Sunday, December 5, 2010

LEJoG 2003

The weeks before Christmas always seem to get quite busy, with both work and play. Although I have selected and tagged my Christmas tree in a field in the Flatlands and done some Christmas shopping . We also seem to have to do a "sort-out" of the house in the run up to Christmas and are in the middle of that - which unfortunately seems to take precedence over cycling.

So since my cycle ride from Land's End to John O'Groats (LEJoG) pre-dated my Blogging activity I thought I'd do a quick Post on it. I did the ride in July 2003 but the sequence of events that led up to it started in 1999. I was working in an office and most of my cycling was either commuting to work or the occasional weekend ride. In 1998 I managed to squeeze in 6,000 Km although I tended to be more of a fair weather cyclist then. Actually for me a good year was around 3,200Km/2,000 miles. In '99 I had been having problems with a clicky knee. I had been sitting cross-legged on my hotel bed (in Nice) after meetings all day and got up quickly when the phone rang and I had a burning sort of pain my knee as my leg straightened. I didn't think too much about it until some time later my knee joint seemed to jam up and stop me from straightening it. I found that I could wiggle it around a bit and get it to unlock.

This problem went on for a while ( around 2 years), the worst time was after I had been kayaking with my Son (I think it was with the Scouts). Afterwards as I was struggling to get out of my wet-suit my leg locked and my son had to help me drag the wet-suit off, the knee did unlock but took longer than usual. I did very little cycling but was thinking of picking it up again and did a bit of tentative short-distance cycling of around 16Km/ 10 miles. A week or so later a plan to go cycling with my son on our Tandem got postponed because teenagers don't find getting up early very appealing. Instead I was moving things around in the shed where my bikes are kept and hopped over some paint tins only for my knee to lock mid-hop and when I landed it jammed completely.

No amount of wiggling of the joint helped and neither did a hot bath, which I hoped would allow the joint to loosen, so much to my wife's surprise I went to the Doctor. (I tend not to go to the Doctor very often, but when I have a real problem I do!) As is the case in the UK he referred me to a Specialist which, thanks to BUPA did not take long to set up. Over the weeks my knee gradually loosened as the piece of cartilage causing the lock got ground away - my diagnosis. I had to postpone the hospital visit for a couple of weeks as I had to travel around Japan. That wasn't fun - sitting in aeroplane seats was not helpful and trying to sit cross-legged for formal dinners in Japan was impossible.

When I went for my appointment the knee was actually not too bad and my Consultant suggested that I was quite young (!) for a knee operation and it would be better to cope to try and delay an operation. Mind you I walked in with no pain, but after the consultation I hobbled out after my knee had been "tested". So I mentioned my cycling and he felt this would be good exercise (provided the feet were correctly positioned on the pedals.). So I re-started cycling in September 2002 and he was right, my knee hurt less (and was less prone to swelling) with regular cycling. So after managing around 3,200Km / 2,000 miles in the last 4 months of 2002 I decided I needed a target.

My target was to cycle from Land's end to John O'Groats. I have some friends who did it when they were younger and it seemed to be the right mix of adventure and fun and being in the UK any knee problems would not be a complete disaster. I decided I wanted a supported tour with luggage being transferred between stops and a support van in case of mechanical or worse, bio-mechanical problems. My existing Touring bike had around 30,000Km on the clock and I convinced myself that with my knee problems I really ought to have a bike made to measure so as not to exacerbate more problems. So that is what I did. I chose to go with Longstaff Cycles based near Stoke-on-Trent. It was founded by George Longstaff in 1982 and went up to discuss the specification and get measured by George. Tragically George passed away later that year aged 56. My bike was probably one of the last he worked on.

In parallel I chose Bike Adventures, a small UK based company who run a variety of both supported and independent cycling holidays and booked to do the LEJOG with them in July 2003. There was a choice of camping or B&B. Since I had somehow convinced myself I would one of the oldest participants I thought I'd better camp as most of the others would be doing the same. (Lest it seem to much of a hardship I used to help the Scout group my son was with by going on their various camps - I like camping).

