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Land's End John o'Groats - May 2008

(Ian and Matthew Cook)

Cut to the Chase - Summary Stats for the Ride

1. Cycling End to End - the First Seeds

 

The 2 of us rode LEJoG in May 2008. The first seeds of this mad idea came about in 2007, when Matthew (my youngest son) and I were sharing a couple of beers over a barbecue. We are both old enough and ugly enough to realise that you should only make such serious commitments in the cold light of day. Mistake #1.

Then we told people about it. Mistake #2 - we were on the hook!

We are both keen cyclists, and very fit. Matthew belongs to the Kingston Wheelers (road cycling club) and has ridden London to Paris a couple of times (plus Tenerife and Majorca), and I have done several thousand miles around the lanes of Gloucestershire and a lesser amount in France. I suppose we were looking for something a little more demanding, and the end-to-end has to be the one to ride in GB.

The 4 of us (Alex, Matthew, Rosemary and I) planned to travel to Cornwall on Saturday 10th May and stay overnight. Alex (our eldest son) would then drive Rosemary back to Thornbury on the Sunday. The overall plan is for Matthew and I to leave Lands End on Sunday 11th May 2008 and arrive in John o'Groats on Friday 23rd May 2008 (12.5 days). We then cycle on to Thurso and put the bikes on the train to Inverness, pick up a hire car and drive back to Thornbury.

We planned to ride an average of 80 miles each day (about 6 to 7 hours) and stay, mostly, in youth hostels. We stay over 1 night in Thornbury on the way through and Alex will join us for a day's ride to Leominster, stay overnight, and then ride back to Thornbury.

Right, that's the big picture - now the details.

2. Essential equipment

Equipment fell into five categories: bikes, spares, tools, clothing and food/medical supplies.

The journey is approximately 900 miles and we reckoned that well engineered and properly maintained bikes should do the trip with the minimum of problems, barring serious mishaps. Punctures are by far the most common problem, so we took spare tubes and a folding tyre each (plus puncture repair kit to while away the evenings). Apart from tyre failures we only took spares and tools to cover broken chains, spokes and brake cables. Anything else would need a local search for a bike shop, as and when. We didn't have a back-up vehicle travelling with us.

The bikes

Mine is a Planet-X Kaffenback - a steel framed road touring bike that I built specially for the ride, in the autumn of 2007. It uses 700c wheels (Mavic Open Pro rims on Shimano Tiagra hubs) with 25mm Bontrager Race Lite tyres. These are pretty much good quality standard spec wheels and tyres - nothing fancy at all. The bike has 18 gears (Shimano Tiagra compact) - a 46/34 tooth front chainwheel and a 12/32 rear cassette. This latter item is one that I made from a combination of road and mountain bike cassette sprockets. It may seem unconventional but it gives me the spread of gears that I thought I would need. The complete bike, including pannier racks and mudguards, weighs about 11.2 kilos and I weigh 91.5 kilos. Yer tiz:-

Matthew's bike is a Van Nicholas Yukon - a titanium framed road touring bike that he also built at about the same time. It uses the same size wheels (only Mavic Open Pro ceramic rims) and the same tyres. His gearing is SRAM compact - a 46/34 tooth front chainwheel and a 12/27 rear cassette providing 20 gears. He's about 8 or 9 kilos lighter than me and his bike weighs in at under 10 kilos, so he'd be OK with slightly higher gearing. Both bikes have drop handlebars. Here it be:-

 

We each carried 2 rear pannier bags and a small front bar bag. We didn't plan to take much luggage but we reckoned that 2 rear panniers would give a better balance when riding.

Spares and Tools

Boring, this bit. Inner tubes, puncture repair kit, folding tyres, rear spokes, chains and brake cable inners. Tools comprise Park Muli-tool, full length Allen keys, chain splitter, chain whip and spanner, universal bike spanner, PVC insulation tape and a knife.

Clothing

Most of the clothing we took was to be for cycling: padded bib shorts, bib tights/leg warmers, base layers, jerseys, rainproof jackets, socks, SPD cleated shoes (these would double up as evening wear) gloves, waterproof overshoes, sunglasses and helmets. We also each took a "boil in the bag" - these are very light weight waterproof jackets that fold up to about the size of a tennis ball. Evening wear was minimal, after all we weren't staying at the Ritz! lightweight trousers, polo top, thin jersey and underwear.

3. Training and preparation

We'd both worked on core fitness and strength, particularly over the previous 6 months. Matthew rides each weekend (Saturday and Sunday) with the Kingston Wheelers, typically 70 or 80 miles per day. They do a lot of riding in the Surrey hills, which he loves. He'd also been working in the gym a couple of nights a week (cardiovascular and weights). He also did a week's riding in Tenerife in January, and another week in Majorca in early April. All in all he cycles about 6000 miles per year.

