Monday, 14 May 2012

Day 14 to Day 15 Lands End

Day 14 – Crockernwell to Belowda – Welcome to Cornwall (by Alex)

It was made clear from the previous days riding that to reach the finish, Stuart and I would need to use a-roads. Unfortunately, as far as Devon and Cornwall are concerned, that means the A30.

For those who do not know the A30, it is best described as a very busy two lane motorway, only without a hard shoulder. At the end of our ride yesterday, we got a glimpse as we rode over and saw huge volumes of traffic hurtling past in both directions. We'd known since day 12 that in all probability we would need to go some distance on this road, but it was only after getting a chance to see it first hand that I think Stuart realised we would need to implement the second, much less popular part of the plan.

We wanted the road to be as quiet as it could possibly be. Given that we would be riding in daylight, this meant one thing.

We would need to set off at the crack of dawn1.

The crack of dawn eventually turned out to be six thirty. After a breakfast of beans of toast2, we set out. It was a brilliantly clear morning – remaining so all day – so consequently at that time in the morning it was freezing. It was almost as cold as the ride from Ecclefechan!

Alex... standing by

Stuart... standing by

It's probably worth saying at this point that though I have said there is no hard shoulder on the A30, there was a three foot wide gutter by the side of the road. Though it was filled with rubble3, peppered with cats-eyes and the occasional drain covers, we agreed that riding in this would be less dangerous, despite puncture risk, than the dual carriageway proper. As expected, it was quiet at that time in the morning, but quiet does not mean deserted.

We started our ride at the north eastern part of Dartmoor. The A30 skirts around the north of the national park, gradually rising and, occasionally, falling as it goes. By the time we got to the end of the climbing, Stuart and I were roasting under our thermals. We decided to stop in the next lay-by and remove some of the most stifling items – well, we decided as I was trying to take off my thermal gloves and replace them with fingerless ones.

We crested the next rise and the descent began. It started off quite steeply – probably about 6% - but this gradually lessened off. I was still able to tap along at thirty mph plus, which was great for Stuart as, sitting in my slipstream, he hardly needed to pedal!

After about four miles of descending, giggling all the way, we came on a lay-by.

'Stuart, do you want to stop?'

'I'm happy to keep going for the moment.'

'Thought you would be.'

The descent petered out, much to our dismay, after about six and a half miles. We found a convenient lay-by and began to strip off. It was at this point that I told Stuart the truth – ever since the top of the ride, caught halfway between changing gloves, I'd been holding onto both the bars and the thermal glove in a death grip – they are borrowed and expensive, so I did not fancy a long hard slog the wrong way up the carriageway to retrieve them if I dropped one!

Our second, and, very fortunately, final puncture happened when some . . . person in a yellow Cupra decided to honk his horn as he passed us in what we assumed to be a purposeful attempt to startle us. We both looked over to see what was causing the noise4, then from behind came a bang and a hiss. Stuart had a puncture on his rear – it's the most fiddly, messy puncture to repair and consequently the most common tyre that gets a puncture5. The only thing that gave us some humour in this situation was my commenting 'I hope the driver dies shitting'. I mean seriously, other than the risk of prosecution, what do they get out of doing it?

We'd done about twenty five miles when the campervan caught us. They were startled at our pace (we would have got further without the puncture!) and we decided to meet up in another twenty miles for some elevenses.

Now three things occurred. Firstly, the level of traffic was beginning to increase appreciably, and continued to do so over the coming hours. Whilst I have said that we were riding in the gutter and therefore quite sheltered from the traffic – most vehicles would still kindly pull over to give us room – it's much less stressful when the traffic is not thundering past6.

Secondly, the area they met us was at probably the highest point in Bodmin Moor7, meaning Stuart and I had a fairly lengthy uphill slog, especially given our recent huge descent. The second twenty miles were nowhere near as fast as the first twenty.

Thirdly, about two hundred yards before we met them, the dual carriageway became single carriageway – at this point we lost our friendly (if grubby) gutter and became directly exposed to traffic.

Mum and Dad, who at the point we turned up were getting extremely anxious, were determined that, after lunch, we would be getting off the A30 as quickly as possible, riding through central Bodmin and on to the campsite by quieter roads.

We just had to get past two and a half miles of single carriageway first.

The long highway

We waited for what seemed like a decent gap before going. We set off and soon began the descent off the moor. One mile passed quickly since the descent was quite steep. Another half mile and the road began to climb for a short, yet interminably long section. Where was the traffic?

A single car passed us.

We crested the hill and began to descend again. The road flattened out and once more our speed began to drop, yet still no hint of any more cars behind us.

We rejoined the dual carriageway, relieved and confused. Within two hundred yards a tractor passed us, along with a slew of frustrated vehicles.

I love tractors.

The ride through Bodmin was memorable mostly for the steep (15%) descent into town. About half way down, riding in a fairly decent sized cycle lane (at least, we thought it was), I spied what looked like some fairly flat cobbles approaching quite quickly.

They turned out to be projecting about three or four inches from the road surface. There followed a screamed warning to Stuart and a hasty bunny-jump onto the unexpected obstacle. Stuart, marginally forewarned, dodged to the side with millimetres to spare.

We arrived at the campsite, several (mostly uphill) miles the other side of Bodmin. It took a lot of head scratching, some smart phone searching and local people asking to find8, but we turned up to find a tiny, quiet site well off the beaten track. The campervan turned up minutes after us. We set up, with the help of the elderly owners – who extremely kindly let us stay for free!

One of the many pleasures of the journey awaited us later that night. For Mum and Dad, that came in the shape of Karina and Harald9, Karina being a colleague from Dads time as a chocolate scientist. For Stuart and I, it was our friends Lynzi, Dan, Emma, Blane, Jan, Andrew, Jamie and Ruth10. There followed an extremely enjoyable evening at the pub, sampling the local ales11, a pub meal and more importantly the company of friends!

