LEJOGLE – a rambling account
Now that I have finished writing this account, I would like to provide a warning to anyone embarking on a short read about a boy and his bike. It is not short. Over 9,000 words and by far the longest thing I have ever written. I hope you enjoy, probably best served over multiple sittings.
I think the most sensible place to start here is by explaining the ‘why’. Why bother subjecting yourself to sleep deprivation, foul weather and physical torment? Rather blandly, in January 2020 I received a place in the transcontinental race, a 4,000km self-supported race across Europe in roughly 14 days. At the time it was a very speculative application due to its oversubscribed nature, not ever expecting to get a place. Anyway, I did and suddenly my life became rather obsessed by it, working out what equipment I needed to purchase, what route would be best etc etc. Fast forward 18 months and two postponements and the initial “yeah, I reckon I could do that” mindset was ready to evolve into a confirmation of this. So that is the primary motivation, simulating the physical and mental exertion that will be required in summer 2022.
Cycling from Lands End to John O’Groats and back to Land’s End seemed like the obvious thing to do given the on-going uncertainty with accessing Europe. Last summer I half-heartedly cycled back from Land’s End to Newcastle and so also had a romantic attachment to go back and do it for real. The planning and route building was brief, and I would pay for this later. I was going to drive to the start and then cycle 9 stages of 311km, simple.
The following account will not be a literary masterpiece or particularly interesting I imagine. However, whilst still fresh in my mind I want to confine it to writing primarily for my own benefit. To look back at the learnings over the coming year and then maybe even to remind myself of what a maniac I once was when I eventually give it all up. The foundation of this is the daily write ups I made on Strava and rambling audio messages I sent to my nearest and dearest. These became an increasingly easy go to when plodding up a climb, minimising wind noise but also a lovely distraction to the physical exertion and loneliness that is encountered on a self-supported expedition.
1. Monday 26th July – Land’s End to Cheddar
296km | 13:15 moving | 15:11 elapsed |4,424m+
Day one started early. 4am to pack up at the campsite, try to scran some food and then roll down the half mile to get the all-important photo at the signpost. As it happened this was far earlier than necessary. I ended up being all ready to roll at 4:45 but stupidly hadn’t account for the fact it would still be dark. Sunrise down at the southern extreme of the country was quite a bit later than it had been the previous weekend up in Scotland on an equipment shake out ride. So, there I was waiting around until the sky was light enough to grab a photo in front signpost. How vain. At 5:20 I pushed off, wind behind my back and the sun peeking out above the horizon into my eyes. What a beginning. This magnificence sadly did not continue, sun was replaced by drizzly cloud and sweeping costal roads by aggressively steep lanes.
This was when I discovered my first mistake of the trip: route planning. Over the winter I had committed to routing the TCR using Komoot. Based on its better breakdown of route information (terrain, road quality etc) and partnership with the TCR, integrating their compulsory parcours into the routes it was clearly superior to Strava. Unfortunately, I discovered over the course of the next 13 hours that whilst staying clear of the busy A roads is most certainly more pleasant for your Sunday club run it is not conducive to progressing from one end of the country to the other. Firstly, main roads are built to follow the path of least resistance, they are as flat and direct as possible. Secondly, they are well maintained and don’t surprise you with head on tractors when travelling at 50 km/h. For much of the day I was plagued with these problems that were the antithesis of the benefits of the main roads. As a result, I was making much slower progress than desired, cautiously taking blind descents where the road was reduced to a foot wide due to hedge rows on one side and channel of gravel down the centre whilst travelling over every conceivable piece of mishappen countryside. I was cursing myself for not better planning and checking the route for the path of least resistance.
Mistake number two only became apparent later in the week. Obviously, this being the rugged wilderness that is the English countryside water is a scarce resource and hard to come by. Wrong. At the very minimum of once an hour, you ride through a little village with a co-op or pub. However, in my infinite wisdom and in the spirit of self-preservation I decided to ride the entire day with 1.5 litres of additional water strapped to my saddle bag, no doubt causing me unnecessary exertion on what is ordinarily a gruelling day. You’ll be amused to know it was until around day 3 that I clocked this and not until day 6 that I finally discarded the empty bottle. It did enjoy a fine adventure, completing its own LEJOG and more.
A year previously I had cycled the same route out of Cornwall and Devon surfing on the winds of the mighty storm Francis. As a result, I had enjoyed a terrific day, averaging a fantastic speed and not having to work particularly hard other than on the steep pitches. I knew it wouldn’t be the same this time and so was critically aware of trying to minimise stoppage time. There is little point cycling at 27 km/h to then be stopped for 4 minutes, achieving the same average speed as if you were to just cycle at 25.3 km/h. And that was to be the mission of the trip really. Maximise moving time to facilitate sleep and mileage. This is how I justified my miserly average for the day of 22.3 km/h. At 1:54 stopped time this was about par, especially including a dinner stop with the first Mc Danks of the trip.
