Why Bikepacking Solo is so Empowering
"It felt like I had needed to break my body in order to free my mind. At that point, if I could do this alone then I could do anything."
If you want to fall in love with the UK then crossing it by bike is the way to do it. Whether you take nine days or 23, it’s your journey and your challenge. This is adventure challenge number 5 of 12 for me this year. I’m doing a series of challenges, from marathons to mountain summits, canoeing, skiing, cycling… and, so far, it’s been my favourite.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not my favourite because it was in any way easy (it was not!) or because the scenery was epic (it was!). It’s my favourite so far because it has made me feel so empowered, reminded me of my own resilience and reaffirmed my faith in humanity. I’m aware that verges on the cliché but bear with me.
Land’s End to John O’ Groats, or End-to-end as it is also known, is one of those challenges I never thought I would try. I liked the idea of it but, and please believe me when I say this, I was never really that into cycling before. I had a bike, sure, and I’d attempted a few triathlons. But I’d only ever cycled 100 miles, in one go, once before. And I never figured I would do it solo, unsupported and without any serious training.
Let’s start with what I found hard. The 15%+ inclines in Cornwall were brutal and, at times, impossible to cycle (so much extra weight on the bike and the zero training). Then there was also my sticky, stinging, chafing and bruised nether regions that quickly became the focus of my attentions for the first few days. Naturally, the weather was another challenge: the intense wind and rain that I just had to pedal on through, followed by the chilly nights I spent in my tiny, one person tent in the middle of nowhere. And, as I write this, I’m still suffering with the intensely painful right side of my neck.
But those bits were what made it an adventure. Without those days, those moments, I would not have any appreciation for the good bits. Just like in life, if it was all plain sailing you wouldn’t realise when you had it good. I worked hard on every hill, knowing full well that I could relish the downhills on the other side. And no hill is endless, although sometimes it felt like it, but I knew if I just kept peddling, it would end. So, the more I peddled, the more I realised that, whilst of course you need some base-line fitness to prevent injury, challenges like this are all in the mind. Your body, yes yours, can do so much more than you can even imagine. I am NOT a pro cyclist. I selected a route that was challenging but not impossible for me. I knew circa 1000 miles over 12 days was going to push me, but I also knew that I had no other task other than to keep going and not get injured.
The Why behind the Bicycle
I met others along the route on different schedules. One was a 19 year old man aiming to complete LEJOG in about 15 days for the British Heart Foundation, having had a cardiac arrest last year. I met another couple who were taking 23 days, but their aim was more to explore. Different people, different aims, relative levels of challenge.
Of course the other enjoyable element for me was that I am attempting all of this for what I believe to be a good cause: raising funds for the Veterans’ Foundation. At the same time, I also wanted to encourage others to go on their own adventures. These two motives provided me with a genuine sense of purpose every morning and, without a doubt, fuelled me throughout.
These goals also helped me to accept help when it was offered. No one likes to impose on friends unnecessarily, as humans we don’t like to feel indebted, but I was so grateful to receive the hot showers, occasional sofa and free food that was insisted upon me. And I can’t tell you how grateful I was for the occasional local guide and wind break when friends chose to join me for part of the journey. I was genuinely humbled that people would adjust schedules, take time off work, offer to wash my very smelly clothes and generally look after me. I feel incredibly lucky to be part of such a network.
Going it Alone
Despite all of that help and support, however, I still felt like I did this solo. I planned it alone, I cycled the majority of it alone and I made all critical decisions alone. What I hadn’t realised was how much confidence that grew in me. It wasn’t until about Day 7 when, yet again, another lady said to me, “are you doing this on your own?!” Then it sank in that yes, yes I was - and it hadn’t bothered me in the slightest. At no point had I felt lonely or lost or sad. At no point had I felt scared or questioned my judgement. Even when I was in the heart of the Yorkshire Dales battling dangerous headwinds. Or somewhere in the Scottish Borders, having not seen a soul for 6 hours. I hadn’t been worried. In fact on that 7th or 8th day I suddenly realised that I was, for the first time in a long, long time, enjoying my own company. The solitude was so peaceful. I was, putting it simply, content.
