Downhilling with the Stoics

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Some good things happened today. Among them, I got to go downhill biking in Whistler for the second time, 6 years after the first. Also, I started to get into the meat of Oliver Burkeman’s book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. As I did so I had the feeling that, in his description of modern day Stoics and the way they seek joy in life, Burkeman was encapsulating the way I have come to feel about happiness, expectation and contentment.

The two came together as I sat alone at the bottom of the chairlifts in Whistler Village, waiting for the time when I could head over and get kitted out for my afternoon of biking. In the book, Burkeman discusses an approach to unhappiness based around confronting fears and concerns directly and actively considering what might be the worst possible outcomes. This is set against the prevalent doctrine of positive thinking, which advocates planning actively for everything going right for you, with the underlying promise that just wishing for the best will certainly make it happen.

It seems like some cursory rationalisation is all that’s required to pull apart the seams of this approach. Quite often, perhaps most times, the things we want to happen and the things we don’t want to happen, come to pass due to forces completely outside our control. Let’s say, as shorthand, they happen or don’t thanks to luck. If your outlook and the basis for your happiness is predicated on everything going right always then when something doesn’t, what recourse do you have? Pretend it never happened? Pretend you never wanted it to go any other way? Reassess your entire worldview? None of these are satisfactory. More practically if your approach to life is to screw up your eyes and wish for the best, when the worst happens, and it will, how can you hope to meet it and cope?

Negative thinking suggests instead that we contemplate the worst that might happen and that, through doing so, we will come to realise that even this is still survivable and that most undesirable outcomes are actually pretty trivial. 

This morning I read a chapter which dealt partly with social embarrassment. The point made through reasoning and personal exposure is that you may fear embarrassing or awkward situations but your belief that they will somehow cause you harm is actually the only significant problem you face. In practice, if you do the thing you’re afraid of, put yourself in the situation you dread or, as a practicing stoic might, think through in some detail the possible consequences of doing it, you’ll come to realise that nothing really bad is at all likely to happen. Other people don’t care if you behave differently. You aren’t somehow marked out as a pariah. No-one you meet subsequently will have received a news alert warning them to shun or secretly mock you.

I haven’t been downhill biking for years. I know enough to admit to myself that I can’t remember how to do it. W had a guid last time. He thought us three rules, all related to animals. I can remember that I need to adopt a stance like a fat cow, that I either should or should not be a flamingo, and nothing else. For a pursuit where a steering error can send you head first into a tree trunk, a sense of humility is no bad thing, at least in your opening exchanges. 

Since the last time we were here I’ve spent a considerable amount of my spare time pedalling bikes up hills. I get a lot of satisfaction from doing that. Riding downhill is a fun consequence, a by-product. I also love getting on my bike and exploring the countryside, going whichever way pleases or piques me. Downhilling is the opposite of both these. A ski lift takes you up the mountain and you follow a two foot wide trail all the way back down again. All reactions, no decisions and pedalling strictly a novelty.

I knew that I was back to being a total beginner. I didn’t know the code. I knew that despite being a very experienced cyclist I was heading straight for the novice green runs. As I looked at the queues for the lifts I craned to see how the riders ahead of me were loading their bikes onto the carriers. I thought about what would happen if I messed it up. I wondered whether the other bikers would look at me with contempt or pity.

Once I got up there, would I crash and friction burn? How would that look to the hard bitten men and women coming down behind me?

Then, instead of spending the next 30 minutes wondering whether the guy in bike shop would ask me a question I didn’t know the answer to, or whether it would be obvious from the fact I was wearing running shoes that I was the odd kid out on the lifts, I spent a couple of minutes thinking about what the consequences of those things might be. 

Answer: nothing. 

If you’ve ever worked in a shop, did you remember any but the absolutely wackiest customers? At the end of any day do you remember any of the strangers you clapped eyes on for less than five seconds, even those who looked a little out of place? Of course not. So why should I give a care about whether other complete strangers, strangers most of who will spend most of their lives living on a completely different continent, fleetingly think about me. In fact, to even expect them to notice is grotesque arrogance. If I had a problem on the lift, or got lost on the trails, the overwhelmingly likely outcome is that someone would help me and then forget about it. 

