Cycling from Lands End to John O’Groats is an iconic cycling route in the UK. Jack Mac writes a superb blog with some stunning photos about his adventure.
Lands End to John O’Groats, LEJOG for short, still remains one of the most iconic long distance rides in the world and rightly so. The route covers harsh deserts, active volcanoes, gargantuan glaciers, one hundred and ten percent inclines and even passes through Mordor. The cycle tourist should prepare for highwaymen, goblins and of course punctures. Ok, so I may have an over active imagination, but there can be no denying that LEJOG remains a formidable challenge. So what do you need to know before embarking on such a quest!? This article offers some valuable advice on surviving the vast deserts, avoiding goblins and making the most of a truly incredible ride.
Weight…a minute your bike’s too heavy
The night before I left for John O ‘Groats I was certain I could NOT make my pack list any lighter. However, this was not entirely true, even I had to accept that the two cup Bialetti espresso maker was a luxury. Nevertheless, I was convinced that bar a few luxury items my gear was fairly minimal. I knew nothing. As with most mistakes there’s a defining moment in which the extent of your negligence becomes painfully apparent, for me this took place outside the hotel at John O’Groats. As I loaded up for the longest ride of my life to date I was approached by three cyclists who’d just completed the ride…the correct way round.
“Bloody hell mate, where are you going?! I fit all my gear into two panniers….is that….is that an espresso maker?! [Laughs hysterically] I squeezed half of my toothpaste away before embarking and still had weight issues….”
The constructive feedback and uncontrolled laughter continued for about ten minutes as the three cyclists took every pleasure in completely ridiculing my pack list. It was at this point that I truly understood the extent of my problems. In the space of five minutes I had gone from thinking my bike was a sleek tourer to a morbidly obese wheeled Walrus. So, how can you avoid yet another of my mistakes? I would strongly suggest researching Bikepacking. This branch of cycle touring encourages the rider to carry no more than thebackpacker. The result is a much lighter touring rig which uses ingenious storage solutions and an armada of lightweight equipment.
I’ve found www.pedalingnowhere.com an invaluable source for Bikepacking advice. If you’re content with a more traditional set up then It may be worth simply asking some other cyclists, friends or family whether they mind looking over your kit and pointing out any items they consider unnecessary. I was amazed by how many really obvious mistakes I had made when the guys above started analysing my kit. A second pair of eyes are invaluable, so make sure you get another opinion. Weight, combined with my bike’s inadequate gearing, was the cause of all my aches and pains during this ride and was undoubtedly my biggest mistake. Thus, travel as light as possible….and leave your espresso maker at home. Ahum.
Midges. Midges. Midges and you guessed it more Midges. The Highland Midge, or Culicoides Impunctatus….or my personal short hand: “winged demons of horror and gratuitous irritation”. Anyone considering LEJOG should be aware of the Highland Midge, I mean seriously, If you don’t make allowances for this terrifying beast you will regret it. Thus, you can only imagine my horror, whereupon I set off from John O’Groats completely unaware of this real life Dracula. Fortunately it had been a particularly mild winter meaning the midges were at their worst…great. Now, Midges, like Piranhas, Lions and drunken youths, travel in groups, making them particularly troublesome.
It was the first night, where me and my accomplice foolishly set up camp in the Scottish Highlands, surrounded by long grass and open water, that we were fully educated in Midge mania. “Midge Mania” much like Beatlemania…but without the hits, no Abbey Road, no Sergeant Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, just a monotonous drone that continues all night. Anyways, now I have aptly demonstrated my inability to remain on point, I wanted to get across that there’s bloody loads of them and they really are a pain in the backside….something your Glutes can’t really have anymore of after days in the saddle! “Jack surely you’re exaggerating?!”. Look, all I’m saying is if you have to take leak on the move you know you’ve got problems. Hence, as we stumbled around in the dark with our trousers around our legs like a pair of escaped convicts we decided we needed to take action.
