Brief charity bit first

I’m doing the trip for a personal challenge, and in the process have decided to raise funds for the Alzheimers’ Society (both in the UK and Ireland). Both my wife, Sarah, and I have very personal reasons in our families why there was only one cause we would support. Feel free to donate at either of the personal donation pages at The Alzheimer Society of Ireland or Alzheimer’s Society UK.

The Alzheimer Society of Ireland
The Alzheimer’s Society UK

The self-indulgent blog bit starts here …

From hereon in, I’ll be adding diary entries from time-to-time, complete with a few pics, with more to come once the trip gets underway. If you want to see a bit more info on the route and who we are, click here.

22nd May – 12 days to go

It’s getting real now. The bikes were all packed up yesterday and waiting for DHL to collect them this afternoon and they duly arrived on time. I felt like a worried parent asking the driver whether they were packaged properly and had I printed enough copies of the documentation? I think he sensed this when he told me that “these were the best-packed boxes he’d seen in a long time“. I bet he says that to everyone.

In two days’ time, the bikes will arrive at Carn Bikes in Pendeen, Cornwall, where they’ll be rebuilt, tested and delivered to the Lands End Hotel ready for the off. It will be another 11 days until we’re reacquainted on the eve of our departure. Fingers and toes crossed!

At the very least even if we pull out now we’ve got the logistics of retrieving two bikes from Cornwall.

All of the training rides have been done. The focus for the next couple of weeks is to stay healthy, stay sane and just a few gentle spins on the other bike(s). Hopefully, everything goes like clockwork between now and then.

25th May – 9 days to go

After three days of paranoia dreaming of everything that could go wrong, I heard the great news from Stuart at Carn Bikes, that both mine and Tom’s bikes arrived safely and intact. They’ve now been rebuilt and all is pretty much good. The only issue is that however much pipe lagging and bubble wrap I used, I didn’t think to keep the disc rotor of the front wheel away from the chain. As such it was lying on it the entire journey. If there’s one thing that should never get anywhere near a disc brake rotor, it’s oil! Anyway Stuart has done a great job and cleaned the rotor well. Seemingly the brakes are working. Phew!

So all that now remains is to stay healthy and injury free through the next nine days and make sure we wake up in time for our flight over next week, (a 7am red eye – I thought my days of being in Dublin Airport at early o’clock were well behind me!).

The other thing I need to bear in mind is to stop eating. I’m in the ‘taper’ period when it’s important to stay fresh and let the body recover with minimal cycling. The only problem is that cycling does a pretty good job of keeping me away from the fridge. Ah well, just another 9 days to exercise some self-restraint, then once we’re off I’ll be able to eat for Ireland, England, Wales and Scotland!

28th May – 6 days to go

Last spin out with the club this morning and Tom joined us too. I was never going to do the full route today, partly because I’m tapering and partly because I’m on the heavier bike, while the good bike is already in Cornwall. Anyway, the chosen route given it’s a nice sunny day was to do a lap of the Gaps. That generally means around 100km and anything above 1200m of climbing, generally including the Sally Gap and Wicklow Gap. Anyway, once I got to the top of the Sally Gap, myself and Tom said goodbye to everyone else and headed off as quickly as possible to beat the last breakfast orders in the Moody Rooster. I’m sure Tom would have been as happy to continue climbing (he’s a naturally gifted climber apparently …) with the rest, but bacon, eggs, sausages and puddings were calling.

Anyway, that’s it now for cycling for the next few days. Time to tidy the house, prepare for my parents who are coming to visit for a few days, and hopefully some good sleeping in there too.

