TRAVELLING TO PENZANCE & LAND’S END
The logistics of 800 cyclists getting to the southern tip of the UK and then moving them from the northern tip nine days later are enormous. We selected the six hour coach trip to Land’s End and boarded at Reading.
Down the motorway to Penzance (of Pirates of Penzance fame), and then a slow, single lane, windy road to Land’s End.
The guy from New York, who I sat next to on the coach, told me about some sights to look out for on the ride - he had a cheat sheet. Eager!. But, his tipoff on a new app Epic Ride Weather was very fortuitous. Insert your route, date, time, and the app will predict weather and wind on the entire route. It seemed to work for routes anywhere. A very good tool for the week, which we referred to every late afternoon.
The organisation of this event was huge. There were 800 cyclists, each with individual tents and a small town was already setup when we arrived. This tented town moved with us all the way to John O’Groats. It was immediately impressive. The moving tented town offered posh shower blocks, toilets, a medic tent, massage tent, coffee cart, and bar - all with us for the entire trip. Even more impressive.
DAY 1 - LAND’S END (CORNWELL) > OKEHAMPTON (DEVON)
7:48 moving time. Average speed 21.7kmph
John O’Groats was a long way from this point. The first two days through Cornwall and Devon looked the most challenging on paper as these counties are famous for steep climbs and very few flat roads.
But the mood overnight, and into the morning, is pretty sombre following the death of Queen Elizabeth. Regardless of what people think of the monarchy, personal respect and nationalism had put everyone in a revered state. The nation was mourning. We didn’t yet know when the funeral would be, but it was tipped to be in 10 days.
Morning riding through villages was a visual reminder of the mood - every flag flew at half-mast and village centres gathered flowers from the public. This was a common scene that was replicated the entire length of Britain.
Despite the significance of the Queen’s passing, the planned ride remained unchanged. Riding across ‘her’ Britain was an obvious way to celebrate QEII.
It was a solid day of riding with lots of climbing and no easy kilometres - working all day with steep climbs and each descent was over before you knew it. The scenery from the coast to the moorlands (Bodmin Moor, Dartmoor) was varied and stunning and there were good times to stop and be a tourist. St Michael’s Mount is just off the coast and connected by a tidal causeway, just like France’s Mont St Michel. Interestingly, each has a population of about 35 people!
Although it was just the first day of riding, Simon had started asking people whether they were just riding together or were together. We joked about this all day.
The weather was perfect. Some early cloud cover, but we rode in 25 degrees for most of the ride. When it hit 30 degrees, everyone grabbed the sunscreen for the ‘September summer’.
Not too far from our destination in Okehampton race course, we stopped mid-afternoon for a cold frappe in the sun in Launceston’s square. It was a perfect stop, and it wasn’t long before more cyclists did the same.
A few beers in the evening sun at the campsite ended the day. All warmth quickly evaporated once the sun disappeared and things turned cold very quickly.
Food highlight: Vegetarian lasagne
Drink of the day: Dartmoor Ale, plus the coffee frappe at our impromptu stop in Launceston.
DAY 2 - OKEHAMPTON > BATH (SOMERSET)
8:10 moving time. Average speed 22.3kmph
The first night’s sleep was a hard adjustment. At one point, I wondered whether I would bother setting up my sleeping mat at all, as the grass looked so lush. Of course the mat went down during the night and that lush grass did not provide enough comfort, or any at all! It certainly made me question how I would be after the ninth night!
The expectation for the day was more stunning countryside and climbing. It was a very foggy and cold 06:30am start. The morning logistics of pack-up and getting ready wasn’t fine tuned at all yet. I failed to get a coffee before setting off, and dreamt of coffee at the first pit stop. More disappointment came when the coffee stall’s machine was broken. I am sure that the barista was more bitter than me with a sea of cyclists and no sales!
The day warmed up and provided lovely riding conditions in time for the steepest climb of the day, with a 19% incline into Cothelstone. Even the lady in the convenience store where we stopped for more water and a coke made a little jab about the ‘hill’ up the road. It got us all!
The route through Somerset delivered many small stone villages, each bringing a picturesque sight at each corner and with every rise and fall. Stunning! We could have ridden through those all day!
