2000 Lands End – John O’Groats
by Eddie Yarker – May 2000
I started cycling in the summer of 1990, having bought a cheap bike from a mate. A trip to Abingdon and back some 10 miles was a personal achievement for a newcomer to two wheels like me. Since 1988 my life had changed somewhat, I had raced Motor Cycle Outfits since 1978 and finally called it a day, the comfort smoking had also stopped. I was at the cross-roads.
Racing motor cycles for 10 years had given me some wonderful memories; it seemed every dream had come true in a 2 year period. Hard work and dedication was just reward for our team and I decided to retire from an injury free pastime at the end of the 1988 season. We had won the trophy for the overall victory in the 1987 T.T. races on the Isle of Man, 1st. at the Ulster Grand Prix, and to cap it all we became the 1988 British Sidecar Champions, I thought it might be pushing fate to carry on any more!
For the next 2 years I took to wind surfing but it lacked the hard work and dedication I had been used to. Wind surfing seemed all about expensive gear which continually changed [a bit like cycling then!! – ed.] and when your race circuit (coastline) is 75 miles away it becomes an extravagant hobby. By 1990 I was taking my newly acquired bike with me strapped to the camper van, I found myself riding around the lanes of Bournemouth and Poole in preference to wind surfing.
Having met Mick Fountain on a leisure ride out marshaling a road race, I took his advice and joined the Didcot Phoenix Cycling Club. The winter is all about getting the miles in and the once a week club nights. It was at one of these socials that Mick recounted the week in the early 60’s when he rode from Lands End to John O’Groats unassisted. Here was a tale of eating cold rice pudding, sleeping in bus shelters, as well as carrying a tent and sleeping bag, stirring stuff eh! This story seemed unbelievable to a novice cyclist like me, but stayed logged in my mind to re emerge some 10 years later.
By the year 2000 my cycling portfolio encompassed many different and varied events, long distance randonées, road racing, time trials, mountain bikes, cyclo cross, I had tried most aspects of cycling sport. There was one major challenge missing from this list and the year 2000 seemed perfect to complete my cycling C.V. I would cycle the End to End of Britain in May 2000.
My first concern was how to get to the start point in Cornwall and have transport arranged at the end of this ordeal in Scotland. Train companies were consulted on the telephone and confirmed it was possible to travel down to Penzance for £65 and return from Thurso for £77 with bike booked on the trains an extra £3. The decision to use Bed and Breakfast stops, friends’ houses, and ride all day on liquid foods seemed far more civilised than a few nights in bus shelters, and eating cold rice pudding. I’m afraid in 30 years we cannot take personal safety for granted any more and cold rice pudding, Yuk!
So on Sunday May 29th 2000, I was travelling down to Lands End with a mate Carl Galvin in his car. Carl had offered to transport me and my bike as he was visiting his mother for a weeks’ holiday so we could share the diesel and the four and a half hours drive. It was a great gesture as the ride of ten miles from Penzance to Lands End is extremely lumpy and I would have had to re trace again at the start of the ride. We arrived at 11.30 P.M. in perfect time for my planned start time of midnight, there was a force six gale blowing but luckily in my direction.
As I left Carl at Lands End in this dark wet night, I had such a sense of achievement, but that was just getting to the start, mind you when Zelda my wife gave me my pass out for the ride it was a similar feeling! I’m sure Carl waved me off wishing he was on this jaunt, but no this was a solo effort. A midnight start seemed perfect as the notorious A30 road out of Cornwall is a cyclist’s nightmare and I rightly predicted a quiet first leg of my journey.
It was dark and quiet on these deserted roads with only the occasional truck passing, I felt I was flying but it was difficult to assess my progress until I could read my computer under any street lights that appeared at road junctions. 58 miles in 3 hours, 90 miles in 5 hours, would the ride feel this easy for the next 4 days? I was soon to get my first warning.
Daylight appears around 4.30a.m.and I leave the A30 for good. I have run out of water, five litres in 4 hours, this is a potential problem; my whole strategy is based on getting my calorie intake from powdered food mixed with water. Also I had been perspiring much more than anticipated due to riding with wet weather gear on, it was supposed to get me to Oakhampton. My speed drops alarmingly as my body pleads for fuel, worse still as I enter Oakhampton buoyed by the thought of some breakfast I realise this is a May bank holiday the anticipated cafés and stores are all shut! Luckily a newsagent is open sorting out his day’s delivery; he seems surprised to be serving me bottled water and a Mars bar. Anticipating the “where are you heading?” question I answer “Crediton”. It is too early in the ride to discuss the probabilities of making John O’Groats just yet.
