs really needed. If I had looked ahead, I would have seen that we would be passing through High Hasket, followed by Low Hasket, a good indication that hills might be involved!
Just south of Carlisle, I bid farewell to my riding partner and support crew as they headed back to Leeds. It had been great having company over the 2 longest days of the journey and definitely helped me keep my spirits up.

I arrived at my B&B, Langleigh Guesthouse after another 8 miles or so. Like Taunton, some of the streets were cobbled, forcing me onto the pavement to try and give my sore wrists a break.
After 2 long hard days in the saddle, I was sore and tired. I had now cycled over 500 miles in the last 5 days and was just 10 miles short of the Scottish border. I knew however that I was over half way and Mark and Louise would be meeting me for the evening.
True to form, they were running a little late which gave me some time to collapse on my bed and send a couple of emails. I met friends Mark and Louise in town and we decided an Indian was in order so we went to a restaurant recommended to me by the B&B owner. Teza proved to be a fine choice and I felt much better afterwards. On heading home, the rain had returned and we had a soggy walk back, flip flops are not the best footwear in the wet!

102.8 miles, 6 hours 19 minutes, average 16.25 mph, 5191ft of ascent

Day 4 Astley Burf, Worcestershire-Euxton, Lancashire

After another restless nights sleep and a breakfast baguette, the postman arrived with my tool and I cycled into Stourport in the hope a bike shop could help me. Ironically, I think the shop I found (Stourport Specialist Cycles) would have had the right tool anyway and they very kindly tightened it up for me free of charge.
It was here that I met Richard and Andy, my uncle and aunty who would be joining me for the next 2 days, Richard on 2 wheels and Andy as our support crew, feeding us sandwiches and energy drinks for the next 220 miles.

We headed out of Stourport to Bewdley. From here, we faced some tough climbs north and into Shropshire. After Bridgnorth we joined the A458 then skirted east of Shrewsbury, through a street carnival in Wem and on to Whitchurch. Here, we were faced with a road closure but we carried on in the hope that we would be able to push or carry our bikes past whatever obstruction was ahead. The other option was a lengthy detour, extra miles that we didn’t want to add to an already long day. From here, we enjoyed about 4 miles of the A49 without seeing a single car and safely negotiated the roadworks.

On to Cheshire! The A49 continued to provide us with a good surface and tailwind up to Warrington where we met Andy for our final pit stop of the day. After a chocolate bar and can of cola, we continued north, through Wigan where the weather finally broke and gave us a good soaking for the last hour of our journey. We arrived at Gleadhill B&B tired and wet having cycled 117 miles and travelling through 4 different counties.

After a lovely bath and hot chocolate, we walked up to the local pub and enjoyed a plate of steak, Cajun chicken and chips, followed by a chocolate sundae!
117.1 miles, 7 hours 3 minutes, average 16.59 mph, 5262ft of ascent