And this was how I arrived at cheddar gorge, ready for an early ascent the following morning. I’d planned all day to bivvy in a campsite at cheddar as I had done the previous year. The genius of this is that for only a few quid you can shower and sleep with total security and peace of mind that no angry farmer or local is going to disturb you at 10pm when you’re trying to kipper down. I would highly recommend this as an introductory method to the art of bivvying. The only caveat being that it needs to be a dry night, otherwise I would just be diving into the nearest Airbnb.
As a cyclist weather watching has always been a mild obsession but this trip would take it to the next extreme. Not only was I concerned about wind patterns and rain over a 200-mile area during the day but also over the nights. Scanning my route to decide where I would end up the following day and therefore whether bivvying out would be sensible or a room for the night might be required. All in all, this strategy did work but it would have been nicer if the British summer had played ball and not been so inclemently wet.
Now for the final whimsical whittering of the day. Being the blissfully naïve and confident chap that I was at the beginning of this trip I had decided the day before that it would be impressive and handy if I could make it an additional 45km all the way to Bristol on day 1 and get up on my predetermined schedule that I wanted to achieve. It became apparent early in the day that this was fanciful thinking however it did not cease to irritate me and niggle away at my mindset and outlook for the day. Constantly judging myself against a needless and arbitrary datum. And so, when falling further and further adrift of this target it was putting me in a negative space mentally. Expectation vs reality. Goal setting. This was an important early reminder of the mindset required for something as mammoth as LEJOGLE. I know cycling 300km a day is on its own nuts, so don’t going adding to this as a requirement. Instead, anything extra is a bonus. Achieving more than you expect is far more rewarding and positive than falling short of your markers. After extracting myself from this mental position of the failure in reaching Bristol I was in a much better place and happy with the progress I had made in escaping the west country. The same logic was to be applied to every hour of the trip from now. Expect the bare minimum and you will rarely be disappointed.
So that was day 1 done. Hard work physically, never finding a rhythm due to the terrain and with sore wrists from spending very little time on the aero bars.
2. Tuesday 27th July – Cheddar to Orrell
320km | 13:29 moving | 15:10 elapsed |3,214m+
It turns out that 13 hours of cycling is very conducive to a good night’s sleep, even when wrapped up in a bag in a field. Alarm set for 5am I rolled out of the campsite at 6am. One hours turn around was slightly shoddy but became par for me. It could definitely be improved on, especially next summer with the pressure of actually being in a race.
Today was much easier going than day 1 but I still spent a large part of it cursing my route making, needlessly searching out elevation gain. First up the spectacular Cheddar Gorge before rolling down into Bristol, timed to perfection to arrive at Pret as doors opened. Bum bagged stuffed with croissants and baguettes and body fully caffeinated it was time to cross the Severn bridge. The rest of the day was spent tracking up the welsh border without ever actually crossing it.
Two minor catastrophes today. In reality they were trivial occurrences however when you are so wrapped up in an event like this you obsess about the most inconsequential matters. Partly this is due to the relative powerlessness you have in your situation. There is so little that you can control, weather, car drivers, terrain etc, that the things you can control become all encompassing. Today’s example being a bee sting to the lips and the loss of an earphone bud.
The bee sting came out of nowhere whilst sailing down the road and next thing I knew I’d taken a mouthful of insect. I was very grateful my lips had been pursed at the time, but the stinger still embedded itself into my lower lip. Once plucked out I instantly started catastrophising that my lower lip would start swelling up akin to Bear Grylls and his puffy eyes, a cracking photo if you’ve never seen it. An allergic reaction impending I wouldn’t be able eat and without food I’d run out of energy and be unable to pedal, ride caput. What a sorry way to abandon. I manically sent messages to my family asking what to do, whether sucking the poison out was a thing with bee stings, where the nearest Boots was. Thankfully none of this came to fruition and although antihistamines were consumed my lip never swelled up at all.
Losing an ear bud was more of an irritant. Podcasts to quell the boredom and music to pump up my moral have always been key to long bike rides. So suddenly losing one was akin losing hearing in one ear, what the hell would I do for the next 8 days with a tinny podcast inaudibly playing in one ear. Needless to say, this was a trivial issue, and it would end up being replaced but it is a good example how not being in control of one small ‘controllable’ can affect your mindset and be negatively obsessed about. I will be taking a second set of headphones with me next time.
Two WhatsApp groups with my parents and mates Tom & Freddie would prove to be the backbone of this trip. An excellent learning point was the benefit of a support team not necessarily physically with you. Whether it was to get weather checks on the go, scout out accommodation at the end point of each day or just have some constant ears to listen to my musings and experiences of the day. The best way to keep them up to date was through audio messages. Whilst crawling up a climb (minimising wind noise) I would ramble away in the morning, updating them on the previous day’s happenings and then similarly throughout the day as they would return the favour. Not only was this a phenomenal way to document my adventure for posterity but it also helped me cope with the loneliness that is a fact of life on such an expedition.
This support was stepped up to a new level when later that afternoon, or evening by this point, when Tom came out to join me on the road! Along with a plethora of food it was the goal of meeting him for the 3 hours before so and then 3 hours of easy conversation that was most rewarding. It extracted me from the present, the enormity of which I had spent the last day and half realising I was in and transported me to just an evening’s ride with a friend. I finished the day at my Airbnb having be reassured by my decision not to bivvy as the rain continued, on and off, as it had all day. Feeling great I finally felt like I was acclimatising to the rhythm of riding for 12+ hours a day.
