The road called. A distant road. Ride me, it whispered seductively. Feel the wind blowing through your hair. The satisfaction of miles, day after day. Nothing but cycling.
There’s no stress on the road. No emails. Your only meetings are with roadkill. Your memory the only photocopier. Sure, for some of us there may still be spreadsheets, but you get my drift.
My first thought was London to Edinburgh but to be honest I couldn’t quite face cycling through the dull flat lands of East Anglia and Norfolk. So it was I booked myself a sleeper train to the bumpier terrain of Penzance before my impulse could quieten. Besides, cycling Land’s End to London had a nice ring to it. Once the idea had formed it was all I could think about. Before I knew it the train was booked, accommodation sorted and route plotted. I was ready. Or was I?
The month had been warm, sunny, not a spot of rain. Weather spotting one week before my big ride and all I could see was rain. Every day. Lots of the bloody stuff. As if by magic the weather gods had seemingly detected my cycling folly. Bah. Did I regret it? Hell, nobody enjoys cycling in the rain for four straight days. I crossed my fingers and prayed the long-term forecast was wrong.
Day 0: Nervousness – Excitement
Praise be ye mighty winds who hath blown the storm into the English Channel and lessened my time in the wet. Sure, the wet stuff was still due but not four days solid. I hoped.
The final day at work passed in a blur. By 2 pm my stomach began to tingle. What was this strange sensation? Excitement? At work? Ah yes, the cycling thing. My mind wandered during meetings. My first proper cycling tour with panniers and multiple destinations since well, since cycling from London to Spain in 2011. I licked my lips. The sleeper train called.
The odd sensation of leaving my home at 10.30 pm on a Friday night, of gently rolling through the dark and busy buzzing London roads, late night revelers spilling out of the pubs and onto the streets. Tomorrow they awake with hangovers. Tomorrow I awake in Cornwall.
Stats: 6 miles to Paddington Station at crazy o’clock, a big bowl of carbs and too many meetings at work where I drifted off.
The sleeper train: London – Penzance
Cosy is what an estate agent would call it. Bijou. Yet I enjoyed my night in a rolling cave. Especially since I had booked to share a twin with a stranger who never did show. Bonus. Comfortable, I slept right through the night and woke as fresh as I’ll ever be on 6.5 hours kip. A free hot coffee and soft bacon roll together with my obligatory half a malt loaf and I was ready.
Day 1: Penzance – Land’s End – Luxulyan
Click. I shifted from big ring to little ring where my chain would remain for the next four days and 345 miles. Heart rate monitor left purposely behind, I had no plans to mash my way back home. This was a cycle tour after all, not ‘training’. Besides, I knew my legs wouldn’t last long if I tried any of the fancy stuff.
Nothing starts a cycle tour like seeing the sea, smelling that fresh air and feeling that humid, moist breeze kiss your face. I rolled around the coastline and within a couple of miles I stumbled upon Mousehole, a bay so calm and tranquil I felt an irrepressible urge to stop and take it all in. I stopped. Silence. Everything in life seemed to disappear.
This set the tone for the remainder of the day. Frequent stops, which is unusual for me. Normally I’m reluctant to scrub my speed for a toilet break let alone a whimsical look at the view. Before I knew it I had arrived at Land’s End, a lovely stretch of coastline somewhat marred by whatever it is someone has built on the land to take advantage of all those tourists. But yes, I did take the obligatory photo of my bike with the signpost pointing to New York and John O Groats. Good times!
I then wound my way through single track lanes, my route avoiding the dreaded A30. The sky above dark and solemn, that rain not far away. Still my pace did not quicken.
A lunch time stop at a tiny bakery led me to discover the joys of a flaky pastry pasty – wow, this was the best Cornish pasty I had ever eaten. And I’ve eaten many. I asked for the standard size which was as big as my head so goodness knows what size the large was!
Stomach full, the heavens emptied. Yet I remained warm and so enjoyed flying along the wet roads, enjoying the weight of my pannier as I lugged it up hill after hill, a shire horse plodding on all day without a care in the world. I arrived at my destination, legs still fresh.
Stats: 76 miles, 1,876 m climbing, 12.7 mph average speed, no punctures and one pasty.
Route and gpx file
Day 2: Luxulyan – Dartmoor – Honiton
Dread and excitement. A 90 mile day crossing Dartmoor awaited. I love cycling across moorland and had been looking forward to this day. Not so much when I saw the 19 mph headwind.
My first task was to replenish the grease on my chain, the oil having been completely stripped from the previous day’s soaking. I set off and immediately hit a steep incline. I huffed and puffed my way up, trying my best not to think of the 3,000 metres of climbing that remained. My legs were not quite as fresh as I had thought.
I ploughed on. The route would have been very scenic had I have lifted my head at any point. The headwind forced me low on the bike as I crawled towards the moors. In the distance I saw the road ramp up. I could barely face it and yet over 50 miles remained.
