Monday 7 September 2015

Some Reflections After the Event

I spent the week after arriving at John O'Groats visiting friends in the north of the country as I gradually worked my way back to Suffolk. I also used this time to reflect on the Lejog experience. So I thought I would complete the story by sharing some of my reflections. And at the risk of writing what to some might read like a speech at the Oscars!

I was struck by how incredibly lucky I was to be able to ride with 14 other strangers who got on so well together. One of the great joys of cycling is that it is a real leveller - in terms of attitudes and personalities. On a bike everyone is equal no matter whether they are experienced riders or not. We all wanted to enjoy ourselves and share a wonderful experience. Of course there were disagreements and annoyances - but they were all handled with great sensitivity and maturity. When one of the group was under pressure - with a puncture or mechanical, or was just feeling the strain of the ride, others in the group quietly closed ranks to help their colleague through the challenge. Often nothing was said, no recognition was sought. It was just the right thing to do. So to my 14 fellow riders I say 'Chapeau'!

Martyn and Ray provided the back up support for us. A keen rider himself, Martyn never showed any frustration or irritation at having to stop or ride slowly to deal with a complication or issue. He took everything in his stride and then some. And what a route he had planned. I will never forget the ever cheerful Ray who's impromptu diners were a guaranteed pick me up under all circumstances. And the Bettyhill sausage rolls were a stroke of genius! Without Martyn and Ray our tour could not have been the success it was.

I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to see so much of my country in such a short time. And I can definitely say that Britain is indeed a green and pleasant land. There are some new places I found that I will certainly be returning to for another ride. The riding itself was great fun. For me, as an experienced long distance cyclist, it wasn't too hard - with the exception of some of the hills which would challenge anyone, no matter how experienced. I was incredibly lucky too not to have any punctures or major mechanicals - especially considering the pounding my Bianchi took.

I was greatly touched by the fantastic support I received through sponsorship donations to Prostate Cancer UK. I just know that the money raised will be gratefully received and wisely used. I spent a lot of time thinking about people I know who have suffered the disease - many of whom have beaten it through their courage and determination. And I spent some time, a shed a few tears, thinking about friends who are no longer with us - particularly on 'The Lecht Day'. Along the way I received many messages of support and encouragement - from friends and strangers. Opening up my email, Facebook and Strava at the end of each day was a highpoint.

The ride finished with a dinner in Inverness where as a group we all celebrated our achievements and shared a few stories. And the great thing was that nobody took it too seriously. Having fun was the order of business. Rumours that I was sighted in a nightclub at 3am downing a tequila slammer and doing some funky stuff on the dance floor are entirely true!

The day after the ride was a strange one as my legs thought I was playing some cruel mind game when they realised the lycra was not coming out and we weren't going to be riding. In fact having been on such a high it was something of an anticlimax to realise that I didn't have much to do. Well, no riding with friends for a while.

Well, what next? I've had a couple of rides since getting home and my average speed seems to have picked up. So hill climbing definitely has its benefits. I've received lots of positive feedback about my blog so I'm going to keep it going but only on an occasional basis. You can sign up to receive email alerts if you're interested. I've managed to work out that I have a wide readership on at least four continents so that's good for my ego if nothing else.

And on the bike? Well, I've just read a rather good book about riding across America - 3,500 miles. So watch this space ..........  Hahah!

Sunday 30 August 2015

Day 13 – Nowhere Left to Ride

For some in our group, today began at about 1:00am with the Northern Lights. It was as if nature had laid on a spectacular fireworks display to mark our impending achievements. At 6:00am under gradually lightening skies we each slowly began to prepare for our final day of riding. The mood amongst the group was completely different from any previous morning. A confused mixture of emotions – euphoria at the prospect of actually reaching our goal. Sadness at the thought that as a group this might be the last time we would ride together. Apprehension at the prospect of the ride ahead as some of us had been told that it was going to be as hard as anything we had faced so far. But above all, a sense of achievement that both individually and collectively we had each shared a unique experience.

So after the usual hearty breakfast and with relatively little fanfare we loaded our kit into the support van, gave our bikes one final check over, climbed onto our saddles, pushed away, clipped into our pedals and rode off. We headed upwards out of the spectacular natural harbour at Tongue, pausing to help one of our number who had the misfortune to suffer a puncture within the first mile.

