Posts Tagged ‘John O’Groats’

1,480km in cycling through the British winter

1,500km in cycling through the British winter

Right, we are still waiting for the hard drive and the CF card to come back along with the recovered data. The good news from the technical guys looking into it is that they will be able to recover the data. Great news, really, as imagining losing all of those photographs and videos is really not a very nice thought at all. Just when we will get everything back is another question. There are loads of posts that I want to write, but I think it would not be so good without some of the photos I want to show – just a short clip of the hellish conditions on the final day of cycling would be nice! But no, not until we get back all the recovered data. I just hope that no files have been corrupted…

On the start line... 1,500km to go..!

On the start line… 1,500km to go..!

So for now, here are a few pictures taken from the course of the winter ride from Land’s End to John O’Groats (excluding the final day, which is the time from when no files had been downloaded from the drive). It was an incredible experience all round, really. I feel (justifiably, I think!) quite proud of myself and Natalia, though at the same time a little worried about Paulo and his knee – as I mentioned in an earlier post, this would need to be sorted out as we definitely don’t want a repeat of that on the expedition itself – hopefully there is no long-lasting problem. Coming back to the positives, however, and it was great as at the end of the day (though I had a couple of problems with my knee early into the ride before I got by saddle height sorted out), we both felt like we would have been able to just keep going indefinitely; a feeling that bodes well both psychologically and physically for the main expedition to come.

Plenty more training to come,  however (next one will be in the Arctic circle for a month or so, and also there are thoughts about returning to Bolivia as well as plans for a traverse of the Greenland ice-cap…!), so please keep following and supporting! It is great to have your support for the project particularly because we have never done anything like this in the past and we are learning all the time to make a dream (a particularly ambitious dream, mind!) come true…!

Naty e Ben em John O'Groats

We did it!!! Completed the Land’s End – John O’Groats route, through the British winter! Tiring, but at the end of it all… great fun and I guess we are pretty pleased with ourselves!

First of all, however, apologies for the time it has taken to post this, and for the lack of photos: when writing this post, the hard drive with all the photos and video (300GB or so) fell on the floor just as we were about to make a backup and was damaged. Typical timing, really. That was almost a week ago – I wanted to post this with some video and pictures of the final day, so the morning after it was damaged, we took it to a place to try to recover the data (don’t really care about the hard drive; just want the photos and video!!), however, they are still working on it. Enormously frustrating. So no photos or video for a bit, though hopefully this week we will know something at least. So here’s praying that we will recover some/all of it. (The photo posted is one we just saved onto the computer earlier… at least it’s something, though!)

But anyway… yes! We did it!

Route to John O'GroatsThe last day was short and was meant to be a walk in the park, as it were. 15km… 7 or 8 miles… easy, huh?

It was… painful. Winds of around 35 miles per hour, occasionally from the side, occasionally tail-winds… and on the way back from the end point, directly into our heads… Painful. There was snow… it wasn’t falling: it was going horizontally. On the flats where we had a tail wind, we were cruising at 50 kmph without even pedaling… When the winds were coming from the side, we had to ride diagonally into the road in order to go straight as the force of the wind really was pushing us. Then the occasional gusts stronger than ever almost caused us to go off of the road a number of times. Thankfully there was very little traffic so we were not in danger of going under anything, and the cars that did pass us; well I can imagine that the drivers must have thought we were absolute nutters riding in those conditions… and they gave us nice wide berths so as not to kill us! Even more thankfully, there was no heavy traffic at all. In some regards, we were thankful that we didn’t stay at Wick for the night as that would have meant an extra 10km or so riding, though at the same time we regretted not having completed the entire thing the evening beforehand when the conditions were nice. Ah well.

So getting to the end… in the conditions we were more worried about staying on our bikes than celebrating, so I guess we were muted in our vocals! We were probably laughing more at the whole ridiculousness of riding in that weather than realizing that we had just completed almost 1,500km… 1000 miles of riding through often treacherous and very demanding conditions…

We kissed and gave each other a hug… laughed about the conditions a bit more… stopped for a few pictures by the John O’Groats – Land’s End sign… saw another couple of people who had come by car and were taking some pictures, trying not to get blown over, and then headed back into the vicious headwinds and snow that were impossible to look ahead into.

Natalia was exhausted, not physically, but I guess more emotionally as we had finished the course, but still had to go back into that wind a little to a place where we could rest. She ended up pushing her bike the 400m to an Inn where we would stop and have a celebratory soup and coffee; I just looked directly downwards and forced myself to get there. 400 metres of probably the most painful riding I have ever done.

