"A man knows his companion in a long journey and a little inn"
We made a lid for the trailer from miscelleneus hinges, hooks and the front doors of my friend's wardrobe. Sandy painted the mudguards a nice pale green, but before it dried I completely ruined her work by using the trailer as a sawbench and unintentionally scattered sawdust over the wet paint. Phillip obtained some letters and stuck the words 'Land's End to John O'Groats' on a board, and we also attached a board prepared by Rachel Hunt containing a beautifully painted Greenpeace emblem.
Ron arrived on the Monday just when I was very occupied because my wife has just gone into hospital for the operation. Ron loaded up the trailer with his numerous spares and tools, and mounted three bicycles on the car roof rack. One of these was my touring bike intended either for spares or for use by Phillip should he suddenly get the cycling urge during the trip. Ron did many other jobs (including the washing up) and offered to replace the bottom bearing on my racing bike. As I was so pressed for time I was delighted to accept this offer, but he almost ruined the crank in my absence by trying to screw a left hand thread crank extractor into a right-hand thread in the crank. However, Ron had the best of intentions and with people like that I suppose one has to take the rough with the smooth, though at the time I must admit to being a bit annoyed as I had warned him about the left-hand thread.
We arrived at Penzance station about 7pm with the intention of collecting one of our other two riders, Lindsay. But his train was delayed and we were expected to arrive at the Hostel for our evening meal about now. (This arriving for meals at the last possible moment turned out top be a regular feature of the trip). I made the first use of the vodafone to speak to the warden at Lands End Youth Hostel to see whether it would be alright for us to wait for Lindsay and all arrive together, or whether he would prefer some of us to arrive immediately and collect Lindsay later. We left immediately and I collected Lindsay later.
Driving along the narrow lane with our trailer to the hostel we were met by a couple in a mini who simply refused to reverse an inch. The gentleman informed us that he 'lived here' and angrily complained to Ron (who was driving) that we were unreasonable in refusing to stop in an earlier pull-in. When we passed the mini Ron said with a great sweet smile to the lady driver 'how VERY kind of you to reverse back. It would have been SO difficult for us to back up the lane with our trailer.' The lady replied with an equally sweet smile 'thats QUITE alright!'
At least one person in the hostel thought we were absolutely mad to attempt to cycle to John O'Groats. Another gentleman planned the same journey, but at about 40 miles a day. He was concerned about his blood sugar levels and accordingly carried with him a 2 lb bag of ordinary sugar; Ron did not think much of this idea.
The cellular phone would not work at Lands End.
After an adequate meal in the hostel and retired to bed about 11pm.
Then I discovered I had left my cycling shoes behind. Fortunately, Ron, in addition to his spare wheels, locks, blocks, 3 right hand thread crank extractors, spokes, pedals, stilsons, rear mechs, 7 inner tubes, covers, block extractors, head spanners, cream, spare computers, sensors, nuts bolts and washers, rim tapes, swarfega, ball bearings, rags etc etc, had one pair of my size cycling shoes together with Look plates fitted. He was very happy to lend me for the whole duration of the trip these essential items. Thank you Ron!
At 6:30 am before breakfast we cycled the 10 miles to Land's End and had our photos taken. Unfortunately we were too early to arrange for the official photograph by the signpost which they can set up (for a fee) to give the distance to John O'Groats and your home town. Sandy and Phillip also wanted to visit Land's End of course, and I suggested to Phillip that he might like to use the spare bike to ride down with us. This he declined, and he did not in fact use the spare bike at all. We waited some time for Sandy and Phillip to arrive at Land's End, we wondered where they were and tried to telephone them but all to no avail. This was also a foretaste of things to come!
Ron started to organise a system of accounts based on a kitty for Sandy to follow. This seemed to me unnecessarily complicated, and I had other ideas, but as Sandy said she was happy with Ron's scheme I decided to let the matter pass without further ado.
