We Made It! (Part 2)

IMG_10166.20am. Just outside Alness. Turn right and we would drop down to the A9 – the duller but flatter main road to the North-east. Turn left and we would face one more major climb, but cycle through pine forests, amongst kestrels and red kites, immersed once again in spectacular landscapes unique to the far North of Scotland.

Every single rider instantly voted for the left turn. Even on the last day, facing a 113-mile ride to reach John o’Groats, with weary bodies dragged out of bed at 5am for one more day.

That group decision summed up the KPS1000 team. If you’d asked us a week earlier, many would have voted for the flatter, faster route to make progress. Now we were long-distance cyclists – prepared to throw in yet another climb just to eke the most out of the experience.

We were rewarded with a fantastic first two hours to contemplate what we had achieved. The landscape that far north is truly staggering. The traffic non-existent. The cycling unique.

IMG_1005Later in the day we had no alternative to the A9. But by then there were sea cliffs, stiff climbs and soaring descents, a clifftop café and roll into Lybster – the location of “Cornah’s Corner” (the home village of former KPS headmaster Marcus Cornah) which had been our KPS1000 goal. But almost all of us were pushing on to John o’Groats, a further 30 miles, in order to complete the End-to-End.

Those last 30 miles seemed to go on forever. A ruler-straight road, bleak moorland and from nowhere a barreling headwind, plus a sea mist that brought the temperatures plummeting down.

There were barely any words exchanged for those last miles. Each rider alone with their thoughts, straining sinews, head down, contemplating what the ride meant to them.

What did it mean? At the last count we have raised more than £12,000 for the Bath RUH cancer care campaign. Four of us have cycled 985 miles in 9 days, travelling the length of Britain from Land’s End to John o’Groats. Two more have cycled 755 miles in 7 days to join us from Bath onwards. For all of us, as for John who rode the first and last days with us, and Juliet, Simon, Sally, Bob, Cathy, Paul, Philip T, AlastaiIMG_1025r, who rode the first day with us, it has been a huge personal achievement.  The culmination of a significant amount of planning, training and fund-raising. And an extraordinary chance to see Britain from the saddle.

I can’t claim to speak for everyone in the team, but my own views might be echoed by those I rode with. It was a personal journey, made worthwhile by joint endeavour. I feel proud to have ridden with some extraordinary people, people I barely knew when I set out but who I am now honoured to call my friends.

The last word should lie with Ernest Hemingway (always): “It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them. Thus you remember them as they actually are, while in a motor car only a high hill impresses you, and you have no such accurate remembrance of country you have driven through as you gain by riding a bicycle.”

Day 9: Alness to John o’Groats: 113 miles; 6440 vertical feet ascentIMG_1032

Meeting the General

Between 1725 and 1733 General George Wade built a road high above Loch Ness, linking Fort Augustus with Inverness. Ostensibly to move men and equipment between forts, in fact the road was as much about projecting the power of the British Government deep into the Highlands in the wake of the Jacobite Rebellion.

IMG_0919Enough of the history – what you really need to know is that, as a military man, General Wade wasn’t going to let a mountain get in his way. He just went straight over it. And in doing so created the cycling challenge of the End-to-End. A Category 2 climb of more than 1100 vertical feet in five and a half miles.

The day had started in torrential rain. Probably our most miserable morning along the busy A82 from Glencoe. Conditions made the forest cycle path along the west of Loch Linnie an unwise choice, so we stuck to the main road on the eastern bank.

Then the rain stopped and the sun emerged just as we started the mighty climb. All the great climbs on the continent have a simple name. We dubbed this one The General in honour of its builder. All the great climbs on the continent are also classified Category 1 – 5 (with 1 being the steepest). Legend has it that if a Renault 4 had to go down into first gear to get up the mountain, that made it a Category 1, second gear a Category 2. If the Renault 4 couldn’t get up it at all then it was “Hors Categorie”.

IMG_0955Enough of the history – what you really need to know is that a Category 2 climb comes with lung-searing pain, bucketloads of sweat and a huge sense of achievement. A fortnight previously the conversation had been about the right gears needed to tackle this monster hill after more than 700 miles of riding. Now the conversation was about the riders, not the gear.