3. Wednesday 28th July – Orrell to Carlisle
182km | 8:12 moving | 10:41 elapsed | 1,919m+
I’d planned the morning before I went to bed last night. Alarm set for 4:50, get ready to leave and then watch Ruddog and Tom in their repechage at the Olympics, perfect timing all round. However, as I hobbled down the stairs to leave, I twigged that my right achilles was incredibly tight and painful to walk downstairs on. Not a good start.
Two ibuprofen and two paracetamols down I soldiered on for the first 90 minutes of the days riding. Sometime after 7am I finally arrived at a big Sainsburys where I reasoned I could mend myself up to tackle the rest of the day. Cycling out of the saddle was no better for the achilles, the only remidial action was to point my toes down and ride as if standing on tip toes. It was the flexion, extension of the foot that was recruiting the achilles and creating pain. Therefore, I reasoned that if I could strap up my right foot, locking it at 90 degrees this would stop the achilles from being used and as such stop producing pain. I’ll keep this part short, but I ended up wasting over an hour bouncing between Sainsbury’s, a local medical practise, a pharmacy and finally, by 9am now, a sports shop trying to procure a bandage to wrap up my ankle with. The fruitless endeavour concluded with me attempting to strap it up using electrical tape. I made it 3 minutes down the road before ripping it off, the pressure of the strapping was only making it worse.
All out of ideas I just had to continue. A combination of toes pointed down riding, limiting the extension of the achilles, dropping my saddle height by 8mm and the codeine I had dropped an hour previously starting to take effect I finally started to cover some ground. During this period, I checked the upcoming route. Penrith was the largest town I would be passing through so I started ringing up physio practises to see if they could squeeze me that afternoon. Some rapid mental arithmetic based on my miserly average speed plus stopping time and I had a 30-minute appointment booked for 2pm. All I had to do now was get there. More route cursing as I climbed up and over the Forest of Bowland and then the Yorkshire Dales.
It was during these few hours racing to the catch the physio through the pouring rain that I had a real chance to evaluate my predicament. I was not it a good state. Whilst I was able to cycle, progress was not good and I wouldn’t be able to make it the 310km that day to Glasgow, let alone repeat that feat the next day. The previous summer I had done the first three days of LEJOG back to Newcastle, averaging a similar 310km a day. The day after finishing I was a similar physical wreck, unable to traverse stairs due to achilles tightness. I was confident from that experience that if I could take a day off, I could recover enough to proceed with the rest of the trip, at least making it to John O’Groats. Added to which, I would probably be able to limp my way 30km north of Penrith to Carlisle from where I could catch a 90-minute train home to Newcastle to spend a day resting and have two good night’s sleep in my own bed. What better opportunity would I have to do this? None was the answer. If I did solider on today and tomorrow with the problem persisting, I would then find myself in the Scottish wilderness, much further from any help or opportunity to bail.
Thanks to the length of time I had with these thoughts and being able to bounce them home through WhatsApp for reassurance, I made peace that a rest day at home in Newcastle was the best thing to do.
I rolled into Penrith with minutes to spare for the physio, dripping wet and cold. 30 minutes of massage and treatment later I had some answers. In hindsight it sounds ludicrous not to spot it at the time but the first thing the physio pointed out was how incredibly tight my right calf was. It was highly likely that, as I was fine at the end of yesterday’s ride, the tight calf had spent the entire night pulling on the achilles, shortening and tightening it. So that was what she concentrated on, releasing the enormous knot in the muscle and stretching the achilles back out. This gave me confidence that a day’s rest spent loosening the calf muscle would set me back to normal to resume riding. Whilst in no way fixed, I was certainly in a better position post physio.
An hour and a half later the day was finished, and I was sat on a train heading home. I had conflicted emotions. Although the right decision had been made in the moment, swallowing my pride and admitting defeat was tough. I can’t deny that I didn’t feel like a failure, fraudulent in some ways. I haven’t ever set out my goals and ambitions so publicly before. Accountability and motivation have never been a problem for me and were not really a factor for doing it this time. In all honesty there was an element of showing off, but also excitement in sharing what I knew would be a tremendous achievement, if successful. And there I was failing to achieve these goals very openly. This would go on to help motivate me to eventually finish the journey.
4. Friday 30th July – Carlisle to Glencoe
298km | 11:40 moving | 12:47 elapsed | 1,814m+
Back into the routine with a 5am alarm to catch the first train back to Carlisle. The day off had proven to be just the tonic that I needed. Some further physio in the morning followed by some route adjustment in the afternoon. Extracting myself mentally from the trip and living normally for a day were incredibly rewarding.
After giving the calf a probe, the physio immediately suggesting stepping it up a level with some dry needling. Basically acupuncture I think, the aim of which was to promote blood flow to the muscle, helping to release the knot. It was bloody uncomfortable, akin to highly localised cramping. The sort of good pain, knowing you will be better off for it.
