Cycling Britain (III): The Lochs

•November 19, 2010 • 2 Comments

After the traditional loaf and jam breakfast had been inhaled, we cruised into the port town of Gourock with the energy of three boys who’d just stolen a night’s sleep. Scotland had been largely a disappointment thus far; we’d travelled via busy A roads, had camped in a midge infested swamp and had passed through cement-cladded housing estate after cement-cladded housing estate. We were hoping the ferry over to Duror would unlock the gates to the Scotland we’d been waiting for.

It didn’t disappoint. The Argyle Forest was some of the best cycling so far. We followed Loch Eck from end to end in the shadows of pine filled rolling hills. The wind was on our backs and the mileage was waltzing by. Sticking to the lochs gave us the benefits of both beautiful scenery and flat roads, although the zigzagging between valleys meant that the mileage was adding up. After 110 miles and satisfied with our day’s work, we looked forward to a mere 50 miles to Fort Augustus the next day. Once again as the sun lowered its weary head the wind dropped, and so did the midges. Sick of smacking our faces (and each others) to death, we sought shelter in the camp site toilet block and cooked up one of our most exquisite meals thus far: “Slurry A La Rice”.

The next day saw us cruise past the Nevis Range, Fort William and all the way to Loch Ness. The possibility of a half day’s sun bathing meant for a snappy pace in the three man peloton. We were rocketing at a solid 16 mph, and after a post-lunch dip in Loch Lochy we arrived in Fort Augustus in 26 degree heat. Were we really in The Highlands? We threw up the tents in an overpriced campsite and proceeded to egg each other on for a swim with “Nessie”.

What strikes you about the lochs around the Caledonian Canal is the colour of the water: it is blacker than death itself. Shirking this off like the macho men we are, the three of us donned our undersized Speedos and hit the water. I led the pack and aimed straight for the middle of the loch. Five strokes in and we’d regressed into three little girls, squealing at the tops of our lungs. We sprinted back to the shallows before Nessie could have a nip out of our backsides (if my multicoloured budgie smugglers hadn’t scared her off already), and cackled at the patheticness of our behaviour. Anyway, we’d done it. Swim in Loch Ness: TICK.

One would assume that half a day’s rest, a swim with Nessie and a good night’s sleep would mean fresh legs and quick progress the morning after. Not the case. The rest had interrupted our rhythm and we plodded on in indifferent lethargy, our backsides even more tender than the morning before. It seemed our bodies had completely relaxed to the idea of doing not much. A quick stop in Inverness for some bike maintenance at a local shop and we pressed on Northwards. We hit a rhythm in the second half of the day and with another following wind made it to Lairg by 5:00 pm. Obviously popular with tourers (or was it just the lack of towns in this region that meant they are all concentrated here), we shared stories with a couple of fellow cyclists. The sky was becoming seemingly angrier the further north we headed. We’d been lucky thus far, but would we make it to John O’Groats without a drop of rain? Sleep soon took us after the sound of ducks pecking at our tent relented; the sun was still well above the horizon.

Woke up to a blustery wind and gloomy sky and prepared to crank out the mileage to our last camping spot; the surfing town of Thurso. Today, if all was well, we would reach the North coast of Britain; no mean feat by anyone’s imagination. We rode through beautiful heather rich landscapes, eyes peeled for those herds of red deer so abundant on Autumn Watch. With all this land and very few roads, they’d be wise not to come anywhere near us, so we reasoned it would be an unlikely sighting. At length we reached the north coast, a huge landmark, and with sore legs we ignored the road to Tongue where we had agreed a lunch stop, and pressed on east with empty stomachs. As we did so, much to our dismay the heavens inevitably opened.

We filled our bellies whilst huddling from the elements in a bus shelter and pressed on towards Thurso. As the rain finally receded, we put up our tents with well practised efficiency and headed for the pub. We were 20 miles from victory and thought a few premature ales wouldn’t harm us.

