Land’s End to Nottinghamshire with the Bleasby Bikers by Dr Gisli Jenkins
Land’s End to Bleasby in Nottinghamshire. Not the usual challenge, but a long journey all the same.
400 miles in 4 days to raise money for Action for Pulmonary Fibrosis, a charity aimed at improving the lives of patients who suffer from a progressive disease leading to severe breathlessness and cough making even the simple tasks of daily living harder and harder. We set off from sun drenched Bleasby on our luxury coach trip to Penzance. The atmosphere was great, the weather was fantastic, but I suspected this was likely to be the most comfortable part of the journey.
Le Grand Depart
We reached Land’s End at 8 am on Wednesday 25 June, glorious in bright sunshine. The empty car park which soon filled up with bicycles, spares and food (of sorts). There were 25 of us riding to Bleasby and we would be divided into 3 groups: a slower group; an intermediate group; and a faster group. The faster group consisted of me and Dan, Andy and Nigel.
Whilst the two other groups headed straight for Liskeard we took a detour along the north shore of Cornwall for what is the most beautiful section of road in England. Although it added an extra 15 miles, and a large number of hills, onto our first days riding, the detour was thoroughly worthwhile. Surrounded by moorland and water, with the sun shining brightly across Cornwall, the views over the Atlantic were stunning, matched only by the views over Mounts Bay as we dropped into Penzance from the St Ives peninsula.
After 20 miles we stopped for coffee and cake overlooking St Michael’s Mount in a beautiful café at Marazion. The sun was still shining and we remained upbeat about the journey ahead, but the wind was an unseasonal North Easterly and the forecast suggested that rain was on the way.
We kept in touch with the other two groups via their support vans. They were also in good spirits, making good progress and we planned to meet for lunch in Truro.
As we headed towards Truro, passing over Carnmenellis, at 720 feet one of the highest roads in Cornwall, the clouds started to arrive, but the rain held off. We had our first rendezvous in Truro, and we were told to meet outside a bicycle shop. When we arrived the reason was clear, one of our group had damaged his bicycle on a steep downhill section and had needed to buy a replacement! He was fortunately fine but his bike wasn’t. Only 55 miles in and a bike down already!
After a light, but long, lunch the sun started to shine again, and although the remaining miles were flat until we approached Liskeard, they were into a headwind which was really draining with only four in our group. We caught up with the other two groups on the hills approaching Liskeard and were told that one of the group had been taken to hospital having fallen, fracturing his wrist. The roads into Liskeard were insanely steep farm tracks, and punctures put another couple of riders in the broom waggon. The constant up or down removed what little energy was left in our legs and never has the sight of a Premier Inn been so appealing.
As I drank an ice cold beer and looked over the rolling Cornish farmland I reflected on our first day. This was the shortest day of the trip. We had punctures, hunger knocks, a broken bike, and a broken wrist and we still hadn’t left Cornwall! If I thought this was going to be easy I had been disabused. Then I saw the weather forecast for day 2.
The forecast for day 2 was bad. The wind was easterly, and therefore cold, and the rain was due at around 10 am. Our route took us over Dartmoor and so we planned to get off early to try and get off Dartmoor before the rains came. We set of as fast as we could, and reached Tavistock in Devon after an hour, we then headed towards Princeton on Dartmoor up Rundlestone Climb, one of the top 100 climbs in the UK. It will be forever etched into my consciousness, as I had to squeeze out every ounce of energy and motivation to move the bike forward uphill into a headwind that got stronger and stronger the closer to the top of the moor we got.
The four of us split up on the road, every man for himself. I chose not to wear a rain jacket to avoid the increased wind resistance but as the drizzle arrived I was beginning to feel very cold. We regrouped on the decent into Princeton, with the wind howling into our faces, and the rain chasing our tails, it was still tough going. I saw Dartmoor prison looking very bleak on this cold grey wet midsummers day and my only thought, other than don’t people die of exposure on Dartmoor, was under no circumstances must I stop up here and I was to get off this godforsaken place as fast as my legs would carry me.
We turned North towards Crediton and the finest sight of the day, in the low light of sun partly obscured by storm clouds we stood on the brow of Dartmoor looking north, over what seemed to be the whole of the UK. We had made it! We had traversed Dartmoor without getting soaked. We spared a thought for our 20 fellow riders still out on the moor in the howling gale, surely getting soaked by now, and then remembered we had a further 50 miles to the finish, and dropped down the decent to Crediton.
Coffee in Crediton with Dan and Nigel
By the time we reached Crediton, we were soaked, we were cold, and we were hungry. We stopped for coffee and cake and waited for the rain to ease off. Refuelled we made a break for our overnight stop in Taunton still some 40 miles away, but at least it was flat and with the wind dropping we made good time.
The mud and rainwater did leave pretty alarming patterns on our bikes, clothing and faces but we got to Taunton without mishap and we waited for the other groups to arrive before having dinner and preparing for day 3 to Tewksebury.