My aim with the route adjusting was twofold. Firstly, revert to using Strava, a trusted and known resource. Secondly, make the route as flat as possible. Additional mileage within reason would be fine but reducing elevation gain was key as that was where I really felt the pain of the additional weight I was carrying. This was really something I should played around with before the trip and is certainly a large learning point for the TCR. The key changes were to head north out of Glasgow, up to Fort William and then along the Caledonian Canal, skirting around Inverness rather than heading through it, and then heading back to Land’s End via Liverpool, spending the night with James, before then taking the flattest possible route through the midlands to Bristol. In modifying the route I also decided to add a day to the schedule, slightly reducing each days total mileage in the hope of reducing the riding time and stress on the body, this was now to be a 10 day venture.
Arriving in Carlisle I was raring to go. Calf and achilles tightness near non-existent I was jubilant. The previous days mental angst at the decision I had made was vindicated and I now had something to prove to myself. Knowing I only had a 7-day trip ahead instead of 10 also helped the way I was approaching it, much less of a daunting prospect.
The mornings progress was exceptional. Despite almost 50 miles of climbing over the borders, aided by a slight tailwind, I covered the first 100 miles to Glasgow in under 6 hours for the first scheduled break of the day. This was something I was also changing for the remaining portion of the trip. Days 1 and 2 I had just stopped when I either needed to pee, get more water or food. As a result, I ended up accruing 2 hours stopped time without every mentally feeling like I’d had a break. Now I was going to properly bookmark the ride with focused stops of 20 to 30 minutes at key points of the day. Today’s example being the arrival in Glasgow.
I was mildly struck by the size of Glasgow, it had taken about 2 hours to fully cross from descending into Hamilton, then past Celtic Park before finally escaping through the other side along the canals onto the shores of Loch Lomond.
I was faced with my first proper elongated stretch of bike path along the shores of Loch Lomond. Rather controversially, I think it is a prime example of the shite nature of British cycling infrastructure. In principle it’s a great idea, getting you off a busy main road, increasing your safety and enjoyment of the trip. However, the reality is that it was terribly maintained, patches of gravel, rough tarmac limiting you to less than 20 km/h, tree routes protruding through and not enough room for two oncoming cyclists to pass due to the overgrown shrubbery. Therefore, I would much rather join the main road, get on the aero bars and make some good progress. In my opinion a much safer option, and no doubt faster.
After climbing up from the shores of Loch Lomond, through some torrential rain, I was up onto Rannoch Moor, the first draw droppingly scenic location of the trip. Potentially even the most beautiful place I’ve been to in the UK! By this point it was around 6pm and the days traffic was starting to wind down as the campers found their laybys for the night and the day trippers returned to their accommodation. Your sense of time is strangely warped when you spend over 12 hours performing the same activity. The mornings and evenings quickly became my favourite times to ride. Not only do you have the atmospheric freshness provided by a rising and setting sun, and quieter roads but also the mental release of knowing you are beginning and then finally nearing the end of the days adventure.
That was the position I was in as I finally descended into Glencoe. A great day’s progress and an enormous relief to be back into the swing of things injury free. After a well-earned pint and burger, I turned my attention to the night’s accommodation. I hadn’t really done much planning other than checking to see it was going to be a dry night, meaning only one thing… a bivvy. Thanks to the afternoons rainfall I was relatively ‘clean’ and so only gave my shorts a quick hand wash in the pub loos. Next on the agenda was to locate a quiet spot out of the public eye to kip down for the night. I ambled along the road for over 5km before I eventually spotted a forestry road snaking up through the trees. Finally, throwing out my bivvy I was ready for a well-earned night’s sleep. Unfortunately, the midges had other ideas.
5. Saturday 31st July – Glencoe to Wick
287km | 12:30 moving | 14:37 elapsed | 2,291m+
Last night was possibly the most difficult night’s sleep I have ever endured. As soon as I stopped to make camp, I realised how still the air was, meaning only one thing… midges. Now, I had encountered them before when bivvying the previous summer in the lakes. On that occasion it was also raining so I had made a two-door air lock system with the bivvy by lying on my side and folding the face opening over itself. However, due to my sleeping mat this was not possible on this occasion. The next best solution was to turn the bivvy bag over so that the opening was face down to the ground. Unfortunately, as the minutes slowly ticked by, I became hotter and hotter, starting to become paranoid that I would asphyxiate later in the night as I replaced all my oxygen with carbon dioxide. It was also becoming unbearably humid. Amusingly it was neither of these issues that was the final nail in the coffin. Instead, it was the slugs that I suddenly discovered had worked their way onto my sleeping mat. In a momentary panic I bolted out of the bivvy. I couldn’t get on the bike, I was knackered, needed sleep and the 20 or 30 minutes that it would take to break camp would ruin me due to the midges. My only remaining option was to fashion a midge net by putting on a hat and pulling my buff up over my entire face until no skin was showing. After extracting as many slugs as I could I remade my bed and drifted off to sleep with my masked face open to the elements. Other than the near constant drone of helicopters (very odd, I assume military) it was decent few hours’ sleep given the circumstances.
