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John O’Groats To Land’s End: The Traffic-Free Way

Posted June 19th, 2012

Every year, hundreds of cyclists set out to bike the distance between the northern tip of the United Kingdom – John O’Groats – and the southern point of Land’s End.

The trip – often referred to as LEJOG or JOGLE, depending on direction – is about 1,500km long. It’s a great distance for a bike tour of anywhere up to a month (depending on your appetite for mileage) but not everyone makes this trip on the most quiet of roads.

There are alternatives, however, including one route that British cyclist David Piper created. It goes from end-to-end across Britain, on quiet country roads and bike paths. He took a few minutes to tell us about it. You can also view the GPS track, which we created from David’s map.

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Why did you create this route?

I live close enough to Land’s End to see streams of ‘End to Enders’ trudging up the A30 dual carriageway in the summer. While they’re fighting traffic and slashing their tyres on the broken glass littering the scant shoulder, I’m slashing my wrists in despair at their lack of imagination and planning.

I assume they have plotted the rest of the route in much the same manner when (with a little time invested) they could have taken the road less travelled along the blissful B-roads and scenic cycle tracks that criss-cross our green and pleasant land.

I’d been asked by the anti human-trafficking charity Bringing Freedom to plot such a route and I was so pleased with the results I thought I’d share it with you!

John O'Groats to Land's End (traffic free)
A rough outline of the route. Click for a bigger version on Flickr.

How did you map out this particular route? 

I wanted to use as many of the Sustrans National Cycle Network (NCN) routes as possible, and traffic-free roads wherever possible.

Scotland really stood out in this respect. It was a cyclist’s dream of empty roads, fabulous mountain-scapes and enough bird and wildlife to keep any budding David Attenborough happy. We saw lapwings and ospreys.

In the far north, we could even use some main roads. It’s wilderness up there, and we saw more wild deer than wild drivers!

Can you give us a quick summary?

Sure!

We started in John O’Groats. From there, we climbed over rolling moorland south of Beauly and dropped down to Loch Ness. We braved the A82 to the quaint town of Fort Augustus but on reflection it would have been far better to pick up the tiny road (NCN 78) that follows the southern bank of the lake.

Land's End To John O'Groats

We then went off-road, beside the Caledonian Canal. We rode past snow-capped Ben Nevis to Fort William, then south of Loch Leven on  parts of the old railway (NCN 78). Next we detoured around Loch Awe past the Falls of Cruachan and the underground hydro-electric plant pumping out millions of watts of clean, renewable energy. Hidden, silent valleys beside Loch Eck took us through the Argyll Forest to the Dunoon Ferry.

Next it was on to B743 and a handful of unclassified lanes. These took us east over the bleak and desolate Southern Uplands to Abingdon – Scotland’s highest village. From here, the NCN 74 uses a deserted road all the way to Gretna Green – where eloping lovers could once be wed.

Land's End To John O'Groats

We climbed into the Lake District on the B5299 (NCN 7) to Caldbeck, then south on Pasture Lane to the utterly beautiful Ullswater before tackling the only real mountain in the whole trip – the Kirkstone Pass, descending to the touristy waters of Windermere.

Land's End To John O'Groats

NCN 55 & NCN 5 took us most of the way from Preston to Worcester through the heart of England’s Industrial Revolution on miles of canal paths. Then it was on to the old railtrack NCN42. We were disappointed that only a little of this was complete but soon it will be a grand route from Cheltenham to Welsh Chepstow.

Bristol is the home of Sustrans so a traffic free route into the city wasn’t hard to find. It took us out again over Brunel’s iconic Clifton Suspension Bridge and later on the Strawberry Line (NCN26), heading south to the gorgeous gorge of Cheddar.

Land's End To John O'Groats

In Somerset, we traced a canal from Bridgewater to Taunton, followed by the B3227 for the 50 miles between Taunton and Barnstaple. Next it was the NCN27 Devon Coast to Coast route, making sure we stopped at the legendary Yarde Café for a pint of homemade cider.

Now in Plymouth, we crossed into Cornwall and rode the magnificent coastal road along Whitsand Bay, hugging the coast until Looe before following the river valley to Liskeard. A short blast along the A38 was unavoidable but we soon got on unclassified roads that trace the new A30 as far as Fraddon.

From there, the B3275 follows the Ladock Valley toward Truro. Cornwall’s tin mining heritage was evident along the coast-to-coast cycleway from Devoran to Portreath. From there, we were treated to a fabulous run along the North Cliffs on B3301. Finally, it was NCN 3 all the way to Land’s End.

