On the May Bank Holiday Saturday, I started my first solo reconnaissance ride of the Land’s End to John o’ Groats record attempt route with a mixture of foolishness and optimism – two ingredients that are definitely required for this challenge. Six days later I arrived in John o’ Groats a little wiser, but possibly even more excited for next year’s record attempt. Bring it on!
Day 1: Lands End to Cheriton Bishop (c. 125 miles)
At 8am I rolled off the overnight train to find Penzance bathing in sunshine, a perfect start to my ‘leisurely’ reconnaissance ride of the LEJOG route. The 10 miles to the start by the Land’s End Hotel were really enjoyable and went by quite fast – several days later I would still be reminiscing of this as apart from that half hour the rest of my trip would all be into a head wind…
After a quick stop at the start point for the obligatory photo shoot (thanks to the kind fellow LEJOG cyclist for your help), I set off around 9 am for the start of my 850-mile journey. It is at these moments when you are the furthest from home that you discover how small the world is, because as I set off on my journey I got chatting to two cyclists setting off around the same time and discovered one of them knew me from his days as a Kingston Wheeler. We cycled together for a while. Happily chatting along, until my Garmin fell off 5 miles into the ride. Chris and his mate carried on (they would cover a slightly longer, hillier and more scenic route to John o’ Groats over 8 days) and I stopped to retrieve my Garmin (which luckily wasn’t damaged) and swapped it out for my spare Garmin which didn’t have broken mount lugs.
The first day was mostly on the A30, a busy dual carriage way. On bank holiday Saturday most of the traffic was heading in the opposite direction (towards Cornwall). With little to no freight traffic, my only real concern were the caravan drivers, many of which didn’t seem to be aware of their dimensions or how much space to give to lunatic cyclists on a busy A-road. I can’t say that it was a pleasant experience, and it certainly required total focus at all times, it was nowhere near as bad as I had feared. In anticipation of the traffic and being on my own on busy A-roads, I had covered my bike with additional high-viz stickers and blinking lights and clad myself in a similar high-viz scheme from top to toe. Anything to make sure they couldn’t claim that they didn’t see me!
Because of ongoing roadworks near Bodmin and cyclists therefore not being allowed on this stretch of road, I took a diversion on the A39 at Indian Queens to re-join to A30 a little before Launceston. This somewhat broke up the monotony of ‘immer gerade aus’ on the A30 and although the A39 was pretty busy too, it meant I got to enjoy some scenery at least.
I had planned to treat this reconnaissance trip as a leisure trip, just taking it easy, paying attention to key features on the route to look out for etc. and also to make sure I would be able to enjoy a much needed rest (well mentally at least from work stress). I didn’t quite manage that on day 1…
As soon as you are on a busy road like the A30 it is best to keep moving fast and the road somehow lures into the race mode. It was a very hot day and I hadn’t quite anticipated where/how many service stations there would be to pull into. As I came over the top of Dartmoor National Park I had run out of water, my clothes were caked in salt from all that sweating and I was so desperate for water I even started to scan the road for abandoned water bottles!
I made it to my B&B in Cheriton Bishop by mid-afternoon, to enjoy a nice drink and ice cream in the sun and a good night sleep in a luxury bed. There will be no such thing on the actual record attempt, so I made sure to savour it now.
Day 2: Cheriton Bishop – Hartlebury (c. 156 miles)
On the second day I settled a little more into the ‘holiday’ mode. Despite some 2,800 meters of climbing the previous day (which is a lot for someone like me who doesn’t really like going uphill…), my legs felt good. After a hilly start in Devon, the route profile for the second day was a lot flatter, with ‘only’ 2,000 meters of elevation over a total distance of 156 miles. In contrast to the first day it also included some nice quiet sections on B-roads. Just after 5pm I arrived at the Travelodge in Hartlebury (West Midlands) and another two hours later I was enjoying a nice Indian meal and chat in the early evening sun with my parents in law who were so kind to drive out from Sutton Coldfield to bring me a fresh change of clothes.
Day 3: Hartlebury – Kendal (c. 165 miles)
It all started so well on day 3. Another bright sunny morning. A lovely rolling start, followed by the familiar roads of last year’s National 12-hour time trial championships near Prees enticing me into unashamedly overtaking some of the women racing the Anfield 100. I apologies, it was just too nice a morning not to ride fast, despite the fact I looked rather out of place with my road bike and luggage.
The marshals at Espley/Hodnet roundabout were trying to get me actually ride the Anfield course and obey their order to turn left, but I kindly declined, waved and continued on my route north into the ever-strengthening headwind. I had hope to see some of my Born to Bike team mates who were competing in the Anfield 100 or their support crews, but unfortunately my timings were slightly off. I did see Victor Chetta going really strongly along the pot-holed Peplow ‘pave’ section, but later heard he unfortunately had a double puncture.
