LEJOG – The Lowdown

For anyone who didn’t see my previous post here is a quick recap. After losing my summer job I made the impulsive decision to Cycle the length of Britain. Riding from Land’s End to John O’Groats has long been on my Cycling bucket list, why not take the opportunity when it suddenly presented itself? I’m sure all readers are desperate to hear what happened having been eagerly anticipating this post for weeks (in my dreams that is).

First and foremost we made it in one piece, though sadly one of our number had to pull out following a crash on day 6 – I wish him all the best in his recovery. 880 Miles over the course of 12 days whilst battling bad weather, mechanical difficulties and just about everything that could be thrown at a group of unsuspecting Cyclists. I’m going to do my best not to bore anyone with this account, though I can’t make any promises. Here goes.

Day 1 – Land’s End to Bodmin (56 Miles).

What in the name of all that’s Holy have I got myself in for?”. The question was circulating in my head over and over again. Following an early start and a three hour bus journey (on which I narrowly avoided throwing up), we arrived at Land’s End. Cornish Pasties were consumed with what seemed like a very deliberate slowness – the weather was not in our favour.

The next four hours proved to be an exercise in suffering. Not once did it stop raining, by the end of the ride we were all completely drenched. Adding the Cornish terrain into the mix, namely steep hills followed by dicey descents with a generous coating of mud and loose gravel made for a baptism of fire. Big shoutout to our ride leader, sticking at the front the whole way and expertly navigating via Garmin (something that is often much harder than it looks).

Upon arriving at the hotel I embarked on what was to become a familiar routine:

  1. Have a protein gel. On a ride like this taking recovery seriously is crucial.
  2. Collect room key – walk my muddy bike through the hotel, negotiating a bewildering numbering system before eventually finding sanctuary – i.e. a warm room with a bed and shower.
  3. Wash kit in the sink, get it as dry as possible using whatever implements were available. Heated towel rails were a godsend, more often than not a hairdryer was pressed into service.
  4. Shower, put on clean clothes and congratulate myself on making it through the day.
  5. Sort out bike. Clean the worst of the mud off, lube chain, check brake pads and tyres for signs of wear, clean out bottles and carry out any necessary repairs / adjustments. Usually get clean clothes covered in cycle grease. Ok, I might have neglected this step once or twice.
  6. Eat. As much as possible, never turn down an extra helping.
  7. Prepare for the worst. Look at weather forecast and lay out clothes for the morning, remember to put a rain jacket in my day bag.
  8. Upload ride to Strava, give kudos generously.
  9. Collapse – drift off to sleep. Only stay up late in very important circumstances (i.e. when Game of Thrones was on).
  10. Wake up, ride and repeat.

Day 2 – Bodmin to Sampford Peverell (86 Miles)

I knew from looking at the route profile that this would turn out to be a very tough day – the longest ride of the trip with the greatest amount of climbing. Keeping the group together was tricky, gaps open very easily on that kind of terrain. I felt sorry for a couple of my fellow group members who happened to have a bad day, legs failing at the worst possible time. On the flat you can just sit at the back but at the hands of the Devon hills there was nowhere to hide.  For me knowing some of the roads only served to make matters worse, I had time to think about what was coming. Lung busting hills right till the very end, coupled with yet more rain from mile 75 onwards.

Rarely have I offered such heartfelt congratulations, both to myself and fellow riders. It takes some grit to get through a day like that, especially when we still had 10 days worth of riding left. Being young, fit and a relatively good climber I probably had it easy compared to a lot of others. By 9:30 I was out like a light, my legs having taken a real beating from hills and crosswinds.

Day 3 – Sampford Peverell to Portishead (62 Miles)

Morning bought a very welcome experience. Sun, flat roads and the knowledge that only a few miles were left after the lunch stop, incidentally a very good Chilli Con Carne. A spanner was thrown into the works by the weather (you won’t be surprised to hear it involved rain), in order to avoid very busy main roads our route took us along a Cycle path. One which was not designed for road bikes, maximum concentration was needed in order to avoid crashing.

