How to cycle Land’s End to John O’Groats

LEJOG19: near Altnahara

LEJOG19: near Altnahara

It’s the iconic British cycling journey: from Land’s End in Cornwall to John O’Groats in Scotland. You travel through three countries and climb almost twice the height of Everest over almost 1,000 miles. Cycling LEJOG should be on every British cyclist’s bucket list.

I’ve just made that magical journey for the second time, and loved it even more thanks to better training and a brilliant cycling holiday company, Peak Tours. (More on that later.) In this post, I will share what I learned in my two LEJOG trips and give some advice. In a further series of posts, I will tell the day to day story of this year’s ride including a highlights video for each day of the adventure.

Training is key to enjoying LEJOG

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Top of the climb to Glenshee ski centre

People have completed LEJOG successfully with little or no training. In other words, they set off from Land’s End without getting the miles in in advance. I did my first End to End in 2002 with just a few hundred miles of cycling in the run up. But it was a struggle, especially on the hills of Cornwall and Devon.

This time, I was determined to be fit and ready for the challenge of cycling 1,000 miles in 14 days. By the time I reached Cornwall, I’d cycled over 2,500 miles over seven months. It made those early days so much easier. I will never be a natural hill climber – especially when the road gets steeper than 1 in 10 – but I was able to get into the groove of climbing at my own pace, standing out of the saddle now and again to give extra power and vary the routine.

The real benefit came later in Scotland as the fitness I gained from the ride kicked in. On the last day, we averaged 16.4mph over the 82 miles from the Crask Inn to John O’Groats. I’d have happily kept going but the famous sign was in view.

Just keep eating

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Time to eat: the famous Peak Tours brew stop, overlooking Cromarty Firth

The first time I cycled Land’s End to John O’Groats, it was like driving a car and continually running out of fuel. I simply didn’t eat enough to keep me going. In Dartmoor, I devoured a Mars Bar and energy bar – but by the time the benefits kicked in I’d reached my night’s destination at Moretonhampstead.

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The view from the first brew stop, St Michael’s Mount

This time, I took half my bodyweight in energy bars and gels. I made up a daily bag of bars to keep everything on track. But my preparation wasn’t needed. Within a couple of hours on day one, we’d reached the first Peak Tours ‘brew stop’ overlooking the legendary St Michael’s Mount I realised I would not be needing that mountain of gels. We were given mugs with our names on – and a table laden with snacks to keep us powered and happy. It was a lovely moment, even though the Peak Tours guides would be carrying my excess baggage of energy food for 14 days.

There’s no such think as waterproof cycling clothing

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Raingear – perfect for dry weather…

I always overheat when I’m climbing and so decided to splash out on an expensive lightweight Gore waterproof ready for this special trip. (I knew the chances of a rain-free 14 day ride in Great Britain was vanishingly small.)

I soon discovered that regardless of how lightweight the rain gear is, I will resemble a boil in the bag chicken within minutes of starting a modest climb. While others were still sporting leg and arm warmers, I’d be down to a jersey and shorts in anything other that storm conditions.

But the one thing I regret not packing – despite my pantechnicon of clothes – was a windproof long sleeve jersey. It would have avoided my worst clothes choice of the tour, on our first cold morning’s ride, as we set off from Penrith to Moffat. I had a base layer, long sleeve jacket and my rain jacket. Within 20 minutes I felt like I’d fallen into an oven. So much for layering. A windproof jersey would have been all I needed short of a biblical storm.

I did ignore the suggestion to bring overshoes. I did have a pair, but could only find one! There were a few times when I wished I’d worn them but in my experience overshoes don’t keep my feet dry in torrential weather as the water comes up from the road rather than from the sky.

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Drying off. In a pub…

The one thing I definitely wished I’d brought was a light fleece for lunch stops on cooler and wetter days, including the amazing day when we arrived at Tockholes near Blackburn after an hour’s biblical rain. We were so glad to be given towels to dry off – not to mention pots of tea (which started a two-week tradition on tour and after!) and delicious cheese tart and jam roly poly pudding!

