In November 2022, Kirsten Bailkoski would have described herself as a ‘slightly unfit, non-confident yet enthusiastic leisure cyclist’, with no idea what ‘LEJOG’ even meant. But a social evening spent with fellow NRC member’s recounting tales of Land’s End to John O’Groats adventures proved inspirational. Kirsten shares her personal story of an epic journey and urges anyone to grab the opportunity if it comes along.
Sorry, but what does ‘LEJOG’ mean?
I am aware that many of you reading this will be very familiar with LEJOG, indeed I expect quite a few people reading this will have done LEJOG…but until November 2022 I had absolutely no idea what the term “LEJOG” meant.
That was until I joined Newbury Road Club (NRC) and happened to attend a social evening where some of the members were giving presentations about their experiences of this epic ride. At the time I was very new to the club, I had been on a few of the shortest rides which I really enjoyed but I certainly wouldn’t have described myself as anything other than an enthusiastic leisure cyclist.
The evening began with some fascinating insights given by people who had completed LEJOG, all of which were incredibly impressive. But the last speaker really resonated with me. She was the only female cyclist to give a presentation and she described how she had started her training by cycling 18 miles to work and back each day and that she had found that her stamina quickly increased over the training period. She ended her talk by saying that completing LEJOG had changed her because, achieving it had increased her confidence in other aspects of her life. Listening to her was incredibly inspiring and as I left the Bowlers Arms that evening a thought popped up into my head….”Could I do LEJOG???”
Time to stop finding excuses
I googled Peak Tours (a lot of people had mentioned Peak Tours!) and saw that there was a tour starting that following September with spaces available. I spent the next week thinking about it. There were a lot of reasons not to do it:
It was a stupid idea because I was unfit and not confident cycling on roads
I didn’t have a road bike
It would require a lot of time-consuming training that I would have to fit in around work and family
It would use up 2 weeks of precious annual leave
The tour was not cheap….
The list went on….but on the other hand…life is short…I love being out on my bike….. I am blessed with a lovely husband and kids who gave me their full support….so I booked it!
"I am blessed with a lovely husband and kids who gave me their full support….so I booked it!"
I’m going to need to find a bike
I was going to have to get serious now. The first thing I did was drag my husband’s old road bike out of the shed. It hadn’t been ridden for over 15 years and it looked rather sad with 2 flat tyres and wheels full of cobwebs. I took it to a bike shop to get it serviced and then booked in for a bike fit. I had no idea what this would involve and was shocked to find out that there was a lot more to it then adjusting the height of the saddle! I came away with shiny new shoes with cleats and I felt like a “proper” cyclist. The problem came when I actually tried to ride the bike…..I felt like Bambi on ice…I was all over the place and, as my feet no longer reached the floor, cycling suddenly felt terrifying.
"I felt like Bambi on ice…I was all over the place and, as my feet no longer reached the floor, cycling suddenly felt terrifying."
The next NRC ride I went on was disastrous! Nearly every time we stopped I forgot to unclip and I kept falling off my bike. I was so embarrassed. Luckily we were under the calm guidance of Lorraine who kept encouraging me and telling me that I would soon get used to the road bike. Thank goodness I was with a very tolerant group of riders that day!
It turns out Lorraine was right and eventually I did get used to the new cycling position and footware. The next few club rides were in glorious sunshine and I loved every minute. I started riding to the start with another NRC member, Nicky who lives near me. She was much more confident on the roads than I was so she helped guide me through traffic and even showed me how to navigate the M4 motorway roundabout! These rides were so helpful to build my confidence on the roads.
During the spring and summer, I followed the training schedule provided by Peak Tours to the letter. I was amazed to find that within a few months I was able to cycle 100 miles fairly comfortably in a day, but I still had no idea if I would manage to do nearly 1000 miles for LEJOG.
Land’s End, here I come!
September came round and before I knew it I was on the station platform waiting for the train to Penzance!
