Tuesday, 3 July 2007

Day 1 Land's End to Trevone, near Padstow

June 19 2007. Two men, 911 miles, 12 days. As the cold and cough I had been brewing on the drive down to Penzance arrived with a vengeance, I was very glad that I had persuaded my Dad to be my support driver. Hauling anything other than my own sorry carcass over the Cornish hills would have been too tall an order. Perhaps riding the London to Brighton as a warm up two days earlier had not been such a brilliant idea after all?

Land's End looked pretty bleak in the torrential rain, so I slipped on my new best friend - a goretex paclite jacket - and surveyed the armless stump of the famous sign. To prevent thefts, the sign's arms are removed each night, but fortunately they were put up just as we prepared to depart, in time for the traditional photo.

I had opted for the scenic B-road, which hugs the nothern coast, although this did involve an early introduction to Cornwall's numerous steep climbs. I was navigating with a GPS-equippped mobile phone and memory map software, an excellent combination provided you keep it dry in a plastic bag, which, of course, I had forgotten to do. During one of the day's violent thunderstorms the touch screen packed up and I was forced to ask directions from an incredulous salesman in a car showroom. "St.Agnes on a bike? In this weather?" he said as I dribbled copious amounts of rainwater over the shiny Nissans. Meanwhile Dad's support vehicle was encountering its own problems, with a recalcitrant tailgate lock and hazard lights that had developed a life of their own.

Technology 1 Humans 0. A restorative bath, however, at my friend Debbie's holiday home in Trevone restored my good humour.

72.6 miles, 13.2mph

Day 2 Trevone to Littleborough, near Tiverton

June 20 2007. I felt like a pro cyclist today. Not because of the impressive speeds at which I was eating up the miles, but because I felt so sick I wanted to stay in bed, but still had to get on the bike. More rain and a very strong gusting crosswind were no help either. It was the worst day I have ever spent on a bike. My right lung sounded very wheezy and I was scared of developing a tour-ending chest infection before I had barely begun. It was impossible to relax on the downhill sections because of the wet roads and strong winds and there were plenty of hills. There was nothing for it but to slow to a crawl and ride at very low heart rates to minimise the stress on my body.

I was incredibly pleased to grovel into my friends Dan and Jude's farmhouse in Littleborough for a vast comforting cottage pie.

73.6 miles, 12.8 mph

Day 3 Littleborough to Bristol

June 21 2007. My health was a little better and I believed I was over the worst. I still sounded like Leonard Cohen after smoking 60 Capstan full-strength unfiltered, but my lungs felt clearer. For its part, the weather showed little sign of improvement and was still very wet. I obviously have brilliant timing, having managed to pick the wettest June since records began for my End-to-End.

The good news was that the south-easterly cross wind would become a tailwind in the latter part of the day when I turned due north. Riding across the Somerset levels in the middle of the day was a welcome change from the constant hills of Devon and Cornwall. I rolled into Bristol in much better spirits, for a rendezvous with my wife and mum at the very comfortable Hotel du Vin. This was the posh, extravagant part of the tour, picked in good part for its bathrooms - with roll-top baths and walk-in showers powerful enought to nail you to the shower tray.

80 miles, 14.5 mph

Day 4 Bristol to Ludlow

June 22 2007. You're never alone as a 'Mo. Leaving Bristol in full London Dynamo livery - including temporary leg tattoos - I spotted clubmate Alex and stopped for a brief chat. Heading for the Severn Bridge I experienced local humour first hand as a sign turned the wrong way added a couple of miles to my route. Riding down the very pretty Wye valley I caught up with some soldiers on a motley assortment of bikes. Chatting with their officer produced the day's second coincidence - he was a regular rider in Richmond Park and used to race in the Surrey League.

Any sense of superior fitness I might have entertained having caught them was quickly dispelled as they explained they were cycling from Bosnia to Bangor as part of a recruting drive. They then casually threw in that they had kayaked across the channel and run the leg from Dover to London - and this from a bloke wearing trainers riding a mountain bike with flat plastic pedals. A humbling experience.

77.4 miles, 14.6 mph

Monday, 2 July 2007

Day 5 Ludlow to Northwich

June 23 2007. Finally a dry day, even allowing me to remove my arm warmers at lunchtime. The morning's terrain was quite lumpy as I had opted for small back roads. Dad, however, took the A5 to the first feed stop and declared the terrain completely flat. With the better weather and my cold and cough now more an annoyance than a trip-threatening condition, I actually felt pretty good on the bike.