We left Lands End for Clovelly at 08:45 am. I was disappointed at not getting an 'official' photograph but the others were not too worried about this - they simply wanted to get started without fuss. After about 20 miles I made several unsuccessful attempts to contact the car with my pocket phone. Eventually I got through but about 10 seconds later the car pulled into the same layby as if by magic. We had tea and ice cream at a cafe near Redruth and arranged to meet the car next between Wadebridge and Boscastle. But at Wadebridge we were already getting hungry and in spite of repeated attempts I was again unable to contact the car. The other riders wanted to stop there to eat (probably about 1:30 pm now) but I wanted to press on to Boscastle because I was afraid we might miss the car otherwise. We pressed on. It was hot, water was getting very low and the countryside was remote. We found a farm shop which replenished our bottles and we continued to Boscastle where we arrived about 4pm.
At Boscastle I was still unable to contact our support vehicle, but finally, after 4 attempts from a phone box I got through. We had a pleasant meal there (chicken curry) , the car came back 15 miles to meet us and we eventually left for the final leg to Clovelly about 6pm. There was a steep climb out of Boscastle but at that time I myself was feeling fairly strong. The planned route took us along the coastal road to Clovelly and I was keen to follow this scenic way. Ron and Ian however were more inclined to take a short cut. After discussion it was agreed that Lindsay and I would take the hard route along the coast and Ron and Ian would bypass it using the shorter and easier (but busier) A38. We identified a junction just beyond Bude where the first pair could leave a chalk mark on the road.
Lindsay and I encountered the longest and steepest hills I have ever met on a bicycle, more than one indicated by a 30% road sign. On one of these ascents I simply could not make it - my lowest gear was 42-21 and too high. Even walking up this incline was a question of one step forward, half a step slip back. Lindsay had no problem with any of these hills and at one point we took a diversion up an extra climb to visit a possibly interesting church. But he recognised the architecture before we reached the church and decided it wasn't interesting so we turned back and continued on our way. At Bude there was another very long ascent and I was beginning to tire, so I slip-streamed behind Lindsay quite a bit. When my hat blew off I was grateful to him for collecting it and bringing it up the hill to me. An impressive aspect of my colleague was his incredible powers of observation of things happening in the countryside - birds, animals, geographical features and so on. Lindsay had had a variety of jobs including a spell in Japan teaching English. He told us that at one time he used to be a poacher!
We did not find the chalk mark on the road left by Ron but we pressed on up a another long incline and against a significant head wind to Clovelly. This was quite hard work and we were not sure whether Ron and Ian were ahead of us or behind us. We reached the turning for the Lodges, and to our surprise Ron and Ian then caught up with us from behind! (I thought we were going to fast for this to happen, but our friends were actually in a pub and when they saw us go past the window they left immediately and put a spurt on). A man in a Landrover - the proprietor of the lodges - was waiting for us at an unmarked junction with an unmade road. Were he not there it would have taken us a very long time to find his places.
We arrived at our lodges about 8:30 pm only shortly after Phillip and Sandy arrived. We were all extremely impressed with this accommodation - new Swedish style chalets together with all mod cons including Sauna. It had been a hard day but harder was to come. Ron paid me the compliment that he thought thought I was a stronger cyclist than I had lead him to believe by the information I had given him in my letters. He and Ian were sensibly saving up their energy for later hard days. Ian had been struggling a bit because of unnecessary weight on his bike: Ron removed mudguards, saddlebag, carrier etc and put these items into the car trailer whilst the rest of us discussed the route. That night we went to a local Les Routiers pub and had an excellent meal.
On many occasions we had a discussion about the accuracy of our electronic speedometers. I had calibrated mine carefully and set the wheel diameter at 207 cm, but Ron, with the same size wheels had callibrated his at 220 cm. As one would expect then, Ron's distances were usually 6% greater than mine. On day 2 for example he said we did 146 miles when I thought we had done 138. But Ron would not accept my readings as accurate until Scotland when we met milestones and my prediction that Ron would measure 1.06 for a mile was proved exactly correct. Ron reckoned that we achieved 53 mph on the trip but I believe the correct maximum speed was 50mph.
