Spirit of the Isles* – a bikepacking adventure

After a tumultuous few months/years, I quit my job this summer and took myself off for a little adventure. I wanted a mind reset in a beautiful place without it costing the earth (financially or in terms of carbon footprint). A month-long solo journey by bike around some of the islands off the west coast of Scotland seemed to fit the bill perfectly. Whilst I didn’t keep a diary, along the way I scribbled notes of the best and worst bits of each day – this blog is based on those scribblings.

Although I knew I’d mostly be riding on road, I wanted the flexibility to explore and head off-road at times. So I put lightweight cyclocross tyres which would cope with gentle rough stuff on Trixie, my battered Specialized Tricross, and loaded her up with a little luggage as I thought I could get away with: a one-person tent, sleeping mat and sleeping bag, a change of clothes, bike repair and first aid kits, a midge net, a cooking stove and pan and plenty of snacks and coffee bags!

Over 26 days I visited 23 islands (plus one otherwise inaccessible peninsula), took 28 ferry rides (which in total cost me just under £140), cycled 912 miles, camped fourteen nights and stayed in five hostels, two bothies, one abandoned house, one kind person’s house and one hotel. The following posts summarise my adventure.

Days 1-4: Arran, Kintyre and Argyll, Bute, Great Cumbrae

Days 5-10: Islay, Jura and Colonsay

Days 11-14: Vatersay – Harris

Days 15-17: Harris & Lewis and onto Skye

Days 18-19: Skye and Raasay

Days 21-22: Rum and Canna

Days 23-26: Knoydart and Eigg

*The title ‘Spirit of the Isles’ was suggested by my Dad due to the number of whisky and gin distilleries I visited!

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Paris Brest Paris

This is not the post I was going to write about Paris-Brest-Paris. The post that I composed in my head, sometime around midnight on Monday 19th August, went something like this:

So, I failed at Paris-Brest-Paris. And honestly, I’m not sure whether I care. I’m not sure quite why I was riding it in the first place, or why I attempt to ride any really big rides. Or why anyone does. Is it just so we have bragging rights? So we can say, look at me, I can ride sooooo far? Is it to try and find our limits? I’m really not sure. Anyway, I wasn’t really fit enough for this ride and everything caught up with me and then I got sick and enough was enough. Really, my heart wasn’t really in it.

I don’t really know why that didn’t turn out to be the blog I wrote. But here’s the story of my Paris-Brest-Paris.

The road to Paris Brest Paris

The journey to Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP) necessarily starts many months before you actually ride it. Even if you are the kind of rider who is fit enough to just pitch up and ride 1200km in 90 hours (I’m not!) you’ll still have an extended preparation period, as you have to qualify for PBP by riding a series of  accredited 200km, 300km, 400km and 600km rides within a set time period in the first half of the year. So you could say that my journey to PBP started on 12th January, when I completed Mr Pickwick’s January Sale 200km – my first audax of 2019 and the first of my PBP qualification rides.

Mr Pickwicks

Wry smile and several layers on Mr Pickwick’s January Sale

Actually, my journey started before then. You can ‘pre-qualify’ for PBP by riding an accredited ride in the previous year. You still have to ride the whole series of qualifying brevets in the time-frame, but pre-qualification allows you to register in advance and guarantee your PBP place. This was important for 2019, as it was widely predicted that this was the first year where people who had not pre-qualified would likely not get a place. I rode the Bryan Chapman Memorial 600km in May last year so that was my pre-qualifying ride, which enabled me to register for PBP in early January, before I’d ridden any of this year’s rides.


Welsh sunshine on the Bryan Chapman Memorial 600 in 2018

But really my journey started back in the autumn of 2014, when I first started getting to know about audaxes and heard about Paris-Brest-Paris. At a time when my longest ride was about 200km (and it had been a big challenge to get round that), I was fascinated by the idea of such a giant ride and had no idea how one would undertake such a challenge.

In 2015 I rode my first 400km ride, which many fellow riders were using as a qualifier for PBP. I barely made it round the 400k in one piece but nonetheless I still definitely wanted to give the longer distance a go! And once I’d ridden London-Edinburgh-London in 2017 it seemed like Paris-Brest-Paris was the next big goal on the horizon.

So Paris-Brest-Paris was on my to-do list for a long time, and at the beginning of this year I duly lined up the rides I would use to qualify. A Facebook group which had been set up to encourage more women to ride PBP proved to be a great place to connect with others who were doing the same and to get motivation. I even got (much appreciated) support from Rawvelo, who provided me and two other female riders who were aspiring to ride PBP with some of their delicious energy bars and gels to fuel our qualification efforts.


Through the first half of this year I ramped up my mileage (although maybe not as much as I should have) and worked my way through my qualifying rides: the 300km Everybody Rides to Skeggy on 13th April was followed two weeks later by the 400km Moors and Wolds. At the beginning of June, I completed the 600km Windsor-Chester-Windsor – the final step on my journey to Paris Brest Paris. I was on my way to France. In the interim, I had rather rashly signed up for the very hilly Pure Peak Grit Challenge in July, lured in by the temptation of a big challenge just for women.


With Marcus at the end of Windsor Chester Windsor

Then my mum’s health took a turn for the worse. She’d been fighting cancer on and off for over two years and suddenly it was aggressively back. On Saturday 6th July she died.

A week later I tried to ride Pure Peak Grit and only made it about 120km before I felt I just couldn’t go on. Having ridden through the night, I bailed on the ride and returned to my car as dawn was breaking, exhausted, and spent most of the day asleep. If I couldn’t manage a night start on what was meant to be a 48 hour ride, I wasn’t sure how I would manage one on a 90 hour one.

Through the blur of grief and funeral arrangements I barely rode my bike for the rest of July, managing just one 200km ride. Suddenly PBP didn’t seem very important at all.

Getting there

Just as London Edinburgh London doesn’t really start in London, Paris Brest Paris doesn’t really start in Paris. For obvious reasons, the ride starts some way west of the city, in the small town of Rambouillet or more exactly in the Bergerie Nationale (the National Sheepfold, according to the PBP website) just outside the town centre. There are lots of ways to get to the start and I probably chose the most stressful, though it was quite cheap and relatively fast!

My start time for PBP was 18.45 on Sunday 18th August, but I had to attend bike check and registration the day before, on the Saturday. I was quite stressed about getting there in time for this. Having collected a large cardboard bike box from the local bike box, I boxed up Trixie the Tricross and flew with her to Charles De Gaulle airport on the morning of 17th, arriving around lunchtime.

I then got a coach to Gare Montparnasse, meeting a nice Croatian guy called Matija who was doing the same journey as me, en route. Once at Montparnasse we eventually found the right train for Rambouillet and boarded, along with our bike boxes and a lot of other cyclists. Fifteen minutes later, the train still hadn’t left the station and the police came along with large guns and made us all disembark whilst they inspected a suspicious package!


On the train before we got evacuated

We eventually were allowed back on and the train took us to Rambouillet, from where we found a bus to take us to the Bergerie. What we didn’t know was that it was a half a mile walk uphill on a muddy path from where the bus dropped us off to the registration place. Between us we dragged the two bike boxes up the path but it wasn’t the most fun and relaxing journey ever! I reassembled Trixie, left the bike box in the left luggage and got through bike check and registration.

I’d been unable to find a hotel in Rambouillet for the Saturday night, so was staying a few stops on the train back towards Paris. Having mislaid my phone for an anxious hour or so (eventually found it safely in my bag!) I then couldn’t find the hotel and spent a fair amount of time cycling around in increasingly torrential rain. It was gone 9pm before I found where I was staying and then there was nowhere but McDonald’s to eat nearby, so dinner was potato wedges. Not the best preparation for a big ride!

Setting off: Rambouillet to Villaines-la-Juhel

I woke up on the Sunday morning to see the trees outside my window angrily thrashing around under grey and rainy skies. I wasn’t due to start riding until early evening, so I sincerely hoped that the weather would improve (as it was forecast to do) before then.

Having spent several hours packing and repacking what I was carrying, attaching the numbers to my bike and looking again at route timings I made my way to Rambouillet late morning. Luckily the weather was brightening up by the time I left the hotel.


Cut off times and distances on my top tube


The WhatsApp group for women who were riding PBP was busy with last minute questions – someone had noticed that the times in our brevet cards did not actually correspond with our actual cut-off times, unless you happened to be in the very last group heading off. I had already calculated my cut-off times and stuck them on my top-tube but this did seem a bit confusing and unfair to riders who were relying on the brevet card to provide their timings.

I had a lazy day in Rambouillet, catching up with friends from previous audaxes and getting together with some of the other women riding PBP for a group photo outside the impressive chateau. Although apparently there were more women than in previous years, we were still massively outnumbered by men. I wasn’t surprised – this has been the case on every audax I’ve ever ridden. Particularly there didn’t seem to be many French women and, although the ride was very international, the majority of riders were French. I only met one female French rider through the whole event.

PBP women

Some of the 2019 PBP women

I was in start group L, due to set off at 18.45. About an hour before my start time I headed towards the start and found hundreds of cyclists, roughly arranged in their letter groups. I say roughly because every now and then a new cyclist would arrive and accidentally join the wrong group, then have to shove their way forward to the correct corral. I took the time to admire the different bikes on display around me, including one which had a clock built into the headset cap. Turns out headset cap envy is a thing!


Headset envy!

Eventually we were shepherded gradually towards the start line and then we were off, passing under an inflatable archway and over the first of many timing chip mats. Almost immediately the pace picked up as the stronger riders dashed off.


Waiting to start

The first few hours of PBP went by in a blur as I tried to stay with as fast a group as possible. There were several good pelotons working together which I benefitted from, even if the speed was a little too extreme for me – I was travelling at over 30kph for quite a long period, which is considerably faster than I usually ride. But I wanted to hang with the fast folks for as long as possible to build a time barrier – I always figure that riding fast at the beginning, as long as I’m not actually gasping for air, makes little difference to how tired I’m going to feel later on but does buy me an early time buffer.

Even at this early stage some riders seemed not very equipped for riding in groups. I was surprised to see riders on their own in the middle of the road, making it hard for anyone to overtake, and also riders not holding their line but weaving as they were being overtaken. Unfortunately this would just get considerably worse throughout the ride.

The first control wasn’t until Villaines-la-Juhel at the 217km point, though there was an optional stop at Mortagne-au-Perche after a little over 100km. As I’m vegetarian and dairy-free, I figured that food en route was likely to not be ideal for me (checking out the food options at the first control confirmed this) so I’d decided to use controls mostly just for sleeping and topping up water bottles and try to use supermarkets, cafes and the food I carried for fuelling. I didn’t stop at Mortagne but instead carried on towards Villaines.


By now it was the middle of the night, and I was amazed that there were still intermittently people out by the side of the road cheering us on. At a little before 3am I stopped to use the loo in a little town and was surprised as I came back out by a woman waiting for me, water bottle at the ready, asking, “L’eau?” I gratefully filled my water bottles and carried on.

The first few hours riding in fast groups had helped my overall time and I arrived in Villaines at around 4.30am, at least an hour earlier than I’d thought I’d get there.

The received wisdom is that on the initial section of PBP you should ride through the night and the subsequent day, only stopping to sleep on Monday night. But as I got off my bike to get the first stamp in my brevet card I realised I was already a little sleepy.

I find my body really struggles in the early morning if I ride through the night without stopping but if I can lie down just for a little while I can trick it that it’s had a night’s sleep. So, brevet card safely stamped, I headed towards the sleeping area and paid €3 for an hour and a bit lie-down. I asked for a wake-up call at 6am and was shown to a large room filled with very hard gym mats and dotted with a few snoring men. I wasn’t sure I’d sleep at all, but I wriggled into the silk sleeping bag liner I’d brought with me, draped the thin blanket they’d provided over the top and promptly drifted off.

Monday: Villaines-la-Juhel – Carhaix-Plouguer

I was suddenly wide awake at 5.55am, five minutes before my wake-up call was due. Stumbling outside I found it was still dark, but with the promise of dawn arriving soon. I decided I needed coffee and investigated what there may be on offer that I could eat – pretty much just French fries! So I had a quick and not entirely appetising breakfast of coffee, fries, bread, veggie slicing sausage and energy bar and then got back on the bike.


Rather beige breakfast

It was about 90 kilometres to the next control and I pretty much immediately realised three things:

  • When people had described the route of PBP as ‘mostly rolling, with just one major hill’ what they meant was that, apart from at the very beginning and end, I would always be riding either up or downhill, with very little flat in between
  • The wind was picking up and was blowing determinedly into my face
  • Nobody was being very friendly

Although I was feeling refreshed after my nap and somewhat ready for the day ahead, I was also feeling a little overwhelmed at the enormity of the task before me. I wanted to get as close as I could to Brest before I slept again, and I was hoping to build up a buffer in time so I could get at least three hours sleep on Monday night. I figured I could probably make it to Carhaix-Plouguer at 521km and sleep there, which meant riding a little over 300km. Suddenly that felt like an awfully long way.


Beautiful morning heading out of Villaines, and some decent road positioning (which was somewhat rare!)

I really wanted to find someone or a group of people to ride with and I was surrounded by other riders but it didn’t seem that anyone wanted to ride together. Every time I either went past someone or they came past me and I said ‘Bonjour’ or ‘hello’ there didn’t even seem to be a response, not even an acknowledgment I’d spoken most of the time. I’m not sure if this was due to language differences or everyone struggling a bit with the wind, but it was very strange and not something I’ve experienced on an audax before – even on London Edinburgh London. Meanwhile, the poor road etiquette of the night before seemed to be continuing, with many riders riding in the middle of the road and others undertaking them.


Every time I did manage to join a little group, the relentless rolling terrain and diagonal headwinds seemed to splinter it almost immediately. Also, most other riders seemed to be just stopping pedalling on the downhills, which I really don’t get when you can see the uphill coming. Since most of the other riders were male and heavier than me, they would sail past me as we started to go down, then stop pedalling and not start again until the gravity of the next uphill started to slow them. Since I was trying to build momentum to get up the uphills, this meant I had to get past them as we started to climb in order to keep moving forward. The combination of it all: relentless terrain, headwind and other riders who seemed to be a hindrance rather than a help, really started to get to me.

By the time I reached Fougères at 306km at a little before 10am I was hungry. I really wanted ‘real food’. A veggie fry-up would have been nice. But failing that I’d just take whatever was on offer.

They say never go shopping when you’re hungry. Well, I was pretty hungry and also sleep deprived when I spotted the large supermarket. I’m also never particularly good at shopping quickly. I spent the best part of twenty minutes wandering around the aisles trying to find food I could eat before emerging with bread, a litre of chocolate soya milk, a large carton of bulger wheat with edamame, almonds and raisins, aubergine spread and a box of Nature Valley bars. Rather an odd combination. I sat outside the supermarket and ate as much of it as I could before heading on to the control for my stamp.

In retrospect, drinking most of a litre of chocolate soya milk may not have been the best plan. Or perhaps it was the random assortment of food that I’d shovelled down. Or maybe it was the water I topped my bottles up with (I later found out that several people started to feel a little poorly after Fougères). Whatever it was, shortly after I got back on the road I started to get indigestion.

Monday dragged on. I was only a quarter of the way into the ride and things were hurting. The wind was still blowing. Other riders still seemed unfriendly. I don’t really remember riding with anyone, but I must have done at some point because I remember a conversation with someone where I was telling them how much harder than LEL I thought PBP was. I got to Tinténiac at about 2.15pm and, feeling like I didn’t have much time in hand, I almost immediately pushed on for the next control.

In retrospect, I can see that there were several things happening: going into London Edinburgh London I was nine weeks after a hysterectomy and cancer diagnosis. Nobody really expected me to be able to ride it, including myself. So the first couple of days, when I discovered I could ride and actually didn’t feel that bad, I was almost euphoric with the realisation. Going into PBP, everyone I knew seemed to expect me to just sail round. But I was really not sure I was fit enough, or even that I wanted to ride. Now that the route was harder than I’d expected and the wind was constantly in my face, the pain and lack of motivation were probably unsurprising.

Also, on LEL a combination of a tailwind heading north, a more generous time allowance for a longer ride and the fact that the cut-offs are spread evenly over the whole distance meant that I built up a large time buffer. At one point I think I had twelve hours in hand.

On PBP, the minimum average speed over the whole ride is 13.3kph – this of course includes all stoppages so your actual moving speed needs to be considerably quicker than that to build up time to eat and sleep. On LEL, because it’s a longer ride, the minimum average speed is 12kph. Also, on PBP they assume (probably rightly) that riders will be slower on the homewards leg and therefore weight the time allowance accordingly. What this means is that you have around 38 hours to get to Brest and about 42 to get back to Rambouillet. So it wasn’t really that surprising that I was reaching controls with less than five hours’ time in hand – but I felt like I wanted to be further ahead as I was thinking about sleep time that evening!


Impromptu roadside support from local people

The only thing lifting me was the support along the roads. Fairly regularly we were passing impromptu stands, with local people offering drinks, snacks and encouragement. At some of these you could take a slip of paper with the person’s name and address on it to subsequently send them a thank-you postcard. Many of the towns we rode through had decorations for Paris-Brest-Paris and the names of local riders who were taking part. It really did feel like a big event.


Cheer squad

More wind, more relentless ‘rolling’ (and very attractive) countryside, I eventually reached Loudeac at around 7.30pm. Getting off the bike to get my card stamped I realised I was once again very hungry. My stomach hadn’t felt quite right since just after Fougères and I’d subsequently not been eating that much. Once again there wasn’t really anything on offer at the control that I could eat so I decided to head out through the town.

It turns out there’s nothing much open in a small French town on a Monday evening. All the shops and supermarkets were firmly shuttered and several cafes that I passed were also closed. I was heading out of town, and beginning to wonder just what I would do about food, when I saw an open café. In my not-very-good French I managed to explain that I didn’t eat meat or dairy and ask if I could possibly have some pasta without either of these. Pasta with vegetables duly arrived and was wolfed down, along with an alcohol-free beer.

It was whilst waiting for the food that I realised that, in amongst the wind, there had actually also been quite a lot of sun and that my legs had definitely caught it. In fact, I suddenly felt like I’d maybe had a bit too much sun in general.


Oops, that’ll be sunburn

Heading out from Loudeac with a full belly I should have felt good. And I did feel better…for about ten minutes. Then the churning returned in my stomach. I rode on. Drank more water. Rode on. The route suddenly seemed even more spiky than it had before (this wasn’t just an illusion, I realised on the way back that the section between Loudeac and Carhaix-Plouguer is full of short, sharp ascents and descents).

It started to get dark. I thought about how pointless this whole thing was. What was I trying to prove? To whom? I needed a wee, but there was nowhere to go which was out of view. I felt silent hatred for the many male riders I’d seen all day who would just stop and urinate by the side of the road in full view, a couple without even properly getting off their bike. There were still many riders around me, but I felt very alone.

Eventually, a little before 11pm, I made it to St Nicolas du Pelem, which was meant to be just an optional sleep and refreshment stop but which was actually also a secret control. I was tired and thought about sleeping there instead of at Carhaix, but I told myself I would have to get up and get riding again when it was still the middle of the night and would also be letting myself in for a bigger day on Tuesday.

