LEJOG Reflections Part I: The English Super Heat (Week 1)!
Pascal here. It was 7 days prior to our LEJOG start date and I was sat on the sofa deep in Strava route planning mode, it was late in the evening. My mobile suddenly vibrated into life, it was Dan. Upon answering, I could hear plane noises in the background, not a good sign. The connection wasn't great, but I could just about make out the key words coming from Dan's end, 'Hello mate, I've been deployed! I'm not sure when I'll be back...'.
This ride had just become a 2000km, solo, unsupported cycle - me versus mainland Britain, with everything I needed strapped to my bike.
A week later, I arrived at Land's End at 10pm, having caught the train down from London to Penzance and then cycled the final 15km across to the ride start point ready for a 5am start the next day. As I removed my lightweight sleeping bag from my bike saddle bag, I stopped to consider the plan for the coming week. An average of 200km a day until I reached the Scottish border, nights to be spent either in a sleeping bag on the side of the road, or in basic military accommodation at bases that were along the route.
Once inside the sleeping bag, located a mere 100m from the famous Land's End signpost and with cracking sunset views from the cliff top out into the Atlantic Ocean, I thought I'd check the weather forecast for the coming days.
It was set to be 30 degrees as far as the outlook covered! And so the scene was set for a week of cycling solo in pretty brutal heat, this was going to be a serious test! With that, time for some sleep ahead of the sunrise depart the next morning.
24 hours later, having spent Day 1 cycling 220km through Cornwall and half of Devon, I was already beginning to question my sanity. As I sped (relative term, I think I averaged little more than 23km/hr that day) through the quaint Cornwall fishing villages, every man, woman and child I passed was paddling effortlessly in the stunning turquoise sea with a delicious looking ice cream in hand. I was unbelievably jealous, it took all my will power not to mug every ice cream wielding child I saw!
Meanwhile, I was busy pedalling myself towards inevitable heat injury, cursing every single Cornwall hill (there were about a billion in total!) whilst sending Haribo children's sweets down my throat at a rate of about 150 an hour. This was turning into a great challenge, I was loving it already!
During an obligatory Cornish pasty based lunch break (#athlete), I briefly considered ordering a taxi to take me to John O'Groats. Planning even advanced to the point of trying to work out what speed I would have to ask the taxi to drive at, so that I could turn on my GPS bike computer and make it look like I was actually cycling still...(for the record, I opted for 26km/hr, respectable but not 'too quick' so as to arouse suspicion). Given that I was raising money for military mental health
(www.justgiving.com/starsandspokes) it didn't really feel in the spirit of things to complete the remaining 1800km in a taxi with the bike strapped to the side and the GPS computer turned on!
And so I committed to heading north under the power of my leg muscles only.
I say heading north, but I actually spent the first 3 days of the ride heading due east. Whilst this may sound like the result of a schoolboy error in the planning stage, there was actually logic to this. Given that I was raising money for the Royal Navy Royal Marines Charity (RNRMC), I opted to go via the charity HQ in Portsmouth. This added an additional 600km onto the more direct 'standard' LEJOG route, but it would allow me to meet up with a bunch of folk who had been kindly assisting in the planning of this challenge. And, given that I was riding solo, it would also bring a much welcome opportunity to actually speak with some other humans!
On departing Portsmouth, it was then a straight shot north, over the next few days I pointed the bike in the general direction of Newcastle and went for it! Rather than entering into a detailed summary of each day (this can be found on Instagram @starsandspokes, if you're interested in any particular leg), I've included below my key observations from my first week spent in England:
When cycling in extreme heat, petrol stations take on 'oasis in the desert' status, saving the cyclist from otherwise inevitable death by heat stroke. On countless occasions, I cried tears of joy (they may have been tears of sweat, to be fair) upon spotting one of these characterless, overpriced, garishly coloured sites on the horizon. I would (almost) break into a high speed cycling sprint in the final approach, fuelled by the promise of the cold water, Lucozade and 6 snickers bars that awaited.
England is a beautiful country, that varies so much over relatively short distances. From sandy West Country beaches, to sprawling urban London architecture, to shady Hampshire forests, to colourful farming landscapes, to dry stone walled Yorkshire villages, to the wild rolling hills of Northumbria, we have it all!!! Britain is basically an island paradise, that too often gets overlooked.
Likewise the accents, so varied. Aside from a small section in and around London, the strong regional accents meant that I didn't really understand what anyone was saying to me! Most seemed to deliver their words with an accompanying smile, so I'm confident the locals are largely friendly.
There is no better way to interact with a country than by bike. I was able to travel fast enough to cover a lot of ground daily, but at a pace that actually allowed me to take it all in.
When you cycle solo for 8+ hours a day, your mind has the time to go to all sorts of random places. If you want to find out all about yourself, take a week off work, grab a bike and cycle from 9am to 5pm for 7 days in a row!
If you ride with heavy winter tyres on your bike, you basically never get punctures. Win.
So that was Week 1 done. My legs were feeling strong, proof that the previous 12 months of cycle training had been structured correctly. In fact, I was slightly ahead of schedule and cycling at a pretty solid pace (averaging 27km/hr up to this point), and the temperature was becoming ever more manageable as I continued north.
So far, so good.
As I neared the Scottish border and my second week in the saddle, I was excited by the prospect of the scenery that lay ahead - it was about to get epic, a week of lochs and hills! I didn't know it at the time, but also waiting for me were highland storms....