Coast to coast, sea to sky. Day 1.

The coast to coast ride, or C2C (sea to sea, geddit?) has been on my bucket list for a while, but that’s the “wouldn’t mind doing that one of these days” section of the bucket list rather than the “don’t die before doing this” section.

Obligatory dipping of wheels in the sea at the start of the C2C

There are several versions of the C2C depending on how much off-road or main road cycling you wish to avoid, but they all set off from the from the Cumbrian coast and end up somewhere in the north east.  All of the suggested routes, however, deftly avoid the big hills of the Lake District rather like the person who surrupticiously sticks a tenner into the drinks kitty when everyone else puts in twenty.

We did it differently. When we sat down to plan our trip we did so with Simon Warren’s 100 Greatest Climbs and Another 100 Greatest Climbs books to hand.

That was Brian’s idea.

Our first stage, therefore, was a brutal 40 miles taking in, amongst other ascents, the Hardknott and Wrynose Passes as we picked our way to Ambleside.

Hardknott is certainly the toughest climb I have attempted in this country.  I know that because it’s the only one that has defeated me so far.  Approaching it is frightening enough.  From quite a distance it’s obvious how steep and long it is.  At the bottom you are greeted with warning signs about the gradient and unsuitability of the road for certain vehicles, along with what appears to be a wall but which is actually the road itself. The thing about Hardknott is that while other roads that head out of villages over hills often have immediately steep gradients that tend to ease off to something manageable before long, this one is stupidly steep at first, 30%, then it eases off to ridiculously steep, and then, after about a mile and a quarter you hit a couple of hairpins that are back up to stupid.  

Let me express those numbers in other terms.

Hardknott Pass is so steep that I had to lean forward over the handlebars in order to stop the front wheel lifting off the ground in my battle against gravity. It was so steep that the camper van in front was wheelspinning on the rutted and gravelly tarmac, which becomes a mild concern when you speculate as to whether it’s going to slide back into you.  I tell you, Hardknott is so steep even Dieter looked like he was struggling for a moment or two.

At that second 30% kick I got off and started walking.

Would I have got off had I not seen Brian just up ahead do the same?  I don’t know.  I do know that by the time I reached those switchbacks I was virtually at a standstill anyway, and it required all of my energy just to maintain my balance as I wheeled and wobbled my way, somewhat uncontrollably up and into the path of oncoming cars.  

As I contemplate an impending tough climb my internal dialogue goes something like: “I’m coming for you mountain, and I’m going to beat you.” Then I imagine the mountain’s response: “Meh. Couldn’t care less. I’m here, I’ve always been here and I always will be here.” It’s not you against the mountain. You’re not defeated by mountains, you’re defeated either by your own lack of will power or lack of ability.

As I reflect on it now I still can’t imagine successfully riding up that section; it’s was hard enough walking, so it must have been lack of ability, and I’d rather it were that than lack of determination.

Cresting Wrynose. That’s not a smile, that’s pain.

The saving grace was that Wrynose Pass, which follows immediately after the long and tricky descent of Hardknott, is also considered to be one of the more difficult ascents this country has to offer, but in comparison it feels little more than a speed bump (well, not quite, but you know what I mean). 

Coming off Wrynose would usually lead directly and swiftly into Ambleside, our stopping point for the night. Instead Brian had identified another climb, Blea Tarn, so we made a detour for that.  It was pin sharp but thankfully short with a wonderfully smooth winding descent that took us circuitously to our hotel and a glass of equally smooth local beer.

This passage through the south western lakes is staggeringly beautiful. I know because I was able to enjoy it from time to time in between periods of staring at the tarmac under my front wheel and wiping the stinging, salty sweat that was draining into my eyes. In this respect we were lucky to have such fine weather and good visibility.  Throughout the week ahead of our trip the Met Office promised heavy rain which would have made those climbs utterly miserable going up and utterly treacherous coming down.

