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Land's End to John O'Groats by bicycle with 3 others - May 1992 - Second Week

By Peter Seaman (, contributed on Fri, 17 Mar 95 19:39 GMT
This is part 3 of a report consisting of 4 parts. See Part 1 (Preparation), Part 2 (First Week), Part 4 (Odds and Ends), the Index, or the (very big!) one-file version.

Diary - Second Week

Monday 25th May - Hawick to Muirkirk - 92 miles - What a shambles!

This was supposed to be an easy half day. It was the first day where we did not have a pre-planned stop and I was happy to leave the organisation to the ever eager Ron. This day undoubtedly takes the first prize for the greatest number of breakdowns, communication failures, missed deadlines, miscalculations and anxious moments. It was almostly certainly the straw that decided Lindsay to leave the group the following morning.

Ron studied the map, announced the place to head for that day was Kilmarnock and calculated the distance from Hawick to be 65 miles. His initial proposal was to take a more main road route than the scenic route I had suggested in my letters, but as my route was not much further and seemed likely to be quieter and more interesting he agreed to change to mine, which was then carefully marked also on the map Sandy and Phillip were using in the car. None of us verified Ron's distance calculation. By then we felt that trying to keep in contact with the car during the day was causing more problems than it was solving. Accordingly, and because Edinburgh was a nice place to visit and not far away, it was agreed that our support team could take a day off and visit Edinburgh. We did nevertheless still arrange for them to fix up some accommodation in Kilmarnock and keep in touch by phone as this was expected to work in the relatively populated part of Scotland we expected to be in by late afternoon. The phone was in fact absolutely essential that day since this was the only way we could know the address to go to that night for sleep.

Ron serviced all the bikes which included pumping up Ian's back tyre to racing pressure, even though it was a 27 x 1.25 touring tyre. About 2 miles outside Hawick an explosion occurred - it was Ian's back tyre, it was not repairable and had to be replaced. Ron always carried a spare 700 mm cover but not a spare 27-inch. We needed the car to bring a tyre but their telephone was not yet switched on. Fortunately, Hawick with its two bicycle shops was only 2 miles away so I volunteered to cycle there and fetch a new tyre, which Ron then fitted. This 45 minute delay was only the first of the days disasters.

We followed the B711 west to Tushielaw, then the B709 North to Mountbenger. At Copperclouch we turned onto a fairly new but unclassified hilly road past some scenic reservoirs. The sky darkened and a thunderstorm blew up, with many flashes of lightning around us. Some of these flashes caused the galvanised steel crash barrier by the road side to ping so I made sure I kept well away from it. The rain kept stopping and starting, and we kept taking off and putting on our wet weather gear.

There was a steep decline as we left Talla reservoir for Tweedsmuir - I let the other two fly ahead and cautiously descended with front brake on - this was no place to try to break the 50 mph barrier again. I then got my third puncture when the other two were in the distance at the bottom of the descent. Fortunately I had purchased my own pump in Hawick so this time I was able to mend the puncture unaided. But almost immediately afterwards a spoke broke and the front wheel became somewhat buckled. I limped down to Ron who of course was ready to fix it with one of the three spoke adjusters and spare spokes he always carried with him. But in attempting to adjust the wheel another spoke broke. Ron severely critiscised my wheel builder for building my wheels too tight and was unable to straighten the wheel. This second delay also amounted to some 45 minutes. We realised we still had a long way to go and needed the car with its spare wheel badly. My vodafone was unable to get the car, reporting with the familiar message that the vodafone I had called may be switched off.

But at Tweedsmuir there was a public telephone kiosk; since Ron had organised this day I let him do the phoning for a change. The phone was not working. Ron then called at a house and asked to use their phone and they reported their phone was not working either, probably on account of the thunderstorm. We were stuck. It was now about 6pm and we did not know where we were heading for that night. I tried the vodafone time and time again without success, then finally, at the summit of a high hill leading down into Moffat I made a good call to Sandy and Phillip who were just leaving Edinburgh. They told me the address of the accommodation they had booked in Kilmarnock so all of a sudden we were all happy again. If my memory serves me right in that phone call I expressed some doubt that we would be able to reach Kilmarnock - especially on account of my buckled wheel - and that we may need to call them again. I suppose at that time we still half believed Ron's 65 miles (even though we had already covered about 60) and assumed we would make Kilmarnock in the daylight.