I ride about 4 times a week, usually about 40/50 miles per ride, and try to include as many hills as I can find. Over the 4 weeks prior to the trip I extended this to take in about 2 or 3 rides at 80/85 miles per day. Interspersed with this I had been doing about 2 or 3 gym sessions a week (more if the weather was rubbish and I couldn't get out on the bike) where I did some cardiovascular work and mostly resistance weights. I probably ride about 4000 miles per year.

So, we reckoned we were pretty fit and quite well prepared. I was sure there were to be some monster climbs - Dartmoor and Shap would be quite nasty, and I expected there would be others ... but, hey, they don't call them pushbikes for nothing!

4. The Route

West of the Pennines. I don't know why, we just fancied it. Some would prefer the Yorkshire Dales, but I wanted to be able to say that I rode up Shap!

The route was built around the availability of Youth Hostels and comprised the following sections:

Day 1, Sunday 11th May - Lands End to Golant (St.Austell)
Day 2, Monday 12th May - Golant to Exeter
Day 3, Tuesday 13th May - Exeter to Thornbury (overnight stay at home, yippee)
Day 4, Wednesday 14th May - Thornbury to Leominster
Day 5, Thursday 15th May - Leominster to Chester
Day 6, Friday 16th May - Chester to Slaidburn
Day 7, Saturday 17th May - Slaidburn to Kendal
Day 8, Sunday 18th May - Kendal to Eaglesfield (another family stopover)
Day 9, Monday 19th May - Eaglesfield to Glasgow
Day 10, Tuesday 20th May - Glasgow to Glencoe
Day 11, Wednesday 21st May - Glencoe to Inverness
Day 12, Thursday 22nd May - Inverness to Helmsdale
Day 13, Friday 23rd May - Helmsdale to John o'Groats (half day's ride). Then on to Thurso to pick up the train back to Inverness
Day 14, Saturday 24th May - Inverness to Carlisle (by car)
Day 15, Sunday 25th May - Carlisle to Thornbury. Home in time for tea and medals!

5. Helping others - sponsorship

At the same time as enjoying ourselves we raised a fair bit of money for charity. We selected Macmillan Cancer Support, and received lots of support. We paid all our own expenses; not a penny piece came out of the donations. The cost to us alone of accommodation and return travel for the two of us was about £720, plus food (and beer!). We think it was worth every penny.

6. We're Away!

Sunday 11th May

Four of us stayed overnight in St Just (very comfortable at the Commercial Hotel). Three great guys: Gary, Martin and Wayne kindly sponsored us at the Wellington Pub. After sorting the bikes out, checking in and posing for photos, we set off at 9.50 am, arriving at about 6 pm in the Golent Youth Hostel near St Austell. Some very steep hills that day, but the next day's ride to Exeter Youth Hostel was even harder with the endless hills of Dartmoor. But the sun shone, the scenery was beautiful and we knew that Tuesday was the Home Stop!

7. Day 1 - Lands End to Golant (St Austell)

We set off from Lands End on a lovely Sunday morning: sunny but with a light easterly breeze. Although we had both ridden with panniers on we really hadn't got used to the handling of the bikes with an additional 12Kg load. It makes them quite top heavy and awkward to manoeuvre.

Progress was good as far as Truro, and then we hit some severe hills. It's probably more accurate to say that we cycled along the crest of the Cornish land and then fell into the valleys, one after another. Most of the of the climbs out were about 15%, with the odd one or two at 20% - very taxing on the legs. Also, the final descent into a seemingly bottomless valley saw my wheels rims too hot to touch with constant use of the brakes!

Being a Sunday, and tootling along some beautiful back lanes we didn't actually find anywhere to get lunch. We won't make this mistake again! We managed to get a pint of shandy and a packet of crisps in a pub, but had to wait until we found a garage just outside St Austell before we could get a sandwich.

As we were on back lanes, and using the pages of a road atlas for basic navigation, we had to switch on the Magellan GPS to figure out exactly where we were. Matthew had already plotted the routes using Google maps, and he had produced turn-by-turn instructions which worked very well indeed but some of the lanes were devoid of signposts, or else the local drunks had been swinging on them. It reminded me that these were probably the routes taken by locals on horseback between farms before the roads were metalled.

The Youth Hostel at Golant was excellent, and in a lovely setting. A couple of pints of chilled cider and a nice mackerel dinner saw our batteries recharged for the next leg to Exeter.

Day's stats: 69.1 miles; 10.7 mph; cycling time 6 hrs 26 mins

8. Day 2 - Golant to Exeter

Another glorious day, but the wind was still from the east and stiffer. Leaving Golant we immediately began plunging into the severe Cornish valleys again. One of the ascents was so severe, and so littered with scree in the middle of the road (well, I'll call it a road - but a car would have brushed both mirrors on the hedges trying to get along it) that I executed a tactical dismount. I must confess that this was the first of half a dozen such dismounts for me. Matthew, of course, being a stronger young hill loving whippet, rode serenely up.

