Friday, 14 June 2013

Lands End to John o'Groats

Trip Summary

This is a great trip to do, especially if you're on racing bikes and have a support vehicle with you. No slumming in bunkhouses and youth hostels for us!
Over 16 days of cycling, we took in a good many hills, shunning major roads and larger towns for cycleways, minor roads and unknown hamlets. We covered 1671km (1045 miles), an average of 104 km (65 miles) per day. We climbed 19,731m (average 1233m per day) and each day we averaged 5 hours on the bike, a total of 80 hours across the whole trip. We achieved an average speed of 21kph (13.1mph), but our fastest rider, Jan, achieved in excess of 63kph (39.4mph) on the downhill section south of Inverness. 
We burnt 65,335 calories, an average of 4083 per day, although none of us lost any weight - ample food and beer fully compensated for our efforts.
Based on the author's average cadence (turns of the crank) of 66rpm, the pedals turned 315,000 times!
We used a Garmin Edge 810 plus paper maps as back up. It worked well except in towns, where it failed to recognise pedestrian areas and some one-way systems, quite possibly because we did not add in sufficient detail in our route planning before loading the routes from MapMyRide into the unit.

These were our original route intentions, with the alternative over to the east side of Scotland in case of wet weather on the west coast. In the event, we cycled the west route and got wet anyway. The only variation of note was a slight southerly deviation in Dumfries & Galloway, going via New Galloway, due to the lack of accommodation in Carsphain. Other minor deviations: we stopped in Stanton Wick rather than Chew Magna, Symonds Yat instead of Ross-on-Wye and Knipoch instead of Kintraw.

So, if you're planning to do this trip by way of this more hilly route, taking in Exmoor, the Quantocks, the Shropshire Hills, the Forest of Bowland, the Lake District, and the route up the west coast of Scotland via Arran to Fort William, then here's our assessment of the good, bad and the ugly that you'll find along the way.

Great hotels
Royal Oak, Withypool
Carpenter's Arms, Stanton Wick
Waddington Arms, Waddington
Salutation Hotel, Ambleside
Knipoch Hotel, Knipoch (just south of Oban)
Furan Guesthouse, Inverness
Altnaharra Hotel, Altnaharra 

Accommodation of little distinction
White Horse Inn, Clun
Cross Keys, New Galloway

Bad hotels
Alexandra Hotel, Fort William

Least favourite towns
New Galloway
Fort William

Slowest service
Woodford Bridge Country Club (Milton Demerel, Devon)

Worst service
Wetherspoons in Fort William (we walked out having waited 10 minutes to order a beer)
Wetherspoons in Wick ('we don't sell peanuts...')

Best food
Doi Intanon, Ambleside
Auchrannie Resort, Brodick (mussels from Uist were sensational)
Crannog Seafood Restaurant, Fort William
Knipoch Hotel, Knipoch
Altnaharra Hotel, Altnaharra
Mackays Hotel, Wick (especially fillet steaks from Mey)

Best beer
St Austell Tribute (Royal Oak, Withypool)
Butcombe Bitter (Carpenter's Arms, Stanton Wick)
Hereford Pale Ale (Saracen's Head, Symonds Yat and White Horse Inn, Clun)
Glen Top (Royal Oak, Tockholes)
Double Hop (Golden Rule, Ambleside)
Coniston Bluebird (Brittannia Inn, Elterwater)
Scafell Blonde (Old Crown, Hesket Newmarket)
Windswept Blonde (Castle Tavern, Inverness)
Tradewinds (Castle Tavern, Inverness)

Best pubs
Tinners Arms, Zennor   
England's Gate, Bodenham
Royal Oak, Tockholes
Gillie's Bar, Altnaharra Hotel
Castle Tavern, Inverness (but not the food)
Dores Inn, Dores (south of Inverness)

Hospitable Cafés
Café in Tintagel
Watering Hole, Aymestry (Herefordshire)
Café in hardware store in Pontesbury (Shropshire)
Café in High Bentham

Best cycleways
East around Bristol
Ayr to Troon
Section north of Moray Firth Bridge up to Dingwall