Lynzi, Dan, Blane and Jan storm the play castle at the pub
We were all happy to see friends we have not seen in what felt like an age12, and can only apologise if we were somewhat shattered that night. A dawn start, with another one coming tomorrow, does not always help when the clock goes past nine!

(I'd also like to say sorry at this point to Mike Howard who'd bravely agreed to ride over Dartmoor with us. The unfortunate and unforeseen injury to my brothers Achilles effectively put paid to this. I didn't want to subject you to a dawn start and a ride down the A30 which is, even at the best of times, pretty horrid.)

P.S. We are appreciative that Russell had looked up the routes for the final two days to asses the gradients, and even offered to come down and help ride with Stuart and I (despite the fact that he had ridden the hardest ride from Kirkby Stephen to Clitheroe with us previously).

1 Well, I wanted to ride at the crack of dawn. I've been getting used to waking up at 4 in the morning. Others were much less reluctant.

2 Which is surprisingly difficult to wolf down at quarter to six in the morning.

3 Including, but not limited to, big rocks, broken glass, very small stones (what else floats?), chunks of rusting vehicle, bolts, dead things (mostly birds, but the occasional deer or badger – thiiiiiis big!) and unidentified items that were routinely referred to as 'something' when trying to warn Stuart, tucked in just behind me and therefore unable to see much, to dodge. At some point I'll have to try and explain the various hand signals we use – most simple, but some overly complicated and liable to provoke gales of laughter.

4 Judging by the pathetic sound of the horn, I honestly thought we were being overtaken by a flock of ducks.

5 Murphys law is a pain in the bum.

6 It also makes it much more dangerous crossing junctions. This is the single most dangerous bit of riding on a dual carriageway, since for the period you spend crossing one lane exiting or entering the road you are completely exposed. There was a lot of looking over shoulders as Stuart and I made damn sure we were as safe from idiots as possible. Remember, the more traffic, the more idiots.

7 After thirteen and a half days, over nine hundred miles in the saddle, welcome to Cornwall!

8 The small farm track, off the narrow country lane, that we were supposed to turn up didn't have the tiniest mention of the campsite contained within.

9 And in the shape of the two home-made cakes that came with them. But that is another (tasty) story.

10 The later two had kindly dropped in to see us the previous night.

11 Well, naturally!

12 And look forward to seeing friends and family who could not make it out for various reasons.

Day 15 – Belowda to Lands End – THE END (by Stuart)

Finally it has come to that time in our epic adventure from the top to the bottom (west-ish) that we would eventually come to the finish. When it comes to this part of the journey you inevitably reflect on the journey behind us and it's start some 1000 miles of roads to the rear. Our (not so grand) departure from John O'Groats, only two weeks previously seems a much longer time ago that it actually is. (Incidentally I say not so grand departure as it was just the four of us, and John O'Groats really has little to offer).

We are all of the opinion that we have been extremely lucky in terms of the weather, after having four fabulous days in Scotland, only three genuinely wet days and what looks like a superb finish. Yesterday was clear blue skies, and the forecast for today was no different. In fact we have been so lucky that if we had done this journey the other way round, leaving Lands End two week ago and arriving at John O'Groats today we would probably have been rained on every single day. As it is on Day 15 it's torrential up there at the top!

We have been quite lucky too in other areas, only suffering one major mechanical (Alex needing a new chainset in Bridgwater), and barely a handful of minor ones, (two punctures, one yesterday (thank you Jamie), our cycle computers giving up the ghost, and an errant saddle pack that fell off my bike while we were in the midlands). We also only really got seriously lost once, but with the wonders of modern technology, my smart phone, we managed to find our way back on route with only a half a mile added on to our trip.

I would like to say that we have been lucky physically too, although personally I can't vouch much luck for myself in this area. After suffering suspect rubbing since Fort William to Luss, which actually turned out to be tendonitis in my Achilles on my left ankle, effectively meant that I had to ride from Delamere Forest almost one-legged. Alex on the other hand will be binning his saddle when he gets home in favour of a newer more comfy one, whereas I will be seeing a physio.

And of course I reflect back on the enormous support that we have received throughout this adventure, in the run up to and throughout. Some people managed to make it out to see us (and even a few who rode with us), and of course those friends that were there to see us finish, but there are so many more who have really made this ride special, you all deserve our eternal gratitude.

So to the ride then, how was the final day?

As before we had to minimise the damage on my ankle so we would carry on where we left yesterday and ride down the A30, meaning another early start. We were up before the sun had even had a chance to shine it's first rays down onto the campsite (currently obscured by the hills to the west). The view was another pleasant surprise, as not a cloud could be seen in the sky, and any wind at this stage seemed mercifully non-existent.

After a breakfast of simple toast, not the same hearty breakfast like yesterday, it was time to go. Alex left with the same amount of gear as yesterday owing to the early morning cold, but I decided to dispense with some of the warmer clothing. It was a bit raw for the first few miles, but I knew as soon as I was on the A30 we would heat up quickly like we did yesterday. Brave you might say but a good call I think. As soon as the sun was on our backs, the temperature began to skyrocket.

The final depart

The A30 was also thankfully a lot quieter than yesterday, owing to the fact we were much further down in Cornwall now, and it being the quiet of a Sunday morning. After a steep climb up the slip-road, we adopted the same position as yesterday riding down the gutter to the side, with me paying close attention to the warnings from Alex in front. I would like to point out that those v-shaped concrete drainage gutters you sometimes get at the side of the road are somewhat fun to ride up and down the sides of!

