On the 30th June 2012 at 5:45am we set off from Lands End on a tandem to ride non-stop to John O’Groats (known as LEJOG) as fast as we could. If this was fast enough, we may break the record that has stood since 1966 of 50 hours 14 minutes and 25 seconds.
We didn’t break the record, but we did finish. Rumour has it of all the teams attempting to break the record since it was last set we are the only team to have persisted until the end. Sometimes cycling is more than just the numbers (as someone posted on Facebook).
We were outside the record by quite a margin due to strong headwinds, a bout of illness and the decision to enjoy the ride once we knew the record was not going to be possible. The experience has been an amazing blend of euphoria, joy, deep dark mental and physical fatigue and pain but above all surprise.
832 miles is a long ride. We stopped three time to sleep for about 10 minutes each time. We made other stops to change kit and eat some warm food after heavy rain and temperatures as low as 1 degree in the mountains, but other than this, we basically kept rolling along.
If you ever decided to ride Lands End to John O’Groats don’t do it the fastest way. The UK is a stunningly beautiful country. My first ride of this route was about 80 miles longer but took in the smaller roads, the tea shops and the viewpoints. It remains one of my favourite riding experiences. The short route takes in some ugly, fast, dangerous roads of no attraction than the ability to cover ground quickly. Through hours of careful analysis our route reduced the distance down to 832 miles. Parts of it were stunning, but mostly it was busy A roads where the only reassurance came from the observer and support vehicle about 50 yards behind us warning the traffic of our presence.
The recipe for attracting people to the support team is not promising.
Give up two days of your holiday entitlement
For two nights the only sleep you will get will be in a car and then sporadically
Every 20 – 30 minutes there will be something to do to help the riders
There’s no glory, prize money or celebrity status from involvement
The riders you are supporting will rarely speak to you and then only to demand something
And yet 9 people did just that. I have worked with many teams but have never seen a team develop such a strong bond and team spirit and maintain it under pressure. Every time we stopped on the bike for supplies or to sort something we arrived to find a group of people who were enthusiastic, laughing, happy, fun and caring. What makes this all the more incredible, is whilst they each knew me, until the evening before we started they had never met each other except via conference calls.
Whilst the foundations for success were laid by Nigel Harrison who has led the planning on a number of previous trips, it seems to me the absolute clarity over the goal provided such a clear focus that enabled everyone to align really well. Everyone had a clear role but once the trip started they all did what was necessary whether it was their nominal role or not.
Stoker and Captain
Riding a tandem is a unique experience. The Captain (the person at the front) controls the gears, whether to pedal or not, when to brake, the choice of line on the road and the speed at which the bike descends. The Stoker (the person at the back) is the victim of all these decisions. A superb Stoker is one who anticipates the Captain’s actions or responds exceptionally quickly to what is happening. This coordination is what takes tandem riding from simply being two people riding a bike to being a team. It’s an incredibly social way of riding with someone. The one downside is you can never see the face of the person you are talking to.
Climbers talk about the kinship of the rope. For Ian and I it is the kinship of the bike. You learn to know how the person is feeling through the pedals and the way they move on the bike. Sometimes it means stepping up to the mark and for a few miles shouldering the burden of the work whilst they go through their low patch. Other times it means shielding them from the pressures of the circumstance you are in to enable them to succeed.
It’s an incredible emotional bond. In the last 70 miles both Ian and I found ourselves crying at times. We just seemed to be overwhelmed by the enormity of making it to the end. As we got off the bike at the finish it was not to the support team and spectators we turned but to each other for a deep emotional embrace. It’s hard to describe the feeling. It’s not the love found in marriage nor that of parent child. It’s a bond forged through hours and hours of dreaming about the same goal and working towards its achievement. It’s the accumulation of trust and caring over thousands of miles of riding. It’s the raw emotion from having pushed so hard for so long with no reserves left in the tank either physically or emotionally. It is profoundly deep and moving. I never anticipated this emotion when I started riding a tandem.