So began one of the longest 2.5 hours I’ve ever endured on a bike. That’s how long it took me to cross Dartmoor, battling that bloody headwind, trying to keep myself warm as the temperature plummeted at 500 metres atop the moor. Was it bleak yet beautiful? No idea. My chin was on the floor as I ground out mile after unrelenting mile.
Even with the moors behind me, another 30 miles remained. My moving time on the bike clocked in at over 7 hours. A long, lonely day on the bike.
Stats: 89 miles, 3,041 m climbing, 12.6 mph average speed, no rain, a beast of a headwind and one broken man.
Route and gpx file
Day 3: Honiton – Grateley
Legs stiff, I climbed on the bike a little reluctantly yet within an hour I was flying. Sun out, half the elevation to climb and a modest tailwind helped me fly through the lovely rolling countryside of Devon and Somerset. A smile returned to my face and the day flew by.
That’s not to say my legs had made some sort of miracle recovery. Sure they could power along the flat yet the merest of inclines turned them to jelly and I had to mash my way up minor gradients in what had been my [made-up word alert] ‘spinniest’ gear just a couple of days earlier but now had me clicking the gear levers in a vain search for an extra few gears. The weight of my pannier was now truly making itself known and I cursed my need for unnecessary items like deodorant and off the bike clothes. Despite the cold weather and shivering in four layers, I managed to get sunburn on my legs. Gotta love cycle touring tan lines!
A lovely route, highly recommended.
Stats: 90 miles, 1,629 m climbing, 14.6 mph average speed, one very red sun-burnt leg.
Route and gpx file
Day 4: Grateley – London
My legs were tender but holding up well given I was cycling more than I usually would in a month and that my biggest ride prior to the trip was 70 miles. I was now well and truly in touring mode, where your legs are numb yet somehow still a little spritely, so long as the road doesn’t go up of course.
Cycling back into London wasn’t really my idea of fun. Plotting the route back into the big smoke had been time-consuming and difficult so goodness knows how horrible it was going to be to actually ride it. If I hadn’t been so enchanted with the concept of riding Land’s End to London I would have spent another day riding the quiet country lanes of Cornwall and caught the train back into London. Pity the human mind ain’t as logical as it likes to think it is.
The one bright spot was the weather. Sun shining yet again, the blue skies were accompanied by a medium tailwind which propelled me back home through the counties of Wiltshire, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire. The sight of Windsor Castle was a treat, so too my first sighting of the river Thames, indicating that my journey was almost over bar some horrible navigation across huge busy roundabouts whilst avoiding the crazy drivers of London town. Tense, my shoulders were tight by the time I made it to my good old hunting ground of Regent’s Park. Home.
Stats: 89 miles, very little climbing, 16 mph average speed, a strong tailwind and lots of crazy drivers.
Route and gpx file
Final thoughts, Jerry Springer style
Thinking about going on a cycle tour? Do it. Cycle touring is amazing.
Thinking about cycling into London from the west? Think twice. Spend an extra day where it is actually pleasant to cycle rather than finding and negotiating a route that crosses so many busy A roads.
Avoid the busy A roads in the south west too. The A30 and A303 might look tempting when you see the nice straight lines on the map but they are very busy and unpleasant to ride on, even for the couple of minor stretches where I hit them. My route avoided these roads without adding too many miles to the overall trip. Besides, you’re on tour. Go the long way!
Eat pasties. Protein and carbs ahoy. Just be careful. A good one tastes amazing but a bad Cornish pasty is a little like eating your own vomit encased in pastry. Gamble.
LEJOG – Land’s End to John O Groats. Was I tempted to extend my route a little and go the length of the country? Not really. I had the time and maybe also the legs but I don’t really feel the pull to complete LEJOG. I almost went for it in 2011 but quickly thought that cycling London to Spain would bring better weather, better roads, better drivers, better food and better scenery. I have no regrets. I love cycling in the UK (short trips) but a lengthy UK tour like LEJOG can’t really compare to a big ride in more exotic lands.
Pack light. You’ll soon regret packing that extra onesie when you’re lugging it up a 20% climb. Don’t pack food either, there’s plenty of places to eat on route.
Take lube. For the bike that is. I always take oil when I know I’m likely to get doused in God’s finest wet stuff. Rain quickly washes out light dry summer oil and my chain was creaking before I lubed up post rain storm.
Pace yourself. You may be excited on day one but you’ll pay for it on day two if you’re not careful. Day one is the day you can really enjoy the tour as compounded tiredness will soon rob you of your excitement!
Carb up. Eat well, very well, each evening to avoid depleting your energy stores with day-on-day cycling action.
Do it. Just do it. No matter how many miles you have in your legs before you set off, you’ll quickly find your cycle touring legs.