After ascending and descending the mercifully gentle gradients of the A30 for the first twenty miles we came across something we did not expect. On the portion of dual carriageway that runs to the north of Redruth, we encountered some of the flattest riding we have had the pleasure to ride on in England (yes in hilly Cornwall). For some reason this part of the carriageway seemed to have cut straight through the hills rather than going over them, and remained perfectly flat for the best part of three miles. Even the Somerset Levels had some bridges to climb over!

We eventually descended to a lay-by to meet the van just short of Hayle on the north coast for our first planned stop for hot chocolate and, well... more chocolate. The time was 10am. Good progress you could say. Our friends back in Bodmin had probably only just finished their breakfast! From this point on Mum and Dad kept in touch with with everyone back on Bodmin as they would have to hit the A30 pronto, otherwise Alex and I could beat them to Lands End.

10 miles to go...

We were so far ahead that we agreed to stop again only 8 miles down the road in the Tesco at Penzance to allow people to catch us up. After a break of coke and scotch eggs, the first cars caught us up meaning that Alex and I could hit the last 10 miles of our adventure. They wouldn't be that fun mind, as the A30 veers off around Penzance and remains hilly for the last 7 miles where it eventually gently drops downhill to its terminus at the top of a cliff (and a somewhat bizarre collection of café's and amusements).

The outlook here is so much different to the north coast of Scotland. Here there are trees and hedges and lots of houses, whereas the top is remote open moreland. As the sun beat down on us, Alex and I attacked the final ten miles buoyed with the optimism of our destination being so close. I managed to push heavily through my right leg and Alex and I were riding on average about 15mph for the last 10 miles. As a result of this we managed to take our welcoming party a bit by surprise.

Within the last 3 miles the hills gradually descend down, and all Alex and I can see ahead of us is a deep blue sea before us signalling the end of our journey. As we ride through Sennan we can see the road heading straight for the tourist buildings at Lands End. As we ride through the gates we are ordered to stop by Mum, so we can wait for her to run to the finish line where our welcoming crew await. It's barely fifty yards away and we can see the finish line.

Our wonderful support crew

There here... quick... run!!

Somewhat unexpectedly we can also see a ribbon held across it, and everyone is holding cameras, party blowers and poppers at the ready. A heroes welcome (sorry Lynzi I should have known). We cross the line in style, well one of us anyway, Alex took the ribbon full in the face much to the mirth of everyone who turned up to welcome us.

At the finish

And so we were here, and much to the bemusement of all the tourists we held an awards ceremony in front of the building at Lands End where Alex, Mum, Dad and I are awarded with medals and trophies, and Alex and I also received a certificate put together by Emma. We brought bottles of bubbly, which Alex and I opened letting the corks fly (although we didn't shower it around, it was our full intention to drink it).

Receiving our medals

Lands End welcoming committee

Certificates at the finish

All together again... and such a fantastic day

We had the charity pots at the ready, and Lynzi and Emma wasted no time in persuading plenty of tourists to cough up their loose change for our cause. As the cameras flashed Alex and I felt like we were pros that had won a big race. All good things come to an end mind you, and we had to bid farewell to our welcoming party as they had to head home that afternoon, leaving us to get settled down in the campsite a mile down the road where we would be staying tonight.

In the quiet of the afternoon we eventually heard from The Violet Beast (aka Jess, Cath and Sedge the bear). Alas it seems that bad-luck (mostly in the form of a decidedly miserable station master whom they referred to as Mr Arse), had be-fallen them in the last few days of their adventure. Violet was on its last legs, and they only had one operable gear. After suffering a shredded tyre they limped to the railway station at Lostwithiel  in the hope that they could catch a train to Penzance and possibly ride (or walk even) the last 10 miles. The station master put the final nail in the coffin forbidding them taking Violet on the train despite First Great Westerns policy of allowing bikes on their trains. They abandoned Violet in the trust of some locals, and carried on with a ceremonious wheel and saddle.

The campervan came to the rescue again, picking them up from Penzance station. Upon arrival at Lands End, Alex and I rode alongside as Jess and Cath who ran to the finish line holding the wheel and saddle, and we had a chance to re-enact the same finish Alex and I experienced earlier, although admittedly with much less fanfare (although I'm pleased to say more bubbly was involved).

Running for the finish (and partly running from the bus)

Alex, Jess, Cath and Stuart...

...and not forgetting Sedge the bear

We had a chance to catch up on the tales from both our adventures, but Mum and Dad had to take them back to Penzance where they were booked on a 5.30 train out, thus leaving Alex and I to ride back to the campsite (yes you heard me, crossing the finish line was not the end of this trips cycling).

After enjoying a pub meal and some local beers (yes I know, more beer, get over it), and the company of Andrew (who has booked some extended holiday down in Cornwall), the final day had finally come to an end. We awoke Monday morning to the sound of rain hammering down onto our tent, a stark contrast to the brilliantly sunny weather on Sunday.

With Andrew at The First and Last Inn

And our own celebrations back at the van

As I write this we are just passing Bristol on the A30 on the way home. The ride might be over but we are not quite finished yet. There is still the promise of more donations, and we have to arrange sending all the money we have received on the road to Parkinson's UK, so our figure will rise yet. So in closing I would just like to say a huge thank you to everyone who has got involved with this, and making this an unforgettable adventure.



Additional thanks/comments from Alison and Geoff (by Alison)

What has come out of this fund raising adventure is re-kindling the friendships of people and relations who we seem to have lost contact with over the last few years. Since hearing about the boys epic ride we have met or put dates in the diary to meet up with past friends. We are so pleased to now be in contact with you again.

Initially we had intended thanking personally all those who donated towards the boys epic ride. The scale of donations has taken us all by surprise, thus making it impossible to do this. To summarise, however our appreciation to the following:

My sister for being so proactive and to all her family and friends – some who know us and others who do not.

Both Geoff and my family members scattered in the UK, Ireland and down under including my Aunt Vera and my parents.