The final 20 miles were done in one hit and at blistering pace. With five miles to go, we changed the front man at one mile intervals. That satisfying ripping of muscles ensued and with heads down we pressed on, wheel to wheel. We were at 22 mph; our faces red with effort, teeth gritted and eyes on stalks. 1 mile to go and shouts of agony were coming from all three. One……last…….push. Like wild horses we lined up three a breast and pumped our pistons just a few more times. And then……we’d done it. Elation and pride. We had conquered Britain!

Total Distance: 1050 miles

Time on Saddle: 80 hours

Average Speed: 13 mph

Average Daily Distance: 87 miles

Average Daily Saddle Time: 6h40

Weight of Loaded Bike: 35 kg

No. Punctures: 0

Weight at Start: 12st 1lb

Weight at End: 12st 1lb (all those nose bags)


All photos courtesy of Rob Friend, John Fruen and Ryan Davies.

Cycling Britain (II): Big Mileage and Small Midges

•November 12, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Today we were off to Chester, where our friend Jon Brownley (well actually his parents) was to host us for a couple of nights. The anticipation of a night on the beers followed by a day alleviating our backsides was enough to get us started with a spring in our wheels (?). The roads were fast and flat and the peloton was shifting. We stopped by Ellesmere lake for a slab of ham and a loaf and then cracked on towards Holt. To our surprise we bumped into Jon Brownley here who was on his way home after a day at work. He kindly informed us of Holt’s bloody Anglo-Welsh heritage, and then we chased him home (via an unfortunate near death dual carriageway experience).

A mixture of Jon’s parents’ hospitality, a days bottom-healing and the beautiful historic town itself left us with a warm fuzzy feeling about Chester, and we burned it off towards the Lakes in high spirits. Fittingly, as we battled alongside commuter traffic through the old mining centres of Warrington, Preston and Wigan, the sky turned grey, and the smiles were soon wiped off our beetroot coloured faces. Not to be beaten, the peloton pressed on. By lunchtime we had punched out 85 miles; the day off in Chester had seemingly done us some good. Then disaster struck.

John, at the rear of the bike train rode into the back of a van at some traffic lights, whilst myself and Ryan rode on for 5 miles completely oblivious. When John didn’t appear at the front for his turn as wind stopper, we were slightly concerned, but assumed he’d stopped for a call of nature. Turning on one of our phones, a text message soon confirmed the worst. He had put his hand through a break light and had smashed his knee on the asphalt. Following his instructions, we waited on the roadside for him to catch us up once he had sorted out the necessary bureaucracy. John was shaken, but in reasonable spirits, so we cracked on at a more leisurely pace, conscious that we still had 20 miles to do today and it was getting late (well actually, Ryan was keen to watch the England game).

The ride into the Lakes was as beautiful as to be expected, and still the weather was holding. Unbelievable. We soared through Windermere (after a quick Kodak moment) and headed for the tent symbol on our map. Now, when you are on the wrong side of 100 miles, the last thing you want the owner of a campsite to tell you is that they stopped allowing tents on the site three years ago. What a kick to the nuts! Oh well, we kept our chins up and had a think. It was a bit busy to wild camp near Windermere, and anyway, we wanted to watch the footy, so required a pub nearby. The other option was to down a Coke or two and head up over the Kirkstone pass to the next campsite. We settled on going to find the YHA, and blowing a couple of days’ budget. Morale had plummeted, and tempers were fraying. We watched the footy in silence and hit the sack, into a restless slumber, dreaming of Kirkstone Passes and 20 mph headwinds.

My dreams were answered. Kirkstone was an absolute killer of a hill and the wind didn’t relent. So much so, that it was a considerable effort to get down the pass the other side. At the bottom of the hill we were all freezing cold and knackered, having only conquered 12 miles in well over an hour. We battled the wind past Ullswater and towards the Scottish border, stopping for a bucket of fish, chips and mushy peas in Carlisle (the only inland English town where it is socially acceptable to wander around  with your belly hanging out).

