This was the challenge that really got me cycling again. I was planning to walk from Land’s End to John O’Groats, but when I realised this would eat up around ten weeks and it would take me until I was 103 to accrue enough leave, the bike became the only viable option.
It had never occurred to me that rather than being a one-off, two weeks in the saddle would completely change my outlook on life. Suddenly a whole raft of possibilities had opened up before me. Why had it taken me until I was 44 to realise the incredible possibilities travelling by bike offers? I’d fallen in love with the self-sufficiency of the whole thing. In a world where we surround ourselves with piles of possessions, the realisation that everything you really need for life could be fitted into two panniers was incredibly liberating.
Then there was the simplicity of purpose. Before I left people were horrified I was planning to ride around 60 miles a day unsupported, but it didn’t take me long to realise that cycle touring is beautifully simple. All I had to do each day was ride from A to B. That’s it. If I was very lucky I might even enjoy it. Yes it was hard work, yes the hills were hell, but compared to everyday life – commuting, paying the mortgage, bringing up kids, going shopping, this was a breeze. And a refreshing breeze too, one scented by wild-flowers as the byways and cycle-paths of Britain whizzed past in a world so alien from our motorway network you could be on another planet.
And when you are cycling, particularly on a well-worn path such as LeJog, you are never alone. I met so many characters along the way I never experienced anything approaching loneliness. And what characters! Competitive types trying for record times, men of the road who slept in bivvys in the woods at night, families with toddlers in trailers undertaking the route a few miles at a time and one extraordinary adventurer who for some reason was carrying a roadmap of the entire British Isles (including the Channel Islands) as well as a 30 piece car tool kit which weighed as much as his bike.
I imagine people found me a rather bizarre traveller too. For a start I made the classic mistake of not preparing well enough. I used my standard Trek 1200SL road bike, which although not a purpose-built touring bike, was perfectly fine, except I had overloaded it, badly. Terry had lent me two huge panniers and of course I’d filled them with everything but the kitchen sink. I also hadn’t had time to practice riding with them, so my first experience of cycling with weight was between Liverpool Street and Paddington Station. I wouldn’t recommend this, particularly if you’ve never cycled in London before!
The panniers were so heavy by the time I reached Somerset I had a major clear-out and sent home an entire boxful of kit, including a pair of trainers (madness) a great fat novel (when would I be reading that?) and enough clothes for an arctic expedition. It was a major error – and particularly so when you are cycling in a country where anything you need can be bought just a few miles from the trail. The key to a successful long distance ride is to go light.
Also, being a cycling novice, I was wearing racing bike cleats. I had no idea I could have fitted mountain-bike style ones which would have made life SO much easier! With so much weight to carry I often found myself pushing the bike up the particularly steep inclines – so by the time I reached the Lake District I had completely worn them down and had to get a new set of cleats delivered.
I also hadn’t done nearly enough practice riding up hills. Before leaving it was the Highlands that had worried me and I naively thought by the time I reached Scotland I would be fit enough to tackle anything. That was true, rolling into the mountains I was almost a fully fledged touring cyclist, but what I hadn’t anticipated were the roller-coaster hills of Cornwall which come right at the start. Lots of them. Short sharp ups and downs going on for mile after mile. Beautiful but brutal. It took me about ten miles to realise how unprepared I was. I became so worried I was going to pick up an injury and suffer the embarrassment of coming home after only a few days, I was climbing at a snail’s pace.
Surprisingly, as someone with dreadful sense of direction, I didn’t get lost very often. The route I took (with a few alterations) was based on one of several available to members of the Cycling Touring Club (www.ctc.org.uk). It’s a great organisation for anyone going touring and members get access to a wealth of maps and plans. Without the benefit of Sat Nav, I went through the entire route before I set off, got the most detailed roadmap book I could find and simply tore out the pages I needed. Any sections that looked particularly tricky I printed out a more detailed map from Google. In the end I had about ninety pages. It didn’t weight much and spent pages could be chucked in recycling bins along the way.
