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JOGLE – The Scenic Route: Day Nine

In-depth
19 May 2021
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Cyclist enters country number three on our ride from John O’Groats to Land’s End, and thanks to a break in the rain it’s almost like being in another world. Almost

Words Marcus Leach Photography Gavin Kaps/Osprey Imagery

I awake before my alarm, my body now long since adjusted to the rigours of rising before the rest of the world. For a few blissful moments I lie there in silence. Silence. That means it’s not raining, unless of course I have drifted back to sleep and my mind is playing a cruel trick on me.

I pull the curtain back to check, half expecting to see fat droplets of rain sliding down the window. Instead, much to my delight, a divine light cocoons the little patch of forest visible from my lookout.

With that realisation I hurry to get out of bed, keen to get on with the day, only to be reminded the moment that my feet touch the floor that I have cycled more than 1,000km in the past five days, and no amount of weather-induced enthusiasm will ease the pain my body is in.

Thus I gingerly get dressed, legs heavy with fatigue, tender to the touch and in desperate need of a day off the bike. There will be no such luxury, however – not until the end of another stage edging towards the 200km mark, something I’m trying hard not to think about as I make a pot of fresh coffee and a gargantuan bowl of porridge.

‘At least there’s only 2,400m of climbing today,’ I remind myself as I pour maple syrup over my oats with a rather heavy hand. ‘Plus, there’s hardly any climbing for the first 120km, so plenty of time to ease into things.’

Those words come back to haunt me precisely 3.1km down the road when, altogether unexpectedly, the road curves to the right before rearing up viciously through a tunnel of trees. For a moment my bike computer reads 722 watts. So much for easing into the day.

Go west!

Today’s route takes me westwards from the Peak District into North Wales. When the first hill eventually flattens out, the road continues through some woods, speckles of sunshine dancing across the tarmac as shafts of light penetrate the ceiling of foliage above, until eventually it opens out, affording me the most glorious view. For as far as I can see from my vantage point at the top of the hill there’s nothing but flat countryside ahead of me.

Leaving John O’Groats I never imagined that such a featureless view would bring me as much joy as the myriad majestic and grand views I’d been privy to in the mountains. But, equally, I never imagined that the past week would have been as hard as it has been.

For a blissful hour or so I roll along quiet country lanes without a care in the world, delighting in the morning chorus of passing birds. The tranquillity is eventually broken by two unexpected road closures that force me to take a detour through the outskirts of Stafford.

Banners lauding the efforts of the NHS adorn every bus shelter and most of the shop windows that I pass, a stark reminder that away from my little cycling bubble the world is in the grips of a growing pandemic.

I pass an elderly gentleman ambling along on the pavement with his newspaper tucked under his arm and suddenly, and rather surprisingly, find myself longing to be at home. It’s the first time since embarking on this journey that such a thought has crossed my mind, and it catches me off guard.

Whether in the mountains, by the sea or alongside the many lakes and lochs I’ve passed, I have consistently felt a sense of adventure, of exploring unfamiliar territory and escaping the realities of the world we have suddenly found ourselves living in.

But riding through this pocket of mundane suburbia that feeling is absent, and in its place I find myself craving the familiarity of everyday life at home. In a bid to shake such thoughts from my mind I quicken my pace, eager to be back on peaceful country lanes where I can drift along with a gentle breeze at my back.

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Once free from the network of constrictive residential roads I find myself instead caught in a warren of narrow, high-hedged lanes that thread through the countryside, leading from one quaint village to the next, the name of their respective pubs seemingly their only differentiating feature.

It’s on one such lane that I spot another cyclist ahead of me, which has been something of a rarity on the journey to date so is a welcome sight. Longing for some companionship, even just for a few kilometres, I sprint to catch them, and before long find myself deep in conversation with a local lady out for a leisurely jaunt in the sunshine.

I’m quickly reminded how joyous it can be whiling away the kilometres chatting to someone, and for a short period it’s as if I’m just out on a bike ride, and not in the midst of an epic journey the length of the UK.

Eventually we reach a point where it’s no longer feasible for her to continue riding with me so she turns for home, parting with the words, ‘Enjoy the rest of your Sunday ride.’

It dawns on me that as the days and kilometres have passed I have become increasingly disconnected with the rest of the world, my focus narrowed to such an extent that I had forgotten what day it was.

It’s hardly surprising, given that every day is the same; I wake up, I eat, I ride, I eat and I sleep, giving little thought or attention to anything outside of my little sphere.

But no two days are ever truly the same; each is a story in its own right, set against an ever-changing backdrop, punctuated with moments of inexpressible joy and passages of inescapable doubt, with nothing but the weird and (sometimes) wonderful voices in my head for company.

