Land's End to John O'Groats by bicycle with 3 others


By Peter Seaman Peter.Seaman.End2End@Stable-Software.co.uk
"This very remarkable man,
Commends a most practical plan:
You can do what you want
If you don't think you can't,
So don't think you can't think you can." ..Proverb
After I attended an outdoor course at Brathay in 1987 (see note a) I developed a taste for outdoor adventures of one sort or another. I subsequently did a 7-day 'Adult Challenge' course at the Ullswater Outward Bound centre, involving climbing, caving, abseiling, canoeing and various other challenging activities. Two years later I joined a 3-week "Highland Rover" hiking and canoeing experience with 11 others organised by Outward Bound Loch Eil in the wilderness aroud Fort William (note b). The biggest difficulties on this one were the almost continuous rain and biting midgies. Last year I thought it might be interesting to try to cycle from Land's End to John O'Groats with a party of other racing cyclists in a time which for me would be quite challenging, and this is the subject of this report.

Although the main purpose of the journey was to attempt a challenge, have a bit of fun and take a holiday, I found that many people expected me to raise money for charity, and when my friend Sue Bickly offered to organise fund-raising provided a portion went to the local school I readily agreed. I found that almost everybody I knew (and many I didn't) were most willing to commit a sum of money on a sponsorship form. Over #500 was raised, of which 80% went to Greenpeace and 20% to the local school. Before leaving, the headmistress asked me to give a talk to the school, so I turned up with my bike and cycling gear and showed them on a globe of the earth the distance we would be travelling. I was most impressed by the behaviour and attentiveness of the children and their non-ending questions.

How much of a challenge?

Many People with little or no training have made the journey in about 14 days. Until recently the 847 mile record was held by John Woodburn in an incredible 1 day 21 hours, who achieved this in 1985 when his age at 47 was little different to my age now. I started cycling in a competitive way about 3 years ago, encouraged by a friend I would meet early mornings to do a 10 mile circular tour. The more we did this circuit the more our times improved, the best to date being at an average speed of 21mph. At the end of last year I joined the Winchester VC Venta Wessex Window Systems cycling club and I have since done a few time trials, achieving 10 miles at 24 mph, and 25 miles at 23 mph. I continued training through last winter with two friends Jim Montgomerie and Dave Byrnes and gradually augmented my weekly distance to about 250 miles per week. Most of these runs have been done at average speeds between 16 and 20 mph. Before the end to end, the greatest distance I have ever cycled in one day was 114 miles across France to Le Havre in 1990. I did find this rather tough and certainly did not feel like repeating it the following day. I decided therefore that 120 miles per day over about 8-9 days would be a good challenge for me, and expected to average when moving about 15 mph.

Selection of riders

Several people at my club have done the 'end to end' and all said it was worthwhile. Many expressed an interest in repeating the exercise but none were available for a trip at the time I wished to do it - May 1992. I decided the only way I could do the journey in a party would be if I organised it myself, so I therefore placed the following advertisement in the Personal column of Cycling Weekly, on October 19th, 1991:-

"LANDS END to John O'Groats, May 1992. Other cyclists wanted to join me on this tour, at about 120 miles/day, accompanied by vehicle. Share expenses. Please telephone 0962-712530"

I was encouraged by the results. Altogether I had 15 replies (all male) to the advertisement, and I also wrote to three friends who I thought might be interested in the challenge. (They all declined). I hate organising things and avoid it whenever possible because I know that it is never simple or straightforward, it takes time and effort and expense and that one invariably receives critiscism when things go wrong and little or no appreciation if things go right. But in this case I decided that the advantages of being able to make certain decisions and to pick and choose my colleages outweighed these disadvantages. Moreover, I knew that if I did not organise the trip myself no-one else would either and I would have to go alone or not at all.

First I set the date and thought about the ideal size of group. I decided that the right size party would be 6 cyclists. Although I object to motor cars and generally have little use for one I felt that one car shared between 6 was justifiable. The car was essential because I was determined to travel light on a racing bike with no mudguards or panniers. More than 6 cyclists would create an extra danger on busy roads and would slow down the party as a whole because of punctures, breakdowns, and discussions. The more cyclists the more likely the slowest cyclist would be out of line with the others. Fewer than 6 increases the expense, reduces the fun and wastes the car.

In order to select 5 of the 15 cyclists I wrote to them all with three basic questions. The first question was to find out the kind of route each preferred - (a) fast main road route minimum distance and time, (b) primarily B roads with a few A roads, or (c) a scenic route consisting primarily of B roads and unclassified roads. The second question asked what distance they ideally wanted to ride each day and the third question asked how much they wished to spend.

From the replies I took full advantage of my position as organiser and selected the 5 cyclists whose replies indicated they were most compatible with the way I wanted to do it myself. The route was to be about 1000 miles along scenic country lanes; our distance was to be 120 miles per day and we would spend up to #500 per person. The chosen cyclists were (1) Ian Noons a prison Officer from Cambridge (2) Ron Gager a retired British Telecom Manager from Caterham (3) Lindsay Venner an ex-English teacher and now a cycling courier from London (4) Ian Dymock a Bosun who works on Admiralty tugs at Plymouth (5) Gary Benjamin a night club owner from Hereford and (6) myself a computer programmer from Winchester.

Surplus riders

Another question I asked each of the 15 applicants was whether they would be willing to organise a second party if they were not selected for my own group. Andy Maddox said he was willing to do this if noone else was. I therefore appointed him leader of "group 2" and wrote to all those not selected for my group suggesting they contact Andy for further arrangements. That was the last contact I made with these 10 people until I contacted Andy in April 1992. I was disappointed to learn that Andy had now decided not to go himself, and was surprised that neither had he contacted the others nor had any of them contacted him, in spite of my efforts in writing to them all.

Correspondence

Between October 1991 and May 1992 several letters passed between myself and the 5 cyclists, covering such matters as route, training, accommodation, car, sponsorship, and clothing. I organised two drivers - my nephew Phillip Beeson and a friend Sandy Booth from Canada. Sandy had visited us in Sept 1991 and when I told her about my trip she was keen to fly over again and drive for us. I contacted the CTC and obtained details of three possible routes. My wife agreed to lend our car which was hoped to be a diesel VW Golf, but being a one-car family I had to arrange an alternative vehicle for her to use.

Selection of route

Based on both my own and everyone else's stated wishes I selected the CTC scenic route of some 1000 miles which involved B roads and many unclassified lanes over some of the loveliest countryside in England and Scotland. I made various modifications, wrote it up in great detail and distributed it to the party for comment in March 1992. No-one suggested changing the route and I therefore prepared my maps with no intention of altering it during the trip without very good reason. As I myself get lost pretty easily I thought it sensible to share the problem of navigation amongst the riders who claimed expertise in particular areas - Ian Dymock for Cornwall and Devon, Lindsay Venner for Somerset Avon and Gloucestershire, Gary Benjamin for Shropshire, Ian Noons for the North West and Ron Gager for Scotland. As far as I was concerned I now considered the way fixed, but I was to discover later that some of the riders ignored this preparation of the route and wanted to change it the night before a journey, causing unnecessary discussion and pressure when time was usually short and sleep desperately needed.

Doubt about one of the riders

In March I started to decide the stops and arrange accommodation, this involved much study of the maps, diversions and many phone calls. I found that Youth Hostels require payment in advance, so I asked everyone to pay me #58 for this purpose. Receiving this deposit would also give me some assurance that they really were intending to come, and I asked for the money by Easter (April 17th) at the latest. Ian Noons did not reply by the necessary date so I chased him up by telephone. He said yes he is almost certainly coming and promised a cheque. This did not arrive when he said it would and I was uncertain whether to assume he would be coming (and pay his deposit myself) or not. Eventually Ian wrote with apology and a cheque, so I now had committment from all 5 riders and I went ahead with the bookings. I arranged through family and friends free accommodation for all at Hawick and a meal for all in Sedbergh in Cumbria. In addition Lindsay arranged a free meal for us at his parents house at St Briavels near the Severn Bridge, so it seemed unlikely we would exceed our budget.

Another rider decides at late stage not to come

A week before the proposed departure I received a letter from Gary Benjamin saying he had been unable to do sufficient training and had decided not to start the trip as he felt he would not be strong enough to keep up with us. I tried to persuade him still to start (suggesting he might consider starting one or two days earlier) but to no avail. This was a big disappointment as it was clearly then far too late to find a replacement. The six riders were now down to five.

Personal problem and delayed departure

Then on the Wednesday before the proposed Sunday departure date a totally unexpected personal problem arose - a serious illness in my wife requiring an operation on the following Monday, the very day we were scheduled to leave for Land's End. After considering various options we decided to postpone the trip by two days to enable me to see my wife through the immediate aftermath of the surgery.

Loss of Ian Noons from party

To see if a two day delay would be acceptable I called each of the other participants in turn. Ian Noons said he had allowed no contingency at all and had to leave on the Monday as planned or he would not be able to return to work 9 days later. The others said they could accept a 48 hour delayed start so I decided to go for it and with assistance from Ron Gager and Sandy Booth we re-arranged the accommodation as best we could. Three of us tried many times to re-contact Ian Noons but he was neither at work nor at home and could not be contacted, not did he contact me. Finally on the Monday night he phoned in from Taunton having cycled there from Land's End solo after deciding to do the whole trip in 6 days on his own. The accommodation had been booked for him but I undertook to return as much of his deposit as possible.

