I receive a message from ‘triathlon’ Ross Harper in mid-August, where I am enjoying a holiday in the Scottish highlands with Katie and my family.
‘Schofield is in for an unsupported LEJOG as a group of lads, loads of photos to create a photo journal.’
Thinking this would probably just be a pipe dream that’ll never get off the ground, I show some interest in the topic, and within 5 minutes I’ve been added into a whatsapp group with Ross and Jack Schofield, discussing number of days, logistics and potential for some unsavory weather.
Fast forward 2 months and I’m on a train heading north of the border to Edinburgh, where Ross and I will spend a couple of days ‘acclimatising’ before heading up to the dizzy heights of northern Scotland.
Rosco received a sound 6-1 thrashing on a bike hill reps session up Arthurs Seat, and I managed to fit a couple of runs in around the Scottish capital, before we boarded yet another long train to Inverness on the Saturday morning.
Jacky would be joining us here on Sunday afternoon for the final slog up to John O’Groats, so there was time for Ross and I to get some more bonding done before the trip had even begun.
This featured a romantic stroll along the River Ness (a rather disappointing 6 miles – he’s not got the same stamina as Lysons), a B&B breakfast for two with a view (which very nearly didn’t happen after muggins here slipped and came crashing down the stairs, ending up in a heap at the bottom), and a lovely lap of Loch Ness on two wheels – nothing like a 66 mile ride with an alpine-esque climb to warm you up for cycling the length of the country.
We rolled back into Inverness to find that Jacky Scho had arrived, ramping up my excitement levels from 0.5 to 1 out of 10. Believe it or not, from Inverness, you can still get a train that goes FOUR HOURS further north to Thurso, which is a short cab ride away from John O’Groats.
Spraggins being Spraggins, I made a friend on the train and the four of us spent the journey chatting away and messing around. Jack was proudly sporting his Ironman Maryland finishers t-shirt, ensuring everyone in the carriage knew that he was in fact an ironman.
The chief of paparazzi was also on hand to give us detailed lessons in how to take a good photo. ‘Just point and click’. Genius.
Just before 10pm we were standing outside Thurso station with all our kit, as the news filtered through that Rosco had in fact booked the taxi for the following evening. Being in the middle of nowhere at the end of the world, we were lucky the cabbie didn’t have other bookings that evening, or we’d have been up the creek without a paddle.
There’s only one hotel at John O’Groats, the imaginatively titled ‘Seaview’, and whilst Ross had to drive 2 miles up the road with the taxi to find signal for the card reader (end of the world, remember), Jack and I launched into an argument with the receptionist, insisting there was no way we could leave our bikes in the unlocked conservatory outside the hotels front door.
What followed was a sleepless night, with all of us dreaming that our bikes had been stolen. No need to reveal who won the argument. The morning brought total darkness, a porridge pot and the pitter-patter of rain on the window.
A quick note on our kit – we were going completely self-supported, so I was rocking a handlebar bag and a big ‘seat pack’ which sits behind the saddle. These contained everything we’d need for the 6 days. So the more clothes you wear, the less you have to carry.
With this mantra in mind, and with the rain falling, I put everything on. Including some rather fetching waterproof trousers, which got slammed for the entire week. I think they’re actually hiking trousers. Not setting trends, but they kept me dry. Jack was mortified.
At 6:30AM we headed down to the glorious site of unstolen bikes and loaded them up with our kit, mounting our lights before riding north back towards the John O’Groats sign – slightly frustrating, but you’ve got to start from the sign, right?
Day 1 – John O’Groats to Fort William
After a couple of pictures of the sign, which told us Lands End was 874 miles away (although our route was going to be slightly longer than this..), with zero fanfare and in total darkness, we pointed the bikes south and rolled away, and straight up a hill.
I think in that first hour the enormity of the challenge finally dawned on me. Thinking about the entire ride was slightly overwhelming, so instead it seemed easier to just break the days up into chunks and just tick bits off, one at a time.
As we travelled down the North-East coast, the rain never relented, and if anything, got worse as the morning went on. With our bikes fully loaded with kit, we were moving slower than I initially anticipated. I lasted a full 95 minutes before dipping into my emergency chocolate bar stash for when times got really hard.
With the A9 being the only major road this far North, we had trucks and traffic regularly barreling past us, each time giving us a nice splash from the water on the road. The coastal road rolled up and down, and the wet saw me get progressively colder.
After just over 50 miles and 3 hours of riding, we stopped in the village of Helmsdale to restock and refuel. My phone had got so wet in my pocket, that it had locked me out completely, and that would actually see me without a phone for the rest of the trip. Bollocks.
We sat inside an empty cafe, dripping wet, and ordered a mountain of food. I managed to get through 2 of the biggest, most amazing sausage rolls I’ve ever eaten, as well as a scone and Jam, 2 chocolate bars, 2 energy bars, a can of coke and a hot chocolate.
