The Last Post… for us

 

 

At some point in our journey I was convinced I was going to start a blog with ‘August Malcolm and Justin hates June Malcolm and Justin’, meaning that it is all too easy to make decisions in planning but those judgements can have profound ramifications when you’re on the road riding with those decisions. But this is not the case. The highly regimented approach to planning was never the style Malcolm and I were going to adopt. We are more relaxed in our approach and, in a vague way, we anticipated that we could never account for what we were going to encounter on the ride. And we put a lot of faith in Garmin! If we had taken a more disciplined approach, we would have missed the glorious, unintended accidents and opportunities, such as crossing the south of the Chilterns at golden hour, traversing some of the mountain bike routes in the Cairngorms, experiencing the vibrancy of Manchester and Birmingham, or cycling Birmingham and Stoke-on-Trent’s canal network.

 

Writing this blog has been incredibly rewarding and frustrating. Rewarding in so far as Malcolm and I now have a record we intend to print off of the little incidents that occurred each day that make the journey our own personal adventure. Rewarding in receiving feedback from others about are exploits (incidentally, at the bottom of this post are several small buttons in grey and one says ‘Comments’ or ‘Reply’. It would be great if you could leave one, even a single word, and I will ensure Malcolm sees it too). But the blogs have been frustrating because I often had to rush to finish them, with last paragraphs in particular suffering, and, therefore, I am convinced it is full of mistakes and clunky expression. I haven’t read through the blog posts again, although I have added images to the first few days. However, I am sure you’ll understand the conditions in which the blog was being written and that it was often rushed because we had to go cycling and ‘we had promises to keep’.

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A word about our sponsors. Halfords have donated equipment to us and invaluable advice. I’ve mentioned them before but Mark, Colin, James, Ben and Tom in the Chichester branch have been nothing but patient and kind with us, particularly when we’ve asked some stupid, naïve questions. This also applies to Inverness Carl and Mal from Carlisle Halfords who were good-humoured, sympathetic and wise with their advice. The Premier Inn staff have always been welcoming. The Carlisle branch even gave us a goody bag of food for our journey. There was one particular member of Premier Inn in Lancaster who stands out because she went out of her way to help us get our clothes dry and park our bikes somewhere dry too. Unfortunately, I can’t remember her name but she is a credit to Premier Inn. Thank you from us to both Halfords and Premier Inn.

The two Mayor of Chichester’s charities that will receive the money are Stonepillow and the Oxmarket Gallery.

Stonepillow is a local homeless charity that does great work in the area and they have a ‘The Big Sleep Out 2018’ event on Saturday 13thOctober (I think) should anyone in the Chichester area want to get involved. The plight of two homeless people we passed by will certainly stay with me. Not only the hooded man on an early Carlisle morning already saturated in the rain seen by Malcolm, but a woman on a narrow traffic island in Birmingham, facing the oncoming traffic with something like nobility, not looking anyone pleadingly in the eye, but allowing the sign to carry all the weight of her message ‘Please help. Homeless’. We saw people bedding down beneath bridges on the Birmingham canal network too but I think it is the dignified woman who will linger with me longest.

The Oxmarket Gallery is a volunteer run organization that runs exhibitions throughout the year, which are free to the public. I have had a friend, Claire Grover, exhibit there and it is a wonderful space to view art, and something very close to Mayor Martyn Bell’s heart. As our support driver, Martyn took the opportunity to undertake a ‘pilgrimage’ to several art galleries on the trip, The New Art Gallery, Walsall being a particular highlight for him.

The two organisations are very different types of charities, but Malcolm and I are proud to have undertaken the ride for them.

 

Incidentally, several people have said that the Virgin Money Giving processing on the donate page can seem to throw you out when you are trying to donate. Please persevere. Every penny will be going to these two charities and not to replacing my knees, I can assure you.

Garmin and the bikes. I have moaned about Garmin but, of course, it was all user error. When I went on holiday earlier in the summer, Garmin had plotted good routes and was simple to follow. She is also easy to programme/program, especially if you plan your route on an internet page like ‘Ride with GPS’ (https://ridewithgps.com) and import the GPX file. However, I do find some of the menus and the swipes on the screen (which can have a delay) quite difficult to navigate, but that could just be me. I found Garmin was also not very flexible if she came across surprises like roadworks but, in more competent hands, I can see how she would be an invaluable and a useful tool.

 

The bikes we used were a pair of Carrera Virtuoso road bikes from Halfords. They cost about £325 pounds. The only adaptations we made were more comfortable (but still slim profile) seats and self-sealing slime in the tyres. If you have been reading other blog entries, you will know that the bikes were put through more than most ‘superior’ road bikes could handle and were more than a match for anything thrown at them. They are heavier than many road bikes but sturdy and built well. Malcolm and I could not recommend them highly enough and always felt mechanically safe on them. We didn’t even have a single puncture!

If you want my advice if you are considering undertaking a similar challenge, get yourself a Carl. The Inverness and Manchester varieties are the ones I can recommend but other Carls may be available. Remember that what you are doing is not just arduous but amazing; you are seeing the country and sights at a pace no car will experience them. Furthermore, unlike cars, the senses are stimulated: different birdsong from different areas of the country, the scent of pine resin from an industrial woodshed in the Lake District, the lowing of cattle, fertiliser on the fields, children’s cries of joy across a river, the unaccountable aroma of cooking sugar that made us ravenous somewhere around Chorley, the shush of high winds in Caledonian forests… Some destinations will stick in the mind more than others – the beauty of Dornoch, Perth and Stratford-upon-Avon, but this journey was never just about reaching destinations.

 

The following remarks in italics are directly from Malcolm:

So what does it take to cycle the JOG-CHI?

During the long hours on the bike you get plenty of time to think. After the third day of cycling, where we enjoyed an amazing ride through the Cairngorms, I began to feel stronger and, with a better understanding of the challenges ahead of us, felt much more confident that we would complete the cycle in the ten days. That said, it did not mean that the following days cycle could be easily compared. Every day was completely different with new challenges and difficulties to overcome.

Preparing the body and mind for the challenge

You don’t need to be supremely fit to cycle an endurance event such as this. Just look at us! Your mental approach is what makes the difference. Of course we did some training for the JOG-CHI challenge, which I am sure improved our basic fitness levels, but the opportunity to cycle together, get used to the bikes, share our thoughts and concerns, discuss and plan our approach was just as important as the improvements to our stamina and strength. We had, quite early on, agreed that we needed to break up each day in smaller, more achievable goals. Most days were split into either quarters or thirds. A typical day would have us cycle two sessions in the morning and two in the afternoon. Ideally we would try to cycle more than half of the day’s mileage by the end of the second session, which would, in a perfect world, give us a psychological advantage.

With each session completed, the mileage quickly grew and our confidence with it. By the time we reached the last session of the day, we were feeling it in our legs and bodies but the promise of some hot food and a pint of Guinness spurred us on.

Other important factors

A team approach:

The team approach to each day was really important. At breakfast we would discuss the day’s cycle and whether we would deviate from our original planned route. As more days passed, we relied less and less on ‘Herself’ and decided to follow a basic map route. With pages torn from a road atlas, we were able to agree on a simple route that avoided major roads. This was fine until we had to navigate through or round a town. This meant a different approach was needed and on many occasions luck was on our side when we finally found a way.

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The three of us stood outside the Palace of Scone

Martyn’s input was very important and he often set us off with a reminder of how best to get out of the town we were in so that we could achieve some serious mileage. He was then available to restock provisions on route (normally after the second session) and then was always there ready to congratulate us when we completed the day’s ride.

Spending hour after hour cycling in a pair was comforting. We took turns at the front especially if we were riding into a strong head wind which meant the rider at the back got a break. Justin and I had a measured approach to each day’s cycle. We have a similar laid back nature and we never really got overly anxious or bothered about decisions that had to be taken quickly or if we had taken a wrong turn. Even when we were tired, we were able to overcome difficulties without any bother. Being able to laugh at each other and ourselves was also essential. There were moments when cycling became difficult because we could not control our laughter and our legs had turned to jelly. The partnership and trust in each other was another really important factor in reaching our destination at the end of each day.

