Day Eight: Sorbietrees to Edinburgh

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Today felt different right from the start. After porridge with summer fruit and honey we stood outside the fine and hospitable Sorbietrees B&B as gusts of feather-light midges swerved and bounced their orbits around us. Andy, allergic, made a strong case for this as the origin of Scottish country dancing. “They go for CO2,” he explained. “So don’t breathe out.”

We began with a 700ft climb, which sounds unpalatable, but in the watery early sunshine and with a gradient of 3-4% we tracked through it steadily over the course of five or six miles. I’ve never climbed like that before, having dragged myself up on the sharp up and downs of Devonshire, and it was a revelation. Momentum seems to count for so much and this morning, ticking over at around the 10mph mark, he climb was a positive pleasure. For the first time on the trip we were in empty country with houses only every half mile or so amongst the open landscape and meadowsweet crowding the roadside. We reached the top with dripping foreheads and smiling faces. Then we got to roll downhill for three miles.

We met my friend Calum and his friend Rhys in Melrose, and they set about guiding us into their home town Edinburgh with mixed success. Last time I rode with Calum was in a Polaris mountain bike orienteering event, my abiding memories of which are   of us arriving at the top of a tough-won hill only to be told the checkpoint was at the bottom, and of us finishing the day with 80 off-road miles on our scoresheet and me unable to walk. Here’s a tip for you youngsters: if you have to be paired with a Royal Marine for an event like that, make sure he knows how to read a map. Well, form in temporary while class is permanent, as they say, and soon we were slogging up unnecessary slopes in Carrington, or some similar place that wasn’t Edinburgh. “It’s okay!” said Calum, “this way you’ll get to see the Rosslyn Chapel.” We saw the brown sign, at least, and stopped at a corner shop for Tom to have an onion bhajee and chocolate milk, excellent recovery food according to Andy, who any sane man would trust about as far as you could throw his 6ft 4inch frame.

We got to Edinburgh soon enough, in hot sunshine, and Jo was there.

Today seemed to be the most straightforward of the trip so far. It began, we saw some great stuff, climbed some big hills, carried on pedalling and then we were there. I wonder whether, having worked so much stuff through yesterday, i’m finally relaxing into the role. Beautiful scenery aside, today was the first day to feel like a routine ride. That’s not to say it was free from difficulty. The pain in my legs after any stoppage now is pretty intense and can take a couple of minutes to dispel. It comes on so quickly after the first few hours of each ride that even a long downhill freewheel stretch is enough for the toxins to build up in my muscles. I’ve done some shouting to get through it, which doesn’t really help a great deal. I hope this is as bad as it gets.

661 miles down.

Day Seven: Sedburgh to Sorbietrees

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Best day of the ride for several reasons. Principally an early morning revelation that seemed to put everything about the trip into a new perspective for me, and to offer up the prospect of switching off the washing machine and enjoying the remaining days.

Tom’s friend Andy was waiting for us as we finished our breakfast in The Dalesman. Andy is, at least to a puny city type like me, a big lad and a great bike rider. Climbing the first little hill in town to pick up Rob and beginning to weigh up the prospect of dropping behind both Tom and Andy throughout the day, I was struck, as if from nowhere, by the liberating realisation that Tom is, or has the full makings of, a really great cyclist. Looking back at all the people who have joined us so far on the ride, I can’t think of a single one who Tom hasn’t kept pace with at the front of the group, despite his extra 5kg of luggage and the hundreds of additional miles he’s got in his legs by now. He’s a stone lighter than me, strong and wiry from a lifetime of climbing cliffs and has a cyclists attitude, pushing every pedal-stroke hard and riding every trip flat out whether it’s 7 miles or 70.

What a relief. I’m none of those things, so why bother with the churning anxieties about keeping up? I could feel the weight lifting from my shoulders and, for the first time since Day One, I rode the distance with what felt like a smile on my face.

