You can handle that. It looks vertical on a map, but for 20m I bet that horrible one in Devon was worse – the one that I said as we were freewheeling down, “thank goodness we’re not going up this one”, to which you replied “Wait!”, and then we went up it on the other side.
Did we really only have that conversation once?
I do wonder if that’s the part he’s talking about, although that’s only 9% for a rise of 90m. There were definitely some shorter climbs that were steeper …
Fearless Leader Joe and I crossed a lot of cattle guards as we made our way across England. Each time we did, I was curious why — were we riding into a grazing area? I had a few seconds to contemplate this each time because FLJ would usually dismount to cross the guards. (I just ploughed right through.)
All this wondering came to an abrupt head one fair afternoon when we found ourselves winding along a path in the midst of a herd of cattle — some of which had horns on their heads! I very quickly ascertained that, despite the horns, all the cattle present were sporting udders. And I’m happy to report that they were far less interested in us than we were in them.
Christina Mackenzie is attempting to break the women’s Lands End to John O’Groats record even as we speak (well, even as I write this post).
The current women’s record was set in 2001 by Lynne Taylor at 52h 45m. Much depends in this record on the weather, and it looks like it’s been favorable for Christina so far.
As if to prove how much weather and timing play a part, just a week ago a portion of the route was under water. Christina has gone a bit to the west of this particular road, which FLJ and I followed on our own (less-than-record breaking) attempt in the second half of June.
And it looks as if she may have gotten a few hours of sleep in the same hotel where we spent the night following that climb:
Just leaving Shap village after a hearty feed and some sleep having pulled the original hours stop in Penrith back. Feels refreshed and continues to be in good spirits #LeJog2019 🚴🏻♀️💨 pic.twitter.com/CKHYxuAO1Z
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.
For more on the day I abandoned the ride and followed FLJ into Scotland — he on his shiny bike and me in a Nissan — see Scratched!
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 sent 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 Penance, 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 which 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.
It will probably be a few weeks yet before I’m ready to ride again, so now is a good time to look at what didn’t work out this time, and what could be improved.
In the “Did Not Finish” category I’ll look at things that just didn’t do the job they were designed for.
First up is the saddle, of course. I’ve had trouble with saddle sores in the past. My first solution was to upgrade to a Brooks C15 saddle, and then to get some good gel shorts. These things helped, but obviously not enough. I suffered more than a little fatigue this trip, but in the end it was the saddle sores which kept me from completing. Meanwhile, FLJ had no difficulties with his brand-new Brooks B17 titanium despite having no break-in time at all.
My Exposure Revo dynamo light performed flawlessly, sometimes still glowing more than an hour after we’d finished a day’s ride. The only shortcomings were a lack of a switch (I had to unplug it when it wasn’t in use and cover the power ports with the included dust caps) and no way to quickly tell which cable was which (main power or taillight). The piggybacked Redeye taillight, though, gave out almost immediately and remained hors de combat for the rest of the ride. I haven’t yet had a chance to determine if it’s a connectivity problem (possibly a port clogged by mud or a broken cable), a lightbulb failure or something else. The light has a two-year warranty, so presumably I’ll be able to get a replacement if needed.
Finally, the Mont Bell panniers, which previously saw me through a London-to-Paris ride, threw in the towel at the first opportunity. On the second day of riding I clipped a low barrier, breaking one of the two clips at the top which secure the pannier to the rack. I’m glad we had bungee cords on hand, and after a bit of fiddling I was able to come up with an arrangement which held the bag securely enough to continue riding. At the earliest opportunity I replaced the bags with a new set of Ortliebs in bright yellow, and these performed flawlessly. (On the other hand, I haven’t tried ramming them into any barriers. Yet.)
(The Mont Bell’s clips seem to be replaceable, but I couldn’t find any replacements in time for our resupply point on this trip. I’m happier with the Ortliebs, which also have replaceable clips. Meanwhile, I’ve left the unbroken Mont Bell pannier in London for FLJ or his son to use if they’re so inclined.)
The most fundamental bit of gear that didn’t hold up under the stress was none other than your 58-year-old correspondent. Of all the prep I’d done for the trip, I failed to lose any weight in advance. And while I put in quite a few kilometers in the months leading up to the event, I didn’t have many days of back-to-back riding. As mentioned at the top, I’d already experienced some saddle soreness in one-day rides, and I failed to take that seriously enough before embarking on what was supposed to be 13 days of riding (with one planned rest day).
But I’ll be back … unlike some of the equipment listed above.
The “Also Ran” category covers things that worked, but not as well as they could have. In some cases I’ll be looking for alternatives before the next big ride. (NB: I’m not planning any two-week treks again anytime soon.)
The overseas travel charger comes with a variety of plugs to fit most destinations, and has four USB ports. That should allow it to charge multiple devices simultaneously. But it just didn’t deliver enough juice to charge my phone unless I turned the phone off and left it to charge overnight. It was a constant challenge for us to keep our phones (FLJ was using two) and the Garmin charged, particularly as some hotel and B&B rooms didn’t have many outlets. When I returned to FLJ’s London flat I was able to charge my phone in a couple of hours using his MacBook charger. So it’s likely that the voltage on the overseas travel charger is divided among its four ports, allowing it to deliver only one-quarter of the juice through each port. This is a lesson I’d learned in my day job with unpowered USB hubs, but I’d apparently forgotten.