The climbing in the morning, and what was expected in the afternoon, was offset by the Somerset Levels. It’s literal in the name being spirit level flat and this brought some time to knock off some kilometres with Rob taking an unexpected turn at the front of the peleton, before we approached Cheddar Gorge. Yes, Cheddar is famous for producing cheese. The climb is also well known to cyclists and the name is more daunting than the actual climb. The scenery was stunning - as early as 1130AD, Cheddar Gorge was recognised as one of the "Four wonders of England”. The Gorge attracts tourists, rock climbers, musicians, and walkers - all of which were happening around us as we rode. When riding, I had many fond memories of scaling (walking) the walls of the Gorge with my kids many years ago.
Today’s destination was the iconic Bath. The town is a UNESCO World Heritage site and it sits in a volcanic crater, which means that there is only one way in and out of it. Our planned route didn’t go through much of the town so we made a small detour for an old school postcard.
And then a funny memorable interaction - we asked a pedestrian to take a photo for us - she immediately started counting down from 5 and took the photo regardless of the fact that we were not yet ready. Clearly, she had better things to do. This photo was her handy work. Pathetic!
A final 2.5km climb to the campsite and there was enough time to relax in the evening sun.
Food highlight: A massive amount of Stilton cheese for the evening appetiser, and again for dessert. Heaven! If only there was a red wine to go with it!
Todays drink: Untapped Pale Ale from Bath
DAY 3 - BATH > LUDLOW (GLOUCESTERSHIRE)
6:24 moving time. Average speed 23.5kmph
We were already in the practice of being asleep by 21:30. A great sleep on night two. No doubt, the sleeping and comfort would gradually get better as tiredness increased and care reduced.
Rob declared at breakfast that he had been to see the medic for some pre-emptive treatment on potential saddle sores. With a not-so-small bit of strapping, and he was on his way with a smile. As we later established, the medic’s answer to everything and anything was bright blue medical tape - invariably cut into a comedy of spider web patterns. We didn’t ask to see Rob’s.
Today was a flatter route, and while not a rest day, it was expected to be kinder. The third day on multi-day rides is often tough and often requires mental breakthroughs. You are already tired after two solid days of riding, your saddle knows you well, and your head can play tricks - like, why are you doing this? Despite being a flatter course, you could tell that other riders also felt a little empty.
There was a lot to see and experience: beautiful Cotswold villages, views from the Severn Bridge, the glorious Wye Valley, River Wye and the historic market town of Ross on Wye, and the Forest of Dean.
We were delighted to have colleagues Matt and Justin from near Cheltenham join us for sections of today’s ride.
You don’t need to ride far to notice that cyclists come with all abilities, shapes, sizes, ages, experience, and preparedness. There were a couple of tandem bikes, one of which had a blind pillion, David Clarke, and he had multiple cycling pilots over the course of the ride. Another cyclist had no hand, and another cyclist had no use of one arm - each riding with modified braking systems for one hand. One cyclist was riding with a prosthetic leg and on his third LEJOG challenge. And two veterans on recumbent bicycles. Cycling alongside these people for 9 days was nothing but inspiring and a privilege to witness.
There were people from all parts of the world, many of whom were riding solo. One cyclist from Trinidad & Tobago was not seen without his riding balaclava as the temperature differential was one of his biggest obstacles. We had a funny interaction with Roland from Austria who was frustrated because everyone thought that he was from Australia! He was even given an Australian flag on his rider numbers by mistake.
Today’s destination was Ludlow, a cute foodie town and very picturesque. We stopped for a quick photo on the historic bridge and then opted to head to the evening’s camp site at the racecourse to wash and relax.
Getting in early gave us good time to charge devices and recharge with a few beers in the sun. We later regretted not looking around Ludlow a little more. That wisdom obviously needed some more beer and banter!
Food highlight: Gammon and pineapple (tough work for a useless wooden knife)
Todays drink: Ludlow Gold Ale
DAY 4 - LUDLOW > HAYDOCK PARK (GREATER MANCHESTER)
6:43 moving time. Average speed 25.4kmph
Racecourse living and I like it! This was our second night camped at a racecourse. This meant that we could use real tables and chairs in the concourse, and that was pure luxury. After day three, small things were certainly having big impacts.
Word on the street was to enjoy breakfast, as tomorrow is not expected to be as good. Rob saw the bum doctor again and had to wait in line for service. Simon and I enjoyed breakfast and coffee as Rob got into preventative medicine. The 30min medic queue meant Simon got him a take-away breakfast to eat as he walked to his bike.
