Tom was well ahead by now – at least 30 minutes I suspected. I’d seen his tyre tracks in the mud a few kms back. It was already late in the day and my pace felt glacial, but the sun was shining and I was relatively relaxed. I stopped to take a picture of a small loch and noticed a storm at the top of the glen ahead of me. Since my phone was out, I checked my OS Maps Online. It was then that I knew fear: I had to traverse the entire glen ahead of me – a loop of maybe 10 km in the opposite direction to the one that would lead me to the day’s finish and I’d spotted that it was 6.00pm and that I seemed to be riding into heavy rain. Worse still, the trail ahead looked unrideable: way too rocky, with multiple river crossings: if it stayed like that for long, the remaining 50km of today’s stage might just as well be 500km! I’d get caught by bad weather and darkness, plus the kitchen at our destination would close. I’d gone from happy to stressed in the blink of an eye, for the umpteenth time on the GB Divide. I pushed my bike along and repeated the mantra that Tom had come up with on the very first afternoon: “just keep moving forward, no matter how slowly and things will probably get better: it’s an adventure, not a bike ride.”

As I put my camera away, I spotted the time, the route ahead and the storm in the distance – life suddenly seemed a bit less fun!

About this blog?

I wrote this guide for anyone interested in, or contemplating riding, the GB Divide (which is the exact same route used for the GBDURO ultra race each year). Most cyclists have heard of GBDURO, but I’m not sure many people yet realise that the route, GB Divide, is ‘official’ and there for anyone to ride, whenever they choose, or even to ride in parts. ‘Land’s End to John O’Groats off road’ is a pretty compelling concept and when I tripped across the GB Divide route, I was hooked straight away. My son Tom and I rode it in May 2022 in 13 days and it was our first experience of bike packing. It’s been described as “the most adventurous thing you can do on a bike in the UK”.

This guide covers:

– the route and the people behind it: The Racing Collective

– a pictorial essay of our ride

– our planning and choices around dates, schedule, style (inns or camping and where we stayed), bike choices, luggage & kit list and training

It also covers the things we learnt as newbies to bike packing and insights into the physical demands of the ride (in case you’re wondering ‘can I do it?’).

I’d like to add a very significant thank you to our sponsors: for Tom – Stolen Goat, Stolen Goat RT and Silverfish UK and for me, ASSOS LDN/ASSOS of Switzerland. Finally, thank you to my wife Jenny who handled ALL the bookings (inns, trains etc) and watched our ‘dots’ to check that we reached our destination each night (we cut it pretty fine, repeatedly, but never actually missed out on dinner)! She also baked flapjack and sent it to us in Scotland in little parcels – I had to squirrel it away quickly to stop Tom eating it all 😉

 

What is the GB Divide?

Created by The Racing Collective, The GB Divide is a c.2,000km off road cycling route from Land’s End to John O’Groats, taking in some of the best and most remote riding mainland UK has to offer. It was devised and created by The Racing Collective and is the exact same route used for GBDURO, the annual race held in late summer/early autumn. This is the current version of the route: https://ridewithgps.com/routes/37758941

The GB Divide route – from The Racing Collective website

And from RidewithGPS (the off road % is wrong – it’s more like 50%+)

There’s a loose idea that the route follows the GB watershed, but that’s highly debatable! Whatever, the GB Divide succeeds in finding a compelling and challenging way to ride the length of the country, linking some of the UKs very best off road riding and covering numerous mountain ranges, but also passing through a few cities and towns along the way. The mix of on and off road is roughly 50/50. See these sites for more details: https://bikepacking.com/routes/gb-divide/ and https://www.gbdivide.net/

Gravel is a much used term currently: some of the route is gravel, but much of it is far more challenging than that and I could write a short essay on the various types of ‘gravel’ that are encountered. The best advice I can give is 1. Expect everything from smooth forest roads to unrideable rocky passes and 2. The GB Divide is less a bike ride and more an adventure, where you’re moving from A to B and facing ever changing hurdles along the way. I’d also add that as someone who prides themselves on not falling off and who rides a wet ‘Paris – Roubaix’ for fun, I fell over three times, off twice and also ended up completely submerged in one of the river crossings. Do not underestimate the GB Divide: it meant nothing to me at the time but it’s been given 7/10 for difficulty. I hope I never meet 8, 9 or 10.