Best day on the bike
Fort William to Inverness, via Wade's Road

Best sections of route
Up and over Exmoor, through Withypool
Cheddar Gorge
North Cumbria, Hesket Newmarket to Carlisle
Wye Valley out of Symonds Yat
Wade's Road into Inverness from Fort Augustus 
Descent into Altnaharra

Hardest days on the bike
Day 2 Padstow to Withypool (141km with 2483m of ascent)
Day 13 New Galloway to Brodick (Arran), because of the shocking road surfaces on A roads through East Ayrshire

Hardest hills
Lane north of Threemilestone, just west of Truro
North Molton to Withypool
1:5 hill immediately east of Withypool
Slaidburn to High Bentham
Wade's Road, south of Inverness

Helpful Bike Shops
559 Bikes in Chepstow
Biketreks in Ambleside (Rydal Road 015394 31245)

Best service
Owners and the 'breakfast lady' at the Saracen's Head, Symonds Yat
Manager at the Cheshire Cat, Chester
Reception staff at the Salutation Hotel, Ambleside
Staff at Biketreks in Ambleside
Owner at the Knipoch Hotel
Janice at the Furan Guesthouse
Bar staff at the Castle Tavern, Inverness
Bar owner who opened early for us in Evanton
Lorna and Becky at the Altnaharra Hotel


Day 1 

First day of the Lands End to John o'Groats adventure.  
300 miles in a superbly converted Mercedes van (thanks to the exceptional efforts of Heyddie), swiftly and safely completed with a good refuelling stop in Zennor (Tinners Arms). The team went a bit quiet on the section between Bristol and Lands End, the reality of the ride dawning on us when we reflected on all the hills we're going to be climbing to get out of Devon and Cornwall and the distance to be covered!

Sennen Cove in summer gear

We arrived at the Old Success Inn in Sennen Cove, just as the weather deteriorated into torrential rain followed by a slackening wind to produce sea mist and drizzle inland. Time to go to the bar then...
Some route planning, followed by the usual banter - cumulative pints per clubman  consumed in the last 24 hours since the club assembled in Beaconsfield just ten pints (favourites thus far Brakspears Bitter and St Austell's 'Proper Job'). A modest start. 
An early night before the impending ride to Padstow... 

Day 2

Woken at 0200 by a deluge of rain thundering on the windows but dawn broke with relatively clear skies but a brisk wind still blowing. As long as it's blowing us north...

The start of the day was not auspicious. Leaving the hotel and driving up the hill towards our start point, the heavy rain having just begun, Jan realised he'd left his cycling shoes in the hotel, and, on arriving back at the hotel, we also discovered Heyddie's wheels hadn't been packed in the van either. Not a good start then...

But, miraculously, the clouds parted and a blue sky emerged just as we set off from a windy Lands End. 
Apart from a few Garmin satnav moments we made swift progress along empty lanes, arriving down a long hill into Penzance to a terrific view of St Michael's Mount in glorious sunshine. 

St Michael's Mount

A cold south-westerly wind blew us along nicely, and the route got a lot hillier after Truro, one hill the steepest any of us had ever climbed. Fortified by tea, Eccles Cakes, sandwiches (and a sneaky pint of Betty Stoggs) we continued back towards the north coast...
...and the realisation that every village in this part of Cornwall sits in a deep valley, so many long climbs occupied us for the rest of the journey.
Aided by Alberto, we quickly found our next home for the night, the Golden Lion in Padstow, and a good dinner at Rick Stein's Café aided recovery. A great day out.

At Rick Stein's Café in Padstow

Some stats for the day: noteworthy navigational errors 1, distance 109km, time on bike 5 hours, ascent 1770m, calories burnt 4761, pints consumed 4.

Day 3

The longest ride of the whole trip today, from Padstow to Withypool on top of Exmoor, and a very hilly passage from the bays of the North Cornish coast, across Devon and finally into Somerset.
We must be mad.
And the weather didn't help. From the moment we took the little ferry across from Padstow to Rock, we were wet and cold, and after just 27km we were forced to stop in Tintagel to have a warming drink. Meanwhile our erstwhile support guru Alberto had checked out our planned route north of here, and had wisely recommended we adjust our route to avoid the precipitous ascents and descents on the stretch between Boscastle and Crackington Haven, a proposal we were only too glad to accept, particularly after the drop into Boscastle and a big climb out of it.
The rain continued, but we subsequently made good progress through into the quiet lanes of Devon, with time for a late lunch, not helped by unbelievably slow service at a thatched pub in Woodford Bridge.