I was grateful for that, but the Lake District is capricious and the weather on one day is no predictor of the weather the next. It took me a while to drop off to sleep and when I did it was to the rhythmic pulse of rain gently drumming against the Velux window.

The sugar-free, low-fat Tour de France.

I’m a fan of Chris Froome. He doesn’t have a lot of charisma but he strikes me as honest, hard-working, determined and decent. He has humility, shows appreciation for his team and is respectful of people. I like those qualities in a person.

The problem is that the Tour de France demands something else. It demand heroism. It wants its winner to be gallant, swashbuckling, daring. Froome and Sky are not that. Hauling himself back to the leaders when his bike failed was a heroic act but it didn’t make Froome a hero. Leaving his rivals on the side of a mountain would have made him a hero.

The Tour this year was not won by a hero. The hero came third wearing brown shorts. Instead the tour was won by efficient scientists. That’s the way professional cycling is going, and there’s no stopping it. The money, as always with sport, has ensured that.

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Romain Bardet:  My Tour de France 2017 hero

Cycling fans, and especially French ones, will never love a person who wins by marginal gains. They will never love a champion who doesn’t win at least one stage. They’ll never love a team that is quite as calculating and cold as Sky, but just as with football, it’s not the fans that matter any more, it’s the sponsors.

Chris Froome may appear to be the best but the truth is that it’s the Sky team that won this year’s Tour de France.  It’s just that they only give out one yellow jersey. Sky won the Tour and they did it by computer readouts.

I watched the Tour avidly and enjoyed it. There was plenty of excitement and incident, and Froome proved himself to be a great defender of the jersey when mishaps befell him, but he didn’t shred himself to win a stage. He just did enough, stage by stage, to keep his nose ahead of the rivals.

Well done Chris Froome. It was an efficient, well executed victory but it will not last long in the memory.

I Have Been Having Unholy Thoughts

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before but every year I set myself a new challenge, usually a learning challenge.  Last year it was ballroom dancing.  A couple of years ago it was TIG welding. Sometimes I take something up for a reason, and sometimes I do it just for the sake of learning.

This year I have decided that to function as a fully rounded fifty three year old human being I ought to be able to swim. I’m not saying this one piece of the jigsaw puzzle that is my life would make it complete and perfect. There are one or two other pieces that need putting into the right place, no question. Besides, I can already swim. Sort of. I can swim to save my life, if necessary, assuming that the difference between life and death is no more than the width of a standard cycle path.

Being able to swim is important. Interestingly, Jewish law states clearly that a parent must teach their children three things: the bible, a trade, and how to swim.

It may be a matter of life and death according to the Jewish sages, but what use is being able to swim to a cyclist?  As I have been saying for many years (admittedly, as an excuse for my inability), if God had wanted us to swim he would have given us gills.  Instead he gave us legs to pedal, arms to steer, fingers change gears and those little canals in the inner ear to keep us from losing balance. We are clearly a species designed to ride bikes, not to splash about in water.

Well forgive me father but for the past two or three years I have been having impure thoughts. I have been thinking it would be interesting to have a go at a triathlon.

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Improper dress

There. I said the T word.

For non-cyclists reading this, what I have just confessed to is a bit like a member of the Cradle of Filth fan club turning up for a group head-bang with his favourite Nana Mouskouri album.

I’m not sure why the idea appeals. The only component of the three I like is cycling, and the only one I can actually do is cycling. I’ve already said what a poor swimmer I am and if I run for more than about five minutes I suffer from stabbing shin splints. So learning to swim still leaves me with another major problem to overcome.

Add to that how boring swimming is.  I know there are many health benefits associated with consuming chlorinated water that doubles as communal bath and lavatory, but these benefits, to me, are outweighed by the sheer tedium of the activity. If I were able to swim a mile in 45 minutes, that’s 45 minutes of seeing nothing at all while my head is being pounded by a cacophony of children shrilling in what is essentially a giant echo chamber.

In that 45 minutes I could, instead, cycle at least twelve times the distance in bucolic peace, and consume a nice banana while I’m at it.  Furthermore, I’d be able to do it while suitably attired – shoulders covered and feet socked.

