The Bicycle Diaries
Freewheeling down towards the Cromarty Firth as the mist rolled back into the sky was worth every single 6am training session back at home.The sky was flecked with pink, then yellow, then orange but the water below stayed grey and cold. Over the previous few days my bike had started to make a whining noise, and each morning as I repacked the tent into panniers on its flanks something, somewhere had fallen off it. Last night my front wheel brake had stopped working, but even that didn’t stop the pleasure of this unexpected freewheel north of Inverness.
Terrible map-readers, my friend Clare and I had frequent moments of unexpected freewheeling and hill-climbing on our Land’s End to John O Groat’s trip. We were raising money for a leukaemia charity and had decided that 14 days would be ample amount of time to get from A-B. Its 874 miles as the crow-flies, but our milometers on our bikes told us we had cycled almost that in 10 days.
Training had been basic, especially as Clare lived in London so we weren’t able to cycle together. We prepared by cycling a few day trips, averaging around 70 miles each, which exhausted us, and then we cycled from Coast to Coast just to make sure that we could sustain the pace.
Starting in Cornwall had been daunting. Inevitably, as with the start of all great trips, it was raining. Clare’s boyfriend Mike had literally dumped all of our kit in the car-park and had beaten a hasty retreat to make it back to London for an afternoon meeting. We took an awkward picture of ourselves standing underneath the ‘John O Groat’s-this way’ sign-post; unfortunately like all of the pictures we took at the start of our journey we were never going to see it again as a freak bike-accident caused the camera to smash on the roadside. It was in this same crash that our cut-price GPS also decided it had had enough and left us to rely on map-reading somewhere north of Liverpool.
For most of the journey we had planned to avoid main roads. At some points in Devon we overtook slow moving carthorses carrying damp looking tourists, trying to exploit the weak April sunshine. At other times, for example around Manchester, Liverpool and the Pennines, a part of the ride we had imagined to be quite scenic and rewarding. It was in fact a terrifying collection of A Roads and lanes lacking width for more than one car. This meant lorries, wide tractors and boys in pimped out cars zooming up behind us and beeping on our tails for minutes.
One night, owing to our limited budget, we ended up camping in a children’s play area near Penrith getting bottles thrown at our tent at 4 in the morning. In hindsight, to save money, we put ourselves into some pretty desperate situations. In reality though, we had to save what money we had for a contingency plan, and as we were getting so lost, it was looking possible that we might need to implement it. Clare started back at work in just over a week.
In terms of the cycling, physically it wasn’t as bad as I had feared. The first few days had been a chore, but they had also been coupled with the excitement of being on the road which helped us to motivate ourselves. Cycling south to north always gave me the feeling of just doing one massive hill-climb. I would look enviously at cyclists making the trip in the opposite direction as if they were just doing one massive freewheel.
Our Lancashire crash caused us to rethink the way we were going about Land’s End to John O Groat’s. As we had been getting more tired, we had been setting off a little later each day. The evening had been reserved to make up for any lost time we had spent lost at innumerable cross-roads throughout the day. We had been cycling in a warm dusk along a quiet road, when out of nowhere a herd of sheep grazed into the road. In hindsight, I’m sure being knocked into a ditch after swerving to avoid a sheep is funny considering that we had just navigated the North West conurbation of Liverpool, Manchester and Sheffield. I broke my finger and my camera and we spent a bruised night camped in the field immediately adjacent to the road on which the sheep grazed, hoping that the farmer wouldn’t find us.
Despite our horrendous map-reading and our ruined bikes, we made it to John O Groat’s almost 17 hours ahead of schedule. We had had a brilliant ride over the last few days. We could feel our muscles working as though they had all been well-oiled, more than making up for our bikes, which had not. Saddened by the lack of waiting crowds cheering for us and waiting for us with bouquets and/or wreaths depending on how our ride had gone, we decided to make the most of getting to John O Groats a bit early by setting up our tents and having a nap. And this Easter, I’m going to be doing it all again. Downhill, this time.