It was a little after St Nicolas that I started to feel the fatigue. I wasn’t really that far from Carhaix, and I was trying to tell myself that, but it felt harder and harder to turn the pedals. It wasn’t that I was super sleepy, more just that I felt bone tired. My stomach continued to churn. I kept sipping water and electrolyte drink, alternating the two bottles. Coffee. I just really needed a coffee to get me through the next few kilometres. I knew it was stupid to allow myself to obsess over how much I needed a coffee when it was 11.30pm in the middle of nowhere in France but I couldn’t get my mind off how much I wanted one.

Maybe I had a guardian angel at that point, because I rounded a corner and was met with a house illuminated by disco lights. Outside, a small bunch of people were sat behind a table with what looked suspiciously like a flask of coffee. “Café? L’eau?” the guy shouted as I approached. I stopped and tried to express in my broken French just how grateful I was for this provision. I’m not sure I quite managed but hopefully they got the gist!

I had a bounce in my pedal for a couple of kilometres after the coffee stop, but it was short-lived. I was close to Carhaix…close to being able to sleep…but then the stomach churning got more insistent and then I was stopped by the side of the road, leaning over my handlebars to vomit copiously on a grass verge. I finished throwing up all of the pasta I’d eaten a few hours before and took a sip of water. Mistake. Gagged again. It seemed that all I could do was keep pedalling and get to Carhaix.

It was getting on for 1am by the time I dragged myself into Carhaix-Plouguer and all I wanted was a bed. Or whatever type of mat they had that would pass for one. Just somewhere to lie down for a couple of hours with a blanket over me. It was not to be.

My request for the sleeping quarters was met with the news that they were full. One of the volunteers offered to show me where I could sleep on the floor. Heart sinking, I followed her, to find a hallway chock-a-block with bodies. There was just one small space so I got my sleeping liner and lay down…only to be moved on by a guy who’d apparently already bagged that space and had returned with his sleep sack.

By this point I was pretty much in tears. I was exhausted and felt like I might throw up again at any moment. It was cold outside, definitely too cold to try sleeping out without a bivvy bag, and there was no way I could make it another 90km to Brest without sleeping. By this point I was pretty sure I was going to bail on the ride anyway, there seemed no way I was going to finish it and little reason to try, but even if I bailed there and then the most important thing I needed was to lie down!

Luckily some Scandinavian guys found me trying to express this desperate need to one of the volunteers and took pity on me, showing me to a disused canteen they’d found where there was a least a little floor space to lie on. The floor was hard, and cold, but at least I was horizontal.

Tuesday: Carhaix-Plouguer – Tinténiac

I know I did sleep, a bit, at Carhaix but it really didn’t feel like I had. I was awake before my alarm was due to go off and it felt like I spent the whole of the previous two hours shivering uncontrollably, trying not to throw up and thinking about how much I did not want to be here. I made my way to the toilets and brushed my teeth – even that made me gag.

Sometimes you don’t look as bad as you feel. The mirror helpfully confirmed that this was not one of those times. My face was a puffy, creased mess, with huge bags under my eyes. It wasn’t even that cold inside, but I was still shivering, my body seemingly unable to regulate its temperature. I wasn’t sure what I wanted but I knew I did not want to go back outside and get back on a bike.

I went outside to do just that…and couldn’t find my bike. I really thought I’d parked it on row C, but it was nowhere to be seen. There were hundreds of bikes. It was still dark. I was more than a little out of it. I walked up and down, up and down rows of bikes, unable to see Trixie’s familiar purple handlebars.

It took me a good twenty minutes to locate her, twenty minutes that I really didn’t have to lose. But at least all the walking up and down had warmed me up a little. My Garmin showed the temperature had really dropped and it was now only 5C. But it also showed, through its elevation screen, that I would very soon be heading uphill.

I didn’t feel I could set off with a completely empty stomach but I didn’t want to eat anything either. Time for an emergency gel. I forced one down and chased it with a sip of water. Wanted to be sick but didn’t actually vomit. Headed out.

The section after Carhaix-Plouguer was a low point. On the approach to Carhaix I’d been feeling rubbish and wanting to bail but I somewhat comforted myself with the idea of sleep. Now the sleep stop had come and gone, with very little sleep. I still felt rubbish. I just wanted to get off my bike and lie down by the side of the road – the only thing stopping me was how cold it was. I was wearing all my layers and still felt cold.

Soon I was going up. And up. And up. The climb was interminable and the increasing number of lights coming back towards me (fast riders heading back from Brest) was not helping my mood. Finally I made it to the summit and it was freezing. A cold mist hung over everything. I had to stop and put on latex gloves under my normal gloves to add an extra layer of warmth. By now the Garmin was telling me it was 3C. The descent was almost as miserable as the climb had been. I just needed to get to Brest…and get on a train.


Beautiful morning heading towards Brest…but I’d rather be in bed!

At the bottom of the descent there was a town, Sizun. Several bakeries and cafes, open early to cater for PBP. And miraculously people I knew: Angela, Debs and Marcus. They exclaimed over how rubbish I looked, and I told them how rubbish I felt. I told them I thought I was going to stop at Brest. Hearing it out loud I felt a pang of regret, but also relief. They were pushing on to Brest, which I knew I needed to do too, just not right this second. I went into a café, ordered a peppermint tea, put my head on the table and slept for half an hour.

I woke up and drank the remainder of my peppermint tea, using it to wash down small bites of energy bar. It felt like a belt had been tightened across my chest, preventing me from swallowing anything without gagging. All consumption had to be done carefully and slowly. I made it back onto the bike, telling myself it was only about 35km to Brest and then I could stop.

It wasn’t until the descent into Brest that my attitude started to change a little. The sun was finally shining and warm and there was the sea! Our route took us over a large bridge, with lovely views. We were nearly there, nearly halfway (actually the control was several kilometres further on, reached by weaving through the morning traffic, but I didn’t realise that then!)

I reached the Brest control and wondered what I should do. Get my card stamped? Tell them I was bailing? Maybe I didn’t want to bail? I tried to eat some veggie sausage…that didn’t go so well. Drifted over to the refreshment area and thought I should celebrate getting this far either way. Bought a beer. For the first time since the night before I managed to consume something without gagging a bit. Beer went down much better than water had been doing!

My phone started to light up with messages from friends who were using the online tracker to watch my progress, and who had seen I had made it to Brest. I mentally kicked myself for sharing the tracker link – all these people were watching me and cheering me on. If I bailed I’d also have them all watching me do so.

I thought about how I really didn’t want to ever do this ride again, or in fact any super long audax. If I bailed now, would I feel compelled to come back in four years with unfinished business? I thought about how I’d learnt before that no-one would care that I’d failed but me. But that I would probably care a lot. Probably better all round to keep going.


How to age 20 years in 2 days: ride PBP. But beer helps…

Back on the bike, I knew I needed to eat something but couldn’t really stomach anything either. There was a Lidl on the way out of town, so I stopped there and tried to find something to eat. I bought some bread and crisps but found I couldn’t really eat anything too solid. In the end, I took the soft bit from the middle of the bread and smothered it in the vegan pâté I was carrying. That just about went down.

I was dreading the climb out of Brest, but the sun was shining and there were still riders heading towards me into town, which made me feel a bit better. And I got chatting to a nice American guy from Pennsylvania, whose name I don’t recall but who suggested that honey might be a good solution to fuelling with my upset stomach.

It was getting hotter again, so I stopped at a conveniently placed roadside stand and removed one of the two pairs of socks I was wearing. I was still finding it difficult to eat and drink, but generally was feeling a little brighter. Even more so when I got back on the road and found myself riding with a German guy called Olaf.

He’d previously lived in the UK and we started talking about LEL – it turned out I’d read the blog he’d written comparing LEL to PBP. I told him I planned to volunteer next time to give me an excuse not to ride it and it turns out he is overseeing the volunteers! He also knew Fiona Kolbinger (having met her on LEL) and we talked about her incredible achievement and how insane it must be for her to suddenly have been propelled to stardom through her TCR win.

Through all the chatting I barely realised that we’d climbed the whole horrible hill that I’d clawed my way up in the dark. We rode together into Carhaix, where he left to find a café. The sun was out and it was warm. I decided to stop just before the control to get an ice lolly. That’s when I realised I didn’t have my purse.

I spent ten minutes checking and re-checking every pocket in my jersey and every bag on my bike. Definitely not there. About €300 in cash, several bank cards, my driving licence…all gone. My immediate thought was how was I going to continue the ride? I had no way of paying for anything…and I would need to at least buy some food. I couldn’t even bail, as then I’d need to pay for a train back to Rambouillet. It really was a not great predicament, but I felt like I was facing it slightly detached from the situation.

As I rode into the Carhaix control an amazing stroke of luck – a familiar face! It was lovely to see Alice, who I’d met on the Pure Peak Grit challenge, and even more lovely that, once she learned of my lost purse, she immediately lent me some euros. I would be able to continue the ride, or pay for a train if I decided to bail.

Into the control and I tried to explain to the volunteers in my broken French that my purse was missing. Miraculously, someone had already found it! It was at the roadside stand where I’d stopped to remove extra socks. Even better, they would be able to get the motorbike guys to pick it up and bring it to me. Did I want to wait for it at this control or have it waiting for me at the next one?

I was a bit overwhelmed that my purse was found and making its way back to me but very happy. I told the volunteers I would like to have it waiting for me at the next control, then used a bit of the money Alice had lent me to buy a beer to celebrate (they had Pelforth Brune, which is my favourite Fench beer, and beer had worked well for me at Brest so why not?) I also called Emily to update her on my progress and told her I still hadn’t quite bailed.


When you can’t stomach solid food…

Leaving the control, I tried to ride out with Alice but we got separated almost straight away. I saw her again in the next town, where she was enjoying pastries with Els, an awe-inspiring rider who was riding PBP on a fixie. Heeding the advice from earlier, I bought a tube of squeezy honey.

I reached St Nicolas again at about 6.45pm and found my purse waiting for me, with all money and cards intact. I was very grateful to the motorbike guy who’d delivered it there safely for me and tried to express this as best I could!

I wanted to get to Tinténiac before sleeping but figured this would mean riding through much of the night. On LEL I learnt that late afternoon, when sleeping stops are quiet, is a good time to take a short sleep break and it was the same on PBP. St Nicolas had comfortable camp beds in a warm room, with only a couple of other riders snoring away. I paid my €5 and asked for an 8pm wake-up.

I slept soundly for an hour but still woke up feeling nauseous. I chased down some squeezy vegan pâté with some squeezy honey and hit the road. And the hills. It was straight back into the spiky section I’d hated so much the day before. It was soon getting dark and I could tell it would be a long night.


Heading into another night

I was about halfway to Loudeac and into a rhythm of cursing myself for signing up for this ride, cursing my stomach for not settling and cursing my fellow riders for erratic weaving across the road when I came across Nick. I met Nick on Windsor-Chester-Windsor in June, though I’d also previously ridden an audax he’d organised. He was stopped d so I asked if he was OK. He told me he’d just decided to bail on the ride. He was riding fixed, was tired, up against the time limit and alarmed by the poor standard of riding around him.

I suggested we rode together to the next control, which was great for me as I had company. He may or may not have felt the same, but I felt it was nice to have someone to chat with as I gritted my teeth against the incessant ups and downs. We had one of those quite familiar conversations that you can only have with a virtual stranger when you’ve both had your emotions flayed by a lack of sleep and a surfeit of time on the bike!

We reached Loudeac a bit before midnight and for once I managed to find something to eat in the cafeteria – just soup, but it was warm and salty and made a nice change from honey and bites of energy bar! Nick was going off to find a bed and I was very tempted to do the same but I knew I needed to push on.

It was 86km from Loudeac to Tinténiac, over 50 miles. I knew there was an optional stop at Quédillac in between, with places to sleep, but I also knew that if I didn’t want a hellishly long Wednesday, I needed to get to Tinténiac before I slept. I told myself that no matter what I was having three hours sleep at Tinténiac. Even if it meant I was out of time.

I left Loudeac and almost immediately felt sleepy. Time to bring out the podcasts. I’d downloaded the TCR podcast, as well as several of the Tough Girl ones and some Desert Island Discs episodes. Listening to Fiona Kolbinger describe her incredible ride as well as various other inspirational women talk about their lives and exploits worked perfectly, keeping me alert and giving me something else to think about other than the pain I was in.


Night riding

Unlike on usual night rides, I was continually surrounded by other riders, so didn’t feel fear about being along in the middle of nowhere. On the contrary, I felt fear that I would be crashed into by one of the obviously sleep-deprived randonneurs, many of whom were riding ever more erratically. All along the route, the sides of the road were littered with sleeping audaxers wrapped up in bivvy bags and foil blankets. In one town I passed a small ATM vestibule which looked to have around ten riders sleeping in it!

At Quedillac I had a coffee and tried to eat yet more energy bar. I just wanted to sleep, but I also wanted to push on. I was moved ever slower, but I was still moving. And it was a beautiful starry night.

I finally reached Tinténiac just before 6am. My cut-off time here was 9.16am, so having three hours sleep would put me right on that cut-off. I didn’t care, I knew I needed the sleep. I was alarmed to see a small queue for beds, but it was just due to them taking some time to allocate spaces, rather than being full. Eventually I was shown to an actual bed, in a room with only three other beds in it. Luxury! I lay for five minutes listening to my still over-active heartbeat before I descended into sleep.

Wednesday: Tinténiac – Mortagne-au-Perche

Once again I woke up shortly before my wake-up call was due. I still didn’t feel great, but I felt much better than I had the day before. I had 350km to ride and about 27 and a half hours to ride it in. Normally that would feel simple. Right now, it did not.

Before leaving Tinténiac I treated myself to a clean pair of shorts. Because there were no drop bags on PBP, I’d been limited in what clothing changes I could carry with me. In the end, I’d decided that a clean jersey wasn’t essential but I didn’t want to wear the same shorts of four days.

Back in the saddle and everything hurt. My seatbones felt like they had hard ping-pong balls of raw flesh beneath them, a sure sign of saddle sores despite my wet-wipe and chammy cream routine. My hands did not want to be back on the handlebars. Legs felt stiff and unwieldy. It was day three and I was feeling it. I left Tinténiac at 9.25am, with no time at all in hand.


Wednesday morning and everyone’s a little tired. Yes, this guy is having a nap!

Luckily just up the road I managed to latch on to a small multinational group of German and French guys. Having wheels to ride on gave me a boost and I made spinning easier again. I made it to Fougères at 12.09, seventeen minutes ahead of my cut-off time.

The sun was shining but I didn’t dare expose my burnt skin, so I rode along in leg and arm warmers, trying to drink enough to not dehydrate too badly. I was feeling a little better but still struggling to eat or drink substantially. Drinking had to be done in sips rather than gulps. One of the roadside stands I stopped at had mint cordial which they added to my water – that was divine!


These lovely people gave me water and mint syrup, and lots of encouragement!

I can’t say I was entirely happy, but Wednesday was definitely my best day so far, if only because I wasn’t feeling quite so wretched. I was grinding rather than spinning up the hills, but I still don’t think that excuses one old Polish guy coming up behind me and shoving my bike forward from behind on one climb. It totally caught me by surprise and it was all I could do to not crash. The sheer inconsiderateness of it, when I was obviously tired, really took my breath away. I’m absolutely sure he wasn’t shoving the bikes of any slow men.


Avocado is my saviour

At a supermarket between Fougères and Villaines I found my saviour – avocado. I’d gone in looking for proper food that I could still somehow eat without choking. It turned out avocado was just the right consistency. I bought two and mixed them with some couscous, washed down with some iced tea.


Roadside encouragement near Villaines…and a welcome sign telling us we’d ridden over 1,000km

Riding into Villaines-la-Juhel on the Wednesday afternoon was the absolute highlight of Paris-Brest-Paris. A large inflatable arch to ride under, cheering crowds on both sides of the street and a band playing a fanfare for each rider who arrived – I literally felt like I’d won a stage of the Tour De France. Better still, I’d now ridden over 1,000km and *only* had a little over 200km to go (I tried not to think about how that meant I actually had about 130 miles still to ride).

Highlight number two came soon after the Villaines control. I stopped in town and bought another avocado and some bread, then got to the top of the hill heading out of town and found a field with a view for a picnic in the evening sunset. Life felt good, just for a few minutes.


Early evening picnic (the flower in my helmet had been handed to me by a small child)

My euphoria was somewhat shortlived. As it got dark it felt like the zombie cyclists came out to play. It felt like I was well and truly in the ‘bulge’ and any semblance of competent group riding had gone out of the window. Over-tired riders zig-zagged erratically across the road, sometimes veering abruptly to the side, stopping and just going to sleep draped over their handlebars! Others rode doggedly down the centre of the road, ignoring all calls in French and English to move over. Some people’s lights seemed to have failed, and I told a couple of people that their back lights weren’t working only to be met with a shrug.


Sunset and sunflowers

A little way before Mortagne-au-Perche, we came to a town where half the population seemed to be out in the town square cheering us on. A marquee had been set up, serving hot soup which was vegetarian. It was a welcome break, and a small sign on the wall told us we had ridden 1,074km and had 145km left.


Only 145km left!

I rolled into Mortagne-au-Perche around midnight to find a bustling control, with riders passed out in various corners or laughing, eating and drinking. I needed to sleep, or at least get horizontal for a while, so I paid €5 for a bed. This turned out to be a thin sleeping mat, packed cheek by jowl in a hall with hundreds of others.

The mats were so close together that it was virtually impossible to access one without tripping over the legs of the people who were sleeping in the vicinity. This, coupled with the fact that there was only a thin sheet (so I was immediately cold but too tired to go and get more clothes from my bike) meant I didn’t sleep very much in the hour and a half I had allocated myself.

The final push: Mortagne-au-Perche – Rambouillet

Back outside and onto the bike in the dark. I just had 122km left to ride, and over 10 hours to complete it in, but it still didn’t feel like I was near the end. I knew I was finally due some flat riding once I got half-way to Dreux (the final control) but for now the road continued to rise and fall. I really needed someone to talk to, a little company through the night.

My hopes were answered when Alina rode up alongside me. She is German and I’d seen her earlier in the day riding with some other fast German riders but now she was riding alone. We started riding together and chatting, sharing stories and letting off a bit of steam about the frustrations of the ride. The next 30 or so kilometres, and the last few hills of this ever-rolling ride, flew by.

Unfortunately, I was now well into calorie deficit and my body was screaming at me for food. However, I was also still feeling nauseous. It was dark and I couldn’t rummage around for whatever snack would keep me going whilst not making me throw up without stopping. Reluctantly I let Alina head on towards Dreux whilst I stopped by the side of the road and rummaged for sustenance.

One sachet of almond butter, several large squeezes of honey and a Rawvelo bar later I was back on the move and heading towards Dreux. The final control before the finish. I got there at about 6.20am and found they were selling cure little PBP Dreux purses alongside the brevet card stamping.


Dreux was a place of reunions and zombies. Semi-conscious bodies were scattered around the hall, draped over chairs and tables. But amongst the comatose there were familiar faces, exhausted but awake and ready to ride: I bumped into Angela, Debs, Els and Alina again as I wandered around the hall and got a coffee, all of us thrilled to have made it to the last control. A text message told me I’d just missed Marcus – he must have been heading out as I arrived. There was only 45km to go and we all knew we were going to make it.


