78 hours in the saddle

A few years ago, Ian Palmer, Rohan Managing Director, and his great friend Jim Price, took two weeks out to ride from John o’ Groats to Land’s End. The plan was to stop at as many Rohan shops as possible – mainly for support and all-important homemade cake. Amazing sights across Britain, some tough Scottish hills, and even tougher Scottish headwinds, made for some hard riding. To be fair it just made the cake taste better.

From John o’ Groats, through Inverness, then Edinburgh and into the North East of England. From Darlington across the country again to Warwick, then through Bristol, Exeter, Bodmin and onto Land’s End.

"We were supported all the way by a combination of people. My wife Andria supported us through Scotland and then again from Bristol to the finish. For the section between North East England and Bristol, three of the Rohan Area Managers gave their time. What this meant was that we only needed to carry a spare inner tube, some water and a coat, and that was it. We didn’t need panniers and we could use our road bikes without loading up with soft luggage and clutter.We did this purely for the adventure. We love riding our bikes and this was a great way of linking far-flung stores with a pretty adventurous road ride."

Ian Palmer

Rohan Managing Director

Pre-ride nerves

Overall excitement in the days leading up to our ride had turned to nerves. On our first day we were due to complete 76 miles into a 25mph headwind, uphill with up to 13% gradients. All the faffing, gear buying, bravado and training was sure to get its toughest test on the first day.

Route, bike, gear, support, bike (with all matching gear), Garmin GPS, hotels booked – this was set to be 11 days of fun and at the end, an amazing achievement. Despite a late start to our training we both chalked up well over 1,500 miles each in the lead up.

Day 1

If I wanted to pedal this hard downhill, I’d be mountain biking!

Before I go into detail of what happened on that first day, let me set a few expectations.

• We did plan to do this in October. And we knew that on a ride from John o’ Groats to Land’s End, the weather could easily be against us.

• We know that the consequences of our actions were entirely down to the choices we made.

• We didn’t write about our trip to get any sympathy, but… that first day – it was awful. Really awful.

The first day had got to be the worst day on a bike we’ve ever had. Don’t get me wrong, there were highlights, like seeing Andria parked on the roadside at Brora and again at Wick. And seeing Andria parked up at the roadside twice more. Other than that, we enjoyed the 13% climb out of Helmsdale and the five mile climb up to Dornoch.

What all these things have in common, was that they were the only times we were out of the wind (the wind wasn’t blowing downhill so, whilst the hill was tough to climb, there was no wind).

Imagine standing at the side of a busy, fast road, close to the edge where the pavement meets the road, then as a lorry charges past, notice the pressure with which the wind hits you. That’s it. That’s what we had been riding into ALL day. Relentless.

I had a new cog on the back with 29 teeth on it. This, I said at the time, would make it easier to go up the big hills. I never thought that I would ever need that big cog to get downhill, but on the first day, without that big cog, there were three hills I would not have made it down.

In summary, terrible. One we don’t want to relive. We’re proud of it though; it may have taken nearly eight hours at an average speed of just under 10mph, but we did it and, despite everything, were still keen to ride again on day two.

Note: By the way, we both wore Rohan Elite Jackets over superfine Merino Base Layers at the time. A great combination for keeping us safe and warm all day. In today’s range, we would have opted for the Momentum Jacket.

Day 2 - Onwards and upwards (mostly)

From day two onwards, we rested at a number of B&Bs and stopped off at a few Rohan stores along the way where we were warmly greeted with cakes and tea.

We learned many lessons along the way, including how to get the average speed up on a bike.

✔ Get rid of the wind.

✔ Plug the iPod in and listen to a fast-paced album.

For the 43 miles from Dornoch to Inverness on day two, that’s exactly what we did. ‘Running trax (1)’ was my go-to, and for Jim it was the ‘Chasing Legends’ soundtrack. With no wind and some high energy music, our average went from day one’s disastrous 9mph, to just over 15mph. So, it goes without saying, by the time we reached the Rohan Inverness shop, we were so much happier than the day before.

I must admit, when the Inverness shop team showed us the route they had planned for us, (which was very different to the one we had planned!), we did panic. Until this point we had very meticulous routes planned with some very specific points to meet Andria in the car. Our new route was a potentially very scenic ride along the old A9 and a selection of cycle paths.

It didn’t start too well.

