It was my intention to blog each day’s ride from the road, while it was still fresh in my mind, so long as conditions permitted. As it happened, though, I would be lying in bed after dinner with my phone in hand and my eyelids drooping. Fearless Leader Joe would prod me to put the phone away, and I would plug it in to charge and go to sleep. (This was significant as it turned out the phone would not charge unless it had been shut off — see a list of things that didn’t quite work as expected in Hors de Combat.)
Day 1: Sunday, June 16
We had an early start from northwest London down to Paddington Station to catch the train to Penzance. At this point FLJ was riding an interim bike (albeit one he’s previously ridden for London to Paris and Berlin to Amsterdam), and we had a plan for his brother to meet us en route once the new bike had arrived. So we set out with a less-than-full load, leaving behind all our camping gear and indeed anything else we wouldn’t need for the first two or three days’ riding, as that could come in the car along with the new bike. It was a quick and flat 10km to Paddington, largely in traffic, although we did manage to get briefly off-course when we were quite near the destination.
We made it to Paddington Station with time to spare. We asked a station worker about carrying the bikes on the train — FLJ had reserved our spot beforehand — and got a very helpful explanation including a quick jaunt up alongside one of the earlier trains as it waited in the station. We bought a couple of sandwiches to have lunch aboard the train, but the worker serving FLJ was less helpful. When he asked if she could cut the sandwiches in half, she replied, “We’re not a kitchen.”
There’s room for four bikes on each train, two each in two different carriages. It’s first-come first-served when it comes to carriage choice, although the bikes must be booked beforehand so there’s no real fight to be one of the four (or two of the four, in our case). We initially found we were seated far from where the bikes were stored, and were a bit concerned about their safety. But when we asked a helpful railway worker, she cheerfully pointed out there were many available seats and we were free to take our pick as long as the seats were not previously booked. We moved into the same carriage where the bikes were stored.
Once settled in, our only concern was the time to Penzance. This was indeed a British train, and we were soon behind schedule. As the day wore on, we fell further and further behind. Our worry was that we had booked a taxi from Penzance to Land’s End for half an hour after the scheduled arrival of the train, and so that created a deadline of sorts for us. But as I repeatedly reminded FLJ during the train ride, the Penzance taxi company was certainly used to trains arriving late.
In the end, the train staff arranged to skip several intermediate stops, and we made up something like 15 minutes (of a 40-minute delay) in this way. FLJ called ahead to the taxi company to let them know the train was running behind so there was no problem when we eventually pulled into Penzance.
After an uneventful taxi ride (FLJ in the front chatting up the driver and me in the back with the bikes), we arrived at Land’s End. We’d heard that there was a charge to have photos at the famous sign post, and this turned out to be partly true: If we wanted to have our names spelled out on the sign post and have prints mailed to us, there was a charge. But it was free to stand slightly off to the side and have someone else snap us using our phones.
The wind was stiff and frigid in Land’s End, and so we were eager to be on our way. Once clear of the point, we turned onto a somewhat bumpy horse trail and we were out of most of the wind. We followed the trail for only a couple of kilometers before joining up with the road. From there it was a matter of retracing the taxi ride back to Penzance, largely on the A30, and from there onwards!
From Penzance, we turned inland and headed for the northern coast of the peninsula before turning east, a route that kept us away from the A30. The course soon took us into minor farm roads and in a couple of cases horse trails. There was a notable climb over a very stony horse trail just a few kilometers before the end, but we just slowed our pace and continued on. We pulled into Three Burrows, where we’d booked a room at the Chiverton Arms, before 7 p.m. with plenty of light to spare but also with the beginning sprinkles of a threatening rain. We quickly showered up and headed for dinner. As it was Sunday, it was a roast dinner consisting of just what we needed: calories and more calories, washed down by a local ale! As might be expected, we slept like dead men despite the ride having been a brief 60km.