After about 10 miles of good speed we came to a Little Chef stopping there for nourishment, discussion, rest and more phone calls. We calculated Ron's estimate was about 100% out as there was still over 40 miles to go. My feeling was that we could still make Kilmarnock in the daylight that day (if we raced) but the others did not agree so I conceeded to the majority view, though it is clear in retrospect that we should have done what I was then proposing and I regret I did not attempt to be more persuasive. Accordingly, it was agreed to get the car to collect us with our bikes, drive the lot to Kilmarnock then return to the same point the following day. (Lindsay could not see much point in returning to the same spot the following day, and would have been happy to arrive at John O'Groats having missed out a chunk). Ron used the payphone and called Mrs Grant the landlady at our accommodation in Kilmarnock, asking her to tell Sandy and Phillip to meet us on the Douglas-Kilmarnock road or the junction of the M74 at A74 at Douglas. As we were unable to contact Sandy and Phillip by the direct phone line we thought they might take advantage of Mrs Grant as a message box as we were doing ourselves. In any case, we calculated that Sandy and Phillip would cross us on the road or would arrive at Kilmarnock in the early evening and would then get our message to return to meet us.

"Now spurs the lated traveler apace
To gain the timely inn".
Then we hit the extraordinary A74. A super new dual carriageway with almost no traffic on it - in 10 miles we probably saw no more than 5 cars. The only time I have ever encountered a similar situation in my life was on Christmas day at lunctime on the A1 in 1970. We sped along that road in 4-up time trial mode at about 25 mph.

When we met the Muirkirk road I cycled back a few hundred yards to the A74/M74 junction in case Sandy and Phillip were there. But they were not so I searched for a piece of chalk and scratched a message on the road. A car drove past and reported to Ron Ian and Lindsay up the road that I had fallen off my bike at the roundabout. Ron rode back fearfully and was relieved to find the motorist was mistaken.

Fish and chips and fish and chips

I made more calls to Mrs Grant both from my vodafone and from payphones but received no news of Sandy and Phillip. It was now about 8:30 pm and we began to get ever more puzzled as to where our supporters were and why they were not contacting anybody. I kept trying both the vodafone and telephone kiosks. We arrived at Muirkirk about 9:30. Ron and Lindsay were getting hungry and increasingly fed up with the situation and I myself then took over the task of chief communications officer. I used the payphone there to make more calls - including one to my sister-in-law at my home and to my wife in hospital but they had not heard from Sandy and Phillip either. I spoke to both Mr and Mrs Grant at Kilmarnock who were most friendly but could not help much because Sandy and Phillip had not been in touch for about 6 hours. The other cyclists had had enough and needed food.

The general feeling was that the primary cause of the cock-up was Ron miscalculating the distance between Hawick and Kilmarnock - he had had estimated 65 miles (excluding my diversion) but here at Muirkirk we had already covered 94 since 1pm. The total distance to Kilmarnock was in fact 115 miles. To mitigate his guilt Ron offered to buy everyone fish and chips. The others sat for about half an hour in the restaurant whilst I guarded the road and made phone calls - I expected every car that came along to be a white Volvo towing a trailer but no luck. Even in this Northern latitude it was beginning to get dark, and the temperature was also dropping. After some 20 minutes Ian brought me out some fish and chips to eat by the roadside whilst I waited. We puzzled and puzzled as to why Sandy and Phillip were out of contact with everybody for so long and until so late and the only logical explanation of the events was that they had had an accident.

We agreed that Lindsay would organise the following day, since we were clearly not meeting his expectations for high quality organisation, although at this point of time Lindsay did not seem to care what we did or what he agreed to. I chatted to one or two passer's by about our predicament in the faint hope they may have seen a car, bike and trailer but they had not.

At the Black Bull

We finished our fish and chips and ambled further in the failing light to the Black Bull Public House. This time Lindsay guarded the road whilst the rest of us entered for a drink (and yet more phone calls). I came out almost immediately to relieve Lindsay who was getting more and more fed up with the situation and reluctant even to accept a drink from me. My feelings altered from puzzlement and concern for our sleep to more and more worry about what may have happened to Sandy and Phillip. Why had we not seen them and why had they not contacted Mrs Grant or arrived by this late hour? Ron made some tentative arrangements with the landlord of the Black Bull for us to sleep there; beds for us and the floor for himself.