Damp in Devon

The final 60km proved to be a severe test of bike gearing and stressed calf muscles, the stretch around Torrington and on to South Molton having big and some ridiculously steep hills. But the hardest bit was to come. After a swift top up with drinks and energy bars in the sleepy town of South Molton, we were presented with our final challenge, the big pull up on to Exmoor. Fortunately the rain had stopped, the roads had dried out and except for a moderate easterly wind in our faces, this section proved to be a challenging but beautiful end to the day, high on Exmoor giving great views to the south, herds of deer startled by yellow clad humans on two wheels and an exhilarating final descent into Withypool.
Exhausted but happy riders had earned their pints of St Austell's Tribute, and a very good meal was enjoyed at our base for the night, the Royal Oak. Best pub so far, well run, good quality with a lovely ambience, helped by a nice log fire. 

Royal Oak, Withypool

Some stats for today: noteworthy navigational errors 1 (this added 3km, and the author stresses that reading a Garmin covered in raindrops through glasses covered in raindrops is not easy...), distance 141.3km, total ascent 2483m, calories burnt 5822, pints enjoyed 4

Day 4

Another big day for the club - the arrival of our newest club member, Miguel, who promptly hit the hills with Alberto and completed a 27km training ride south of Bristol. We are pleased that Miguel readily embraced the club ethos and rehydrated properly with cask ale.
For the core team, departing our hotel we were immediately on to a 1:5 hill, which taxed cold leg muscles somewhat, but in drizzle, then fog, then bright sunshine, we made good progress over the eastern slopes of Exmoor, down deep wooded valleys, girded the loins again to cross the Quantock Hills (who planned this route?!), before a glorious descent down to the Somerset Levels, big views to the Bristol Channel north of us.
A pub lunch in strong sunshine readied us for the last challenge, the ascent of Cheddar Gorge, easier than we had expected, or are we just getting fitter?

Looking fit after the climb up Cheddar Gorge!

We circumnavigated Chew Valley Lake after realising that someone (!) had forgotten to programme in a revised hotel stop into the GPS, but the ride through the quiet Somerset villages beforehand was a delight.
A good dinner at the Carpenter's Arms in Stanton Wick, a good quality pub/hotel.
Tomorrow we cross the Severn and head unrelentingly northwards!

Miguel and Alberto cycling near Bridgewater

Today's stats: noteworthy navigational errors 1 - this added about about 14km but at least we saw Chew Valley from all perspectives ;-)
Distance 117.6km, ascent 1574m, calories burnt 4716, pints 5 (Otter, Doombar and Butcombe Bitter)

Carpenter's Arms, Stanton Wick

Day 5
A most enjoyable day, cycling from south of Bristol to Symonds Yat in the Wye Valley. Joined for the first time by Alberto and Miguel, who left us after 21km but completed a creditable 52km on cycle tracks around Bristol. Good training chaps...the expectation is building that both will join us for a full day soon!

Riding the cycle way around Bristol

For the rest of us, a good day of contrasting country. Small hills and pretty villages east of Bristol, a superb tarmaced cycle way which followed an old railway track, and then open country before crossing the Severn Bridge, a great experience. 

Fabian and Jan crossing the Severn Bridge

Some confusion navigating through Chepstow but ultimately sorted by our impromptu 'nav committee' (the President is barred from this on the basis that he has no sense of direction whatsoever - unless it's to a bar) and then a long climb up into the Forest of Dean and ultimately our destination for the night, the Saracen's Head in Symonds Yat, right next to the River Wye.
Gorgeous spot. Great hoppy bitter, Hereford Pale Ale, from the Wye Valley Brewery. 
More bliss.

Symonds Yat

One of the best pints of the trip so far

Today's stats: nav errors - nill (well done Heyddie!), distance 89.7km, ascent 1119m (easy...!), calories burnt 3355, pints consumed 7 ... oops
Most boring discussion - the aerodynamics of brake blocks.....yawn...

Day 6

A few sleepy heads this morning, but well fortified by a good breakfast served by the amiable staff at the Saracen's Head.

