It wasn’t my idea, and I doubt I ever would have had the audacity to suggest it to anyone, even if it had been. In fact, when Jenny mentioned her plans to do a four day, Land’s End to John O’ Groats ride over the New Year weekend, my brain made a little shudder and thought only about how grim it sounded. Well, most of it did.
The plan solidified into a team of three: Jenny, Emily and myself. Jenny did the maths, which gave a total distance of 880 miles, and an average daily distance of 220. She reckoned 16-18 hours of riding each day, of which more than half was likely to be in the dark. A bit grim, then; yet, somehow, quite exciting, too. I know that I can ride in the dark; I know that I can ride long days; I know that I can do it for several days in a row. I wasn’t sure about doing it in winter conditions, with the potential for busy roads, and without the inherent variability and interest of riding off-road. It’s the uncertainties that catch the interest and force us to accept that, although we might think we’re up to it, that’s just talk until you actually buckle up and get it done. Which is why there was a certain inevitability to the whole thing. Once Jenny had mentioned it, I was always going to buy a train ticket to Penzance, pack a very stripped down set of bags, and pedal into 2018 the long way round. To suggest otherwise was delusional.
So that’s what we did.
I started a little early by packing my bike at Annie’s mum’s house in St Andrews, and catching the train to Edinburgh on December 23rd. From there I rode home through some of the loveliest roads in the Borders, which gave me 120 miles to check that my setup all worked nicely. Apart from a slightly sore knee, the journey home for Christmas was a big tick for something that I’ve meant to do for ages.
The journey south from Northumberland snapped me right out of the post-Christmas fug; everyone and their dog seemed to be headed south on that train, and there were people standing in the aisles. A good portion of them seemed to have become demented, no doubt due to too much time spent with families, and between the tangle of overlapping conversations and screaming babies, it wasn’t the relaxing, sleepy journey that I had hoped for. After Bristol the windows offered no clue to the changing scenery, just blackness. Slowly, the passengers dwindled, until myself and a handful of other tired travellers stepped into Penzance at 9pm, and I span the couple of miles up to the hostel to meet Emily, who had been there for a few hours. I found her in the kitchen, where we chatted about the wisdom of this plan, ate a lot and packed for a few hours while we waited for Jenny’s mammoth, 14-hour train journey to get her there from Inverness. It was well after midnight when we finally got packed and into bed, which was a little sub-optimal given that we set the alarm for 0400…
Day 1: December 29th
When the alarm went off, there was no sense of uncertainty – all three of us had done this sort of thing before, and we knew that in order to get things done you first need to assume your ability to do it in the first place.
Since that I had arrived in darkness and we set off, inevitably I saw little of the south-western tip of the UK. From the hostel, we had an 8 mile ride into a gusty headwind to get to Land’s End itself, before we could turn around and ride back the way we had come. The hedge-enclosed lane became smaller, the wind increased and we were at Land’s End; or its start, depending on your perspective. We didn’t linger long, as we were anxious to start ticking off the miles and make dents into the total mileage. What we had mistakenly assumed was the flash of a lighthouse turned out to be a rapidly approaching thunderstorm, and as we set the wheels of our northward journey in motion it was to a backdrop of lightning-lit seas. The wind whisked us forwards eagerly, but it was laced with rain. I couldn’t decide if the weather was on our side or not at this point, so I called it an uneasy truce as we retraced our steps before setting out to the northeast, into uncharted territory.
The only hiccup on the first stage of the day was Jenny thinking that she had lost her Garmin on the return trip from Land’s End. She seemed determined to go back and look for it, but luckily it turned up, having swung beneath her top tube! Panic over, we hit the A30, aiming to get some miles done before the commuters woke up.
The A30 is not a road I will look forward to riding again. Through the last hours of darkness and into the day, the wind increased at the same rate as the traffic. Gusting crosswinds, impatient commuters and the treacherous half-light made it a bit too interesting for this early in the ride, although at least we were making quick progress with the wind on our backs. I was actually quite thankful when it grew to a dual carriageway and we could sit in the relative quiet of the hard shoulder, although the weather and the heavy morning traffic made conversation, eating and sightseeing fairly difficult. The thunderstorms weren’t done with us yet either, so every couple of hours involved twenty minutes of darkness, lightning and hailstones that hurt our hands through our gloves.
I was quite relieved when we tucked into a Little Chef, 25 miles out of Exeter, for some lunch. We counted up the number of accents we might hope to encounter on our ride – a total was never agreed – and Emily wrung out a large puddle of glove-water on to the floor. A quick look at our tracker revealed a depressing amount of the UK still lying north of us! Jenny said that she was disappointed not to have heard a Cornish accent before we left it, but when she questioned whether our waitress was Cornish she shook her head.
