We assembled at the lovely Ladywood Estate on Thursday evening, complete with all our shiny new kit and bursting with self-belief. The boys' Moultons were prepped and ready - in Alexander's case including the addition of some front panniers (and their associated extra weight!)
After a gammon supper (with banoffee pie on the menu for desert!) we headed off for bed. The plan was to be on the road by 8am the following morning. In the event, following a short photocall (see below) we headed off at 8.15am, the little haul up into Knossington revealing, in its own small way, what was to be in store for us later on.
We had left ourselves a generous three hours to get from Ladywood to Rainbows Childrens' Hospice where we were to rendevous with the PR team and a photographer. In the event we needed every minute of this three hours. Although the elder Saunders (Mike) knew his way around the back roads we hadn't factored in how often those new to cycle touring feel the need to stop to make all the little adjustments to their kit and clothing that make hours on the bike more comfortable (jumper on, jumper off, seat up, seat down etc.)
The sun shone though and we rolled across the gently undulating Rutland and Leicestershire countryside arriving on the outskirts of Loughborough at 10.55am - with just five minutes to spare. As we approached Rainbows Cathy, the photographer, was there to take our publicity photos.
Given the sensitive nature of the work done at Rainbows we had expected just to be allowed to take our photos in front of the building, briefly meet the team and then head off. As it turned out, the staff at Rainbows couldn't have been more welcoming, or thorough in their explanation of the work of the hospice. We were treated to a full tour of the buildings and facilities, met a good number of the staff and saw first hand the vital work done for children and young adults who find themselves in heart-rendingly difficult circumstances. We learnt that the centre needs close to £5million per annum to support its work and receives only a tiny percentage of the necessary revenue from central government.
As we ate our sandwiches in the sun outside we reflected on just how lucky we were to be able to enjoy life's simple pleasures in a way so curelly denied to those reliant on the hospice's services.
At this point in our little venture we started out on the route proper, switching from relying on Mike's local knowledge to Tim's map reading skills. Initially all began well and we headed for our first significant village on the map: Barrow-on Soar. Expedition members began to think that all might not be well, though, when we passed the signs for Barrow for a third time. When we eventutally managed to escape Barrow's grasp we raced up the B676 for 6 miles in the wrong direction. Seeds of doubt set in when Tim's Dad (Tony) pointed out the discrepancy between the map and our surroundings. We realised what we must have done and, chastened, turned on our heels back to where we had come from. We had clocked up an extra 12 miles or so in the process - irritating but, in the circumstances, not an entirely bad thing giving us a few extra 'miles in the legs' to toughen us up for the summer.
As the sun shone, we peddled on across the countryside and through a seemingly endless stream of chocolate box villages. Expedition members were able to let their thoughts wander, reflect on what we had seen at Rainbows and enjoy the intoxicating sense of freedom that comes with being a cycle tourist.
Our first stopover, was at the Dirty Duck campsite, a stone's throw from Belvoir Castle which loomed imperiously on the skyline as we pitched our tents in the warm evening light. The ride down into the village of Woolsthorpe had been one of the best and smoothest descents of the ride so far, and we all enjoyed the wind on our faces as we raced down the long descent with barely any need to turn our, now heavy legs.
That evening the expedition members tucked into steak and chips at the Chequers Inn, many of them experiencing for the first time the ravishing appetite of the long distance cyclist. Meanwhile Tim cycled off to collect his wife Jo from the station at Grantham, where she had caught a train to after work in order to join the expedition over the weekend.
After our first night under canvas we woke to a bright but dew-soaked morning. We packed our kit, brewed ourselves some hot drinks and prepared for the 'big day'. The plan was to cycle a big loop up around Scunthorpe and then back south again to just north of Lincoln. Google informed us that such a route was just over 80 miles long and so would be a good test of the legs for some of the longer days planned for the summer expedition. The day started well, with the weather continuing to be kind. Just south of Newark though, at a point where the route joined a disused railway track, we had our first puncture. Some of the group had seized the opportunity to power on ahead, making the most of the flat, car free riding and so at this point, communicating by mobile phone, we agreed to split into two parties and meet 20 or so miles up the road at Gainsborough.