View from the Saracens Head in Symonds Yat

We had a magnificent start to the day, cycling on the quiet lanes along the east of the River Wye, with great views and negligible traffic. Heading northwards into the depths of Gloucestershire, passing meadows filled with buttercups and borders resplendent with Michaelmas daisies, we saw the very best of rural England, almost the land that time forgot, with narrow lanes, black & white timbered cottages and cows lazing in the pastures. 'Perfick...'

Lunch close to the Welsh border and a nice afternoon tea at the hospitable Watering Hole Café in Aymestry kept us going in hot but humid sunshine, and Stuart is awarded 'Grande Domestique' for his pace making into a northerly wind as some of us (well, me actually) flagged as we reached our destination, the White Horse Inn in Clun, a small town set in the glorious rolling countryside of Shropshire. 
Our support team also had a good day, 48km together in the Wye Valley, and Miguel adding another 20 odd km in the vicinity of Clun. Good work chaps!

Alberto cycling the Wye Valley

Stats for today somewhat compromised because yours truly forgot to press the 'start' button on the GPS, but about 5 hours in the saddle and 97.1km and estimated ascent 714m. 
Navigational errors: 1 (added about 4km).
Enough calories burned to compensate for the excesses of the previous evening, estimated at 3624,and replenishment pints: 5
Most boring debate of the day...why you need to change your chain after 1500km...

Another night of forced the White Horse Inn in Clun

Clun Castle at dusk

Day 7

A wet start from Clun, then up and over the rolling hills of Shropshire, most shrouded in mist, but the empty lanes enabled us to make good progress.
We were quickly into the Shrewsbury area, mainly flat farming country, with a coffee stop in Pontesbury, before pushing into northern Shropshire and a quick foray into Wales as we passed east of Wrexham. Fish & chips were enjoyed in Ellesmere, and we then made swift progress up into Cheshire, reaching our hotel for the night, the Cheshire Cat in Christleton, just south east of Chester, late afternoon.
A good day for peloton riding, and we all arrived in good order.
And whilst the main team were riding away, Alberto and Dan paid a visit to Grandma Mary near Shrewsbury, and duly made her an Honorary Member of the Golden Rule Adventure Club, acknowledging her computer skills and the keen interest she has shown in our progress via our blog.

Some stats for today: 5 hours in the saddle, covering 109km, ascending 922m, burning  3878 calories, rehydration 4 pints :-)
Notable navigation errors - none.

Welcome to our first Honorary Member, Mary!

A post-prandial stroll along the banks of the Shropshire Canal, just to remind ourselves that we can actually walk...

Day 8

A cloudy start from Chester and an early navigational challenge that I won't bore you with, but we were soon into the relatively quiet lanes of rural Cheshire, the attractive Delamere Forest and a good stop in Lymm with great coffee and lemon drizzle cake...yum.

Flags out for Jan as he rides triumphantly into Lymm

All of us expected this to be a grim section through the industrial north west, but it turned out to be a good rural ride most of the way, and a swift peloton on the busier A roads lifted our average speed nicely.
Our newest club member, Miguel, put in a creditable performance, keeping up well, taking his turn at the front, and remembering to call out 'car back' and 'hole' on umpteen occasions (memo to Cheshire Highways...).
We had a relatively late lunch at the Royal Oak in Tockholes, but the pint of Glen Top from the Rossendale Brewery was certainly worth waiting for.

The most difficult section of the day was riding through Blackburn just as the schools/mosques were turning out but we were quickly through and out on to the attractive southern reaches of the Forest of Bowland, reaching our destination for the night, the Waddington Arms, in Waddington (there's a surprise !) in time for a good Friday early doors, now in bright sunshine.

Crucially, the whole team is now starting to assemble for the Golden Rule 'Rest and Recreation Weekend', so we were pleased to be joined by WAGs' Anne and Jen, and Academy Riders Carlos and Alansandro. A decent pint started the evening off in good stead.
Tomorrow a wet ride to the Lake District, followed by a day off in the Golden Rule, Ambleside on Sunday beckon. Bring it on!