Geoff's friends and ex/current work colleagues.

My friends and ex/current work colleagues and the generous donation from Blazer Mills Solicitors.

Alex's friends and work colleagues, and the generous donation pledged by Johnson Matthey. Thanks also go to Lynzi for being so proactive and the awesome amount that Alex's friends/work colleagues contributed.

Stuart's friends and work colleagues, particularly Majestic Inverness, Giffnock and Taunton. Also thanks to Emma's contribution and her family.

To those people who we met on the way down and those that donated in the charity pots on the boys arrival at Lands End. Also thanks to the Crask Inn, The Springvale Hotel, Cressfield Caravan Park Ecclefechan, Green Caravan Park Wentnor and Higher Trenoweth Camping Site Belowda.

To those that donated anonymously.

To Ruth, Russell (who rode with the boys) and their son Alasdair and Edmund (who also rode with the boys on a very wet day) and to John and Viv for coming across to visit us.

To Karina and Harald, Lynzi and Dan, Jamie and Ruth, Andrew, Jan, Blane, and Emma who took the time to journey down to visit us and form the Lands End welcoming committee and who gave us the most amazing end to the trip.

Oh and thank you Liz and Geoff, for looking after the house and for the cake you left us on our return!

And lastly how can we even begin to try and thank our two sons who have spent the best part of the year training for the ride and then undertaking 15 days of continual riding in conditions that at times were not very pleasant. We are blessed to have you as sons.

The end...

Friday, 11 May 2012

Day 13

Day 13 – Woolavington to Crockernwell, the amended route (by Alex)

It was apparent after our soggy foray into the Mendips that taking Stuart over any more savage gradients was just going to increase the probability of him being unable to complete the ride. Unfortunately, if you are looking for counties to ride through that offer little in the way of challenging hills, Devon and Cornwall (especially Cornwall) probably rank very near the bottom – and this is considering the entire UK. Pretty much everyone who has ridden Lands End to John O'Groats (or John O'Groats to Lands End, for that matter) would agree that the most vicious riding is in the section we now have to ride over.

So in the somewhat subdued atmosphere last night – with the rubbish weather and hard riding, yesterday was probably the lowest point of the whole ride1 – we decided that we would have to undergo some major course corrections and see how things progressed.

The course originally had us roughly parallelling the M5 – passing through Bridgwater, Cullompton and Crediton – using largely minor roads on our way to our current campsite on the north east edge of Dartmoor. Unfortunately, having ridden these roads earlier in the year, I knew that they were probably going to be too savage for our current fitness2.

Depart day 13 - when will this rain end?

Our decision to follow the route into Bridgwater was only partly decided by the first major mechanical of the tour – after a good five years use, my non-drive side crank3 was completely shot, precipitating a visit to the cycle shop in Bridgwater. For the princely sum of 130 English pounds4 I got a new crank set, which was affixed to my bike on the streets of Bridgwater by our fantastic chief mechanic (Dad).

Chief mechanic to the rescue!

After this point, though, Stuart and I deviated from the route. For the first time since Scotland, we followed major a-roads for a significant distance.

To start, we picked up the A38, heading through Taunton – this turned out to be a happy coincidence, since it allowed us for the first time on route to cycle past a Majestic Wine Warehouse [Stuart - see below]. We continued following the A38, leading into the A361, into Tiverton5. We then joined the A396 going south into Bickleigh, where we met the support crew for a well deserved lunch stop. To this point, the roads had been mercifully flat6, even if they were somewhat busier than we had been getting used to. We were actually managing to average more than 10 mph!

The sun is out again - so spirits are clearly on the rise

From this point, though, Devon reasserted itself with a vengeance. The A3072 to Crediton announced itself with a 15% climb to the top of the hills, and from that point on the route could not be described as anything other than updulating. Speeds dropped, and the wisdom of diverting to the a-roads became apparent.

Our progress wasn't exactly helped by a pretty steady headwind – a 20mph wind from the west is not the most accommodating for a westbound rider – but the sunshine and warmer temperatures certainly helped to raise our spirits.

We arrived to the the campsite to be met by Mum, Dad, John and Viv - John being a colleague of Dad in his days as a chocolate scientist. The beer that awaited us was almost as appreciated as the company. Every person who joins us on route has played an integral part, whether bolstering spirits, or helping us with the riding (and thereby bolstering spirits too!).

Today, Devon, tomorrow . . . the world!

The day got better when two of my friends from work, Ruth and Jamie Savage, unexpectedly dropped in to join us for a beer and a sausage. It's a taster of what is to come tomorrow, when we ride - albeit along the A30 - to Belowda, destination of the penultimate nights camping and a large gathering of friends.

Bring on Cornwall!

1 Given our very low spirits, we are eternally grateful to Edmund for coming to ride with us. He gave us a much needed lift in the morale.

2 And they pale into insignificance when compared to the next two days, taking in Dartmoor and the brutally hard northern coast of Cornwall.

3 That's the bit that holds the pedal on the side that doesn't have the chain . . .

4 I'm saving the Scottish pounds. They look pretty, and it's fun to see the reaction of shopkeepers when I hand them over.

5 A very pretty town, familiar to me from the wedding over the Easter weekend. I was grateful not to be riding over a 25% hill this time!

6 Well, flat compared to the alternative. Between a busy 6% gradient and a quiet 14% gradient, there's no contest as to which we would chose at the moment.

[Additional from Stuart

Many thanks to the team at Majestic Taunton where I had the chance to stop for a break and help Mum and Dad choose the booze that we need for the finish (including the Champagne). After three miserable days it was a big boost to see some familiar faces (and a very smiley one at that). The sun has finally come out and I'm feeling pretty good again. I know I will make the finish now!