Ian called me a week or so after we returned from John O'Groats to say he had made Bristol the second day but had then given up. Travelling with panniers on his own was no fun and he felt insufficient incentive to go on. It was a pity he did not come with us. From what he told me of his time trial times he is a very strong cyclist. I think he could have cycled with us to somewhere in Scotland and then gone ahead to John O'Groats on his own. He could have made up the lwo lost days by taking say 3 days instead of our last 5 and thereby arriving on the original date planned. Alternatively, he could have done Land's End to Dunoon with us and returned from there, which though not John O'Groats would have been better than Bristol!

Communications

As we would be travelling light we needed to be able to contact the car for nourishment and in case of accidents, breakdowns, or bad weather. I purchased a small CB radio and considered mounting it on a bicycle, but rejected the idea because of the need for a 24 watt power supply. I was fortunate in being lent a device that can be used as a PC, a portable computer terminal and a cellular telephone. We considered mounting this on a bicycle, and although compact and relatively lightweight it would have been too cumbersome. At times during the journey we reached 50 mph, and though 30% of the weight of the bike on the handlebars may have added to the excitement at these speeds it would not have improved the safety aspects. I was also lent a very compact cellular phone for carrying in my back pocket on the bike. The Tandy CB radio was fitted in the car but the only thing we ever got from it was noise.

Diary

"A man knows his companion in a long journey and a little inn"

Monday May 18th - Preparation of car and trailer

Our drivers were to be my nephew Phillip Beeson and his friend Sandy Booth from Canada. I collected Sandy from London airport on Friday May 15th and Phillip arrived from Suffolk the following day. On the Sunday and Monday Sandy and Phillip kindly helped prepare the car and clean and paint the trailer.

We made a lid for the trailer from miscelleneus hinges, hooks and the front doors of my friend's wardrobe. Sandy painted the mudguards a nice pale green, but before it dried I completely ruined her work by using the trailer as a sawbench and unintentionally scattered sawdust over the wet paint. Phillip obtained some letters and stuck the words 'Land's End to John O'Groats' on a board, and we also attached a board prepared by Rachel Hunt containing a beautifully painted Greenpeace emblem.

Ron arrived on the Monday just when I was very occupied because my wife has just gone into hospital for the operation. Ron loaded up the trailer with his numerous spares and tools, and mounted three bicycles on the car roof rack. One of these was my touring bike intended either for spares or for use by Phillip should he suddenly get the cycling urge during the trip. Ron did many other jobs (including the washing up) and offered to replace the bottom bearing on my racing bike. As I was so pressed for time I was delighted to accept this offer, but he almost ruined the crank in my absence by trying to screw a left hand thread crank extractor into a right-hand thread in the crank. However, Ron had the best of intentions and with people like that I suppose one has to take the rough with the smooth, though at the time I must admit to being a bit annoyed as I had warned him about the left-hand thread.

Tuesday 19th May - Lands End

At lunchtime we left Winchester and set off for the 235 miles to Land's End. The first stop was the local school for departure photographs with the children. They crowded around and probably had an exaggerated impression of the difficulty of the feat we had set ourselves. But it was nice to have this pleasant send-off.

We arrived at Penzance station about 7pm with the intention of collecting one of our other two riders, Lindsay. But his train was delayed and we were expected to arrive at the Hostel for our evening meal about now. (This arriving for meals at the last possible moment turned out top be a regular feature of the trip). I made the first use of the vodafone to speak to the warden at Lands End Youth Hostel to see whether it would be alright for us to wait for Lindsay and all arrive together, or whether he would prefer some of us to arrive immediately and collect Lindsay later. We left immediately and I collected Lindsay later.

Driving along the narrow lane with our trailer to the hostel we were met by a couple in a mini who simply refused to reverse an inch. The gentleman informed us that he 'lived here' and angrily complained to Ron (who was driving) that we were unreasonable in refusing to stop in an earlier pull-in. When we passed the mini Ron said with a great sweet smile to the lady driver 'how VERY kind of you to reverse back. It would have been SO difficult for us to back up the lane with our trailer.' The lady replied with an equally sweet smile 'thats QUITE alright!'

At least one person in the hostel thought we were absolutely mad to attempt to cycle to John O'Groats. Another gentleman planned the same journey, but at about 40 miles a day. He was concerned about his blood sugar levels and accordingly carried with him a 2 lb bag of ordinary sugar; Ron did not think much of this idea.

The cellular phone would not work at Lands End.

After an adequate meal in the hostel and retired to bed about 11pm.

Wednesday 20th May - Lands End to Clovelly 126 miles

Several of us were awoken in the Dormitory by Ron about 5 am who put the light on to check his pulse. He wanted me to check mine and told me how to do it. Ron's pulse was 45, mine was 58. Ron putting the light on a 5 am turned out to be a regular feature of the trip.

Then I discovered I had left my cycling shoes behind. Fortunately, Ron, in addition to his spare wheels, locks, blocks, 3 right hand thread crank extractors, spokes, pedals, stilsons, rear mechs, 7 inner tubes, covers, block extractors, head spanners, cream, spare computers, sensors, nuts bolts and washers, rim tapes, swarfega, ball bearings, rags etc etc, had one pair of my size cycling shoes together with Look plates fitted. He was very happy to lend me for the whole duration of the trip these essential items. Thank you Ron!

At 6:30 am before breakfast we cycled the 10 miles to Land's End and had our photos taken. Unfortunately we were too early to arrange for the official photograph by the signpost which they can set up (for a fee) to give the distance to John O'Groats and your home town. Sandy and Phillip also wanted to visit Land's End of course, and I suggested to Phillip that he might like to use the spare bike to ride down with us. This he declined, and he did not in fact use the spare bike at all. We waited some time for Sandy and Phillip to arrive at Land's End, we wondered where they were and tried to telephone them but all to no avail. This was also a foretaste of things to come!

Ron started to organise a system of accounts based on a kitty for Sandy to follow. This seemed to me unnecessarily complicated, and I had other ideas, but as Sandy said she was happy with Ron's scheme I decided to let the matter pass without further ado.

We left Lands End for Clovelly at 08:45 am. I was disappointed at not getting an 'official' photograph but the others were not too worried about this - they simply wanted to get started without fuss. After about 20 miles I made several unsuccessful attempts to contact the car with my pocket phone. Eventually I got through but about 10 seconds later the car pulled into the same layby as if by magic. We had tea and ice cream at a cafe near Redruth and arranged to meet the car next between Wadebridge and Boscastle. But at Wadebridge we were already getting hungry and in spite of repeated attempts I was again unable to contact the car. The other riders wanted to stop there to eat (probably about 1:30 pm now) but I wanted to press on to Boscastle because I was afraid we might miss the car otherwise. We pressed on. It was hot, water was getting very low and the countryside was remote. We found a farm shop which replenished our bottles and we continued to Boscastle where we arrived about 4pm.

At Boscastle I was still unable to contact our support vehicle, but finally, after 4 attempts from a phone box I got through. We had a pleasant meal there (chicken curry) , the car came back 15 miles to meet us and we eventually left for the final leg to Clovelly about 6pm. There was a steep climb out of Boscastle but at that time I myself was feeling fairly strong. The planned route took us along the coastal road to Clovelly and I was keen to follow this scenic way. Ron and Ian however were more inclined to take a short cut. After discussion it was agreed that Lindsay and I would take the hard route along the coast and Ron and Ian would bypass it using the shorter and easier (but busier) A38. We identified a junction just beyond Bude where the first pair could leave a chalk mark on the road.

Lindsay and I encountered the longest and steepest hills I have ever met on a bicycle, more than one indicated by a 30% road sign. On one of these ascents I simply could not make it - my lowest gear was 42-21 and too high. Even walking up this incline was a question of one step forward, half a step slip back. Lindsay had no problem with any of these hills and at one point we took a diversion up an extra climb to visit a possibly interesting church. But he recognised the architecture before we reached the church and decided it wasn't interesting so we turned back and continued on our way. At Bude there was another very long ascent and I was beginning to tire, so I slip-streamed behind Lindsay quite a bit. When my hat blew off I was grateful to him for collecting it and bringing it up the hill to me. An impressive aspect of my colleague was his incredible powers of observation of things happening in the countryside - birds, animals, geographical features and so on. Lindsay had had a variety of jobs including a spell in Japan teaching English. He told us that at one time he used to be a poacher!

We did not find the chalk mark on the road left by Ron but we pressed on up a another long incline and against a significant head wind to Clovelly. This was quite hard work and we were not sure whether Ron and Ian were ahead of us or behind us. We reached the turning for the Lodges, and to our surprise Ron and Ian then caught up with us from behind! (I thought we were going to fast for this to happen, but our friends were actually in a pub and when they saw us go past the window they left immediately and put a spurt on). A man in a Landrover - the proprietor of the lodges - was waiting for us at an unmarked junction with an unmade road. Were he not there it would have taken us a very long time to find his places.

We arrived at our lodges about 8:30 pm only shortly after Phillip and Sandy arrived. We were all extremely impressed with this accommodation - new Swedish style chalets together with all mod cons including Sauna. It had been a hard day but harder was to come. Ron paid me the compliment that he thought thought I was a stronger cyclist than I had lead him to believe by the information I had given him in my letters. He and Ian were sensibly saving up their energy for later hard days. Ian had been struggling a bit because of unnecessary weight on his bike: Ron removed mudguards, saddlebag, carrier etc and put these items into the car trailer whilst the rest of us discussed the route. That night we went to a local Les Routiers pub and had an excellent meal.