Savour the moment

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Another milestone on LEJOG19

You won’t cycle the length of Great Britain very often. So savour the experience! Stop to take photos and videos. Keep a journal each day to record what you see and how you feel. Note the change of the scenery, the accents and even the local beers as you make your way north (or south). In Scotland in particular, as we ventured from Inverness into the lonely Highlands, I couldn’t resist taking photos of the firths and the way the green hills were giving way to stark mountains and moors. It showed why cycle touring is a the perfect way of exploring a country.

Choose your LEJOG company with care

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Peak Tours – my perfect LEJOG tour company

I wondered if this trip would ever happen. I booked to cycle LEJOG in 2018 with one company, which then cancelled the tour because not enough people had booked. I rebooked with another company in 2019 and amazingly the same think happened again. For 24 hours I was in despair, thinking I’d have to cycle 1,000 miles on my own with no support. But then I spotted that Peak Tours was running LEJOG over almost identical dates. I’d never heard of the company before but the website gave me a very good feeling. How had I never heard of it before?

All those initial feelings proved right. Steve in the office and Simon, Julie and Howard on the road were brilliant. The Peak Tours approach suited be perfectly – morning and afternoon brew stops, with tea and coffee and snacks, and decent lunches in pubs, to break up the day and keep morale high. In the evening we had a few group meals alternating with nights when we could choose our own dining arrangements.

Emotional moments

Cycling the length of the country is an emotional experience for everyday cyclists. I was surprised to get a lump in my throat after we crossed into Wales over the Severn and Wye bridges. (By request, I sang the Welsh national anthem, Hen Wlad fy Nhadau, in Welsh as we cycled from the bridge towards Monmouth on day 4.) It also felt very special crossing into Scotland near Gretna and cruising the last few miles to John O’Groats on the last day.

The Crask Inn

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Sheltering at the Crask Inn

If you ever cycle the road from Lairg to Bettyhill, do stop at the Crask Inn, especially if the weather is bad.You will get a true picture of the days of old, when a pub truly was a traveller’s rest, and indeed salvation.

We enjoyed glorious weather as we headed from Bonar Bridge towards the Falls of Shin. But as we reached Lairg, the weather was closing in. We got soaked and cold as we headed north to the Crask, and entered that old inn with true relief. Rarely was a fire so welcomed in August! By popular request, I sang the Welsh national anthem in Welsh and Kevin did the same for the Belgium anthem in Flemish. So we celebrated this union of cultures and accents as we prepared for the last day on the ride to John O’Groats…

The end of the road…

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I made it!

Finishing the ride was a magical moment. I cycled almost 1,000 miles with no punctures or other mechanical problems. For the second time! Given my training I was in a better state to savour the moment of completing LEJOG this time, and indeed would happily have cycled another 18 miles to complete the day’s century ride.

To finish, here’s the inevitable group shot at John O’Groats, followed by a photo of me stretching over the map of Great Britain to show how far I cycled. Happy memories!

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Summer of cycling

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Chequers

This is my first blogpost for over two years. Have you missed me? I fell off the blogging bandwagon just after Britain voted for Brexit. I swapped the blog for the bike, and have been healthier as a result.

But I felt that I’d lost my voice. I’ve always loved writing, and blogging let me express myself, even if my wonderful Dad was the only person listening. So I’m back. I don’t know how long it will last but I wanted to record what has become a summer of wonder – the best in Britain since the scorched summer of 1976.

