TRAT isn’t the first time that I have set out to ride the length of the UK, it will just be the most challenging (and short of riding the same distance on a unicycle, wearing full armour and juggling weasels, I’m not sure that I’ll ever take on a ride this tough again).
I did manage the distance before, riding from John o’ Groats to Land’s End during late winter/early spring of 2008.
This is my account of setting off and the first few days of riding:
My plan was to set off for Thurso by train (via the Caledonian Sleeper to Inverness), then ride the just over 20 miles to John o’ Groats in preparation of setting off south the following day.
My planned itinerary was as follows:
March 22nd: John o’ Groats to Inverness (120 miles)
March 23rd: Inverness to Glencoe (81 miles)
March 24th: Glencoe to Stirling, via Loch Lomond (96 miles)
March 25th: Stirling to Hamilton, via the Forth Bridge and the Falkirk Wheel (65 miles)
March 26th: Hamilton to Thornhill (50 miles)
March 27th: Thornhill to Lancaster, via the Lake District (125 miles)
March 28th: Lancaster to Altrincham (62 miles)
March 29th: Altrincham to Shifnal (60 miles)
March 30th: Shifnal to Hereford (57 miles)
March 31st: Rest day!
April 1st: Hereford to Bristol (62 miles)
April 2nd: Bristol to Plymouth, via Dartmoor (119 miles)
April 3rd: Plymouth to Land’s End, then back to Penzance (105 miles)
Some of those distances are probably a bit odd to anyone who knows those places, I wasn’t riding the most logical straight route as I was diverting here and there to stay with friends and family as much as possible.
The night before the train trip I packed up the bike panniers (Ortlieb roller ones) with a horrendous amount of kit – the two panniers were completely full, so much so that the kit overlapped into a small rucksack. I rationalised it a bit as I didn’t want to wear the rucksack day in, day out on the bike.
The full weight of the panniers, rucksack and contents came to almost exactly 20 kilos, after a bit of work, I got this down to the two panniers only and a weight of 15 kilos.
The weather was predicted as appalling, although having checked it constantly on both the BBC and Metcheck, it appeared to be just about on the right side of possible (based on looking at the locations I planned to be travelling between on each day). The possible exception to this was the for the second day but if I could get out before the predicted heavy snowfall in the Inverness area I might manage to get down south far enough to be in rain and not snow (according to the forecast anyway).
On the plus side, the forecasted wind was in my favour, being at my back for the first few days.
My intention was to be sensible about the weather, reviewing the forecast daily and altering route or distance as necessary. I had a big range of kit with me including spare clothes, waterproofs and a survival bag if things got really squirrelly, also people knew my itinerary and were expecting me to check in.
Just getting to the start was a mission of it’s own – although the UK is a small country it takes a long time to get to either end of it. Taking the sleeper train is definitely the way to travel north (although as I was sitting in a seat rather than a berth it was more Dozer train than Sleeper train.
The train was very busy, with recent snowfalls in the north, a lot of winter sports enthusiasts were off to take advantage. There were a few other cyclists but I was the only end-to-ender as far as I knew.
Gripes about not really sleeping aside, it was a great way to travel, it was good looking up and seeing somewhere new between dozes. Travelling through the Highlands it became clear just how heavy the snowfall had been and many of the passengers had got off by Aviemore, to head for the mountains no doubt.
Following that long trip, the train to Thurso on the Friday morning was also very enjoyable. It follows the coast here and there but heads inland too and is a very scenic trip. You’re also very conscious that it’s a trip that very few people in the UK ever make.
On actually reaching Thurso, the wind was intense (easily up to the predicted 40mph and far beyond that in gusts). So much so that after making it three miles out of town I realised that I was in a lot of trouble – the wind was coming from the north, I was travelling east and was being battered from the side by very powerful winds. I was being pushed into the middle of the road by the gusting and it just wasn’t safe. It probably didn’t help that I had only recently bought the panniers and the only time I had ridden the bike fully laden had been the short ride from Waterloo to Euston station too.
So I stopped at a lonely phone box and got a taxi to take me to John o’ Groats (I hadn’t started the real ride yet so didn’t feel like this was cheating). After checking in to the hotel I went down to John o’ Groats proper – although it was early afternoon/late evening, there was no-one there (and the sign was gone too). The wind was still battering in, driving waves quickly inshore (the Orkney Ferries were cancelled due to the weather conditions.
After a night in the hotel (where I was soundly beaten by locals in a drunken game of pool) I was ready for the big off.
Just as with ending something like this, the start was a little anti-climatic. It was just me, on my own setting off south.
