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John O'Groats to Land's End
March/April 1996

I had an excellent ride and enjoyed tail winds everyday and the first continuous spell of seven days dry weather this year. I never got rained on! To complete matters, I got lost only once despite following a very complicated route of country lanes. However, my ride was not without its problems.

The first heart-stopper came when I discovered my train to Crewe was only going as far as Oxford. A coach connection was laid on from Oxford to Coventry. Typical welcoming BR employees informed me that I would be most unlikely to get my bike on the coach. I had little choice, so I boarded the Crewe train anticipating a showdown with the coach driver at Oxford. However, I need not have worried. The coach driver cheerfully informed me that he carries his bike on the coach all the time and mine would easily fit in even with a full coach load of passengers and luggage!

I arrived in Crewe at 9:05pm (one hour late) and stayed there Sunday night with my brother, Mark, who would be helping drive me to John O'Groats on the Monday. We left Crewe at 6:15am picking up a friend, Simon (also a keen runner and cyclist), who was eager to travel with us as, like myself, he had never been to John O'Groats before. It turned out that I did all the driving (setting a personal record of 524 miles driven in one day). Mark and Simon were both knackered from running the 17 mile Grizzly race at the weekend.

Apart from one amusing incident with a pizza the car journey was uneventful. We arrived in John O'Groats at 5:00pm in plenty of time to locate our B&B and have a good look around. We ate at the Sea View Hotel (the only place open!) that evening where one of the locals generously sponsored me £5. I wondered how often he sponsored cyclists. Intent on getting a good night's sleep, we were in bed by 9:00pm having requested breakfast at 6:30am. But I was out of bed again by 9:30pm, changing rooms to avoid my brother's snoring, and then managed to sleep well until 6:00am. I ate a good cooked breakfast with plenty of toast and marmalade to follow, intent on stocking up for the 140 or more miles I had to cycle to Carrbridge. We were out of the house by 7:25am and I was very shortly in position at the farthest point by the sea. I said good-bye to Mark and Simon and they wished me luck.

I was on my own now. Conditions were ideal. The wind was a strong northerly, which meant it was cold and dry. There is a slight hill at the start which I climbed at 16-17mph. As soon as I hit the top my speed rose rapidly to over 30mph. The ride into Wick (nearly 18 miles) took just 47 minutes as my speed rarely dropped below 20mph for the whole of this section. Considering my panniers weighed about 18 pounds I was more than pleased with the way things were going. In fact, as the day would later tell, I was a little too enthusiastic at the start. I did encounter an occasional snow flurry in the first 10 miles but the temperature was too cold for the snow to melt on me, so it was not a problem. The scenery was spectacular and the cars non-existent. I had an amazing ride down the A9 to Inverness, passing through 80 miles in 4:30 and 100 miles in 5:45. I rode continuously, as I planned to do everyday, except for some necessary stops to buy provisions and, of course, the all too frequent calls of nature. Having seen enough of the A9 I decided to cross the Black Isle into Inverness where, after 120 frenzied miles, I really hit the wall. The next 25 miles to Carrbridge were painfully slow. Though I didn't know it, this was to be the only really tortuous section in the entire seven days. After 9 hrs 15 mins and 145 miles, I arrived knackered in Carrbridge. My B&B was fairly easy to locate and I quickly established a routine of shower, put on fresh clothes, find somewhere to eat, prepare the bike for the next day, phone home and bed. Despite having eaten continuously throughout the day I was starving, so I sat in a local pub demolishing a packet of biscuits between courses. The waitress informed me that there was a 60% chance of rain the next day. Fortunately my route fell within the remaining 40%.

I had a 6:30am breakfast Wednesday morning making for a 7:20am roll-out. Conveniently, I did not need to rejoin the A9 for 15 miles. The traffic on the A9 south of Inverness is far worse than that on the northern section. By now I was looking forward to kissing good-bye to the A9 permanently, but first I had to cycle a long slow 15 mile drag up the Pass of Drumochter. Having reached the summit it was a bit of a swizz that I could only reap the benefit of 4 fast downhill miles before turning off for Trinafour. However, the sudden change in the nature of the road, from busy boring dual carriageway to peaceful meandering country lane, was more than enough compensation. Throughout the next 12 miles to Kenmore the roads were tranquil and the scenery amazing. However, today's big adventure was about to begin on the mountain pass that runs between the small towns of Kenmore and Amulree.