Day 8: Glencoe to Alness: 108 miles; 5523 ft ascent

Highlanders

The only way was up. We didn’t need a sign to tell us we had entered the Highlands. From the beautiful West Loch Lomond cycle path, we looked up and everything changed – the view, the altitude, the light, the weather. From one mile to the next, we went from benign hills to majestic mountains towering over us.

IMG_0952Just four hours’ cycle out of central Glasgow and we were climbing to where eagles still soar. Loch Lomond had been a welcome change from city streets, but now we were entering the highest mountains in the UK – climbing towards Glencoe and Ben Nevis.

Barely a word passed between the KPS1000 group. Perhaps in awe of the mountains, perhaps lost for words amongst the breathtaking views over Loch Tulla, more likely just breathing too hard to speak. Each of us finding our own climbing speed. But as we agreed that night, each of us loving the experience of being amongst true mountains.

Then a long, heady descent – more than four miles without having to touch the pedals once, and we were in the capital of mountaineering Glencoe. In one day we’d cycled from the southern edge of Glasgow via a fantastic network of inner city cycle paths to a spectacular mountain village. On the way we’d enjoyed some of the most spectacular cycling of the whole End-to-End.

Day 7: Hamilton to Glencoe: 103 miles; 5012 ft ascent

The Long and Winding Road

Five miles out of Keswick we turned off the A-road. The network of narrow country lanes to reach Carlisle would involve more hills and more miles than the main road would have done. But this was our approach to the whole ride.

IMG_0905We could have done the whole thing on A-roads and lopped nearly 100 miles off the whole End-to-End. Or we could have done the whole ride on National Cycle Network routes than avoided all the towns and kept entirely to country lanes – and cycled nearly 1800 miles from Land’s End to John o’Groats.

We compromised – so benefited from country lanes for at least one part of every day, but still managed to cover 985 miles from Land’s End in 9 days (755 miles from Bath in 7 days).

IMG_0937Through Carlisle and the Scottish border greeted us. Then a tough, uncompromising section all afternoon parallel to the M74 towards Glasgow.

Nothing special about the cycling for much of the day, so that gives me the time to introduce the band (of brothers) who did Land’s End to John o’Groats (Steve, Lucy, Jonathan, Neil) or Bath to John o’Groats (Mark, Philip):

Steve “Big Ring” Williams on bass – the natural sprinter who started off in Cornwall hating hills, and somehow turned by the time we reached Scotland to love them.

Lucy “Cotton Kills” Philips on keyboards – a cycling machine who devoured anything the route threw at her, providing invaluable leadership on the critical subject of socks or no socks (never cotton socks on a wet day, if you need to ask).

Jonathan “Rapha” Brooks on lead vocals – the man with an eye for style and a jersey to match every occasion. And at least two pairs of shorts (at once) to match every rash, but that’s another story.

Neil “F-I-C” Morris on drums – the author of this blog and the man behind the maps, who beat out the rhythm each day between country lanes and finding the hostel each night.  A lover of hills, I planned each day to include one climb more than was strictly necessary.

Mark “Marvelous Marvin Hagler” Brearey on lead guitar – one of the two pedalling pedagogists on the ride, and a man to throw himself flat out at any hill the UK could offer him. Graduated from no-hands sprinting novice to serious green jersey contender during the week.

Philip “The Power” Dixon on rhythm guitar – another pedalling pedagogist who featured in the peleton at the end of each and every day, using his phenomenal descending speed to gain on the rest of the team, and then promptly losing his advantage when it came to the inevitable uphill.

Yvonne and Ellie “Don’t let Mark ride off with the keys to the van” Brearey, the Road Managers. Behind every team lies the secret of their success. Unfortunately the pace of our cycling meant that the Road Managers spent most of their time in front of us. Without them we would still be in Wales – we’re indebted to them for their support.

Day 6: Keswick to Hamilton: 112 miles; 4445 ft ascent

Of Hills and Lakes

The other side of Clitheroe lies one of the most fabulous sections of the whole End-to-End ride. The glorious Forest of Bowland, while pretty much denuded of trees, presents a glorious set of Alpine-style climbs.

The day had started as the previous one had ended – dodging 18-wheelers on the A6 in pouring rain and terrible visibility. Which made it all the sweeter (or was it the fabulous second breakfast in Clitheroe?)  when the sun emerged just as we hit the first of three massive climbs through the Forest of Bowland.