So instead of getting more and more anxious as I waited to begin, I drank my coffee and thought about how much I was hoping to enjoy it. And when I got to the lifts I commenced doing just that. 

I spent three happy hours pounding, by my standards at least, down that mountain, then being lifted back to the top. For the first hour and a half it felt as if I was going to spend the whole time on the beginners runs, because, Good Lord, downhilling is sketchy. One weight shift a half second too late and even on the easiest trails you can expect to be in the undergrowth with at least one or two skinned limbs. 

Ordinarily, this novitiate status would have formed a nagging sense of failure which would have hung around in the background of my day and left me feeling that even though I had felt like I might be enjoying it, I really was failing all along. None of that this time. I simply got up and got down with a smile on my face and increasingly numb tendons in my hammered forearms and wrists. I fell off twice and laughed about it. I barely spoke to a soul and by the end of the session I could have carried on for another three hours, had my hands not been frozen into claws. 

Confidence and positive aggression are important parts of downhilling. One of the lessons I relearned quickly is that letting the bike run at speed is often much safer than running with the brakes applied. But today I was able to prove that contemplating head on what might go wrong can give a major boost to good times.

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I Give Up: Everything Else

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Football, Twitter and eating every day have gone.

What else?

As I look back over the last couple of years I see a trail of pockmarks, craters and holes where things big and small used to sit in my life. None of these smaller divestments were as sudden or as intentional as the big three, and perhaps not as permanent, but they all involved significant aspects of my milieu.

I can’t believe I just referred to ‘my milieu’. I should give up being a ponce.

Fiction

I’ve been a committed reader of novels since I was 15 or 16. They have shaped my sense of self, drawn me into places and positions I would never have occupied otherwise and essentially formed a central part of what I thought myself to be. I still read, and although the last few years have been a little slower than those which preceded them (less time on my hands, no public transport commute), I still managed to get through 25 books in 2013, which seems like a decent pace, all things considered.

However, I was taken aback to realise in retrospect that none of the books I sat and read this year were fiction. In fact the only two novels I consumed this year were as audiobooks and one of those, The Picture Of Dorian Gray, was a re-read.

I wrote about this here. This seems to represent a shift and I recognise some of the underlying currents, but it’s been largely sub-conscious.

Music

I love music.

Let me restate that. I love music.

Nothing has shaped my sense of who I am more than the music I happened to seize upon as a teenager and the places that music has taken me. I’ve spent many hours and years writing about music, talking about music and every year since I was a school kid listening to music.

I couldn’t give it up. If I say it’s a part of me, that’s not just a tired phrase, it’s a physiological truth. If i’m not actively listening to music (like now) I have songs playing on my Head Radio (currently ‘Sweet Jane’).

Nonetheless, last year when various things were pretty sketchy I had a significant wobble. I found myself needing to hear podcasts and books, specifically to have people speaking about things which would require second-by-second concentration. I wrote a little about it at the time as it crossed over with the 2012 Music Diary Project. At the time I knew it was a form of avoidance. I didn’t want the space that music affords the mind, didn’t want to wander. For several months I found myself deliberately turning away from music, putting on headphones and carefully, worriedly, needily digging for something spoken-word to play.

An aberration then, but even that seemed seismic at the time. 2013 was more balanced. Loads and loads of new music, but also loads of really enjoyable podcasts. There’s a connection here, perhaps, between me giving more time to non-fiction reading and non-fiction listening.

News

I stopped listening to the Today programme every morning at around the same time.

Now, fair enough, there are good reasons to do so. The adversarial he-said-she-said interviews. Even worse, an interviewing approach which seems aimed only at getting the subjects to make or admit to a mistake which they can then be taken to task for, rather than joining with them in search of, you know, the truth. I genuinely believe that the fear of saying the wrong thing on Radio 4 has led directly to a generation of politicians who deliberately, and incredibly irritatingly, say nothing at all. And hey presto! Our political life is broken.

I didn’t cut myself off entirely. I still listen to Five Live around the house, and PM kept me interested for a few months afterwards, but as I fell under the sway of various podcasts, so these came to replace my listening on the way to and from work.

And then I stopped commuting to the news completely, as a deliberate decision. How would it be, I asked myself, if I just decided NOT to engage with these irritating people? These horrible, intractable situations? With the uncontrollable outside world?