I know. This triathlon thing is an insane idea but I can’t get it out of my head. That inner voice is telling me to learn to swim and to run without crippling myself, and that I should then bookend my bike ride with those activities.

So I’m going to take swimming lessons in the hope that if it enables me rid myself of this unnatural desire I can finally return to being a happy, triathlete-sneering cyclist who happens to be able to swim as well.

I Now Know About John O’Groats

The Altnaharra Hotel sits in an idyllic spot in the northern Highlands overlooking the western end of Loch Naver. It is a favourite place for anglers to stay and, it seems, anglers are the favoured type of stayer.  Cyclists are not.

At dinner, one non-meat eating friend explained that he had not requested the venison he had been presented with, and was sharply told that he had ordered the wrong dish, while another was shouted at, yes, shouted at, at for not paying attention when the server was speaking.  This is when I knew that we were staying at the Faulty Towers of the north, with added menace. We agreed to make sure our rooms were locked during the night.

As might be expected towards the end of a trip like this, our planned morning departure time of 8.30 was tending to slip back by a few minutes each day. Not today. Either due to the excitement of completing the journey or, more likely, fear of the hotel manager, we were raring to go, and what a start it was. We rode alongside the loch and then River Naver all the way to the sea at Bettyhill, encountering no more than ten vehicles for the entire 24 mile run.

Reaching this point was quite a moment for me.  I had cycled the entire length of the country, and seeing the sea at the northern coast completed the set for me.

Along the coast road heading eastward, the wind pushing us along, we quickly passed through a number of weary looking villages. The people appeared to be no less so.  I imagine it’s not easy to live joyfully out here. As we settled down to eat at a dockside cafe in Thurso, drizzle coating out bikes outside, I asked our waitress if it rained a lot. “Always,” she replied with resignation.

The rain eased and we pressed on for the final few miles. Today’s leg was just over 75 miles but without anything like the amount of climbing of previous days, the tailwind, and with almost a thousand miles in our legs, it felt like twenty.  We cruised into John O’Groats, swung left for the famous totem pole, whooped, hugged, congratulated each other, took pictures and sipped a glass of bubbles.

Along with the scenery, without question, what made this trip so special was the people I shared it with.  Some I knew well beforehand, others hardly at all.  By the end I felt a strong bond with them all. There had been plenty of banter, playful and never offensive (I hope), and we had laughed a lot. We supported and encouraged each other on difficult days and we celebrated each other’s success at completing the challenge with as much pride as we did our own.

After a while I looked around the place and it dawned upon me just what I had done. I had, over nearly two weeks, ridden my bike to one of the most miserable places I’d ever been to.  John O’Groats is a place to arrive at and then to leave as quickly as possible.

It proved something I have long believed: what’s important is the journey, not the destination.

Something of a Symmetry 

In various ways today, our penultimate of the journey, reminded me of the first. As we worked our way through the northern highlands from Inverness to Altnaharra we climbed up on to a beautiful moor in weather not unlike the rain we fought our way through on Bodmin Moor not two weeks ago.

I also fell victim to my second puncture which Guy, our guide and mechanic, seemed to fix in less time than it had taken me to fish around in my back pocket for the inner tube he used.

Another symmetry is the remoteness of the counties of Sutherland and Cornwall. Both act as a sort of buffer between the sea and civilisation. A place where you could disappear without fear of pursuit.


I don’t know their stories, but on two separate occasions today I saw middle-aged men in vans converted to accommodate makeshift beds and basic cooking facilities. What, I wondered, had been the life path that took them to remote parking spots, one to boil a kettle, the other to lie down in the windowless back of his vehicles for a nap? What might have been the moment of chance that meant my life had turned out as it did and not as theirs did. I’m not saying that their lives took a wrong turn, or that they are not happy people.  I have no idea.  I am, however, increasingly aware, the older I get, that people born around the same time as me often have complicated, strange stories, that would not easily have been predicted forty or so years ago when we were school age.


