Land’s End to John O’Groats by bike: How was it for me?

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I wanted to collect some of my thoughts now the ride has finished, before the impressions and conclusions fade from memory. So here goes, one last time with feeling…

The ride was hard. Seems like an obvious statement, but I spent an inordinate amount of time in the saddle over those 1000+ miles gnawing away at precisely why it was difficult. We saw so many people over the course of the trip (more of them later) and most of them asked us similar things: ‘How has it been?’ (Answer: great, hard), ‘How’s your backside’ (Answer: unimpressed). However, one slightly more nuanced question we got, and one that helped me to figure out a few things, was ‘Has it been as you expected?’.

The truth is that, by the time we began, i’m not sure what I expected. We’d done enough riding in preparation to be reasonably sure that we could manage the 80-mile per day average trip. In fact, catching up with blogs and films made by previous End-to-Enders in the weeks before we left, mainly those who had hammered up the A-roads amongst the lorries, I’d started to feel a rather dangerous hubris when realising that for many of them the ride involved a shorter time-span and thus longer distances each day. 80 miles started to sound rather paltry, a breeze, only 15 miles farther than a regular 65 mile training round.

Stuck darkly to the flip-side of this vaguely smug sense of readiness was the certain knowledge that on Day Two, and then every subsequent morning, I’d be getting back on the bike for another day of riding. I had no idea how that would really feel or whether I would cope with it. The thought of lowering myself onto the saddle at the beginning of the second day and then the third was a looming milestone in the week before we left and during the whole of the first couple of days. Once I realised it wasn’t going to be that bad, that I wasn’t going to be rent in twain, I relaxed a little, and then the real challenge, the one I didn’t see coming, started.

I won’t rehash it. If you want more whining, read back over the last 12 days, but from the third day onwards I really started to question my own ability, my fitness and strength, even my right to be on the ride. Just because everyone we rode with went faster up hills than I did. Over the first half of the trip, possible reasons tumbled over and over like rocks in an eddy as I ground down the miles. Every time I found myself riding alone and doubts started to creep in as to whether we’d all gone the same way, I fought the urge to curse every single factor I could get a grip of: my bike; my fellow riders; the terrain; my nutrition and mostly; myself for not being up there with the rest of them. Riding 80 miles a day, you have a lot of time alone with your thoughts, and not a lot of fresh input. Colin warned us on Day Two that the third day would be the toughest mentally and that’s certainly where it started for me. Unfortunately it was Day Seven before I managed a resolution and turned the mental washing machine off for the rest of the trip.

I’d be very happy were some expert to trot along, look at my bike, and declare it a wonder that anyone could make the End-to-End trip on such a heavy, unsuitable contraption. Of course, the reason I couldn’t muster the courage to ask any of the several knowledgable bike-folk we had along the way was the fear that they woud be more likely to say, “Don’t know what you’re moaning about, this is as good as everyone else’s. You’re just a weed.”

I should offer a little balance here myself. I chose to do the ride on my long-suffering iron horse. Jo asked several times in the run up whether I should think about getting a new one for the trip and always the thought of leaving it behind after all the miles we’d done together seemed too much to contemplate. I should be fair also, my bike is a Marin Lucas Valley and I love riding it. We’ve been over the hills of Devon together and had very few crossed words. It’s never seemed as nippy as other bikes over the hills and, being technically illiterate, I had no idea whether this was a bike issue or a me issue. Having a quick scoot at some of the forums just now, there’s a suggestion that its 53/42/30 chainset is probably geared too high for hilly riding. It might go some way to explaining why on the steeper 10%+ hills, other bikes kept spinning whilst I had no option but to grind on in my ‘granny gear’.

It perhaps doesn’t explain why Rich, for instance, who joined us for half of Day Three on a 25-year old bike he’d picked up for a few quid, seemed to leave me behind too. As you’ll have noticed if you ploughed through the 12 days of my trip blog, I also concluded that a lot if not all of the others who joined us were just plain stronger cyclists than me.

