In August 2001 I finally realised a life long ambition, that of completing the Lands End to John O'Groats bike ride. The set of pages below this describe the ride and my experiences in all of its gory detail.
20 years ago at the age of fifteen my parents bought me my first "proper" road bike for my birthday. A Raleigh Carlton, I'll never forget it, red, light, fast ... I loved that bike. It was stolen from my Halls of Residence in London five years later and if I'd felt like I feel about cycling today I would have remembered the sense of loss. Truth is, 15 years ago I didn't care. However, 20 years ago I was an avid reader of "Bicycle" magazine, I loved the articles about cycle touring, new bike components and all of the latest gear. Most of all I remember reading about the "Great British Bicycle Ride - Lands End to John O'Groats" I always wondered whether I could make that ride.
I left my youthful love of cycling to follow a more conventional route of growing up, the curriculum included plenty of smoking, drinking, laying about and general apathy far removed from the back roads of Wiltshire where I had formally cut my cycling wings. I went from cycling to school, to hitching to the pub, Sundays in the hills to a game of pool in the Mallard.
It catches up with you in the end. University, job marriage, kids, led to 30 years old,.. I played squash and football, but the gut grew larger, at 12.5 stone, I discovered running,.. I couldn't get enough of it. 4k races led to 10k's led to 10 miles, led to half marathons, led to 22 mile cross country races up and down Devon hillsides and across shingle beaches, until a bad tackle in a game of five a side football led to the surgeons table, and my retirement from distance running, sans 1/3 of the cartilage in my right knee. Finally I rediscovered cycling, Mountain biking to be exact, and in true character I threw myself at the Wiltshire downs, rapidly purchasing and upgrading bikes and pushing my own fitness and performance as hard as I could.
Cue midlife crisis, two kids, a comfortable job and a holiday in the USA on my own, biking across the slickrock of Utah . 5 days into the holiday I hiked on my own into " Negro Bill Canyon " on a beautiful sunny day, and listened to the buzzing of the insects as the canyon brook lazily ambled beside me. The insect's voices were loud, they spoke in unison .."Dave, go home, give up your comfortable job, do something different,.. you won't regret it" ....... So I did. On April 17th 2001 I resigned from a well paid job and decided that my next objective was to ride from Lands End to John O'Groats, a dream I'd pushed to the back of my mind since the age of 15. This is the story of my ride.
Deciding to do the ride in April is all well and good, but the warning lights in the fatigue nodules of my brain were telling me that I hadn't cycled more than 30 miles in a day for over a year, and the "End to End" is at least 870 miles long. So I'd better think about some training. I stuck some road tyres on (one of) my mountain bike(s) and started getting used to riding on the roads, the exercise was good and it made a change to get home not covered head to toe in mud,.. but something wasn't right, I needed a road bike. After months of careful research I decided that the bike for me was a Dawes Galaxy, a classic tourer.
So typically with a rational head on I allowed a local cycle retailer to talk me into a Dawes Giro 500 race bike, aluminium frame, close gear ratios, no small front chain rings, no rack hangers, no mudguards. About as suitable for 1000 miles cycling as a Raleigh Chopper,.. but what the hell,.. this was my End to End. Fortunately the Giro was an excellent training machine, and May to July saw me hammering up and down the Marlborough Downs looking for the steepest hills and most scenic training routes. I found villages a few miles from where I grew up, who'd spent years hiding from me. OS Landranger 173 became my personal friend as I sought variety and diversity from my regular weekend rides. My cycling log shows that every week I rode at least 100 miles, some weeks I rode 150 and in the last week in July I rode 55 miles every day, each ride taking less than 3.5 hours.
That's training covered, but there was a whole host of other activities required to get Dave's show on the road. I planned to do the ride supported up until the "Scottish legs", meaning that my wife (Helen) and kids would follow me in our camper van, setting up at pre-booked campsites every night and helping out in the event of any mechanicals. At Scotland , Helen would leave me for a few days to visit an old friend. I would then continue using bed and breakfast accommodation until Inverness , where we had planned to meet up and finish the ride.
So, I sat down and started to figure out a route, immediately discounting the standard "A road" dash up the A30, A38, A6, A7, A9. I joined the CTC and received a copy of their scenic/B&B routes, but remained un-inspired. Finally, I found "Lands End to John O'Groats The Great British Bike Adventure" by Phil Horsley, a tenner was despatched to Amazon.co.uk and I had my route. Phil's book describes a backroads route broadly as follows:- Cornish North Coast Devon/Somerset by backroads Bristol , cross Severn Bridge to Monmouth Welsh Borders/Shropshire West Coast, North country Lake District Carlisle/Dumfries/Ayshire Aran, Mull of Kintyre Oban - Great Glen East Coast to John O'Groats
The route looked interesting, many points of interest were documented and most of all it took me to parts of the country I hadn't seen before .... Sold ! However, the maps were appalling so I decided to rectify the situation with Ordanance Survey maps, pre-marked as a backup. That was until I realised I would need nearly 40 maps, at a cost of well over 200 quid. I ended up making my own route maps by downloading "clips" from www.multimap.com and pasting them together to make my own maps, printing them out using my trusty HP Deskjet colour printer.
I found that at a scale of 1:50000, 10 sides of A4 would cover about 100 miles worth of cycling, I printed each map single sided, stuck two sides together and laminated the map using clear self adhesive plastic covering bought from an office supplies store. This took nearly 2 solid days of cutting/pasting/printing/annotating/laminating ... and of course, I left it until the last minute. My ride was planned to last 10 days, and each day would see me carrying no more than 6 A4 maps, each pre-marked with my route, much better than 2-4 folded un-laminated OS maps. In hindsight it would have been sensible to also carry a 1:250000 scale map, just in case I needed to vary the route for any reason. Now for the bike, as I stated earlier I did all of my training on a Dawes Giro 500 road racing bike, with a 52, 44 front chainset and 11-28 rear. Having done the maps and looked at some of the Cornish/Devon gradients, I became a bit concerned about my poor legs given the lack of "granny" gears available to me.
So the day before the ride, in a moment of pure Barter bodge brilliance, I lifted the front and rear gears from my mountain bike and installed them upon the Giro. The local bike shop assured me that this wouldn't work, I was told that I would need (at least) a new front mech, a new bottom bracket, new shifters, and a new chain ... rubbish, with a bit of tinkering it all worked (until the Lake District that is). Finally I started to look at luggage, the stages with my wife in support would not be a problem, all I needed was a bar bag big enough to carry food, tools, maps and a waterproof. My Altura Bar Bag fitted the bill perfectly (until Devon ).
