Thursday, June 28, 2018

LEJOG with Peak Tours

When Amber and I decided to ride LEJOG (Land's End to John O'Groats) we decided to look for a tour company to deal with the logistics. After some research we settled on Peak Tours because they have a professional website (I'm a web site designer) and they provide catered lunches, morning and afternoon snack stops, full support, and optional bike rentals.

Right from the start they answered questions about bike rentals quickly, often within the hour even on weekends. We found the cost of flying our bikes to the UK and back to the USA was prohibitive and the reasonable cost of renting Peak Tours' excellent bikes made renting the better option. We had the choice of light road bikes with 28mm tires or heavier touring bikes with 32mm tires. We had other options too, but these were the ones that looked best to us because we like drop handlebars. In the end we chose the 32mm tires which, given the state of the roads in Monmouthshire, Cheshire, and most of Scotland, was the right choice.

We confirmed the availability of the rental bikes and paid our deposit. Two months before the ride we received detailed cue sheets and paid the rest of the fees. With the weakness of the pound right now, we Americans are getting a great deal. Three weeks before the start we received the GPS files which I annotated and loaded into my smart phone (I use the ridewithgps app for navigation). One week before the ride we got the accommodation details. There were 25 riders in the group, and most nights we were at different overnight locations. Most of the time we were only a few hundred yards apart but one night we were split into two groups ten miles apart. I tweaked the GPS files to take me door to door and reloaded them onto my smart phone.

One thing about modern living is that I always seem to be charging something - lights, phone, external battery pack, watch, etc. Amber and I both bought international USB chargers which worked really well. In the UK the wall outlets have switches next to them - don't forget to turn them on. We also saw something odd in two hotels we hadn't seen before. By the door to the room is a slot on the wall that you have to put your key card into to get the power on. When you leave the room you must remember to take your card and when you remove it the power goes off. We had to call reception at the first hotel that had one of these to figure out how to turn the power on. We felt a bit silly.

We flew over on Norwegian Airlines, which we were pleased with. The price was very reasonable and we got two meals and a wide selection of current movies and TV shows included. It's a long flight and it's important to be comfortable. I managed to snag an emergency exit row for no extra charge. We arrived in Gatwick two days before the start of the ride and stayed at the Airport Inn at Gatwick. I wouldn't recommend it. We were in England almost an hour before it started to rain.

We took the train down to Penzance (first class - very nice) and stayed at the Union Hotel which had a bluegrass band playing that evening that was a blast. One problem with England is that much of the accommodation is in public houses (bars) which can be very noisy. We didn't get to sleep until after 1am because of Saturday night revelers. We were pleased that Peak Tours put us into quiet B&Bs and hotels. In fact that's one of the advantages of a tour organizer - they've weeded out the noisy hotels and grumpy landlords.

The following day Peak Tours dropped by to carry us to St. Just which is six miles from Land's End. It's a lovely little town. Amber and I were introduced to our rental bikes at the Commercial Hotel and we installed our pedals, saddles, and aerobars and went for a test ride to Land's End and back. Amber discovered her rear brakes didn't work very well so we told David and he arranged for new pads to be installed before we started the next day. Meanwhile we walked around and found a small eatery called the Cook Book. We ate one of the best cream teas ever there. I sent a photo to my wife just to tease her. Then we headed to the pre-ride get together to meet each other, our guides, and receive our Peak Tours cycling jerseys which, for some reason, are sized at least two sizes smaller than normal. It's the first time Amber has ever worn a large!

We started the tour the next day. I'll walk you through the first day - the other thirteen are pretty similar. Breakfast was provided by our overnight location. We could have anything up to and including a full English or Scottish breakfast which top out at around 1500 calories. We packed our bags and took them down to the reception to be picked up by Peak Tours. Our itinerary told us when and where we would meet to start. Normally we met around 8:45 at or very near our overnight location. David or one of the other guides would give us a quick overview of the day indicating the distance and climbing, and notable hazards, and most importantly the location of lunch and the morning and afternoon brew stops. Fifteen minutes later we'd be off. The guides took it in turns to ride at the back of the pack each day so they could provide assistance.