We climbed imposing Cumbrian hills, hammered memorably down the sides of river valleys, dodged cows, spotted ostriches and had Indonesian pasties in the Ravenhouse Stores, Kirkoswald. Andy is a generous and funny rider, helping to fix minor mechanical problems and, I suspect, never really stretching his legs out more than he needed to.

Along with my new and highly satisfactory settlement regarding my place in the riding pack came the realisation that, despite my current undertaking, I’m probably not cut out to be a cyclist. I recall Bill from the Bike Shed in Exeter telling me that during his Lands’ End to John O’Groats ride he, “felt himself changing into a cyclist”. It’s one of the things i’ve been looking forward to experiencing myself. I realised today that it’s not going to happen. Instead of getting stronger and better, I’m pushing on as best I can and hoping to make it to the end. I’m pretty disappointed about that, but at least i’ve learned something.

I have burning lactic acid pain in my legs now after only the shortest of stops and it’s taking longer and longer to clear. I have also to report a worrying deterioration down the back of the cycling shorts. Not sure quite how i’m going to get back into the saddle in the morning.

I think I’m on the way to concluding that this trip is about it for me as far as cycling goes. I’ll carry on, and hopefully stay strong, but I sense i’ve gone about as far as I can take it now. No jokes about taking it further by riding into the sea of Scotland and making for Orkney.

Stunning scenery. Huge valleys carved by ice. The famous Vale of Eden Drumlins. Deep, dark forests stretching over the horizon. And when we arrived, a fine B&B complete with a talkative Vietnamese Pot-bellied Pig. Then I fell for a joke about a cleaner who couldn’t hoover.

Like I said, a good day.

585 official miles down. Think we’re well over 600 though.

Day Six: Boothstown to Seburgh

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If you’d told me as a kid, or at any age to be fair, that I could get up in the morning and  ride my bike to the Lake District, I’d have recommended psychiatric treatment. Actually,  I’d more likely have stared at my feet at mumbled something barely audible and almost certainly meaningless. Not a very confident child.

Not a very confident grown-up this morning either. Determined to get up early and get breakfast out of the way leaving plenty of time to digest, it took me 25 weary minutes to chew through my bowl of porridge. This felt like the most sluggish start to the day since waking up in Stockling on Monday morning. Mum, Tom and I talked about how the tiredness and its elusive flipside, the energy, come in unpredictable phases. I recalled how whacked out i’d been finishing last night and bit down on the fear that today could be worse. This was supposed to get easier as we went.

Rarely can a broken bike have given anyone such a confidence boost. Wheeling out of Mum’s garage it seemed like my back wheel was sticking. It turned out that the bottom of my brake lever had sheared off, forcing the brake block against the wheel rim. Suddenly last night’s dramatic dip in zip seemed explicable. I couldn’t find the part on the garage floor so it surely must have come away before the end of the ride. No chance of any bike shops being open at 7am, but the web pointed us to the Orange Apple in Longridge, 40 miles into the day’s trip. I set off with a big, relieved smile on my face, and no rear brakes.

The riding was good. Picking through the streets where I grew up, starting by climbing hills I feared when a schoolchild (Thornton Road! Par Brew!) which turned out to be little more than slight changes in gradient, then joining together the post-industrial towns that make up the western fringe of the Manchester/Salford conurbation: Tyldesley, Atherton, Horwich. Now the buildings were red brick instead of local stone and then, just as suddenly, we were up in the hills approaching the West Pennine Moors, and the stone started to return.

We picked up Rob in Rivington and rose and fell through (sharp) hill country, heading to Blackburn, Preston, the Lakes. Hearing the cream-churned North-West accents was another almost embarrasingly simple filip. My own started to return, and half way through the day I surprised myself by using two syllables for the word ‘here’ where in the South West one would suffice.

Heading up a hill 30 miles in, my front tyre started to swell. Rob came alongside, pointed his magic finger at it, and it exploded. We changed the innertube straightforwardly, but only when freewheeling downhill past Tom, who was watering the hedgerow, did I realise that I’d forgotten to reconnect my front brakes. The keen cyclists among you will realise that no front brakes plus no back brakes equals no brakes at all. Luckily the hill was empty and fairly short. Not sure what I would have done otherwise.