The rest of the day passed in a blur – a high speed blur. With a following tailwind we sped along the north coast of Scotland under blue skies. Yet again, nature had provided the most spectacular backdrop for the final day of our adventure. The immense wilderness of yesterday gradually receded behind us, with the massive mountain summits forming a hazy and distant backdrop. But they were still a brooding presence ensuring that we couldn't forget them. We rode down and up through a series of valleys carrying rivers northwards to the sea. The descents were fast, the ascents were sharp but no matter; with nearly 1000 miles in our legs we sped along, often freewheeling with our bikes clicking, clacking and whirring in a sort of avant-garde cyclists symphony.

As we progressed eastwards the countryside took on a more gentle and nurtured appearance as the peat and heather moors transformed into a softer and more cultivated landscape of arable and pastoral agriculture. Wide, straight, open roads, more reminiscent of East Anglia, were the order of the day. The miles were rolling by.

We sped through Thurso in a blur and after a quick discussion we set off for Dunnet Head, the most northerly point in mainland Britain. The few extra miles that this diversion involved were at best a minor consideration. At this point we could have ridden anywhere we chose as we were all on an incredible high. We paused to look out at Stroma, the most southerly of the Orkney Islands. A fierce squall was working its way across the sea – a reminder of the power of nature, and for some of us, a reminder of how lucky we had been with the weather over the  trip.

After a quick photocall we retraced our route which brought us back to the ever smiling Ray and some refreshments. Then in a slightly subdued atmosphere we rode on together for the last time. Before leaving Tongue at the start of the day we had agreed to all meet and pedal into John O’Groats together. And so, we finished as we had started in Land’s End thirteen days ago. Fifteen cyclists, who had come together to ride the length of Britain.

Each of us knew we had shared something that mere words can hardly describe. And now, there was nowhere left to ride.

Miles today 76
Total miles from Land’s End  1016 (+ 17)
Miles to John O’Groats -25

Thursday 27 August 2015

Day 12 – Into the Big Country

Breakfast this morning was an entirely different experience to yesterday. The was lots of chatter and banter. Jokes and bravado as the ‘Lecht experience’ was recounted. Everyone agreed that each of us had left and each of us had taken something from the experience. For me, the climb will always remain as a place that I faced and overcame my demons – with a little help from my friends.

We eased out of Conon Bridge on full stomachs and we hardly noticed the first few gentle climbs. I had the somewhat unique experience of the Dingwall lollipop lady stepping into the road at a junction to stop the traffic and let me through. Back at home in Stanton the lollipop lady unusually takes great delight in stopping me!

Gradually as we rode northwards the countryside opened up and the spectacular Dornoch Firth appeared in front of us. The scenery was spectacular but the best was yet to come. We picked our way along the valley of the beautiful River Shin as far a Lairg where the land opened up on a scale I have never seen elsewhere in Britain. The sheer scale of the landscape almost defies description. Huge sweeping peat and heather moors encompassed by distant mountain ranges made me feel totally insignificant. The good weather meant the views were outstanding.

Gradually we approached the Crask Inn where we stopped for the traditional travellers swift half and a top up at Ray’s Diner. Our halt coincided with a torrential rainstorm so we stayed at the Inn rather longer than intended.

Once the rain had cleared we sped off northwards and amazingly the views got better and better. I took the opportunity to increase the pace a tad and sped off the front of the group to enjoy some of the best riding I have ever experienced along the side of Loch Loyal. All too soon the final climb was upon us and then we swooped down into Tongue – our overnight halt.

I certainly hope to return and ride here again. This has to be one of the best parts of Britain, if not THE very best. For any readers who haven't been here before I can't recommend a visit too highly!

Miles today 79
Total miles from Land’s End  935 (+ 17)
Miles to John O’Groats  51

Day 11 – Friends, Old and New

For the first time since leaving Land’s End, breakfast this morning was a rather subdued event. There was little chatter, just the occasional “good morning” with a sort of grunted reply. Whenever eye contact was made it wasn’t held. Everyone was in their own world, mentally focussing on a point about twenty metres ahead of their front wheel. What brought the group together were eight letters; two words. Two short words – ‘The Lecht’. For today was the climb that everyone had been fearing. Opinions were united that the climb was going to be tough – tougher than anything we had faced so far. But no one could anticipate how hard. So it was a somewhat reluctant peloton that rolled out of Ballater, bound for Conon Bridge 87 miles away.

Simon Warren has this to say about The Lecht in his climber’s bible. “The Lecht can lay claim to being the most formidable-looking climb in Britain, lying like a giant staircase across a barren land, a petrifying slope of tarmac bisecting an empty moor. You know you’re in trouble when a road has a ski station at its summit. In all its glory, laid out before you, the Lecht strikes fear into the heart.”