Be ready for everything from smooth gravel to unrideable rocks, river crossings, unfathomable gates and even a bit of climb-a-bike!

Using small lanes where necessary to reach the next off road section, the route passes through several National Parks (NP), areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), and other mountain ranges including Exmoor NP, Quantock Hills AONB, Mendip Hills AONB, Brecon Beacons NP, Cambrian Mountains (aka the Desert of Wales), Snowdonia NP, Yorkshire Dales NP, North Pennines AONB, Kielder Forest Park, Scottish Borders, Loch Lomond & the Trossachs NP, Cairngorm NP, and the Scottish Highlands. It succeeds in feeling and being remote almost all the time, but also adds in a few notable urban twists including Bristol, Chester, Manchester and Stirling.

 

What’s the difference between the GB Divide and GBDURO?

The GB Divide is the route used for The Racing Collective’s GBDURO, where it’s broken down into four timed stages – each one being roughly 500km long – with the rider with the lowest aggregate time winning… nothing. The route was first completed by Lachlan Morton (EF Education First) on 28 June 2019 during the inaugural race, BUT, anyone can ride the exact same route, whenever they wish, taking as long as they like – it’s not just for endurance racers, but any cyclist who likes riding their bike in wild places and wants a recognisable adventure.

Gone Feral… Tom Townsend, Exmoor.

What’s The Racing Collective?

The Racing Collective was established at the end of 2016 and with over 5000 members, is fast becoming the largest bike packing club in the UK. Unlike a conventional cycling club, they are not based in any particular city or town, rather they roam the UK seeking out new roads and tracks to explore, pushing their limits and finding more about themselves in the process.

In the words of The Racing Collective:

“Inspired by routes like the Tour Divide, The Racing Collective’s mission was to create a route on our own little island to remind ourselves that not every journey has to start with a flight.

​The routes that have come before the GB Divide were either LEJOG TT routes that follow A-roads/dual carriageways (no thanks), ‘traffic-free’ routes (think awkward canal paths/cycle lanes), or MTB routes (painfully slow and indirect).  We sought to exploit the versatility of gravel bikes by designing a route that links GB’s most remote off-road riding via small roads, following the most direct natural line possible.

The route links several existing routes such as the HT550, the Badger Divide, Second City Divide, in one continuous flowing line. The route was created by Miles Resso (published in 2019), but it has been a collaborative effort from leading members of The Racing Collective – Ed Wolstenholme, Stu Allan, Liam Glen, Luke Douglas, Katherine Moore, and many others for participating in the plan-recce-refine feedback loop.

In theory the route follows the watershed (hence the name GB Divide), but geography was never our strong point and we make no apologies for deviating wildly from this imaginary line to take in the beauty of mid-Wales for instance. Some also claim the route should start in SE England rather than SW England but we don’t see the logic given the North Sea and English Channel are all part of the Atlantic, and besides, we’ll take Cornwall over the M25 any day.”

There are other routes that take you on a similar journey, but in my view, the reason the GB Divide will fast become ‘the one to do above all others’ is that it resonates with everyone, cyclists and non-cyclists alike, by starting at Land’s End and finishing at John O’Groats. Whenever people asked us what we were doing, we’d say “Land’s End to John O’Groats, but off road” and they’d instantly understand that we were riding a very long way and it was probably difficult (and it was). The best things are always the simplest things.

My GB Divide story

Why?

I’d never had any interest in cycling the conventional (road) route from Land’s End to John O’Groats. Literally none. But I had mused on a ‘Sustrans’ version for at least a decade i.e. making up my own easy off road/smooth gravel version.

