Post-journey reflections

Firstly, our overall statistics:

Total distance: 1045.52 miles (includes the ten miles from Penzance to Land’s End)
Average speed: 11.7 mph
Hours in the saddle: 89 hours and 28 minutes (which is 3 days, 17 hours and 28 minutes). For reference, the time taken by last year’s winner of the Tour de France was 91 hours and 26 seconds. OK, maybe he was slightly faster than us, but he wasn’t carrying panniers…!

Ten days have passed now since we stood at the signpost at John o’Groats, and we still can’t quite believe we did it. The vast majority of the trip was really enjoyable, and we have great memories of many parts of the country we hadn’t seen before, and some we already knew and loved. In fact, even the sections which were hard graft at the time are good memories now, with the benefit of knowing it was all ultimately fine. In a way, you tend only to have experiences like those tough days when you do a long tour, because you have to ride the whole route, including sections you wouldn’t necessarily choose for a single day ride. You also have to ride in the prevailing weather conditions, whatever they may be, and that gives you a different experience. The days of battling into a fierce Scottish headwind were hard, but it’s ultimately very satisfying to find that you can face that challenge without cracking.

It’s very definitely an ‘eating an elephant’ challenge (!), cycling from Land’s End to John o’Groats – you have to take it a little bit at a time, rather than thinking about the entirety of what you are trying to achieve. It’s obviously a big physical challenge, but if you’ve trained enough then it’s the mental element which could make or break your attempt. Getting up each day, donning the cycle-wear and doing the miles seemed to be as much about attitude as it was about legs. Staying cheerful when it’s raining, or when the riding is hard, or when you suddenly find you have 8 more miles to cycle than you thought, or when you find yourself wishing your saddle was made of something considerably softer is really important!

You need a good dollop of luck, of course. So many people said “You’re nearly there now” as we progressed through Scotland, but we were very aware that one silly slip in the shower, or a nasty fall on the road and it could all have been over. There are always going to be events beyond your control, and the prospect of encountering such an event is worrying, especially when you’re nearing the end. All you can do is plan for as many potential problems as you can, and try to cope with whatever comes up.

Many people have asked us since we finished whether we would do it again, and the answer for us is definitely not. Not because we didn’t enjoy it, but, strangely, because we did. We’ve acquired a taste for tandem touring now, and knowing that we are strong enough to complete a long journey opens up lots of new possibilities for future rides. There’s undoubtedly a significant challenge in cycling LEJoG. Can we do it? Are we strong enough? Will we last the distance? We know now that we are, and doing it again, even perhaps doing it in reverse, wouldn’t add anything to that. Which isn’t to say that we would now want to go longer, or higher, or more extreme in any way, just to see if we could succeed. We enjoyed the challenge of trying to finish something big, but it was just one aspect of the trip. Doing it again would also inevitably involve re-treading some of the same ground, and while there are definitely areas to which we’d like to return (including Glencoe, preferably on a clear day!), there were also parts of the country where we wouldn’t choose to cycle again.

So what next? The tandem is also home now, and incredibly shiny and clean after a serious service and some TLC from JD Cycles in Ilkley, without whom we would never have become so enthusiastic about tandem-riding in the first place, and whose help and advice was invaluable along the way. And now the sun is shining again, we are starting to feel the urge to turn those wheels. So to start with, perhaps just a Kettlewell and back. After all, that’s just Golspie to Helmsdale…..

And now some lists, mainly for the benefit of others planning a LEJoG of their own…

Things which worked well:

Doing lots of planning – the route, knowing where bike shops were, having a list of B&Bs, knowing the ‘height’ profile of each day. The BikeRouteToaster website (strange name, useful site) was particularly helpful in producing gpx files which could be loaded directly onto the Garmin GPS unit.

Trying to stay off A-roads as far as possible. We cycled along some fantastic traffic-free little lanes, and although it meant we did over 1000 miles instead of the more direct 874-mile route, it was very much worth it for the relaxing ride and great scenery. If we were planning with the benefit of hindsight we’d try harder to avoid the A38 between Wellington and Taunton, which we used to avoid a lengthy detour on minor roads. The A9 between Alness and Golspie was also an uncomfortable ride, because of a high volume of traffic. This could perhaps be avoided by taking the B9176 to Bonar Bridge, then the minor road between Bonar Bridge and Golspie via Loch Buidhe. Note that this detour would add a few climbs, so use your own judgement here!

Training hard, especially the deliberately tough weekend to Kirkby Stephen and back around a month before departure. Nothing we faced on LEJoG was even close to the rigours of those two days, and knowing you have successfully completed two hard days with lots of climbing is mentally very helpful when you’re facing the ups and downs of Devon and Cornwall or Glencoe. For the last two weeks before departure, we deliberately reduced the training. This was also a good move, as it meant we were fresh and raring to go when we started.