My intended route took me along this pass, so I set off up the nearly 1-in-3 hill (standing on my lowest gear of 26 front and 28 rear), ignoring the road closed sign at the bottom of the hill (a closed road on a bike, what nonsense!). Shortly, I met a van coming down the hill and the driver told me that he had been unable to get across the pass due to deep compacted snow and ice on the road. However, he did think it likely that I may be able to get through on the bike. Undaunted I carried on straining up the hill till sure enough I encountered the obstruction. At first the snow was not too bad, but as I progressed it got steadily worse and I soon found myself pushing and then carrying my bike over huge drifts. In my stubborn determination not to be shaken from my route I laid my bike down and proceeded to walk across the drifts in the vain hope that I would soon discover where the snow petered out. It then dawned on me, here I was thousands of feet up, on an icy isolated barren wind-swept snowscape, unable even to determine the location of the road were it not for the snow poles. A twisted ankle and I would be a goner! At last common sense prevailed and I retraced my steps down the hill. Having wasted nearly two hours up a mountain and now being forced to cycle an estimated 15 miles extra to my destination at Carron Bridge, just south-west of Stirling, I was worried that my schedule was blown. This was the point where my 250-300 mpw training really paid off. It appeared that, no matter what my thoughts, my legs just kept turning those cranks and my schedule remained intact. I passed 100 miles in 8:59, somewhat slower than yesterday.

The day was not finished with me yet. With only about 12 miles to go, while on the B822 just before Kippen, I spotted a faded "Sean Yates" painted on the road. This could mean trouble? Sure enough the road began to climb steeply and kept on climbing for nearly six miles! There was nothing for it, but to imagine one's self as Pantani storming the mountains. I eventually arrived at the B&B after 135 miles and 11 hrs 50 mins on (and off!) the bike, at 7:10pm, when it was almost dark. Fortunately the landlady was happy to cook me an evening meal; the nearest eating place was a good few miles down the road. I was in bed by 9:30pm, slept well and arose for a 6:15am breakfast, which was kindly left out for me.

Thursday morning roll-out was at 7:07am and I headed straight into the centre of Falkirk, where I promptly got lost. However, by heading in a general southerly direction I soon put things to rights and rejoined my route at Forth and cycled along the B7016 through Biggar to join the A701. The A701 is a must for any cyclist in the area. It rises gently through some fine scenery for nearly 17 of the 22 miles into Moffat. I had tail winds and found myself climbing steadily at about 16-17mph with very little effort. The final 5 or more miles descend non-stop along a smoothly curving road all the way into Moffat with spectacular views to the left. I was touching speeds of 40mph at times and given that I hardly saw a car along the whole 22 mile section it made this the high spot of the entire tour. The complete day's cycling went extremely well, I passed through 100 miles in 7:20 and managed to take in some of the Cumbria cycle way on route to my destination in Culgaith. I pulled up outside the B&B around 6:00pm after 10 hrs 56 mins in the saddle and 149.9 miles covered. The landlady immediately opened the front door which left me to explain why I was about to join the small group of children who were cycling around in circles outside her house. I clocked up another 0.1 mile, making 150 miles the longest section of the tour.

As usual I ate and slept very well. Another early breakfast meant a 7:15am start in clean kit. The landlady had kindly put my entire kit through the wash at no extra cost. I had been washing my shorts every night in a bid to avoid those troublesome little bacteria. Today's cycling was to prove some of the most challenging yet. Again, I was blessed with tail winds and things went very smoothly all the way to High Bentham, where I ran head long into the knee-popping Ribble valley. This took me up and up, and then up some more. The Ribble valley runs for about 10 miles between High Bentham and Slaidburn. I must have been standing on my small gears for a good five of those miles. The scenery was spectacular, but with my heart pounding in my head I didn't take in too much. After the Ribble valley came Blackburn centre, the cycling low spot of my tour. I survived Blackburn and found an excellent route through the urban sprawl which runs from Liverpool to Manchester. Largely due to the Herculean Ribble valley and one or two other tough hills I went through 100 miles in 8:35. After 133 miles and 11 hrs 5 mins in the saddle I arrived in Crewe to spend the night at my brother's.

Tomorrow I was due to be accompanied by a friend John. His train was late, so I was asleep by the time he arrived. John was well into his training for the Canadian Iron Man Triathlon (as a qualifier for the Hawaii Triathlon) and would be using an old frame since he had just snapped the down tube of his good bike on a recent hill climb.

Another early breakfast meant a 6:52am roll-out. We negotiated the lanes from Crewe to Much Wenlock with the greatest of ease; I had cycled this route only last year. From Much Wenlock we took the B4378 to Ludlow and then the B4361 to Leominster. This meant the roads were quiet (though not by Scottish standards!), yet very easy to follow. They were, however, relatively hilly resulting in a time of 8:24 for the first 100 miles. The main feature of the afternoon's cycling was the sheer number of narrow winding lanes we had to negotiate and the plentiful choice of directions at each junction. For a few hours there was much consulting of the map. Incredibly, it turned out that we took not one wrong turn the whole day and all that map reading turned out to be just a time wasting exercise, as it served only to confirm that we were indeed heading in the correct direction.

