The first line of Anna Karenina is ‘All happy families are alike but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion.’ (A great book, by the way. I’ll do a review of it soon.)
Leo Tolstoy could equally have been writing about cycling. Because all happy days on the bike are alike, and they eventually merge into one, but each unhappy day has its unique hell that stays imprinted on your mind for the rest of your life.
There was the day my chain got tangled so badly I had to take a taxi to a bike shop in Lyon, and then left the city looking for a nice hotel in a picturesque village, and then came back to the city because I couldn’t find one, and then couldn’t find a hotel there either. Mind you, I didn’t feel sorry for myself for too long that particular day: September 11, 2001.
Or the day in northern Spain where the town I had selected to stay after a day’s ride turned out not to have a hotel: I had to cycle on another 40 miles into San Sebastian, arriving at 11pm, where I wolfed down a burger in the only restaurant that was still open, and woke up in the night with food poisoning. Overall, that probably wins the title.
Usually it’s the weather that causes the problems. And nowhere is it more memorable than Scotland.
Don’t get me wrong. Scotland is a wonderful place to cycle. Not much traffic, good roads, fantastic scenery. And each time I’ve been there, I’ve been lucky with the weather: almost every day dry and warm.
But ‘almost’ doesn’t quite do it.
One day on the Isle of Skye I had to stop and wring the rainwater out of my socks, and then put them back on. It was so windy I had to pedal down a steep hill, and when I went into a bus shelter to get out of the rain for a moment, the wind licked around the corners and I got even wetter, if that is possible.
Then there was the last day of my ride from Land’s End to John O’Groats.
I started from Bettyhill, 50 miles from John O’Groats: not so far, and I was planning to arrive at about three in the afternoon and take a ferry across to the Orkneys. I did the LEJOG, as it is acronymously known, in stages, the idea being to take as long as possible and visit places I was unlikely ever to see again. I’ve still never been to the Orkneys.
Bettyhill is, as the advertising may say, unspoilt. To put it mildly. There was a hotel there, the Bettyhill, which was a whole lot better than I had any right to expect. I could see a small shop opposite, but it was shut. I said the receptionist at the hotel that I would take a walk into the town proper later and go to another shop. She gave me a funny look. I soon realised why. That shop, closed as it was, plus the hotel, formed what you might call Bettyhill’s central business district.
There was a beach which gave a whole new meaning to the word ‘unspoiled’. If it had been 20 degrees warmer and a whole lot more accessible from dens of sin such as London, it would be packed out.
The receptionist told me I could leave my bike around the back. I tried to find something to lock it to, but there wasn’t anything. I was going to tie the bike to a beer barrel, but she stopped me, saying it would be in use later.
I continued my search until she said: ‘I don’t think you get the idea. We don’t get a lot of theft and that sort of thing round here.’
I didn’t bother pointing at my handmade, Rohloff-equipped superbike, and telling her that I wasn’t going to take the risk. I think she was right.
The weather forecast for that trip from Bettyhill to John O’Groats was not great. For one, I was going to be going straight into the wind. When cyclists talk about wind speeds, they tend to exaggerate. So let me underestimate. It was a 30-40mph headwind. That’s not gusts of up to, by the way, but the steady speed. In the interests of not exaggerating, again, I can’t remember there being any particular gusts.
It was hilly along that northern Scotland coast, and a difficult ride. At about the halfway point I came to Thurso, where I stopped for lunch. By the time I came out the restaurant, the rain had started. The wind hadn’t died down, quite the opposite, still a solid 30-40mph.
When I say I was straight into a headwind, I mean it. A little way along the road, which was now flat, the wind direction did alter from straight into my face to a sort of two o’clock situation.
Fantastic, I thought, things are improving. Then, the road turned slightly to the right, straight back into the wind. It continued like that all the way to John O’Groats, where I arrived at about 6pm, three hours behind schedule, and with all thoughts of the Orkneys dismissed.
I went into the first bed and breakfast I came across, and when the man, a Scouser, opened the door he burst into laughter. (Before warning me not to put wet clothes on his precious bed). But at least he had a room, so he could laugh away.
I felt a little sorry for people who lived all the way up there. The beautiful Scotland of postcards it is not. He offered me fish and chips for my dinner, which I gratefully accepted, thinking that this close the sea (and I could see it lapping over the road) you would get some decent fish.
Frozen fish and oven chips was served up. Not that I wasn’t grateful. He explained the nearest supermarket was in Inverness, 120 miles away and fresh food was never on the menu.
It was a fitting end to the End to End. You’re not going to (in my case, in stages over a 12-month period) cycle more than a thousand miles in the United Kingdom without getting soaking wet a few times, or if you do, you are not only incredibly lucky, but in a way also missing out on something.
For the record, Cornwall was tough, but the worst part was certain sections of Yorkshire. You can go further east and avoid them, but if you are going to do that you might as well not bother. It had been reasonable from there onwards, the biggest surprise being the beauty of the area around Perth, but until I got to Berryhill I thought I had done reasonably well.
But if a trip like this doesn’t have a kick in the tail, you haven’t really done it.