Although today was a little longer than yesterday, it was flagged as the easiest day of the ride. It was a cooler start at 17 degrees with cloud cover, but sunshine was expected later in the day. After three days of riding, the legs were feeling it. But, it was mind over matter - you couldn’t allow yourself to think of the aches and pains as there were six more days to go!
A motivation boost came in the form of another colleague joining us today. At Cressage, we met Rob’s good pal Mark, and his son Thomas, who had been patiently waiting for us sitting next to our colleague Steve from Shropshire - they hadn’t worked out that they were all waiting for us. Rob had built up meeting Mark as a coffee stop - “He is bringing coffee, for sure”. Mark certainly brought coffee, but not for us. We had a good laugh!
Steve then rode with us for 50kms, proudly showing us his local roads. With a cheeky grin, he told us that the route today avoided all the climbs.
After lunch near Market Drayton, we looked forward to the Cheshire Plains. Like the Somerset Levels, just the name was mentally relieving.
Shropshire into Cheshire was green and as flat as a pancake. All day riding through English country lanes was pure joy, but oncoming tractors aren’t your friend. Steve warned us of the local agricultural college nearby which includes young, reckless tractor drivers. The advice was to stay alert!
A fellow ride participant, who had crossed our path many times, was Norman (not his real name, to protect the innocent). He was a small chap, riding alone, on flat pedals. He rode at a consistent speed, alone. We passed him many times, stopped for breaks, and then there he would be, moving ahead of us. It was the perfect reminder of the hare and tortoise and it shows you what can be achieved by just constant effort and without the need to be first.
After lunch at Middlewich Football Club, we had a small peloton going into the night's destination, Haydock Park, located between Manchester and Liverpool. Random groups form and disperse all the time on group rides and today was no exception as we chased down the last 40kms. Our little group included two English brothers and two Norwegian brothers, who we kept seeing over the coming days.
We hit traffic for the last 20kms which wasn’t too bad, but very different from the empty lanes and roads that we had enjoyed up until then.
The Haydock Park location was good, our third racecourse campsite. The tents were set up in the middle of the racecourse and there were strict instructions not to walk on the actual racecourse as it would create shadows in the grass and put horses off as they raced. All of this resulted in a long walk into and out of the campsite.
Rob’s sister Jayne met us at the location for a drink and a catchup. We assessed the dinner and decided one of everything would be a good option today.
Food of the day: Shepherd’s pie
Todays drink: Atlantic Pale Ale
DAY 5 - HAYDOCK PARK > CARLISLE
8:05 moving time. Average speed 23.4kmph
The medic tent was becoming more popular as the days progressed. There were many funny reports about people’s reactions to riding for four consecutive days and needing a medic to inspect and help. Thankfully, Rob was intact due to his preventative steps, but he was now addicted to the daily routine.
After leaving Haydock Park, it was 50kms through suburbia to Preston. From then on, the scenery improved dramatically and the day’s journey was delightful.
The highlight was Shap Fell, a 14.5km climb at 2.6% gradient to a barren windswept peak. But before we attempted the climb, coffee was essential, but the challenge was finding it! We were now in Cumbria and stopped at a cute van offering food and coffee. I lined up to be asked, how many sugars I would like in my coffee…. “But you didn’t ask me what coffee I would like?” “Our coffee is sort of instant.” “Instant? Is it like instant or it is instant?” “It is instant.” We declined the coffee.
The landscape of the counties of England changes a lot, but it is less noticeable when you travel by bike where change is slower and more subtle. We started in the south with slate buildings and less defined paddock lines, and now in Cumbria, it was granite buildings and very defined paddock lines of dry-stone walls.
The changing scenery up Shap Fell was dramatic. We left the lush green valley and climbed an exposed windswept peak. Yes, it was certainly windy and cold at the top, but all attention was on the joy of the upcoming descent. We layered up for the ride down, but the headwinds ruined our planned easy descent. We worked the entire way into the headwind - still flying fast but none of it came for free.
Once off Shap Fell, we were on an empty road that ran by the adjacent motorway. No cars and rolling hills were perfect, but we were still pushing into a headwind and the day was feeling very long. Suddenly around a corner, a pub appeared - what a glorious sight! “Simon, time for a beer!” We were certainly on the same page! We were only 10kms from our destination but that ale, crisps and seat were exactly what we needed and deserved. Many other riders passed us in the garden, some cheered, some stopped as well.