Contact at last

Then, in a call to Mrs Grant at 10:40, I received the splendid news that Sandy and Phillip had arrived, and had already left about five minutes before to collect us: it was about a 40 minute drive. We still had the concern that there was no way for the drivers to know exactly where we were (i.e. outside the Black Bull), so we stacked our bikes by a lamp post and waited for them. We waited, and waited... jubilation at about 11:40 when the car arrived, immediately followed by desperation when they went straight past without apparently seeing us! We shouted like mad, Lindsay and I mounted our bikes and chased the car as fast as our legs would carry us. This did the trick: the car turned round, we squeezed in (Ian sitting in the front on Sally's lap), and returned to Kilmarnock with our bikes on the car roof and the trailer.

On the way there there was a disagreement between Sandy and Phillip on the correct route and Phillip took Sandy's advice against his better judgement. This caused further delay. When we eventually arrived at the accommodation the Grant family with the exception of Mrs Grant were in bed asleep; we finally settled down ourselves about 1 o'clock in the morning. It was a super house with tremendous space and luxuries, but one of us had to sleep on the floor. As usual Ron volunteered even though his sleeping bag had become wet in the trailer and he had to sleep in his YHA sheet bag with his clothes on. The only disadvantage to this from my point of view was the usual 5 am pulse counting business with the light on. It did at least remind me to put the phone on charge.

What actually happened

Sandy and Phillip had visited Edinburgh and left just before 6 pm at which time I spoke to them via our vodafones. They arrived at Muirkirk probably bewteen 7:30 and 8:00, and purchased fish and chips at the very same place we arrived at at 9:30. They used the same phone box we were to use many times later that evening and spoke to Mr. Grant. They waited for us until about 9pm, then as they had not seen us they reckoned we must then be ahead of them between Muirkirk and Kilmarnock so they set off for the digs (which were not easy to find) and arrived there about 10:30 pm. At this point they received our message, unloaded the trailer then returned to meet us at the pub between 11 pm and midnight.

For the record I will put down my own views on how this unfortunate mix-up could have been avoided, but such an exercise is always easy in retrospect and I hope the participants will not read the following as critiscism of them.

  1. Ron should not have miscalculated the distance so badly.
  2. I should have checked Ron's calculations.
  3. My wheel builder should not have made my wheel so tight and unreliable. No-one else broke so many spokes. Ron should not have pumped Ian's tyre up so hard.
  4. We should have had a clearly agreed back-up plan if our phones did not work e.g. contact my sister-in-law in Winchester via payphone.
  5. At the little Chef I should have persuaded the others that it was possible to make Kilmarnock that evening in the daylight. The wind had dropped and the going was fast. We could probably have arrived before 10pm (more or less daylight) instead of past midnight but may not have had the fish and chips. At one point Ron calculated that the car could have made the Douglas-Kilmarnock journey several times in all the time we waited for them, and we could certainly have made the journey at least once ourselves.
  6. There were two Grants we communicated with. It turned out that Ron had spoken to MRS Grant from the little Chef at about 7:45, then Sandy spoke to MR Grant at about 8:40. It would appear that the critical message we assumed would have reached Sandy via the Grants did not get passed on. I should have been very wary of this situation, which was later worsened when I later took over the telephoning from Ron. There were thus two lots of two people talking to two people. Less problems would have arisen if only one person in each group did all the communicating. We should not have needed to have used the Grants as a message centre, it was not fair on them.
  7. Sandy and Phillip should have allowed for breakdowns on our part (bicycles are much less reliable than motor cars) and probably NOT have assumed we had passed them and were between Muirkirk and Kilmarnock. When eating their fish and chips they did not require a look-out like we did since the car was parked on the road. If we had reached Muirkirk we would have seen the car and found them. Therefore, on leaving the restaurant they should initially have re-traced their route to Douglas before proceeding to Kilmarnock. They would in fact have met us on the road had they done this. I am not sure why their vodafone seemed not to be working in this area as mine was. Perhaps they could have taken it into the restaurant.
  8. Sandy and Phillip should probably have telephoned the Grants between 8:40 and 10:00 pm, if only to warn them that they were expecting to arrive late. If they had done this they should have received our message and avoided a long double journey.
  9. Much anxiety could have been avoided if we had carried lights.

Tuesday 26th May - Muirkirk to Dunoon - 70 miles.