A short, sharp warm up climb at 20% was the prelude to the main event. Then it was a long steady one mile ascent to the first false summit. A rapid descent through Cock Bridge in the rain brought us to a wall of a climb; the easiest bit was 20%, the hairpin bends were steeper still. This was a climb to dig deep.

The long and not so winding road after the steep bit.
Before leaving this morning I had decided to dedicate today to a couple of friends who are no longer with us. As I climbed I found myself thinking about them and what they would have made of my efforts. What I know is that they were there for me and without them I doubt I could have got to the top. So thank you B and I for your support, help and encouragement. And most of all for pushing me through the temptation to give up.

The descent off The Lecht was fast and furious. Fortunately the heavy rain didn’t start until we reached the bottom. Then it was a case of going full gas to Grantown-on-Spey with raindrops the size of peas rattling off my glasses. At Grantown I met Matthew, the son of old friends, who rode with us all the way to Inverness. I certainly enjoyed his company and it was nice to spend a some time riding with a new companion. All too soon we were in Inverness and then it was a 10 mile solo ride to Conon Bridge, our overnight halt.

So today was a very good day – but for totally different reasons. The best of reasons and the best of friends – old and new, here and gone.

Miles today 87
Total miles from Land’s End  856 (+ 17)
Miles to John O’Groats  130

Tuesday 25 August 2015

Day 10 – A Day in the Mountains

Rather like the Tour de France, today was the first proper day in the mountains. Indeed as we rode northwards I was reminded of the Tour as it approaches the Pyrenees. Okay, we're not talking about the same heights, but the gradients are comparable. As we rolled out of Perth we passed the historic Palace at Scone where Scottish Monarchs have traditionally been crowned. Rab and Davy put me right on my pronunciation - it's Scoon, not Scone. Suitably chastened I decided to listen rather more and talk rather less about the attractions we would pass en route.

Slowly, indeed almost imperceptibly, we climbed from Perth towards Blairgowrie. A following wind meant that we fairly whizzed along. Then leaving Blairgowrie it all changed. A steep climb out of the town, which I vaguely recall is linked to a geological fault line, brought us to Ray’s Diner. After this it was every rider for themselves as we headed towards the Spital of Glenshee and the main climb of the day. A quick photocall followed by a tightening of my shoe fasteners and it was time to choose a low gear and pedal steadily upwards for the next 5 miles. At a maximum of 12% the climb isn't particularly steep but it's length, which as an East Anglian I am not used to, coupled with a headwind, meant that sustaining forward motion was a challenge. Interestingly, as the climb continued the challenge became rather more mental than physical. I rode through the last stretch, the toughest 400 yards I've ridden for a long time, by aiming (mentally and physically) at one snow post after another. The ‘Welcome to Aberdeenshire’ sign was certainly very welcome.

We all regrouped at the Glenshee Ski Centre café for a hot chocolate toast – it was distinctly chilly at the top - and then we clipped into our pedals for the descent. I had hopes of setting a new PB on the descent (my current PB stands at 54.2mph) but unfortunately the stiff headwind put paid to that. A real shame since this is a fabulous descent with wide open roads, sweeping bends and excellent visibility for oncoming traffic. Sheep are the only real hazard. So, maybe I'll have to return. Or maybe not!

We dropped into the Dee Valley pausing for a brief top up at the Braemar branch of Ray’s Diner and then we swept along. I did phone ahead to Balmoral to see if we could call in for a cuppa but unfortunately HMQ was out walking her corgis.

Along the way we engaged in a few mind games with a couple of local riders who had the temerity to overtake us – we let them have their moment of glory and then left them for dust. All too soon we were freewheeling into Ballater and looking for our base for the night.

If I had to sum up today in one word – “Stupendous” – would be the word!

Miles today 67
Total miles from Land’s End  769 (+ 17)
Miles to John O’Groats  217

Monday 24 August 2015

Day 9 – Across Another Very Big Bridge

Today looked like being a relatively easy day’s riding so we decided to take it easy. Well it would have been rude not to! A leisurely roll out of Peebles through some gentle countryside soon brought us to the outskirts of Edinburgh. The only incident of note was that the group claimed I jumped a red light. I'm sure it was green; but on reflection the green may have been for pedestrians. PC Brown, who I am sharing a room with, is going to give me an official caution this evening.