There is nothing like a stop and a beer to get you motivated for the last 10kms home. We charged and got it done as quickly as our tired legs could take us. It’s always those last 10-20kms of the day that just have to get done - you can’t dally. After getting in, we had about 10 people thank us for pulling them along in the peloton. Our pleasure - we didn’t even know they were there.
After dinner, I noticed a twinge in my achilles. It was unusual and unexpected. I reluctantly went to see the medic who strapped it and warned me it was going to get worse. Great! I still had four days to go! I am very particular about my foot posture while riding, ensuring that the foot is flat for power and looks (I hate to see the bending feet of some cyclists).
LEJOG can be completed as one journey or in two parts - the English and Scottish legs. As we were on the border of Scotland, this was where the Scotland-only riders entered. There were many family members, including dogs, visiting the campsite to spur on their riders. A great atmosphere.
Food of the day: Cumberland sausage
Today’s drink: Red wine from the mobile bar - the better option of the two they offered.
DAY 6 - CARLISLE > HOPETOWN ESTATE
7:46 moving time. Average speed 22.1kmph
Carlisle is just on the English side of the Scottish border. We crossed over into Scotland shortly after setting out in the morning. There’s nothing quite like stopping on an A-road for a tourist shot!
The fresh legs of the new riders were noticeable in the morning ride. The first 50kms was an A-road alongside a motorway. It was straight, flat(tish), and monotonous, but it quickly allowed us to chew up some kilometres and get us to what was flagged as some of the most dramatic scenery of the trip. While we had seen wonderful beauty throughout England, people were excited to see what Scotland had to deliver.
Scotland welcomed us with stunning, lush fields and rolling country lanes. What grabbed our attention were the cows - there were many cows, and many colour varieties. Colours and patterns of cows changed in every paddock. Very striking indeed.
One of the highlights of the day was the ‘Devil’s Beef Tub’ (we presume named after the topology and the many cows), a steady 10km 3% gradient (it features in the UK’s official 100 climbs) before sweeping down into the Tweed Valley. We were desperately hoping that it would warm us up. The official temperature for the day was between 12-15 degrees, but it felt like one degree all day and nothing was warming us up.
Once again, before starting the climb, coffee was essential!. We stopped at Moffat, a reasonably sized town that provided a few coffee options. Coffee stops (and pubs) had been pretty rare on the LEJOG route. In this moment, coffee without cake would have been silly, so we indulged and enjoyed the short break sitting outside in the sun. Again, small things have big impacts! Before long, other cyclists joined us with the same idea.
A postbox in Moffat had a day of the week sign. A small identification of what day it was, that was changed by a human every day. It was part of someone’s job! It reminded me of how some places/people just do what they have always done, not impacted by what happens everywhere else. I pondered briefly to determine if this was a good thing or not. I am still not sure.
The architecture continued to change as we moved further north into Scotland. Stark-looking block farm houses and worker cottages were sparsely scattered among the landscape. A noticeable change from England and a sign that Mother Nature is certainly more ferocious in the north.
At the top of the Beef Tub, I stopped for the view and to catch up with Rob. Also at the summit was a bike mechanic who was cheering riders along. Richard, the mechanic from London, had been a mechanic for only 3 years. He was retrenched after a couple of Covid furloughs and a 35 year career. He self-started his bike mechanic training as it was always something that he wanted to do. He volunteered to support this ride because he had never been to Scotland! I am amazed how many people in the UK haven’t travelled very far to see their country. Richard was a good guy, and he greeted me as a Kiwi because he had learned that greeting a Kiwi as an Aussie was confronting, but less so the other way around. We had a laugh!
Our stopping time was becoming longer than we wanted it to be - on some days it added nearly two hours. We discussed stopping time and whether it was wasteful or worthwhile. Longer stops were eating into our time to relax at the end of the day. The hard balance was that we wanted the riding done, needed to refuel and catch a breath, take in the views, but not stop to stand around. We decided that we would only stop briefly to refuel and only spend time in memorable stops. Memorable stops are views and experiences augmented by coffee, beer, or whiskey!
We were slower today due to my right achilles. It was hurting and I couldn’t put much power through my right leg. The flats were ok, but climbing was definitely power off the right leg. Very frustrating!
