Monday, July 20, 2015

My JOGLE becomes My Tour of Scotland

The plan was to ride the length of Great Britain, starting in John O' Groats (JOG) at the top of Scotland, and arriving 16 days later in Lands End (LE), in the extreme south of England - a tour known as JOGLE.

Well, that's not how it worked out for me. Instead it was a six day, 398 mile (19,238 feet of climbing) ride through extreme weather conditions that left me exhausted, wet, cold, and discouraged at the end of each day. Even the two days that were less horrible were still too long (none less than eight hours) and too exhausting -- at least for me. By the time we crossed the border into England, I had decided that the moments of fun were not worth the days of suffering. I abandoned one other tour, our Geezer Geyser Tour through Colorado and Wyoming, but just one day early, and because of a foot injury that could not have tolerated another hundred miles of climbing. So, instead of the planned JOGLE route, I ended up riding this:

Below are some photos and commentary regarding my six days cycling the length of Scotland, north to south.

In the van, driving in the wind and rain from Inverness to John O'Groats (JOG). As we neared our destination, I noticed that all the sheep and cows were facing the same way, with their butts into the wind and driving rain.

The Ready Room at JOG.

Fred looking for more protective gear.

Within hours, all that was left of Ray's poncho was a strip of plastic he tied to his rear rack. The wind quickly ripped the poncho to shreds.

A brief dry, clear moment to grab a photo on day one.

Fred during a rest stop on day two. About 70 miles into the ride, we reached Inverness, just in time for rush hour. Simultaneously, the sky turned exceedingly ominous. Between the traffic and the rain I figured the best plan would be to take cover in town, and if necessary catch a ride after dinner to our destination in Tomatin, another 15 miles down the highway. Fred soon agreed, but Ray was determined to ride it out. He spent the next two hours battling a head wind, struggling up countless unexpected hills, and shivering, in the hardest rain we encountered during the trip. Meanwhile, back in Inverness, Fred and I enjoyed a great dinner and a couple of pints. We then got a van-taxi to take us, a take-out dinner for Ray, and the bikes, to our B and B. Ray arrived just before we did, as night was falling (which is about 10 PM in June in Scotland).

Day three. This coffee shop appeared like an oasis in a desert. We positioned ourselves near the coal fireplace and ordered every hot thing on the menu.

On the way out of town, I purchased another pair of gloves at a convenient outfitter store. The three pairs I already had with me were not enough once they were soaked through. Late in the day, we eventually reached Firs Guest House, our B and B in Blair Atholl, where the proprietress, Kirsty, appeared at the door in a flowing white dress, accompanied by a melodic voice and a magical smile. All three of us were instantly entranced, and stood there motionless with our mouths open for an embarrassing moment. To top it off, she collected all our sodden clothing, returning it to us clean and DRY (Say "Hallelujah!") the next morning. Blair Atholl is home to the picturesque Blair Castle and Gardens, but, as usual, we had no time to actually enjoy the local attractions. I would love to return some day, to both the town and the Guest House.

In the first three days, we rode over 212 miles, and climbed about 10,000 feet, much of it in wind and rain.

Day four was a "short" day, only 52 miles, but with a very nasty climb at about 40 miles. Our route finally took us off the pavement for a while, onto double track along a riverbank. We stopped briefly to enjoy the wildflowers and the river. A few hours later, there was even some clear sky. We took a short break to enjoy the intense yellow of a rapeseed field in the sun, before tackling the climb, where I just got off and pushed my bike rather than struggle. It was no slower than riding and a whole lot easier.

That night we stayed in a real hotel, with spacious rooms, good plumbing, and a decent, if not great, in-house restaurant. We were, of course, exhausted physically and emotionally as we sat down for dinner. There, among the white tablecloths, I made a comment that I shouldn't have. It touched a sore nerve with Fred, who pretty much lost it, yelling and cursing me out for what seemed like an eternity. My reaction to this incident was to withdraw and isolate myself from my compatriots, in spite of Fred's sincere and heartfelt apologies. The episode, and my reaction to it, played a role in my decision to abandon the tour a couple of days later.