My Dawes does not have any pannier fixings, so I purchased a Carradice TRS saddlebag for the B&B leg, I can't tell how well it performed as I never used it. On an incredibly hectic Tuesday August 7th the Camper Van was stuffed full of clothes, food, bike bits, toys, kids, maps and duvets and we dashed off to Lands End arriving at our campsite somewhere near 5pm.
Prelude to Day 1
At 11am the day before, I told Helen that I didn't feel that well, "Nerves" she said, I knew it was something else. I had some sort of stomach virus and felt tired, ill, bloated and generally not up to getting on a "Heath Robinson" tourer and caning the hills of Cornwall the next day. I think my moaning started at about 1pm and reached a crescendo at 8-9pm that evening, with talk of delaying the ride, reducing the distance, packing it all in, and other assorted negativity and general self centred self pity. I didn't sleep very well that night and woke up feeling just as bad, the moaning and whinging started with a new vigour, quickly quelled by the swift reaction of two young children (Jake and Holly) who assessed the situation and decided to distract Dad by being as naughty as possible.
Day 1 - Lands End to Camelford, 8th August 2001
Plan was to get up early and set off at 9am , .... At 9.45am our camper van pulled into Lands End and we lined D'Savory's pockets with another £3. I carried out the final checks on the bike and suddenly realised I did not know how to reset my bike Odometer, how would I track my daily mileage. More shouting, swearing, moaning and frantic button pressing finally culminated in 5 zeros showing on the trip meter. The computer was plugged in and I was ready to go.
I took my CTC record sheet to the Hotel Reception and gained my first "stamp", the receptionist hardly batted an eyelid, but I knew she was secretly applauding the fitness and gallantry of the handsome young cyclist stood before her, preparing to throw himself at everything Britain had to offer. Next it was time for the "leaving" photo, I couldn't be bothered to find the corny multi-limbed signpost, so Helen took an equally corny shot of me crossing the START line. The sun was out,... I was off. I started up the A30, but soon departed for the back roads of the North Cornish Coast , a beautifully scenic ride through St Just, Pendeen and up to St Ives.
I stopped to take a self portrait at Zennor and was embarrassed to be caught posing by a lone pedestrian who appeared from nowhere. To make matters worse the end result was out of focus and poorly framed. St. Ives proved interesting as I managed to get myself a bit lost in the town centre, but was soon put back on track by a grizzled old local lady waiting for a bus. Just before Hayle I stopped to look at the map,...."Is that one of the new aluminium Dawes bikes" I heard from behind a tree, and out stepped the most eccentric looking road cyclist I have ever seen, his hair defying gravity and any form of style. He enthused about my bike for a few minutes and then proceeded to warn me of the perils of street furniture in Hayle. I set off on my merry way with his warnings front of mind, and was not surprised to travel through Hayle without sighting a single bollard or speed bump.
I enjoyed the climb up to Portreath and enjoyed a banana break whilst sat on a typically Cornish stone wall. The rollercoaster ride of hills and troughs continued as I made steady progress towards St. Agnes, at Towan Cross my home made maps let me down as I realised that a couple of miles of the route had not made it onto the paper. An incredibly helpful gardener soon put me right, and then for some reason informed me of his stint working in Israel for El Al. Perranporth came and went as did Goonhaven and I soon found myself sat down for lunch in a supermarket café just outside of Newquay. Entertainment was laid on by the two "skateboardy" youths at the table next to me who spent hours perfecting their roll up cigarettes only to set fire to them when finished.
I still felt a bit ropey and decided to take a direct route to Padstow along the "A" roads, soon I was gliding past me old school (Padstow Junior school, now a series of offices) and onto the harbour side, which was absolutely heaving with tourists. At Padstow I decided to take the ferry over to Rock, rather than risk the Camelford trail cycle track, which whilst scenic is also a bit rough and rocky providing me with visions of buckled wheels and pinch flats. I waited 45 minutes for the tide to rise enough for the ferry and swiftly crossed the Camel estuary, chatting to a pleasant couple from London on the way. He asked me how many years training I had put into the ride !
I think he was a bit surprised when I replied "3 months",.. suddenly I was a bit worried. At Rock I quickly accelerated away from all of the "poshos" hanging round the sailing dinghys and headed up the hill towards Camelford. A n enjoyable B road took me all the way to the campsite for the night, where I found the crew just about ready for me. The first day had been 85 miles in total, I felt pretty good and had averaged over 14 miles per hour.
Day 2 - Camelford to Taunton , 9th August 2001
I remember the morning of Day 2 being one of the strangest psychological moments of the ride, the reason being that I had no idea how my body would feel after the previous day's exertions. As I climbed out of bed the news was good, legs a little stiff but otherwise I felt like I wanted to get back on the bike. The weather certainly didn't seem to promise much and it had rained fairly heavily during the night, so I woolfed down 3 bowls of Alpen, 2 bananas, packed my bar bag with food and set off into the drizzle. The journey towards Launceston was fairly boring, consisting of main roads up until Egloskerry, then the fun started with an excellent diversion down (and up and down and up !) a single track backroad into Launceston.
Halfway along I paid the price of my gear tampering and snapped my chain, however I was fully prepared (and practised) and only lost 10 minutes to the roadside repair. After Launceston the heavens opened, and unrelenting rain accompanied me along absorbing minor roads to Bratton Clovelly, after which I followed the A3079 to Okehampton, where disaster struck. I noticed that my bar bag had sagged a little and was rubbing on the front wheel. Stupidly I tried to forcibly correct this with the bag mounted in its bracket, forgetting that the bracket was plastic. Of course the bracket snapped under the strain, and passing motorists wondered why the lone wet cyclist was jumping up and down on the verge making frantic "V" signs at a black object lying useless on the ground.
The problem with breaking the bracket was that I had to find some way of attaching the bag to the bike (it weighed a couple of kilos and would not sit well on my back), I managed to "sort of" strap it to the handlebars which would last about 10 miles or so before requiring readjustment. On reaching Okehampton I telephoned a local cycle shop, who patiently listened to my ramblings before calmly advising that there was no way at all that they could help (I think they built up a mental picture of this mad, wet incoherent lunatic brandishing a heavy black sack....and simply decided they didn't want him anywhere near their shop). A panic call to Helen established that she was too far away to help, and thus was despatched to Halfords to purchase a new bag for the remainder of the trip.
