The tale begins with Lejog post-mortem I
Day 4: Wednesday, June 19
Day 4 dawned with the realization that with the mechanicals and the misdirections, we were now 60km behind our schedule — a half-day’s riding. We hit the the hotel restaurant for breakfast while the workers were still setting out the dishes, and we stashed away a couple of sandwiches each for lunch on the road. The friendly staff lent us a bucket of hot water and some cloths and we spent a few minutes cleaning the mud and clay from our bikes before setting off. Even with all that prep, our departure time was an hour and a half earlier than it had been leaving Hatherleigh the day before.
The course continued along canal tow-paths: flat and mostly drier than the previous day (though of course still with puddles and soft spots from the earlier rains). We made good time and found ourselves in Yatton around 11, before the pubs were open for lunch. We had coffee in The Strawberry Line Café at the train station before pressing onwards.
Soon after we departed Yatton, FLJ fell back and I saw he was chatting with another biker. Before long the other guy passed me with a cheerful greeting and FLJ joined me. But we found him waiting for us at the next turning, and he spent five minutes giving us directions that would take us past Portishead to the Avonmouth bridge. Our chatty new friend led out again, and for the next few kilometers we found him waiting for us at each turning, eager to point the way. He stayed with us to Clevedon and pointed us up a winding, wooded lane that would keep us off the B3124. This alternate route continued on for some way, with the Garmin beeping regularly and nagging us to U-turn to get back on course, before turning again towards Portishead. Just as we entered the outskirts of town and the Garmin signaled we were back on course, FLJ took over with the help of his phone and directed us towards our real goal, the Avenmouth Bridge. We stopped where the cycling course turned off the road and onto an unused railroad right-of-way and finished off the sandwiches we’d prepared ourselves before leaving Bridgwater in the morning.
We’d no sooner set out on the cycling path than we ran into construction: the path crossed under the M5 here, and our way was blocked. Mindful of our earlier experience with a very muddy construction site, with some trepidation we stepped past the warning signs and looked for someone to ask. In a minute a worker emerged and directed us further down the path. “There’s a bridge there made of palettes that most folks are using,” he said. “But you didn’t hear it from me.” We continued in the direction indicated and soon found ourselves picking our way gingerly across the makeshift bridge under the M5.
From there we were faced with a further challenge. We picked up the path again but it brought us to a gate where a single panel of mesh had been removed. The helpful worker had mentioned the gate, so we wedged our way through the small opening to the path beyond. From there, it wasn’t clear what was needed as the path ran in two directions: one seemed to lead towards the Avonmouth, our goal, while the other seemed to double back towards the construction site. We set out towards the Avonmouth but soon found ourselves wandering around a local neighborhood, with no clear route forward. A brief chat with a passing woman left us none the wiser, and so we returned to the spot we’d squeezed through the gate.
The route untried at this point was the one that seemed to lead back to the construction site. We gave it a try and found that it climbed up and switched back until we were on the bridge. This indeed had been our goal. The bridge was high and windy and required a bit of climbing, but the cycle/pedestrian route was well paved and wide, with good separation from the vehicle traffic. We were soon down the opposite side and on our way once more.
Mid-afternoon found us in Berkeley, where we stopped to eat some sandwiches and cookies purchased from a local convenience store. Soon after that we were back on the canals. We stopped at the picturesque Splatt Bridge, with canal boats and St. Mary’s Church in the background, while FLJ chatted up a couple of friendly locals.
Our goal for the day had originally been to continue on from Gloucester past Worcester to Kidderminster, but we diverted at Gloucester for an important rendezvous: Joe’s brother was driving out from London with Joe’s new bike — and replacements for my broken pannier. We spent some time quizzing locals for a place to stay before locating a bed & breakfast in Staunton, and not a minute too soon as the raindrops were starting to fall. We hurried to beat the weather, but we were in for a soaking for the final 3km of our ride. We arrived dripping at the B&B and had to take care not to track mud through our hostess’s home.
Once squared away, we set out on foot as the rain let up to the nearby Swan for dinner, where Joe’s brother met up with us. By the time we’d polished off the food and ale, the sun was out again. We trooped back to the B&B and unpacked the new bicycle and the replacement panniers. Joe and I quickly conferred about our plans for camping: we were arriving each evening thoroughly worn out, just wanting a warm meal, a hot shower and a soft bed. We didn’t want to spend an extra hour each evening scouting out a place to sleep rough and pitch our tents, nor an additional hour each morning packing up the tents as we heated up coffee over the gas stove. We quickly agreed to abandon our plans for camping, and so we sent the tents and sleeping bags back to London in the car.