I also had my second experience of feeling like a professional. On reaching the Red Lion in Hartford, on the outskirts of Northwich, I settled in for a shower and some stretching. Dad, meanwhile, earned his "soigneur" soubriquet by driving down to the launderette with several days of my dirty cycling kit.

79.2 miles, 15.8 mph

Day 6 Northwich to Milnthorpe, south of Kendal

June 24 2007. Negotiating the urban sprawl of "rugby league" country was never going to be the prettiest part of the route. The names were familiar from Saturday grandstand - Wigan, Warrington - and for once the heavy rain seemed the appropriate weather for the industrial landscape. With little wind and a relatively flat profile, the riding felt easier, although the endless succession of traffic lights made it difficult to settle into a rythym. In the afternoon the sun even made a brief appearance as the roads became more rural north of Lancaster.

The stage also afforded the answer to the old question, "who ate all the pies?" My fellow guests at the Cross Keys in Milnthorpe appeared to have been selected for their size and were amply catered for by the pub's cuisine. It being a Sunday, I was drawn to the roast beef, but my question to the waitress, "How's it cooked?" was met with a blank stare of incomprehension and the response, "Well it's cooked isn't it". Thankfully I didn't betray myself as a total southern poof by asking if it came in its own jus. Dad, meanwhile, got us marked down as real lightweights by asking for his without the giant cartwheel-sized yorkshire pudding. "But you'll have hardly anything to eat, sweetheart," said the waitress as she brought half a very well done cow, 700 roast potatoes and a bucket of veg. I did still find room for a sticky toffee pudding in my efforts to ingratiate myself with the locals.

78 miles, 16.2 mph

Day 7 Milnthorpe to Langholm

June 25 2007. Real dining out weather today. Not the kind for eating alfresco mind you, but the horrendous wet and windy sort that you dine out on for years retelling how appalling it was. I had opted for the more picturesque route through the Lake District, riding over Kirkstone pass, which reaches about 1500ft. After a testing warm up on poor road surfaces the climb rose out of Windermere for 7 miles, but was nowhere near as difficult as a big Alpine climb. Dad was having a bit of a navigational nightmare, thrown off-track by roadworks in Windermere. When he finally caught up with me I was only 1.5 miles from the summit and we agreed to meet at the top. Until then, except for a short 16 per cent section, the climb had been fine. But nearing the top the full force of the northerly gale and the rain hit me. Within 300 yards of the summit the wind stopped the bike completely dead, forcing me to unclip one foot to prevent myself toppling over. Luckily, I reached the top at 11am, just as the pub was opening. The pub's owners, declaring it was just like mid-winter outside, had a roaring coal fire going. It was impossible to walk properly into the wind, so we estimated it was in excess of 50mph and I thought I might have to walk the bike down the first part of the descent. In the end I decided to chance it. Pedalling downhill I managed a massive 7.8mph at the start of the descent and the gradient reached 20 per cent before I achieved 20mph.

The worst part was that there were still 60 miles to go into a fierce headwind. Psychologically, riding the very straight, undulating A6 into Carlisle into that wind was one of the lowest points of the trip. On the slightly downhill sections, which on a calmer day I would have negotiated at over 20 mph, I was reduced to 10-12 mph. I stopped to meet Dad every 10 miles just to have a few minutes break from pushing into the gale.

The day finished well, however, with great hospitality from the Huttons at Wauchope Cottage B&B in Langholm. A comfortable, pretty spot run by fellow cyclists and with a bath too, to soak aching limbs.

81.2 miles, 12.6 mph

Day 8 Langholm to Queensferry, Edinburgh

The previous day's exertions into the wind had left my legs feeling drained and there was a further 80 miles into another cold northerly in prospect. I was glad that I had resorted to throwing in the kitchen sink when packing - including my last pack of charcoal hand warmers. Simply open the pack, wait for the sachet to warm up and pop it under your neoprene bootie on top of your shoe. I use them a lot in the depths of winter, but resorting to them in the last week of June has got to be a first. The valleys up through the Scottish borders are exceptionally pretty, with more sheep than cars. I gave them a wide berth on the bike, but Dad was roped into helping round some up by a shepherd and a very overworked sheepdog. My legs were dead, with the slightest gradient forcing me into the granny gear, and I had a real bad spell between 30 and 60 miles.

