It has become a tradition on New Year’s Eve for me to reflect on my year’s cycling, and look ahead to my cycling ambitions for the year ahead. This time, I’m feeling chuffed having cycled over 6,000 miles – 2,000 more than my previous record of 4.255 in 2019.
I have been amazingly consistent in 2021, cycling over 500 miles every month. That became a mission by the middle of the year – I couldn’t fall below 500 miles a month. The early winter months set the pattern of 500 plus mile months, thanks to my Wattbike Atom smart trainer. It was rare for me to record over 200 miles a month in winter before 2021, but the Atom made regular cycling far more enjoyable than cold, wet, icy rides outdoors. (I became far more familiar with the BBC iPlayer and Netflix as a result.)
The toughest months, ironically, were those in high summer: July and August. Summer holidays in Wales and Cornwall reduced the number of cycling days, and I confess that it was a slog to rack up the miles as the months ended. By contrast, November was the biggest month of all, with 586 miles recorded on Strava.
This was bound to be an unforgettable day: the end of our epic ride from the south west tip of England through Wales and Scotland to the far north shores of Great Britain. But I had no idea that this would be my fastest ever day’s long distance bike ride.
It started with the forbidding sound of heavy rain. Would the last day be spoilt by the weather? Happily, no. We finished as we started, with overnight rain giving way to sunshine when it mattered.
We got a lift on the minibus back to The Crask from Lairg. I knew the ride from here to the coast would be magical. But I hadn’t realised how fast those miles would be – over 17 mph for almost 20 miles.
When I cycled from The Crask to Altnaharra in 2002, I saw one of the guides standing on the side of the road, and hoped he’d taken a photo of me in this stunning open landscape. He hadn’t… This time, I took photos and video as we made our way north on a gorgeous Scottish summer’s day. In winter, Altnaharra often features in weather reports as the coldest place in Great Britain, but today I was wearing shorts and – as soon as I warmed up – a short sleeved jersey.
After Altnaharra we cycled along the shore of lovely Loch Naver, which seemed to last forever. I drank in the views and the tranquility of this beautiful and deserted corner of Scotland. The loch finally gave way to the river Naver as we headed closer to the coast. We passed through lonely Syre, with its tiny, picturesque church, which I remembered fondly from 2002.
I enjoyed the climb up to Bettyhill, a tiny village overlooking the most stunning, deserted beach. One of my favourite memories of my first Land’s End to John O’Groats ride 17 years ago was seeing that beach in the pouring rain and deciding I had to go back in sunnier weather. That prompted me and Karen to return to the far north in 2004. We were so glad we did.
I remembered the north coast as being hilly, and expected our average speed to drop dramatically between Bettyhill and Thurso. But – and this was so satisfying – I found that my new-found fitness gave me the power to conquer the hills and regain speed on the inevitable descents. I was actually waiting for people at the top!
We were descending after one of these climbs when I saw people waving in the distance. I didn’t think much of it as we’d seen a few people waving at us in the past few days. But then I heard a cry: “Daddy!” It was my 11 year old son Owen, with Karen. It was a wonderful moment two weeks after I last saw them at Cape Cornwall near Land’s End. I was sure they would come to find me, as Karen did in 2002, but I didn’t expect to see them this early in the day.
We had a lovely family lunch at the Halladale Inn at Melvich. This was probably the best lunch of the tour – even better than the lunch at the Wee House at Glenshee. Just 35 miles to go to John O’Groats!
In no time we were passing through Thurso, the most northerly town in Great Britain, and sweeping on to Dunnet, with its lovely sandy bay, and enormous sand dunes, which cover a Norse settlement. We stopped at the Northern Sands Hotel to regroup before the final 11 miles to our legendary destination. It was a delicious interlude, sitting in the sun on the benches, sipping coffee, knowing that we were about to complete our epic journey. Nothing could stop us now!
Well, almost nothing. Between Dunnet and Mey, Chris’s tyre gave out a loud noise, followed by a mini-explosion as it blew out. Simon got him back on the road in no time.
I really shouldn’t have been surprised to see a group of people pushing a bed along the road. Anywhere else in Britain you’d have feared for their mental health. Here you just known that they must have been heading for Land’s End to raise money for charity!
John O’Groats is a tiny village, but it is a lovely destination unlike Land’s End. We cycled slowly down the modest hill towards the famous sign. Owen and Karen were waiting for us, along with friends and family of other members of our cycling clan!