Ken would shoot off the front chased by some of the stronger riders such as Adrian or Ian. We would ride about 20 miles or so to the morning brew stop. Being a seasoned randonneur I thought brew stops would be a waste of time, but I was wrong. I came to see them as an essential part of civilized bicycle touring. The van would stop at the appointed place and tables set out with table cloths and a small vase of flowers. Hot tea or coffee would be offered to the riders together with a selection of fresh fruit, cake, biscuits, sweets, and other goodies. Quite often Amber would discover a new goody such as millionaire's shortbread or battenburg that she had never had before. We also filled up with water and had access to our drop bags. Our main bags would be in the main van being delivered to our hotel rooms.

Lunch would normally be at a pub and we were very well fed. It would sometimes be a huge buffet or a generous meal. We would pay for our own drinks. I got to like an orange juice in a pint glass topped up with lemonade. It is very thirst quenching. One meal included a cream tea! At one lunch stop we met some cyclists that were touring with another company but their lunches weren't catered so they were having a beer and a bag of crisps. When they saw the food we were being given they were jealous. We encouraged them to give Peak Tours a try next time.

After a leisurely lunch we rode on to the afternoon brew stop which was pretty much the same as the morning one except that the guides had done some shopping and some of the food would be different. It was lovely to try all the different stuff they bought for us. I really want to try to do something like a brew stop at the Five Rivers 300k brevet I host each year. I think the riders would love it.

After the afternoon brew stop we rode on to our overnight accommodation. Our bags would already be in our rooms. All we had to do was shower and change. Then we went out for a walk to stretch our legs and find somewhere to eat. This was the only meal not provide by Peak Tours. We would also try to buy any new foods that we'd enjoyed during the day to take home with us. The guides joked that Amber's suitcase was rapidly approaching the density of shortbread. Many of the overnights are in beautiful towns with rivers, castles, and many interesting things to investigate. We probably walked an average of three to five miles each evening.

Laundry became a bit of an issue. For some reason even moderate sized towns have no public laundry facilities. When we found them we used them even if we didn't have a full load. Even so, we had to sink wash clothes a couple of times. We had three sets of cycling and evening clothes. I would recommend at least four sets and bring or buy a bottle of liquid detergent both for sink washing and because launderettes don't have detergent vending machines. Also save your pound coins.

At the end of the tour, we had a final dinner at John O'Groats where we were presented with certificates of completion and one of the mugs we drank so much tea from at the brew stops. We had a whip-round and a card for our guides. I hope they got a huge tip - they earned it.

The Sunday after the ride ended we all jumped onto a coach that drove us to Inverness - first to the station and then to the airport. It's a long three hour drive and considering we had been sitting on bicycle saddles for two weeks it was surprisingly uncomfortable. Remember to use the rest room before getting onto the coach!

We were so impressed by Peak Tours that we are planning a hiking vacation in a couple of years in the Peak District. Touring with Peak Tours is like a luxury cruise where you spend a lot of time in the gym.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Lejog day 14.- 6/16/2018

Today was the last day and we rode from Crask to John O'Groats.

Although Crask is the ideal distance from John O'Groats there's only room for a small number of guests there so the slowest riders were booked at Crask and the rest of the us spent the night at Lairg in the Highland Hotel. We were driven back to Crask this morning and reunited with our riding buddies.

The first 30 miles North to the coast at Bettyhill were absolutely gorgeous and slightly downhill.

First sign to John O'Groats

After Bettyhill the road got very lumpy but fortunately it flattened out again after about twenty miles. Lunch was in the Halladale Inn near Portskerra. Last lunch - I'm starting to feel sad.

At the afternoon brew stop I felt a few drops of rain, looked up, and foolishly said to the sky "Don't you dare". Within seconds it was raining and Julie had to get the canopy out to protect the goodies and keep the rain out of our tea. Last brew stop - I'm going to miss this.

Putting up the canopy, I'm too busy taking photographs and apologizing to help

The wet roads are all my fault
About ten miles from John O'Groats we all regrouped at the Northern Sands hotel.

Northern Sands hotel

We all agreed we should let Mike and Liz finish the ride first. We rode at a relaxed pace for the last ten miles. I dropped to the back then rode forward through the pack saying hi to everyone.

We finally got to the famous signpost and then it was all over.