But… while it hadn’t really sunk in when we were at the ending sign… we had done it! wooooohhh!!!

Over the bay after HelmsdaleSo near! At the beginning of the day, we had just slightly more than 100km to ride to reach John O’Groats. We decided, however, that we would just ride to a place called Keiss, about seven miles away from our ending destination, so we would not be in any hurry to get to John O’Groats and take pictures. Keiss would be a good location to set out from in the morning so we would be able to take our time and enjoy the moment, so Keiss it would be for the night.

In Brora, we stayed at the Sutherland Inn – not the best place in the world, quite expensive and with a water system that sounded like we had some sort of monster in the bathroom whenever we went to the toilet, washed our hands, or took a shower; quite alarming really! Unfortunately (maybe because it was winter) there were not too many choices around, and this was the best place/price… It was not with heavy hearts that we left, however, in spite of the weather being overcast and quite cold in the morning.

Map Brora-KeissWe knew that we would be in for a hard day as we would be going through Helmsdale and hills surrounding this small village. My sister had warned us that the area would be quite hilly and she certainly wasn’t joking; the route planning software showed us the steep hills that we would be facing, going both up and down, and we would have to do our fair share of climbing over the course of the day. The big climbs started after around 15km of riding, though the main event was after Helmsdale at a small village called Berriedale, about 25km away from Brora. After climbing up, we had about a steady 13% descent for about two and a half kilometres, and just as soon as that was complete, we had a 13% climb back up over the next two and a half kilometres, with a respite of about 20 metres flat at the bottom. Unfortunately, with the descent, it was difficult to go too fast because of the curves and damp roads which made it slightly hazardous. There were tight curves in the road in the climb up, where drivers of large trucks really had to concentrate to get round. We were told that accidents along that road are pretty common, so we were glad that nothing went skidding out of control when we were on it…

After these climbs, and a few further climbs gradually getting less and less severe, it became straightforward, with flats towards Wick that we were able to cycle along at a pretty brisk pace. The main problem was that there weren’t really many places around where we could grab a warm drink or bite to eat. We ended up passing via a place called Lybster – a place that was one of the most desolate that Natalia and I had seen. All of the very few cafés and restaurants were closed, very little life was around to be seen, and we were grateful to find a Costcutter where we could grab a coffee and shelter a bit from the bitter wind.

It was about 4pm by the time we finally got to Keiss; possible to get to John O’Groats by dark, even. However, as I said, we wanted to take our time. So it was a nice end to the day; we knew we were pretty much in walking distance … just 15 kilometres or so to go. The hardest parts had all been done  and we were just about to reach our final objective, in accordance with our schedule. The only thing that could make things hard for us was the weather, which was not meant to be so good over the next day… and just like my sister wasn’t kidding about those Helmsdale hills, the forecast was not kidding at all about what we would face when we woke up…

The beginning of the journey

The beginning of the journey

It turned out that Paulo arrived this morning at 3am, and with his bike still in a box and with our bikes still needing maintenance, we decided that it would be best dedicating the day to maintenance and also riding around Land’s End – taking advantage of good weather to film and take some pictures. Fortunately the damage to the bikes from the flights wasn’t too hard to deal with in the daylight and it didn’t take too long to sort out once we got down to it, so we’re in good shape for the start of the journey which we have put off until tomorrow. Ultimately, we have actually started the ride – just all of 2km from the start point at Land’s End to a little way along the A30 which is part of the route to Penzance, before we turned off down towards a beach, and with that in mind, we took all of our gear anyway down to the Land’s End sign to pose for the cameras..!

The slight delay won’t be the end of the world – we will just not have a day off in Bristol. The good thing with Bristol is that when we go through there, it will be on a day that we won’t be riding very far – just 50km, so we will be able to stop there and wander around a little. It really does look a beautiful city and it would be nice to spend more time there, but ah well, needs must…

Flying high with a stunt kite by Land's End

Flying high with a stunt kite by Land’s End

I also got a stunt kite! Nice long 2m wing-span, light-weight, carbon-fibre HQ Sports kite… (Ordered and arrived just the moment we left my brother’s house in London!!!) It will be a bummer riding around with it as it is long even when packed up, but at least very thin so we have worked out a decent way of carrying it (on the top of the baggage rack and just running over the central span of the bike frame, not interfering with my riding).