The chap in the Orange Apple was fantastic, dropping everything to fix my brakes, Rob’s cranks and then recommending several cafe-stops for the second part of the day. He also recommended Longridge’s own ‘Old Station’ cafe for lunch, which was fine advice.

The second half of the day was long. The scenery changed and the speed picked up as we edged to the lower Lakes. The three of us spent large parts of the afternoon cycling alone, including one 13-mile stretch into Kirby Lonsdale. During the hour it took me to get there I saw neither Rob nor Tom who had both boosted ahead at their own favoured paces. The washing machine started up again. Why am I behind? Why are they ahead? Have I gone the right way? Are they fed up of me trailling all the time? Why am I behind? Why am I in worse shape than the two of them? Why have I been left behind?

When I arrived the whole Rainbow family were waiting on the roadside verge, complete with a great welcome banner that Tess and Kitt had hand-painted. Along with the Williamses and the Kennedys, the Rainbows are as close as I get to having a second family (don’t panic Currans, you’re real family – actually, do panic). Spending time with them is effortless and fun, but today seeing them waiting and waving flags made me miss Jo more.

Rob stepped out at this point leaving Tom and I to plough on to Sedbergh, a long slog made slightly more difficult by the reception we’d had in Kirby, which felt like it should have been a finish line. We got there, but the day in all seemed to have taken much longer, and much more out of us than it needed to. Much like this post, i’m sure you’ll be thinking.  

513 miles down.

Day Five: Leighton to Boothstown

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Waking up in a misty country idyll, we set off towards the heart of industrial Lancashire. From Jez and Katie’s to Mum’s house, in other words.

80% of the ride was fantastic. I had no pain to speak of and started to get the sense that my body might be adapting to riding every day. The legs felt ready, or at least resigned, and to bit where they joined the rest of me felt pretty well moulded to the saddle.

In theory this was one of the easiest days of the trip. Long enough, at 82 miles, but with just a couple of climbs at the start and nothing but rolling countryside the rest of the way.

Jez and Tony were riding with us and seemed gleefully excited to be making the trip. Tony managed to maintain most of his smile through the various technical glitches his (let’s just say ‘twice as expensive as anyone else’s) bike threw in. Watching him tinker kept the rest of us smiling too.

The climbs were fine and soon done, after which the miles started to roll by. The terrain was forgiving enough to allow long conversations and catching up with two old friends was worth any effort the trip might have demanded.

Tea stop in Malpas. Can’t recall the name of the cafe but it had impressive collections of both ceramic snails and septuagenarian cyclists, this latter group seemed attracted to Tony’s carbon fibre Cannondale, succeding only in irritating him rather than making his gears work.

The stretch through Cheshire was the best 20 miles of the whole trip so far. It felt like we were flying along on a magic carpet, and brought me as close as I can remember to the pure pleasure of childhood riding, pedalling and pedalling and pedalling and just going and going and going. All great. Tom was enjoying himself too, as far as I could tell, although when we talked about this being the easiest day and I, pedalling harder to go faster, said, “perhaps we shouldn’t be pushing it so much,” he replied, “are we?”

Lunch was an enormous picnic laid out by Mike and Shirley, my in-laws. It’s been one of the revelations of the trip the extent to which friends and family seem genuinely excited by what we’re doing. Mike’s been texting advice when we’ve taken wrong turns, watching our progress on Endomondo, and i’m surprised how much messages like those help. They managed to feed us well, encourage us, explain GPS technology and, along with everyone else who tried during the day, fail to fix Tony’s bike.