I picked up the bike the day after my birthday, it was comfortable right away, but I had only 10 weeks to get used to it before heading down to Land's End. One of the first longer rides on my new bike almost ended with a long walk. I had not tightened the seat post bolt sufficiently after adjusting the saddle height. Although I had one Allen key of the correct size it needed two! Fortunately I was quite close to a garage (in Stretham near Wicken Fen) where the owner sorted things out for me.

I also had to decide how much and what to carry and how to get there (Land's End) and back (John O' Groats). It seems obvious to let the train take the strain, getting passage for both me and my bike wasn't quite so easy. What I found is that you can't book too far in advance and in those days I ended up doing it in person at Cambridge Railway Station. I also had little idea quite where my bike would end up on the various trains. Going was easier, with two trains, Cambridge to London (Kings Cross) and then London (Paddington) to Penzance. Coming back was three trains, I think, but I ended up doing something different. I don't think it was possible to book my bike on the first of the three connecting trains back (from Wick to Inverness) but Kevin (of Bike Adventures) took us on that leg in the end. I did have cycle booking on the second train which I think went to Peterborough. I then changed onto an unbooked train from Peterborough to Cambridge. (This was my first real experience with bikes and trains.)

Although I was not carrying my luggage on LEJoG I did need to be able to cycle with my luggage to Cambridge Station and around London and from Penzance to the campsite near Land's End and for bits of the journey on the way back. So I got a couple of waterproof panniers (Carradice Super C) and a rack pack. I then did a few trial packs to see just how little I was going to end up carrying! I also had a tent and carry-mat and sleeping bag to add to the pile of stuff on my bike. Somehow I got it all in and on. There were fewer clothes than I would have liked, so I took some clothes washing liquid with me. The tour itself had no rest days and it was unlikely that we would be eating in posh restaurants in the evening so I optimised for cycling stuff. I took lights, partly to use in the tent, but you never know, even when cycling in the summer. In those days I hadn't got the blog habit and so I did not take my laptop or even a camera. I had a Smartphone (P800i) and used that to take low resolution pictures and write a daily email to send back home.

My plan all along was to pay for all my own costs and so I did think about seeking sponsorship for a charity. All the money raised would have gone to the charity that way. but I was more than a little apprehensive about my knee holding up. We were going to cover over 1,000 miles/ 1,600 Kms in 16 days which is an average of 60 miles/ 100 Km per day. Up until LEJoG the best I had ever achieved was 60miles a day for three days - and that was in the flatlands!! So I chickened out, I couldn't face the idea of raising sponsorship only to let people down by failing if my knee gave way. In hindsight I should have - but hey isn't hindsight wonderful.

The day came and my family waved me off for the short cycle to the station. As I wobbled along I did wonder what I had let myself in for. I'd probably end up with a bunch of young racers and I would be "Larry-no mates" struggling along behind. Ah well nothing ventured.

I did find that getting on the train at Cambridge was a bit of a challenge as I had to unclip my panniers (and tent and sleeping bag), get the bike on and then put the rest of the luggage on the train. There is no luggage van on the Cambridge train which meant I also had to leave space for people to get by as you end up parking your bike in a doorway. Then the process was reversed and I wobbled from Kings Cross to Paddington. I had left plenty of time between trains so wasn't too worried about missing my train. I did find the journey slightly more confusing that I had hoped though. There were cycle signs that pointed towards Paddington that seemed to peter out, or perhaps I missed a vital turning. In the end I found the station by using the road signs.

At Paddington it was a much larger train and I had to leave my bike in the luggage van and then take all my luggage with me as there wasn't enough room to leave my panniers clipped on. It was a fair distance between my the coach with my booked seat and the van with my booked bicycle as well. There were other bikes on board and I did wonder are these fellow travellers?

The train journey down to Penzance is lovely especially along the South Coast and there were no changes to add to the hassle. I got to Penzance, stuck everything back onto my bike along with one or two other cyclists - but being British did nothing more than nod! I found the 1st campsite and pitched tent and went to get something to eat. When I got back after a bit of nosh, there were one or two other cyclists along with Kevin the organiser, I think and we had a brief briefing. It turned out that most of the participants had decided not to camp, including Kevin there were four campers, the majority were going for the B&B option. (Yes some of those cyclists I saw were indeed on the same LEJOG.

Here is my tent and bike at the campsite near Penzance - what had I let myself in for?