Sponsorship and charities that really mattered

It was never really discussed at length but we each had a shared understanding that so many people had been so generous in their sponsorship. The charities we were riding for were dear to our hearts and we did not want to let anyone down. We were silently determined to achieve the challenge, raise awareness and as much money as possible for Stonepillow and the Oxmarket Gallery. When we shared some of the comments and best wishes that were added to the Virgin-Just-Giving page, this further inspired us to keep going even when we were faced by yet another hill.

Weather

Cycling five days through Scotland and then a further five through England with only one day of poor weather was simply amazing. Our wet weather gear was incredibly basic so we were very lucky not to experience more of the ‘wet stuff’ along the way. The day that we did experience driving rain was further testament to the strong partnership that Justin and I had formed. We decided, within minutes of the day, that we just had to get our head down and work against whatever rain and wind was thrown at us. We did not complain and even managed to laugh at each other as the steam rose from our soaked, shivering bodies as we clasped hot coffees at the back of a garage.

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The Firth of Dornoch
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The Lake District, several miles south of Shap Pass

Support and encouragement across the country

We were always amazed at the support and encouragement we had along the way. From the incredibly helpful staff at Premier Inns and Halfords to the many people we bumped into en route who wanted to chat about our challenge, every one of them helped to spur on our efforts.

How it worked for us

On reflection, we could have given more thought to diet and preparation but our approach worked for us.

 

The event was one that will stay with me forever. The opportunity to cycle with Justin through such amazing countryside, to build a friendship with Martyn, to have the support of such amazing people such as Clare and Helen, to visit the Stonepillow and the Palace of Scone; all of these will be ever-lasting memories.

The opportunity to raise money for two important local charities whilst cycling with a good friend on a fully supported event was one I could not refuse. These memories will still with me but, for now, cycling around West Sussex, will be as far I will venture.

 

Particular moments and people stay with me (and I expect Malcolm) too: the Provost of Perth and his assistant and the warm welcome they gave us, along with the witty journalist who came to document our arrival there; the bleak uniform dark green at the top of Caithness, where really only sheep, hardy cows and wind turbines thrive in the fields; the jagged beauty of a Scottish horizon and the wide vistas across bridges crossing firths that no camera can do justice; the carnage of wildlife killed on the roads – hedgehogs clearly have migrated to Scotland, but are barely seen amongst the corpses of badgers, stoats and foxes of the South, and I have seen three dead birds of prey, including an owl; the shrines to people who have died on the roadsides – one at the top of a switchback pass to the north of Dunfermline and the other just to the south of Shap Pass in the Lake District stand out because clearly children had died there too; the wildness of the Cairngorms and their torrents of rust-brown water from the peat; the vibrancy of Aviemore with its pretty railway station hosting its Harley Davidson convention ‘Thunder in the Glens’; crossing the Firth of Forth under stormy clouds that had passed us by; the remote, austere beauty of Lanarkshire beneath the last light of day, as the sun sets alight the clouds, before fading completely; passing the trainspotter in Dumfries and Galloway who was being judged by a small flock of hairy sheep; finding THE ROAD, the B7076 towards the Scottish borders; learning from the landlady at Beattock, who had spoken to all sorts of riders undertaking the LeJog and JogLe challenge, of the young woman who tried to complete the entire thing in three days, but gave up and took a train home; Malcolm and I posing for ridiculous photographs outside the Gretna Green road sign, as real weddings pass by and a coach driver tips his hat and wishes us an ironic ‘Congratulations’; the hills of the Lake District just barely visible emerging from clouds, as if they were someone’s impression of a hill but they could not be bothered to sketch in details; the slog of Shap Pass and the dangerous descent on the other side, and the little boy looking out at us from his bedroom window in a remote farmhouse some miles north of Kendal; the kindly service station attendant who let us get some semblance of dry for the best part of an hour and the Premier Inn receptionist in Lancaster who willingly allowed us to dry our clothes; the youthful dynamism of Salford and Media City, as well as the woman who shook her head at us for daring to take a distant shot of her passing canal boat, whilst her husband just grinned; the group of about 30 Mancunian teenage boys taking up the whole of a busy A-road with their wheelies; Carl and Jackie, and their amazing bacon rolls; Staffordshire and its endless hills; the young man walking his dog who gave us incredibly precise details late at night in Stoke-on-Trent; canal towpaths and a muttering wife opening one of 36 locks whilst her husband casually helmed the boat; old fishermen grouped around a small, pretty lake somewhere 20 miles south of Stoke-on-Trent; the bearded boatman who shook his head at us in a ‘You’re both a pair of fools’ way, as we heaved our bikes into a farmer’s field; the brutal, run-down grandeur of an abandoned power station near Rugeley and the immensity of the Amazon depot stood beside it; the helpfulness of the customers in a Sainsbury’s garage in Tamworth and Malcolm being caught in the act of photographing a map; the father who gave us detailed directions about the canal network some ten miles outside of Birmingham; the young mountain-biker who led us through Spaghetti Junction and bunny-hopped over the lock ramps on the towpath; the urban majesty of the space beneath Spaghetti Junction; the chaotic, thrilling spilling out of humanity and different cultures in the Sparkhill district of Birmingham; wandering around Stratford-upon-Avon at night and having a drink beside the actors who had just finished their performances in the theatre in The Black Swan or ‘The Dirty Duck’, as Martyn called it; the driver who thought ‘That was it’ when another vehicle had almost collided with him outside Stratford; the merciless slope of Edgehill and an older biker’s cheerful ‘Morning’ as he passes by; the veteran of LeJog in Banbury with the amazing handlebar moustache that became little spirals at the end; Malcolm and I pelting along the road to Oxford because we were successfully drafting; the stunningly beautiful woman we managed to annoy in Oxford because we unintentionally stopped on a cycle path, causing her to abandon one of the town bikes and cross the road away from us – we’ve still got it!; a gyrocopter buzzing the gorgeous landscape north of Goring; the lights of Basingstoke refusing to reveal themselves; the beauty of the Sussex Downs; choosing to do the Goodwood hill as a last ‘kill the hills’ effort; the fact that this country seems to be made of hills, especially leading into towns, and only Cheshire seemed in anyway flat to us; of the bitter-sweetness of coming home and losing the sense of camaraderie we had forged between Martyn, Malcolm and myself but the delight in seeing the families we had missed so much; of the surreal moment of walking behind a town-crier, a bailiff and a Scottish piper as we bring the centre of Chichester to a halt… All moments, people and places I hope to remember.

 

I write these things down as aide-memoires for myself and Malcolm, as much as for anyone else. We have cycled the lengths of Scotland and England. Other than a few southern counties, like Devon and Cornwall, as well as other exceptions, if you live on mainland England, Scotland or Wales, we have bisected your latitude at some point in our journey. Both countries are full of beauty and warm people who have done nothing but assist us.

 

Martyn the Landmark Mayor was a fantastic support driver for us, always having rooms prepared well before we arrived, helping us with preparations and logistics. He was also incredibly generous, as well as full of tales and anecdotes of his time in the Midlands. I had barely seen Malcolm for several years before we started planning this long ride. However, he was the perfect companion: relaxed, good-humoured, stoic, patient, bold, often hilarious, quick to smile and laugh… The perfect companion for this long ride.

Arty reflection shot in Malcolm's shades
Arty reflection shot north of Goring
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On the road, the Cairngorms

Thank you to those who have donated (there’s still time if you haven’t – the donate button is at the top of the page). Thank you to our friends and families, particularly our wives and children who supported us through the ride and its planning stages.

And, lastly, thanks to you for coming along for the ride.