It had taken a week of sweat and chafe and hunger, muscle ache and sore knees, to realise that I was actually enjoying this. It felt like I had needed to break my body in order to free my mind. At that point, if I could do this alone then I could do anything. It felt amazing. (I do, however, still like people and I’m definitely not planning to suddenly become a hermit. The amount I talked and sang to myself is a good warning sign for that!).
I was also struck on multiple occasions by how many good people are out there. I’m not talking about the people I know already (I already know you’re great!) but the people I met along the way. Campsites that waived the pitch fee, café owners that donated the cost of my lunch to the charity, the man that slid me a tenner and insisted I buy a drink for myself at the next town (I did!). The couple hosting the Ukrainian lady and her daughter, refugees from the current crisis. The Chilean man cycling his way around the world, eating surplus supermarket food to get by. The quirky local media outlets that took the time to meet me. The lovely people I chatted to at train stations and cafes who decided to donate afterwards. And then there are the people who got in touch via social media to offer support and advice. All of this was exceptionally motivating and humbling.
Exploring the road less travelled
There’s no official set route, but mine did differ slightly from the norm because I was keen to see friends and family where possible. Deep in the Dales I got some funny looks when I said I was doing LEJOG but, for that, I loved it more. It was amazing to see the changes in landscape, flora and fauna. From the hills of Cornwall, to the Somerset flats, beautiful Gloucester, the Dales, the edge of the Lakes, Scottish Borders and Highlands.
There are also strange things you notice, which you wouldn’t in any other circumstance. For instance, manure smells different depending on the county. It’s still obviously manure, but there are many, many flavours! Scottish gorse, too: turns out it smells like coconut - go figure! Once I’d been told that, I couldn’t stop smelling it. And wild garlic, I couldn’t get enough of the wild garlic.
Strangely, at no point did I feel the need to put on a podcast or listen to music. The route and the fact that I was solo meant I had enough to think about. Navigation, equipment management, sustainment… by the end it becomes second nature but that doesn’t mean you aren’t still thinking about it. It keeps you nicely distracted from the number of miles left to go each day.
The Last Hurdle
One thing I would say is that it doesn’t matter if it’s 60 miles or 100 miles you are cycling in one day, the last 20 miles always hurt. Which just proves to me that expectation management is everything. Your mind is the key.
So as I cycled towards the famous finish I had my first internal tantrum. The last 2km felt so long, and having to battle a headwind at the end was just not fun. And yet, the closer I got the less I wanted to get there. My body was definitely ready for recovery but my mind could have kept going. That ferry to the Orkneys was strangely inviting.
I’m not sure I’m suddenly going to go cycling bonkers, but I can see now how people end up cycling the world. It’s a simple and stress free kind of lifestyle - just you and the open road.
Total duration: 12 days
Total distance: 975.7 miles
Total climb: 53,110 feet
Moving time: 86 hours 44 minutes
Cakes eaten: Many
Kit List and Gear Advice
If you’re thinking of a similar trip yourself, here is some of what Jen took and what changes she would have made to her LEJOG kit list.
Obviously inner tubes and puncture repair kit!
Polos (for boredom and dodgy tummies)
Mountain bike shoes (I destroyed my road cleats)
Inflatable packable roll mat (offers so much warmth)
A sign to tell everyone what you are doing (gets the conversations flowing)
1 pair of underpants (luxury!)
SPF of some kind (for the wind burn mainly)
What not to bother with
Chain lube (you can pick this up on route or ask for olive oil!)
High energy snacks (not sustainable, questionable taste and you can buy food all the way along)
Earphones (I carried mine the whole way and never used them)
Jet boil/ cooking appliance (unless you are going super cheap - quite a few friends fed me which helped keep costs low)
Trip specific purchases
Specialized all condition armadillo tyres
Backpacker Pro 1 person tent from Outdoor Gear
Lightweight trail roll mat from Outdoor Leisure
LifeLine adventure handlebar bag
Major Jen Price is currently transition out of the British Army and into civilian life after 10 years of service. She is passionate about the supporting Veterans of the British Armed Forces and inspiring others to go on adventures.
If you’d like to support her endeavours you can donate to her Just Giving page here. Or if you would just like to find out more, check out her other challenges this year via her website: jennevolve.co.uk You can also find her on social media: Instagram, LinkedIn and TikTok.
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