IMG_0870This 312 square-mile Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in Lancashire and North Yorkshire was one of the unexpected surprises of the trip. So much so that three of us voted it our favourite part of the whole ride. A single track road wound for 25 miles through high moorland with barely any traffic, visiting just a single village, Slaidburn, along the way. There, at the Hark to Bounty pub, we were told that this was the half-way point for the four of us who had set off from Land’s End.

Even a puncture (the only one of the whole End-to-End!) couldn’t sour my mood – if you have to spend 15 minutes changing tubes then do it at the top of the most glorious mountain I had found.

IMG_0885Leaving the Forest of Bowland, we touched the edge of the Yorkshire Dales National Park, then turned Northwest to head for the Lakes. Mark suffered the first and most serious mechanical of the whole trip, when his rear derailleur hanger broke, leaving him forced to hitch rides to get to the next bike shop in Kendal, then Keswick.

For the rest of us came an obligatory shopping stop in Kendal to buy and eat Kendal mint cake, then lakeside riding along Windermere, Grasmere, Thirlmere. One mighty climb and we were entering Keswick for the night.

Day 5: Bolton to Keswick: 106 miles; 8086 ft ascent

From Country Ways to Cities Grey

Day Four started with our merry Band of Brothers reduced to seven to carry on northwards. Bill and Cathy Biggs had both intended to cycle with us right through to the Lake District. The fact that they had trained hard throughout the spring to make sure they were ready for the challenge made their ill luck all the more cruel when Bill tore a leg muscle two days before we started and had to drop out. Cathy cycled the first day but had to then return home.

And then there were six. 14 miles into his second day, Simon Meadowcroft succumbed to a foot injury which left him unable to continue riding. Where we had planned to be 9 riders entering Cheshire, we were now just six.

IMG_0849Onwards rode the six, entering the outskirts of Chester – the home county of our pedalling pedagogist, KPS Head Teacher Mark. A brief stop to get a wave from his parents as we passed their home village, and then on again.

Quickly the country lanes gave way to busy highways and we swapped cows for 18-wheeled juggernauts. Where the morning had given us Hope Valley (stunning), the afternoon gave us Warrington (stark). As we entered industrial heartlands, the sky darkened and the first steady, teeming rain of the journey sent spirits plummeting as we notched up 100 miles and still had 14 miles of busy roads to get to Bolton.

Day 4: Clun to Bolton: 114 miles, 3,252 vertical ft ascent

The KPS1000 Grand Depart

The complete silence of dawn on a Sunday was the moment to consider what we were about to embark upon. More than six months of training, planning, more training, eating and even more training all come down to this.

P1020893Finally the day of the Big Off had arrived (let’s call it the Grand Depart – somehow it sounds more fitting in Tour de France French). The RUH hadn’t seen a Sunday morning quite like it – before. 27 cyclists, and as many again of supporters, families and friends, all up earlier than the sparrows to get a head start on the 100-mile route that awaits many of us.

Seven of the riders were aiming to make it all the way to the northeastern top of Scotland. Nine more were cycling 100 miles today all the way to Clun in Shropshire. And four more adults and seven children were going to pedal along the Bristol and Bath railway path with us as far as their legs would carry them, which turned out to be to Bitton.

Mark Brearey, head teacher of Kingswood Prep School and the inspiration that led to KPS1000, gave his version of the Henry V’s St Crispin’s Day speech, announcing that we reached the £10,000 fund-raising target just as we set off for John o’Groats.

Then Mark donned his helmet and led the cycling throng out onto the roads to embark on 26 personal journeys on the most beautiful form of transport ever invented.

IMG_0791Onwards rode the 27, becoming 16 as we left the safety of the cycle path to skirt Bristol and over the Severn Bridge. Onwards rode the 16, fuelled by fried egg sandwiches in Tintern, forgoing Monmouth’s finest pork pies to push on northwards, making Hereford for lunch.

You’ll get the drift of the day when I tell you that it was good to leave the busy streets of Hereford for the quieter lanes to the North. We clocked up 70, then 80, then 90 miles – each of us thinking quietly that this was proving alright.

