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Watch: Ride Across Britain documentary

A day-to-day account of one of the most iconic challenges available to British cyclists, the Ride Across Britain.

David Kenning
26 Jun 2017

Day 5 - Haydock to Penrith

Distance: 174km/108miles 

Elevation: 2,059m

‘The early part of this ride took us through Eccleston – home to Sir Bradley Wiggins. I was disappointed Wiggo hadn’t turned out to cheer me on after all the times I’d done it for him down the years. I did, however, get to see his memorial pillar-box – like all of Britain’s 2012 Gold medal winners, Sir Brad’s local post box was painted gold in honour of his achievement. 

‘The route then fed us through Preston, where the roads were busy with traffic and the sight of so many colourful cyclists produced varying responses from other road users, ranging from impatient horn blaring to wishes of good luck and thumbs up. One local driver who I pulled up next to at the lights asked me what I was doing, and when I told him I was cycling across Britain for charity (Pilgrims Hospices, to be precise) he reached out and handed me a tenner. As the lights turned green, I shouted my thanks after him, and with my cockles truly warmed, we pushed on into the sumptuous countryside. 

‘This was Lancashire at its best, the Trough of Bowland, miles of rolling hills, delightful lanes, wild open spaces and giant skies. The riding just kept getting better and better. No wonder Wiggo decided to settle in this part of the world. It’s perfect cycling country, with winding lanes, challenging climbs, extended flats, and rolling countryside galore. Not to mention some of the best views I’d seen on my journey so far.

‘Before long we were in Cumbria and after stopping outside Kendal for a coffee in the sunshine, it was time to get back to business, and a series of punchy hills warmed us up for the big challenge of the day – Shap Fell. This climb isn’t steep (averaging roughly 3%, maxing out at 8%) but it is long, approximately nine miles of constant climbing from Kendal. It’s sneaky, too, because there’s a false summit which you reach, do a little fist pump, round a bend and then see that there’s still two miles of climbing to go. To add to our challenge, a fairly stiff headwind had picked up as we climbed to the peak which, at 420m, was the high point of this ride so far. It also roughly marks the halfway point between Land’s End and John O’Groats on our route. 

Shap Fell repaid our efforts with a sweet descent followed by some easy miles into Penrith, where we spent the night camping in the grounds of Hutton-in-the-Forest – a stately home which has hosted The Antiques Roadshow. Pity Fiona Bruce and the gang weren’t in town, I could have got my legs valued – because that evening they started feeling ancient.’

Day 6 - Penrith to Hamilton

Distance: 162km/101 miles

Elevation: 1,198m

‘The previous evening the muscles in my thighs, had started to feel very tight, so I’d visited one of the on-site masseurs and got what I can only describe as a thorough seeing to! I’m not going to lie, it was painful, but exactly what my weary legs needed. Although surprisingly few people had dropped out after five days, more and more riders were hobbling about camp strapped up with kinesiology tape. Clearly the long miles were taking their toll.  

‘Whether by luck or design, today’s ride –although an even 100 miles – consisted of few climbs so I’d decided to take things easy and soak up the scenery. Not that it turned out like that. The route, which ran for the most part alongside the M6 and A74, was straight, largely flat and traffic free and I was soon crossing the border into Scotland. 

‘Although the weather conditions were once again fine, the road surface wasn’t. When I was planning this trip I’d elected to ride on big, fat 32mm tyres – something which had brought snorts of derision from some quarters with warnings that they’d slow me down. My 80kmh descent on day 3 had flattened that theory (in fact, the extra rubber gave me the confidence to leave the brakes alone) and they’d now help to cushion me from a punishingly poor road surface. To further aid my battered backside, I let a little air out to make them more squishy. Unfortunately, this also made them more puncture prone and after more than 550 miles of riding and six days in the saddle, I got my first (and only) flat when I hit a stone. 

‘As well as medical backup, the RAB organisers have also got your back when it comes to mechanicals, with help just
a phone call away should you need it. Not that I did this time – a quick inner tube change and a blast of CO2 and I was back on the (not very good) road. 

‘Not that I stayed on it for long. With the weather so warm and the passing scenery so hypnotically splendid, I got lost in a little daydream. One I was rudely yanked out of when I realised I was about to hit the kerb. It was too late to avoid the collision so I went with it, accepting my fate, and even managing a little judo roll as I hit the soft grass verge. I emerged from the spill unscathed and rode on to the finish at Hamilton without further incident. 

‘In my head I was some kind of Zen bike ninja. To the bloke behind me who’d witnessed my comedy fall I was clearly the funniest thing he’d seen all week – although to be fair, and typical of the camaraderie the event throws up, he did stop to ask if I was OK!’

