All you need is one gear, even for an epic trip
Is it ever too late to blog? Maybe it is, but I have been busy ever since I posted the last news. Apparently it has been a pretty mediocre summer in terms of the weather, but mine has been the busiest since six years, and one of the best as well. One of the reasons is that I could actually take time off not working for any of the Edinburgh festivals this year. As much as I had to shed a tear for that, as much did I enjoy my first proper holiday ever since I left NZ in 2009. 2.5 weeks off work, all spent on two wheels. I had a good schedule to fulfil, at least in the first days. For no apparent reason I set myself the goal in May to pack in an iconic British journey on the bike before my 32 birthday. It was the crown in one of the best years I had cycling so far, starting off with the (rather crazy) journey back home in December, followed by two stunning rides through the Highlands in January, with cycling a personal best of 165km in winter conditions. This was followed by some nasty injuries, but I managed to break all personal bests on my trip back to Germany with the race bike, and certainly had an appetite for more after such a great start in the beginning of summer. The toughest adventure still was the 424km ride from Edinburgh to Floodigarry, which is unbeaten in being the most incredible day I ever had so far on a bike.
But doing almost 900 miles from Britain’s most most South Westerly corner to its dullest place in the North East of Scotland on a singlespeed was the hardest long-distance trip I tackled so far, but certainly one of the most rewarding ones as well.
The whole trip started, as all my journeys, with things going wrong. This time they really went wrong, so I had to rebook trains to start with. Maybe I should simply stay away from fixing bikes very last minute, especially from changing bottom brackets (Ian knows why). On the upside I had one more day in Edinburgh to get ready, and from then on all things just worked out. So on Thursday night I was on the sleeper train down to London Euston. The first day was spent with a 110km prologue down to Brighton to catch up with my sister’s family, before taking another sleeper train to Penzance, this time with frequent changes, which didn’t really leave any time for proper sleep. The fact that I carried a bike box with me all the time did make logistics a bit of a pain, but it all worked out at the end (you will read that sentence much more in this post). So there I was, 8am in the morning, without proper sleep for two nights, ready to descent on Land’s End to start an iconic bike ride. With one gear, and a great appetite for adventure!
I didn’t ride for any charitable cause (even though you can still donate for my last trip here), I contacted no press, I couldn’t be bothered to tweet along the way, I was just cycling, eating, sleeping, chatting and taking pictures. Heaps of all, maybe not the sleep! I had the time of my life. And I only had one gear, a rather simple bike and six days to get up to the finish. I had no fancy GPS, just a basic map from Hertz with no great detail, but I was so hungry for that journey that no obstacle could stop me. I started with glorious weather in Land’s End and had the sunshine almost all the way with me. Not a single person overtook me, even the ones with proper geared bikes had no idea of how much you can actually move with sheer willpower. In the end that’s what singlespeeds are about. Some of the people tried their best to keep up, most of them failed. You either have gears, or you have so much ambition and drive that you don’t need them, even when you hit a 13% ascent. Six days later I was in John o’Groats, with a big smile on my face, taking the piss of the man who wanted me to charge for his bloody sign.
The first day was a massive drag. The lack of sleep didn’t make it better, and half way through I found myself sleeping in the ditch next to a dual carriageway in Cornwall. On the upside most of the traffic was heading in the other direction, and as much as I hate busy roads, I had no other choice than to take the A30 up to Okehampton. It was as hilly as I expected Cornwall and Devon to be, so I accepted my fate and kept pushing over those hills in good fashion. Spotting a place called Wellington on the map made it easier to carry on after Okehampton, just for the sake of getting some nice shots to send them down to New Zealand, at least I was riding proudly in my new iRIDE kit, which did an amazing job throughout the journey (and I still love my On Yer Bike kit as well). I passed Wellington and had to remember all the good times I had riding with my mates down in its New Zealand counterpart. After pushing on I ended up in the middle of nowhere in North Petteron, with 278km on the computer and a lovely B&B to rest. It was a great day, I was knackered and longing for some sleep, and looking forward to a nice breakfast in the morning. I had no problems with my knees, otherwise I couldn’t have hammered down an impressive 26.5 km/h to start with, and for the first time I felt that the 300km on the singlespeed would be a possible thing to do.
The biggest surprise on the next day was Shropshire, where I ended up after a another 214km on the next day. The sheer beauty of the hills in the evening sun blew my mind away, and was one of those moments that made all the work worthwhile. The first bit of the day was quite hard, I didn’t expect Bristol to be that hilly, but I was proven wrong. Wales was a welcome change from England for a while, but the end was still the most memorable bit of the day. Taking many pictures made me lose the battle against the opening of supermarkets on Sundays in Church Stretton, so the chippy was the place to go. The Ortlieb saddlebag (which did hold all my belongings during the day) was great to carry a veggie burger and chips, and I enjoyed the luxury of having a whole bunkhouse for myself while eating ‘dinner’.
