For the past 12 months, myself (Mark Towler), my wife Claudia Towler and David Meredith have been meticulously planning our attempt at the 4 corners gold UK ride for our charities, Together Trust http://www.togethertrust.org.uk and North West Blood Bikes Lancs & Lakes http://www.nwbb-lancs.org
We were joined later in the year by David Cox, Margaret Derricott, Haydn and Angela Williams and Kevin Sansom, so now we are 5 bikes (Including 3 pillion).
Time rolled on, we spoke about the route, some of us did GPS routes, we compared these, edited them and settled on a final route along with the fuel stops, trying to work them to the maximum distance for the smallest tank (about 200 miles), which would give us more time on the road.
We had a couple of rides out as a group to get to used to each others riding pace and to get to know those we didn’t already know. After a top box flew open on the move and a ton of 4 corners advert leaflets went missing we decided that radios between us all might be a good idea.
Most of us had some of the kit, the rest of us got busy on eBay collecting all the other bits required so we could all talk to each other and keep ourselves entertained on the long miles ahead.
The one thing some of us didn’t plan for was the severity of the challenge and of course the normal weather we get each time we plan one of our rides
We decided that we should take it easy on the way up to our start point of John O’Groats – no point rushing up there and knackering ourselves up. Our first day was from NW England to Inverness through Loch Lomond and up the A82 through Glencoe and along the shores of Loch Ness. The sun was shining, ideal riding weather and we made steady progress up to Inverness. Whilst in Scotland and we had the time we also made a detour to Glenmorangie distillery in Tain – if its on the way, why not? We took the wee dram of amber nectar with us instead of drinking it in order to toast our success when we reached Lands End. Hopefully….
Saturday 13th June dawned- challenge day. The previous days sunshine had been replaced with more usual Scottish weather- constant drizzle and a stiff breeze. Forms were stamped and signed to log the challenge and we set off – first stop Perth 225 miles away. Dave M’s bike wouldn’t make it that far so we knew we would have to stop at some stage along the way and fill up from a jerry can. The first part of the A90 were usual Scottish conditions, cold, drizzly and damp, a theme which would continue for most of our trip in Scotland. We arrived in Inverness fairly quickly and then headed down the A9 towards Perth.
The authorities in Scotland have recently installed average speed cameras along the A9 between Inverness and Perth and we thought these would be in sections, not the whole length of it. There is nothing more irritating than wanting to get somewhere, see an open piece of road with a car bimbling along and want to overtake and tick down the miles. Most of the time we would catch them up somewhere difficult to get all 5 bikes past so had to grin and bear it. At around 180 miles we stopped in a lay-by so Dave M could top up. It certainly was cold and miserable – some of us felt it more than others. There was even the remains of snow on the hills surrounding us. A quick splash of fuel and we set off again for Perth. On arrival in Perth some of us were frozen so we decided to have a longer stop than we had planned just to thaw out with a hot brew. Next stop was down the A66 just after Carlisle, after yet more average speed cameras first all the way to Stirling. They line the road for around 140 long miles so take it easy.
It always feels like you are rolling downhill when coming out of Scotland – the weather also decided to buck up and even though we didn’t see much sunshine, we stopped getting wet. This motorway section seemed to pass fairly quickly and we arrived at the next stop bang on schedule. A quick top up of fuel later and we headed off down the A66 towards Scotch Corner and further on to meet the A1. As we were now running towards mid afternoon, the traffic was slowly reducing giving us a clear run and enabling us to keep up our average speed- which was vital to us maintaining our schedule.
We joined the A1 and then started heading south again to join the A17 at Newark heading towards Kings Lynn. The A1 was thankfully fairly quiet and short spells of dry weather punctuated the steady stream of drizzle all the way down the A1. When we were on the A17 we were back on single carriageways of Lincolnshire – smelling of cabbage and veg growing in the fields at the side of the road and also smelling of diesel on the wet slippy roundabouts as we went along the A17 and A47 past Norwich. Even though it was nearly mid-summers day, by 8.30pm we were starting to home in on the East in East Anglia and it was starting to go dark.