What were some of your favourite parts of the trip?

In Scotland, we briefly followed NCN 78. It’s part of an old railway line and in a few years it should connect Oban with Loch Ness. It hugs the stunning coastline and is quite possibly the best cycle track I’ve ever ridden!

I also loved the area around Preston and Worcester. You ride through the heart of England’s Industrial Revolution on flat, pretty and traffic free canal paths. And don’t forget the added benefit of a smattering of lock-side pubs! Willows wept and otters leapt, whilst happy holiday-makers waved cheerily from their converted barges. Fantastic.

Land's End To John O'Groats

Did you ever need off-road tires?

Not really. We first went off-road beside the Caledonian Canal but the surface was fine grit so our standard road tyres could cope with it. This was also the case with the other unpaved sections nationwide.

Isn’t your version of JOGLE a little long?

Our total route was about 2,000km but so what if it took a little longer? That’s the whole point, isn’t it? If you want to sprint up the highway, the record is under two days, so knock yourself out! Or maybe the traffic will first…

More info:

Himalayan Cycling Tips: From Leh To Manili

Posted May 5th, 2012

The road that leads from Leh to Manili in the India’s Himalaya mountains is a spectacular bike touring destination.

The scenery is epic and hard-won over a series of 5000m passes which lead from the lush Kullu Valley over high altitude desert to the remote and starkly beautiful mountain region of Ladakh. – Himalaya By Bike

AscendingPhoto by Paul Jeurissen. Ascending the Baralacha La pass.

Paul Jeurissen & Grace Johnson cycled this road in 2011 and jotted down the following useful information and tips for other bike tourists.

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Maps - We carried the Nelles map of North India but we only used it to find our way between the different monasteries near Leh. Once we headed out on the Leh-Manali road, we stashed our map into a back pannier and didn’t end up getting it out until after we had left the mountains. A map is not really necessary for much of the trip because once you leave the Indus valley and start heading towards Manali there is just the one road, which all of the buses and trucks also take.

Click to read more of Paul & Grace’s tips for cycling the Indian Himalayas.

Himalayan Bike Touring Tips: From Leh To Manili

Posted May 5th, 2012

The road that leads from Leh to Manili in the India’s Himalaya mountains is a spectacular bike touring destination.

The scenery is epic and hard-won over a series of 5000m passes which lead from the lush Kullu Valley over high altitude desert to the remote and starkly beautiful mountain region of Ladakh. – Himalaya By Bike

Ascending
Photo by Paul Jeurissen. Ascending the Baralacha La pass.

Paul Jeurissen & Grace Johnson cycled this road in 2011 and jotted down the following useful information and tips for other bike tourists.

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Maps - We carried the Nelles map of North India but we only used it to find our way between the different monasteries near Leh. Once we headed out on the Leh-Manali road, we stashed our map into a back pannier and didn’t end up getting it out until after we had left the mountains. A map is not really necessary for much of the trip because once you leave the Indus valley and start heading towards Manali there is just the one road, which all of the buses and trucks also take.

“Even though we didn’t look at our map, we looked daily at a small altitude and pass profile of the road, which we found on a number of websites. The list of food and accommodation on the profile is outdated (there is now more accommodation and food than the profile shows) but for us it was important to see which pass was coming up and how steep or high it was.

Route Profile
A profile of the route from Leh to Manili.

Internet Access - At first we thought we could get online with our smart phone but Ladakh is very close to the Chinese border and the Pakistani line of control so the Airtel sim card that we bought in Delhi didn’t work there. To buy a SIM card for Leh, you need to submit 5 passport photos, which we decided not to do. In Leh there are a number of good internet cafes and in Keylong our Airtel sim card started working again. Keylong also has a shop with an internet connection but that connection was very slow.

Traffic - Most of the traffic is supply trucks for the Indian army bases near Leh and they always seemed to be ‘grouped’ together. So we would just pull off the side of the road to let them pass. It was also a great excuse to stop and catch our breath. You can later tell your friends, “I could have cycled up the Taglang La pass in one go but unfortunately all of those truck convoys forced me to take rest stops!”

Of course all the trucks and buses belch out exhaust fumes – they are Indian Tatas. But after a convoy passes, it was usually quite some time before the next group reached us. They don’t drive that fast, sometimes only 15-20 km/h due to the road conditions. They also know the road well since they spend the whole summer driving back and forth between Leh and Manali.