Last year, I reached John O’Groats by plane and car. I had expected to journey there by bike, but my cycle trip was cancelled. It was a moment of pure joy to fulfil my dream this year, thanks to Steve, Simon, Julie and Howard from Peak Tours. And I was thrilled to complete this last day at my record speed of 16.4mph!
After the celebrations, I made my way to the chalet that would be our home for the next six days. This was the perfect place to relax after cycling 1,000 miles. I stretched out across the map of Great Britain, reflecting on how far I had come. And I relished the unique tranquility of this far north tip of Scotland, overlooking Orkney. We started plotting my next cycling adventure – but that’s a story for another day.
As I end this final chapter of LEJOG19, I reflect on the fact this was almost certainly the last time I cycle this epic journey. I will never forget these 14 days in the summer of 2019: the company of our cycling clan and the dramas and landscapes we shared. Over the past couple of years, I wondered whether cycling the length of Great Britain would be easier in my fifties than in my thirties. Thanks to my training and Peak Tours it most definitely was.
If you’ve ever dreamed of cycling from Land’s End to John O’Groats, just do it!
After yesterday’s drama, today was plain sailing, despite a rain-sodden conclusion. It was certainly an easy day’s cycling although my hill climbing is definitely stronger after 12 days on the road.
It was a novel experience cycling over Kessock Bridge over the Beauly Firth from Inverness having driven over it several times. It felt strange but exciting knowing Karen and Owen would be crossing it by car later today on the way to John O’Groats to meet me tomorrow.
This morning was a wonderfully easy ride. We followed the Beauly Firth from Kessock Bridge towards Muir of Ord. It was exhilarating cycling at speed in a peloton to Dingwall. We then had a sharp climb away from Dingwall. I’m not a natural hill climber, but unusually I was in the mood to attack the ascent and soon left the others behind. (Though I’m sure most of them would have left me behind had they chosen!)
We were soon enjoying a coffee at the morning brew stop overlooking the bridge over Cromarty Firth. Again, I reflected that Karen and Owen would cross that very bridge this evening, 13 days after I saw them near Land’s End in Cornwall.
It’s strange how memory plays tricks. Looking back to my Land’s End to John O’Groats bike ride 17 years ago I was convinced there was a long climb from Evanton to the viewpoint at Struie overlooking Dornoch Firth. It wasn’t like that at all! There was a long but not difficult climb but it was a good few miles before Struie. (I enjoyed the view when I got there!) As we approached the lunch stop at Ardgay, the sun was shining and it was turning into a warm summer’s day. It was a pleasure eating the excellent lunch at the quirky Ardgay Shop and Highland Cafe. I was in no hurry to rush away.
I loved the ride from Ardgay to The Falls of Shin. I remember this as a lovely ride in 2002 and unlike this morning my memory wasn’t playing tricks.
The Falls of Shin was a lovely interlude. We walked down to see if we could spot salmon leaping up the falls. We did! This is an amazing sight, showing one of the most extraordinary feats of the natural world. You can see the salmon leaping in today’s highlights video, below. The cafe is excellent and we had a family trip here after I finished in John O’Groats.
By the time we got to Lairg the sunshine had given way to cloud and then rain. The ride to The Crask Inn is a gorgeous one but it was pouring with rain by the time we made the journey, with no views at all. (Much like our ride over the Lancashire moors on day 7.)
Much as I’d have preferred sunshine to rain, we did get a feel for what a relief it must have been for travellers to arrive at the Crask in terrible weather. We hurried into the bar, and gained comfort from the real fire.
We had a magical hour ‘drying out’ at the Crask. It was a true ‘traveller’s rest’, and by popular request I sang Hen Wlad fy Nhadau, the Welsh national anthem, in Welsh, and Kevin sang the Belgian anthem in Flemish.
Ironically, by the time we were taken by minibus back to Lairg for the night the rain had stopped and we had a gorgeous view of the neighbouring mountains.
It’s hard to believe that tomorrow will mark the very end of our epic ride from Land’s End.
68 miles, 3,209 feet climbing, 4 hrs 42 mins cycling, 14.2 mph average speed
I was confused. A familiar figure waved me into a picturesque cafe in the Cairngorm mountains. We’d barely gone 13 miles – didn’t we have the Lecht, one of Britain’s toughest cycling climbs, before our morning brew? We’d done some serious climbing but I was sure I couldn’t have missed the Lecht!
