Lands End to John O'Groats

June 2002 in 9 Days and Unsupported



Hopefully the following few words and pictures will encourage you to get on your bike and attempt the End 2 End ride (should you be in need of any encouragement). If you need more advice then send me a mail at  hargreaves_leeNOSPAM@hotmail.com  (please remove the word NOSPAM from the address first)
If you read any part of this account then read the Important Points and ignore them at your peril.


I have been contemplating the ride for 20 years from the days when I would cycle across Manchester to work, cycle home, get changed and go for a cycle ride. In those days I rode a no-compromise Motobecane Road-Racing bike until it got stolen. Since my Insurance was 'new for old' I went straight to Harry Hall Cycles of Manchester and got myself a more comfortable 'fast tourer', A British Eagle Touristique. The Touristique was 12 speed (Fairly impressive in those days) and Reynolds 531 ST throughout. I was advised to get 531 ST and compromise everywhere else if necessary and this advice was sound as I'm still riding it today. 20 years later and 4 stone heavier (Think about that, 56 pounds heavier !!! that's twice the weight of the Touristique) I decided to go for it. I booked my holiday a year in advance and took into account the longest days, in mid-June. My 40th Birthday was in May so it seemed a well timed 'Life begins at 40' sort of thing.

Let me say at this point that one of the toughest parts of the whole trip is actually, finally, once and for all......setting the date.

The deciding factor came a year earlier, in August 2001, when my family would be visiting relatives in Manchester. From my home in Andover that is 200 miles door to door. I figured that if I could cycle it in 2 days without any training then I could, with training, contemplate 900 miles in 9 days. If I failed to get to Manchester then I could forget the 'dream ride'. As it turned out I completed the Manchester ride (107 miles to Solihull and 93 to Manchester) although it was in extreme discomfort.

Important point number 1. Any minor niggle you experience with your bike, clothing or body during your 2 hour Sunday amble will be multipled and magnified 1000%, Make sure that, during a ride of 2-3 hours, you have absolutely no niggles. You should be in no discomfort whatsoever and your bike should be working 100%.

When I arrived in Manchester I had lost feeling in the palms of my hands and my feet were in agony (poor gloves and shoes)and I had struggled with the weight of luggage with only 12 unsuitable gears. The rest of the pain was due to cycling 200 miles with no training (I couldn't walk up or down stairs for a few days), training is obviously essential but I didn't have time. Anyway, I did it and that meant I could try for the 'biggy'.

During the winter of 2001/2002 it was obvious that time was rolling on and I wasn't riding my bike although I had started using exercise bikes at the Gym, I invested in a magnetic trainer which allowed me to train using my own bike. The main advantage of this is that it allows you to get everything set up correctly without leaving the house. I bought SPD pedals and a set of extremely comfortable Shimano shoes (Aching feet problem sorted). I started hitting the road in late April and had Stonhenge Cycles of Salisbury fit a new back wheel and triple chain-ring to allow me into the exciting World of 24 gears. Later that month I took it back to have SORA STI levers fitted to complete a rather expensive (but essential) makeover.

Important point number 2. If you are considering STI indexed levers (brake lever and gear lever in one) then stop considering and buy them. It is the equivalent of driving an automatic car, after a while you just think about changing gear and you have changed gear...magic. It stops you riding in the wrong gear because you can't be bothered reaching down to the downtube levers. If you have only ever ridden Mountain Bikes you will think I am talking about some ancient technology.

Now it was imperative to get some miles in during May and early June. I decided to commute to work in Portsmouth. Now Andover to Portsmouth is about 40 miles which is too extreme so 7 times during May and June I drove to my parent's in Winchester at 6:00am and set off for Portsmouth at 6:30am (30 miles from portsmouth). My first commute was terrible, lost going in, 2 puntures on the way back, dark, no lights, no energy.....just an extremely hard 60 mile round trip. The subsequent 6 trips however got easier and easier proving 1 thing, you can get fit pretty quickly.

Important point number 3. If you can cycle 60 miles over pretty hilly terrain (Believe me, Hampshire is as hilly as anything you will get on the End to End using my route)at about 12mph average seven times then you can go end to end. That, plus a few 2 hour weekend rides was really the only training I did on my bike. I spent quite a lot of time on Step Machines in the Gym to try and simulate climbing and I think this helped a lot.

The Logistics

OK, once you have decided to do the ride you must consider getting to and from the far-flung end points. I was doing this unsupported (Carrying my own luggage, finding accomodation as I went along and no fellow riders)

Important point number 4. Doing the ride solo, in my opinion, is what made the ride a hard, not the distance or terrain. It's incredible how the pain vanishes when a fellow cyclist joins you for 30 minutes or so, on your own you have nothing to think about but the discomfort.

