Sunday, 27 May 2012

Land's End to John O Groats 2

Here's another write-up I did of my epic cycle tour through the UK as part of the Ubunye ChallengeThis one was "commissioned" for the blog-roll of the Ubunye site itself. 



There is a lot to be said for the tremendous simplicity of spending all day on a bike with nothing more significant to worry about than how far away the next food stop is. I discovered this through the incredible experience of participating in the cycle leg of the Ubunye Challenge, after Cameron Bellamy invited me to join his 7-day group. We each experienced so much in those seven days that it’s difficult to even begin to describe. Of course, the challenge meant different things to everyone and the things that stand out in my memory, now that almost three weeks have passed, will naturally be different to those for everyone else.

So, instead of trying to imagine how my fellow riders felt on the tour, and instead of setting out a day-by-day account of the experience, I will focus on those highlights…


Before the Ubunye challenge, I considered a 90km ride to be a good day’s work. This comfort zone was smashed on day 2 of the ride, when we rode from the curiously named town of Westward Ho! (yes, there is officially an exclamation mark in its name) to Gloucester. I managed 140km that day, and that was just the morning’s ride. Stuart took my bike, and Cameron, Hayley and Greg carried on riding to complete 240km. This marked the furthest distance any of the riders had ever ridden. After that, anything less than 100km was just a warm-up and many of the days saw us reaching the 200km mark.


I confess to secretly harbouring hopes of balmy weather in the run-up to the ride. This naivety was thoroughly corrected as we woke up on Day 1 to what can only be described as a screaming Arctic headwind. Conditions could not have been worse as we set off that morning. The wind turbines along the side of the country roads looked as though they were about to lift off, and the icy rain fell almost horizontally as it drenched every layer of clothing we had on. Fortunately, we managed to outpace the misery over the next 2 days. 90km into Day 2, I managed to see my shadow for the first time since arriving in England, and by day 4 we had some wonderful clear skies. The riding gloves and leggings stayed firmly on, though!
Scotland presented the best weather conditions of the tour, as we encountered clear skies, brisk tailwinds, flurries of snow and sleet, rain and bright sunshine – all in the space of a couple of days. The irony of encountering the best weather at the most northern end of the ride was not wasted on any of us.


It is inevitable that when one spends so long on the saddle, the odds of wiping out are dramatically increased. At a roundabout intersection in Windermere, Greg hit the brakes so hard to avoid a reckless driver that he went over the handlebars. Luckily he avoided all contact with the car, but this didn’t stop him from standing in the middle of the street bellowing obscenities at the sheepish driver while he held up traffic. An experience the driver is unlikely to forget! Cam also managed to hit the tarmac on a fast stretch of country road on day 2, after wheel-sucking too closely and clipping my back wheel when I slowed down to stop.

The sheer quantity of kilometres travelled was our guarantee that nobody would complete the tour unscathed. Saddle sores, stiff legs, aching backs, swollen knees, wind-burn and numb hands (still recovering in my case!) all manifested themselves. Greg once again took the cake in this category as the only rider to hospitalise himself: Upon arriving at our B&B at Inverkeithing just north of Edinburgh, we found Greg in a pitiful state with an ambulance on its way to treat him. Too much exertion and not enough nutrition (not to mention heatstroke) had caught up with him and his system could take no more. Sadly this marked the end of Greg’s tour but he recovered well enough by the next day to continue in the support van with his characteristic good spirits.


The UK revealed itself to be surprisingly full of very charming scenery. Most of us had never ventured too far into the English countryside before. Everyone knows that there’s no better way to experience a landscape than to cycle through it. Without the cocoon of a vehicle or a full-face helmet between you and the elements, it finally becomes possible to soak up the passing landscape. I was very pleased to finally get the chance to become more acquainted with this often maligned country.

We all expected busy roads and service stations (of which there were many), but the true pleasure came from the ribbons of country road and quiet villages that we breezed through. Town names became blurred as we passed so many of them, but I will never forget the joy of riding into the famous Lake District in Cumbria. Rolling hills and low stone walls separated fields of fluffy white sheep and lambs, interspersed with streams running with clear fresh water. The Lake District tested our legs as we traversed Kirkstone Pass (all of 1497 feet), but the relentless climb was rewarded by a blistering descent into the lakeside town of Glenriding. We arrived with wide smiles that day!

Scotland stands out in my memory as having some of the best roads in all of the UK. We were hardly aware of the height of the fabled Scottish Highlands as the roads meandered past snow-capped peaks and forested valleys. Scottish engineering prowess certainly made for an easy passage through this majestic terrain. The distance between Glenriding and Inverness on day 5 was enormous, and we could not avoid arriving in the dark. Cam and I rolled into the YHA after 23h30, way after sun-down and in near complete darkness. If it weren’t for the smooth, wide highway we would almost certainly have had to call for backup as we were essentially riding blind.


There were so many other experiences I gained on the ride that can’t be so neatly categorised. Seeing Edinburgh Castle; gliding along the shore-side road of a lake so calm that the reflection on its surface was as bright as the sky itself; eating my own body-weight in chocolate; fixing a flat tire with Cam on the side of a quiet highway; taking seven pain-killers on the last day of the ride; trying to squint through the sleet as I wondered if I’d ever regain the feeling in my fingers on day 1; learning a Chinese nursery rhyme about a one-eared tiger. All of these memories are bundled into a wonderful montage that I will carry with me forever.

Of course, the tour would not have been possible without the hard work of Lauren Pienaar, Mirka Fortunova and Bhavna Sadarangani, our tireless backup drivers. Their hopes of a casual road trip through the UK didn’t survive past the first day! But they never faltered in their support and without them the tour would not have been possible.

If I ever had any doubts that Cameron had the ability to complete the enormous challenges he’d set for himself over the course of the Ubunye Challenge, they have been authoritatively crushed.
All doubts were finally cast into oblivion as I watched Cameron and Hayley pedal up to the grassy mound at John O Groats that marked the end of the ride. Cam, who on day 5 couldn’t tell if he was riding uphill or down, accompanied by Hayley and her entourage of pain-killers, represented all eight of us when they dismounted their bikes for the final time and we gathered for a photo.

And while seven of us raced back to the support van to shelter from the freezing wind, Cam was testing the water to see if he could fit in a cold water training swim before supper. The Ubunye Challenge is in good hands!

Finish line at last! 
Cam, already onto the next adventure...

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