I hadn’t. Instead, Peak Tours wanted us to stay safe as the weather was worsening by the minute, and they assessed whether it was safe to tackle the five mile ascent. I was cold and wet as I sipped a hot drink, and listened to the verdict from Simon and Julie. Visibility was very poor, with strong sidewinds, so they recommended that they give us and our bikes a lift to the top. Most of us agreed straight away. Much as I’d have liked to tackle the Lecht, I was relieved to have been reprieved! I climbed into one of the vans and Howard drove me and Nigel just beyond the summit.
It wasn’t the start we expected to the day. It was sunny as we left Ballater, heading along the Dee. We were overtaken by a Range Rover with fishing rods attached to the car. We were soon climbing, which was when the weather started to deteriorate quickly. I ditched the jacket as usual, but soon decided that I needed the warmth on the descent. The experience showed how quickly the weather can turn in the mountains. “I’m still alive!” Holger joked with a smile a mile or so before our unexpected coffee stop.
Ironically, the weather improved as soon as I got back on my bike. The sun was shining, and I warmed up after 10 minutes despite the strong wind. I soon passed through Tomintoul before another stiff climb. It was satisfying to look back at how far we had climbed.
I enjoyed our lunch stop at a very quiet hotel in Nethy Bridge. But the next 14 miles were a real slog. Was I tired? I probably was, but looking back on Strava that evening I saw that the route had climbed steadily to Slochd summit at over 1,300 feet above sea level. And we had a vicious headwind at times. From there, it was mostly a continual descent to Inverness. But there were nice moments on the way to the summit, including seeing the old bridge that gave its name to Carrbridge, and the deserted road that was the old A9, superseded by the new road. Perfect for cycling.
I was pleased to stop for a cuppa at the brew stop in Tomatin, near another viaduct on the Highland Railway to Inverness. I knew the last session of the day would be an easy one, and it was a pleasure to cycle with Fiona and Simon and the rest of the Cheshire crew in the sunshine. Finally we saw the Moray Firth and Inverness below us.
After quiet lanes, it was a shock to join a huge traffic jam approaching Inverness town centre. But we were soon passing through the car-free high street to our guest house.
That evening a few of us had a pint in the lovely Castle Tavern. On my Land’s End to John O’Groats ride in 2002, I had noticed how some Scottish beers were named after shillings, the pre-decimal equivalent of 5p. Tonight, I had a pint of 80/- (80 shillings). It was a very malty beer, and the only ‘shilling’ beer I saw this year. We chatted to a man who claimed to have done LEJOG in eight days. He was probably telling the truth, but there was just a hint of a tall tale in the way he recounted his adventure…
67 miles, 3,983 feet of climbing, 5 hrs 32 mins cycling, average speed unknown
We could see the landscape changing. Soft hills gave way to mountains in the distance. I felt a mix of excitement and nervousness: we’d be climbing those mountains by bike this afternoon.
In the morning, the scenery was pleasant but not especially interesting after yesterday. But as always there were moments to remember. As we approached Perth, I noticed a cyclist on a sturdy bike with a tray on the back. On a steep climb on the outskirts of the city, he started outpacing us, which suggested he was a strong cyclist, given we were on light road bikes and had gained fitness from riding over 700 miles in 10 days. He explained that he was cycling to work at a garden centre in the north of Perth.
We crossed the Tay, which reminded me of the famous, ill-fated railway bridge over the river’s estuary. That structure collapsed when a train was crossing during a storm in 1879, shocking Victorian Britain. Our crossing passed without incident…
We had the best lunch of the trip so far today at the Wee House of Glenshee: soup, a very generous ploughman’s platter. and a cake that I saved for this evening. The staff were lovely too. Our enjoyment was overshadowed by the knowledge that we’d be tackling the toughest climb of the trip so far straight after the meal: the climb to Glenshee ski centre.
I was lulled into a false sense of security initially. I could barely sense a climb: was this to be one of those comfortable ascents like the Devil’s Beef Tub yesterday? But then I saw the road heading skywards in the distance. A little later it was thrilling to inch up the mountain, but once again I found myself struggling to produce enough power. I could have done with a lower bottom gear. My Garmin gave the game away: my heart rate was not going over 140 beats a minute. My heart had more to give – my legs didn’t!