This was instantly regretted as thoughts of a siesta wouldn’t leave. It’s worth pointing out, when we originally started planning the trip, we assumed a daily mid-afternoon snooze would be on the cards. Unfortunately the headwind was ensuring we were averaging 7 hours a day in the saddle, and with the unpacking and packing of tents, washing and cooking food, it was a full time job. A holiday this was not. We entered Scotland with an emotional cheer (and took the obligatory photo); we’d come a bloody long way but were only just over half way.

With our expensive shelter the previous night in mind, we were in the market for a free sleep, so our eyes were peeled once we were nearing the necessary mileage. After 85 miles we were still looking and thinks were starting to get gloomier as energy levels began to slump. After a team talk and an agreement to press on further, we came across a farmers track leading off towards a wooded area the other side of a cattle field. It looked promising. We jumped of our steeds and pushed them down the rugged track towards the woods.The ground was spongy, and the grass long; it was probably no stranger to plagues of insects and would flood within minutes of a reasonable rain shower. Perfect! We set up camp, put the slurry and rice on and awaited the midges, and oh were their midges. This was to be the first night of a midge infested Scotland that heard us cursing this “bloody country” every dusk and dawn all the way to John O’Groats. We had an early night and prayed for morning.

Heeding some advice, we decided to skip out the sprawling smoke’s of Glasgow and Edinburgh and headed northwest, where we’d take a ferry (slightly south, so not cheating!) into the highlands. Still sticky from yesterday’s ride, we ticked off the mileage – heads down, ipods in – up the A76 for what seemed like hours, before losing our way on the back roads towards the end of the day. It seems that roads were becoming much fewer and therefore the margin for error was becoming increasingly smaller. Anyway, we eventually made it to a camp site about 10 miles from the ferry on a beautiful hilltop, and the midges swung by to say hello right on schedule. The camp site owners weren’t around and we were up and away before they arrived in the morning. Should I still feel guilty about not leaving them a fiver? Ah sod it, property is theft isn’t it?

All photos courtesy of Rob Friend, John Fruen and Ryan Davies.

Cycling Britain (I): Sore Knees and Pasties

•November 5, 2010 • 2 Comments

In anticipation of my next adventure (Cycling Southeastern Europe), I decided it was about time to put pen to paper with regard to our June ride from Land’s End to John O’Groats.

I’d taken a serious interest in Cycle Touring since reading about Al Humphreys’ adventures around the world. However, how can one be so presumptuous as to want to see the rest of the world without REALLY seeing and appreciating what we have on our own doorstep? So, like Al, before exploring more exotic pastures by pedal power, I mentally signed myself up for the British cycling tourist’s initiation: LEJOG. I posed the idea to Ryan whilst on a beach in Hossegor (we’d both just finished reading Thunder and Sunshine and were already dreaming about future trips through Africa), and the plan was formed. I was confident John would be interested as he’d been trying to persuade me to do it with him for the last couple of years (to no avail). So, we had a dream team of three and a whole ten months to plan for it.

Five days before the D-day I woke up and could hardly put any weight on my right leg. My knee was knackered. I was gutted. Was I really not going to be able to take part in an adventure I’d been looking forward to for so long? A quick scan of the internet and my concerns were cemented; I had Chondromalacia. Not one to take medical advice seriously (usually to my own detriment), I gave my knee five days of RICE and hoped for the best; setting myself the goal of making it to St. Austell with the guys and then taking the train home.

Had we considered the route a bit more carefully, we might have been a little less ambitious with our targets. St. Austell (where a friend would be providing us with shelter for the night), was a 75 mile trip from Penzance (via Land’s End), however Cornish terrain and a bike loaded up with a tent, pots, pans and the rest of it meant for very slow going. We crawled into St. Austell 8.5 hours later, with sun scorched faces, aching knees and a cartoon thought bubble of “what the f**k have we let ourselves in for!” looming over our heads. Anyway, we were pleased to see Si and his brand new pad, and the beer and sausages flowed like wine.

