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Land's End to John o'Groats?  Anyone?       Back to 2006 and 2007


Land’s End to, ahem …. Beattock.   A study guide for the next pairing.

Early in 2007, amidst quite a fanfare, it had been announced that Dave Johnson and Ralph Dadswell would try to beat the Land’s End to John o’Groats record.  On a tandem tricycle.   A record set 53 years ago.

So, just how hard can that be?

I mean, what with all the things that have improved since then.   The roads in Cornwall and Devon have graduated climbs, and the towns have bypasses.  And similarly for the road across the Grampians.  The tandem has tri-bars, and wheel-covers.  And the food is all easy to consume and digest.

But hang on, the roads for a large part of the ride are probably following almost the same route as in 1954.  And this time the riders are in their forties, rather than their twenties.  And there’s a lot more traffic clogging up places like Exeter, Gloucester, Worcester etc etc.

Anyhow, it was several years ago that Dave & I decided that the End to End should be on our list of things to go for.  The plan was to ride the 24 hour Championship in 2005 and the End to End in 2006.  As it happened, we delayed until 2007, but the plan was in place.

Now, there’s one thing that’s unarguably in favour of the modern riders, and that is the fact that the End to End route is now considerably shorter than it used to be.  I’m told that in the 1950s, it was an 870 mile ride.  In 2007, the preferred route was a mere 842 miles.   Accordingly, our schedule was set such that our speed would be no slower than that of the previous riders.

Not, of course, that there was any obligation to do that, as the minimum improvement allowed is a mere one minute.  However, to say the least, it would have been tricky to be proud of beating a record mainly by virtue of the course being shortened. 

For completeness, the record to be beaten was 2 days 4 hours 26 minutes for the End to End.  The riders concerned were Albert Crimes and John Arnold.  They were giants of the 1950s cycling scene, and their names are still legendary among the record-breaking fraternity.

We had a number of issues to resolve before we would be able to go.  Things like raising funds for the jaunt, getting agreement to take unannounced time off work, and somehow obtaining buy-in from our families.  With varying levels of success, we sorted those out and got on with the business of getting prepared.

And so, cutting through to mid 2007, the schedule was sent to the Road Records Association, with a first possible date of 10th July.   However, I was having trouble with the many organisational aspects for the ride.  And so, for the sake of my sanity, we delayed our first date until 23rd July.  Dave was scheduled to go on holiday on 11th August, and so we had about a fortnight to get a suitable weather forecast.

The organising was a bit of a problem, and I must say that I don’t recommend sorting out your own End to End.  It’s fairly straightforward to organise a shorter effort, but once you’ve got three shifts of support crews to be organised at almost no notice, it becomes quite an exercise to pull everything together.  And get the tandem into shape.  And get your food and clothing organised & packed for someone else to deal with when you’re very tired.  I wasn’t sleeping well in July.

And then it rained quite heavily on July 20th, causing long-term flooding in Tewkesbury, and parts of Gloucester and Worcester.   Fantastic.   I realise that compromising an End to End is nothing compared with a flooded house, no electricity and no drinking water.  However, it was certainly further pressure on our chances of actually making the attempt.

But then I spotted a chance for us to go.  West-southwest winds to begin with, turning south-southwest later.  There was a virtual certainty of rain in the second half, but we’d deal with that.  Friday 3rd August 2007 was to be the big day.

Although I like to think that I had got it all thought about beforehand, the 24 hours before setting off for Land’s End was filled with turmoil.   A particularly big deal was discovering the impossibility of hiring a “People Carrier” at short notice.  We really had to have something big with 4 seats (for the journey home), and so a Transit was only any good if it had extra seating.   There was also frequently an insistence from the hire companies that all drivers had to be present at the time of hire.   Tricky when they’re spread across the country.

So we found ourselves with our own cars and modifications to insurance policies.

We drove to Penzance on Thursday 2nd.  For the first phase, we were accompanied by Scott Paterson and Frank Cubis.  Scott was to do most of the driving, and Frank was the RRA Observer.  Despite the panic during the previous 36 hours, we were serene as the start approached.

And so, after a fair meal and a fair night’s sleep, we were at Land’s End for a 9am start.   Richard Hope timed us away, and we rode around the hotel and out of sight.  Tally-ho!

(photo, and those at the start, by Scott Paterson)

Oh, but look – the computer’s not working.  So, before we even left the hotel grounds, we stopped to adjust the magnet.  After about a minute of fiddling, we got it working, and were off again.