Stocking up at Majestic Taunton


Thursday, 10 May 2012

Day 10 to Day 12

Day 10 – Delamere to Wentnor, a day of days (by Stuart)

Well it was a day of days, but for the wrong reasons. Firstly we all were a might concerned the previous night over predictions of gale force winds hitting the south-west the day we would be riding over the Severn Bridge. Also, I didn't quite realise that the tweet that I sent at the first rest stop today would create quite such concern (for which I am grateful).

I awoke this morning, to find that the persistant ache that I had since the 107 mile ride to Luss (which I originally put down to my shoe rubbing which actually seemed like it was getting better), was now a lot more painful, but also a lot more worryingly, I could feel the Achilles Tendon creaking in it's sheath. Not a good sign indeed.

This, I hope, doesn't tar the final days of the ride too much, as there is no hope for a quick recovery throughout the ride. Damaged tendons can take months to heal, and if severe I could be looking at up to 6 months off the bike once this ride is over. Still I am not about to climb off the bike, because I damn well owe it to all those who have donated and support us on this endeavour. So naturally the thoughts turn to damage mitigation.

After a depressing few minutes when the reality of the situation sinks in, we realise that it's possible to continue, although I would have to take things easy from now on. No more fun on the descents, no more attacking hills with gusto, and much slower average speeds. That and Ibuprofen, Tiger Balm, and massages.

We lowered my saddle, to reduce me over-stretching my ankle (and the leg as a whole), and I also donned two pairs of socks, to provide some additional support and to raise my foot slightly. After the previous nights heavy rain (of which I'm pleased to say our tent has passed the water-proofing test), we set off into sunshine and patchy cloud. Alex set off leading the way, which looks like he will be doing most of the way now.

Getting ready to go...

...although I'm a bit fed up

We were riding barely in excess of 10mph, so it was going to be a slow day. A few unforgiving hills were thrown at us early on, so I just had to go into the lowest gear possible and 'sit and spin' the pedals. After about 8 miles, we were dismayed to come across a road closure, which added in a little under a mile to our ride for the day. Not long after that we came accross a 'mooving' road block. A local farmer had decided to move a herd of cows from one field to another, but it did involve walking them down the road for about a mile, and we could do nothing but wait. Still it did prove amusing seeing the looks on the faces of oncoming drivers as numerous tons of moving beef herded around their cars.

Still not to mince my words, and burger up a good story, I'd better get steak back to the point, before someone udderly hoofs me in the face (sorry, Alex and I were coming out with these one-liners for the next 10 miles). We eventually arrived in Malpas after about 20 miles and met up with Mum and Dad for a hot chocolate and muffin (and Ibuprofen) break.

Just what the doctor ordered

Lunch was another 20 miles down the road, not far from Shrewsbury, which Alex and I made another couple of hours later. After dusting down the tiny caterpillars that seemed to be all over our clothing, we were allowed into the van for pasties and drinks. The final 20 miles would see us ride into the hills to Wentnor, not far from Church Stretton.

As rides go this one was one of the least taxing, but we did know that there would be a nasty climb with five miles to go to the campsite. Sure enough it attacked with excruciatingly steep gradients, which would rise for over a mile. I tried to keep pedaling, but the gradients became too steep to stay seated on the saddle. Normally riders would stand up and push at this point, but as I did pain raced up my ankle and I had to get off and walk the rest of the way to the top. Alex, who was ahead of me at the time hesitated with the sound of my unclipping pedals. He too was forced to stop, and as the gradient was too steep to start riding again from a standstill, he also had to walk with me to the top.

Thankfully the remainder of the ride was mostly downhill, or according to the route sheets described as 'gently' undulating, so it was a pain free ride to the camp where we found Mum and Dad sat in the sun chairs with a distinctly beer looking drink (which they claim was coca cola). We are clean, have had lunch, and are about to go to the pub which is by the entrance to the campsite, where I will no doubt sink a couple of draft pints of medicin.

Look... it's an eagle!

Chocie drink over it's time for a beer!

And sadly lacking in any pictures, Mum the head chef enjoying a glass of wine

I'm really touched by some of the support and concern that some people have shown today when they have found out about my predicament. I refuse to consider climbing off the bike until we have reached Lands End, but naturally I'm going to need all the help I can get! Thanks again, and I will look forward to riding in and seeing everyone at the end!


Day 11 – Wentnor to Monmouth, Croeso y Cymru (by Alex)

Firstly, I would like to apologise in advance. This blog may contain swearwords, but I will keep them to an appropriate minimum.

As you may have figured out by this point, yesterday caused a bit of a seismic shift in our way of thinking. Previously, with the exception of one or two very hard days, we had been happily tapping along at an average of about 14-15 mph. Now, we are looking at 10-11 as a realistic average. This has increased substantially the time we are riding each day. This has led to a substantial increase in the time taken to finish each day.

It would be disingenuous to say that Stuart is not the one suffering the most. I cannot imagine the pain he is riding through, both physically and mentally. It puts my sore bum quite solidly in perspective (uncomfortable though it may be). Our goal remains getting to the finish, though with the added clause of getting there with Stuarts achilles tendon in as good shape as possible.

Again, apologies. This will be a slightly technical bit.

When riding, the person in front is putting in more effort than the person behind. This can be up to 30% (or more) effort, dependent on the wind and the cycling speed. Usually, riders will swap over to make sure no-one is putting in too much effort (unless they are feeling particularly evil). Now, in order to ensure Stuart does not put in too much work, I will be riding in front as much as feasible. This is not exactly helped by the fact my speedometer has decided to have a major hissy fit, so I have no idea how fast I am going, or how far it is to the next decision point on our route cards1. I'm having to do a lot of the riding purely by feel.