Day 5: Thursday, June 20
In the morning we were treated to an institution in the form of the Full English: breakfast cereal, toast with butter and marmalade, ham, sausage, black pudding, fried eggs and baked beans, all served with orange juice and our choice of coffee or tea. It was probably enough protein to see us through the next six days, to say nothing of the calories. So satisfied, and with a sunny morning following on our rainy squall of the night before, we started preparing the bikes.
FLJ was pleased as could be with his new mount, a fully custom touring bicycle made to his measurements and specifications by Brian Chapman of Rhode Island. The bike was ready to go, having been reassembled in a shop in London after arriving via air freight, but we needed to fit the panniers. In addition, my replacement panniers for Kuroko had arrived and those needed fitting as well. We spent 20 to 30 minutes getting everything right.
On setting out, I heard some unwanted squeaking coming from Kuroko’s chain and rear derailleur. This had started the previous day as a result of the rain and mud, and it hurt me inside to hear this noise with each turn of the pedals. We stopped within a kilometer at a garage, where a friendly mechanic cheerfully handed me a spray bottle of oil. That helped a good deal, but I could tell the derailleur was misaligned as it sometimes took two tries to get the desired gear.
Meanwhile, FLJ was coming to terms with his new baby-blue bike. He loved the upright riding position and comfortable grips and saddle, but needed a few kilometers to familiarize himself with the handling and particularly the difference in shifting styles with his internal Rohloff gearing. Our way was thankfully flat and the Garmin soon had us back on the intended course to Kidderminster. Unfortunately we passed through the center of Worcester. While this was quite picturesque, we spent more time than we’d wished faffing about with traffic and missed turnings.
With the late start after prepping our bikes and the time spent backtracking in Worcester, we stopped for lunch alongside the A449 at the Mitre Oak before reaching Kidderminster, which had been our scheduled goal for the evening before. Despite having put in a good 150km on Wednesday, we were still 60km off our target pace. We wasted no time in Kidderminster but pressed on immediately towards Timperley, hoping to avoid the traffic in Manchester.
It was another day of canal tow paths, some of which were in better condition than others. At one point on Wednesday we’d found ourselves slogging through mud and grass with no sign of a path, and so on Thursday we were debating the merits of forsaking the tow path for the nice, paved motorway alongside. In the end I prevailed with the choice of tow path, not just because it was flatter and more sheltered from the traffic and wind, but also because we had the route programmed in the Garmin.
We were again making good progress under sunny skies, but I found suddenly my rear derailleur wasn’t behaving. I could shift among the four largest cogs on the rear, but I couldn’t get up any higher. Fortunately at our pace, I was using these four the most. But at the next rest stop, I decided to have a go at getting things working again. I fiddled with the cable tension, backed out the adjusting screws and used my water bottle to spray out the mud that had built up in the derailleur over the past few days. After a few minutes of this fiddling about, I got it shifting again.
Soon after we started on our way again, though, I realized I’d made a mistake. I’d backed out the low-end stop too much, and the chain came off the largest cog and into the spokes. Fortunately I was going very slowly at the time, so it was simply a matter of reseating the chain. But I made myself a mental note I’d have to readjust the derailleur before it got worse.
Ah, for good intentions! Everything seemed to be going well throughout the afternoon. But in the evening, as we descended near Stafford, I decided to pull off for a brief rest and consultation with FLJ. As I shifted down in preparation for the stop, the chain again came off into the spokes, and this time with pronounced crunching and twanging noises! FLJ called from behind that I’d broken some spokes, and I dismounted to discover he was right.
While I worked to secure the broken spokes — I ended up wrapping them around their neighbors to keep them from tangling — FLJ worked his phone to find assistance. I was assuming we’d have to find a bike shop in Stafford and wait for it to open the following morning, but Joe had other ideas. It took several tries but he tracked down a mobile mechanic, a fellow who agreed to drive out to find us and service Kuroko on the spot. He was currently on another call but would be able to meet us the same evening.
With help on the way, we limped on into Stafford and located a Travelodge for the night. The mechanic, Ben, called to verify some details, including (if possible) the length of the required spokes. I tried measuring them as best I could (borrowing a tape measure from another guest at the hotel), but in the end I turned out to be off by a bit.
Ben showed up about 9 p.m. and quickly set to work. He had the bike up in a stand and the wheel off before I could blink. Working in the light of the nearby Pizza Hut, he got the cassette off the wheel and removed the broken spokes. Then it was a search for spares of a suitable length. We tried the spares that had come with FLJ’s beautiful new bike, but they were just a bit short. Finally Ben rummaged around his toolbox and located three spokes that were close enough to get the job done. (He replaced the two broken spokes and a third that was rather mangled.)