Practising eating

31st May – 3 days to go

3 days until we start cycling, but as I write this in the evening time, there’s only one day of work left. Quite a lot to do. I’m trying my hardest to get everything done and not to think about cycling or talk about cycling … but it’s not easy. The addiction is real! Great to meet a few former colleagues from Qualtrics this morning at their new office launch. That didn’t help in the not talking about cycling sense though as I bumped into a few of the bunch that cycled from Mizen Head to Malin Head together in 2021. I might have mentioned this trip once or twice too …

Despite my half-arsed efforts to avoid cycling thoughts during work times, evening times are dedicated to planning final details and double-checking the weather forecast. On the weather front, things are currently looking good – it’s looking like it’ll be a pleasant temperature throughout and dry. The wind is in our faces for the first couple of days, but you can’t have everything. It sounds like both myself and Tom have finished our packing this evening … the pic below is pretty much everything I’ll be bringing with me – that’s travelling light to the extreme. I’ve also checked in for the flights to Exeter and for the car rental to get from Exeter to Penzance. There really is no backing out now …

Extreme travelling light

2nd June – 1 day to go

We’re here. We’ve made it to Lands End and have been reacquainted with our bikes. Stuart from Carn Bikes delivered them just after 6 and it’s now all about a relaxing pint and an early night ahead of a planned early start.

The journey today saw us fly into Exeter on the early flight and then head to a local bike shop for some top ups of essentials. I then had a mini trip down memory lane wandering around the University some 30 years after I graduated from there. It’s a sunny day but it did make me realise how lucky I was to study in Exeter. I’m not sure I realised that at the time. Anyway after a few diversions and passing a couple of old haunts we drove up to Bickleigh, the location for our second night. Tomorrow has a lot of climbing involved so we left as much stuff there in advance rather than carrying it all day. The drive to Penzance then took a few hours with one wrong turn along them way and after a quick walk around we jumped in a taxi that brought us to the start line.

It’s a gorgeously sunny evening and the sea is pancake flat. Tomorrow is due to be sunny albeit with a headwind, but we’re okay with that.

3rd June – day 1: Land’s End to Bickleigh

That was a fun day. It was always going to be the toughest day and the constant headwind, albeit only 15kph added to the fun off 200km and 2900m of climbing.

We started around 6.15 and the first few km’s were gently rolling. We were going at a steady comfortable pace knowing what we had ahead and knowing we had several days of it to come. The first stop came relatively quickly with a gorgeous pasty at 50k in. Once we got to Bodmin the profile started to change. It was still rolling but a little more sustained and steeper. Bodmin saw the steepest gradient of the day at 20%. From then it was just about conserving energy and just spinning the wheels to get up the climbs.

Unfortunately one of the challenges about trying to do it in 7 days is you do occasionally need to get on a trunk road at some point. Today involved approx 25k along the two feet wide, at its widest , hard shoulder of the A30. It was a bit hairy at times and just when we thought we’d finished it for the day we got our first puncture after I clobbered a stone and got an impact puncture. The first replacement tube was pinched and blew so we had to use the second. That precipitated our stop at the fabulous Pump & Pedal bike shop/cafe/pub just south of Okehampton.

From then we only had another 50k to do, but we also knew that this involved the most fun (!) climbs, on what at this point were very tired legs. Anyway, we got over those and had a beautiful descent into Bickleigh and a cold cider at the Fisherman’s Cot.

Day 1 is done and know we only have to do 6 more of these days.

4th June – day 2: Bickleigh to Leominster

I guess before I start today I should offer an enormous apology to one reader (from a lowly public school in Gloucestershire that offered appalling after sports dinners for visiting schools), for the fact that I might have misspelled “pasty” yesterday. If there are any mitigating circumstances, it’s perhaps the fact that I’m editing a WordPress site on my phone after a medicinal cider or real ale. Does that help Ross?

After that what have been the life lessons from today? Perhaps don’t plan a route through Hereford if you don’t want movie quotes from Tom?

Actually it’s been a tough day, but a great day. Tom left a bag in Taunton and had to go back for it which added an extra 25k to his route, then we spent an extra 10k circling the Downs in Bristol trying to find each other once he caught up.. I’d also gone to great lengths with the route planning to avoid A roads. That meant that we spent silly amounts of time on side roads with very degraded surfaces, or multi-use cycle paths, or tunnels through hills, or rough gravel tracks, etc. Every hill felt hard, even if in reality it was nothing compared to what we’re used to. I guess the cumulative impact starts to hit eventually, even after only two days!