By midday my good fortunes and good mood started to turn. Passing through Warrington, Wigan, Preston and Lancaster was a bit of a nightmare. Too much traffic. Too many lights to stop at. I really ought to rethink parts of my route and/or my timings to make sure I don’t get held up too much along this section during the actual record attempt. I had followed the Shropshire diversion via Prees as per the schedule of Dominic Irvine and Charlie Mitchell, who had successfully set a new tandem LEJOG record last year. Their route already avoids Wolverhampton, Stafford and Newcastle-under-Lyme. It is worth weighing up whether adding additional or hillier miles ‘saves’ time over negotiating busy towns and cities and having to stop for lights and traffic. It was at this point that I decided I want to do another reconnaissance trip early next year – unfortunately I have used up all my annual leave for this year – to ride the various sections of the route at the times I will be coming through them on the actual record attempt. I still need to work out the logistics for that one though…
The biggest lesson of the whole trip came just before Wigan where I stopped for something to eat. Or I should say the actual lesson didn’t come until later that afternoon and stayed with me for the rest of the night. I stopped at a very small corner shop that didn’t have much more to offer than a bottle of water, some long-hold strawberry milk, a bag of crisp and (what I think was the culprit) a box of jelly beans. I wasn’t thinking and just poured some jelly beans into a little bag. I wasn’t even thinking when the lady at the till asked me how many were in the bag and I still wasn’t thinking when she started counting them out (as I had not wanted to pick them out of the box with my dirty cycling hands). Obviously plenty of kids (and adults) before me would have happily stuck their hands in the box. Under other circumstance it may not have affected me at all, but when cycling multiple days in the heat, with a sunburn, against the headwind, with luggage and possibly tired and dehydrated, you probably are more vulnerable to germs than at other times.
My average speeds started to drop like a stone, my legs became jelly and I started to feel ever more nauseous. By the time I was riding on part of the famous L1015 TT course near Levens, I had come to a near-crawl. Despite being only a few miles from my hotel I still had to pull into a service station near South Kendal just to sit down for a few minutes and force myself to eat some fridge raiders, a snack I normally quite like, but just couldn’t get down this time. It was a big relief to finally make it to the Premier Inn in Kendal and after a quick shower I tried to sit down for some dinner. With dinner still on order and having taking in nothing more than two large glasses of water, I started to feel increasingly weak and weird. I made my way back up to my room without even waiting for the food order and that’s when the puking starting. It just kept coming out like a waterfall and every glass of water I drank continued to have the same effect all through the night.
Day 4: Kendal to North Queensferry (c. 152 miles)
The next morning, I took the difficult decision not to ride to North Queensferry. I hadn’t slept. I was as weak as possible. There was still a long way to go on my own and this was supposed to be a holiday after all. Sitting on the train with my bike I stared envious at the sunny roads I passed, wishing I could have ridden them, but hey-ho, I will just need to come back soon to ride this section I missed. It is quite an important section too as it includes the climb (and descent) of Shap. One of the key things I want to figure out is whether or not to potentially swap out the TT bike for a road bike for this descent. The good thing about having to come back is that it will be a great test for seeing how the Magura brakes and HED Jet Blacks with their superior brake surface will hold up here.
The other thing I missed out on and really been looking forward to was crossing the Firth over the Forth Bridge. The view from the iconic railway bridge wasn’t too bad though…
Day 5: North Queensferry to Aviemore (c. 115 miles)
After a lot of sleep and a big bowl of Scottish porridge I was ready to continue my reconnaissance mission. Keen to at least complete my trip and still feeling a little weak from my food poisoning ordeal I properly settled into an easy-going holiday pace and the first part of the route along the B981 was just such good fun to ride. That kind of bliss where you just have to shout out loud. That ‘Yee-ha’ kind of feeling.
By the time I hit the A9 things became a bit more challenging however. I don’t know what I was thinking riding on my own along the Perth to Inverness stretch on the A9 during the busy mid-day hours. I should have done a bit more research really. I was blissfully unaware that this stretch of road is notorious for its death tolls and has been dubbed Killer A9 because of the accidents and fatalities. It is such a bitter sweet experience to ride on this stretch of the A9. The scenery is absolutely stunning, but there is no time whatsoever to enjoy it or even glance at it. As the gateway to the Scottish Highlands and because of the lack of a motorway in this part of Scotland, motorists treat the A9 as a motorway and don’t expect cyclists at all. Judging by the amount of horns that were beeped at me, I almost started to believe that the A9 actually was a motorway and that I wasn’t allowed to cycle on it!