Eventually, after the sky became light enough, I was thrilled to be on the road, only mildly midge bitten to my hands and face. Panicked by the prospect of having to relive that experience the following night I pootled along browsing Airbnb looking for the most reasonably priced accommodation. The best bet was in Wick, meaning I had to add 30km onto the end of the day. A worthwhile trade for a shower and midge free night.
Fortified by a cooked Scottish breakfast at Fort Augustus and having enjoyed some flat terrain along the Caledonian Canal I pushed on towards Inverness. The body was still intact, and no new niggles had presented themselves overnight much to my relief. I was pleased to be on 32mm tires given some of the quality of canal path, also musing to myself that the wider rubber might also provide greater puncture resistance if one assumed that the tread was scaled up in accordance with the width. Although I was carrying a spare tire in case of misfortune, I was confident and hopeful that it would not be required.
In the rest days rerouting I had chosen no go around Inverness rather than through it, reasoning it would be much quicker avoiding traffic and lights. As I did so I joined onto the North Coast 500 route. It was this afternoon that I finally started crossing paths with other cyclists, predominantly bike packers, loaded up on the NC500 route. It was exciting to share salutes with passing cyclists.
I paced myself through the afternoon stopping at Lidl’s and counting down the time to the second Lion’s test kick off at 5pm. The wind also started picking up, blowing in my face, and only tempering my emotions in the knowledge that it would continue to blow like so tomorrow by which time I would have turned around at John O’Groats. The roads were tough going, consistently rolling up and down, but no longer being treated to such spectacular scenery that the Glen’s had provided. Added to by the fact that my excitement of listening to the radio commentary of the second Lion’s test was thoroughly misplaced due to the turgid nature of the game, the day had been a struggle. After two particularly horrible and steep climbs up to Wick I was finally finished.
Dinner was had in a bar beneath my accommodation, eerily quiet for what was a Saturday night. I was reminded, in the same way that I had been upon arriving at a Pret in Glasgow where a particularly narky employee made sure I was aware of the current covid laws, that life was far from normal in Scotland still. In the two weeks previously in England I had slipped into the normality of not wearing masks and enjoying sitting indoors at a pub. But up north of the border Nicola had made sure that she still had the moral high ground. It was quiet depressing hearing this from the barmaid.
6. Sunday 1st August – Wick to Laggan
283km | 11:57 moving | 13:48 elapsed | 2,399m+
Today was going to be a big mental release. Reaching John O’Groats in 5 days was obviously something to be proud of but more importantly it meant I was now counting down the days rather than up. With music plugged in I set off for the final 27km north into a biting head wind. As I rolled down the final kilometre, not for the first time on the trip I enjoyed a good cry. In the words of Emily Chappell, “more a merciful release of tension than an expression of pain”. I’ve found it quite an addictive part of ultra-endurance cycling.
After grabbing the obligatory photo and having cooled down more than I would have liked in the morning chill I saddled up to enjoy the tailwind home. The morning was probably some of the most boring riding due to the repetition of having cycled the exact same corners and rises less than 12 hours previously. It could have been a route I had cycled hundreds of times before.
The rest of the day was mercifully uneventful. The tailwind continued in a strong fashion for the next 6 hours but even after dying down was still gently aiding me on my way. I did develop quite a tight left calf around my ankle. Heavily medicating on paracetamol and ibuprofen I was craving a hockey ball or foam roller to release the tightness. Some ingenuity was required, and I substituted a roller with a 1 litre bottle of fizzy Lucozade, an excellent budget equivalent if you are ever in need. And then of course you get to drink it all when you’re finished, genius!
Having learnt from Friday nights horror my parents booked ahead a hostel in Laggan for me. There was a short period of consternation deciding whether to play conservative and stay in Fort Augustus or go big and aim for Fort William. Due to the ankle niggle I decided to meet in the middle with Laggan, still buying me the advantage of eating into the next day’s route by 15km or so.
For the first time on the trip I was pleasantly accosted at a petrol station in Fort Augustus by an English chap who clearly enjoyed a bike ride. And whilst having my ego mildly tickled as I recounted my journey so far, he excitedly updated me that the women’s LEJOG record had just been broken that week in a time of 51 hours. It was lovely to hear his excitement about this but also highlighted to me how out of the loop I was with the world. I realised I hadn’t checked the news or social media (excluding updating my own account) for over a week. After the news addiction I’ve developed in the last year or so, basically due to covid, it was lovely to suddenly leave this behind.
I rolled into the hostel for the earliest finish time yet, showering and cleaning kit before heading down the road for dinner at a rather quaint river barge. By this point the air was totally still and the midges were swarming. I was very content knowing I had a bed inside the safety of four walls tonight. It was funny staying at a hostel again. I was softly reminded of my travels in NZ, a comforting throwback. In fact, the entire area surrounding Fort William felt a lot like NZ. From the spectacular views to the campers on the road, coupled with the extraordinary quantity of bnb’s and adventure experiences advertised.
