“Just popping out for a bike ride love, I’ll be back in 9 days!”
Here lies the story of my biggest challenge yet – LEJOG (Lands End – John O’Groats)…
Officially one of my stupider ideas, on a whim, I signed up to ride from Lands End to John O’Groats on a bicyle to raise money for the Vodafone Foundation. A few colleagues of mine had embarked on the same journey with the super well organised Deloitte Ride Across Britain team in 2015 and I had followed with great interested declaring at the time that if the opportunity ever arose again that I would like to do it.
Nearly 2 years passed and I thought I had got away with it until one of those colleagues dropped me a mail annoucing he would be doing it for a second time and included the link to register for the the 2017 event.
I already owned a road bike and had enjoyed maybe 6-7 rides a year and a distance of anywhere upto 35 miles so I am definatly not what you would call “a biker”, I am also not a member of any cycling clubs and I had never ridden in a group or even an organised event so I thought to myself demand will be high for places and that I probably wouldnt get in due to my lack of experience.
Without hesitation or really much thought I completed the registration and hit submit… within seconds an email arrived in my inbox welcoming me to the event. I was in, oh lordy – no turning back now!
What was I thinking?
969 miles in 9 days – just let that sink in for a moment… over 100 miles a day. The more I read about it the larger the lump in my throat grew, what on earth had I signed up to do this for?
I joined a Facebook group with all the other riders (800 of them) and some of these guys and gals are serious bikers who seem to be doing a long ride or sportive every weekend and have vast experience in the saddle… this was initially pretty daunting for me until I realised there were plenty like me who had undertaken this as a challenge and accepting that that is exactly what it would be!
I was initially hesitant to tell people what I had signed up for (I think due to the fact I wasnt fully prepared to accept it myself) and seemingly reluctant to start my training journey as the weeks turned into months and the event started to draw ever closer. I had done a few training rides solo and with Richard Hughes and had started to take spin classes at a local gym.
After one of the training ridessI returned to work and discovered that a few people had dropped out from team Vodafone. Injuries, Babies, Redunacies etc and so I asked Richard if he fancied it, a big ask considering the start of the event was 3 months away.
He didnt take a lot of pursuading so with Richard onboard the training started for real but we really struggled to find any serious hills to prepare us for Devon & Cornwall (largley regcognised as the thoughest hilliest days on the route). There are just not that many hills on the Notts/Lincs border. We were putting in the miles ok and fitness was definatley improving but the lack of serious hill training was evident and we were running out of time to put it right!
Our attention turned to fundraising and making sure we would have everything we needed to survive nine days of cycling.
Fundraising is always difficult for me – I dont like to ask or pester people but at the same time I felt the cause was a good one and the challenge worthy of at least a few quid. The Vodafone Foundation do some brilliant work for people displaced by wars and natural disasters you can find out more about then here.
I was pleasantly surprised by those that donated and their generosity, from casual acquintances to complete strangers, thanks to some local press and a stint working at the Bean & Vine Cafe in Newark in our Lycra.
On the flip side I was very surprised by some friends and indeed family members reluctance to donate. In all honesty it was the those that had dug deep, those that caught me off guard with their generosity and support that I had in mind as I approached each and every steep climb – I couldnt let them down, I simply had to do this!
No going back now
We arrived at our Newbury HQ with bikes and bags bursting at the seems, full of nervous anticipation and excitement! In the days leading up I had become something of an amatuer weather man scouring multiple sources in order to get a grasp of how likely a head wind or a shower was and it was with this is mind that at the very last minute I popped into town and bought some waterproof shoe covers for me and Richard which turned out to be one of the best ideas I have ever had!
After a long journey down to Lands End we were unloaded from the bus, checked into our tent and headed off for some food in the oh so well catered for food tent supplied by a company called LuLu’s who are simply fantastic at what they do.
You can eat and drink as much as you can stomach once in the food tent and the food was always freshly cooked, varied to suit all tastes and delicious. It was pretty windy so with a big first day ahead we got our heads down, ear plugs in (man there were some snorers) and tried to get some sleep.