We spent the last 20kms looking for a pub, (or a memorable stop). One option had no outside seating and was rejected. We continued to follow Simon to Edinburgh. We were not sure when Simon’s batteries would start to fade or run out. He was smashing the ride! Clearly the benefit of his Alps training camp!
We went to bed knowing tomorrow would be the biggest day - the Queen’s stage.
Food of the day: Peri Peri chicken, meatballs; lemon tart, crumble, chocolate tart! Yes, all of them on one plate!
Today’s drink: Loch Lomond Pale Ale and merlot. An Australian merlot which was better than the Yellowtail alternative.
DAY 7 - EDINBURGH > STRATHDON (THE QUEEN’S STAGE)
9:36 moving time. Average speed 20.2kmph
Here it was - the biggest day of the ride. It was also a poignant reminder of the past week, and a wonderful opportunity to ride past Balmoral Castle, the Queen’s favourite location and also where she died.
We planned to have wheels rolling at the earlier time of 06:00am, which meant that our well rehearsed morning routine was rearranged to fit in with a wake up time of 4.30am. Thanks to someone’s coughing fit in a nearby tent, most of us were awake at 3.30am.
Thankfully the medics also rose early and Rob was able to get his pre-emptive taping.
Once taped, Rob sat down at breakfast to notice his leg warmers in his hand. It was too hard to fuss about now with shoes on. A decision that I am sure that he regretted because it was bitterly cold all day!
The morning ride was freezing! It didn’t rise above 9 degrees, but the ‘feels like’ temperature was a lot less. There were glimpses of the sun, but no warmth. It was freezing shade for most of the day.
We passed our colleague and fellow participant Matt (well, Matt passed us) who was wrapped up like a warm present, and he sounded wise with, “it will be cold at the ski field!”.
We rode on the outskirts of Perth before an organised pit stop. The pit stops are stocked with all you need to refuel. Pork pies, scotch eggs, Easter buns(!), chocolate, and John West all sorts. The sponsored John West feed was pretty popular, and Simon and Rob dug into the cat food at most stops. I just couldn’t. They say it is great protein - but I am not a cat that enjoys tinned fish.
Headwinds weren’t our friend. They were already strong and gusting before we got to the climb at Glenshee. Glenshee is a ski area for locals - it doesn’t snow there often, and snow quality is not great, but when it does blanket, there is only really enough time for the locals to get there for it. It is about a 22km climb to Glenshee at 2% gradient, and the serious bit is 10.2km at 3.3% gradient. The entire road and climb is visible in the distance - you know what is coming.
It was too much for some. An icy headwind all the way up meant we had walkers, and there were already about 50 people in the broom wagon (collecting stragglers or those who can’t go on). At the summit, the warmth of the broom wagon was incredibly tempting. My excruciating achilles and being frozen to the core meant that I felt miserable. I looked at riders walking onto the bus and could have easily followed. I turned to Simon to see if he was interested. He looked me straight into my eyes and shook his head from side to side. We got ready for the descent straight away. We had to keep moving. Stopping made everything hurt more.
After a climb, the descent is always the reward. All we knew was that Balmoral Castle was the next landmark. It is a 29km descent to Balmoral. We set off looking for the next memorable (and warm) experience - coffee was the plan.
The descent was into a 50kmph icy headwind. We were pedalling at about 300 watts and moving no more than 20kmph downhill. It was hard, cold, and unrewarding. Absolutely brutal! But, the views were spectacular and amidst the wind and rain there was a rainbow in the distance. It all helped to keep us going.
Photos had already reduced in frequency in Scotland as it was just too cold, and with so many layers (we were wearing everything we had), it took ages to get phones out from jerseys. But the sights were overpowering and in these difficult conditions I had to stop for one photo opportunity.
We made it to the first town, which was Braemar, after 13.8kms descending. One cafe was over-run with cyclists so we avoided that and went to the upmarket establishment, Farquharson’s. Adam (one of the English brothers) had offered to buy, and despite him suggesting it was too pricey, we all barged in and sat down. Coffees all round! And after one sip, Simon had the inspired idea for whiskeys all round!. Just what the doctor ordered.
We had 50kms to go until the day’s destination at Strathdon. After Braemar, we were in the valley and less exposed to winds, so riding got much better. We had joined a small peloton which took us to Balmoral. The medicinal benefits of the whiskey on my aching achilles were far superior than the Panadol I had been taking.