We were told that the worst traffic was on the Keylong – Manali section. Luckily for us the Rohtang pass was closed due to a big traffic jam so we ended up cycling ‘traffic free’ from Keylong to Gramphu.

Monastary
The Stakna Monastary. Photo by Paul Jeurissen.

Rohtang Pass - We didn’t cycle over the Rohtang since we decided to turn left towards Spiti, but boy did we hear comments from other cyclists about it: “It’s awful!”, “Terrible traffic”, “Mud-feast”,” #&!” and so on.

It turns out that Manali is a popular tourist destination and since many Indians have never seen snow before they all drive up to the top of the Rohtang to go play in it. At Gramphu we met cyclists coming down the pass who had been able to squeeze past the traffic jam on the Manali side. They said: “We met people who had been stuck in their cars for the last three days. Some of them applauded as we squeezed our bikes past but others gave us the ‘middle finger’.”

Altitude - Gasp, wheeze, gasp! What makes cycling the Leh to Manali highway difficult is the extreme altitude. The road heads over a number of passes, one of which is the Taglang la. At 5,328 meters it’s the second highest motorable pass in the world. If you’re feeling truly masochistic, head up the  5,359-meter Khardung La pass on the other side of Leh.


Descending from the Baralacha La pass. Photo by Paul Jeurissen.

Of course the higher you go, the less oxygen there is in the air. I remember heading up the last section of the Rohtang and even when I lay down on the side of the road I still was gasping for air. Sleeping at high altitudes can also be difficult and many times we awoke gasping for breath. What we were experiencing is called “Cheyne-Stokes breathing” (read more). For this route, you should be aware of how to prevent altitude mountain sickness.

Since we were flying into Leh at 3,524 meters, we decided to take diamox tablets. They help with acclimatisation. We started the day before our flight and continued swallowing them for two days thereafter. They really helped. On previous trips when we didn’t take them, we had a lot of headaches and sleeping problems (read more about diamox).

Food - Between Leh and Manali there are a number of dhabas (parachute tent camps) where you can buy: candy bars, boiled eggs, maggi noodles, chapattis, omelettes, rice and dal bhat ( an Indian dish of brown beans). The route profile photo shows some of their locations and in 2011 there was also a dhaba at Whiskey Nullah and Debring.

Sleeping - It’s possible to cycle the route without a tent. You can stay in the parachute tents that line the road.

Parachute Tent Camp
A parachute tent camp, where cyclists can stay the night. Photo by Paul Jeurissen.

There are, however, a number of reasons why it’s a good idea to carry a tent with you:

  • Safety – If you read a number of Leh-Manali travelogues, you will find out that storms regularly pass through the area. You can become stranded for days until the route is cleared.
  • Wild camping – We camped in some spectacular places. They turned out to be some of our favorite memories from the trip.
  • Privacy – The parachute tents are dormitory style. If you are unlucky (like the Italian cyclist we met), a group of people will literally ‘take over’ the tent and hold a party until two in the morning.

Wild Camping
A beautiful wild camping spot. Photo by Paul Jeurissen.

Roads - First of all the climbs are gradual. As one English cyclist said, “They don’t build the roads here as steep as they do in Laos. Otherwise the Tata trucks wouldn’t be able to drive over the passes.” As for the road surface, it’s paved from Leh to Upshi and from Keylong to Gramphu but the rest is a combination of asphalt, gravel, washboard and sand.

Which way should you go? Here are the reasons to go from Leh to Manali:

  1. Leh and the Indus valley is a great place to spend time acclimatizing. Guidebooks recommend spending a minimum of a week in Leh before heading out hiking (or cycling). The first week we were there I was a bit sick so we decided to spend another week just cycling around the Indus valley – visiting a number of monasteries such as Hemis, Thiksey and Stakna.
  2. If you do come down with altitude sickness on the highway – it’s much easier to catch a lift in a truck. All of the trucks have dropped their cargo in Leh and are heading back empty to Manali. The chauffeurs are friendly and when I was reduced to pushing my bike on the last section of the Rohtang, they continually stopped to offer a lift.
  3. Descending the Baralacha La – pure heaven!
  4. Descending the Rohtang La: we didn’t go over it but all the cyclists we met said that it was much better to descend the Rohtang than to ascend it from the Manali side.