I continued my sodden way up through Devon , arriving in Crediton hungry. Sandwiches were purchased from the local "Spar" who will regret making me wait 10 minutes (lunchtime, one cashier, ...when will they ever learn) as I created my own mini Atlantic in their aisle. It was at this point that I noticed how badly I smelled ! the exertions had taken their toll and armpit and other odours made their way from under my waterproofs to the outside world. "Cyclists and winos unite !", I thought to myself, "PigPen is our leader". I repaired to a local bus shelter to eat my lunch, accompanied by a trio of teenage "text messenger" babes, who sat frantically manipulating their Nokia's in search of last night's gossip. With perfect timing I slipped right on my arse chucking my sandwich wrappers in the bin. Stifled giggles melted into howls of laughter as I picked up my bike, pride and toddled off towards Cullompton. The rain abated for a while and I almost enjoyed the next section of minor roads and steep hills passing through Thorverton, Stumpy Cross and Worth.
At Silverton Mill I came across "white van man" at a junction, stereo on full blast, mobile phone glued to left ear and one hand gently stroking the steering wheel. Luckily he missed me, but I'm convinced I heard a skid followed by a crash as he sped round the corner. Having no sympathy whatsoever, I convinced myself I had imagined it and carried on. The backroads unfortunately gave way to the A38, and I suffered 18 miles of wind, rain and speeding motorists before the centre of Taunton was gained. I got there at about 5.40pm ... rush hour and learnt new cycle courier skills as I weaved my way through the impatient commuters.
Eventually the "Tanpits Cider Farm" came into view and I rode up to the van to receive an enthusiastic welcome from Jake and Holly.Ten minutes later I was pushing them both on swings at the local play park whilst Helen cooked tea. It had been a long day, 95 miles in total, I'd been on the road from 9am till 6pm , my backside hurt and I was very very wet. To make matters worse, the bar bag Helen had bought from Halfords was missing parts. So tomorrow I had to travel with a rucksack on my back. However, tomorrow promised Somerset , which is flat !
Day 3 - Taunton to Monmouth 10th August 2001
The weather promised a bit more this morning as the previous day's clouds had given way to warm sunshine and hardly any cloud. I managed another relatively early start ( 9.30am ) and soon got shot of the Taunton metropolis, easing myself along the flat roads of North Curry. The scenery was delightful as I rode past canals, rivers and elderly folk washing their cars (I reckon the average Honda Civic is scrapped not from engine wear but "overwashing" by elderly people). Unbelievably flat roads took me all the way to Pedwell, however, two days in the hills had sapped my legs a little and I didn't feel that I was making the progress the terrain deserved. Things became worse towards Shapwick as (horror of horrors) I encountered some hills !
Climbing to the top, I stopped for a drink and got out the camera to take a photo, perfectly on que six Hercules aircraft appeared above my head and dipped their wings towards me. I'd like to believe that they were saluting the courage of a solitary "End to Ender" but actually think they were practising some sort of top secret airforce manoeuvre designed to confuse enemy cyclists in times of war. The weather stayed with me to Chedder and I enjoyed a grand view of the Somerset moors from Winscombe hill. From then on it was backroads battling on to Gordano where (typically) I struggled to find the cycle path over the Avon bridge.
The ride over the bridge was an experience in its own right, I couldn't believe just how much road bridges move and shudder under the stress of the traffic hammering over them. I have to confess that I was relieved to get off it, it felt like at any moment the huge structure would shake itself to pieces and come crashing to the ground. A skirt round (or more accurately up and down) Bristol took me to Hallen where I popped into a small newsagents to buy a sandwich.
In conversation with the shop owner, I established that he was the nephew of (insert name of venerable record holder here) the record holder for the Lands End to John O'Groats walk. I think he said it took 48 days walking 20 hours a day and that his Uncle disputed any improvements upon his time as:-
a) they cheated and went a shorter route, or:-
b) they didn't walk continuously
I dragged myself from the fascinating conversation and sat in the most miserable lunch spot ever, a derelict driveway, with a view of a factory smelling of sulphur and silage. The (old) Severn bridge was conquered next, and I noted much to my displeasure that it moved even more than its cousin over the Avon, additionally the wind flew across its spans adding to ground friction and gravity's attempts to heed my progress. Next came Chepstow and the racecourse followed by a foolish decision to climb up to Trellech, which involved a whole load of very steep hills designed especially to depress the cyclist about to end a long day's grind. One further hour of swearing later I descended into our glorious campsite at Mitchell Troy.
Day 4 Mitchell Troy - Ellesmere 11th August 2001
The night before I confided in Helen that tomorrow might be difficult as it looked like I had to cover 110 miles or so to get to our next campsite. Additionally I was not too sure of the terrain and equally unsure of my legs and stamina, essentially I was subliminally warning her that I would be substantially late for supper. Consequently I woke at 7.15 wolfed down 3 bowls of Alpen and dashed away from the campsite before Helen or the kids had a chance to stir. I managed to get a full mile down the road before the bike needed adjusting (loose pedal clips) and a further 10 miles to Skenfrith before the front derailleur completely refused to cooperate in any manner whatsoever.
I can't remember the name of the pub in Skenfrith, but I'm sure the residents will not forget the idiot cyclist weaving round and round their car park frantically fiddling with his gear levers. Eventually I managed to get them "sort of" working and continued on into the persistent Welsh drizzle. The Landscape whimpered rather then screamed out as I eked my way up the Welsh borders through Grosmont, Pontrilas, Abbey Dore, Peterchurch and Eardisley. I stopped for an energy bar at a pub on a cross roads with a trio of bikers for company. They adjusted racing leathers, tweaked helmets and compared tank shine whilst I squelched across the car park in soggy lycra and a grease streaked Altus jacket.
From my pocket I defiantly flicked two fingers at the bikers and departed just as the drizzle gave way to everso slightly brighter weather and even a little sun. At Brampton Bryan I came across the strangest village fete, which seemed to consist of locals running round with clipboards searching things whilst poorly crafted manequins looked on. Typically I picked the one American tourist to ask what was going on, and equally typically it took her about a novel to tell me that she didn't know. The improved weather hightened my pace and I quickly despatched Bucknell, Lydbury North and Church Stoke and stuck the head firmly down for the grind onto Ellesmere. Stopping only to chat with a farmer at Argoed (little choice actually as he blocked the road with his cows) I made Ellesmere by 6.30pm .