As we zoomed along the last descent before Penzance, we must’ve hit a bump because one of our rear lights fell off.  So we stopped again.  Made me wish that I’d decided to attach them later on, but it was too late to worry about that.  When we were stopped, we shouted the message to Scott and Frank ….. and set off once more.

We saw a few people at Penzance, including the ever-present Elaine Hancock, who has been witnessing these rides for quite a few decades.  We reached Hayle, our first checkpoint, on schedule.

We were gaining slightly as we moved east, but were predictably slowed up by the large climb near Indian Queens.  After that, however, we were on a brand new section of A30, and by Launceston, we were again several minutes ahead of schedule.   We were delighted to see Syd Parker along this stretch, 60 years after setting his End to End tandem tricycle record.

Leaving Okehampton there was a spectacular descent where we reached a massive 54.5 mph !  Unfortunately, with all these fast bits, there were always corresponding agony sections where 7 or 8 mph were the order of the day.    Having said all that, we flew along the last section to Exeter and were 18 minutes up when we turned off the main road.

We had checked Exeter out on the drive down (taking an hour to do so, as it was peak traffic time!), and so there was no nervousness about staying on course for the couple of miles of fiddling about.   The next couple of sections were on minor roads shadowing the M5.  We slowed up, but nothing dramatic, and were only really bothered when we were approaching Wellington, and came across a substantial section of road which was being resurfaced with the most horrible chippings imaginable.  We were rather lucky, as we could first use a cycle path, and then what must have been the old road which is now mostly a parking area for the local residents.  So we only had to ride on the brand new surface for about a quarter of a mile, and didn’t get any mechanical issues.

Taunton was busy, but our companions managed to catch up with us, and we subconsciously prepared for the next drink & food hand-up.   And then we hit traffic.   With hindsight, we should have stopped & waited.   But you never know how long a delay is going to be, and so we didn’t.   It was a long delay, and it was another hour before we made contact again.  Luckily the temperature had eased, and so we weren’t sweating excessively.   However, we still needed that energy.

Once fed, we were moving into tough countryside, and we had some proper climbing to do as we made our way over the Mendips to Churchill, and then on to Bristol Airport.   Our advantage had evaporated by now, and we zoomed down to Bristol knowing that we were likely to be further behind after the next segment.

We were looked after admirably over this stretch, with numerous friendly faces appearing at each key junction, and guiding us on our way.   I had previously said that I knew my way, but I have to admit that there were far more junctions than I had remembered, and I would inevitably have had some nervous and indecisive moments without the local assistance.  We rejoined the A38 with a deficit of between 5 and 10 minutes.

(top photo by Roger Alma)

We grabbed some time back on the fairly straightforward run up to Gloucester, and were motivated by the sight of a few familiar faces. 

At one point, there was a man sporting a Pickwick Bicycle Club straw hat, running alongside.  Ah, it was Mr Ayresleigh (aka David Duffield) with a couple of sponges.   What happened next was very confusing, and somewhat alarming.  We each grabbed sponges, but suddenly there was a bang, and we looked back to see our man lying on the ground.   We were ready to stop, but saw that our team were just pulling over to help him.  I was quite concerned as we rode on, and it was with some considerable relief that we saw our car behind us once more.  Frank subsequently assured me that Dave was okay.  Phew.

Steve Quinn appeared shortly afterwards, with a huge supply of food for everyone.  We had food parcels handed up every few hours, to provide relief from endless drinks and gels (to say nothing of feeding the back-up team!).

I knew my way through Gloucester.  It wasn’t quite the same as when I’d done it during my solo End to End in 1992, but nothing dramatically different.   Actually, Pat Sirett had advised me that there was a new piece of road, so I’d checked with the online map services.  I could see a sequence of red dashes at the point where the course leaves the A38, and that represented about a mile of new road before returning to familiar territory.   There were also some green dots on the map, but who knows what they meant….

And so we arrived.  The old roundabout had gone, replaced with a set of lights.  The signs said ahead to Tewkesbury.  Sounds okay, and this must be the new bit.   But then we didn’t get back onto the old bit.  We followed what City Centre signs we saw, but it was obvious that we were on a new piece of road that I had known nothing about.  Tewkesbury, however, was well signed, and we were never at risk of being lost.