Malcolm & Justin

Malcolm and Justin on Bognor beach 1

 

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Day 10 – Basingstoke to Chichester, then Bognor Regis

Distance: 86.1km/53.5 miles

Time 4 hours and 13 minutes

Calories: 2007

Elevation gained: 1045m

 

Accumulated and final totals:

Distance: 1,184km/795.71 miles

Time: 67 hours and 2 minutes

Calories: 30,469

Elevation gained: 19,080 metres

Our backsides have become inured to the posture and the pain. Don’t get me wrong, they can still deliver little jolts, stings and spasms of tenderness, especially if you opt to ride in a slightly different position, but, like Wild West cowboys, we have been accustomed to a hard day’s riding. We are at one with the bikes. We have become the bikes!

After a photo opportunity with the Premier Inn staff, we hit Basingstoke’s ring-road almost immediately. Part of me wonders if Basingstoke actually exists: I have only every experienced Basingstoke as roundabouts with a leisure park and the occasional light industrial unit. Is there an actual town? I suppose there must be. The ring-road was not among the most pleasant thoroughfares we have ridden, although we did have an amusing moment when a bin-man was delivering a tirade of something from his cab, whilst gesticulating aggressively at us at the very moment that a fire engine passed by, meaning we didn’t hear a word he was saying. It was beautiful comic timing. I expect the bin-man was saying something along the lines of ‘Keep going, my fine fellows, and the best of fortune with all your endeavours’.

We skirted Basingstoke and headed south on the A339. Like Staffordshire before it, Hampshire set out it’s stall early – hills. Malcolm rode ahead of me, whilst I tried to find my legs. When I say ‘find my legs’, I mean find the energy and get through the initial aches and pains of reluctant joints and muscles trying to discourage me from putting them through what they have been through for the previous nine days. None of the pain is sinister or traumatic and this probably sounds more dramatic than it is, but I need to just get through the first 7 or 8 miles and beat the aches into submission.

The relief of the terrain made we wonder how anyone builds houses in Hampshire without the buildings just slipping off the sides of the hills. A Chinook flew overhead, then a smaller helicopter and the traffic was relentless, plus I had not seen Malcolm for miles. This was unusual as he would often forge ahead and then stop to wait for me but the miles and the hills kept coming and there was no Malcolm. I couldn’t blame him, we were on the home stretch and he wanted to see his wife and boys. Head down, I willed my legs to work, veered as close to the verge as possible to stay away from the many lorries, tankers and cars that passed by and watched the surface of the road blur like static on a television set… when Malcolm called me from the side of the road. The only reason he had not stopped before was because it was too dangerous – a fair point. Malcolm called the road right – the A339 was ‘a little road with bite’.

We paused beside a field outside Alton and made a couple of phone calls, as well as watching gliders pass right overhead and a red kite, visually echoing the movement of the gliders, wheel away over a copse on a near hilly horizon. Finally, I found my legs and could take the front for a while but had to stop at a sign for Alton, beneath which is a smaller sign declaring Alton is ‘Jane Austen’s Town’. I had a brief vision of the Austen cartel dressed in their Georgian finery running their ‘manor’ – “If Jane wants everyone wearing a corsage, you better be wearing one, alright? Don’t let me catch you NOT wearing a corsage again or I’ll take you to see the Big J and she’ll show you some Pride and Prejudice”.

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We tracked east along downland country. The hills were more intermittent then but we were so hardened to hill climbing that we laughed in the face of a sign boasting a hill was ‘8%’. We spit on your 8% hills! Far more professional-looking cyclists passed us, along with endless amounts of cars and vans. At one point when I was ahead, I lost Malcolm and waited for him to the point where I was concerned enough to phone him and considered retracing my ride. When he caught up, he recounted that a particularly vicious pothole had dislodged his water bottle and sent it tumbling. A day earlier, on a really fast A-road, the same thing had happened but Malcolm had managed to jam the bottle between his calf and the frame of the bike with incredible dexterity – he was losing his touch!

Some lovely downhills were followed by little bridges allowing for only one-way traffic. Malcolm’s spidey-sense was tingling superbly, meaning he is a full-on pathfinder and elite map-reader now, always nosing out the correct routes. Unfortunately, he is also a liar. When we took a right up a road, I pointed out it said Hill Brow – that couldn’t be good! Malcolm dismissed it with a breezy “It’s fine”. It was not fine. It was not fine at all. It was not that the hill was particularly steep, it just went on for eternity, with every bend offering another upwards slope. At the top of the hill and beyond Liss, a lady with her children, who had all been blackberrying, took our picture beside the ‘Welcome to West Sussex’ sign and we made for Midhurst.

 

A beautiful downhill with a stunning view of the downs suddenly emerged from the trees. West Sussex looked stunning and ignoring the Meaby Mantra of never stop half-way down a hill, I had to take a snap. Passing through the attractive village of Rogate (which Malcolm informs me has good off-road mountain biking), Midhurst seemed coy about revealing herself, as the road went on and on and on, and no amount of pretty vistas could make up for the fact that our destination did not seem to be getting any closer.

Of course, Midhurst did finally decide to put in appearance. On the high street, a man a little older than ourselves and dressed in the full branded regalia of a serious road cyclist was carrying a bicycle wheel over his shoulder. I have been reluctant to discuss our bikes until we finished in order not to jinx them but they have been superb. We have not had a single puncture. There have been a couple of times when we have had to adjust the brakes and, occasionally, they have stopped making that delightful purring whirring sound of a contented bike, but they have taken everything we have thrown at them on and off-road and delivered. We now have the greatest affection and respect for our bikes.

With a deadline of 3.30pm to meet Martyn the Landmark Mayor at Halfords, we permitted ourselves an energy gel and powered up Cocking Hill and rode in an out of the high contrast light and dark thrown over the road by the trees on our way to Singleton. At the bottom of the steep hill leading from Singleton to Goodwood, we decided to take the gauntlet it threw down as our final hill… and almost regretted it.

The top of Goodwood Hill, near The Trundle normally affords wonderful views of the coastal plain from beyond Bosham to beyond Bognor Regis but not today. I am glad nature is thriving but the full, thick foliage of the trees blocked out all but glimpses of the coast and towns before us. Racing down the steep downhill from Goodwood, past the golf club, along some really cracked and patchy stretches of road, we passed preparations for Goodwood Revival, turned right towards Chichester and then right again to Halfords. We were one minute late – 3.31!

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Posing for some photographs, we thanked Mark and Colin for their invaluable help (the rest of their Halfords’ team, including James, Ben and Tom have been superb and so patient with us too) and we heaped praise upon the bikes. Jog-Chi 2018 was complete… except Malcolm and I had our own personal goal to achieve.

Heading out towards Bognor Regis on busy Chichester roads, we had an uneventful journey along the good cycle track that runs between Chichester and Bognor. Finally, we turned towards The Waverley Pub and were greeted to applause by a small number of family and friends. Hugs and handshakes and, later, several pints followed. Then I took off my SPD shoes, donned my trainers and Malcolm and I walked down to the sea. We had touched the waters of the sea to the north of the mainland of Britain and now we touched the waters to the south. Our personal journey was complete.

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We will be publishing one more blog post tomorrow with thoughts and reflections on the journey. I promise you it will not be full of dry advice or lectures, so might Malcolm and I ask you to join us for just one more leg of the journey?