That night we barely drunk anything and took toilet breaks as regularly as possible to avoid any need to leave the tent during the night. It was a water tight plan, unless your riding companion has the bladder of a squirrel. At 3am I was awoken by the fidgeting of my friend Mo. “ What’s the matter?!!”….“I’m busting for the toilet…”…. “You are kidding!?”. We shone the torch at the tent inners and could see the equivalent to Caesar’s armies completely covering the outside. There were literally thousands. In fairness to Mo, he tried to exit the tent tactfully, but when the tent door is smothered in hundreds of the demons there’s no preventing being overrun. Thus, at 3am, after just four hours sleep, we were forced to pack up camp and leg it.
So, how can you avoid these tent invaders. Well, annoyingly the answer is not very easily. The midges begin their tyranny in spring and enjoy a reign of terror right through the summer months. In other words, the majority of cyclists will want to complete LEJOG in the warmer seasons and thus will inevitably run into Sir Midge. However, hope is not lost, here are some tips on reducing the impact of midges on your ride. Firstly, if you’re camping aim for somewhere with short grass and away from open water….so opposite to my first night in the Scottish Highlands! Midges congregate to have deep meaningful conversations in long grass and near open water. However, this strategy is not full proof.
There were a few nights we stayed in campsites that fitted the above criteria, but found ourselves once again immersed in the evil minions. The locals told us that it’s often pot luck, one area may have millions of midges, but a few minutes down the road may have hardly any. If you’re really sensible and not a peasant like myself you could stay in B & B’s, but that takes away a lot of the fun. After all, who doesn’t want to be chased…trousers down, in the dark, across the boggy highlands by hungry blood suckers?! There are midge sprays out there, but the ones we tried seemed to have the same effect as BBQ sauce. Nevertheless, I’m sure more effective ointments exist, we were told that something in Avon body lotion scares them off ….or alternatively just purchase a flame thrower. That would also work. So the Highland Midge. A vicious tyrant who roams the Scottish Highlands surrounded by legions of blood suckers, showing no repent and laughing in the face of repellants. You’ve been warned.
Wear a helmet
“ Make sure you wear your helmet!” I must have heard my mum say this millions of times over my lifetime and I’m so glad she did. They’re often not the most comfortable or fashionable cycling essentials, but they are exactly that….ESSENTIAL. I’m a speed junkie. When it comes to hills I simply let go of the brakes and let my bike take me to light speed. In Scotland I regularly tottered on almost fifty miles per hour on the descents. At this speed you could write yourself off, It’s not sensible and it takes just one slip. That said, I often can’t help myself! However, serious injury can easily be incurred at far lesser speeds. If you come off, without a helmet and hit your head you risk serious injury.
You are your brain, it controls everything, not protecting it is just silly. It does’t matter how experienced you are, pot holes often come out of nowhere and cars are a tonne of metal driven by someone often not paying attention. Apologies for bringing down the tone, but wearing a helmet is arguably the most crucial piece of information I can give you. That and taking Nutella. I would have done the ride naked wearing just a helmet and eating Nutella.
Use a Brooks saddle
Just do it. Brooks saddles are simply incredible. I still find it hard to believe that one single piece of moulded leather on a seat post could be sooo comfortable, it defies logic. I’ve used my Brooks Flyer on every tour I’ve ever done and I rarely get any pain in my backside. However, my cycling associates over the years have brandished an armada of “comfort” gel saddles of all shapes and sizes and have all suffered for it. LEJOG was no different. My accomplice, Mr Mo, was perching on one such comfort gel saddle and after a few days riding he was in excruciating pain to my constant amusement and smugness. Many cyclists don’t go for a Brooks saddle as they have one prod of the fairly solid exterior and immediately assume there’s no way a saddle so firm could be comfortable. I for one have to admit that my first ride on my new Brooks saddle was not a particularly pleasurable experience.
