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JOGLE – The Scenic Route: Day 12

In-depth
27 Aug 2021
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The sun is shining, the wind is light, there are no major hills – this should be the easiest day yet on our ride from John O’Groats to Land’s End. When will we ever learn?

Words Marcus Leach Photography Gavin Kaps/Osprey Imagery

One more coffee won’t hurt. At least that’s my rationale as I sit luxuriating in the early-morning sun, serenaded by birdsong and all thoughts of still needing to cycle 500km to get to Land’s End pushed firmly to the back of my mind.

Compared to the previous few days’ exertions in the Welsh mountains I can’t help but think that today’s stage will be relatively straightforward. So when my mum offers to make me another coffee, I gladly accept.

After almost two weeks of riding, my route has taken me to my home turf near Monmouth on the Welsh border. It’s certainly a pleasure to be fussed over by my family after so many mornings waking up in soggy campsites, and I’m in no great rush to get going.

But eventually I break the inertia, having procrastinated for as long as possible, and set off under an azure blue sky with the warmth of the sun on my face and not a hint of wind.

It has only taken 12 days but finally I have the sort of weather I would have expected for this time of year – the perfect day to be riding my bike. Snaking my way through a warren of narrow country roads it doesn’t take long for my mind to drift from the present moment, every passing feature conjuring memories and taking me down a metaphorical lane.

There’s the old stone church where I got married, the little woodland where my wife and I spent numerous mornings exploring with the kids, the path that leads to a hidden beach on the banks of the river Wye, the dirt tracks where Mum discovered her love for gravel riding…

Each is a reminder that so much of my life is woven into the pastoral landscape here, and now there will be another memory stitched into its fabric: the time I rode through here on my wonderful journey across the full length of Britain. It’s a journey that, as I’m going to discover, is far from over as a physical challenge.

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The winds of change

If I have learned anything from the wide variety of rides, races and challenges I have taken on around the world it’s this: there are no easy days on a bike. No matter how seemingly simple a ride might look on paper, there will always be a contributing factor to ensure that it tests you in ways you hadn’t imagined.

It’s a lesson I would have done well to remember as I drift down the Wye Valley, past the old ruins of Tintern Abbey, without a care in the world, oblivious to the struggles that lie ahead.

Maybe it’s the night spent at my parents’ house, or the lazy morning drinking coffee and catching up with family, or even the growing thoughts of actually finishing this epic ride that lead me to believe the hard work is over.

Whatever the reason it’s remiss of me to be lulled into such a false sense of security. The elements have other plans for me.

The first inclination that it won’t be as simple as ticking off 167 fairly flat kilometres comes as I pass through the outskirts of Chepstow and make my way towards the old Severn Bridge.

It’s here the first flurries of wind buffet me, disturbing what has hitherto been a perfectly still morning, although not raising too much concern at this point.

That comes as I change tack and begin heading due south towards Bristol. It’s here that a block headwind reduces me to walking pace, with my carefully planned schedule for the day, based on estimated average speeds, slowly going up in smoke with every passing minute.

Relief eventually comes as open fields slowly morph into suburbia, my route heading through the heart of Bristol to take in the city’s most iconic landmark: Clifton Suspension Bridge.

Shielded by long processions of houses I am able, despite the sporadic bursts of traffic, to increase my pace, all the while my mind recalculating how long it might take me to reach the end of the day.

Opened in 1864, and having taken 33 years to build, the bridge remains a defining feature of Bristol, described by its creator, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, as his first child, his darling.

Riding across the bridge, which is lined with numerous tourists posing for photos, I feel – and not for the first time on the trip – a sense of detachment.

Not that this specific spot is one of them, but there have been several places on my route down the UK where I would normally have stopped in order to explore in greater detail, only to have to keep pedalling, a passerby looking in on lives and places, yearning to know and see more.

Lost in thought, I soon find myself heading back onto the open expanses of unprotected farmland where the headwinds lurk, waiting to mock and torture me once more, like the bully at the school gates.

Exposed to the elements I toil away, the harsh sun no longer as inviting as it had been earlier in the day. A steady stream of sweat trickles down my face, dripping rhythmically from my beard onto the top tube. The air is ripe with the smell of a pig farm, its inhabitants no doubt sweltering as much as me, my nose by now attuned to the nuances of the varying farmyard smells.

Into the gorge

A little way ahead of me I spot an ice-cream van parked on the side of the road. Or maybe it’s a mirage, but either way I make up my mind to stop when I reach it.