Unfortunately, the train to Penzance was cancelled….as was the next one….it was a boiling hot day and this wasn’t a good start. I eventually squeezed onto a very overcrowded train and set off. I arrived in Penzance a hot mess. Luckily the awesome guides from Peak Tours were there waiting and they whisked me off to the hotel near Lands End.
Here I met the rest of the LEJOGGERs that I would spend the next 2 weeks with. I was delighted to find that they were a really jovial bunch, from all over the world and there was an air of nervous excitement amongst us.
Having just spent 6 hours on a boiling hot train, the sparkling blue sea looked very tempting and I asked around to see if anyone fancied a swim. A lovely fellow rider called Clarice said she would join me and we had a blissful swim as the sun went down. Clarice was great company and turned out to be a real friend during the trip.
During dinner that night I sat with 2 lovely chaps from Wales, they were totally chilled and told me that they were waiting for a third friend to join them for the tour. Their friend arrived just before the meal ended and I don’t think he would mind me saying that he wasn’t the best prepared for the trip having literally just got off a plane from being on holiday in Portugal!! They were a great laugh and I went to bed knowing that the tour was going to be a lot of fun.
"I went to bed knowing that the tour was going to be a lot of fun."
You’re never too far from the next brew stop.
The next day the tour started at the well-known Lands End sign and we were off!!! The speedy cyclists whizzed off and I set off feeling ecstatic to be part of this crazy adventure.
One of the joys of doing the trip with Peak Tours is that they provide tea stops mid morning and mid afternoon. Not only was it wonderful to get a cup of tea and something to eat but it was a chance to re group and discuss the route that we had just taken, the sights the sounds, the wildlife.
As the tour went on and the days got tougher there was a special joy in spotting the red tea van in the distance knowing that there would be a friendly face to encourage you with a cup of tea and a pep talk.
The first week went by in a flash, we were spoilt with great weather and enjoyed fun evenings in cosy pubs and hotels. During the daytime we had the freedom to choose whether to cycle alone or with others. I enjoyed doing both and over the 2 week trip I had the chance to meet some extraordinary and inspiring people.
"Over the 2 week trip I had the chance to meet some extraordinary and inspiring people."
Who knew Scotland is wet, windy and huge!?
Before I knew it we were in Scotland and for me this is where the ride got tougher. Scotland is huge! Unfortunately, the weather turned and we were challenged with some very long rides in wet and windy conditions. We stopped for a night in Ballater and I was tired and hungry. A large group of us decided to go to a local Bengali restaurant for supper. One of my fellow riders, Mahfuz, spoke Bengali and was able to recommend dishes. The food was absolutely delicious and we ate like kings. At the end of the evening we asked for the bill only to find that Mahfuz had very kindly paid for all of us. It was such a generous act and I felt overwhelmed at how lucky I was to be with such a kind group of people.
The next day I felt ready to face anything, which was a good job as we were heading for the ski resorts of the Grampian Mountains!
After a fun night in Inverness we set off into the wilds towards Crask. The roads were quiet, there was hardly a soul in sight and I felt like I was in true wilderness. I felt a real sense of freedom from the outside world and it was bliss.
The final road to John O’Groats took us along the north coast of Scotland, which was simply stunning. Arriving at John O’Groats I felt mixed emotions, I was ready to go home to my lovely family but the trip had been wonderful and I didn’t really want it to end.
No cycle is ever too far with the right companions
For me, LEJOG wasn’t about the distances, the elevation or the stats. It was about the peace and quiet, the wildlife, and most importantly the fantastic people I met (one of which was a professional photographer who provided us with gorgeous photos of the trip- thank you Richard!)
"I’m so grateful to all the members of NRC for welcoming me to the Club – I would not have even considered doing LEJOG without their kind encouragement."
I’m so grateful to all the members of NRC for welcoming me to the club, especially Lorraine and Nicky. I would not have even considered doing LEJOG without their kind encouragement. If you ever get the opportunity to do LEJOG I would urge you to grab it. It was a magical experience that I will never forget.
For her trip from Land’s End to John O’Groats, Kirsten Bailkoski was awarded the NRC Women's Award 2023. Well done Kirsten!