On many occasions we had a discussion about the accuracy of our electronic speedometers. I had calibrated mine carefully and set the wheel diameter at 207 cm, but Ron, with the same size wheels had callibrated his at 220 cm. As one would expect then, Ron's distances were usually 6% greater than mine. On day 2 for example he said we did 146 miles when I thought we had done 138. But Ron would not accept my readings as accurate until Scotland when we met milestones and my prediction that Ron would measure 1.06 for a mile was proved exactly correct. Ron reckoned that we achieved 53 mph on the trip but I believe the correct maximum speed was 50mph.

Thursday 21st May - Clovelly to St Briavels 138 miles.

This was self-catering accommodation, but ingredients for a full English breakfast had been provided. We enjoyed this and set out along the bumpy track at about 08:45 am. Sandy and Phillip kindly stayed behind, did the washing up, collected stray belongings and checked out.

The first 10 miles was level and fast but after that it got tough. For all of us this was physically the hardest day. Up to Exmoor, the Brendon Hills, the Quantock Hills and the Forest of Dean, there were many long hard hills all in one day. I realised a simple arithmetic fact: if you do half a journey at 4 mph and the other half at 20 mph your average speed is not 12 mph but is only 6.7 mph. Even if you do the second half at the speed of light your average is only 8mph. During my 20-100 mile training runs I had often averaged over 17 mph and in my planning I had assumed 15 mph was reasonable, but I had simply never encountered such hills as exist in Cornwall Devon and Somerset and had not taken account of them in my calculations. Our average speed when on the move was often only 12 mph or less and only occasionally in Scotland did we exceed 15 mph average.

After the Quantocks the roads became level again. This was a hard day for Ian, at one point he even considered putting his bike on the trailer and riding in the car. I talked him out of this and I think he was later grateful for it. There was some fast riding in 4-up time trial mode along the A38. The back of my right knee was hurting resulting from the previous day's strains to ascend the 30% hills. At a cafe stop Ron acquired some ice and recommended I hold it against the back of the knee, Ron was very good like this and never short of a suggestion.

Lindsay advised us to depart from the agreed route and go to Bristol instead of Avonmouth. Since he claimed local knowledge I took his word for it, but it took very much longer to reach the Severn Bridge than I expected. It as a long windy lane and at times we seemed to be going backweards. I felt that Lindsay did not know the way as well as he had lead us to expect. For example, he said it was 20 miles from Bristol to St Briavels but it turned out to be 28. The last 10 miles was all uphill and Ian (due to insufficient nourishment) was really struggling.

We were heading for Lindsay's house for our meal that evening. With Ian lagging, Lindsay suggested to Ron and I to go ahead to his house while he kept with Ian to help him along. Ian was not using a lightweight racing bike like the rest of us and therefore had more work to do. I believe in fact that at that point Lindsay was by far the strongest and was able to help Ian along by pushing.

That night we had a nice meal generously supplied by Lindsay's parents and we arrived at the Monmouth youth hostel by car (after making mistakes on the journey) only in just the nick of time. We were late and complaints were received from people trying to sleep. The bed Ron decided to take contained a pile of clothes owned by an Australian gentleman, which Ron threw to the floor. The Aussie turned up later and the following morning I overheard a conversation between him and his girlfriend about finding Ron in place of his clothes and having to find a different bed in the dark. Ron in fact knew the rules better than the Aussie; in a Youth hostel you reserve a bunk by making it up, not by leaving belongings on it.

Friday 22nd May - St Briavels to Nantwich - 116 miles

The Monmouth hostel does not supply meals so as early as possible we went searching for an open cafe for our usual cooked English breakfast. When we found one just opened we went in and ordered breakfast. Ron noticed a pile of ashtrays in the corner, and began distributing one to each table until asked to stop doing this by the proprietor. As usual he smoked at the table without asking the non-smokers (me and Ian) if we minded. The back of my knee continued to hurt from the straining it had on yesterdays steep hills. Ron complained that there was a cafe offering a better breakfast cheaper nearby, but when we passed it afterwards the prices had increased.

We returned by car to our bikes at Lindsay's parents house and eventually set on our way at 10:30 am. The scenery through the Wye Valley was outstanding and the weather was fine and warm. Between St Briavels and Symonds Yat Lindsay took us to a spectacular but quiet viewpoint and he spotted a pair of perigine falcons nesting there. He reported these to RSPB people at another (and very popular) viewpoint at Symonds Yat. They were guarding another pair and did not know of the pair spotted by Lindsay.

Apart from Ludlow and Telford the route was mostly unclassified roads and created few problems. Although Lindsay was supposed to be our route finder for the day I found it necessary to frequently refer to the map myself. The exit from Ludlow was tricky since there seemd to be a large castle and grounds in the way. I eventually resorted to asking a local who proceeded to give me the most complex instructions for a route I have ever heard. The instructions were, as is always the case when you ask someone the way, accompanied by the words 'you can't miss it' at regular intervals. We did of course 'miss it'.

"While the dog knaws the bone, companions would be none" ..4
Today we planned to have a picnic for lunch at a site to be picked by the motorists and communicated to us by phone. But as usual I was unable to call the car because its phone did not quite respond. "It may respond if you try again" was the message usually received on my handset. To cater for the situation where the cyclists were in a good signal area but the car was in a bad signal area, we had an arrangement (invented by Ron) whereby I would switch on my handset for 5 minutes either side of each even hour for incoming calls - this would enable Sandy to use a kiosk to call us if she needed. On coming down into Leominster to my delight I had an incoming call from Sandy - but only a very brief chat was possible before we were cut off. In Leomister I tried several more times from the handset, and then from a kiosk, but these attempts all failed. These unsuccessful attempts to communicate wasted some half an hour and frustration of the other cyclists began to turn to anger. They were becoming hungry (again) and some were convinced our agreed meeting place (for a picnic) was Richards Castle, but I did not think this was so and I was in fact proved right when Sandy and Phillip eventually caught up with us.

During the trip I turned on the handset around the hour probably dozens of times, but this partial call near Leominster was the only incoming call ever received. Just outside Ludlow the car overtook us, we stopped briefly for a chat and then agreed then to meet at Richard's Castle.

But Richards Castle itself turned out to be well off our route and involved an extremely hard climb about a mile long which reminded me of the steep hills in Devon and Somerset. At the top of the hill we sat on some long grass on a green to consume the rather limited lunch our supporters had purchased. This was supplemented by Lindsay's cake. I do not think I was fast enough to get my fair share of the small amount of food available.

In a town whose name I have forgotten we found a busy cafe. At this time my back wheel had a broken spoke and Ron said he would mend it. We left Ron under an arch with the bikes and Lindsay, Ian and myself entered the cafe for tea and cakes. The weather continued to be warm and sunny.

Around Telford and Little Wenlock there were many new roads and roundabouts which I could not relate to my road map. We did make a good call to the car in that area but the complexities of the roads meant we did not meet the car since they were a bit lost too.

We were running late again and, concerned that we may have to miss the meal booked that night in our lodgings near Nantwich, I proposed changing the route to main roads of the A442, A53 and A529. Ron at first resisted but was soon persuaded. (On every other occasion where that was a dispute about the route Ron wanted to use the main roads and me the pre-determined unclassified ones). I was getting better at navigation by the sun now, we start of with it on our right and end the day with it on our left. But along the A442 I was a bit puzzled as the sun indicated to me we were travelling in a Westerly direction whereas we were actually going almost North.

Now and again we went into 4-up time trialling mode. The basis of this is that you travel one behind the other in close formation so that the second third and fourth riders are shielded by the first and therefore only have to exert 10-25% less effort to maintain the same speed. My normal technique in this situation is to go as fast as possible for as long as possible when in front. I'm afraid though that this did not suit the others; usually I would find I had dropped them, causing considerable annoyance especially from Lindsay. They did not like me using my "big gear" and said I was always mucking things up, either way ahead or way behind. This was really elementary stuff Lindsay said to me in frustration. I retorted that the chainwheel I choose to use was my business; I did not understand why they could not or would not keep on my tail since this required less effort than I was exerting and they were stronger cyclists.

We had great difficulty contacting the car any more and it was probably 8:30 pm before I managed to get the next call through. To my surprise, at this time Sandy and Phillip were still some way from our pre-booked accommodation at Wymondbury near Nantwich, so I suggested to the other 3 cyclists that they go ahead to the lodgings whilst I await the car at a junction. (I hoped Sandy and Phillip would get to each accommodation well before us every day, but this rarely happened. I had this continual concern that the landlady would not expect us to arrive so late and might let her rooms to someone else).

The accommodation I had booked at the farmhouse was absolutely superb. We had a first class meal (late again) and our hosts were extremely hospitable and entertaining. The farmer was an ex-soccer referee and expert commedian. With every dish he brought a pile of jokes e.g. "We have a dog here exactly 36 inches long. We call it a yard dog." Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately in the case of some jokes), because of his broad North Country accent Sandy (from Canada) could not understand a word he said.

