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In praise of Land’s End to John O’Groats

Trevor Ward
9 Dec 2020

Whether going for the record or just for the ride, LEJOG is the ultimate tick on any cyclist’s British bucket list. Photos: Danny Bird

More than 120 years separate the exploits of engineer George Pilkington Mills and maths teacher Michael Broadwith, yet they are united by the same remarkable accomplishment and a similar world of suffering.

As he neared the end of his attempt to set a new record for cycling from Land’s End to John O’Groats in the early hours of a Friday morning in 1891, Mills ‘dropped off into a helpless sleep, and despite all the blandishments – some of them rather rough – of his friends, he became immovable, and slept on, and on, and still on,’ reported Bicycling News.

Mills eventually woke up, remounted his safety bicycle and completed his ride in a new record of four days, 11 hours and 17 minutes. ‘Hitherto he has had a large contempt for sleep, but he is now converted to the theory that “no sleep is a fraud”,’ reported the magazine.

Having previously set ‘End to End’ records riding a penny-farthing and tricycle, Mills would over the next two years go on to smash his own record riding, variously, a safety bicycle (three days, five hours, 49 mins), tricycle (3:16:47) and tandem (3:04:46).

‘He was the Bradley Wiggins of his day,’ says David Birchall, historian of the Anfield Bicycle Club, of which Mills was a member. ‘Earlier in 1891 he won the first Bordeaux-Paris – a distance of 560km – in 26 hours 34 minutes, riding a series of five safety bicycles provided by his employer, Humber. He was also a crack shot with a pistol and gained notoriety for shooting any dogs that got in the way of his training rides.’

Modern madness

More than a century later, the training rides of the man who would take his place as the End to End record holder were considerably more tranquil. Michael Broadwith used his 50-mile round trip commute to his job as a maths teacher at an all-boys school in Hertfordshire to build up his fitness.

In 2018 he became only the 10th man to break the record, riding the 841 miles (1,353km) in 43 hours 25 minutes and  13 seconds – an average speed of almost 32kmh. And like Mills before him – and the many riders who had attempted the record in between – Broadwith suffered his darkest moments during the final stretch.

‘My neck muscles gave up from the extreme TT position I was in,’ he said afterwards. ‘On the flat I could just about see where I was going but on the climbs I had to hold my head up so I could see where I was going – the descents were accomplished with my elbow on the tri-bar so I could support my head with my hand.’

Of course, riding from Land’s End to John O’Groats – LEJOG – needn’t be so painful. You don’t have to try to break any records. You don’t need a team of pacers taking it in turns to leapfrog ahead of you by train, like Mills in 1891.

Nor do you need a convoy of support vehicles, none of which is allowed to overtake you more than twice each hour, like Broadwith in 2018. You could, if you wanted, treat it as a holiday.

It would, admittedly, be a physically demanding holiday, but most ‘leisure’ riders complete the distance over a fortnight, averaging between 110km and 130km a day.

Depending on your route, you would cover anything from 1,353km to more than 1,600km, but the former sticks to lots of busy A-roads while the latter will add a few more metres to the amount of climbing you do (the ‘flattest’ route still packs in 9,000m of elevation gain).

Jog on

While bonkers events such as the Transcontinental or a 24-hour race may be beyond the average rider’s means or capabilities, Land’s End to John O’Groats is something we can all aspire to, a challenge we can make as difficult or manageable as the length of our holidays and indulgence our partners and families will allow.

Author and former Sky TV foreign affairs editor Tim Marshall completed LEJOG in 12 days, ostensibly for charity – he raised £2,000 for Help for Heroes and the Alzheimer’s Society – but also as research for his book about football chants, Dirty Northern Bastards.

Having previously reported from war zones and exotic destinations all over the world for a period of two decades, he was astounded by the richness and variety of culture, climate and topography he found on his doorstep.

‘Every day, wherever I was, I’d say, “Right, I’m knackered now, I’ve done 80 miles,” pull over, find a pub or B&B, go out for a curry and then start all over again the next day,’ he recalls.

‘The toughest day was the first day. I did 60 miles and it felt like riding over the Himalayas, while the coldest day, probably of my life, was Inverness in July. But it was fantastic.

‘The local accents would change every half day and I’d always eat the local food, whether Cheshire cheese or a Balti in West Bromwich. And being a huge football fan, I’d take time to visit grounds I’d never been to before, such as Gigg Lane in Bury, or Cowdenbeath – romantic places like that.’

For End to End record holder Broadwith, who recently added to his palmarès by winning silver at the World 24TT Championships with a distance of 510 miles (821km), the everyman appeal of LEJOG is what makes it so special.

‘So many people have ridden it and even more know someone who has, whether for charity, a personal challenge or a holiday; whether in five days, 10 days or three weeks,’ he says.

‘All these riders share the same roads, start and finish and the same sense of completeness. That is its true beauty – the totality of covering the whole of Great Britain in one bike ride… however long it takes you.’

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