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Day 9 – Stratford-upon-Avon to Basingstoke

Distance: 140.49km/87.23 miles

Time 6 hours and 24 minutes

Calories: 3343

Elevation gained: 2399m

 

Accumulated totals:

Distance: 1,184km/742.21 miles

Time: 62 hours and 49 minutes

Calories: 28,462

Elevation gained: 18,035 metres

We have a daily routine that runs like this: wake up, stretch, shower, have breakfast, more stretching, pack up all our gear, prepare ourselves for the day’s cycle with food and checking over maps, run maintenance on the bike, Martyn sees us off, we cycle the route, we stretch, we eat, we shower, we drink our recovery formula, we write the blog, we sleep. It’s like clockwork and part of a finely honed process… except that I doubt if we have followed anything like that routine for possibly a couple of days at most. There isn’t nearly enough stretching, we stopped drinking the recovery formula several days ago (we just keep forgetting), and the blogs are finished in the morning because we are so tired. Bike maintenance still happens: we pump up the front tyres to 90psi, the back to 95psi and we do apply lubrication (somehow Malcolm and I are constantly branded with oil from the chains. They are like arcane symbols on our calves signifying we are members of the brotherhood of the bike). However, the slime in Malcolm’s back tyre has sealed it completely, even the valve used to pump in air and the bikes are not as mechanically clean as they could be. Malcolm developed an issue with his brake pad rubbing against his tyre yesterday. Whereas in Scotland, when I had experienced a similar problem, we had diligently released the braking mechanism and adjusted the wheel to ensure it ran free, yesterday, Malcolm just gave the wheel a kick and the job was done!

Deciding to avoid the climbs the Cotswolds were undoubtedly going to present, we set off from Stratford-upon-Avon in a south-easterly direction towards Banbury. Stratford was already busy with tourists enjoying a warm, but slightly overcast morning, so warm in fact that it was not long at all until we took off our base layers and wore only our short-sleeved tops, which remained the case for the rest of the day. Overcast is excellent for cycling. The shallow swells of slate grey-blue clouds, looking like a catch bulging in a net, later gave way to smaller reefs and archipelagos of cloud as the sun burnt up all but the robust.

Almost as soon as we were on the road, a reckless oncoming Landrover almost took out a smaller car. The Landrover didn’t stop but the poor middle-aged driver felt the need to pull over in a rough layby to steady his heart. He did look ashen and said he had feared that “it was all over”. With close to 60 miles to cover today, I do not want to jinx our ride, but we have been fortunate with the traffic. Of course, there are some drivers who give us hardly any room and some roads that are uncomfortably fast but any of the minor mishaps that have happened to us, such as falling into verges, have been our own fault or the fault of our kit.

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Martyn had warned us but on the southern edge of Warwickshire lies the 16% climb of Edgehill and it rose to greet us like a monumental stop sign. In 1642 an inconclusive battle had been fought in Edgehill. It makes me wonder about the ability of the commanders who controlled the higher ground if all they were able to do was fight a battle to an unsatisfying draw. Of course, I don’t know the details of the battle – numbers, equipment, experience, or even its precise whereabouts, etc – but any soldier who climbed up that hill must have been easy pickings. They probably would have surrendered for the chance partaking of our Torq pink grapefruit electrolyte drink and a Boost bar. Before starting the climb, a plane towing a glider circled above us seeking thermals. The tow-rope attaching the glider to the plane looked mighty inviting but Malcolm had already set off up the hill before I could suggest following the glider’s example (according to Malcolm, his wife, Lorri, is even better at hill-climbing than he is. She would leave me standing). Even the bend on Edgehill is a steep gradient and having an older, fitter cyclist power up the slope, delivering a cheery “Morning” as he passes you by, suddenly brings resentful, ungracious, murderous thoughts into the head, especially about the effects of gravity on a body in an uncontrolled descent.

On reaching Banbury, we stopped to drink coffee in the town square. Due to the fact that I wear SPD clips more designed for mountain biking, I clip around in my shoes like a tap dancer in search of a chorus line. The clipping of the metal on the floor heralds my coming often before people even see me. No woman in a slinky evening dress has approached me though to offer to be my partner for a rendition of ‘Top Hat’ or ‘Putting on the Ritz’ – disappointing. As we were leaving Banbury, a man approached us asking about our riding. He was a 2001 veteran of a LeJoG (Land’s End to John o’ Groats) trip. He looked at our bikes sceptically and pronounced that they were not really touring bikes. Perhaps, but the bikes have been put through conditions by us that no refined touring bike could probably take – they’ve been off-road, across loose gravel paths, along muddy overgrown canal towpaths… They may not be racehorses but they are a sturdy species that carry burdens well and can get up to a good hack when they need to.

We tested this theory out on the way from Banbury to Oxford when Malcolm and I properly utilised the technique of ‘drafting’. This is when the person on the bike behind sits in the slipstream of the front bike by getting as close as possible and taking advantage of the fact that the leader is slicing through the air before them. This reduces the effort needed to power the bike by the person at the back considerably. After a few miles, the person at the back moves forward to become the leader and the process starts again. It will be obvious to any endurance cyclist, as will pretty much the whole blog, but the trick Malcolm and I found is that, if you’re the leader, you have to put on a burst of speed as the person behind overtakes you and takes to the front, in order that you immediately shadow their wheel and feel the benefits. Too often, Malcolm and I would find ourselves lagging behind when overtaken. Using drafting, we approached Oxford amazingly quickly, only stopping at traffic lights beside a gorgeous Harley Davidson. Strangely, the rider refused my invitation of a straight swap of bikes, his for mine (I suspect my bike has more mileage on it than his, as has the rider), however, he did accept Malcolm’s challenge to a standing start race. It turned out exactly as you might have expected – embarrassing.

Oxford is the finest city in this country I have ever seen for accommodating bikes. It was so good in fact, that we were out the other side of it before we intended to be and had to walk or clip our way into town just to see a few sights. Outside Oxford, the A-road leading to the Science Park is wickedly fast and, although the scientists driving there might know all about velocities and masses in motion, they aren’t so good at understanding how fast their car is perceived to be going by a cyclist! A-roads in this country are like different species of cat: some are ferocious, unpredictable, huge beasts that seem to swallow you up; others are pussycats, small, tame, friendly, which seem to stretch themselves luxuriantly across the countryside.

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After some more drafting and consultation of maps, we were brought along a stunning lane towards the town of Goring ‘South of England village of the year’ according to the road sign. South of England! It’s not Carlisle or Lancaster, I grant you but we did not feel south enough yet! Stopping on a bench by the church – it was a pretty scene, I’ll grant them that – we then proceeded to climb and climb and climb our way out of Goring. At one point, Malcolm tried to slipstream a more professional cyclist with an amazing road bike but the results were much like his challenge to the Harley Davidson rider – embarrassing.

I find it hard to put the impressions of the Chilterns into coherent sentences, so here are just a few thoughts: pigeons banking over an old church roof; the flapping dance of geese in a stubble cornfield greeting each other as they land; inarticulate sounds of children’s delight with their kayaking as their cries carry across a river; a kestrel hovering above a road-side verge; swifts strafing over the road for evening insects; wrought-iron bridge railings next to a toll booth; the falling yips and whistles of a falconer calling her bird spiralling down out of the sky, and all these gilded with the last light of a low late summer sun.

Working day time has had very little meaning for us. We have had some appointments to meet but we refer to watches like longitude, mainly in the sense it gives us distance. We have cycled between entire weather systems. We have been guided by rising and falling suns. I have sometimes watched the front wheel of my bike blur against the road and almost phased out of the effort of cycling, whilst still being aware of what was going on around me. I would like to think it will be hard to go back to ordinary working day weeks but, after a day, I am sure it will not.

We raced for Basingstoke against the sunset and we lost. As with every other day, another hill and then another hill came like stationary waves and still we could not detect the lights of Basingstoke. After a brief turn on the far-too-rapid-for-us ring-road and a little losing our sense of direction we made it to Martyn. A Beefeater meal ensued, delivered by Ashley, and, under Martyn’s direction, a photograph with other staff members.

Tomorrow is the last day. We are so looking forward to seeing our families but we have also genuinely enjoyed the experience and the company. The last leg awaits.

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Day 8 – Stoke-on-Trent to Stratford-upon-Avon

Distance: 129.93km/80.73 miles

Time: 6 hours 49 minutes

Calories: 3322 cal

Elevation gained: 1882

 

Accumulated totals:

Distance: 1,043.51km/645.98miles

Time: 56 hours 24 minutes

Calories: 25,119 cal

Elevation gained: 15,636 m

 

‘It’s all a matter of perception’ can seem like one of those hackneyed, catch-all phrases but it is all a matter of perception.