The next day was to be through an extremely populated part of the country - between Manchester and Liverpool, to Leigh, Bolton and Blackburn thence to Cumbria. Numerous turnings were involved and I anticipated much traffic and route finding difficulty. The original plan was for Ian Noons to lead us through this tricky area but he was not now with us. The route was basically that recommended by the CTC for their scenic end-to-end route and I was confident this section could not be bettered, but Lindsay thought otherwise and wanted to change it. I felt I had two choices - either say the route was already agreed back in April and was not now negotiable, or let him discover for himself and/or persuade him there was no better way. I took the latter decision which wasted about half an hour of time we both needed to be sleeping. I felt a little upset that Lindsay seemed not to have studied much the letters I had sent everyone with proposals for comment, but we finally agreed to take the route I had documented in detail and sent to all riders in April. Ian was almost continually telling jokes and was easy to get along with. He always went with the majority decision and never got into any sort of argument with anybody.

We had a discussion about missing our proper meal breaks because we were trying to meet the car at pre-arranged stops but we invariably under-estimated how long it would take to get to them. Without food around midday we all began to lose our strength, but this factor was more significant to my colleagues than myself. Because of this I probably should have been giving regular meals at the right time more importance than finding the car.

Lindsay's idea was to try a different approach - ignore the car, cycle to noon-1pm and then stop and eat at the nearest place. I was happy to to try the new scheme tomorrow through the busy North-West of England where we expected cafe's and restaurants to be quite common.

Saturday 23rd May - Nantwich to Sedbergh 125 miles.

"A mighty maze! but not without a plan" ..3
Our hosts provided an excellent early cooked breakfast. I was not expecting this to be an easy day, with towns, heavy traffic, difficult route finding and few compensations in the form of fine scenery. I prepared my maps (3 pages required today) folded in my back pocket and took on the task of route leader.

This was the day Sandy and Phillip kindly agreed to do our laundry. With 6 peoples dirty washing, and no launderette in the nearby Nantwich this could not have been an easy task and must have taken them at least all morning.

It was not long before I made my first mistake. Cycling round what seemed like a ring road round the North of Nantwich the B5074 junction failed to appear so we continued round to the A51 then some unclassified roads to Church Minshull. I did not tell the others I had missed a turning; I don't think they noticed and were happy to let me lead the way. At Church Minshull we were on the edge of my maps and I missed another turning, so we continued to Middlewitch via Winsford. Many of these places were familiar to me as they were joined by the Trent and Mersey canal on which my family had spent a holiday a few years ago. The phone was working today which permitted me to speak to Joan in hospital whilst cycling along near the Manchester Ship canal.

Generally I found the right turnings and navigated correctly, and on the few occasions I made a mistake I realised it very quickly. In fact the journey was much better than expected and the traffic almost tolerable. We stopped at a cafe in Leigh which provided simple food and the fastest service we had experienced anywhere.

After Bolton we met the first really open country in 100 miles, but first we had a long hard climb to about 1300 feet at Belmont. We stopped at a pub at the top and enjoyed a pint and a chat with the customers. The road through Blackburn was nowhere near as bad as it looked on the map. At this time Ian was in a particularly good joke telling mode, but I was route leading and not really listening. An especially funny punchline came at just the moment I led them round a corner into a visciously steep hill to Wilpshire, they did not find it easy to mix their resulting roars of laughter with this ascent.

Slaidburn was reached via a long incline then a long decline. We stopped at a pub around 5pm for a snack where the barman was a young lad who was learning the ropes and rather slow at serving a few customers. Lindsay did not want to hang around long and was impatient. When I asked for my cheese and onion sandwich to be toasted Lindsay was annoyed with me because he thought this would delay matters even more - this made me lose my own temper. "Its all very well us doing what YOU want I shouted but I want a toasted sandwich and you must take my wishes into account sometimes just as I take your wishes into account other times".

After that we had the most exciting ride to High Bentham, reaching 50 mph at one point. At this speed my ability to control the bike was marginal, each bend being a real test of nerve and skill. Just as it is a matter of pride that you do not dismount your bike on steep ascents, it can also be a matter of pride not to apply your brakes on a steep descent. We all agreed that fairgrounds offered no fun comparable with cycling at this speed through this exceptionally wild beautiful remote countryside, and I at least for me this part was the high spot of the trip.

For the A65 to Kirkby Lonsdale we had the benefit of a very strong tail wind for a change, and raced along - 35mph at times, first together then every man for himself. We were going so fast that we missed the Sedbergh turn and had to consult a policeman. The strong wind became against us again for the final 12 miles to Sedbergh. In a strong headwind like this slipstreaming becomes more significant, and the group split into two - Lindsay and me in front, Ron and Ian generally behind, though now and again they caught up for short periods. On arrival at Sedbergh Lindsay and I waited a few minutes for the others. Ron was now very angry, rather to my surprise. It turned out that he was becoming exhausted, and every time he caught up with us we pushed too hard and left him with no slipstream. I did not realise this was happening, but did not really understand his problem. Many times a rider trailed behind during the trip, there was never an obligation on the last person to catch up - whenever it happened the leaders would always wait eventually as long as necessary. Anyway Ron was in a bad way when we arrived at my friend's house - his temperature dropped and he laid motionless on the floor for many minutes. Ron is 56 but this was the only time he weakened. After the trip he entered the National 24 hour race and did 385 miles overall achieving 14th place.

A truly excellent 3 course meal had been left by my friend who had had an extremely busy day at Sedbergh school and was unable to be with us that evening. We had caused her considerable inconvenience by arriving several hours late without warning and I felt very guilty about it. Phillip, Sandy and myself slept at my friend's house and the others took the car to separate digs nearby.

Sunday 24th May - Sedbergh to Hawick - 101 miles.

This was to be the last day which was pre-planned. We were committted to arriving at the Rocksburgh Inn, Hawick on the Sunday evening where we were being offered free bed and breakfast courtesy of my brother and the proprietor Lucy Agnew. As usual we arrived somewhat later than hoped, in time to eat but only just.
"Bridges were made for wise men to walk over and fools to ride over" 1
It was wet and windy when we left Sedbergh. I sped over one of the cattle grids too fast and caused a 'snake bite' puncture in the front wheel. As I was only carrying one spare tube which was already punctured I had to mend my puncture in the rain and the wind with a patch and rubber solution. I felt the others getting a little impatient and Ron in particular stressed again and again that I should always carry at least 3 spare tubes and a spare outer as he always did himself. I became a bit worried that my patch would not hold and cause further delay. Later on at Tebay, Lindsay decided to put more clothes on as it was wet and cold, so Ian Ron and myself sheltered under a tree whilst Lindsay entered a nearby building site to change. This seemed to take him a long time - about as long as it had taken me to mend my puncture - but we did not mind. The rain did not continue for many hours and soon the usual fine sunshine returned.

As we approached the border with Scotland Ian himself got a puncture. On investigation Ian discovered a problem with the tyre - a slither of glass I think - and this took what seemed an hour to fix. During this time all of us with the exception of Ian felt extremely tired for the first time, the weather was now dry but hot and muggy. Three of us laid in the grass and almost went to sleep. We now needed the car for spares but the phone would not work. There were a couple of houses nearby; a lady came out walking two dogs and I asked her for water. Whilst she went to get it I tried to hold her two dogs by their leads, but the dogs were so strong and pulled so hard they dragged me up the road.

Navigational error at Stapleton in border country

I tried again and again to get the car, then discovered we had made a navigational error (my mistake) and were off course. I determined the place on the map where we were by asking some youths. As we were not on the agreed route now I was even more concerned to contact the car. (We discovered later that the car had made exactly the same navigational error we had at a point on the route where our maps were slightly incorrrect). I knocked on the door of a house nearby but there was nobody in. My OS map (3 miles to inch) - unlike Rons Phillips road map of same scale - showed telephone boxes and there was one about two miles away so I agreed with the others to go to it, try to make contact with the car and wait there for them.

The weather and situation was almost idyllic at the phone box. It was by a house and a kind lady offered me a cup of tea. I told her our story as I sat relaxing in the sun in her garden awaiting the others. We were now separated; I had no cash whatever (the last 10p was spent in the phone box to get the message 'The vodaphone you have just dialled has not responded... etc). I was a little doubtful the other riders would find me here as they did not have my detailed map showing telephone boxes and in any case the locals confirmed the map was incorrect in several ways. I had no idea of the whereabouts of Sandy and Phillip and wondered if I would be travelling the rest of the day on my own.

To my relief my other colleagues arrived after some fifteen minutes and they were supplied with tea too. Lindsay discovered that the husband of the lady knew his father!

My navigation was not good in my tiredness that day and I soon made another error and we found ourselves at Easton. Cross roads shown on the map seemed simply not to exist. I eventually got myself sorted out and turned left confidently on the B6318 for the Scottish border. I had to wait ages and ages for Ron as unlike the previous day he had now lost faith in my navigation and insisted (quite reasonably) on convincing himself we were now on the right course, which indeed we were. I thought he would never come my way but eventually he did.

About 3pm that day in remote countryside Ron broke his rear gear cable. Strangely enough he did not have a spare in his bag. This was one of the main reasons for having the telephone and the support car, so I tried to call them up. But as usual the call was not successful. Eventually Ron managed to tie his bike in a low gear and we were able to continue. Ron always liked to use low gears anyway. On my bike it is the 52 chainwheel that is now almost worn out, but on Ron's his 42 gear got far more use.

The final 30 miles to Hawick were on an unclassified road along Liddes Dale. This climbed about 1000 feet over many miles into thick mist and cloud, then dropped the same amount into Hawick. Ian and I raced one another along the final stretch - but Ian on his touring bike carried more burden. It was probably at this point that Ian began to hatch his plan to be the first cyclist at John O'Groats.