I must admit that this was one of the high points of the whole ride, I'd ridden 122 miles and actually felt good at the end of the day, I'd averaged over 15 miles an hour when on the bike and only got lost once. The campsite was dreadful, a scrap of land stuffed behind a grotty pub, additionally, it started to rain again. Later that evening, Helen's sister Sara joined us bolstering the support crew to 4, little did we know that her services would prove indispensable over the next couple of days.
Day 5 - Ellesmere to Yealand 12th August 2001
Another furtive breakfast woolfed down in the van whilst trying not to wake Helen or the kids and the earliest start of the campaign saw me leaving at 8am sharp. I left the campsite for Pentire to rejoin the "book route" but dithered for over 30 minutes trying to chose one of three junctions to set me on my way proper. The ride through Threapwood, Beeston, Tarporley, Delamere and Hatchmere was uneventful and I ventured into Frodsham looking for the cycle path that would take me through Runcorn, Widnes and Warrington .
I finally found it after several further moments of indecision and hoiked the bike up onto it only to ride through the deepest cycle path puddle in the country. I don't know what was in the puddle, or whether it was just the worst ever case of "pinch flat" but I managed to burst both of my inner tubes and rip the front tyre. The entire New English Dictionary of curses was orated under a sodden railway bridge after 3 failed attempts to fix the punctures in driving rain. Eventually I managed to get both tyres inflated (I hadn't spotted the ripped front tyre) and continued along the cycle path clutching Phil Horsley's increasingly sodden book in my left hand. It was at this point that I discovered that Phil's skills clearly lay in route finding and description whilst he was severely lacking in the cartography department.
The directions were impossible to follow (for a gibbon like me) and I became increasingly more frustrated and lost. Phil, if you ever manage to read this, I would be more than happy to spend another summer adding some descriptive text to your maps, that phrase about a picture and a thousand words does not apply to town centre navigation. Eventually I stumbled over the Runcorn bridge and had my bacon saved by a passing mountain biker who stopped me heading away from Warrington rather than towards it. But still I got further confused/lost/paniced until the moment was saved by my front inner tube exploding once more. Tired and frustrated I pulled it from the tyre, but the situation was hopeless as a half inch gash stared back at me, I had no other spares and finally I noticed the corresponding half inch gash in the tyre.
To make matters worse, it was Sunday and all of the bike shops would definitely be closed. At my lowest ebb yet, I called Helen, she was over 2 ½ hours away in Charnock Richard Service Station on the M6. Thankfully she agreed to come back along with spare tyres and inner tubes, this still left me in a bit of a pickle as the time was 1pm, it got dark at 8.30pm, I was at least 70 miles away from that evening's destination, ... but we decided to go for it.
The kids were unceremoniously dumped upon Auntie Sara and Helen dived into the van and gave it all she had. I sat beside the A574 for nearly 3 hours waiting for Helen (who had been caught in traffic), in steadily worsening rain with only a cycling jacket for protection. Whilst waiting for her I carried out all sorts of mental arithmetical gymnastics, calculating average speeds required in order to be done before dark. Helen eventually arrived and I broke the North English record for tube/tyre changes and light bodging onto bike. A quick kiss and I was off again at 3.45pm , the scenic route was torn up and I decide to head for the A6 and make the best time I possibly could. I headed towards Warrington and was immediately cut up on a roundabout by an over zealous motorist, the hours of waiting and frustration caught up with me and I'm afraid the middle finger was extended, not a good move as he came back. With sheeting rain and terrible driving conditions, he pulled up alongside me and deftly flicked the switch to lower the passenger side window.
I heard some muffled northern expletives and then turned my face towards him. I had not shaven for 4 days, I was covered in oil, my eyes were red from fatigue and tinged with the sort of "devil may care" madness that comes with 3 punctures. Basically I didn't have to say a word, he looked at me, deftly pressed his button again and beat a hasty retreat ahead of me. Luckily he wasn't able to smell me as well. I took the direct route to Preston , trying to avoid the major towns, and punctured once again at Garswood. This time I was prepared and the repair held through the unrelenting rain up towards Preston , a climb at Appley Bridge dented progress a bit, but otherwise I was flying along at an average speed in excess of 15 miles per hour. Eventually Preston was gained, as were the dual carriageways that make up the ring road, Phil Horsley had detailed a cycle path route across the town, but I didn't trust him any more so I simply followed the signs to the A6.
This caused a number of hairy moments, particularly when the dual carriageway I was following met another, and I found myself trying to filter left across traffic merging at 70 miles per hour, in the pouring rain ! The centre of Preston dragged on and on until, voila ! I found the left turning onto the A6, along with the sign informing me of another 34 miles to go until Lancaster . I phoned Helen, "How far on from Lancaster is the campsite ?", I casually enquired, "About 10-15 miles", she equally casually replied, "Oh f****ng b*ll**ksing h*ll", I wittily replied and threw myself back onto the bike. The reader may be interested to note the I had recently finished a book on cycling training that talked about "visualisation" as a powerful mental tool for improving ones performance, additionally I was part way through Lance Armstrong's autobiography including his graphic descriptions of how he bounced back from cancer to win 3 Tour de France's.
So the head went down and I became Lance. That ride up the A6 was easily the fastest and hardest of my cycling career to date, I didn't stop once and powered the bike in the lowest gears concentrating on eating miles and beating the dark. I completely forgot the rain, the traffic and the uncomfortable sensation breeding in my right knee, basically I pedalled like mad. At about 8.20pm I got to the top of a steep hill very close to the campsite, my energy completely spent.
I was so tired that I called Helen to make ABSOLUTELY sure the campsite was at the bottom of it, as I had no intention of retracing my steps (or revolutions) were they to be incorrect. At 8.30pm I fell into the van, cold, wet tired, hungry, yet strangely elated that we had managed to overcome the difficulties and kept on schedule. I ate, showered and collapsed into bed proudly wearing my "most fatigued cyclist in England today" medal. We had decided that tomorrow would be a short ride and I consequently didn't bother to set any mental alarms.