I mentioned Brexit earlier on, so it seems appropriate to combine politics and cycling in a photo. Earlier today, I cycled past Chequers, the prime minister’s country home in Buckinghamshire. The road up to Chequers from Butlers Cross is a steep one, but it seems easier after my summer of cycling. Chequers was given to the nation a century ago to allow its PMs a place for rest and recreation. It’s doubtful that Theresa May gained much rest there in recent weeks with her disastrous Brexit Cabinet showdown and President Trump’s visit. But I found it restful: after completing the climb from Butlers Cross, I always love the 18mph swoop down to Great Missenden.

I completed the 32 mile ride with the satisfaction of knowing I’d just completed 2,000 miles of cycling in 2018. That’s good preparation for Prudential Ride London next weekend. Watch this space!

 

 

 

 

Open letter to Cheryl Gillan MP on Brexit

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Margaret Thatcher campaigns to keep Britain in the EEC, 1975

The Rt Hon Cheryl Gillan MP

House of Commons

London SW1A 0AA

29 June 2016

Dear Mrs Gillan

Like many of your constituents, I am deeply concerned about the consequences of last week’s very narrow referendum vote to leave the EU, which you campaigned for.

We are already seeing major companies like HSBC and Visa saying they will move jobs from the UK to the continent if we lose access to the European Single Market, which Margaret Thatcher played a major role in creating. The leaders of the leave campaign such as Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage have been quick to disown the pledges they made to win votes. The Conservative and Labour parties are in chaos, and the country is rudderless at our most critical moment as a nation for generations.

You, as our MP, have a great responsibility for helping save the country from disaster. I urge you to:

Demand that Parliament has to agree to any government decision to invoke article 50 of the Lisbon treaty.

Britain is a parliamentary democracy. Recent governments have accepted that vital matters affecting the nation such as going to war must be subject to a parliamentary approval, rather than royal prerogative exercised by the prime minister. Starting the process of withdrawal from the EU is just as important – and parliament must decide.

Only vote in favour of invoking article 50 when the UK government has determined what the future relationship with the EU should be, in agreement with the devolved governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland

Like me, you were born in Cardiff, Wales. Unlike me, you have served as Secretary of State for Wales. As such, you must understand the vital need to preserve the United Kingdom. Keeping Scotland in the Union, preserving peace in Northern Ireland and maintaining the interests of Wales must be fundamental to the task of negotiating the right future for Britain in Europe. Millions will never forgive this government if it destroys Britain.

Demand that the UK maintains access to the European Single Market – including financial services

Many of your constituents work in financial services. London, the South East and the rest of the country will suffer countless job losses – and the City will be hugely disadvantaged – if UK banks lose the right to ‘passport’ their UK banking licences to the 30 countries in the EU and EEA. We have already seen HSBC and Visa say they will move jobs from the UK if this happens. This is not a game. The time for bluster and rhetoric is over – MPs have a responsibility. You will be held to account if you get this wrong.

Fight against hate speech and crimes

Millions of us are horrified at the way the referendum campaign fuelled xenophobia in Britain. We liked to think of our country as tolerant, embracing people no matter what their background. Yet leave campaigners have let a horrible genie out of the bottle. I’m appalled by the attacks on the Polish and Muslim communities, who have enriched the country. (How many of the thugs know that Polish refugee airmen helped to save us in the Battle of Britain?) It’s time to take action to end this hatred and punish those who fuel it.

Protect EU nationals working in the UK

Colleagues from other European countries working alongside me here in the UK have been in tears, taking the referendum rhetoric and the result as meaning they are not wanted here. This is appalling. They make a huge contribution to our country and economy. They are our friends as well as colleagues. I call on you now to urge ministers to guarantee that no one working here who come from other EU states will lose the right to work in the UK.

End the lies

The referendum campaign marked a new low in British political campaigns. Politicians are not famous for telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth – but never before have we seen so many of them telling outright lies and refusing to stop when exposed. The £350m claim was the most outrageous example, condemned by the independent UK Statistics Authority as plain wrong. It’s time to ban politicians from telling lies. And the thought of one of those liars becoming prime minister is totally unacceptable.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Rob Skinner

Why I love the Garmin Edge 1000

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Ride data from the Edge 1000: uploaded from my iPhone

I blogged in 2012 why I loved my Garmin Edge 800 cycling GPS. I’ve now upgraded to the Garmin Edge 1000 – and I’ve fallen in love again.