The next morning we all gathered at the official start point - somewhere I have the official group pictures, but all these were taken on my Smartphone - which is why they are a bit low-resolution - there were no iPhones in '03. The campers dumped their stuff in the van which then went around to the various B&Bs to pick up the luggage of the other participants.

It turned out that the group had an age range of 15-70 with around 30% who were single cyclists and the rest pairs. Over the first couple of days we tended to gravitate to groups of cyclists of similar speeds. In those days and for that group I was in the fast group. Those were the days! Actually I think we were better at navigating. Each day were got a written list of directions for the days ride along with recommendations about places to stop for refreshments (elevenses, lunch, mid-afternoon snack) we had tea at our destination campsite before going to a local restaurant for an evening meal. When cycling reasonable distances you need to keep up your calorie intake! Not everyone was able to follow the directions quite so smoothly.


These are a selection of pictures - I won't follow each day's experience - I can't quite remember where each picture was taken, although I could match the dates I suppose. The first day's cycling was both wonderful and incredibly hard work - there are a lot of hills in Cornwall and Devon. I think I'd had to break out my emergency rations on day one - jelly babies of course. Over the next couple of days we got to know each other. The routes Kevin had chosen were generally on quiet roads. The route has been optimised to be pleasant, scenic and quiet but also had to have convenient campsites at each end. The average mileage was around 110Km/70 miles per day with the most being 135Km/ 85 miles.

One of the group fell off his bike clipping a kerb on day one, but fortunately only suffered a few minor grazes. After three days we reached the Somerset levels. Although not before getting lost on the way to Tiverton. Which was also coincidentally the longest day's cycling so perhaps you should knock of 16Km/10 miles for longest distance cycled in a day. We generally set off early in the morning after a campsite breakfast, (cereal, fruit, bread, cake, jam and marmalade, yogurt, tea, coffee). Kevin would also take orders for particular breakfast items.

Then the day's cycling would be punctuated by eating stops until we reached our campsite and had some cake and coffee. This is the campsite on day 3/4 I think. As one of the faster cycling group I would try to get my tent pitched and a shower before tea - then I could relax. It did not always work out like that but mostly. It also gave me time to send home an update email with a picture or two.

As well as having a van Kevin had a back up cyclist who tailed after the group to assist with mechanicals. We would generally also group for lunch and then he would try to get the the final campsite before the first arrivals to set up for tea to welcome the cyclists. we tried to get there before him though.

After tea the campers hung around whilst the B&Bers then headed off to warm comfortable beds and hot showers - me jealous! Then we would regroup at a nearby restaurant/pub for our evening meal. My staples were lasagna and sticky toffee pudding. Then it was back to my tent and the whole thing would happen again the next day. I quite like a decent pint of beer, but I found that with the significant daily effort I just wanted to re-hydrate with soft drinks in the evening.


After the Somerset Levels we then cycled up through Cheddar Gorge - shown here. Then we were up on the Mendips. The gorge itself is quite steep but we were getting used to the cycling by now and it didn't seem to bad. I grew up near Cheddar so it was rather nice cycling along roads I knew and had cycled along as a boy.


By the time we reached the Severn Bridge the weather had turned though. It was rainy as you can see here. The bridge is in the background. It wasn't that bad though - we just kept on - we had a goal - what's a bit of rain?


One of the things I have tended to forget is the challenge of washing and drying my cycle kit. I didn't have enough for the two weeks so I had to keep on top of it. That was easier said than done in some of the campsites. Mind you Kevin did have washing lines for hanging up drying clothes.


Cycling was punctuated by meals, with beans on toast and a cake being a good source of lunchtime nourishment. Looking back I could probably have paid a bit more attention to the beautiful countryside - but that just gives me an excuse to do it again.


I have notes for each day - "Day 6 LEJOG easy day, flat sunny Beeston Castle nice" - but not many pictures to accompany them. Mind you after the first couple of hard days cycling up through the midlands was pretty easy, until day 8, near Dent. We cycled past Dent Station - the highest mainland station in England (at 1,150feet 350m). There was also a 1 in 4 hill in the end only three managed it without having to walk. (Modesty doesn't stop me from mentioning that I was one of the three). We had been lulled into a sense of false security and the next couple of days kept cross-examining Kevin about the hills we might expect. It was the worst climb of the trip although not really as bad as the first couple of days either.

