Friday, 14 May 2010

Reflections on the ride

So, how did it all go? Would I do it again? Would I change anything in hindsight? Have my sore bits recovered?

Well I was certainly glad of a couple of days off but I've already been out on the bike and am eager to get out on some longer rides again so I suppose I haven't suffered that much as a result of the ride. I still think I need to rest the knee a bit longer yet though. I'm not sure if I'm loads fitter as a result of the ride because I never really pushed my cardiovascular system that much. Having said that I lost some weight and my resting pulse is noticeably lower so maybe I am. I am confident that my cycling stamina is considerably improved. Keeping going all day isn't a problem and I'd have no qualms about doing consecutive century rides. I just wouldn't do them quickly. Classic touring cyclist attitude I suppose.

Thoughts on bike and equipment
I definitely made the right choices there. The Specialized Tricross was comfortable and I was glad of the short reach/upright position on the bike. I can't recall any significant neck/back pain. It was stable and even managed a bit of unplanned cyclocross with no drama! That happened in Scotland when I made the mistake of watching a Buzzard glide alongside me rather than focus on the road. My attention was quickly re-focused as I bumped along a rocky verge towards a ditch! Thankfully I got back on the tarmac quickly and without injury.

Just the one puncture (in Devon) and enforced mechanical intervention (changing very worn brake blocks before a hilly day in the Cairngorms) so I got off lucky there. However, I like to think it was because I made sure the bike was in good nick before I set off.

Travelling light was definitely worthwhile. I love cycle camping and being self sufficient on the bike but all that extra weight would have really told. I don't think I could have managed an average of nearly 95 miles per day in hilly terrain with a full complement of panniers. Not without being LOTS fitter beforehand anyway. Taking the bare minimum made the whole trip much more enjoyable. I probably stank to high heaven at times but no-one was rude/honest enough to tell me.

I know that Cath and Sarah enjoyed their holiday too but having them there as support in the evenings and, every now and then, en route helped a great deal and kept my spirits up when otherwise they may have dropped.

The route
The CTC B&B route is described as 'scenic'. They mean 'hilly'! I noticed that some translation of the route instructions was required from time to time. For example where it says 'ascend the hill' it should say 'ALERT: engage bottom gear and continue for 1.5 miles until lungs explode and your heart beat sounds like a drum roll'. In all seriousness though you can't avoid hills on LEJOG and it wasn't that bad. I actually preferred the hilly bits. I could get into a spinny rythym going up without really suffering and I could enjoy some exhilerating descents. And I never had to get off and walk! Some days/sections were tough but I wouldn't have changed it. All part of the challenge and it did afford me some spectacular scenery. The Cairngorms were a great example of this. I could have skirted the hilliest roads but that would have meant long stretches on the fearsomely busy and unpleasant A9. As it was it was one of the best days of the trip and certainly the most rewarding.

The section between the Crask Inn (wonderful pub in middle of nowhere) north of Lairg to Altnaharra in the early evening sun. Rounding a corner and seeing clouds shrouding the summit of Ben Klibreck. Fantastic. I'll never forget it.

The whole day through the Cairngorms. Awesome views and very rewarding.

Hills in the Scottish borders. Gradual ascents and miles and miles of descent on perfectly surfaced roads.

Hey, Scotland is doing pretty well here!

The Wye Valley. I love cycling alongside waterways and this whole area was beautiful.

From Whalley to Appleby through Bowland Fells. Hilly, remote, great scenery and the sun shone most of the day.

The not so good bits
The wind! Prevailing south westerlies my arse. 9 days of headwind. Some days better than others but to be honest I just forgot about it after I'd got into Scotland.

Maybe I've got the rose tinted specs on but actually I can't recall many bits I really didn't enjoy. Those bits in the blog where I said I hated it were probably more down to the fact that the weather was crap and I couldn't get warmed up. I suppose I'd nominate:

The day from Ludlow to Chorley. It was cold the wind was right in my face and quite strong. 134 miles of mostly uninspiring landscape. I didn't get to the B&B until after 9.30pm. Just one of those days where all I did was get the miles in.