“You’re still smiling!” I was told as we paused at Glenshee ski centre. “That’s because I’m at the top!” I replied. It was a lovely moment, especially as we could relish the downhill to Braemar.
It was a very odd feeling cycling past the ski centre and the ski lifts. A year ago, we’d visited Whistler in Canada, and had seen mountain bikes on the ski lifts. (The British Columbia resort has become a huge mountain biking centre in the summer.) By contrast, the lifts at Glenshee were still and silent on this August day.
That downhill was exhilarating if windy, and I enjoyed the brew stop two miles down the mountain. We passed through Braemar, and cycled along the Dee valley, admiring the bridges across the famous river.
We soon found ourselves at the gates of Balmoral, the Queen’s Scottish retreat. It’s not hard to see how generations of monarchs have relished the tranquility and beauty of this corner of Scotland. It would have been lovely to have had longer to explore Deeside – that pleasure will have to wait for another visit. But we enjoyed a magical moment when a policeman guarding Balmoral took our photo.
Our destination tonight was the Deeside Inn at Ballater. I had a lovely room, and took advantage of a heated towel rail and radiator to wash some cycling clothes. I also enjoyed the delicious shortbread from lunch at the Wee House. It was a smart move saving it for later!
The day’s stats
83 miles, 4,672 feet climbing, 5 hrs 59 mins cycling, 13.9 mph average speed (curious how my average is often higher when there’s more climbing!)
What a wonderful day. Enjoyable cycling and unforgettable experiences, especially cycling through Edinburgh during its famous festival.
Once again, there was an autumnal chill in the air as we set off from Moffat. But we knew we had the six mile climb of the Devil’s Beef Tub to warm us up. I was looking forward to this as I remembered it as an easy and enjoyable climb from my 2002 end to end. So it proved. The sun was shining and we had impressive hills to frame our views on the ascent. The name Devil’s Beef Tub is a reference to the notorious border reivers who hid stolen cattle here. There is another historical link: the ‘postie stone’, a memorial to the driver and guard of a mail coach who died in a blizzard in 1831 trying to deliver the mail. We had perfect weather today, but our experience on the Lecht near Aviemore two days later showed how treacherous Scottish weather can be even in summer.
The ride to Edinburgh from the Beef Tub was a wonderful one – some 12 miles of easy downhill cycling with the bucolic accompaniment of the Tweed to our right, near that lovely river’s source and hills to both sides. We had a nice lunch stop at the Royal Hotel in Penicuik; we could all say the town’s name correctly thanks to Scotsman David! I was happy to while away a pleasant hour, anticipating the pleasure of Edinburgh and the Forth Bridge.
There can’t be a better way of visiting Edinburgh during the festival than by bike. (A view confirmed later by colleague Imogen, who had the impossible task of getting a cab in the city later in the month.) We thrilled to the sights and sounds as we threaded Scotland’s capital, freewheeling down the Mound to stop at Princes Street for a view of the castle. There was a piper stationed there – no doubt enjoying rich pickings from people like us, happy to get the statutory bagpipe sound in our videos. (Fiona and Holger danced to the tune, which made a nice feature in my highlights video at the end of this post.)
We then made our way through Edinburgh’s New Town and onto a railway path towards the Forth road bridge.
Unfortunately the east cycle path overlooking the famous 1890 Forth Bridge was closed, so we were routed onto the west path, overlooking the latest, 2017 Queensferry crossing. (Footnote: the ‘Forth Bridge’ is the railway crossing, built to withstand an enormous storm after the collapse of the original Tay bridge at Dundee in 1879 when a train was crossing.) I was surprised how tranquil the crossing was, compared with the very windy Severn Bridge six days ago.
We got our best view of the railway bridge as we climbed away from the Firth of Forth towards Kinross. It was a hilly ride to our destination, but I enjoyed it, especially the views of Loch Leven. It reminded me of my childhood in Cardiff, where my friend Anthony lived in Leven Close. Many roads around Roath Park Lake in the Welsh capital are named after Welsh, Scottish and Canadian lakes.
On first glance, our destination, the Green Hotel in Kinross was a treat, with its airy corridors and comfortable rooms. I had the biggest room by far of the treat of the trip, with a bath – always my first measure of a good room!