Dreux – the final control. With a few tired riders!

I headed out alone again but feeling euphoric. Suddenly I felt energised again and, realising that with a bit of a push I could make it back to Rambouillet in under 87 hours, I was soon zipping along. Even the pain from my saddle sores and battered hands couldn’t dull the excitement – I was finishing PBP! Day was dawning and a beautiful sunrise welcomed me as I headed out past fields. And that’s when the emotions came.


It started with me stopping to take a picture of the sunrise, and then a random thought that I wished my mum could see the sunrise. Then I remembered her and my dad unexpectedly showing up by the side of the road in Lincolnshire, as I was battling headwinds on the return route of LEL. By this time I was sobbing, tears of grief for my mum, tears of relief that I was finishing, tears of joy, tears of sadness, tears of tiredness. Just a lot of tears.

Through the tears and snot I was pedalling on as fast as I could, just determined to make it back to Rambouillet. And suddenly I was not alone. Someone was sat on my wheel, someone who was pedalling, and then freewheeling, pedalling and then freewheeling, with the loudest freewheel in the world tick-tick-ticking behind me. For mile after mile it seemed they were sat behind me, saying nothing, whilst I was sobbing and pedalling and actually might have quite liked a wheel to sit on for a little while.

So, I’m (a little bit) sorry to the American guy who got asked rather abruptly why he wasn’t coming past me and told that his free-wheel was frankly too loud (it was!) I don’t really buy your explanation that you were ‘waiting for a friend’ as generally you don’t do that two inches off someone else’s back wheel. But thank you for having the grace to back off when I challenged you.

I finally managed to stop crying and start smiling as we headed through woods on the approach to Rambouillet. By this point I had the ‘distance to destination’ screen up on my Garmin and watched as this ticked into single figures. Several groups of local riders passed in the opposite direction, out for a morning spin and shouting encouragement (or maybe they were just fast riders who’d finished the day before and were back out for a recovery ride).

Then I was heading into Rambouillet and into the Bergerie and it was chaos – cars and campervans and people on the approach road, so many that I wondered if I’d taken a wrong turn. Some people cheered me on whilst others seemed oblivious to the steady stream of approaching riders. Then we were filtered into a courtyard, over gravel and cobbles, just what you need at the end of a 1200km ride! After the hoopla and welcoming crowds at Villaines the day before it felt quite anti-climatic but I was finished.


The joy of a completed brevet card

Into a marquee to get my brevet card stamped, and to be given my very attractive finishers medal. Then into the food tent, to be welcomed by many audax acquaintances followed by several hours of story sharing, congratulations and a few beers in the sunshine. This is, of course, the best part of the ride – you’ve finished and others you either already know or have met along the way have done the same and you all get to celebrate!


Post-ride celebration with Debs and Angela

In reflection

It’s now nearly two weeks since I bumped my saddle sores over the Rambouillet cobbles. The sores are now healed, the post-ride fatigue has lifted and I’m starting to get feeling back in my little fingers. My sunburnt legs have started to peel a little, and I’m sure my battered palms will soon do the same. Basically, I am well on the road to recovery.

Already, people are starting to ask me what’s next. And I’m really not sure there is anything next. Oh, there will be plenty of cycling adventures. But big, long, multi-day rides…I’m just not sure.

The reason I love audax riding is that it allows you to challenge yourself and your endurance, even if you’re not a particularly fast rider. A rider able to average 12mph can build up to a 200km and ride it comfortably with a couple of café stops en route and still be well within the cut-off time. They’ll get the same recognition for finishing as the rider who whizzes round at 18mph. It’s nicely egalitarian.

But once you get into the longer rides that’s where the disadvantage kicks in – once sleep comes into the equation the fast riders once again have an advantage, and a choice. They can choose to be sleep deprived and whizz round in an impressively fast time or they can ride fast, get a decent amount of sleep, take time to stop and eat and finish in the same time. A rider like me doesn’t get to have a choice – longer rides will always be about sleep deprivation and chasing the clock.

I like 200km rides. They are a nice challenge. A big day out. An adventure. But one I can undertake with no sleep deprivation, no loss of sensation in my hands, no saddle sores, no crying or vomiting by the side of the road.



But…there is something about a big ride. Anything 400km and over and I know I’m in slightly different terrain. I’m going to be missing sleep. Having a lot of thinking time. And likely meeting with others who I will have an immediate intimacy with because they are doing the same. Emotions are closer to the surface when you’re fighting fatigue and the miles and sometimes that can make it easier to connect with others. I’ve met so many great people through long distance rides, and it’s generally on the really long ones that you properly do get to talk with people.

Over the last year or so, with the Peak Brevettes group, 2019 PBP Women’s group and Pure Peak Grit I have for the first time connected with a group of women, locally, elsewhere in the UK and internationally, who are riding long and arduous rides. Many of them are achieving things I can only dream of. But watching them does make me want to aim for more, even though I’m asking myself why I even want to ride.

My sister recently wrote a blog-post about using the outside to deal with grief and it strikes me the five things that she references are what you inevitably experience on a long ride. There is something therapeutic about big challenges, though there is also something horrible and pointless about them too! So as for what’s next, I’ll be attempting to ride 200kms for the next few months to continue my third Randonneur Round the Year effort and after that we’ll see…

TLDR: I cycled quite a long way in France over four days and it was hard.

You can see my ride on Strava here: https://www.strava.com/activities/2647480729


Categories: Paris-Brest-Paris, Uncategorized | 13 Comments

A very long post about a very long ride

At the beginning of this year, I made a resolution to ‘ride some, write some and remember it’s an adventure’. Back then, I thought the big challenge of the year was going to be completing the 1,400km London Edinburgh London audax. But it turned out that was only going to be one of this year’s challenges and that ‘remembering that it’s an adventure’ was going to be more important than I could have imagined.

Warning: this is a very long post! Click here to just read the five top things I learned along the way

Ever since I first heard about London Edinburgh London (or LEL as it’s commonly abbreviated to) I’ve been fascinated by it. I first read a magazine article about it around the time it was last run (it only takes place once every four years, so that would’ve been 2013). At the time my longest ride was about 80 miles and LEL (a 1400km, or nearly 900 mile audax over 116 hours) just seemed ridiculously difficult and not something someone like I could ever attempt. But since then I’ve started doing longer and longer rides and the ambition to attempt LEL has been there in the background.

Even before I failed to complete the Highlands, West Coast & Glens 1,200km last summer, I was pretty certain I wanted to sign up for LEL. It’s the most prestigious audax event in the UK and also the one with the most participants (around 1,500 this year). I was thrilled to discover that my Audax UK membership gave me automatic entry rights and, at the beginning of January, I paid my £329 entry fee and started planning my training.


Also around that time, the intermittent abdominal pain I’d been experiencing started to get less intermittent and more regular. I eventually made a doctor’s appointment, got referred for an ultrasound and then descended down a rabbit hole into a parallel universe of tests and waiting and worry and uncertainty where suddenly it seemed I could potentially be seriously ill.

As the weeks and months went by I tried to keep riding and training, though it was hard to focus when my brain kept churning through the possibilities. By late April I knew I was going to have surgery, and that this would have to happen before LEL. My doctor  told me there was no way I would recover in time to ride the event – just nine weeks after the hysterectomy. I thought he was probably right but wanted to prove him wrong!

Knowing that I would not be able to ride for most of June I did a little more in May and the weekend before the operation I rode a DIY 600km taking in some of the LEL route through Lincolnshire. I just hoped I would get to ride these roads again a few months later.


Rainbow in the Fens on my DIY 600km

On Thursday 25th May I woke up following surgery with a six inch incision from my belly-button to my pelvis following the removal of my uterus and the ‘suspicious fibroid’ attached to it. I spent three days in hospital and then went home to recover on my sofa – luckily the Criterium de Dauphine and the French Open Tennis kept me occupied! I was back on a bike just under two weeks later, but just for a mile ride round the block which felt decidedly odd and which tired me out so much I had to have a nap straight afterwards.

On 13th June I found out that the ‘suspicious fibroid’ wasn’t a fibroid at all – it was cancer. The good news was that they thought they’d got it all, but they wouldn’t be sure until I had follow-up scans. Obviously not great news, but the very next day (just under three weeks after the operation) my friend came round to accompany me for my first proper post-op ride – just over 40 miles out into Lancashire. It was hard going and I was slow, but it wasn’t impossible.

The following Monday, three and a half weeks after the operation, I rode 82 miles out to Southport and started to believe that maybe LEL would be possible. I still had nearly six weeks before I’d be on the starting line…


Taking in some less-travelled roads on a post-op ride to Southport

I wanted to keep my Randonneur Round the Year (RRtY) attempt on course and to do that I needed to ride a 200km in June. So, on the second to last day of the month, my friend Sarah selflessly accompanied me on a DIY 200km route which we’d mapped out to be as flat as possible. God, it was hard! It rained relentlessly all day and by the time we stopped for lunch we were both filthy and soaked.


Mucky and soaked!

The last 40km were particularly miserable – I’d run out of steam and, just 5 weeks post-surgery, was really feeling fatigued. I was so glad that I had company, someone to chat to to try to take my mind off how crappy I was feeling. The few hills there were seemed like alpine climbs and I ground up them, biting the inside of my cheek to take my mind off the pain elsewhere! But I managed to complete it.

Then it was the beginning of July and, still waiting for my follow-up scans, there didn’t seem like too much more riding I could do in preparation. I worried that if I tried anything bigger than a 200km I’d run the risk of failing and/or exhausting myself. To be honest, with the uncertainty of the scan results still hanging over me, it was hard to concentrate on anything other than worrying about that, even though I knew it wasn’t very productive.

Nonetheless, I wanted to make sure I still got to ride a 200km in July and I certainly couldn’t guarantee I’d complete LEL and be able to count that! So I planned a route for 7th July, the last day before my post-op time off work ended. Then, the day before I was due to ride, I found out that my long-awaited CT scan would be the next afternoon! So what was to be a full-day ride became a full-night one. I went for my CT scan and then, around 6pm, I set out on a solo adventure to the Wirral coast.



I reached the sea just as the almost full moon was rising behind the clouds and I took a moment to sit and watch its silvery rays play across the waves, thinking that for the first time in several months I felt completely calm. Finally, at least for a few moments, I wasn’t thinking about scans or what they might show, or at least, I wasn’t worrying about them. It is magical moments like this that are so special about riding long distances.

Five days later I got the best possible news – my follow-up scans were clear. For now I am cancer-free. It was 11th July and I had just under three weeks to get prepared for LEL, both mentally and in terms of my pre-event planning (which I’d been putting off). I booked the bike in to have the new rear wheel it’s been needing for months fitted and had a Wiggle spending spree for all the bits and pieces I thought I might need, especially new tyres. I definitely wanted to minimise the possibility of punctures!


One of the things I decided to do in preparation for the ride was to set up a sponsorship page. I’d orginally been going to do London Edinburgh London just as a personal challenge but the trials and tribulations of the previous months had made me think about how lucky I am to have access to the NHS. With that in mind, I wanted to raise some money for an organisation that tries to give everyone access to decent healthcare: Medecins Sans Frontiers.

On Saturday 29th July I turned up at Davenant School in Loughton (just outside London) to register for LEL. It was then that the enormity of this event hit me. Row upon row of bikes were racked outside the school. Steel bikes with full mudguards and Carradice saddlebags. Titanium bikes with Apidura luggage. Carbon fibre bikes with deep-set rims. Recumbent bikes. Folding bikes. A full-suspension mountain bike. Several velomobiles. Elliptigos. Tandems. Tricycles. Even a tandem tricycle. About the only type of pedal-powered vehicle I didn’t spot was a BMX bike, though I wouldn’t want to guarantee that there wasn’t one there!

The place was buzzing with cyclists from many different nationalities, all getting registered, filling drop bags to go off to distant controls, having a coffee and picking up pre-ordered LEL clothing. On a white-board inside the main hall, good luck messages were written in tens of different languages. In the large canteen a gaggle of volunteers were serving food and drink to tens of different riders. I’m used to turning up at audax events to find five people in a village hall with an urn in the corner – it suddenly struck me just how different this was!

Having collected my brevet card, which I’d need to get stamped and scanned at each control point, I filled my two drop bags with the spare clothes, food and bike bits I thought I might need along the way and left them to be sent off – one to Louth in Lincolnshire and one to Brampton in Cumbria. I hoped I’d make it far enough to use their contents. I also picked up the event jersey which UI’d pre-ordered months before in a burst of optimism and hoped fervently that I hadn’t wasted £40 on a jersey I’d never be able to wear: one more incentive to finish the ride!


With two very full drop bags!

Registration sorted, I returned to the house we were staying at in nearby Debden (massive thanks to my Mum’s friend Gwen for putting us up) to spend some quality time fiddling with the bike. Taking the cut-off times from my newly acquired brevet card, I carefully copied all the distances between controls and the closing times onto a piece of waterproof paper to stick to my top tube. Well, actually two pieces of waterproof paper, one for north-bound and one for south-bound. I stuck the north-bound piece over the south-bound and hoped I’d get far enough into the ride to peel it back off…


Top tube distances and control closing times…in miles because my mind doesn’t work in kilometres! The distance in brackets is how far that control was from the last control.

Although I’d requested a morning start time for the Sunday, so had everyone else. I had been one of the unlucky ones who hadn’t got my chosen start time and instead had been allocated to start at 2.30pm.

I got to the start at a little after midday and had some food (provided free for the riders), spending some time in the cafe chatting to some other riders. One was an eighteen-year-old girl called Vedangi who was apparently the youngest rider in the event. Her enthusiasm buoyed me up as the minutes ticked towards my start time.

Before I started I got to meet the brother of an old friend who, we’d realised when I’d posted my sponsorship page on Facebook, was also riding LEL and even had the same start time as me. We compared training stories and ride strategies as we watched other waves of riders leave and waited for our turn in the start pen. And then, suddenly, we were at the start line and I was waving good-bye to Emily. Dead on 2.30pm, we were off!


Setting off from Loughton

Day One – Sunday
Loughton to Louth

On a ride as long as LEL, you can’t possibly think of the whole thing – there was no way my brain could compute that I would be attempting to cycle nearly 900 miles in total. It couldn’t even deal with thinking about how far I might be cycling that day. I knew success lay in just thinking how far I had to go before the next control…in this case St Ives, which was 100km or 62 miles away.

My plan for the first section was to try to get with a group and go as fast as I felt I comfortably could. It felt good to be turning the pedals after several weeks without too much cycling. As we’d just set off there was a good bunch of people around me and several of us exchanged pleasantries as we headed out into the Essex lanes.

A few miles in and there was a good group forming, with a nice tailwind pushing us on. Then, just as I thought I’d found a good few wheels to stick with, the snack-pack on my handlebars fell off, showering trailmix across the road and losing me several minutes as I tried to retrieve it.

Bag reattached I carried on my rapid journey. The roads weren’t flat, but the undulations felt fun rather than onerous and the sun was shining. I had a run-in with an irate driver, who was on the wrong side of the road coming up to a blind bend and yet still felt he could yell at me to “f*cking slow down” when he nearly collided with me. Ah well, I’d expect nothing less of Southern drivers!

For a while I chatted with a woman with a Liverpool Century jersey on. She told me she was soon moving to Manchester so I encouraged her to check out Team Glow, the awesome club that I have got so much from being a part of.

Then, much faster than I’d expected, I was in St Ives. It had taken me a little over four hours to cover the first 62 miles. And so far I felt fine! I didn’t want to hang around at the control – I quickly got my brevet card stamped, went to the loo and filled up my water bottles and I was off. I knew that minimising faffing was the key to success for me in this event and I was happy to see that I’d only been stopped for ten minutes at the first control.

Out of St Ives and we were into the flatlands, aka the Fens. The wind was still nicely behind us though so we continued zipping along. I briefly hoped that the wind might change direction by the time we were coming back this way, then put all further thoughts of that out of my head – I still really didn’t believe that I would make it to that part of the ride.

I was still riding in a loose group and chatting with people on and off. One guy expressed surprise that I was riding alone and asked whether I would be able to fix a puncture! I thought it would be ambitious in the extreme to undertake such a ride if you couldn’t at least change an inner tube and somehow doubted he’d have asked the same question of a lone male rider…

I arrived at Spalding a little after 9pm. I’d originally planned to possibly sleep there but I was at least two hours earlier than I’d expected to be and not at all tired. In fact, I was amazed at how good I felt after covering 100 miles in less than seven hours! So instead I grabbed some pasta which I ate as quickly as possible and headed back out.

More flatness and more fast progress. As it got dark I was glad to see that my dynamo lights were working just fine. I’d had some problems with them over the last few months which I thought were fixed, but you never know… We passed through Horncastle and I remembered cycling round and round the town, trying to find a supermarket, on my last visit during the DIY 600km in May. No stopping this time though.

We started to hit the Lincolnshire Wolds a little before Louth but there was nothing too extreme. I was excited to be getting to a control where I knew I was going to sleep, albeit for a few short hours. I’d decided to give myself three hours sleep a night if possible, and see how that went. I figured with food and faffing this may amount to a four hour control stop each night and, if I could keep my other control stops not too long, that was doable.

I actually arrived in Louth with 8 hours 46 minutes in hand, not that I knew that at the time. It was only later in the ride that I would start to ask the volunteers for my time in hand. The tracking system was great – it not only allowed the amazing volunteers to see where you were up to time-wise, it also allowed friends and family to see you arriving at and leaving controls.

Unfortunately for me, everyone else seemed to have decided to sleep at Louth. When I arrived a little after 1.30am it was a control in chaos. A long queue of people wanting beds waited patiently for some of the earlier riders to wake up and leave.I didn’t really fancy joining it!

The controls had a great bed system – when you arrived, if you wanted to sleep the volunteers would show you to a free bed and ask you what time you wanted to wake up. You’d then be given a wake-up call at that time. The beds were just air mattresses laid out in rows, usually in the gym area of whatever school the control was in. But they were a lot more comfortable than a hedgerow or the floor, as I was about to find out.

Having discovered no beds at Louth I then tried for some food, only to discover that the only food that was left was cake (which I couldn’t eat as it had dairy in it). Luckily, as I had a drop bag at Louth I had plenty of snacks, so I ate some of the provisions I had with me (vegan salami and coconut-oil flapjacks) and managed to find a small spot in a corridor with about twenty other people to try to get some sleep!

I can’t say that the few hours rest I got was the best sleep I’ve ever had. Not only were we on the floor in a brightly lit corridor but we were also packed so closely that there was a domino effect every time someone shifted in their sleep! However, I did get some slumber, although I was wide awake again before the alarm I’d set for three hours hence went off.

I stumbled back to the canteen to try to find some food, only to find that now the only offering was porridge which had been made with milk. After some discussion, I managed to get some made with hot water instead so at least I had something warm and filling to eat. There was coffee too, which helped. I’d done a caffeine detox in the weeks running up to the event so that I could get an extra hit from the coffee I drank during LEL!


Day Two – Monday
Louth to Alston

It was getting light as I left Louth and headed out into the Wolds, just under four hours after I’d arrived. The short but sharpish hills woke me up, without giving me too much of a shock to the system.