These severe "holes" in the terra firma persisted until Lostwithiel, where we joined the A390. we stopped in Tavistock to consume the excellent packed lunch that the youth hostel in Golant had made for us (complete with monster Cornish pasties) and to psyche ourselves up for the ride up Pork Hill onto Dartmoor (another tactical dismount for me, I'm afraid). We arrived at the top of the hill into the teeth of a vicious east wind that blew us to a standstill right by an ice cream van - very convenient!

We took tea and cake in Moretonhampstead (cyclists consume mountains of cake and become connoisseurs of it) and then pressed on to Exeter. One way systems might be OK in a car but on a bike, when you can see the logical direction to ride, they are a nuisance. However, we more or less obeyed the law!

The hostel at Exeter was quite OK, although we had to eat out in a pub (shame, that).

The next morning, a bike inspection showed that I had a gash in the rear tyre (probably from a flint on one of the awful steep lanes). It wasn't punctured but I changed the tyre anyway.

Day's stats: 71.49 miles; 9.2 mph; cycling time 7 hrs 42 mins

9. Day 3 - Exeter to Thornbury

Yet another fine day, but still a nasty wind from the north east. The terrain was much more comfortable, once we got onto the Somerset levels.

We stopped for a shandy in the George Hotel in Wedmore and, as usual, got gassing to the locals who (to our surprise) donated £11.50 to our fundraising - and they didn't know us from Adam! Doesn't it tell you something about people's real values?

There was an awful climb out of Cheddar, up Shipham Hill (another TD for me, I'm afraid). I knew that the day promised about a century ride, with a further steep climb up into Bristol (Belmont Hill) towards the end. So ... chicken, or playing safe? I claim the latter, especially as I knew we had another 10 days to ride, including Shap Fell.

It was nice to arrive home, albeit not until about 7.45 pm, to a warm reception from Rosemary and Alex - not forgetting George Collett, who turned out from the Thornbury Camera Club to take some piccies.

Day's stats: 96.4 miles; 11.2 mph; cycling time 8 hrs 32 mins

10. Day 4 - Thornbury to Leominster

There were three of us for this day. Alex joined us and would stay overnight in Leominster, and ride back to Thornbury in the morning.

It was yet another fine day, with the wind in the same direction so, strictly speaking, it was behind us we rode over the old Severn bridge. One and a half miles of tailwind - yippee! We then took the back roads through Devauden to Monmouth for more tea and cake.

There were then a few more vicious hills (somewhat similar to Cornwall) before we joined the A466 to Hereford. Here, we made a beer stop (cider, actually) and passed a very pleasant half hour chatting to some locals, and then rode on to Leominster. The hostel here was very nice, being tucked away round the back of the church. It didn't have food available so we went to a local curry house for our evening meal.

Day's stats: 66 miles; 11 mph; cycling time 5 hrs 59 mins

11. Day 5 - Leominster to Chester

Now we come to breakfast. We knew that some of the hostels did not provide food (Leominster included) so we had packed a few sachets of porridge. It was easy enough to make but we soon discovered that the portion size was really only adequate for a pygmy size person who was not going to be doing any exercise. In other words, we were starving hungry in about an hour and a half. Cue a diversion to Morrison's for a few bars of flapjack - a strategy to be repeated many times before the end of this saga.

The day promised rain, but we seemed to be riding just ahead of it. It was quite cold and we wore our "boil-in-the-bags" (lightweight waterproof coats) for a fair bit of the day. We subsequently learned that Alex had got soaked riding back to Thornbury.

This ride was over good rolling terrain. We stopped for tea and more cake in Church Stretton before setting off again for Chester. It warmed up nicely at about 4pm.

The youth hostel at Chester is a magnificent old building, but quite dilapidated. We understand it is soon to close. We met a woman cyclist at the Chester hostel who was doing the LEJoG ride solo - a brave soul indeed. We subsequently learned that her name is Julie and that she works for the Youth Hostel Association. She had decided on doing the ride only 5 days before she set off, and was following one of the published CTC (Cyclist's Touring Club) routes. We would meet her again at Slaidburn, Inverness, and Helmsdale.

In the evening we walked into the town and had a couple of beers and some supper in a pub.

Day's stats: 92.79 miles; 12.3 mph; cycling time 7 hrs 32 mins

12. Day 6 - Chester to Slaidburn

The day was overcast but there was only a gentle NE breeze. The terrain was fairly flat for most of the way, and we were basically navigating our way past Manchester to get to Slaidburn in the Forest of Bowland.