The next morning (sore heads and stiff legs) we hit the road early doors. Heeding our lessons from taking the scenic route in one of the hilliest counties Britain has to offer, we decided to stick to an ‘A’ road today. This cut us a little slack, and the route was still as glorious. We landed on Exmoor 10 hours later and, with nearly 90 miles under our belts, in good spirits (although we learned a thing or two with regard to calorie intake along the way!). My knee was screaming at me, but it was holding its own, so whilst having a chin-wag with the chaps over our first slurry and rice cooked on the camp stove, I tentatively moved the goal posts towards Bristol.

Never have I been more thankful for the existence of the Somerset Levels. And level they are. At last we seemed to be moving at a reasonable pace, and if it wasn’t for the incessant head wind we would have been flying. The hills were really testing my knee, and at points in Cornwall and Devon I was off my bike, pushing, and STILL maintaining pace with the other two. We stopped at Glastonbury for another pasty (becoming a staple luncheon for us) and cracked on towards Bristol where Ryan’s Nan would be providing shelter (and a couple of hearty meals if my memory served me well). My knee had held again, and I tentatively aired my confidence that I thought I could make it all the way. The guys were elated, and we looked forward to the next stage.

Cycle touring is a constant learning process, and we had learnt a valuable lesson the previous day. We had been prey to the dreaded “bonk“. With 15 miles to go we realised our “nose bags” were empty and our heads light. We were in trouble, and morale had taken a bruising. We pressed on as best we could, hoping to see a newsagent’s round the next corner, and the next corner. Eventually we came upon a corner shop in a remote village and bought them out of Coke and Jaffa cakes, and made it to camp with renewed energy. With this in mind we literally stuffed our faces the next day. Below is our Jamie Oliver-esque menu:

  • Full English Breakfast and Coffee
  • Box of Jaffa Cakes
  • Bag of Haribo Sours
  • Caramel Bar
  • Large Prawn-Mayo Baguette
  • Large Traditional Pasty
  • Bag of “Ride Shots”
  • Two Large Milkshakes
  • Medium Flapjack
  • Large Spaghetti Bolognese
  • Three Slices of Bread and Butter
  • Fruit Salad and Yoghurt

That’ll teach “The Wall” a lesson!

Leaving Bristol’s suburbia, we headed for the Wye Valley. I had never appreciated how beautiful this area of Britain is. The winding road snakes through forest and river valley, past dissolved monasteries and quaint Anglo-Welsh villages. The weather had been kind to us thus far, so the relentless head wind was partly forgiven. By now, we’d developed a routine for cranking out the miles. A volunteer would kick off the day at the front and the other two would sit behind, wheel-to-wheel, in peloton formation. After 5 miles the front man would peel off to the back and we’d repeat until 15 miles was done (towards the end of the day, the pace generally increased until we were bombing it flat out – no one wanted to be out done by the other two). At which point, we’d guzzle a few tasty snacks from our nose bags, maybe even a milkshake or two, if we had time. I was imagining three fat bloaters greeting John’s dad at King X in 10 days time. To be honest, I didn’t care: as long as we held off the bonk I was quite happy to consume my weight in pork scratchings every day.

We set up camp near a small village called Broome, plotted the next day’s ride and went on the hunt for some grub. And then morale plummeted. We were a 10 mile ride from the nearest town and we had no food for dinner; stupidly we had let our legs runaway with us and had zoomed straight through the last big town, heads down, assuming that a campsite might sell us some grub we could cook. Oh, how wrong we were. We spent the next hour riding from pub to pub, cursing under our breaths (at the pubs and at each other) and eventually arrived at a pub a few miles ride away (do we add that to the total?) where we blew a couple of days’ budget on steak and ale pies. The slog back to the tents on our sore, sore bums was utter misery. The fall out from the meaty pies at the pub assured a gas-induced restful night and we woke up to yet another clear blue sky.

All photos courtesy of Rob Friend, John Fruen and Ryan Davies.

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