7. Monday 2nd August – Laggan to Lockerbie
322km | 12:56 moving | 16:06 elapsed | 1,921m+
It was a freezing start to the day. Leg warmers, puffa jacket and buff all deployed. Only a pair of gloves short of full winter kit. I was rather looking forward to the days riding. It was going to be flat to start into Glencoe, before climbing to the beauty of Rannoch Moore, the best part of the trip so far.
I was also planning to make it long day, aiming to cover 50km from tomorrow’s stage. The reason for this was I would be staying with James in Liverpool. The prospect of seeing him was an incredible mental carrot dangling in front of me. Not only was it breaking the last four days into two blocks of two days, but it was a chance to slip out of the bubble of the expedition. For one night I could just enjoy the company of a mate and few beers. Therefore, I wanted to maximise my time in Liverpool and so by reducing that day to 250km I could comfortably get there by 5pm, also giving me 12 hours off the bike, an added bonus.
The morning flew by. A good McDonald’s stop for breaky in Fort William, gradually delayering as the sun rose before climbing up through the Glen’s. Along the shores following Fort William I passed the aftermath of quite the car crash. I deduced from the buckled windscreen and position that this car was off the road that it had struck a deer causing it spin off the road into the steep bank of the Loch. It was this day that I realised I was disgustingly familiar with the rotting smell of roadkill and the ability it provides for you to tell which way the wind is blowing.
Eventually I found myself back in civilisation and snaking along the canals on route to Glasgow. It was very warm by this point, so coupling up nicely as the main stop of the day I found myself another Maccie D’s for a milkshake.
A similar pattern followed over the afternoon as I escaped the vast Glasgow suburbs, becoming very sticking and grimy in the process. I could at least turn my attention to the end point of the day. It was looking like it was going to be a gorgeous evening and night to follow. Unfortunately, the borders are very sparsely populated with campsites. I decided I would be able to reach the third Maccers of the day at around 280km in which I could grab some dinner and a flannel wash in the loos. I would then push on the final 40km to Lockerbie where I would bivvy.
Much to my surprise and a golden discovery for any bike packer out there is that this McDonalds was in a service station on the M74. As a result of being a truck stop it had showers for the truck drivers! This lifted my spirits an irrational amount. Both my kit and I were going to end the day clean, vastly increasing the quality of sleep I would endure. Whilst enjoying the bewildered looks of every normal passing member of public in the service station I was accosted by a great chap who was cycling LEJOG. Similar to the last night at the petrol station in Fort Augustus I was transported away from the present and enjoyed sharing stories with him. It was only as I cycled off that it crossed my mind that I should have asked him if he wouldn’t mind me squatting on his hotel room floor for the night. That said, now thoroughly clean I was quite looking forward to my night under the stars as the sun started to set.
An hour and a half later I’d hit my target of Lockerbie and my attention turned to scanning the road for bivvy spots. All evening as I had cycled along the A74 the laybys had started filling up with lorries bedding down for the night. It was in a field of wheat behind one of these that I found my spot for the night. One of the more bizarre musing I had during the trip was the shared kinship I felt like I had with lorry drivers. We both spent the entire day travelling from A to B, all our worldly possession with us, all the while being despised by every single other road user. And so it was with this reflection that I bedded down, feeling peculiarly safe in the knowledge that there were three trucks parked the other side of the hedge.
8. Tuesday 3rd August – Lockerbie to Liverpool
253km | 10:14 moving | 11:52 elapsed | 1,529m+
I woke to a crisp sunrise and the sound of trucks starting their engines. It was 5am, bitingly cold with a solid coverage of dew. With ease it had been the best night’s sleep of the entire trip and a perfect demonstration of the beauty of bivvying. The only hitch as I decamped was with my Tailfin saddle pack. Whilst unpacking it last night I had accidentally bent a part of the mechanism that attaches it to the custom thru axle. I was remarkably zen about it at the time, reasoning that there was nothing I could do about it in the dark and should just enjoy my sleep. But now I had to deal with it. This is where I was grateful for my preparation when it came to mechanicals. Using all of my zip ties I locked the catch closed around the thru axle, and I was good to go.
With the prospect of a mere 12-hour day, re-entering England and crossing the beautiful lake district I flew off into the day. At a quick stop for breakfast, I fired off an email to Tailfin, knowing that I would be passing by their headquarters in two days’ time in Bristol and hoping they’d be able to help me fix the saddle pack.
The morning was a true joy. My ankle niggles that had troubled me two days earlier had vanished, and my legs felt like terrific. I was notably having to back off on the climbs in the lakes. So far, I had been aiming for zone 1 power on the flat whilst pushing on to zone 2 on the climbs. This had been working very well, power being maintained every day so far for a very similar relative effort. Generally, it only started to feel difficult when I was running low on energy which was always a good indicator that I needed to stop and shove food inside me. But today, what had been zone 2 power to date was suddenly zone 3 going off feel. I knew if I didn’t restrain myself, I would inevitably be bitten in the arse tomorrow.
After the lakes came the built-up suburbs of Liverpool. Powered by a nice crosswind I sailed along. Unfortunately, it was on these busy roads that I experienced the only bad driving of the trip. Overall, there was one constant: elderly drivers. I’m convinced none of the close passing or turning across me was malicious but merely out of shear ignorance. Some drivers purely don’t realise the speed at which a bike can travel or in these cases probably have so little about them that they have no idea you are even there. Rant over.
