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.