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JOGLE – The Scenic Route: Day Six

In-depth
24 Feb 2021
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As Scotland continues its deluge, Cyclist is glad to finally leave it behind and cross the border into England on Day Six of our ride from John O’Groats to Land’s End

Words Marcus Leach Photography Gavin Kaps/Osprey Imagery

I awake to the depressingly familiar sound of rain hammering on the motorhome roof. My heart sinks. I had gone to bed last night with a glimmer of hope that I’d awake to brighter skies than those I’ve been trapped under for the past few days. Alas, all hope is quickly extinguished amid the continued squalls of driving rain.

While I wait for the kettle to boil I question my mental resolve and the ability to cope with another 200km in the wet, least of all on my birthday. To make matters worse my shoes haven’t dried from yesterday’s deluge.

I try to focus on staying positive, reminding myself that riding my bike is an experience to be enjoyed, but try as I might my mind soon fills with voices of doubt and negativity. In the end it’s left to the words of Harrison, my four-year-old son, to provide the ray of proverbial sunshine I need to help me through the coming hours.

‘Happy birthday Daddy,’ comes a little voice as I prepare to brave the elements. ‘We’ll make sure there’s cake for you at the finish today.’

The very thought of cake with my family at the end of the day gives me a sense of purpose and urgency as I set off, surrendering myself to the day’s sullen embrace. A dreary grey blanket covers the land as far as the eye can see, the unmistakable smell of dairy farms ripe in the dank morning air as raindrops the size of small marbles bounce off the road.

Just think of the cake.

The route twists and turns past old derelict farm buildings and tired looking tractors. A thick, fetid sludge runs down the roads, further sullying an already filthy day and covering my exposed legs in a layer of muck.

Just think of the cake.


As I leave the sleepy village of Crosshill past an old sawmill the road surprises me by rising steeply. Caught in the wrong gear I’m forced out of the saddle, wrestling the pedals round in a bid just to keep moving, rain lashing into me by a fierce wind. The gradient finally relents and I build a steady momentum on a smooth road that snakes through thick forests of pine.

A short, sharp descent is followed by another climb, this one altogether more challenging. At 3.5km Nic O’Balloch isn’t the longest, but with maximum gradients hitting 20% it’s not to be underestimated.

Once free from the tree line the road climbs straight and true, eventually swallowed by the thick fog that shrouds the mountains through which I must pass. I’m now in the heart of the Ayrshire Alps, as they’re affectionately known. Not that I can see much, but that which is visible is luscious and green.

Sheep bleat yet remain hidden from view until suddenly one appears through the fog on the road in front of me, forcing me to swerve and sending my already rising heart rate higher still. I slowly grind my way to the summit, a taxing headwind and driving rain doing little to help my cause on the steepest sections.

The relief at having finished the climb is short lived when I realise my proposed direct route through Galloway Forest Park includes a long section of gravel. In normal circumstances this would be manna from heaven given my love of off-road riding, but on 28mm slicks in the pouring rain I daren’t risk it.

It takes a moment for my bike computer to recalculate the route, and when it finally does it makes for depressing reading. The detour is going to add an extra 30km onto what is already set to be a long day, and to make matters worse half of the additional distance is uphill.

Just think of the cake.


New country, new weather

Despite the incessant rain and a suffocating grey sky, the climb from Newton Stewart to the edge of Clatteringshaws Loch is surprisingly enjoyable. A steady gradient suits my style of climbing, which tends to favour power over finesse, and I make relatively swift progress in my bid to get back to the original route.

For the first time since setting out I feel a sense of optimism brewing from within, helped further by a hearty roadside breakfast of chilli con carne.

Slowly but surely the secluded forests and hills give way to growing pockets of suburbia. Clutches of nondescript bungalows line the increasingly busy roads until finally I reach the outskirts of a bustling Dumfries.

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Not for the first time on my journey I feel a sense of detachment from the real world, a reminder that I’m little more than a passerby looking in on the lives of others, my own reality far removed from that of the people for whom this is home.

I hurry through the town, eager to return to my world of solitude and in doing so forgoing the chance to find somewhere for a much-needed hot drink. I reason there will be plenty more opportunities along the road.

For now, with another 100km to go, my priority is simply to keep moving. In my haste I almost miss the ‘Welcome to England’ sign by the side of the road, where I pause to take the obligatory photo.

Just as the Grand Tours have their transitional stages, riding through unremarkable parts of their respective countries, so does my own tour. Such stretches of road are essential components to piecing together a route that celebrates all that’s great about a country, or in this case, countries.

