Title: End to End – The Land’s End to John o’Groats Cycling Record, A Tale of Obsession, Hallucination and Happiness
Author: Paul Jones
Publisher: Little, Brown
What it is: A history of the Land’s End to John o’Groats record told through the stories of some of the people who have set the record
Strengths: The stories told aren’t so much about the ride itself as about the different meanings the ride has and how, sometimes, meaning isn’t something you go in search of but rather something you find along the way
Weaknesses: It’s going to be seen by some as only of interest to UK readers, when really it’s relevant to a lot more than that
We define limits. Boundary stones were used to mark the edge of our lands. Names serve a similar purpose. The Yamal Peninsula in Siberia. Verdens End in Norway. Cabo Finisterre in Spain. Finistère in France. Exotic names. But all the same as their English counterpart: Land’s End. The physical limit of our worlds.
We defy limits. Sport tells us we have to push on through. As we build muscle and stamina we seek to expand our empires of endurance beyond the limits already mapped. But we don’t get the comfort granted to Alexander, the comfort of nothing left to conquer. Because we seek to conquer time itself. We can never tire of going from here to there because we can always try to do it faster.
When it comes to limits, mainland Europe has something of a problem: it’s too ill defined. You could go from one end to the other but it just seems like a lot of faff for something that wouldn’t capture the public imagination. At another extreme, in Ireland we can go from tip to toe in less than 600 kilometres which, in endurance cycling terms, is hardly worth getting out of bed for. This is where Great Britain is a Goldilocks country: getting from one end to the other isn’t so far as to be too far, but is far enough as to make it worth doing. Land’s End to John o’Groats is fifteen hundred kilometres plus enough change to make pushing on for an even 1,000 miles (1,609.34 kms) seem worthwhile.
Cyclists have been thinking going End to End worth doing since …. oh a long time ago. The earliest recorded trip was in 1880 (high-wheeler days), Charles Ambrose Harman and Henry Blackwell taking thirteen days to go from the bottom of the country to the top, their trip recounted in glorious detail over sixteen pages of the January 1882 issue of The Wheel World, proving as if proof were necessary that if you don’t document your rides they never happened.
Two weeks, that’s more a cycling holiday than a record attempt. But by 1884 the time taken to get from one end of the country to the other was down to less than a week. By 1891, as the high-wheeler era drew to a close, George Pilkington Mills – the Black Anfielder – had taken the record down to four days and change. Since then people have been chipping away at it, a few hours here, a few minutes there, to the point where the whole trip is now being done in about two days.
As with the Year record, the end-to-end is one of those records that’s always there but sometimes fades off into the periphery of our imagination. It goes through phases. In its first three decades something in the region of twenty records were set for bicycles, with more still for tandems and trikes. Since then, however, it’s been one, two, maybe three successful attempts a decade, often with long gaps between records.
That’s not to say there’s been no attempts during those hiatuses. There’s been many. And the End to End also exists as a ride in itself, whether it be for charity or just for fun, the way it was back in 1880 when Blackwell and Harman first did it. But it’s the story of the record breakers that is the subject of Paul Jones’ third book, End to End, with Jones introducing the reader to some of the men and women who have helped take that original thirteen day record and reduce it to two days, give or take a few hours.
One of the most exciting stories told by Jones – in among stories told about George Mills being out of his mind on cocaine at the end of one record ride, in among stories told about Marguerite Wilson setting a new record on the eve of WWII, in among stories told about Hubert Opperman who rode the Tour de France and Pauline Strong who rode the Tour de France Féminin – is the story of Andy Wilkinson’s 1990 attempt on the record.
Wilkinson, Jones tells us, was born in Liverpool but grew up on the Wirral, at Willaston, a strange hinterland between Liverpool and North Wales. Cycling took him to and from school, but it also took him to places of wonder that stretched his horizons: Oswestry, Shrewsbury, Bala. “I wasn’t interested in racing,” Wilkinson tells Jones, “it was the adventure and the travel, the countryside. I wasn’t good at anything at school, no good socially, but I realised as I did more cycling that I was better than some, which was the first time I’d ever been better than anyone at anything.”
In his teens, in the ‘80s, Wilkinson got sucked into the racing scene. From the Junior Tour of Ireland and the Tour of Ulster he graduated to the Milk Race. He got sent to the Continent a couple of times, the GP d’Isbergues and the Circuit des Mines, racing in the same peloton as Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche, Phil Anderson, Jean-Paul van Poppel. But that wasn’t the life he wanted: “I couldn’t see myself living that life; it wasn’t glamorous, it was stifling.”
As the ‘80s drew to a close the idea of doing the End to End took hold in Wilkinson’s mind. He got introduced to Peter Keen, the guru behind Chris Boardman and, later, Yvonne McGregor. “He knew everything, it was a very important moment. It led to six-hour fasted rides, pulse meters, liquid feeding. He told me to start later and spend three months retraining, so I did.”
