Route planning

For the last few evenings, I’ve been plotting my LEJOG route on t’internet.  I’ve used the CTC B&B route for England/Wales, and then my own way through Scotland.  I’ve aimed to keep the first few days a bit shorter, since they are hilly, but that makes for some longer days later on.  Anyhow, here’s the rough plan:

Day 1 (Mon) [64m] Lands End – Wadebridge
Day 2 (Tue) [57m] Wadebridge – Great Torrington
Day 3 (Wed) [68m] Great Torrington – Bridgewater
Day 4 (Thu) [72m] Bridgewater – Tintern
Day 5 (Fri) [81m] Tintern – Much Wenlock
Day 6 (Sat) [83m] Much Wenlock – Leigh
Day 7 (Sun) [77m] Leigh – Sedbergh

Day 8 (Mon) [62m] Sedbergh – Longtown
Day 9 (Tue) [75m] Longtown – Auchinleck
Day 10 (Wed) [67m] Auchinleck – Tarbet
Day 11 (Thu) [70m] Tarbet – Ft William
Day 12 (Fri) [64m] Ft William – Inverness
Day 13 (Sat) [56m] Inverness – Brora
Day 14 (Sun) [63m] Brora – John o’Groats


More high-geekery, this time related to tyres.  By way of explanation, once I’ve finished the ride I’ll turn this blog into a set of ‘real’ web pages and hence I’m dumping random technical content here too.

When I bought my Courier Nexus bicycle from Edinburgh Bicycle Coop, it came with a set of tyres composed largely of soft cheese.  The web says they were probably ‘Continental Sport Contact’.  They barely survived a few weeks of the ‘ned diamonds’ (broken glass) on my work commute, whereas the tyres I had on my previous bike (Schwalbe Marathons) had lasted ages without problem.  So I switched them over to the Nexus and they’ve lasted 1.5 years so far.  Awesomely reliable tyres, and I’d totally recommend them.

So, coming up towards LEJOG I thought it might be a plan to put on a fresh set of tyres (as some kind of puncture insurance).  But now that’s a whole new world of tech and numbers to grok.  Once again, I’ll use the tyres I bought as an example – they were Schwalbe Marathon 40-559 26×1.5 HS 368 kevlar guard 50EPI with reflex side walls.  Which all translates to:

  • Schwalbethe company who make them.
  • Marathon – their range which is designed for long life (rather than saving weight)
  • 40-559 – the ETRTO (European Tyre & Rim Technical Organizations) standard designation for a tyre which has width 40mm and inner diameter of 559mm.  All very precise and well defined (ish).
  • 26×1.5″ – the classic albeit fuzzy way of giving the size.  26″ is the tyre outer diameter and 1.5″ is the width.
  • HS368 is a particular tread pattern which Schwalbe do.  You can find the same HS368 tread pattern on 28″ tyres too, so they’d also be HS368’s.
  • Kevlar guard – underneath the rubber tread, there’s a layer of kevlar material – the same stuff they use in bullet-proof vests.  This is insurance against punctures.
  • 50EPI describes the weave of the tyre carcass – the inside bit that looks kinda like canvas.  EPI is ‘ends per inch’, a measure of the density of the weave.  There’s a tradeoff between strength, weight, puncture protection etc.  Everyday tyres seem to be around 50, whereas race tyres (ie. weight-saving at all cost) are around 120.
  • Finally, reflex sidewalls just mean that the sides of the tyre are kinda reflective, so that you’re more visible at night.

Schwalbe do an excrutiating detailed technical document about all this stuff if you’re into that kinda thing.


Time for some high-geekery.   Whilst climbing big hills, I noticed an occasional crunchy-slippiness coming from somewhere on the bike.  A quick application of the magic chain gauge showed that the chain was indeed pretty worn, and the sprockets had gone a bit shark-tooth shaped.  Since I’d already planned to get a new 22 tooth rear sprocket (for the hills), I augmented my shopping list with a new 20 tooth rear sprocket and a new chain and then set about trying to understand what the heck all these different kinds of chainrings were for, and which one I needed.  Several hours later, and I think I now have a Clue – which I’m going to preserve here for Google and posterity.

I’ll use this chainring as an example, because it’s the one I’m going to buy.  It’s a “Thorn 104mm PCD 4 arm reversible single chainring 3/32 inch 46teeth”.  Which all meant nothing to me when I first read it.  But now I can explain!