Here’s why:

It’s so easy to set up. I went for the Garmin Edge 1000 performance bundle from Wiggle which includes speed and cadence sensors. I spent ages setting up the Edge 800 speed sensor so I was relieved and delighted how easy it was to fit and activate the new generation sensors for the Edge 1000. No magnets here – accelerometers rule! Once you have fitted them, the Garmin Edge 1000 head unit finds them in a flash – and you’re done.

Instant upload of your rides. Once you’ve paired your new Edge 1000 with your smartphone, and selected various other options, your ride data will upload to Garmin Connect and Strava. No more plugging in USB leads to sync – you can do this whenever you have a data signal on your phone.

Strava Live Segments. This is brilliant. When you’re approaching the start of a Strava segment that you’ve starred as a favourite, your Garmin Edge 1000 will tell you, and as you ride the segment it will tell you how your ride compares with your personal best (or the KOM and QOM) so you can up your pace. I recorded a personal record for two segments within the first two miles of today’s ride. Just make sure you pace yourself over longer rides…

The screen is brilliant. A lot better than the Edge 800, and I was always happy with that.

If you’ve used an earlier Garmin, you need to remember some of the set up tricks that you may have forgotten. For example, the auto pause and resume feature is really useful – twice today I forgot to set the new Edge 1000 recording again because I was so used to the Edge 800 doing this automatically after a break.

I can’t wait to get to know the Garmin Edge 1000 better over the coming weeks.

PS: when I got my Garmin Edge 800, I found the Frank Kinlan and DC Rainmaker blogs hugely helpful. Frank seems to have stepped off the blogging treadmill, but DC Rainmaker is as useful as ever. Highly recommended.

In praise of Thule’s amazing customer service

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The repaired carrier in action – thanks to Thule

I’ve always loved Thule’s clever bike carriers. They’re well designed and robust. Our latest Thule carrier is the EuroClassic G6 LED 929 tow bar carrier. It’s brilliant as you can swing the bikes clear of the hatchback door to gain access to the boot.

Unfortunately, I damaged it during a motorway service station stop during an interminable drive back from our Cornwall holiday last year. (I reversed it into a grass verge that was higher than I realised.) As a result, the swing mechanism wouldn’t swing.

I eventually contacted Thule asking how I could get it repaired. I was dreading the cost of having to return it, but to my amazement Thule arranged to collect, repair and return it to me – for free. Outstanding service, especially as I was to blame for the damage.

A very big and heartfelt thank you to Ann and the team at Thule Technical Services team at Haverhill in Suffolk. You’ve made possible many more happy family bike rides such as today’s along the Phoenix Trail in Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire. (The photo above shows the bikes on the carrier at Towersey at the start of the ride.) We even saw a steam train on the Chinnor & Princes Risborough Railway – below.

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In praise of LNER Flying Scotsman

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Flying Scotsman: on the footplate of 93 year old legend

Owen and I today had a priceless experience – stepping onto the footplate of the world’s most famous railway engine, Flying Scotsman, at York’s magnificent National Railway Museum.  The 93 year old engine has just been restored to mainline working after a multi-million pound overhaul.

We have got accustomed to footplate visits to famous LNER engines – we visited all six surviving A4 pacifics during NRM’s unforgettable Great Gathering reunion in 2013. And I confess that Flying Scotsman has never inspired me in the same way as Mallard and her sister A4s. But I didn’t think it was right to spend time at the museum this weekend without queueing to stand on the Scotsman’s footplate. I’m so glad we did.