It was vital for us to stay positive, on that day and on many more occasions throughout the ride it was a collective sense of humour that made it many times easier to get through whatever was thrown at us. I’ll credit one member of our group in particular here, I couldn’t repeat many of his jokes in polite company but they very rarely failed to raise our spirits. Taking the mickey out of each other in that uniquely British way did a good job of breaking the ice, (prior to the ride quite a few of us didn’t know each other).

You couldn’t help laughing at the muddy puddles we had to ride through, watched by people on more appropriate bikes who looked at us as if we were completely mad – not that I necessarily disagreed with that assessment. In the end we were rewarded with a pleasant summer evening. A massive portion of fish and chips eaten in a nice restaurant overlooking Portishead marina felt very well deserved.

Day 4 – Portishead to Ludlow (80 Miles)

Another stunning morning. Winding our way along the Cycle paths of Bristol, tranquility in the midst of a very busy city. The odd tree root or broken bottle served to keep us on our toes. We soon reached a major milestone, crossing over the Severn Bridge into Wales. For me this marked the transition from the familiar into the unknown, despite having travelled abroad many times I’d never been quite this far north in the UK. A treat was in store in the form of a long descent into the beautiful Wye valley, a bit of friendly competition was very enjoyable.

Our group was lucky in managing to avoid the rain, our first completely dry day. The afternoon involved yet more spectacular terrain, rolling roads in the sun – a Cyclists dream. By this point I was ready to give the legs a good stretch. I was lucky to be riding with two guys of a similar age who happened to share my love of smashing it on the front and racing up the hills. Throughout the twelve days the three of us formed many a ‘breakaway’ – pointless as it was we couldn’t help pushing each other.

For dinner we ventured into the town centre, I was craving something light after three days of stodge. I’m glad we took the time to do a bit of exploring, adding to the sense of adventure. That night I allowed myself a rare Pint of Guinness, technically speaking I was after all on holiday.

Day 5 – Ludlow to Warrington (82 Miles)

Day 5 began in much the same way as day 4, rolling roads and decent weather. I will forever remember it as the day when we missed the lunch stop. Truth be told it was probably down to riding too quickly, the other groups going at a more sensible pace easily had the last laugh. By the time we realised our mistake it was too late, going back would have involved three miles of dodgy lanes which we were glad to have just escaped in one piece.

We were lucky enough to find a local farm shop at which to refuel. Judging by the feel of the place I suspect the owner had never had such a large number of customers at once – service wasn’t exactly rapid. Upon pulling out of the improvised lunch stop the heavens opened. For the umpteenth time we pulled over to don rain jackets and offered up a silent prayer that it was just a shower. It was, but sadly proved to be the first of many.

A breakdown of communication in what was quite a large group at that point resulted in it splitting up. We rolled into the nights hotel in dribs and drabs, highly demoralised and very much in need of the large quantity of gateau that presented itself at the evening meal.

Day 6 – Warrington to Kendal (82 Miles)

Very much a day of two halves. To begin with the weather was even worse than that of day one. My hardshell jacket covered by another waterproof still wasn’t enough to keep the rain out. Busy roads made the first half of the ride very nerve-wracking, in those conditions your brakes don’t work well and the road surface becomes less grippy. A set of tram tracks bought down one member of our group in addition to several other riders later on.

Thankfully we managed to find the lunch stop this time round, a generous helping of Shepards Pie hit the spot. After a round of extra coffees we set off with a great sense of apprehension. Within five miles we were riding in bright sunshine. Only in the UK could this happen. We soon left the urban sprawl behind, riding instead on quiet country lanes. One final hitch presented itself in the form of a deep flood (for context it came to just below my knees). I spent much of the evening drying out my wheels.

Kendal has to have a mention, by far my favourite overnight stop. A room with a view of the river and the convenient location of the Local Bike Shop made it a firm winner. I finally gave in and bought a clip on mudguard, the prospect of a dry backside trumping the 140g of added weight.

Day 7 – Kendal to Lockerbie (71 Miles) 

The legs were treated to a rude awakening. Shap Fell began as soon as we got out of town, a ten mile climb with some steep sections and a long drag at the end. A familiar three man breakaway soon formed, going against common sense we of course raced up it, I eventually triumphed by a slim margin. Typically, once we got to the top it began blowing a gale and tipping it down with rain. We three were soon freezing cold, desperately hoping our fellow group members weren’t too far behind.