My planned route now takes me away from the main thoroughfare into Cornwall. I am now negotiating a landscape of beauty and steep hills to climb with classic views at the top. My body takes over an hour to respond to the food intake so these first few hills are punishing, still I now appreciate the ride as I can see where I am going. The camera comes out occasionally to record my progress. I have noticed farmers, truck drivers, shopkeepers, milk men all having to work while the rest of Cornwall sleeps in on this bank holiday, we take so much for granted in this modern life.
As I freewheel into Crediton my only thoughts have turned to food, any food will do, food that I can chew, food that I can swallow, food that I can digest, and it must be washed down with at least two cups of tea. My dream cafe does not materialise Crediton is still asleep and enjoying the bank holiday. At this low point I decide to deviate from my planned route and join the busy dual carriageway on the A3072 and look for a Little Chef. This potentially suicidal change of plan pales into significance with the thought of a full English breakfast, versus the half-asleep holiday makers. Along this main road I caught up my first fellow End to Ender, he had started out the day before and had enjoyed B&B in Crediton on Sunday evening. He had finished his breakfast only half an hour ago, I could only follow him feeling jealous and hungry!
Over an hour was spent in the Little Chef it was busy but I didn’t care I had eaten some food. I say I didn’t care, that is until I went to the toilet and looked in the mirror, my face was white with salt from sweating, also sporting bags under my eyes and God knows what I smelt like. The sun was up as I pushed on towards Tiverton, cycling in shirt and shorts I was enjoying myself again. Riding in rolling countryside now I was cruising around 20 M.P.H. feeling strong and motivated.
Approaching Bristol the traffic build up made the roads hectic and I soon decided to use the well signposted cycle routes. Your life would be short if you travelled by bike in rush hour choosing to compete with the heavy traffic. The Sustrans specifically developed cycle routes took me down the banks of the river Avon past climbers negotiating the sheer rock face in front of the Clifton Suspension bridge and onto Avonmouth.
I had now become conscious of a sore backside inevitable you might think, but totally unexpected to me so early on in this expedition. Never mind, I had packed some Vaseline for soothing those parts. A spoke broke; the rear wheel began to oscillate so I stopped for some quick repairs. I looked for the Vaseline after replacing the spoke and in disbelief I realised I’d packed Vic Vapour Rub. Now being a Technician I weighed up my options, my backside was killing me. Vic Vapour Rub and Vaseline are both petroleum based. They both look the same; they do indeed smell different but what the hell! So now I can reliably inform you that on applying Vic Vapour Rub to the area in question if nothing else you will certainly know where the sore patches are! The bonus to this application is that you end up smelling like a proper racing cyclist!
In the distance I could see the Severn Suspension Bridge, still on cycle tracks I crossed the River Severn on my way to Chepstow it was to be my first stop of this adventure. I had not picked the best of days for B&B hunting as this was a Chepstow horse race week end. I finally took refuge in a pub in town for a very reasonable £20. It was 3.30 P.M. I had covered 220 miles and averaged 14 M.P.H. But before I could relax my cycling gear had to be washed as I was travelling light. What a sweet sensation the shower was, this was to be my only relaxing stop, and it was sheer luxury, a whole evening to recover.
Why do I wake up before the alarm? One of those annoying habits picked up from working the last 30 years, its 6 A.M. To pack all your worldly possessions into a day bag attached to your pannier takes a few minutes, but the clothes I washed last night are not thoroughly dry, so I decide to hang out my shorts to dry, fastened by a bungee strap to the day bag. Breakfast dished up by the landlord was too much for me and I ended up using the trash can to finish off the sausages. This trash can came in the convenient shape of a pet Labrador.
Exactly on cue at 7 A.M. I leave Chepstow and head down the A449, past Tintern Abbey following the River Wye to Monmouth, a lovely route used by many cyclists. In just over an hour I was in Monmouth and it was busy. Taking the A466 I climbed on my way to Hereford, but I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. On one hand the terrain made riding out of the saddle essential to climb the many hills and that in itself was hard work with my tired legs. On the other hand, what a relief to my poor sore backside! The road continued to Ludlow where I bought some spare spokes, a lovely town but there is no time for looking round, a quick photo and on again.
As the landscape flattens out towards Shrewsbury I happen across another fellow End to Ender, he is on a sit up and beg hybrid and is tackling the distance at approx. 50 miles a day. If he hadn’t already got the tee shirt proclaiming his intended goal I would not have given him a second look. I slowed down for a chat; we were travelling at 12 M.P.H. he seemed unsure as to whether he could get to the top of Scotland. I must say when he told me that he had already cheated twice with a bus ride I also had my doubts. But he had a month to achieve his dream, I wonder?