We arrived at the Rocksburgh Inn at 08:20 pm, anly a short time after the Sandy and Phillip. Lucy Agnew was happy to ask her chef to stay later than usual to prepare our food and jolly good it was too. We stored our bikes in the ballroom of the hotel.

We agreed to take a half day off at Hawick to repair and clean bikes, send postcards, obtain cash and generally get ourselves sorted out for the second half of the journey. We planned to have an early lunch and leave Hawick about midday.

Monday 25th May - Hawick to Muirkirk - 92 miles - What a shambles!

This was supposed to be an easy half day. It was the first day where we did not have a pre-planned stop and I was happy to leave the organisation to the ever eager Ron. This day undoubtedly takes the first prize for the greatest number of breakdowns, communication failures, missed deadlines, miscalculations and anxious moments. It was almostly certainly the straw that decided Lindsay to leave the group the following morning.

Ron studied the map, announced the place to head for that day was Kilmarnock and calculated the distance from Hawick to be 65 miles. His initial proposal was to take a more main road route than the scenic route I had suggested in my letters, but as my route was not much further and seemed likely to be quieter and more interesting he agreed to change to mine, which was then carefully marked also on the map Sandy and Phillip were using in the car. None of us verified Ron's distance calculation. By then we felt that trying to keep in contact with the car during the day was causing more problems than it was solving. Accordingly, and because Edinburgh was a nice place to visit and not far away, it was agreed that our support team could take a day off and visit Edinburgh. We did nevertheless still arrange for them to fix up some accommodation in Kilmarnock and keep in touch by phone as this was expected to work in the relatively populated part of Scotland we expected to be in by late afternoon. The phone was in fact absolutely essential that day since this was the only way we could know the address to go to that night for sleep.

Ron serviced all the bikes which included pumping up Ian's back tyre to racing pressure, even though it was a 27 x 1.25 touring tyre. About 2 miles outside Hawick an explosion occurred - it was Ian's back tyre, it was not repairable and had to be replaced. Ron always carried a spare 700 mm cover but not a spare 27-inch. We needed the car to bring a tyre but their telephone was not yet switched on. Fortunately, Hawick with its two bicycle shops was only 2 miles away so I volunteered to cycle there and fetch a new tyre, which Ron then fitted. This 45 minute delay was only the first of the days disasters.

We followed the B711 west to Tushielaw, then the B709 North to Mountbenger. At Copperclouch we turned onto a fairly new but unclassified hilly road past some scenic reservoirs. The sky darkened and a thunderstorm blew up, with many flashes of lightning around us. Some of these flashes caused the galvanised steel crash barrier by the road side to ping so I made sure I kept well away from it. The rain kept stopping and starting, and we kept taking off and putting on our wet weather gear.

There was a steep decline as we left Talla reservoir for Tweedsmuir - I let the other two fly ahead and cautiously descended with front brake on - this was no place to try to break the 50 mph barrier again. I then got my third puncture when the other two were in the distance at the bottom of the descent. Fortunately I had purchased my own pump in Hawick so this time I was able to mend the puncture unaided. But almost immediately afterwards a spoke broke and the front wheel became somewhat buckled. I limped down to Ron who of course was ready to fix it with one of the three spoke adjusters and spare spokes he always carried with him. But in attempting to adjust the wheel another spoke broke. Ron severely critiscised my wheel builder for building my wheels too tight and was unable to straighten the wheel. This second delay also amounted to some 45 minutes. We realised we still had a long way to go and needed the car with its spare wheel badly. My vodafone was unable to get the car, reporting with the familiar message that the vodafone I had called may be switched off.

But at Tweedsmuir there was a public telephone kiosk; since Ron had organised this day I let him do the phoning for a change. The phone was not working. Ron then called at a house and asked to use their phone and they reported their phone was not working either, probably on account of the thunderstorm. We were stuck. It was now about 6pm and we did not know where we were heading for that night. I tried the vodafone time and time again without success, then finally, at the summit of a high hill leading down into Moffat I made a good call to Sandy and Phillip who were just leaving Edinburgh. They told me the address of the accommodation they had booked in Kilmarnock so all of a sudden we were all happy again. If my memory serves me right in that phone call I expressed some doubt that we would be able to reach Kilmarnock - especially on account of my buckled wheel - and that we may need to call them again. I suppose at that time we still half believed Ron's 65 miles (even though we had already covered about 60) and assumed we would make Kilmarnock in the daylight.

After about 10 miles of good speed we came to a Little Chef stopping there for nourishment, discussion, rest and more phone calls. We calculated Ron's estimate was about 100% out as there was still over 40 miles to go. My feeling was that we could still make Kilmarnock in the daylight that day (if we raced) but the others did not agree so I conceeded to the majority view, though it is clear in retrospect that we should have done what I was then proposing and I regret I did not attempt to be more persuasive. Accordingly, it was agreed to get the car to collect us with our bikes, drive the lot to Kilmarnock then return to the same point the following day. (Lindsay could not see much point in returning to the same spot the following day, and would have been happy to arrive at John O'Groats having missed out a chunk). Ron used the payphone and called Mrs Grant the landlady at our accommodation in Kilmarnock, asking her to tell Sandy and Phillip to meet us on the Douglas-Kilmarnock road or the junction of the M74 at A74 at Douglas. As we were unable to contact Sandy and Phillip by the direct phone line we thought they might take advantage of Mrs Grant as a message box as we were doing ourselves. In any case, we calculated that Sandy and Phillip would cross us on the road or would arrive at Kilmarnock in the early evening and would then get our message to return to meet us.

"Now spurs the lated traveler apace
To gain the timely inn".
Then we hit the extraordinary A74. A super new dual carriageway with almost no traffic on it - in 10 miles we probably saw no more than 5 cars. The only time I have ever encountered a similar situation in my life was on Christmas day at lunctime on the A1 in 1970. We sped along that road in 4-up time trial mode at about 25 mph.

When we met the Muirkirk road I cycled back a few hundred yards to the A74/M74 junction in case Sandy and Phillip were there. But they were not so I searched for a piece of chalk and scratched a message on the road. A car drove past and reported to Ron Ian and Lindsay up the road that I had fallen off my bike at the roundabout. Ron rode back fearfully and was relieved to find the motorist was mistaken.

Fish and chips and fish and chips

I made more calls to Mrs Grant both from my vodafone and from payphones but received no news of Sandy and Phillip. It was now about 8:30 pm and we began to get ever more puzzled as to where our supporters were and why they were not contacting anybody. I kept trying both the vodafone and telephone kiosks. We arrived at Muirkirk about 9:30. Ron and Lindsay were getting hungry and increasingly fed up with the situation and I myself then took over the task of chief communications officer. I used the payphone there to make more calls - including one to my sister-in-law at my home and to my wife in hospital but they had not heard from Sandy and Phillip either. I spoke to both Mr and Mrs Grant at Kilmarnock who were most friendly but could not help much because Sandy and Phillip had not been in touch for about 6 hours. The other cyclists had had enough and needed food.

The general feeling was that the primary cause of the cock-up was Ron miscalculating the distance between Hawick and Kilmarnock - he had had estimated 65 miles (excluding my diversion) but here at Muirkirk we had already covered 94 since 1pm. The total distance to Kilmarnock was in fact 115 miles. To mitigate his guilt Ron offered to buy everyone fish and chips. The others sat for about half an hour in the restaurant whilst I guarded the road and made phone calls - I expected every car that came along to be a white Volvo towing a trailer but no luck. Even in this Northern latitude it was beginning to get dark, and the temperature was also dropping. After some 20 minutes Ian brought me out some fish and chips to eat by the roadside whilst I waited. We puzzled and puzzled as to why Sandy and Phillip were out of contact with everybody for so long and until so late and the only logical explanation of the events was that they had had an accident.

We agreed that Lindsay would organise the following day, since we were clearly not meeting his expectations for high quality organisation, although at this point of time Lindsay did not seem to care what we did or what he agreed to. I chatted to one or two passer's by about our predicament in the faint hope they may have seen a car, bike and trailer but they had not.

At the Black Bull

We finished our fish and chips and ambled further in the failing light to the Black Bull Public House. This time Lindsay guarded the road whilst the rest of us entered for a drink (and yet more phone calls). I came out almost immediately to relieve Lindsay who was getting more and more fed up with the situation and reluctant even to accept a drink from me. My feelings altered from puzzlement and concern for our sleep to more and more worry about what may have happened to Sandy and Phillip. Why had we not seen them and why had they not contacted Mrs Grant or arrived by this late hour? Ron made some tentative arrangements with the landlord of the Black Bull for us to sleep there; beds for us and the floor for himself.

Contact at last

Then, in a call to Mrs Grant at 10:40, I received the splendid news that Sandy and Phillip had arrived, and had already left about five minutes before to collect us: it was about a 40 minute drive. We still had the concern that there was no way for the drivers to know exactly where we were (i.e. outside the Black Bull), so we stacked our bikes by a lamp post and waited for them. We waited, and waited... jubilation at about 11:40 when the car arrived, immediately followed by desperation when they went straight past without apparently seeing us! We shouted like mad, Lindsay and I mounted our bikes and chased the car as fast as our legs would carry us. This did the trick: the car turned round, we squeezed in (Ian sitting in the front on Sally's lap), and returned to Kilmarnock with our bikes on the car roof and the trailer.