(photo by Geoff Booker)

Onwards to Tewkesbury, and we were through without problems – there were hardly any signs of the recent catastrophic flooding, just the bowsers every hundred yards.

Returning to 1954, Albert Crimes and John Arnold were clearly exceptional cyclists, attacking records that were well within their grasp.  They were throwing caution to the wind, and just going as fast as possible.  For them, 12 hours expired as they approached Worcester.

My measurements indicated that in 2007, we were going to have to pass through Worcester to equal their 257.75 miles.  The checkpoint at the south edge of Worcester gave us an advantage of just over 1 minute.  So we nipped through the town as quickly as we could.  Tony Shardlow was waiting for us, and timed us at 12 hours when we were leaving the northern part of the town.

We stopped almost immediately; we had a change of clothes, some solid food, and took on front lights.   We probably stopped for a bit longer than we should have, and were on our way after about 20 minutes.  In the dark.

Scott and Frank had left the ride, and in the car now we had Bob Williams and my brother Tim.  Mike Bryant had kindly delivered Tim to Worcester, and was taking Scott and Frank home.

There was plenty of roadside support for the next couple of hours, which was cheering.   I suppose we were now starting a new phase of the ride, and simply being in the dark adds its own little set of uncertainties.  We were riding acceptably through Kidderminster, Wolverhampton and on to Stafford.

There were a few moments where traffic worried us, and Dave was suffering a bit with stomach pains.  But progress was still okay through to Newcastle under Lyme, and we were pleased to get a shout from Bev Longstaff.

In the next couple of hours the Pardoes appeared by the roadside a few times, keeping us motivated when it might otherwise have been possible to subconsciously slacken off. 


As we finally reached Warrington, we were still holding about a 20 minute deficit to schedule.

We saw John Arnold at Winwick Church.   I wonder what he was thinking.  He wanted to see the record broken, but did he think we were going to do it?   Possibly.

We enjoyed our 3am food pack, and pressed on through Wigan and on to Preston.  We were back in daylight now, and moved towards Lancaster with what might almost be called enthusiasm (!).

(above two photos by BikieBob)

The halfway mark  for the End to End was passed near Levens, as we started to think about going through Kendal.   When you go through Kendal, all you’re thinking about is your next appointment.  The next item on the schedule is the climb of Shap Fell.

Almost as if on cue, we noticed that the weather was worsening.  Cloud cover increased, and darkened.   It started to rain.   I didn’t dare say anything to Dave about the length of the climb, the number of false endings, and the length of time that we were going to be in the low gears.  I wasn’t feeling very robust myself, so we pressed on in grim silence.

Way back in Cornwall, I had been a bit concerned at just how much time we had spent in bottom gear.  Ideally we would only have hit first on a few occasions in the far north, but the picture had been quite different from an early stage.    Had I messed up with my decision that 38 x 23 would be low enough for all that an End to End could throw at us?  Maybe.  It was too late in some respects, but we did have the option of the spare machine that would join us soon….

During the previous afternoon, Richard Davies had set off from High Wycombe, driving Dave’s car to Mike Johnson & Yvonne Crane’s house at Nantwich.  On arrival, Richard prepared the drinks and food for the second 24 hours of the ride.   And Mike made a roofrack to allow his tandem tricycle to be carried on Dave’s car (an estate car with ‘rails’).  

He started with two broom handles as cross-members at the back.  These would support the back wheels.   Then there was a piece of wood across the front, just behind the front wheel’s position.   Connecting the two was a plank of wood which projected over the windscreen.  All held together by large quantities of industrial-strength plastic tape.   Once the tandem was aboard, it was then attached by toestraps and various others ropes, straps and buckles.

At about 5am, Richard, Mike and Yvonne set off in pursuit of the record attempt.  Taking advantage of the M6, they were with us at the top of Shap, where they sensibly stayed inside their vehicles until we were in sight.

As mentioned earlier, bottom gear was a feature of the climb of Shap.   Shocking weather was another.  It’s no great surprise, I guess, but conditions didn’t improve as we made our way to the summit.  The rain swept across in front of us, making the forward view even more bleak than it would otherwise have been.  We had to keep pedalling at maximum effort, as anything else would have brought us to a halt.  

We were definitely encouraged by the enthusiasm of everyone from the team who were spread along the big lay-by near the summit.   It was very, very bleak.  Temperatures were considerably lower than they had been in the valley, and the wind was whipping across.  Car doors were either being ripped open or slammed shut.  We made a brief stop to allow Dave to get a dry top on (for what it was worth), and then we were on our way again, with the 24 hour record slightly in our minds.