Inside I was rejoicing. I’d always felt that the beginning of the second day would be a moment of truth for my LEL: I thought it was very likely that this was the point at which my fairly recent surgery would catch up with me  and I would feel so fatigued that I wouldn’t be able to go on. Instead, despite having less than three hours sleep on a solid floor, I felt alive, awake and raring to go!

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I crossed the Humber Bridge just as the rush hour was building. Luckily bikes are completely separate from cars on the bridge and the sun was out so I could enjoy the view over the estuary.

After the bridge there was a long climb up from sea level, which was the first time I started to feel the miles in my legs. It wasn’t worse than I would have expected for having already ridden over 200 miles though! Then it seemed to be downhill or mostly flat to Pocklington. I got there around quarter past ten in the morning, having taken less than five hours to cover the 60 miles from Louth. I wasn’t flying quite as much as I’d been the day before but I was still moving faster than I’d dared hope for.

After the slight surprise of quite a lot of climbing after the Humber Bridge, I decided to take a moment at each control to just check-out the elevation profile of the next section of route. So as I quickly ate some food at Pocklington, I noted that the route to Thirsk started out pretty flat, but then went pretty spiky! Fifteen miles in I realised why, when I passed a sign welcoming me to the Howardian Hills Area of Natural Beauty.

I’ve ridden quite a lot in the North of England but I hadn’t been to (or even heard of) the Howardian Hills before and I always like exploring new places, so there was a part of me thinking, “Oooh, nice, somewhere new to ride!” There was also a part of me thinking, “Bloody great, this is going to hurt!” It turned out both parts of me were right!

The roads through the Howardian Hills turned out to be a bit of a roller coaster, with a lot of steep ups and downs. My strategy for these types of roads is to pedal as hard as I can on the downs to give myself momentum to get up the ups! Unfortunately there were quite a lot of riders around me and that didn’t seem to be the strategy of many of them.

It all turned into a bit of a melee, and I kept either getting stuck on the downhill bits behind people who were freewheeling or getting stuck on the uphill bits behind beefy blokes who would overtake me on the descents and then slow down on the climbs. I’m sure there were also many riders getting stuck behind me as well – there were just a lot of riders on the roads and it’s harder to ride as a coherent group when there’s climbing involved.

Castle Howard gatehouse

Passing through the gatehouse to Castle Howard

Despite the slight frustration of being unable to find a riding rhythm, the scenery was a welcome distraction. We rode right through the gatehouse of Castle Howard, although we didn’t get to see the castle itself (I’ve since seen photos and it looks impressive). And the sun was mostly shining which also helped with staying positive. Eventually the route flattened out again and I rode with several different groups as we headed down the last few miles to Thirsk.

Checking my phone at Thirsk I realised that there were actually quite a few people following my progress! I’d been in contact with my partner Emily via text at most of the controls but now I saw that one of my friends had posted my tracking data on the Team Glow Facebook page. It gave me a real lift to see people following me and commenting on my progress. My old friend whose brother was also doing the ride was sending me regular Facebook messages, telling me she knew it was hard but I was smashing it. Even though I was riding alone I felt that I had an invisible peloton urging me on.

Also checking the profile for the next section I saw that it was mostly flat, with a gradual climb up towards Barnard Castle, but that the section after was the big one, with the biggest climb of the ride (Yad Moss) in the middle of it. I really wanted to make sure I rode Yad Moss in the daylight, partly for the views but also because I didn’t fancy such a long descent at night, especially with the possibility of wandering rabbits, sheep and other wildlife!

My plan was to get to the other side of Yad Moss and then try to get a few hours sleep. But the next control on my brevet card was Brampton, around 30 miles from the Yad Moss summit. I had a drop bag at Brampton, so it seemed like a good place to stop, but I was worried that I would get there and find a similar situation to Louth the night before: no food and no beds. It was then that I remembered Alston, a non-compulsory control right after the big climb and about 20 miles before Brampton that had some sleeping space. I decided to aim for Alston and see if there was a bed there and carry on to Brampton if not.

It was mid-afternoon by the time I left Thirsk so I knew I’d be up against it to get to Yad Moss before it got dark. The route from Thirsk to Barnard Castle was pleasant, winding through small villages and also through a ford. Although there was a bridge to the side I decided to take the plunge and splash on through! The route was relatively flat and I tried to push the pace but my legs, now with getting on for 300 miles in them, were less willing than the day before and I somehow seemed to have lost most of the other riders so I couldn’t get into a group.

The control at Barnard Castle was posh – a private school with turrets and wood panelling that put me in mind of the Mallory Towers books I read as a kid. Not that I was there very long. I arrived at about 6.45pm and resolved to leave before 7 – just taking time to wash down a flapjack with a cup of strong coffee and have a quick wee!

Then it was off out through the streets of Barnard Castle (which seemed like a very lovely town) before the climbing started. Scrolling to the elevation screen on my Garmin all I could see was a diagonal line heading upwards. Not encouraging. Once I’d zoomed out I could see I’d be climbing for the best part of twelve miles.


Rare moment of stopping to take a photo with nice scenery!

By now, I could definitely feel my legs. Not badly, they were just letting me know that they were no longer particularly enjoying this cycling malarkey. Nevertheless, they kept turning and slowly slowly I was edging my way up the climb. The weather kept changing the whole way up – it rained, it stopped, the wind picked up (and somehow seemed to be a headwind), then it dropped again.

It took me just under three hours to travel the 25 miles from Barnard Castle to the top of Yad Moss, by which time it was definitely getting dark. However, the clouds had lifted slightly and the last rays of light both allowed me to see the road ahead and provided some nice layering of the Northern Pennine hills!


Last rays of light at the top of Yad Moss

The descent down towards Alston was a lot of fun until I got into the town itself, when it suddenly got steeper and cobbled. Thinking about how much fun it wouldn’t be to have to ride back up the cobbles, I rode down slowly, looking for the Alston control.

The control was tucked away off the cobbled main street and was immediately welcoming – yes, they had beds and they also had food! I shovelled down a bowl of lovely thick vegetable soup, accompanied by several hummus sandwiches, and then was gratefully shown to an airbed, requesting a wake-up call three hours later.


Day Three – Tuesday
Alston to Brampton (via Edinburgh!)

I woke up a little after 2am, shivering from having slept in still-damp clothing. I often find that on long rides as I get more tired I also get more susceptible to the cold, so I put on an extra layer and warmed up with coffee and toast before heading out into the still-dark morning. Having started to feel really fatigued at the end of the last day I was glad to feel more energised, if still not fully awake, as I covered the twenty mostly downhill miles to Brampton.

I had a drop-bag at Brampton which meant a welcome change of clothes, but first…a shower! Oh, the miracles of hot water and shampoo – soon I was clean, warm and raring to go. Knowing that I was now near the Scottish border and, mishaps aside, would reach Edinburgh today was also helping my frame of mind.

There were two alternative routes from Brampton to Moffat – one of which was meant to be more scenic but hillier and the other which was flatter. I’d optimistically loaded them both onto my Garmin but now realised that I didn’t want to ride any more hills than I had to, so I carefully double checked with a volunteer as to which route I should be following! Then, a little after 5am, I got back on the bike and headed towards Scotland.

The border wasn’t that far away at Gretna so I soon saw a ‘Welcome to Scotland’ sign in front of me. Of course, I had to stop for a photo – luckily other cyclists had the same idea so I even had someone to take it for me!


Scotland welcomes me…by giving me a thorough soaking!

As I tried to post the photo, I saw a concerned text message from my wife – apparently the online tracker was showing me leaving Brampton control and then returning – was everything OK?

Unfortunately, the rain that had started just before I reached Scotland chose that moment to become absolutely torrential. I was trying to text Emily to let her know that, yes, everything was OK and the tracker was wrong but the rain was coming down so heavily that my phone thought it was fingers tapping the screen and went into an overdrive of gobbledegook. I had to back jump on my bike and pedal up the road until I found a bus shelter where I could take cover from the rain and send a reassuring text.

The route carried on towards Moffat, not hilly but gradually climbing. It began to feel like a bit of a grind. Luckily there were riders around me for much of it, I rode for a little while with an American guy who told me the best long distance ride in the States is The Cascades in Washington state and then got overtaken by a fast-moving train of Spaniards and various hangers-on. They motioned for me to join them, but unlike on the first day I didn’t have the pace to get on-board a rapid peloton.

I reached Moffat slightly after 9am, hoping for a second breakfast. I was excited to see a menu offering vegan porridge, but it wasn’t to be – the volunteers told me the porridge was actually again made with milk and I would have to wait half an hour to get any made just with water. This seemed like a long wait for some porridge so I settled for toast instead!

Then it was back on the bike with the knowledge that my next stop was the halfway point – Edinburgh! But on the horizon was another long drag of a climb, the Devil’s Beeftub (apparently it’s where vagabonds used to hide the cows they’d nicked!) I settled in for a slow grind up for five miles, but then I met Joff.

Joff was a London boy and he was also a breath of fresh air – someone who wanted to ride alongside me and chat. Suddenly the long drag wasn’t so much of a drag: chatting away took my mind off the fifty miles to Edinburgh and my legs were suddenly spinning much faster than before. We talked about Rapha clothing (my Rapha jacket had been doing a good job of keeping me dry during the morning’s showers and his partner works for Rapha) and how cycling was a great panacea to all of life’s ills and all the while I was travelling up the Devil’s Beeftub climb faster than I’d dared hope for. He also took this photo of me, which I hope he doesn’t mind me stealing:


Climbing the Devil’s Beeftub

After the climb there was a lovely long and gradual descent, followed by a fairly flat 20 miles before the slightly downhill run-in to the Edinburgh control. Unfortunately the road after the Beeftub was terrible, not so much pot-holed as just cracked all over – the kind of surface that jolts your whole body with every wheel turn. My poor buttocks and hands were soon feeling the strain of both 400+ miles of riding and the constant jolting and I was popping ibuprofen in a vain attempt to help!

The route into Edinburgh was via an off-road cycle path and I briefly rode with Tom, who had had a nightmare mechanical with his rear mech disintegrating several miles back. He was now riding single speed and planning to head straight to a bike shop in Edinburgh in the hope of finding a compatible mech hanger.

And then…I was at Edinburgh! The smile on my face was very large as I pulled into the school on the outskirts of the city which was the control and was greeted by a volunteer saying ‘welcome to Edinburgh’. I bumped into Shaun, a lovely guy who is crazy enough to ride audax events on a fixie and who I’ve ridden with on other events. He hasd set off earlier than me and was getting ready to leave Edinburgh as I was arriving. It was great to see him going strong.

My smile was only slightly dimmed by queueing for twenty minutes only to find they didn’t really have any vegan food options! I ate some bread and spoke to Emily on the phone, sharing my elation at reaching the halfway point, and had a nice sit-down. Then, aware that I’d spent more time than I should’ve done at this control, I headed back outside to resume my ride. But as I got to my bike the heavens opened and I was sent scuttling back to the cover of the school foyer for another five minutes until the deluge passed.


At Edinburgh…terrible photo but a big smile!

But once I was back on the bike it wasn’t all smooth sailing. It was only 26 miles to the next contorol at Innerleithen but those 26 miles were straight through the hills. I was tired. Everything hurt. And now I was cycling into a not-inconsiderable headwind. Despite nice scenery all I seemed to be able to look at was the display on my Garmin showing me how slowly I was moving. It took me two and three quarter hours to get to Innerleithen but it felt like so much more.

I knew there were more hills after Innerleithen and I needed to reset both my body and my mind so I decided it was worth having a little lie-down at Innerleithen. It was around 5.30pm when I arrived there and I was happy to find that the food situation was considerably better than at Edinburgh. I was also happy to find that late afternoon was a great time to get a bed – there was virtually no-one else wanting to sleep then. It also seemed a really friendly control, with volunteers handing out badges. I’d heard that at the last LEL they’d even been handing out shots of whisky, but sadly there was none in evidence this time around.

I was shown to an airbed a little before 6pm and requested a 7pm wake-up call, not at all sure that I would get any sleep. But I lay down and, after five minutes of crazed thoughts, I drifted off, somehow waking up automatically five minutes before I was due to be awakened. I don’t know how my body did this but consistently I seemed to wake up just before I was due to do so. In fact there is only one control (the last one) when I hadn’t already woken up before my wake-up call came.

I went back out to my bike, feeling somewhat refreshed from my nap but also quite intimidated by the 60-odd miles that were still between me and my preferred sleep stop for the night – the Brampton control. But then a stroke of luck happened. I realised I was leaving Innerleithen at the same time as another woman. It turned out her name was Sheila and, like me, she was attempting her first LEL.

As we climbed out of Innerleithen we chatted, firstly about the amazing long-distance women who inspired us (I was wearing one of Jasmijn Muller’s ‘Be The Egg’ caps whilst Sheila was rocking a black cap that she admitted was an homage to Emily Chappell), then about our experiences of LEL so far and audax in general. I shared some of the stories of the roller-coaster last few months and Sheila whetted my appetite for further adventure with tales of touring round Iceland. In short, we bonded, and as we approached Eskdalemuir we decided to ride on to Brampton together.

Our stop at Eskdalemuir was short, just long enough to recaffeinate with some coffee and empty our bladders. Then, as it was now dark and getting chilly, we added another layer and headed out to Brampton.

We hadn’t got very far when I suddenly saw Sheila’s light behind me stop. She had a puncture – close examination showed a sharp piece of flint embedded in her tyre. She urged me to continue but I was enjoying her company and preferred to wait, trying to help wiht the tyre change by shining my head-torch in the right direction. The change was quick and we soldiered on.

The last twenty miles to Brampton were hard work. Bad road surfaces were hampering us, as were worried about hitting potholes or gravel in the dark. In the end we realised we could save some time by just staying on the main A7 road – it was late enough that the traffic was light and the good surface and clear white lines gave us confidence to ride a little faster.

We were less than ten miles from Brampton when we came across a Thai rider by the side of the road, so tired he no longer seemed able to think straight. We advised him to have a nap where he was, reasoning that just a short nap would probably give him the energy to get to the control. He was worried that he would go to sleep and not wake up in time so we tried to persuade him to set an alarm on his phone so he could get some rest. Hopefully he did so and then was able to ride on more safely.

Finally we reached Brampton and I retrieved my drop-bag. It seemed like a very long time since I’d had a shower and change of clothes there this morning. In fact, I’d ridden arond 190 miles since then, as part of a 200+ mile day. No wonder I was tired!

Unfortunately, as we checked in at around 2.30am we were told that they currently didn’t have any beds available. There were plenty of people trying to sleep elsewhere in the control, draped over couches and face down on tables in the cafeteria. I didn’t really fancy joining them and the volunteers had said that there were likely to be beds coming free by 3am so Sheila and I decided to grab some food and then join the bed queue. Having eaten we didn’t need to wait too long for some beds to be vacated. I bid farewell and good luck to Sheila – she had started several hours before me so had less time in hand and was planning just an hour’s nap before hitting the road again. I requested a 6.15 wake-up call and gratefully collapsed onto an airbed.


Day 4 – Wednesday
Brampton to Pocklington

I woke up feeling stiff, but somewhat revived after a few hours’ sleep. I returned to the cafeteria and shovelled more food down me, then changed clothes. It felt good to have clean garments on, though I’d forgotten that I’d only packed bib shorts for this section.

Getting back on the bike was hard. I had ridden over 500 miles over the previous three days and my body knew it! My backside felt like two goose-eggs of pure agony – I really did not want to connect my buttocks with the saddle. It took several miles for the pain to settle down from excrutiating to barely bearable.

The nineteen miles to Alston took considerably longer than they had in the other direction the previous morning. Not only was I in pain, there was also a slight headwind and psychologically I knew what awaited me on the other side – Yad Moss again! I was yawning and finding it hard to wake up – the fact that they’d run out of coffee at Brampton probably hadn’t help.

As I arrived in Alston I considered stopping at the control there for a coffee but I didn’t really want to detour from the route. Plus, I figured getting up the cobbles would require my full concentration. But when I saw the wall of cobbles in front of me I admitted defeat: walking up the steepest part of the climb seemed much more preferable than potentially falling off on it.

I was about to get back on the bike when I spotted The Moody Baker shop. They were just opening up and they had coffee! I quickly decided that a brief coffee break before tackling Yad Moss was in order. I entered and was asked whether I was also heading to London – apparently I was by no means the only LEL rider who had been enticed in to the little shop.

Suitably caffeinated it was then just a case of grinding back up Yad Moss, trying to ignore how tired my body was feeling and how much I wanted to stop. About two thirds of the way up someone had set up an impromptu cafe van selling coffee and flapjacks but I worried that if I stopped there I may never get going again so I continued on. To my right I could see the white golf balls of Great Dun Fell and I consoled myself that at least I wasn’t heading up there today. Great Dun Fell is a great climb, but it is considerably steeper than Yad Moss and I would not have been wanting to tackle it in my current state.


The text I sent Emily from Barnard Castle on the way south probably gives an indication of how hard the ride was getting…

The twelve mile descent towards Barnard Castle was very welcome, as was yet more coffee and food once I arrived there. In the cafeteria I bumped into Vedangi again, the 18-year-old who I’d met before starting. She had a heavily bandaged knee and told me she’d hit a tree after going 48 hours without sleep and had had to end her LEL attempt, although she had was hoping to still cycle on to Edinburgh. Ouch! I made a mental note to try to avoid cycling into trees, nipped to the loos to rub germolene onto my saddle sores, downed some more painkillers and headed back out.

I left Barnard Castle and almost immediately found myself behind a small group of older men who were obviously out for a nice 20 mile pootle on their hybrid bikes. Normally I would have overtaken them but at that moment I was very happy to sit behind them out of the wind for five miles or so and I was quite disappointed when they turned off in another direction. I don’t really remember much more about the journey from Barnard Castle to Thirsk but I think it’s safe to say I wasn’t enjoying life too much, as this is the message I sent Emily once I got there:


My communications weren’t getting more cheery!

As the nap at Innerleithen the day before had helped so much I’d already planned to have a short sleep at Thirsk. When I got there a little before five the talk in the canteen was all about the weather forecast for the next day. I checked the BBC website for the Louth forecast and sure enough, it was awful – strong winds ramping up all morning to around 40mph by early afternoon. So I decided to have a slightly more extended sleep at Thirsk and then push on through the night, with the hope of getting at least part of the way through the flatlands of Lincolnshire before the wind got unbearable.

The gym with airbeds at Thirsk seemed to be miles from the main control but it was deserted, with only one other rider having a nap. Although light was streaming through the windows I lay down and quickly fell asleep, glad to not for once be surrounded by snoring hoards!

I woke at around 7pm and grabbed some more food and coffee before heading out to once again tackle the Howardian Hills. Just as the day before, the late afternoon nap reinvigorated me and I was once again enjoying being on the bike. If only the pain from my saddle sores would quit all would be good…

As I cycled along I realised that the right side of my bum was hurting more than my left. A few more miles on I worked out that the piece of electrical tape I had put on a small tear on my saddle lining had a crease in it which was exacerbating the pain. I immediately removed the tape but it was too late – I was already bleeding. In a struggle which would have no doubt been hilarious if anyone had been there to watch, I then spent a good deal of time byt eh side of the road in the dusk, trying to apply a large plaster to my bum underneath my bib shorts. Eventually I somehow got a dressing situated mostly over the area that was most damaged and my riding immediately became more comfortable.