But the great thing about riding with panniers is that people go out of their way to help you. Several times I’d be riding through towns looking slightly lost, only to find a local cyclist pull alongside and offer to ride with me to point out the right roads or paths to take. Just brilliant – and great to have company for a few miles. I only got completely lost once, which was navigating part of the National Cycle Network. I soon realised that these were either 1) superbly sign-posted or 2) were based on a WW2 system where they seemed to be deliberately pointing the wrong way, or removed entirely, to confuse the enemy.
The final thing I hadn’t expected was how much it would rain. At one point I seriously considered selling the bike and finishing the journey in a canoe. At times it was so torrential I had no option but to take cover under trees or in bus shelters. One day in Scotland it felt like I was cycling through the clouds. I knew the countryside I was riding through was stunning, but I could see nothing. At times it was just a case of battening down the hatches, getting your head down and just getting those miles done.
But when the weather was good the riding was truly unforgettable. Tracking the River Wye from Chepstow to Monmouth, the air thick with the scent of wild garlic, crossing the desolate beauty of Rannoch Moor and then racing down the spectacular narrow road cutting through Glen Coe, and then the final arrival at John O-Groats, after 1059 miles (I said I got lost a few times!) to find my Portsmouth Polytechnic chum Murray Charlton waiting with a bottle of champagne.
LeJog was a steep learning curve for me in every sense of the word. But although many of the lessons were painful I loved every minute of it. The world I inhabit now is a very different place. After sesing what is possible on a bike for relatively little money, barely a day goes by when I’m not gazing at an atlas dreaming of what could be achieved. The TransAmerica will be four times the length of LeJog and will bring challenges of its own, but I’ll never forget the ride that started it all.
If you get the opportunity to do it, don’t hesitate. Just do it.
Below are brief details of the route taken and accommodation. I mostly stayed in Youth Hostels which I can’t speak of highly enough. For bike travel they are ideal – drying rooms to leave wet clothes in overnight, facilities to cook your own food – and perhaps most importantly, the chance to meet fellow travellers in the evening and share stories of life on the road. You get money off if you are a member of the Youth Hostel Association and this also links you to sister Youth Hostel Associations all over the world. I once spent eight days in central new York with my son at an excellent hostel for around £300. Fantastic value and friendlier than any hotel. More at www.yha.org.uk
Day One: Train to Penzance, cycle to Land’s End and back to Penzance. Overnight Penzance Youth Hostel.
Day Two: Penzance to Treyarnon Bay. Overnight: Well Parc Hotel, Dobbin Lane, Trevone.
Day Three: Treyarnon Bay to Okehampton. Overnight: Okehampton Youth Hostel.
Day Four: Okehampton to Street. Overnight: Street Youth Hostel.
Day Five: Street to Monmouth. Overnight: Queen’s Head, Monmouth.
Day Six: Monmouth to Clun. Overnight: Clun Youth Hostel.
Day Seven: Clun to Chester. Overnight: Chester Youth Hostel.
Day Eight: Chester to Preston. Overnight: Whitburn House Hotel, Preston.
Day Nine: Preston to Kendal. Overnight: Kendal Youth Hostel
Day Ten: Kendal to Carlisle. Overnight: Carlisle Youth Hostel.
Day Eleven: Carlisle to New Lanack. Overnight: New Lanack Youth Hostel.
Day Twelve: New Lanack to Stirling. Overnight: Stirling Youth Hostel.
Day Thirteen: Stirling to Glencoe. Overnight: Glencoe Youth Hostel.
Day Fourteen: Glencoe to Lochness. Overnight: Lochness Youth Hostel.
Day Fifteen: Lochness to Carbisdale Castle. Overnight: Carbisdale Castle Youth Hostel.
Day Sixteen: Carbisdale Castle to Tongue. Overnight: Tongue Youth Hostel.
Day Seventeen: Tongue to John O’Groats. Overnight: John O’Groats Youth Hostel.