Day 6 - Yealand to Carlisle 13th August 2001
I awoke to the usual rain, but none of the usual haste as I had decided to take it easy for the day (I must admit I was even considering not cycling at all). After the usual fight for space at the van breakfast table, I wandered up to the farm for a wash and got speaking to the campsite proprietor, Mrs Clarke. She was an absolute gem, very interested in the ride and when she heard I was doing it for charity refused to accept payment for the night's camping (bear in mind they were farmers in the middle of the foot and mouth crisis). A few minutes later she tracked me down after listening to the local radio, a presenter had been boasting about his training efforts for a 30 mile sponsored ride. Mrs Clarke would have no of it. "30 miles !
I'm ringing him to tell him about the young lad camped in my back yard who does 100 every day" Later on I passed by her front door to thank her once again and say "goodbye", I didn't get a chance as I heard her on the phone ..." B A R T E R" she bellowed, "yes, 100 miles a DAY ! He'll be in yellow,.....yes yellow Y E L L O W .. it's for CHARITY....". I had terrible visions of being stopped halfway though the Lake District by a local radio sound crew desperate for the hottest story of the day, as it happened nobody even waved.
Eventually I decided to push on, and the support crew were instructed to meet me at Ambleside for lunch and a quick review of my legs. I set off into the drizzle and immediately my right knee began to complain, very loudly. The previous day's exertions had taken their toll and I had done something nasty to the ligaments below my right knee. I'd had this before when cross country running, and unfortunately the only cure had been a couple of weeks rest. I stopped and adjusted the saddle height in an attempt to ease the pain,... no good. Stupidly I did some mental arithmetic, I stood to raise over £800 if I finished this ride, in hindsight a terrible mistake as I now had a real sense of commitment to the charity.
I thought to myself, "keep going,.. it may be one of those injuries that simply goes away", and with that thought I trundled on. ....Until Levens Bridge that is, where my over stressed front derailleur finally gave into the rigours of stretching out to my mountain bike chainring ..... and bent. No matter how much I fiddled and tweaked (and swore) I could not fix it, so I removed it completely and changed gear by hand, stopping at the top and bottom of hills to manually shift the chain from small to big rings. My only hope was Ambleside, the Lake District sees a lot of mountain bikers and I knew there would be a couple of bike shops, hopefully containing mechanics with a sense of humour.
Despite the weather and the knee, I really enjoyed the ride into the Lake District , as the scenery became ever more rugged and the gradients began to meander again. The Windermere ferry provided a welcome break as I crossed the water and headed up the hill to Hawkshead. A quick dash into an Off License replenished my energy drink stocks and before I knew it I was outside Biketreks in a rain sodden Ambleside. I dragged the bike into the shop and launched into a blubbering spiel containing; charity, Lands End, making Carlisle by nightfall and hybrid road bike gears. The kind (but confused) mechanics agreed to help, but after looking at the Mountain Bike chainset stuffed onto the road racing bike, informed me that it would take a couple of hours at least to fix.
I made contact with the support crew and we agreed to meet for lunch, meanwhile I spent the best portion of £60 on new tyres, inner tubes and various other bike bits and bobs. Helen, Sara and the kids turned up and we repaired to a local tea shop for toasted sandwiches and tea. A few hours later, in trepidation, I walked into the bike shop, ... they had fixed it, but the repair was slightly "Heath Robinson" with "not quite the right, but they'll do" gears attached to the bike. The support crew were despatched to Carlisle to find accommodation, and a weary, wet, smelly, dirty cycling type thing pushed off out of Ambleside. With ever descending clouds I came to Dunmail Raise, a relentless climb alongside Helvellyn, which I'm sure offers spectacular views to those not enshrouded in H20 vapours. Past Thirlmere I dived off the main roads and enjoyed a few miles of country riding until rudely interrupted by the A66.
The interruption lasted a mile or two before I turned off at the White Horse Inn heading for Mungrisdale,.....big mistake. The book route was taking me up a singletrack road signed as part of the Trans Penine Coast to Coast trail, one of the roadsigns had some plastic sellotaped to it, stupidly I failed to investigate. My suspicions should have been aroused by the disinfectant mat covering the road, along with the gates across the road itself, ever more ignorant I carried on. Finally after about 2 ½ miles of mostly climbing I came to an abrupt halt,.. faced with a large and very clear sign stating "Foot and Mouth -Access strictly forbidden beyond this point". Despair ! I didn't have any other maps and my planned route was closed, I retraced my steps back tot he A66 and called Helen. The poor girl was on the other end of another 5 minute moaning session as I lamented my woes, talked about giving up and snapped at her to provide me with alternative directions. Calmly she directed me to Mungisdale via a quick dash up the A66, I saddled up and (painfully) ground on. A good series of fingerposts saw me back on track and just as I left the scenery of the Lakes, the cloud rose and out came the sun.
At this point my knee was very painful indeed, and I was having real doubts that I would be able to complete the ride. Every hill strained the knee further and I soon discovered that when pushing off I was using my right leg to get started, adding further strain to the knee. Some relief was gained by re-training myself to push off with the left leg, not as easy as it sounds after years of automatically unclipping left from the pedals at every stop. Helen called with good news, they had found a reasonable motel close to my planned route, at Durdar I turned towards the M6 and meet the crew at the Terracotta Restaurant and Hotel, our first night under a proper roof. The first priority was a good hot bath, followed by an excellent meal of chicken in the restaurant (along with medicinal glass of wine).
I'd covered 72 miles in all, my shortest day yet, however, the lack of distance was mitigated by the knee pain and a long wait for repairs in the Lake District . Again, I considered a complete rest the following day, but eventually decided to press on and see how far I could get.
Day 7 - Carlisle to New Cumnock 14th August 2001
Enviously side glancing at Helen and Sara's full English platters, I force fed myself the usual muesili, bread and orange juice breakfast (for some reason the hotel refused to charge us for breakfast ?). I decided to head for somewhere in the Dumfries area and we agreed to meet up somewhere near Greta to review my knee and potential for progress. It wasn't raining, but the wind had picked up (15mph at a guess) so progress would be variable as at certain points I would turn into it. I picked my way through Carlisle in search of the A7, eventually found after interrogating a "baggied up" BMXer at a set of traffic lights. The road to Gretna via Longtown was pretty bleak and my knee was still hurting, but I was starting to get used to the pain. The injury didn't affect my ability to pedal, it just reminded me at every stroke that something down there was not quite right.