We cycled though Wigan and Preston. Wigan was quite quaint, in a Coronation Street sort of way, but Preston was grim. The surrounding countryside after this point was lovely with beautiful views, but there was a big steep climb out of Clitheroe to Slaidburn (another TD for me). I'd just got back on my bike when Julie came up behind us. We didn't know she was making for Slaidburn, and she seemed to be doing OK.

We really enjoyed the hostel at Slaidburn. It is a quaint old stone building (no food but the usual self catering facilities) and we walked across to the local pub for a couple of beers and an evening meal (fish, chips, and mushy peas - what else?). The evening got very cold; so much so that, when we got back to the hostel, one of the other guests (a walker from a party from Lancaster) lit the fire.

In the morning we met two other cyclists (men) at the hostel who were doing the reverse direction route (i.e. JoGLE). They seemed to think it had been very hilly (they haven't seen Cornwall yet - tee hee hee). We reminded them that they'd had the wind behind them all the way!

Day's stats: 94.35 miles; 12.1 mph; cycling time 7 hrs 48 mins

13. Day 7 - Slaidburn to Kendal

We had not programmed in any rest days, so this is the nearest we got to one - a half day!

It was cold and overcast when we left Slaidburn - into a NE breeze again. There was slight rain over the fell but it was a beautiful descent into Bentham and the rain cleared quickly as we went down. The ride was quite hilly but I managed it without any TDs. In fact, the Hill between Clitheroe and Slaidburn was to be the last time I pushed the bike up a hill.

This latter fact deserves some explanation, I feel. I had, by now, thoroughly got used to the handling of the bike with its extra weight and I could confidently ride it down to about 4 mph in its lowest gear, sitting on the saddle. Previously I had tended to wobble as the speed dropped away and preferred to dismount rather than risk falling off. Matthew had adapted to this riding technique much earlier, plus the fact that he is about 8 or 9 kilos lighter (and 31 years younger) than me and had the benefit of two riding holidays earlier in the year (Tenerife and Majorca) that included an awful lot of serious hill climbing.

We stopped at the Station Hotel on the outskirts of Kendal for a superb roast pork and stuffing bap, with salad and chips! Plus a couple of pints, of course - after all, it was a half day. We also had a leisurely stroll around Kendal and happened upon two decent bike shops. I was able to buy a replacement spare tyre of the same make, size, and colour as the one I'd damaged and Matthew bought one of those superb retro cyclist's caps (Campagnolo) that the Tour de France and Giro D'Italia riders used to favour before helmets became compulsory.

The hostel at Kendal was in rather a similar state to the one at Chester, which was a pity since its location gives it much more potential. We finally got our laundry done, despite the best efforts of the hostel's daft washing machine/electric supply to thwart us. The machine was hooked up to a token-operated meter, but the token only gave 38 minutes. What no-one was told us was that you could only use the machine on one programme that would finish inside this time. How daft - all it needed was a notice stuck on the wall!

Although this hostel served a reasonable cooked breakfast there was no evening meal available, so we resorted to a Thai take-away.

Day's stats: 38.47 miles; 11.2 mph; cycling time 3 hrs 25 mins

14. Day 8 - Kendal to Eaglesfield

The day was bright, but cold with a moderate NE breeze. This was to be (potentially) our Waterloo; a ride up Shap, the infamous high spot alongside the M6 motorway. It started one and a half miles outside Kendal and then went on up for 14 miles. It was not continuous, but it was a long drag that took about an hour and three quarters to the top.

We were both pleased with our efforts. Matthew never had any doubts, but I was less confident. In the event I had developed my riding technique to such effect that I managed it without resorting to my lowest gear. This I did by getting up off the saddle (honking it) in such a gear that my pedalling rhythm matched my breathing - and then just putting my head down and slogging it.

We enjoyed some lovely back lanes around the borders into Dumfries and Galloway, although we never actually saw a sign telling us that we were in Scotland.

We arrived at Eaglesfield (near Lockerbie) to be met with a wonderful welcome by Jimmy and Sandie Batty (Rosemary's cousin and his wife) who were hosting us for the night. Sandie had cooked a wonderful pasta dinner (just what cyclists need) and we were quite late getting to bed, by the time we had demolished a few of Jimmy's beers and spun a few yarns. We were also captivated by their dog, Cleo. She is a six year old German Shepherd; I am normally wary of dogs, especially ones with teeth that could do serious damage to a tractor, but Cleo was a sheer delight. Jimmy was a dog handler with the MoD police before he retired and the discipline and training really showed.

Day's stats: 73.31 miles; 12.6 mph; cycling time 5 hr 47 mins

15. Day 9 - Eaglesfield to Glasgow

We finally said goodbye to Jimmy and Sandie (and Cleo) and got on the road. It was bright but cold and - guess which way the wind was blowing! I wore tights for the first time, and put on 2 base layers.