When climbing the first hill out of Inverness, we may have missed our turning. The worst navigational nightmare in cycling has got to be to head back to where you left from and start again.

But – after that shaky start, we were back on track, and it was brilliant. We rode roads that without the local knowledge and company of our Inverness team, we would never have come across. They were brilliant guides, great company, and despite their original fears, matched and led us brilliantly for pace for the whole 31 miles.

All in all, a fantastic day. The day after that would see us go from Aviemore to Dunfermline. That’s 112 miles. The weather forecast was set to be good with North Westerly winds behind us for most of the way.

Two more lessons learned…

✔ If you are ever cycling the end to end, put Rohan Inverness on your route – you will get a warm welcome.

✔ Sometimes it is worth throwing the route plan away and putting trust in the locals.

Day 3

My recollection of events from day 3 are a little patchy, so bear with me. The fatigue was already starting to set in, I know that much. We left Aviemore at 8.30am, cycled 120 miles, of which the last 30 from Perth to Dunfermline were in the dark. It snowed, it rained, it was windy. The temperature was about 4 degrees and it was sunny at times. We arrived at our next B&B just after 9pm.

There wasn’t much chat at the breakfast table the following morning. There was snow on the hills, rain in the air, 115 miles ahead and the prospect of spending a lot of our day on the A9.

“Don’t go on the A9” is the one view everyone we spoke with had in common, but no amount of studying the road map showed us an alternative, but road maps don’t show cycle networks, do they? So, inspired by the Ravenscraig B&B owner, our next day was excellent thanks to national cycle networks and Sutrans.

We took the cycle networks route 7 all the way to Pitlochory, one of Scotland’s most beautiful and vibrant places to visit, and then the route 77 from Pitlochory to Perth. Whilst not made for road bikes, it was this or the A9, and this was far safer.

These cycle routes were amazing. At times they were just the old A9, at other times they were a single track down hills equal to some of the off-road track at Afan Valley. Within minutes, with hood zipped to the top, music blaring, Jim and I forgot all about our super thin slick tyres, easily breakable bikes, rain and slippery surfaces, and got our mountain biking heads on.

We hit Perth at 6pm, still with 29 miles to go to Dunfermline. After the second of today’s picnics provided by Andria, we fixed all our lights on and headed on to Dunfermline. We arranged a meeting point at a place called Gateside to give us chance to change our minds about doing this, or to carry on for the last 20.

We loved it. With the right clothing on to keep the weather out and the challenge of navigating an unknown area at night, this seemed to energise us both. There was a huge hill just outside Perth heading towards Gateside which went on for about 5 miles. We averaged 10mph all the way up, which may not sound particularly fast, and was not as fast as the guy that overtook us, but with 90 miles on the clock, we were delighted.

We reached our next B&B at 9pm. That day was 12 hours on the road and 10 hours in the saddle. Andria had prepared a buffet which was demolished in about 10 minutes.

Day 4

I remember it involved coffee, Danish pastries and energy bars at the Rohan Edinburgh store, and a small incident with a taxi driver who clipped my arm with his wing mirror. After a quick jacket change, we followed the A7 out of Edinburgh and towards Wooler.

The roads across the borders and into Northumberland are amazing. A brilliant smooth surface and incredible rolling hills. A great opportunity to make up some time and with the weather and roads in our favour, have some real fun. Edinburgh to Coldstream was made up of roads simply perfect for cycling.

We arrived at Wooler at 5.30pm. Our earliest finish yet with another 80 miles on the clock and day 4 in the bag. For the next few days, Craig Lees, Senior Area Manager, gave up his weekend to join and support us.

Day 5

Rain. More rain. Nothing our waterproof Rohan jackets couldn’t cope with though.

Better than that, a picnic lunch courtesy of the team at Rohan Newcastle where we made our next pit stop. Homemade sandwiches, pork pies, cakes, beer – lovely.

Not forgetting the fact that Prince Charles waved at us that day. Well, not actually at us, just in our general direction, but we like to think he picked us out of the crowd because he knew we had cycled 47 miles to get to Newcastle.

After our pit stop where we ate far too much, we navigated our way across the ‘high level bridge’ and onto the A167 through Durham and on towards Darlington where we’d stop over for the night.

Craig did well on his first day of support. Warm sausage sandwiches at stop one and then coffees at the third stop (stop two being the Newcastle picnic).