I resolved that the ride would be finished, the challenge from now on was to ignore the messages from down below as long as they remained constant. Additionally I decided that the scenic route would be slightly compromised in favour of reduced distance. The "Welcome to Scotland " sign at Gretna certainly raised my spirits, even though there was a long way to go. Cycling from Lands End to Scotland was an achievement in itself and I mentally brushed aside the remaining 400 miles, convincing myself the ride was nearly done ! I met up with the crew at Rigg and we decided that I could make Sanquar, 40 miles or so up the road, they went off in search of childrens entertainment and I fought the wind towards Dumfries . At Annan I made a terrible decision and decided to head for the A75, a more direct route into Dumfries , what a nightmare.
The A75 proved to be an uninteresting, poorly surfaced, well used trunk route completely devoid of any sane cyclists. I loathed the 15 miles to Dumfries , as insult was summed with injury by the downpour that accompanied me. Finally, spitting slightly acidic precipitation, the outskirts of Dumfries appeared and in atrocious rain I navigated the ring road in search of the A76. A big "thank you" to the lorry driver who took pity on my at a particularly vicious roundabout and appeared to block traffic behind me allowing a traffic free circuit onto the '76. Helen and Sara overtook me a few miles down the road, after a section of cyclist revenge at roadworks. There's nothing more satisfying than scooting past stationery traffic on your bike, especially when the cars contain the dastardly motorists who'd paid more attention to their tourist maps than the drenched peddler they were overtaking. My smile hid a virtual "two fingers" as I quickly made the front of the queue and took the traffic through the roadworks at my leisure.
The A76 improved its scenery outside of Dumfries and gave way to absorbing curves and hills as it tracked the River Nith northwards. I'm not sure whether it was the wind, the road surface or a new brand of fatigue, but I endured the peculiar sensation of having to pedal downhill in order to make progress. One hour ahead of schedule I crested the hill at Sanquar and rode up and down the main street in search of Tea Shop,...gutted, couldn't find one. The local Spar came to my rescue and I spent a miserable 20 minutes squatting in a bus shelter feeding myself macaroni cheese pie and fresh milk. I can't fathom why I did this as the shop assistant had informed me of a Tea Shop 1 mile up the road. Finally common sense kicked in and with a pot of tea and cake by my side (and pretty soon inside it) I awaited my support crew. Slowly the water, sweat and other liquids massed within my cycling shorts made its way onto the seat below me. Eventually, shamefaced, I confessed to the staff, they weren't bothered.
It was then I noticed the CTC sticker in the window, they were obviously used to it. 45 minutes later the crew arrived, more tea and cake was had and we debated the evenings accommodation. Sanquar seemed a bit bleak, and a poster in the Tearoom came to our rescue, advertising Farmhouse Bed and Breakfast. A quick call confirmed availability and we were reliably informed its was only a few miles down the road. Ten miles later I came to the junction heading for the farm, fortuitously someone was expecting me as a young lady in a Fiesta rolled down her window shouting "You must be the cyclist", (well done Love), "the bed and breakfast's down this road". ½ a mile later I found the van parked outside of Low Polquheys farm, the bike was shoved into it and the day's cycling was done.
I'd covered 82 miles in total, the knee still hurt but my average speed had not dropped (consistently above 14 mph for every day so far). Helen cooked us a meal in the van and served it up in Mrs Caldwell's dining room, a few hours later she joined us for a pleasant chat, after which I flaked out, tired, but feeling better progress had been made than expected. As head hit pillow, a cockrel crowed in the farmyard below, "If I hear a peep out of the little bugger before 8am", I thought to myself, " ther'll be one more Fricassee in Scotland tomorrow." He got the message and kept his gob shut until well after we'd gone.
Day 8 - New Cummnock to Tarbert 15th August 2001
Tearfully we waved "goodbye" to Sara, who reluctantly had to return to England and a proper job. Helen's challenge increased as the kids main source of entertainment departed. I was really looking forward to today, most of the riding was on minor roads, and included the Isle of Arran with its mountain passes and spectacular scenery. The ride from New Cumnock to Irvine was perfect, almost totally traffic free, not too hilly and easy to navigate. The weather was reasonably kind, with little rain, but almost no wind to impede me.
The experience was tarnished somewhat at Irvine , where yet again Mr Horsley's maps proved impossible to fathom and a combination of luck and guesswork eventually got me across town and into Ardrossan, where the camper van sat awaiting the Arran ferry. We waited for an hour or so, during which I changed the worn rear tyre and attempted to clear the chain of as much accumulated clag as possible. Helen told me that the last ferry off Arran left at 6.30pm , this put the pressure on, I had exactly 1 hour and 15 minutes to get round the Island or we would be stuck there for the night. So in preparation, I stripped the bike of all unnecessary weight and prepared for the routes' first time trial !
This really was turning into a mini Tour de France. One uneventful crossing later, I whipped the bike off the back of the van and perched eagerly in the bowels of the ferry awaiting the opening doors. A chink of daylight appeared and I was off, hacking through Brodick and out of town at 20 mph plus ! I was feeling pretty good, until another roadie passed me a mile up the road, the competitive juices were stirred and I hauled up to his back wheel ready for a challenge in the hills. It never came, as we ended up chatting. He was an Arran based Triathelete and a veteran "End to Ender" having taken a route similar to mine, he accompanied me for seven miles or so and kept the average speed well up above the 20mph.
Just before the hills he departed (suspicious n'est pas) and wished me well. The climb over the mountains past Sannox was breathtaking, the sun was out, the clouds had gone and mountains towered above. At this point the ride really came back to life and any doubts about the diversion onto Arran were banished. The knee pain was there, but forgotten as I sweated my way to the top relishing the promise of a downhill coast into Lochranza.
The ride was over too soon, 20 miles had been covered in 55 minutes and we were going to make the ferry. In glorious fading sunlight we played with the kids on the beach and left for the Mull of Kintyre bang on 6.30pm . Another beautiful climb later I hit the A83 and at a leisurely pace cruised into Tarbet where Helen awaited ensconced within a "designer" bed and breakfast (Ikea furniture, pastel coloured bedclothes, chocolates on pillows etc....). Deep rooted anarchist tendencies surfaced as I washed my cruddy cycling shorts in the perfectly clean porcelain sink. The bike computer showed 70 miles in total, the shortest day of the whole trip, but one of the best.