Getting to lands End was acheived using National Car Rental. They dropped a Vauxhall Zafira in Andover and their Newquay office collected it from St. Just, Penzance. Getting home involved a couple of trains and EasyJet.

Important point number 5. Easyjet fly from Inverness to Luton for about 40 pounds. They treat bikes as luggage and mine incurred no extra charge, brilliant. I used B&Bs and some small hotels. The average cost per night was around 30 pounds (Although I would have gladly paid up to 1000 on some occasions)

Important point number 6. This adventure will cost you a lot of money. Add up travel and accomodation and you will be lucky to do this for less than 500 pounds (not including food and modifications to your bike) for a 9 day 'attempt'.

The Ride

Finally we get to the easy part, actually riding there. Unless you are a club cyclist you will consider 100 miles a day a long way. Trust me, it is a very manageable distance if you pay attention to Important point number 7.

Important point number 7. Pace yourself. 100 miles at only 12mph is 8 hours cycling. Add a couple of hours for stops and you are on the road for 10 hours a day. It's not the distance that is the problem, it's sitting on a bike from 8am until 6pm !. Remember Important Point number 1.

I set myself a goal of 9 days to complete the ride, the route I estimated to be around 880 miles so I was looking at an average of 100 miles a day.


Wed June 12 (D-Day -1)Home to Cornwall

Finish work. Throw bike into rental car and drive to Cornwall. Arrive at Bosavern House B&B at 9:00pm. Lovely B&B, 25 pounds and only 5 miles or so from Lands End. Drove down the A30 which would be my route for the next 2 days. Looks like a motorway. Cornwall in heavy drizzle.

Thu June 13 Day 1 - Lands End to Oakhampton

Cycled from B&B to Lands End, saw 2 guys coming out from Lands End on serious looking Carbon Fibre. Found out later this was Harry and Aubrey (also doing the ride in 9 days). Lands End at 8:15am then spent the whole day on the A30 until I reached Oakhampton at 7:30pm. I was making great progress on the dreadful A30 (It really is like cycling on a motorway but without the safety of a wide hard shoulder, Russian Roulette really, very dangerous but fast, your decision.) until I got near Oakhampton. I decided to reward myself with a final stretch on some backroads. This was a big mistake, I ended up going round in circles and up some terrible climbs just when my legs had had enough. Angry with myself for turning a good first day into a very strenuous one. Stayed at the Fountain Inn, Oakhampton (all B&Bs were full). I couldn't find many B&Bs in Oakhampton, it may be worth taking the first place you find in the area.

111 miles completed. Rained all day. Bodmin Moor in Fog. Very glad I took 2 flashing red LED lights for the back.

Important point number 8. I can't stress enough how dangerous the A30 is, especially in fog. however I should also stress that it allows you to make much better progress than typical Cornish back roads.


Fri June 14 Day 2 - Oakhampton to Bristol

Oakhampton to Tiverton is VERY hilly but flattens out from there on apart from a very long slog a few miles out from Bristol. I got completely lost in Bristol City centre and was extremely glad to find the Arnos Manor Hotel, expensive for a B&B but all the luxuries of a Hotel.

105 miles. Cloudy but no rain. Met Harry and Aubrey and kept up with them long enough (I managed about 10 minutes before my lungs and legs gave out) to learn that I should go round Bristol to Gloucester rather than crossing the Severn.


Sat Jun 15 Day 3 - Bristol to Telford

Following the advice of Harry who had done the ride previously I took the 'longer' router via Gloucester and Worcester. This route to Telford was fantastic, flat all day and I made a very easy 103 miles with the added bonus of England beating Denmark 3-0 in the World Cup (My Wife kindly called me on the mobile after each goal). I took the first B&B I saw after wasting too much time previously looking for accomodation. It was 17 pounds, rough as anything but it had a bed.

103 miles. Great weather, very sunny all day. If you want to make up time you can do it on this stretch.


Sunday June 16 Day 4 - Telford to Lancaster

Fabulous sunny day and flat all the way to Lancaster. This stretch takes in the industrial North West (Warrington, Wigan, Preston)so I was lucky I did it on a Sunday (luck, not planning). A weekday would be very unpleasant but as it was I made great time and did my 111 miles at nearly 14mph. Stayed in Lancaster at the Castle Pub. 15 pounds. A real experience, you should try it, friendly but rough and ready (They let me put my bike in the pub itself for safe keeping...during opening hours as well!) .

111 miles. Great weather until rain at Preston. This leg would be awful on a work day !