After that it was a matter of truing the wheel, cleaning and oiling the chain and adjusting the derailleur. He adjusted the brakes into the bargain, and told me the front pads were getting thin. I’m not surprised in light of all the “up-down” we’d had in the first couple of days of the tour. Unfortunately he didn’t have replacement pads with him. In the end, after an hour of work, he charged me a surprisingly low figure. I added in an extra fiver and told him to get himself a beer. If you’re in need of bicycle maintenance in the Cheshire, Staffordshire and Derbyshire areas, give Ben a shout. You’ll be pleased with the results.
Brian Chapman, meanwhile, was eager to hear from FLJ how the new bike was working out. I told him to let Brian know that the day had been a long, rolling advertisement for the Rohloff hub.
Day 6: Friday, June 21
With Thursday’s late start and subsequent disaster, we’d only put in 115km against a planned 138km. We not only hadn’t made up any lost ground, we were losing still more. We set out on the dot of 7 a.m. Friday and had a quick breakfast standing up in the local Asbo parking lot. Following a bit of backtracking, we were soon back on course and headed north out of Stafford, once again on the canal paths. With Ben’s TLC, the derailleur was performing flawlessly: every shift clicked into place with a single nudge of the lever, and the drivetrain was otherwise silent apart from the heavy metal ratcheting of the freewheel. I was quickly taking back everything I’d said the previous day about the advantages of the Rohloff.
We passed through Stoke-on-Trent and lunchtime found us in the beautiful village of Congleton. We parked our bikes next to a wobbly al fresco café table, where I had a three-bean chili and FLJ had a salad. As we wrapped up our lunch in the sun I quipped to FLJ, “Back to the canals!” We continued on without incident, nearing Manchester as we went. In fact, our route took us right under the runways of the Manchester airport (thankfully well out of the city traffic). We finally reached Timperley, our goal scheduled for the previous evening, at 3 p.m. after clocking up 89km from the start of the day. I entered the next segment into the Garmin, only to have the battery drop to zero.
We were right in the center of town as this happened, and there was a welcoming pub just across the intersection. We parked the bikes and found a table inside with handy power outlets, and spent an hour charging up our various devices, sipping coffee and enjoying carrot cake.
At 4 p.m. the Garmin was fairly well charged up, and we entered Kendal as our next destination. The route took us safely around Manchester proper, although even on the canal paths we noticed a difference — the locals were not returning our greetings as we passed, and the tow paths were paved but covered with dog poop.
By 5 p.m. we’d left the canals and were well to the west of Manchester. Passing through a fairly busy intersection, I picked up a piece of nail in my rear tire and we had to stop to change the tube once again. It took just a moment to find the offending bit of rusty iron, but a good three or four minutes to work it out of the tread.
Just as we were finishing up and pumping air back into the new tube, a community support officer stopped by to make sure we were OK. We had a pleasant chat and she readily agreed to pose for a photo.
Back on the road again, we found ourselves faffing about a poor neighborhood in Little Hulton, with the Garmin seeming to lead us into a glass-strewn path leading nowhere. We backtracked and recalibrated, with FLJ getting more nervous about our surroundings by the minute, and soon set out with more confidence. To our consternation, the pavement remained covered with tiny shards of glass for the remainder of the day, but we didn’t suffer any further flats.
By 7 p.m., we found ourselves in Westhoughton. While FLJ consulted with a clueless local about a place to stay, I had a look at Google. We were just a couple of kilometers from a likely looking spot, and we were soon booking into the one remaining room at The Mercury. This turned out to be one of the more run-down places we stayed, although it served the purpose of providing us with a roof over our heads and a place to have a shower. The dining room was closed, as was the Subway at the neighboring petrol station, so we availed ourselves of the convenience store offerings for dinner and the following day’s breakfast.
Day 7: Saturday, June 22
Saturday was on our schedule as a rest day, but with our various mechanicals, faffing about and general shortfalls, we were now more than 111km short of where we needed to be. It was just as well we decided to travel on, as Westhoughton was not the picturesque rest spot that our scheduled Kendal was. The going was still largely flat as we left Manchester behind, and I was gratified to hear some answers to my greetings as we passed others along the canal paths.
Around 11 a.m. we found ourselves in the vicinity of Preston. It was too early for lunch, but we were in an area lined with cafés and pubs, and I wanted some reassurance before we headed back out into the countryside that we would find something more than cow patties to eat if we continued onwards. FLJ, never shy, struck up a conversation with a local to ask him about conditions ahead. It turned out he was a great cycling enthusiast and had been over portions of our planned route before. He and his wife pressed energy gels on us as he summarized conditions ahead. After about 20 minutes of riding (he looked at us and our gear and revised his estimate once or twice) we’d encounter “a real intersection, with a traffic light,” and could expect to find a few restaurants around there. But he strongly recommended we continue on from there, for a total of about 45 minutes, to find a chippie that was apparently a gift from the gods.