And from that point the day started to fall away from me. We said goodbye to Tony and Jez in Lymm and met my brother Stu, who had ridden out from work in Manchester to meet us in Irlam. The people who have come out to ride with us have been a really important part of the experience so far, so it was great to see Stu pulling up on his single-speed bike, keen to ride the only 5 miles of the trip that he could possibly get to. However, from the moment we set off I felt my energy really start to flag. As we got closer to Mum’s, Tom and Stu disappeared farther and farther into the distance, with Rob only held up by the terrible potholes in the unclaimed road over Astley Moss. I couldn’t believe it. A great day and now, riding through the streets where I grew up, I couldn’t find the energy to catch my brother and ride home with a smile on my face. It seemed as if the last 5 miles sucked both the strength from my legs and the joy from what had been a great day. I found it hard to recover and as the day ends i’m wondering again whether I have what’s needed to get to the end of the trip.

430 miles down.

Don’t forget, if you’d like to use our trip as an excuse to give to the Disasters Emergency Committee, you can here: http://www.justgiving.com/rob-lejog. What’s more, Environ UK will match the total donations.

Day Four: Ross-on-Wye to Leighton

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Best day of the ride so far. We set out in showers and within ten minutes of leaving Ross were drifting up and down alongside the river, beginning to climb alongside the Welsh Border. Having trailed this day as the one where we rode the length of Wales, we were only actually out of England a couple of times, which seems a shame when reviewing the map, until you look at how furrowed the contours get for the cyclist who drifts too far West.

It was beautiful. The sun came out, the countryside opened out before us and, of the first real stretch of time, we started to see landscapes and villages we weren’t at least passingly familiar with. At times it seemed as if houses from suburbia, complete with immaculate lawns and ornate fence posts, had been scattered randomly across empty countryside. Rather than moving through a succession of hamlets and villages, we just seemed to pass either houses or farms.

I’m not sure why I enjoyed today so much. On paper it was the shortest day, estimated at about 67 miles, but it took us a long time. Somehow the progress just seemed to happen at the right pace. It felt like we were really riding, the aches and pains were lifting, and we were going to be able to do this.

We had a couple of bracing climbs to make, which came up by surprise. At the top of the first Rob announced that nearby lay the highest golf course in England, prompting the obvious question: why couldn’t we ride by the lowest instead? We thought we’d done our work for the day but the second hill brought us a further 300ft higher than the first. Sometimes these hills seem almost pleasant to get up, other times they’re crippling. If I could work out why, perhaps this whole enterprise would be easier.

We had a great lunch in Bishop’s Castle, having been greeted by a cycling family who squealed, “Bet we’ve gone farther than you today!”. I don’t like to upset kids, but sometimes it’s unavoidable.

On to our friends Jez and Katie, who relocated to the wilds of Shropshire from Manchester some time ago. We arrived in Leighton, having arranged to meet Jez outside what looked like the major local landmark. Still, it was uncomfortable to find myself pacing up and down sweating profusely outside the village school, dressed in a bright yellow, skin-tight, semi- transparent t-shirt.

Some confusion trying to find Rob who we’d cut loose a couple of miles back after his tyre exploded. Luckily we got to him before the vultures.

So part way through a sweet, warm evening with Jez, Katie, Ben, Charlie, Tony and the Rainbows, i’m moved to write at length about friendship, family and how Summer evenings like this can really seem to bring those things together perfectly. But it’s 9.30, I’m knackered, so fortunately for you I won’t bother.

343 miles down.

Day Two: Stoke Climson to Stocklinch

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Up at 6am, porridge with rhubarb and out the door at 7am. Against expectations, we were full of energy and the first 20 miles, which on the profile chart seemed to go up and down like a toast-rack, were good fun and passed relatively easily. Overcast skies and gentle drizzle helped.

We joined the Granite Way at Sourton. Disappointed to discover that it’s not a 10-mile stretch of polished granite work-surface, but I guess also relieved. I didn’t have the tyres for that.

We met four fellow riders in Crediton and were greeted with a little gentle abuse for arriving behind schedule. Harsh, but I would have done the same in their shoes. Ally, Nick, Colin and Jools all had shiny racing bikes and preceded to zip off up the hill out of town, leaving Tom and I behind. Luckily they left in the wrong direction and it took them 10 minutes to catch us up. However, this set the theme for the day, much of which I spent watching the other five disappear up various Devon hills. As I chugged along I had plenty of time to consider why this might be. Are they fitter? Better bikes? More aggressive attitude to hills (certainly true for Tom who is much quicker and more attacking uphill than me)? Their projected distance must account for some of the difference but not much, I fear. I suppose that my old hybrid really isn’t built for boosting up hills, but again, I think that’s only part of the story. Perhaps I should work on my approach to climbing, but I’m pretty sure that to do that at this stage in a  1000mile trip would be foolhardy.