Day 2: Monday, June 17
The day dawned with fair weather, and we breakfasted on sandwiches provided the previous evening by the Chiverton staff. We departed Three Burrows about 7:30 on the A30, and were soon being chased by enormous lorries up and down the solar panel-clad hills. We turned off the main highway after not too many kilometers (FLJ may have a different opinion as it was his backside the lorries were breathing down). But we weren’t on the country roads too long before our first mechanical: following a wrong turning, I clipped a barrier with my pannier and tore it from the bicycle rack. A quick inspection showed the pannier’s mounting clip was broken, so we secured it to the rack with a bungee cord (having packed several in anticipation). Not much farther on, I flatted on the rear. We pulled off the road at the entrance to a farmhouse (where lived what proved to be a friendly woman and a friendlier dog) and I set to work replacing the tube.
It didn’t take long to sort out the flat, but in that time we were passed by a rider heading in the opposite direction at speed. FLJ called out to him and he reversed course and came back to spend a pleasant 10 minutes chatting with us. He was on his 10th (and last) day of Jogle: John o’ Groats to Land’s End. He did look rather more athletic than either of us, although a similar age, and said he’d been riding 150-160km per day. (We learned, too, that we had to specify “kilometers” whenever we discussed numbers with the locals, who tend to default to miles.) His advice for us was not to be afraid to get off and push when conditions warranted it, and his complaint was that some of the trails were of such poor condition that he’d have preferred to ride in traffic, regardless of how heavy.
When we heard that, we were reminded of the stony horse trail of the day before. But we’d no sooner set out when we encountered even worse: a horse trail that was so overgrown and muddy that it beggared the definition of “trail.” We spent some time debating whether our friend had come the same way as he hadn’t specifically mentioned this obstacle and we came to it so soon after leaving him, all the while pushing, riding and otherwise coaxing our steeds through the nettles and the sludge.
We were back on the road after a couple of kilometers, but it was the start of a whole lot of “up-down.” We’d done only a fraction of our climbing for the day when we stopped for lunch at the Snail’s Pace Café at Wenford Bridge on the River Camel. We had a delicious al fresco lunch in the company of a rather amusing couple out for a jaunt with their dogs.
We didn’t dawdle long, though, as we were still facing quite a lot of climbing for the day, as well as threatening weather. Immediately after we left the Camel Trail behind, we began a Category 4 climb, including a 3km stretch at an average of 4%. (And as I always say, if the average is X%, then that implies … ) FLJ was breezing ahead on most of the climbs, and I was struggling along to the top, sounding like a Boeing 737 MAX fighting for altitude — but making it, even if I had to stop to rest partway up at times. The threatened rain came and that, combined with the narrow roads clogged with mud from farm vehicles, ensured we were soon spattered from head to toe.
We were on a swift downhill still about 35km from our planned goal for the day when the pavement suddenly transitioned from smooth to broken, partly hidden by the puddles and mud. I splashed through at speed on my fat tires but soon realized I needed to bring the pace down. Meanwhile, behind me, FLJ had hit bottom with his skinnies and flatted, and was calling out to me for several kilometers before I heard him.
We pulled to a stop at another farm gate, rather muddier than the first, and set about fixing the flat. FLJ had not brought tools, a tire pump or patch kit, and had never changed a flat before. He had bought a spare before we left London, though, and he was eager to learn to fix the flat himself. So under my tutelage (and occasional lent hand) he set to work. It probably wasn’t more than 20 minutes before we were ready to continue on our way.
Within 10km or so of our latest flat, we rolled downhill into Hatherleigh. Our scheduled stop for the night was another 20km farther on, but faced with the 4% grade up out of Hatherleigh and further burgeoning rains, and given it was about 8:30 p.m., we decided to call it a day. We’d already climbed 1,680m in one day — a vertical mile and change. FLJ walked into a grocery co-op as I watched the bikes (a pattern that was to be repeated countless times throughout the ride), where a local told him there was lodging just a few meters up the road.
The George, established c. 1450 (but with somewhat updated plumbing), turned out to be the nicest hotel we stayed this trip, with an extremely friendly and helpful Danish maître d’hôtel. He quickly agreed to allow us to park our bicycles in an unused portion of the restaurant, and brought a clothes rack into our room to help us dry our wet cycling gear over the radiator. Following a delicious dinner we retired to our room and got in a very good night’s sleep.