Mike and Liz at the John O'Groats signpost.

We rode 83.3 miles and climbed 4380'.

I'm getting all nostalgic writing about this day. It was a wonderful holiday and I rode a great route, with lovely riders, and with the best touring company. Before we started, Julie told me she had ridden this route twice. I asked her why. Now I understand.

Lejog day 13 - 7/15/2018

Today we rode from Inverness to Crask.

After the best porridge of the vacation we were reunited with our bikes and, after the obligatory kilted Scotsman, we headed out over yet another impressive bridge over the River Ness.

Kilted Scotsman

Crossing the mouth of the River Ness

The roads to the morning brew stop were hilly, rough, and lovely.

Morning brew stop - no haggis fortunately
Afternoon brew stop (I think)

After the morning brew stop the scenery just kept getting better.

We almost got stuck at some kind of police incident but they re-opened the road just as we got there which was a stroke of good fortune. We ended up on a dirt road that went down to some kind of river rapids. Some of the riders, including Amber, hiked down to this salmon leap but I didn't feel like it so I took a rest while I waited.

The last twelve miles to Crask were hard. There was a headwind and a slight uphill. The road was single track but the oncoming traffic was frequent enough to make passing difficult. There are only two buildings in Crask - the pub and a house. The crazy thing is once we got to Crask a minibus picked us up and took us 12 miles back to Lairg while we left our bikes in Crask. I didn't make the mistake of leaving my meds on the bike this time.

We had a group meal at Lairg. I don't remember much about it except it was a good meal. Today we rode about 70 miles and climbed a mere 3800'.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Lejog day 12 - 07/14/2018

Today we had planned to ride from Ballater to Inverness across the Cairngorms. Storm Hector had arrived overnight so Julie did an early drive along the course and returned with bad news at our morning briefing.

Today's route contained some of the steepest climbs of the tour and was exposed to 60+ mph cross winds for the first half. We were urged to allow Peak Tours to arrange for transportation to Inverness. Five or six of the more testosterone impregnated riders (none of them female) decided to ride anyway. I was not one of them.

As we were passing the riders I noticed the minibus driver had his steering wheel almost a quarter turn to the left to stay in a straight line at some points. The wind was pushing the riders into oncoming traffic. There were occasional heavy showers and at the higher elevations the temperature was down to 2C which, apparently, felt like -10C with the wind. Those descents must have been sphincter clenching.

Their decision was selfish in some ways because it meant that a Peak Tours guide had to ride with them. Dave drew the short straw and I could tell he was not happy about it. Honestly, I think it would have made a lot more sense to have him drive one of the vans in close support. If one of the riders had got into difficulty,  Dave would have been able to SAG him out.

Even though we were disappointed to be unable to ride the entire distance, it was obvious we had made the right decision. It was such a horrible day I didn't even take any photographs. We were relieved to hear that all the riders and Dave made it through in one piece.

We took the opportunity in Inverness to get some shopping and laundry done. Inverness is a big city on the mouth of the River Ness (same as Loch Ness). It has a Marks and Spencers which we visited twice and a modern brick castle which we visited once. It's a very pleasant city to spend an unexpected day in.

I normally rode with my meds in the bike pannier and made the mistake of leaving them there while we were driven to Inverness. I didn't realize I would not get my bike back until the following morning so I couldn't get to them for the entire day. That was a bad mistake.

We had the best porridge ever at the B&B there.

Lejog day 11 - 6/13/2018

Today we rode from Kinross to Ballater. It was a long day with lot's of climbing up to the Cairgorms.
In the afternoon we had a very difficult climb up to the Glenshee ski center with short sections of 20% up to 2500'.

Here's guide David test riding a small rider's bike he was trying to fix. Looks pretty awkward to me.

In the morning we passed through Perth which is small, bike friendly and scenic.


Lunch was at the Wee Tea Shop in the middle of nowhere. They treated us to a splendid lunch and made Martina a lovely vegan lunch. They sell many wonderful things so I bought Sherry a stag cushion. It is badly overpriced, but I loved the place so much I just had to buy it.

The Wee Tea House is hard to spot from the road

Many good things to buy
After lunch the scenery just kept getting better and better as we climbed.