After the puncture was fixed the gap had extended quite significantly and so the trailing party (Tim, Tim's Dad Tony and Jo) had a considerable distance to catch up. Unbeknowst to them, the leading group, led by Mike Saunders had taken it upon themselves (horror of horrors!) to depart from the agreed route and make the most of the much faster and more direct A1133 to head into Gainsborough. This meant that they arrived at our agreed lunch stop a full 1 hr 45 minutes ahead of the trailing party and proceeded to use the time to try and exhaust the Gainsborough branch of McDonalds of all its supplies. By the time Tim, Tony and Jo caught up it was nearly 1500hrs and the prospect of getting up to Scunthorpe and back to the next campsite before nightfall was looking vanishingly slim. A decison was made to cut the route short and head vias a more direct route to the campsite.
A few more miles down the road and a second puncture (Jo again) confirmed the wisdom of that decision. By now, not only was the light beginning to fade but it had also started raining. Moments like this become defining moments on an expedition - who will keep their cool and their spirits up? who will begin to flag and lose their sense of humour?
In the event, aided by a relentless stream of Saunders' gags we got the puncture repaired (note to self: get rid of the glue and rubber patches of old and replace with trouble and mess free leach style patches) and headed of into the gloaming.
We arrived at the campsite at about 7.45pm and used the last of the light to pitch our tents. A panicked series of phonecalls ensued to see where we might secure ourselves and evening meal. The site had no shop, nor did it look like there was anywhere nearby to buy food had we wanted to. In the event, the very welcoming publican at the Falconer in Welton kept his kitchen open for us for long enough to allow us to tear through the night for the 4 mile trip to a much needed hot meal. On the way there the accident-prone Alex Saunders flew off his bike headlong into a ditch right in front of Tim. The ferocity and speed of his fall was matched only by the haste in which he picked himself up, inspected his mud-streaked kit and got back on his bike to contine the ride. Impressive stuff.
After a perfectly pleasant meal in the Falconer, aided as ever on these occasions with tales of a road, we headed off back into the night for our campsite at East Firsby. As Tim and Tony headed, 20ps in hand, for the showers it was noted that despite having spent a day in the saddle Mike Saunders thought a shower unnecessary!
The following morning we fell into our now slightly more familiar routine of packing up and readying ourselves for the road. Practice clearly does improve things becuase we were a good 15 minutes closer this time to leaving at the agreed time of 8am. We cyled the 10 miles or so into Lincoln uneventfully, though in the very latter stages of the ride Ruth did have a very close encounter with a lorry - harsh words followed (in both directions!)
In Lincoln the plan had been to find a greasy spoon cafe for breakfast, in the event we made do with another trip to McDonalds, and stocked up with provisions for lunch to give us a clear run through to the evening. The focus for much of the rest of the morning was to get to Grantham, some 23 miles away via the A607.
This leg of the journey, under a hot sun and a against a persistent SW breeze proved particularly hard for Ruth, who had to be relieved of her panniers and for much of the leg struggled to get her speed much above 7mph.
The sense of desolation that accompanies a 'bonk', whilst not pleasant, taught her important lessons about listening to her body, getting her eating right and digging in when the going gets tough. At one stage she felt an overwhelming urge to sprawl comatose by the roadside and recover her energy.
A worried motorist, seeing her bike lying akimbo and Tim standing above her, stopped to ask if we needed an ambulance!
When we eventually hauled ourselves into Grantham Ruth kissed the sign. A stop outside the town hall for lunch saw her energy levels replenished but by this stage other members of the party, sensing the finish, with its promise of a shower and cup of tea, were keen to push on so it was agreed to split into a fast (Tony, Mike, Jacob, Alexander and Jo) and slow (Tim and Ruth) groups. The final leg of the ride, through what remained of Lincolnshire and on into Rutland proved to be one of the most spactacular of the entire trip. The weather was glorious and, despite the persistent breeze, cycling condtions were near perfect. It wasn't long before Rutland dwellers, started seeing familiar names on the roadsigns. Saltby became Sproxton, then Wymondham, Teigh, Ashwell, Langham a long haul up to Cold Overton, then Knossington and we were done. The two parties arrived at the finish not much over half an hour apart - clear evidence that the summer's ride is very doable with just a few minor tweaks to the planned timescale.
We sat down in the evening to swap stories and revel in the satisfaction of a job well done. Portugal here we come....!