At the risk of tempting fate with a day to go, I want to say thank you to the weather gods for their good grace these last 11 days.  At the start of the trip I thought that if we had no more than four days bad weather we’d be doing well.  Apart from day one, a couple of hours as we left Eskdalemuir early on Sunday morning, and light rain with some stiff winds today, the weather has been perfect for cycling. If we are fighting our way through horizontal rain and a headwind for the entire seventy five miles of our final day tomorrow it would be churlish to complain.

Besides, if you’re going to suffer wind and rain, there’s nothing better than to be rewarded with a beautiful rainbow just as your reach the final destination for the day, and the sun smiles as if to congratulate us on reaching the last stage of the trip.

High on the Highlands

Day 10 and we are now further north than I’ve ever been in the UK.  I’ve been looking forward to visiting the Highlands the entire trip and the lead in to it over the past couple of days has not disappointed. Scotland is stunning.

imageWe have been working our way through the Cairngorms which means climbing.

Climbing provides the most immediate and compelling challenge to a sports cyclist.  Fighting my way up, being thrilled at making it, and being rewarded with a long, fast descent, is what cycling is all about for me.

There are essentially two types of climb, short and steep, by which I mean anything up to about 30% gradient, and long but gentle, where generally speaking the climb may go on for a few miles but the gradient rarely goes above 10 or 12% for any significant amount of time, and is usually in single figures. How steep is 12%? If you’re driving a car you will almost certainly need to drop into second gear on that gradient.

"There's a weird white house and the Lecht starts soon after."

“There’s a weird white house and the Lecht starts soon after.”

I’m happier on the long and steady.  I like tapping out a rhythm over time, rather than trying to haul my heavy body up a short but brutal lift. Today gave us a fair amount of both in The Lecht, a two and a half mile climb up to a ski station at an average gradient of 6% but with a 20% insult to send you on your way.

They say that one of the wonders of nature is that a mother forgets the pain of childbirth soon after the event in order to maintain her desire to go through it again. I wouldn’t presume that the pain of a 20% or greater climb is the same as giving birth, but it’s true that a cyclist would also probably never attempt a second big climb if the pain of the first remained.  Almost as soon as we reach the top we forget the lung burning intake of air as we draw as much oxygen as possible into the blood stream, the salty sweat dripping into the corner of our eye, helpless with our inability to take a hand off the bars to wipe its way, and the internal dialogue that curses and pleads alternately with every turn of the pedal.

The Lecht. Photo:Doik

The Lecht. Photo:Doik

The peak cannot come soon enough. A vehicle passes and you pray it will disappear over the top never to be seen again, although invariable you watch it continue up and up. When the hill does desist the reward is spectacular views and fast, long, sweeping descents. By the time you are 20 metres down you have forgotten the pain you endured that brought you to this point.

Tonight we stay in Inverness.  Tomorrow we venture deeper into the Highlands – that small triangular bit right at the top of the map.

More climbing.

An up and down day in the saddle

This was the profile of today’s ride from Perth to Ballater: about thirty eight miles up to the top of The Cairnwell, and another 30 down to the hotel.  Hardly a left or right turn the whole way. It was just like some of the great European passes I’ve had the pleasure of riding over.

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Probably as Alpine as it gets in the UK. What you can see is the final 2 miles or so winding up to around 10% gradient. That’s after several miles of very gradual climbing.

Not as high perhaps, but with the last mile or so at a 10% (ish) gradient, bright sunlight, a chilly breeze and a series of chairlifts guarded by glum looking attendants at the top, one could very easily have confused this for somewhere in the French Alps.

it was another tough and exhilarating day in the saddle, which, for those of you who care about such things, is not making my bottom sore at all. This is just as well because we cycled past Balmoral Castle where HM The Queen is currently holidaying and my strong view is that it is not nice to turn up there unannounced, wearing Lycra and with a sore bottom.

In fact my whole body feels good, which is surprising after so many arduous days.  The Pilates classes must be working.

