Originally uploaded by Andrew Birkett

Tickets booked, sponsorship getting up towards £300. I guess i’m committed now! Unfortunately, the touring bike i ordered has turned into a disaster. It didn’t arrive in the order which the bike shop received this week. Ridgeback in turn say their supplies can’t get them the bits they need to build the bike. Grr. I’m going to phone them now …

Not the Alps

Just for constrast, I had a look to see what kind of climbs the Tour de France guys do.  A couple of years ago, they did the road through Bourg-Saint-Maurice up into Tignes which I know from snowboarding trips.  Bourg is at about 700m, and Tignes le Lac is at 2100m.  So the Tour riders were cycling .. nay, racing .. up 1400m in 19miles.   So that’s an average climb of 73 metres per mile sustained for 19miles.  Whereas on the Wanlockhead road, I was tackling a 57m rise every mile, and only had to do it for 7 miles.

The tour route up Alp d’Huez climbs 1110m in 9.3 miles – a staggering 119 metres gained every mile.  The record times from the tour rides are all sub 40 minutes.   I took 40 minutes to cover my 400m/7mile climb – whereas Pantani did 1110m/9.3miles in the same time.  Well, he was chemically assisted .. but there’s plenty of other folk doing sub-40min climbs there.

Sheez …

Anyhow, go watch Mr Armstrong out psyche and out climb everyone else again.

The Lang Whang

The Lang Whang

I’ve always thought the Lang Whang was a strange name for a road, but it’s certainly descriptive.  Long, hilly, goes through the middle of nowhere – well, Carstairs/Carnwath to Edinburgh anyway.  The best bit about the route is that, once you are past Tarbrax, you get a huge amount of high speed downhilling into Edinburgh.  Even once you’re back in the city, the route through Juniper Green is top-gear speed-camera-taunting stuff.

The magic numbers for today were: 65 miles in 4h13m, averaging 15mph, and my hrm says 125bpm average.  The ride was fueled by a multistage breakfast (cereal, bacon sandwich, big pancake, 2 cups of tea), a litre of liquid (sports juice and water), one fruit&nut chocolate bar, two caramel wafers, half a packet of wine gums and a banana.  I feel like a machine for turning chocolate into heat.

After yesterday’s hill riding I did a lot of stretches and felt totally fine this morning.  I never used to bother stretching, until last year I went to a yoga class and realised how tight/short my leg muscles were.  Now I’m much more aware of this, I don’t just think ‘oh well, my legs must just be sore from cycling’.

Mmm, large amounts of tasty food await …

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Auchinleck to Mennock, then up the hill to Wanlockhead
Auchinleck to Mennock, then up the hill to Wanlockhead

In preperation for the hills of Devon and Cornwall, I sought out the hilliest hill I could find – the road up the Lead Hills to Wanlockhead, the highest village in Scotland.  It was a super windy day (30mph according to the Met Office) which offered some assistance.   The climb started after about 33km, rising from 130m above sea level to about 450m at the top.  A lot of the route was steady climbing, but there were three or four very steep sections which had me pushing hard in my lowest gear (8 speed nexus).  There’s a nasty steep section at the start – I was worried it was going to be that steep the whole way!  But then it settles down for a while, with only a couple of hard bits.  The longest hard section was right at the top.  I nearly got off and pushed, but stuck with it and was rewarded with the sight of the village of Wanlockhead over the top.  There was one further steep climb beyond the village which I did for completeness (amazing how much extra energy you suddenly get when you realise that you ‘are there’).  It took 1h20m to get to Mennock, and then 40mins of climbing to get to Wanlockhead.  In total, I did 39 miles.

The descent was almost worse than the ascent – the weather turned worse and I was cycling into the teeth of a rain laced gale.  I had to stop and put on a rain coat, just to stop getting froozen with the wind chill.  Then later I put on waterproof trousers and a beanie under my helmet to ward off the freezing wind.  A couple of cattle grids and some loose grit on a wet corner kept me focused.  I’m doing all these training rides fully loaded with two panniers and two full water bottles.  But today I was glad to have all my ’emergency clothes’ with me – I needed them!  On my way down, I saw a racer guy pedalling uphill in basic race gear.  I can’t imagine how chilly he’ll have got on the way down!

The photos are on flickr.

Overall, I’m really pleased – the ~400m climbs in Dartmoor won’t be a total surprise to me now.  I’m glad my new bike will have some lower gears though.  The 8-speed nexus hub gear bike was totally ridable today, but it was always sobering to realise that you’d ran out of gears and just needed to muscle up the hill.  Tomorrow, I’ll cycle the 62 miles back up into Edinburgh which’ll take between 4 and 5 hours (depending on which way the wind is blowing!).