Not knowing it at that point, but this was one of the two lowest moments of the trip for me. The thought of going back out into the wet, wind and cold was filling me with dread. I couldn’t contact Katie or anyone else to share my fears. I very nearly gave up there and then – I can’t do this.
I imagined before the trip that I’d sail through the 6 days – sure, it’s a long way, but we’re not trying to break records – just keep pedaling, right? I’m actually proud to admit I was so wrong. I think people prefer a struggle against adversity – and I’m not macho enough to pretend it didn’t hurt. A lot.
I felt sick leaving that café. I could feel the cold in my bones and my clothes were soaked. The lads seemed in good spirits, which made me feel even worse. I ended up doing a bit of tempo off the front and riding away from them, just to try and generate some heat.
At some point, it finally stopped raining, and this massively lifted my spirits. The lads kept the chat going, and things started to feel so much more positive. We took turns riding into the wind, with Rosco leading us over a rather-picturesque bridge.
He must’ve been distracted by the views, as he failed to let me know there was a boulder in the middle of the road. Whilst he swerved to avoid it, I went straight over it, which slashed open my rear tyre. 83 miles in – over 100 miles still to ride.
I was running tubeless tyres, with the sealant spraying out everywhere, desperately trying to seal the split. But it was a gaping one. We decided the best option would be to stick an inner tube in it, and hope it lasted to Inverness. Fingers crossed.
The sun had been out, but obviously at this point it started raining again – to perfectly reflect the mood. But as we ambled on towards Inverness, it seemed to be holding out, and the sun came out again. Just in time for a horrible 4 mile long A-road climb, which saw us all sweating like animals by the end of it.
From here it was all downhill into the city, and after riding around in circles a few times, we eventually found a bike shop. It was suggested I switch to a clincher on the back, with a new Gatorskin tyre purchased. With the shop being so busy, I had to fit the tyre myself, outside by the main road.
The remaining members of the dream team had gone off to source some lunch from Tesco, but successfully managed to spill it all over the road on the cycle back to me, meaning it was a much depleted order. Now well behind on time, it was a case of cramming it down and getting going as quickly as possible.
We were now back on the shores of Loch Ness, which Rosco and I had ridden the previous day. Rather worryingly, police were stopping traffic, telling us there had been an accident ahead and the road was completely blocked. If we couldn’t get through, we were facing a 50 mile diversion – not ideal.
15 miles later we reached the scene – a pretty harrowing one. In fact, I’d never seen anything like it in my life, with multiple cars crushed to a third of their original size. I actually felt physically sick, knowing that these people had friends and family unaware of what had happened to them. Life can be so fragile.
Luckily, there was a pedestrian footpath and we were able to pass around the accident, with all the cars forced into a 50 mile + diversion. From here we pressed on to Fort Augustus, the town at the other end of Loch Ness.
A quick petrol station stop for some final supplies, before re-mounting our lights, for what was going to be a mostly dark 30 miles. As we were pretty rookie to this game, we hadn’t yet learned the importance of fully charged lights. Quite quickly, my front light ran out, as did Jack’s rear. This left Rosco on the front, with Jack in the middle, as no-one could now see him from behind.
By now it was totally dark, and we were on rolling, loch-side roads, with occasional traffic screaming past. We were actually at the foot of Ben Nevis, but couldn’t see a thing.
I really neglected fueling in the the last couple of hours, thinking we’d be back soon enough and having dinner. With just a few miles to go, I felt totally spaced out, barely having enough energy to keep the pedals turning.
Nearly 14 hours after we set off, we rolled into Fort William and the glorious site of a massive Morrisons supermarket. Rosco guarded the bikes whilst Jacky and I went in and bought the entire shop. Pizzas, garlic bread, cookies, crisps, ice cream, chocolate, beers. Enough food to feed 15 people.
The challenge wasn’t over yet though. With shopping bags on handlebars also added to our already overloaded bikes, we had to navigate the 1 kilometer to the house we were staying in. Ross had plotted the route – the small problem being it contained over 100 stairs.
We eventually reached the top, bikes over shoulders, after much cursing and near heart attacks, and finally we opened the front door to a warm, comfy airbnb. The military operation then kicked in – clothes washed and hung to dry, food cooked and hoovered up in a matter of seconds, and showers taken.
It was quite clear that all filters were going out the window this week, with 3 naked men openly walking around the house, whilst cooking and/or drinking beer. I quickly realised I wasn’t going to get my phone working anytime soon, with Rosco kindly lending me his work one for the all important Strava upload.
We then all collapsed into bed, with me and Jack in a rather romantic twin room, him passed out, me unable to sleep despite being utterly exhausted – my mind was absolutely racing and it seemed as if the flat above had decided to repeatedly drop their drum kit on the floor.
Day 1 stats:
2,786 meters of climbing
11 hours 25 ride time
13 hours 49 elapsed time