Cycling Through a Pandemic is a project sharing the stories and perspectives of cyclists from ten countries around the world, who embarked on journeys in their home countries during the pandemic. This is Jon Heard's story.
Having been furloughed for months and with more time on my hands than ever, I decided to pack up my flat in Brighton and ride the famous Land's End to John O'Groats route on my first ever solo bikepacking trip. I had no idea how long the trip would take, but knew that I wanted to be away for as long as possible so I picked the longest route that I could find.
The UK had just opened up its domestic tourism again after a short lockdown and the country was feeling optimistic. I enjoyed riding along the north coast of Cornwall and Devon while soaking in the sun and views, passing through fishing villages and up and down some of the steepest climbs I've ever faced. Why did no-one tell me that this part of the route was the hardest? Riding this section while fully loaded gave me the fitness that I'd need to complete the rest of the journey and I was soon crunching 8,000ft a day on some days over 70 miles.
I passed through Bristol without stopping and before long I'd crossed the Severn Bridge and entered Wales. I felt lonely immediately, there were far fewer people than the densely packed Cornwall that I knew well and the landscapes surrounding me were much wilder. Luckily, I was caught up by two other riders who kept me company for the next three days as we rode into the remote heart of Wales on forestry roads.
The freedom of travelling by bike is wonderful. With no plans for where to camp and mileage that I needed to cover, I enjoyed a simple life full of purpose and direction as I hopped on the bike every day and pedalled further north. I packed the bare essentials; I didn't have space for any luxuries in my bikepacking bags. Two sets of cycling kit, a down jacket, a tent, sleeping gear and small stove to cook with was all I needed to survive — oh and a lot of food.
Before long, I'd reached Scotland and the adventure began in earnest. I'd been looking forward to exploring the famous mountains and lochs of this remote part of the UK which had previously seemed so out of reach. Making my own way, I passed through Loch Lomond and The Trossachs before heading up to the islands of Mull and Skye with their mind-bending scenery and then the lunar Outer Hebrides. Chasing the last rays of warmth before winter set in, I rode further north along the famous North Coast 500 route until I reached the signpost at the other end. It was an adventure of a lifetime.
I couldn't quite comprehend the scale of the challenge at this point and put my mind to climbing the incredibly steep roads of the Cornish coast up to the start line.
I patiently waited in line at the famous Lands End sign post behind several snotty nosed ice cream bearing children, eager to get on the road and begin crunching miles.
This couldn't have been more of a British start to a British journey.
At this point I decided to detour off the official GB Divide route to follow more of the coastal roads for a scenic route. I was truly soaking in the stunning views along the North Cornwall coast and battling up some epic 20-30% gradient climbs while fully loaded.
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After overnighting in Croyde, a stunning seaside surf town, I headed off the next day.
The elevation says it all. Why did no-one tell me that this part of the route was so steep!
There is a reason that the GB Divide route stays on the moors and goes through the centre of Cornwall.
The Quantock Hills were stunning and the perfect place to stop for a night before heading on towards Bristol, with pristine gravel trails through forestry areas and wide open views over the Severn Estuary and over to South Wales.
There was a mad dash to get to Bristol after overnighting near Cheddar Gorge. I wanted to pick up some more heavy duty gear before heading into Wales but forgot it was a Sunday, and when I arrived and everything was closed. I was already starting to lose track of time.
The remoteness and loneliness of Wales suddenly struck me as I crossed the old Severn Bridge. I'd grown accustomed to the bustling beaches of Cornwall and Devon. Luckily this was short-lived as I bumped into two other bikepackers, Wilf and Hamish, who were riding the same route.
Alone again, I decided to disband the GB Divide route after having to carry my bike through a river near the beautiful town Machynlleth.
I was shaken and cold, but a good cup of tea and chat with a Danish motorcyclist cheered me up.
I rode from Wales back into England via Liverpool and ending up in Manchester. It was my first time in either of these cities and I enjoyed being in the company of people again.
After stopping for a large fry up lunch in Liverpool on the docks, I continued on riding to Manchester and enjoyed my first puncture of the whole trip!
After resting in Manchester and eating real food again, I cracked on into the Yorkshire Dales.
Progress was slow as I was developing a niggle in my knee which made any effort painful. I was enveloped in rain and dark clouds as soon as I left the big city.
Luckily I found a dry cabin to sleep in with some friendly owners who offered to dry my clothes and cook me breakfast in the morning. There's always a silver lining!
I was well and truly off the GB Divide route now, following the Pennine Bridleway which offered impressive views while being less extreme than the usual route. I didn't fancy the wet and remote prescribed route at all so made my own way up past Ribblehead Viaduct and on into the moody Lake District town of Windermere where I had a cosy hostel booked.
The excitement built as I headed towards the Scottish border. I'd been anticipating this moment since the beginning of the journey and was not let down.
I was blessed with wide clear blue skies and views over to the Lake District mountain ranges as I pedalled along the south coast of Dumfries and Galloway - one of Scotland's best kept secrets.
I shot this photo at Cafe Rendezvous, one of my favourite stops of the trip in Wigtown: Scotland's allocated book town where I enjoyed a quick coffee and brownie.
I must have counted at least ten book shops before heading on into the glorious Scottish hills and sunshine.
There was lovely weather along the coast from Stranraer to the manicured grass of The Royal Troon golf course. I decided to make a sprint to Glasgow at this point as this segment wasn't particularly scenic.
I arrived at 8pm and checked into a crummy hotel on the edge of town before heading in to get some dinner.
After a crummy continental breakfast in Glasgow, I headed out along the Clydesdale River and into picture perfect Scotland.
The change in scenery was dramatic as I pushed on towards Loch Lomond and into the mountains.
I finished the day in Loch Fyne where a friend put me up and took me to a local pub, complete with kilt-wearing clientele.
After a day off the bike resting and exploring the beautiful Loch Fyne, I headed on towards the port town of Oban where I knew I could catch a ferry to the Isle of Mull.
I was enjoying the freedom of going with the flow and not having to follow a bleeping Garmin. I simply headed wherever I wanted, although it was hard to decide as any direction would have rewarded me with spectacular views and riding.
The Isle of Mull was my first experience of a Scottish Island and it exceeded my wildest expectations. Desolate beauty and wild life surrounded me as I navigated the island in an anti-clockwise direction.
I passed mist covered mountains early in the morning as I set off. The clouds lifted and revealed a wide open blue sky which shone down on me as I rode up to Tobermory (otherwise known as Balamory).
I didn't want to leave the picture perfect Mull and was apprehensive of the next phase of the journey. I was pleasantly surprised and enjoyed the lochs and views of this part of Scotland, even spotting otters basking in the sunlight near Glenuig. I stopped at the shop here to connect to some dodgy wifi and send a few postcards before I cycled up to the ferry port town Mallaig, the gateway to The Isle of Skye.
I arrived in Mallaig only to find that the ferry was cancelled due to unstable sea conditions. After a wet night camping with some bikepackers, I embarked on the ferry over to the island which I'd heard so much about. Horizontal rain and wind lashed me as I rode north miserably. The rain soon lifted though and revealed the most stunning views I can recall ever seeing.