On the way there there was a disagreement between Sandy and Phillip on the correct route and Phillip took Sandy's advice against his better judgement. This caused further delay. When we eventually arrived at the accommodation the Grant family with the exception of Mrs Grant were in bed asleep; we finally settled down ourselves about 1 o'clock in the morning. It was a super house with tremendous space and luxuries, but one of us had to sleep on the floor. As usual Ron volunteered even though his sleeping bag had become wet in the trailer and he had to sleep in his YHA sheet bag with his clothes on. The only disadvantage to this from my point of view was the usual 5 am pulse counting business with the light on. It did at least remind me to put the phone on charge.

What actually happened

Sandy and Phillip had visited Edinburgh and left just before 6 pm at which time I spoke to them via our vodafones. They arrived at Muirkirk probably bewteen 7:30 and 8:00, and purchased fish and chips at the very same place we arrived at at 9:30. They used the same phone box we were to use many times later that evening and spoke to Mr. Grant. They waited for us until about 9pm, then as they had not seen us they reckoned we must then be ahead of them between Muirkirk and Kilmarnock so they set off for the digs (which were not easy to find) and arrived there about 10:30 pm. At this point they received our message, unloaded the trailer then returned to meet us at the pub between 11 pm and midnight.

For the record I will put down my own views on how this unfortunate mix-up could have been avoided, but such an exercise is always easy in retrospect and I hope the participants will not read the following as critiscism of them.

  1. Ron should not have miscalculated the distance so badly.
  2. I should have checked Ron's calculations.
  3. My wheel builder should not have made my wheel so tight and unreliable. No-one else broke so many spokes. Ron should not have pumped Ian's tyre up so hard.
  4. We should have had a clearly agreed back-up plan if our phones did not work e.g. contact my sister-in-law in Winchester via payphone.
  5. At the little Chef I should have persuaded the others that it was possible to make Kilmarnock that evening in the daylight. The wind had dropped and the going was fast. We could probably have arrived before 10pm (more or less daylight) instead of past midnight but may not have had the fish and chips. At one point Ron calculated that the car could have made the Douglas-Kilmarnock journey several times in all the time we waited for them, and we could certainly have made the journey at least once ourselves.
  6. There were two Grants we communicated with. It turned out that Ron had spoken to MRS Grant from the little Chef at about 7:45, then Sandy spoke to MR Grant at about 8:40. It would appear that the critical message we assumed would have reached Sandy via the Grants did not get passed on. I should have been very wary of this situation, which was later worsened when I later took over the telephoning from Ron. There were thus two lots of two people talking to two people. Less problems would have arisen if only one person in each group did all the communicating. We should not have needed to have used the Grants as a message centre, it was not fair on them.
  7. Sandy and Phillip should have allowed for breakdowns on our part (bicycles are much less reliable than motor cars) and probably NOT have assumed we had passed them and were between Muirkirk and Kilmarnock. When eating their fish and chips they did not require a look-out like we did since the car was parked on the road. If we had reached Muirkirk we would have seen the car and found them. Therefore, on leaving the restaurant they should initially have re-traced their route to Douglas before proceeding to Kilmarnock. They would in fact have met us on the road had they done this. I am not sure why their vodafone seemed not to be working in this area as mine was. Perhaps they could have taken it into the restaurant.
  8. Sandy and Phillip should probably have telephoned the Grants between 8:40 and 10:00 pm, if only to warn them that they were expecting to arrive late. If they had done this they should have received our message and avoided a long double journey.
  9. Much anxiety could have been avoided if we had carried lights.

Tuesday 26th May - Muirkirk to Dunoon - 70 miles.

Mr and Mrs Grant provided us an excellent breakfast in their conservatory at Kilmarnock. This was the day we had agreed should be organised by Lindsay; I for one was willing to go along with his wishes but Lindsay was not happy. He said the journey was not working out as he had hoped, we had missed almost all our objectives, he had had enough and did not wish to continue with us. He felt we had ignored all his suggestions and proposals and he did not wish to discuss the matter further. I myself felt that much of the problem was caused by the lack of time before now for reviews and discussions. But Lindsay would not discuss and was determined to catch the train and return home. We shook hands and said our farewells. I said to him he could meet us at the ferry terminal at Dunoon at 5pm if he changed his mind. (We actually arived there at 4:57pm). Ron wondered if Lindsay was also becoming concerned about the cost and generously offered to assist in this regard. I hope at some time Lindsay will send me an account of his own feelings so that I can add them here in the interests of fairness and completeness.

Sandy and Phillip drove us with our bikes back to the Black Bull at Muirkirk; we left there about 12:30 and made really good progress on the 25 miles of level roads to Kilmarnock.

Just through Kilmarnock I got a call through to Phillip and stopped my bike to speak. To my annoyance, Ron and Ian ignored my call and shot ahead - I did not want to make any arrangements without getting their agreement but as they were outside shouting distance this was impossible. The call confirmed Sandy and Phillip were only a few minutes behind, and I now expected our drivers to overtake as very soon, in fact I think I said I would wait where I was for them to appear. But after about 10 minutes there was no sign of them so we went on together.

Here are the notes I wrote as I waited for Sandy and Phillip a few miles further on:

"Writing this on roundabout on A78 for Greenock by Safeway Superstore. It is now 2:34 and I have been here alone in this busy traffic for over half an hour, maybe 45 minutes. Ron and Ian have gone into restaurant for a meal and I wonder if they will remember to bring me some food out, or will be willing for me to go in for 45 minutes afterwards to feed myself whilst they wait. Where on earth are Sandy and Phillip? I keep trying to call them but get no reply. I have called home and Valerie but they have not heard from them either"
After about 45 minutes Ron and Ian return from the restaurant with a cucumber and salmon sandwich for me. Ian had purchased some vitamin tablets as he had to make some purchase in order to cash a cheque with his switch card; I gratefuly accept a tablet from him. Still no sign of our support vehicle. It turned out that whilst I was waiting at the roundabout they had gone in Irvine for shopping.

Ron is determined never to wait for the car anywhere again and we cycle on for about 50 miles along the fast coastal road through Largs with no siting or contact with our drivers. In order to book accommodation it is imperative that we reach the Tourist Information Office at Dunoon on the other side of the ferry by closing time at 5:30 pm. We arrive at the ferry terminal at Gourock at 4:57 pm and I decide to wait there for our supporters, even if I am there all night. Ron and Ian go ahead on the ferry to book accommodation in the information center at Dunoon.

[I think in retrospect that I was rather foolish being so obsessed at making contact that day. It had been agreed that Sandy and Phillip would do some shopping for us and this is exactly what they did. I should have been able to work this out whilst waiting on the A78 instead of allowing myself to become so concerned as to why they had not passed]

At the ferry terminal I finally got a good call to Phillip and said I would wait for them. On their arrival we had a super ferry journey in the early evening sunshine then went straight to the Tourist Information at Dunoon to find Ian and Ron already there with booked accommodation.

That night we went into Dunoon for a Chinease meal but ended up at an Indian Restaurant - this cuisine was new to some but they all enjoyed it. The air was cold and windy as we returned to the Guest house and the hospitality of Mrs Guy.

The cycling was fast that day; we only did about 4 hours in the saddle but had covered 70 miles.

Wednesday 27th May - Dunoon to Invermoriston - 148 miles

Mrs Guy provided splendid accommodation including good showers, large lounge and full breakfast. All this was only #9.50 each, out of which Mrs Guy paid at least 10% to the Tourist Board for commission. Ron very kindly slept on the floor again in his sleeping bag which had dried out by now. The next morning our landlady kindly prepared for us at our own convenience a very early breakfast and set us off down a short cut through the unoccupied Guest House opposite.

The weather was fine, the scenery superb and the roads by Loch Eck to Strachur and Inverary had a good surface, were level, deserted and fast. Even the winds were strongly favourable at times, though at other times we had head winds which inexplicably remained head winds even when we turned 180 degress round the end of a loch! The established procedure now was not to rely on the telephone, but the car was to follow the same route as the cyclists overtaking us several times during the day.

Inverary - each chasing the other

On most of the Scottish roads both Ron and I tracked our position on the map. I found that my technique of having a single folded page of a 3 inch to the mile road atlas in my back pocket worked well as it enabled me to check the turnings on the move. I tried to remember two or three turnings ahead and this usually worked very well and geve me confidence that we were right. Ron on the other hand had often to stop and leaf through the large atlas he carried in is paper boy's sack, and this often took several minutes whilst I went ahead up the next turning and waited. One of the occasions when I went wrong though was at Inverary.

Ian and myself (Lindsay had left us by now) were ahead but as we approached Inverary Ron stopped to study the map to locate a right-hand turn he knew was here somewhere. Ian and I missed the turn and continued into the town which Ian happened to know quite well as he had once worked there for several months. I felt sure Ron saw us go ahead into the town but we did not speak as we passed, we just assumed Ron saw what we were doing. I expected both the car and Ron to catch us up at any time so I as usual watched the road like a hawk to make sure they did not overtake us. Ian found a bank to collect some money, and I went into a shop to purchase postcards and an ice cream. (Even in the shop I was watching the road rather than the shop assistant who was serving me - I was always more concerned than the other two of losing contact and getting the wrong side of the car). Ian and I met again and we waited for about 20 minutes for either Ron or the car but when neither appeared we became puzzled and concerned so we re-traced our steps to where we had last seen Ron. Ron was nowhere to be seen.