A quick vote and we elected to stop for a coffee at the first café we saw. This turned out to be at the Hillend Ski Centre. Now those readers who know it can probably guess what comes next. A hill. But not any old hill. A very steep hill. So steep that before reaching the café the road transforms itself into a staircase. Undeterred we pedalled onwards. By common consent the gradient was the steepest since leaving Land’s End. Hannah, one our group and who didn't join us for coffee, offered to talk to me. She's a mental health nurse. Oh, and by the way, the coffee was unremarkable.

We then skirted round the western fringes of Edinburgh, which having lived in the city was interesting for me - how much has changed. Before long we were whizzing into South Queensferry with the iconic rail and road bridges providing the backdrop for the day’s main photocall. Then we rode across the road bridge which was a spectacular experience – all the more so because the sun was shining so the views were outstanding.

We were soon in Fife and Ray’s Diner was up and running. After refuelling on some excellent mini chilli pasties, a banana, some malt loaf and a handful of jelly babies (for mental comfort you'll understand) we were off again. We then had a mini diplomatic incident, involving a road closure and a pavement, some temporary fencing, two very vocal pensioners and a Scottie dog. There are certain words and phrases that transcend the barriers of language and culture. I'm guessing that we won't be receiving an invitation to come back to Kinross. Once international relations were restored we set off and made excellent progress to Perth. Rumours of Italian food for dinner are hopefully true.

Miles today 65
Total miles from Land’s End  702 (+ 17)
Miles to John O’Groats  284

Sunday 23 August 2015

Day 8 – You Take the High Road ……….

…….. and I'll take the low road and I'll be in Scotland afore you. So went the song as we road away from Birdoswald. With the sun shining everyone was in high spirits and we set off facing the prospect of a shorter day but with a similar amount of climbing to yesterday. Martyn’s morning briefing text made no mention of the route’s level of difficulty which was a cause for concern for some. As it turned out we need not have worried.

Our first order of business was a photocall at the Scottish border. Rab and Davy got very excited and I am sure I heard them promise a wee malt tonight to mark their homecoming. We’ll see…..

The quality of the landscape was the high point of the day – at least as good as yesterday's but much more enclosed with deep valleys picking their way through and round the hills. Our route took us into Eskdale which is truly spectacular – classic Scottish Borders countryside.

Leaving Langholm the ‘fun’ really started as we ascended the first of the day’s four main climbs. These are not especially steep but at around two miles apiece they are quite long. The trick is to choose the right gear at the start and then pedal at a steady, constant pace to the top. The long sweeping roads with open bends meant that on the downhill sections I was able to get into top gear and go full gas. The only challenge was the quality of the road surface but with so few cars around the full width of the road was there to be used.

In no time at all we were passing by Innerleithen and arrived in Peebles well ahead of schedule. A quick visit to the local car wash meant we could restore our bikes to (a sort of) pristine condition. To sum up, today was one of the best days so far – possibly! And there’s wifi at our hotel.

Miles today 75
Total miles from Land’s End  637 (+ 17)
Miles to John O’Groats  349

Day 7 – The Long One

After a night in Skipton in a number of different hotels we regrouped on the road north. My hotel was the furthest away and was probably the slowest in terms of breakfast service. Consequently the group had already set off, but no matter as Ray was on hand to make sure I went the right way – he’s obviously picked up on my navigational weaknesses. He assured me that the group were only a few minutes up the road so after a fast bit of time trialling I soon caught up with them.

We were now in the Yorkshire Dales and I felt on top of the world. This is spectacular countryside and as I rolled along I felt completely at one with my surroundings. Riding in places like this made me realise how lucky I am to be able to enjoy them. It never ceases to amaze me that true wilderness on this scale still exists in England.

Classic Yorkshire Dales riding
Spirits in the group were high with lots of happy chatter. As we rode up Wharfedale with Pen-y-Ghent on our left the chatter became more and more subdued as the main climb of the day came into view. The climb up through Yockenthwaite and Beckermonds to Oughtershaw was tough, very tough and long, very long. When we got to the top we all agreed it was the toughest climb since leaving Land’s End. But very satisfying to conquer, especially the last bit that ramped up to at least 20% which at the end of half an hour’s riding uphill at an average gradient of 12% put my heart rate into a new high! A very high speed descent, with a squealing of brakes signalled our arrival at Ray’s Diner for the day’s first refreshment stop.

We then whizzed along following the route of the historic Settle to Carlisle railway line as the splendour of the North Pennines unfolded on our right and fleeting glimpses of the Lake District appeared on our left. Our route follows a more easterly course so we’re not getting an opportunity to try of some of the iconic climbs of the Lakes. Perhaps that’s a good thing!