At around 9.30pm we arrived at our second Corner – Lowestoft. We had been going for just under 12 hours now and some of us were feeling it – tired and hungry. The petrol station didn’t offer much in the way of haute cuisine and neither did it offer any toilet facilities. The ladies amongst us headed off in the direction of town to a local hostelry whilst the males amongst us made do with the nearest bush- then the police arrived……
…..to fill up his panda car before he finished duty for the night. He told us that there are only 9 speed cameras in the whole of Suffolk, none of them were on our route and as the local bobbies were more concerned with patrons of the local pubs being a little over exuberant, there was nobody on the road ahead, towards Royston and the tedium of the M25.
Preparation the week before told us that there were no roadworks on the M25 that we need be concerned about- many of us has been caught out with night time closures of the motorway – there was one contraflow but as it was now approaching the witching hour there wasn’t much traffic. Next stop – Reading West services.
By now we were well into the ride and the friendly banter that was coming across the radio was becoming less and less – those of us with pillions making sure we were OK and the riders concentrating on what they were doing. By the time we got to Reading services in the pitch
darkness, a couple of us were starting to struggle. Stopping for a short while to stretch our legs, have a quick drink every couple of hours was now a real priority when we stopped. We all knew this would be a great adventure, and now concentration on the road ahead was a real priority.
We now headed into Wales, over the Severn crossing in the pitch black on towards Morrison's petrol station in Haverfordwest. It was at this point I started to wonder why on earth I or anyone would take on this challenge for fun. My MP3 player which had been left off, now I really needed it playing some motivational high tempo tunes with both myself and my good lady wife bobbing our heads in time to the music.
Haverfordwest was about 200 miles away, further than what we thought Dave M’s tank would reach. He hit reserve with about 40 miles to go- we decided to plough ahead until we either got to Haverfordwest or he ran out of fuel knowing full well if we stopped for an additional time not on schedule we would lose even more time as we were now starting to slip behind schedule. Fingers and toes were crossed and we were jubilant when we got to Haverfordwest – only to realise that Morrison's wasn’t a 24 hour petrol station. A quick check of the Garmin showed there was a Tesco across town. It was now gone 3am and all the nightclubs in Haverfordwest had closed and their clientele were slowly making their way home, throwing up in the gutter or falling asleep on wooden benches. The sight of 5 bikes with slightly bedraggled damp riders and pillions must have been the last thing they expected. Tesco was found,we topped up and headed the 15 miles to our next Corner – the cathedral city of St David’s. The road there was quite winding and undulating – quite a few times I lost sight of the edges of the road as their were no street lights and it was just starting to come light. We found a bank cash machine and got the required printed receipt and headed off back along the road we came down.
This was the bit of the trip I wasn’t really looking forward to – the return trip along the A40 and the M4 back to the M5 to head south again. Being honest it wasn’t that bad – it was fully light now at around 4.30 a.m and the roads we travelled down were totally different in daylight where we could see our surroundings. We finally hit the M5 again and headed south towards Devon and Cornwall to our ultimate destination.
We were a long way into the ride by now – I was feeling fine after my into Wales M4 ‘wobble’ and even though the finishing line was miles away, hitting the psychological 1000 mile marker was a reason for some celebration at least. We had been going for around 18 hours by this point. We had a very clear run out of Wales without much traffic and heavily speed restricted areas so we were able to keep up a very good average pace. This was vital in getting us back somewhere near our schedule to finish in the magic 24 hours.
The M5 was relatively quiet when we got onto it but as we headed towards Taunton Deane services the roads were becoming increasingly busy. As we thundered down the M5 it had been dry for some time now and we had all finally dried out. We filled up at the services at Taunton Deane. Kevin then admitted that he was finding it tough- little did we realise that he had lost his MP3 player a lot earlier in the previous evening, his radio equipment had packed up and couldn’t hear us or communicate with us and as he didn’t have a pillion had nobody else for company but his own mind. how Kevin had managed this far was a miracle. This was the last fill up before Penzance – Lands End was only 10 minutes from there so it really felt like we were on the home stretch.
