I slept atypically well on my penultimate night in the bivouac, and woke early. It was the warmest night and morning by far. After breakfasting on my quotidian croissant with sausages, after draining two paper mugs of Nescafé Brown Caffeine Liquid, I surveyed the camp by daylight for the first time. We are in a cauldron, dominated by the Nevis range. Hello Highlands (farewell civilization). I love this part of the world; but, I often feel it could do with just a tad more urbanity. For example, the croissant and Linda McArtney sausages that I ate in the gazebo this morning at least equal the best meal I’ve ever had north of Stirling. Of course, the scenery and solitude go a distance to compensating one for dire cuisine. But I doubt I could live an actualized life knowing that the nearest purveyor of grilled Halloumi was over 100 miles southwards.
A consequence of arriving so late last night was that all the viable spaces in the shower queues were already filled. Deprived of running water, I was forced to rely on wet wipes. Before departure, I repeat this treatment, before applying the gamut of my hygiene supplies: toothpaste, sun cream, moisturizer, Vaseline, Sudocrem, spray on skin, deep heat. At this point, I am already looking forward to showering in Kyle of Sutherland.
Breakfast was not sombre, despite yesterday’s gruesome event. The mood is pre-celebratory; only one more tent sleep and two hundred-odd miles of riding to go. Any amount of analysis would suggest the end is emphatically not in sight, but it is now 700 miles to Land’s End, and those miles have given us confidence, dodgy knees and heavy legs. The end will come soon enough.
The Lloyds team set off together, first from the line, to applause. We are reminded that the end came too soon for one rider. I left an hour later, and was sitting writing this journal when they arrived together, many hours later, to further applause. Shortly afterwards, it was confirmed that Sally was dead.
Which makes it seem extraordinarily selfish to say that today was probably the best day’s riding yet, especially as it came after two thwarted days (tyre failure, police truncation).
The first section was easy going, rolling along the highway, which wasn’t busy though I must admit that cars seem quite dangerous today. There was some good things to see, such as lochs, trees and self-service egg sales (v good prices), but the my overwhelming feeling was of anticipation for the climb.
Then the climb happened, along the east side of Loch Ness, and it was incredible. Now, as usual, I hadn’t done any research whatsoever, so I didn’t know how high the hill was going to go or how hard it would be. I had just looked at the map and saw that there was a great big bump a third of the way in. It turned out to be the sort of climb that twists, such that you never have the peak in view, or any idea of how far you are from it. It also seemed to be getting progressively steeper – around a 12% gradient, and fairly constantly. This is lowest gear and noisy breathing stuff. ‘But,’ I thought, ‘it can’t continue like this – just round that corner – that’ll be the end of it’.
Round several corners I had this thought, but no, it just kept on going. My heart-rate was so high it was flickering rather than pumping, and on it kept going, the hill, so it did. Then finally: a plateau! And not just that: the descent! What an effort it has been, but such toughness, such heroic battling, what a rider! Another great achievement by me!
But then I descended around a corner and found that there was in fact more hill to climb. Then I overheard someone say that we were almost half-way there. I suppose that was the nadir of the climb – I had in an instant been demoted from climb achiever, to not even half way up. And I’d already burned a lot of matches to get half-way up.
I reached another summit, but I wasn’t taking anything for granted. There was very shiny body of water at this point, and most of the riders seemed to have taken the opportunity to get off and look at it. I pressed on, as I knew that this was being recorded by Strava for posterity. I resolved to return with a motor vehicle and enjoy the shiny water some other time. The final uphill segment started steep, and then tailed off slowly until the actual peak – after 8.5 kilometres and 27 minutes, it was downhill from here.
There was a little more climbing after the first pit-stop, although nothing compared to that, then it was a relatively flat road alongside Loch Ness for what felt like forever. I had made good time on the climb, and as a result was not only riding alone, but I barely saw another soul until the finish. I had started more or less last, and finished within the first 50 or so, coming in 18th fastest in total time taken. I rode for 6 hours 20 minutes and climbed over 1,600m at an average pace of about 28km/h, which I was pretty pleased with.