On the following descent I couldn’t afford to hang around, it was a matter of getting out of the wind and rain as soon as possible for fear of becoming dangerously cold. We regrouped at the bottom, soon rolling into the first feed stop – never has a pork pie been so deeply appreciated. Once again we set off into the rain.

A few miles down the road I punctured. “Bloody typical!”. I thought to myself when looking at the state of my rear tyre, I had failed to notice just how much it was worn – not what you’d expect from rubber that was merely three months old. Lockerbie of course had no bike shop within easy reach of our hotel. I am eternally grateful to have been leant a spare tyre that night following some (much deserved) ribbing from fellow group members. A few days later the front tyre would also need replacing, never again will I buy that particular make. In total the last six days involved five punctures, having not previously suffered one since October 2016. Sometimes life can be cruel.

Crossing the border into Scotland marked the passing of another big milestone. For the first time I allowed myself to think that the end was in sight, all manner of bad luck had thus far failed to stop us – we were going to make it. So I hoped.

Day 8 – Lockerbie to Edinburgh (68 Miles)

One of the major highlights of the trip. Mostly dry with only a couple of light showers, the Scottish scenery was a revelation. Standing in sharp contrast to the densely populated areas we had gone through over the course of the last couple of days. Almost eerily quiet in places, a background of harsh looking mountains. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to cycle that route in the Winter.

Following the lunch stop the roads got interesting. Sweeping descents with some tight turns, a tailwind made it all the more enjoyable. We couldn’t help pushing the pace, if I had to try and explain to someone why I love riding a bike then those last 25 miles would be the starting point. There is nothing else quite like the sensation of going fast under your own power, pushing 30MPH downhill and holding on for dear life round the corners.

Day 9 – Edinburgh to Pitlochrie (74 Miles)

A good start to the day, winding our way out of Livingstone on quiet backroads reminiscent of those encountered on day 8. Many of our number had visited Edinburgh the night before, resulting in a fair few hangovers. It was therefore decided that this would be treated as a ‘transition day’ – taken at an easy pace with sightseeing the primary aim. We soon passed another icon, crossing over the Forth Bridge.

It was then that it began to go uphill, we took it easy at first but after the first feed stop I couldn’t quite ignore my competitive instincts. Once again the three of us went clear, trying to break each other on the short steep ramps that started coming along in quick succession. The descent that followed almost felt alpine, another opportunity to get low on the drops and go as fast as my nerve would allow.

Pitlochrie ought to have a mention, it’s certainly a place I would visit again if the chance presented itself. One of those picturesque small towns tucked away in the middle of nowhere. It’s only downside being the eyewatering prices in the Local Bike Shop – I’m sorry but fourteen quid for a standard inner tube really is taking the mick.

Day 10 – Pitlochrie to Aviemore (59 Miles)

This was the day when my legs really started to feel the effects of the previous nine days worth of riding. My quadriceps and knees stubbornly ached for the first ten miles, perhaps smashing it on the hills and doing long turns on the front hadn’t been the best idea. Today the terrain was even better, we took advantage of disused roads turned into Cycle ways – the lack of traffic allowing you to relax and really take in the surrounding scenery. Given the choice I would certainly go back there, perhaps on a bike with some off-road capability to allow for some deeper exploration.

A considerable portion of the ride took place on gravelled cycle paths. Therein I discovered a new type of riding, despite being on an inappropriate bike I greatly enjoyed tackling the technical surface. My fellow riders did not share my opinion, not that I can blame them. Looking back I perhaps ought to have exercised more caution, it was the gravel that did for my front tyre – a rather spectacular split that would have made it unsafe to ride on.

After the lunch stop things got competitive again, this time it was about trying to bring up the average speed. It’s amazing what the legs can do when you know there aren’t many more miles left, there were times when we topped 30 MPH on the flat. Looking back we may have got a tad carried away in places, splitting the group is rarely a good idea.

