Ever since I supported the Jane Tomlinson Appeal End to End ride in 2008 I’ve thought that it is probably the best way to challenge yourself while seeing some of the best, and most out-of-the-way bits of our country. Unfortunately attempting the ride in 9 and a bit days meant that everything got a bit much. I do want to stress that overall I had an amazing time and am so glad I did it, however there were frequent moments of frustration, tiredness, pain, stress, sunburn and getting very very bored with cycling.
Starting the end to end at John O Groats is a bit more difficult (in my opinion) than starting it at Land’s End. For starters John O’Groats isn’t near anything, at all. The nearest train stations are Thurso and Wick (both 20 miles away). As we were doing the ride unsupported we needed to get up to the start with all our stuff but nothing more, so we hired a car in Leeds, drove to Inverness and dropped the car off. We then wheeled the bikes over to Inverness train station and had a 5 hour train journey up to Thurso.
Having set off from Leeds at about 5am we arrived at our b & b in Thurso at about 6pm. Thurso is far away.
On looking at the maps for day 1 it immediately became clear that I had miscalculated when I’d worked out that Thurso was ‘quite near’ John O’Groats, it isn’t, it’s 20 miles away. This meant that our 100 mile first day was now going to be at least 120 miles. Not a fantastic start.
Day 1 saw us making a suitably early start and setting off into the fog, wind and drizzle for John O’Groats (not quite the predicted sunshine). After about an hour and a half cycling into an incredibly demoralising headwind we arrived at the derelict hotel, carpark, postcard shop and public toilet that marks the start of the end-to-end. It was at this point that I took the first of many tumbles due to not practising properly with my cleats. I unclipped my left foot, shifted my weight to the right and promptly overbalanced and fell over. Idiot.
The scenery in the far north of Scotland is pretty stunning but also desolate and hilly, there isn’t much to see apart from lots and lots of heath. The last 10 miles into Lairg at the end of day 1 were fairly miserable, I hadn’t eaten or drunk enough and my body was going on strike. A valuable lesson learned.
Day 2 to Grantown-on-spey was the shortest (apart from the last day) and easiest day by far. Everything seemed really straightforward, I’ve no idea why. We managed to cut a fair few miles off the planned route by going over some hills, but even they weren’t too…hilly.
Day 3 was by far and away my favourite day, it was mega in every way – mileage, scenery, hills but it was absolutely brilliant. We headed straight over the Cairngorms which was AMAZING, we cycled past 2 ski stations (Lecht and Glenshee), did 5 or 6 big climbs and it was generally unforgettable.
The following day which took as round past Edinburgh and then down and across to Annan was one of the hardest days, I think it’s fairly obvious now that the hills completely took it out of me, I’ve no idea how the Tour de France guys do 3 or 4 mountain stages on the bounce (well, we know how some of them might). The number of wind farms we passed indicated that we were at least lucky not to cycle into yet more headwinds but it wasn’t much fun and was really one of those days when you just get your head down and keep hoping for the end.
The next day took us back into England, everyone we spoke to in Annan referred to the terrors of ‘Shap’ awaiting us, Shap turned out to be a little village near a quarry – my thoughts were ‘what was all the fuss?’ yes there had been a bit of a hill but nothing too bad. Turns out the Shap that everyone was referring to was a big old climb after the village that wasn’t too steep but just went on, and on, and on…and on. It didn’t help that half the road was closed, this meant that trucks, coaches and almost every other vehicles whistled past, not bothering to slow down or even try to give me a bit of space – fun times. Down the other side we hit Penrith at rush hour, which was interesting and resulted in us getting a bit lost. But we eventually made it down into Lancashire and, after getting shit on by a seagull, ended up at Mick’s parent’s house near Lancaster.
The next two days were, in a word, ridiculous. We were just outside Lancaster at the start of day 6, we were aiming for Bath by the end of day 7. This is far. Turns out, it’s too far. The plan was to ride about 120 miles from near Lancaster, down round Chester, into Wales to just outside Welshpool. The following day we would then ride down the border between Wales and England, cross the Severn, skip round Bristol and end the day in Bath, I didn’t have a precise figure on what the intended mileage was on this day but it was further than the day before (i.e. 120 miles). Stupid. Then the sun came out and I got hilariously sunburnt.
Turns out it’s really bloody hilly between Lancaster and Bath. Powys, Shropshire, Herefordshire, Monmothshire, all places I’ve not been to before, these are all places I can now tell you – through experience – have lots of hills.
We made it to Welshpool ok, admittedly we were both very sunburnt and we didn’t finish until it was dark – and I had an interesting encounter with a cattle grid (in case you were wondering, yes a bicycle wheel can slip between the grids) but we made it.
We tried to reroute the following day, originally I’d had us going all round the houses to try and avoid hills and towns and main roads. However we decided to just go for it and head in as straight a line as possible for Bath.
Straight lines, experience now tells me, are rarely flat. We made it across the Severn ok but by then it was about 6 o’clock and we still had to get to Bath which was a way away, not sure exactly how far but far enough that by the time it started getting dark at about 8 we were still about 2 hours ride away. By this point we had two options, finish early or ride, in the gathering gloom, down a main road in the vain hope that Bath would show itself before too long. We chose the first option and decamped to a fairly posh b and b in Chipping Sodbury (I don’t think the owners were hugely impressed with two very dirty, very smelly, very sunburnt cyclists turning up out of the blue).
The next day we set off early in an attempt to make up the miles we’d lost. That morning proved we’d made the right decision, the main road was hilly and incredibly busy – it also had no lighting so in the dark would’ve been lethal. Bath is pretty but, sods law decreed, is also built in a little valley, all downhill to the town centre and all uphill for miles on the way out. GREAT. But we made fairly good time, made up the miles and finished the day in deepest darkest Devon (a few more counties ticked off along the way).
The next day saw us entering the final part of the trip into Cornwall. Now, confession, I love Cornwall but the 1 and 1/2 days I spent cycling there tested my affection to its complete and utter limit. Cornwall is horrible to cycle in, horrible. The roads are a succession of unenjoyable steep uphills and downhills, they are also narrow, busy and poorly maintained. Rubbish. The penultimate day saw us finishing near Redruth.
Every bike ride I’ve done has resulted in me becoming obsessed with the stats that crop up. Unfortunately I managed to break my phone a bit so the only numbers I can share are:
travelling 992.3 miles in 95 hours cycling over 9 and a half days. Throughout the ride we were always trying to keep above an average speed of 10 miles an hour so it’s good to see we managed that.