We had a good ride up the B road that basically follows the M74 (or is it A74M?), but the road surface was awful. On one stretch, just before Hamilton, it was dual carriageway that was in the process of being re-surfaced. This meant that they had closed off one side of the road and coned the other carriageway into 2 lanes, one in each direction. There was no way in which we could cycle up it and allow lorries to get past us, so we hopped over the centre grass verge and cycled on the bit of road they were working on. The road layers didn't mind; we just had to negotiate out way past great big road laying machines and avoid a few pots hole that wouldn't have looked out of place on Mars!

We rode into Glasgow on the A89, through the east end. What an awful pace. It seemed to be so filthy and the pavements were littered with seedy and threatening looking drinkers (smoking fags, of course). Lots of shops were boarded up. I honestly think that if we'd had a puncture then, we would have ridden on a flat tyre to a safer area. We then rode right through the centre of Glasgow to the youth hostel, which was on the west side - quite a fashionable Georgian district, rather similar to Bath. The hostel was very nice; again, no evening food but that problem was solved courtesy of the local curry house.

We had already decided to take the Sustrans route out of Glasgow the following morning. This is a cycleway from Glasgow to Loch Lomond, and we decided to find the entrance to the route by walking down to it on the evening we arrived in Glasgow. We only got about a quarter of a mile before we were again uncomfortable with the surroundings. It started with walking round a corner to find a double mattress covered in blood and other unsavoury looking stains, lying on the pavement. Then there was the off licence we visited where absolutely everything in the shop, including the shop assistant, was behind a stout wire cage. We were served through a small hatch just about big enough for a cat to get through ... and this is GB?

Day's stats: 83.74 miles; 13 mph; cycling time 6 hrs 25 mins

16. Day 10 - Glasgow to Glencoe

The day was bright but overcast and with a gentle ESE breeze. We found the Sustrans route 7 out of Glasgow. This basically follows the river Clyde, where it can. Some of the cycleway was still being built and the signposting of this cycle route was truly awful.

Sustrans is a joke; they don't provide a viable route for you to actually commute anywhere, and they seem to assume that bikes are ridden by people with kids who just potter along them. What signs there are pitifully small (as if cyclists have different directioning requirements to motorists) and many are in the wrong place. It's quite clear to us that nobody from Sustrans has actually ridden this route, at least not in the eyes of someone who doesn't know it.

We eventually got to Loch Lomond and joined the A82. The road surface here is awful, at least it is as far as Crianlarich. Most of the road is single carriageway with about a metre wide "shoulder" strip at the side (with a continuous white line), and it generally works well for cyclists. Just beware the flint chippings that get brushed onto this shoulder though. That's where I got my only puncture. You can't see the front wheel over the handlebar bag, and I couldn't avoid a stone that caused a pinch-puncture in the rear tyre.

We stopped for tea at Crianlarich - unfortunately cake does not seem to prevail at Scottish tea stops, and then had a superb ride up to Glencoe. We saw deer close up at a lay-by where there is a burger van. The guy that operates the burger van feeds the deer and they regularly come up to the back of the van.

We had a little light rain for a mile or two when riding along Glencoe, but this quickly disappeared and the sun came out. The descent from Glencoe down into the village was spectacular. The views were breathtaking and it was a bit like one of those cinemascope films in widescreen. If we hadn't had the luggage panniers on we would have turned round and ridden up to the top again - just so that we could experience the descent again.

The hostel at Glencoe is lovely. A timber cabin, set in the woods up a narrow lane. It was about 15 minute walk to the local hotel for a superb evening meal. There were lots of walkers and hikers here and it would be a wonderful place to stay for a walking/cycling holiday. Matthew is already thinking about doing this. He might well take the car with his bike and walking gear.

Day's stats: 93.6 miles; 13.3 mph; cycling time 6 hrs 57 mins

17. Day 11 - Glencoe to Inverness

The weather had now turned quite cold, and we were to have a persistent east wind for the remainder of the trip. Leaving Glencoe, the terrain was flattish but with lots of 3% drags, although it got a little flatter from Fort William onwards.

Much of the A82 is quite narrow single carriageway road which can make it a bit of a nuisance when trucks and buses come up behind, but they were very courteous. Not so were some absolute twerps coming in the opposite direction who were intent on overtaking with complete disregard for cyclists coming the other way. You need your wits about you as soon as the road appears to have a straight stretch ahead.

We passed an Aussie cyclist doing the LEJoG on a mountain bike and he'd broken two spokes in his back wheel. This is a failure that we'd prepared and spared for but we couldn't help him because his wheels were a different size. However, he had tools and hoped to pick up some spokes in Inverness.