Our (late) lunch stop was accompanied by heavy rain so we all put on our wet weather gear. By the time we’d finished lunch the rain had stopped (perfect timing) so off came the wet weather gear and we were away. We arrived at Melmerby village to find it ready to welcome the Tour of Britain which passes through in about two weeks time. Yellow bikes were everywhere!

The rest of the ride was fast and largely uneventful - the only real point of note was a last steep climb out of Brampton and a delightful ride along the line of Hadrian’s Wall to our destination at Birdoswald and the site of Milecastle Fort. We had finished the longest day and are now over halfway to John O’Groats. Yaay!

Miles today 93
Total miles from Land’s End  562 (+ 17)
Miles to John O’Groats  424

Friday 21 August 2015

Day 6 – Dancing in the Pennines

The briefing message from our Ride Leader Martyn concluded with the words “Day 6 is a tough day. Over 6000 ft climbing.” A few of the group had looked at the route profile and had turned a whiter shade of pale. As is sometimes the case, anticipation and reality don't necessarily match each other. But often they do!

The first fun part of the day came at a canal lock crossing where one of the bargees (?) lowered the gates in a devious attempt at guillotining one of our peloton. And she nearly succeeded! Then we faced one of the steepest climbs so far (20%+) which, once we’d all got our breath back, prompted a certain amount of comment – mostly about Martyn's choice of route. Once the climb was behind us we then had a steady roller coaster ride with nothing too challenging.

I received permission to ride off the front of the peloton so that I could say hello to a couple of my sponsors and good friends. So after a fast bit of time trialling I stopped and had a chat for a few minutes before the group came back.

I'm in good company on Hebden Bridge
After a lunch stop at Ray’s Diner (Orange Flavour Malt Loaf is the new ‘in thing’ and very good it is too) we were off again. The climb out of Hebden Bridge was the one that everyone was fearing. In the event I really enjoyed it. It was long and steady, much like the Alpine climbs seen on the Tour de France – only a lot shorter. Phil Liggett, who does Tour commentaries, describes the best climbers as dancing on their pedals. So I did a nifty little foxtrot that Phil would have been proud of.. Well, that’a my view and I'm sticking to it. But the day’s excitement wasn’t quite over because after the climbing comes the descending! My Garmin recorded a maximum speed of nearly 52mph! I literally rode away from all the cars behind me and I think I managed to set off a speed camera. I say “think” because you'll appreciate that at these speeds with only a few millimetres of tyre rubber touching the road, looking over my shoulder to see if the camera really has flashed can be a bit tricky.

Once off the climb it was a fast run through Keighley in the rain to Skipton and our base for the night. The peloton has voted to have a curry tonight – which I may regret tomorrow. Especially as we’re going to be riding over 90 miles!

Miles today 82
Total miles from Land’s End  469 (+ 17)
Miles to John O’Groats  517

Thursday 20 August 2015

Day 5 – Rollin’ Rollin’ Rollin’ Keep Those Wheels Rollin’

“Good morning Mark. I hope you slept well. Would you like the cyclists breakfast?” That was the cheery greeting that welcomed me to Day 5 of this adventure. Well, the cyclists breakfast started with porridge with seeds (all organic) and honey from local bees. Followed by scrambled eggs (local free range hens), granary bread and homemade marmalade, washed down with freshly ground coffee. I have to say that the porridge was the best I have ever eaten. And the rest of the breakfast was pretty good too. So, suitably fuelled, I felt ready for anything that the road could throw at us.

We left Clun up a sharp, but short climb and then hit a long drag up to a magnificent view west towards the mountains of Snowdonia and north across the Cheshire plain. A very fast (40mph+) descent brought us on to level ground which was then with us for the rest of the day. If I'd closed my eyes, not advisable on a bike, I could almost have been back home in Suffolk. With a favourable tailwind we flew along. We made such good progress that we even stopped at a pub for a pre-lunch drink.

Today was the easiest day so far – by a long way. Almost a rest day. It seemed no time at all that my Garmin, which seemed to be working today, was beeping to tell me that the 77 miles was completed and our destination for the day was just ahead. A few in our little peloton had some ‘mechanicals’ and a couple of punctures but these were all taken in our stride.

One of the challenges of an extended tour is keeping on top of the domestics. So any chance to wash and dry kit on tour makes a huge difference. And, luckily the chance for an impromptu laundry session presented itself today!