Day 9 - Tarbert to Fort William 16th August 2001
I was up before the rest of the crew and ate hot rolls and fruit in the breakfast room accompanied only by a Bodium of tea. The oft practised manoeuvre of wrestling on damp cycling kit was completed and I groaned out of Tarbert somewhere near 8.15am . It was a beautiful Scottish morning as mist hung over the Mull of Kintyre and only the early bird workers brushed past me on the A83. Knee pain was still very much in evidence and I keenly awaited the 45 minute point at which the pain killers started to numb the sharpness.
The ride from Tarbert to Lochgiliphead was enticing with snatches of Loch Fyne keeping moral at a reasonable high. At Lochgiliped the Mull was lost and I turned inland towards Oban on the A816. Gravity started to call as well and the "huffing" and "puffing" started in real earnest around Kilmartin with a long pull accompanied by staring tourists entoumbed within their coaches. The weather held reasonably well and every threat of rain failed to materialise once I had deftly flung on the waterproof. Slowly but surely I traversed the West Coast and beat my way up to Oban, pausing only to offer a wry grin and infinitely sarcastic "Hello" to the two overburdened American cycle tourists sweating their way past Kilmelford. It may have been the pain killers, but I'm convinced that road surfaces got increasingly worse the further north I rode. With local council budgets scrimping on smooth tarmac, instead providing me with a carpet of mixed aggregates to jar my muscles and bones. I was now seriously regretting the decision to buy a road bike, and also developing a new discomfort, scientifically entitled "bloddisorearseicus".
Oban came and went in a few turns of the chainset (with help from the hill just before it) and I climbed steeply out of the town towards Connel and a planned rendeveuz with the support crew at the Sea Life Centre. Helen had told me it was just outside of Oban, some 10 miles later I found it ! The kids were (apparently) having a wail of a time within, so I found the van in the car park, helped myself to lunch and sped off without even a cursory "Hello". The target for the day was Fort William and I still had some 40 miles or so to go. Fifteen minutes later the rain started again, not showers, but that relentless Scottish drizzle as unrelenting and annoying as a single bagpipe note help too long. With sore arse, painful knee and soggy everything the day lost its magic and faded into a simple struggle to decrease the distance between myself and Fort William . The support crew caught me at Ballachulish with more bad news, the van had started to fart like a Sumo wrestler on a rice purge and obviously needed some serious exhaust attention.
Helen was despatched to Fort William to purchase Gun Gum and a campsite pitch, whilst I was left to the rain and the pain. The final stretch of the A82 into Fort William offered nothing of interest, apart from the fat foreign biker, who stopped at a layby completely without view, got off his bike, looked around, smiled, mounted again and drove off. It left me wondering whether he could actually see whilst on the road hence this being his "sight" break, or maybe he savoured some nostalgic memory from years gone by spent stopping at the world's most boring layby. At Fort William , I rushed into Nevis Sport, completely soaked and purchased a pair of semi-waterproof tights. An impulse I was later too regret as they were too small and I had lost the receipt. A few miles more saw me at the campsite with a view of Ben Nevis to foot. The knee hurt like hell and my arse was starting to compete for neurones with its own particular set of complaints.
That evening I made the big mistake of calculating the distance left, nearly 200 miles. I wasn't sure I could face many more long days and it looked like I might still have 3 more to go. Today's mileage said 95 miles in total along with the second highest average speed of the trip (15.3 mph), my face in the campsite toilet mirror said a whole lot more. At this point only Helen's encouragement and the promise of sponsorship money was keeping me going, I thought tomorrow was going to be tough,... it was worse.
Day 10 - Fort William to Dornoch 17th August 2001
Another stifled breakfast in the van trying not to wake the kids, followed by another misty start following the A82 out of Fort William . All thoughts of minor roads were banished today, prostituted to the goal of distance .... Inverness or bust ! The first hour or two proved quite pleasant, once the painkillers had numbed the knee pain, and reasonable progress was made along Loch Lochy. However the road was miserable, built for coaches and maximal wear resistance with no quarter given to cyclists comfort whatsoever. However, after 10 o'clock the traffic started to increase, compounding the misery as every passing motorist competed with each other to remove my right hand side brake levers.
After Invergarry I came across the Caledonian Canal towpath seemingly offering some respite, but 100 yards of bone shattering cobbles forced me back onto the main roads. At Fort Augusts I stared longingly at my planned diversion to the right hand side of Loch Ness and up into the hills around Foyers. However, the knee dictated terms and sternly forbade any attempt at serious climbing if distance were to be gained today. The A82 alongside Loch Ness was as worse a road as any encountered upon the whole trip. Endless streams of coaches buzzed past, whilst trees deprived me of any view whatsoever and the road surface sent my arse into symphonies Mozart would have put his name to. Halfway along I passed a Nordic couple, smiling on their tandem and dragging their two year old behind on a trailer, I soon found out why they were smiling, they were only going to Inverness ! Drumnadroicht provided some short relief with a hill, but the pain continued as Inverness got closer.
Fifteen miles outside of Drumnadroicht the 3 litres of energy drink made themselves known and I stopped by a copse for a little tinkle. Layers of lycra were peeled back to free John Thomas and he was dutifully pointed at a bush well out of sight of any passing motorist. True to the nature of my luck so far, two female antipodean hikers emerged giggling from the side of the bush, giggled even louder and set off in the opposite direction. Please remember dear reader,... it was cold,... the shorts were tight etc.. etc.. A familiar farting noise caught me up at the outskirts of Inverness and the support crew re-filled my bottles and provided energy bars. Poor old Helen took another ear bashing as I whinged about my arse, knee and any other appendage remotely connected to cycling. We agreed to aim for Tain, and dutifully she set off, farting slightly less than the previous day as a kindly mechanic at ATS had botched up a temporary repair for us.
Finally I gained Inverness and hated it ! horrible traffic and roundabouts spat me across town and onto the Kessock bridge, with a sign of relief I left the A9 and followed back roads towards Munlochy. After a couple of miles I was accompanied by a stray dog, a beautiful spaniel apparently parted from his walkers. Having saved him from a couple of near fatal road accidents I stopped and read his collar, I then called the phone number attached but got no reply. I sat there for 10 minutes trying to decide what to do and eventually made up my mind to drag the poor bugger up the nearest drive and beg their assistance, however Rover or Spot or whatever he was called would have none of it, and buggered off sharpish across the nearest field. I called the owners several times later that day, but got no reply, I hope the poor dog is still okay.
