Scores of cyclists rolled into Land's End in Cornwall yesterday, united by joy and relief after completing an epic, 1,000-mile, nine-day journey from John O'Groats at the northern tip of Scotland. Among the riders were the Olympians James Cracknell and Rebecca Romero, as well as The Independent's own Simon Usborne.
The Deloitte Ride Across Britain began on 12 June as 600 riders pointed their wheels south, followed by a vast support team which set up base camps along the route through some of the UK's most scenic countryside. The ride was aiming to raise more than a million pounds for Britain's Paralympics team.
The "End-to-End" is one of cycling's ultimate tests, but this is thought to be the biggest attempt ever made on it by so many people at one time. It pushed Usborne to the limit. "My knees are so ruined I can't put my own socks on and I've got horrible saddle sore but we were all determined to pedal every mile," said the 28-year-old feature writer and author of our Saturday magazine's Cyclotherapy column. After 73 hours in the saddle, with each day's ride having averaged 110 miles, Usborne said that "the pain has been excruciating at times but it has been the greatest challenge of my life".
After rain and fierce winds on the opening two days the weather was generally benign, but the route chosen did not go out of its way to avoid hills and was longer than the shortest possible End-to-End by some 150 miles.
Cracknell, the Olympic rower turned cyclist and a founding director at the events company Threshold Sports, which staged the ride, was among a crew of elite riders taking part, including the track cycling star Romero, and several paralympians. "It's been so inspiring to watch experienced riders pushing themselves and alongside people battling through 14-hour days," Cracknell said. "This is a ride that offers each cyclist their own challenge but I think I can speak for us all in saying we're delighted to be at the finish line."
Simon Usborne has been blogging about his John O'Groats to Land's End ride on The Independent's website. Here is an edited post describing day six of the nine-day challenge – from Manchester to Ludlow
*They warned me about Long Mynd in Shropshire on day one – a climb so fearsome that it could turn even the strongest riders into panting wrecks, forced to walk with their bikes by a 20 degree-plus gradient that ramps up for almost a mile.
Tom, my riding buddy since we both developed knee problems during stage three, bet me £10 I would not make it up without getting off. He would have bet against himself, too. At breakfast this morning, the group of fast riders Tom and I used to mix with laughed in my face when I told them about my wager. "With those knees!" said one rider who had done the climb. "Not a chance."
First we'd have to cycle almost 90 miles out of Manchester, through Cheshire, before we could even catch sight of our target. Finally, we could see the climb from the other side of the valley as we descended to its base. The sun reflected off the plastic dots of helmets worn by riders battling to get up the ramp, as if they were being conveyed by the world's slowest escalator. And then, there it was. Over the cattle grid, turn left and the asphalt took on its awesome gradient as it shot up the side of the hill.
Sucking in oxygen like a free-diver about to take the plunge, I rose on to my pedals and pushed, developing a rhythm in tune with my breathing, which immediately became strained. Tom stuck to my back wheel, and we fell into silence as, one by one, walking cyclists watched us grind past. When roads are this steep it's important to stay balanced. Too much weight on the back wheel and the front wheel rears up like the legs of a horse. Too much weight on the front wheel and you lose traction at the back, swiftly coming to a stop. Tired cyclists also tend to weave back and forth across the road, their heads bobbing. We could not risk this, lest we topple off the road and down the steep drop to our left.
Two thirds of the way up, every muscle straining, sweat stinging my eyes and breathing harder than I ever have, I knew I could do it. We picked up the pace, finding hidden reserves of energy and shovels of grit until, finally, the road started to flatten. But we would not stop – the real summit was a mile or more ahead, via more climbs. Only at the top did we unclip our shoes and shake each other's hands.
Read Simon Usborne's full account of his ride at: Ind.pn/susborne