We really did have some stunning scenery today though. The Somerset levels were great, the Mendip hills, the Clifton Suspension Bridge and the old Severn Crossing. I’m not Bristol born, but I grew up in and around and it’s a very special city, with so much pride and history. Also Mum and Dad, and Jo (my sister) still live there. Jo came out to meet me about 5k west of Brunel’s finest and rode with me for a bit. She’s not ridden a bike for many years, but was very strong compared to little ol’ me. We had a lovely picnic on the Durdham Downs, something I probably haven’t done for 40 years, but it’s still a strong memory. It was lovely to cycle with Jo, and to say hello to Mark, Clara & Amy.

Eventually, I caught back up with Tom, and after a bit of navigating north Bristol, we hit our second incredible bridge of the day, the old Severn Crossing, and photographed each other with the new Severn Crossing in the background (bridge number 3).

The final 60k or so were tough. The Wye Valley Greenway is great but not on tired legs and road tyres. The tunnel that was at least 1km long was a shock to the system as to how cold it was too. We were both flagging badly after Tintern, and needed food badly. Hereford was a long time coming, but once we got there we we emptied the petrol station of every bit of sugar we could find.

So, what was the biggest lesson from today? There are candidates; eat more even if it’s difficult; don’t leave bags behind; don’t try too hard to avoid A roads; don’t leave too many typos when you know that someone is proof reading; or perhaps all of the above. The bottom line is this is an amazing experience and you learn a lot about yourself along the way.

A very special mention had to be made to all the donations that are coming in, I have no idea if anyone is reading this (and I don’t care, I’m doing it for me), but the donations and words of support are wonderful, and JK and EA, thank you so much for sharing the words of William Wordsworth with me earlier; beautiful.

5th June – day 3: Leominster to Preston

After the distance and climbing over the first two days, it was nice to do something a little flatter.  The distance was still high, but a more gradually rolling route made today more manageable.  That’s not to say we weren’t very tired by the end of it at all.  In particular, I’m walking very uncomfortably like somebody twice my age with very fatigued legs.  I was thinking earlier how a massage would be amazing right now, but equally it would be like massaging concrete given how stiff my quads are.

We had a slightly later start from Leominster today which certainly helped but did need to find breakfast at the first possible stop, which happened to be Gregg’s in Ludlow.  Worryingly that’s the second “breakfast in Gregg’s” of the trip 

It was a very pleasant cycle through the most part with gently rolling hills and lots of very red brick houses.  That was until we hit the Lancashire conurbations including the likes of Wigan.  I could be struggling for a long time to find something positive to say about that section.

Sadly the planned route had to be changed due to roadworks which added a few Km’s on but it was lovely to eventually make it to Preston.

Once here most of the evening was spending adjusting the route through the Lakes tomorrow.  I think I have something workable, but who knows?  Let’s see tomorrow.

6th June – day 4: Preston to Lockerbie

The hump day.  Today felt like an important achievement, we hit the halfway mark and we also reached Scotland.

We had breakfast in the hotel before we started which I think was a first (my brain is becoming scrambled so I’m not entirely sure).  It is becoming increasingly hard to eat.  It’s basically just fuelling at this stage and despite being the most important thing we should be doing, I’m finding it hard.  That said, having food before kick off was such an important thing to be able to do.  Thankfully the Kings Arms (or is it Kings Head – it’s a body part but I can’t remember which), in Lockerbie starts breakfast early enough so we can do the same again tomorrow.

So what about the day?  Well initially I just found it so difficult to be warm.  It’s not cold but I’m exhausted.  We’ve been so lucky with the weather but I’ve been needing to find the heat of the direct sunlight on me before I feel human.