It was Wednesday afternoon by now and the freight traffic had restarted in earnest. Although most of the lorry drivers actually went out of their way to slow down for me and overtake with the widest possible berth and only when safe to do so, the same cannot be said for several car drivers and particularly coach drivers. The challenge on this section of the A9, in contrast to for example the equally busy A30 in Cornwall, is that it is predominantly single carriageway, with only the occasional stretch of dual carriageway. Motorists get impatient with slower lorries and overtake at excessive speed along sections where that really isn’t safe to do so. I believe there is an ongoing improvement programme in place to upgrade the A9 to full dual carriage way by 2025, but I won’t have time to wait that long with my LEJOG record attempt I’m afraid.
The hard-shoulder is pretty none-existent. There is a parallel cycle path in places, but you wouldn’t be able to ride on it with anything else than a sturdy mountain bike. As a result, I was riding with every inch of focus to stick to that fine line between the ditch and my handle bars just not being knocked. Riding along this section of the A9 at this time of day really requires nerves of steel. As time passed by (I rode a total of 80 miles on the A9 that day), my nerves of steel slowly started to melt and I had to pull into lay-bys every 5 miles or so just to take a breather, not because I was physically exhausted, but just because I couldn’t mentally handle it without these little pauses. I would drink, be grateful to still be alive and flex my nerves of steel again for the next 5 miles and so on.
Just before Kingussie I finally found an alternative parallel route that was both quieter and more sheltered from the wind and I arrived in the late afternoon Aviemore sunshine with a huge sigh of relief.
Day 6: Aviemore to John o’ Groats (c. 150 miles)
After the previous day’s scares on the A9 and my swear word vocabulary awfully lacking, I felt more than a little apprehensive about continuing along the A9 the next day. Luckily I was saved by social media. One of the people who is following my Facebook page I am maintaining as part of my journey towards the LEJOG record attempt responded to my concerns about the A9 and gave me some excellent local knowledge which gave me confidence that all would be fine in the end. Following his instruction to the T, I felt both safe and happy again. Local knowledge and careful planning and timing really is key! I asked Lynne about her experiences on the A9 during her past LEJOG record rides and she didn’t recall any stress about traffic because the she would always cover it in the dark. I feel a bit better knowing that, but would still like to actually ride it in the dark early next year in preparation to feel/see for myself what it is like at that time.
I set off very early at 5:30am from Aviemore to be ahead of the traffic. After 5 days of sunshine, this was the first day of clouds and the temperature had dropped a lot. For the first time I was riding with leg warmers, long-sleeved jersey, full-finger gloves and even my wind/rain jacket. The only thing that hadn’t changed was that pesky headwind, if anything the northerly wind had strengthened further and felt just so awfully cold, particularly around Slochd Summit. The descent into Inverness was long and fast and a lot of fun to ride at this time of day with hardly a car to worry about. I hit Inverness around 7:30am just ahead of the morning rush hour. Upon Sileas’ recommendations I took National Cycle route 1 just for a few miles and re-joined the A9 again at Tore, but it has been a pleasant breather and kept me away from the worst of the traffic. Particularly after Taine the A9 started to mellow out a lot and crossing the Dornich Firth was beautiful. Then it started to rain from mid-day and it didn’t stop until I reached John o’ Groats 5 hours later. What made it particularly tough was that cold north headwind. Once I had reached the end point at John o Groats and cycled back just the 0.5 mile towards my B&B in a southerly direction I could immediately feel the temperature difference. Oh how jealous I was that day of any cyclists riding JOGLE (i.e. starting at John o’ Groats and finishing at Land’s End)!
The scenery on the last day was stunning and I finally had some time to enjoy it. The terrain was fairly lumpy in places, but all of the climbs were long and gradual, rather than short and steep, so very manageable even on tired legs. Unfortunately, things got rather foggy by the time I got to John o Groats and even the next day whilst riding to Thurso station I didn’t get to a glimpse of the sea (I had hoped to maybe see the Orkneys). I felt slightly bad about asking a friendly coach tourist to take my finish picture in the cold and the rain, but no LEJOG trip is complete without that obligatory finish shot.
So, that was LEJOG Recce # 1. I learned quite a few things… Back to the drawing board. This journey is certainly to be continued. I cannot wait for the real thing, but know that an extra year is worth it to wait for the A30 roadworks to clear, to get stronger (both physically and mentally) and to get a support crew in place (please contact me if you are interested in helping me out over a week in September 2017 and/or in the lead-up to the challenge).
Many thanks also to all of you who have sent me messages of encouragement when I was feeling so ill during this recce. I quite like being out on the road on my own, but when your ill, even virtual hugs can make such a difference. Thanks so much!