Passing back through the Castle Howard grounds in the gloaming

A little bit further up the road I paused again to have a snack and suddenly a police car turned up. The officers just wanted to check that I was OK and knew where I was going. I told them I was fine and I was heading to London! The wind had dropped and I felt good after my nap, even though I wasn’t moving very fast I was getting there and I was in good spirits by the time I got to Pocklington just before midnight.

On the volunteer desk was a woman named Gill who I rode with in a couple of audaxes the year before. She recognised my name as she scanned in my brevet card and we briefly exchanged stories about our cycling achievements and failures since we last saw each other.

I’d told myself I wasn’t spending more than 15 minutes at Pocklington but I had been riding alone for the past four hours and suddenly there were people to talk to. Plus it was warm and there was food. I spent longer than I should have sitting in the canteen area, chatting to an American guy about different rides I should try in the States before finally dragging myself back out to the bike.


Day 5 – Thursday
Pocklington to Great Easton

Back on the bike I was suddenly feeling a lot less chirpy. It didn’t help that I knew it was sixty miles to the next control. Nor did it help that the route was a lot hillier than I’d remembered from the outward trip. For the first time on LEL I started to feel dozy – not tired in my body but tired in my mind. In fact, my legs felt OK, better than they had first thing on Wednesday morning, but my thought processes were like treacle.

My butt was now hurting so much that every pedal stroke was painful. I got into a rhythm of three pedal strokes followed by a little rest, followed by three more. Obviously, this is not a very efficient way to cycle and I wasn’t moving very fast. In between all of this I was frequently looking at my Garmin to see how fast I wasn’t travelling and how far I hadn’t come.

By 2.30am I’d still only travelled just over 15 miles and I needed a rest. It was raining on and off – at one point I decided to stop and lie down on a bench, only for the drizzle to start as soon as I was off the bike. I actively started looking for bus shelters but none appeared. It seemed I was in for a long, dark, tired night of soul-searching.

Then, when I thought it couldn’t get much worse I noticed that the road seemed to be getting even bumpier than usual. Yep, I had a puncture in my rear wheel. Initially thinking practically, I limped to a section of pavement under a street light so I could see what I was doing. I got out a spare tube, tyre levers and gas for inflating the tyre, then the practical thinking left me. I spent some time (who knows how long?!) sitting on the pavement thinking about how I did know how to change a tyre but could not be bothered to do it right that minute. I was not in the best state of mind.

Eventually I managed to raise myself from my torpor sufficiently to change my tyre, then got back on my back and continued on to the Humber Bridge, only a few miles away and thankfully downhill.

Crossing the Humber Bridge heading north had felt fun and like an achievement – I’d made it to the North! Crossing it heading south felt, quite frankly, scary. It was really windy. The bridge seemed very high up (it is very high up, but it seems even more so when you’re sleep deprived). All I could think about was how many miles I still had to ride. Still close to 200, I reckoned. Not many in the grand scale of LEL but still a seemingly insurmountable distance at that moment in time.

I got to Barton-upon-Humber on the other side of the bridge and finally found what at that moment was the equivalent of a 5 star hotel to me: a bus shelter! And not just any bus shelter…one that had a bench long enough for me to lie flat out and even had an arm-rest for me to prop my feet up on. Here, I found a picture of it on Google maps so you can see how luxurious it was (it was around 4am when I arrived, so there was no-one waiting for a bus)…


Audax hotel…palatial, right?

Anxious that I might get too comfortable in my lodgings, I set the alarm on my phone for half an hour’s time and lay back. I woke up feeling a tad chilly to find a fellow cyclist had occupied the other end of the bus shelter – well, it was plenty big enough for two! I apologised to him for my alarm disturbing him and stiffly got back on my bike.

Unlike every other nap I had had on this ride, the sleep had not rejuvenated me. My body was stiff and sore and did NOT want to ride a bike. It really just wanted to lie back down and go to sleep again. Luckily, the nap had reset my mind somewhat, so at least that wasn’t switched off. It tried to tell my backside that it wasn’t really hurting that much, my legs that they did really want to turn and the scar on my belly that, no, it wasn’t really starting to hurt it was just imagining it.

Slowly I inched up the road, trying to think positive thoughts and failing. Really, I just felt very alone and I wanted someone to talk to. I tried to talk to myself but that really didn’t help, as all I could think to say was ‘How on earth are you going to cycle another 200 miles?’ That was not a question I really wanted to contemplate.

Somehow, just as I was properly starting to wallow in how miserable life was, fate provided a saviour, in the form of Arnold, a cheery guy who appeared from nowhere, wanted to chat and was for some reason happy to ride at my by now glacial pace.

Arnold was Lithuanian but living in London, he loved adventuring on his bike and I have no idea what we talked about for the twenty or so miles that we rode together but he had an infectious laugh and honestly, I’m not sure I would have made it to Louth without him. Thankfully I was with Arnold when we hit the Lincolnshire Wolds again, which were suddenly much steeper than I remembered from the way out. I didn’t end up walking any of the climbs but there may have been audible grunting!

Although I’d been moving slowly, I still had some time in hand and I’d been debating whether I should try to get an hour’s sleep at Louth. But I was worried about how much time I’d need to get through the flatlands of the Fens, especially with the wind picking up. And by the time I got to Louth, having spent several miles chatting with Arnold, I was feeling much more awake. It had taken me seven and three quarter hours to make it the sixty miles from Pocklington but I had made it! I celebrated with some food and a shower!

Freshly washed, with a new plaster on my butt and clean clothes from my drop-bag on my body I felt like a new person. The clean clothes included a pair of Twin Six shorts that are very comfy but also fairly noticeable (they have polka dots!) which caused comment from other riders for the rest of my ride. At Louth I also bumped into Sheila again – she had teamed up with an experienced audax guy and was on a mission to finish in time. I wished her luck as she sped off. I was feeling better…until I saw how much the trees were moving in the wind!

Although there had been food at Louth this time the options weren’t great so I decided that I’d treat myself to brunch in Horncastle, which I knew was just fifteen miles or so up the road. From Horncastle I would ‘just’ have 150 miles to go to Loughton. The section from Louth to Spalding was around 53 miles in total, it would be good to break it up.

I was alternately thinking about what I would eat in Horncastle and trying not to think about how much pain I was in and how alone I felt when I saw a car stopped ahead of me, with a woman waving at me frantically. It took me a good few seconds to realise that the woman was my Mum. My parents had driven out to Lincolnshire from their home in Nottinghamshire to try to find me and cheer me on. There may have been a few tears when I saw them!

I exchanged hugs and half-coherent ramblings with my parents and somehow resisted the urge to climb into the car with them. Then it was back on the bike. Two minutes later the heavens opened and I once again got soaked but I was feeling buoyed after the brief encounter with my folks and Horncastle was calling.


Breakfast in Horncastle

I reached Horncastle and happily found a cafe that served veggie breakfasts. Still damp from my recent soaking, I carefully sat myself away from the other customers enjoying their coffees. The breakfast was excellent and I was soon joined by two fellow LEL’ers, one of whom was the guy I’d met on the way into Edinburgh with the broken rear mech. He’d managed to get it fixed and was still hoping to finish the ride in time, just as long as he could dissuade his riding partner from sleeping in too many hedgerows!

Breakfast finished and I hit the road again. Heading out of Horncastle I was straight into the flatlands of Lincolnshire and straight into the wind. Mile after mile, the wind got stronger, I pedalled harder and moved slower. I stared at my Garmin, finding it hard to believe just how slowly I was moving. I tried not to think about my hurting knees, backside, stomach, shoulders and hands. I sang to myself. I told myself that this time tomorrow it would all be over. I told myself that I could do this. I did not really believe it.

Then a guy came past me (I had forgotten his name but I found him on the LEL Facebook page and it’s Eric). I told him, I’m sorry, I’m just going to be cheeky and try to ride on your wheel for a bit. We started chatting and he took pity on me, riding with me and sheltering me from the wind for miles on end. Here’s a photo that someone called Mike Moody took of us together:


With Eric, one of my several saviours!

Eventually Eric stopped to get a drink and I continued on my own into the wind but at least I was that little bit closer to Spalding. I finally reached the control there just before 4pm and decided that I needed to recharge my batteries before I spent any more time in the wind. I headed for an airbed, asking to be awakened at 5.30pm.

I was hoping against hope that I would wake up and find that the wind had dropped but my hopes were dashed. I went back out to my bike to find it was still blowing hard. It was less than 40 miles to St Ives but I calculated it could take me between five and six hours at the speed I’d previously been moving. I knew I still had time to get to Loughton before my cut-off but I wasn’t sure I’d have the energy, especially if I didn’t manage to get any more sleep.

As I was leaving Spalding I was provided with yet more saviours – this time in the form of a largeish peloton led by Audax Club Mid Essex (ACME). The set out just after me from the control and, when they caught me up, asked me if I wanted to join them. Did I ever! Not only did I now have a group to help shelter me from the wind, I also got to move around and chat with lots of different folks within that group. What was going to be a long, hard, lonely slog to St Ives suddenly became a fun bonding session with new people to talk to! It was still a hard slog but it was a hard slog with company.

Someone managed to capture video of the peloton I was in coming through the Fens, which gives an idea of the wind we were riding through which you can see here. I have to admit that I did not spend very much time on the front of this peloton.

I had estimated that it may take me until midnight to get to St Ives. Instead I found myself there before 9.30pm, still delighted but slightly unbelieving at my good fortune. I was even more delighted when Emily turned up. She was on her way to Essex to meet me the next morning and decided to stop off and surprise me. It was great to see her and we hung out whilst I ate some food. Finally I wasn’t feeling negative anymore. I had less than 100 miles to go and over twelve hours to cover it.

I’d bumped into a guy I knew from a previous audax called Marcus at the control and he’d asked if I wanted to ride on with him and another guy. But somehow we lost him, so I bade Emily goodbye and ended up riding out of St Ives with the other guy.

The route took us along a cycle path by the side of a guided busway, which at first was a novelty but then turned into just tedious. It just seemed to go on and on, and then suddenly we were in the middle of Cambridge! I will admit that sleep deprivation was kicking my butt by now, and it felt quite surreal to be riding through this historic city.

Out the other side of Cambridge and I got to the point that my vision was blurring. I told the guy I was with that I needed to stop and rest and he decided he did too. Side by side we collapsed onto a bench by the side of the road. Thankfully I remembered to set an alarm to ensure our 20 minute nap didn’t get longer as I was out for the count when it went off.

No sooner had the alarm sounded then the guy next to me jumped up and pedalled off as fast as he could! I figured I needed to follow him so did the same. I never saw him again but the immediate sprint did at least wake me up somewhat.

Great Easton was the control I’d been dreaming of. It was the last control and was only thirty miles from Loughton. Finally, a distance that seemed easily rideable! I figured as long as I left there with at least three hours in hand I would make it in time (although obviously I wanted more than three hours in hand, just in case!)

I was dreaming of it and I kept dreaming as I wound my way through the Essex lanes, sure at every turn that the control was just around the corner. It didn’t help that the last few miles featured some slight hills, which came as a shock after so long in the Fens! Finally FINALLY I reached the control at 3.30am and was checked in by the lovely volunteers. The woman on the bed booking station assured me that yes, they did have a bed and asked me my name, saying they liked to personalise their wake-up calls.

I asked for a 5.30am call and was shown to an airbed, as it turned out right next to Joff, the guy I’d ridden with on the way into Edinburgh. I’d seen him briefly at one earlier control but it was nice to say hi again and realise that we were both going to finish. Then it was sleeptime.


Day 5 – Friday
Great Easton to Loughton

For once I was out like a light almost as soon as my head hit the airbed. And I didn’t wake up until a volunteer was shaking my shoulder, saying, ‘Siân, it’s 5.30am.’ Still somewhat asleep I stumbled down to the school’s canteen, lured by the smell of toast and coffee.

The canteen looked how I imagine places look after a minor disaster. Bodies of riders were draped across tables and chairs in various stages of consciousness. But the volunteers, who were probably almost as tired as the riders, were doing a great job of checking on people and pointing us towards the coffee and food which we craved.

Suitably fuelled I headed out to my bike. It was just before 6am. The sun was shining. The birds were singing. I had nearly six hours to travel the thirty miles to Loughton. Barring something disastrous happening to my bike I was going to make it. I couldn’t stop smiling as I pedalled out of Great Easton. And then for a while I couldn’t stop crying. I was finding it hard to believe that I’d so nearly completed the challenge that just a few weeks before I’d thought was likely impossible.

The ride from Great Easton to Loughton was a joy. The wind had finally dropped and the route took us through rural areas of Essex where the sun shone on fields of corn. Several times I chatted with other passing riders. At one point a guy in a van stopped to ask what the event was that all these cyclists were part of. When I explained he said, “I bet your bum is killing you!” I admitted it most certainly was!

I was just around eight miles from Loughton when I spotted another female cyclist by the side of the road. I asked if I could help and she explained that her bike had broken irretrievably but that a friend was bringing her a replacement to ride in on and she hoped to make it to Loughton before her 10.30 cut-off. How soul-destroying to be so near and yet so far – I hope the replacement bike reached her in time!

By the time I was into the last five miles I didn’t want the ride to end. After having spent most of the day before hating being on the bike, I was enjoying cycling again and could almost forget how much my body hurt. That’s not to say I wasn’t overjoyed to turn into the gates of Davenant School and ride over the finish line, clapped in by a few spectators and by my lovely wife, who was waiting for me with flowers.


The sweet sweet sight of a completed brevet card!

For the final time I handed over my brevet card to be scanned and stamped, then I took a photo of it before it was added to a large pile to be sent off for ratification. Hopefully one day soon it will come back to me in the post!

In exchange for the card I was given a medal and I then made my way through to be photographed by Charlotte Barnes, a professional photographer who is herself a keen long-distance cyclist and who was taking finish line portraits. I love the photo she took of me, which I think reflects the mixture of elation and exhaustion I was feeling.

And that was it, LEL done! I collected my drop bags which had been shipped back from Brampton and Louth and chatted with a few other finishers. Then Emily snapped a picture of me and Trixie before we loaded her into the car to drive the 1.5 miles back to where we were staying – somehow I did not want to cycle that last little bit!


With Trixie the trusty Tricross who carried me through 896.7 miles of adventure


Click here to see my London Edinburgh London ride on Strava.

I’m delighted to have already raised well over £1000 for Medecins Sans Frontiers but if anyone else would like to sponsor me you can do so here.



Categories: Uncategorized | 26 Comments

Spirit of the Isles days 23-26: Knoydart Peninsula and Eigg

So, I’d come to the final few days of my Scottish adventure. When I’d booked my train home about a week earlier it felt like the right time to be heading home – unless I wanted to cut back down to Oban I’d pretty much run out of islands and I was missing my wife, the cat, friends, a comfy bed… But now that I was onto those last few days part of me really wanted a bit more time, to not have a schedule to be getting back to. Even the fact that I’d pre-booked the ferry to Knoydart before heading to Rum seemed like a bad choice, as I would have liked to stay on Canna for the run and ceilidh. And leaving Canna I wasn’t even sure what I would do from Monday onwards – should I ride back to Fort William or get the train from Mallaig? Would I want four days on the Knoydart Peninsula? Maybe I should head back to Skye – I kind of wanted one more bigger day’s riding…I was still unsure of what the last few days would bring.

Saturday 3 September

Ferries taken: two (Canna-Mallaig, Mallaig-Knoydart)
Islands visited: Canna (plus stop offs at Muck and Eigg)
Distance cycled: 5.5 miles

Strava: https://www.strava.com/activities/7754090974

Best bits:
– The Old Forge Inn
– Chatting to Gina on the ferry and deciding to visit Eigg
– Finally getting a hot shower!

Worst bits:
– Leaving Canna when everyone else was gearing up for the run and ceilidh
– Lots of time on boats, not much time on a bike

The ferry left Canna at 10.45 so I was up pretty early for a last little exploration of the island with a walk up to the Celtic cross. I was myself still a bit cross that I wasn’t going to get to watch the 10km and enjoy the ceilidh but I reminded myself that I did really want to get to Knoydart and I headed for the boat.

The Small Isles ferry timetable is a thing of mystery and confusion – the ferry goes between Mallaig and the four small isles of Rum, Canna, Muck and Eigg but it doesn’t visit each one on every trip and sometimes it visits the islands on the way out and on the way back. And because CalMac chooses to publish the outbound and inbound timetables separately, it’s not always clear exactly what is going on. On this journey the ferry had come from Mallaig to Rum before heading to Canna, but that first bit of the journey was on a separate timetable to the journey from Canna to Muck and Eigg and back to Mallaig.

As Muck and Eigg are both really small I’d decided not to visit them but I thought it was nice that I’d get to see them both briefly as the boat berthed, although it made for the long journey. That was before I got chatting to a lovely lady called Gina, who was heading to Eigg to visit her sister who lived on the island. She told me lots about Eigg and really piqued my interest in visiting. After some perusal of the aforementioned confusing timetable, I realised it would actually be possible to travel to Eigg on Monday and then back on Tuesday, in time to get the train to Fort William to meet up with the sleeper.

After over four hours on the ferry we finally arrived back in Mallaig mid afternoon and I headed straight off to find a shower. Thankfully Mallaig has some excellent public showers, with contactless payment, so I was soon very clean and refreshed. Then it was time for a coffee, a catch up phone chat with Em and visit to the Co-op before boarding the early evening boat to Knoydart.

The ferry to Knoydart is the one ‘private’ ferry that I took so it was a bit more expensive than the other boat journeys and I had to pay extra to bring my bike. It was a fun and exhilarating ride across though on choppy seas.

Although Knoydart is part of the mainland of Scotland, the fact that you can only get there by boat or via a long hike in makes it feel a bit like an island, and the cooperative way that the community seems to operate was reminiscent of some of the islands I’d visited. At the main village, Inverie, there’s a basic but lovely campsite which is co-owned by the community and the local pub had also recently been taken into community ownership after a turbulent few years under a previous landlord.

I obviously wanted to support the local community as much as possible, which was my sole motivation for heading to the campsite, quickly pitching my tent and eating some dinner before heading to the pub for a couple of pints! It was a very friendly place and I enjoyed chatting to some locals before heading back to the campsite where I shared a campfire with some fellow campers for a short while before bed.

Sunday 4 September

Ferries taken: none
Islands visited: none
Distance cycled: 27 miles

Strava: https://www.strava.com/activities/7754091640

Best bits:
– Brilliant sunny afternoon after a rainy and windy start
– Cracking trails and views
– Beer in the sunshine outside the pub

Worst bits:
– Rain and wind on the way to Lochan Dubh
– Everything hurts a little bit
– Trixie is very creaky!

Waking up to the sound of rain slamming into my tent didn’t make me want to leap out of my sleeping bag and head to the hills! Nevertheless, I was keen to explore some of the trails I’d seen on the OS map and find out just which ones were cycleable. So I waited for the rain to abate a bit and headed out.

First off was the trail to Lochan Dubh and potentially then on to Barisdale. It started promisingly, with a gravel track that was nice to ride, despite the rain. But once I reached the loch the path turned to single-track, and not single-track that was really rideable on a gravel bike. If the weather had been better I may have pushed on to see how far I could get but I wasn’t really in the mood for pushing a bike in the rain. So instead I turned and headed back to Inverie.