The first 10 miles was level and fast but after that it got tough. For all of us this was physically the hardest day. Up to Exmoor, the Brendon Hills, the Quantock Hills and the Forest of Dean, there were many long hard hills all in one day. I realised a simple arithmetic fact: if you do half a journey at 4 mph and the other half at 20 mph your average speed is not 12 mph but is only 6.7 mph. Even if you do the second half at the speed of light your average is only 8mph. During my 20-100 mile training runs I had often averaged over 17 mph and in my planning I had assumed 15 mph was reasonable, but I had simply never encountered such hills as exist in Cornwall Devon and Somerset and had not taken account of them in my calculations. Our average speed when on the move was often only 12 mph or less and only occasionally in Scotland did we exceed 15 mph average.
After the Quantocks the roads became level again. This was a hard day for Ian, at one point he even considered putting his bike on the trailer and riding in the car. I talked him out of this and I think he was later grateful for it. There was some fast riding in 4-up time trial mode along the A38. The back of my right knee was hurting resulting from the previous day's strains to ascend the 30% hills. At a cafe stop Ron acquired some ice and recommended I hold it against the back of the knee, Ron was very good like this and never short of a suggestion.
Lindsay advised us to depart from the agreed route and go to Bristol instead of Avonmouth. Since he claimed local knowledge I took his word for it, but it took very much longer to reach the Severn Bridge than I expected. It as a long windy lane and at times we seemed to be going backweards. I felt that Lindsay did not know the way as well as he had lead us to expect. For example, he said it was 20 miles from Bristol to St Briavels but it turned out to be 28. The last 10 miles was all uphill and Ian (due to insufficient nourishment) was really struggling.
We were heading for Lindsay's house for our meal that evening. With Ian lagging, Lindsay suggested to Ron and I to go ahead to his house while he kept with Ian to help him along. Ian was not using a lightweight racing bike like the rest of us and therefore had more work to do. I believe in fact that at that point Lindsay was by far the strongest and was able to help Ian along by pushing.
That night we had a nice meal generously supplied by Lindsay's parents and we arrived at the Monmouth youth hostel by car (after making mistakes on the journey) only in just the nick of time. We were late and complaints were received from people trying to sleep. The bed Ron decided to take contained a pile of clothes owned by an Australian gentleman, which Ron threw to the floor. The Aussie turned up later and the following morning I overheard a conversation between him and his girlfriend about finding Ron in place of his clothes and having to find a different bed in the dark. Ron in fact knew the rules better than the Aussie; in a Youth hostel you reserve a bunk by making it up, not by leaving belongings on it.
We returned by car to our bikes at Lindsay's parents house and eventually set on our way at 10:30 am. The scenery through the Wye Valley was outstanding and the weather was fine and warm. Between St Briavels and Symonds Yat Lindsay took us to a spectacular but quiet viewpoint and he spotted a pair of perigine falcons nesting there. He reported these to RSPB people at another (and very popular) viewpoint at Symonds Yat. They were guarding another pair and did not know of the pair spotted by Lindsay.
Apart from Ludlow and Telford the route was mostly unclassified roads and created few problems. Although Lindsay was supposed to be our route finder for the day I found it necessary to frequently refer to the map myself. The exit from Ludlow was tricky since there seemd to be a large castle and grounds in the way. I eventually resorted to asking a local who proceeded to give me the most complex instructions for a route I have ever heard. The instructions were, as is always the case when you ask someone the way, accompanied by the words 'you can't miss it' at regular intervals. We did of course 'miss it'.
"While the dog knaws the bone, companions would be none" ..4Today we planned to have a picnic for lunch at a site to be picked by the motorists and communicated to us by phone. But as usual I was unable to call the car because its phone did not quite respond. "It may respond if you try again" was the message usually received on my handset. To cater for the situation where the cyclists were in a good signal area but the car was in a bad signal area, we had an arrangement (invented by Ron) whereby I would switch on my handset for 5 minutes either side of each even hour for incoming calls - this would enable Sandy to use a kiosk to call us if she needed. On coming down into Leominster to my delight I had an incoming call from Sandy - but only a very brief chat was possible before we were cut off. In Leomister I tried several more times from the handset, and then from a kiosk, but these attempts all failed. These unsuccessful attempts to communicate wasted some half an hour and frustration of the other cyclists began to turn to anger. They were becoming hungry (again) and some were convinced our agreed meeting place (for a picnic) was Richards Castle, but I did not think this was so and I was in fact proved right when Sandy and Phillip eventually caught up with us.