And the reasons to go from Manali to Leh:

  1. Tailwinds on the Moray plains: just smile and wave as you sail past your fellow cyclists who are slowly grinding their way towards Manali.
  2. You will suffer less from altitude on the Rohtang than someone who is coming from Leh. Also, if you want to cycle over the Khardung La pass, then it will be much easier since you are properly acclimatized.
  3. Somehow Leh seems like a more fitting and wonderful end to the journey than Manali.

Leaving From Delhi Airport - If you’re flying out of Delhi, watch out for the oversized baggage x-ray machine. After you have checked in for your flight, staff will wheel your bicycle away. Follow them! They are bringing your bike to a large x-ray machine but its opening is too small to for a bike to fit in. They will still try to cram it through (and thus damage the bike). Luckily, we were able convince them that our bicycles couldn’t fit in the x-ray and should be examined manually.

For more inspiration, see:

The authors of this article – Paul & Grace – are on a multi-year bicycle trip and project: “Bicycling around the world in search of inspiring cycle images”. They are photographing the different bicycle cultures around the world and the feeling of travelling by bicycle. See their blog.

How To Map Your Bike Tour With Twitter

Posted May 1st, 2012

Want a super-easy way to share your next bike tour with friends? Then check out TweetedTrips.com – a website that places your Twitter updates on a map.

TweetedTrips.com

All you have to do is enter your Twitter username and then all your geo-located Tweets will be placed on a map. If your Tweets don’t have location data, you can add them manually to the map. The map can then be embedded on your blog.

TweetedTrips.com was created by two bike tourists: Pete & Ian.

There are a number of other similar ‘plot my route’ tools but, quite frankly, we found them all a bit clunky and/or requiring expensive GPS adventuring equipment. We wanted something easy, simple and quick to set-up and manage but we couldn’t find it… so we made it ourselves.

 

Helpful Route-Planning Resources For Bike Touring In Germany

Posted March 7th, 2012

The question of how to best plan a bicycle route through Germany recently came up on our Facebook group.

Facebook Question

At first, we were stuck for an answer but after a bit of reflection we remembered a couple good resources.

#1.  Naviki

This website is relatively new but looks promising. The interface is easy to figure out and once you’ve entered a start point and an end point for your tour, it produces a GPS route that can be downloaded in a variety of formats. Naviki even has smartphone apps if you’re planning on touring with an iPhone or Android handset.

The only thing that’s not clear to us is exactly how Naviki chooses a route: do they include local bike paths or only smaller roads? It’s certainly a good starting point for planning your tour in any case and you can always refine the route as you go along.

#2. Radweit

This is a totally different kettle of fish from Naviki and takes more effort to figure out but www.Radweit.de is also incredibly rewarding, once you understand how it works. The website is entirely in German so use Google Translate if your German isn’t up to scratch.

When you first access www.Radweit.de you’ll find it’s not exactly an ‘online route planner’ in the modern sense. You can’t just plug in a starting point and an end point and expect a route to pop up. What you can do, however, is access and print bike routes and maps for all of Germany and many surrounding countries.

The maps are impressively detailed and the website creator has gone to a great deal of trouble to fit only the relevant sections on each map. In David’s case, he could find information for his trip from Kiel to Munich by going to the page on bike routes to and from Munich.

On that page, he’d find a link detailing options for Kiel to Hamburg and Hamburg to Munich (outlined in red in the image below), as well as an overview of routes in Germany running to and from Munich.

Radweit

When he clicks on any of the links, he’d get a map like this. At first, it looks incomprehensible but look closely and you’ll see that on one neat sheet of A4 paper you have an entire 150km bike route. Just follow the sections in order. The end of section 1 lines up with the start of section 2 and so on…

Radweit

You can print the maps in black and white or colour, in A4 size or on A3 paper. Handy! With a little time to go through the site, you can print maps for an entire bike tour across Germany and even into neighbouring countries such as the Netherlands. Best of all – it’s free!

There are, of course, other options for planning bike tours across Germany. Our friend Blanche from the World Cycle Videos group suggested these websites:

  • Fietsrouteplanner – The interface is in Dutch but there’s an explanatory page in English. Note, you have to zoom in on the map a few times to see city names and if you’re typing a city name into the search box, try the Dutch spelling. It often doesn’t recognize the English spelling.
  • Via Michelin – There is a bicycle option and we’ve used it in the past but as we were writing this post it wasn’t working. Let’s hope it’s back in service soon!

Do you have a website to suggest? Share it by leaving a comment!