Near the end of the rider we passed through Balmoral but didn't see the castle. The road from Balmoral to Ballater might have been the best of the entire ride.

It got very overcast and windy towards the end of the day with some rain coming down in the last ten miles. Storm Hector was getting close.

We rode 82 miles and climbed 4761' today. Definitely one of the top five days of the tour.

Lejog day 10 - 6/12/2018

Today was a long day to Kinross. Other than Edinburgh it was a lovely day. We could easily have skirted Edinburgh and I wish we had. Even though it's one of my favorite cities it is not bike friendly.

We started, as usual, with a big climb out of Moffat followed by an even longer downhill.

Lunch was at our first Scottish lunch pub. It was pretty much indistinguishable from the English pub food except for the haggis on the menu.

Scottish pub lunch
After lunch we rode through Edinburgh which is a beautiful city when you're on foot. But there are buses and coaches everywhere and I would not want to drive or cycle through it. Plus most of the streets are cobbled.


After Edinburgh the riding became nice again and the Firth of Forth bridge was even more impressive than the Severn bridge.

The iconic Forth bridge only carries rail traffic now
Note the GoPro camera mount on my aerobars. That's how I took most of my photos and videos.

After crossing the Forth the approach to Kinross was mainly quiet, scenic roads including this unexpected bike path.

Today we rode 81.8 miles with 4134' of climbing. One of the longest days. Clouds were coming in rapidly as Storm Hector approached. Named storms are never good.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Lejog day 9 - 6/11/2018

Today we rode to Moffat, Scotland. Amber had never been to Scotland before. I was determined to check haggis off my bucket list today. Haggis isn't haggis unless it's eaten in Scotland.

We had good road surfaces today until we got to Scotland.  They're noticeably worse there although the very worst was yet to come. Traffic was increased which surprised me. We overshot the first brew stop and had to turn back. I guess we were really enjoying the roads


Take a look at Ian's form - no hip swivel at all and very steady. Ex-pro?

The brew stop was tucked away in a car park on the right but Jim managed to get our attention so we wheeled around and had a cup of tea. Then on to lunch.

We also overshot the lunch stop which was at a pub a few yards before the Scottish border. We got there early so we decided to take a photo at the border.

Scottish border

Last English lunch
After lunch we were in Scotland. While the lowlands roads were still reasonably smooth, the traffic was heavier - possibly because they seem to have fewer roads. The Scottish are very proud and seem to hold some resentment against the English so I found myself playing up my American accent.

Here's a video of Mike and Liz on  their electric assisted bikes. Note how Liz takes the lane, which is probably the safest option considering the width of her hand tricycle. She rode Lejog on an electric assisted hand tricycle. Amazing. The Peak Tours crew made a special effort to charge, carry, and replace her batteries along the route. Kudos all around.

We finished the day in Moffat.  While looking at Moffat on Google Maps we noticed the Moffat Toffee shop which closed at 5pm so we decided to stop there on the way to our hotel. It is a wonderful store and we spent a lot of time and money there. The only reason we didn't spend twice as much is that we had to carry it all back to the States.

There was a group dinner at the the Star Inn which claims to be the world's thinnest pub. It may well be. There were many other places to eat in Moffat but we decided to be sociable and join the group. This is where I had my first haggis. It was surprisingly good, especially as it had melted cheese on top. The calories, cholesterol, and salt content make this very unhealthy so I'm not planning on eating any more.

Today we rode 73 miles and climbed a mere 2683 feet.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Lejog day 8 - 6/10/2018

Today was the best riding day of the whole trip (there had to be one). We rode to Penrith through the lake district and it was scenic and flat, with decent roads and light traffic.

Cream tea for lunch
Here are some of the mellow roads we rode.

Amber and Ian admire the view

Afternoon brew stop

I think I have finally found a part of the world that I would rather cycle in than Hampshire - it took almost 60 years.

We stayed at a B&B in Penrith and I ate some uninspired fish and chips for dinner. Perhaps the regular cook was at church. Sunday today, so most of the shops were closed.

You know how, when you've been riding long enough, everything reminds you of something else? Well today was like nothing I'd ever ridden before.

We trode 76.5 miles with 3969' of climbing. Wonderful day.