Miles today 77
Total miles from Land’s End  387 (+ 17)
Miles to John o’Groats  599

Wednesday 19 August 2015

Day 4 – Heading North At Last

After a hearty breakfast prepared by our charming host, Elizabeth it was time to clip in to the pedals and ride off. Today was the first day that felt like we were really heading north, with each turn of the cranks putting us closer to John O’Groats. And a chance to reflect that we had put a significant chunk of England – the south west peninsula - behind us.

We happily spun along the spectacular Wye Valley past the ruins of Tintern Abbey and seemed to be in Monmouth in no time at all. Our little group of 7 was in high spirits with lots of chatter amongst us. We’re all still learning about each other so conversation makes the miles fly by. All too soon we arrived at Ray’s Alfresco Diner for a welcome refuel and hot coffee. Then we were off again, darting between England and Wales as we followed the border. This is beautiful countryside with lots of small(ish) hills separating a series of hidden valleys. A few steep climbs (up to 20% in places) helped boost my heart rate. All too soon signs for Clun appeared and then a steep climb, a long fast descent and another climb and descent and Clun was in front of us.

Once we arrived I then set off on a little ride of my own to visit my Mum and Dad who are buried nearby in Lydbury North. Mum said my bike was rather dirty but I was always a messy boy! Thanks Mum. Then a quick whizz back to Clun with a photo stop outside The Sun – I have a photo of the last time I was here with a bike in 1974. Very little has changed.

Oh, I nearly forgot to mention that it rained for most of the day. But who cares!

Miles today 75 (+17)
Total miles from Land’s End  310
Miles to John o’Groats  676

Tuesday 18 August 2015

Day 3 – Crossing Borders

After the last couple of tough days today was a lot easier. The accumulated miles and a evolving mindset when facing a climb mean that I'm more inclined to take these challenges in my stride – or rather pedal strokes. Don’t get me wrong, the riding isn't getting massively easier; I'm just getting a bit better at rising to the challenges. And what's really great is that as a group we’re getting to know each other and a real team spirit is developing. Much of this happens quietly without fuss but when of us is feeling the pressure of the pace others in the team close ranks and help each other through the moment. And there's lots of banter too – all of it good natured. So, I'm having great fun.

Today’s riding was quite varied – some fast, flat sections (across Somerset), some shortish, sharp hills, the challenge of riding through very busy industrial estates to get round Bristol. And best of all, the thrill of crossing the Severn Suspension Bridge and entering Wales. Also looking at the route map there is real sense of progress. Land’s End really does seem quite far away now.

Big thanks to everyone whose sent me messages of encouragement and support. It's been great to read these when I arrive at our new base at the end of each day’s riding – they really do ease those aching legs. And biggest thanks for the sponsorships you've made. Prostate Cancer UK will be really grateful for your support. If you can think of anyone who might donate please, pretty please, pass the word along!

Miles today 87
Total miles from Land’s End  235
Miles to John o’Groats  751

Day 2 – Up and Over Dartmoor Followed by a Few (Killer) Hills

Most people I've spoken to about Lejog get a a knowing look in their eyes when talking about day 2.Well, from today I've acquired the same knowing look. Leaving Liskeard we set out at a gentle pace and made good progress. I had a bonding moment with fellow rider Dave when I lost my balance and attempted to knock him over at a crossroads while I was looking round to make sure there were no other riders behind me. The rest of the group will tell you that I was more likely looking at another cyclist, not part of our group, who was looking at her map for directions. Anyway, no damage done apart from minor bruising of my pride.

We made good progress towards Tavistock with a few long but not especially steep climbs. Gradually Dartmoor came into view and we were quickly onto the famed Rundlestone Climb. This takes you up to the top of Dartmoor. Apart from a couple of sections at the start, it is not especially steep, but it is long – very long. I completed the climb in 31 minutes. The target time in Simon Warren’s book (a sort of climber’s bible) is 28 minutes so I was quite pleased with my attempt.

Then after regrouping we managed to roll along quite briskly over the top of Dartmoor. So briskly that Dave and I failed to spot Ray waiting with lunch so my beer bribery the previous evening was obviously wasted. Dave and I rode on to Moretonhampstead where we dined alfresco on the best the local Co-op had to offer.

After a quick lunch we were off again and the “fun” really started. A constant succession of steep climbs and sharp descents as we crossed the deep valleys in this part of south west Devon. These were really strength sapping and on a couple of them I could barely manage to keep moving forward. My long weeks of training certainly paid off today- this was some of the hardest riding I have done for a very long time.

After a very steep descent to Crediton we were through the toughies with only a long drag and a few kicks up before reaching our Tiverton, our overnight base. My little old legs certainly knew they had been given a workout today. Following a refreshing shower as soon as I arrived I felt half-human again!