During the trip I turned on the handset around the hour probably dozens of times, but this partial call near Leominster was the only incoming call ever received. Just outside Ludlow the car overtook us, we stopped briefly for a chat and then agreed then to meet at Richard's Castle.
But Richards Castle itself turned out to be well off our route and involved an extremely hard climb about a mile long which reminded me of the steep hills in Devon and Somerset. At the top of the hill we sat on some long grass on a green to consume the rather limited lunch our supporters had purchased. This was supplemented by Lindsay's cake. I do not think I was fast enough to get my fair share of the small amount of food available.
In a town whose name I have forgotten we found a busy cafe. At this time my back wheel had a broken spoke and Ron said he would mend it. We left Ron under an arch with the bikes and Lindsay, Ian and myself entered the cafe for tea and cakes. The weather continued to be warm and sunny.
Around Telford and Little Wenlock there were many new roads and roundabouts which I could not relate to my road map. We did make a good call to the car in that area but the complexities of the roads meant we did not meet the car since they were a bit lost too.
We were running late again and, concerned that we may have to miss the meal booked that night in our lodgings near Nantwich, I proposed changing the route to main roads of the A442, A53 and A529. Ron at first resisted but was soon persuaded. (On every other occasion where that was a dispute about the route Ron wanted to use the main roads and me the pre-determined unclassified ones). I was getting better at navigation by the sun now, we start of with it on our right and end the day with it on our left. But along the A442 I was a bit puzzled as the sun indicated to me we were travelling in a Westerly direction whereas we were actually going almost North.
Now and again we went into 4-up time trialling mode. The basis of this is that you travel one behind the other in close formation so that the second third and fourth riders are shielded by the first and therefore only have to exert 10-25% less effort to maintain the same speed. My normal technique in this situation is to go as fast as possible for as long as possible when in front. I'm afraid though that this did not suit the others; usually I would find I had dropped them, causing considerable annoyance especially from Lindsay. They did not like me using my "big gear" and said I was always mucking things up, either way ahead or way behind. This was really elementary stuff Lindsay said to me in frustration. I retorted that the chainwheel I choose to use was my business; I did not understand why they could not or would not keep on my tail since this required less effort than I was exerting and they were stronger cyclists.
We had great difficulty contacting the car any more and it was probably 8:30 pm before I managed to get the next call through. To my surprise, at this time Sandy and Phillip were still some way from our pre-booked accommodation at Wymondbury near Nantwich, so I suggested to the other 3 cyclists that they go ahead to the lodgings whilst I await the car at a junction. (I hoped Sandy and Phillip would get to each accommodation well before us every day, but this rarely happened. I had this continual concern that the landlady would not expect us to arrive so late and might let her rooms to someone else).
The accommodation I had booked at the farmhouse was absolutely superb. We had a first class meal (late again) and our hosts were extremely hospitable and entertaining. The farmer was an ex-soccer referee and expert commedian. With every dish he brought a pile of jokes e.g. "We have a dog here exactly 36 inches long. We call it a yard dog." Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately in the case of some jokes), because of his broad North Country accent Sandy (from Canada) could not understand a word he said.
The next day was to be through an extremely populated part of the country - between Manchester and Liverpool, to Leigh, Bolton and Blackburn thence to Cumbria. Numerous turnings were involved and I anticipated much traffic and route finding difficulty. The original plan was for Ian Noons to lead us through this tricky area but he was not now with us. The route was basically that recommended by the CTC for their scenic end-to-end route and I was confident this section could not be bettered, but Lindsay thought otherwise and wanted to change it. I felt I had two choices - either say the route was already agreed back in April and was not now negotiable, or let him discover for himself and/or persuade him there was no better way. I took the latter decision which wasted about half an hour of time we both needed to be sleeping. I felt a little upset that Lindsay seemed not to have studied much the letters I had sent everyone with proposals for comment, but we finally agreed to take the route I had documented in detail and sent to all riders in April. Ian was almost continually telling jokes and was easy to get along with. He always went with the majority decision and never got into any sort of argument with anybody.