 

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That’s correct.  They do skiing at the top of this mountain. 

We are just three cycling days from the end of the trip now.  I can’t quite believe how quickly the days have passed. The bubble we’re in means I have hardly found time to check the news.

Here is how the days basically go:  wake up, eat food and drink coffee, ride, eat food and drink coffee, ride, eat food and drink coffee, ride, eat food and drink coffee, arrive at hotel, shower, eat more food, sleep.

As our bikes take us towards the top of the mainland I’m contemplating  returning to everyday life and it all feels a bit other-worldly, as if I will have to re-learn a long forgotten way of being. Even with emails coming through, some of which need to be dealt with, I feel a very long way from real-life most of the time.

It’s wonderful.

LEJOG day 8 to Perth

With the intention of rejoining the team at Edinburgh for lunch, Jerry, our guide Anne, and I set out from Eskdalemuir at a little after 6.30, with a full breakfast in our stomachs and an emotional goodbye from our hosts.  How many B&B owners do you know who would get up that early to accommodate such a need?

Yesterday had been hot and sunny for our rest day.  This morning it was wet and miserable as we trudged up to the head of the valley, down into the next, and then up and down again as we headed for Peebles. At least the road was newly smoothed. The forestry companies are required to fund the maintenance of the local roads since their enormous and heavily laden trucks are so damaging.

Even in lousy weather it was impossible not to be moved as I rounded each corner of the twisting road.  At one point a hawk swooped low just ahead of me, as if leading me out for a sprint, before rising again to alight on a telegraph pole.

I don’t know if there’s a god, but this is where I am struck by awe and find that sense of spiritual uplift.

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Actual Scotch Mist

With the exception of a few miles in and around Peebles, which is a perfectly pleasant looking place, the ride continued to present us with marvellous views, but for the time being at least, we had seen the best of it. The 160 or so miles from Garstang to this point had been simply breathtaking.

After that the route dumped us into Edinburgh and as we meandered our way through the tense and weary festival goers, seeking to squeeze the last drops of entertainment on what was the final day of the fringe, I was reminded again of how ugly people can be as they push and jostle to get somewhere first.

I’m a city person. I couldn’t survive easily for long somewhere as remote as Eskdalemuir, even knowing that wherever a person might find themself, they are never more that six feet feet away from a Tesco delivery van, but after so many days absent of close proximity to large numbers of humans, I almost felt fearful. Cities can do something to people. They can bring out the worst in us.

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We picked up the rest of the crew at a slightly tacky restaurant in the shadow of the various bridges over the Forth. Next stop, Perth. The combination of two days of hard riding with a rest between appeared to do me good. I rode well for the rest of the day and arrived in pretty Perth much happier than I had been at Edinburgh.

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Perth by night using the drama button on the iPhone again.

Almost predictably, our B&B host highlighted the difference between rural and urban life.  He was a misery-guts and nothing was too little trouble.  In spite of arriving weary no offer was made to help take our bags to the room, instead we were presented with, and nudged for, a completed slip of paper specifying our required breakfast option from a limited and uninspiring list. While this morning our host had kindly offered to get up early to see us off at 6.30 well fed, tonight we were told we could have our breakfast at 7.30 or 8.30 am. The choice was ours.

Surely it was pure coincidence that this B&B owner happened to be English.

A Day of Rest

On a trip like this the cycling is relentless and opportunities to talk to people outside the group are limited, beyond the occasional coffee or food stop.

One unexpected benefit of the rest day was that I was able to spend time with the lovely community of Eskdalemuir in Dumphries and Galloway. Eskdalemuir is less a village than a postcode, a number of homes spread along a stretch of valley.  If it’s known for anything at all it’s known either for the Kagyu Samye Ling Monastry and Tibetan Centre that has, over a number of years, attracted a stream of people to their Bhuddist retreat, many of whom have stayed to help form this friendly community, or else for the one hundred year old observatory.