IMG_0843Then one last hill lay between us and Clun, the end of Day One for some and the end of the ride for nine valiant cyclists who had sweated every mile with us from Bath. But what a last hill – bigger, steeper and hungrier than all the others put together that day.

Then a celebratory meal in the White Horse in Clun, followed by a late drive back to Bath for some and a night in the Youth Hostel for those heading on northwards the next day. The end of an adventure for some; the end of a chapter for others. In either case an utterly unforgettable day.

Day 3: Bath to Clun: 100 miles; 4503 vertical ft of ascent

We Made It! (Part 1)

Last night, just before the KPS1000 team set off from Bath’s Royal United Hospital, our fund-raising reached its target of £10,000. This is a huge achievement. We’d all like to thank everyone who has played a part in helping us raise a truly transformational amount of money – those who sponsored us online and offline, those who bought raffle tickets, those who donated raffle prizes, the individuals and companies who helped make the fete such a huge success, those who organised the balloon release, the cycling evening at Castle Combe and anyone else who played a part.

This morning, Mark Brearey, the head teacher of Kingswood Prep School, will announce that we’ve reached the £10,000 target before 15 riders set off to play their part in riding to John O’Groats.

And by the way, in case you’re wondering why this is called We Made It Part 1, there should (!) be another blog post entitled We Made It Part 2 in a week’s time, always assuming we make it to John O’Groats.

Moor Hills to Get Home

IMG_0740For seven miles, the cycle path stretched across Dartmoor. Without a car in sight, we could relax and focus on the wild beauty of the moors first thing in the morning.

We were in the heart of Devon, still a county of hills. But by afternoon we would be in Somerset. The Levels beckoned (although Neil still seemed to find a hill to climb, even there).

Before then, we had the beauty of mid-Devon lanes. And the need to cover more mileage than any other day on the whole ride. 121 miles to reach home, in Bath, where we would pick up the other members of KPS1000 for the big push north.

IMG_0750Lunchtime and the temperature had reached 30 degrees. Progress slowed in the heat, and we had to stop to refill water bottles on an hourly basis.

The Somerset Levels gave way to the Mendips. We decided that Cheddar Gorge  was the “statement” climb that the End-to-End deserved. A fitting climb to mark the highest point in the Epilogue ride from Land’s End to Bath. “Epilogue ride” because the four of us had decided to add the Land’s End to Bath stage on to the main KPS1000 ride from Bath to John o’Groats, which was to start the day after tomorrow.

Then downhill all the way home. Awaiting us is a day of R&R – repair and rehydration in this case – as a reward for two days cycling 230 miles in a heatwave. Then on Sunday we’ll resume the LEJoG cycle north with the rest of the KPS1000 team.

Day 2: Okehampton to Bath: 121 miles; 6118 vertical ft ascent

Land’s End to John o’Groats – The Start

At 6am it’s already 19 degrees. The heatwave is making the air crackle even just after dawn. Land’s End is deserted. There’s no reason to be there at this time in the morning. No reason, that is, unless you’ve got 9 days to cycle 1000 miles to reach John o’Groats.

IMG_0700Here’s where it starts for four of us (Lucy, Jonathan, Steve and I). Photos, the iconic signpost, a glance westward towards America, then it’s time to clip in and start pedaling north-east.

The heatwave has meant a change of plan. Up at 4.30am, in time to meet at 6am and get some miles in before the day gets too hot. It means the road to Penzance is utterly deserted. Even in Britain’s most southerly town there’s barely a soul about.

Today is about lanes, rural B-roads, ferries (two, the King Harry and the Bodinnick, to take us over the unbridged estuaries of South Cornwall) and most of all about hills. None too steep, none too long, but unrelenting, incessant hills. Every summit is closely followed by a descent, a bridge and then, inevitably, a climb back up the other side.

IMG_0713By the end of the day we’ve climbed more than 12.000 vertical feet. The constant climbing makes it our toughest day on the whole “End-to-End” ride from Land’s End to John o’Groats. It won’t be the remoteness of Land’s End, the fish and chips lunch in Fowey or the beauty of Dartmoor late in the day that makes this day live long in the memory, it will be the never-ending hills.

Day 1: Land’s End to Okehampton: 109 miles; 12260 vertical ft of ascent