Not that this makes them any more enjoyable. And so, as I ride alongside the M6, a blur of traffic streaming past, I let my mind drift back to happier times in remote enclaves of Scotland, safe in the belief that the beauty and solitude they provided will soon return.

Lost in my thoughts it takes a while to notice that not only has it stopped raining, but there are the faintest rays of sunshine fighting their way through a promisingly whiter canopy of clouds. For the first time in days I’m able to ride without a waterproof, the warmth of the sun a welcome novelty after so many saturated kilometres.

Slowly but surely the pancake-flat horizon starts to morph before my eyes, a sea of arching hills growing into ominous peaks, a reminder that some of the route’s hardest riding lies in wait.

The first indication that I’m in the Lake District comes not from the ubiquitous dry-stone walls, or the distinctive Herdwick sheep that graze lazily on the verges, but rather the eye-wateringly steep roads that appear from nowhere, until before I know it I’m on a 20% incline, my heart pounding and legs begging for mercy.

After the best part of nine hours in the saddle such roads push me to near breaking point, forcing me to zigzag my way up them.

Aside from surviving roads better suited to those with crampons and walking poles, my priority is finding somewhere to get food and water, having made the cardinal mistake of running out.

Parched and void of all energy I grind on, my focus on finding some form of sustenance rather than reaching the end of the day. Rather worryingly there seems to be little sign of life other than the increasing number of sheep.

Kindness of strangers

Eventually I hear the hum of an engine behind me. I turn to see an elderly couple approaching in an old Austin Mini. I give a wave in the hope of flagging them down to ask for some water, only for the lady in the passenger seat to mistake my desperation for friendliness and cheerily wave back at me as they pass by.

I ride on at a snail’s pace, eventually descending towards a small hamlet where a herd of cows is crossing the road. While I wait for them to pass I notice a tiny art gallery, outside of which a sign advertises ‘afternoon tea by appointment only’.

I might not have an appointment but I desperately need water so I chance my luck, peering in through the door. A homely looking lady appears wearing a pristine white apron and pink bows in her hair.

Before I can explain I neither have an appointment nor any desire for afternoon tea, she says, ‘You look like you could do with a cold drink?’ With that she disappears, and reappears moments later with a jug of ice-cold water and a can of Orangina.

I’m transported back to being a little boy in France, when as a treat on summer holidays we would be allowed a fizzy drink, my brother and I always opting for the round glass bottles of Orangina.

Somehow it doesn’t quite taste the same in a can, but it has the desired effect of restoring enough energy to allow me to face the final 10km that stand between me and the promise of cake with my family.

By now the clouds have dissipated, although with the sun slowly fading towards the horizon the air remains fresh. I’m relieved to see that the final few kilometres are exclusively downhill as I descend towards Bassenthwaite Lake, my end point for the day, enjoying the rush of cool air against my skin. Twelve hours and 230km after setting off I arrive at our campsite, ready not just for a slice of cake but the whole thing.

True to their word, my family is there to welcome me not only with cake but a motorhome decked out in bunting and balloons. In an instant the fatigue that has wracked my body melts away and for a brief moment I am able to forget that in less than 12 hours I have to start all over again and tackle the hardest day of the entire trip. But that can wait, for now there’s cake to be eaten.

• Fancy completing one of the greatest cycling challenges of the British Isles? Check out the Cyclist Tour Finder for bucket list guided tours including the classic LEJOGgravel riding in Scotland, or road cycling in the Yorkshire Dales

Mapping powered by Komoot

Komoot tips to stay on track

No6: Use the Komoot Premium Weather Forecast

This handy feature will let you know when the sun rises and sets so you can plan your ride accordingly, and the wind direction map overlay will show you where to expect a headwind or a tailwind.

Essential JOGLE kit

No6: Supernova Airstream 2 front light, €199 (approx £175), supernova-lights.com

I only packed lights for the trip as a last-minute ‘just in case’ inclusion, reasoning that I wouldn’t need them in the middle of summer with so many daylight hours. It was a good job I did though, given how dark and gloomy many of the days were, and I couldn’t have asked for better than the Supernova Airstream 2.

First up, its sleek design fitted perfectly with the aesthetics of the Black Inc one-piece bar/stem on my Factor bike – an important consideration for someone like myself, who needs everything to be just so.

What about performance? German-designed and manufactured, it is everything you’d hope for from a premium light. Built with an internal 2,500mAh lithium-ion battery and weighing just 165g it has a brightness of 205 lumens and is designed with a series of mini cooling fins to dissipate heat from the LEDs.

Put in simple terms, that means on full beam it is incredibly bright and has a battery life of 2.5 hours. On the least bright setting that battery life extends up to 14 hours, and I found it was still more than bright enough to light the way.

Thanks

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.