Mr and Mrs Grant provided us an excellent breakfast in their conservatory at Kilmarnock. This was the day we had agreed should be organised by Lindsay; I for one was willing to go along with his wishes but Lindsay was not happy. He said the journey was not working out as he had hoped, we had missed almost all our objectives, he had had enough and did not wish to continue with us. He felt we had ignored all his suggestions and proposals and he did not wish to discuss the matter further. I myself felt that much of the problem was caused by the lack of time before now for reviews and discussions. But Lindsay would not discuss and was determined to catch the train and return home. We shook hands and said our farewells. I said to him he could meet us at the ferry terminal at Dunoon at 5pm if he changed his mind. (We actually arived there at 4:57pm). Ron wondered if Lindsay was also becoming concerned about the cost and generously offered to assist in this regard. I hope at some time Lindsay will send me an account of his own feelings so that I can add them here in the interests of fairness and completeness.

Sandy and Phillip drove us with our bikes back to the Black Bull at Muirkirk; we left there about 12:30 and made really good progress on the 25 miles of level roads to Kilmarnock.

Just through Kilmarnock I got a call through to Phillip and stopped my bike to speak. To my annoyance, Ron and Ian ignored my call and shot ahead - I did not want to make any arrangements without getting their agreement but as they were outside shouting distance this was impossible. The call confirmed Sandy and Phillip were only a few minutes behind, and I now expected our drivers to overtake as very soon, in fact I think I said I would wait where I was for them to appear. But after about 10 minutes there was no sign of them so we went on together.

Here are the notes I wrote as I waited for Sandy and Phillip a few miles further on:

"Writing this on roundabout on A78 for Greenock by Safeway Superstore. It is now 2:34 and I have been here alone in this busy traffic for over half an hour, maybe 45 minutes. Ron and Ian have gone into restaurant for a meal and I wonder if they will remember to bring me some food out, or will be willing for me to go in for 45 minutes afterwards to feed myself whilst they wait. Where on earth are Sandy and Phillip? I keep trying to call them but get no reply. I have called home and Valerie but they have not heard from them either"
After about 45 minutes Ron and Ian return from the restaurant with a cucumber and salmon sandwich for me. Ian had purchased some vitamin tablets as he had to make some purchase in order to cash a cheque with his switch card; I gratefuly accept a tablet from him. Still no sign of our support vehicle. It turned out that whilst I was waiting at the roundabout they had gone in Irvine for shopping.

Ron is determined never to wait for the car anywhere again and we cycle on for about 50 miles along the fast coastal road through Largs with no siting or contact with our drivers. In order to book accommodation it is imperative that we reach the Tourist Information Office at Dunoon on the other side of the ferry by closing time at 5:30 pm. We arrive at the ferry terminal at Gourock at 4:57 pm and I decide to wait there for our supporters, even if I am there all night. Ron and Ian go ahead on the ferry to book accommodation in the information center at Dunoon.

[I think in retrospect that I was rather foolish being so obsessed at making contact that day. It had been agreed that Sandy and Phillip would do some shopping for us and this is exactly what they did. I should have been able to work this out whilst waiting on the A78 instead of allowing myself to become so concerned as to why they had not passed]

At the ferry terminal I finally got a good call to Phillip and said I would wait for them. On their arrival we had a super ferry journey in the early evening sunshine then went straight to the Tourist Information at Dunoon to find Ian and Ron already there with booked accommodation.

That night we went into Dunoon for a Chinease meal but ended up at an Indian Restaurant - this cuisine was new to some but they all enjoyed it. The air was cold and windy as we returned to the Guest house and the hospitality of Mrs Guy.

The cycling was fast that day; we only did about 4 hours in the saddle but had covered 70 miles.

Wednesday 27th May - Dunoon to Invermoriston - 148 miles

Mrs Guy provided splendid accommodation including good showers, large lounge and full breakfast. All this was only #9.50 each, out of which Mrs Guy paid at least 10% to the Tourist Board for commission. Ron very kindly slept on the floor again in his sleeping bag which had dried out by now. The next morning our landlady kindly prepared for us at our own convenience a very early breakfast and set us off down a short cut through the unoccupied Guest House opposite.

The weather was fine, the scenery superb and the roads by Loch Eck to Strachur and Inverary had a good surface, were level, deserted and fast. Even the winds were strongly favourable at times, though at other times we had head winds which inexplicably remained head winds even when we turned 180 degress round the end of a loch! The established procedure now was not to rely on the telephone, but the car was to follow the same route as the cyclists overtaking us several times during the day.

