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

Writing thus doing

If I write these things down then there is a slightly increased chance they’ll actually happen, they’re less resolutions than vague aspirations for the year ahead:

  • Read a book a week
  • Get better (actually competent) at German
  • Take more photos
  • Do at least 1 marathon
  • Do at least 1 decent (3+ day) bike ride
  • Go up some mountains
  • Go bouldering outdoors

There, fascinating as ever I’m sure you’ll all agree.

2012 training – week 1 (w/c 2nd Jan)

Right, happy new year, hello 2012 etc. In May I am running the Belfast marathon. In June I am cycling through the Pyrenees. Inexplicably I have once again scheduled to do a long bike ride and a marathon within a month of each other (last year I did the Edinburgh marathon 3 weeks after finishing the end to end). To try and avoid feeling as awful as I did after the end-to-end I am going to try and get in the best shape possible.

So.

I’m going to do a weekly training diary between now and the summer. Hopefully it’ll end up being part diary, part forces-me-to-do-stuff-so-i-don’t-look-lazy and part it-might-be-useful-to-someone (and also, hopefully, not too boring).

Monday

Sometimes (read: a lot of the time) I have a complete mental block with the gym, it’s not like running or cycling outside, it’s too easy to stop, finish early and go home. Today was one of those days.

The cycle home was impossibly difficult, I thought I must’ve forgotten to eat or the very short gym-ness had taken more out of me than should be possible, however I got home and on closer inspection realised that the huge amount of mud and road-gunk encasing my rear brake (due to my lack of mudguards) meant that it had locked itself ‘on’. So I had cycled home, all the way, with the brake on. Brilliant.

  • Cycle to/from the gym: total 10(ish) miles
  • Gym
    • Warmup (stretching, 10 mins on cross-trainer)
    • Treadmill: 30mins at 13 km/h

Tuesday

On the way back from work I hit an enormous pothole (Abbey Road, near the junction with Hawksworth Road if anyone cares), the impact was horrible and by the time I got home my front tyre was a soggy mess, the inner tube had been completely annihilated by the bump. Got incredibly dirty changing the tube, I really need to clean my bike.

  • Cycle to/from work: total 10(ish) miles
  • Free weights (circuits)

Wednesday

Cleaned my bike, got incredibly filthy doing so.

  • Free weights (circuits)

Thursday

Biblical amounts of rain and standing water, I should invest in some overshoes so my shoes fill up with water slightly slower.

  • Cycle to/from work: total 10(ish) miles
  • 4 mile tempo run (7-min miles)
  • Free weights (circuits)

Friday

  • Cycle to/from work: total 10(ish) miles

Saturday

In hilariously windy conditions I actually got blown sideways, which was simultaneously fun and weird.

  • 10 mile easy run (9-min miles)
  • Free weights (circuits)

Sunday

  • 45 mins turbo trainer

Oh and every week I’m going to total my cycling mileage because…it’s good to have stats. And really, to be ready to cycle in the Pyrenees I need to be up to over 100-150 miles a week by May. This week = 40 miles

Pyrenean coast to coast

So, planning has progressed slightly. The whole Atlantic-Med ride will start on 7th June next year and should take a week.

The route will start in Biarritz and finish in Argeles sur Mer. Along the way we will climb, amongst others, the Aubisque and the Tourmalet (both of which I think feature in the Tour de France next year) which look like this:

Col de Tourmalet

Col d'Aubisque

On to the next stupid idea

After the ride this year I really want to do something similar next year, after a good deal of the last 3 weeks spent watching the tour de france I have decided to do a ride from the Atlantic coast (roughly near Biarritz) to somewhere just south of Perpignon on the Med. In doing so I plan to take in quite a few of the larger mountains in the Pyrenees.

The route profile will look something like this http://www.pyractif.com/cycling-packages/road-c2c-classic.html

And the incredibly detailed routemap currently looks like this:
I think next year I'm going to try and cycle in the Pyre... on Twitpic

End to End

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 very far north of Scotland

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.

A “big ‘ill” north of Inverness

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 Cairngorms!

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.

Related:

Istanbul to Leeds – 30 days to go (i think)

If my slightly bad maths is anything to go by (i didn’t have enough fingers and toes to count accurately), then it is just over 4 weeks until I leave as part of the convoy of support vehicles to drive out to Istanbul ready for the start of the Jane Tomlinson Appeal’s latest madcap challenge, the Istanbul to Leeds bike ride (www.istanbultoleeds.co.uk).