I have to admit now that the last 140 miles to Penzance were probably the most tortuous 140 miles I have ever ridden. Occasional glances at the clock and seeing the miles count down watching the GPS were now steady glances praying for the mileage to count down. It has to be the longest 2 hours of riding I have ever had to do. The A30 undulated through Cornwall and we came across the odd cyclist either heading to our destination or heading away, wondering how on earth they could pedal over some of the hills. What we were doing was tough – theirs is a herculean task. Every credit to them.
Just after 9am we finally arrived in Penzance – we stopped at Morrison's- there wasn’t much chatter or excitement about finishing now we just wanted to get the trip done. We filled up and had a very short stretch – 10 miles to go now until the ordeal was over.
We all headed out on the road to Lands End Haydn and Dave M quickly overtook a couple of minibuses headed to the same place. At this point it is extremely difficult for anyone else to overtake so they held back at a slow place till the rest of the team got past- we had all started this together, a few of us had some serious wobbles on the way, but we were all going to finish together.
We had all got past the minibuses when Lands End loomed into view. After congratulations from the car park attendant on finally finishing our challenge we rode round to the cliffs next to the famous Lands End sign post. There was a feeling of great relief and one of Mark’s friends was waiting for us with a couple of bottles of cold fizz. It was great to finally get the challenge out of the way and actually sit down for more than 10 minutes and finally relax- once we had finished our paperwork of course.
Our official time was 23hrs and 58 minutes so we only just made the standard for 4 corners Gold.
There haven't been many people that have attempted this challenge and I can see why. It certainly wasn’t easy, but with the right preparation and with a group of friends it’s a great challenge. I can look back with fondness at the whole escapade, At 10am on Sunday 14th of June I just wanted it to be over. I never did drink that wee dram of Glenmorangie I had saved. I was too knackered after the customary team photos had been taken at the Lands End signpost.
Did I think we would be able to do it when we set out on this challenge? To be honest at times I had serious doubts we would make it in the 24 hrs, but what I hadn't factored in, was the support we received from our mates and the people I am proud to have ridden with this weekend. Each one has given so much and has had their own battle to overcome. Fitness is 99% mental, your body won't do what your brain doesn't tell it to, It is a state of mind, We have been cold, tired, in pain and at times just wanting to stop. But when you want something badly enough you dig deep into reserves you don't know you have and pull out that little bit extra to see you through.
We rode through the most amazing scenery from the bleak wildness of the Scottish highlands, the gentle greenness of North Yorkshire, through the flat lands of Norfolk, through the valleys of South Wales, down to the craggy shores of Cornwall and just about every type of road surface in between.
By now you are probably wondering what wise words we could offer to those brave (or foolish enough) to attempt this challenge- this is what we would suggest.
1. Ride in a group to keep each other motivated but make sure it’s a small one, there was 5 of us and any more would have been difficult. If you don’t know each other, get to know each other but more importantly what the pace of each of you is.
2. Decide where in the group you wish to ride – Haydn always like to lead, some like to follow and some like to sweep up. Do whatever you are most comfortable with.
3. Communication is VITAL. Either invest in bike to bike radios and come up with a system of warning for things you spot up ahead but most importantly when the people behind are clear of traffic being overtaken so the leader can moderate the pace until the group is back together. This is especially important at night when its impossible to see behind you. A bit of friendly banter doesn’t go amiss either to keep you motivated.
4. An MP3 player is a good idea, make sure it isn't loaded with Lana Del Rey or James Blunt or any other music you would slit your wrists to. Something like Iron Maiden or Motor-head does wonders at keeping you awake after 18 hours and 1000 miles.
5. Fuel stops should be at the side of the road – the extra pence per litre you will save by finding a Tesco in the middle of town wastes loads of time on what is already a tight schedule. Also keep an eye on the time. Fill up with fuel, stretch, walk around, eat little and often and carry all food with you so you are not disappointed when the local Esso station doesn’t stock your favourite treats.
6. Finally, keep safe. Don’t ignore your body – if you are feeling it then tell someone. They will always offer to help and as part of a team understand how you are feeling. You will go through a different range of emotions – elation, depression, anger, melancholy, crying, in some cases chafing pain when you don’t wear the correct pants (talking about you Dave C…)