A passer-by told us that a cyclist had been looking for us and was getting rather anxious and agitated. "Which way did he go?" I asked, but the passer-by did not know. I then realised that we should have turned right before entering the town (the turning was actually rather hidden because it looked like a private road to a hotel - it actually went through an archway in the hotel). As Ron was not in sight I assumed (correctly) that he had taken this turn and gone ahead to the next place. Neither Ian nor I could understand why he would have done this since if Ron had never left the route he would have known we were not ahead of him. But the best bet seemed to be to assume Ron was ahead of us now, hopefully travelling slowly.

Ian and I raced off up a fairly long incline on the A819 out of Inverary. On my lightweight racing bike I was faster than Ian so I left him behind, stamped on the power and went solo with the intention of catching up with Ron as soon as possible, at which point we would both await Ian. After a couple of miles I was met by our car coming back in the opposite direction who confirmed that Ron was ahead. I raced even faster. I overtook another cyclist who also confirmed Ron was ahead. But Ron was racing too as he thought Ian and I were ahead of him!. (Inexplicably, this was even after the car had gone ahead of Ron looking for us on his behalf and confirming we were NOT ahead of him). At 11 am after about 5 miles I caught up with Ron, then we both waited for Ian who turned up 8 minutes later. It turned out that Ron had waited about 15 minutes in Inverary for us and when we did not return he decided we must have taken the right-hand turn unnoticed by him. During most of this time Ian was searching for a cash machine.

The mistakes made here were (1) My navigation was imperfect and I missed the right hand turning before Inverary (2) I did not make sure Ron clearly understood where Ian and I were going when we left him looking at the map (3) Ian took too long at the cash machine (4) Ron did not observe where his colleagues went. In retrospect I think all three of us might share the blame for this incident which for a change was nothing to do with the car and the telephones. I suppose though this 20 minutes of more strenuous exercise did us more good than harm.

It looked as if there may be a foot ferry at Taynuilt but we arrived there before our support and decided not to take the short cut and to maintain the same route as the car to Connel. I made several unsuccesful attempts to contact Sandy by my pocket phone as we were expecting them to find us a picnic site for lunch. Yet again we were running short of water and nourishment and wondered where the devil they had got to. At a campsite near Barcaldine Ian and Ron found a shop and purchased some food and drink whilst I waited on the road for the car. This was about the fourth time I waited on the road whilst the others had a meal but that was OK with me as I was determined to not miss our support vehicle at any cost. After about 15 mins the car turned up and Ron came out with a cake and bottle of milk shake for me. We then agreed that Sandy and Phillip would drive ahead and find the first suitable stopping place after 20 miles, stop there and prepare lunch with the food they had kindly purchased for us at Irvine the previous day. I said to Sandy to try to find a nice quiet spot but later regretted saying this as they took this request rather too seriously. There was quite a head wind and after 20 miles we were beginning to tire and wanted to see the car. A few miles further we find the car but they have not yet found a place for the picnic. Eventually we come to a closed pub with a nice garden. Ron knocks on the door and not only does the lady agree to let us use her garden, she also agrees to open the pub specially for us so that we can buy drinks. The weather was very hot and sunny, the only problem with the garden was that it offered almost no shade whatever.

On the next leg I wanted to visit Kinlochleven where I had camped several times on the Highland Rover Outward Bound course but when we got to the decision point at Ballaculish I felt too tired to do an unnecessary 20 miles half of which were to be against a strong Easterly wind. We pushed on to Fort William and met Sandy and Phillip at the Information centre where we tried to arrange our final accommodation before John O'Groats. This took about an hour; we wanted to get to Drumnadrochit that night but finally settled on a place by Loch Ness called Invermoriston just North of Fort Augustus.

We had more food at a cafe at Fort William and left in the fine weather and head wind. The wind was sufficiently strong to justify close formation riding to ease the effort. We were in single file (Ron, myself, Ian) when there was suddenly a very loud bang, my immediate reaction being another tyre blow-out. But this time it was a car which, in overtaking us on a bend, had crossed the white line and collided with another car coming in the opposite direction on the relatively busy road. Angry words passed between Ron and the tired driver, but it was fairly clear that it was the car's fault and not ours and I was grateful no-one was hurt. The wife of the driver accused us of spoiling what had been for them up to then a wonderful holiday. The driver said we were cycling too close together and had moved into the road whilst he was overtaking causing him to swerve. They had had a long journey that day they said. "So had we" retorted Ron who gave them personal details in case a witness was needed.

We stay the night in the digs at Invermoriston booked by the Tourist Information office in Fort William. The room and facilities were very comfortable but we were rather cramped; Ron again kindly slept on the floor.

Thursday 28th May - Invermoriston to John O'Groats - 149 miles

"He that will thrive must rise at five.
He that have thriven may lie till seven" ..5
I thought it would be very pleasant to make a very early start and to follow the banks of Loch Ness at dawn - about 4 am. Ron and Ian were moderately willing, as was Mrs Greig the landlady provided we were happy with a cold breakfast. But Ron later changes his mind due to the increased state of his pulse at the time. I concede to have breakfast at 7 am. John O'Groats was still a long way off and it was by no means certain we could do it in one day, but we all wanted to have a go so that the original target of 9 days would be achieved.

There was then another disagreement about the route. The original plan I sent to all the riders in April took us through central Northern Scotland to Altnaharra, then along the North coast to Bettyhill and Thurso. Ron had decided there was no such thing as a busy main road in Scotland and therefore wanted to change this to use the A9 along the North-East coastline (because it looked easier and faster), and had already discussed this option with me. But I decided now I wanted to avoid the A9 because of (a) my dislike of all main roads; (b) the CTC recommendation to avoid certain busy roads in Scotland which included the A9 and (c) my constant desire to stick to what had been agreed in the letters - which I had received no prior objections to, and had learned and marked up on my maps. The advice from our Landlady however (and also from Ron) was that the A9 would not be excessively busy and Ron said that main roads "did not bother him" anyway. "They bother me" I said. We finally agreed to defer the decision until Alness - much traffic and we would divert, little traffic and we would take A9. Ian as always was easy going and willing to take either route.

At Drumnadrochit we bypassed the Loch Ness Monster museum and turned left onto another of those long steep hills not easily forgotten. After that the hills became less, though the wind was against us and quite strong. Very suddenly (or so it seemed to me) at Dingwall Ron decided to stop at a cafe in a shopping precinct for a snack. But the cafe was not on the road and my feeling was that we should continue until the car caught us with a picnic, or continue another 15 miles to Alness and stop there. However, before I could make this comment both Ron and Ian were gone! We were expecting the car to pass us any moment and if I chased after the other two into the precinct there was a danger the car would overtake without seeing us and I was determined to avoid this. I was therefore trapped into staying by the road again for 30-45 mins whilst the other two ate and drank and this time I was not pleased at being forced into this situation without discussion. So I decided to teach them a lesson and cycled on to Alness, and wait there for them.

My fears of losing the car were well founded on this occasion, for, a few minutes after leaving Dingwall Sandy and Phillip overtook. Had I joined Ron and Ian in the cafe we would all have missed the car with resulting confusion. We stopped in a layby by the Cromarty Firth where Sandy Phillip and I alone had some food and drink and discussed a suitably severe punishment for Ron and Ian when they turned up. (Ron maintains that he had told me what he and Ian were doing - eat first then relieve me later, but to this day our recollections of this incident are different)

At Alness we had to decide whether or not to take the A9 and I agreed with Ron to take it, on the grounds that we still had a long way to go and wanted to reach John O'Groats on this ninth day if we possibly could. It was near here that we stopped by a river and had a pleasant conversation with an old man who warned us that it was a long way and there were a number of jolly steep hills between there and our final destination. I wished I had with me a tape recorder to record incidents like this.

When it was time for lunch we still had the car behind us, but was expecting it at any moment. The A9 here was in fact quite busy and there were few suitable stopping places; it was also rather windy. Ron spotted what he considered an ideal place for a picnic in a meadow with a wall to lean against and some sheep for company. He climbed a gate and proceded to sit down and have a rest and smoke whilst I uneasily investigated to see if the car could safely pull off the main road at that point. Phillip and Sandy went straight past, turned round, came back, decided it was not safe to stop, went past us again in the opposite direction, and turned round again. During this manoevering Ron was undoing the gate at the entrance to the field so that the car and trailer could enter. But Phillip did not fancy attempting this sharp turn off the main road onto a questionable surface and continued ahead. This was a dilemma; Ron did not seem in the mind to move, but the car was not going to stop here. I was between the two and we all wanted our lunch. Ian and myself decided to go with the car and Ron (to my surprise without complaint) then got up and followed us. There was in fact a very pleasant stopping place by some trees, a wall and a stream only a few hundred yards ahead where our support team provided a very satisfactory lunch.

When there was about 80 miles to go we passed another party of cyclists. There were about 15 of them at least one of which was known to Ron. I asked if they planned to make John O'Groats that day and they said definitely not, there was a very long steep hill ahead at Helmsdale and we would be foolish to try to make the full distance. Ron met an old Audax friend in the group and chatted to him for a few minutes. Meanwhile I went ahead and talked to another gentleman in the party who strongly advised me not to attempt John O'Groats that day. This party were also supported by a vehicle but they had pre-arranged accommodation each evening and only met the car at these places overnight. On the cycling spectrum our intentions were towards the racing end and theirs towards the touring end.