“Where are you from then?”
On to the next accent then! After a large cooked breakfast, Exeter came easily enough, and with great relief we left the dual carriageway for a quick resupply in town, followed by a much quieter road parallel to the M5 as we headed north toward Bristol. It got dark as we left, coinciding almost exactly with the halfway point of the day, which in itself wasn’t terribly reassuring, although we were, roughly, ‘on schedule’. We optimistically predicted a midnight finish. Hmm.
It was 2am when we finally limped in to James’ drive near Gloucester, and the mileage clicked on to 250 exactly. My longest ever day on a bike by quite a large margin! James, who I had never met, had prepared a gourmet dinner that was probably wasted a little on our tired taste buds, and treated us as if we were lifelong friends. After nearly 22 hours on the road, words to express gratitude for the food, warmth and bed failed us and come out in little grunts instead, sorry James! He was our first saviour of the trip, but far from the last…
Day 2: December 30th
Unfortunately, day 2 came all too soon; I could have sworn we only slept for a minute or two. At 6.30, stiff legs got put back into (now dry) lycra and shoes, and without waking James we were back on the road feeling at least a bit refreshed, and eternally grateful. Unsurprisingly, things felt a little bit creaky, and although today was a little shorter, there were relatively few landmarks to break it up, and the wind was playing a fickle dance between a crossing tailwind and a crossing headwind, giving with one hand what it took away with the other.
A café stop in Worcester, 25 miles in, served to perk us up a bit, but it was a little later on that our spirits got a real lift when we met Steve Wilkinson by the side of the road, somewhere in the West Midlands, maybe (that’s as specific as I can be). He had been watching our tracker, was in the area and came out to give moral and calorific support! It blew us away to think that there were people at home actually stopping to look at the tracker and see where we were, although it added a little pressure to actually get the job done…
The miles really dragged by, with towns that I didn’t really know and a definite lack of climbs to break things up. It was late afternoon again when we passed the halfway mark at Whitchurch, wherever that is. The owner of the café that we stopped at, after we explained what we were doing, explained that it was a silly idea and we would never manage those sorts of miles in winter. We told him that we had done Land’s End to Gloucester the day before, but the use of the past tense didn’t persuade him that it was possible. He said we were delusional, and we needed to stay in Whitchurch tonight. Nice try.
Another long night stretched out, punctuated only by one of my jockey wheels giving up the ghost and disintegrating. Cue some garage forecourt mechanics and me being very glad that I had packed a spare to see us through to Kendal that night. We all had our highs and lows that night, although the A6 north from Preston was much quieter and faster than I could have hoped. We enjoyed our second ‘celebrity’ appearance in Wigan, as Alan Goldsmith of Highland Trail 550 fame waylaid us with chocolate, Christmas cake and wise words on a residential street. The gods of UK bikepacking were on our side!
The highlight of the day was surely the incredible welcoming committee laid on by Kendal CC, who rode with us for an hour into Kendal. Not that we were sick of each other yet (honest!) but fresh faces pumped fresh energy into our legs and the miles suddenly zipped by on the approach to that night’s stop at Karen and Chris’ house, despite the pouring rain. That other cyclists were willing to come out in the rain at midnight in late December to guide some idiots was motivation enough for another 200 miles. Everyone piled into the kitchen when we arrived for tea and hugs and introductions, and we felt guilty for having our sights set firmly on a soft bed. With bellies lined with pasta and all sorts of delicious treats, yet again we couldn’t have asked for better hosts, and what was more we now firmly in THE NORTH, and more than half the total mileage was under our belts. Even better, the donations had been steadily flowing in, and we now had a few thousand pounds to give to Social Bite, provided we could see through another few days.
Day 3: New Year’s Eve
Another morning, another sleep interrupted when it had just begun. Karen and Chris were up too to see us away with a traditional cycling breakfast of coffee and croissants, before Kendal CC member Christine even gave us an escort out of town to point us on the right track. The gale blowing up Shap summit gave plenty of early morning momentum, before a fast, long and very cold descent into Penrith where we met my mum! It felt a bit odd meeting her in the context of a long cold bike ride, but she had warm tea, more cake and hugs. She promised to meet us again at Moffat before we started the long section through the hills to Edinburgh. Now that we were back in familiar country, the miles felt as though they were coming more easily, and our own mental maps punctuated the way with landmarks. Jenny and me were ecstatic to finally cross the border into the promised land, so we all danced a jig at Gretna but decided we didn’t have time to get married. Onwards and upwards.