And so it beings…
5am… not a time I am too familiar or comfortable with and then over the loud speaker came Queens – Bicycle Race loud enough to wake up 800 people in tents with no uncertainty. Amusing – yes, I’ll be honest with you though this trip has ruined that song for me as I now associate it with being in a cold, wind blown tent in the early hours. Up we got, breakfast eaten and into our kit!
Not having any idea how fast or slow we would be compared to everyone else myself and Richard were on the start line for 7am the earliest you were allowed to start and off we went expecting to be over-taken by all and sundry. It was chilly but you could tell the Sun would make an appearance as the morning went on and so off we went at a steady and seemingly reasonable pace, a few over took us but I would say we were overtaking as many in return.
Each day was split into 3 chunks with a Pit-Stop in between providing energy boosting food (healthy and not so healthy), mechanical support, medicial support and of course toilets!
My aim each day was always just to get to the next pit-stop alive. Having stopped for a photograph at St Michaels Mount we arrived at the first Pit-Stop at around 36 miles and in good spirits. The next section is when the hills started and the difficulty of what lay ahead suddently became very real, I laboured up some of those hills in all honesty but slowy and surely by hook and by crook I made it into Devon and our first day was complete.
It was a great feeling crossing the finishing line to cheers from strangers and the distinctive sound of cattle bells and though very tired and very ready to get off my bike I felt a real sense of achievment and personal pride. One down, eight to go – you can do this!
As we started off on day two I felt suprisingly good getting into the Saddle but expecting and equally dreading more hills like day one I think the pace dropped a bit as we set about those Devon hills.
Much had been said the evening before by those who had completed this challenge before about Cheddar Gorge however they seemingly forget to mention the far worse Quantock Hills which we would have to ascend before we even saw Cheddar Gorge on the road signs. If the reality of the challenge hadnt hit me before it really did now as I seriously struggled to keep my peddles turning up a very steep incline… however I did, slowly but surely.
As with many of the landmarks there was a small crowd of people cheering us on as we reached the summit which really gives you a boost both mentally and physically as adrenaline and a sense of achievement kicks in. In the afternoon I also (slowly) made my way up the absolutley stunning Cheddar Gorge another great sense of achievement as I ticked that one of my list of landmarks we would have to pass on our way to John O’Groats.
If I had to choose a word it would be ‘moist’
The weather had been ok, the odd shower but nothing too bad, you soon dried out and then came day 3 and Bath… as we arrived at the University campus where we would be staying the rain had picked it up a notch, little did we know it wasnt about to get any better.
We had the luxury of a bed and a room for the only time on the whole trip which i was very much looking forward too however something was a miss. I was extremely emotional, the rain had given me a chill right through to my bones and I hadnt been able to warm up – I was shivvery and although I felt hungry and knew I had to eat as i sat down to eat I just couldnt even force myself to eat mor than a mouthful.
I decided to pay a visit to the unbelievable medical staff who after a short wait ushered me into a makeshift cubicle and asked me how I was feeling… pretty shit to be honest and I went on to describe how i was feeling. The doctor smiled and simply said “Classic Exhaustion”.
I had only done 2 days could I really be exhausted already? Would I have to quit the challenge so soon? I really didnt like the idea of letting everyone down, I was determined I wouldnt it would be embarrasing. Richard gave me a good pep talk and took me off to find something I would eat so I stocked up on chocolate, cake bars and glucosey drinks that I could pick at throughout the evening and have on hand if I suddently rediscovered my appetitte.
I phoned home and bled my heart out to my wife who was so supportive and encouraging and helped me steady my resolve to carry on with the challenge. I also gave my parents a ring and although I didnt tell them how low I was feeling or what the doctor had said just speaking to them made me realise I had to man up and continue. This is not how my LEJOG story was going to end!
As another 5am alarm went off the next morning I dragged myself from the bed and peered out through the curtains wondering what todays weather would be like.. Oh my word it was biblical! It was falling so hard and fast the guttering literally could not hold the volume of water, spilling out over the edges. The pavements seemed glazed and the side of the road could only be described as a small river running towards drains struggling to cope with the demand being put on them. I am sure it will clear i told myself as I headed down to Breafast.