Inverary - each chasing the other

On most of the Scottish roads both Ron and I tracked our position on the map. I found that my technique of having a single folded page of a 3 inch to the mile road atlas in my back pocket worked well as it enabled me to check the turnings on the move. I tried to remember two or three turnings ahead and this usually worked very well and geve me confidence that we were right. Ron on the other hand had often to stop and leaf through the large atlas he carried in is paper boy's sack, and this often took several minutes whilst I went ahead up the next turning and waited. One of the occasions when I went wrong though was at Inverary.

Ian and myself (Lindsay had left us by now) were ahead but as we approached Inverary Ron stopped to study the map to locate a right-hand turn he knew was here somewhere. Ian and I missed the turn and continued into the town which Ian happened to know quite well as he had once worked there for several months. I felt sure Ron saw us go ahead into the town but we did not speak as we passed, we just assumed Ron saw what we were doing. I expected both the car and Ron to catch us up at any time so I as usual watched the road like a hawk to make sure they did not overtake us. Ian found a bank to collect some money, and I went into a shop to purchase postcards and an ice cream. (Even in the shop I was watching the road rather than the shop assistant who was serving me - I was always more concerned than the other two of losing contact and getting the wrong side of the car). Ian and I met again and we waited for about 20 minutes for either Ron or the car but when neither appeared we became puzzled and concerned so we re-traced our steps to where we had last seen Ron. Ron was nowhere to be seen.

A passer-by told us that a cyclist had been looking for us and was getting rather anxious and agitated. "Which way did he go?" I asked, but the passer-by did not know. I then realised that we should have turned right before entering the town (the turning was actually rather hidden because it looked like a private road to a hotel - it actually went through an archway in the hotel). As Ron was not in sight I assumed (correctly) that he had taken this turn and gone ahead to the next place. Neither Ian nor I could understand why he would have done this since if Ron had never left the route he would have known we were not ahead of him. But the best bet seemed to be to assume Ron was ahead of us now, hopefully travelling slowly.

Ian and I raced off up a fairly long incline on the A819 out of Inverary. On my lightweight racing bike I was faster than Ian so I left him behind, stamped on the power and went solo with the intention of catching up with Ron as soon as possible, at which point we would both await Ian. After a couple of miles I was met by our car coming back in the opposite direction who confirmed that Ron was ahead. I raced even faster. I overtook another cyclist who also confirmed Ron was ahead. But Ron was racing too as he thought Ian and I were ahead of him!. (Inexplicably, this was even after the car had gone ahead of Ron looking for us on his behalf and confirming we were NOT ahead of him). At 11 am after about 5 miles I caught up with Ron, then we both waited for Ian who turned up 8 minutes later. It turned out that Ron had waited about 15 minutes in Inverary for us and when we did not return he decided we must have taken the right-hand turn unnoticed by him. During most of this time Ian was searching for a cash machine.

The mistakes made here were (1) My navigation was imperfect and I missed the right hand turning before Inverary (2) I did not make sure Ron clearly understood where Ian and I were going when we left him looking at the map (3) Ian took too long at the cash machine (4) Ron did not observe where his colleagues went. In retrospect I think all three of us might share the blame for this incident which for a change was nothing to do with the car and the telephones. I suppose though this 20 minutes of more strenuous exercise did us more good than harm.

It looked as if there may be a foot ferry at Taynuilt but we arrived there before our support and decided not to take the short cut and to maintain the same route as the car to Connel. I made several unsuccesful attempts to contact Sandy by my pocket phone as we were expecting them to find us a picnic site for lunch. Yet again we were running short of water and nourishment and wondered where the devil they had got to. At a campsite near Barcaldine Ian and Ron found a shop and purchased some food and drink whilst I waited on the road for the car. This was about the fourth time I waited on the road whilst the others had a meal but that was OK with me as I was determined to not miss our support vehicle at any cost. After about 15 mins the car turned up and Ron came out with a cake and bottle of milk shake for me. We then agreed that Sandy and Phillip would drive ahead and find the first suitable stopping place after 20 miles, stop there and prepare lunch with the food they had kindly purchased for us at Irvine the previous day. I said to Sandy to try to find a nice quiet spot but later regretted saying this as they took this request rather too seriously. There was quite a head wind and after 20 miles we were beginning to tire and wanted to see the car. A few miles further we find the car but they have not yet found a place for the picnic. Eventually we come to a closed pub with a nice garden. Ron knocks on the door and not only does the lady agree to let us use her garden, she also agrees to open the pub specially for us so that we can buy drinks. The weather was very hot and sunny, the only problem with the garden was that it offered almost no shade whatever.