The conversation flowed freely as we made headway up quiet roads beside the M74, but Moffat felt like a long time coming, but a decent stop at the services, a resupply from my mum and a lot of food from McDonalds saw us right. I was itching for a good hill after so much flat, and luckily that’s what we got as we climbed the Devil’s Beeftub. Scott Lindsay met us just outside Moffat to ride to Kirkliston and a New Year’s Eve party, which reminded us that 2017 was coming to a close! As the light faded and the stars came out, the temperature plummeted as we ground out the metres up the climb with our new fourth member. As beautiful as it was, the never-ending descent on the other side froze me to the bone, and we all had a lot more clothes on as we pedalled on towards midnight. West Lothian went on forever, and the homely glow of Edinburgh’s city lights felt as though it would never appear on the skyline. A cold rain started, and spirits were in danger of dipping dangerously low when my friend Stephen pulled over in a lay-by to pass round restorative hot juice and biscuits. For the third day in a row people had come away from home in the dark to help us on our northbound journey, and every time the surprise was just as lovely, especially on this night of all nights. We couldn’t stop for long without getting cold, so all too soon we had to wave goodbye and get on our way, weaving through weird back lanes and industrial estates to finally wave goodbye to Scott and get Scott to his party.
My main memory of the Forth Bridge onwards that night is of the cold. It was freezing, and I had never had so many clothes on while road riding before – I wished I had bothered to dig my windproof shorts out of my seat pack. All sights were set firmly on Dunkeld and the guesthouse, which now felt a lot more reachable than it had from Kendal. Since when did 50 miles become ‘nearly there’?! Our legs whirred away, and Fife went by relatively painlessly. At Glenfarg, we heard the crack of fireworks and realised that the year had turned while we rode. We didn’t stop, but a smile crept on to every face as we dropped toward Strathearn. It felt more like another milestone ticked off that the all-singing, all-dancing festivities of the street party in Edinburgh, some miles behind us. A quick detour through Perth and some boozy pedestrians, and somehow I found myself riding up the A9 in the early hours of New Year’s Day, with no traffic and a hard frost glinting up at me from the ground. Strange.
Dunkeld happened, finally, and by that time I was thoroughly frozen. For the third time, we got off our bikes in the early hours of the morning and traipsed indoors for far too little sleep. It felt like the cumulative hours were taking their toll now, and the fatigue was a little deeper. Our host had hot vegetable soup on the go, and for the third time in three days I owed my sanity to a stranger bearing cups of tea. Jenny pointed out that this time tomorrow we could be homing in on John O’Groats…
Day 4: January 1st, 2018!!!
Our first sunrise of 2018 had yet to happen when we were up and away into freezing fog on the A9. 220 miles lay between us and the end of the country, which put a definite spring in our step/pedal as we got going. The aches and pains had accumulated, and even the short sleeps were enough for joints and muscles to seize up and become painful.
Recognising the need to maintain morale and keep spirits warm despite the ice accumulating on our gloves, Emily led a team karaoke on the deserted dual carriageway, carrying us through Queen’s greatest hits in a Welsh lilt. Snow began to line the side of the road, giving a physical indicator of how far north we had ridden since Friday, and the singing carried us past the familiar landmarks of the A9: Pitlochry, Blair Atholl, Bruar and Drumochter. On the summit we popped out through the fog and got our first sight of snow-covered, sun-lit mountains. We even said a brief hello to Adam Flint from Pitlochry, who came out to say hello as we passed by. We were all beaming as we got around the idea that just our own legs had carried us here from the far south in just a few days.
The rest of the morning took us further into Strathspey and toward our first stop in Aviemore. In Kincraig we had the lovely surprise of seeing Lee, Rickie, David, Ferga and friends, who had spent the New Year nearby in one of the Cairngorm’s best bothies. They said they would see us in Aviemore, and Lee and Rickie pedalled with us along the few miles of road. Aviemore had a properly festive feel to it, as a few more people had been watching our tracker and came to say hello. We tried not to linger, but the lure of conversation with friends somewhat outweighed the lure of further pedalling at this point! Finally we got going again, with the addition of Lee and Rickie en route to Inverness adding some welcome fresh voices to the conversation!