Race to the finish

The wind was quite strong North-Easterly and dead against us. There was indeed a long hill at Helsmdale, but it was not as steep as the hills we had encountered in the early part of the trip and it did not therefore create a big problem. Half way up the hill we met up with our supporters, had a snack and admired the scenery. Then we started to split up a bit. Ron left first whilst I talked to my wife in hospital. Then I put on a spurt and caught up with him. Later Ian went ahead but Ron and I, both feeling a little weary by now, did not enter the chase - not my usual practise when a rider shot ahead. It turned out that Ian was now feeling stronger than at any previous time in the trip and was determined to be first at John O'Groats. This was his plan: shoot ahead 35 miles from the end otherwise in a sprint finish he knew he would probably lose.

The last 15-20 miles were actually very fast as the wind had moderated and even changed direction. As the John O'Groats sign came into sight we had still not caught up with Ian. Ron sprinted for the sign; I exerted maximum effort and caught up and followed in his slip stream, but Ron was expertly waving around to prevent me overtaking. At this he was successful and he thereby achieved second place. We were about an hour ahead of schedule but Ian had been there for 22 minutes. He was chuffed to pieces to have won and to celebrate he bought us a round of drinks. He said he could have gone on another 50 miles quite easily! Ian's arrival time at John O'Groats was 20:30, Ron and I arrived at 20:52. Ron talked to two men who had just sailed there from Norway and I made a number of phone calls (my vodafone handset worked perfectly here) wandering around the small harbour. Phillip and Sandy arrived and we all spent about an hour and a half in the bar at the John O'Groats hotel.

I was disappointed that Sandy and Phillip were not at the final destination to greet us with the champagne and to take the photograph, but they were in a pub not expecting us to arrive before 10 pm.

We left the bar and reached the John O'Groats Youth Hostel at 10:58 pm that evening, which was 2 minutes before closing time. The rather grumpy Warden was annoyed at us turning up so late and demanded to knew if we had been in the pub all night. He caught Ron about to smoke in the dormitories, and reminded him this was not allowed. It was more windy than ever in the morning when we loaded up all the bikes and gear in preparation for the journey home.

At John O'Groats and journey home

On the Friday morning we took it really easy. We again visited the pleasant hotel at John O'Groats for coffee in the lounge, studied the book where end-to-enders enter their names and stories, and added our own. I took my bike off the roof for the final photographs. Although Ian's plan was to take the train home I suggested he should save some money and travel with us in the car. We left John O'Groats around midday and I was grateful for Ron, Sandy and Phillip sharing the driving home and their willingness not to smoke. We took two days for the journey, stopping overnight at Hawick. Arrived in Winchester about 7pm on Saturday.

I did little cycling for a few days after my return and noticed that I seemed to be taking more sleep. Perhaps then there is some truth in the proverb "Five hours sleepth a traveller, seven a scholar, eight a merchant and eleven a knave".

What I learned from this trip

  1. How much training is necessary for a trip like this?. In one of my calls to Andy Maddox - after I had said I intended to train up to 200-240 miles a week for the month immediately preceding the trip - he told me this training schedule was insufficient. This was supported by one of my training partners who said the thought of doing over 100 miles a day for day after day scared him stiff, especially as I should expect and plan for bad weather. I needed to do much more he said. I hardly ever exceeded 70 miles in a single training run, or 100 miles over two days.

    In the following table shows the training mileages per week suggested by Mike Challis, our club coach, and what I and Ron actually achieved.

                 Recommendation   Achieved    Ron's
                 by coach          in 1992    training
       January     100              110         35
       February    125               80        130      Figures are
       March       175              100        186      miles/week including
       April       225              250        210      easy cycling to work
       May         275              210        448      in my case
    
    Mike himself did the end-end on this training schedule in only 6 days. Our journey time was much longer at 9 days, though we travelled about 1065 miles instead of 847 including some very long and steep hills. I had no real trouble covering the distances planned and keeping up with the rest of the party - two of whom were much younger than myself.

    In retrospect then I can say that these training distances were perfectly adequate for me for the conditions we encountered. The weather was generally warm and dry, but there was a great deal of head wind. In fact, for most of the journey the winds were between East and North the opposite to the prevailing winds hoped for and expected.

    A few weeks after the trip Ron entered the national 24-hour contest and achieved 14th place out of 70 riders with 385 miles. He also did a 50 mile time trial in 2 hour 9 mins. I have since achieved 25 miles in 1-4-12 but have never attempted a longer distance in a competitive situation.

  2. Gears. My lowest gear was 42-21 (54-inch) and it was quite unsuitable for some of the hills encountered, such as the 30% climbs in North Devon. Although there was only one hill which beat me, many of them put tremendous strain on both myself and the bike. 42-24 would probably have enabled me to make all the hills, but really much lower gears than this would have been justified.
  3. My time estimates and hoped for average speeds were badly out, mainly because I had taken insufficient account of the hills. The downhill sections never compensate for the time lost going uphill, even if you descend at the speed of light. For hiking I was taught to allow an extra hour for each 1000 feet of ascent but on bikes it is the steepness rather than the absolute height gained that is the important consideration. Compared with a flat run of 20 miles, a steady rise of 1000 feet over this distance will only make about 7 minutes difference, but a climb of 1000 feet in one mile will make about 14 minutes difference. If half the journey distance is uphill, simple arithmentic shows that average speed overall is necessarily less than twice the average speed on the uphill sections.
  4. The episode in Kilmarnock leading to Lindsay's decision to leave the journey taught me the importance of setting appropriate expectations and the need to allow adequate time for discussion and review. I really did not expect the journey to go smoothly and I should have communicated this expectation at the start more clearly. We should all probably have listened to Lindsay's ideas more closely.
  5. I under-estimated the difficulty they would have in the car in keeping in contact, and should have set up a back-up plan based on our making calls from phone boxes to a central message centre. Sandy and Phillip did their best but we should probably have asked them to track us more closely since the phone was so unreliable. With panniers you can make the journey without the support of a car, and several of the party would consider this preferable, but I myself wanted to make the cycling as easy and efficient as possible. I think in retrospect that I was excessively concerned about keeping in contact with the car and that the journey for all of us would have been more pleasureable if I had not been so obsessed with this aspect.
  6. I learned that a good way to navigate is with a single folded sheet of 3 inch to mile map in back pocket. I tried to remember the next 2 or 3 turnings ahead and this generally worked well and involved few stops or delays. So long as I concentrated mistakes were recognised before we had gone very far.
  7. I really regret not carrying in my pocket a small dictating machine for keeping a diary. This would have enabled fast note taking on the move regarding incidents, times, distances, feedback on the use of the equipment and recording of voices of locals.
  8. I should probably have had wheels with looser spokes, and should have carried spare spokes.
  9. I am glad we took the scenic route and avoided most towns and main roads. And I am glad I travelled light.
  10. It is important for all riders to have the same size wheels so that spare tyres tubes and spokes can be interchanged. (Ian was the only rider using 27 inch wheels)
  11. It is important to many people to eat at a regular time each day in order to maintain strength. I should have spotted the significance of this factor to the other riders and given it more importance. "Meat and matins hinder no mans journey".
  12. In May there was no problem in finding superb accommodation which was very good value for money, especially in Scotland. There was little need to book in advance.
Having learned a few things I am keen to try again a similar journey. Use of a streamlined 3-wheel recumbent appeals because these can be faster than normal racing bikes.

Appendix 1 - bikes we used

                Bike             Wheels      Chainwheel   Sprockets
Ian    Raleigh Classic          27 x 1.25   48-38-28       24....13
Ron    Rossin hand built         700 mm       52-42    24-21-19-17-15-13
Peter  Raleigh Dynatech 600      700 mm       52-42   21-19-17-16-15-14-13
Lindsay

Appendix 2 - spares brought by Ron kept in trailer

Back wheel                4 cone spanners                 Handlebarend stops
Front wheel               stilsons                        Nuts, bolts, washers
Lock                      assorted adjustable spanners    Puncture repair kit
Cassette block            Mafac tool kit                  patches made
                                                          from old tubulars
Racing rear mech          Screwdrivers                    tubular tyres
Touring rear mech         2 sorts of medical cream        metal tyre levers
8 assorted spokes         Towel                           saddle
7 inner tubes             Rags                            chainwheel & cranks
2 folding tyres           3 sets of Look shoe plates      Bottom bracket set
2 touring tyres           including washers and screws    All sizes ball
                                                          bearings
6 block extractors        Spare computer
Fixed cup remover         Spare computer sensor           3-in-1 oil
3 crank extractors        3 kinds of spoke keys           grease
Pedal spanners            2 rim tapes                     GT AT
Head spanners             4 sets handlebar tape           Swarfega
assorted gear cables      Look pedals                     Set Allen keys
assorted brake cables     Ordinary pedals                 Padlock & cable
assorted brake blocks     Toeclips and straps             Track pump
Ordinary block 13-24      Assorted nuts, bolts, washers
Spares carried by Ron in sack always with him
First aid kit             Road map book                   Rain jacket
Pencil and paper          Light woolen sweater            Socks
Large padlock & cable     Tools                           Inner tubes
Food                      Outer tyre case                 Tyre levers
Spoke key                 Inner tubes
Spares brought by myself

Primarily 1 spare bike


Notes

a
Report avaliable, being typed. Please mail author.
b
Report available, being typed. Please mail author.
1
Proverb
2
Charles Inge
3
Alexander Pope
4
Proverb
5
Proverb

Peter Seaman
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