However, after about one hundred miles you’ll never use anything else. Contrary to belief a saddles comfort is not based on the amount of padding, instead the crucial factor is how the saddle supports your backside. You want your “sit bones” to be supported evenly, this is something Brooks saddles excel at. Furthermore, Brooks saddles do soften dramatically over time, so you do have ample cushioning. LEJOG was the longest ride I have embarked on to date and I can honestly say that I finished the ride with no bum pain at all. That said, the seats in my car felt pretty great at Lands End!
Don’t get deflated by punctures
Punctures. They are evil. The last thing you want on a bicycle tour is regular flats, they really are physically and mentally draining. However, a pair of high quality tyres really does make a huge difference. I don’t even want to think about the amount of time I spent as a teen in the garden either replacing inner tubes or repairing them. I finally had enough and decided to invest in a pair of high quality Kevlar tyres to see if it made any difference. The results were incredible. In three years of solid cycling I conceded around three punctures using Panasonic Panaracers. Eventually the Panaracers wore out and were replaced with some Schwalbe Marathon Plus tyres when I completely rebuilt my 1970’s tourer (see website for details).
I used the Marathon Plus tyres for John O’Groats to Lands end and didn’t endure a single puncture, despite often riding off road and with an incredibly heavy pack list and my own sizeable body weight. I have been using these tyres everyday since and have yet to concede a single puncture. Schwalbe provide a huge range of tyres in all shapes and sizes and appear to be the leading company in this field, so I’d look to them before embarking on LEJOG. High quality tyres will dramatically reduce punctures and allow you to enjoy riding, rather than enduring regular intervals at the side of the road unloading all your kit and repairing flats.
Scotland, Devon and Cornwall have brutal and often relentless hills, ensure you’re bike has a problem free and adequate drive train. I had my 1970’s tourer fitted with a double chain ring at the font and a nine speed cassette at the back and believed it would be suffice for LEJOG, I was wrong. I didn’t have enough time to embark on many loaded trial runs on my custom tourer before the ride, but was convinced that my gearing was sufficient on the ascents. However, Kent simply does not have the hills seen in Scotland, Devon and Cornwall and without several practise runs, loaded with all your gear, on a route that encompasses regular inclines and descents, it’s hard to decipher whether your touring rig is adequate.
It didn’t take long for me to realise the scale of my mistake. After two days riding I had already conceded an injury to my right knee as a result of carrying too much weight using a drive train that forced me to stand up on inclines. Consequently, I completed the ride with injuries to both knees and Achilles tendons. Since completing LEJOG I have completely overhauled my gearing and fitted a triple chain ring at the front, finally providing sufficient gearing for a ride that regularly faces 16%+ inclines. This modification combined with a far lighter set up has transformed my tourer’s riding experience and makes me cringe to think about my previous rig. Check your gearing in conjunction with your full pack list on a few rides that encompass steep inclines before taking on LEJOG.
It rain’s a lot in Scotland and quite regularly in the rest of the UK for that matter. Make sure you bring waterproofs. The feeling of removing soaking wet waterproofs to reveal bone dry inner layers is an amazing feeling. The first two days of Scotland it rained fairly non stop and I can’t imagine how horrendous it would have been if I hadn’t have packed these essentials. However, the one mistake I made was not wearing weatherproof shoes or at least carrying waterproof socks, consequently by the third day my feet had aged by about eighty years and had become very sore from constantly being damp. Thus, choose suitable footwear or carry waterproof socks to ensure your feet are kept dry.
What’s the hurry!?
After my cycling companion left me at Glasgow I focused too much on big mileage, instead of enjoying what is a once in a lifetime experience. The best memories I have of the ride are not those of pacing along roads, but rather the days we left the main drag and headed along scenic routes through the most remote parts of the Scottish Highlands. The Glen Coe Way stands out as one of the most brutal, yet best memories of the trip. This route is largely off road and snakes through mountain passes, thick woodland and beautiful Scottish Highland. The Glen Coe Way had numerous hidden surprises, for example the ruins of an early twentieth century railway, complete with platform and track.