It turned out it was fine. I feel guilty for being out of touch, although I’m not sure I am terribly. As with Twitter, I felt a brief concern that I was retreating from our shared reality. And then I got over it and started feeling comfortable in some different realities. I’m still not sure it’s the right thing to do in absolute terms, but it feels like absolutely the right thing for me to do right now and ultimately I have to go with that.

Ultimate

I’ve been an ultimate frisbee player for 20 years now. I started late, which means I’m now hanging on really, really late. Sooner, not later, it will be time to call it a day, and I’ve started thinking about it almost exclusively in those terms. A couple of years ago I wrote about how it feels to know that something, perhaps the only thing, you’ve ever been really good at is coming to an end. I don’t necessarily feel so dramatically about it now, but I sure do wonder whether any other pastime will ever get that time, energy and dedication from me.

Cycling

I have cycled a lot in the past few years and got a great deal from it. I love it, but I don’t do it any more. There are good reasons for this, and it’s not a conscious move away from something, but perhaps mentionable as another thing I thought I couldn’t live without that I’m living without.

Social contact

Now, this sound both dramatic and self-pitying, but over the last ten years I have basically moved from having constant contact with a network of family and friends all within a few miles to having no-one at all, except my wife. The relocation was quite deliberate (it’s a tricky thing to pull off by accident) but the isolation was an unwelcome side-effect. I still feel it, quite intensely at times.

I know lovely people where we live, and spending time with them is great, but we have some way to go. I want this to be different, but there are no easy fixes. In the meantime I could draw a 60 mile radius around my house and it would only contain one person I can call a genuine old friend.

Playing Ultimate gave me semi-regular contact with a big share of my best friends, but that’s going soon. Social media isn’t the same, and even that seems to be going too.

I’m not sure what’s happening. Maybe nothing, maybe something.

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.

Day Twelve: Dornoch to John O’Groats

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So, we made it. We made it all the way from one end of the country to the other under our own steam.

Today we managed just 82 miles, an average day when compared to the previous eleven, but there were times when it felt like an impossible undertaking.

It was a hard slog, almost from start to finish. I say almost, because the trundle down to Loch Fleet, where we saw 20 or so seals basking on the sandbanks, was very pleasant indeed. We stopped for ten minutes or so to watch the wildlife, and perhaps that’s where things started to get tough. We set out on the rest of the ride feeling that we’d essentially done it, and all that remained was a casual jaunt around the Scottish coast. We debated the psychological impact of such a lassez faire approach for much of the remaining 80 miles, Or perhaps the problems were due to the after effects of a very long previous day, coupled with a poor warm-down, poor food and inappropriate recovery measures (what sort of B&B leaves a complimentary decanter of whisky in your room anyway, for heaven’s sake?).

Whatever, Tom and I found the morning increasingly difficult to get through. I felt reasonably switched on mentally, but as the ride progressed, and knowing that we had at least one hill with a serious reputation to come, I found that my energy reserves were running at low to zero.

Both our progress and our energy levels were further hindered by Tom snapping a second spoke in two days flinging his bike about Contador-style on a climb out of Helmsdale. The look on his face as he dismounted suggested that he thought his bike was a goner, and so was his chance of completing the ride, just 50 miles from the finish.

Yesterday, as we were footling around in Highland Bicycles, Inverness, I picked up some spare spokes for each of us. The owner explained how to fit them and, concluding that we had neither the tools nor the know-how to do so, I bought them anyway, figuring that if we had them with us they would act as effective good luck charms against any spokes breaking for the remainder of the trip. If we hadn’t had them today, then Helmsdale could well have been as far as Tom made it.

So, after 45 minutes, we’d managed to replace the broken spoke, realising we could do so with tools I had with me the purpose of which had hitherto been mysteries. We’d also fixed the inner tube that Tom broke when replacing his wheel after fixing the spoke, sorted out the swollen tyre which was catching on the brakes after the inner tube had been replaced and then fixed the brakes which needed fiddling with to allow the wheel to go round at all. We’d also, just about, managed to keep Tom from throwing it all in the air, which seemed a reasonable response as things got worse and worse.