Day 7 - Hamilton to Fort William

Distance: 204km/127 miles

Elevation: 2,224m

‘This was the longest day – 127 miles – so we started an hour earlier and it was still dark as we rode through the first urban section up to Kirkintilloch. Then it was into the countryside and the first climb of the day, the majestic Crow Road (5.6km at 4.8%), rising gradually up the side of a wide valley into the Campsie Fells. Up on the Fells, I rode for a while with Emily Chappell, the first woman finisher in this year’s Transcontinental Race – 3,000km from Belgium to Turkey. When I suggested she was probably finding this easy after the Transcon she told me she was actually pushing harder on this. Adding that it was a nice way to round off the season, she left me panting on a climb, cruising off effortlessly!

‘The first stop was at Thornhill where local kids were selling homemade cakes to raise money for the school library – apparently, feeding a horde of hungry cyclists is more profitable than a year of jumble sales. Then came a lovely section along the shore of Loch Lubnaig, more long climbs and fast descents. A few miles after the third pitstop at Bridge of Orchy, the road began to climb Rannoch Moor and into the Highlands proper. At high altitude, it was exposed and windy but after a few miles of slogging alone, I got picked up by a group and we made good progress, enjoying the long descent through Glencoe and along the shore of Loch Leven to Fort William.

‘It was a special day on the bike – as one fellow rider said, it’s a privilege to ride through such amazing scenery. The base camp is a bit special, too, set in a field at the foot of Ben Nevis, surrounded by mountains and forests.’

Day 8 - Fort William to Kyle of Sutherland

Distance: 179km/111 miles

Elevation: 1,928m

‘I had a bit of a lie-in today, waking at 5.30 to watch the sun rise over Ben Nevis. Setting off at a leisurely 7.40am along the rolling roads over Great Glen, a short climb from Spean Bridge followed, taking us past the Commando Memorial.

‘After Fort Augustus came the big climb of the day, Borlum Hill, a steep road that seemed to go on forever. On reaching the top, however, I rounded a bend to be rewarded with a view of Loch Ness that was literally breathtaking. I had a proper emotional moment!

‘A long, thrillingly fast descent to the first pitstop followed, then a rolling forest road along Loch Ness. After Inverness and the second stop at Muir of Ord, the final leg packed in a few more testing climbs – and fine views over the Cromarty Firth – before we reached the campsite north of Bonar Bridge. 

‘My Achilles had flared up again, so back at camp I visited the physio. In the queue I got chatting with Matt, one of the event’s chaperones. These are seasoned riders employed to mentor you as you ride. They can even be ex-pros (one of ours was track legend Maurice Burton) and it’s easy to forget that they might be feeling the physical effects of this epic ride as well. But the chaperones had done a fine job of getting us this far – as had Lulu’s catering which that night dished up steak pie. Perfect fuel for the last 104 miles we still had to go.’

Final day - Kyle of Sutherland to John O'Groats

Distance: 168km/104 miles

Elevation: 1,687m

‘The final day of our epic adventure began with emotions running high (were we really “just” 104 miles from the finish?) plus the small matter of 30 miles of climbing right from the start. Sounds daunting but in truth the gradient was so gentle that you hardly noticed the road going upwards much of the time. You did notice the cold, though – it was another early start, with riders needing to make transport connections, so again we set off in darkness, the air temperature around 3ºC and mist shrouding the hills and fields. 

‘Riding through the forest past the Shin Falls and the picturesque village of Lairg, the countryside opened out to provide stunning views over moorland with the mountains of the Northwest Highlands rising in the distance. After the summit came eight miles of gloriously fast descent to the first pitstop at the remote Altaharra hotel, then 20 miles of gently rolling singletrack road along the Strathnaver valley – route director Andy Cook rates this as the most beautiful part of the whole ride and I’d have to agree. Expanses of heather-covered moors, lochs and hills are far preferable to the more usual route to John O’Groats along the busy coast road. It adds a few miles but the views are worth it.

‘After hitting the north coast at Bettyhill, the sawtooth profile of the road to Thurso made this the most challenging section of the day, but the sun was out by now and there was even a slight tailwind (we were incredibly lucky – they can’t get many days of 20ºC and clear blue skies in this part of the world). After leaving the final pitstop at Reay, with
just over 30 miles to go, I picked up the pace and “left it all on the road” – well, for once I didn’t need to save my legs for tomorrow, so why not? And to be honest, the last few miles through exposed farmland lacked the majesty of the earlier parts of the ride, so there was less temptation to linger.

‘As I crossed the finish line to the cheers of assembled friends and family, I don’t mind admitting that a lump came to my throat. It was the end of an incredible nine days, spent in the company of some great people and enjoying fantastic British scenery in the best way possible – from the saddle of a bike. Not that there was much time to savour the moment, with a bike to be packed and a coach to catch, but I’ll have the rest of my lifetime to reflect on a truly magical ride.’

See page three for the bike used to conquer the Ride Across Britain

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