If you want to make the most of your trip don’t always choose the easy option, if you stumble across a more scenic cycle route that heads in the right direction take it. It’s often these challenging alternatives that pass through the most stunning scenery and offer an experience you simply do not get using the roads. I’m not suggesting you always stick to the scenic option as they can be very time consuming. However, ensure you do commit to several at least, as they have every potential of being the best memories of the ride.
EAT-A-LOT…the rotund brother of Lancelot!
Eat whatever you want. It’s not very often that you’ll hear someone say that, but when you’re bicycle touring it’s true. My first tour was France in 2013 and for the first half of the trip I was eating normally and was making no active effort to boost my calorie intake. As a result, I was regularly becoming fatigued and injuries began to crop up as I pushed my body on empty. During the second half of the trip I made an assertive effort to eat far more regularly and increased the size of each meal. Although, in hindsight I was still eating far too little!! The combination of cycling all day, on a bike loaded with all your gear, through hilly landscapes in the searing heat burns an insane amount of calories. Thus, ensure you are eating something every couple of hours. Furthermore, what I’ve learnt the hard way is never ride until you’re starving hungry.
The consequence of running on empty is that when you do finally eat it won’t be as effective as you’ve already completely exhausted yourself. The key is eating before you get too hungry, therefore as soon as you’re peckish have a snack. Moreover, for the weight conscious out there, trust me, every tour I have ever embarked on I have lost weight, despite eating whatever I wanted. After all, weight is dictated by calories in versus calories out and on a bicycle tour the latter overwhelms the former. I mean come on, do I need to give you any more reasons to stuff your face with pizza and chocolate. I for one would have been convinced by the opening sentence of this LEJOG tip, but then I don’t need an excuse to stuff my face if I’m honest.
I fully appreciate that we all have a budget and I’m not expecting everyone to throw their life savings at bike touring. Nevertheless, what I would highly recommend is purchasing the best equipment you can afford. A cheap bicycle, tent, camping gear, tools or any other essentials for a trip like this have every potential of ruining the experience. A tent that leaks, a bike that falls apart, camping gear that doesn’t work and tools that snap….I have owned them all. Thus, I can tell you that sleeping in a tent that leaks, after eating a cold meal because your stove won’t light is not the way to end a long day spent at the side of the road repairing a bike that’s falling to pieces using broken tools.
This situation can turn any respectable citizen into the most miserable, snappy and generally unpleasant specimen. I’m constantly upgrading my touring kit and I can safely say I have never regretted replacing my cheap old kit with quality purpose made gear. If you are worrying about spending too much you should bare in mind that you can always resell items after LEJOG and the quality equipment will hold it’s value tenfold against cheap alternatives. LEJOG will take a significant toll on your equipment, cheap gear just won’t last so invest in quality gear.
The ride begins at the finish line
In conclusion no amount of tips is ever going to make this an easy challenge, at the end of the day you’re going to be cycling around one thousand miles. However, when you get to the finishing point, be that Lands End or John O’Groats, the feeling of overwhelming accomplishment will eclipse all memory of the struggle and hardships you have endured to be there. I must warn you, the finish line will be just the start. After LEJOG you will be addicted to bicycle touring. The sense of freedom on the road is immeasurable. As others race by enduring the nine to five, you simply meander down the road, taking in all that’s around you, focusing on nothing else but your next destination. This release from the stressful responsibilities of everyday life is completely euphoric and allows you to really think about where you want to be in life, which, at that precise second, will probably be right there, on your bike, completely engulfed by the moment. Ride far, ride safe. LEJOG awaits.
Jack Mac is a freelance writer, photographer and most importantly an outdoors fanatic! He enjoys bicycle touring and this blog features his journey from Lands End to John O’Groats. This summer he will cycle the length of Italy. You can keep up-to-date with all his adventures by visiting his website.