The Topeak Road Morph G pump fits neatly to Kuroko’s small frame, includes a folding handle and foot pad, and features an inline gauge. It saw us through no fewer than four punctures, as well as the initial tire inflation after I removed Kuroko from the airline bag in London and reassembled her. The only shortcoming is the difficulty getting the pump head to secure to the valve such that the air is going into the tire. There were too many false starts where the air was just whistling around the valve, or where we were trying to force air into a valve that wasn’t open. I think the issue is the very small pump head, which doesn’t have sufficient depth for a secure attachment to the valve. I’m undecided about whether to seek out an alternative as the pump works well otherwise, and we were always able to get it to come through (albeit often after multiple tries).
I got the Topeak Hexus II in part for its included tire levers, but — as is often the case with such gimmicks — the levers turned out to be suboptimal. We were able to get our tires off to fix flats in every case with these levers, but they just didn’t work as well as a pair of dedicated tire levers would. I don’t think I need to replace this tool, which worked fine for everything else we used it for, but just augment it with a cheap set of purpose-made tire levers.
The Shimano 105 rear derailleur is usually a delight to use, providing swift, sure shifts with a complete lack of fuss and noise. But we had issues on this trip. The adjustment was off following the flight and reassembly of the bike in London (and it’s on me that I didn’t correct the issue before setting off). And after a couple of days in rain and mud, the pulleys were squeaking and I had to double-shift to get the result I wanted. Finally, after a long slog over a particularly muddy canal tow path, the derailleur stopped shifting up to the higher range. It was stuck on the four largest sprockets.
We dismounted at one of the canal locks and I played with the derailleur for a few minutes to get it working again. I backed out the adjustment screws, and I sprayed the unit with my water bottle to dislodge some of the mud that had built up in its workings. After that, the derailleur was shifting again — albeit by double-shifting and with no small amount of squeaking.
In backing out the adjustment screws, though, I’d made a fatal mistake: I’d loosened up the screw that prevents the chain from coming off the largest sprocket and into the spokes. It happened once shortly afterwards, and I made a mental note to correct it during our next stop. But I put it off, and in the end I got the chain into the spokes at speed (shifting down in preparation for a stop), breaking two spokes outright and mangling several others.
That might have been the end of the ride for me. I was able to twist the two broken spokes around their neighbors so Kuroko could limp along to the next town, but the wheel was out of true and rubbing against the frame. Meanwhile, the broken spoke ends were rattling around the hub, and there was a danger of a spoke going through the innertube was well. Fortunately, FLJ got on his phone and was able to locate a mobile cycle mechanic! Ben was able to come to our hotel not long after we limped in, and spent an hour in the darkening parking lot replacing three spokes, truing the wheel, adjusting the derailleur and cleaning and oiling the chain. In the end he charged a bargain £30 for his time, including the hour it took him to reach us and another hour to get back home when the job was done. (I slipped him an extra fiver so he could enjoy a cold one — after getting home, of course.)
After Ben’s attention, the derailleur never gave another moment’s trouble. Shifts were once again swift and sure, with no more noise coming from the drivetrain than the satisfying ratcheting sound of the freewheel. But until Ben arrived on the scene to save the day, my experience had been a rolling advertisement for the flawless (if heavy and expensive) Rohloff shifting mechanism on FLJ’s new bike.
The WTB Horizon tires that came with Kuroko (mounted on excellent Hunt wheels) are very good for road and gravel riding, with their smooth profile and generous volume. At one point of the tour when the going got particularly rough, I was able to let some of the pressure out for a more comfortable ride. And the tire is foldable, allowing me to carry a spare (which we didn’t need in the end).
The only shortcoming revealed itself when the path became particularly muddy — in fact, when the path was nothing but mud. With their smooth profile, the tires failed to get any purchase and the handling became treacherous. But this is not an issue with these tires as much as to say they’re not suited for all-out mud riding: something with a pronounced tread would be better in that situation. When the going was less muddy, I appreciated the Horizon’s smooth profile for the efficiency it gave.
I wondered during this ride if my legs or my lungs would be my downfall, but a different vulnerability got me in the end. After pedaling across England from Land’s End to Carlisle, just shy of both 900km and the Scottish boarder, I succumbed to saddle sores.
Along the way we’ve encountered horse trails, gravel paths, broken pavement, shoulderless motorways, actual fields of mud and grass, Matterhorns and glass-strewn pavements. We’ve fixed punctures and ducked into pubs to get out of the rain. We’ve even had to call in mobile service to deal with broken spokes.
When I told Fearless Leader Joe I couldn’t continue, we quickly agreed on a plan: he would take the Garmin and tire pump and continue solo, and I would rent a car and follow along, with Kuroko stashed in the back. It was a winning plan except for the fact it was Sunday – – no car rental shops were open. I ended up putting in nearly 60km more to find a place to stay in Carlisle where I would be near a car rental shop the next morning.
Meanwhile, as I enjoyed a long afternoon nap, Joe passed into Scotland, still pushing to get ahead of the game. He got in another 100km after lunch before stopping in Abington.
It turned out to be a very good thing Joe worked so hard yesterday, because today the weather conspired against us. There were just a few sprinkles in the morning, but by noon the rain was coming down so hard that I had to pull the car off the road and wait. I messaged Joe that he needed to take shelter, but there was no immediate answer.
Finally Joe got in touch. He’d waited out the worst in a pub near Edinburgh, and was now back on the road. We quickly decided on Perth as our resting stop, which still puts Joe ahead of schedule despite the rain stop.