Peebles to Edinburgh. Scenery might have been nice but I wouldn't know because of the fog and rain. Freezing too. And then I had to try and navigate my way through Edinburgh and towards the Forth Road Bridge.

John O Groats. Not a plastic tat hole like Lands End but still a hole. And you have to pay to use the toilets.

Finally, the roadkill. You never really notice how much there is in a car. Badgers in England became lambs and deer in Scotland. Very depressing.

So, would I do it again? Yes of course. Might give it a week or so first though.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Day 11: Altnaharra to John o'Groats

Yay! Done it.

I've got sore gentleman's veg, I've got knees that will take a few days to work properly again, I've got blisters on ears and fingers from sun and windburn and I feel a bit drained but overall I'm in pretty good shape. And the aches and pains don't matter one bit. All I'll remember is a fantastic 11 days of cycling.

After a huge breakfast I set of a bit later than usual knowing that I had a shortish day of 75-80 miles ahead. For some stuuuupid reason I decided to wear shorts. That didn't last long as after 15 miles of chilly cycling and a freezing rain shower I put the longs on. The first 20 miles or so to Bettyhill were gorgeous despite the weather. Loch Naver and then the river Naver always on my right and reasonably flat. That soon changed when I hit the north coast road! It went up. It went down. It went up. It went down. Fairly challenging gradients too! All the way to Thurso. And the wind from the North was fearsome today, bringing sharp cold showers with it. Very tiring indeed. At times the road direction and the subtly changing wind direction meant I was slogging along at under 8mph. And that was on flat sections!
Wind? You're not kidding!!!

At one point I saw a cyclist ahead and put a bit of extra effort in to catch up. It took ages. And when I eventually got there I very slowly overtook a 60+ year old lady with a basket of shopping on the front of her bike! Either they are very fit/hardy up here or I was very tired or I wasn't really trying. I'd like to think it was a combination of the first two.

The views across some of the bays towards the Orkneys were stunning and I chose my places to stop and eat accordingly.

Beautiful north coast of Scotland

Soon realised that I had less than 10 miles to go and this spurred me on to put some extra effort in. At about 4.15 I rolled into the cold, windy, desolate hole that is John o'Groats and was greeted by Cath and Sarah and a small bottle of Laphroaig. Their support made this whole trip much easier and enjoyable than it could have been.

MADE IT! I'm not fat on this pic. Its the wind!!

It is supposed to be late spring/early summer and yet when I reached JOG the temperature was 5 deg and it was blowing a gale! For the last 9 days I've cycled (mostly) into a headwind and although it was tempting to cycle back and take advantage of the tailwind I decided to get in the car and drink the whisky instead.

Day 10: Grantown on Spey to Altnaharra

Penultimate day and another one over 100 miles. 108.2 tiring hilly miles. Nothing like the hills of yesterday but with my legs a bit drained it was all a bit of a struggle. The scenery, particularly from Lairg to Altnaharra, more than made up for this. In fact I'd say that the final stretch of 20 miles was the most beautiful of the trip so far.

Set off in really cold weather and climbed up and over from Grantown to Inverness. It felt like slow going and it was. Joined the busy A9 and crossed the Kessock Bridge to The Black Isle. I, mistakenly, thought this bit would be flat. No. Managed to find, and take, the road over the highest point at Mount Eagle - about 250m. Nice descent and rejoin the A9 for the Cromarty Bridge. Beautiful views out over the firth but couldn't take full advantage of them as I had to focus on the busy road. Terrible road surface and speeding traffic.

As for much of the day the next stretch included some of NCN route 1. It seemed that along here (on relatively quiet B roads I might add) that route appeared to have been designed to keep cycles off the road. Tracks running parallel to the road that then crossed the road to do the same before crossing the road to do the same before crossing ... well you get the idea. I can sort of understand why this might of been necessary but if I had been trying to follow it religiously it would have driven me insane.