I'm therefore riding on the flat and the downhills on the front, trying to cut through the wind for Stuart. On the hills, it's a lot more tricky, since Stuart is essentially cycling with one leg, something I cannot easily replicate. I'm trying to match his pace up the hills, but it is difficult. Hills are very much a personal world of pain. As much as anything, I'm trying to match speed to ease his mental pain on the hills.

Anyway, enough of the maudlin stuff. What happened today?

The site last night in Wentnor was great, with a good pub a short walk away2. We set off after a leisurely breakfast for a 70 mile ride to Monmouth, through Shropshire and Herefordhsire into Monmouthsire – we finish the day in Wales for the first time!

Chief mechanic readies the bikes

And off go the riders

The day started with a few nasty climbs3, but they gradually lessened as we worked our way south. It's unusual seeing flat land in England – people are probably going to hate me for saying this but generally Scotland is much better at making roads flat. They avoid hills!

At about 27 miles – hot chocolate and some more of the rapidly disappearing Dundee cake lovingly supplied by Emma. As we sit in the campervan, the first spits of rain start tracing their way across the windscreen. Stuart and I are taking no chances, so we don waterproofs. This turns out to be an extremely good call.

Arriving at the first rest break

Lunch is at 50 miles. At this point, the rain is heavier and hasn't stopped. Mum puts towels and plastic sheets on the chairs in the campervan to stop us plastering mud around the place – emminently sensible, given the state of us. There are muddy puddles all over the place and the rivers and streams are very swollen. It's nice to be back in England. After a cup of soup and a sandwich, it's time to get back out into the cold and the wet. Our only consolation is that it is mercifully calm on the wind front, though we are fully expecting that to change over the coming days.

We leave, with seventeen miles to go until we get to the final tea stop. It starts to rain harder and the hills begin to get steeper. One of our few joys is spotting the odd town names and changing them to suit our mood4. It hasn't stopped raining when we arrive for tea, so once again the towels are placed as Stuart and I make our soggy arrival for a much needed cup of tea and an Eccles cake5.

Final break stop... two decidedly soggy riders

And off they go into the rain

We leave to face the last 16 miles in the rain. At some point, we cross over into Wales, our only welcome being a few soggy sheep sheltering under whatever trees they can find. The rain gets steadily harder and the hills steeper and bigger – at some points we are essentially cycling up streams on our cycle into Wales. A flavour of our conversation can be summed up thus:

'They call this character building weather.'
'I've got enough fucking character, thanks.'
'Soul destroying weather is more like it.'

The weird thing is, we've been pretty lucky. In eleven days riding, this is by a long margin the wettest day – and only one of three that we have got truly wet so far.

By the time we squelch up to the campsite it's half five. Mum and Dad kindly give us an energy recovery drink, then we stagger to the showers. We're so wet I don't even bother stripping off my clothes6 before getting in the showers. Soon though, we are clean, warm and changed, and more improtantly we have a beer.

Croeso y Cymru7, indeed!

1 Leaving us with the interesting situation. I have the trip notes in a holder on my handlebars, but no speedo. Stuart has a speedo, but no trip notes handy and a buggered ankle. Truly, it's the blind leading the crippled – or is that the crippled leading the blind?

2 Not necessarily the best for getting an uninterrupted nights sleep, but I'm getting used to it.

3 At this point, any gradient above 0% for longer than 3 metres (or until the momentum runs out) is being viewed as a bastard.

4 Brampton Bryan started a litany of Family Guy quotes – either that or was known as Brampton Bryan Blessed! Weobley Marsh became Wobbly Marsh. Kings Pyon – was that Kings Peon or Kings Pyon! As for Willey – where do you come from? I come from . . . puerile, but necessary!

5 We were meant to meet with Graham from JM, but sadly he missed us in the rain and had to leave for another appointment. Not the best weather to meet two cyclists, but we are nonetheless gutted.

6 Well, I at least took my shoes off.

7 To add to that, the signal monster that seems to hover around Wales meant that my phone had no signal for most of the day.

Day 12 - Monmouth to Woolavington, Stuart fights on still... (by Stuart)

Today marked a fairly huge milestone in my books, as it would see us depart Wales and cross back into England again via the M48 crossing over the old Severn Bridge. After yesterdays heavy rain we could have done with a good day today, but alas as we sat eating our breakfast the rain began to hammer down again on the roof of the van. That and the ache that persists in my ankle did little to raise my spirits.

A somewhat subdued depart

We set off earlier this morning as there were concerns with winds speeds picking up in the afternoon on the Severn Bridge. Leaving the campsite we turned left, and rode into the centre of Monmouth, where we promptly got lost. After a bit of head-scratching we managed to find our way through and followed the main road down in to Chepstow.

This road followed the Wye Valley, and we hoped, looking at the map that it would be level all the way to Chepstow. Alas this was not to be, as after Tintern the road began to climb up higher and higher up the valley side which left Alex and I fuming (you see the roads in Scotland follow the rivers and lochs by the contour, not in England and Wales it seems). We eventually dropped down in to Chepstow and were faced with another hill, the climb up onto the Severn Bridge!

Riding across the bridge, vans eye view

Riding in for our first break... in England

Not many people I'm sure can say that they get the opportunity to cycle along the edge of a huge suspension bridge. Still the riding along the bridge wasn't too difficult as the wind was coming from the side, and not as fierce as we thought (as two days ago we were forecast gale-force winds). After a hot-chocie and cake break in Olveston (very good bakery) on the other side of the bridge, after setting off Alex and I promptly got lost again, and somewhat frustratingly threw in a pointlessly big climb that was not on our planned route. 

We then had to traverse the Industrial edges of Bristol before enduring a windy slog over the Avonmouth Bridge. We eventually met up with Dad near Chew Stoke, where we would be riding with our second guest rider of the trip, Edmund, a close friend of the family. Somewhat bravely he had decided to join us just before we rode up into the Mendip Hills, and also somewhat depressingly into the rain. 