81.1 miles, 14.6 mph

Day 9 Queensferry to Pitlochry

June 27 2007. I managed to miss the entrance to the cycle lane over the Forth road bridge, so cycled across with the trucks, ducking round the end of the barrier at the toll. I only got soaked once, but it was a really icy shower, which left my toes in all too familiar discomfort. I had planned a direct route to avoid some long detours on the main roads, but had forgotten that yellow roads on the map mean steeper hills. On paper this was the day with the greatest total ascent. As the 20 per cent gradient sign came into view I was regretting my back country route, even more so when one of the minor roads turned out to be a private farm track. I quickly gained new respect for the pros who ride the cobbles of Paris Roubaix. I slowed to a crawl and was amazed not to puncture or slip over on the gravel. The latter made a reappearance in the afternoon - in most of the corners of an otherwise excellent descent into Aberfeldy, which set me up for a fast finish into Pitlochry.

76.5 miles, 14.7 mph

Day 10 Pitlochry to Inverness

June 28 2007. This could have been a real beast in a strong headwind, but thankfully the wind finally subsided. It was still showery, but by now I scarcely noticed rain less intense than a torrential downpour. The first 24 miles climbed to the top of the Drumochter pass, although the gradient was very gentle and there was a wonderful 15 mile section over the top of fast slightly downhill riding. I pushed harder over the final third, spurred on by the prospect of completing my longest day in my fastest average speed to date. Helped by the downhill run into Inverness the computer inched above 17mph and I surprised Dad by how early I pulled into the award-winning Trafford Bank guest house.

89 miles, 17.2 mph

Day 11 Inverness to Helmsdale

June 29 2007. Fortunately, I decided to check if the ferry across the Cromarty Firth was operating. The boat, due to start running from the end of May, was still undergoing repairs. Hastily re-drawing the route on the laptop meant I missed out on some nice B-roads on the Black Isle and was forced back onto my old favourite - the A9. Another familiar opponent, the north wind, was also back, albeit not in the same force as previous days and at least it was dry. I felt good on the bike, although the route was quite lumpy. For a brief moment I considered the idea of riding the whole remaining 123 miles to John O'Groats to finish a day early. Luckily, good sense prevailed and I opted for an early bath in the comfortable Bridge Hotel in Helmsdale.

70 miles, 16.1 mph

Day 12 Helmsdale to John O'Groats

June 30 2007. While Sheffield held its breath in fear of further rain and flooding, Saturday dawned bright and clear in the north east of Scotland. After a pretty appalling two weeks of weather it felt as summery as 11 degress celsiuis can. Dawn, of course, is a loose term this far north. It had still been light at 11.30pm when Dad retired to bed the night before, and the sky was bright when I woke, full of adrenaline, at 5 am. Even better, the morning was still. Foregoing the traditional fry-up in deference to the four mile climb straight out of the village I set off on the final leg. The rest of the first 20 miles was equally tough, including a 1.5 mile 13 per cent climb. The inevitable north wind picked up over the last 30 miles, which thankfully were flatter. Cresting the final hill with just 1.5 (downhill) miles to go I felt a lump in my throat. Cruising into the sunny harbour with one arm aloft - I certainly wasn't going to chance letting go of the handlebars this close to the finish - was a wonderful feeling.

52.3 miles, 17.4 mph

Overall, the actual mileage I covered in 11.5 days - 910.9 miles - exactly matched the estimated trip total, despite several small changes to the route. Average speed came in at 14.92 mph, with early illness and the strong winds in the Lake District preventing me from creeping over 15 mph. I suffered no punctures, exceptional considering the wet conditions. The rain, however, did mean that I wore through a pair of brake blocks by Day 6 and had to fit a new set. I lost just one pound in weight, although I have taken my belt in a notch, so hopefully have converted some fat to muscle. Despite daily cooked breakfasts, Dad lost 4 pounds, testimony to the stress of the soigneur's role.

A big thank you to all of my sponsors, including the kind strangers and B&B owners en route who contributed, helping push the total raised for the Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability over £5000. Anyone still wishing to make a donation can do so at www.justgiving.com/vinceheaney

Most of all, huge thanks to my Dad, without whose help and moral support - not to mention lashings of coffee and cake - I would not have made it through such adverse conditions.