I’ve always hoped that routinely riding a less-suitable bike around the country’s up-and-downest county would act as some sort of resistance training and I cling to the dream that one day I’ll finally board some super-sleek carbon thingy and find myself winning the Tour of Norfolk at a canter. Maybe one day.

That’s enough ill-informed bike talk. Mine got me there and I love it for that. I mention all this though as a possible warning to future riders. Know your bike, understand what it is and isn’t capable of and why, and then adjust to this. Otherwise you run the risk of churning through these possibilities over seemingly endless miles with no hope of resolving them whilst the stunning British countryside rolls by in the background.

Physically, things went pretty well. I was tired, but only accidentally fell asleep on the floor once, plus again in a dog’s bed the day after we finished. The bottom area was a constant concern for both of us as we knew that if something catastrophic happened down there it could finish the ride for us. The legs just got used to it and, by the last couple of days, even the intense lactic pain i’d felt after breaks had started to fade away. Late though it may have been, I was starting to become a cyclist whether I liked it or not.

I should also mention a couple of other unexpected physical side-effects, one welcome, one less-so. I get the odd dab of eczema during normal operating mode. Nothing likely to get me a wheel-on part in the Singing Detective, but enough to itch a little. I’m pretty sure it’s stress-related, but it’s nothing that I can’t clear up. After about four days on the ride it disappeared and didn’t come back until I finished and started thinking about more than just pedalling, eating and sleeping.

Secondly: weight. I had enjoyed daydreaming about the sylph-like figure I would be sporting on my return. No such luck. As far as I can tell, I haven’t lost a pound. Sure, some of those three course breakfasts and double evening meals have gone into building some new muscles on the front of my legs, but the rest seem to have gone straight into the old holding bays.

Our route was wonderful and that’s entirely down to Tom’s obsession with getting it right. We avoided busy A-roads until we were north of Edinburgh and in return we saw rural England and Scotland open up before us. 90% of our days were spent riding through countryside I would have been delighted to holiday or live in. Much of it, from the Somerset Levels, to the hills of Shropshire, through the Cumbrian Fells and the Scottish Highlands was staggering, and finding it by bike was incredibly rewarding.

Perhaps even more, we valued the people who were with us along the way, both in person and in spirit. Eleven people in all joined Rob, Tom and I to ride some part of the way and the miles passed more easily when catching up with friends or hearing about the local history and landscape. We also had great support from our families, who were there at the end of most days to take our minds off what we’d have to do the next morning, and what was happening down the back of our cycling shorts.

For me, the sentiment and cheerleading I got from distant friends also turned out to be incredibly important, surprisingly so in fact. For Tom and I the ride seemed to be happening in a bubble, more or less. We thought we could do it, as the days passed we began to know we could do it, and then it just became a case of getting into routine and getting it done, just the two of us. It became just the thing we were up to. However, the texts, tweets, emails and phonecalls, not to mention the donations, put the trip into a completely different context. I’m sure that it’s a journey that most reasonably fit people could undertake with some planning and preparation, but it still gave a major boost during the long days to hear our friends urging us on. They clearly considered it a remarkable undertaking, and reading their comments helped to remind me that perhaps, in some ways, it was.

This has gone on, so i’ll skip through the rest of the strange and wonderful memories pausing briefly to recall Karen accidentally insulting a restaurant in Sedbergh (‘How was your food?’ ‘Well, it wasn’t rubbish’), Tom and I striding into the public loos in Longridge, him declaring loudly ‘it’s okay, i’ve got a pot of vaseline’, the supremely helpful bike shop owners and the great cafes and cake-shops.

Instead I’ll pass on my second, final and most vital piece of advice, should you consider trying the ride yourself: Ride with a friend. I’ve already gone into how the ride can mess with your head and grind down your sense of self-worth if you let it. If you aren’t riding with someone who is supportive at every turn, who has been there every pedal-stroke of the way and who is committed to getting you both through, then you could find yourself in big trouble.

Take a close friend with you. Someone who’ll give you a lift when you’re struggling, someone you can be around without any effort, and someone you’ll be able to look back on the experience with for many years to come. Someone like Tom.