As we finally settled down for the night, two thoughts were in our minds:

1. What treat will Rohan York have for us at lunch tomorrow?

2. Why did we pick Worksop to stay?

Day 6

Answer to question 1. Delicious homemade biscuits.

Craig told us as we had our first stop at 25 miles at the small market town of Thirsk. He went on to explain that Thirsk was a stopover for horses and carriages trying to break the London to Edinburgh journey time in the olden days. He showed us the Golden Fleece hotel and explained how they prided themselves on changing the horses really quickly so the carriages could be on their way.

History lesson over, I ran over the road to take a photo of a shop called ‘Rhythm and Booze’ so I could send it to our now Head of Retail Sales and Operations, Richard Morrison, as he likes shops with clever names.

Craig’s support replacement from day 6 was Rohan Area Manager, John Nurse. Vigilant in keeping his eye on us and our progress. At 53 miles we were at the Rohan York shop, eating (again), including homemade cookies the team made for us. For the entire 53 miles and for the remaining 54 we plead: ‘Come on Yorkshire, sort your roads out.’

Don’t get me wrong, Yorkshire is beautiful – but the road surfaces are appalling. It was a day of pain and excessive use of ‘chamois butter’ and pain killers. However, the stopover in Worksop was brilliant and Area Manager John Nurse, after waking from his mid-afternoon snooze, dropped our bags at the hotel and we met some friends who drove up from Newark to join us for dinner.

The next day would see us ride 84 miles from Worksop to Warwick, with John joining us for breakfast before setting off at 8.30am.

Day 7

The weather forecast from the Met Office: 19mph south westerly winds all day. That’s in our faces ALL DAY! Otherwise, there wasn’t much to report on day 7. In Tour de France terms, it was a ‘transitional stage’. One of those stages that gets thrown in to take the riders from one fun stage to the next. We covered 94 miles which just seemed to go on and on, and on and on.

On the plus side, there was plenty of time to enjoy some music along the way. To pass the time, we analysed the lyrics to various songs. As you do. If day 8 was going to be as dull as day 7, we planned to analyse further songs.

Day 8

Sadly there was no shop visit on day 8 but we did have a quick pit stop at Sherwood Forest on our way through Nottinghamshire. We then made our way on to Stratford and Stow, and said goodbye for now to John.

Rohan Stratford upon Avon put on homemade banana cake and tea for us. Good shout.

Next up was Rohan Stow on the Wold, a 23-mile ride from Stratford. After dicing with death along the Moreton in the Marsh high street (it gets busy on market day), there was a huge climb up to Stow. Upon our arrival we were greeted by the team who excitedly announced that Kate Winslet had just been in and was coming back to collect the items she’d bought.

Kate wasn’t keen to have her photo taken with us, after 7 days on the road we couldn’t blame her, but she was interested to hear about our trip and seemed politely impressed by our efforts. With Kate gone, we were served homemade lemon drizzle cake, a box of Stow on the Wold fudge and a tub of Vaseline.

The ride from Stow to Woodford was brilliant. Not only had we been told by a famous movie star that we are great, the roads were excellent. Not quite the same quality of Northumberland’s surfaces, but the constant up and down of the hills was a lot of fun. The 14% hill at Fosse Bridge was as steep as we were warned, but not as long.

That night we joined friends for a roast dinner and Andria joined us again for the last 3 days of the trip.

Day 9

We started a little late on day 9 as breakfast was a slow and sociable affair with friends, but onwards to the shop we had in Bristol at the time. They pulled out all the stops and took the top spot for treats and surprises – a foot spa, homemade cakes, meringues and fancy dress. They also had a homemade map on the wall to track our progress.

By the time we arrived there, Andria and Lloyd (who jointly supported us for the last 3 days) were shopping. Lloyd had on a Merino Base Layer, Gradient fleece and Elite waterproof jacket.

It was ‘Mufti Day’ – a day where people wear ‘normal clothes’. Actually, it was ‘Dress Ian and Jim in Pink Day’. We were supplied with special outfits to wear – Jim took the legwarmers, pink skirt and fluffy pink feather boa, I took the fairy wings, skirt, pink gloves and bunny ears. We certainly received a lot of attention and spent the next 15 miles getting beeped at and wolf whistled.

From Bristol, which was only 16 miles in, we still had 70+ miles to do to the market town of Crediton. We were running really late and so managed a flying pit stop at Taunton after a further 40 miles, then on through to Tiverton.