The peloton was flying. I dropped the speed chain a little before Balmoral to give my foot a break and to take in the scenery. I rode alone for several kms before stopping at Balmoral Castle thinking that the group would have done the same. They didn’t. A few photos and sombre thoughts and I was back on the road.
The view after Balmoral, along the River Dee, and looking back onto Balmoral, into the sun is something I will never forget. The ride along the river, down the valley, through the Cairngorms National Park, with wide open hillsides, remote Scottish homes and glorious sunshine cutting through the cloud cover made for a perfect Scottish ride in Autumn (that means, stunningly beautiful, bitterly cold, but in a glorious scene). A few times I had to pinch myself that I was actually riding here.
We arrived at Strathdon after 11 hours in the saddle. We were cold with 5 layers on, none of which we took off. A hard day is probably under selling it!!
Strathdon is recognised as one of the coldest places in the UK. Overnight forecast was - 2 degrees, but the ‘feels like’ temperature was -6 degrees. The campsite was set up alongside a small, but audible, brook.
Food of the day: Potato and beans with ratatouille.
Today’s drink: Coffee and whiskey at Braemar.
DAY 8 - STRATHDON > KYLE OF SUTHERLAND
8:57 moving time. Average speed 19.6kmph
A few early screams were heard shortly after sunrise. Believe it or not, three people went for a dip in the brook - I presume as part of a challenge or a lost wager. They seemed to survive it.
The climbs in Scotland were longer, but not as steep as the ones we had already completed in England. And then there was “The Lecht”. A steep climb in parts, with some exceeding 15% gradient. Overall, it is measured at 5kms and 4.5% gradient. We approached The Lecht after 13kms.
It was a very cold, wet start. The climb started steeply with a ‘nice’ 15.4% gradient, and many riders were walking already, some even before they tried it. We pushed on.
The road was relentless as it went on and on. The photos just don’t capture it, for the road went well into the clouds, and up and up to the ski lifts at the summit. There wasn’t a lot that was visible in the clouds at the summit. We continued on, passing barely visible signs to famous Whiskey distilleries such as Glenlivet and Glenfiddich.
Once again, the descent was into icy headwinds, and our downhill speed became incredibly slow. It was like there was no decline. Weather conditions, and avoiding other riders, made it a little treacherous. The climb, the view, the conditions, all combined to establish lasting memories.
From what we could tell, through the thick cloud which we rode, there were wide-open vistas with random sheep in the hills. But the wet and cold was unbearable, and there was no relief. We desperately needed somewhere to warm up and hoped for somewhere that would provide a coffee. A local told Simon about an upcoming pub so we rode on in hope.
Simon didn’t have waterproof gear. He was frozen and tried to ride faster to warm up. I had brought waterproof foot covers but stupidly didn’t put them on. Rob was broken. I now had two achilles in throbbing pain. We were riding very, very slowly through small country lanes.
The best view of the day was when we saw the pub. There was nothing to note about it - we just hoped it was open, and it was. Hooray! Oh, how we needed a ‘memorable stop’ right now! We were the only people there. We enjoyed char-grilled burgers and coffee and then tried to dry our rain-sogged gloves in the hand dryers. It was useless. We reluctantly finished and ventured out in the elements again.
It was an incredibly long, brutal day. There were moments during the day when we felt broken, but it is days like this that create lasting memories, and with hindsight, they are always better. The brutality was heightened by the sheer isolation of this part of Scotland. We hadn’t seen a commercial establishment for most of the day. We were very aware of the sparseness through which we were traversing, and yet this rugged beauty is something we will not forget.
Food of the day: Chicken Kiev at dinner. Burger at the pub which had a strong char-grilled flavour.
Todays drink: Black Isle Amber Ale
DAY 9 - KYLE OF SUTHERLAND > JOHN O'GROATS
8:03 moving time. Average speed 20.8kmph
This was it! The last day of riding, taking us to John O’Groats. The finish line! The very top of Scotland.
It was an early start for our final day. Rolling at 06:00, with a 04:30 wakeup. Everything was prepped and ready to go. Rob even passed on the medic arse strapping because he was so excited to reach the final day.
I was sure that we were riding through beautiful countryside, but the first 50kms was grim! Icy cold rain and headwind greeted us and blocked out most viewing opportunities. We really couldn’t see anything though the rain! Even Simon, in his non-waterproof gear, was digging deep. It was so cold my feet and hands were frozen and the only good thing about this was that there was no achilles pain.