Day 11 – Aviemore to Tain (70 Miles)

A day I would love to forget. Shortly after sitting down to eat dinner the night before I began to feel unwell, I’m still stumped as to what the cause might have been – perhaps ten days of living on stodge finally caught up with me. Without wanting to go into much detail I spent most of the night in the bathroom. At 3AM on day 11 I was seriously questioning whether or not I’d be able to carry on. Luckily my bout of illness passed almost as quickly as it had begun, I did at least manage to grab four hours of sleep.

On the bike I felt terrible, I suspect this was due to not having absorbed much of the food taken in the previous evening. Rather than spending time on the front I was hanging off the back, struggling on even the slightest of hills. It’s a big shame as once again the roads and scenery were spectacular (can you tell I like Scotland yet?) had I been on good form that day would probably have been a big highlight. After the lunch stop I started to feel slightly better, reassuring given the challenges I knew the final day would present.

Day 12 – Tain to John O’Groats (85 Miles)

This was always going to be a tough one, the last leg of our long journey. We set out along a coast road, in the UK that tends to mean two things; hills and rain. For the first fifty odd miles it was all up and down, once a hill was crested you would be-able to see the next one looming in the distance. Everyone’s legs were protesting by this point, so near yet so far. Cold and heavy showers punctuated the suffering. One thing was for sure, this was no day for leaving people behind. We had to work as a team, stopping to regroup when necessary and making sure anyone struggling was given a wheel to hide behind.

In the afternoon the weather took a miraculous turn for the better, the skies cleared and the sun beat down, warming our knackered legs. With fifteen miles to go we had the final feed stop, those chocolate florentines had never tasted quite so good before. The final push was anything but straightforward, one last three man breakaway – racing up what seemed like an endless string of short hills, preying that each one would be the last. Cresting that final ascent and seeing one of our support vans in the distance almost bought a tear to my eye, we really were just about to make it.

We waited by the van, congratulating other riders as they came in one by one. Some of whom had encountered far greater challenges than myself. In particular, special mention must be given to a rider in our group who completed the last five days of riding with a broken rear mech, leaving him with only two gears – how he managed it I’ll never know.

In the end we rolled into John O’Groats as one big group, thirty seven in total if memory serves. Celebratory champagne went down very nicely. Soon it was time to load the bikes onto the lorry that would take them home. I’ll never be-able to part with my Specialized Tarmac now, a (mostly) faithful steed that saw me through the toughest ride I have ever done.

There was of course much merriment on that last night, without the prospect of riding the following day we could afford to relax. I think it is perhaps best to say that what took place at John O’Groats probably ought to remain there.

The Lowdown

Hmm – how to finish this post without boring readers to death? I could go on and on about what I took from the experience. Places that I would never otherwise have visited. People who went from strangers to friends I’ll be eager to keep in touch with. A new perspective on Cycling and a rediscovery of the love of the sport – it’s not just about going fast.

A mention must be given to the support crew and organisers, always willing to go the extra mile. Let me tell you, arriving at your hotel to find your suitcase has been dropped off in your room meaning you don’t have to carry it up a flight of stairs is a truly wonderful thing. Homemade cake at the feed stops was a godsend, a welcome change from the usual gels and energy bars. Without them none of it would have been possible. I am eternally grateful, as I suspect are all my fellow riders.

I’ll end on this. If you should ever get the opportunity to go on a similar two wheeled adventure then please grab it with both hands. It will hurt and there will be moments that make you want to give up, yet at the end when you can look back on your achievement it all becomes worth it.

Thanks for reading.

 

Photo credit: Various

Day 1 – A rather grim view from Land’s End.

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My faithful steed. In black and white to hide how filthy it was.

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Day 6 – That infamous flood.

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The three musketeers. Probably off the front racing up a hill when this was taken.

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Only Tartan for the last day – Clearly looking forward to the challenge.

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Day 4 – Trying to make sense of some actual nice weather.

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Day 7. The rather bleak view from the summit of Shap Fell.

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A rare photo of the whole gang – following a particularly nice lunch stop in Carlisle.

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Over the border! Please excuse the terrible choice of kit.

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The view from Pitlochrie dam. See why I enjoyed Scotland?

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The last day – we made it!

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