We set off cold and disheartened and it didn’t really look up for some time, The climb out of Berriedale was, at this stage in the ride, as tough as we’d been lead to expect and from that point on we were desperate to stop, eat and regroup. We ended up in Lybster at a cafe which had been opened by a lovely, kind woman from Bolton just two days prior. She cooked us pasta and Rob an improbably sized fish (“Your shark, Sir,” said her husband as he delivered it to table) and told us how rough we were looking. She particularly thought I should be carted off in and air ambulance, rather than getting back on my bike.

Leaving, we set out across country and things got easier. Two or three incongruously straight roads effectively cut the North-Eastern corner of Scotland and pushing along these, up a number of hills which stretched ahead like a grey ribbon and all of which Tom promised would be the last of the ride, allowed us to get some strength and rhythm back, and to contemplate the end of the trip without the incessant traffic and away, to a large extent, from the Northerly headwind that had been trying to force us backwards all day.

I’ll write more about the trip overall when I can, and perhaps include something about how it felt to finish, but we got there in the end, to find Jo, Karen and the Rainbows, with their banner stretched out across the wall at the beginning of the John O’Groats harbour, and also special guest appearances from Jo’s parents Mike and Shirley who had made a snap decision to drive all the way up to see us finish, and brought Marge to see us too. And a cake.

We were swept over the line by a wave of texts, tweets and phone calls, and again i’ll say more about that when I write up my thoughts about the trip, but right now i’d just like to say thanks to everyone who took the time to try to help us get over the line. You’d be amazed how much your messages helped, especially on a day when it seemed like we might not get there at all.

And now i’m going to bed.

Day Eleven: Spean Bridge to Dornoch

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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.

Day Ten: Aberfeldy to Spean Bridge

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Monday morning, and rather than mounds of email I had real mountains to get over. This was the start I was most concerned about, opening with a 1000ft climb from Aberfeldy, all of which was immediately spent downhill to the foot of a second climb of similar stature, before another descent to a third.

Part way through yesterday’s ride, as we worked steadily up from Glendevon to the top of the mountain pass above Aberfeldy I started to fall in love with riding in the Scottish hills and, foolishly, to allow myself to imagine that all our ups would have similar profiles. This morning, with a head full of fresh air, I could feel those three sharp peaks jabbing away at my confidence as we left Aberfeldy. These were no gradual 10-mile ascents, instead they were Devon-style climbs at solid 8-10% gradients but rising to three times the height of our home hills.

It’s hard to say what we would have made of them two weeks ago, but this morning we picked our way up steadily, Tom moving ahead with his distinctive in and out of the saddle style. Climbing hills like these always seems revelatory. No matter how confident I am on approach, for the first 50 metres it seems barely possible that anyone could drag themselves up and over, particularly looking up as the road rises and twists, then the slow rhythm takes over and I’m alone with my breathing and on and on the bike and I go.

Today, working hard for 20 minutes at a time, then spending all that height in giddy 4 minute descents, was wonderful, almost ecstatic in its effect. It felt like this could go on for ever, as if my body itself was gaining and losing energy whilst climbing and falling.

We stopped at 1400 feet and, as Tom urged me to take in the silence, we heard his parent’s car ascending the mountain behind us. Riding into these hills, their enduring mystery and appeal seems much more apparent. It also seems immediately clear why they’re called The Highlands. These aren’t just scattered peaks rising throughout the landscape, as they might seem when viewed from a car. They are an entire kingdom hidden away at 1000ft, complete with forests, lakes and rivers. It felt like we’d earned our entrance this morning.

Rob joined us for the rather less picturesque ride along the A9. Tom opted out and hopped onto the nearby cycle track to Dalwhinnie. Unfortunately it seemed to run directly alongside the busy dual carriageway, but with a much worse surface. It rained, lorries went by, we got through it. We stopped at a pottery for tea and cake and then pushed hard along the banks of Loch Laggan, losing Tom for a spell along the way as he chose to take a break and read his book by the river. Flattish riding isn’t Tom’s thing. Whereas in the Tour De France it tends to be the mountains that break the time-trialists, for Tom I think it would be the other way round. The monotony seems to frustrate him.

Tomorrow we’ll be riding along the Great Glen, taking in the whole of Loch’s Lochie and Ness. It’s the longest day of the ride at 95 miles. We can sense the end of the road around the bend and over the hill, but Day Eleven feels like a significant hurdle on the way to reaching it.

804 miles down.

