Lands End to John O'Groats By Steve Kelly (6 to 14 September 2014)
Well, it's one of those bucket list things for a cyclist and as I'm not getting any younger it was time to give it a whirl.
But how? Do it by B&B, buy a tent, hire a motorhome (and driver)? None of these appealed particularly. I came across the Deloitte Ride Across Britain (RAB) site one day last year while browsing bike sites. For a not inconsiderable sum they would take me and 799 others on a 9 day fully supported trip from one end of the country to another in September 2014. Over a hundred miles a day for 9 days on the trot- gulp.
The deal with RAB sounded promising. Fully supported with the promise of excellent food, 'posh' showers, good toilet facilities, full mechanical and medical back up and...........a tent to myself for 7 nights. Plus cycling chaperones if needed. Turned out to be a massive but extremely well organised logistical exercise.
First things first. Time to retire so that there was enough time for some training! That saw me finish with HM Revenue and Customs after 43 years at the end of May. 'Training' is perhaps an over-description but I managed to get some miles in with the B1s and some longer days on my own. I managed to convince myself that I only had to average 12 mph and all would be well.
But it was up to me to get to Lands End and home from John O'Groats. Mmmm, time to revive the motor home idea and recruit my dearly beloved, her mum and Peanut (whippet). I promised them a holiday to remember. Well, a cyclist has to do what a cyclist has to do.
Motorhome duly hired and a couple a days to get down to Lands End. No problems there although there is a whole other story about my dearly beloved's travels with Peanut (don't drop your vehicle keys in the dog's watery excretions!).
Hygiene was a big issue for the organisers with anti bacterial dispensers at every turn. In the close conditions we were all living under this was a wise precaution. And it worked.
It was quite a sight at Lands End. A large field with 800 tents, massive marquee for food, mobile toilets and showers, Halfords back up mechanics etc etc. The bike went in to the overnight storage area and I got a tent, towel (fresh one every day) etc organised. Dawn and her mum pushed off to their campsite and I started to become familiar with my new green home. The food was as promised that first night followed by an early night anticipating a 5.30 wake up call.
The wake up music duly came over the tannoy/PA system right on time. A certain Queen song about wanting to ride my bicycle. There was a definite theme to the wake up music after that 'Let's get set to rumble', 'I will walk 500 miles' (first day in Scotland) . You get the idea.
So, porridge and a cooked breakfast. Pack bag and bung it on the lorry. Sort out a couple of bottles, retrieve the bike and hit the start line. This was the pattern every day. High 5 were providing as much powder and gel as you wanted at the beginning of the day, at the two pitstops during the day and recovery stuff at the end so no need to carry 100 miles worth of calories in your back pocket. Result!
RAB provided briefing on the route each evening and repeated some of it on the start line as they released batches on to the roads. It was to be the start of 9 days of completely dry weather, usually with a slightly chilly start but warming up as the day went on. Another result!
Day 1 Lands End to Okehampton
106.8 miles. Average 14.2. 8796 feet climbed.
Rush hour in Penzance! Wore the GCC colours today, thought it was appropriate. Cornwall was a maze of twisting, turning lanes with sharp ups and downs. Stuck to a chaperoned group to save energy; seemed to work well. The pitstops at about a third and two thirds of the way provided as much food as you could reasonably want incl pies, sausage rolls, sandwiches, sweets and crisps etc. Usually kept these stops to about 15 minutes to avoid café legs. Some longer draggy climbs towards the end of the day but good weather saw us to Okehampton by mid afternoon.
The riding standard was mixed with some obviously not too used to riding in groups. Speed-wise there were some who knocked out each day in under 6 hours and some who took nearer 12.
Following the route was easy. Every turn was signposted in advance, at the turn and after the turn as confirmation. All 969 miles were the same - you just had to pay attention.
Day 2 Okehampton to Bath
111.49 miles. Average 14.1. 7093 feet climbed.
Okehampton showground was in a lovely spot above the town with great views. Usual early morning start but freezing at 25mph downhill into town. Fairly straightforward cross country route except for a kick up the Quantocks and the ascent of Cheddar Gorge. Not too much reaction to the first day mileage but definitely not feeling the need for speed. Felt like I had to meter out my energy and not blow it in the first few days.
Bath was a bit of a surprise because they put us in the Uni Halls of Residence. Single rooms with ensuite made life a bit more bearable that night. Speech in the evening after dinner from the Chairman of the British Paralympics Association which was one of the designated charities. He was blind and riding the whole event on a tandem using a different pilot each day; they passed me several times during the event!
Day 3 Bath to Ludlow
97.93 miles. Average 13.5. 6621 feet climbed
Seem to be slowing down! A very cool downhill start again followed by a long draggy climb heading towards the Severn Bridge (selfies taken). Some steep climbs today. Then through Chepstow, climbing again before following the river Wye northwards with easier riding towards the end of the day passing Hereford and through Leominster.
Tents again at Ludlow racecourse but the weather was so good it was almost a pleasure to sleep out. Food in the marquee was excellent as always , varied menus and loads of it.
Day 4 Ludlow to Haydock
106.22 miles. Average 15.2. 3412 feet climbed.
Seem to be getting quicker but more likely the flatter route! Some fairly busy roads as we moved towards the Manchester/Liverpool corridor. Tended to ride in groups today so probably got pulled along.
If you are wondering how 800 managed to ride together? We didn't. RAB were very clear about not riding in groups of more than 10 to 12 and to be very safety conscious around traffic. In any case any 100 mile day is going to spread cyclists all over the route.
Day 5 Haydock to Hutton in the Forest
103.89 miles. Average 14.6. 5650 feet climbed.