By day five we had learned that blue skies were just short breaks between periods of clouds and rain. The wind was never favorable, and, like the clouds, was never gone for long. We were thrilled when we could maintain a pace of 10 mph. Coupled with long breaks in warm, dry pubs, the typical riding days of 65 miles meant at least 6 and a half hours turning the pedals, and at least nine hours from departure to destination. That explains my failure to blog along the way. Toward the end of day five we stopped to admire a vista that reminded Fred of the hobbit's Shire. It did have that kind of feel to it.

The sixth day, my last day of riding, was 60 miles of rain and wind from Abington, Scotland, to Carlisle, England. The only really interesting thing I recall was a little wedding, accompanied by a bagpiper, that we stumbled upon just before leaving Scotland.

The forecast for the next day was for the worst weather yet, with very high winds, rain, and a ton of climbing. Before I met the guys for dinner, I called Kathy to see if she could come over a week earlier than planned. She checked her airline and the change was possible, so I decided I was done with my bike tour. I explored Carlisle and relaxed for the next couple of days until Kathy arrived on Sunday evening. Monday we started a 13 day tour around England in a rental car (which is a whole 'nuther story!).

Even the Scots we encountered commented on the unseasonably crappy weather. If there had been less of that, I am sure that I would have enjoyed my time in Scotland greatly. Some time in the future I hope to return with Kathy, but we will get around using public transportation.

Lessons Learned:

  • Get over the hydration pack. Even on relatively short, hilly rides, it significantly increases my lower back pain. During the last three days I strapped my Camelbak to my rear rack and my back felt much better as a result. Instead of drinking directly from the pack, I used it as a reservoir to refill my water bottle as needed.
  • Willie Weir, a long-time bicycle tourist and contributor to Adventure Cycling Magazine frequently advises his readers to slow down, drop the daily mileage, and be flexible so you can explore your surroundings and talk to the people you encounter. He is certainly not the only one to offer this advice, and intellectually I have always agreed, but up to now whenever I planned a tour, I always ended up in the same old pattern of putting miles first. Hell, we even did away with rest days this time! I am going on record that future tours will set the daily target to about 40 miles, and never more than 50. And the tours should include places along the way, explicitly in the itinerary, to get off the bike, see the sights, and explore. I don't have the time or energy to "tour" if I spend 6 or 8 or 10 hours a day just getting from a pre-determined point A to a pre-determined point B. That problem will only get worse as I get older. Maybe the rule should be couched in terms of hours rather than miles. Let's say a max of four hours of riding time. In conditions like those we found in Scotland, that means just 40 miles.
  • Stay flexible. The idea is to enjoy the tour. If you aren't enjoying it, then change it. Even in a point to point tour, you can always figure something out. There are trains, buses, kind people in pickup trucks, or fellow cyclists who will help you out if you are in need.
  • Make sure that your traveling companions are ok with the above, or at least are ready and able to continue without you if you want to change the plan and they don't. I was fortunate to have such friends, or maybe they were delighted to get rid of me. My mood was getting fouler in proportion to my exhaustion, sleep deprivation, and failing physical state, so I don't blame them if they were happy to see me go.


  1. As a UK cycle tourist I really enjoyed reading this blog & do hope you get to enjoy Scotland in better weather on a future trip.
    My advice would be: LEJOG. It is considered 'uphill' but in fact you are more likely to benefit from prevailing South-Westerly (tail) winds. You can't control the weather but you can stack the deck in your favour.

  2. In retrospect, going North instead of South would have worked pretty well, as I am pretty sure that the weather improved markedly after that first week of June, and it was nice that week in the South. Although it was clear in my research that most riders started down in Cornwall, I could not find any reason for that preference. In addition, our travel arrangements seemed easier if we started in Scotland.

    My wife and I will definitely be traveling in the UK in the future; we got just a taste this time but would like the full meal! We are both Doc Martin nuts, so we did a pilgrimage to Port Isaac (Portwen) and hiked around the ruins in Tintagel. There were new jaw-droppingly beautiful views every few steps. Really spectacular. To paraphrase Arnold, "We'll be back!"

    1. And, actually, we DID get back. My wife, Kathy, and I returned to Britain in October of 2016, spending 6 wonderful days in Edinburgh, a few days in London, and a day visiting Stonehenge and the area nearby. We traveled by train, not rental car or bicycle this time. It was really wonderful.