On the next leg I wanted to visit Kinlochleven where I had camped several times on the Highland Rover Outward Bound course but when we got to the decision point at Ballaculish I felt too tired to do an unnecessary 20 miles half of which were to be against a strong Easterly wind. We pushed on to Fort William and met Sandy and Phillip at the Information centre where we tried to arrange our final accommodation before John O'Groats. This took about an hour; we wanted to get to Drumnadrochit that night but finally settled on a place by Loch Ness called Invermoriston just North of Fort Augustus.

We had more food at a cafe at Fort William and left in the fine weather and head wind. The wind was sufficiently strong to justify close formation riding to ease the effort. We were in single file (Ron, myself, Ian) when there was suddenly a very loud bang, my immediate reaction being another tyre blow-out. But this time it was a car which, in overtaking us on a bend, had crossed the white line and collided with another car coming in the opposite direction on the relatively busy road. Angry words passed between Ron and the tired driver, but it was fairly clear that it was the car's fault and not ours and I was grateful no-one was hurt. The wife of the driver accused us of spoiling what had been for them up to then a wonderful holiday. The driver said we were cycling too close together and had moved into the road whilst he was overtaking causing him to swerve. They had had a long journey that day they said. "So had we" retorted Ron who gave them personal details in case a witness was needed.

We stay the night in the digs at Invermoriston booked by the Tourist Information office in Fort William. The room and facilities were very comfortable but we were rather cramped; Ron again kindly slept on the floor.

Thursday 28th May - Invermoriston to John O'Groats - 149 miles

"He that will thrive must rise at five.
He that have thriven may lie till seven" ..5
I thought it would be very pleasant to make a very early start and to follow the banks of Loch Ness at dawn - about 4 am. Ron and Ian were moderately willing, as was Mrs Greig the landlady provided we were happy with a cold breakfast. But Ron later changes his mind due to the increased state of his pulse at the time. I concede to have breakfast at 7 am. John O'Groats was still a long way off and it was by no means certain we could do it in one day, but we all wanted to have a go so that the original target of 9 days would be achieved.

There was then another disagreement about the route. The original plan I sent to all the riders in April took us through central Northern Scotland to Altnaharra, then along the North coast to Bettyhill and Thurso. Ron had decided there was no such thing as a busy main road in Scotland and therefore wanted to change this to use the A9 along the North-East coastline (because it looked easier and faster), and had already discussed this option with me. But I decided now I wanted to avoid the A9 because of (a) my dislike of all main roads; (b) the CTC recommendation to avoid certain busy roads in Scotland which included the A9 and (c) my constant desire to stick to what had been agreed in the letters - which I had received no prior objections to, and had learned and marked up on my maps. The advice from our Landlady however (and also from Ron) was that the A9 would not be excessively busy and Ron said that main roads "did not bother him" anyway. "They bother me" I said. We finally agreed to defer the decision until Alness - much traffic and we would divert, little traffic and we would take A9. Ian as always was easy going and willing to take either route.

At Drumnadrochit we bypassed the Loch Ness Monster museum and turned left onto another of those long steep hills not easily forgotten. After that the hills became less, though the wind was against us and quite strong. Very suddenly (or so it seemed to me) at Dingwall Ron decided to stop at a cafe in a shopping precinct for a snack. But the cafe was not on the road and my feeling was that we should continue until the car caught us with a picnic, or continue another 15 miles to Alness and stop there. However, before I could make this comment both Ron and Ian were gone! We were expecting the car to pass us any moment and if I chased after the other two into the precinct there was a danger the car would overtake without seeing us and I was determined to avoid this. I was therefore trapped into staying by the road again for 30-45 mins whilst the other two ate and drank and this time I was not pleased at being forced into this situation without discussion. So I decided to teach them a lesson and cycled on to Alness, and wait there for them.

My fears of losing the car were well founded on this occasion, for, a few minutes after leaving Dingwall Sandy and Phillip overtook. Had I joined Ron and Ian in the cafe we would all have missed the car with resulting confusion. We stopped in a layby by the Cromarty Firth where Sandy Phillip and I alone had some food and drink and discussed a suitably severe punishment for Ron and Ian when they turned up. (Ron maintains that he had told me what he and Ian were doing - eat first then relieve me later, but to this day our recollections of this incident are different)

At Alness we had to decide whether or not to take the A9 and I agreed with Ron to take it, on the grounds that we still had a long way to go and wanted to reach John O'Groats on this ninth day if we possibly could. It was near here that we stopped by a river and had a pleasant conversation with an old man who warned us that it was a long way and there were a number of jolly steep hills between there and our final destination. I wished I had with me a tape recorder to record incidents like this.