The route was stunning.  A bit samey initially, but once we hit the foothills of the Lakes it was stunning.  Unfortunately given I made late route changes on my phone the night before meant that we had a bit of a surprise and ended up on a hill which was around 25%!  Tom fell into the hedge and I just stopped and walked the bike at that point.  I’d love to have another go on fresh legs and an unloaded bike.  Tom continued to cycle once he restarted.

After that we hit that heart of the lakes through Bowness, Ambleside and then lunch in Grasmere.  Roast chicken and potatoes for lunch was a great choice and fuelled me well for the rest of the day.  

After a brief stop by Wordsworth’s grave the cycle from the lakes to Carlisle was stunning.  We both did our own thing then and it was an amazing afternoon in terms of weather, roads and for the first time all trip (I think) a cross wind instead of headwind.  

We caught back up with each other coming out of Carlisle and were on great form.  The final leg up to Gretna and the Scottish border and then on to Lockerbie was just wonderful.  The day was just great all around.

Finally before we hit the hotel, we visited the Lockerbie Memorial.  That was very impactful.  Initially I was wondering if I was in the right place as it was just a quiet housing estate, and then I realised that that’s exactly the point.  We spent a few minutes and a few prayers there before finishing for the day.

A truly great day.  3 more to come!

7th June – day 5: Lockerbie to Dunkeld

5 days in. This is tough. We’ve both done endurance stuff before in terms of 24 hour cycles or Audax long distance cycles, but the day after day nature of this is a different level of exhausting.

Today started with cooked breakfast and pastries in the Kings Head/Arms. Tom was already down before I appeared. I had the shakes this morning from the tiredness and that played on my head a bit. I’ve been there before and I know it’s just a symptom of how we body is in shock due to the cumulative effort and tiredness, but it still played on my head somewhat. I was also feeling the cold in particular today.

The day started with a long uphill drag. Not the steepest but it just went on. The route was mirroring the motorway for a while. I was struggling in my head. I knew it was temporary and just had to cycle through it. The lack of sunshine at that point, the motorway and of course the tiredness were all part of it. There is a cure! Music! Aidan who was originally going to join us until injury struck, likes to sing. Well I can’t sing but I can try. I very rarely listen to anything when I’m cycling but today I had to change that. I love musicals so decided to listen to Les Mis (2012 film soundtrack this time). That did the trick. We were around 500m from each other so I was belting out the songs. Unfortunately Tom caught up with me just as I hit the crescendo in Bring Him Home.

We stopped for lunch in a pre-planned garden centre cafe in Calderwood at around 110km. It had been a long drag across the hills on shockingly poor quality road surfaces into a persistent headwind. Maybe that’s why Tom fell asleep while I was talking to him.

After that it was time to head up to the Forth Road Bridge. What a mess! The route was confusing enough and the general mess of traffic, confusing signage and probably confused brains meant that it took us quite a long time . But once we got there it was fabulous. We bumped into some fellow LEJOG cyclists while stopping for photos on the bridge and had a great chat and the different paces that we were doing. They were doing 50k a day and enjoying the scenery properly along the way. We’re trying to do so, but inevitably ending up on trunk roads.

Taking of which the stretch from Perth on the A9 dual carriageway was truly horrible, complicated by contraflow. We stuck with it as it was only a few Km’s but we’re both delighted to get onto a parallel cycle path as soon as we could.

One big finding from today is that when you need quick energy, a scotch egg is the perfect solution. Good job I bought two so can have the other as a midnight snack later.

The day ended with a great descent into Dunkeld. It looks a stunning town but our priorities were to get the bikes into the hotel, get bathed and get down for dinner. Carbs, carbs, carbs!

We have two days left now. As Tom said, we’ve done this level of distance and climbing in a day before, but perhaps not after 5 previous heavy days.

Tomorrow starts with a good looking climb up the A9 through the Cairngorms. Good job we’re having a marginally later start and more full breakfast before the off.