Inverness hostel was very busy; it was hosting a party of 50 French school girls - very noisy, but at least they were marched off to bed at 9.30. Wetherspoons provided the supper here; it was a bit noisy because of the football match in Moscow - sorry, I don't have details because I have as much interest in the sport as I do in knitting ... but the beer and food were very good.

Back at the hostel we met the lone woman LEJoG cyclist, Julie, again. She had gained a day on her schedule and would be following a similar route to us over the next two days.

Day's stats: 84.54 miles; 14 mph; cycling time 6 hrs

18. Day 12 - Inverness to Helmsdale

The day started cold, overcast, and with a stiff NE wind that got up to about 20 mph during the afternoon. It was not an inspiring ride to Helmsdale.

We followed a cycleway out of Inverness and this took us on a cycle path along the bridge over the Moray Firth. We were about to descend a path (following another bobbins Sustrans sign) when we were met by a bloke on a bike, coming up the path. We think he was a university professor type, but he was very kind and helpful - just slightly eccentric. He said "is there a special reason you're going down this path. It's very pretty, but if you're going to Tore (we were) then you will have to come up again". He directed us along a much better route.

Matthew asked directions, to the hostel at Helmsdale, of a man in the street. He turned out to be an elderly retired fisherman who had lived in Helmsdale all his life and whose first language was Gaelic (Gallic, he pronounced it). He told Matthew of the time that the first English speaking person arrived in the village. People were apparently summoned to come and hear this person speak English.

The hostel at Helmsdale was very good. It was a tall building that could have taken a mezzanine floor; it had been a school gymnasium before being converted to a youth hostel. We had booked a four bunk room with en-suite to ourselves. It was a little extravagant but we reckoned that, as it was to be our last night on the road, we wanted a bit of space to get ourselves sorted out and re-packed for the eventual journey home.

We walked down to the village to get some supper and chose the local hotel, which advertised "rooms available" and "food served all day". Right ho then, we thought. We ordered a couple of beers and asked to see the menu to be told that it was the chef's night off. What plonkers!

So, we walked across to the pub and there found that the landlady came from Shoreham-by-Sea, which is very close to where we had lived for many years - small world! We had a lovely supper, three courses each for a total of £21.90.

When we got back to the hostel the lone cyclist Julie had arrived, but she'd had a serious failure of her bike and had to push it for 7 miles. The rear dérailleur hanger (a bracket that mounts the rear dérailleur onto the frame) had sheared off. There was no way of riding the bike like this and it would be unlikely that a bike shop would carry such a spare - it would have to be ordered. She was prepared to walk the bike the rest of the way to JoG (55 miles), which she reckoned she could do in two days.

So we did a bodge repair on her bike. Matthew stripped off all the rear dérailleur cabling and I shortened the chain so that it would ride in one gear only. It would mean that she would have to walk up some of the hills but it would be rideable the rest of the way. We don't know if she made it, but she has Matthew's email address so we may find out.

Day's stats: 70.14 miles; 12.4 mph; cycling time 5 hrs 38 mins

19. Day 12.5 - Helmsdale to John o'Groats

Friday 23rd May

So this is the last big push. We'd been riding for nearly a fortnight, kept to our schedule, and hadn't experienced any of the bike failures that we'd planned for. We were confident of finishing, but slightly concerned about time because we were booked to catch the last train back from Thurso to Inverness today and, if we missed it, we were snookered. We had a deadline to pick up our hire car in Inverness; it would be bank holiday Saturday and the car rental office shut at 1pm until Tuesday.

So, we got up a little earlier and left at 7.32. It was a bright day, but quite cold. Tights and boil-in-the-bag again, although Matthew bared his knees all the way! A strong E wind again, too.

From the very start of the day it was a 4 mile climb out of Helmsdale, followed by two other good descents and stiff climbs (Berriedale at 13% and Dunbeath). Wick was quite quaint really, like a seaside town (which I suppose it is). The final few miles to JoG were quite boring and relentlessly uphill, albeit at only about 2%.

When we finally reached JoG at 12.35pm it was a bit of an anticlimax. An inhospitable place, with nothing to recommend it other than the curiosity of its being at the other end of the country. We got our paperwork stamped by the woman in the "last house" museum, sat down and ate our sarnies, and then rode another 20 miles to Thurso.

