Cycling from London to John O’Groats in eight days

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I belong to a night-riding cycling club, based in London, called The Fridays (aka FNRttC, which stands for Friday Night Ride to the Coast, http://fnrttc.blogspot.co.uk ). Our normal routine is to set off from Hyde Park Corner at midnight (so strictly speaking the rides take place on Saturdays!) and ride to somewhere by the sea (Brighton, Southend, Whitstable, Bognor, Newhaven, to name a few) for breakfast. Some hardy souls then cycle home again, while the rest of us take the train. This year our organiser Simon decided we should do a Tour, and settled on London to John O’Groats, starting with a night ride and continuing during daylight hours over eight days.

So on Friday 15 June a large group of club members set off from Wellington Arch as usual, but this time instead of heading south or east we went north. Many riders turned out to do the first leg with us, turning back at breakfast time or elsewhere along the route – there were 30 of us intending to go all the way to Scotland. We had a support van (driven by a club member, a gem of a bloke called Ian) which carried all our luggage for us, and we had to book our own accommodation from an approved list for each overnight stop. The club operates a well-oiled system of rolling waymarking and tail-ending, so no one ever gets lost or left behind, and techies deal with mechanical problems at the roadside. The van had to do several detours to bike shops as the ride progressed, due to some major problems such as rear mechs disintegrating or seatposts snapping, aside from the usual broken spokes and punctures. I’m very pleased to report that my lovely bike was trouble free throughout!

So from Hyde Park Corner we headed up the Edgware Road and out of town in the darkness. Night riding is fantastic – hardly any traffic, so we often have dual carriageways to ourselves in the early hours, and only the odd heckle (mostly good-natured, such as ‘Oi it’s the tour dee France!’) from late-night clubbers. This time of year it’s light by 4 am, and we had breakfast at about 7.30 am at a Tesco in Wellingborough that opened its café early especially for us. Then we pressed on through Saturday in good weather up some hilly stuff around Oakham, including the edges of Rutland Water where we saw an osprey’s nest, to arrive at Bingham in Nottinghamshire by the end of the day – a total of about 125 miles. Not too tired to go out for a meal and a few beers though, and we all slept very well after such a long distance!

On the Sunday we rode 80 miles from Bingham to York, heading through Sherwood Forest, using some A roads where the traffic wasn’t much of a problem and the surface was good and fast. York is a lovely place to stay and to cycle (very flat if you choose carefully) and a club member who lives there came out the following morning (Monday) to join us for a couple of hours as we headed on to Castleside near Consett in County Durham, a total of 78 miles that day.

Then the easy stuff came to an end, as on Tuesday we encountered what had been billed as ‘The Hell of the North’: cycling across Northumberland National Park which is just hill after hill after hill! No sooner have you reached one summit than you see the little cars in the distance coming down the next mountain you have to climb! Some of us did a bit of walking, but just on the most severe undulations. In deference to the amount of climbing we only covered about 65 miles that day, but it was very hard cycling and along the A68 too which was a mixed blessing. We crossed Hadrian’s Wall, and cursed the Romans for their habit of building roads that just go straight over the hills rather than round them! We were all ready for our beds in Jedburgh that night, where an amazing hotel owner looked after us supremely well and even did a pile of laundry for us overnight (thank you so much, Glenbank House Hotel).

Wednesday saw us heading up the A68 again, branching off and then rejoining it, pausing for elevenses at Lauder on our way to the Forth Bridge. We weaved our way through Edinburgh, ruined temporarily by major works to install an unpopular tramway. We stopped for lunch beneath the bridge itself in pretty Queensferry then braved the side winds to ride over the road bridge and on to Kinross for our overnight stop – a total of about 75 miles for the day.

On Thursday we covered 85 miles from Kinross to Newtonmore, passing through Perth, crossing the silvery Tay on a private bridge and heading through Pitlochrie and Dalwhinnie. Heavy rain and a cold headwind that afternoon made the going very tough for us. Until that point we’d been very lucky with the weather, avoiding the worst of the very bad rain which either went ahead of us or opened up a little dry avenue for us to ride through. Worse was forecast for the Friday however, with signs up on local motorways advising people not to travel. So we decided to make a very early start and try to outrun the rain.

We did get away by 7 am, but a major mechanical problem caused us to lose our time advantage and later in the day the rain caught us with a vengeance. This was the day I was at a very low ebb, feeling that I could not go on and wouldn’t be able to do the final leg to John O’Groats the following day. The famous camaraderie of cyclists came to my rescue, however, as some stronger riders formed a little peleton around me and gave me a good tow along, accompanied by lots of encouragement and feeding me jelly babies and bits of flapjack. One thing a cycle tourist learns very quickly is that you must keep eating, an enormous amount, mostly starchy junk, and whether you feel hungry or not! Thanks to such a wonderfully selfless support system I made it to Tain in one piece, a trip that day of around 78 miles.

The next morning I felt much better, after a good meal and some restorative beer the night before, and the whole group made the final leg of 85 miles from Tain across Dornoch Firth to John O’Groats. The last 20 miles were in heavy rain against a fierce headwind, across a bleak burnt-heather moorland. JoG is nothing to write home about, as many people have said, so we had whisky in the pub, a photocall on the slipway, and then headed back 18 miles south to Wick for the night.

Jenny, Susie, Claudine & Miranda at the top of Berrievale

A total trip of about 670 miles, involving 10,600 metres of ascent, and everyone who set out managed the whole distance. Our steeds included a titanium tandem, a clunky hybrid with suspension, a very cool recumbent trike, a Moulton with lots of gears, and (maddest of all) a Brompton with only six! We entertained and supported each other in a way that would make the Clarions proud, and we all had a blast of a time. Would I do it again? Probably, but I’d want to take longer, do fewer miles per day, and have more time to stop and stare along the way – although with that particular group of friends I’d almost certainly go anywhere.

Oh and on the way back to London guess what happened? Our coach full of cyclists got a puncture! You couldn’t make it up.

Jenny

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[Lots more photos at http://www.flickr.com/photos/ianmac55/sets/]

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