If this was an episode of the Wonder Years, this is the part where the voiceover would chime in and say, “And that’s when he realised that you can ride 1000 miles only to find that the things you need the most are right by your side.” However, it’s not, and Kevin Arnold only ever rode his bike round to Winnie’s, so he can get stuffed.

Finishing the ride, after perhaps the toughest day, was a great feeling without a downside. I had thought I might feel sad that this great undertaking was over and done, but no, it felt right and proper to be finishing, and to do so surrounded by the people who had supported us. The morning after I felt like I could get back on the bike and go again, but as the hours passed without pedalling I started to feel jet-lagged. Worst of all was getting back in a car. I felt sick with every speeding corner and disorientated and disgusted by how easily it pulled up every hill. Even though this time I wasn’t trailing behind, I think I’d still have preferred to be on my bike.

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5 thoughts on “Land’s End to John O’Groats by bike: How was it for me?

  1. Andy Williamson

    Great blog Rob. I don’t read many, and even fewer that are well written and interesting to read.
    I’m going to take issue with you not being a cyclist though. Any cycling info source will tell you how much faster or easier to pedal a lighter bike is – especially weight on the wheels. Your wheels alone probably weigh almost a pound more than Tom’s. The rest of the bike is probably heavier too, and then it’s flat barred – there’s good reasons why roadies use drop bars. You only need to be trying 5% or so more than your riding partner to make a big difference in how tired you’ll get – the lactic build up you mention etc. Don’t give up on that Tour of Norfolk.
    Look us up if you’re heading to The Lakes – no cycling necessary…..
    Andy

    • Hi Andy. Thanks for the comments. Believe it or not they really helped. I hope I was able to get across that it wasn’t really my bike being less well-suited to the trip than the others that caused he problems for me, it was now knowing what was dragging me back that really started to grate over the days. I ended up recommending that anyone who takes on the trip knows their bike and its capabilities well to avoid having to endure any similar navel-gazing. If it wasn’t clear to you that Tom and I had no clue what we were doing bike-wise, you should have seen us trying to change his broken spoke on day 12.

      Anyway, this particular part fo the story has a happy ending. I got back on my bike the week after we returned and did my regular 17-mile trip to work a full 10 minutes quicker than i’ve ever done before. I realised as I pushed hard up and over the East Devon hills, that I’ve been taking it easy to the extent that it felt like a completely different activity. Clocking a 55-minute trip at 18mph felt almost as good as anything along the 1000mile LEJOG. For me, this was a great return on investment.

      And thanks for the invite. Very kind. Similarly, if you get marooned in East Devon, unable to push on to Tom’s, don’t hesitate to look us up.

  2. HI Rob

    We met briefly outside Debenhams, when you were doing the abseil with Al (my son). So when he told me you were doing this ride, I was v. interested, not least because I have read various other accounts of the journey – and as a couple of ex-colleagues have done the route, one in each direction. Many years ago, I read of a bloke who did it with his 16 year old son and that sparked the first interest. Being Scottish, and spending every annual holiday in the Scottish Highlands also makes it personal, as regards what way you went, and what you experienced. Within the last 12 months, I also read the blog of a guy who walked it, and I found that equally fascinating.

    I’d also love to do it, but work commitments (self-employed) and the thought of devoting about two weeks to selfish indulgence, prevents me from doing it. And, reading your blog also makes me think I might not have the mental and physical capacity to do it.

    Enough about why I’m commenting, I really just wanted to say well done, and to praise your prose – well written, thoughtful and amusing (where have you come from? Lands End…) and now the vaseline comment. Made me smile.

    Brilliant.

    Cheers
    Dave

    • Thanks Dave, that’s a lovely comment. Ally menioned that you’d enjoyed the Scottish bits of the blog, just as we enjoyed the Scottish bits of the ride. I wouldn’t give up on the idea of making the trip. Rob, Tom’s dad, is 69 and he managed about 70% of the miles Tom and I did. If you can get up and down around Devon, and if you can keep within touching distance of your son, who Tom rated as one of the two strongest riders we had along, then you’ll have no problems. I’d definitely recommend it, especially as you have such a close connection with so much of the territory. Let me know when: i’ll cheer you along the way.

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