Another longish climb over the Struie and some good views at the top before a speedy descent down towards the road to Bonar Bridge. The road then eventually went past The Falls of Shin where I met up with Cath and Sarah for a break (much needed as I was thirsty and hungry).
Feeling refreshed and ready for the last 25 miles

The road from here to the B&B at Altnaharra was just superb. Breathtaking views on single track road. I was really tired but the reason I kept stopping wasn't to recover but to take in the views. I did stop for a pint at The Crask Inn though. An oasis in the middle of nowhere. Feeling refreshed it was downhill to Altnaharra and a run I'll never forget. Clouds over Ben Klibreck and just stunning scenery.

Summit of Ben Klibreck covered in clouds.

Last day tomorrow. 80 miles, or thereabouts, to John O'Groats.

Friday, 7 May 2010

Day 9: Blairgowrie to Grantown on Spey

A tough day through the Cairngorms and although, without doubt, the most strenuous day of the trip it was definitely the best. The weather was kind (apart from the northerly wind again) and I felt in good shape. The climbs were challenging but the views were just spectacular. If I was choosing a LEJOG route again I'd definitely include this.

Straight out of Blairgowrie and you are in to a gradual climb. There are a few really steep bits up towards the cafe/hotel at Spittal of Glenshee but nothing in comparison to what would follow. After this cafe the road kicks up and keeps getting steeper towards the ski area at Glenshee. Slogging up in bottom gear for what seemed like ages. At about 2250 ft it was really cold at the top and still some snow around on the ground. I was looking forward to the descent but it was miserable! The northerly wind was strong and I had to pedal down in a low gear struggling to maintain a speed of 13mph. Demoralising but at least the views were still good.

On the way up to Glenshee.

At the top!

A food and drink break in Braemar and then a stretch of gradual descent alongside the river Dee before turning left near Balmoral and climbing steeply again up to over 1500 ft. A steep and fast descent and then a really steep climb again. Someone told me that all ascents in Scotland were gradual and long. Well these were steep and long. Generally ranging from 8% to over 20%. Tough going. Respite came when Cath and Sarah passed and I had a welcome break near the summit. Can of relentless and loads of peanuts!

Near the top of one of MANY big climbs.

Also had a cup of coffee. Probably a mistake as near the bottom of the next descent I felt really lightheaded and had to stop for a few minutes. Needed to recover before the next 20% climb which then levelled a bit before really kicking up to the ski centre at Lecht. A biker had stopped to wait for me near the top of the 20% bit and I stopped for a chat and some more food. He gave me some useful advice about the rest of the route before speeding off on his motorbike.

The climb up to Lecht.

A fantastic descent down to Tomintoul and then another short climb before another fast descent and the final big climb from Bridge of Brown. I was glad of the descent down to Grantown but overall I'd enjoyed the day tremendously. It was probably the most challenging 81 miles I've spent on the bike but also the most rewarding by far. And I'm feeling fitter every day! I might be fit to drop by Sunday though :-)

Looking back to the mountains.

Distance: 81 miles
Av. Speed: 10.6 mph (slow but not bad considering the terrain)

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Day 8: Peebles to Blairgowrie

A day of contrasts!

The first 30 or so miles this morning were lousy. I hated it. Drizzle, mist, strong and icy NE wind right in my face and I couldn't get warm or warmed up at all. Spent most of the time struggling along at under 10mph and swearing at the elements. And when I'd exhausted my potty mouth vocabulary I repeated them all! Then (inevitably) got lost in Edinburgh and took ages to find a route to the Forth road bridge. Got there eventually and after a food top up and a drink I started to feel a bit better.

The next 'stage' of the route took me through some drab, grey Scottish towns such as Inverkeithing and Cowdenbeath. Not much you can say about it really. Nothing inspiring anyway. And me left leg/knee was starting to hurt. Bugger.