Towards the end of the day John was tiring and shouting something about killing me as a monstrously steep hill came into view. He was more used to cycling a lightweight racer, without panniers, on good roads. We arrived in Chepstow at 6:00pm, after 130 miles and 11 hrs 5 mins in the saddle. With some help from a local we located our B&B and we were soon washed, changed and refreshed. It turned out that John had been carrying only the bare essentials for a cycling trip in his panniers: cycling clothes, running shoes and a swimming kit!

We ate well at a local Indian restaurant and I got lost on the walk back to our B&B. This amused John as they were only 500 yards apart and my sense of direction had been faultless all day. I guess I had already switched off for the night.

The clocks were put forward early Sunday morning which meant our 5:00am waking that morning was akin to a ridiculous 4:00am. Breakfast had been left out ready for us and, although we didn't hurry, we were away by 6:23am. The ride across the Severn Bridge was magnificent in the early morning light. This was the first time I had ridden across the bridge. I said good-bye to John, who was returning to Gloucester that day (in time to put on his training shoes and go for a run), and decided that I would go straight through the centre of Bristol.

If one must cycle through the centre of a big city early Sunday morning just after the clocks have changed is the time to do it. Bristol was deathly quiet, but it still took me a good hour to get through even though I saw very little traffic. Again, I had tail winds. In fact, yesterday's northerly had turned into a north-easterly to help push me down the leg of Britain. The weather was cold, dry and sunny. My face was by now quite sunburnt and dried out by the wind, something I had not anticipated. Today's route was very easy to following since it included large sections of B-roads from Taunton to Great Torrington. My pace was slow but steady and I was feeling remarkably fit at this stage of my tour despite the number of rolling hills. I passed today's 100 mile point in 8:22 and arrived in Great Torrington at 4:15pm. I was feeling great and it seemed much too early to stop. The next day was through hilly Cornish lanes so I decided to carry on a further 20 miles to Bude.

I had ridden for 11 hrs and 47 mins and a distance of 137 miles when I spotted a nice quiet looking country hotel in Stratton, just outside Bude, and decided to enquire about the cost. B&B was £23.50 I was told. Following a sharp intake of breath on my part and, as the hotel was obviously currently deserted, we agreed a price of £15.00 for the night. The room was extremely comfortable. It had a phone and en-suite facilities. I cancelled my previous booking, in Great Torrington, and then ate a very acceptable meal in their restaurant, which was opened especially for me.

The final day began with another early breakfast followed by a 7:20am start. I estimated there was just over 90 miles to go, but much of this was over very challenging Cornish hills. From St. Columb Major I followed the CTC (Cyclist's Touring Club) route all the way to Land's End. The weather was again cold, dry and sunny. I still had the tail winds though they made little difference because of the severity of the hills. I encountered many 1-in-5 and even some 1-in-4 climbs. Previously John had told me about the time he had done the End-to-End ride in the same direction that I was taking. He took mostly major roads with the small exception of the B3315 which runs between Penzance and Land's End. He found it extremely hilly and long, coming at the end of the ride. This had been playing on my mind for some miles before Penzance, but I decided to be a hard man right to the end and not take the easy option of the A30. Much to my surprise, apart from the climb out of Newlyn and one 1-in-5 hill, I found the road virtually flat in comparison with the lanes I had just been cycling.

My goal almost in sight, I stopped just 600 yards from the entrance to Land's End to don the T-shirt of my chosen charity, the Imperial Cancer Research Fund. I had over £550 pledged in sponsorship. At 3:10pm I was waved through the entrance without the bother of explaining that I had just completed the End-to-End ride. Today's distance was 93 miles, though I still had 11 miles left to cycle to my B&B in Penzance. My total recorded distance from John O'Groats to Land's End was thus 923 miles, or about 132 miles per day.

I signed the special book for End-to-Ender's in the tribute room of the local hotel and then went to have my photograph taken by the signpost. The photographer thought I was about to start my ride; she commented that I looked much too fresh to have just finished. I sat down to eat and was soon approached by an American tourist who enquired if I had just completed the End-to-End ride. He said that he'd often fancied the idea of doing the ride himself, but he thought that meeting someone who had just finished was the next best thing!

The ride back to Penzance went remarkably quickly considering the strong headwind. I soon located my B&B and was able to relax and reflect on my successful completion of an unsupported seven day End-to-End ride on minor roads. Tomorrow's 50 mile warmdown from Westbury to Chandler's Ford would seem quite short by recent standards.

© Copyright 2003. All rights reserved.

Derek Jennings.