Miles today 67
Total miles from Land’s End  148
Miles to John o’Groats  838

Sunday 16 August 2015

Day 1 – Cornish Ups and Downs

It all started fairly gently – unloaded our bikes from the support van, checked everything over, posed for the obligatory photos and then ……. We were off!

The first few miles to Penzance were fairly easy with some gentle climbs and descents. A long(ish) slog out of Penzance raised the heart rate and gave a foretaste of what was to come! From then on it was exhilarating stuff – mostly up or down, sometimes steeply up and down and once or twice very steeply up. The steepness of the climbs wasn’t always matched by the gradients of the  descents. But all in rather challenging and quite rewarding.

We passed through lots of typically small Cornish villages – some with intriguing names. Praze-an-Beeble, Playing Place and Penpillick are just a few. We also went through some large towns –Truro (with a short cobbled section) and St Austell.

The ride was broken up by the welcome sight of Ray who is driving the support van with our kit. But more importantly Ray also has a great talent – producing a roadside snack or lunch 'stop at exactly the right moment.(I bought Ray a beer this evening, so hopefully he’ll remember me when he’s handing out the grub and drinks tomorrow!)

After a last sharp climb we arrived at The Nebula Hotel in Liskeard. A shower, a drink and a great dinner, hopefully followed by a good night’s sleep should set us up for tomorrow’s riding – the crossing of Dartmoor.

Saturday 15 August 2015

Day Zero –The Lejogers Assemble

Well the team is gathering at our base, The Long Boat Inn in Penzance. We’re getting to know each other and there’s a lot of chatter about how much riding we each do; who's done a ride like this before and so on. A good sign is that there's a lot of laughter over the dinner table and it’s mostly of the happy, not nervous sort. With so many new faces it’s going to take a while to learn everyone's names.

I've also found out that our team includes three nurses and a doctor so potential injuries should be well-covered.

Martyn, our leader has asked us to appear for breakfast at 7:00am tomorrow before we leave for Land’s End at 8:00. The aim is to start riding as close to 8:30 as possible. So an early night beckons ….

Yaay - I'm (sort of) underway!

No blogging or cycling yesterday. Instead I was busy sorting out my kit before I set off to London to stay with my youngest daughter. We had an enjoyable evening out, with a delicious meal at Wahaca– the Mexican restaurant chain started by Masterchef winner Thomasina Miers. As I write this I'm on the train to Penzance, a 5 hour journey with plenty of time to relax and think about what lies ahead over the next fortnight.

It’s great to get underway as I realised when looking at my diary yesterday that it is almost exactly one year since I paid the deposit and committed to riding Lejog. So I’m really looking forward to pressing the start button on the Garmin and rolling out of Land’s End tomorrow. And this evening I’ll finally get to meet the rest of the ‘team’ who I’ll be riding with. We’ve already done some virtual introductions by email. Our numbers have also swelled to 15 so we’re going to be a nice little peloton.  I’ll try and post an update from Penzance this evening.

Lot’s of people have asked me why I'm riding Lejog. I don’t have any specific reason other than it has been on my mind for a long time. I think it's probably a combination of the chance to see a lot of Britain in a short time; the buzz of riding in new places and with new people; and the lure of the ‘prize’ of getting to the end.

Big thanks to everyone who has wished me well – I hope you will enjoy my blog ramblings. With my comms and PR experience I always said that communicators should think more about their audiences than themselves. Well, this blog is one time when I'll probably reverse that rule so I hope you'll indulge me.

And huge thanks to everyone who has already sponsored me for Prostate Cancer UK. Your generosity will make a difference.

Thursday 13 August 2015

Preparation Time

Sadly no riding today - preparation was the order of business. First up I gave the Bianchi a wash and polish so it now sparkles and looks like new. My garden livestock were quite impressed with the end result!

One sparkling Bianchi Impulso
Then I gathered together all the bits and pieces I'll need - inner tubes, a spare (folding tyre), chain degreaser and lube etc etc. After getting the equipment together I did some 'inside' work loading the route files onto my Garmin and making sure that I had all the other information (accommodation details etc.).

I also spent a little time looking at the route in a bit more detail to get a better sense of what was to come. But I decided that this was in danger of becoming mildly obsessive so I packed it in and decided to adopt a more take it as it comes approach - we'll see if this holds.