After thanking the couple and taking our leave, FLJ and I had some disagreement about where to stop. He was all for going to the chippie, but I thought it might be too far. “He said 45 minutes, but for us that will be an hour and a half.” With the question unresolved, we continued on. We did see a few cafés after 15 or 20 minutes, but when we came to the traffic light there were no restaurants in sight. In the end, we reached the chippie after only about 40 minutes of riding and eagerly found a table. But despite our new cycling buddy’s recommendation, the food was awful. It brought to mind the café in Tiverton, although I wouldn’t want to start any competitions between them.
The afternoon found us back on canal tow paths, including one which crossed over a river on its own bridge!
A little later, still on the canal, we came across a boat that was adrift. The pilot yelled to us for assistance and I stopped and grabbed a rope he tossed and pulled the boat up alongside the tow path. The pilot explained that his motor had failed.
Once we passed Lancaster we found ourselves nearing the lake district. Leaving the canal behind, we began climbing once again, although there was nothing too bad as yet. We finally rolled into Kendal after 5 p.m. and started casting about for someplace to eat. We didn’t find anything within a block or so of the city center and so we ate a couple of flapjacks while we considered our course. I was all for stopping for the night, as we’d made up the lost time, while FLJ wanted to make use of the remaining sunlight. We consulted the route profile. We would get into some climbing immediately upon leaving Kendal, and we weren’t sure of finding many places to stay before getting over a considerable hump — certainly nothing as large as Kendal. FLJ was adamant, though, so I zipped my lip and mounted up.
As the profile had led us to expect, we were in for a good, long climb. Each time we worked our way up a rise, we thought we were seeing the top. And each time, we’d arrive at the top to find a slight dip and then a further climb beyond. We were traveling through some beautiful countryside and farmland, but we were paying for our views through our thighs. Joe was finding the going easier than I, as had been the case for climbing throughout the week, and as there was only the one road, he would ride on ahead to the next rise and wait for me to come puffing up behind.
Finally during a break on what I thought (again!) was the last climb, I checked on my phone for nearby hotels. Apart from some expensive-looking lodges dotted about here and there, the next town was a little burg called Shap that boasted a few small hotels. When I puffed my way up to the top of the rise and saw that, in fact, we had just as much climbing ahead as we had already done since leaving Kendal, I insisted that we check the Shap hotels for a room. FLJ was reluctant but I put my foot down and he made a couple of calls.
It was now nearly 7:30 and we were looking at getting ourselves over the next Matterhorn before reaching Shap. After a couple of calls Joe found a room at the Kings Arms. They let us know the kitchen closed at 9, so we asked them to set aside a burger and a chicken and leek pie, and we grimly set off on the final (we hoped! we hoped!) ascent of the day. In fact, we’d already climbed 250m from Kendal by that point, and were looking at another 120m of climbing over the next 2.3km — a grade of more than 5% on average. Again, Joe was up ahead and waiting for me, and I was going in bursts of 100m to 200m at a time and taking a rest. In all it took me half an hour to cover that 2.3km, and I was just thankful for the late evening sunlight available at 54°N lattitude.
We finally rolled into Shap and parked our bikes in a barn shed behind the Kings Arms just before 9 p.m. We’d climbed 422m in just under 27km since leaving Kendal — in fact nearly all the climbing was in the first 18km, a span that’s shown as a Category 2 climb on Map My Ride. This compared with 584m over the previous 111km since leaving Westhaughton in the morning until we reached Kendal.
They’d held the kitchen open for us, and so we hurried to put our bags in our room and then back down the stairs to the restaurant, still in our shorts and jerseys. The burger may have had its shortcomings, but it tasted wonderful to me, as did the two pints of ale I washed it down with. FLJ said the chicken and leek pie was the best he’d ever had (which just begs the question in my mind).
Day 8: Sunday, June 23
I informed FLJ of my decision to abandon. My saddle sores had just been getting worse over the past few days, and there was no avoiding the conclusion now that I had to stop before causing myself some serious injury. We agreed I’d rent a car in the next town and follow as Joe continued on towards the goal. We had another Full English courtesy of the Kings Arms (seriously, one of those a year is probably not a bad idea) and set out at a rather late 9:20 a.m.
We were thinking we could get a rental in Penrith, a short 20km from where we were, but we weren’t counting on its being Sunday. After faffing about for half an hour looking for an open rental place in Penrith, we gave up and continued on to Carlisle. We actually made pretty good time, covering nearly 60km in four hours elapsed time (three hours when leaving out all the faffing about and interim breaks), but by the time we pulled up to a stop in front of the Joiners Arms in Carlisle for lunch, it was clear even to FLJ that I was in no condition to continue. Over a lunch of roast chicken with barbecue sauce (FLJ to the waitress: He’s American — what can you do?) we arranged for me to stay nearby at The Roadhouse while FLJ continued onwards. And then in the morning I could rent a car not far from the B&B.