Land's End to John o'Groats

(Via the best bits of the North Coast 500)

The UK end-to-end from Land’s End to John o’Groats has been something that has fascinated me for as long as I have been able to ride any distance on a bike.

When a discussion over a pint last year turned to bike-packing adventures, a couple of mates and I agreed that this year we would do the epic journey. It’s worth remembering that all good ideas happen in pubs but not all ideas had in pubs are good ideas. It started off as a leisurely two-week trip with lots of stops in interesting places. A rest day in the middle and stop offs at breweries and distilleries, a kind of food and drink tour of the UK by bike if you like. A couple of months later, before we had really planned anything further, it was suggested that it was a shame we were missing out on the north west coast of Scotland. A new idea was born; could we include the coastal bits of the North Coast 500 route?

I put together a new route. Rest days were gone and there were some long days to get up to Scotland as quickly as we could. We agreed on doing this and clinked our beer glasses. See my earlier point on pubs and ideas. We booked our train journeys down to Penzance and back from Inverness while we were sat in the pub, it was on.

Originally there were three of us planning on doing the route but unfortunately one had to drop out. What was good though is that we had various legs of the journey where we would be accompanied by different friends. This was great for helping on long days, both from the point of view of having fresh legs on the front and also a bit of extra conversation.

For a two week trip, averaging 140Km per day and to try and minimise faff, we opted to stay in a mix of hostels, hotels and B&Bs. We were still carrying a fair amount of stuff on our bikes and both opted for a large (15L) saddle bag. We picked a route that went via friends and family to save on accommodation and food a little. We also of course swung by Fickaskåp towers.

All planned, booked, packed and now we were in Land’s End, ready to start our adventure. It was warm and dry but there was a belting wind. Luckily this was heading in the right direction. We had a tail wind that pushed us all the way through Cornwall and Devon for the first two days. We of course managed to stop for the obligatory Cornish pasty and cream tea.

When we planned the trip, we broke it in two. I planned the first half, Jon the second. My view was, I’d rather pick the quieter roads and the odd cycle-path, especially if it was more scenic or avoided going through a city. Jon, who rides time trials, would rather have his head down on a main road and get there as quick as possible. So there were a lot of National Cycle Network routes in the first half of the trip. This meant some of the chosen cycle paths were shall we say less than ideal for road bikes. Coupled with some heavy showers, we looked like we’d taken part in cyclocross race at the end of some days.

This was going to be by far the longest multi-day ride I had ever done. Jon had done a few similar things and I had advice from other friends too. I was told that my fitness would grow throughout the trip and my body would settle into the routine and get used to it. The first two days were tough, the west country is not flat, everything is either up or down. I had a lot of aches and pains but crucially, so far at least, nothing would last and any pain would soon move into a different part of my body. Even so, I was happy to get on to the Somerset Levels at the end of the second day.

Our luck with the weather continued. As soon as we headed north from Somerset, we had a tailwind again. This wind would eventually push us all the way to Scotland. Day three saw our first proper climb of the trip so far as we went over the Mendips. Dropping through Bristol and crossing the Severn we rode over two iconic bridges, the Clifton suspension bridge and Severn bridge. This day was actually one of the toughest for me. I had a pain in my right Achilles that wasn’t going away. The steady climbs from Monmouth to our overnight stop in Hereford, were hurting me.

Day four, we were joined by Alex. This was a leg that took us back home to Chester. Despite lots of stretching and Ibuprofen, my leg was pretty swollen. My thoughts at this point were let’s get home and see what happens. If I need to bail I can. Thankfully, with the wind behind us and Alex sat on the front, we made very good progress, even setting a few Strava PBs on our home roads.

Leaving Chester, it was going to be our longest day. 187Km straight up to Ambleside in the Lake District. Not the prettiest day, main roads and cities. My leg was still hurting but crucially not getting any worse. It was more the fact that I was super fatigued now and felt like I had been riding my bike for four days straight. I was looking at the route and honestly thinking about all the different places I could jump on a train and get home. This day we had a new helper willing to sit on the front in our mate Tim. Again we had an amazing tail wind and made fantastic progress on the flat, straight roads. As we approached the lakes, the scenery starts getting better and the rain comes. Conveniently, we make it to the Hawkshead Brewery beer hall in Staveley in time to sit and wait out the rain. We then roll into Ambleside and at this point it was starting to click for me. Yes my leg still hurt and was swollen, yes I was fatigued but by now my body was getting used to this being the new normal.

Heading north through the lakes we were joined by another friend Chris for a short while and then Tim left us at Carlisle. Whilst the scenery and roads through the lakes were beautiful, north of Carlisle became long, flat and a bit dull. This was another transition day really but at least we were able to make good progress as we crossed the border into Scotland.

Getting further north, we met two more friends in Alan and Stewart. They were crucial for helping us navigate through Glasgow. This was probably one of the hottest days of the whole trip, a gorgeously sunny day. At the end of the day as we headed out of Glasgow towards our overnight stop, the pace getting quicker. I’m sat on the back and hanging on (as was the norm for me on this trip). We were flying and there was no way I would have been able to do that at the start of the trip, I’m definitely getting fitter.

The next day we get to see some of what we came for. The further we went, the scenery just got better and better. Alongside Loch Lomond, through Glencoe and down to Fort William. We had a recommendation for food and drink at the end of Glencoe in the Clachaig Inn, we weren’t disappointed. As we sat there in the sun, we both remarked it was worth cycling 1000km for the view and the beer. The descent down to the pub was sublime, the extra weight of the saddle bag seems to make my bike handle better on these fast and smooth descents. With the wind behind us (still) we flew into Fort William to end the day. This was probably one of my favourite days of the journey. The weather was glorious, the mountain views spectacular. The only downside was the amount of traffic on the roads, unavoidable unfortunately.