Bye bye Bianchi - see you at Land' End!
Finally this evening I took my bike over to the tour leader Martyn Ryan at ACT sop he could load it into the support van and take it down to Penzance. I'm guessing that the next time I see the Bianchi will be at Land's End on Sunday morning .......

Wednesday 12 August 2015

A Day of Two Halves

I took the Impulso which I'll be riding Lejog on over to Madgetts for a tune up - the headset, new cables and the rear gears needed some adjustment now that they've done a few miles following the recent rebuild. Chatting to the team in the shop I was reminded how lucky I am to have such a great bike shop on my doorstep. They may not be flashy, in the modern sense, but their service is outstanding and the enthusiasm and knowledge of the team is second to none. They are all bike mad and I sometimes wonder how they manage to get any work done amongst the chatter. I got some interesting comments about the hills on the last stage into John O'Groats which set me thinking. So, as cyclists say - Chapeau Madgetts!

After lunch I took the Impulso out for a test ride. Everything was working perfectly and the gear changes were as smooth as silk. Now Suffolk is not a particularly hilly place - there are a few little bumps if you know where to look. So following this morning's chatter I went looking. My ride round south Suffolk would best be described as slightly lumpy - enough ups and downs to break the rhythm but nothing too testing.

Non cyclists don't really 'get' our liking for hills! But the sheer exhilaration of conquering a good climb is second to none. So I've been looking at the climbing bible - Simon Warren's 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs - and discovered that the Lejog trip involves at least three of them (reports to follow). One of my sponsors has offered me an extra £5 if I can beat the target time for one of the climbs. Hmm.

Tuesday 11 August 2015

The Ups and Downs of the Village Pub (Part 3)

There was a distinct chill in the air when I set off this morning. A complete contrast to yesterday and for the first few minutes I was wondering if I should have put on some arm warmers and a gillet. But as it's early August I absolutely refuse to don autumnal plumage!

Anyway, back to the subject at hand - the village pub. Today's quest took me to The Metcalfe Arms at Hawstead just south of Bury St Edmunds. Or perhaps I should say the pub formerly known as The Metcalfe Arms since about twelve months ago it became the Maglia Rosso - a rather splendid café and bike shop selling some pretty good gear. Well, in the world of diversification this certainly gets my vote. I enjoyed a lovely cappuccino (the bike had a tasty looking flapjack) and I drooled over some rather nice bike frames.

So it seems from my recent surveys that there are endless possibilities for the village pub to evolve and meet the challenges of changing demand.

Reassuringly, there still seems to be a place for the traditional village pub - but perhaps rather in more of a niche market than previously? The Crown at Hartest seems to be just such a place. Situated in a splendid location their "aim is simple - to serve good food and drink at sensible prices in a relaxed, friendly and clean environment." Spot on; I couldn't have said it better than that.

As I head north next week I'll be looking with interest at the pubs en route to see how they stack up against my little survey. And who knows, I might just do a little hands-on market research..........

One other notable achievement to report today - my riding log shows that I have now ridden 14,000.8 miles since 1st January. (Eagle eyed readers will no doubt note that this is more than my Strava total which doesn't include everything - turbo riding and some mileage on my winter bike).

Monday 10 August 2015

The Ups and Downs of the Village Pub (Part 2)

Not as much sun as yesterday but still very pleasant if rather humid. I was on the road by 8:00am with a couple of ideas in my mind about developing my village pub musings.

First stop was the Shoulder of Mutton in Old Newton as I vaguely recalled something odd about it from a previous ride. And sure enough, it's now a Chinese takeaway! It's location means that it doesn't have the appearance of a country pub - in the pretty sense. In fact it has a distinctly urban feel to it. But clearly the demand for Chinese food is high in Old Newton. Interestingly, as you can see from the photo, it still retains the pub signs so maybe there's something of an identity crisis.

Leaving Old Newton I headed over to Debenham and thence to Earl Soham - home of a good micro brewery and also a butchers shop with a pavement café that I must investigate another time. Then I rode on to Thorndon, near Eye where I remembered that there was another pub which had responded to changing needs in an interesting way.

The Black Horse is a thriving establishment. As well as the usual pub offerings it has a restaurant open daily with a lunchtime carvery and an evening takeaway service (fish and chips, curries etc.). But not only is it a pub it is also a community shop, owned and run by people from the village. And as I discovered this morning this really is a one-stop site as there's also a mobile post office. So this seems to be a really imaginative way to stay at the top of the game.

A nice meander through the lanes brought me back home in time for lunch with another 70 miles in my legs. And for tomorrow, the final chapter in my pub musings - maybe ........