We had breakfast and watched the weather forecast. Once again heavy rain was the order of the day, but the wind had moved south and we made quick work of the Somerset levels. Although, it was not on the “official” route we decided that we could not miss the opportunity to climb Cheddar Gorge, another one of the top 100 climbs in the UK, so we left our fellow riders for a detour up Cheddar. It was a short, but hard climb to the top, the rain had picked up, and furthermore we were lost. We reached a cross roads at the top of a hill.
We knew that if we went down we would either end up back on the Somerset levels with another long climb waiting, or we would be on the road to Bristol. There was some discontent in the ranks but I was confident down was the right way. As we descended the rain got even heavier and so we swung into a café off the side of the road to find our bearings and dry off.
The café was empty as we walked in soaked, leaving a large puddle on the floor as we waited to ask the owner for the way to Bristol. Nigel, who was most upset at the prospect of having to climb the hill in the rain again, had gone to the bathroom when the owner asked us whether we wanted something to eat and drink.
I replied that it rather depended on the answer to the following question. “Which way is Bristol?” She replied “I guess you don’t want me to say back up there?” Andy and I looked sheepishly at the rapidly enlarging puddle at our feet, as we considered how to break the news to Nigel. “Fortunately its down there turn left then first right and you will be on the Bristol road. Would you like me to put your clothes in the dryer while you have something to eat? But I’m not drying your shorts!”
So within a jiffy there we were three old men, and Dan, our younger comrade, drinking coffee and eating cake topless in a large but empty café at bottom of Burrington Coombe. As our clothes dried, the café started to fill for lunch, and some of the older ladies were clearly quite impressed with Dan’s physique as he strutted around on his phone oblivious to the attention his naked torso was attracting.
After an hour the rain abated and we headed off to Tewksbury. The hills stopped once we reached Bristol, the Clifton suspension bridge was resplendent in the sunshine, and we managed the rest of the day at an average over 20 mph. We made it to Tewkesbury in bright sunshine and once more I was able to sit and reflect on another wet but satisfying day with the reward of an ice cold beer.
Three old men and Dan (Nigel, Dan, Gisli, Andy)
For the last day we were joined by further riders from Bleasby who planned just to ride the final leg with us back to our homecoming in Bleasby.
Today was to be the flattest but longest day. To ensure we reached Bleasby together at the appointed time of 6pm we split into two groups of mixed ability riders separated by 15 minutes. However, Nigel had a puncture to start the day and I stayed with him to help him catch the group up who carried on towards Bleasby.
It was a hard riding to catch them, but we couldn’t let them get too far ahead as we had no directions beyond Stratford. Shortly after we rejoined our group another rider had a chain failure that lead to a considerable delay. Less than 15 miles ridden and an hour behind schedule already. This was exacerbated in Stratford, where the group split following another mechanical mishap, and we had to regroup in the car park of Asda.
Some of us took this opportunity to refuel with coffee and cake and others took the opportunity to get wet.
As we left Stratford, Andy, who had been by far the strongest rider over the last 3 days had a puncture, as he started to fix it the heavens opened again. So myself and Nigel stayed with him to help him catch the main group. Then the game ‘a trail of pebbles’ was born. Only one person knew the route so he kept riding as fast as the group could manage, at each junction the strongest rider remaining in the group was left as a “pebble” to direct the Andy, Nigel and myself towards the main group.
Thus an expanding group of stronger riders chased down the diminishing original group of progressively weaker riders. The stronger group were able to bury themselves safe in the knowledge that at the next junction they would get a rest as a slower rider joined the pack and the pace would rationalise. Despite a further puncture we caught the main group just before the lunch break.
However we were still an hour behind for the rendezvous and would need to ride at a healthy average without further mishap to make the scheduled finish. We finished our lunch, and set off along the Fosse way to Leicester. The Fosse is a long, straight, undulating road built by the Romans linking Exeter to Lincoln.
The signs to Leicester raised our spirits, we were nearly there. We crossed the Trent near Kegworth, and now were in very familiar territory almost home and catching the first group with every wheel revolution. We all came back together at Thurgarton two miles from the finish and we rode in a ceremonial procession through the finish line in Bleasby. It was a staggering homecoming. The village green had a number of marquees, there was food and beer provided and hundreds of villagers had turned out to greet us. A real carnival atmosphere, and the sun had finally decided to come out.
Just over 400 miles in four days. My major concern was that because I cycle regularly for fun, to race and commute, that this would be an insufficient challenge to justify the money people had given me for Action for Pulmonary Fibrosis. I was wrong, both the cause and the challenge were worthy. There were a number of occasions, but particularly climbing up and over Dartmoor, when I needed every ounce of physical and mental strength to keep going.
This was possible because I knew that at some point the suffering would stop and it would be replaced either by coffee, cake or a beer. It is humbling to remember that many of the people who suffer from pulmonary fibrosis face a challenge of a similar scale on a daily basis, usually without reward or let up at the end of the journey. Hopefully the money raised will go some way to alleviating that suffering.
The End of the Ride