  • Thorn is a product range made by SJS cycles.
  • 104mm PCD means that if you draw a circle which passes through all of the mounting bolts, it’ll have a diameter of 104mm.  PCD stands for ‘pitch circle diameter’.  Some people say ‘BCD’, which means ‘bolt circle diameter’, but it means exactly the same thing.  It can be kinda fiddly to measure this directly on your bike, so you can measure it indirectly by measuring the distance between the bolts and looking up a table like this one.
  • 4 arm means that the chainring will have 4 mounting bolt, to connect to the four arm ‘spider’.  The spider itself is part of the cranks.  As a bonus, you can infer this from the PCD size.  All 104mm PCD chainrings have 4 bolts, and all 110mm PCD chainrings have 5 bolts, etc.
  • single means that this chainring has been specifically designed for bikes with a single chainring.  If you have a derailleur bike with multiple chainrings, the chainrings will have ramps and pins to help lift the chain up onto the next sprocket when you are changing gears.  Additionally, a few of the teeth will be short and stubby – again, to help shifting.  Also, the teeth might be shaped specially to help shifting.   When your bike only has one chainring, you don’t all this magic.  The teeth can be much simpler (possibly stronger for it?).  So that’s what a single chainring is promising – straightforward teeth with no fuss.  As a bonus, they can be …
  • reversible, which means that when the teeth get worn out, you can just take the chainring off, flip it over, and have a go at the other side of the teeth.  Twice the lifetime!
  • 3/32″ is the width of the chain it was designed for.  On a derailleur bike, a narrower chain is desirable because the sprockets on the rear cassette can be closer together.  But on a hub-geared bike, you don’t have that constraint.  So typically you run a wider 1/8″ chain (= 4/32″) (presumably inspired by a belief that a wider chain means more contact area, therefore lower pressure on the links, therefore less friction and longer life).  However, a 1/8″ chain will happily ride on a 3/32″ sprocket (it’s just a wee bit wider after all).
  • 46 teeth is pretty obvious.  More teeth on the front == harder to pedal.

Phew, the mystery of chainrings revealed!  The only other dimension I came across was the kind of metal.  Aluminium alloy is lighter than steel, but will probably wear out faster.  From what I saw, large chainrings are often made of alloy and smaller ones are made from steel.

Cross country training

This weekend I was up at Leanachan Forest (Fort William) checking out the route for 10 Under the Ben which is at the end of May.  Much to my surprise, all my LEJOG training has put me in pretty good stead for this.  The course largely consists of long energy-sapping climbs on big wide roads!  Hurrah, that’s the course for me!  Having said that, there’s plenty of weaving through trees (yay!) and the odd heartstopping (potentially literally) rockstrewn descent.

The drive up to Fort William took us across Rannoch Moor and through Glencoe, which is the route I’ll be cycling during LEJOG.  Awesome scenery, but nowhere to shelter from the wind.  So, as an experiment I’ve borrowed a set of aero bars for my bike (thanks Tim!) which I’m going to try out over the next few weeks.  It’s 600g extra weight to carry, but the reduction in drag is significant (when you can use them).  I’m not too sure whether the posture will give me a sore back, so I’ll try them out for a while and see.

I have now ordered a 22 tooth sprocket for my road bike.  The internet suggests that you can switch them over just using a screwdriver, so my plan is to take a 20t and a 22t sprocket and switch between them as required.

A huge thankyou to all the people who have sponsored me.  I got an email from the Sick Kids hospital the other week saying thanks for the fundraising, and so I wanted to pass that thanks onto all of you who’ve donated money!

ObRandom:  Whilst scouring flickr today, I found this.  It’s not a staged photo.  This guy really did cycle Lands End to John O’Groats on a unicycle – read about it in his blog.

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What a difference a day makes

After yesterdays trials, I was a bit nervous of the 65 mile return ride.  When I woke up, my legs felt pretty stiff after pounding against the wind for 7 hours yesterday.  So I took things easy in the morning and didn’t leave until midday – and a good multistage breakfast (cereal, orange juice, two lots of toast + marmalade and a bacon roll).

The wind had dropped down to 5mph, but more importantly it was now behind me.   What a difference!  I streamed along using the top three gears rather than the bottom three.  After taking the first few hills easy to test my tired legs, I started picking up the pace and, by the time I got to Douglas I was actively attacking hills – changing up and dancing on the pedals to power up them.  These were the same hills that caused my suffering yesterday, and today they were like a red rag to a bull.

To tell the truth, I’d pulled out all the psychological tricks.  I listened to music most of the way – and it was cheese like Feeder’s Buck Rodger and Just A Day that worked the magic.  I must’ve listened to that track about four or five times whilst attacking the steeper hills.  And, thanks to yotube, I needed something catchy to keep this evil song out of my head – “if this don’t make your booty move, your booty must be dead!”.  Psychological warfare, I tell you!

I left the GPS and cycle computer in my panniers so that they could discuss numbers with each other wihtout distracting me.