Highs and Lows
Psychologists call it ‘peak experience’ or being in ‘flow’. It’s the sensation of riding a tandem so well it feels like a normal bike flying down the road, apex to apex with beautiful scenery on either side bathed in late afternoon sunshine. It’s seeing a moonscape of aching beauty at 3am in the Cairngorms. These fleeting moments are of such intensity time stops and you feel completely at one with the world around you. They occur when you least expect it. You can’t plan for them or even create them. They just happen.
But perhaps the biggest high was the point at which, fed up with the machinations of the observers I decided to ditch the formal timing and focus instead on our primary objective of simply getting there. Ian was completely shattered and needed to step off the bike for a few minutes to get himself sorted. I called the team together to explain my thinking fearful of disappointment and frustration. The overwhelming sense of warmth, support and complete agreement with the decision was unbelievably liberating. From this point on the ride changed from being an ordeal to being an adventure. For Ian and myself we chilled out and relaxed into the remainder of the ride (or as much as you can do with 450 miles done and roughly 380 miles to go).
In my day job I work with teams helping them achieve their strategic ambitions. I don’t know the answers, I am not a consultant, but I do know how to help challenge their thinking in order to create new possibilities. This is a wonderful life that takes me all around the world. The downside is that you are simply a catalyst and never part of the longer term journey towards success. My work has taught me that so often people are constrained by the assumptions they or others have made. These assumptions constrain performance.
By definition, if this is what happens in most situations, then the chances are I too am a victim of such constrained thinking. I decided to challenge my own assumptions about what I am capable of doing. My sporting journey over the last ten years has been a succession of challenges each of which would be unreasonable to expect someone of my sporting background to be able to do. My first triathlon was an Ironman distance race from a starting position of next to no ability as a swimmer, not having biked since I rode to and from college as a student and never having run further than about 15 miles. My first bike race after a few triathlons was the Race Across the Alps, a 525km ride with 13,500m of climbing. My first long distance ride was JoGLE, solo, on a single speed bike. My first mountain bike event was the Transpyr, along the length of the Pyrenees covering almost 24,000m of climbing that I decided to do on a single speed bike. My first tandem event was this non-stop ride from Lands End to John O’Groats.
The skeptics are many. The critics are numerous. Many don’t want you to succeed. Success seems to me to be based on changing that initial response to an idea from �I could never do that” closely followed by the usual litany of excuses such as ‘I haven’t the time’, ‘I don’t have the experience’ to �why not?” Once you have decided to have a go, everything else are simply issues to be resolved. Time and time again I am reminded that our potential is much greater than we ever dare allow ourselves to believe.
If this all sounds impressive and slightly unbelievable, then it is knocked into a cocked hat by Ian Rodd, my Stoker. In the space of 10 months he went from a longest ride of 130 miles (requiring much planning and preparation) to regularly doing rides well in excess of 200 miles and ended up riding the 832 miles of LEJOG. He did this on just short of 14 hours of training a week.
My ability to spend time on such sporting capers is nothing without the love and support of my wife and daughter and my stepsons. So many times a deep low is abruptly ended by a short conversation with loved ones at home. You can imagine the uplift when you think they are safe at home only to find them on the side of the road cheering you on in the wilds of Wales. To find others like the parents in-law of my stepson who had driven through the night to cheer us on in the twilight hours, or people from previous lives who, caught up by the challenge didn’t bother going to bed and instead sat in a layby in the dark in order to cheer for a few seconds. To these and all the other people who came out and supported us – I cannot thank you enough. Each wave, each smile, each shout was as good as a warm hug of encouragement.
I never set out on this adventure expecting a spiritual life changing experience. But this is what it has been. Simply amazing…know how do I go one better?
Along the way we wanted to make a difference and fundraised for the Magic Wand Appeal.
For expert advice on all things tandem related: JD Tandems
The team: Myself, Ian Rodd, Nigel Harrison, John Hargreaves, Charlie Mitchell, Alex Fitzgerald-Baron, Bob and Ally Campbell, Ian Mayhew, Jim Rawling, Joolze Dymond
Thanks also to: Ruth Hargreaves, The Irvine Family, The Rodd Family