The rise towards Fortrose was uneventful, until two teenage mountain bikers pulled out in front of me and sped off in granny ring heaven. A final prayer was said to the god of leg muscles and I set off in pursuit catching them at the bottom of a very long hill. The whippersnappers were passed and I rested easy that my 10 day legs would soon see their youth off. But No. 400 yards later they were gaining on my, I gave it everything I had and reached the 471 foot summit some 200 yards ahead. I didn't look back all the way to Cromarty and pride was restored as they failed to pass me(or they simply turned off). Cromarty provided a mild panic as I couldn't find the ferry, eventually one 45 minute wait later I was on the strange beast and crossing to Nigg.
At Nigg I phoned the crew and suggested I could make Dornoch, off they went in search of campsite and I continued on with gritted teeth ignoring ever message received in the pain reception centre of my brain. At Dornoch bridge I watched an Eagle sat on a fencepost looking for scran, and finally rolled into campsite at 10 to 6. I'd done 110 miles in total and felt pretty bad, I had 80 or so miles to do the next day but somehow felt a long way from finishing. Today was our wedding anniversery, we celebrated it with a bowl of pasta and some orange juice in a camper van.... Who said romance is dead ?
Day 11 - Dornoch to John O'Groats 18th August 2001
Anticipation got the better of me and instead of lying in as planned, I got up pretty early hacked down breakfast and shot off up the A9, leaving campsite somewhere close to 8.40am. The initial horrors of the A9 road surface soon subsided and around about Golspie I was even starting to enjoy the cycling, although with a degree of trepidation. The night before I amde the mistake of reading the book and came across the following quote about Helmsdale:- "The reputation of the next section has caused quivering knees among a century of "End to End" cyclists. The road climbs and twists ......." What ! I thought I had done all of the hills, the bloke on Arran told me it was flat from Oban onwards, my knee hurt and my arse was killing me ...I couldn't be doing with hills as well.
Somehow this chivied me up and I made extremely good progress that morning with only a brief stop at Brora for a banana and energy bar. Eventually I fought the way up and around the Ord of Cathness, a terrible climb that seems endless, until all height is abruptly lost and then regained at Berridale. The worst feature of the climb was the ability to see what is ahead of you, no false summits here, only 30 minutes of sweating, swearing and hard bloody work. I waited at Dunbeath for the support crew and was passed by a couple of oldish blokes on a tandem. They were obviously in the same boat and I wished them luck (they looked completely and utterly shagged out, increasing my moral no end !). Eventually the crew arrived, we agreed all was looking good for a finish and they set off for John O'Groats with my ETA set and somewhere around 4-5pm . Things smoothed out at Lybster, but that didn't stop my arse going into near labour contractions, at Ulbster I stopped and stripped naked in a piss stinking bus shelter. Underwear was rearranged and a pact signed with my buttocks that if they let me make it that day, I wouldn't cycle for a week afterwards.
The road to Wick seemed to take an age and suddenly I wasn't enjoying it again, the knee pain stepped up a gear and fatigue slowly dragged my speed down to near stationery,.. that is until I entered Wick and saw a piece of magic..... It read "John O'Groats 16 miles",.... 16 miles ... I had done that in 40 minutes before, if I got moving it could all be over within the hour. It was 1.45pm , I called Helen. "Are you at the end ?" "No" she said "we're on a beach" "Well bloody get off it" I swore "I'll be there in an hour" The phone was stuffed back into my pocket and the hammer went down, I shot out of Wick greedily eating yards and visualising a flat downhill finish with the wind behind me. Until I got to Reiss that is.
The bloody roadbuilders were taking the piss when they created the first track out to John O'Groats, they knew how tired the "end to ender" would be and subsequently decided to go up and down a few more hills for good measure. I was averaging 20mph plus until Reiss but rapidly dropped to a much more realistic 9-12mph. The last hill really hurt, the knee screamed, the arse even hurt when off the saddle and the thighs and other assorted muscles let it be known that they'd had enough,.. and then I saw it. The final few hundred yards should have been the best of my cycling career, somehow they were strangly anti-climatic.
I'd been to John O'Groats before and its a dump, I was greeted by a full car park and my wife desperately trying to control two hyperactive young children. I stopped for a brief hug and then we sidled over to the finish line for our "official photo", at the signpost another end to ender stood, post photo session. It seemed to me that he was waiting (like I was ) for the fanfare that never came, he was still in his cycling gear and his gaze started to turn in my direction, I avoided his eyes and quickly decamped to the van to change. His wife held a video camera and started to film the hotel, I get the feeling she'd run out of angles for her husband and was as keen as I was for him to get in the car and go home !
It did feel good to finish, and there was a sense of achievement, but somehow (for me) it was filtered off along the ride with every stage, rather than some momentous rush at the end. I changed at the van and went for a quiet pint on my own whilst the kids played on the beach. As I ordered my beer, the landlord asked "Are you Dave Barter ??" and then handed me a note of congratulation from my parents. That note somehow meant much more than any self congratulatory photo session next to a signpost, but then again I'm a cynical...etc.etc. Two more finishers entered the bar after me and signed the book held under the bar for all those that have made the journey. I scribbled something myself. I can't remember what. Shortly afterwards the tandem boys followed, they'd done it in 12 days and (I think) the guy on the back was blind .... Fair play ! Drinking my Guinness I started to line up my thoughts. The ride had been worthwhile, I'd pushed myself harder than ever before and equally raised a lot of money for charity. Somehow something was missing, and I decided that the mechanical problems and knee injuries were a major contributor. I had set out to ride the "scenic" route, but after Preston this objective had been compromised in favour of shortest distance and ease of access to support crew.
Additionally, I realised that this "green and pleasant" land is not a green or pleasant as we're led to believe, I envied the cyclists in the earlier years who didn't have to contend with lorries or roundabouts or traffic lanes. I especially despised the tourist highways that cut their way through the Highlands , I felt a special kind of resentment for those achieving the scenery without any kind of effort whatsoever. So truth be told the finish was a relief, but an anticlimax, after one pint, we packed up and headed off towards Dornoch in the van. The sensation of speed was unreal ! The cycle computer said 80 miles, 1019 in total for the whole trip