There have been times on this trip when our eyes have been saying we’re going uphill but our bikes and legs are making it clear that downhill is the way we are going – a delightful if disorientating experience. Towns and landmarks that hove into view in the distance, often don’t seem to get any closer and then suddenly we’re upon them. By any standard, today’s planning was a failure and our map-reading skills are wanting and we almost certainly rode for far more miles than we needed to but we would not have missed today’s experiences for the world. I guess it’s all a matter of perception.

Our first turn in Stoke-on-Trent saw us going up a steep hill. We asked for directions three times in Stoke and I believe every time the response started with “Well, you go up this hill…’ From the moment we entered the county the previous evening, all Staffordshire seemed to be was hills. It was like the county did not want us there. Stoke-on-Trent alone seems to have so many hills that we were half expecting to see a Tibetan monastery at the top of one of them. After our hill, we hurtled down a really busy A road for the length of a junction before deciding to get off because the road was far too busy. Stopping on a bridge, we contemplated what to do and decided to go to one of our last resorts now and consult Garmin. Herself was insisting there was a straight cycle path within about twenty feet away, which was patent nonsense… until we spotted the canal towpath beneath us. A safe, flat way south out of Stoke and certainly a more interesting one.

The waterway meandered through some industrial parts of the city, a large building sporting the name ‘WEDGEWOOD’ lay not far off, but the canal felt industrial, rather than scenic at first. Of course, we did not care; the path was flat and even – all we had to do was pedal and avoid dog-walkers and joggers. Stopping to ask a young woman who lived on a houseboat, if we were heading in the right direction for Stone, she confirmed that it was a straight nine miles away on the towpath. Heaven.

 

Leaving Stoke behind, the canal led us past tidy houses which backed onto the canal and going was only slow because Malcolm and I were stopping so frequently to compose photographs of bridges or pretty canal boats or willows brushing the water of the canal. Resurfacing work meant we had to take a brief detour into a nearby village but then we were back on the towpath.

It was a Tuesday weekday rush hour, with the rumour of heavy traffic nearby. However, the many people we passed who seemed to live on boats moored on the canal were just taking their own sweet time in preparing themselves for the day. We think they have it right. I see the appeal. One waistcoated man sporting a superb beard was sat on the stern of his canal boat with a mug of coffee in hand, whilst his cockapoo guarded passage onto the craft from the towpath. He seemed to be frowning at a group of ducks who were scooting past his vessel at an alarming speed of 6 or maybe 7 miles per hour. The man had decided the day could wait. Another man in a canal boat called ‘Beer O’clock’, which was indeed berthed outside a pub, was slowly constructing his first roll-up of the day and nodded to us at half-speed. We even witnessed an argument between three canal boat people that seemed to be in slow motion. Road rage on Diazepam. A different pace of life altogether. These people may indeed have it right.

 

Venturing further away from Stoke, the canals became properly picturesque, with gorgeous lock-keeper cottages, well-tended grass verges and low-arched bridges, through which Malcolm and I had to duck. Malcolm helped a couple open some lock gates to let through their hired canal boat. Interestingly, and this tended to be the case, the man was steering the boat, whilst the woman, sometimes accompanied by children, were the ones doing the heavy lifting of heaving the lock gates open. The wife told me that they had been through 36 locks the previous day. 36 locks! She is going to be able to storm onto the ship, lift her husband bodily above her head and pitch him overboard with absolute ease with the muscle mass that woman is building up.

 

The leisurely pace of life was contagious and we were making very little headway. We decided to persevere down the towpath for a couple of miles, largely because we loved it, even though it became a muddy suggestion of a track, rather than anything substantial. We abandoned this idea by a bridge and coming to a halt, were addressed by a boatman chugging past that we should have taken a boat. He clearly had no truck with these new-fangled inventions of the bicycle or horseless motorized carriages.

Lifting our bikes into a farmer’s field, we rode down lanes to a beautiful village, in which a dozen fisherman were sat around a small circular lake with an island in the middle. Many of them were quite old men and, from a distance, they did rather resemble life-sized gnome sculptures. Finally, we found a main road and having taken the best part of three hours to cycle just over twenty miles, we put our feet to the pedals. Outside a place called Rugeley was the abandoned shell of a gigantic power plant, which had an industrial majesty to it, and opposite it was one of the biggest buildings I have ever seen, the Amazon depot. Some power wanes, whilst other power waxes.

 

Malcolm is athletically stronger than I am (he is probably stronger full stop) and frequently he starts pulling away from me when cycling. However, he instinctively knows when he might be pulling too far ahead and stops, waiting for me to catch up. This is almost always on the crest of a hill or rise, his theory or Malcolm’s Mantra being you never stop at the bottom of the hill and depress yourself with what is to come, stopping half-way up or half-way down is madness, so give yourself something to look forward to with a downhill afterwards. I only every violated that rule once today, towards the end, when it felt like I had nothing in the tank. Even then, Malcolm admonished me for it.

The conurbations of the Midlands start stretching along the roads so that it is difficult to determine where one town or village ends and another begins. Even so, we passed by Lichfield and then found ourselves on a motorway-like A road. Neither of us talk when we are on these roads because we have to concentrate on the cycling as passing lorries cause all sort of chaotic air turbulence around the bike. I chose to ride in the wide gutter beside the road, slaloming between the detritus of discarded items that make it look like the aftermath of an immense crime scene: a sock, a child’s stuffed toy, a bike light, a mirror, a lipstick case, a waterproof jacket, a single shoe. It did make me wonder about the stories or moments that led these items to having been abandoned to rot there.

Eventually, we made our way to our first real destination, Tamworth, about mid-afternoon. I confess that the only thing I know about Tamworth is about the media story of two pigs that escaped the local abattoir several years ago and roamed at large in Tamworth for several days. We found a Sainsbury’s and had a sandwich lunch and then tried to plan our way through the B roads that did not get caught up in the road systems of Birmingham or Coventry. Unsurprisingly, Garmin was no help and the map we had was at too large a scale, so Malcolm undertook an undercover mission. Posing as a customer in the garage, he would open up an atlas and photograph a couple of the relevant pages. His special ops skills not being what they once were, he was caught. We live in hope that he is not banned from all Sainsbury’s forecourts but he may have to grow a tache, a beard or adopt an accent to be served in Sainsbury’s again. We were starting to get frustrated about how to proceed. After all, two pigs managed to escape Tamworth, why couldn’t we? Taking the guidance of a friendly woman, we ignored the sinking feeling inside and headed back the way we had come, until we joined another canal leading into Birmingham.

The canal started as a friendly footpath but the further we rode along it, the wilder it became, with the path narrowing and becoming more grass and roots than path. Often we had two choices in front of us: plough through the nettles or ride perilously close to the canal’s edge. We almost always went through the nettles. After lengthy amounts of riding and several long tunnels, the pathway was restored to something manageable, especially as we approached Birmingham. Consulting two sets of friendly people on narrowboats and with the afternoon drawing to a slow end, we pushed on, passing many cyclists. Ahead of me, Malcolm surprised a Canada goose. It was still looking in his direction when I passed by and decided to have a disgruntled nip at my ankle for having the temerity to disturb it.

If we had taken our planned route, there was no way we would have ever witnessed the bleak but stately view beneath spaghetti junction. The unseen traffic roars overhead, the graffiti scrawled on the wall claims the area for someone with a skull-like tag and the columns of the overpasses almost lend the space a temple-like feel of a culture long lost. Where there are locks on the canals, the paths rise up in steep stepped mounds, which are both fun and demanding to ride. The whole canal riding experience did deliver unremitting punishment to the knees and hands, but we would not have missed it for the world.