Today's stats: navigational errors of note: none whatsoever (author's privilege), distance 120km, ave. speed 21.55km/h, ascent 1134m, calories burnt 4464. Pints: 5

Day 9

A very wet start from Waddington, and straight up on to the moors through Slaidburn and across the top of the Forest of Bowland. Some Cat 3 and Cat 4 climbs warmed us up, but long fast descents chilled us to the bone, necessitating a long coffee stop in High Bentham.
After the break we turned west into a strong headwind (thankfully the rain had blown over) but we achieved excellent time in the peloton to reach our lunch stop just south of Kendal. Our first taste of Cumberland Sausage on the trip, washed down with Black Sheep Bitter.

Academy members Carlos and Alansandro with the senior team, just before Kendal

Getting though Kendal was harder than we expected as our Garmin GPS got confused by pedestrian zones, but we were soon out on to the busy roads into Windermere and then finally to Ambleside. Unpleasant last few km on busy roads and the occasional rainy squall.
Three bikes delivered into Biketrek in Ambleside for a good service before our next leg into Scotland, and settled into the Salutation Hotel as I write this.
But now off to the Club's official HQ, the Golden Rule in Ambleside for a few pints of Hartley's XB before a Thai meal at Doi Intanon. Bliss.

Stats for the day: 96.8km, 4319 calories used up after 1785m of ascent. Navigational errors: none, it was the Garmin's fault ;-). Pints: 5-6 (lost count...)

Carlos having an OTT moment before calming down with a few pints of XB

Alansandro, Carlos, Mrs Ulrichard & Mrs Merckx 

Today's tour team, rehydrating in the Golden Rule

Team in the sin bin, in lieu of unpaid fines...

Alansandro reflecting on his performance today. Sometime late in the Golden Rule...

Stop Press - some 'half way' statistics, after 8 days cycling...
Total distance 881km, average 110 km per day
11,501m of ascent, average 1,438m per day (to put that into perspective, Ben Nevis is 1344m and Mount Everest 8848m)
34,939 calories burnt, average 4,367 per day (the average male requires 2,500 calories per day to maintain weight)
40 pints of beer enjoyed, average 5 per day (tut tut...this means we're actually maintaining our body weight by drinking beer, as none of us appear to have lost any weight yet)

Day 10

A rest day in Ambleside, some retail therapy (a cycle shop rather than a climbing there's a fundamental change!) and lunch in the White Lion (decent pint of Exmoor Gold enjoyed).
We bid farewell to Grande Domestique Stuart, and guest Academy riders' Alansandro and Carlos, who have to go back to work tomorrow and pay their taxes. 

A final rehydration exercise in the Golden Rule before an evening of carbo-loading in the Brittannia Inn, Elterwater.
Tomorrow, we start towards a westerly route up through Scotland - Dumfries & Galloway, a ferry to the Isle of Arran, and up through Kintyre to Fort William and beyond. 
A weather window is promised by our newly appointed Director of Meteorology, John Ramskill, who has provided us with a rolling update of weather conditions based on regular studies of the Met Office radar maps. On his head be it...

Day 11

A late start as we waved off the WAGs who'd joined us for the weekend, and then collected our newly serviced bikes from the excellent BikeTreks in Ambleside.
Heading out of Ambleside, northwards on the A591 towards Keswick, it was narrow, busy and the road surface was poor, but we were rapidly on to the long climb over Dunmail Raise, Helm Crag to our left and the bulk of the Helvellyn and Fairfield hills to our right. We made good progress despite a cold north-westerly wind, and it was not long before we turned off to cycle the quiet road on the western side of Thirlmere. Delightful riding, with very little traffic.
Taking a cycle way into Keswick, we managed to keep off main roads by cycling the undulating roads through St Johns in the Vale, and we were through the town in no time at all.
Heading north east away from Bassenthwaite, and refreshed by a quick snack at a café by Dodds Wood, we were soon on the single track roads behind the bulk of Skiddaw. Steeper ups and downs now, but all of our legs were working well today. 
We met a group of younger guys cycling down from John o'Groats, one of whom had broken his chain, so we attempted to render help, but ended up calling for Alberto to drive the chaps down to a bike shop in Keswick.
These guys were doing John o'Groats to Lands End the hard way, with old steel bikes, heavy panniers, and camping en route. Rather them than us! Anyway, good to be able to help them out.
Two other difficulties awaited us as we approached Hesket Newmarket, our stop for the night.
One, a road closure where they were resurfacing a long section of the road from Uldale to Caldbeck. We got around this, somewhat tentatively, and enjoyed some wonderful open roads in to Caldbeck itself, the Solway Firth and the hills of south-west Scotland revealing themselves for the first time. Bright, but cloudy, but still amazingly cold for the end of June too!