It’s not the darkness that makes it hard, but the fading of the light. I had my familiar late afternoon lull as the gloom encroached and we hauled through the hills between the Spey, the Nairn, the Findhorn and the Ness. I had heartburn. This sounds whiney perhaps, but I’d had it for a few days at this point and it wasn’t topping my list of things to experience in 2018. Eventually, we dropped like stones through the rain down toward the Kessock Bridge and our last stop at the garage, where we were to wave goodbye to Lee and Rickie. I’m not sure if the garage staff knew what had hit them when we all piled in, leaving a trail of coffee drips, pastry crumbs and generally making a nuisance of ourselves for 40 minutes to try and fuel up for the last 125 mile push north. The cold was biting again as we said our goodbyes, met Jenny’s mum for more hugs and crossed the Beauly Firth, but fairly soon a brisk tailwind had us speeding north through the night. We had around 12 hours to get to John O’Groats within our self-imposed 4 day time limit, which seemed perfectly achievable at that point. The best laid plans, though…
Everything was going fine near Tain, where Jenny’s friend Katie became our final domestique for a while, joining all the other excellent people who had felt the need to get themselves outdoors and lend us some good vibes. I don’t think they realised how much of a difference it made! After she left us, and the Dornoch Firth was behind us, the sleep monster and the cold made themselves really felt. By now I had every piece of clothing with me on, which never happens, and I could barely keep myself warm when moving. Jenny seemed to be feeling the cold and the fatigue a little too, although Emily seemed as impervious to tiredness as ever. At one point Jenny’s light ran out of battery, and it was only by chance that I looked over my shoulder, saw no following beam of light, and stopped to give her my spare.
We hit the Berrydale Braes, three mercilessly sharp coastal climbs and descents, and my eyes began to dip. No matter what I did or how many Pro Plus tablets I ate, I couldn’t keep myself awake, and the little voice in the back of my head egged me on to see how long I could shut my eyes for while moving… We mulled over the wisdom of my stopping for a ten minute sleep in the verge, but the others didn’t feel good about leaving me and I wasn’t sure I would be able to warm myself again if I stopped for that long. In the end, a combination of another hard climb, an engagingly icy descent and singing at the top of my lungs sent the monster away for a while, and as the night stretched on and on the mileages on the signs to Wick ticked painstakingly lower. The roads really were icy by now, which I suppose gave some extra validity to the ‘winter LEJOG’ claims, and Emily fell victim to it first on a sweeping corner some miles south of Wick, with no permanent damage done. The temptation to stop eating and drinking grew strong with the lure of the finish, but the need to keep alert on the roads stayed stronger.
I hear few good things about Wick, which might be unfair, but I can’t comment as there is not a lot going on there at 3 in the morning. The conditions and tiredness had really hit our pace hard, and the 17 miles left to John O’Groats were going to make it tight to hit the 5am deadline. We collectively willed the numbers lower, and rather than being dozens of miles our remaining riding now looked like a couple of bends on the map – we had reached that rare state of indifference to time, hunger and warmth, with eyes only for the onward mile and momentum.
Sooner – or later, who knows? – the road became a single track and it seemed like we had one final hill to crest. For the final time, Emily led us in song, with the choice of ‘What a Wonderful World’ seeming especially fitting. As the last verse ended, a sign approached declaring 3 more miles to John O’Groats, although we could have sworn it was more like 1…
“Oh fuck off John O’Groats!!!” was Jenny’s response from behind me, shortly followed by “Woooo!” and a noise like a sandbag being dropped. I was about to look round when my own world went horizontal and I hit the floor hard, and then, and a third thump competed the trio. Luckily the damage was no worse than a couple of bent mech hangers when we picked ourselves up, giggling, from the icy floor. Maybe the cycling gods don’t accept such petulance so near to the finish?
If things were tight before, then now they were looking very dicey, as time had ticked on and we now had hundreds of metres of road completely covered in water ice. We were reduced to pushing up the grassy verge, looking at our watches and feeling as though we might come close, but with no cigar to show for it. When the ice finally stopped, we were still faced with a frosty road that none of us felt qualified to deal with in our current states, so it was an unceremoniously tentative final descent to the north coast and the end of the line.
We squealed to a halt beside the famous sign: 5am exactly. 4 days exactly. 880 miles, countless stodgy calories and some new tales to tell. Unlike other bikepacking adventures I can think of though, this one had relied heavily on the kindness of strangers sympathetic to the need to go places by bike. People that I had mostly never met, might never see again, but who had gone above and beyond to help us get up here, and without whom it would never have been possible, at least not in the same style. I would love to say that meaningful words were said and a hurrah went up into the night, but instead I think I grunted. The obligatory photo was taken, and we creaked 200 metres back up the road to fall into a camping pod that Jenny had booked. Thank you, and goodnight.
Photos: mostly jenny Graham!
Jenny had the good sense to use our ride to benefit somebody other than ourselves, by setting up a JustGiving page to raise money for Social Bite, a Scottish homelessness charity who aim to help out people who have no choice but to be outside all hours during the coldest, darkest months of the year. Donations continued to flow in for days after we finished, and the total now sits at around £4,500.
Thanks very much:
- to everyone who donated.
- To the people who rode with us along the way, or popped up unexpectedly with cake and kind words. Thanks mum!
- to our hosts along the way, who knew exactly how to make sad cyclists feel warm and welcome.
You’re all excellent.