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JOGLE – The Scenic Route: Day One

In-depth
30 Oct 2020
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Welcome to the start of Cyclist’s journey from John O’Groats to Land’s End – by the most beautiful and challenging route

Words: Marcus Leach Photography: Gavin Kaps/Osprey Imagery

‘You’re going the wrong way,’ shouts an old man leaning on a wall and puffing on a hand-rolled cigarette. These are not the words anyone wants to hear when they have just set off on a 2,605km ride from John O’Groats in the far northeast of Scotland to Land’s End at the southernmost tip of Cornwall.

I didn’t notice the old boy as I pushed away from the famous signpost that has marked the beginning or end point of many an end-to-end cycle ride, but as I signal to turn right at the first junction his warning reaches my ears.

He’s absolutely correct, of course. I am going the wrong way, at least according to convention. Most cyclists attempting to ride the full length of the country will opt for the shortest possible route, with a view to completing the journey in the least amount of time.

But that’s not how we do things at Cyclist. For this JOGLE attempt, I will be taking the scenic route, passing through some of the most glorious countryside this island has to offer, and deliberately targeting some of the UK’s most challenging climbs along the way.

If all goes to plan it will take me 14 days, averaging over 185km a day, and by the time I reach Land’s End I’ll have racked up more than 33,300m of ascent. But on Day One, the climbing will prove to be the least of my worries.

The route takes me across the top of Scotland, hugging the coastline for 189km to the village of Scourie in the top left-hand corner of the country.

This is why I find myself being shouted at by a John O’Groats local as I head off in a different direction to every other cyclist he has seen doing the JOGLE ride. I’d shout back an explanation, but my words would be lost in the wind.

In recent years I’ve flown all over the world to ride my bike and, despite some incredible experiences, I have in the process neglected to explore the place I call home.

Sure, I’ve ridden almost every road within a 50km radius of my front door, but what about the rest of Britain? What about our mountains, our great lakes, lochs and rivers, the areas of natural beauty that define our land? I know little of them but hope to learn more in the next two weeks. 

It’s not a race

Speed isn’t an issue. I have no interest in breaking any records, which is just as well given that the current fastest time for an end-to-end ride stands at a painfully quick 43 hours 25 minutes and 13 seconds.

Instead I will be seeking out roads less travelled and in doing so opening myself up to a journey of discovery.

The first of such discoveries is that this ride is almost certainly going to be tough from start to finish. The initial 30km stretch to Thurso might be relatively flat, but no sooner have I turned right onto the A836 than I’m met with a northwesterly wind that whips at my face, reducing my speed in an instant.

A series of steel-grey villages offers moments of shelter, but the reality is that I will be heading in the same direction for the best part of 200km, so I accept my fate, tuck my head down and embrace the conditions.

I’m just happy to be on the move after months of planning and being stuck at home during lockdown.

Beyond Thurso the road changes from straight and flat to twisty and lumpy, dipping in and out of numerous bays.

The descents are a welcome break from the wind, but the short climbs are steep enough to squeeze the energy from my legs. Sea air fills my nostrils and I long to be on one of the sandy beaches nestled among the folds of cliffs that run parallel to the road.

The feeling lingers as I near the village of Bettyhill, the horizon dominated by Ben Hope, Scotland’s most northerly Munro. It signals the start of a gradual morphing of the landscape as it becomes more barren and I sense that I’m leaving civilisation behind.

The hills are carpeted with great swathes of heather and pockmarked with mossy rocks, leading to a skyline of peaks that promises far tougher riding to come.

I’m alone on the road and lost in my thoughts so much so that I almost miss a turning on the outskirts of Tongue. When I regain my focus I notice a sign at the mouth of the road warning that it’s not suitable for large vehicles and caravans, and it’s easy to see why.

It narrows to little more than a thin strip of tarmac, hemmed in on either side by a tunnel of trees. The road drops sharply and cuts back on itself before spitting me out alongside the Kyle of Tongue, one of Scotland’s numerous sea lochs.

I slow my already sluggish pace to appreciate my surroundings. On one side is the vast loch stretching back to the sea, the tide out revealing broad patches of golden sand; on the other the causeway that crosses the loch, the ancient remains of Castle Varrich atop a hill and in the distance the commanding presence of Ben Hope, all framed by a hazy blue sky.

Slow as she goes

The headwind continues to thwart me, its effect amplified by a long drag up from the loch. The mental toll is draining, but it’s countered by the majesty of the scenery. Every brow unveils a view superior to the last, and none more so than when Loch Eriboll comes into sight.

It’s surrounded by iridescent mountains and its waters shimmer under the afternoon sun. A small promontory juts out into the loch, which houses the dilapidated remains of ancient limestone kilns.

Ahead of me the road unfurls around the water’s edge, and I receive an extra reward when I round the far end of the loch to be greeted by a tailwind. Riding suddenly feels easy, the road disappearing beneath me in a blur. 

Sadly this is short-lived. The end of the loch brings another change of direction and I find myself toiling into the strongest winds of the day. To make matters worse the road begins to rise before me, stretching up and over a distant crest.