Day's stats (to JoG): 52.55 miles; 11.9 mph; cycling time 4 hrs 24 mins

20. End game - summary and getting home

We'd done it; here are the summary stats:

Miles : 987

Days : 12.5

Average cycling speed : 11.82 mph

Breakdowns : one gashed rear tyre, not punctured (Ian, tyre changed at Exeter as a precaution); one puncture (Ian, A82 by the side of Loch Lomond). Matthew got away scot free

The worst hills : Cornwall, east of Truro, and Dartmoor (between Tavistock and Moretonhampstead). Shipham hill up over the Mendips, and the hill up to Slaidburn from Clitheroe. Scotland's hills were, by comparison, a walk in the park

The best hills : Shap Fell - a 14 mile climb from Kendal (very satisfying). The climbs out of Helmsdale (4 miles) , Berriedale (2 miles at 13%) and Dunbeath between Inverness and Wick

Memorable bits : lovely back lanes in Cornwall, Herefordshire, and Shropshire - and the descent from Glencoe into the village (fast and truly spectacular on a bright cold day with totally clear visibility - a bit like cinemascope unfolding before our eyes). No rain to speak of for two weeks (a bit of wet low cloud as we descended from Slaidburn, and a few spots of rain between Crianlarich and Glencoe that quickly passed - and the sun came out again). The lovely people we met on the journey, and £1119.38 raised for Macmillan Cancer Support

Not-so-memorable bits : a persistent headwind every day (varied between N and E); LE and JoG (as places) are rubbish, especially JoG which is truly inhospitable. Preston, but at least we avoided Manchester which might have been worse

Getting home : we rode on to Thurso, had a couple of pints in a very noisy pub, and got the train back to Inverness - arriving at 8.05pm. This was a very enjoyable train journey; the train was clean and comfortable and the guard was very helpful. At the Inverness youth hostel we met some other cyclists who'd just finished a 360 mile touring holiday from Inverness to JoG, to Tongue, and back to Inverness (including taking in some distillery tours). Now, that sounds very interesting.

We then picked up a Vauxhall Zafira from Europcar on Saturday morning and drove back to Eaglesfield for another night with Jimmy and Sandie, and finally arrived back in Thornbury at about 3.30pm on Sunday - just in time for tea and medals!

21. What had we learned?

Matthew and I had ample opportunity driving home to discuss what we had learned from the trip.

The route

It was immensely satisfying to plan our own route and not follow pre-ordained instructions. There are several published routes from the CTC, and others available by searching on the internet but we wanted to take in some back lanes and avoid certain main roads and cities, where possible. It worked well, but some of the back lanes in Cornwall were almost non-existent on road maps and it was not possible to get a height profile on Google Maps in advance. Having said that, roads like the A30 are very steep in places and may well have been quite hazardous to ride. We're happy with what we did.

The bikes

These worked brilliantly. They were well specified, properly built and meticulously prepared for the ride. In particular the wheels surprised us. The loads on these items must be quite severe, given the extra 12 Kg of luggage (predominantly over the back wheel) and the awful road surfaces in a lot of places. It is a testament to the build of these wheels that they performed so well. Both bikes had much the same wheel components: Mavic Open Pro rims (32 spoke, and in Matthew's case they were ceramic coated for durability over the wet winter months), DT stainless steel spokes, Shimano hubs (mine were Tiagra and Matthew's were Dura Ace) and they had been custom built. We didn't put a spoke key to the wheels once during the whole trip, and we didn't bust any spokes either.

We had been nervous for the first few days but, quite honestly, once we had completed the 240 odd miles to Thornbury we felt pretty confident that the bikes would be OK. I was slightly concerned at having used my spare tyre so early on and I packed an extra 23mm spare at Thornbury - but, in the event, I didn't need it.

The thing that didn't work so well with the bikes was comfort and handling. These bikes are normally reasonably comfortable to ride long distances but the extra luggage weight negated any built in compliance the frames might have had and made them similar to riding an aluminium frame. Also, the extra weight made the bikes top heavy and they were awkward to handle at low speeds and when pushing them about. It's quite embarrassing to have a bike fall over when you are trying to push it across a pedestrian crossing! However, we got used to it. It probably took me about 5 or 6 days to get used to the handling at low speeds on hills and, with the benefit of hindsight; I should have ridden the bike fully loaded on several long hilly training rides.

Food

Don't leave this to chance during the day. We did this on the first day and went hungry for a few hours. After that we made sure that we bought our daily scran soon after we left the youth hostel. That way, we were able to pick and choose when we stopped for snacks and lunch etc.

Youth hostels

Overall very good. Facilities vary, but it is always possible to get kit laundered and dry by the following morning. Some hostels provide food, but it's best to have some porridge packed in case you can't get breakfast. We very soon adopted a "priorities routine" when arriving at a hostel. Shower - laundry - charge GPS/mobile phones - beer/grub - phone/text home - lay out kit and maps for the next day, and pack panniers ready for the morning.

Daily riding schedule

The whole trip was planned around specific youth hostel stops, giving an average daily mileage of 80. There was no slack built in. We had originally planned to start each day at about 9am, giving time for the local rush hour to die down but we quickly abandoned this as our average road speed was a little lower than we had anticipated. So, generally we were leaving at about 8.00 to 8.30 each day and arriving at our destination around 6pm. The 80 mile quota was no problem at all.