Part of the day on home turf. It was a busy morning through Wigan to Preston and up the A6 with a pit stop at Barton Grange. It was all a bit strange cycling almost past my own front door but I ignored the temptation and pressed on through Claughton, Barnacre and Scorton to Quernmore, Caton and up to Milnthorpe for lunch. Another really warm day.
Then it was on to Kendal and the hot slog up Shap. Who knew it was so long? Head down and grind up. But fun on the other side doing my superman impression on the descent to Shap village. On to Penrith which turned out to have more hills than expected and through to Hutton in the Forest for the overnight.
Another huge grassy field. I can't tell you how glad I was that it wasn't wet.
It was about this time that saddle soreness started kicking in. Inspection of the bruising involved a closed tent, legs in the delivery position and hand mirror ….......enough detail. Copious amounts of chamois cream followed.
Day 6 Hutton in the Forest to Hamilton
99.94 miles (I wasn't even tempted to make it the ton). Average 16.4 mph. 3638 feet climbed.
A busy start through Carlisle and then out on to the old A74 which parallels the M74 all the way to Glasgow. A flatter day other than a steady climb up to Crawford. Spent a long period in a well organised chain gang rotating clockwise for mile after mile on roads that were pretty boring even if the surrounding scenery was rather nice. The road surface was often like riding on cobbles. Pit stops at Ecclefechan, which many enjoyed getting their tongues round, and Crawford before the eventual downhill through Lanark to Hamilton racecourse.
Catering provided by the racecourse this evening but it wasn't actually as good as the RAB organisation provided in the marquee on other nights. Quite a bit of siren activity (the emergency service variety, not the sirens of myth) overnight meant a fitful sleep.
Day 7 Hamilton to Fort William. A day of real tragedy.
This day started out like all the others with a cool morning through Hamilton and the eastern suburbs of Glasgow heading for the Fintry Hills and the A84/A85 to Fort William. A climb up the Crow road took us through some lovely countryside to Callander and past Loch Lubnaig towards Glen Ogle and Lochearnhead. This was meant to be a day of 127 miles and it was all going well until about 60 miles when a great deal of police and ambulance activity became apparent.
The A84 was closed and all cyclists were told to get off the road by the police as there had been a serious accident near Killin involving one of our lady cyclists just a few miles ahead of where I was at the time. We all stood around for an hour before being told to go back to Lochearnhead; a couple of hundred cyclists had gathered there and a similar number further back down the road at Callendar.
The road remained closed for about 3 hours while the police investigated. The lady had been taken to hospital in critical condition; sadly she was to die the next afternoon. The actual circumstances of the accident are still unclear. Sally Preece was a 49 year old mother of two teenagers and was by all accounts a fine cyclist who was riding for the Alzheimers charity. Hard to turn the mind back to cycling after this.
The day was effectively over as a result and RAB quickly organised buses to take participants and their bikes on to Fort William. The mood that evening was sombre but the decision was made to carry on with the event. Road safety, which had been emphasised throughout the event, was ever more to the fore in our thinking after this.
Day 8 Fort William to Bonar Bridge
110.49 miles. Average 14.5 mph. 5919 feet climbed.
Getting ever cooler and darker in the morning saw us start with lights on as we set off on the A82 to Spean Bridge, passing the Commando memorial on the way to Loch Lochy and Invergarry. A beautifully still morning.
At the bottom of Loch Ness we diverted from the main road to face a monster (not that one) climb on the eastern side of the loch. Over 10% for 2k Ugh. Then a drop to the loch and a slog into Inverness. Saddle soreness meant lots of squirming around for a more comfortable position.
Avoiding the busy A9 we headed for Beauly and north to Dingwall. A long climb took us over the Easter Ross hills and a swooping 40mph descent to Bonar Bridge. Another greenfield site for the overnight with the usual facilities and a special cheer for the Lloyds Bank team that Sally Preece had been riding with.
Day 9 Bonar Bridge to John O'Groats
104.15 miles. Average 13.8. 4209 feet climbed
The last day, thanks goodness! An even earlier start to allow folks to get back south from the finish. We were all on the road before 7. After Lairg the roads all got a bit single track with passing places but with few vehicles about. We made our way to the first pit stop at Altnaharra which I had been looking forward to seeing. The midgies had other ideas though and I couldn't get back on the bike fast enough. Shame about that.
Then a lovely run up Loch Naver to the north coast at Bettyhill. I was averaging about 15 mph to this point but we turned into a strong easterly wind and a series of climbs and descents over headlands which slowed progress and were a special form of torture. Lunch at Melvich brought some respite but it was still very windy as we headed for Thurso.
More climbing after Thurso saw me swearing out loud at the route setter (having a moment, sore bum etc) when he rode past me. He took it in good part - or just didn't care! I was flagging over the final 20 miles so stopped to gather myself at Castletown and had a coffee in a Mace store (wot, no Cafe Nero?). Suitably refreshed I tried to enjoy the last few slow miles to the end, reflecting on the journey.
It was great to hit the finish line, music, family, medals, dancing girls. Oops, no dancing girls but great to have got there, sore bum notwithstanding. We sat around cheering the other finishers, drinking and eating, waiting our turn for the traditional photograph before heading back to the motorhome for the champagne celebration.
Job done apart from the unfinished miles to Fort William but as we had already cycled more than the shortest distance end to end we reckoned we could say we had biked from one end of the country to the other. I hope you agree!
I recognise that doing Lands End to John O'Groats in this way will not be everyone's cup of tea. A highly structured event doesn't leave much to your own resources but it suited me. You'll make up your own mind.
Riding about 100 miles per day for 9 days wasn't as tough as I thought apart from the saddle soreness. I guess that having all day effectively to do it makes it achievable.
RAB are signing people up for 2015 if you fancy it.
At the end of the day it was …..............fun. But, given the death of a participant it brings home that we need to be careful out there.