Finally, the Stratford part of the canal ended unceremoniously in a locked gate and we were forced to find our way out from central Birmingham, a city we had intended to avoid altogether! Riding out through an area called Sparkhill was a sensory experience all of itself with the collage of diverse cultures spilling out onto the street: men of Caribbean extraction sat in solemn groups outside a café, open-air halal markets, music from cars sung Urdu, Hindi, Punjabi, or some other tongue unknown to me, the scent of cooking spices, a wedding beneath the purple neon sign ‘Special Occasions, Banqueting Suite’. You had to be bold to be a cyclist in these areas, meek cyclists were mere street furniture. The contrast between the bearded gentleman drinking his morning cup of coffee on his canal boat and the hectic vibrancy of Birmingham could not have been starker. Both were welcome bookends to the day.

 

The last stage of the journey took us through the attractive linear town of Henley-in-Arden. I tried to take the front but Malcolm always outpaces me after a while. What I appreciate though is that Malcolm always escorts me into our final destination. It feels like being a team and Malcolm is not allowing me to fall behind. Incidentally, Malcolm’s status as incompetent pathfinder (equal to my own) has been upgraded to supernaturally good: three times today – and, of course, all three times I was in the lead – he ‘sensed’ that we were heading in a wrong direction. And three times he was right. He has had an epiphany or something uncanny has happened to him!

 

After Martyn generously bought us an evening meal, and much to Meg our waitress’ astonishment, we wandered around Stratford-upon-Avon. It is one of Martyn’s old stamping grounds, although as far as Malcolm and myself can make out, Martyn’s old stamping grounds seem to cover the entire Midlands. We saw the place where Shakespeare was born or Harry Potter’s parents were murdered by Voldemort – one of the two; too tired to remember. Then we moseyed on down to the impressive theatre before finishing off the evening in The Black Swan, known affectionately by Martyn as The Dirty Duck.

It was not the day we planned. Some might say we were mad to go out east from Birmingham and then turn west and head back into it. They’re right but we would not have missed it and count it is a gift of a day. I guess it’s all about perception.

Day 7 – Lancaster to Stoke-on-Trent

Distance: 166.94km/103.73 miles

Time: 7 hours 48 minutes

Calories: 3429 cal

Elevation gained: 2375m (11,379)\

Accumulated totals:

Distance: 913.58km/565.25miles

Time: 49 hours 35 minutes

Calories: 21,797 cal

Elevation gained: 13,754 m

100 miles. One hundred. A ton… Only, we had never planned to do that amount!

Manchester was our undoing but, although tired, neither of us regret seeing as much of Manchester as we did. Within my own family I am well known for having an appalling sense of direction and getting myself lost (I once missed the M25 twice, whilst driving in and out of London), although in my defence I feel it’s just cities that confound and befuddle me. When we were teenagers, Malcolm and I decided we were going to walk from Chichester to Dorking to see a friend. For some reason we took a bike, which we used like a beast of burden, as well as copies of Asterix books – I could not tell you why now because they were heavy ballast. Before we had reached 12 miles, maybe fewer, we had got ourselves completely lost somewhere in Eartham or Slindon woods, or maybe both – we had no idea! Somehow when it comes to directions, when you put Malcolm and myself together, we become less than the sum of our parts, and Manchester just proved the rule.

We have been cycling for a week now. I know there are serious hills in Lancaster but the road we had chosen was kind to us. We appear to like roads divisible by three. The A9 acted as our guide and we flirted with it in a very on/off relationship for over three days; the A6 had developed into a more serious relationship for us, meaning we were far more committed and attentive to her over the last two days. I think the A3 might be the one that got away. The A6 had taken us through Cumbria and now duly led us out of Lancaster. After the initial grind and pain of the first six or seven miles, we had a fast morning all the way through Preston, Chorley and beyond. The weather was not quite what I was expecting: dark, amorphous clouds smeared across the sky, threatening and occasionally delivering a half-hearted shower that did not last long, and the wind was fitfully gusting from the east in a sideways direction, which did not really bother us.

Malcolm might have a jinx or hex on him. Having pelted through Preston, we stopped just outside Chorley, when he pronounced something along the lines of “Well, at least it’s not raining, there aren’t any real hills to speak of and the wind’s been kind to us”. I know this will read like exaggeration for effect but within half-a-mile Lancaster delivered all three to us. We know better now. That said, traffic lights felt like an entire separate curse in themselves today but more on them later.

After hardly stopping for 40-odd miles and feeling good at banking them, we halted at a garage where Malcolm contacted Manchester Carl, not to be confused with Inverness Carl (both are gods of bikes and cycling – Manchester Carl offered Malcolm invaluable advice before we set off but I will come to him later, as it was to be some while before we saw him, and our own troublesome god, Garmin, had no little input into why that was the case.) Incidentally, Malcolm seems to have a metabolism that allows him to eat almost constantly. I don’t know if he’s soon to enter hibernation mode or is sensing that the harvests might not be fruitful this year but he puts it away! Of course, we are burning loads of calories and that has been one of the joys of this venture, that we can more or less eat what we like and it will be burnt off. But at that garage, Malcolm polished off a subway sandwich. However, let me give you a rundown of what he ate yesterday: a full English, a bowl of cereal, two apples, an energy bar, a bacon sandwich, a donut, a packet of mini cheddars, a packet of crisps, a chocolate bar, a caramel bar, as well as constant peanuts and sweets throughout the day, although not a single pain au raisin… He is a miracle of biology!

Coming into Manchester was hairy, as the A6 joined forces with other roads and metamorphosed into a three-lane beast down which we thrashed the bikes pell-mell, before we could find a safe point from which to exit. That was when we decided to stop ignoring Garmin and allow her to lead us. Herself delivered a great start to her guidance, finding safe cycle routes and underpasses. She led us through the truly impressive Media City in Salford and over a bridge with severe lines across the Manchester Ship canal. Now, in her defence, Salford is undergoing major reconstruction with, I can only imagine, serious investment. It feels like a vibrant, exciting place to be. However, entire roads and footways are going through profound reconstruction and Garmin could not cope with the fact that we could not go straight across that road because it had been ringed off with a mile of fencing and had three bulky diggers in the way. To be fair, she did lead us down a beautiful canal into the city and then she stopped working properly.

The map on the screen showed our pink/purple line we are to follow beautifully. Then Garmin decided to announce to me that she had 34% battery life left. Not only would she not get off that screen and return to the map but why that random figure and what am I supposed to do with that knowledge? Who ever uses 34% as a marker for anything? Good news, you have a 34% chance that your dog does not have fleas. Well done, Mary, you passed 34% of your GCSE. You might want to take a brolly and/or bikini, as there’s a 34% chance of rain today. There we were then. Old Trafford stadium was in the distance (we had already passed Preston North End and Bolton’s Reebok Stadium earlier that day) and Garmin was calculating and recalculating, often with contradictory results. Manchester Carl was consulted on the phone, and Malcolm and myself picked a direction and stuck with it. We passed Old Trafford from the north, where anyone with a parking space was touting for trade and waving you into their waste patch of ground in anticipation of the Spurs game, and then we seemed to loop back and pass Old Trafford from the south, passing a proper gang of about thirty young teenagers doing wheelies along the A56. Shouldn’t they get at least a bronze Duke of Edinburgh award for their self-assurance alone?

We were getting nowhere! Like international rescue, Manchester Carl and Jackie were called in. The two of them brought food – I did not realise how hungry I was until I started to eat their bacon rolls. Using Jackie’s more biddable sat-nav, she and I planned out a route to get us onto the A34 leading south out of Manchester. The pain au raisin reference from earlier was because Malcolm had asked them if they might bring some pain au raisins with them. Frankly, there have been a shocking lack of French patisseries stops on our journey. I think Jackie, Carl and myself think this pain au raisin reference, like ourselves, still has some mileage in it. Who knows? If we meet any other of Malcolm’s friends on the journey, he might ask them to bring along emergency supplies of Lobster Thermidore.