After several soggy miles of descent, I'm pleased to say that the only time I had to stop was for Edmund to rescue his errant Mars Bars that fell out of his pocket! After a lunch stop in the van we set off to enjoy the long descent through Cheddar Gorge. As the roads were wet, Alex and I had to go carefully, but we still managed to knock up speeds of over 30mph, and had fun flicking across the road from bend to bend. Edmund on the other hand was having a lot less fun than we were, and rapidly disappeared off the back.

About to descend the gorge!

The trio arrive together

And thanks to Edmund for joining us today!

The final 10 miles would see us ride across the Somerset levels, which we thought after Cheddar there would be no more hills, but somewhat cruelly there were still a few steep little climbs to do before we got to the campsite. We are now just about to go to the pub for food and some liquid medicine. I've had a massage and my ankle looked to, but the tendon has become quite inflamed so we may have to do some route altering over the next few days to try and cut out as many steep hills as possible, but this will inevitably result in us riding on busier roads. I'm not quite at the point of climbing of the bike, but I'm not far away so I'm taking each day as it comes. 

Here's hoping Alex gets to ride in to Lands End with his brother alongside!


P.S. Sorry it's not the best of articles, but I've understandably been feeling a bit down the last few days!

Monday, 7 May 2012

Day 08 to Day 09

Day 08 – a not very easy Kirkby Stephen to Clitheroe (by Stuart)

Last night was the last chance where we had the pleasure of a proper bed, before this ride is over anyway. We had a great time in Kirkby Stephen at Ken and Barbara's B&B, and had the chance to enjoy a curry, and a wondrous draft beer in the pub! The problem with Scotland is it's very difficult to get a decent draft beer, whereas in England, there are plenty of real ale pubs, so it was a relief to finally whet our appetites with good beer.

Both Alex and I took the opportunity this morning to fuel up on a full English breakfast, one of the delights of B&B's. Today was going to be a tough ride so we would need the food, but also today marked a few milestones. We have crossed the half way mark in terms of mileage, but would also be the first day where we would have visitors!

We were joined by Ruth and Russell (and their son Alisdair), my Father's sister and brother-in-law (I'm under pain of death to not use the 'a' and 'u' words!) They arrived early enough in the morning, and the plan was for Russell to ride with us, whilst Ruth would follow with Alisdair in their van accompanying Mum and Dad in theirs.

After several worried text messages the day before, we are sure that Russell is relieved that he wouldn't be left behind by Alex and I, but more the opposite. While we are younger and arguably fitter, we have 500 miles behind us so are a lot more tired. Russell has no need to worry about us riding quickly, so in fact he had the task of 'domestique', a term applied to professional cycling where a rider provides the work throughout the day, and those behind have an easier ride for the finish. We would need it. Still I'm of the opinion (at the end of the day), that Russell might have picked an easier day, as this one turned out to be the most strenuous day yet.

Day 08 depart - but there are three of them!

So it is only a 54 mile ride today. Easy right? No. The route took us out of Kirkby Stephen and up the valley following the route of the Settle and Carlisle Railway. Almost straight away Russell was introduced to undulations, or should I say updulations, that much hated word that Alex and I invented. The route took us towards Garsdale Head and on to Hawes, and then turning off (just before Hawes), to follow the B6255 uphill to the Ribblehead Viaduct.

The Ribblehead Viaduct - I was hoping to see a train on it, but alas it was not to be

Nearby Ruth and Alisdair stand poised with the cameras waiting for us to arrive

Lo and behold... here they are!

The cycling, despite being very hilly, wasn't that bad for the first half of the day. The climbs up to the Ribblehead Viaduct were long, but mercifully not that steep. We arrived at the pub by the viaduct where we all agreed to meet for a break. This was supposed to be the place of fabled pork and black pudding pies, but alas we were all dismayed to find they didn't have any (despite it being a bank holiday weekend). We were also dismayed that they wouldn't agree to serve food, even though it was not that long before noon.

Alisdair deduces that the weather is.... sunny!

After a tea and a thumbs down we left, to enjoy a fast descent down to Ingleton. From there it was across to High Bentham, and ascend the long and relentless climb up on to the moor at a height of 427 meters. The road gave no chance for a break, being steep right from the beginning, and every time you had a chance to get some sort of rhythm on the gentler bits, the gradient would ramp up again and again.

Russell was starting to tire, as he began to drop behind as we approached the top, which rather cruelly is where the road is steepest. We met up with the vans at the top for a hot chocolate and cake break. We were within 15 miles of our destination, but we still had three more tough climbs, so it would not be an enjoyable finish.

We all got to enjoy the first descent, a technical single track road with plenty of twists and turns, but I still managed to knock up a top speed of 43mph. On the way up the penultimate hill just after Slaidburn on the B6478, a 16% goit, we had the pleasure of being shouted at by an impatient road user, who promptly was offered three sets of fingers and orders to foxtrot oscar! Dropping down the other side into Newton, the road turns left and launches us at the feet of the final whopper which rises up near to Bradford Fell, a long way from where it started, before descending towards Clitheroe. Russell sadly was dropping back, but managed to get to the top where Alex and I were waiting. From this point on it was downhill all the way to Clitheroe.

Still we didn't get to enjoy the descent all the way as we had to pay attention and pull off half way down near Waddington near to this evenings campsite. You could imagine our despair if we had got carried away and descended all the way down, only to climb two miles back up again to get back to the campsite!

The trio finally arrives at the campsite

With the ride over we had the chance to enjoy a pub meal with our extended family, and joy of joys, a pint of draft Timothy Taylor Landlord, which in our opinion is possibly the worlds best beer! After bidding farewell to Ruth, Russell and Alisdair (who have to drive back that night), we are now winding down in the van. I would have thought that the 107 mile ride we did from Fort William to Luss was the most tiring overall, but I feel that today was the most strenuous. We still have some more big hills tomorrow, but I'm hoping that they will level off as we pass through the built up areas of Manchester and Liverpool (and that the weather isn't as bad as predicted).