After a 35km climb, and the ensuing descent, we took our first stop and sought relief from riding in the weather. The pitstop was located in a midge infestation (maybe they were there sheltering from the weather too) but that was a minor detail against the harsh weather that we had ridden through to get to this point. The thought of carrying on in this weather was horrific! As hard as other individual segments might have been, this was soul destroying, and I don’t think we made any sense as we spoke to each other at this point. The rain and cold were relentless and overwhelming as they attacked our very core.
Cycling can often produce moments like this. It is harder than it looks, and often conditions make the difference, for the better and the worse. This moment felt like rock bottom.
But, being this close to the finish line, we just had to press on. We didn’t come this far to not complete it. We didn’t start to not finish. The support by many people around the TBB initiative is relying on us to do this. If we think this is hard, or too hard, we are kidding. This is a privilege to be riding in this part of the world, or even riding at all.
Within minutes of leaving the pitstop, we were on the most glorious and beautiful segment of the entire journey. The sun came out and illuminated the gentle rolling landscape. Our mood instantly changed and we found our smiles again. Sheep were unfenced, and all across the landscape, protected only by signed requests for driver protection. The farmer must have been in marketing as the signs pleaded for lamb safety, not sheep safety. We were on the lookout for baby lambs, and saw none, but were obviously conscious of safety.
We continued onto the coast and the North Sea. The Northern Coast Road gave amazing views of the cliffs and sandy coves. We saw about 30 brave surfers taking part in surf lessons while wearing hooded wetsuits. And we thought we were cold!
The route followed the North Coast 500 cycle route all the way to JOG with exposed roads providing great views of the Orkney Isles. The last 30kms were a slog for me with both achilles now completely shot. I took off earlier after lunch to make some time ahead of Rob and Simon. Again, Simon carried us to the finish line by limiting stops and keeping pace.
We crossed the finish line, collected our finisher’s medal, and then crept down the hill for a photo at the JOG sign. Appropriate, but sounding untuned as always, a lone bagpipe busked nearby as we queued for a photo. A wonderful sound to mark the end of an amazing experience!
We were thrilled to get on the organised coach at JOG for the two hour trip to Inverness. The coach passed a courageous LEJOG rider headed home somewhere with a large backpack on. We don’t know where he was headed, but because it was very remote, we do know that he had a long ride somewhere.
The Travelodge in Inverness felt like pure luxury! And our dinner reservation was thrilling!
To be able to order from a menu, use real cutlery, and not grab dessert at the same time as the main meal was a real treat.
Food of the day: Haggis entree
Today’s drink: The best bottle of rioja we could find on the menu.
INVERNESS TO LONDON
The next morning, we bumped into a fellow participant from Manchester. He was still wearing his finisher’s medal but was frustrated, actually angry. He said that he was already planning to ride LEJOG again because he had unfinished business - he walked a part of Cheddar Gorge and felt that he cheated and was determined to complete the entire route next time. It reminded us that we were right to get the job done properly, and I will always be very grateful that Simon did not allow me to get warm in the broom wagon at the top of Glenshee.
On our final day in Inverness, Scotland, we found a pub to watch the Queen’s funeral. A fitting and solemn finish to an amazing week. We had missed all the activity in London as it prepared itself for the funeral extravaganza. Over several pints, we reflected on the week that was and the beautiful, varied landscapes of Britain. What a privilege to experience it all! A week of memories that I’ll cherish forever.
Our flight back to London was late on the afternoon of the funeral, and there wasn’t any disruption except for catering which couldn’t get into the airport.
Once home at Simon’s house, getting nine days of smelly clothes into the washing machine was a priority,
My achilles were still causing me grief. Both were now swollen and walking was very uncomfortable. It was certainly going to require investigation and treatment once back in Sydney.
Food of the day: Simon’s wife Lisa had made mac ‘n’ cheese for our arrival. Yum!
Todays drink: Guinness in Inverness, and a good Australian red when we got to London.
We have wonderful, lasting memories from spending nine days riding the length of Britain together, and doing that to support TBB is even more satisfying. The idea of ‘stopping at the next coffee shop or pub that we see’ is something that was motivating, and unlocked feelings of desired warmth, and excited taste buds. But the devastation of not seeing a stop just around the next corner was constantly reset by a new goal or support from each other. Courageously, we had to ensure that we achieved our primary goal, which was to finish, and finish together. And, that we did!