It was still only late morning by the time I got back to Inverie but I was already a bit fed up. Whilst I hadn’t ridden that much over the previous week, the cumulation of being on the bike every day and rough gravel meant that I was a little sore. But mostly I was just damp and a bit cold. I decided to have some hot food to warm up and reassess what I wanted to do.

It was the right decision: by the time I’d heated some soup and eaten it the rain was finally starting to clear and I felt more positive about heading back out on the bike, this time to see whether I could make it over to Inverguseran and then back around the coast to Airor before picking up the road back to Inverie.

The afternoon’s riding was much more enjoyable than the morning’s. Though it was a long climb up from Inverie, it was on a decent gravel road which was rideable and also really pretty. I even got a rainbow as the sun finally chased the last of the rain away. By the time I got to the coast it was full on sunshine.

Unfortunately the section between Inverguseran and Airor wasn’t really rideable, but it didn’t seem to bad to be pushing a bike with the sun playing on the sea next to me. And at Airor the road which was marked on the map as gravel was actually paved and made for a very lovely if also pretty hilly return journey for a pint outside the Old Forge.

Monday 5 September

Ferries taken: two (Knoydart-Mallaig, Mallaig-Eigg)
Islands visited: Eigg
Distance cycled: 14 miles

Strava: https://www.strava.com/activities/7760327409

Best bits:
– Watching the stars from my tent
– Sea swimming on the singing sands
– Lunch with a view at the old chapel

Worst bits:
– Trixie’s gears!
– No Northern Lights
– Couldn’t easily camp on the Singing Sands (but still had a nice spot)

Having spent a second night at the Knoydart campsite I was up early to catch the first boat back to Mallaig and from there it was on to Eigg.

The journey to Eigg wasn’t quite as straightforward as it could have been: the regular ferry was being serviced and had been replaced by two other ferries, one a large cargo boat and the other a small foot passenger ferry. When I booked my ticket they said that Trixie and I would be going on the cargo boat but then they decided we were actually to travel on the foot passenger boat. Cue Trivia and several other bikes being hauled onto the roof of the boat, which was very busy. We arrived on Eigg a good hour and a half later than we were meant to, which immediately got me a bit stressed about the prospect of the same thing happening with the return journey the next day and me missing my train…

I quickly forgot about the worry as I headed out to explore Eigg though. The small island only has around 12 miles of road but I soon found there was plenty to see. Of course, it helped that it was another lovely sunny day! Until the 1990s the islanders had suffered years of neglect from a series of lairds but then they managed (with the help of a crowdfunding campaign and a generous anonymous donor) to buy the island themselves and it’s now been in cooperative ownership since 1997. I found out more about the history of the struggle against the previous landlords and the journey to collective ownership at an exhibition marking the 25th anniversary of the buy-out.

For a small island, there was a surprising amount of history exhibitions to see: there was also a traditional house, set out as it was in the 1930s, and the old shop/post office, all of which were just open to whoever wanted to drop by.

The two places I’d heard I really should see on Eigg were the Singing Sands beach and An Sgurr. An Sgurr wasn’t missable – it’s the only big hill on the island, a giant piece of rock towering upwards which looks very not hikeable! I had been thinking of trying to hike it but now I wasn’t so sure.

The Singing Sands beach was on the far side of the island, looking over to Rum. I was hoping to maybe camp there but once I realised how difficult it would be to get Trixie down to the beach I had second thoughts. Getting to the beach involved a trek across a boggy sheep field before I had to abandon the bike to scramble down the steep path to the beach. It was beautiful but getting tent and everything down there would not be straightforward.

However, I did take advantage of the sunny afternoon for my final swim of the trip, knowing that the white sand, turquoise sea and sunshine would live long in my memory. Then it was back over to Kildonnan Bay for my final night wild camping. I was treated to a pretty pink sunset over the harbour. The alert on my phone suggested that the Northern Lights might make an appearance. I sadly didn’t see them but I left the outer door of my tent open as I went to sleep so I could watch the many, many stars.

Tuesday 6 September

Ferries taken: one (Eigg-Mallaig)
Islands visited: Eigg
Distance cycled: 2 miles
to and from An Sgurr (plus 4 miles hiking)
Strava: https://www.strava.com/activities/7764143238 and the hike: https://www.strava.com/activities/7764021924

Best bits:
– Waking up in my tent for the final morning
– Hiking An Sgurr before heading home
– Dolphins RIGHT next to the ferry

Worst bits:
– Last day
– Final out about ‘Andy’ (the guy who had gone missing on Rum)

I woke up very aware that it was my last day waking up in the tent. The view from my tent was of sheep dozing on the sand and the sea. I really found it hard to believe that by this time tomorrow I’d be home.

A conversation with locals the night before had convinced me to try the walk up An Sgurr before getting the lunchtime ferry back to Mallaig. They’d told me that it really was possible to walk up the seemingly exceedingly scrambly hunk of rock and that I should be OK to try this in cleats.

I was very aware that I didn’t have much time so I decided to take Trixie with me as far as I could. It was a good decision, the first mile or so in was cycleable and I left the bike by the side of the path as it started to climb steeply up.

The locals were right: though the hike was a bit boggy in places and a bit rocky in others it was definitely hiking rather than scrambling and also achievable in cycling shoes. Plus there was a lot of bang for my buck – at the top there were 360 views, particularly over to the mountains of Rum. And there was no-one else there apart from me. It felt like a fitting high on which to finish my trip.

I returned to Kildonnan to get back on the little boat back to Mallaig, along with two other cyclists, only to be told that this time we weren’t going on the little boat, we were on the cargo boat. Which was yet to arrive. My worries about making my train started to return! But I tried to ignore them and instead got chatting to Eigg’s sole taxi driver, who was awaiting the arrival of the cargo boat to deliver some supermarket orders to locals. He told me he was a YouTube star as some people had made a film about him – sure enough he is and you can watch the very lovely film here.

Finally the cargo ferry arrived and unloaded its many many gas bottles and myself and the two other cyclists were heading back to Mallaig. As we sped across the water suddenly a pod of dolphins appeared, right by the boat. I’d seen dolphins on other ferry journeys but never before this close – they were jumping out of the water right by our window before disappearing into our wake.

I made it back to Mallaig in time for the train to Fort William, supposedly one of the most scenic train journeys in the UK. It was very scenic, and would have been even more so if ScotRail had cleaned the train windows at any point in the last decade! By the time we reached Fort William the sunshine had well and truly gone – as I got pizza and beer before boarding the sleeper it started to rain torrentially. It felt like Scotland was telling me it really was time to go home.

Categories: Bikepacking Scotland, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

Spirit of the Isles days 20-22: Rum and Canna

My time in Scotland was drawing to an end and I had to make some decisions: where I wanted to go in my last week. I’d decided to book the sleeper train back to Preston from Fort William on the next Tuesday night so I had a week left to play with. I knew there was plenty of stunning scenery and great riding on the mainland but I still wanted to explore more islands.

The obvious ones to explore were the Small Isles: Rum, Muck, Eigg and Canna. The didn’t have much road between them so I knew I wouldn’t be doing huge distances, but I was intrigued to see at least some of them, particularly Rum (which sounded wild and wonderful) and Canna (as I’d been reading the autobiography of the woman who used to own Canna with her husband).

I also was intrigued to visit the Knoydart peninsula. Whilst it isn’t an island, the only routes are a ferry ride or an eighteen mile hike, so in some ways it’s more remote than some of the islands. Plus I’d read an article about how the pub there had recently been taken into community ownership and was once again thriving, which seemed like a good excuse to visit!

Visiting the Small Isles needs a bit of planning, as each island is only served by the ferry on certain days and CalMac’s timetable take a bit of deciphering! But I was 99% sure that the timetable indicated a Wednesday sailing from Mallaig to Rum and then a Friday sailing from there to Canna, with a boat going from Canna back to Mallaig on Saturday morning. This was a lengthy journey back, via Muck and Eigg, but would get me into Mallaig in time to get the Saturday evening ferry from there to Knoydart. I wasn’t quite sure where I’d go from there for the last couple of days of my trip, maybe just a leisurely ride back to Fort William, we’d see…

Wednesday 31 August

Ferries taken: two (Armadale – Mallaig, Mallaig – Rum)
Islands visited: Skye and Rum
Distance cycled: 11 miles
(and some of that was actually hiking!)
Strava: https://www.strava.com/activities/7754089351

Best bits:
– Staying at Giurdil bothy
– Sea swimming in the sunshine
– Chatting with Kat

Worst bits:
– Trying to drag Trixie up the path to Giurdil
– Dropping my shoe in the stream whilst trying to wade across

It was an early start so I could cycle the couple of miles from my hostel to the ferry port at Armadale to catch the first ferry across to Mallaig from Skye.

Once in Mallaig it was time to sort tickets for my next few days: to Rum that morning, then from Rum to Canna on Friday and from Canna back to Mallaig on Saturday before finally catching the late afternoon boat from Mallaig to the Knoydart peninsula. Tickets all sorted there was time for a quick Co-op visit to stock up on empire biscuits and other essentials before getting on the boat to Rum.

With the exception of a few hundred yards of tarmac near the ferry port there are no paved roads on Rum. However, there are two gravel roads, one running to the north of the island and one to the east, so I was glad to have off-road tyres on Trixie.

I’d been reading about Giurdil bothy, which was situated on a bay on Rum’s east coast. The path in turns off the gravel road which runs to Kilmory Bay in the north. I optimistically thought I’d be able to hike in pushing Trixie but it didn’t take me long to realise that was not a great plan. Although the path wasn’t super rough or technical, it was pretty boggy and uphill, so hauling a fully laden bike along it was very hard work. After about twenty minutes I’d only travelled a third of a mile and I was pretty hot!

The great thing about being on a small island with hardly anyone living on it is that you can be pretty sure you can leave a bike without it being stolen. So I got out my emergency fold-out backpack, loaded it up with the essentials I thought I’d need for a night in the bothy and left Trixie by the side of the path to hike the rest of the way in without her.

The walk in wasn’t particularly challenging, which was just as well as I only had cleated touring bike shoes to hike in. But about three quarters of the way in there was a stream which had to be crossed. It wasn’t a particularly deep stream but definitely deep enough that I didn’t want to walk through it in my shoes, even though they were already pretty boggy! So I took the shoes off and went to cross the stream. Of course, because I am super clumsy, I put one foot into the water, slipped and in my effort to save myself promptly dropped the shoe I was holding straight into the stream.

I was trying to drain the water from my left shoe when another hiker appeared, obviously also heading to the bothy. As we hiked the rest of the way to Giurdil I quickly got chatting to Kat, a historian who is writing a book about bothies. She was a really interesting person to talk to and we both quickly decided that the sunny weather meant that a sea swim was an essential once we reached our destination.

Giurdil bothy certainly didn’t disappoint. It’s located in the lovely situation, on a pebble bay surrounded by dramatic rocks, with Bloodstone Hill (named after the colour of the stone rather than anything more sinister) above it. The bothy was pretty well-equipped as bothies go – there were chairs to sit on in the main room, which also had a nice fireplace as well as some basic provisions left by previous occupants. There was also a boarded sleeping area upstairs. Kat had brought some fire logs with her and I had some firelighters and candles and of course we both had some food so we decided we could have a cosy night in!

But first it was time to enjoy the afternoon sunshine with a sea swim, which was glorious. Afterwards we had a bit of chill/reading time, before pooling our respective ready meals and adding some of the bothy couscous to create a pretty nice stew, which we washed down with the can of G & T I’d brought in.

After dinner it was still sunny so we figured we could light the fire and then have an evening swim before coming back in to warm up. It was pretty magical to relax in the sea as the sun got low in the sky, watched over by some wild goats who had appeared on the hilltop, with woodsmoke from our fire curling out of the bothy’s chimney.

Thursday 1 September

Ferries taken: none
Islands visited: Rum
Distance cycled: 14 miles

Strava: https://www.strava.com/activities/7754090269

Best bits:
– Finally saw an otter!
– Wild camping on the beach with all the stars, red wine, a campfire and good company
– Learning about deer

Worst bits:
– Midge-ageddon
– Being woken up in the middle of the night by search and rescue

After a comfortable night in the Giurdil bothy and a bit of a lie-in, I hiked out in the morning sunshine. As I made my way up the glen a small group of deer ran ahead of me. I was looking forward to learning a bit more about their lives!

Whilst I had deliberately avoided the school trip party that had shared the ferry with us to Rum the day before, Kat had got talking to them and had found out that they were getting a talk from the deer project at Kilmory at midday on Thursday. What’s more, she’d found out that the talk was open to others should they happen to show up (or at least, she’d got agreement that she could gatecrash). I figured that this permission probably would also extend to me, were I to be in the right place at the right time…

After a leisurely walk out from Giurdil I was re-united with Trixie (the bike) who was exactly where I left her, with all items (including empire biscuits) still present and correct in her panniers. Back in the saddle, I headed south towards Kilmory Bay, where I found a beautiful white sand beach with a group of deer on it.

I also found the school party and the woman from the deer project and what followed was a fascinating talk about deer. For fifty years the deer on the south of Rum have been studied meticulously, with the small team at the deer project tracking every single deer from birth to death. All of the deer have names (the girls get their own names, whilst the boys get named after their mother and their year of birth) and the couple who run the project can recognise them from a distance, aided by them having different coloured collars attached. Once the deer die the team recover and preserve their antlers and jaw bones in a rather macabre storage shed!

It was another beautiful sunny day and the beach at Kilmory Bay was stunning so Kat and I decided that we could spend another night in the same place and wild camp there. The rest of the afternoon was spent sea swimming, exploring the old graveyard and ruins of the small village at Kilmory and then cycling to the Rum island shop and back to get provisions for dinner (OK, mostly to get wine!)

The dinner experience was slightly marred by the arrival of the dreaded Rum midges, which meant that dinner was cooked and eaten on the move and through a midge net! But miraculously about half an hour after they’d descended en masse they evaporated, leaving us to enjoy our campfire, the sunset and, most excitingly of all, watching an otter swimming around in the bay.

Having watched the sunset and the stars start to appear by the campfire, Kat and I retired to our separate tents. She’d pitched on the edge of the beach, whilst I was on a grassy knoll just above the beach, so we weren’t particularly close to each other. So when I woke up at a little after midnight to someone talking to me from outside my tent I knew it wasn’t Kat. Plus the voice was a man.

“Hello? I’m very sorry to disturb you, but you’re not Andy are you?” I was in a pretty deep sleep at the point that the question was asked and woke up abruptly, not even sure where I was but also knowing I wasn’t Andy.

“Um, no, I’m not.” I replied.

“OK, sorry to have woken you.”

For a few seconds I closed my eyes and tried to go straight back to sleep. Then I think my brain fully woke up and remembered that I was on a remote beach, literally in the middle of nowhere and it was more than a little random that someone was asking who I was. I half zipped open the door of my tent. I could see a man, presumably the one who’d spoken to me, stood a little way away. He appeared to be speaking into a walkie-talkie. I also registered a noise which, as it got closer, I realised was a helicopter.

I had no idea what was going on but I figured whatever it was the safest place for me may be in my tent. The helicopter got closer and closer, until it literally sounded like it was right over me. Then…silence. I unzipped the tent door again. The man appeared to be gone and all was quiet. It took a while but I eventually managed to get back to sleep.

Friday 2 September

Ferries taken: one (Rum-Canna)
Islands visited: Rum & Canna
Distance cycled: 24 miles

Strava: https://www.strava.com/activities/7754090864

Best bits:
– Ponies at Harris
– Cute store and cafe on Canna
– Chatting with all the runners

Worst bits:
– No hot showers at the campsite
– First puncture of the trip
– Horrible weather

I woke up wondering if I’d maybe dreamt the whole episode from the previous evening. Over breakfast, I asked Kat whether she’d had someone asking if she was Andy as well. She hadn’t, but she had heard the helicopter very low over us. Neither of us knew what had happened though.

I was planning to get the afternoon ferry on to Canna, so I had the morning to see a bit more of Rum. Unfortunately, the amazing weather of the last few days had departed and it started to rain as I was packing up my tent. Nevertheless, I wanted to ride the island’s other ‘road’, out to Harris on the west coast, so I bid farewell to Kat and pedalled off.

It didn’t take long for the rough gravel to finally get the better of my tyres – I had to stop only about half a mile up the road to sort the trip’s first puncture. But I headed on for what was to be a stunning ride. Despite the low clouds, cycling over to Harris was beautiful, with mountains rising on each side of the gravel road as it curved its way across to the west coast. As I descended I saw the famous mausoleum which was built by one of the former lairds of Rum, standing like a Greek temple in front of a dramatic sea, surrounded by picturesque native ponies and highland cows.

Unfortunately the weather was determined to go from bad to worse, with the wind getting ever stronger as I made friends with the ponies. As I turned to head back over the pass to Kinloch it unleashed it’s full fury, driving rain into my face as I struggled back up the twisting climb from the coast. Not a pleasant experience.

I arrived back with a couple of hours in hand before the ferry but with the weather definitely precluding anything other than hunkering down. There was a small shelter at the island’s basic campsite, which I took cover in along with another few people. It was here that I learned what had been going on the night before – a man whose boat was moored in the harbour had been missing for the last couple of days, having been seen getting into his dingy. The coastguard were out searching for him, which was what had awakened me the night before. (Very sadly, several days later I would hear that Andy’s body had been found washed up on the Rum coastline).

The boat to Canna had come from the mainland and called at Rum before going on to Canna and then back. I was surprised to see it was pretty busy when I got on – Canna is a small island and I didn’t think it would have many visitors. I quickly learned the reason why: tomorrow was the annual Canna 10km trail run, which was to be followed by a big cèilidh. I began to regret the fact that I’d already booked my tickets onward to Knoydart for Saturday evening! 

One thing I’d really been looking forward to on getting to Canna, to be honest possibly slightly more than seeing the island, was having a hot shower. It had been several days, and several sea swims, since my last shower so I’d decided, rather than wild camping, to book myself into the campsite purely so I could access the shower. And now, having been soaked and sitting in damp clothes, more than ever I was looking forward to a shower to warm up. I was therefore immensely disappointed to arrive at said campsite and find out that the promised showers, although they existed, were not heated. The website hadn’t mentioned this and personally I think it’s a bit much to be promoting a campsite with good, clean showers and not mention at all the lack of hot water!

Disappointed both that I wouldn’t be able to stay for the cèilidh and that my promised shower wasn’t going to happen, I was in a little bit of a funk. But I only had a few hours of daylight to explore Canna so I got my tent pitched and pedalled off to explore.

Luckily a few hours was a perfect amount of time to explore Canna on a bike. The island was considerably smaller than Rum and, although I’m sure you could spend days exploring on foot, there weren’t that many roads and paths that were bike accessible. But I enjoyed my little pedal around what was a charming small island, and it’s accompanying even smaller island, Sanday (the two are linked by a bridge).

I especially liked the island’s shop, which was surprisingly well stocked and entirely unstaffed – it’s open 24/7 and operates on an honesty basis, with customers simply leaving the money for the items they’re purchasing in an open till drawer and taking change as required.

