On Day 5 I woke up feeling much more energized after a few hours sleep, and set off around 7am after a quick breakfast. Del followed along an hour later and met me further along the route armed with a full McDonalds breakfast of pancakes and maple syrup and coffee. It was just the perfect energy boost I needed.
The route from there cut across country towards Inverness, following Loch Ness. The absence of holiday coaches and buses, along with being mid-week meant that it felt safe to ride, and was mostly quiet. A marked difference to how it would normally be in August. Any traffic that was around was unhurried. I was enjoying the ride again, and progressing each leg only slightly slower than planned.
John O’Groats was my new goal, it was a possible distance before the day was out, if I kept on moving. Navigation wasn’t going to be a problem, as I was mostly following the A82, then the A9, and neither were there likely to be any major traffic issues through any towns.
I do feel blessed to have been able to follow this route at this particular time. I got the chance to experience this beautiful route in it’s full glory. Despite being cold (by my standards), the sun was shining and the lochs were stunning. Only in this Pandemic year could this have been possible, and so I am thankful. I know that should I ever try this again, it will most likely be a very different experience.
To avoid having to deal with Inverness, I had decided on cutting cross country, despite knowing that there was a single, very steep hill that would need climbing. My logic was that even if I had to get off and push it would be easier and quicker than dealing with Inverness and it’s traffic. I was right, and even better, despite this hill reaching 21% at it’s steepest point, I didn’t have to push. I did find it amusing though that the moment that I stopped to catch my breath, my phone rang, and it was no other than Katie Butler (Katie Kookaburra) calling me for a chat to see how I was doing. That was such a welcome interruption. From there, the road through to Beauly and onto Dingwall was lovely. It was worth the effort, so I decided that I would come back that way also, despite having planned to ride through Inverness. Del was waiting for me at Dingwall, where he fed me, and sent me on my way.
Just one road to the top
Eventually though, I arrived at the A9, around ‘rush’ hour, and quickly decided it was the angriest road of the ride so far. There was zero tolerance for this lone cyclist, and it wasn’t long before I was looking for an alternative route. I checked Google, and noted that there looked to be another road that ran parallel, through Evanton, and took that instead. It was a good choice, and if I was to do this ride again, and hit the A9 during the day, I would actually join this road earlier on at Dingwall, to avoid the A9 stress. I popped back out on the A9 eventually though just after Alness, and by then, the traffic had subsided enough for my nerves to remain in tact.
At Tain I ate again, to try to ready myself for an evening and night slog to JOG. It was almost 7pm by the time I left with 85 miles to go until John O-Groats. Once again, my enthusiastic brain thought that I could ride 85 miles before sleeping, assuming of course that sleep deprivation didn’t hit. Yes, it would mean an early hours finish, but I would have reached the half way point. Whilst I didn’t really want to arrive there at night, I did want to get there before the end of Day 5 so that maybe I could still complete the ride in 10 days. I had resigned myself at the beginning of day 4 that I wasn’t going to be finishing to the original target of 8 ½ days.
Del drove on to Brora, where we met up and discussed my progress, and how far I would go. I was already tired when I left Brora, and the locals that we spoke to suggested I was mad trying to get to JOG tonight (it was already 9pm), especially as there were two 13% climbs to deal with. Full of bravado, I dismissed their tales of massive climbs between there and the JOG and so I loaded my pocket with snacks, added a flask of hot tea to my bottle holder and set off. It had started to drizzle, but there were only 25 miles until the end of the leg. I would push on to that point anyway, and then decide what to do when I next saw Del at Dunbeath, which was supposed to be the end of the last leg on Day 4!
The perfect road
What followed for the next few hours was quite a surreal riding experience although it’s one though that I’ll never forget. In this remote and distant corner of the UK, I felt more like a real adventurer than at any other time in my life.
It was only 63 miles in total to JOG, and whilst I was not likely to make JOG by midnight, my new goal was to get there before 6:38 am and thus have got there in 5 days or less. The drizzle came and went, and the temperature plummeted. I kept moving forwards, reminding myself of all those full value Audaxes where I had ridden through the night. I would stop and have a few warming sips of my tea, and a flapjack, then carry on. As I reached Helmsdale and Berridale Braes, I reflected on messages I had received from Lynne Biddulph (current female LEJOG WR Holder), and Jane Moore (current female trike LEJOG WR holder) that were willing me forward. When they obtained their records, these two climbs were longer, and very winding. I remembered back to these climbs, which I had forgotten all about, from years earlier when I had been cycling around Britain with a touring bike and full panniers. A newly built road, bypassing the harbour route had been opened only the week before, and it was glorious, even in the rain in the middle of the night. The glassy smooth black tarmac was the best I had ever ridden on, and my headlights shone on the new cats eyes so that they lit my way down and then back up the climbs. I was so tired, and yet energized at the same time. It’s difficult to express how truly magical it really was. The climbs were long, but didn’t seem as bad as I had expected, although that might have been because at no point could I see just how long the climbs really were. Eventually I reached Dunbeath and the end of the leg to find Del waving at me in the middle of the road, directing me to the van.
We parked up, and I knew that I needed some sleep, even if just an hour or two. I sent a message to the dotwatchers who had been waiting up for me to see if I was going to get to JOG, and told them to sleep. I would make a fresh bid for the turnaround point in the morning.