I ended up doing the 65 miles in 4h50m.  So that’s 130 miles and nearly 12 hours of cycling this weekend.  It’s probably my last big training effort before doing the LEJOG ride itself.   I still have a month to go, but apart from riding the XC course at Fort William, I’m doing real world (non-cycling) stuff the rest of the time.  I’ll do some speed training during my cycle to work, but pretty soon I’m going to taper off my training and rest to repair my body.

Food for the day: about 1l of water, plus 400ml of lucozade, wine gums, macaroon, a bounty bar, most of a fruit&nut bar.  The macaroon was the win of the day – the top ingredient is sugar, next on the list is glucose!

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Team Epic Fail (Jeremy, Frank and myself) headed down to Glentress for an early evening blast around the red route, in preparation for 10 Under The Ben in late May.  I took about 1h15m to get there, via the congested bypass.   The BBC weather forecast had been proclaiming doom and gloom for days.  But Frank was wise and told us to ignore them.  And it was just as well we believed him, because we got a great evening of riding.

This was the first time I’ve been back to Glentress since they added the singletrack ascent up to the top car park.  I didn’t mind the old road too much, but the singletrack is certainly more interesting, with lots of switchbacks and a few extras to jump and hop over.  I set off at what felt like my ‘default’ hill climbing pace – enough to be breathing heavily but still a pace I could sustain for a long time.  But it turns out, that’s a pretty unsocially fast pace uphill.  I was pleasantly surprised – it seems that all my road training has given an unexpected boost to my off-road climbing skillz, yay!

Unfortunately, my descending skills leave a lot to be desired.  Dropping down Pennel’s Vennel, I was too tense – not helped by clip-ins and muddy conditions.  And Spooky Wood didn’t flow very well until I made the discovery that sitting down whilst riding the berms made the bike feel waay more stable.  Normally, I stay up off the saddle on berms – but I always feel like the bike and me are hinged in the middle, which is a degree-of-freedom I could do without.   However, with my new patented sit-down-on-berms technique, suddenly everything comes together and the bike and me become one solid unit.

We opted for the blue return route, due to fading light.  Even though, the dense forest sections were getting seriously dark, leading to many ‘use the force, luke’ comments.   We dropped down off the road onto the soberingly fast motorway section (there really is a motorway sign there).  The last bit of the blue, back to the freeride area, was my favourite bit of the day.  It’s a mix of flat and uphill, snapping left and right, and Jeremy blasted away making for an irresitable target to chase after.  He was faster, but it was a lot of fun to chase a challenging target.  Lots of grins.  We rounded up with three or four trips down the freeride area and, for the first time, I started to get the hang of getting air .. it’s not about being a passenger on a bike which is going airborne .. it’s about going airborne yourself and bring the bike along with you.  Stand up, and imagine that you’re going to fly, and you will.  Mindgames!

A good ride! 🙂

The wind, the wind

I cycled the 65 miles from Edinburgh down to Auchinleck today, hoping to do it in maybe 5 hours because there was a bit of a headwind forecast.  It started out well – the climb up through Currie and Balerno felt okay.  But whenever I got out of the city I encountered the wind that would be my nemesis all day long.  The forecast said it would be 8mph, gusting up to 12mph.  This didn’t sound too bad – I’d done a shorter training ride in 20mph wind before.  But, having followed the A70 out into the countryside, there was no shelter and no respite.  The wind was constant all day long, making ascents much harder and sapping all the fun out of descents.  Even on the steep downhills, I could feel the wind pressing back on me, stopping me from picking up any speed.  And once onto the flat, my momentum was blown away immediately.  I spent almost all day in the bottom three gears.  After the first two hours, I was finding it hard going – and it took me a while to realise that, averaging a mere 9mph, I would be in the saddle for 7 hours.  I occasionally checked ‘distance remaining’ on the GPS, but each time the number was worryingly high and it didn’t seem to go down very quickly.  The only time the GPS gave good news was when I got down to single digits.  But even that good news was somewhat dampened by the realisation that I still had an hour of cycling remaining.

Jeez, that was tough.  I stuck at it, because it’s a training ride and I know there’ll be bad days during LEJOG – therefore, I need to get used to toughing it out.  At the end of the day, I made it.  And, had I not tricked myself into believing I’d do it in 5 hours, I think the psychological effect of the wind would’ve been lessened.  As it was, I felt the wind was fighting against me, slowing me down .. stopping me going at the speed I should’ve been going at.  But there’s no speed other than the one that you do on the day.  In some ways, I’m beginning to view cycling as an activity where you pass through air rather than passing along the ground.  I can do hills.  I can do distance.  But I need to accept that, on a windy day, the weather is going to choose my pace.

I did a ‘trial packing’ earlier in the week.  This (first!) attempt ended up with pannier + all my gear weighing basically 10kg.  I think my bike weighs something like 14kg.  And I weigh around 74kg.  Put like that, it doesn’t sound that much.  But, still, I’m not going hacksaw any bits off the bike and I’m pretty sure that removing any of my own limbs would be counter-productive.  So, prompted by today’s suffering, I’m going to rethink what I’m taking.  I don’t think there’s much wiggle room.  But any weight saved will make a difference.