It was good to take in the stretch from Langford to Broadhembury, which is pretty much home territory for me, although it was with regret that I turned away from Honiton where, at this time on a normal Sunday I’d be locking up my bike and meeting Jo for lunch. Instead, today, Jo and Karen, Tom’s wife, were meeting us with a picnic. We waited for about 45 minutes before realising that the shop we were sat across the road from was actually an open tea shop.

When the car, families and picnic arrived it was very welcome but continued the emerging trend of taking a too-big lunch just before the biggest climb of the day. The climb to the top of the Blackdowns was just short enough to keep lunch in its proper place.

From there we skipped over the top, shedding fellow riders as they turned back to Exeter at regular intervals. Down into Somerset and pushing up to Tom’s parents at Stocklinch. Half an hour later I was fast asleep on the landing floor.

176 miles down.

Day One: Land’s End to Stoke Climson

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Confident and relaxed on the dive down to Penzance, I woke up late, couldn’t find any of the stuff I thought I needed and, rushing to get dressed, eat porridge, get the bike on the car, I left for Land’s End feeling completely unprepared, nervous and strung out, feeling as if six months of training had delivered me to the start line weak and fallible.

After a few photos under the signpost, and much dithering, we set off at 7am. The point of departure, after all this waiting, came quickly. Saying goodbye to Jo was difficult and then, almost unexpectedly, we were just riding our bikes. As it happened, we were riding them down a dead-end in the Land’s End car park, so shortly after the waving and cooing of our launch, we reappeared and sheepishly drifted by the farewell party again, this time in the right direction.

We’re avoiding A-roads wherever we can, and have spent 3 months planning a B-road-or-less route to Scotland, where it seems all the roads are A-roads. Most End-to-Enders aim to get out of Cornwall on the A30, grinding their way up the dual carriageway, hoping not to be clipped by trucks and caravans. The route we took, wending immediately through deserted lanes, was beautiful although disconcerting. Within five minutes it felt as if we were out for any other Saturday ride. It would be several hours before we saw another rider doing the long trip. It was only 20 minutes before we got lost and ended up on our first A-road…

The trip to Fowey was great. Some ups and downs, but all manageable. We took the King Harry Ferry (cheating in my book) and, bizarrely, ended up on the same 50m crossing as the family’s, which was nice. They followed us for the next few miles, sometimes unbeknownst to us, and at least once eliciting one of my fiercest dirty looks as they hung off my back wheel refusing to pass. The sight of a husband’s face turning as he realises he’s just hexed his own wife rather than a random stranger, can’t be pleasant to see.

It was Lifeboat Day in Fowey, which seemed to involve a chap on a tannoy repeatedly shouting “We’re sorry the lifeboat can’t be with us, it’s out on a shout dealing with a fishing boat in distress…”. No-one seemed to mind. We had a great big lunch and then, rather too quickly, began the climb from sea-level to the highest village in Cornwall, which, in 80 degree heat, accounted for most of the last 25 miles. We arrived in Stoke Climson, just 2 miles away from the Devon border, I was out of gas.

Some stretching, some Rego, a protein bar, a very welcome shower, a little hand-washing and a long sit-down with our fine host John and Viv. Crucially, they kicked us of to bed at 9.30.

Other highlights: we saw a man in a mobility scooter speeding along holding a big poodle on a lead. Said poodle was clearly terrified of said mobility scooter and attempting to bolt in the opposite direction whenever it could.

92 miles down. A bunch more to go. Pretty tired. Worried about tomorrow. I’ve been focussing to excess on the moment we get back no the bikes on day 2. I figure if that goes well, we’ll be okay. If not, well, who knows?