It’s a beautiful thing – nicely acrobatic and can fly in some pretty strong winds. We got an opportunity to fly it just near the Land’s End direction sign. A lot of fun, and it brought back a load of memories when I was a kid, but quite tough – it really does pull! Got it doing circles and a few tricks, but unfortunately, just as I was getting into it, one of the knots which wasn’t done properly let loose meaning that as the kite came to ground, it did so doing circle after circle, getting the lines all twisted up..! Hmmm! It is now in treatment (Natalia is the only one capable of untangling these things!) and hopefully it will be fully fit to fly another day…!

But still a bit more needed:

The good news is that Paulo’s bike arrived along with all his gear. We were starting to think the worst in that without any receipts for it all, it could easily have gone for walkies with someone looking for a new means of transportation, but fortunately it all came in over the course of the day. He wasn’t able to travel with us to Penzance, though, but it arrived in time for him to get the 7pm train from London, meaning he will get to the place here in Land’s End (the Land’s End Hostel and Bed and Breakfast by the way for anyone thinking about doing this ride in the future: great place, good price and really nice owners who have been incredibly helpful!) by about 1am. We ourselves did arrive slightly late as the train was delayed due to signal troubles. I guess lots of trains have been affected by problems lately with the freezing weather everywhere, so I wasn’t complaining that we ended up only half an hour or so after the scheduled time, getting to Penzance station at about 5.30pm. The train ride was great as well as the snow in the countryside made it all look very beautiful outside (even when we reached areas where there was no snow, it was still very nice to watch as we sped by) and travelling during the day let us see it all.

Now, I say that an improvement in fortunes is still required. Yes, unfortunately (there always seems to be an “unfortunately” lately… sorry!) in the course of the flight over, the rear gear shifter got bent meaning that the chain, when on the largest gear, goes into the spokes of the wheel…. which is never nice. Also, problems with the brakes on one side moving, but the other side not. Which isn’t great for efficient braking…

In the morning when leaving London we were in a pretty big hurry and we needed to get the bikes setup and bags all ready to go so as to make the train, which meant that we didn’t have time to sort these problems out straight away. We got into a black cab to get us to Paddington and then when there put the bikes into the bike car at the front. We were then only able to give a real look at everything when we arrived in Penzance in the middle of a badly illuminated front area at night. After an hour or so messing around outside in the cold (they threw us out of a waiting room (though there was nobody else there at alll) because bikes aren’t allowed there) with the various bolts and screws etc, the gears and the brakes are now slightly better – the chain no longer goes into the spokes and it shifts between gears okay, and the brakes work… just not properly… so it is still not ideal. (Indeed, if anyone has any tips with sorting out brakes where only one side works, very happy to hear from you!) What we did will suffice as a temporary fix – in the day light tomorrow we will hopefully be able to sort out all the problems properly, but at worse, there is a bike shop en route at Penzance that we will be able to stop off at. So yes, from a bad start, things are looking much better and I don’t think there will be any need to deviate from the schedule now.

As my brother said, it is much better having the problems at the beginning of the ride than in the middle, so that’s a definite positive. And also, this whole thing is part of a learning process for us all, and it is certainly proving to be.

Oh and sorry not pics yet – will start getting some from tomorrow!!

Nat in one of our -40C sleeping bags - comfy!  Shouldn't get quite so cold, but once we are on the poles, this will be nice to have!

Nat in one of our -40C sleeping bags – comfy! Shouldn’t get quite so cold, but once we are on the poles, this will be nice to have!

So with this trip to the UK… hopefully the weather will let up: it was simply awful in the UK prior to Christmas with flooding in so many places and lots of damage done everywhere which is always terrible to see. It seemed  to have calmed down a bit, but now it looks like there is going to be some cold weather which will make our journey harder.

The main things that worries me are wind and then ice. The wind is more of a worry because you can pretty much depend on it to be windy in Britain during winter; when you are by the coast exposed to the Atlantic Ocean down in the south; then as you get further north into Scotland; when you are close to the sea in general… or if you are on higher land… so this just about covers 80% of the time we will be there! If we are fortunate, and the wind is behind us, then it will be a great help… if indeed we are fortunate. If not, and it is in our faces, then we will need to spend much more energy riding over the long distances – and so much more grateful to get to our daily destinations!