Both Alex and I are tired, and the miles are certainly taking their toll. It was however a great pleasure to have some company today, as it certainly helped to keep the spirits up. There are plenty more people who will be joining us over the next few days and we will look forward to seeing all of you.

Thanks to Ruth, Russell and Alisdair for joining us today, we certainly appreciated it! :)


Day 09 - It's grim down south, Clitheroe to Delamere (by Alex)

Today, day nine, we have been cycling south for the best part of 560 miles. We were staying under canvas, our first night in a 7 night stretch, in a place just north of Blackburn. After yesterdays intense day of riding1, it seemed unlikely that we would be going fast today.

It started off well. The sun was shining, with not too much of a breeze. It was cold, but not overly so. Appropriate clothing was donned, and it was time to set off. We knew that the weather was likely to turn colder and possibly wetter later, so I wanted to set off as early as possible – in the end, this turned out to be about half eight2.

Sunny for now

The first couple of miles were easy – they were all downhill. It didn't last long though3 before we were slogging back up hills that seemed no less fearsome than the brutes of the day before. Sure, the height gain may have been less, but the gradients were just as fearsome – rolling hills, how lovely! Just what the tired legs wanted first thing in the morning.

We were just on the fringes of Blackburn when we lost the sunshine, for the whole day as it turned out. We knew it was coming, but it was no less depressing. What was more depressing, though, was the discovery of something we have been incredibly lucky to avoid too much of. Headwinds.

We worked our way through the south-eastern fringes of Blackburn, into the moors to the south, with the wind steadily getting harder and the day steadily getting colder. The fierce hills of earlier in the day actually didn't seem all that bad in hindsight – we hadn't had much of a headwind to contend with.

The low point was probably the climb up from the south of Blackburn to a little place to called Tockholes. Steadily up slope against the wind is never a good thing, especially when you are exposed. It gets very depressing indeed when you are struggling to go faster than fifteen miles per hour whilst going downhill.

We slogged our way onwards, skirting around the edge of the moors whilst battling the headwind. Things began to improve after a hard ten miles of battling when we left the village of Belmont to start a steep one mile climb up and over to Rivington. With our change in direction, the headwind became a tailwind and we found ourselves in the odd situation of going faster4 uphill than we had been going downhill.

There followed a fun descent into the village of Rivington, where Mum and Dad waited to ensure we didn't overshoot the village hall, where tea and cake awaited in the extremely well received Rivington Village Tea Rooms5. Boy did we need the break!

Quick! Stop!!

Tea and cake (or death)

After a short break, Stuart and I made the extremely fortuitous decision to ditch our lighter tops in exchange for waterproofs, warm coverings for our shoes and warmer gloves. It was only a few miles6 to the built up area between Manchester and Liverpool where the more serious route finding could begin.

Then, somewhat predictable, it began to rain. We've gone the majority of Scotland7, all of Cumbria and Yorkshire without getting rained on, and as soon as we get to Manchester it rains.

Fortunately, though the next fifteen miles involved a lot of busy, urban riding. As a result of this they were largely flat and the buildings proved quite effective wind-blocks. Dodging car drivers who seemed intent on cutting us up, navigating busy streets that were completely unknown to us, all under constant rain. It all seemed quite new and exciting8!

Soon we were in Cheshire and suddenly everything looked different. What had happened to the hills? The mountains? It had taken some time, but we were back in flat country. Good news? Maybe not. By leaving the buildings behind, we had nothing to stop the wind. It was back to the same, familiar slog.

It came as somewhat of a relief when we came across the support crew, a few miles after leaving the built up areas behind us. By now, the rain had stopped, but with the piercing wind it was cold enough that Stuart and I decided to keep our waterproofs and thermals on. A brief stop for soup and a bread roll to recharge the batteries, and off we went for the final twenty miles.

The good news, or so it seemed to us as we set off, was that soon we would be swinging towards the west – most of the preceding miles had been (funnily enough) heading south. The wind, which had been pounding us from the south-east, would therefore be behind us for the run in to the campsite!

Yeah, right. Almost as soon as we turned, the wind died down. So much for a tailwind. Instead we had to grind out the last twenty miles, though at least the fearsome headwind had gone. Incidentally, so much for Cheshire being flat. Five miles out from the campsite we met the last big mile climb . The gradient wasn't too bad but after the best part of 630 miles it was most certainly not what the doctor had ordered.

We arrived at the site completely drained. The miles are certainly telling, the hills are unrelenting, the wind and the rain have found us. Welcome to England!

Insert beer here...

...and here

(Incidentally, my mobile phone charger turned out to be in an obvious place. Always is, but tired heads do not always make the best rational decisions.)

1 Stuart and I have cycled in the Alps. After cycling in the Yorkshire dales and the Forest of Bowland, they don't seem all that fearsome any more.

2 On a bank holiday Monday - these cycling types are crazy!

3 These things never do in the UK, with few exceptions. That's one definite advantage of the Alps.

4 Faster, not fast. We were now going at a crawl rather than a virtual standstill.

5 Home cooked cakes and a thoroughly deserved hot chocolate, accompanied with piano music played by a very friendly elderly gentleman who, though interested in talking to us, was as deaf as a post.

6 With a few ubiquitous tough climbs. Honestly, if it was flat, we wouldn't know what to do!

7 I'm going to ignore Dingwall and the brief shower north of Moffat. Artistic licence is a terrible thing.

8 We even had another mechanical – the constant pounding on rough roads shook the screws loose on the bracket that held Stuarts saddle bag to the saddle. All very exciting!