When it was time for lunch we still had the car behind us, but was expecting it at any moment. The A9 here was in fact quite busy and there were few suitable stopping places; it was also rather windy. Ron spotted what he considered an ideal place for a picnic in a meadow with a wall to lean against and some sheep for company. He climbed a gate and proceded to sit down and have a rest and smoke whilst I uneasily investigated to see if the car could safely pull off the main road at that point. Phillip and Sandy went straight past, turned round, came back, decided it was not safe to stop, went past us again in the opposite direction, and turned round again. During this manoevering Ron was undoing the gate at the entrance to the field so that the car and trailer could enter. But Phillip did not fancy attempting this sharp turn off the main road onto a questionable surface and continued ahead. This was a dilemma; Ron did not seem in the mind to move, but the car was not going to stop here. I was between the two and we all wanted our lunch. Ian and myself decided to go with the car and Ron (to my surprise without complaint) then got up and followed us. There was in fact a very pleasant stopping place by some trees, a wall and a stream only a few hundred yards ahead where our support team provided a very satisfactory lunch.

When there was about 80 miles to go we passed another party of cyclists. There were about 15 of them at least one of which was known to Ron. I asked if they planned to make John O'Groats that day and they said definitely not, there was a very long steep hill ahead at Helmsdale and we would be foolish to try to make the full distance. Ron met an old Audax friend in the group and chatted to him for a few minutes. Meanwhile I went ahead and talked to another gentleman in the party who strongly advised me not to attempt John O'Groats that day. This party were also supported by a vehicle but they had pre-arranged accommodation each evening and only met the car at these places overnight. On the cycling spectrum our intentions were towards the racing end and theirs towards the touring end.

Race to the finish

The wind was quite strong North-Easterly and dead against us. There was indeed a long hill at Helsmdale, but it was not as steep as the hills we had encountered in the early part of the trip and it did not therefore create a big problem. Half way up the hill we met up with our supporters, had a snack and admired the scenery. Then we started to split up a bit. Ron left first whilst I talked to my wife in hospital. Then I put on a spurt and caught up with him. Later Ian went ahead but Ron and I, both feeling a little weary by now, did not enter the chase - not my usual practise when a rider shot ahead. It turned out that Ian was now feeling stronger than at any previous time in the trip and was determined to be first at John O'Groats. This was his plan: shoot ahead 35 miles from the end otherwise in a sprint finish he knew he would probably lose.

The last 15-20 miles were actually very fast as the wind had moderated and even changed direction. As the John O'Groats sign came into sight we had still not caught up with Ian. Ron sprinted for the sign; I exerted maximum effort and caught up and followed in his slip stream, but Ron was expertly waving around to prevent me overtaking. At this he was successful and he thereby achieved second place. We were about an hour ahead of schedule but Ian had been there for 22 minutes. He was chuffed to pieces to have won and to celebrate he bought us a round of drinks. He said he could have gone on another 50 miles quite easily! Ian's arrival time at John O'Groats was 20:30, Ron and I arrived at 20:52. Ron talked to two men who had just sailed there from Norway and I made a number of phone calls (my vodafone handset worked perfectly here) wandering around the small harbour. Phillip and Sandy arrived and we all spent about an hour and a half in the bar at the John O'Groats hotel.

I was disappointed that Sandy and Phillip were not at the final destination to greet us with the champagne and to take the photograph, but they were in a pub not expecting us to arrive before 10 pm.

We left the bar and reached the John O'Groats Youth Hostel at 10:58 pm that evening, which was 2 minutes before closing time. The rather grumpy Warden was annoyed at us turning up so late and demanded to knew if we had been in the pub all night. He caught Ron about to smoke in the dormitories, and reminded him this was not allowed. It was more windy than ever in the morning when we loaded up all the bikes and gear in preparation for the journey home.

Peter Seaman
This is part 3 of a report consisting of 4 parts. See Part 1 (Preparation), Part 2 (First Week), Part 4 (Odds and Ends), the Index, or the (very big!) one-file version.