The riding gets easier now as you leave the Midlands and head for Lancashire my speed is often over 20 M.P.H. as the wind assisted, flat and straight roads fly by. Approaching Warrington I meet the first End to Ender last seen around Crediton we travel along together after I have fitted my spare folding tyre, having suffered a blow out. My woes were just beginning, on removing my bum bag I dropped my new camera, the casing shatters. Then I realise my Didcot Phoenix top had blown away off it’s temporary drying line. I am now behind schedule and my friend has nearly reached his day’s destination, so I ride away wishing him luck, his schedule is two days longer than mine.
Preston is reached by 6.30 P.M. a local rider appears and we begin to chat. He seems to have genuine respect for my plight and using his excellent route knowledge guides me safely through the busy commuting travellers. I regularly make excuses for only travelling at 18 M.P.H, but he insists it’s a recovery ride and any help must be worthwhile. I wave goodbye to my last cycling companion for the day but I still have 35 miles to my target of Levens before 10 P.M.
The plan was to ring my father who lives nearby, to pick me up enabling me to spend the night with my parents with all the expected motherly love I need. Apparently Dad missed me and drove to Lancaster before turning, eventually picking me up at 11 P.M. I had been waiting for one and a half hours! I was cold, tired and extremely hungry. I didn’t get to bed till after 1 A.M. a shower, some food and of course they wanted to hear of my exploits on the 460 miles so far.
The alarm was needed to arouse me from a very short sleep, not much appetite for breakfast but I now had a new supply of powdered food. Thank God my Mother had bought a different flavour to the last two days, it could make you suicidal! My parents now insisted that I borrowed their camera to record the second half of this ride. They take a photo of me sitting in thoughtful pose; I look like a guy at the end of his tether not someone with over 440 miles left to ride.
At 7.30 A.M. I reluctantly say goodbye to my parents and head for Coniston to take me through the countryside I was brought up in. The respect I have for such beauty is highlighted by the clear blue skies and warm summer morning. By midday I am entering the outskirts of Carlisle, I hear a horn blaring and turn to see my Father on his motorbike. He had ridden the 60 miles to bring me my heart rate monitor, I hadn’t the heart to tell him I had discarded its usefulness some time ago as my heart rate had seemed stuck at 130 beats /minutes for most of yesterday, such is fatigue.
I took an hour out of my day to enjoy a cafe stop with Dad; I was to pay for this later. Every time I stop it gets harder to recommence my journey. Unfortunately I know exactly what is to come from now on as I have ridden this route on a motorcycle some years earlier. Following the A7, I turn at Langholm, this part of the journey has been dull and flat, my backside has had enough!
My route now deviates to climb over barren moorland, mostly traffic free to pass through Davington onto Innerleithen, I was at my lowest ebb at this point, my average speed was dropping due to the terrain and I could see my expected E.T.A. for the day getting stretched, another late night, but there is nowhere up here to escape, you must keep going. Through Penicuik I am boosted by the thought of descents I suppose you must meet sometime.
It is 5 P.M. as I enter Edinburgh the city for cyclists. Is it me or are the many acclaimed cycling routes a mirage? I spend the best part of two hours crossing, re-tracing and generally getting wound up trying to find a route over the Forth Road Bridge. At one point I stop to take a photo only to realise I have now lost my Mothers camera, probably left on a wall near Peebles when I stopped for some food. Now it starts raining as I cycle across this splendid suspension bridge, but it gets worse, I am terrified as I have to join what is effectively a motor way, in a rainstorm at the busiest time of the day.
A Police car pulls up and offers an alternative to this road. It must be dangerous for him to be so concerned, I turn off and head for Innerkeithing. Tonight’s stop had been planned with an old member of our Club, Doug Pearson. He resides at Cupar but insisted he could rescue me at up to a fifty mile radius. Yes this is now within that range so I call him. My progress is increasingly laboured and it’s now going dark, I am completely shattered and running on auto pilot. It seems an eternity before Doug meets me at Kelty. The time is 9 P.M. I am 20 miles short of my planned goal, I am aware that this leg would have to be made up tomorrow.
Doug and Jane are kindness itself, nothing is too much trouble. After a shower I am treated to a large pasta meal and we spend time catching up on gossip and my exploits. Doug is himself a veteran of long distance cycling events; in fact we used to take part together when he lived in Milton Village. A serious back injury has prevented Doug from cycling for some considerable time but he is now gingerly putting a few miles in. Bed at midnight, an early night, but I knew the alarm would shock me into life at 6.30 a.m. to build on the 660 miles cycled so far, I quickly fell asleep.