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I had heard that during the Chinese Cultural Revolution students took to the streets to direct traffic at traffic lights. There was no way that red, the colour of the Revolution, could mean stop. According to the students, red was the colour of ongoing dynamic progress. Therefore, they forced traffic to go on red lights and stop on green lights. Chaos ensued of course and the whole thing was soon dropped. However, I had some sympathy with them today, as almost every light we came across was red. Manchester, alone, seemed to have more red lights than Amsterdam. Malcolm is wearing toe-clips and I am wearing SPD clips, therefore, for both of us it means that not only do we have to get our legs to produce movement again from a standing start, we both have to take our feet out of our respective systems. On one stretch of road between traffic lights, Manchester Carl passed by videoing us (Jackie was driving). I expect he’ll put an inspirational Vangelis soundtrack beneath it.

We passed through attractive suburbs of Manchester like Altrincham, where everyone seemed to be out drinking or dining, through tunnels in which car sounds bounced, blizzarded and roared, disorientating the hearing with any sense of direction, and finally we reached the A34 at the pretty town of Wilmslow. We thought this would be the last stretch!

Congleton was our first staging point for our last assault on Stoke-on-Trent and we hit that town in twilight, alerting Martyn to the fact that this was going to be a late one. The topography of the land had been fairly kind to us all day but, as soon as we entered Staffordshire, hills. Steep hills. And they kept coming all the way to the end of our day’s journey to the point where it was actually funny. We finally reached our Premier Inn with Martyn the Landmark Mayor waiting outside with concern for us. Good man.

Stratford-upon-Avon tomorrow… we have our ranger, pathfinder orientation modes on today. Still going to avoid Birmingham though!

If you like this blog, please leave a like or a comment. Malcolm and I read any comments each night and, if you leave one, we almost certainly will respond to you. At the moment, it feels like we our writing for ourselves and maybe a dozen people. The road awaits…

Day 6 – Carlisle to Lancaster

(Some of these stats are approximate today, as I forgot to start the app until later)

Distance: 111.85km/69.5 miles

Time 6 hours and 40 minutes

Calories: 2700

Elevation gained: 1305m

 

Accumulated totals:

Distance: 746.64 km/461.52 miles

Time: 41 hours 47 minutes

Calories: 18,368

Elevation gained: 11,379 m

“I wandered lonely as a cloud…” Did William Wordsworth ever come to Cumbria, let alone live here? First of all, the clouds don’t “wander”; they seem to belly-flop out of the sky and grind themselves obscenely against the contours of the fells. Secondly, they are not “lonely”. Either they hunt down cyclists in swarms like Africanized killer bees or they mass as one intimidating, slate-grey, bullying sheet of menace.

The short summary of today was rain. Lots of it.

Today started off incredibly slowly because our muscles seem to take a long time to warm up. Therefore, we traversed from the north of Carlisle heading for the A6 to the south at a speed that suggested we might not exit the city before the onset of the next ice age. I swear people on mobility scooters or even infants with stabilizers still on their bikes might have been able to overtake us. If anyone had been out, that is. But it was a rainy Sunday, so who would be out? I missed seeing him but Malcolm told me later that, as we passed a park in Carlisle, sat on the grass beneath a tree with his hood up was a homeless man already drenched by the rain. Even though I did not witness it, the image stuck with me through some of the worst times of today and reminded me of one of the main reasons for undertaking this ride – helping the homeless through Stonepillow. However punishing the day became, we at least had a warm room and a bed for the night awaiting us. Incidentally, if you are reading this blog and have not already done so, please consider donating to the cause. All the money will go to Stonepillow and the Oxmarket, and not to replacing my knees, I promise. Thank you if you already have donated.

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About 10 miles into our ride, we were both almost entirely saturated. Our extremities, such as toes and fingers were already quite numb but our torsos were still warm. We should confess that we were not properly prepared for this weather and, it was not until later in the day, we realised how much we had underestimated it: I had no waterproof trousers or any hat to wear beneath the helmet; Malcolm was wearing trainers that had holes in them already. I had decided to bring along some dog poo bags before we started in John o’ Groats, just in case we needed to store electronic equipment and protect it from the rain. Malcolm proceeded to wear them over his trainers. (Apparently, these are standard issue for Team Sky – Chris Froome swears by them!) More about our lack of preparation and its consequences later.

The sheer wetness of the experience was close to amusing at first. Malcolm pulled up his ‘buff’ over his mouth and nose, so he resembled an anonymous special operations agent about to go behind enemy lines to engage in a wet op. I wear a black headband when I ride, which today kept slipping down my forehead, so it appeared as if I had one large unibrow. I imagine to the people of Penrith, Shap and Kendal, it might have looked like the spirit of Leonid Brezhnev or Denis Healey had decided to take a cycle tour around Cumbria.

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We were due a bad day. Scotland had been extremely kind to us with the weather and, therefore, I had had barely any reason to don my fluorescent yellow coat. Today, I needed it from the moment we sat astride the bikes. Passing a field of Jersey cows, they seemed fascinated with my coat, a ripple of skittishness ran through them and then the entire herd ran along the fence beside me. For some reason, I became the bovine equivalent of the Pied Piper!

The road beyond the southern side of Shap Pass

Irritants. After our first day’s ride, whilst Malcolm was talking to his family on the phone, one of his sons asked whether we had become irritated with each other yet. It’s a good question. I can’t speak for Malcolm but the times when we can ride beside each other and chat are the times I most look forward to on these journeys. Malcolm and I have known each other since our mid-teens and over the last six days we have had talks about any number of subjects: politics, education, ex-girlfriends, fatherhood, travelling, sport and all sorts of nonsense in between. We have also made each other laugh to the point where it has been almost impossible to maintain the rhythm of cycling. These aren’t particular anecdotes or jokes but the timing of a phrase or the intonation on a word that just become helplessly funny. For example, I experienced this today just in the way Malcolm delivered a sentence which ended with “…A LOT”. However, due to the physical monotony of the riding experience, the mind seems to cast around for sensations. In a car, you might listen to music or the radio. On the bike, the body seems to find its own sensory narratives and amplifies the smallest irritant. The pinch of sunglasses against the head. The dangling strap on a rucksack just gently tapping the body. The piece of equipment that just keeps nudging the muscles. The gear changes that clunk onto the wrong cog and loses all momentum and seem to jar the legs or, as today, the saturated material of the shorts rubbing and worrying a particular point on my right leg. All of them are minor but sometimes, with little else to occupy it, the mind magnifies their significance until they become profound irritants.

Leaving Carlisle, we were met with undulating roads all the way to Penrith, where the rain arrived in full force.  Then the pair of us started the ascent to Shap and Shap Pass. The Lake District remained hidden behind veils of low cloud, whilst the summit of Shap Pass gave us wind and rain at full volume, making it hard to make any headway. Even the descents were unpleasant, as the rain coursed in rivulets down the roads, meaning it was too dangerous to take full advantage of a downhill run and let the bikes have free rein. In addition, at speed, the wind hunted down any gaps in our clothing and raindrops felt like strikes against the skin, causing us to squint to see our way. A further punishing aspect of the route was that, whenever we convinced ourselves it was all downhill from now on, another ascent would emerge out of the low cloud and sap our spirits all over again. Incidentally, I learned today that riding in another person’s slipstream whilst it is raining is not such a clever idea. The spray kicks up into your face and produces a fetching skunk-stripe look to the face and clothes.

