Sally’s solo LEJOG
Sally Gilbert wanted to do something big to mark her 50th birthday. She thought about swimming the channel but eventually set her sights on a solo bike ride from Land’s End to John O’Groats – LEJOG. Here she tells us how she got on.
What was your motivation for cycling from Land’s End to John O’Groats?
When my brother turned 40 he went to Everest base camp with his wife, something he’d always wanted to do. As I approached 50, I wanted to do something similar but I didn’t know what. I had always wanted to swim the channel but the time involved in training and the cost of getting the support made that impossible. A friend and I had always done a lot of cycling so I talked to her about doing LEJOG. She couldn’t take the time off so I just thought, “well I should do it on my own”. I knew I could do it but I am not a big fan of my own company so that was actually the only bit that really scared me.
When did you go?
I did the ride in July 2017 when I was 51. I had to delay it by a year because I had started a new job the year before and couldn’t ask for three weeks off straight away. I originally planned to do it in May but then my friend Vicki said she could join me for the first couple of days if I did it in July so that became the plan.
How did you prepare?
I bought the Land’s End to John O’Groats book by Phil Horsley, which was excellent. I had actually bought it two years before, after spending an afternoon sitting on the floor in Stanfords looking at all the LEJOG books. Phil Horsley says if you can do 50 miles in a day you can do LEJOG – and that made me think “I can do this”. Every section has an alternative route so you can decide which one suits you. The routes are all reasonably straight but they are mainly on Sustrans routes, not on busy roads.
What did you take?
Apart from the camping gear and some bike tools (including some special tyre levers from Holland that I never had to use as I never had a puncture), I took minimal clothing – three pairs of knickers, a couple of pairs of cycling shorts, two pairs of cycling gloves plus a winter pair, a couple of t-shirts and an outfit for changing into in the evening.
I also took some lightweight shoes and some fold-up slippers. It was such a relief to get out of my trainers at the end of the day. I wore everything except my winter gloves. Given the chance the only thing I would also have taken was an extra battery pack to charge my phone and tablet.
It’s also worth pointing out that I did the LEJOG on a normal old-style racing/tourer – the only upgrade I made was to add a “dinner plate” cog on the gears to give me a lower bottom gear for the hills.
How did you navigate?
I bought a really good bike computer but in the end I only used it for a couple of days. I had Phil’s book and the Sustrans map of the UK. I also jotted down all the places I would be cycling through on pieces of paper. And I downloaded maps from Cycle Streets onto my phone. Cycle Streets is great because it gives you the terrain. I also used Google maps which I really liked – mainly because I ended up becoming friends with the Google maps woman and talking back to her quite a bit!
How were the first few days?
Devon and Cornwall were absolutely brutal. I never walk up hills; I just get into my lowest gear and keep going. But it was really hard. My friend was also struggling – and she does triathalons. We had to stop on the second day at Halfords in Truro as my pannier rack had sheared off. They also changed my brake pads as they were already worn out.
They say day three of a cycling tour is the worst and that was certainly true for me. It was my first day cycling on my own and I didn’t get to Okehampton until 9.30 at night. Of course, the campsite was at the top of a hill. Before I got there, I stopped at a pub in town and had a quick half, which helped. I went to bed that night thinking if I can’t do it tomorrow I will just have to have a day off. But I woke up and felt fine.
Things definitely improved after that – I tended to start each day at about 8am and try and do about two-thirds of the miles before lunch. Most of the time, I was doing about ten miles an hour. I tried to do at least 50 miles a day but some days were longer.
Where did you stay?
I took a two-man tent, a lightweight sleeping bag and silk sheet sleeping bag so I camped when I could. I had a tiny camping stove and a little two-piece pan set that doubled up as a cup and bowl. I also had a mini cool bag so I always had some milk for tea. You can camp anywhere in Exmoor and Dartmoor and in Scotland. I was slightly worried about the camping but it was fine and I slept really well in my tent. However, I tried not to camp more than two nights in a row because I needed to wash clothes and charge things.