About half-way through the long, flat second section, I heard a noise in the woods above me to my right-hand side. I could see an old man pushing a mountain bike – seemingly not on a trail. I knew instantly what to do. ‘Woody bike paedo!’ I shouted at him, pointing my finger. Then I shouted it again, this time to the loch, but pointing in the direction of the woods. As I sped away, I sang ‘Paedo, paedo’ to the tune of the Big Ben chimes, assuming I’d seen the last of him.
The third section, after Inverness, was tougher mentally. I felt a bit dehydrated and my pace was reduced by a bullshit headwind. As I pressed into it, cursing under and over my breath, I lamented the lack of tail winds on this voyage. Okay, true, not a drop of rain. Sun and warmth every day. Freak weather conditions generally. But still, a tailwind now and then would not have gone amiss. It’s not like there has been that many headwinds either. But when you get one you sure know it.
So anyway, I was feeling hard done by, thirsty, and a bit locked-in after many solitary hours. I had my head down, and I was churning rather than spinning the pedals, when I came across my first human face for a while. An older man, walking along the roadside with a pointy stick, having clearly abandoned his mountain bike. Despite my distaste, I forced a smile and said ‘hello’. He did not smile nor hello me. ‘Cunt,’ I said.
All year I had looked forward to this trip, and part of the reason for my gleeful anticipation was that I wanted the time to think. I thought I might think about my second novel, and about changes I might make to the first novel – which has now been turned down by nine agents. So far, I can not say I have thought about this.
Thankfully, I have largely avoided thinking about work, beyond occasional pangs of stress, which I have done well to shoo. Serendipitously, the work email application on my phone has ceased to function, and I have taken no steps to alter this circumstance.
I have spent a great deal of time thinking about what to write in this diary. To the extent that I feel like I might have just cycled from Land’s End to Kyle of Sutherland in order to write about it. (And note that at the time of typing, it is Christmas Eve, so the writing part has now lasted significantly longer than the riding part. I had originally intended to type up each day’s journal on consecutive days. I didn’t realize it would be so time consuming.) I wrote a similar diary about ten years ago when I went on a work trip – distributing soft drinks at music festivals. I wrote it as it distracted me from the monotony and loneliness of the trip, and have not since re-read it. I think it may now be time to dig it out; I wonder how much I have changed. I am hopeful that I have. I imagine I have changed less than I tend to casually assume I have.
Evidentially I’m not particularly smart, as I now write with my head-torch on in my tent, having spent the evening drinking many beers with a few friends. Despite agreeing not to talk about bikes, several salient points arose. Number 1: dropping the hammer, as in ‘I was rolling along tidily enough, then I could see John was suffering so I decided to drop the hammer and distance him on the climb’. But why carry a hammer in the first place if it weighing you down? Number 2: on group riding – what is the appropriate amount of scenery to point out? I briefly rode with a group who were inclined to point at and describe almost everything: ‘hole!’, ‘drain!’, ‘car up!’, ‘passing right!’, such that I just tuned out the language element and heard it all percussively. One of the team was even pointing out drains that were on the pavement. We don’t ride on the pavement.
Then the conversation turned to laundry. How often should one wash one’s kit? One rider opined that zero times was fine. On the other end of the spectrum, I admitted to having laundered my kit five times already, having paid for three laundries on the ride, and having sneaked in an extra one at Bath University and another when I went home for the night. I would be surprised if anyone has done more laundry than me nationwide this week. For some reason, I attracted more stick than my unclean comrade. I am bemused.
But I feel I should return to Sally. It was quite a horrible moment when her death was announced. It wasn’t helped that this was done in a particularly clumsy manner, along the lines of ‘a solution could not be found to her injuries.’ There was a horrified gasp around the gazebo after that had been decoded, which was followed by quite an awkward standing ovation. My natural reaction was to mouth ‘fuck’ to a comrade, and have another beer. Sometimes that’s about all you can do.