Doug ran me back to Kelty and I waved goodbye, he had driven over 100 miles in all out of his way in order to help me, thanks. An overcast sky which threatened rain was disheartening, but the strong cross wind and the extra 22 miles from yesterday, not forgetting the sore bum were to lower my spirits. I was now riding on will power only. At least the immediate terrain was flat and interesting to Perth and on to the Bridge of Cally.
This deviation (from the normal End to End route which follows the notorious A9) was a decision borne from talking to other successful ‘Enders’. Five people in 1999 had lost their lives braving motorway conditions, but I am told work is currently ongoing to offer a lifeline to cyclists and walkers alike.
I pass through the Spittal of Glenshee the climbing is un relenting, after all, this is the centre of Scottish skiing, the scenery is truly awesome. But I have no camera; please don’t say I’ll have to do this all again sometime. Balmoral is full of retired people, bussed in to reside in some very expensive looking Hotels. The shops are unsurprisingly full of the usual Royal Family memorabilia rubbish plus some extremely expensive blankets, kilts and other traditional Scottish wares. The Castle and Chapel we all see on Christmas day as the Royals celebrate Christmas are some way from Balmoral village but the ride is beautiful. It was here I had a difficult decision to make. The road I had planned to use was closed due to bridge repairs, the alternative route would add a conservative 65 miles to my journey.
The next two hours were spent grovelling upwards and onwards towards this bridge. This was the hardest, most remote area I had yet negotiated. I began to realise that this could be the worst decision of my life. I doubted whether I would have had the energy to retrace if the Bridge had been truly blocked. Also there was nobody around if I got into trouble; the hills were so steep I was reduced to pushing at times. I descended towards Tomintoil and there was the bridge in question. Yes it was impassable but workmen were busy pouring concrete, it would take some negotiating to get over. The guys were great and manoeuvred a plank across the divide and I cautiously crossed the River.
What a relief to be safely on my way it was now 4.30 P.M. with still forty miles yet to go to reach Inverness. This was the shortest leg of my escapade but was proving as expected to be tough as I was completely exhausted. Still as yesterday what goes up must come down; it was a relief to freewheel down to the A96. The rain came down again, daylight began to fade, and gale force winds battered me all the way to Inverness. This ten mile stretch took just over an hour such was my state of fitness. More by luck than judgement I found a B&B with a Beefeater next door. A shower and food were high on my priority list. What a relief to sit in a restaurant and fill my empty stomach I was so fulfilled I nearly forgot to ring home! 780 miles completed.
The last 120 miles were now ahead of me, it nearly proved too much for my backside again, but mind over matter! The road out of Inverness is flat following the coastline and the railway line which I would use on Saturday. I was now riding on auto pilot with little or no regard for the scenery around me. I remember the cakes I enjoyed around 11A.M. in Brora. I remember the steep cliffs which have to be negotiated and the two locally baked pies I devoured in Wick.
But most of all as everyone warned me the 23 miles from Wick to John O’Groats is the worst experience of the whole journey. It is as if Scotland wants you to stay away hampering you further with a strong headwind to finally test your resolve. It took over 2 hours to finally see my ultimate destination and the reason for all this hardship
It was indeed a dream come true to freewheel into John O’Groats and at least it wasn’t raining! Paramount in my plans now, was to catch a bus to Thurso 25 miles away? I quickly dived into the information office it was 4.45 P.M. The last bus would leave for Thurso at 5.05 P.M. Ten minutes were all I had to savour my personal achievement, no tears, no emotions, just relief it was all over. I had set out to complete the 900 miles in less than 115 hours I managed it with four hours to spare.
Standing at the bus shelter I began talking to an Australian couple on vacation and visiting their son in England. Nan insisted in taking my photo as I must have some memorial to my adventure. The bus arrived everyone got on but when I attempted to alight with my bike I received a firm rebuff. The small mini bus had no provision for bikes! The passengers began to back up my pathetic pleading for a lift, presenting my case of cycling 900 miles in five days. Not having eaten for over three hours, the strong headwind I would encounter all the way to Thurso had no effect.
Suddenly I realised it was going to be a long ride to Thurso. As a last resort I asked the driver where he would put my cases if I had any, because my bike without wheels would be no more an obstacle on his bus. He relented and I was dropped in Thurso at 6.P.M. – B&B for £20 in a lovely house within walking distance of the station. I was destined not to ride my bike again for three days and there were no guilty feelings.
I dedicate this account to Nan and Hol Gallagher it was nice to talk to you both and share family stories on that short journey. But more than everything thanks for taking my photo and sending it on. It is now such an important picture to me and I never did see my Mothers camera again.