In 2017 Roger Westgate bought an e-bike from us.
This year he decided to ride from Land’s End to John O’Groats. This has been done by many cyclists. The difference is that Roger has Parkinson’s disease. This is the second instalment.
Land’s End to John O’Groats – Part 2
I headed back to Bristol in October to tackle the next two hundred and eighty-five miles of my bike ride, which would take me to Lancaster. Since my last ride, my walking had worsened, and I’d been using a walking stick most of the time. My wife likened my balance to that of a ball on the deck of a ship in a storm. However, there had been some improvement in early October and I’d decided to give it a go.
‘Are you sure it’s sensible to try and cycle nearly three hundred miles in the middle of winter when you can’t even manage to walk to the shops?’ my wife questioned, with impeccable reasoning and good sense, but my mind was set.
I awoke early and lay for a while, thinking about what lay ahead of me over the next seven days. It was going to be a challenge, I knew that from the first leg, but had I bitten off more than I could chew? I hadn’t put in as much training as last time due to my troublesome back and, although there would be less hills to cope with, I’d be riding almost twenty per cent further each day.
The first few miles were familiar, crossing Clifton Downs and passing Bristol zoo. Arriving at the first hill, I was shocked at how hard I found it to cycle up. It didn’t look that steep; I’d have raced up it in the summer. As the hill levelled off, I found I was still labouring. Maybe this was because of the lack of training; that was worrying as I wasn’t going to get any fitter overnight; maybe it was due to a general decline in my condition; that was concerning too; or maybe it was because I’d accidentally pressed the bike’s power button and cut the assistance by half. Idiot.
My route took me close to the River Severn and followed mile after mile of wide, fast, cycleways and back roads. It was lovely; cold, but with blue skies and open countryside. I made good progress during the morning and, after twenty-two miles, stopped for lunch. I squatted down to warm my hands on a wood burning stove in the huge open fireplace while I waited for my food, macaroni cheese. After lunch, something amazing happened. I found a new gear. Eighth, to be precise. It was a revelation. With a slightly higher cadence, I was zipping along effortlessly. I pedalled on enthusiastically and covered four or five miles in no time at all. Then eighth gear seemed to go missing and I returned to my usual pace; on reflection, I think it was probably the ‘maccy-cheese after-burner’.
The scenery since I’d left Bristol had been quite different to that I’d experienced on the first leg of my ride. The rolling hills had gone, replaced by much flatter landscapes that allowed distant, church spires to take their venerated place on the skyline. But most of all, it was the colours of the leaves; the red, yellow and amber hues, a spectacular celebration of the beauty of life in its final throes; the last flourish before the weakening grip and the inevitable fall to earth, to fade to brown and crumble away to feed the next generation; nature’s sad, but beautiful, circle of life.
The cycling community is generally a friendly one. Most riders acknowledge each other as they pass by on the opposite side of the road; some with the slightest raising of a finger or nod of the head; others flag you down, invite you home for tea and give you their full life story. Approaching Worcester, I stopped to read my map and met a friendly cyclist, the ‘invite-you-home-for-tea’ variety. We had a long chat about my ride, his impending ride to the shops, his cycle tour of Ireland, electric bikes and the route I was taking. As night settled in, then winter turned to spring, we eventually brought our life stories up to date.
Less than half a mile later, I took a wrong turn into a back alley, stopped, checked my map and went to turn around, nearly crashing into a man on a disability scooter who had sneaked up on me at high speed. I raised my hand in apology, but he just glared back, unimpressed by my lack of attention. Soon I arrived at a marina, full of brightly coloured narrow boats, their newly painted exteriors perfectly mirrored in the still water. The canal was peppered with dinky little locks, just large enough to house a single narrow boat. With limited room at the locks, the footpath rose at an absurdly steep angle, with rows of bricks jutting out of the path to provide some grip for pedestrians or to tip unwary cyclists into the water. I re-joined the road for a few hundred yards before crossing the pavement and dropping back onto the towpath. As I crossed the pavement I nearly crashed into another disability scooter. Hold on, it was the same one I’d nearly crashed into an hour ago!
‘Not you again,’ I laughed. The man responded with a wide, toothless grin, this time seeing the funny side of it.
As I cycled along the towpaths once again, moorhens took their lives into their hands as they sauntered out from the hedges and undergrowth, and then, realising the imminent danger of an approaching bike, sprinted across the path in front of me, making a B-line for the canal and the safety of the water, where they would take a dip, calm down and thank their lucky stars.
I joined another six-mile-long cycle track on a disused railway line shortly after. These were my favourite surfaces to ride on; mostly smooth, reasonably flat, comfortably wide and invariably through beautiful scenery. Whoever had the good sense to create these routes should be given a medal.
After four days, I’d arrived in Penkridge; I still had one hundred and thirty-eight miles to cover to get to Lancaster. I made an early start, leaving in the dark just before seven o’clock. The paths along the River Penk were narrow and bumpy, which made my aching body grumble; I stopped a few times to turn and watch the sun as it rose over the fields behind me. It was beautiful, the gradual building up of colour from a palette of shades of orange, bleeding onto the awakening landscape, the fields, river and trees.
I left the towpath and followed the back roads into Stafford. A short while later I missed a left turn and cycled up and onto the pavement to slow down and turn around. However, the pavement was quite narrow and, as I turned, in the wrong gear, I lost forward momentum and fell back into a holly hedge with the bike on top of me. I thought I was stuck but just about managed to kick the bike away and then heaved myself out of the hedge. Thank God it was early and there weren’t many people about to witness by embarrassing detour.
Back on the towpath again, I turned the corner and saw a rather beautiful sight. A solitary duck was paddling right down the centre of a totally flat section of river. Its’ little body produced a perfect arrowhead wake across the river. It appealed to my sense of symmetry and I stopped to watch it idle slowly by. Five minutes later, a family of swans swam into view; first in line was Dad, then Mum, then four teenaged cygnets dragging along behind, fed-up, hands in pockets; the cygnets were as large as Mum and Dad, if anything slightly larger, but were not quite old enough to have the courage to assert their right not to go for the ‘nice swim’ suggested by their parents. I had a foot in both camps and commiserated with all six of them.
My final day. I mulled over whether to get away at first light or hang on until eight o’clock for breakfast. Full day’s travel versus full English breakfast. Although out of context, I reflected on Martin Luther King’s words ‘it’s always the right time to do the right thing,’ and made the difficult, but right, decision to skip the cooked breakfast; I was feeling very tired physically and I had a long way to go. I set off early, just before seven o’clock, and joined yet another towpath. As I cycled along a heron suddenly launched itself from the bank just six feet in front of me. I’d been concentrating on the bumps ahead and hadn’t looked up. I stopped and watched; the heron did a quick lap of the surrounding area and then landed on the bank again and settled into a one-legged pose. That’s strange, I thought it was flamingos that stood on one leg; maybe this was just a one-legged heron with a good sense of balance. I was feeling very tired and was starting to wonder if I’d get to Lancaster in time to catch a train home; but eventually I found myself five miles, then three, then two, then one mile from my destination. One last hill and I found myself cycling past the castle and down into the city centre of Lancaster. Within a few minutes I pulled up outside the Brown Cow pub and, in doing so, crossed the finishing line to the second leg of my ride. I’d made it.