The Denton Arms in Hesket Newmarket, our comfortable home tonight

The Old Crown in Hesket Newmarket, a pub cooperatively owned by the villagers, with its own brewery. It's Chris Bonington's local pub (old ice axes, crampons and ropes adorning one corner) and a favourite of Prince Charles, who has visited the pub twice...unpretentious, completely stuck in time, wholesome bar food and some good ale.

Our second difficulty was a minor accident which cracked the rear screen of our support van. One to be resolved tomorrow!

Today's stats: distance 60km, 902m of ascent, 2411 calories burnt, 4 good pints (Scafell Blonde and Skiddaw Bitter noteworthy).

Day 12

A promising start, as we awoke to bright sunshine, but the air temperature was still unbelievably cool for late June, so we all donned our outer jackets after we set of from Denton House.
The journey up to Carlisle was a delight, wider empty roads with good surfaces, a few hills to warm us up, and wonderful countryside...buttercups galore in the meadows, a feature that continued throughout the day...I've never seen so many!
Passing the impressive castle in Carlisle we took the quiet cycle way out towards Gretna, and by mid morning we had arrived in Scotland.

Gretna, gateway to Scotland 

A quick coffee stop in Gretna, then west through Annan, reaching Dumfries by lunchtime, unfortunately a town devoid of eateries on the roads immediately into and out of town, so we had a sandwich stop further to the west. The scenery here is rolling dairy country, Jan spotting the first Galloway cattle, with their distinctive white 'belt.'
Heads down to do the final 35km, a strong peloton performance from all making short shrift of the distance, and arriving in New Galloway just after 1600. 

Cross Keys, New Galloway - basic but comfortable 

Today's stats: distance 126km, 1092m climbed, 4646 calories burnt and an average speed of 21.6km/h. 

Day 13

A sharp pull out of New Galloway took us out on to the empty open roads across the Southern Uplands, pleasant sweeping curves across vast expanses of dairy and sheep country. Some long climbs into a stiff northwesterly wind made it hard work and we were pleased to find a small café in Dalmellington, joining the ladies of the village who were there to admire our lithe bodies clad in Lycra (yuk!) in between their chats about bingo and Southern Comforts consumed the previous evening. 
The wind persisted as we cycled northwards, but the key difficulty was the poor road surface, a really rough tarmac that shook every bone in our bodies. Memo to East Ayrshire Council - fix your bloody roads!
It wasn't long before we reached Ayr, and then pleasant cycle ways took us through the many links golf courses around Troon and on into the Irvine area, where restorative fish & chips were enjoyed at Gailes Hotel. 
A final 20km on cycle ways brought us to the coast south of Ardrossan, and we rode amongst promenading Scots enjoying the bracing breeze off the sea. 
The ferry from Ardrossan to Brodick takes just under an hour, a sailing eased by a gentle sea and a bottle of Arran Blonde. 
Overnight at the excellent Auchrannie Resort, a great spot, with really good food, especially the mussels from Uist - yum.

Boarding the ferry to Brodick, Isle of Arran at Ardrossan

Leaving Ardrossan

Alberto, a little fatigued after his loch side ride in the wind!

Approaching Brodick

Goat Fell 843m, Isle of Arran, begging to be climbed one of these days!

Some stats from today: distance ridden 98.2km, ascent 794m, calories burnt 3521, pints 4. 