Things then started to pick up a bit. After Yetts O'Muckhart (great name, nondescript place) the sun came out for a bit and I could enjoy a lovely climb where, at the top, there was a breathtaking view north to the snow-capped mountains. Stood there for a good 15 mins taking it in and scoffing more food. Great descent too. The car in front even pulled over to let me past :-)

Breathtaking view!!
Spent 5 minutes waiting to cross the A9. God knows why some people cycle on there. Its like a motorway! Then had a long 20% climb (thought I'd left those behind!) that actually wasn't that bad. Obviously getting used to the hills. And, strangely, my knee hurt less on the climbs. Weird.

PLENTY more of these tomorrow!
If the knee/leg pain wasn't enough I then got cramp with about 3 miles to go. Owwww! I'll eat more salted peanuts tomorrow. Made it to the fantastic B&B (Heathpark Lodge in Blairgowrie) feeling a bit better. Big day tomorrow through the Cairngorms. Looking forward to it.

River Tay with the Cairngorm foothills in the distance.
A few stats:
Distance: 101.8 miles
Av. speed: 12 mph (felt a lot slower)
Roadkill: A change from badgers to deer :-) WHY CAN'T PEOPLE TAKE MORE CARE?
Wind: Sick of it! Blimmin northerly for 6 days now.
Most frequent political posters: SNP (unsurprisingly)

Day 7: Appleby to Peebles

If I gave the impression that yesterday was tough - it was. However, I enjoyed it a lot. The weather and scenery kept my spirits up. My body was aching though and so I did have some concerns that I'd struggle today. I was wrong.

107 miles today and apart from 10 miles or so this morning I had a fantastic day. And I cycled into Scotland. Yay. I'm not there yet though.

Goodbye England. Hello Scotland
Set off in miserable weather. Low cloud and drizzle. Yuk. Decided to use the A66 for the first 8 miles which on the one hand was good - good road surface and I could trundle along at 20mph. On the other hand it was bad - very busy with lorries. Left A66 at Temple Sowerby and then had 10 miles or so of up and down including some steep, short sections. This bit, in horrible conditions, did lower my morale. On one bit the road looked like it was going downhill whereas in fact it most definitely wasn't. Strange optical illusion and it had me swearing and wondering what was going on. A little later I turned a corner to be met with another 1 in 6 sign and gave forth with every curse known to man. I think it may have upset the lady sweeping her drive!! Sorry dear.

A stop in Brampton for a drink anbd some cake and I was soon rolling into Scotland.

The borders are beautiful. One of the best regions I've cycled through so far. Plenty of hills but the gradients are gentle. Go on for a long time but you can get into a rythym and never get tired. And you get miles of descent afterwards. Had about 3 or 4 of these long ascents and dsecents on way to Peebles. The B709 was a great road and included a superb stretch which had just been re-tarmaced. The only thing disturbing the integrity of it was sheep poo.

I didn't expect to see this! A Tibetan tea room in the middle of the Borders hills!
Rolled into Peebles at about 6.00pm so made very good time today. Legs a bit sore but a massage from Cath and they feel good as new again :-) Looking forward to the ride to Blairgowrie.

On the bridge in Peebles.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Day 6: Chorley to Appleby

88 very hilly miles today. 9000 ft of climbing. One tired Rob at the end of the day.

Set off about 9.00am after a smaller breakfast and felt better for it. The terrain around the north of Blackburn was rolling hills and it wasn't too long before a sustained climb up to and through Mellor. Then a nice descent to Whalley (about 20 miles) where I sat out in the sun and scoffed a pork pie, some cake and a coffee in preparation for the longer, steeper hills to come.
View from Waddinton Fell. Ingleborough in the background.
Helmet hair!
You can just about make out the road snaking upwards ahead.
The climb up Waddington Fell was actually quite enjoyable. Stopped and chatted to a cyclist called Mike at the top who very kindly donated £20 towards St. Luke's Hospice. Great descent down towards Slaidburn and then a longer, more challenging climb up and over the moors again. Beautiful, single track road and nothing but sheep for company. Has anyone ever noticed how a sheep's cough sounds just like a human's? Another exhilerating descent to Bentham and then up and down to Kirkby Lonsdale where I needed a proper refuelling stop. Huge sandwich, pot of tea and a deserved rest.