Day 3: Tuesday, June 18
In the morning, FLJ’s tire had gone flat again. We’d obviously missed something during our roadside repair the previous evening. Joe spent some time searching the tire for any foreign object and came up empty, and then spent even more time struggling to get the tire back on the wheel with the patched tube from the previous day (as he’d only brought one spare). After watching him fight for more time than should be needed to fix 10 flats, I took over the job and had the tire on in a matter of moments.
FLJ pumped up the tire and went to fetch his gear. But while he was gone I quickly spotted the issue: the tire hadn’t seated properly on the rim and was bulging out significantly in one spot. We let the air out and reseated the tire, then filled it up again. This time, with a little extra care, the tire seated properly. And so we had a clue why we’d had another flat within 10km of the first: a pinch flat from an improperly seated tire bead. We had no more trouble from this tire over the next two days (after which we replaced the bike).
We were eager to be on the road and try to make up the lost 20km of the previous day, but by the time the flat was fixed it was after 8 a.m. — the hotel restaurant was open and we helped ourselves to breakfast before le depart. Then we were on the road and climbing that 4% grade out of Hatherleigh and on towards Lapford (which had been our goal the night before). It was all up and down over this portion — mostly up — although not always as steep as the first bit, and it took us two hours to cover the first 22km of the day.
We didn’t stay long in Lapford — just long enough to eat a couple of Snickers bars and gulp some water. We were still climbing at this point, although more gradually now, and then the rain started coming down in earnest. If we’d thought we’d been wet and muddy on Monday, we were soon shown just how mistaken we were. There was nothing for it but to soldier onwards: as FLJ noted, you can only be soaked through once. After another couple of hours of riding we descended into Tiverton and looked about for a place to have lunch. A local saw us peering in the windows of a café that was being refurbished and directed us onward a few hundred meters, where we found the Half Moon, a pub that was out of the rain, if nothing else. (We did have to park the bikes out front in the rain, locked to each other, but a little water wasn’t going to hurt them.) Before long we were warming up over fish & chips and hot tea, which was filling and hot if nothing else. We didn’t spend a lot of time over the food, though, before we got back out into the wet.
The good news was we were past the lion’s share of the climbing, at least for the first portion of the trip, as we entered the midlands. We soon found ourselves on a canal tow-path, admirably flat and free of auto traffic. Tow paths were to be a feature of the next few days of riding, and we soon learned the trade-offs: while they were flat and free of traffic, they were often poorly paved (or not paved at all) and we encountered a number of people walking dogs that were not on leash. I’m happy to report we didn’t have any issues with dogs chasing us. The only worry was that we would run them over as they failed to get out of the way. Most owners called their dogs to themselves and held them off the path when they heard us coming, and we learned to call out to them to give them lots of notice.
With our late morning start and the fighting through the rain, it was late afternoon when we pulled into Taunton for a coffee and snack at a Starbucks to warm up and give ourselves energy for the last kick. We were back on the canal path after this and soon ran into trouble: construction that completely blocked the route. For lack of a marked detour, we worked our way around the construction barrier to continue onwards — we’d already encountered a number of locations where a road closed to traffic still allowed cycles to pass. Unfortunately in this case we were soon slogging into deep mud and clay as we attempted to traverse a genuine construction area. We were lucky in the end when a worker spotted us on the security cameras and came to chase us off the lot. We explained our predicament to him and he was suddenly friendly, guiding us on towards Bridgwater where we could rejoin the canal.
We left the lot scraping mud and clay from our feet and tires (I couldn’t get my cleats to clip in for all the clay) and followed the directions. Before long, indeed, we found ourselves back at the canal. Unfortunately at this point we made our second great mistake of the day (not counting the fish & chips lunch, that is), and unwittingly turned the wrong direction on the canal. We then worked our way all the way back to the construction area, but this time from the other side. We didn’t fully realize the extent of our error until we’d made our way back into city traffic and FLJ spotted a shop we’d previously passed. It took me a few minutes to realize he was correct, and at that point — in the dark and rain — we decided to stop for the night in Bridgwater. We soon located a hotel where the staff batted not a single eyebrow at our mud-spattered condition and agreed to lock up our bikes in a storage room. We headed out in the desultory rain for dinner at a nearby Domino’s Pizza. Back at the hotel, we spent some time washing the mud and clay from our clothing in the hotel shower before collapsing into bed.
More to come in Part II