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Route planning

Planning a LE-JOG route is quite good fun in the internet age.  You can fly around the country on Google Earth, and use tools like to design routes which you can copy onto a GPS system.  You can experiment with routes and check how bad the hills are!   Quite a few people have done this ride before and put up GPX trails of where they went.

One problem is that my GPS system (ok, actually my brother’s!) can only store 50 points per route, and 20 routes overall.  I’ve found that you need about 250 points to accurately track all the roads on each day of the LEJOG route.  Apps like gpsbabel can simplify routes down so they use fewer points, but you also lose accuracy.  This isn’t much of a problem in the highlands of Scotland where there are only two roads.  But trying to pick your way through a city with waypoints that are a mile apart won’t work.

I don’t really want to buy a new shiny GPS system just for this trip, so I’ve decided to stick with a combination of lower-resolution GPS routes plus pages torn from a roadmap.

On my training rides, I keep having to stop and get my map (or food) out of my panniers.  This is a pain, so I’m definitely going to invest in a handlebar bag so I can check the map or grab something to eat without stopping.  A waterproof map cover is a must in the Scottish weather!

By using the bikehike site, I’ve been able to scope out what kind of hills I’ll be hitting.  Day 2 through Dartmoor looks one of the worst, with 400m climbs.  In constrast, Arthur’s Seat in the centre of Edinburgh is only 100m high.  I’ve been hunting for good hill-training routes, and have settled on the road from Sanquhar up to Wanlockhead as being pretty representative of the Devon hills.

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Also, Epic Fail

Also, a week after I finish my Lands End – John O’Groats ride, I’m going to be doing a 10 hour endurance mountain bike race called “10 Under the Ben“.  Team Epic Fail (myself, Jeremy and Frank) will be doing a relay team, racing around the Fort William XC mountain biking track (as used at the mtb world cup!).  We’re just doing this for fun, but if you want to come up to Fort William and cheer us on, we’d love to see you!  It’s on May 30th.

This means I’m cutting my road training with stints on the mountain bike, going to work on the muddy offroad trail along Silverknowes and through the Dalmeny estate.  In April, I’m going to head up to Fort William to check out the course – the bikehike site shows a few good 100m climbs in there.  I read a riders review from last year talking about lots of people walking the rocky sections – but now I have no idea whether that means they’re scary huge or ridable.

The Story

At some point last year, I decided that cycling from Lands End to John O’Groats was something that I could attempt.   Since then I’ve been doing lots of training rides, cycling to work as much as possible, deciding on gear and tech and plotting potential routes on maps.  I intend to keep this blog updated as I complete the buildup and will also send updates whilst en-route.

I’m raising money for the Sick Kids hospital, and you can visit my sponsorship page at

I’ll be getting the train down to Penzance and then starting the ride from Lands End on May 11th.  I’ll be doing the ride solo and unsupported (ie. carrying all my own stuff) and will be staying in B&B’s along the way.  The total distance is over 1000 miles, passing up the west coast of England, through Glasgow and then heading north along Loch Ness towards the highlands.  I picked the start date to avoid busy school holidays and to try to get decent cycling weather (neither too hot or too cold, fingers crossed).

I originally intended to do the ride on my hub-geared Courier Nexus bike because I love hub gears, but after doing lots of longer rides I found that wind resistance is a big deal.  So now I’ll be doing the ride on a Ridgeback Horizon touring bike with drop handlebars.  For navigation, I’ll have pages torn out of a road atlas, plus a GPS system to keep me going in the right direction.

For training, I’ve been gradually doing longer rides.  Last summer, I cycled to my parents place and back (~50miles).  Then in September I cycled to my inlaws place (60miles) and then back the next day (another 60 miles).  I try to cycle to work when life allows it (10 miles there, 10 miles back).  I got back into training in January with a freezing cold 25 mile loop through Musselburgh, Dalkeith and Loanhead – made the mistake of not taking enough food, and underestimated the effect of getting chilled.  Then, a few weekends later, I did a 20 ride out to Gullane with the wind behind me, followed by a painful return home against a gale.  Last weekend, I did a 55 mile loop around via the Kincardine bridge – it was even warm and sunny at one point!  And this weekend I’m planning a 65 mile ride.  I seem to be averaging about 14mph over a typical 4 hour ride.

Training also involves getting used to eating more food than I normally do.  Last weekend’s ride burned something like 2,500 calories and I need to keep myself fueled during the big ride.  So I’m trying to get used to loading up with extra food.

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