Relatively flat (not that flat)for a few miles towards Sedbergh and then more challenging climbs all the way to Appleby for the last 20 miles. I was starting to suffer from 'Jelly Legs of Doom' so Jaffa Cakes to the rescue. Knee starting to hurt a bit too so Nurofen required too. THe last hill from Orton towards Appleby was tough going at the end of the day but at least I had a downhill bit for the last 5 miles.
The look of a man thinking "who put that **!??* hill there at the end of a day?"

More hills tomorrow I suspect.

Monday, 3 May 2010

Day 5: Ludlow to Chorley/Preston

Phew. Even longer day today. 134.8 miles. Should have been a bit less but I made some navigational errors around Ludlow, Market Drayton and N.W of Manchester. Oh well.

It wasn't the most enjoyable days cycling I've ever had. Far from it. It was just one of those days where you get your head down and get the miles in. For a start I set off a bit too soon after a massive breakfast and a bit later in the than I'd hoped to. It took AGES for me to get going and find a rhythm. I was cold and the wind was blowing right in my face. My legs felt a bit dead and I knew it was going to be a long day. Had a tea break and some malt loaf in Ironbridge after 32 miles or so and after getting a bit lost I climbed back out of the Gorge and got lost again. Soon found a decent enough route north but the road was busy. From here and for the rest of the day the scenery was a bit uninspiring. Flat, rural, boring.

Improved a bit through parts of Cheshire (nice villages, expensive looking houses, more Audi TT's, Merc SLK's and Land Rover Sports than you can shake a stick at!!) and then all bit urban sprawl mixed with a few surprises - like a lovely bridge over the ship canal - west of Manchester. My cycling also improved after necking a can of Relentless and shoving some Nurofen down my throat. Amazing what that can do for a man's morale! The wind also began to die down. It started raining a bit but so what. I'd have sold my soul to the Devil for the wind to have died down hours and hours earlier! An indication of what an improvement there was could be seen in my average speed for the day. 13.1 mph for the whole ride after it had been just over 11 mph at 75-80 miles.

Met up with my mate Pete and his girlfriend Jacqui at a pub quite near that bridge at about 100 miles in. A pint, plenty of peanuts and half a lemon cake that Pete had kindly baked me. Thats half a WHOLE cake not just a slice. The rest went in my rack bag.

It was starting to get late and I had another 30 miles to go. Didn't help myself by getting lost again. Eventually rolled in to the Travelodge at about 9.30pm. Bit tired but spirits good and helped loads more by Cath having a bath ready for me and a take-out pizza. Lovely. Hilly day tomorrow but fewer miles.

Day 4: Cheddar to Ludlow

Awoke to the sound of heavy rain and strong winds. Yuk. I'd seen the seather forecast and knew about the unfortunate change in wind direction but it looked horrible out there and on any other day I would have thought "Nah! I won't bother today." No choice now though. Had to get going and the first thing facing me was the climb of Cheddar Gorge.

Despite the rain and wind (trying to blow me off my bike in place as it channelled down the Gorge) I actually enjoyed the climb. Its steep in places but you can't deny the beauty of it. Just stunning. No stopping for pictures as it was too wet. As the gradient eased at the top I could grab a few gears back but not many! Struggled along at under 10mph for ages in to the teeth of the wind and already my hands and feet were numb with cold. My mood wasn't helped when I took a wrong turn in the thick low cloud and ended up going for a few miles in the wrong direction! Retraced my steps and eventually descended off the Mendips worrying that my numb hands couldn't use the brakes.

Met a couple of other LEJOGers and we moaned about the weather for a while before I left them and followed my route around Bristol. Decided that I HAD to detour in to Bristol, find a bike shop and buy some spare gloves. Eventually did and it was sooooooo nice to get my hands warm! Took a different route oput of Bristol under the Clifton suspension bridge and followed the road along the river, past the docks and towards the Severn Bridge. It seemed to to take ages. Near the amazing Clifton suspension bridge people had scawled massive graffitti on steep rock slopes on the hill sides. God knows how they'd managed to do it!