Within minutes of leaving Fort William the next day, we get our first mechanical. Jon was running tubeless tyres and on the run into the shops to get supplies, we hear the giveaway hiss from a puncture. This set the scene for the next couple of hours as it wouldn’t properly seal. After many stops, we took the decision to fit a tube into the tyre. Getting the tubeless tyre on an off the rim was a two-man job. I was quite glad of the rest too, the sun was out and the view across Loch Cluanie was stunning. We ended this day on the edge of the North Coast 500 route. It was getting more and more remote and the weather was starting to turn now as the clear blue skies had been replaced by ominous black clouds.

Our next riding buddy was my friend Kev from Inverness. He joined us for part of the next day and took us up the famous Bealach na Bá across to Applecross. This was the toughest climb of the whole trip, the average gradient is seven per cent over a distance of 9.1Km. The summit tops out at 626m above sea level and apparently the views are spectacular at the top. I say apparently as when we rode it, it was chucking it down and the top was shrouded in cloud. Jon and Kev are much quicker than me and got to the top a couple of minutes before me. Rather than stopping to chat, it’s time to do the descent down to Applecross. It’s a long descent and it’s cold in the rain. Straight to a café at the bottom to warm up and dry out.

We are properly on the North Coast 500 route now. Single track roads with passing places and the part from Applecross to Torridon is my favourite part I think. Even in the mist and rain everything looks even more beautiful and wild. This is also where we first properly encounter the infamous Scottish midge. The rain and wind had eased off now and every time we stopped, thousands of the little things would appear. It seems in Scotland you have a choice at this time of year; rain, wind, both rain and wind or midges. I think I prefer the rain.

Kev leaves us at Kinlochewe and we continue on to our stop for the night. There is a moment of complete serenity when we’re climbing out of Gairloch. The rain has stopped but there is a dampness in the air. The cloud has lifted and the views out to the sea and the islands beyond are so clear. I’m tired but very contented.

The next day is a bit different. It was the first day that we had set off in the morning in the rain, so we were soaked through from the get go. The roads were long and drawn out on this next section. As we were in the cloud, we could have been anywhere. Pine forest flanked both sides of the road for a fair while. We were cold and wet and in order to keep warm, we went at our own pace, which meant Jon was off the front for a large part of the day. This was a mental test more than anything, a case of just grinding away on our own. After a stop in Ullapool for some lunch and trying to get warm and dry, it was back out into it with no sign of the weather relenting.
The weather is rubbish now, we had turned into the wind, which has picked up and the rain is coming in sideways. For some bizarre reason, I had a massive grin on my face. We were so remote, I was soaked to the skin but I was loving it. This is a proper adventure now. Then my gear cable snapped!

Luckily at this point the rain was stopping. Jon was a way up the road and there was no mobile signal. I send a text in the hope that I might get a bit of signal as I’m riding along and the message will go. Not that there is anything I am expecting Jon to do. I ride on, with only two gears, although it’s getting lumpy now and the big ring at the front is not getting much use. A message from Jon comes through. He’s in a café that’s closing soon, how far off am I? I’m going as hard as I can now and I’m very grateful for the pie that Jon has got me when I get to the café. Lots of Googling and phoning to see if there is anywhere that I can get a new cable from. We’re in luck, there’s a place on our route the following day that can help. I just need to get there, it’s 50Km away. At our night stop in Stoer, we manage to do a bit of a hack and get in at least a usable gear.

The next day is going to be tough, a lot of elevation gain and one of the longer days as the roads are slow and twisty. Now we have the fact that we have to not only get to the mechanic but wait for them to fix my bike. I make it there, it was tough but I made it. A huge shout out to Scott at Barnes Bikes & Bits in Scourie, a real life-saver. Once the bike is fixed and we’ve had lunch, we’re flying again. The rain has stopped, the sun is out and the wind is strong on our backs as we head towards the north coast. Then, for the first time this trip, we turn and head south to follow the coast back inland. The headwind is now brutal, I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced anything like it. I am suffering now, the efforts from earlier in the day before my gears were fixed have caught up with me. Jon kindly sits on the front to pull me along but I’m still struggling to hold his wheel at this point. We pass a café and decide not to stop as we’ll be coming into Tongue soon and there will be more choice. Big mistake. Tongue is a lot further away than we think and the efforts in the head and crosswinds are taking their toll. We finally arrive in Tongue, refuel and then carry on for the short distance to our night stop.

For the last few days, Jon has been carrying a nasty cough that has been getting steadily worse. The next morning he heads off to Thurso before me to get some more medication. The roads along the north of Scotland are quite different to the earlier parts of the north coast 500. Straighter and flatter in comparison. It’s wet again and the scenery is not as spectacular, another case of grinding out the distance. I catch up with Jon in a café where we spend quite a while watching the rain outside, we’re in no rush to do the last 30Km to John o’Groats. The original plan was to ride down from Wick to Inverness tomorrow, looking at the weather and how we both feel, we decide to catch the train from Wick instead. We shake on it and that’s that. The rain starts to clear and we roll on down to John o’Groats. We do the obligatory signpost photo in between the other LEJOGers and then head for some lunch. We had made it, Land’s End to John o’Groats via the best bits of the North Coast 500. Pretty pleased with that but right now I need a shower, some dry clothes and a recovery beer. Unfortunately this is another 30Km away in Wick.

Final numbers.

Distance: 1,898Km
Elevation: 20,926m
Days: 13
Calories burnt: 34,435
Countries ridden through: 3
Mechanicals: 2

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