Today was a long day, but one that showed us just how much progress we’d made. After cramming as much breakfast in as we possibly could, we set out along the Great Glen, picking up the road beside Loch Lochy, surely the least imaginatively names of all the Lochs. At Fort Augustus we went our separate ways, Rob heading along the North side of Loch Ness, along the busy A-road, Tom and I taking the South side and the much quieter B-road, as recommended earlier in the week by the good people of Single Track Forum.
Although the quieter and hopefully more picturesque route was the main factor for us, also central to the decision, and to the ride, was the 1200ft climb that rose through the clouds at the South end of the Loch. It felt like a final significant challenge on the way to the end of the road, and a chance for us to show how capable we had become. It’s quite some climb, rising 600ft, then falling 100, before working its way to above the 1200 mark. Turning the pedals slowly all the way to the top was a pleasure. When we climbed the height of Cornwall on Day One, I wondered whether i’d be able to make the same ascent again during the whole trip. In the last three days we’ve met much bigger challenges and found ourselves disappointed when they’re over.
Clearly something has changed in my cycling. I feel tired, as surely anyone would after riding more than 900 miles in eleven days, but I also feel stronger. I may not have woken up after a few days feeling like Greg LeMonde, but for the last three or four mornings i’ve felt more and more ready to take on the day ahead, the aches and pains have begun to lift, and I sense that my body is ready to carry on riding every day if it needs to. It’s possible, of course, that the proximity of the finish line has influenced this feeling. If I knew I had another 6 weeks of riding ahead of me then perhaps i’d be feeling exhausted. Here’s something else that freaked me out a little last night: the bed in our B&B had a hard mattress and I found I couldn’t lie how I normally would as my legs have started to change shape.
As we reached the top of the climb, almost with the last turn of the pedals, a whole country opened up ahead of us with lochs, mountains, forests and streams laid out like a model landscape. It was a wonderful moment made all the better through being hard won, and it seemed ample reward for all the hard work Tom and I have done together over the last few days, weeks and months.
We rode together today which was great, at a pace that seemed to suit us both. I’m feeling more able to push hard along flatter stretches, and Tom was happy to take things a little easier today on the back of a worrying calf strain yesterday. Our only drama was a broken spoke on Tom’s back wheel. Within minutes of us patching it up and deciding to chance the 7 miles to Inverness to get it fixed, a chap called Mike rode out of a side lane in the middle of nowhere and offered to show us into town and to his local bike shop. On the way we told him we’d ridden from Land’s End. He seemed impressed by this but waited ten minutes to ask me, “So, if you’ve ridden up here from Land’s End… where are you going to?” John O’Groats, Mike. We’re going to John O’Groats. “Oh really?! You’re going all the way up there?” Yes Mike, we thought we ought to. The Land’s End to Dornoch ride doesn’t have quite the same cache.
Spoke fixed by yet another great local bike shop, Highland Bicycles, we pushed North. Not great riding, along choppy, busy A-roads and even the more interesting stretches, like the bridge across Cromarty Firth, were made difficult by a testing headwind. Tom found us a couple of quieter lanes which helped, and Jo, Karen, Tess and Kit met us on the final stretch with an enthusiastically waved banner. With the Highlands behind us, this place really feels like the end of the country.
As the ride, the longest of the trip, finished, I felt elated. This could be because the end is in sight, we passed our first sign to John O’Groats (85 miles) or it could be because I ate an energy gel about 20 miles out which contained my first big caffeine hit for a fortnight. No real leg pain today, and what I did get had moved around to my knees and quads. This may be evidence of adaptation and development or just that my legs are about to drop off.
After ironing out some B&B confusion i’m now writing this from possibly the most welcoming place i’ve ever stayed in, Kyleview House in Dornoch. Tomorrow is the last day of the trip and we’re ready for it. I can almost smell John O’Groats. Well, it’s either that or the stench of my cycling kit rising up from the bottom of my bag.