P.S. Pop fans! Spent all day thinking about Aberfeldy, the Edinburgh band named after yesterday’s stop-off point, who unexpectedly, for me at least, topped John Peel’s Festive Fifty about 10 years ago. Just looked them up. Turns out I was thinking of Melys.

Day Nine: Edinburgh to Aberfeldy

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Best day of the ride, again. Still have pain, still have soreness. So what?

Floating through the centre of Edinburgh just after 7am, we caught the city asleep and stole out to Queensferry and the Forth Road Bridge before the city could rise. Calum’s navigation was faultless this time, guiding us down yet another of the great, almost hidden, cycle routes that seem to pass through our towns without ever touching them. We could have been out on a tree-shaded country lane.

Crossing the road bridge was fun and from that point on I think Tom and I started to realise just how far we’d come. This time last week we were working our way around Okehampton and onto a stretch of the Granite Way. All familiar territory. In seven days, under our own power, we’ve moved almost to the other end of the country. Seeing the hazy sun trying to break through over the Forth, it really seemed like we were suddenly a long way from home.

Calum is like a guided missile on his bike. Years of naval commando training have left him strong, compact and efficient in his movements, the perfect engine for a pushbike. A couple of times he seemed to forget we were behind him and effortlessly upped his rhythm, stretching away in the space of a few seconds.

Once we’d cleared Dunfermline we were in open country, but this now the human influence began to fade and the wild began to take over. With gathering grey skies helping to create the mood, the hills began to darken and grow, with ranges of huge peaks beginning to march on the horizon. Following Calum as we climbed quickly through the Glendevon to Gleneagles it felt like were were a team of three on a mission into enemy territory. I half expected to see a roadsign reading ‘Mordor 23 miles’.

 

We picked up Rob and said farewell to Calum in Auchterarder and set about the route to Aberfeldy. The hills are huge now and the road the only sign of civilisation. We rode along roads where, had we all suffered double punctures we would have had to walk for hours to find anyone who could connect us with help. Although we struck a couple of Devonish hills, bracing 14% rises, we were struck once more by the difference in terrain. I’ve been telling folks at home for weeks that in Scotland the roads go around the hills rather than over them, so getting through the country won’t be too bad. I was concerned that Scotland might call my bluff. Instead it has made us do the work but over much longer distances. Today’s ride ended with effectively two climbs spread over around 20 miles which took us from sea-level to 1200 feet. Because the pitch was rarely more than 4% these climbs were pretty quick. On the second long stretch the road surface was smooth and blemish free – we’ve become quite the connoisseurs of tarmacadam – and we each built our own pace up to 14 or 15 mph. Climbing steadily at that rate is, it turns out, a great feeling. Rather than sapping the legs it seems to strengthen and embolden them. I loved it.

In between the two, Tom and I stood on a bridge over a chattering stream between towering mountainsides. We talked about the ride and whether we’d ever felt like we would prefer to do anything rather than get back on the bike. Tom said that from Day 6 he’d started to feel like that moment wasn’t going to arrive and that he’s make it to the end. I guess I started to feel like that today.

I have an altitude reading on my bike computer, which comes from a barometer in there somewhere. Seems improbable, but there you go. I know it doesn’t give an accurate absolute reading but it’s fine for working out roughly how many feet we’ve climbed even if only relative to what we’ve been doing throughout the rest of the day or week. Watching the numbers slowly tick upwards on a climb or plummet down as we do, I can’t help but see the height number as credit gained either to be saved or spent. A sharp uphill might gain us 300 feet of credit. The next corner and a couple of whoops downhill might spend all that and a little more and we’ll know that, sooner or later, we’ll have to buy ourselves some more.

The climb to the top of the hills above Aberfeldy gained us about 1000ft of credit. We cashed it all in on one amazing, joyful, very, very fast downhill into the town. No regrets. As far as I can remember, the last couple of hours of today’s ride, and perhaps most of all the big, relentless climb, were the best i’ve ever had on a bike. We arrived in town 30 seconds before Jo and Karen. They’d been frantically chasing us along the road, knowing from Endomondo where we were. Although it would have been great of them to see how much fun we were having, the fact is they couldn’t catch us, and that’s even better. They saw the smiles on our faces while they were still fresh.

732 miles down.