Day 14

Awoke to grey skies, a theme for the whole day ahead, although the summit of Goat Fell remained visible most of the way. Midges appeared as we mounted our steeds, and the benefit of the famed Avon Skin So Soft (yeh, I know...) quickly became apparent. It doesn't actually repel midges. Instead it seems to attract them and then kill them on contact.
Northwards from Brodick, we headed for the ferry terminal at Lochranza, not exactly leaving the midges behind despite pouring rain and mist covered hillsides, but killing them by the thousand as we became mobile midge sheets. Our legs were black with them by the time we got to Lochranza. 
Getting to the ferry involves a long climb over a pass, but this was quickly dispatched, and a long fast descent (great fun in cycle glasses fogged inside and covered in rain droplets on the outside) brought us into the little ferry port, sighting a young stag foraging the villager's hedgerows on the way.
The crossing to Claonaig on the Mull of Kintyre took about 35 minutes, joined by a couple of bikers from Glasgow doing a two day circuit through Oban, and some sodden Italian motorcyclists. 
Although it continued to rain on us, the single track road out of Claonaig was delightful. Devoid of vehicles, we rode three abreast for a good while, before joining the faster road up through Kintyre albeit with increased traffic following the arrival of the Islay ferry. But we made great progress, Heyddie spinning like crazy as we flew up the west side of Loch Fyne. The Glaswegian cyclists hooked themselves up to the peloton too, Heyddie keeping up an impressive pace as we soared past touring cyclists with panniers etc.

Lunch in a lay-by restored energy and another fast leg, with some long hills, brought us to a tea stop in Kilmelford, with good whisky fruit cake. Jan led the last 14km, cycling like a demon, and we landed at the Knipoch Hotel in very good time, all of us pumped, ready for a bath to resolve trench foot, and certainly ready for a beer. 
Despite the weather, a rewarding day. At least we didn't have the scenery to distract us...

Today's stats: 118km incl about 7km on the ferry, 1043m of ascent, 4235 calories burnt and 4 pints (I wont mention the wine or the wee drams of Arran and Oban whisky though...). Most boring discussion of the day - how to best dry cycling bibs with chamois padding. To tumble dry or not to tumble dry...yawn...

Day 15

A very wet start, even the midges decided to hide this morning. A nice warm up into Oban, then the roads quietened down and we made speedy progress before a quick coffee stop at the Creagan Inn, views across the loch limited by heavy rain and mist. 

View (or lack of) from the Creagan Inn

40km to go and impressive lead outs by Jan and Heyddie brought us swiftly across the bridge at Ballachulish on to the busy final A road into Fort William, arriving at about 1330.
The weather brightened from Ballachulish , but Glencoe to the east of us remained overwhelmed by low dark clouds. 
Basic hotel, the Alexandra, but will do us for the night. Off to Fort William to investigate pubs and restaurants for the rest of the day :-) and dinner planned at the Crannog Seafood Restaurant for another evening of excess. 

Today's stats: earliest finish, 82.3km in 3 hours 23 minutes, average speed 24.2km/h, ascent 709m and calories burnt 3135m. Pints: 5 (but beer quality not great anywhere in Fort William...definitely not my favourite town).

Day 16

An early start to beat a weather front, a plan that did actually work! We were on the road by 0715, taking a quiet road out to Gairlochy to avoid the A82 and rewarded with great views over to the Ben Nevis range, the summit still shrouded in a forbidding dark grey mantle. 
We had to go on the A82 eventually, alongside Loch Lochy, and demolished a good breakfast at the Invergarry Hotel. 
At Fort Augustus we turned on to the Old Military Road, known locally as 'Wades' Road', with a long hill climb into the mountains and lochs east of Loch Ness. This was, for us all I think, our first 'Category 2' climb. Result :-)
Great stuff. A very long fast descent (new personal record 56.3km/h set, but still slower than my compatriots, both of whom exceeded 61km/h - insane, both of them!). 
Then fast through the forests and vast swathes of rhododendron to Dores, where, inevitably, a couple of beers were imbibed. Alberto joined us at the pub, in the midst of his 36 km day ride (with a big climb at the end - we'll make a cyclist of him yet ;-). 

We coasted the last 20km or so into Inverness, stopping at the delightful Furan Guesthouse in the suburbs. 
Bikes cleaned and lubricated, and into Inverness for more lubrication for ourselves. 
A really good day, good quiet roads, expansive views and everyone able to enjoy a peaceful ride with the wind (mainly) behind us. 
Only 244km to go! Two days hard riding ahead methinks...