While my route has flirted with pockets of civilisation, on the whole it has taken me through remote stretches where there are no points of reference to normal life or the everyday goings-on of a society that, for now at least, I seem to exist outside of.

We’ll keep a welcome in the hillside

With the Welsh border drawing ever closer I’m afforded momentary glimpses of far more challenging terrain ahead as sporadic gaps in the hedges reveal bulging hills and the beginnings of domed mountains. Distracted by thoughts of the climbing to come I’m ambushed by greying skies that threaten to ruin what hitherto has been a most pleasant day.

Sure enough a light drizzle soon begins to douse the surrounding countryside, before ceasing just as quickly as it had begun. I’m beginning to think I must have upset a weather deity somewhere along the way – it’s the middle of August and still there hasn’t been a single dry day.

It would be easy to miss the Croeso I Gymru sign on the outskirts of Chirck, half-hidden behind overgrown plants, although there’s no missing the all too familiar ‘ARAF’ signs plastered over the tarmac to warn road users to reduce their speed.

There’s a reassuring air of familiarity as I venture further into my homeland, lush green hills flecked with sheep grazing idly and the emergence of place names that even now, after all these years, I struggle to pronounce.

Passing through the bustling town of Llangollen, which marks the start of the first serious climb of the day, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the pandemic had never happened. The streets are packed with holiday-makers with little regard for social distancing measures.

There’s a big queue for an ice cream van, but as inviting as ice creams look, I’m more than happy to be passing through and on my way into the mountains and a return to solitude.

Horseshoe Pass, or Bwlch yr Oernant to give it its Welsh name, is, by British standards at least, a fairly long pull at 6.2km. However it’s only after the first 2km that it reveals its beauty where, emerging from the woods, you can finally see the road sweeping up and back on itself, flanked by huge scree slopes and green carpeted hills.

As I climb, the guttural rumble of engines reverberates behind me, growing louder by the second until suddenly a pack of Harley Davidsons swarms past. The strain of their engines can still be heard long after they have disappeared from sight.

With 2km to go the road ramps up before cutting back on itself, at which point I’m buffeted by a surprisingly strong tailwind that guides me to the summit of the climb with relative ease.

Halfway down the descent my route leaves the main road and picks up an old track cut into the side of the hill, wispy grass growing down the middle and a tall leafy hedge camouflaging me. It undulates and snakes its way towards the historic town of Ruthin, before finally settling into a long onerous drag up towards, and through, Clocaenog Forest.

It’s here that the exertion of the previous few days finally starts to catch up with me as my speed dwindles. No amount of energy bars or gels can give me the boost I’m so desperately seeking, forcing me instead to surrender to the mountain.

I labour my way up roads seemingly drenched in treacle, the rhythmic swoosh of half-hidden wind turbines fused with the distant bleats of the now omnipresent sheep for company. Finally I haul myself over the brow of the hill, weary and relieved that the final 15km are almost exclusively downhill.

I’m not so tired that I can’t revel in the view before me, the clutch of rugged peaks that fill the horizon made all the more beautiful by the fact that I know I can savour a day off before taking them on.

My immediate concern is safely navigating my way down to the valley floor, a task made considerably harder by a narrow, sinuous road closely hemmed in on either side by dry-stone walls teetering on the verge of collapse.

It eventually leads me to the A5 where, after seven and a half long hours in the saddle, I can finally relax and enjoy the remaining few kilometres, riding alongside a surging River Conwy all the way to Betws-y-Coed and, at last, a much-needed rest day.

• 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 keep you on track

No9: Switch between komoot’s map overlays

Komoot offers different types of map, giving different benefits when route-planning. For example, Open Cycle Map will display the National Cycle Network routes, while Google satellite view shows what roads actually look like.

Essential JOGLE kit

No9: Garmin Vector 3 power pedals, £789.99, garmin.com

I never used to be concerned with the data side of cycling. For me it was all about the simple joy of being on two wheels. That was then, this is now, and the science and data elements have become a big part of my cycling experience.

I first used the Garmin Vector 3 power pedals for an Everesting ride last year, relying on their instant feedback to ensure I wasn’t burning too many matches too early in the ride. Now on any ride I am thankful for the ability to measure my efforts and ensure I’m riding efficiently.

Perhaps the best thing is that they look like standard pedals and fit standard Look Keo cleats, so they’re as user-friendly as a power meter can get. If you want to swap bikes, unscrew them, fit them to the other bike and go. It’s no harder than swapping normal pedals and there’s no fiddly calibration process. They pair easily with head units and offer accurate left and right pedal measurement. Admittedly they aren’t cheap, but they will make a significant difference to the way you ride and train.

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.