We had a discussion about missing our proper meal breaks because we were trying to meet the car at pre-arranged stops but we invariably under-estimated how long it would take to get to them. Without food around midday we all began to lose our strength, but this factor was more significant to my colleagues than myself. Because of this I probably should have been giving regular meals at the right time more importance than finding the car.
Lindsay's idea was to try a different approach - ignore the car, cycle to noon-1pm and then stop and eat at the nearest place. I was happy to to try the new scheme tomorrow through the busy North-West of England where we expected cafe's and restaurants to be quite common.
"A mighty maze! but not without a plan" ..3Our hosts provided an excellent early cooked breakfast. I was not expecting this to be an easy day, with towns, heavy traffic, difficult route finding and few compensations in the form of fine scenery. I prepared my maps (3 pages required today) folded in my back pocket and took on the task of route leader.
This was the day Sandy and Phillip kindly agreed to do our laundry. With 6 peoples dirty washing, and no launderette in the nearby Nantwich this could not have been an easy task and must have taken them at least all morning.
It was not long before I made my first mistake. Cycling round what seemed like a ring road round the North of Nantwich the B5074 junction failed to appear so we continued round to the A51 then some unclassified roads to Church Minshull. I did not tell the others I had missed a turning; I don't think they noticed and were happy to let me lead the way. At Church Minshull we were on the edge of my maps and I missed another turning, so we continued to Middlewitch via Winsford. Many of these places were familiar to me as they were joined by the Trent and Mersey canal on which my family had spent a holiday a few years ago. The phone was working today which permitted me to speak to Joan in hospital whilst cycling along near the Manchester Ship canal.
Generally I found the right turnings and navigated correctly, and on the few occasions I made a mistake I realised it very quickly. In fact the journey was much better than expected and the traffic almost tolerable. We stopped at a cafe in Leigh which provided simple food and the fastest service we had experienced anywhere.
After Bolton we met the first really open country in 100 miles, but first we had a long hard climb to about 1300 feet at Belmont. We stopped at a pub at the top and enjoyed a pint and a chat with the customers. The road through Blackburn was nowhere near as bad as it looked on the map. At this time Ian was in a particularly good joke telling mode, but I was route leading and not really listening. An especially funny punchline came at just the moment I led them round a corner into a visciously steep hill to Wilpshire, they did not find it easy to mix their resulting roars of laughter with this ascent.
Slaidburn was reached via a long incline then a long decline. We stopped at a pub around 5pm for a snack where the barman was a young lad who was learning the ropes and rather slow at serving a few customers. Lindsay did not want to hang around long and was impatient. When I asked for my cheese and onion sandwich to be toasted Lindsay was annoyed with me because he thought this would delay matters even more - this made me lose my own temper. "Its all very well us doing what YOU want I shouted but I want a toasted sandwich and you must take my wishes into account sometimes just as I take your wishes into account other times".
After that we had the most exciting ride to High Bentham, reaching 50 mph at one point. At this speed my ability to control the bike was marginal, each bend being a real test of nerve and skill. Just as it is a matter of pride that you do not dismount your bike on steep ascents, it can also be a matter of pride not to apply your brakes on a steep descent. We all agreed that fairgrounds offered no fun comparable with cycling at this speed through this exceptionally wild beautiful remote countryside, and I at least for me this part was the high spot of the trip.
For the A65 to Kirkby Lonsdale we had the benefit of a very strong tail wind for a change, and raced along - 35mph at times, first together then every man for himself. We were going so fast that we missed the Sedbergh turn and had to consult a policeman. The strong wind became against us again for the final 12 miles to Sedbergh. In a strong headwind like this slipstreaming becomes more significant, and the group split into two - Lindsay and me in front, Ron and Ian generally behind, though now and again they caught up for short periods. On arrival at Sedbergh Lindsay and I waited a few minutes for the others. Ron was now very angry, rather to my surprise. It turned out that he was becoming exhausted, and every time he caught up with us we pushed too hard and left him with no slipstream. I did not realise this was happening, but did not really understand his problem. Many times a rider trailed behind during the trip, there was never an obligation on the last person to catch up - whenever it happened the leaders would always wait eventually as long as necessary. Anyway Ron was in a bad way when we arrived at my friend's house - his temperature dropped and he laid motionless on the floor for many minutes. Ron is 56 but this was the only time he weakened. After the trip he entered the National 24 hour race and did 385 miles overall achieving 14th place.