Training

We had both trained with the intention of doing 80 miles daily, with no rest days. I think it's fair to say the training worked well. I could have done a bit more to prepare for long climbs up hills but this wasn't easy to do, given where I live, so I did quite a bit of gym training using a leg press instead, and this was very beneficial. Matthew had done quite a bit of hill climb training in Tenerife and Majorca and his climbing technique was better than mine.

What surprised me was heart rate and calorie consumption. I used a Polar F6 heart rate monitor for the whole trip as, being 63, I was concerned not to push my heart rate into the red zone and to maintain a comfortable daily average HR. In the event, I needn't have worried. My highest daily average riding HR was about 135, and it was only this high for the first 3 days (Cornwall, Dartmoor, and a long slog into a headwind for 96 miles to Thornbury). For the rest of the days my average riding HR was less than 120. I should point out that I left the HR monitor running during the whole of the riding day, including stops.

Calorie consumption was also less than anticipated. During training (gym and bike riding) I had estimated my daily consumption (based on feedback from the Polar HR monitor) would be about 4500 calories. Again, only the first 3 days were in line with this estimate (4700), the rest of the ride seeing a daily average calorie burn of 2730. So, although it was a hard ride, we were obviously not riding hard. Testament to this was the fact that we never felt really tired at any stage and legs felt fine. After a few days we more or less just got on the bikes each morning and did our 80 miles or so with little thought of the effort involved.

Needless to say, Matthew was in even better shape than I was.

Clothing and luggage

We probably could have travelled a bit lighter, but not by much. We had both taken a pair of lightweight trousers for the evening, but wore our riding shoes instead of taking casual ones. Knowing what we now know about the hostel laundry facilities we could have taken just one set of riding kit and washed it every day. Also, Matthew's long riding over-trousers were quite nice dark, light weight but warm items and they would have easily been OK for casual evening wear, together with a long sleeved road jersey, allowing us to ditch the spare casual trousers and jumpers.

One thing we would not have compromised on was tools and spares. The fact that we only used one spare tyre and inner tube between us, and didn't need spokes or chain spares doesn't negate the risk that these items could have failed and we would then have been in serious trouble with such a tight schedule.

We could have taken just one camera between us, but would still have needed a mobile phone each (both phones used common chargers, as did the cameras). We also shared shower gel, toothpaste and shaving foam (not that we bothered to shave very often). Perhaps we could have saved about 1.5 Kg each, if we'd really tried.

What next?

Would we do it again? Probably not - what would be the point? To do it again would mean setting substantially different goals; perhaps east of the Pennines, or doing it in a group with a support vehicle (i.e. a faster ride). No, we can't be bothered. However Matthew is thinking of some circular tours like the blokes we met in Inverness were doing, possibly with some club mates.

There's also the Mediterranean to the English Channel, that's a possibility - but not for me. I'm off to France with Rosemary next week; we'll take a couple of bikes with us and just potter along.

22. Summary Stats for the Ride

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Day
Date
From
To
Miles
Cum Miles
Cycling Time (Hr)
Day's Speed (mph)
Av Speed (mph)
Calories (riding)
Sunday 11/05/2008 Land's End Golant
69.1
69.1
6h26
10.7
10.7
4500
Monday 12/05/2008 Golant Exeter
71.49
140.59
7h42
9.2
9.9
4800
Tuesday 13/05/2008 Exeter Thornbury
96.4
236.99
8h32
11.2
10.5
4844
Wednesday 14/05/2008 Thornbury Leominster
66
302.99
5h59
11.0
10.6
3127
Thursday 15/05/2008 Leominster Chester
92.79
395.78
7h32
12.3
10.9
3253
Friday 16/05/2008 Chester Slaidburn
94.35
490.13
7h48
12.1
11.1
3329
Saturday 17/05/2008 Slaidburn Kendal
38.47
528.6
3h25
11.2
11.2
1801
Sunday 18/05/2008 Kendal Eaglesfield
73.31
601.91
5h47
12.6
11.3
3200
Monday 19/05/2008 Eaglesfield Glasgow
83.74
685.65
6h25
13.0
11.5
2530
Tuesday 20/05/2008 Glasgow Glencoe
93.16
778.81
6h57
13.3
11.7
2850
Wednesday 21/05/2008 Glencoe Inverness
84.54
863.35
6h0
14.0
11.9
2500
Thursday 22/05/2008 Inverness Helmsdale
70.14
933.49
5h38
12.4
11.9
2446
Friday 23/05/2008 Helmsdale John o' Groats
52.55
986.04
4h24
11.9
11.9
2233