Day three began with an early start, with the 300km looming in front of me. After a freezing start I quickly warmed up on the way to Shrewsbury, where the first cookies and a cold coffee made up for breakfast. It was another brilliant day, with blue skies contributing much to my tan lines, and I couldn’t believe my luck with the weather. The unofficial target was to reach Carlisle, just a few miles off the Scottish border. My official target was Kendal. Cycling from Shrewsbury northbound was rather dull and dangerous (proof in the picture), the only highlight was Preston, where I rode with a guy from the British Cycling Team for the next Olympics for a few miles. Keeping up with him on a singlespeed made my day, and with the built-up motivation I made it to Kendal with enough time to tackle the way to Carlisle. The toughest job was to find a place to stay at night after 313km on the bike, but again things worked out (again). I couldn’t be bothered to leave the house any more, so diner was postponed until the next morning, as the advantage of B&Bs was the luxury of a full breakfast, which was enough to feed two, or me!
After a few miles I reached the Scottish border on the next day. I had stopped at a bike shop to get some fresh air in my tyres where they had a book of people that did the same trip I did, but mostly on geared bikes. Most of the unsupported attempts took 14 days, the supported ones nine. Mine was meant to take six, I had only one gear and no backup crew. The guys in the shop were rather fascinated. A bit of me was fascinated as well, but I couldn’t wait to be back in bonnie Scotland, so after a short chat I was back in the routine, back in riding mode, thinking about where to get the next pack of cookies, a milkshake and some bananas, my diet was as simple as my bike and my map. I managed to circumnavigate Edinburgh as good as I could, but it was the trickiest thing on the whole trip. Maybe Sustrans should invest in some proper signs pointing you in right direction, instead of the many ‘Cyclists Dismount’ signs that make us all look like idiots. Right directions on intersections would do a better job. Another highlight of the day was a good carrot cake and a latte at the Hub in Glentress, to pay tribute to all staff that will be forced to leave soon. And then I was on my way to Kinross, where I was welcomed by Lee, who had kindly arranged a room for the night. A double room, with a space for me and my bike. The dinner with Lee’s family was brilliant, and I even had a few sips of wine, while my gear got a bit tighter in the tumble dryer after lazy 203km that day.
If you have ever cycled on the A9 in Scotland you might know the feeling I was waking up to in the morning. But there was no excuse, the end was getting nearer and nearer, and I woke up to some glorious sunshine again. A thing I knew already was that I had picked exactly the right week to cycle, but luck comes with great commitment, and I certainly was committed to finish the whole thing the next day. Passing Drumochter felt great, as it meant I was now properly beyond the Scottish Lowlands, not far form the capital of the Highlands, Inverness. It was way too warm that day, and the slog up Slochd Pass to Inverness almost broke me, but then again the journey was worth all hardships, and there weren’t many either. I avoided Inverness as best as I could, and left the A9 near Alness, as I couldn’t be bothered any more, thanks to ruthless car drivers, honking lorry drivers and a variety of other idiots on the road. I remembered the side road I took from 2006 when I cycled with with my friend Martin, the year when all the crazy biking started. I have found memories and could even remeber the spot where I was having a rest back in that year, only to be woken up by a good rain shower. It was sunny and beautiful now, with another stunning evening that ended after 278km in a nice B&B near Dornoch.
Poached eggs were my final breakfast before tackling the remaining 130km up to John o’Groats, but the rather hilly roads made this short day feel like a long one. The most challenging bit was to spot a lovely downhill bit near Barrydale, only to be followed by the same gradient, maybe higher, on the other side. I had cycled everything till then, and that was enough to tackle the 13% uphill, in a rather slow speed, but still cycled. After this first challenge the wind picked up and I had to battle some drops of rain. And the depressing streets of Wick were not so enjoyable, definitely not a place to be, but it has some supermarkets to stock up. It all didn’t matter tough, I was only kilometres away from finishing what I had expected to be my toughest ever ride so far. I had my own prejudices against that place, and most of them were true. Finishing an epic ride like this with been asked for a donation to take a picture in front of a tacky tourist sign was too much. But sitting in the grass with a big smile and the feeling that nothing in the world could bother me was just gear. The cafe was the only palce which was not overpriced tourist crap, so I got myself a nice cuppa and celebrated the evening with some folk I met that just stared the ride. I was still 31, about to turn 32, and felt 10 years younger (apparently regular cycling make your body 10 years younger, so I had my 22nd birthday).
While sitting on a grassy patch I saw many folk finishing the same thing I did. Some of them had ridiculously looking jerseys, some of them a whole entourage to greet them, some couldn’t cycle any more due to the amount of posh electrical devices on their bikes, helmets and wherever. I had none of those, only a singlespeed bike an myself. I had nothing but a great time and didn’t regret a single kilometre of the journey. I had done it all for myself, but mostly for my sheer love of cycling. I was committed to the trip from the very first beginning, but I had no time to plan anything beforehand.I remembered a quote I had read so many times: ‘Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back– Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.’
If you plan on doing the ride yourself, just do it. Don’t waste your time planning it, the true magic lies in the cycling, not in any planning, fund raising or blogging about your once-in-a-lifetime experience. I was bold enough to take only one gear and a simple bike, and it was a great trip.
Here are the pictures