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Scotsman, BR-vintage

This, as NRM’s marvellous Return of the Scotsman exhibition explains, was the world’s first superstar locomotive. It was a film star from its earliest days. It was the first engine to exceed 100 miles an hour officially. It began the non-stop London to Edinburgh Flying Scostman service in 1928, beating its own 392 mile achievement by recording the world’s longest non-stop steam run – 429 miles – in Australia in 1989.

I think the engine looks wonderful in its British Railways livery, with smoke defectors. I may be biased – this was how it looked the year I was born, when it was withdrawn from everyday service.

The National Railway Museum is a wonderful place to visit – and it’s free to enter. I first visited in 1979, and now love taking Owen whenever we visit York, one of our favourite cities.

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Posing with an icon

It’s amazing to think that when we first took Owen to the NRM in September 2009, aged one, the Scotsman was in pieces at an early stage of the overhaul. Here are a few photos I took on that visit.

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Ireland marks the Easter rising centenary

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The 1916 rebellion that led to the end of British rule in the 26 counties

Easter has long been hugely significant in Ireland, and not just for religious reasons. The Good Friday agreement of 1998 marked the end of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, despite later tragedies such as Omagh. But the really significant event was the Easter rising of 1916, which Ireland marked today on a grand scale.

I blogged a decade ago that 2006 was the first time Dublin had staged a public parade to mark the Easter rising since the start of the  Northern Ireland Troubles in 1969. That murderous conflict complicated Ireland’s relationship with 1916. Ireland and Britain have an even stronger relationship now than in 2006, as the Queen’s visit to Ireland in 2011 and Irish president Michael D Higgins’ state visit to Britain three years later showed.  Continue reading

The shadow of Profumo: visiting Cliveden

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Cliveden in the spring sunshine

Cliveden will forever be associated with the Profumo affair of the early 1960s. Secretary of State for War John Profumo was forced to resign after lying about his brief affair with Christine Keeler, which began one summer weekend at Cliveden, the then home of the Astor family.

Cliveden today is a luxury hotel, with the lovely National Trust grounds open to the public. Owen and I cycled here on Sunday on our tandem, making the most of a glorious early spring day. As we arrived by bike, we were both given a £1 voucher to use in the excellent cafe.

I doubt that Profumo or Keeler arrived by bike, but Cliveden does make an excellent destination for a cycle ride.

PS: Profumo died 10 years ago this month. He remains the role model for how public figures should behave after a scandal, as I blogged a decade ago.

Am I English or Welsh? A seven year old’s dilemma

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The Welsh boys!

My wife asked our seven year old son Owen today if he’d like to take part in the Beaver Scouts’ St George’s Day parade. His answer taught me a lot about how young children take identity seriously.

He gave a puzzled look, and declared that he didn’t know if he was English or Welsh. So should he take part in a parade on England’s little-observed national day?

I cherish the fact that my thoughtful seven year old is pondering questions of identity.  But I’m pleased that he decided that he would take part. We live in England, and it’s right that he should join his friends in this special event. I have deliberately tried not to influence him about which country he supports in rugby or soccer. (Though I was quietly pleased when he proclaimed, “This is fun!” when England lost 4-1 to Germany in the world cup in 2010!) He seems to be following his elder cousin Siân’s support for Wales. It’s entirely his decision!

Ride It! My debut in Evans Cycles’ sportive series

IMG_2977I cycled my first sportive last Sunday. I took part in Evans Cycles‘ excellent Ride It London from the National Trust‘s lovely Osterley Park and House near Brentford.

The ride was due to take place in January, but was postponed because of overnight snow.

Sunday dawned sunny and cold – without any snow. The ride was billed ‘Escape the city’: ironically I had to drive to London to escape it! I was soon cycling over the M4 on my way our of the city, although it was a bit of a trek through Southall and Drayton before we got to countryside. The route also went through Sipson, the village that will be destroyed if Heathrow gets its third runway. More positively, we cycled past my son’s birthplace, Wexham Park Hospital.

Continue reading