Breakfast out of the way (what I could eat of it), we got back in the saddle once more. Leaving the campus was a long downward sloping and very busy road leading us away and out of Bath the rain had not subsided in fact I think it had got even worse and just a mile and half in Richard got his and our first puncture.
Inexperienced I dont think we will be being called upon by a formula one team anytime soon but eventually we managed to get him back on the road but we were absolutley drenched. Eventually the rain susided and was helpfully replaced by a strong head wind as we crossed the Severn Bridge it was a tough old slog but eventually we made it into Wales.
Windy roads ensued as we made our way through the Wye Valley and as the afternoon wore on Richard suffered not one but three more punctures all in the same tyre… lesson learnt always check thoroughly for thorns before putting a new inner tube in place.
That evening my appetite came roaring back and I made up for lost time in the catering tent with two main courses and three puddings all consumed with releative ease.
The hills and valleys were presented to us over the coming days and it was all becoming more familiar terratory although nothing could prepare me for Shap Fell and the coldest descent of the whole trip where we stopped at the bottom for a warm cup of tea in a cafe not becuase we wanted to but becuase we bloody needed too.
Things by now just suddenly clicked into place – I knew what I had to eat at each Pit-stop and what I would need to keep me going through different parts of the day. The body is an incredible thing and just tells you when it needs sweet, savoury or something else.
Before I knew it I was in the Lake District… I had cycled from the arse end of Britain to the North of England, thats bloody miles. It had also finally dawned on me the size of the accomplishment I had already left in my wake. Pride was sweeping over me as well as the excitement of knowing tomorrow I would be in Scotland!
I love Scotland, I’ve climbed Nevis twice already and I am always impressed everytime I am there at the sheer size and beauty of the landscape there is nothing like it and I adore it. The weather in Scotland was largely kind it wasnt always warm or sunny but the rain largely stayed away and allowed us to enjoy the stunning scenery as we wound our way further north via Hamilton and Fort William.
For the first time on the whole trip my backside had developed sores the details of which I will spare you. My knees where making it really difficult to handle and ascents as i was getting a sharp shooting pain everytime i pushed down on the peddle. The docs gave me a nice mix of Paracetamol, Ibruprofen and Codine which I had to add in to my now daily routine of energy gels and other must have sugary hits to get me through each day.
I was knackered, I was feeling much the same as I did back in Bath but I knew how to handle it this time I was just two days away from completing Lands End to John O’Groats and I was buggered if anything short of a broken bone was going to stop me.
As we arrived in Kyle of Sutherlands I knew that dispite the aches, the pains and all the meds I would actually do this – I was just one day away from the finish line and I could not wait to get home. We were in good spirits that day and we made it back to camp in record time even having time for a cup of tea and a beer which we hadnt even entertained the prospect of before now and so we trudged back to our little green tent for one last time for tomorrow we would be at the end.
It was a tough old slog the final day, poor road surfaces added to a flat open and therefore often gusty roads ensured this was not the fastest day. My knees were getting to the point where the drugs were only having a mild effect and so head down I just had to keep peddling. Eventually with a little help from my Garmin we were just a few miles away.
As I caught sight of the finish line in the distance another kick of adreneline arrived and we upped our pace a little I could already feel myself becoming overcome with emotion and knew I wouldnt be able to hold this back at the finish line.
Me and Richard crossed the line together just as we had started together and remained together throughout the whole 9 day experience and there was a good crowd cheering us all in as they announced our names over the tannoy. After a short wait we were stood at the sign at the very top of the country bikes held aloft with a huge sense of personal pride and achievement!
LEJOG? smashed it!
Here are somethings about the challenge and about myself I learnt along the way I thought i would share with you:
- I could not and would not have done this without the support of my co-riders (the bubble they call it) especially Richard Hughes.
- The Human body is a weird and wonderful thing to quote the organisers “More is in you”.
- Without the fantastic support of the Medical staff, Mechanical staff and those at each pit stop and campsite this would not have been possible, you are all absolute heroes!
- If I never have to drink one of those powered shakes again in my life I will be delighted.
- Cheddar Gorge is not made of cheese!
- It doesnt always rain in Scotland.
- I personally beleve they should rename Bath – Shower.
- Turns out I like drinking tea!
- I am never, ever doing this again.