Taking our time over the trip, and being flexible about where we stopped each day. Taking three weeks and not having any accommodation booked in advance isn’t for everyone, but it worked really well for us, and meant we could adjust our days according to how we were feeling, whether we were meeting friends or relatives, whether we liked a particular town or not.

Using local knowledge – we had some great route tips from people who knew the local area, and the local history related to us by our host at Carlisle really enhanced our day as we cycled through the areas he had described.

Travelling light. They say you should lay out everything you want to take, and then ask yourself for each item whether it’s really worth hauling it 1000 miles. When you’re unsupported, every ounce you take really matters. We reckon we got this about right, despite not sawing the handles off our toothbrushes!

Having some milestones along the way (on the ‘eating an elephant’ principle). It gives you something smaller to aim for if you know you’re meeting someone on day four, or crossing a border on day eleven.

Having Gary the Garmin Edge 605 GPS along for the ride. He always knew where we were, which was helpful, and had a full map of the roads of the UK.

Things which could have worked better:

Gary, frankly. He had freezing and crashing problems, some of which we believe are sorted out by a software patch now. The route recalculation algorithm is really dire though, and we had to keep an eagle eye out for the ‘Calculating’ message appearing, as our carefully planned route had always gone out of the window after a re-calculation. We’ll be passing some specific examples along to Garmin, which should help them to improve things in this area.

The wind. It was supposed to be south-westerly. It wasn’t. Not even once! It was frequently blowing from the north… Not much you can do, though, just have to get your head down and keep the wheels turning as best you can.

Getting onto Scottish cycle-paths. Scotland has lots of very good cycle-paths, well-signed once you’re on them, but we found them difficult to locate initially (see entries for Coylton to Balloch and Balloch to Tyndrum). Maybe we should have known they were there. Or maybe there should be more signposts. Why isn’t there a sign-post at the end of the cycleway on Erskine Bridge directing you to the canal cycleway, which starts only a few hundred yards away?

The ‘sheep’ project. Clare decided to record in photographs the way the country changes from bottom to top, including houses (from stone cottages in Cornwall, thatched cottages in Devon, through red brick in Lancashire to rendered bungalows in the Highlands), beer (from Tribute in Devon and Cornwall, through Thwaites ‘Wainwright’ in Cumbria, to Belhaven Best in Fort William) and sheep. As it turns out, though, sheep are the same the country over. Oh, except in the Lakes, where there are huge numbers of different breeds. Rest of the country, though – all entirely the same….!

Things we learned:

It’s a big country. Especially Scotland. On crossing the border into Scotland you soon realise there’s still a long way to go – almost 50% of the journey, in fact.

The hills in Devon and Cornwall are as tough as everyone says, short but sharp gradients and plenty of them, but if you can get through them, it does get much easier.

Scotland is a country of big mountains, but the passes between them are usually comfortably low, and the climbs are long but gentle. Spectacular scenery, too, of course. Midges only seem to catch up with you when you stop to repair the bike. So in the event of a breakdown of some kind, stop, then apply anti-midge measures, then fix the problem, in that order!

The motorists of Great Britain are (for the most part) patient and considerate. There’s a very uneasy relationship between cyclists and motorists in this country (the blame for which frankly belongs on both sides), but on our trip we felt safe and were given a wide berth, particularly by lorry-drivers on the thankfully rare times we had to ride along A-roads. There were only a couple of occasions on the whole trip when the Captain felt moved to shout ‘Oi!’. There was only a single occasion on which we used more colourful language – congratulations to the white van driver who tried to emerge from a side-road onto a main road without once looking left….

The people of Great Britain are (for the most part) really lovely. So many people came to chat to us, encouraged us with waves and toots on the horn as they passed in the car, and gave us donations for Macmillan. It was hugely morale-boosting and really made us feel we were doing something worthwhile.

Places we particularly enjoyed staying:

Thorneyfield Guest House on Compston Road in Ambleside
Spean Lodge in Spean Bridge
The Bridge Hotel in Helmsdale

People we’d like to thank:

The Edge Cycle Works in Chester, who replaced the middle chain-ring on a busy Saturday morning, despite the fact that they were right in the middle of moving premises.

Calvin at Ghyllside Cycles in Ambleside, who helped us understand and sort out our hub problem.

The inestimable JD Cycles in Ilkley, who are always so incredibly supportive and helpful. We have no links with this shop or its staff other than as customers, but we really can’t recommend them highly enough. Their advice is always unbiased and spot-on, and there is a fantastic culture of creative problem solving when it’s needed. Thanks to everyone, especially John and Ruth, Jamie, Mitch, Joe and Dan.

Emma and Rob in Bath, and Phil, Claire, Kate and John in Bispham Green, who fed and watered us, and washed all our kit. And Sue at Spean Lodge, who was unfazed by our horrible shoes.

And of course all our sponsors, online and off, and all the people who gave us donations and encouragement along the way. Your support was fantastic!