Despite the pressing concern of making up lost time I need a break from the constant strain, and a cold ice cream, by my reasoning, is the perfect antidote to the venom of the wind.

I look across the shimmering waters of Chew Valley Lake, longing for their icy embrace, settling for the mild brain-freeze bought about by inhaling my ice cream a little too quickly, ever conscious of time.

Refreshed and feeling a little cooler I set off again, knowing that my next obstacle will potentially be the hardest of the day, or at least that’s what I had imagined before leaving home earlier.

I fool myself that by approaching Cheddar Gorge from the ‘wrong side’ I will avoid the punishing gradients it is known for when riding up from Cheddar itself. That notion is soon erased from my mind by a sign warning of 15% gradients ahead. At the same time the road narrows and limestone cliffs start to rise, forming a menacing gauntlet through which I must ride.

I drag myself up the steepest sections of road at an almost comical pace, forced into the occasional swerve to prevent an unceremonious topple into the hedge. The road finally levels off, affording a moment of respite, before it’s sucked into the folds of the land, plunging down through the gorge and flowing like the river that once formed this geological masterpiece.

My own flow is brought to an abrupt halt upon entering an unexpectedly tight hairpin a little too hot to find the horrified face of an elderly man driving up the other way, getting closer at an alarming speed. Never before have I been so grateful for disc brakes.

Cheddar is awash with tourists as I pass through, the briefest of stops allowing me the chance to pocket a lump of local cheese to enjoy that evening. Stuffing it in the back pocket of my jersey I can’t help but think it will have moved towards the extra-mature end of the spectrum by the time I’ve chalked off another 60 hot and tiresome kilometres.

I soon realise they will be fairly monotonous kilometres as well, because the landscape is void of any defining features. It’s just lots of roads that, as my dad would have happily pointed out, were most likely built by the Romans. There is barely a bend in sight.

An old sign for Glastonbury breaks the monotony, taking me back to my halcyon festival days, a chapter in my life far removed from this latest one, but memories of which help to pass a handful of kilometres. It takes an unexpected alert from my Wahoo bike computer, informing me to turn left off the road I am careering down, to bring me back to the present moment.

Best laid plans

The further on this new road that I travel, the greater the sense I get that I’m heading in the wrong direction. The bike computer seems pretty certain this is the right way, but I’m not convinced so I eventually stop at a garage to double check, taking the opportunity to get a much-needed cold drink in the process.

As I stand on the garage forecourt drinking an ice-cold Coke I realise the error of my ways. For some reason during the planning phase I booked a campsite a good 15km away from the actual ride route.

I guess that at the time it didn’t seem like a big deal –  an extra 15km can’t hurt – but now that I am actually riding it this proves to be an ordeal that takes me close to breaking point.

By the time I arrive at the campsite to find my wife and kids sitting enoying the early-evening sun in a small apple orchard I’m exhausted, my face and jersey covered in a thin crust of salt, my legs aching as if I’d been riding in the mountains all day.

I slump down at the foot of one of the trees, relieved to be off the bike and knowing that tomorrow I will be in Cornwall and within touching distance of the finish.

Now, for a little chunk of that cheese…

• 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

No12: Check for wind direction

With komoot Premium you can use the wind direction map overlay to see where and when you’ll have a head and tailwind. If it looks like you’ll be riding into a headwind all day you can at least try to find the most sheltered route.

Essential JOGLE kit


No12: Pro Advanced Toolbox, £200, madison.co.uk, Hutchinson spares, windwave.co.uk

Looking back, I had remarkably few mechanical problems over the course of my 2,500km, 14-day journey – for which I give thanks to the cycling gods. Other than the usual batch of punctures, I only had to replace a rear tyre once and repair a chain.

But, had I been required to strip the bike down to its constituent parts and rebuild it afresh, I could have done, because I was superbly equipped with a set of Pro tools, as well as spare Hutchinson tyres and inner tubes.

Pro’s products are of exceptional quality and there’s a tool for every conceivable job – many of them way beyond my mechanical ability. What’s more, Pro does a big range of toolkits, from a full pro setup to the bare minimum basics, so there’s a kit to suit everyone.

As for Hutchinson’s tyres, they hit a sweet spot between light, supple smoothness and durability. The French company was one of the first to embrace tubeless, so it has had plenty of time to perfect a tyre that doesn’t require a crowbar to fit onto rims.

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.