John ‘O Groats to Land’s End


Will managed to pass me another Dextrasol tablet, but I was too tired to eat it.

I was lying where I’d collapsed on roadside heather, bicycle still between my legs (below, click all pics for quite high res (scanned photos)). Will was slumped next to me, looking like a hostage who’s given up hope, then run a marathon. We were 40 miles into the 1,000 between John O’Groats and Land’s End, with 15 more hilly Highland miles to go that day. “Maybe,” panted Will, “maybe we should have done some training.”

heather4,000 people a year ride between John O’Groats to Land’s End, one of Britain’s Great Journeys, usually taking between two and three weeks. Most go the sensible way, from Land’s End to John O’Groats (a ‘LEJOG’), with the prevailing wind behind them. That looks uphill on a map. We chose to go the ‘downhill’ way (a ‘JOGLE’).

So my friend Will and I set off from John O’Groats, into the prevailing headwind, with no training. Headwinds to cyclists, we discovered, are as salt to slugs. I’d expected an Enid Blyton style summer adventure: drinking lemonade, peddling lazily thorough dappled glades, nodding hello to farmers. Maybe scrumping an apple or two when their backs were turned. It wasn’t like that. The first day was a dreadful slog along roads carpeted with squashed rabbit. The next day was harder: just as strenuous, but we were saddle-sore, and it rained. On the third, flat-ish day, along the stunning scenery of Loch Ness (below) and the Great Glen, things improved. We were getting fitter, less sore, and were perky enough to actually talk in the pub that night.

lochnessMark Waters of the Cyclists’ Touring Club (CTC) lead a group of disabled cyclists on a LEJOG last year. “Get ‘cycling fit’ before you go,” he recommends, “by weekends and maybe a week away laden with the same load you’ll have on your trip. Anyone who’s vaguely fit can do it, but the older you are, the more training you’ll need.”

Our other mistake, beyond not doing any training, was bicycle choice. According to the CTC, the best bike for touring 1,000 miles is, unsurprisingly, a Touring Bike, designed to carry a lot of kit efficiently on-road. One alternative is a hybrid, halfway between a Mountain Bike and a Tourer. Real cyclists sneer at this category-spanning mongrel, but if riding is mainly road based, with a little easy off-road, it is a good option. With skinny tyres and panniers fitted, a Mountain Bike is a viable possibility, but much the worst of the three.

We were on Mountain Bikes. We didn’t realise our mistake until day four, on Glencoe. We were ploughing steadily uphill, through awesome Highland scenery (below), when a gang of cyclists whizzed past on Tourers. It was like motorbikes overtaking tricycles. Two more groups of Tourers zoomed by that day, the last lot making the banks of Loch Lomond a lot less bonnie.glencoe

There was bonnie-ness enough left though, and at least we weren’t so uncool as to wear helmets and leotards like the Tourers. Helmets are a tricky subject. Padded cycling shorts (with normal shorts on top for decency’s sake) are indispensable. Shades or glasses are a must to keep flies from your eyes. Sensible people and loved-ones will recommend helmets, and when head-planting on concrete at 40 mph you’ll probably be glad of one, but we opted for bare-headed freedom. And, on more hungover days, cigarettes.

hungoverBy day six, things were so easy that we decided to camp. We’d intended to use the tent every night, but couldn’t face putting it up on the first few evenings, so we picked up a bit of a B&B habit. In the end, we only camped the once. When you’ve been cycling all day, bath and bed beats communal showers and hard ground every time.

The CTC recommends booking accommodation in advance, and provides three possible routes – one via youth hostels, one via selected B&Bs, and one more direct one. We didn’t book ahead. Although we’d planned the route, we couldn’t guess our daily mileage. We always found somewhere though: some marvellous, some grim, and we always had the tent as a last resort.

Waters gives advice on how long to allow: “You can do a 100 miles a day [our furthest was 88], but stick to 50 or 60 if you want to enjoy it.” At 50 miles a day, it will take three weeks, 70 miles a day and it’s two. We took 16 days, including a day off visiting the roller-coasters of Blackpool (highly recommended).

If you need it, The CTC is very useful for planning ahead. Their LEJOG pack with various routes and other goodies is £12.50, but you might as well join for £33 and get the LEJOG pack, plus perks like insurance and cycling advice from experts like Waters.

There’s not much more to tell – we meandered southwards, ate lots, drank lots, saw great scenery, and had a good holiday. I fell off in Chepstow. Will had one big tyre blow-out in rural Cheshire, but after five minutes walking, we found the World’s largest bike repair shop. Further on, the drivers south of Hereford get a big V-sign for being the least cycle-friendly in the country, Devon was beautiful, and the spine of Cornwall surprisingly dull.

It was brilliant to finish, and a top achievement which I mention regularly. As a bonus, when I got back home, my then-girlfriend gave me a big hug, grabbed my two-week-exercised bottom and jumped back, eyes wide. “Wow!” She squealed, “Buns of Steel!”



Cyclist’s Touring Club tel 0870 873 0060