Weather UKIce is an increasing worry, and may soon take the place of wind, as the temperatures look to be plummeting. As the country is so windy and wet, it doesn’t normally get too icy, though the road gritters normally do a decent job in keeping the roads ice-free. But you can’t discount that possibility that the roads will be icy – especially on the eastern side of the side of the country and again, the further north you get such as in the Lake District and then the Scottish Highlands. The weather forecast for the next few days shows that the Highlands may get down to -7C… which will be tough to go through, as going fast through that kind of cold would be biting (the balaclavas will be essential!) and if grit hasn’t covered all parts of the road, or has been washed away in a previous thaw, then it will be icy. Icy roads are treacherous – on a bike you will easily lose grip and go flying if you try braking or turning, or anything really! A massive amount of care is needed to keep your eyes open for any black ice which can be lethal. Then of course you have to account for the cars passing who would have to face the same conditions themselves…

After that comes the rain with the general cold. This is something less worrying, as we think that we are pretty well equipped with the various layers, and water/wind-proof gear we have. Cold and wet conditions can be really demoralizing if you are not well prepared, and especially over long periods when you want to be in dry clothes, and even more especially together with the wind.

No matter how it does turn out, cold, windy or wet, it will be beautiful and it will be dramatic, and it will be hard. So here’s to hoping that we have done enough planning; and here’s to hoping that if things are colder than we expect, we will find good bike shops which will have extra equipment, and learn for the future!

It will be beautiful, but very tricky and hazardous

It will be beautiful, but very tricky and hazardous

Ring of Brogda, Orkney

Final destination after John O’Groats – the Orkney Islands

The next of our main training projects is coming up fast – Land’s End to John O’Groats, in the UK winter… sounds like fun..?! The route is being finalized – we are speaking to a lot of great people through warmshowers and couch surfing and it is really nice getting positive responses from them and will be a massive help. Also, I think it will make it that much more interesting as we will get to meet lots of people from across the country we probably wouldn’t have the opportunity to meet if we stay in bed & breakfasts or our own tent for the entire route. I think that many people think we are a bit nuts doing it in the winter, but I guess they are probably right! But anyway, here is an overview of the route (not with all the stopping points) – if anybody wants to join us for any of the particular days, we would be happy to chat with you and see what can be sorted out…!


There are some great places that am really looking forward to passing through – down in the south we will pass through Burnham-on-Sea, where my family and I spent a long holiday in a caravan park when I was younger, and we got a fantastic stunt kite with which I almost decapitated half a dozen people on the beach when I was learning how to fly it…!  This place is close to Bristol and Bath – towns I have never been too, but have wanted to for a long time as they are really quite beautiful places.

The Ashton Memorial, Lancaster, in summer – just a bit greener than what it will be like when we are there…!

Going north and we eventually get to Lancaster, the place where I spent most of my high school and where I worked at McDonalds (I know, I know…!) for a time saving up money for my gap year in Brazil, and for general university life; Carlisle, where I went to boarding school for a couple of years; Edinburgh – lovely city just close to my university at St. Andrews (unfortunately we won’t have time to get there – really is a nice place), and then the route up to northern Scotland through to Inverness and eventually John O’Groats at the northern-most tip. To end the journey with a bit of a romantic-ish flourish, we will pop up to the Orkney Islands and the village of Stromness, where I grew up as a toddler… even staying at the old house where we lived, which is now a guest place! Really looking forward to that – I imagine that it will be a lot smaller than I remember it: I guess I was a bit pint-sized when we left the islands on the ferry for the last time about 25 years or so ago…

We have decided what to do for our northern hemisphere winter training in January – February! It was a choice between whether to do the Polar training at Baffin Island or a cycle tour. We have chosen the latter, and will do the Polar training in early 2014, and we will be cycling from Land’s End to John O’Groats..!

A fresh and clear winter’s day looking out over Lancaster and Morecambe Bay – NOT the type of conditions we expect to face very often during this ride!

It will be one grueling journey of around 1700km, and certainly not easy that’s for sure – combating the tough elements of the British winter – wind, rain, snow, ice and a bit more wind and rain! Though the whole point is for it not to be easy: When we go on the actual expedition, we are going to meet some pretty dreadful conditions every now and then, so to prepare for the worst, we need to experience the worst, so what better than a good old British winter!?

At the same time, the terrain is varied, with good periods going through mountainous or hilly regions (the hills may be low in altitude, but they sure do take their toll on you!). Also, there are plenty of flatter areas to go through where we can cover longer distances quicker. The landscape as we go through England and Scotland are spectacular, and what’s more is that we will be camping for a good part of the journey, so the three of us we will get used to each others’ company for this journey – it’s not just the physical challenges that can be tough!

At the same time, we will be raising funds for the WWF over the course of this journey – as you may have seen from other posts, we can pretty much be described as nature lovers, and we are proud to try raising funds for an organization that seeks to help endangered animals and develop conservation and sustainability initiatives in the face of global warming. Please visit our JustGiving Page here. We hope that you will be donate generously in support of us and the WWF.