My sis Karen and I just spent the last 2.5 weeks cycling from the bottom of England (Land’s End) to the top of Scotland (John o’ Groats).
I thought I would share a couple practical notes for anyone hoping to take on the epic and amazing trip.
We started out in London, and took the train to Penzance.
PRO TIP #1: You can save a lot of ££ by booking your train tickets in advance on Trainline however, once you book your ticket, CALL immediately to book a cycle reservation! While bikes are allowed on most trains in the UK, the long-haul trips require a separate bike reservation. If you don’t have one, you may show up on the start of your trip, eager to go and end up having to immediately splash out for new tickets on a train that has space for your bikes.
I think the 6 hour train journey was the first time that I started to understand the scale of the distance we were going to cover.
The closest stations to John o’Groats are Thurso or Wick. As you can see later in our route, we took the Wick option and took the train to Nairn, as we are spending a few days in the Nairn/Inverness area to race in the Coast to Coast adventure race after which Karen will hop on a train to Glasgow to continue her travels and I will take the Caledonian Sleeper train back to London.
One of the biggest areas to prep before a trip is the stuff you are going to take along. As we were doing the LEJOG self-supported and wild camping on most nights, we needed to carry a pretty extensive list of gear – from sleeping bags, warm sleeping clothes, and basic cooking equipment. Even though we had tried to be really limited in our what we carried, the weight accumulates quickly. I was really struggling on the first days of the trip and it looked inceasingly likely that I wouldn’t be able to finish while carrying such a heavy load. Thankfully, we had planned to take a slight detour through the Peaks District in order to visit one of our favourite people (ANDREA!) in Bradford to take a rest day. We culled down our load even more at this point, shipping the stuff we needed for the race to Nairn, and leaving a few extra bits and bobs with Andrea.
PRO TIP #2: Take less! A few extra pounds can make a huge difference, particularly on the climbs. I am sure cutting weight halfway through our journey allowed me to finish. I will share a more detailed list of exactly what made the cut in a later post.
I had taken on the role of planning the route, and had spent quite a bit of time looking at what other people had done. Before the trip, I had made this google map, but we ended up diverting from that in several pretty significant ways as we went along.
The distances I had initially proposed each day were a little bit ambitious. In the end, we covered about 100km each day, with our longest day of 143km and our shortest day was around 75km.
PRO TIP #3: Avoid M roads (motorways – those are illegal to cycle on) and beware of A roads (these are the busier highways). However, sometimes avoiding A roads means taking on really hilly secondary roads.
We ended up taking a mixed approach of the “fastest route” which is mostly on the direct and flatter A routes with lots of weaving in the narrow charming country lanes. We took pretty much every canal path we could find (these tend to be quite nice, although can turn quickly from beautifully paved, double wide paths to narrow dirt paths).
I have also included the “strava” segments of the route we actually took at the end of this post. The first is our first couple days clumped together, and each of the subsequent ones are the daily route and elevation profile.
In total we covered 1,642 km (1,020 miles) and climbed 18,146 meters (59,534 feet) of elevation.
Bike maintenance and repairs
Karen and I both have basic competance in bike repair, but the most major thing that came up was rack issues. We are both on road bikes, which aren’t ideally designed for carrying a pannier rack. The attachment point on Karen’s rack was the achilles heel on our trip. It first broke on day 3 which we secured with zip ties and required a bike shop stop in Bristol a few days later. The pro repair lasted most of the trip, but the zip ties made an appearance near the end for the last few days. We astonishingly only had one puncture, but I am a pro at changing flats from my abysmall summer last year where I had a dozen flats!
PRO TIP #4: Don’t let fear of mechanical breakdown stop you. Much of the LEJOG is quite populated and if you have a repair that exceeds your abilities, there are tons of shops along the way that can give you a hand. Just pack a large handful of zip ties, just in case.
Human repairs and maintenance
For 1/3 of the trip, my body was actively trying to destroy me, so the first aid kit was my domain. Anti-inflammatory pills and cream were life saving, antihistamines my life blood, and anelgesics were necessary.
Shammy cream. You will need it. Use it.
Other shammy related thoughts, but this is gonna get graphic. The worst thing on a trip is the horrid odour that a shammy will take on after a few days of riding. At home, kit can just be tossed into the wash after a long ride, but no such luxury exists if you are sleeping in the woods. While I NEVER wear undies in bike shorts on account of the additional chaffing on the inner leg seams, we had first thought we could wear them and give them a splash of soap and water now, as undies are quicker to wash and dry than a super absorbant shammy. However, it became clear that this was not a solution (again, the chaffing). The zero-waster in me recoils at inevitable solution, but we ended up using pantyliners after a few days, and they made a huge difference! While it wasn’t perfect (particularly if it had rained the previous day and our kit was wet so the adhesive wouldn’t work well) it was a workable solution. I would like some innovators (like the Thinx panty people) to come up with a better, less wasteful solution. But until that time, I will probably tour with panty liners.
You will likely be warned about the Scottish midges (aka no-see-ums in Canadian). They sound adorable and they seem just like a nusience, until you wake up riddled with tiny bites. I have to say they don’t hold a candle to the ferocity of the bugs you will encounter in the Canadian woods, but a little bug spray can go a long way in increasing your general comfort.
The other essentials were morning cappuccino and afternoon flapjacks. Without which, I might not have made it.
PRO TIP #5: Bring a good first aid/toiletries kit. Take time for coffee.
Enjoy the ride
This was a lot more challenging than I had anticipated. For the first week, I was totally maxed out and felt like I could barely make it through the day before collapsing into sleep. However, once we reduced the weight and adjusted expectations, we hit our groove and found the time to enjoy the perfect moments – the roadside stop for fresh apples, the smooth descents down country lanes, the endless sheep (how cute are their fuzzy bottoms when they run! Just too much). We also usually would stop at a castle or other attraction on most days to see a little bit more of the country.
PRO TIP #6: Find ways to reduce the intensity so you can enjoy the ride.
Karen has all the segments on her strava, but here are the summary route pictures and elevation profiles.