Mon June 17 Day 5 - Lancaster to Lockerbie

Tough, tough day. There were Gale force winds as I rode (and tried to stay on my bike) from Kendal to Shap. Fabulous scenery but a real grind, sometimes all you can do is keep cranking the pedals round and look at your front wheel to check you're still moving forward. The payoff however is the freewheel into Penrith, the longest and fastest downhill I have ever done, definitely my personal best for 10 miles. Crossed into Scotland using the A74 to Gretna. Be careful here, the A74 is a HGV 'motorway'. The was the most dangerous part of the ride and at one point I got off and carried my bike (No hard-shoulder to cycle in and cross-winds forcing you onto road!). The cross-winds combined with fast moving truck made it a game of Russian Roulette using 5 bullets. Finally made it to Gretna though, a real sense of achievement after a hard day on the legs and a stressful one on the brain. Stayed at a lovely Oak-lined hotel in Lockerbie for 35 pounds. The Kings Arms Hotel.

97 miles. Sunny but Gale force winds. Kendal to Shap is a grind but far from impossible. If you made it this far then you've done the hard bits (Apart from the section at Helmsdale on the last day)


Tue June 18 Day 6 - Lockerbie to Tarbet (Loch Lomond)

The day started off with 30 miles of the best cycle path I ever saw. Basically it's a cycle way built alongside the old A74, the new A74(M) has made the old A74 into a deserted highway so the cycle path is actually redundant. A few hours spent on a fast and smooth road away from any traffic. Got lost for a while in Glasgow which cost me all the time I made on the cycle way. Unfortunately I hit Glasgow at rush hour and I was forced to commute at less than walking speed with all the other cars until I was free of the city. Eventually found myself on Beautiful loch Lomond in absolutely torrential rain. Because of preparations for a Golf tournament every B&B and hotel room was taken. I was told continually that I'd find something in the next village down. Eventually, in near darkness and monsoon conditions I found the last room in Tarbet, 'Aye Servus'. At one point I asked the local Policeman what was the least serious crime I could commit in Tarbet which would warrant a night in the cells. I think this must have made him laugh inside as it wasn't obvious outside. They only had a twin room but, as it was 22 pounds, I took it like a shot (I'd have paid 1000 if they'd asked. You will discover that a warm bed becomes more important than money).

115 miles (the last 15 searching for accomodation). Sunny start and Monsoon end. Personal best for mileage in 1 day ever!!


Wed June 19 Day 7 - Tarbet to Fort William

Toughest day of the ride by far. I chose the route through Glen Coe which was the most scenic part of the whole ride, like cycling through my Geography O Level (you name a feature and it's there). However, I started the day by standing in a deep puddle which completely soaked my shoe and foot ( I was wearing overshoes but SPD cleats make an effective hole in the sole of your shoe). Misery is a wet foot. Then I spent the rest of the day either climbing or riding into a terrible headwind, I had to pedal down some very steep downhills at Glen Coe to prevent myself being blown backwards. 1st and 2nd gear for several hours. One good point was coming to Tyndrum where I found an 'Outdoor Pursuit' shop. They sold 'Seal Skin' waterproof socks which leads me to Important point number 9.

Important point number 9. Buy some 'Seal Skin' Waterproof socks, money very well spent. Happiness is warm and dry feet.

Finally called it quits in Fort William. I thought I'd quit early, have a nice big meal and try to make up for lost time tomorrow. Stayed in the 'Old Distillery' B&B.

60 miles (approx as Computer stopped working in rain). Windy, Wet and Cold but mostly windy.


Thu Jun 20 Day 8 - Fort William to Dornoch

Nice day today with an earlyish (7:30am) start. Took a quiter inland route just after Inverness which involved deserted roads and the Cromarty-Nigg ferry, a nice break. Soon back on the A9 though. Uneventful day took me to Dornoch, a lovely little town and more importantly a Pub B&B with a whirlpool bath in my room.

Important point number 10. Stay at the Eagle Hotel and get the room with the whirlpool bath. After 800 miles nothing comes close.

109 mile (computer started working) Sunny all day.


Fri June 21 Day 9 - Dornoch to John O'Groats

Late start (Watched England lose to Brazil in World Cup) at about 10:30. This was a big mistake as it set my mileage targets all off, put me in a bad mood and it seemed like this, the last day, would never end. It was definitely the longest day, not for effort (although there were some nasty climbs near Helmsdale) but psycological (so near and yet so far probably). Anyway, the Atlantic views kept it interesting and then finally the Tundra-like scenery as you approach John O'Groats. About 4 hours from JoG I saw a Van coming towards me with flashing lights, it was Harry and Aubrey in their support van. They had set off about an hour before me on Day-1 and beat me by about 4 hours on Day-9. They were much more accomplished cyclists than me, riding lightweight Road-bikes, not carrying luggage and had a support team finding their accomodation in advance. Truly a case of the Hare and Tortoise I think...........err, except I lost but you get the point. The best feeling of the day was seeing the 'John O'Groats 13 miles' sign rather than completing the ride itself, I really got the 'At bloody last feeling' when I saw that sign, it meant 1 hour to go. I arrived around 6:00pm and had a photo session with 3 or 4 finishers and just-about-to-starters. Made my way to the Seaview Hotel about 100 yards away and had many pints of Guiness whilst swapping war stories with some of my new End 2 End buddies.