I’m having my final innoculation this evening (this one for tick-born encephilitis – which sounds pretty horrible) and then I’m pretty much good to go. My job will start on the evening of 21st July when I’ll meet up with the other drivers (there are 6 of us driving the vehicles out there) and the vehicles – an RV, a car and a transit van – to drive down to Folkestone and then across the whole of mainland Europe to Istanbul. It’s just shy of 2,500 miles and we hope to make it in about 3 days. Each vehicle will have 2 drivers and we’ll take turns driving, then sleeping. I think we’re hoping to be in Istanbul on Saturday 24th with the ride starting on Monday 26th July – the riders will have flown out on the Friday evening.

I’m not sure how prepared the riders are, I know the Miller family (Mike Tomlinson’s sister’s family) have been training pretty well since early this year and I have, on more than one occasion seen John (Mike’s brother-in-law) riding a tandem on his own – which must take a certain level of dedication! Mike has been cycling to work and back (a journey of about 10 miles each way) so will probably be in much better shape than he was on the last challenge (2008’s end-to-end ride), the Hinde family all seem to be fairly fit and I’m sure Stuart has been getting them out and about and Becca Tomlinson is mega fit anyways and has been subjecting herself to spinning classes at the gym. So I’m sure everyone will be more-or-less ready…a bit.

4 weeks to go…it’s going to be an adventure.

I’ll be blogging about it all quite regularly here and also on the ride’s site. You can sponsor the riders here http://www.justgiving.com/Istanbul-to-Leeds-2010. It’s an incredible challenge they’re all taking on and your support would be hugely appreciated. If you can’t afford to donate then the riders will be (hopefully!) arriving back in Leeds on Bank Holiday Monday 30th of August – it’d be great if there were some people out to welcome them home!

Happy new year n that

Bloody hell, 2010, that’s like the future (more accurately it is very much the present but let’s not split hairs). Hope everyone had a splendid festive period and that the snow isn’t getting too annoying (even though it is, lots).

2010 will be the year when i run a marathon for the first time (hopefully without getting chaffed nipples, falling over or poo-ing myself) and hopefully do another bike ride of some description.

I also hope it (2010) will be the year when I get into a position to go freelance with my web design business (bigthingsandlittlethings.co.uk).

Anyways, I also plan to continue posting borderline useless things here and have tried to convince myself that I’ll actively do more photography (if I can find the time).

p.s. did anyone else think Jools Holland was utterly shit this year?

Twiglet legs

I finally caved and bought some actual cycling shorts, if it rains my usual shorts just become like sodden tea towels, which aren’t great for riding in, so lycra is, regrettably, the way forward.
Rest safe in the knowledge that i look utterly ridiculous, as my girlfriend has said, ‘your legs look like twiglets’. If anything, this effect is more pronounced in lycra, god knows why.

Idiot drivers at rush hour

I am beyond furious, I was cycling back from Hyde Park after picking some things up from a friend’s house and was nearly taken out by some complete moron in a Punto. Luckily I managed to get out of the way but I fail to see how that kind of behaviour is acceptable, it was my right of way, I had my lights on and a high-vis jacket and the driver let the two cars in front of me through before trying to nip across in front of me so I don’t think there is any realistic excuse of ‘not seeing me’. I had to brake hard and took a pretty heavy tumble onto the road, the bike is a bit bashed up but nothing serious I don’t think.
Ridiculous.
I am fuming.

Shop open? No

Went for my first run in a week or so last night, was ace. Although my pace was laughably slow I did feel pretty good at the end of it, so good in fact that I decided to cycle to the shops to pick up some food for tea, after a bit of a steep(ish) uphill trundle into Horsforth I realised the supermarket was well and truly shut (that’ll teach me to make assumptions) so I went for a bit of a ride around Horsforth which was lovely and peaceful, although a bit ‘bumpy’ (my legs felt a bit tired this morning on the ride into work).

Rain, rain go away

The lovely English summer delivered rain by the bucket-load yesterday. I got caught in the first downpour as I cycled home from a friend’s house. Now I freely admit to liking being out in the rain, as long as it isn’t freezing cold (which it wasn’t) then it’s quite a nice, refreshing experience. However, I found cycling in the rain to be a slightly soggy experience as all of the clothes I was wearing acted like giant sponges which made cycling extremely difficult…maybe it’s time to invest in some lycra! The second deluge I found myself in was when I nipped to the shop to pick up some food. However this time I was dressed appropriately in my nice, new North Face jacket – dry as a bone. Lovely.