Riding through the storm. (2018, Land's End to John O Groats)
"Is everyone ready?"
There were hunched nods, no-one had the energy to speak.
"OK, go". And then the outer door was opened and we rushed back out into a storm that was unlike anything we'd seen before.
On the very last day of a journey that had covered almost 1,000 miles, we'd found ourselves forced to take shelter in a luxury hunting lodge on the north coast of Scotland. Thirteen days earlier, we'd set off from the most southerly tip of Cornwall, three of us on unspectacular road bikes, with bikepacking gear strapped to them. Now there were four of us; at one point there had been eight of us.
It's not possible to describe a journey like this in brief, it could easily fill the pages of a novella. There were too many striking moments of beauty and freedom, too many places of indescribable beauty and more laughter than I can remember on a trip with friends. There were also the long passages of grim determination, the curious habits and ticks you form when you're on the road with a group for a while and most of all, the life affirming, everyday interactions with the ordinary people and places along the way. We were humbled by the kindness and curiosity of people we'd just met. After all, our journey is one undertaken by thousands of people every year.
And so we found ourselves, after two weeks on the road cycling from Land's End, on the north coast of Scotland in a howling storm. It was our final day and for some reason, this was exactly how I'd imagined it. Driving rain, gale force winds, freezing cold. The masochistic side of me was revelling in the sheer grimness of it all, man vs. elements.
We had an inkling that we were in for some unusual conditions in the days preceding,
as smiling locals winked and told us "There's some weather coming in, you know". That carries some weight if you live in those parts. From the moment we set off and hit the north coast to head east, we were buffeted by consistent 40mph winds, with gusts much higher that blew us and our bikes across the road. Not ideal when you're being passed by heavy trucks. By sheer luck, the wind was an easterly, giving us a tailwind that we might never experience again. However, it brought with it driving rain, temperatures just above freezing and crosswinds as we changed directions.
It was halfway through this chaos when we decided we had to take shelter somewhere, our whole bodies chilled to the core despite pedalling at speed, and the storm seemingly getting worse. I pulled into the first place I could see, a luxury hunting lodge in a grand old manor house. We shovelled our way through the front door, startling the elderly woman who ran the place. Her initial coolness soon gave way to generous Scottish hospitality as she arranged for some tea while we tried to warm our frozen bones. I headed to the bathroom to freshen up (mostly running warm water over my hands) and by the time I'd returned she'd made a personal donation to the causes we were raising money for.
In a few hours, our journey of over 900 miles would be complete, posing for the obligatory photo under the sign and a more poignant picture replicating the one taken by my travelling companions’ late dad, some thirty-odd years ago. It was his journey that had been the inspiration for our trip.
For now though, the feeling just returning to our extremities, we had to pitch ourselves back into the maelstrom outside. We hatched a plan to sprint for our bikes as soon as the outer door opened and get moving as quickly as we could. Zips were fastened, damp gloves pulled tight, brows furrowed.
Someone manned the heavy oak door, both hands on the bolts.
"Is everyone ready?"