A lottery award recently funded the community hub which provides a range of facilities including a cafe, bar, children’s play area and a large room that can be put to a variety of uses.

On Saturday the locals were fundraising for play equipment and we were happy to while away a few hours chatting with them, returning later in the evening to catch some folk music – a regular open jam session. Shame I didn’t bring my double bass.  I could have joined in and given myself an extra challenge worth several “chapeaus”. I doubt many have cycled from Land’s End to John O’Groats with a double bass on their back.

I was struck by how content these people were.  Of course it must be tough to have to look out on a beautiful valley every day – just the sort of thing that causes stress – but that’s not it.  Eskdalemuir is a community of people that seems to care about each other and are working to make their chosen place thrive.  Everybody was extraordinarily friendly, asking my companion and me about our ride, and, wishing us well.

Having set out on this trip with a somewhat jaded attitude regarding the people of this country, I left Eskdalemuir on Sunday morning reminded of just how important community is. Community, in whatever form the individual finds or creates it, is a hugely important component of a balanced, healthy life.

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Eskdalemuir Community Hub, funded by the National Lottery but created and supported by the people of Eskdalemuir.

Journey Within a Journey

There are days on the bike that stand out. Sometimes it’s the beauty of the terrain travelled and  sometimes it’s doing something you’ve never done before.  Rarely is it both.

Friday, day six of our End to End trip, was both.

Two of us decided we wanted a rest day half way through so our plan was to ride 126 miles from Garstang to Eskdalemuir in Dumphries and Galloway while the  rest of the group would end the day fortyish miles sooner, pass us on Saturday, and then we would catch up with them some time during Sunday, hopefully just south of Edinburgh which would be about 35 miles longer for us at about 107 miles.

I was excited and somewhat apprehensive as 126 miles in one day on a bike is new territory for me, and this 126 miles included the equivalent of two decent sized Alps in terms of climbing. As we have been doing all week, we broke the day down into twenty five mile sections. That’s the only way to eat an elephant.

The way I saw it, twenty five miles is easy.  That’s a quick spin for me.  Fifty miles is a regular Sunday morning ride, seventy five is a long Sunday ride; very doable, one hundred miles is a challenge but something I know I can do, and a hundred and twenty five is only twenty five more than that.

It turned out to be the most glorious day of cycling of the trip so far. I would rank it amongst the best days of cycling I’ve ever had.  I’ve cycled in some of the most picturesque places in Europe and climbed some big mountains and Friday sits right in there with them.  I was frequently taken aback by the stunning scenery as we made our way through northern England roughly following the route of the M6 but rarely close enough that we were aware of it, and then into Scotland at an innocuous little river.

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Hills, just like I used to draw them as a five year old.

As I looked around at the sunlit hillsides, cloud shadows occasionally cast across them, I was overwhelmed by how magnificent this country is.

I was also treated to a view of a shepherd and his dog at work as we followed a flock being driven up a road, and less, appealing, what looked like about a hundred hounds guided by two men on horses to the start of a meet. Our guide told us that they were probably going to an illegal fox hunt. It still happens fairy frequently in the Lake District, she explained. In spite of this, the dogs were beautiful, and to see so many together was quite a sight.

With the first twenty five miles we were making excellent time. The second we slowed down noticeably, and it included the first puncture. As the day went by our schedule slipped. At ninety seven miles we decided to stop at one hundred for one of our breaks. That three miles seemed to take forever. We were now in the borders which is very up and down, mixing steep and short with long and shallow climbs making it difficult to tap out a rhythm. The last twenty five miles were gruelling, but at least the last five were exhilarating as I crept towards 200 kilometres.  My first metric double century.

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What happens when you use the “dramatic sky” option on an iPhone.

The aim was to reach our B&B by seven, or eight at the very latest. Three punctures meant we arrived with about ten minutes to spare. Our host welcomed us warmly with wonderful food and as the sun went down we reflected on a most exhausting yet completely fabulous day in the saddle. By the end I was cursing the climbing, but couldn’t help thinking how satisfying the day had been.