81 miles and 1,118 metres climbed
(A little unusual to start the blog with ending but it seems right.)
The weather was beautiful first thing at Crask Inn. At 8am it was T shirt weather as we pushed off and left Elsa to lead her horses south and the lean Belgian cycling couple to pack up their tent and head north (at a gentler pace than ourselves.) I said goodbye to my favourite soft toy – a ‘Heeland coo’.
The terrain fell toward the coast but it seemed that long descents were balanced by demanding little climbs. We lost 200 metres of altitude with little pleasure. They were resurfacing the road on one section and I had to plead with the highways crew to let us through, a detour today was not desirable! After over a couple of hours we’d reached the coast.
The fun was now going to start…not. A headwind blew for 50 miles going east. It was expected as the coast usually has this wind but frankly it became gruelling as some steep climbs came along with darkening skies and falling temperatures. This wasn’t going to be a victory lap. With modern cycling Sat Nav devices you can receive a lot of data about the ride as you go along. One key piece of information is how many miles to go. When you’re climbing for about two hours the distance covered seems to stop and I look at my device feeling I’m getting nowhere.
About halfway along the coast the endless steep climbing ended with around 1,000 metres worth of ascending bagged. I could seldom see the coastline as the coastal road was set back from this rugged shore. It wasn’t, in this weather, attractive. This just left me to concentrate on the headwind. On my right on the coast I found the Dounreay nuclear power station site.
This image just shows a small part of the site and in fact it appears much of the work is taking place in a 65 metres shaft or off the coast. They are decommissioning the site and dealing with the radioactive waste. The whole activity is going to cost £2.9 billion and take 300 years to return it to a brownfield site. Over 1,000 people work on the decommissioning. Who says radio active waste doesn’t pay!?
Historically there have been accidents, bad practice and emissions: there is much work to do. It had started to rain and after 30 miles I came to the one major town on the north coast, Thurso. Peter, ahead of me, had stopped to eat, and I joined him in the cafe, sodden and not a little low on morale. He trundled on to take in a detour and I demolished a hot steak pie and then a cheese and tomato panini. Restored, it was just another grind for 19 miles to reach that sign post.
By this time the rain had stopped but was replaced by a sea fret…. so much for Peter getting revealing photos of the most northerly point of the British mainland!
Slowly but surely the distance elapsed and John O’Groats arrived. I’d been here twice before and felt there was little to achieve apart from some photos and then back to Thurso. We didn’t have some excited friends or relatives cheering us and so we asked a passing couple to do the honours with our respective phone cameras.
To climb off the bike would have been a keen desire but we had to get back to Thurso. Waiting for a potential bus lift could take some time and so we turned around and enjoyed the tailwind back to our hostel. This meant over 100 miles for the day; my first ‘century’ of the trip.
This hostel had all the facilities open with none of the YHA lockdown restrictions. The warden went into a well worn patter about keys, cereals, access etc and then was gone. We showered and went out to a booked restaurant.
Jay then appeared and we met up in a pub for a drink. At this point it got very silly and to report how much beer and scotch was consumed would not reflect well on us. It is not amongst our finest moments and was punished by having to get up before 6am to start the long train journeys south. We had separate trains (a long story all due to ScotRail).
I was scheduled to get to York at 15 minutes past midnight due to bike space restrictions and to go via Aberdeen! A casual enquiry at Inverness and some very kindly ScotRail staff managed to rearrange matters so I could get to York for 19.30. It meant spending another £54 but that was, in reality, a bargain. I did get to say goodbye to Peter but not properly as I literally ran for a train and he departed to Morrisons to eat everything he could see.
He was a great companion, worryingly cheerful throughout and not least a fine cyclist who’d have maybe done this in a day or half a day less without me. He got up every hill with ease and chose to ascend more brutal climbs than necessary and he pulled strongly on the flat. However, he did get to keep the cat: I can fall off a steep hill as dangerously as anyone.
I shall think through an epilogue and write it up talking about hints and tips on how to do this iconic ride more easily and, hopefully, useful logistic tips. It should be worthwhile because a lot of British cyclists do this route. The final tally was 1,013 miles (72 miles a day) and 16,788 metres climbed (1,199 metres a day).
As always thank you for taking the time to follow me and read this. You’re all very generous with you time and I’m truly grateful, it certainly keeps me going.
Hasta la vista.