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A slow start to a long cycle: Britain, end to end


‘One more wouldn’t hurt,’ said Mick.

I looked at him doubtfully. ‘I’m not sure. It’s gone three already. What time does it get dark in Cornwall at this time of year?’

‘Not for ages,’ said Mick, waving his hand dismissively. ‘One more and then we’ll get on.’ He headed back to the bar with our empty beer glasses.

It was a lovely pub, to be sure, and goodness knows when we would be passing this way again. But I was having serious doubts about our ability to cycle over 800 miles if we had managed to get waylaid so easily after only 16. Any competent cyclist would have got to Launceston by now – or at least Liskeard or Lostwithiel.

We were not even in St Ives. And we had been four hours late setting off from Land’s End. We should have been there ready to go at nine that morning but we had overslept. By the time we had stopped for a full English breakfast and Mick had done some lastminute shopping, it was one o’clock before the van containing us and our bikes had fi nally pulled into the Land’s End car park.

The plan had originally been to get the train down to Penzance. However, when I attempted to book tickets for the journey, I quickly discovered that travelling by train in this country is not at all straightforward when accompanied by a bike. It proved impossible to book two people and two bikes on one train. One company said we could reserve places for our bicycles but they could not guarantee that they would be able to travel with us when we arrived at the station. What were we supposed to do? Tell the bikes to follow us down later and we would meet them in the pub?

Rail travel is also not cheap – unless you book six months in advance and travel at five o’clock in the morning. I couldn’t find anything under £200 on the Internet so I trudged to my local station in the vain hope that speaking to someone in person would elicit more information. After queuing for an age, I finally found myself in front of the ticket window and asked whether I could purchase some saver fares to Penzance.

‘They’re not available,’ said the woman behind the counter.

‘When will they go on sale?’ I asked.

The woman in the ticket office shrugged in a manner that clearly indicated she was not remotely interested in either me or my train enquiry.

‘No idea,’ she said. She handed me a leaflet. ‘There’s a phone number on there – ring that,’ she said.

When I got home and phoned the number on the leaflet it connected me to an offshore call centre and the conversation went like this:

‘Can you please tell me when the saver tickets for Bristol to Penzance become available for travel at the end of April?’

‘I’m sorry, those tickets have all gone.’

‘But when were they sold? I was told at the station they are not yet available.’

‘Those tickets are not yet on sale.’

‘But you just said they have sold out.’

‘Yes, those tickets have all sold out.’

‘When did they sell? I thought they were not yet available?’

‘That is correct, they are not yet available.’

‘So how can they be sold out?’

‘Those tickets have all gone.’

‘Do you know what tickets I am asking about?’

‘No, Madam.’

‘Can I just check, are you reading from a script?’

‘Yes, Madam.’

‘I thought so. OK, I’ll leave it.’

At this point I had given up and had called my friend Frank, who had kindly agreed to drive us down to Land’s End in his van.

Avoiding the shops and other attractions, we walked through the complex to the headland and gazed out across the Atlantic. Below us we could hear the sea crashing onto the granite rocks.

Clad in T-shirts, with the springtime sunshine warming our skin, it was hard to believe that after the Isles of Scilly the next landfall was Canada, and that Land’s End is on the same latitude as Newfoundland and Labrador. Typical temperatures in the winter in Labrador fall between –10 and –15°C. Thank goodness for the North Atlantic Drift! If the Gulf Stream does shift, or switch off altogether as some scientists predict, then it might be prudent to invest in a few pairs of thermal pants.

How many less than sensible ideas have been cooked in the pub after one too many beers? This one was no exception. I had been out on an enjoyable bike ride with my good friend Mick a couple of months previously and we were relaxing with a couple of well-earned pints. (Years ago Mick and I had dated for a couple of disastrous months, after which we gave up, agreeing that we weren’t each other’s type. This immediately took the pressure off and we subsequently found we got along rather well. We had fallen into the habit of going for walks and bike rides together once or twice a month and had shared quite a few holidays. Whether our friendship would survive this particular jaunt remained to be seen.)

‘I think we should cycle End-to-End,’ he had announced, after the third pint.

I looked at him blankly. How did one cycle end-to-end? Did he mean single file?

‘End-to-End!’ he said, impatiently. ‘From Land’s End to John o’Groats!’

‘Are you mad?’ I had protested. Neither of us was experienced at cycling long distances. We had once cycled the length of Hadrian’s Wall and back – a ride that had taken over a week, averaging about 25 miles a day – and it had nearly killed us. We were hopelessly slow and had even given up going out with the local cycling group because we kept getting left behind. ‘We can’t manage that! We’re rubbish,’ I said.

‘No we’re not,’ replied Mick. ‘You just think we are because you keep comparing yourself to cyclists who are faster than you.’

‘Well, yes, that’s pretty much everyone,’ I retorted.

‘But don’t you see? We don’t have to go fast. We just have to keep going.’

‘Yes Mick, we have to keep going for miles and miles, thousands of miles.’

‘Ha – less than a thousand,’ he said triumphantly. ‘It’s only 874 miles, I looked it up.’

‘Only!’ I muttered.

Mick was clearly determined and after another beer or two I began to share his enthusiasm. Maybe we could manage it. After all, how hard could it be? Mick was right; it was simply a case of ‘keep pedalling’.

‘OK,’ I said. ‘We’ll do it.’

Now, as we tried not to look at the remembrance plaques for cyclists who had died en route, my enthusiasm was slightly less pronounced. ‘What the hell was I thinking of, agreeing to this?’ I wondered.

I was still not sure what had made me do it. Maybe it was because I was charging towards yet another birthday, which now seemed to be rushing at me faster than a TGV en route to Paris. In my twenties and thirties there had seemed to be all the time in the world to do the things one idealistically hopes to achieve in life. The world was full of possibilities. Plenty of time to get rich, have a career, climb Everest, drive around the world in a beaten-up old bus – the usual things. I was now more than halfway through my forties and had managed none of them. I was running out of time; so maybe it was that. Or maybe I was just a complete idiot. My nerves were getting the better of me and I felt slightly sick. I was hopelessly unprepared. All I had to back me up were a handful of training rides and a lot of bravado. It was too late to back out now though.

Mick, ridiculously, seemed unconcerned and was thoroughly enjoying himself.

We headed back towards the start line outside the entrance to the Land’s End complex. Confusingly, right next to the white line painted across the road with ‘start’ on one side and ‘finish’ on the other, was a no-entry sign for the road ahead. We pondered this for a while before deciding to ignore the sign and, in true cycling tradition, started our epic journey from Land’s End to John o’Groats by heading off in the wrong direction up a oneway street.

This was it. We were off! I turned to wave to Frank as we headed out of sight. I was not used to cycling on a heavily loaded bike and the front wheel wobbled alarmingly. I stopped waving and hastily grabbed the handlebars.

Three minutes later, on the very first gradient, my chain fell off.

Is Ellie going to make it? Find out by buying her book.

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