(photos, and set below, by Graham Chapman)

Well, actually, the 24 hour record wasn’t in our minds, but we did know that we would stop for a proper clothes change after passing the 24 hour point.   The run off from Shap Fell was quick, and as we reached Penrith I spotted that we had somehow managed to pull ourselves back to being just 10 minutes down on the 24 hour record.   If we could finish fairly swiftly (compared with the scheduled speed of about 16 mph), then maybe we’d have a chance.

I can’t really remember much about that last hour, and I don’t know what the computer said we’d covered.  Unfortunately, water had managed to penetrate the system, and the display had become difficult to read – even when it wasn’t actually raining.

When we did finally get to 9am, we pulled up within seconds, and were pleased to be able to extract ourselves from our saddles.  Had we beaten 466.25 miles?

In the previous hour or so, Frank and Christine Minto had joined the party, travelling with Bob and Tim.  At the 24 hour point, Bob took his leave, having been with us since Gloucester.   Tim was due to continue until Edinburgh, where he would be replaced by John Leiper, who would drive through the second night.  If only.

It was with relief that we changed out of our wet clothes, but it was difficult to be confident about what the weather would be like for the next few hours.  We set off in shorts, nonetheless.

Carlisle had a lot of cars in it, most of them got in our way.  But it wasn’t London, so we won’t complain any more.   The rain had gone, and we could see clearly as we made our way to the A74.   There’s quite a lot of work going on along the ‘border’ stretch, and the road is coned down to two lanes.   Fortunately the traffic is reasonably slow as a consequence, and so while it wasn’t an enjoyable period, we did manage to reach the Gretna turning without any trauma.

Scotland.  Hurrah, and all that.  Jim Thorburn pointed us to the right in Gretna itself, and we were soon on the long road shadowing the M74 as it makes its way towards Glasgow.  We were planning to follow it as far as Abington.

However, it was on this stretch that we started to labour a bit.   We stopped briefly because I needed a quick sleep.    Shortly after that, when I was feeling better, we stopped because Dave needed a sleep.    Then we stopped because I was hungry.   Actually, the problem was that we were suddenly creeping along, and we were desperate to fix whatever the problem was.

The weather was almost ideal, by the way.  The wind was slightly intermittent, but in almost exactly the right direction.  The only problem was that the sun was out, and so we were a bit warm.   But we wouldn’t have wanted the weather from Shap, so no complaints really.

We passed Lockerbie.  Somehow we weren’t losing much time against the schedule.   But we couldn’t carry on as we were.   It might have been something resembling fast enough, although I can’t imagine how. 

I can’t say how fast we were going, because the wonderful computer was only showing symbols resembling a bar-code.  No clues were available as to speed or distance.   Stupidly, this really messed me up, as I rely on seeing speed to judge whether we’re okay or not.   A poor excuse, eh?

However, we were aware of every pedal stroke.  As soon as there was any kind of downward gradient, we freewheeled.  And that wasn’t much more comfortable than having to pedal.   We just couldn’t go on.  As we reached the junction for Moffat, alongside Beattock village, we stopped.

Our helpers were right to tell us that we should continue.   Mike wanted us to try to get to Abington.  Tim was desperate for us to continue while we still had a chance of success.  It was all very emotional, and there was a certain amount of pleading, and promises of future regret if we stopped.

But I knew what the previous few miles had been like.  We just weren’t pulling through our troubles.  Somehow, we were just bumping along the bottom.

Perhaps, as John Arnold mentioned afterwards, we could have taken an hour of sleep.  It would have put us under a bit of pressure, but it might have got us positive again.  However, at this stage Dave was already in a deep sleep.    And when he was disturbed from that sleep, he wasn’t exactly asking to get back on the tandem.   I handled it a bit differently, and I don’t think I had more than a few minutes sleep.  But I was in no condition to try to talk Dave back into riding.

Once everyone was convinced that things were going no further, we prepared to return to the south.   We notified Eddie Mundy, the RRA Records Secretary of the abandonment.   Tim phoned John Leiper to tell him not to travel to Edinburgh.  Unfortunately, John was almost at his destination when he took the call.  Ooops.