The first day of riding was hard, for a couple of reasons, weather being one of them, it being my first imperial century since July of the previous year probably didn’t help either. It also being my first day riding with heavy panniers was also a bit of a challenge.
After the first mile I remember thinking, “Right, just need another 1,000 or so of those and we’re sorted”.
A mile later and the driver of a passing car reached out and waved, probably one of the people who I had met and lost to at pool in the hotel the night before. Was a good omen on starting.
The weather that morning was a lot calmer than on the previous day. Although the winds were still strong they were rideable and often in my favour at first. For the first hour or so my average was over 16mph, this slowly dropped throughout the day to around 14mph as I got more tired and lost the wind boost.
All in all I was relatively lucky with the weather. While I experienced wind and some light snow flurries it could have been much worse – there was one nice moment when snow was falling, being blown along at the same direction and speed as me, so the snow was relatively keeping station with me as I rode on – utterly magical.
The coast road (A9) undulates a lot and saps a lot of strength, especially the steep descent and long steep climb at Berriedale Braes – I got asked about that in a cafe in Helmsdale. I actually enjoyed the descent but knew that I would have to pay for it – sure enough it was a long, steepish climb on the other side.
I was doing OK until about 30 miles before Inverness – just started losing energy but was stupidly determined to keep going – I eventually stopped on the climb on Black Isle and rooted through my panniers for chocolate.
It was getting dark by the time I was on Black Isle and was fully dark before I reached Inverness and my guest house. I eventually found a curry after trying several places (all busy and booked up what with it being Easter, I’m sure the head waiter will never understand why I was so pathetically grateful to get served.
High points of the first day included:
1. Sniggering at the place name ‘Mid Clyth’ which sounds like a 1970’s sitcom euphemism: “This week in ‘Don’t Strain the Nation’, Gerald and Sophie are caught mid-clyth by their boss”.
2. Cheese and pickle toastie at the cafe at Helmsdale.
3. The people that flashed their hazards after I waved acknowledgement to them who passed after having to wait patiently. There were actually lots of these, especially in Caithness.
4. This probably isn’t my high point but I saw some herring gulls having their high point pecking the (erm) soft parts of a dead sheep.
5. Seeing a Broch.
The coast is very pretty and it was enjoyable to be riding with the sea in sight for much of the day. I even attempted a haiku:
Sea to my left side
Winter snow cast land to right
The road ever on.
It felt good to warm and fed. I planned a late start tomorrow to let the predicted bad weather sort itself out. I was also looking forward to staying in the one posh(ish) hotel of my ride.
This was a tiring day – probably didn’t help that I ate late and got to bed late.
Although I had planned for a late setoff, I was even later than I planned for and didn’t get going until about 10:45. I felt quite tired from the start, my knees hurt a lot at first and the day was generally a bit of a slump.
The ride itself was ok, with fantastic scenery all around, particularly on either side of Loch Ness. The road undulated a lot more than I was expecting and although not as bad as the first day was quite strength sapping.
At Invermoriston I reached the turn off for my possible diversion to Eilean Donan castle. I’ve always wanted to visit there but being tired, was glad to have started too late to even consider the extra (considerable) distance.
The road continued Southwest and I carried on past the remnant of Loch Ness (monsterless) -the road frequently crosses the Caledonian Canal over various swing bridges and I would have been happy to have been delayed to see one in operation (but wasn’t). The road then takes you past Loch Oich and then some nice flat bits alongside Loch Lochy (Loch Lochy must have been last in the queue when the Loch names were being given out: “Right, who’s next? Right you can have Loch Ness. Yes I know it’s a silly name but I’ll throw in an imaginary monster for the tourist trade. Right, you at the back, you can be…um…Loch Lochy, yes that’s it.”
After Loch stupidname the road climbs up before Spean Bridge, where the Commando monument looks towards the high range which includes Ben Nevis, the UK’s highest mountain. I didn’t stop to take a picture I just looked at it hard and remembered).
After Spean Bridge the road drops into Fort William after which there was a mostly flat run alongside Loch Linnhe to my hotel just after Onich.
The traffic all day was steady but reasonable and I had no problems – I saw a couple on hybrid bikes heading Northeast (toting huge backpacks) and wondered if they were doing the end-to-end. The bloke sort of registered my greeting, the girl just looked unhappy.
Also somewhere on the way, a guy who I had met in the Indian restaurant in Inverness had stopped his car by the roadside to cheer me on. That was a bit of a boost to flagging morale.
The hotel was nice but the manager/head waiter was overly attentive in a not-quite-but-almost scary way. The rooms had odd names as well as numbers – I was in ‘Cosy Cabin III’ which was probably the least silly name – there was also ‘Comfort Crusade’, ‘Dream Corner’ and ‘Nature’s Dawn’. “Nature’s Dawn?” “I read about them in Forbes Magazine”.