Sat June 22 Done it +1

Shared a van/taxi with Ed to Wick (it's a mini industry getting End 2 End people home so no worries about that) and then caught the Wick to Inverness train. This is a great but bizarre journey, you travel by train which stops all over the place and takes 4 hours, your bike on the other hand goes to Inverness by Van and takes 2 hours, I've tried but can't figure out the logic, anyway it's cheap and there's no charge for the bike. B&B in Inverness town centre.

Sun June 23 Done it +2

8 mile cycle ride to Inverness airport and, would you believe it? a bloody flat tyre !!!! Nothing for 900 miles and I get a flat in the lobby of a B&B. Anyway it was a slow one so I pumped it up and it lasted til the airport. 2 hours later I'm putting the bike in the back of my wife's car at Luton Airport. Very odd feeling, I want to shout to everyone 'Don't you realise what I've just done?'.....but, being English, don't.

In Summary

The ride was not as tough as I expected, I realised that, after my 3rd day or so, that I could still cycle the morning after doing 100 miles. The only serious problem I had was a constant, extremely painful muscle cramp between my shoulder blades. This seemed to be a combination of wearing a Helmet for so long and a cold wind over my back. It would prevent me from ever doing a similar thing again until I figured out how to fix it(any advice would be welcome). The key to finishing the ride was setting little goals such as saving drinks and snacks until I had done another hour, this meant that every little stop was a treat and meant I'd covered another 12 miles or so. I only ever saw bits of the map, about 25 mile sections, in my bar bag. I think that if you saw the whole map you'd quit, it really is a long way.

Did I enjoy it? Not really.....well..I'm not sure actually. I hated the A30 in Cornwall but loved 9 days of mental relaxation. I had real problems with the cramp in my shoulders, totally unexpected and maybe the only reason I didn't love the whole ride. I enjoy the feeling that I don't have to do it any more, it's been nagging at me for 20 years and now I've done it and I'm fit enough now to just enjoy 2 hour summer cycling. I lost nearly 1 Stone (14 pounds) in 9 days whilst eating lots, forget fad-diets and start cycling 10 hours a day.

OK......I enjoyed it. If I do it again then though I'll make sure I do it for enjoyment rather than challenge, maybe 60 miles a day, on coutry roads, with company and more time spent boozing in country pubs.


What's my Point?

My point is that I went from almost a non-cyclist to a 100 miles a day End 2 End cyclist in a couple of months. If you can put 2 months of tough training in and put up with some discomfort for 9 days then it's a matter of keeping the pedals turning slowly all day. It's actually more about determination than cycling prowess.

The Hardest Part

Without any doubt the hardest part is getting you and your bike to Lands End !!! Until that point it's just idle talk, after that point it means you are actually going to do it.

..So get you and your bike to Lands End


Kit

British Eagle Touristique (Fast Touring Bike, More Audax than Galaxy) 2 small Pakit Panniers (trainers, undies, Tshirts, Berghaus Goretex jacket, fleece, socks, waterproof socks, waterproof overshoes, 2 pairs of Lycra cycling shorts (alternating each day and washing each night)) Halfords Bar Bag Dirt-Monkey Saddle bag.

I think I was lucky as I had no mechanical problems (and not much chance of fixing them if I did). I carried 3 spare tubes as well as puncture repair. I carrried a small 35mm film container with 9 days supply of Multi-Vitamins and Cod-liver oil capsules (to keep the knee joints lubed). I drank LOADS (plain water and Lucozade Energy when available) even when I wasn't thirsty. I highly recommend half a bottle every 30-60 mins. Once you feel thirsty it's too late, your day may be finished. Same with eating, I had big evening meals and big breakfasts. Regular snacking at Petrol Stations kept me topped up. The one evening I missed a meal (Loch Lomond, because I got a B&B so late) was followed by a terrible day of struggling, I think a lot of this was down to the missed meal. If you get to the stage where you are hungry then it will take a few hours for a meal to get to your legs, your day finished again maybe.

I took a small tub of 'Sudacrem' and used it morning and evening on those parts where you can imagine benefit from it.

Now go and do it.

Lee Hargreaves

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