We also notified Martin Purser, who had been dealing with communications for us.  Rather than updating a web page, we had decided to maintain a thread on a cycling related internet forum.  This seemed the easiest way to allow interested parties to easily keep abreast of progress without forever calling Martin, or those in the following car.

We then had a long trip ahead of us.   Mike and Yvonne took Frank & Christine, dropping them off at a convenient point for their return to Barnsley.  That left Tim & Richard with Dave & me.   Dave was great company, as he simply slept.  Head back, mouth open, catching flies.   Weather was shocking as we passed the Lake District, but I wasn’t driving, so I just sat back and was grateful that my work was over for the day.

Back at Mike’s, we sat around for a while, waiting.   Where were they?    Eventually, they arrived, with Mike wrenching Dave’s car in a tight turn into the driveway.  We watched with a mixture of horror and amusement as the tandem’s front wheel slid off the plank and landed on the roof…..

After a period of unloading and rearranging, we were booted out, and made our way to the soft south.   I was already feeling that we should’ve pressed on further and tried a bit more for the record.   But it’s easy to say when you’ve had 10 hours to think about it.  

Part of the game is that you can’t take time-outs, despite what many people seem to believe.   No, it really is Two Nights Without Sleep, and that’s what makes it particularly tough. 

We made some mistakes.  I should’ve put a lower bottom gear on.  Dave had wanted to, but I had told him that he was just being a lightweight. 

Then there’s the question of trying for the 12 hour and 24 hour records.   We didn’t really try for the 12 hour.  But knowing that we had an hour to go and were only a couple of minutes down on the record ….. well, it sort-of spurred me on.  But I don’t suppose Dave put anything extra in, as I didn’t mention it to him.  And we were so far down on the 24 hour record at Kendal, that there’s no way we were thinking about it when climbing Shap.  It was only when we reached Penrith just 10 minutes back that I even thought about it.  I can’t believe we’ve got that one.

I firmly believe that if I’d just written the schedule to get the End to End, and had allowed us to miss the 12 and 24, then maybe we would have reached Scotland in better shape (albeit maybe 30 minutes later).  The difference between being 20 minutes down and a few minutes up would have made us feel so much better.  That said, I’m not sure it would’ve made Shap Fell any easier.

When Messrs Crimes and Arnold had done their ride, it was clear that their performance through England was leading up to a much faster End to End than they eventually ended up with.  So, if we had just done our ride with the intention of missing the intermediate records, then perhaps we would’ve had a better chance of success. 

Mind you, if we’d known that we were going to collapse at 27 hours, then we would certainly have made a big thing of the 24 hour.  Oh, who knows?

There’s then the question of why we both hit the wall when we did.  Was it something lacking in the preparation?  Bit of a coincidence.  Was it dietary?   Well, maybe.  We were alternating our drinks between a familiar carbo drink, and a concoction called Perpetuem.   We were both happy with the Perpetuem, but this was the first time we’d used it in large quantities.  Dave had rejected a couple of bottles in the previous couple of hours, saying that it tasted ‘off’ (it had been made up in Penzance, nearly 36 hours earlier).   Although not a problem at the time, we did both suffer with, well …. shall we say, the need to make frequent visits to the toilet for several days after the ride.   But this could also have been related to picking up something nasty from the roads at or around the rainstorms near Shap.    Or, it could just be a consequence of pushing yourself to the limit for 500 miles.   Hard to say.

So, would we go again?   I’m not particularly keen.  It’s a big old ride, and we gave it a proper shot.  Dave is much more convinced that he’s not got the capability to do a two day ride.   No, I think we’ll take a while to lick our wounds, and come up with some more modest plans for 2008.  I think we’ve got a few more big rides in us, but maybe we should (with regret) leave the End to End with its current owners.  And that’s before I even think about the organising, the training, and all the other peripheral issues.

Perhaps we’ll end with some words from Dave, which are an extract from an email he sent after being asked for his take on the ride.

"We stopped because I, at least, couldn't go on. Age and infirmity may only just be peeking over the horizon, but I'm in my 50th year, and my resilience isn't what it was even when I was 40 or more. We were down on Schedule, but not down on the record, but all that is academic when you can't even freewheel any more."

"Perhaps hindsight indicates that a sleep, a good rehydrate, some painkillers, a wash and a change of clothes may have made a temporary respite possible, but I'm convinced that we could not have got to the top end of the land. The record was made by men who were better than us. My respect for them is unbounded."

RD Aug 07

Back to 2006 and 2007

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