I also wanted to stay in youth hostels as much as possible. I would have stayed in more but many were off the beaten track or had closed down. Cheddar Youth Hostel was a god-send as it had absolutely chucked it down that day and they had a drying room.
I also had one night in an old-fashioned B&B, a good few nights in AirBnB rooms, one night in a backpackers hostel in Scotland and a night in a Premier Inn where I was able to take my bike to my room and I managed to rig up a washing line across the room and wash all my clothes.
I tried to make sure I had somewhere booked at least a day in advance so that I didn’t have to find accommodation at the last minute. My dad really helped me with that in Scotland.
How did you keep in touch with friends and family?
I set up a WhatsApp group so I could post pictures and messages to everyone in one go. I also spoke to my dad Victor every evening. In Scotland he helped me find accommodation when I was stuck and he joined me on his bike for the last day and helped me celebrate when it was all over.
What did you eat?
One revelation was that I eat too much normally! I did all that cycling and I really didn’t eat that much more than I usually do when I spend most of the day sitting down at a desk at work
Breakfast was usually porridge. I had sandwiches for lunch and I cooked pasta or rice for dinner most days. I had lots of cheap energy bars from Aldi and nuts and raisins for snacks. Having said that there was also a fair amount of tea and cake!
How was it cycling on your own?
Being on my own had its advantages as I met more people on the way than I would have if I was travelling with someone else. There were a few really special moments. Outside Bristol I asked a woman to take my picture with the suspension bridge in the background. It turned out her dad was the founder of Sustrans!
Later on, near Lancaster, I stopped at a house where they were selling plants to raise money for Amnesty and I knocked on the door and asked if I could have a cup of tea in return for a donation. As it turned out, it was the man’s 75th birthday and they were having a party so I was invited in for tea and cake. Two of his daughters worked for Saddle Skedaddle so they were really interested in what I was doing. None of these things would have happened if I hadn’t been on my own.
Early on, BBC Radio Cornwall had heard about what I was doing and got in touch. They ended up calling me regularly throughout the trip and would interview me on air. I remember as I got to Carlisle they rang up and I was really low – I had just looked at the map and although I was almost in Scotland I still had a really long way to go. The presenter was so encouraging and that really gave me a boost.
What were the best bits?
My favourite parts of the journey were the Lake District and Scotland. It sounds ridiculous but Scotland wasn’t that hard; it may have been because I was fitter. I almost felt like I was cheating! There were lots of flat paths alongside lochs and railways. Navigating through cities was hard – I got completely lost in Glasgow.
There was one stretch north of Inverness that was stunning, with rolling hills and lots of lochs. But I couldn’t get a phone signal for 30 miles. I found out later it was a military area where phone signals were scrambled.
How was the last day?
The last day was really hard, it was pouring with rain and there was a terrible headwind. It meant I was really late meeting my dad to do the last 25 miles with him. Luckily, the sun came out just as we came into John O’Groats. It felt quite something cycling into John O’Groats with my 80 year-old father.
John O’Groats is not as touristy as Land’s End – don’t expect anyone to come up and say well done to you! But there was still a queue of people having their picture taken under the sign. It was getting dark and my Dad stepped up and said can you let my daughter get her picture because unlike you lot she has actually cycled all the way here!
By this point it was getting quite late. Thankfully, the people from the glamping pod in Mey where we were staying offered to pick us up so we didn’t have to cycle any more miles. They also gave us some food and wine as we’d missed out on the fish and chips we had planned to eat at the end.
When we got to our accommodation, there was a lovely surprise waiting for me – a parcel from friends in Bristol with a painted banner, some bunting, some new knickers and socks and some chocolate.
How did you get home?
We took the train from Thurso to Edinburgh, which took eight hours. Then I stayed in Edinburgh for a night before taking the 6-hour train ride back to Bristol.
How did you feel at the end?
I felt in good shape – just physically really well and very strong. Before I left I had hurt my lower spine and I had a weird pain in my foot but I realised that neither of those things had been bothering me at all for the whole trip. I had cycled 1,114 miles in 18 days.