The wind on the Severn Bridge was really strong and the bridge itself moves about alarmingly; especially when big artics thunder across it. Rain had stopped now thanks goodness. Just the wind to annoy me. Through Chepstow, past the racecourse and then beautiful wooded route to Tintern Abbey where I stopped for a double helping of beans on toast, a HUGE piece of choccie cake and a pot of tea. Met another cyclist from Derbyshire who was on hols and exploring the area. Got chatting as I noticed his bike was an Edison - made in Clowne, just down the road from me.

Rather than stay on the main road I then climbed out of the Wye Valley on a long steep road to the north of the river (up past St Briavals I think) and entering the Forest of Dean. Big cycle event going on - Forest of Dean Spring Classic apparently) so I took advantage of a small group and sheltered from the wind behind them for a while. They didn't mind! Stopped In Ross-on-Wye for a fuel stop and stumbled across something that will help me along every day from now on - those energy drinks called 'Restless'. Worked a treat and I felt like a new man. About 80 miles in now and around 30 or so to go.

Then had probably the nicest part of the day. Tiny lanes that ran alongside the river Wye. The whole of this area is just beautiful. Jaw droppingly so in places. I forgot the headwind and dawdled along gawping at the spectacular scenery and thinking I could just have sat there for hours watching the river and its associated wildlife. Had to press on though. Beer stop at a village called Mordiford I think with about 20 miles left. Enjoyed that.

Rain showers returning now and getting a bit darker. Head down, through Leominster and up the A49 (nice road surface but a bit busy) towards Ludlow.

Interesting stats:
Distance: 112.4 miles
Av. Speed: 11.9 (very pedestrian but blame the wind)
Roadkill: More badgers and a Barn owl :-(
Scenery: probably the best of the trip so far.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Gt Torrington to Cheddar

More hills. 65 miles of them followed by 20 miles of pan flat cycling on the Somerset Levels. I was glad of those last 20 miles.

Route: Torrington, South Molton, North Molton, Withypool, More Exmoor climbs, More Exmoor Climbs, Up, Down, Winsford, Elsworthy, Bishops Lydeard, More up, More down, Bridgwater, and back roads over the Levels to Cheddar.

Started out with some sunny spells but within 10 miles I'd hit the first 20% climb of the day. Not a long one but I was not really warmed up and feeling a bit jaded after a less than perfect nights sleep. Plenty more (much longer STEEP climbs) were to follow but I'd like to make it clear that at no point did I get off and walk. Can't remember swearing out loud either. I can't comment on what was going through my head though. The next task was climbing up on to Exmoor. Tough going but I thought it might be flat up there. I was wrong. More energy sapping climbs and fast descents that were often compounded by stinging rain. I seemed to be dodging the heaviest showers though. I'd convinced myself that the cartographer responsible for the maps I was carrying was either a sadistic b*st*rd or just couldn't be bothered to add chevron symbols.

Climbing up on to Exmoor

Pub stuck in middle of Exmoor
Dropped down off Exmoor in Bishops Lydeard and realised I'd not had anything to eat yet. Legs were becoming jellified and I needed to raid the snacks in the bag. A whole Malt Loaf lasted about 3 minutes! And boy did I need it. Looking at the map and the road ahead I thought I must have taken a wrong turn. A HUGE hill lie ahead. Surely the road wouldn't go over the top of it. It did! Ouch.

After that it was downhill to Bridgwater and a flat 20 miles to Cheddar. Quick stop at a cider farm on the way to pick up a carry out for the evening.

Todays stats:
Distance: 86.4 miles
Av.speed: 12.3 mph
Max speed: 50.2 mph (a record for me and, to be honest, a bit frightening)
Total ascent: 7947 ft
Rain: showers most of the day
Calories burnt: over 6000 apparently. I'd better eat a lot this evening.
Dead badgers seen: 2 :-(

Internet speed is slow again so pics will have to wait I'm afraid. I will catch up.

Climbing up Cheddar Gorge first thing tomorrow. Gulp.