Well, I suppose you already know how it ends, but as ever there’s slightly more to the story than that. Apologies for the long post, but 3G is a little hard to come by in the Highlands of Scotland and there’s quite a lot to tell.
That said, to spare you too much detail, after my last update from Penrith I started feeling ill and ended up spending most of that night in the bathroom. I couldn’t face any breakfast and at the start line I was tired, cold and decidedly under fuelled. Luckily it was another clear morning as we headed up through the Carlisle traffic and on towards Gretna via the obligatory photo stop at the border crossing. At the first pit stop at the wonderfully named Ecclefechan, and after reacquainting myself with the inside of a portaloo, we met up with some of the other Guernsey riders and formed a pretty efficient train that I was grateful to disappear into the middle of whilst someone else did the hard work on the front.
The roads gradually deteriorated as we meandered through the Clyde Valley towards the Glasgow suburbs, and it eventually became like riding on cobbles whilst being repeatedly punched in the stomach. By this stage I was reduced to just concentrating on holding the wheel in front rather than holding a conversation, and after vibrating a couple of teeth loose, the shrapnel like surface finally resulted in my only puncture of the trip about 20 miles from the finish at Hamilton. Although other Alex stayed with me, the rest of our train disappeared into the distance, and I probably reached my lowest point of the whole trip as my tiredness, illness and the road surface all became too much. Despite Alex’s best efforts, I spent the rest of the ride swearing at anything and everything and generally being thoroughly miserable company (what’s new?).
The next day was the Queen stage – 127 miles and 8,000 ft of climbing as the route took us into the Highlands. I set off with the same group of Guernsey riders but it soon split up on the first climb as we headed into the Trossachs and I found myself on my own for most of the first 45 miles as I paced myself to try and get to the finish. Just after passing through Calandar several sirens sped by up the road and I was flagged down by a couple of riders at a layby who had been told by the Police to stop all riders at that point.
As you may have heard, there had unfortunately been a fatal accident about 15 miles up the road involving one of the Lloyds Bank team which resulted in the road being closed for several hours. As more and more riders turned up, we moved up to a Loch-side cafe a couple of miles up the road where the news filtered through that the day’s ride had been cancelled and the 650 or so riders stuck on the road were to be bussed the remaining 80 miles to Fort William (much to the relief of the woman at the cafe who, having served more people in 3 hours than she must see in a year, was verging on a nervous breakdown).
Another dreadful night spent traipsing back and forth across a damp field to a portaloo saw me set out on a subdued day 8 at a steady pace with Tim from CycleWorld, the Guernsey newlyweds and a nice chap called Chris who they’d ridden with the previous day. The grey mist that hid the top of Ben Nevis at the departure gradually lifted as we headed up the Great Glen towards Loch Ness, passing the time by encouraging passing lorry drivers to give us a supportive honk of their horns.
A tactical ‘rest stop’ at a pub just short of Inverness was a welcome relief, before we meandered through the Saturday traffic (inspecting people’s car boots to see what they’d been buying for tea), and on to the oil rig graveyard that is the Moray Firth. The terrain gradually started rolling as much as my stomach, and the final long descent into the fog that was creeping up the Kyle of Sutherland was a fantastic way to end a very enjoyable day’s riding through some breathtaking scenery.
A full night’s sleep for the first time in ages left me feeling much better for the final day, but I headed off early on my own as I wasn’t sure how much strength I had left in me after being unable to keep any food inside me for more than 4 hours for the last 3 days. Boosted by the best flapjack of the whole trip at a midgie infested stop in Altnaharra, a superb ride up the River Naver watching the otters and eagles along the roadside (alive, I hasten to add!) followed before I reached the coast, where the landscape became more barren and even the sheep looked at you as if to say “you’re mad”.
A stiff cross wind made the final undulating 50 miles tough going, and after 90 miles on my own I was glad that I managed to join up with a couple of other riders as we turned up the hill out of Thurso for the final 15 mile slog down some achingly dull roads into John O’Groats, truly way beyond the arse end of nowhere.
I don’t know whether it’s because I’m so tired, the fact that not everyone who set off made it safely to JOG (and consequently I was unable to ride those 80 miles), but I feel a little bit underwhelmed to be honest. I’ve cycled further than the official distance between LE and JOG, seen some wonderful scenery, and have raised a fair amount of money for charity, so maybe a sense of achievement will sink in later this week when I’m back at my desk in the office retelling tales of potholes avoided.
For once it’s not me being deliberately modest, but after everything that happened I’m just grateful to be home safe and sound. After all, it was only a bike ride wasn’t it?