A truly excellent 3 course meal had been left by my friend who had had an extremely busy day at Sedbergh school and was unable to be with us that evening. We had caused her considerable inconvenience by arriving several hours late without warning and I felt very guilty about it. Phillip, Sandy and myself slept at my friend's house and the others took the car to separate digs nearby.
"Bridges were made for wise men to walk over and fools to ride over" 1It was wet and windy when we left Sedbergh. I sped over one of the cattle grids too fast and caused a 'snake bite' puncture in the front wheel. As I was only carrying one spare tube which was already punctured I had to mend my puncture in the rain and the wind with a patch and rubber solution. I felt the others getting a little impatient and Ron in particular stressed again and again that I should always carry at least 3 spare tubes and a spare outer as he always did himself. I became a bit worried that my patch would not hold and cause further delay. Later on at Tebay, Lindsay decided to put more clothes on as it was wet and cold, so Ian Ron and myself sheltered under a tree whilst Lindsay entered a nearby building site to change. This seemed to take him a long time - about as long as it had taken me to mend my puncture - but we did not mind. The rain did not continue for many hours and soon the usual fine sunshine returned.
As we approached the border with Scotland Ian himself got a puncture. On investigation Ian discovered a problem with the tyre - a slither of glass I think - and this took what seemed an hour to fix. During this time all of us with the exception of Ian felt extremely tired for the first time, the weather was now dry but hot and muggy. Three of us laid in the grass and almost went to sleep. We now needed the car for spares but the phone would not work. There were a couple of houses nearby; a lady came out walking two dogs and I asked her for water. Whilst she went to get it I tried to hold her two dogs by their leads, but the dogs were so strong and pulled so hard they dragged me up the road.
The weather and situation was almost idyllic at the phone box. It was by a house and a kind lady offered me a cup of tea. I told her our story as I sat relaxing in the sun in her garden awaiting the others. We were now separated; I had no cash whatever (the last 10p was spent in the phone box to get the message 'The vodaphone you have just dialled has not responded... etc). I was a little doubtful the other riders would find me here as they did not have my detailed map showing telephone boxes and in any case the locals confirmed the map was incorrect in several ways. I had no idea of the whereabouts of Sandy and Phillip and wondered if I would be travelling the rest of the day on my own.
To my relief my other colleagues arrived after some fifteen minutes and they were supplied with tea too. Lindsay discovered that the husband of the lady knew his father!
My navigation was not good in my tiredness that day and I soon made another error and we found ourselves at Easton. Cross roads shown on the map seemed simply not to exist. I eventually got myself sorted out and turned left confidently on the B6318 for the Scottish border. I had to wait ages and ages for Ron as unlike the previous day he had now lost faith in my navigation and insisted (quite reasonably) on convincing himself we were now on the right course, which indeed we were. I thought he would never come my way but eventually he did.
About 3pm that day in remote countryside Ron broke his rear gear cable. Strangely enough he did not have a spare in his bag. This was one of the main reasons for having the telephone and the support car, so I tried to call them up. But as usual the call was not successful. Eventually Ron managed to tie his bike in a low gear and we were able to continue. Ron always liked to use low gears anyway. On my bike it is the 52 chainwheel that is now almost worn out, but on Ron's his 42 gear got far more use.
The final 30 miles to Hawick were on an unclassified road along Liddes Dale. This climbed about 1000 feet over many miles into thick mist and cloud, then dropped the same amount into Hawick. Ian and I raced one another along the final stretch - but Ian on his touring bike carried more burden. It was probably at this point that Ian began to hatch his plan to be the first cyclist at John O'Groats.
We arrived at the Rocksburgh Inn at 08:20 pm, anly a short time after the Sandy and Phillip. Lucy Agnew was happy to ask her chef to stay later than usual to prepare our food and jolly good it was too. We stored our bikes in the ballroom of the hotel.
We agreed to take a half day off at Hawick to repair and clean bikes, send postcards, obtain cash and generally get ourselves sorted out for the second half of the journey. We planned to have an early lunch and leave Hawick about midday.