At Tiverton it was getting dark but there was only 12 miles left. So, we both consumed an energy gel and a couple of falafels and set off. What we hadn’t spotted was the HUGE climb that went over a hill and into Crediton. After 90 miles the last thing we wanted was a huge climb, but that’s what we got.

We made it though. Puffing, blowing, complaining and making grunting noises, we made it. Then there was the 'payback’ of downhill the other side. This was awesome! Pitch black, roughly 10% gradient, pouring with rain, twisty as anything and only our two bike lights lighting the way.

We had no idea what speeds we were hitting, most likely 20+ mph with an occasional hitting of 25. There is nothing more capable of kicking the adrenaline in than taking a sharp corner in the rain, in the dark, and clipping a cat’s eye to remind us how vulnerable and some would say reckless this downhill was.

We arrived in Crediton at 8pm, shaking with adrenaline, nerves and cold. A brilliant conclusion to a long day.

Day 10

We won’t go into detail about the previous night’s accommodation, but Jim is still working the legwarmers.

On with the journey and wow, there are some hills across the moors. Not just normal hills, but those steep hills with % signs showing how steep they are. Within minutes we were on a long single track 20% hill, then another, then another.

Once up on the moor the riding is amazing. Long steep up hills, followed by crazy fast downhill. The whole lot is done with sheep looking on from their comfy seats at the roadside. On one of the downhills, I did wonder what would happen if a sheep ran out in front of me. I didn’t have to wait long to find out. Normally the sheep would see us coming and run away from the road and into the hills. Apart from one. She was resting nicely on the left-hand side of the road until she saw me coming then, braking with tradition, she decided to cross the road and head into the hills.

With no idea what to do, and approaching the sheep at in excess of 35mph, I settled for shouting loudly, grabbing a fist full of front and back brakes and closing my eyes. It worked. I don’t recommend it as a strategy, but when you’re approaching the side of a sheep at speed, there’s not a lot else you can do.

Pumped full of adrenaline, I then managed to achieve a personal speed record of 45.8mph on the next hill and Jim managed a top speed of 47.2mph. Once the moors were complete, we had lunch in Tavistock, then headed onto Bodmin. We reached Bodmin at 5.30pm, an early finish, to be met by Andria, Lloyd and some cake.

Our last night had arrived. ‘Chanel Night’ as Jim used to call it in his naval days. We took time for a few deserved drinks with dinner as we knew we only had 60 miles to do on day 11.

Day 11

“15mph tailwinds, sun and blue skies. This can’t be the same bike ride.”

This can’t be the same ride we started eleven days ago. Tailwinds blew us all the way from Penzance to Land’s End; we had no extra layers stuffed in our back pockets in case of rain or wind, and I even changed the lenses on my glasses from clear to dark. The contrast from the rest of the trip was huge and most welcome.

After 10 days on the road, the pace of day 11 was fast. With no need to conserve energy, and fuelled by the excitement of a fast-approaching finish line, we kept up a good pace. We stopped at Rohan Truro for our last shop pit stop. Jerry had put up a banner congratulating us, and they provided us with beer, fudge and pasties.

Rest and refreshment over, we had 30 miles left. We spent most of those discussing the highlights and lowlights of the trip and cheering loudly every time we saw a sign announcing a distance to Land’s End.

We arrived together, cheering and waving into Land’s End at 4.30pm. Andria and Lloyd met us with medals, a trophy each, a bottle of champagne and lots of cheering. We had hugs and photos and then made our way to the official Land’s End photo point.

With the official photo taken, we then spent some time taking our own photos, including celebratory shots of us throwing champagne at each other.

After a quick shower, we put all our photos onto the laptop and sat, as the sun went down, watching a slide show of 800 shots while listening to the Chasing Legends soundtrack and drinking champagne.

Over dinner we discussed our next adventure. We have no idea what it will be, but there will be one!

“Looking back and reminiscing, as well as looking forward and dreaming, feels more important now than ever. If this Coronavirus has taught me anything, it is that life is precious and fleeting. I’m giving serious consideration to my bucket list for when all this passes. It might be an idea for us all to do the same.”

The ride stats

• 932.7 miles

• 77 hours 63 mins in the saddle

• 49,589 calories burnt

• 290,427.5 pedal rotations