Despite being pancake flat the last two hours were hot and slow. I allowed myself to switch off mentally, no longer chasing a finish time but instead accepting that cycling slowly would be good for me the following day. I was able to then enjoy the coastal breeze and stop for ice creams, happy that I wasn’t hampering my progress.
It was a glorious evening with James. As anticipated, able to finally tune out of the trip. Dinner cooked for me, kit in the washing machine, I could guilt free troff on the sofa enjoying a beer chatting shite with James. 10/10 would go back for more.
9. Wednesday 4th August – Liverpool to Cheddar
347km | 14:57 moving | 17:50 elapsed | 2,004m+
James kept proving he was the hostess with the mostess as he rose with me at 5am the next morning, coffee and muesli laid on before waving me out of the door. It was a beautifully simple display but was a terrific contrast to sneaking out of an Airbnb. The previous evenings sunshine continued as I was greeted with a warming sunrise. Escaping the streets of Liverpool at 6am was quite the relief.
And there I was, embarking on the final two days of the trip. It was quite a reflective morning. I was aware from my rowing days and various campaigns at Henley that it was the journey that was the most enjoyable part, not necessarily the destination. However, despite this knowledge I could not wait to get through these next two days and leave the pressurised environment I had created for myself. I was left with a profound sense of guilt at having these thoughts. The best I could do was reason that at least I was critically analysing it in such a way. Is it better to recognise and understand your failings than live in ignorantly, blind to them?
It was this morning that I suffered, after the tailfin incident, the only other mechanical of the trip. Weaving my way along a cycle path in Cheshire I suddenly felt a horrible sensation from my rear wheel. Assuming I’d had a horrific rear tire blow out I jammed the brakes on. What had actually happened was probably far better. The straps on my saddle bag hadn’t been tighten up sufficiently, allowing my pair of birks that they were securing to work loose and one of them to become wedged between the side wall of the tire and the chain stay! Thankfully the only damage was a rather impressive burn out on the sole of the birk, but I was left obsessing in my head for the next half an hour that my tire side wall was damaged and that the wheel wasn’t running true.
The marker I was working to for the day was Birmingham at about 100miles in. However, what I hoped would be easy progress along the flat canal system through b’ham was not as imagined. Narrow blind tow paths left me terrified of rounding a corner to be greeted by another cyclist, colliding into the canal. Lots of steep rises on bridges and horrible cobbles ruined the average speed. Thankfully this only lasted for a couple of hours and once I was back on the road and had climbed out of b’ham it was a steady decent into Bristol for dinner.
I’d spent the day fantasising about getting a bowl of ramen at Wagamama’s that evening. A good way as it turned out to keep me motivated all the way into Bristol. The issue with my tailfin was also going to be resolved, as through my emails I had managed to arrange for them to leave a spare part to replace the broken one outside some bins by their offices. It was a very covert operation, collecting it at 9:30 at night. Enormous kudos to them for helping me out.
Over the course of the day I did a lot of mental maths and forward planning for the final day. Going off my pre-planned schedule I would spend the night in Bristol, leaving me with 350km to tackle to the finish. This was not enticing given the forecast headwind and nature of the terrain in Devon and Cornwall that I knew only too well. I had settled on pushing through and beyond Bristol, climbing up and over the gorge in Cheddar. However, it wasn’t until about 10pm that I finally resumed meaning it would be very late by the time I had tackled those 40km.
I’ve done plenty of riding at night and obviously in the dark over the course of the winter. However, probably due to doing unfamiliar roads and general state of fatigue I was in, tonight’s riding elevated me to an even higher than normal sense of awareness. It was exhilarating!
I finally descended into Cheddar around 11:30pm. I had flannel washed at dinner and was nonchalant about having to wear dirty bibs for one more day, so using the street lit town centre extracted my bivvying accoutrement and changed for bed. Rather than blindly cycling down the road looking for a spot to sleep my plan was to hop the fence into the campsite I had spent night one of the trip at. It worked flawlessly, and after surviving a minor scare from a truck on the road outside the campsite I was out for the count, alarm set for 5 hours’ time.
10. Thursday 5th August – Cheddar to Land’s End
312km | 13:33 moving | 15:51 elapsed | 3,363m+
Giddy like a child on Christmas morning I was up and raring to go. The night’s sleep had been excellent although not long enough, but of course I was happy to abide with that given this was the final push. Coffee’s one and two down the hatch and I was off. The forecast wind hadn’t quite picked up yet and I stormed on to Taunton, enjoying the last of the flat roads. A big supermarket breakfast of four pain au chocolate and another four coffees saw me on my way to Exeter. The good fortune continued as the wind was a southerly, meaning that as I hacked west, I could use it much like a boat does.
In the first 5 hours I covered 125km, stopping in Exeter for another two pastries and coffees 7 and 8. At this rate I was fantasising about finishing before 7pm. Perhaps I would stop off at the final pub, fill my bottle with 2 pints and then soak in the occasion at the Land’s End sign. Dangerous thinking.