Although the house itself was closed, I also enjoyed visiting the gardens of Canna House. The House, and in fact the whole island of Canna, were owned by a Gaelic scholar John Lorne Campbell and his wife Margaret Fay Shaw, until the 1980s when they donated the whole lot to the National Trust. I’d been reading Margaret’s autobiography and enjoyed matching the island as it is now to her descriptions of it in the 1940s and 50s.

Categories: Bikepacking Scotland, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

Spirit of the Isles days 18 – 19: Skye and Raasay

Monday 29 August

Ferries taken: one (Sconser – Raasay)
Islands visited: Skye and Raasay
Distance cycled: 45 miles

Strava: https://www.strava.com/activities/7725859884

Best bits:
– Waking up to amazing view from Lookout Bothy and dolphin watching as I cleaning my teeth
– Finding a lovely place to camp on Raasay…finally

Worst bits:
– Losing the key to my small bike lock (luckily not whilst it was locked to the bike)
– Tired legs hiking the bike over the rough track towards Hallaig when I didn’t know if there would be a suitable place to camp

The sleeping platform in the Lookout Bothy is opposite the large windows so I woke up as dawn was breaking to a view out from Rubha Hunish across to the Outer Hebrides. Of course, I then had to manhandle Trixie back down the track towards the road, wearing a headnet as the midges were out but once I made it to a point where I could ride rather than walk I soon left them behind.

It was a beautiful morning and, despite there being more traffic on Skye than I’d experienced in the last couple of weeks, I still enjoyed cycling down the east coast in the sunshine. The sun came out and I stopped for vegan ice cream in Portree before heading on to Sconser for the ferry over to Raasay.

The new Raasay distillery is right by the ferry and there was a tour about to happen as I arrived. So I joined the tour to learn a bit more about whisky and gin distilling, before heading out to find a camp spot. An interesting looking road headed east, petering into a track which I thought might be cycleable. I followed the road, which featured some sharp hills. I could already feel the miles of the previous few days in my legs and hoped that I might find a nice quiet camp spot sooner rather than later.

Whilst the track was originally cycleable, soon it wasn’t and I was hiking Trixie along a rutted path surrounded by ferns and nettles. I began to wonder whether I would find somewhere suitable to camp or whether I should turn around. But then I rounded a corner and there was a clearing by a cairn marking the site of the former village of Hallaig, the perfect spot to camp.

Hallaig was one of numerous settlements whose inhabitants were cruelly forced to leave their homes by Victorian landlords who decided that sheep were more profitable occupants than people. It’s sobering to think that, whilst most of Britain has a much bigger population than in the 19th century, many of the islands I visited are now far less populated than they would have been then. Although the quiet wilderness of these places is fabulous, it was partially created through people’s misery.

Tuesday 30 August

Ferries taken: one (Raasay – Sconser)
Islands visited: Raasay and Skye
Distance cycled: 38 miles

Strava: https://www.strava.com/activities/7725860646

Best bits:
– Serendipidous routing by my Garmin over a nice gravel road
– Skinny-dipping by a waterfall
– Finding the ‘old road’ off the side of the main road on the way to Armadale

Worst bits:
– Not having enough time to ride the whole of ‘Calum’s Road’
– Tired legs making me want to not ride too far

For the second morning in a row I woke up to a nice sunrise view over the sea, this time from the door of my tent. After breakfast I bumped my way back from my wild camp spot to the road and headed to see a bit more of Raasay before heading back to Skye.

Until the 1960s there was no road to the north of Raasay, meaning that people who lived that side of the island had to walk or take a boat to get around. Despite continued pleas, there didn’t seem to be any chance that the authorities would put in a road. So one local man bought a second-hand book on road building and took matters into his own hands, spending a decade building Calum’s Road to provide a much needed link. Sadly I didn’t have time to ride Calum’s Road, though a went to the start of it. To be honest, I would like to have spent a bit more time on Raasay but I was mindful of ferry schedules – I wanted to head to the Small Isles next, and with ferries only going to certain islands on certain days I needed to make sure I made it to Mallaig to get the ferry on to Rum the next day. A return to Raasay in the future is definitely on the cards.

I arrived back on Skye late morning and almost immediately was annoyed by the traffic on the A87. Whilst the traffic wasn’t bad by normal standards, it was much more than I’d been used to on other islands, with considerably less courteous drivers, many of them close-passing me in camper vans. So when my Garmin suggested a route across an unpaved road to cut off a corner I was happy to follow its suggestion.

It was a very scenic route – the gravel track went uphill with heather on both sides and even up the middle. And partway through there was a lovely waterfall with a perfect dipping hole. The sun was shining and no-one was around so I couldn’t resist a quick swim in the refreshing water.

I planned to stay at the hostel near Armadale, ready to get the first ferry to Mallaig the next morning. I was pleased to find the remains of the old single track road towards Armadale alongside the newer, wider route, which made a great, if slightly overgrown, cycle path. Nonetheless, I had tired legs and I was pleased to reach the hostel and get some rest.

Categories: Bikepacking Scotland | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

Spirit of the Isles days 15 – 17: Harris and Lewis and onto Skye

Friday 26 August

Ferries taken: none
Islands visited: Harris, Scalpay and Lewis
Distance cycled: 63 miles

Strava: https://www.strava.com/activities/7704275893

Best bits:
– Harris’ stunning scenery
– The Callanish stones
– All the little honesty boxes

Worst bits:
– Waking up to rain
– Looong road west on Lewis into a headwind

Having enjoyed a pretty sunset the evening before I woke up to rain which made me want to get moving as soon as possible rather than spend time getting the stove going. I was glad to reach Tarbert and get a cup of coffee before heading east for a quick visit to Scalpay.

I knew the first half of the day was going to be lumpy, with the climb over the Harris hills to Lewis. It was also scenic, with views down to the sea. Along the route were several honesty boxes selling everything from eggs to crafts. My favourite was the one near the end of the day which sold fudge and even had vegan fudge. Whilst I couldn’t carry much, I managed to find space for a few small gifts made of Harris tweed and, of course, some fudge.

The highlight of the day was the Callanish stones. With the exception of Stonehenge, I’ve never seen such an impressive stone circle – it’s like they didn’t know when to stop adding new standing stones! A little further north from the stones I found a nice wild camp spot by a loch, though one the day’s breeze dropped the midges were out in force so dinner was eaten hurriedly, by lifting the headnet to take bites!

Saturday 27 August

Ferries taken: none
Islands visited: Lewis
Distance cycled: 53 miles

Strava: https://www.strava.com/activities/7709696353

Best bits:
– Dun Carloway Broch
– Reaching the end of the Hebridean Way
– Staying in a very nice hostel

Worst bits:
– No space at the inn in Stornoway
– Cycling back south into the wind (more of this to look forward to tomorrow)

Whilst I had tried not to plan too far ahead during any of my journey, on Thursday night I’d been looking at the map to decide where I’d be heading after the Outer Hebrides. The northernmost tip of the Hebrides is the Butt of Lewis and this is also where the Hebridean Way officially ends. From there, many people head to Stornoway, for the ferry over to Ullapool on the mainland. But I wanted to continue my island adventures so I decided that a better option would be to head back down south to Tarbert and the ferry directly to Skye. Looking at mileage, I figured with three days of decent miles I could up to the Butt of Lewis and back to Tarbert within three days.

This was day two of those three days. Although it dawned fine, it started with way too many midges – I had to prepare breakfast whilst wearing a headnet and then put it in the tent before running round the tent several times and diving inside, zipping the door behind me so I could eat my scrambled eggs without the midges eating me!

Once I was on the road I soon arrived at the Dun Carloway broch. It’s an impressive ruin but the midges were waiting in its shadows so I didn’t explore for as long as I may have done! I carried on north and eventually reached the Butt of Lewis, where the sea crashes against the cliffs and a lighthouse towers to warn passing ships.

I’d wanted to head to Stornoway for the night, but the hostel there was all full so I backtracked on the route I’d headed north on, this time heading into the wind. With heavy rain forecast and a need to wash some clothes I really wanted to spend the night under a roof rather than under canvas. On the way up Lewis I’d passed the turn off to Gearrannan Blackhouse Village, a preserved blackhouse crofting settlement that is now holiday accommodation. With a bit of googling I realised that they had a hostel there as well as self-catering houses so I used a brief moment with mobile phone signal to book in for the night and headed that way. I was glad to have done so as it started raining just before I arrived and continued to do so all night.

Sunday 28 August

Ferries taken: one (Tarbert – Uig)
Islands visited: Lewis, Harris and Skye
Distance cycled: 61 miles

Strava: https://www.strava.com/activities/7716857889

Best bits:
– Rathad Pentland in the mist
– Arriving on Skye – so beautiful
– Staying at Lookout Bothy

Worst bits:
– Lugging my bike over the last bit of rough track to bothy

After a comfortable night sheltering from the rain in the Gearrannan hostel, I headed out fairly early to give myself plenty of time to ride back to Tarbert for the ferry to Skye. It was Sunday and I knew that the Sabbath is rigidly observed on Lewis. Still, I didn’t expect the route across the island to be quite so quiet. I took the Rathad Pentland, a road which was initially planned as a railway line. It travels west to east across bleak and beautiful moorland and there was no-one else on it. I saw only one car in the entire fourteen miles of its length.

The Rathad Pentland continues to Stornoway but I turned south and headed back over the Harris hills. Luckily the wind was light, so not too much impediment, and the weather brightened as I headed back to Tarbert. I reached there a couple of hours before the ferry was due to leave and was glad to find there was one place open in the small town – the hotel bar. I got a pint and shared chocolate and cycling stories with a Dutch man who was touring Scotland to celebrate his sixtieth birthday.

I have to admit I’d been a little less than excited to head to Skye and had seen it more as a jumping point to other islands. I’d been to Skye before in less than nice weather, but as the ferry approached Uig I realised that Skye in the sunshine is a different beast to Skye shrouded in cloud and rain. Off the ferry it was immediately uphill, as I headed towards the island’s northern tip. I’d read about a bothy called the Lookout Bothy, an old coastguard station with excellent views across the sea. I figured I had just about enough time to get there in daylight and that I could camp nearby if the bothy (which only sleeps three) was full.

After about ten slow miles of road riding (my legs had gone to sleep after riding fifty miles in the morning and then sitting around for several hours) I got to the path leading out to the bothy. I was happy to find that the first two thirds of it were cyclable, though the last bit wasn’t and involved dragging Trixie up a steep bank, for which I had to take off the bags first. So it took a little while but I eventually reached the Lookout. The journey was definitely worth it. The bothy sits on a cliff, with windows looking out over the sea on three sides. There were several people already there, which made for an aimiable evening chatting and watching the pink sunset, but everyone else decided to camp so I had the actual bothy to myself.

Categories: Bikepacking Scotland | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

Spirit of the Isles days 11 – 14: Vatersay – Harris

I had a bit of a dilemma when I got to Oban. I was heading to the Outer Hebrides, but I was also drawn to exploting Coll and Tiree, as well as some of the islands close to Oban, like Kerrera and the Slate Isles. The problem was logistics. I could have stayed in Oban for several days hopping around the small islands and maybe then onto Coll and Tiree. But I didn’t really fancy multiple nights in one place in a hostel and I was ready to do some slightly longer days of riding.

Ideally I would have liked to go to Coll and Tiree on the way to Barra (my first destination in the Outer Hebrides). But there’s only one ferry a week from Coll and Tiree to Barra, on a Wednesday. There’s also one ferry a day from Oban to Coll and Tiree. On a Monday it goes first thing in the morning but for some reason on a Tuesday it doesn’t go until mid-afternoon, whilst the ferry from there to Barra goes on Wednesday morning. So my choices were either to leave Oban on a 7.15am ferry on Monday morning (having only arrived at 9.15pm the evening before) or stay another night and half a day in Oban and only have a matter of hours on either Coll or Tiree. In the end I went for option three: leave Coll, Tiree and the other small islands near Oban for another trip and head straight for the Outer Hebrides.

Monday 21 August

Ferries taken: one (Oban – Castlebay)
Islands visited: Barra and Vatersay
Distance cycled: 6 miles

Strava: https://www.strava.com/activities/7692655329

Best bits:
– Replenishing supplies in Oban
– Cute wild camp spot on Vatersay with resident seal
– Ferry ride past Mull

Worst bits:
– Loooong ferry journey to Barra

A day of very little time on the bike! Whilst Oban isn’t exactly a city I knew it was the biggest place I’d visit probably for the rest of my trip. The morning was spent purchasing all the things I’d been thinking I needed, such as more gas for my stove and a wind shield, as well as wandering round the big Tesco marvelling at all the food choices and reminding myself not to overfill my panniers. Then it was onto the ferry for the nearly five hour journey to Castlebay.

Whilst I didn’t want to stick to the Hebridean Way during my time on the Outer Hebrides, I was keen to start off at the most southerly point, so once off the ferry I headed over the causeway from Barra to Vatersay and, with a little following of tracks and pushing my bike through a field of sheep, found a lovely camp spot on a knoll overlooking the sea. As I set up the tent and cooked my dinner I obviously caught the eye of one of the resident seals who was curious about this new arrival and spent much of the next hour popping his head out of the water in the sea below me to check what I was up to.

Tuesday 23 August

Ferries taken: one (Barra – Eriskay)
Islands visited: Vatersay, Barra, Eriskay, South Uist
Distance cycled: 45 miles

Strava: https://www.strava.com/activities/7692655936

Best bits:
– Sunny afternoon riding with the wind behind me
– Charming hostel at Howmore
– Vegan magnum whilst looking at ancient remains
Worst bits:
– Hiking a bike through a bog for 2 hours!
– Getting to the museum ten minutes after it closed

Everyone I’d spoken to who’d been to Barra before had raved about how beautiful it was. I don’t disagree, it’s lovely, but sadly I didn’t see it at its best. It was a drizzly and grey morning and whilst the famous white sand beaches were still very nice they weren’t as stunning as the Colonsay ones had been in the sunshine! With a choice of getting the ferry to Eriskay at 11.10 or waiting until 15.45 for the next sailing I decided to go for the earlier option. But before I headed north I wanted to see the famous Barra airport – which is on a beach! Unfortunately once I got to the airport about a million midges descended so I took a quick photo and beat a hasty retreat.

The small island of Eriskay is now linked to South Uist with a causeway. Shortly after getting off the ferry I passed some of the native Eriskay ponies grazing by the side of the road. I then stopped off at the Am Politician pub (named after a boat that sank in the 1940s, discharging its cargo of whisky) for some crisps and to sample the local Downpour gin before on to South Uist.

The entry to the causeway was marked with prominent ‘otters crossing’ warning signs, but sadly there was no sign of otters as I rode on to South Uist. Over the next few days these signs, which are situated on every causeway and bridge, would start to taunt me as despite continuously looking I didn’t see any otters.

On arriving on South Uist the Hebridean Way signs pointed to the left, but I was intrigued by a road to the right which I could see turned into a trail heading over from South Glendale to North Glendale. I wondered if the trail might be cycleable and thought there may be some good views. Well, there were good views but this little adventure saw me hauling Trixie

through a peat bog for a couple of hours so all in all it wasn’t a great plan, although it did clean off all the sheep poo!

Back on the road again after my bog adventure the sun came out as I headed north. I followed a sign through the sand dunes to visit Cladh Hallan, a prehistoric site where bodies had been found buried below round houses dating from around 3,000 years ago. The weird thing was that the corpses had died several centuries before the houses were built and had subsequently been mummified by being buried in peatbog for several months. Even stranger, the bodies, although they seemed to be one complete skeleton when found, were not of one individual but comprised of the remains of several dead bodies.

I continued to meander northwards, alternating between following the road and riding on the off-road track which led through the sand dunes and along the machair. Whilst I was keen to wild camp, I’d been told of a youth hostel which was set within a thatched ‘blackhouse’ and when I realised I was nearing it I decided to stay there instead. I wasn’t disappointed. The youth hostel at Tobha Mor (Howmore) is old school – you can’t book in advance and you have to bring your own sleeping bag or liner – but well-equipped and cosy and only £20 a night for a bed. It’s also right next to the ruins of a medieval monastery which made for a picturesque wander in the late afternoon sunshine.

Wednesday 24 August

Ferries taken: none
Islands visited: South Uist, Benbecula, Grimsay, North Uist, Berneray
Distance cycled: 60 miles

Strava: https://www.strava.com/activities/7692656776

Best bits:
– Stopping off to look at historic sites (crannock, chambered cairn)
– Tailwind pushing me north
– Wild swim in the evening sunshine
– Lovely hostel with nice people to chat to

Worst bits:
– Sudden storm of sideways torrential rain

It’s recommended to cycle the Outer Hebrides south to north, and on this day I could really see why! What BBC Weather described as a ‘fresh breeze’ was cracking the flags all day – it helped me as I mostly rode north but would have been a bit miserable heading south! I kept checking the map and meandering down side roads to see as much of the islands as I could, mostly in the sunshine, though a sudden shower of torrential rain in the afternoon had me soaked before the return of the sun and the continuous wind dried me out. My tour of old rocks continued, with a visit to the site of a crannock, guarded by picturesque swans, and a chambered cairn, which unfortunately you are no longer allowed to crawl into.

I wanted to wild camp, but in a reminder that real life existed, I had a job interview over Zoom the next morning so I needed to find somewhere with reliable WiFi. I’d tried to book into the hotel at Lochmaddy but they were full.

I stopped off at the Downpour gin distillery and the nice people there recommended John’s Bunkhouse on Berneray. It was a great recommendation – not only were they happy for me to stay a little longer the next morning to use the internet, it was also right next to a lovely bay which was ideal for an evening swim. Best of all, I was joined at the hostel by four other cyclists and the living room had a peat fire stove so we had a cosy, chatty evening swapping stories.

Thursday 25 August

Ferries taken: one (Berneray – Leverburgh)
Islands visited: Berneray and Harris
Distance cycled: 26 miles

Strava: https://www.strava.com/activities/7699023827

Best bits:
– Pootling around Berneray – beautiful beach!
– East side of Harris: bleak and lovely

Worst bits:
– Having to wait a long time for a ferry

My next destination was Harris, but having to do life admin (a job interview) meant that I missed both of the morning ferries. With the next sailing not until 2.30pm, I spent several hours exploring the tiny island of Berneray and getting some lunch at its only cafe.

When I arrived at Leverburgh late afternoon I had two choices: turn left and follow the Hebridean Way up the west coast or turn right and plump for the hillier east coast route which the guidebook described as ‘more exhilerating and will appeal to the committed rider’. I knew I wasn’t going to get many miles in so thought I might as well get value for money with more elevation.

I wasn’t disappointed. The road took me out to Roghadal, where there is an old church with some striking ancient tombstones and then curved north through a landscape of grey rocks with the sea shimmering to my right. As evening arrived I found a nice little wild camp spot just up a footpath off the road complete with a picnic table at which to sit and enjoy a Downpour gin and tonic.