Stats for today: distance 110km, average speed 22.6kph (maximum 56.3kph for me, 60.3kph for my insane team mates!), 1300m climbed and 4434 calories burnt. Pints: too many. Excellent ale (Windswept Blonde and Tradewinds) and hospitality at the Castle Tavern in Inverness. One of the best so far :-)

Day 17 - The Penultimate Day

A dry start to the day, but a gusty southwesterly caused us much trepidation as we crossed the Moray Firth on the A9 bridge just out of Inverness. Bloody scary. Gusts threatened to push us into the path of fast moving traffic, the pedestrian/cycle path being closed for maintenance, but thankfully crossing early on a Sunday morning meant that traffic flows were not too excessive. 
But it took us a few moments to collect ourselves on the other side.
We managed to avoid the A9 from there onwards, with a good cycle way taking us swiftly into Dingwall. A long hill out of Dingwall brought us to Evanton for a welcome cuppa in a pub that opened up for us. Well done Alberto!
Then up on to the 'Struie'...a long but straightforward climb to a great viewpoint over the Dornoch Firth  and a steep (and gusty) descent to Bonar Bridge. Less than a hour later, we were ensconced in a café in Lairg for a much needed soup and sandwich.

View from Struie Hill to Dornoch Firth

Up until now, north of Inverness, we had been passing through verdant cattle country interspersed with barley and wheat fields, meadows awash with buttercups and tall pink grass - really attractive rolling countryside. And a few wildlife spots too - an inquisitive fox, the sounds of stags in the forest as we glided by, and a sighting of an eagle.
But all was to change beyond Lairg. 
Within a few kilometres we hit the single track roads that would carry us north and the north east to our final objective. We were suddenly into the barren landscape of northern Sutherland, vast peat bogs, great tracts of white bog cotton, and huge views all around us. Desolate, awesome, humbling landscape. And we felt the wind here, nothing to break its passage from the Atlantic coast to our west. It helped in places, but was mainly an awkward cross-wind which made the climb up to the remote Crask Inn hard work. 
But then, we turned north east. The wind so strong at times that it literally pushed you along, no pedalling required. And the final joy. A 10km downhill all the way to the Altnaharra Hotel, our overnight spot. Very fast, with no traffic to trouble us (we'd only seen about a dozen vehicles in the last couple of hours), with Jan (now officially a madman) and Heyddie setting new land speed records (Jan, over 63kph), whilst yours truly coasted in having hit a maximum speed of 52.5kph (quite fast enough). 
A great, exhilarating finish to the day. And Alberto also managed a ride, windy and hilly, from the hotel, so he's earned a beer too ;-)
A few pints were enjoyed before an excellent dinner at the characterful Altnaharra Hotel. Thank you Lorna and Becky for your great service. 

View from the Altnaharra Hotel, rainbow over Loch Naver

Today's metrics: distance 120km (and, in 'old money', we've now gone through the 1,000 mile mark), average speed 21.8kph, ascent 1237m, calories burnt 4,586. Pints: 5.

Day 18 - Our Final Day!

A harder day than expected, with an easy start along the shores of Loch Naver and then north up the valley of the River Naver. But as we reached the north coast of Scotland just before Bettyhill, the heavens opened and we all got a good soaking.
Replenished with a cuppa we then turned west, the rain dying away, and, thankfully propelled along by a strong westerly wind on our backs.
And thank goodness for that. One long hill after another, rather like hugging the Devon coast a fortnight ago, but compensated by some long fast descents into the bays as well. But hard work for legs and bodies that have been turning the cranks for over two weeks now.
We rode 60km flat out to reach Dunnet Bay, east of Thurso, for a quick packed lunch in the van, the rain returning on a strong gusty wind that chilled us to the core again.
But this left us just 20km, and Jan got the bit between his teeth, and we dispatched this leg in record time - 25.2kph for the penultimate 10km and 28.9kph for the final run in.
We reached John o'Groats just before 1500, to be greeted by Alberto and a welcome bottle of Moët - thank you Mrs Prattachi!

John o'Groats - mission accomplished!

Thank you Alberto for your superb support!

Celebration night at Mackays Hotel in Wick. Although Wick might not be your first choice for a weekend away, the consensus of our little team was that the food was fantastic ... Nobody disappointed with their choice, great ingredients - local produce, wonderful flavours. Yum yum.

Final day's stats: 119km, average speed 24.6kph (fastest of the whole trip), 1236m climbed, and 4748 calories burnt. And for the author, a new record speed...62.19 kph...scary! Pints: 5.

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