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Kendal never seemed to get any closer and the rain was not letting up. Our intention once we got to Kendal was to find a garage, get warm and down a coffee, as there was little chance that we could stride into a coffee shop or tea room, Malcolm in his size 9 dog poo bags and me in my gimp yellow, cow-attracting jacket with matching neoprene pixie boots, drip all over their floor and then proceed to saturate their seats. Finally, after taking shelter in a garage several miles outside Kendal, we turned left into a country lane to find a man in a wetsuit standing on the edge of a bridge. Malcolm’s Samaritan instinct kicked in with “I’ve gotta watch this!”. The wetsuited man and a couple of friends were leaping from the bridge into a pool of dark water about thirty feet beneath. Giving us permission to watch him jump, Malcolm proceeded to ask the guy a question just as the wetsuited man’s centre of gravity pitched forward. The man in the wetsuit tried to halt his fall to address Malcolm but gravity kicked in. Thankfully, the guy made the leap safely. We biked on, checked our location on Google and, for a while, the rain stopped. By the time we reached Lancaster, the heavens had opened again and it was sheeting down.

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But I just want to return to when we were most cold and had drawn a blank for shelter in Kendal. The two of us were devouring food, in order to fuel up but the cold was setting in. A few years ago, I remember watching a BBC Bristol wildlife documentary recording army ants overwhelming a crab. The ants probed and probed until they found the crab’s weaknesses. The rain seemed to do the same thing, gradually infiltrating all our layers. A garage several miles outside of Kendal was a God-send because we had started shivering with the cold. Not only did the garage offer us a chance to warm ourselves with coffee but we also got the chance to put on dry base layers we had brought along with us and stand in the relative warmth of inside for about three-quarters of an hour. It made all the difference to us physically and psychologically. It was a lesson for us not to take the weather lightly and be better prepared.

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Once again, Martyn the Mayor and our own portable landmark, came out to escort us the last half-mile into the Premier Inn. We are now conditioned to being exceptionally pleased to see Martyn because he represents that we are close to comfort, showers and a stop to the riding. The Premier Inn staff, without exception, have been superb and a receptionist today allowed us to tumble dry our gear, so that it is all ready for tomorrow. All my communications with my family tonight have been about the weather and I am sure that is what I will remember most but sitting on this comfortable bed in this warm room, maybe the thing I should remember is the homeless man in the park, already drenched with the rain.

Day 5 – Carnwath to Carlisle (half-way there!)

Distance: 123.2km/76.5 miles

Time 6 hours and 12 minutes

Calories: 3087

Elevation gained: 1725m

 

Accumulated totals:

Distance: 634.79 km/392.02 miles

Time: 35 hours 07 minutes

Calories: 15,668

Elevation gained: 10,074 m

Malcolm and I had plenty of time to ride alongside each other today. He suggested we play a game: guess the personality by asking a question and only receiving a yes or no answer. He chose Macbeth; I chose Vlad the Impaler. Lord only knows what choosing these two figures say about our state of mind!

Yesterday’s exertions had been filed under exhaustion by our bodies but our inbox was full of aches and pains that demanded to be addressed today. The first 7 miles out of Carnwath for both of us were slow and had to be treated as a warm-up. Only after 7 miles or more did my body relent and allow me to develop a rhythm to my pedalling.

Malcolm has some experience of triathlons and long distance running. I, however, have never undertaken an endurance event beyond the Three Peaks and am new to how the body relays pain over a period of time. Before starting the challenge, my left knee had caused me concern. The mild niggle put up a fight over the first couple of days, worked diligently and persistently at its task and was eventually promoted to a fully-fledged nagging wince. Eventually, the mind seemed to concede defeat that I, its host, am too stupid to recognise the self-preservation signals it is sending and opened up a new front. Pain at the back of the right ankle. ‘Still snubbing me?’ Try pain in your left shoulder. Left shoulder! Why left shoulder? I’m not a circus acrobat cycling with my hands! Malcolm was getting pain in his lower back until Inverness Carl from Halfords performed miracles by making subtle adjustments to his seat. Now Malcolm describes just a general weariness in his leg muscles.

Not to be coy but of course there is pain in the backside. The rear is in a fixed position whilst the legs are pumping like pistons – how can there not be friction? Again, there are times when we recoil from sitting in certain positions on the saddle and we have tried perching on the front of the saddle or moving our bums further behind the saddle. Yet the saddles are only a narrow eight or so inches, our backsides are certainly not. That said, when we get up and walk about, there is almost no pain from our backsides – it’s just when we’re in the saddle.

There can also be twinges of pain in the hands where we grip the handlebars, as well as our little toes that tend to go numb towards the end a day’s cycling. On the whole, the body complains most when we start to ride after any significant break. Also, if we really have to focus, such as riding at pace, the mind banks any pain and allows complete concentration on the task, until it is safe to unleash the discomfort at its own displeasure.

Beyond aches, the bees were our first real concern of the day. Both Malcolm and myself would be riding along when we would be targeted by an orange and black high-velocity projectile into a cheek, a chin or an arm. The bees seem to take such pinballing antics in their stride and adjust course accordingly, but we would be left flinching. Furthermore, the first few times we stopped, the bees were attracted by our fluorescent tops. We became bee catnip. They were trying to pollinate us without even an introduction, a first date, nothing. I bet they never write or call either.

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Mid-morning, saw us cross the River Clyde beside a sign saying ‘Caution: Road Rage’ – I warm to the Scots more and more with their signage. On a hill to my left were four shaggy sheep with huge curling horns standing in a row, as if they had been selected for a police line-up. They resembled roadies from some heavy metal band circa late seventies/early eighties. These sheep were intently watching a trainspotter on the other side of the road who was picking his moment to capture some video of the 10:27 diesel locomotive from Carlisle to Glasgow passing on a nearby railway line. It was as if the sheep were a panel of experts judging the trainspotter on his technique. But I guess if you are a sheep on a hill in Dumfries and Galloway, a man standing on the verge of the road with a video recorder on a tripod and a camera in hand is an event in your life.

Further along the road and for the next 20-odd miles, we rode into a blizzard of fluffy spores that quickly went from being a beautiful and mesmerising experience to something quite irritating when the spores hunted down the mouth or exposed patches of sweat.

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Come late morning, Malcolm and I found THE ROAD. The B7076. An old trunk road that shadows the A74 (M). Hardly a car passed us and the road dropped away wonderfully, allowing us close to ten miles of largely downhill riding with almost no effort. We passed other cyclists, some of them looking as if they were undertaking the same task as ourselves but in reverse, as well as what looked like an Olympic paraplegic athlete followed by a support car. He was really motoring up the hill.

We met Martyn the Mayor at The Old Stable Inn in Beattock. The Inn has a postcard board of many other people who have undertaken the Lands End to John o’ Groats (LeJog) challenge who had stopped there. It almost seemed like an entry requirement to get in the pub! Martyn is superb at giving us precise directions. However, what Malcolm and myself realised today is that we have the attention span of particularly dim toddlers when it comes to directions at the moment. Our bodies seem so focused on providing us with energy and maintaining working muscles, and our mind seems so exasperated by our lack of response to the pain signals that we are ignoring, that we can barely process anything beyond “See this road here on the map? You want to turn left and, listen carefully, follow the… not that road… important junction… Got it? Please don’t take the wrong turning.” Martyn is a tall man and is often stood outside our accommodation waiting for our arrival. He acts like a mobile landmark for us. Thank heavens for Martyn.

We rode to Gretna Green and witnessed two weddings, as well as posing for a few ridiculous photographs of ourselves pretending to have eloped in front of the ‘Gretna Green’ sign.

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My Facebook post attached to the picture reads like this:

‘Reader, I married him.

If the outdated, dogmatic, reactionary attitudes of England will not allow two teenagers to pledge themselves to each other, then I despair for this great country. No, I shall not wait until I am one-and-twenty! And behold! See how daylight burnished our hair with a silver sheen, as if bestowing divine blessings on our union.

Oh frabjous day!’

And then it was time to leave Scotland. The people have been so warm to us and Scotland breaks my heart with its beauty but also breaks our bodies with its hills and mountains. After loving the quirkiness of the Scottish road signage, it felt deflating to come across our first road sign in England – it had fallen off its post and squatted on the ground looking as if it just could not be arsed!

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The hills of Cumbria loom up in the distance… tomorrow’s challenge!