Categories: Bikepacking Scotland | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

Spirit of the Isles days 5 – 10: Islay, Jura and Colonsay

Tuesday 16 August

Ferries taken: none
Islands visited: Islay
Distance cycled: 37 miles

Strava: https://www.strava.com/activities/7655943645

Best bits:
– Survived my first solo wild camp
– Lovely gravel trails followed by super quiet single track road with great views
– Pootling around looking at old stuff: lighthouse, graveyard, ancient cross
– Distilleries!
– Amazing wild camp spot

Worst bits:
– Feeling a bit sluggish
– Manouvering heavy laden bike along a beach

In retrospect this was the day when I really started to feel like I was out on my own having an adventure. The day started with gravel trails through woods and alongside lochs – slow going but I didn’t mind. Then I headed southwest on really quiet single lane roads. There were hardly any cars and the drivers I did see were really courteous, most of them even waving to me. When I got to the town of Port Ellen I headed slightly west to see the lighthouse dramatically perched above the waves at Kilnaughton Bay and stopped off to wander around the crumbling old graveyard there – I love a quirky old tombstone!

Then it was time to head along Islay’s south coast, where an excellent off-road cycle path links the three top distilleries which are positioned about a mile apart from each other: Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg. I stopped at Laphraoig to sample several of their drams in their tasting bar and then headed onto Lagavulin where a small sample of their 16-year-old malt combined with the fact that they sold small bottles of this whisky persuaded me to make a purchase. I also got a super cute enamel dram cup to accompany it!

I decided it was definitely prudent to give the third distillery a miss for now and instead explored the craggy ruins of Dunyvaig Castle, before heading out to see one of the oldest carved crosses still in situe at Kildalton. It was pretty impressive and incredible to think that it’s probably over 1,200 years old. I then followed the increasingly small road out to Ardtalla, where the road becomes indistinct track, and found an amazing white sand beach on which to camp. A stiff breeze kept the midges at bay and I pitched my tent on a small grassy tussock and enjoyed the evening with a good driftwood fire and views of swans and seals.

Wednesday 17 August

Ferries taken: one (Port Askaig – Feolin)
Islands visited: Islay and Jura
Distance cycled: 56 miles

Strava: https://www.strava.com/activities/7655943882

Best bits:
– Staying with Kate on Jura
– Eagles!
– Deer!
– Zero waste shop in Bowmore where you could measure your own pasta portion
Worst bits:
– Waking up to rain and midges
– Heavy legs on the climbs

As I’d camped literally at the end of the road, the first part of my journey was a backtrack of the previous day, which meant heading back past the distilleries. I stopped at the Ardbeg one (which I hadn’t visited before) just after ten to get a coffee and a miniature for later consumption. I then headed round to explore the Bowmore area of Islay, before tracking back across the centre of the island for the short ferry ride to Jura.

When I’d written about my island adventure plans on Facebook, a friend who I’d worked with years ago got in touch to let me know that her mum lived on Jura and would be happy to put me up if I wanted. Excited at the prospect of a bed and a hot shower I gave an enthusiastic yes!

Kate lives in the northern part of Jura in a small village called Inverlussa. The ride up to there was super scenic – Jura is much wilder and less inhabited than Islay and on the way I saw two eagles and lots of red deer. Kate is a lovely person and it was nice to get a shower and some food and then to sit and chat for a while before heading for a very good sleep in a comfy bed.

Thursday 18 August

Ferries taken: none
Islands visited: Jura
Distance cycled: 36 miles

https://www.strava.com/activities/7661194491 and https://www.strava.com/activities/7661194827

Best bits:
– Gravel adventure to the far north
– Um…
– Checking into a hotel!

Worst bits:
– Wind
– Rain
– Wind
– Rain
– More wind
– More rain
– Bolt falling off my light

I woke up to rain, never a good start but at least I didn’t have to pack up a tent in it! There’s only one road on Jura really, heading from south to north up the east coast. Inverlussa, where I’d stayed the night before, is towards the end of the public road, but once the paved road ends it continues north for several more miles as an increasingly rough gravel road before petering out into a footpath. Towards the end of the gravel road is Barnhill, the remote house where George Orwell wrote 1984.

The journey north was rainy but bearable and despite the gloomy weather the views were great. But when I turned to head back south I realised that the wind which had been behind me was now blowing the rain directly into my face. The twenty-five mile ride backa down the island was therefore not very enjoyable, though stopping off briefly at the Lussa gin distillery (run by three women with gin distilled with a range of Jura plants that they pick themselves) was a welcome break. I’d planned to camp by the Jura Hotel (they have a small camping area) but when I reached there I was wet through and not relishing pitching up in the rain. On finding they had a room available I cracked and booked in for the night!

Friday 19 August

Ferries taken: one (Feolin – Port Askaig)
Islands visited: Jura and Islay
Distance cycled: 56 miles


Best bits:
– Sun coming out as I came across the gravel track to Machir Bay
– Highland coos
– Stoisha House: a magical, mystical and spooky experience

Worst bits:
– Coming out of Islay Life Museum to find it was still raining and actually more so!
– All the emotions

I wanted to get an early start to get the ferry back over to Islay but the folks serving breakfast at the Jura Hotel had other ideas! So I headed out just before 9am for the eight miles back to Feolin and the short ferry hop over to Islay. My plan for the day was to see as much of Islay that I hadn’t already seen so I headed back across the island and onto the western side.

The weather was variable, sunny some of the time but also rainy and windy. At one point I visited the Islay Life Museum, partly because I wanted to learn about the island’s history but also to get some respite from the rain! However, a real highlight was following a gravel track across to Machir Bay – there were cute highland cows everywhere and the sun came out to give me a great view of the beautiful sandy beach. I celebrated with a quick trip to Kilchoman Distillery!

As it got towards evening I was heading back across the island on a gravel path, looking for a place to wild camp when I saw a small sign that said ‘Stoisha House, visitors welcome’. I could see there was a building marked on the map, but no proper road or anything nearby. Intrigued, I followed the sign and hiked up an overgrown path…

At the top I found what looked to be an abandoned house. It was a bit spooky but with some trepidation (thank you Blair Witch Project!) I went inside. Parts of the roof, walls and floorboards were missing but it was obvious that someone was going there often. There was art painted on old roof tiles and signs welcoming visitors. And there was one door that was closed…

I wasn’t sure if anyone was behind the closed door so I knocked. No reply. So with some trepidation I opened the door…

Inside was a room with intact walls, ceiling and floor, which was decorated for Christmas! The window was boarded shut so it was very gloomy but there was a sign saying to turn on the battery operated lamp and the Christmas tree lights. There was also a visitor’s book and a stereo with some batteries alongside it. When I put the batteries into the stereo the song that played was ‘Every River’ by Runrig – this was one of my mum’s favourite songs, which we played at her funeral. It was actually the only song that played on the stereo, as the batteries cut out just before the end of the track.

The whole thing was magical and also quite spooky. But the little Christmas house gave me a dry space to stay (it chucked it down during the night) and lots of memories of my mum. So thanks to Iain, who I never met, but who maintains Stoisha House and definitely pay it a visit if you’re ever on Islay.

Saturday 20 August

Ferries taken: one (Port Askaig – Colonsay)
Islands visited: Islay and Colonsay
Distance cycled: 20 miles

https://www.strava.com/activities/7670823449 and https://www.strava.com/activities/7670823721

Best bits:
– Waking up to the rain stopping and sunshine over the Paps of Jura
– The view from Beinn nan Guidairean

Worst bits:
– Riding straight into sideways rain
– Not being able to visit Oronsay
– So much wind: dinner took forever to cook!

Colonsay is only served by the ferry from Island twice a week, so my schedule on Islay and Jura had been somewhat dictated by wanting to travel there next, before heading on to Oban. Having spent most of Friday night listening to the rain outside, I was pleasantly surprised to realise it was stopping as I got up. By the time I’d had breakfast the sun was even out and a toad was sitting on the front doorstep on the abandonned hourse, admiring the lovely view across to the Paps of Jura.

I headed out towards Port Askaig but the ferry to Colonsay wasn’t until late morning, which gave me time to stop off at two more of Islay’s distilleries, Bunnahabhain and Ardnahoe – the former to fill up my water bottles and the latter for a cuppa and an Empire biscuit (OK, I may have also purchased a miniature or two for future consumption!)

Whilst I often didn’t have mobile signal, ferry rides were always a good bet for getting online thanks to CalMac’s free WiFi. The hour-long journey to Colonsay gave me time to study the OS map of the small island and plan where I wanted to go. Top of the list was figuring out the tide times to cross over to Oronsay, which is linked to Colonsay by a sandy causeway only accessible at low tide. Once on Colonsay I popped into the shop right by the ferry to check when I’d be able to cross, only to find out that there are several days each month when the tide never goes low enough to cross the causeway and we were currently in that period – Oronsay wasn’t to be added to my list of islands visited.

I was a little disappointed but the sun was shining and I’d also seen a viewpoint marked on the map which seemed to be accessible via a track so I headed in that direction. I cycled up the rough track and then left the bike to hike the rest of the way up Beinn nan Guidarean – the views didn’t disappoint.

I then headed to the south of the island, with a stiff wind pushing me along, to look across the sands at Oronsay. Unfortunately by the time I got there that wind had blown in lots of cloud and as I turned back north the rain arrived. A lot of rain. At one point I got off my bike and joined several sheep hiding behind a wall until the worst had passed! Fortunately the wind fairly quickly blew the storm away again, but with such gusts I knew my previous plan to try to camp on the coast was ill-advised. Instead I found a more sheltered spot by a loch.

Sunday 21 August

Ferries taken: one (Colonsay – Oban)
Islands visited: Colonsay
Distance cycled: 23 miles


Best bits:
– Pootling around the tracks and trails of Colonsay, looking at old stuff and cows
– Beautiful (almost) empty beaches

Worst bits:
– One family turning up on the otherwise deserted beach so I couldn’t skinny dip!

Colonsay only has around 12 miles of paved road, much of which I’d already covered on Saturday, but I could see quite a lot of tracks on the map and my ferry wasn’t until the evening so I wanted to explore as much as possible.

For a small island, Colonsay has plenty of history (actually, this is true of all the islands). I’d picked up a leaflet which highlighted some of the archaelogical sites such as standing stones and the sun was shining again so it was perfect for some slow cycling on rough tracks to see old rocks. As well as old stones, Colonsay also has beautiful white sand beaches and very picturesque cattle so I generally wasted time taking lots of photos, paddling in the sea, reading my book in the sunshine and writing postcards and lists of things I wanted to purchase when I got to the urban metropolis of Oban.

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Spirit of the Isles days 1 – 4: Arran, Kintyre and Argyll, Bute, Great Cumbrae

The first three days of my journey, I had company – my friend Katie. It was great to share the exploration of an extended ‘five ferries’ route with her (the traditional ‘five ferries’ cycle route takes in Arran and Bute via the Kintyre and Argyll peninsulas).

In some ways it would have made more sense to head to Bute before Arran, as I was heading on across the Kintyre peninsula to Islay after Katie left. But she needed to get back to Glasgow to work on the Monday morning and the journey back from Bute was more favourable for that so we headed to Arran first and then onto the Kintyre peninsula, around ‘Scotland’s Secret Coast’ and then onto Bute. After Katie left I returned to Arran via a stop off at Great Cumbrae before heading for the ferry to Islay.

Friday 12 August

Ferries taken: one (Ardrossan – Brodick)
Islands visited: Arran
Distance cycled: 35 miles

Strava: https://www.strava.com/activities/7637216060

Best bits:
– The weather: non-stop sunshine
– The Ross Road, beautiful and super quiet
– Whisky tasting at the Lagg Distillery
– Evening sea swimming and the view over to Pladda island

Worst bits:
– Remembering how unfit I am on the String Road
– The heat (not something you think you’ll write about cycling in Scotland!!!)
– Cycling in the heat after the whisky tasting

My adventure started with an early morning train journey from Glasgow to Ardrossan Harbour to get the first of very many CalMac ferries. It was super sunny and there were plenty of other cyclists heading over to Arran alongside us. Once off the boat it was pretty much straight uphill as we headed up and over the iconic String Road, one of three on-road climbs on Arran (we’d tackle another of them later in the day and I rode the final one a few days later on my return to Arran).

The String Road took us over to the east of Arran where we headed south to Lagg Distillery for a really interesting guided tasting (the first of several distillery visits which would help to educate me about single malts!) Tasting over we backtracked slightly before heading back uphill and back over the island, this time on the super quiet and scenic Ross Road. Once we reached the west coast we turned right and headed south down to Kildonan to stay on a seaside campsite looking over towards the small island of Pladda.

Saturday 13 August

Ferries taken: two (Lochranza – Claonaig, Tarbert – Portavadie)
Islands visited: Arran
Distance cycled: 53 miles

Strava: https://www.strava.com/activities/7637216816

Best bits:
– Amazing bread from the Blackwater Bakehouse
– Super quiet roads and fab views
– Lovely beach for my first wild camp of the trip

Worst bits:
– Getting stung by a wasp whilst cycling
– Sandflies and midges on the beach
– Not enough driftwood for a decent fire (we did our best though!)

This was another beautiful day of almost continuous sunshine. From our campsite at Kildonan on the south coast of Arran Katie and I headed north, via the island’s west coast. Along the way we got delicious fresh bread from the Blackwater Bakehouse at Blackwaterfoot – definitely seek this place out if you’re ever on Arran!

From the north coast of Arran we got the small ferry from Lochranza to Claonaig on the Kintyre peninsula before heading across the peninsula and north to the fishing town of Tarbert to get another ferry across to Portavadie in south Argyll, AKA Scotland’s Secret Coastline. From there we headed across the Ardlamont peninsula and should have then headed north but we were keen to find a suitable spot to wild camp for the night. So instead we headed south, round the peninsula, and wound up on the beautiful (although sadly sandfly and midge-infested) Kilbride Bay Beach, where we watched the orange moon rising whilst trying to keep our fire of two twigs and some seaweed alight!

Sunday 14 August

Ferries taken: one (Colintraive – Rhubodach)
Islands visited: Bute
Distance cycled: 43 miles
Strava: https://www.strava.com/activities/7637217381

Best bits:
– The coast road to Colintraive
– The Gin Garden at Isle of Bute Distillery
– Vegan pizza for dinner

Worst bits:
– Rain!!
– The climb out of Tignabruaich
– Feeling a bit bleurgh!

The day dawned fine but it wasn’t to last – the very unScottish sunny and hot weather we’d enjoyed for the first two days was over. We bumped our way down the mile-long track from the beach back to the road, hoping that the little cafe we’d seen at the entrance would be open for a coffee when we got there. Sadly it wasn’t but we eventually managed to load ourselves with caffeine in Tignabruaich before heading up the somewhat painful climb (especially with fully loaded bikes) north.

Our reward for surviving that climb was the scenic little road we took along the side of Loch Riddon heading towards Colintraive – all the cars take the main road which has been built just above the coastal section. From Colintraive it was a short hop onto Bute. We rode across the island to Ettrick Bay, hoping that it would be possible to ride across the top of the beach to the road on the other side. Sadly it wasn’t and we had to double back before cycling on down the west coast and finally across to Rothesay, where we were glad to pitch our tents at the campsite before heading out on foot to sample the local gin and eat pizza.

Monday 15 August

Ferries taken: six (Rothesay – Wemyss Bay, Largs – Cumbrae Slip, Cumbrae Slip – Largs, Ardrossan – Brodick, Lochranza – Claonaig, Kennacraig – Port Askaig)
Islands visited: Bute, Great Cumbrae, Arran, Islay
Distance cycled: 59 miles

Strava: https://www.strava.com/activities/7644309640

Best bits:
– ALL the ferries (and the timing working out for them!)
– Gravel route through the forst on Arran
– AMAZING sweet potato sandwich from the hut by the Lochranza ferry
– It not being raining when I got to Islay and finding a sweet wild camping spot before it got dark

Worst bits:
– Rain. More rain. Torrential rain whilst cycling over to Kennacraig.
– Busy main road to Ardrossan.
– Hauling my bike over boulders whilst being watched by a workman!

It was an early start, with Katie and I getting up just as it was getting light to pack our tents up in the drizzle and head for the first ferry of the day at 6.25am. Once we got to Wemyss Bay Katie headed off on the train to Glasgow whilst I headed south down the coast. The first part of the ride was nice despite the grey morning – the road went right along the sea and my views were of seals lazing on rocks just off the coast.

When I reached Largs I decided I wanted to add the small island of Great Cumbrae to my itinerary and hopped on the ferry over. Great Cumbrae definitely had the feeling of the morning after the night before – it was very quiet in Monday’s drizzle but overflowing bins everywhere belied the fact that it had been a very sunny and no doubt busy weekend! I rode a circuit of this small island before heading back to the mainland and down the coast to Ardrossan.

The road to Ardrossan was very busy and not fun to ride and I was relieved to get back on the ferry to Brodick. My route towards Islay took me up the one part of Arran Katie and I hadn’t ridden – the northeast coast. After riding on relatively busy roads I was eager to try a little gravel and I could see some tracks heading through the woods so I went to explore. It was challenging but fun to climb up through the trees, though the bit where forestry operations meant the gravel road was being rebuilt and I had to drag my bike over large boulders was less fun. I returned to the road for the Boguille climb over towards the ferry at Lochranza.

Once I’d got onto the Kintyre peninsula I realised I had quite a lot of time before the ferry to Islay so I took a short detour out to see the ruined Skipness castle, before fighting my way over the climb to Kennacraig in torrential rain. The ferry ride to Port Askaig was nearly two hours long and I was not relishing getting off the boat and trying to find somewhere to camp in the rain, especially as it would start getting dark not that long after my arrival. But halfway through the sailing the rain stopped and there was evening sunshine when I arrived on Islay. The potential wild camp spot by a small loch which I’d identified on the OS map worked out and I even had time for a quick loch dip before dinner and bed.

Categories: Bikepacking Scotland | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

Five things I learned on London Edinburgh London

Two weeks ago I rode 1,441km (896 miles) from the outskirts of London to the outskirts of Edinburgh and back, as part of the LEL audax which takes place every four years. These are the five things I learned along the way:

  1. You can’t do it alone (but you won’t have to) Although I set off alone, I had the unwavering support of my wife, my family and a great bunch of friends and club-buddies who were cheering me on via text message and social media. I also was helped immeasurably by the many lovely people I rode with along the way, only some of whom I’ve managed to remember in this blog. And of course, the event volunteers who at every control made sure that I and all the other riders were safe, fed, somewhat rested, etc etc. THANK-YOU ALL SO MUCH!
  2. An hour’s sleep really can make all the difference It’s amazing how you can feel like you can’t go on and then, after just a short time resting, you’re ready to go again
  3. Faffing is what will make you fail I actually think I did quite well in the faffing stakes, in that I didn’t faff too much. But there were definitely still times when ten…fifteen…twenty minutes went missing because I wasn’t being organised. In the last ten miles before a scheduled stop I need to mentally plan what I need to take off my bike when I stop, how long I plan to stop for and the order of things I need to do during that stop
  4. Even small changes to your set-up can cost you dear Deciding to tape over the small tear on my saddle the day before the event led to a saddle sore which by the time I finished was basically a several inches wide open wound. It’s only just now healing, nearly two weeks after the event. Where possibly, don’t make any changes that haven’t been bedded in over shorter distances.
  5. It’s the wind that will destroy you I already know this from previous events, but I learnt it all over again on LEL. From now on I only want to do rides in places with no turbulence!

Want to hear the whole story? Click here to read about my five day London Edinburgh London adventure (warning: it’s very long!)

Categories: Uncategorized | 1 Comment

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