Overall I felt good to have finished the second day mostly intact. I took it fairly easy with the hope of recovering a bit from the previous day. I had a great meal then an early night in preparation for another 100 miler the following day.
Again, snow was predicted for the following day – so I took a photograph of the mountains ahead to see if the snowline changed overnight.
I had a good night’s sleep (despite some crazy dreams) and woke up feeling reasonably fresh. A quick look out of the window showed clearish skies and no fresh snow on the hills (or at least no increase to the snowline).
I moved into what was now becoming my routine – get up, pack up the panniers, check on the bike and then have breakfast. I oiled the chain today as I had noticed a bit of noise the previous day. After a good breakfast I set off just before half nine. Then began the best part of the ride so far…
The scenery in northern Scotland is stunning and one of the most stunning bits I have seen so far is the pass of Glencoe, I started up this after the six miles or so from my hotel (with amazing views of Kinlochleven to my left). A few miles before I had seen my first road cyclists of the trip, three riders blasting along, giving me a cheery wave as they passed.
The pass climbs at a steady but reasonable gradient – I had the wind at my back for the first bit which was an extra boost. The climb is fantastic, with glimpses into valleys and the snow covered mountains to either side. At one point the road passes between two big teeth of rock, like something from Middle Earth, and the vista in any direction is worth riding 100 miles for. If you go to one place in Scotland go here and ride or walk it. I can’t express how stunning it is.
I stopped about 2/3rds of the way to the top to take photos and drink water (I also made and threw a snowball). I noticed some other cyclists coming up the hill – it was a couple (called Ed & Marsala) also doing the end-to-end. They had started some days ago from Land’s End heading for JoG by the northerly route. They were stopped at Lanark by the bad weather and instead drove up to JoG to ride the last bit back to Lanark southwards. Apparently they had passed me while driving up on the Saturday and wondered if I was riding the end to end and were further told of me at the hotel I started form in JoG.
They were riding supported with a van and were travelling very light (which made me jealous at the time). We took each other’s pictures then they set off – I saw them again later by Loch Lomond as they were switching drivers (originally two of them were doing the ride proper with one driving the van, then the other main rider had knee problems so instead alternated driving duties with Marsala.
I carried on over the top of the pass onto a high plateau, again with stunning views to all sides. It snowed from time to time, the weather showing you what it could do if it wanted to. A fast descent into Tyndrum eventually followed, where I stocked up on alcohol laced fudge at the Green Welly Stop. Tyndrum was very full of tourists and I felt a bit like a cowboy coming into town from the prairies – everyone just seemed so busy.
Traffic on the road became so heavy that I couldn’t cross the road to find the public toilet so I carried on south in search of peace (and bushes). Snow started falling quite heavily with the wind in my face but the road dropped at a steady rate and my speed crept up – I checked the bike computer from time to time and at one point saw that I was at just over 37mph (a new record for the fully laden bike) and I was laughing like a fool.
After a climb out of Crianlarich (still in the snow) the road again dropped steadily down to Loch Lomond, again the snow came on hard but the road favoured me and by the time I reached the bottom of the descent I was through into clear weather and was for most of the rest of the day. It was good to reach here as from now on, the weather only had the power to delay me or make me miserable.
The road is quite narrow alongside the first part of Loch Lomond but traffic was quite forgiving, this was less true as the road broadened out later. After a place called Luss, the traffic was mostly backed up all the way from Alexandria and I passed many, many vehicles (trying not to look too smug).
After this I turned right onto the A811 towards Stirling (which is a rotten road for much of the way).
Tiring by now I was glad to reach my sister Mairi’s house in Cambusbarron where I had a great meal and a good night’s sleep.
This was a fantastic day, definitely the best so far and one of the bits I was really looking forward to – Glencoe & Loch Lomond in the same day. Good stuff.
With this day over, I was out of the Highlands and starting in to the central belt of Scotland. Although the weather had been bad at times over the first three days, it was never bad enough to prevent me riding – the roads were always clear of snow and the snow that did fall never fell for long enough to settle.
I had also got used to the heavily laden bike by now and the panniers were no longer causing me problems. I was still getting pain from my knees but it wasn’t debilitating, I think it was just the new strain of carrying all the weight on the bike.
In three days I had covered approximately 300 miles which at that time was the furthest I had ridden in that short a time period.
My plan for the next day was to set off for a long loop east to go over the Forth Bridge and then travel back to Hamilton via the Falkirk wheel.