The middle of summer is when people usually try for the record, Keen’s input left Wilkinson starting in September. From the off he was on the back foot, with rain falling for the first half of the ride. Forty-five hours was the target. With twelve hours to go it was touch and go. Wilkinson wanted to go but one of his helpers guilt-tripped him into continuing.
“The record had gone,” Wilkinson says, “there wasn’t a hope in hell of getting it. I just thought they were cheering to get me to the finish, showing willing, I did all I could do but I was confused. I got to the top of the descent into John o’Groats as it was just getting light. I could see islands beyond the coast, and I thought we’d come to the wrong place. I blasted down the descent, got to the door, but I knew I had failed and sat there, empty in every single way, mentally and physically.”
But Wilkinson hadn’t failed. He’d beaten the record. By less than a minute. After one day, twenty one hours, two minutes and eighteen seconds of riding, Wilkinson had beaten the old record by fifty-eight seconds.
For those who revere cycling’s hardman ethos, that’s a story for the ages. Never say die. Quitters never win, winners never quit. All that triumph of the will stuff. It’s all there in Wilkinson’s story. And it’s there in many of the others told too, if that’s what you’re looking for in these kind of stories. But it’s not all that’s there in these stories.
End to End’s journeys in time and place are just two parts of the package. But it is a third journey that makes the book work: the personal journey. The personal journeys of the riders discussed and the personal journey of the author himself. The former stories, those of the riders, they have been the strength of Jones’s previous books. In A Corinthian Endeavour it was the stories of the riders that stood out, it wasn’t just about the history of hill climb records. In I Like Alf it was the inner journey into what drove Alf Engers to chase all those time trial records. In End to End Jones’s own journey is threaded through the book, a thread that helps pull the book together at the end.
While writing End to End Jones was lost and looking for something. “I went against the tide of accepted wisdom,” he writes, “and resigned from my job with no job to go to. I feel better for it, but I am increasingly unnerved by the waterfall of anxiety and not-knowingness that cascaded out of a limitless blue sky.” If you’ve ever done the same you’ll understand: you’ve walked away from one of the things society uses to define you – and that you use to define yourself – and everything becomes a bit blurred, without definition. Focus becomes a problem. Jones uses the End to End record as a kind of focus, sets out to go from one end of the country to the other in stages spread out over a period of months.
“I wanted to write a book which mapped a landscape and other people and ended up instead mapping the contours of my mind, It is an unfortunate coincidence that my life of employment and structure and regularity fell apart at the same time as I was supposed to be articulating what things mean. I think about what I have done, or not managed to do. I threw everything into this adventure, the staged process of mapping the landscape and seeing how and what other people had done. I tried to be brave and to demonstrate that I had the willpower and could ride my bike a really long way if I wanted to, only to discover that willpower is not enough for me.”
If willpower alone was what it took, the End to End record would fall more frequently than it does. Across 2017 and 2018 Jasmijn Muller and Ian To each took two cracks at the record, without success. Christine Roberts in 1997, Christina Mackenzie in 2019, Christina Murray in 2020, they all tried, without success. If you’re thinking that that means women called Chris should just give up without even trying, Mackenzie tried again in 2021 and succeeded in setting a new record. John Woodburn is another who took two tries to get the job done, stopping at Blair Atholl in 1981 before making it all the way to John o’Groats the following year. Quitters can win, despite what we like to say about them. Stepping off isn’t about a lack of willpower.
While winning is what the record is all about – we quickly forget most of the failed attempts – even those who have beaten the record know there’s more to it than that. Mike Broadwith is another with one of those classic tough as nails stories, the muscles in his neck turning to jelly as the ride progressed and he wanting to climb off, only to be pressed into riding for just another twenty minutes, and another, and another. He ended up taking forty minutes off the old record. But having started with the End to End the same way Harman and Blackwell did back in the 1880s – he and a couple of friends going from tip to top over the course of a few weeks – Broadwith understands that there’s more to the ride than the record: the time isn’t the story, the journey is the thing.
Pauline Strong – whose own record-beating ride drew to a close with her hallucinating having passed the same dead rabbit several times – echoes Broadwith’s sentiment: “Someone will say, ‘Oh, so and so are doing it for charity over twelve days’, and when I say ‘That’s fantastic’ I’m not being condescending. I might want to do the End to End before I get to eighty, see where I’ve been, take a while over it.”
End to End serves up stories which, on the surface, are about being as hard as nails, tougher than tough, stories that are about people who can inspire you by pushing through all barriers. Beneath the surface, though, is a more complex story about finding happiness not by seeking to directly emulate these people but by understanding what we have in common with them. Which is not always being tough as nails.