8th June day 6: Dunkeld to Inverness

We started the day in an overcast Dunkeld and it felt a bit warmer than yesterday. The first stretch of road was uphill which always helps to get the blood pumping. It was a shorter overall route today over the Cairngorms.  This was one I’d really been looking forward to and the scenery didn’t disappoint.

Our first stop was relatively early at 30k in Blair Atholl.  I followed up my Eggs Benedict from breakfast with a bacon sandwich.  As I had said in response to a question the night before about my feeding regime, it’s been eat, keep eating and when you feel you can’t eat any further, eat some more.

The stretch over the Cairngorms was stunning and largely on cycle paths for the first part too, and if not, on relatively quieter roads.  I took more photos and videos today than any other day.  We were climbing for most of the first 70k, but not any serious gradients.  That said the descent on the way down was great fun.

The cycle paths continued until we got to Moy which left us with about 18k of mainly descent on the A9 into Inverness.  That was a bit sketchy at times with us cycling at high speed with cross winds, but it did mean we got in to Inverness nice and early.  Another day done.  A celebratory pint or two later and the mind now turns to the final leg tomorrow.  We’ll be on the A9 again for most of the day – I’m told the traffic will get lighter the further north we go.  Fingers crossed.

9th June – day 7: Inverness to John O Groats

Where do I start and where do I end?  I guess that’s the point.  Start at the bottom and finish at the top.

Whichever way you do this, whether it’s LEJOG or JOGLE, you start with a tough  opener and finish with a punishing amount of climbing.  Cornwall was still the hilliest part of the route, but the stretch from Inverness to JOG was seriously hard at times.  As Tom keeps telling me (& everyone), he’s a naturally gifted climber, so I guess it’s easy for him.  For us comfortably proportioned people it’s harder work.

So, back to today.  What were the highlights?  What could have been better?

I suppose before I even get into that I should start with some stats:

  • 1,376km of cycling and 12,873 of climbing:  we changed the route a bit from the original plan
  • 3 countries
  • 3 Celtic nations
  • 7 days (unsupported)
  • Only one puncture (two tubes down to incompetence)
  • 8 hotels
  • 356 dogs petted by Tom (1 dog on a bicycle)
  • 3 tubes of sun tan lotion
  • 1 dodgy garden centre cafe in Calderwood
  • 7 or 8 stunning bridges
  • 1 guy who called Tom a skinny MF
  • 0 guys who called Tim a skinny MF
  • 2 Cornish pasties
  • 2 portions of haggis
  • 2 cyclists and 2 bicycles
  • Lots of roadkill (rabbits and crows fighting out for top spot)
  • Lots of bottles of things that looked like Irn Bru but weren’t on the Scottish trunk roads
  • 1 horrible bit of contraflow
  • Some pints and some whiskies 

But back to the route today.  Firstly it was very messy heading out of Inverness.  We avoided the recommended route because we valued our lives and eventually after about 50km the roads started becoming more manageable.  Sadly no one told the wind what we were trying to do… my guess is that we’ve spent 95% of the time into a headwind.  In that respect, today was particularly cruel.  We were wrecked (even the naturally gifted climber Tom), and the amount of headwind when we thought we were more or less heading north was just plain cruel.

Well, we got through it.

This trip ultimately ended up being about the destinations.  I’m 100% sure that other people take this at a more sedentary pace, but we just wanted to do it and get home before the locks are changed.

Finally, what more could we asked for but to end somewhere that offers 100+ whiskies.  Tom tried his best to order an Irish Whiskey.  That’s the level of dedication and pigheadedness you need for a trip like this.

I’ve loved this.  It’s been seriously tough but so rewarding.  At the darkest moments it was great or know that the dawn would come again.  And when you know you’ve spent 1380km cycling into a headwind, it’s lovely to know that a some point, you are just going to step off the bike and savour those memories forever.

I can’t recommend this highly enough. I’ve loved every moment (well that’s not true, but lots of it was good). The big question is what’s next?