John O’Groats to (almost) Land’s End

We’re setting off from our hotel in Thurso into 40mph headwinds. The ‘proper’ start of our ride, at John O’Groats, is still 20 miles away. This corner of north-east Scotland, the tip of mainland Britain, is a strange place. There are very few trees (I guess because it’s blasted by storms from the North Sea) and most of the land seems to be used as grazing for a few bedraggled looking sheep. The road signs and place names are all written in what I think is Scots Gaelic, as well as English, and the few buildings that we do see seem hunkered down into the landscape. We don’t really see any people and the whole journey to the start feels a bit like riding through a windswept ghost town.

Fast forward almost two weeks and I’m sat in a bus shelter in Devon and it’s raining. I’m on the phone to my girlfriend and I feel like I might cry because she’s just told me she’s proud of me. I’m also in the process of abandoning the bike ride I’ve been on for the past 12 days because my knee has told me in no uncertain terms that it isn’t going to do any more cycling.

But even this disheartening turn of events can’t, really, ruin the experience of the past two weeks. It’s the smallest details and moments which stand out (most of everything else has already faded into a blur of fields, roads and heavy skies). Alex’s endless happy whistling (he is without doubt the most cheerful person I know), even when speeding down the side of a mountain at 60kph; a red squirrel spotted on a misty morning at the Highland games showground in Braemar; the ride out of Braemar, on a crisp, clear morning, across the golf course, without anyone else in sight; colourful butterflies sunning themselves on the cycle path as we wind down towards Perth; cycling through a weird, seemingly-abandoned farm (it was like something out os 28 Days Later) just outside Carlisle; listening to Patrick Wolf as we travelled down past the edge of the Lake District in the sunshine; getting the ferry across the Mersey in Liverpool; cycling down a ‘cycle path’ that was like something out of Paris-Roubaix, and then through an actual field, just outside Wrexham; meeting an eccentric woman who was out walking her dogs in the terrible weather in Devon, and her telling us about how the wind had ‘blown all the crows upside down’. There are already a thousand other things I’ve forgotten the details of.

The ride was far more challenging than I’d expected (the last time I did it, in 2011, I think the fact I’d never done anything like it before was actually a blessing, I was also younger and fitter which probably helped too), but it was far more fun as well.

A few people have asked me about the logistics, I’ll do a separate thing about that, but I just wanted to get these thoughts down before I forgot them.

Cycling the Highlands

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A while ago I read something about the North Coast 500, weirdly marketed as ‘Scotland’s answer to Route 66′ or something. A Scottish Route 66 wasn’t really a thing that appealed but a continuous 500 mile loop around the Highlands did. Ever since I did the end-to-end in 2011 I’ve been looking for an excuse to go back and cycle in the Highlands – it is, if you forced me to have an opinion – probably the most beautiful landscape in Britain and the roads are (mostly) surprisingly good so it’s a fun place to cycle.

I managed to convince Alex – my eternally cheerful cycling buddy – that he wanted to do it too (despite the fact that our Wales ride last summer utterly broke him, the poor lad). So we got the 11.5 hour train from Euston to Inverness (proTip: if you do this make sure you book a bunk, we didn’t book bunks and 11.5hrs spent trying to make yourself comfortable in an airline-style seat is precisely 0% fun).

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However, the Highlands proved themselves to be just as beautiful as I’d remembered. The only thing that was a slight ‘challenge’ was the weather. Wind, hail, sun, rain, all within the space of an hour – it was constantly changing and coming off the top of a 5-mile climb with winds that felt strong enough to take the bike from under you and horizontal hail was one of the less enjoyable moments.

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Alex and I also both caught a rather nasty stomach bug which meant we had to cut the trip short (we only did day 1, 2 and then half of day 3) so we didn’t quite get up to the north coast.

He ended up looking like this (asleep in a tiny train station):

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If you fancy doing the route this is how we broke it down, once you’re out of Inverness the roads are really quiet and pretty good quality (aside from day 1 which is a bit shitty).

Day 1 – Inverness to Lochcarron
Distance: 65 miles
Ascent: 2,259 ft
Route: http://www.mapmyride.com/routes/view/921603097
Accommodation: Loch Dubh b&b (absolutely lovely, would totally recommend)

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Day 2 – Lochcarron to Drumchork
Distance: 90 miles
Ascent: 8,340 ft (however you can, as we did, cut out the Bealach Na Ba if the weather is bad/you don’t fancy it)
Route: http://www.mapmyride.com/routes/view/921606773
Accommodation: Drumchork Hotel (basic but friendly and fine – they have a distillery next door)

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Day 3 – Drumchork to Drumbeg
Distance: 92 miles
Ascent: 7,347 ft
Route: http://www.mapmyride.com/routes/view/921608879
Accommodation: We were booked into the Drumbeg Hotel (we didn’t make it, we went to Garve and got the train back to Inverness cos Alex was so ill by this point)

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Day 4 – Drumbeg to Bettyhill
Distance: 86 miles
Ascent: 7,628 ft
Route: http://www.mapmyride.com/routes/view/921611669
Accommodation: We were booked into the Farr Bay Inn (again, we didn’t make it but it looked really nice!)

Day 5 – Bettyhill to Inverness
Distance: 97 miles
Ascent: 4,381 ft
Route: http://www.mapmyride.com/routes/view/921614219
Accommodation: We stayed in the Glen Mhor Hotel, totally nice and fine.

On the whole though, when it was good it was amazing, there’s nothing better than cycling on empty roads in a beautiful part of the world. If you’re thinking about doing it, go! It always blows my mind that there’s somewhere this beautiful in the UK, who needs the Alps (although I am off to the Alps later this year…)

Cycling 100 miles

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So that we didn’t feel totally unprepared for the all-of-Wales ride we’re doing in a couple of weeks, the bloke I’m doing that ride with and I decided to get at least 100 miles in the legs with a trip down to Hastings and along the south coast. The weather couldn’t have been better (comedy tanlines all-round) and noone had too horrible-a-time (nothing that couldn’t be fixed with a fistful of jelly babies or a snickers).

The route was absolutely great, bodged together from a few club routes I’d seen and general avoid-all-the-big-roads sensibilities, totally recommended if you’re heading down that way. You’ll want to work out a different way through Hastings as we ended up carrying our bikes up what the map insisted was a cycle path but what was, in reality, about 200 steps…

Cycling across Wales – the plan

Ever since I did John O’Groats to Land’s End I’ve been on the lookout for other long-distance UK rides to do. My favourite part of “JOGLE” was the first section through the Scottish highlands, the scenery was absolutely incredible but what I really enjoyed was the almost total isolation, you could cycle all day and see about 10 other people, it was glorious. Unfortunately the fact is the UK is a relatively small place and that isolation has proven a bit hard to find.

HOWEVER I then stumbled across a blog that mentioned the Lôn Las Cymru (or to give it its slightly more boring official name National Cycle Route 8). This is a 250(ish) mile route from Holyhead to Chepstow (or Cardiff) that basically smashes across the middle of Wales, which is a very empty, mountainous place by all accounts. So, using that existing route as a basis, I plotted a slightly more rural, slightly longer version (which clocks in at about 280 miles) and in a couple of weeks a friend and I will be getting on a train to Holyhead so that we can spend 3 days cycling to Bristol in what will, at least in parts, hopefully be something approaching glorious isolation.

Photos/too many stats/etc to follow. Route(s) below

Day 1:

Day 2:

Day 3:

And then, this http://www.northcoast500.com/home.aspx