But appearances can be deceptive. As the sun streamed through the window, I went to run a bath. But no water came out. I got on with other tasks but when I tried again, there was still no water. I went to the front desk, who said they’d had a problem but everything should be fine shortly. I paid three visits to the reception desk, but the promises of hot water never came true. When water finally started running, it was a horrible brown colour – and still cold.
Chris, one of our party, was kind enough to let me use his bath. At no point did the staff at the hotel apologise to me or find a way for me to have a bath or shower after 80 miles’ cycling. They gave everyone a free drink, a miserly recompense for their incompetence. (There was no hot water in my bath in the morning either.) I will not return to the Green Hotel in Kinross, although I am happy to point out that dinner in the bar was excellent.
This was a less eventful day, apart from the milestone of crossing into Scotland. There was a distinct chill in the air as we prepared to set off. My revised, less favourable view of my Penrith guest house was confirmed when the owner told me off for leaning my bike against an outside view. As if handlebar tape and a saddle would ruin it!
The cooler weather prompted my only clothing mistake of the tour. I started with a base layer and long sleeve jersey. In the chill of the morning, I wasn’t warm enough – but was too hot with a jacket on! That’s when I wished I’d brought a wind-resistant long sleeve jersey.
On leaving Penrith we went through Newton Rigg college campus – which gave me a flashback from my Coast to Coast ride in 2017, when we did the same in the opposite direction.
We reached the border at lunchtime, taking the obligatory photos by the sign. We had reached our third country! Amusingly, we slipped back over the border for lunch at the Gretna Chase Hotel. After the rain of previous days and the cold start, it felt good to sit outside in the sunshine and enjoy an excellent lunch.
The first hour’s cycling in Scotland was a bit of a slog on the road to Annan. There was an unhelpful headwind and the scenery was nondescript apart from glimpses of the Cumbrian mountains and Solway Firth.
We reached the lovely town of Moffat in good time and gave the bikes a good wash after the rain, mud and muck of the last few days. I really liked Buchan Guest House, despite my small room. The owner invited us to leave clothes we wanted washed in a basket; they were back by the time we got back from dinner.
The unionist Tories boost SNP’s Sturgeon. Reality will be different
You could never accuse the British establishment of being intelligent. Almost a century ago, its brutal response to Ireland’s 1916 Easter Rising ensured the departure of the 26 counties from the United Kingdom. David Cameron is doing his very best to repeat the trick 100 years on with Scotland.
I don’t blame the Tories for having fun at Labour’s expense over the rise of the SNP. But talk of the SNP holding the country to ransom is very foolish. The Scottish nationalists are completely entitled to use its bargaining power in the new parliament. That’s how parliament and the constitution work. More fool the Tories and Labour for allowing the survival of our corrupt and undemocratic voting system. It’s unlikely the SNP would be in the same powerful position had justice prevailed with the introduction of a more proportional voting system.
As Jonathan Freedland says in today’s Guardian, the Conservatives have been totally calculating in talking up the SNP. Chancellor George Osborne praised Nicola Sturgeon’s performance in the leaders’ debates. Why? To embarrass Labour. Yet the ploy was cynical and stupid at the same time. If the Tories were so horrified by the SNP supporting a Labour government, why praise that party’s leader?
Ironically, the SNP is likely to have less influence by ruling out any kind of unholy alliance with the Tories. It’s unlikely to repeat its 1979 folly in bringing down a Labour government. Ed Miliband may have more room for manoeuvre as a result, despite the Tory scaremongering.
“Out of touch London politicians have had the fright of their lives. Cameron, Miliband and Clegg complacently assumed that the result was a foregone conclusion. But when a single poll claimed a yes lead, they panicked. They cobbled together a promise of ‘Devo Max’ – home rule within the UK. Dave, Ed and Nick rushed up to Scotland to declare undying love for the country and plead with Scots not to file for divorce. It was desperate and unconvincing.”
Judging by their actions over the last month, those out of touch London politicians have learned nothing.
The authorities once thought this part of Cardiff was in England
Today’s Daily Telegraph includes a letter from a Cardiff reader Barrie Cooper complaining that BT insists on sending him a Newport phone directory because he lives in east Cardiff. This prompted schoolboy memories of a time when Cardiff’s eastern suburbs were technically part of England. Not that any of us accepted that for a moment…