The route was brilliant. Scenic, fun, and enough of a challenge. The frequent landmarks were a real morale boost and I learnt about a lot of new places, even in areas that I thought I already knew.
None of it was particularly overgrown with vegetation which was a surprise for this time of year and the amount of sun and rain that we’d had. In fact it was way better than most of the trails that I rode while training. Some of this may be due to people that live close to the route doing some volunteer gardening.
You’ve got to remember to look up while riding. It’s very easy to stick your head down and dig in when the terrain is steep or technical but you’ll miss some amazing sights. Similarly, keep trying different ruts (figuratively not metaphorically), because there’s often better terrain.
I was happy with my decision to split the trip over 4 days. I was originally thinking 3 days, but in hindsight I much preferred the feeling of having to deliberately slow down and take in the sights from the second day onward, compared to the feeling of rushing to make a deadline on the first day. Even if I hadn’t have been meeting someone then the long days in the saddle still cut into your time to shower/eat/rest/sleep in the evenings/mornings. Especially if you also need to factor in camping, cooking, and resupplying. You’d also need to ensure that you have good lights depending on the time of year.
The daily breakdown and detours were planned with Komoot, using GCN’s single route as a base. Katherine Moore’s collection would also work well if you pay for Komoot Premium’s multi-day feature. I added some points of interest from the excellent KAW Resources Map by Rough Ride Guide. The detour suggestions were taken from the descriptions and OS maps in Cycling UK Route Guide. I’d recommend buying the book, even if you could make do without it, because it supports the work that they’ve done not only to plan the route but also improve and appease access rights along the route.
I double checked my finalised route against the original by using a GPX file comparison tool from loveluck.net. Which turned out to be a good move because it highlighted several places where auto-routing had made unexpected changes.
I’ve done most of my riding to date with a smartphone in my pocket. This has worked OK, especially for areas that I vaguely know or don’t need to follow an exact route. However taking your phone out to double check a route before committing to descents and junctions quickly becomes tiresome. I tried using a watch with breadcrumb navigation on one of my training rides, which was slightly better, but without the underlying maps I found myself second guessing the accuracy of the GPS and staggered junctions were particularly hard.
A few weeks before I was due to start I bought myself a secondhand Wahoo ELEMNT BOLT. I didn’t need the colour screen or re-routing features of the BOLT v2 or ROAM. Once I’d turned off all the useless notifications and social features the device was brilliant. Being prompted for turns and able to quickly verify that I’m going the right way saved so much time and effort along the route. The battery lasts a whole day with some to spare and it seems rugged enough that it could handle a tumble.
There are lots of places on the route where trails run parallel to roads. You could easily miss them and a lot of the charm if you don’t look around. Zooming in on the map was often useful for checking whether I was meant to be on or next to a road. That said, there are also lots of places where you could chose to take a short alternative, as I did in a couple of places on the first day.
My method of training around family life mostly consists of 50 mile rides at weekends, reasonably fast, without rests, and a good amount of elevation gain. I often combine it with some trails riding because that’s what I enjoy and keeps me motivated. My rationale is that if I can ride fast without rests then doing the same distance in a full day is much easier, which seems to have worked out for me so far. By the end of the trip I felt like I could happily keep going at the same pace for many more days.
Everything that you do or don’t take will be a trade-off. The friends you take will push you through the difficult stages but you’ll also be chasing their back wheel or waiting for them to catch up. The tools you take may save you from a ride ending mechanical but they may also just be dead weight. Same for clothes and food and first aid. The trick is that with enough training rides you’ll get a feel for what does or doesn’t work for you.
Whatever you do though, don’t make changes at the last minute, because what works for 20 miles may not work for 50 miles. As I was reminded when I got nipple chafe from a new jersey top on the first day. Fortunately I had some fabric tape with me for protection.
Travelling alone makes stopping for food and water much more difficult because you don’t have anyone to watch your bike while you go into a shop or a cafe. So I had to plan ahead how much I’d carry and where I might be able to stop. I bought a couple of re-usable security ties which came in useful a few times when I had to leave my bike within earshot but out of eyesight. I don’t doubt that they’d be easy to cut or pick but they are also the difference between an extra few seconds of commotion and someone just walking away with your bike.
I carried enough food with me to last the whole day if necessary and anywhere that I’d be able to buy additional food was a bonus. I’ve found that this works well for long rides anyway because it means that I can graze slowly and consistently throughout the day on a variety of food. All the times that I’ve stopped a longer time for a large meal have resulted in indigestion, stiff legs, and regret.
I’ve often used a Camelbak to carry 2.5l of water on longer rides. Though recently I’ve been enjoying riding without the weight and sweatiness on my back. For this trip I took a 690ml bottle on the frame and 2x 800ml bottles in my saddle bag. I knew from training rides that this would last me about 25 to 30 miles in average weather, which was halfway for most of my days. In future I’d try harder to get another bottle or two on the frame or forks, probably using Fidlock uni bases, so that I don’t have to unpack the bag to refill. It also wouldn’t be possible when carrying camping gear.
What bike to take is a hotly debated topic online and most people will recommend what they’ve got. True to form, I was happy with my choice to take an MTB hardtail. It felt like the right balance of comfort, confidence, and weight. With 1x11 gearing I’m quite happy to sit and spin on the roads, especially when climbing, so long as I can extract the maximum fun out of the descents. I’m glad that I didn’t take my slightly heavier full suss because it would have been a bit slower and more effort. I personally think that a gravel bike would be uncomfortable and technically difficult, but different people enjoy and excel at different things.
I didn’t have any mechanical issues during my ride and tubeless tyres continue to give me many years of hassle free riding. I varied the pressures a bit depending on the terrain and how much I was carrying. The only thing I’d change is to use a slightly faster tread pattern than my usual Maxxis DHF/DHR combo.
I’ve had problems with my pinky fingers going numb on previous multi-day rides and it took several weeks to recover afterwards. This time I made some tweaks to the bar position, wore gloves throughout, and was more conscious of my wrist positions, which resulted in no problems.
On one of my training rides the seat post slipped down under the extra weight of the saddle bag. For about 15 miles I thought that my legs and arse were giving up until I realised that something was different. I suddenly felt good again after adjusting the height. After that I marked the position on the seat post so that I could quickly check without having to second guess it based on my standing height. This paid off because I quickly noticed that it had slipped on the third day. Fortunately I’ve never had problems with my saddle itself and never had a need to wear padded shorts or cream.