I stop at a small shop in hope of a cold sugary drink, only to find I can’t enter as I don’t have a facemask. Instead I sit and muster the energy and mental resolve to continue.

Coupled with the headwind, the gradient of the road out of Durness reduces my speed to little more than walking pace. A small flock of sheep catches my eye, the only sign of life in an otherwise desolate landscape.

To my right a backdrop of rugged natural beauty leads over to Cape Wrath, considered something of a Mecca for bikepackers. A trickle of motorbikes passes me, sounding their horns and waving in a show of support. I watch enviously as they crest the climb and disappear from view, leaving only the wind for company.

Head bowed I struggle on, calculating that at my current speed it will take another three hours to cover the remaining 20km, a thought that I do my best to counter with memories of similar slogs.

It works, in as much as I allow my mind to focus on something other than the present moment for long enough to finally reach the relative sanctuary of the descent.

My experiences of ultra-endurance events mean I can generally tolerate large amounts of climbing, long hours in the saddle and I even find an odd sense of enjoyment from riding in the rain.

But there are few things as demoralising as riding into a headwind for the best part of eight hours, no matter how beautiful the scenery, which, for the record, is nothing short of spectacular.

It’s with a great sense of relief that I see the kilometres left to be ridden tick down into single figures.

Last gasp

There comes a point on any long ride when you know you’re going to make it. At this moment it’s not unusual to feel slightly euphoric, a feeling the wind has long since drummed out of me.

When, with 5km to go, the road starts to descend for one last time, I’m overcome with relief. I regain the ability to appreciate my surroundings, the road carefully picking its way between small lochs rippling in the wind.

I realise I haven’t seen another cyclist all day, and I savour the solitude and feeling of having the world around me to myself.

I know from here the road leads to the remote crofting village of Scourie, perched precariously on the headland, and the welcome haven of my motorhome.

Multi-day riding requires a different mindset, not to mention considerable organisational skills, especially when you’re on the road with your wife and two small children.

So while Scourie marks the end of the day’s pedalling, I know it also signals the start of preparing for the next morning.

The trick is to have everything in place so I can simply get up, get dressed and set out for the second stage of the challenge. But right now, all I want to do is roll straight into bed.

Mapping powered by komoot

Komoot mapping tip No1: Use the komoot Premium multi-day planner

Once you’ve planned your route on komoot, you can simply split it into the number of days you want to ride and komoot will cleverly keep the riding time the same for each day, taking into account distance, elevation and terrain.  

Essential JOGLE kit


No1: Factor O2 Disc, £6,950, factorbikes.com

There’s always the worry when you get a new bike that it will take some time to get used to, and that aches and niggles will set in while you adapt to a new setup. That fear is hugely amplified when you are setting off for a ride of over 2,500km on a new bike.

I shouldn’t have worried. The Factor O2 arrived at my door specced to my exact requirements, and as soon as I started riding it felt as though the bike and I had been partners for a lifetime.

The O2 is Factor’s all-rounder road bike – not the lightest, nor the most aero, but designed for long days in the saddle. Yet the O2 is still at heart a racer, being light enough to skip up hills and stiff enough to respond quickly in a sprint. It gleefully soaked up all the punishment I could throw at it.

As a rider over 90kg who has a penchant for doing very long distances, I tend to put greater demands on my bikes than most people, so it was an impressive display.

The flawless Shimano Ultegra Di2 groupset helped, as did the lightweight and robust Black Inc Thirty wheels. All in all, I couldn’t have asked for a more reliable, fun and supportive partner for my journey across Britain.

Thanks

We couldn’t have done it alone

Riding from one end of Britain to the other is a major undertaking, and Cyclist had help from a number of sources.

Firstly, thanks to komoot for help with creating a route that takes in many of the best parts of the country for riding a bike.

As the ride took place during the period just after Covid-19 lockdown, we couldn’t use hotels or B&Bs, so many thanks to Bailey of Bristol (baileyofbristol.co.uk) for the loan of an Autograph 74-4 motorhome, which proved to be an excellent moving base for the trip.

Thanks also to Mercedes (mercedes-benz.co.uk) for the loan of a Marco Polo campervan, as used by our photographer for the duration of the ride.

Good kit choices are vital on a challenge such as this to avoid unneccesary stops, and I couldn’t have asked for better than the Factor O2 Disc bike (factorbikes.co.uk), Castelli clothing (saddleback.co.uk), Giro helmet and shoes (zyrofisher.co.uk), Sungod eyewear (sungod.co), Wahoo Roam bike computer (wahoofitness.com), Garmin Vector 3 Power Pedals (garmin.com) and Supernova lights (supernova-lights.com).

Nutrition was supplied by Named Sport (namedsport.com) and post-ride recovery came courtesy of Reboots (reboots.de). Thanks also to Hutchinson (windwave.co.uk) for the spare tyres and inner tubes in case of blowouts, and to Ribble for the loan of the e-bike, which allowed our photographer to keep up on the hills when the going got too tough for the campervan.

Finally, thanks to my wife and kids, who proved to be the perfect support crew.