The other lesson from today is that I definitely could benefit from lower gearing.  I got up all the hills fine, but the combination of full panniers and wind meant that grinding along in first gear was flavour of the day.  It could easily be windy on a hilly day during LEJOG, and I’d gladly sacrifice some top end speed (ha! the thought!) for some more options low down.  So I’m going to get a 22 tooth sprocket for the rear and see what difference that makes.

Food munched today: cereal + toast + tea for breakfast,  1.5 litres of water, two bananas, one jam sandwich, one snickers bar, two caramel wafers, one Wispa, one wee box of sultanas and raisins (today’s tastiest snack!) and three barley sugar sweets.

Todays lessons:

1.  Carry cash – petrol stations are good for chocolate stops, but today’s garage had a “minimum 7.50 purchase on card” sign.  I only had £1 in cash, and ended up doing maths puzzles to try and maximize the amount of calories I could get for my pound.

2. Carry spare food in case that tasty cafe you stopped at last time in Glespin is shut, boo.  Following my recent blog post, I resolved to stop for lunch like a good boy, but I was thwarted because apparently it’s easter and that means cafes are shut.

3. You can get sunburned even on a day where the wind is so cold you need to wear winter leggings and windproof jacket all day long.  I am a dumbass who thought to bring suncream in his panniers but not put it on his face.  Hindsight is 20/20.  What’s worse, I was cycling southwest all day long, so it’s not even symmetric.

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Gear ratios

Tonight I tried to figure out if my hub-geared bike is a sane choice USING THE POWER OF MATHS!

For example, this guy sounds pretty pleased to have had a “25-12 tooth cassette and 30 – 42 – 52 chainrings” to get up the hills of Devon.  That means his “easiest gear” used a 30 tooth sprocket at the front and a 25 tooth sprocket at the back, and so one turn of the pedals turned the back wheel 1.25 times.

My hub gear bike came with a 44 tooth chainring and a 20 tooth sprocket at the back – a ratio of 2.2 by itself.  But the hub gear itself provides a ratio of 0.53 (easy) to 1.61 (hard).  So the combination means that my easiest gear ratio is 1.16.  Looks like I should have an even easier time uphill than Mr Derailleur.

What’s more, I think his racing bike has larger wheels (700mm = 27.5″) than mine (26″) which means that each revolution of his wheels makes him go further.  Good news for him on the flat, but bad news for his hill climbing.  To be truthful, I can’t figure out whether those measurements reflect the distance to the wheel rim or the outer edge of the tyre.

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The Competition

I wonder if I’ll meet these guys:

“Two men expect to take 12 days to travel a 970-mile route from Land’s End to John O’Groats in two vintage tractors. James Williamson and Johnny Sinclair, both from the Highlands, must avoid motorways during May’s charity effort.”  (see full story)

Staying warm, eating food

Twice during my training, I’ve stupidly failed to eat enough during the ride, and both times the effect has been pretty severe.  Typically, I’ve been out on a ride which turned out to be longer than I expected (eg. because of a strong headwind).  Then I run out of food/water, and I think “stuff it, I just want to get home” and press on rather than stopping to refuel.

This is a really bad idea.

Three things happen.  Firstly, your energy just goes away and cycling suddenly becomes hard.  Secondly, your body temperature seems to drop rapidly – but you don’t realise how chilled you’ve got until you stop cycling.  Thirdly, your concentration, risk perception and reaction times become seriously impaired.  The worst part of this is this: It happens fast, and I don’t realise that its happening.  I mean, I know I’m tired and hungry, but I don’t notice the temperature drop, and once you’re in the bad zone you’re just thinking about getting home and nothing else.

Boy, this is all good stuff to learn during training.  Actually, I’m much more conscientious about eating and drinking when I’m on long rides.  Every time I even think about water or drinking, I take a drink.  And I eat something at least every 10 miles or 45 minutes.  But I seem to have a dumb blindspot during ride of about two hours.

I guess the main risk during the actual LEJOG ride is towards the end of the day when I’ll be tempted to “just get there”.  Or to try and take a ‘late lunch’ instead of stopping at the right time.  So I hope that writing this down will help me remember this!  And I’m definitely going to pack some glucose sweets for instant emergency refueling.

Edit:  It’s just occurred to me that there was also something else in common on both these rides.  The first part of the ride was slow and hard work (hills, or against the wind) so I was hot and sweating.  Then the second part of the ride was at higher speeds and colder weather.  So, the temperature drop combined with the wind chill on damp cycling gear makes for a nasty combo.  A wise cyclist would stop, adjust layers and be comfortable …

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