It was somewhere around here where we found the target lunch pub for the day was packed out so we carried on and on. Eventually we found a village with 3 houses and 1 pub and no cooked food. But as a cyclist you need calories so lunch was a pickled egg in a packet of crisps and mars bars washed down with orange squash. All of which the pub did have - we got a few odd looks from the villagers supping their pints of mild.


It was a very simple existence, cycle eat and sleep, cycle, eat and sleep and despite the hills it seemed to be no time at all before we found ourselves crossing into Scotland. Some of the cafes we visited were just wonderful in the Borders and Lowlands. They had a slightly old-fashioned mix of reserve and hospitality - it was a bit like going back in time. As visiting strangers we were made welcome but without "nosey" questions about our "business". I also used to keep my phone charged by plugging in at each tea stop - I always asked first though.


As a very young boy I lived in Glasgow and have family nearby and have spent many summer holidays in Scotland. The only downside is the midges - on a still day they drive you mad. This campsite was among the trees and we were troubled by the midges that day.


Some friends of our group lived in Scotland and came out to "escort" us though Glasgow - there is a rather nice disused railway track that runs through past old platforms in Glasgow and then the route takes you up to Loch Lomond. (I have been up the Loch Lomond/Glasgow ride before with my son when visiting Scotland for an Aunt's 90th birthday.) Even the hills in Scotland are easier - now it might have been we were a bit fitter - but we also found the gradients slightly more cyclist friendly. You have to climb the hills but the climbs just weren't as savage - as you can see here.


Our route took us past the submarine base and we also saw HMS Ark Royal (RIP) - that was surreal. We also encountered a bit more rain up in Scotland and it was also noticeable how the days were getting longer (as in hours of daylight). In fact it was also getting a little bit cooler as well so I bought some waterproof socks in Fort William and a bandanna - to keep the midges away. Here is one of the last of the "end of day tea groups" - amazingly enough the trip was soon to be over.


Of course no trip to Scotland would be complete without seeing Loch Ness we didn't see Nessie though.


The penultimate day took us to the Coast (Betty Hill) but we had a fast run. Although one of my fellow cyclists had a competitive streak - in particular there was one other cyclist he hated being beaten to the campsite by. So if we though he might be in front and there was a cyclist in the distance "E" would sit behind my rear wheel and tell me to catch up and overtake whoever it was. There were one or two local cyclists who probably wondered why we seemed so pleased to whizz past them. This day the other chap had "cheated" by skipping off early after lunch so "E" had me lead us out and we overtook him. Then I punctured - I have never fixed a puncture so quickly (urged on and assisted) to ensure we were not caught. By the time we got to near to Campsite I was exhausted and it was all I could do to keep up with "E". we had our evening meal at a (the) Hotel in Betty Hill. The food was delicious - and there was a stereotypical inebriated Scot in the bar, alternating between being nice and aggressive by turns.

The last day was almost blighted by the weather, it rained the whole day and the wind was against us, but this was our last day and we were going to make it. This is the Dounreay Nuclear Power site near Thurso in the gloom.


Our route also included Dunnet Head the most northerly bit of mainland and then onto John O' Groats. despite all the food consumed on the journey I think I had lost a bit of weight.


This is most of the group although for some reason I can't quite recall not all. My total distance cycled over the 16 days was 1750Km/ 1090miles.


It was so wet at John O'Groats that our campsite was flooded so we bailed out and stayed in the local Youth Hostel instead. The next day we all headed home. Kevin arranged to take a bunch of us and our bikes in his van to Inverness which overcame that train bottleneck. The train from Scotland had a goods van but when to Peterborough to change to the Cambridge train I found that there was only limited cycle space on one of the carriages on the train and it wasn't easy to find. By the time I got to Cambridge I wimped out and my wife came to pick me up in the car! When I got home they had pinned up a map of my journey and stuck the daily emails up over the kitchen to keep track of me.

I didn't take a helmet with me - although you can see quite a few did wear the, I only had three punctures which wasn't too bad. Would I do it again - you bet and I would certainly choose Bike Adventures (and no I don't get a discount for recommending them!)

Here is another satisfied customer - Kevin is on the right of the last picture.

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