Why I’m cycling Lands End to John o’ Groats
There are a handful of cycling challenges in the UK that enjoy a certain status – the Sea to Sea route, Hadrian’s Cycleway, the Caledonia Way, London to Paris and, perhaps topping them all, Land’s End to John o’ Groats.
It’s a challenge I’d personally wanted to take on for some time because, although I’ve done the odd trip between cities, I’ve ridden very few of the classic, longer-distance challenges, and never an ‘end to end’.
Because I don’t have that thing where if I start something I have to finish it, if I’m not enjoying a ride, I’ll happily just stop.
I wanted to take on something I couldn’t back down on – after all, you can hardly say you have cycled LEJOG if you actually haven’t done the whole thing.
What’s more, I’m doing the organised, mass-participation version, the Deloitte Ride Across Britain (RAB), which tackles a 960-mile route in just nine days in mid-September. There’s a start and finish point each day and the organisers provide pitstops for food, and accommodation, in the form of a tent village that appears each night. It will be hard to cut any of the days short, as a result.
I’m accustomed to touring, where I cycle as far as I feel and pitch up at the nearest campsite or B&B, so riding lighter and faster, over a longer distance each day, and with hundreds of other riders, will be an interesting new experience.
To see the country
One of the best things about cycling – as well as the cake! – is the way it lets you see your surroundings at a pace you can take them in, while you’re outside in the elements.
Every time I’ve cycled in Britain I’m struck by just how much there is to see within relatively short distances – how our compact landscape, packed with fascinating people and natural wonder, history, terrain and architecture, lends itself so well to travelling by bike. I love the idea of seeing it, if not in its entirety, then as a cross-section, starting in Cornwall, ascending the mighty Dartmoor (the Devon day is the hilliest by far, I’m told), before crossing the Severn Bridge into Wales and eventually Scotland, to the Highlands, and right to John o' Groats.
I want to stand, as others I’ve seen, beside that windswept sign atop the hat of Britain, victorious – having had a continuous dialogue with the country, so to speak.
To challenge myself
On a personal level, challenges are things I’ve taken on sporadically, and in a kind of arms-length way I admit to hitherto applying to other parts of my life. I very deliberately want to be a bit more wholehearted about the things I enjoy, and cycling is one of those things. So, to get knee deep, even up to my neck in a cycling challenge, is part of that.
Cycling 100-odd miles a day for nine days is not something you can take on half-heartedly. Or, perhaps it is, but you would probably sorely regret a lack of preparedness come day two, let alone days three, four or five.
I’d partially been inspired by Angellica Bell, who spoke at this year’s London Bike Show about taking on Tour de Celeb in 2016, in which eight TV personalities ride a stage of the Tour de France, aka the Etape du Tour. Having not learned to cycle as a child, she had just eight weeks to prepare to ascend four alpine passes, including the Col de la Colombière and the Joux-Plane. I admire her, not least when she admitted at the show she couldn’t even stand up on the pedals when she completed the ride. I put my hand up and asked her about goal setting, and she said it was just something she had always done – and they were often big goals.
To set goals
Regardless of who you are, goals are a good thing – something evidence shows we respond particularly well to. And the bigger the goals we set ourselves, the more we can achieve. As someone who doesn’t habitually set goals for myself, I wanted in on those benefits.
But even without the worthy reason of a goal, I hoped cycling the length of the country would be fun.
Weeks after I’d got the place on RAB, I met up with Emily Chappell, co-founder of the all-female ultra-cycling supergroup the Adventure Syndicate. A woman who has made it her mission to encourage other women to take on cycling challenges, she had a lot of useful advice to offer, some of which I can share in the next blog instalment.
I was a little jittery, realising for the first time the scale of what I’d just agreed to take on, and wondering if I’d be equal to the challenge. Emily was encouraging, and reminded me that, no matter where I started, fitness-wise, there were plenty of people who, like Angellica, will have only taken up cycling that year – and the vast majority will finish it. Regardless, she said, I will find I get fitter day by day. And I will hopefully surprise myself.
It’s certainly a nervy prospect – the date is edging inexorably closer, and as I write this, I’m a few weeks into a training plan, which I’ve largely stuck to so far. I’m beginning to learn a bit more about myself, about fuelling my rides, about pacing, about listening to my body.
I’m realising it won’t be a challenge merely in terms of turning the pedals for 960 miles of road, it will be managing the mental fallout that comes from tiredness; it will be about remembering to eat enough, especially important when I’m burning an extra couple of thousand calories per day.
I’m putting together the foundations for the challenge – and I have to say, making progress towards a goal already feels good. I’m excited about what the next few weeks will bring. Watch this space…