I was at least thrilled to hear in a twist of fate that Freddie, from the previously referenced support team WhatsApp group was on holiday in Cornwall and was going to meet me out on route near Truro!
Unfortunately, this is where my good fortune ran out as the heavens opened. Torrentially so! For the next four hours they did not stop. The only saving grace was a chance encounter with a lovely couple on a cycle touring holiday between Bristol and Plymouth. For the next hour, not for the first time on the trip, I was transported back to normality as we nattered away about all things cycling. Discussing their trip and mine and receiving a plethora of Olympic updates. It was a treat to abandon my concerns about average speed and just enjoy their company. I needed it.
After three hours of torrential rain I finally arrived at a pub near Oakhampton. The main reason to stop was so I could dry my hands to the point of using my phone, charging my cycling computer and other such mundane activities. I could easily handle pushing on like a drowned rat as mercifully it was not cold, so once at peace with being soaked through it didn’t get any worse than this.
At this point I had 150km to go. Spirits were high, I was even musing to myself how close I was to the finish and how I didn’t want to end. It was almost tempting to slow down to savour the experience, knowing that after today I would be without this pure existence. The sense of purpose I possessed was unrivalled. Ultimately, whatever happened to me over the course of the day for the past 9 days was irrelevant. I had this sense of belonging; I was on a mission. I existed for one pure reason, to cycle from A to B. In hindsight, waking up the very next day this had vanished, just as I had predicted. You are left quite empty, suddenly, as if your life has no meaning. I am being slightly melodramatic; all I was doing was riding my bike for two weeks, but I think there is something applicable to everyone in this. Find yourself something that provides you with a sense of purpose. It is incredibly powerful and fulfilling.
Back to rainy Devon. These thoughts only lasted about half an hour before the bonk started to hit me. The diamond legs that had powered me up every double-digit gradient so far in the day had suddenly vanished. I realised that for the last three hours in the rain I had not been eating anywhere near enough. The pork scratchings and coke in the pub were only just enough to make up for the 30 minutes I was sat there, not carry me for the next 6 hours. I was in trouble.
Thankfully I had identified this and could inhale all the remaining food I was carrying. Climbing over Bodmin Moor I was then able to stop for a bar of chocolate, litre of coke and two bags of Haribo’s. I was back on track, even if by the skin of my teeth. All I had to contend with was the head wind, knowing that in less than an hour Freddie would be there to rescue me from the mental hole I was in, the day seemingly endless now as my progress slowed.
I was finally starting to near the finish by the time I spotted a small figure on a bike up the road. I could count the remaining berg’s left on the elevation chart of my cycling computer, and I now had company. Along with his ever-bubbly personality and giddy spirits Fred had brought along two of the finest bags of fudge I’d ever had. Now, it might just be because I was no doubt hypo at his point, but it was like rocket fuel. Despite the head wind very little drafting was done, instead preferring to natter away together.
The next hour and a half melted away, as did coffee 9 through to 12. Freddie dropped me off with two hours to go. I was seriously hanging by this point. My eyes hurt to keep open, and the ETA was slipping further and further back. I would be lucky to catch sunset at this rate. The penultimate hour was purgatory, the wind was at its strongest and I was at my weakest. The only thing keeping me going was telling myself that I was going to put on my playlist reserved only for very very very special occasions such as FTP tests and the last 26km of a 2,911km odyssey.
Darkness was approaching as I stuck it on. Knowing I was into the last hour I was able to dig deep, pushing powers up the climbs that I would have been happy with two weeks previously when I was fresh and fit as a fiddle. Even my heart rate was playing ball, something I’ve never been able to get high when at such an extreme level of fatigue.
I charged through Penzance on an absolute mission. I was fuelled by anger. Totally self-fabricated, akin to Michael Jordan in the Last Dance. I had managed to create a situation where I was pissed off myself for earlier in the day having dangled the prospect of finishing by 7pm with pints and with the shitty weather and wind I’d endured all day. It was incredibly powerful. Not until I was on the final 5km stretch approaching Sennen did the anger wear off. I realised I was almost there; I was about to do it. I could finally let go, anger was replaced by relief and the tears started to flow. Even writing this retrospectively it’s made me quite emotional, being transported back to that state of mind.
So that was it. I was finished. I no longer had to do this ever again. Relief really is the best emotion to attribute to the situation. The last amusing quip I was presented with was the position I found myself now in the public eye. I was clearly quite the state, a physical wreck who certainly looked like how he felt. Having only gathered at Land’s End for the impending fireworks show, a few people asked me what I had just done. As I’d explain someone else would overhear and come over to congratulate or ask questions in a perplexed manner. This will sound incredibly vain but it’s only what I can imagine being famous is like. By no means am I trying to claim I am, but for 20 minutes I feel like I experienced how totally shit it would be. All I wanted to do was get out of there and go to bed but instead I was confronted in the nicest possible way by total strangers. It was very bizarre. Finally, I rode off into the night, wind behind my back, in search of a pint.
122 hours and 47 minutes, 2,911km and zero wildies later I was back where I had started. LEJOGLE’d.