The GB Divide

Then in the summer of 2021, four things coincided:

– the pandemic had made me look closer to home for cycling adventures. I’d already been to Scotland three times since March 2020 and I’d fallen in love with the riding there

– I then tripped across a ‘gravel’ route in Scotland called the Badger Divide: 400km from Inverness to Glasgow, almost entirely off road. I badly wanted to ride it. However, trains – and more crucially bike spaces on trains – were incredibly difficult to book and despite trying several times during 2021, the stars never aligned. Then I read something that explained the Badger Divide was part of something called the GB Divide and in an irrational moment, I decided I’d ride the whole thing. I’d never heard of the GB Divide but I had heard of GBDURO and a spark was firmly kindled

– the pandemic years had left me with a surplus of holidays, so I felt like a big adventure was feasible. I allotted 14 days, assuming that would be more than enough (oh how naïve this was)!

– and finally, although I was prepared to ride alone, I realised that I might have a ride buddy: my son Tom, recovering from his second life threatening cycling accident in two years, wasn’t racing and had been forced to take a year away from university: I had a potential partner for the entire ride

With the spark kindled, I started planning in earnest around December 2021, but I’d been researching the route and potential equipment for several months before that.

Information was actually very sparse. I watched the three GBDURO films on YouTube* which gave me a vague feel for how tough the terrain might get and there was enough online talk about The Gap, the descent off Great Dun Fell and the Corrieyairack Pass to inform my equipment choices, but beyond that, there was little information – the GB Divide was only three years old and largely an ‘unknown’.

* https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0IxEMZ9wKz8

* https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e74xncSCoqw

* https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sgILJKtVh58

A friend connected me to a lady called Rose Osborne who had raced the 2021 GBDURO (she scratched in Yorkshire, but has re-entered for 2022) and we had a really useful chat about terrain and equipment choices.

 

The GB Divide – a pictorial essay

To qualify for the Racing Collective’s GB Divide ITT, there are a few rules to follow, like stick to the route 100%, leave no trace, no vehicular transport use during the ride, no support vehicles etc. They also ask riders not to reveal too much about the exact locations of the hardest sections, nor the location of the crucial resupply points (i.e. village shops, petrol stations etc). I’ve thought long and hard about how to respect this request, while at the same time delivering a detailed, interesting blog piece. The conclusion I reached was to discuss my planning, training, logistics, bike, luggage and kit list in detail (see below), but to cover the actual ride via pictures and captions, rather than a written account. While this reveals a few insights for the eagle-eyed, it largely satisfies TRC’s request, while also giving you the reader a feel for the extraordinary variety of terrain covered by the GB Divide. This was our ride:

All smiles at Land’s End: we had no idea what awaited us!

West Penwith turned out to be a tough place to ride bikes. We quickly found ourselves immersed in our first hike-a-bike lesson. I fell in a gorse bush and would carry the thorns in the palm of my left hand all the way to John O’Groats! We averaged just 15.1kmh for our 35km Prologue/Stage 0!

Stage One was much easier – smooth gravel past the relics of tin mines, fast flowing lanes and a strong tail wind.

Even Bodmin Moor couldn’t slow us down much. Empty roads and big skies.

The Two Moors Way – Stage 2 and lots of increasingly interesting ‘gravel’!

Exmoor, you beauty.

It’s hard to explain just how brilliant the route is and how remote it feels for much of its length.

I won’t say much about the descent off Dunkery Beacon!

Rocky red soil: Exmoor!

Our reward for surviving Dunkery was the Quantocks.

The Quantocks – I need to spend more time exploring there.

It’s amazing how even a really long hard stage seems easy after an ice cream!

Stage 3 started hard: leaving Cheddar…

Somewhere between Cheddar and Bristol: it was all technical!

Or harder…

Yup…

But eventually, way behind schedule and joined by our friend Mike, we found the Escape Bridge to Wales

Heading into the Valleys

Big Brecon skies and sunshine

And then we found The Gap

Stage 3 proved to be long and really difficult: but this was quite a way to spend a Saturday evening!

Stage 4: leaving the Brecons behind and heading for the Welsh Desert (odd name for a forest)!?

It was pretty much like this all day: our reward for getting across The Gap?

Proper, smooth gravel. Even then, we still ended up late for dinner!

And then came Stage 5 and it nearly broke me.

And to think I once contemplated Everesting this… Bwlch y Groes or Hellfire Pass to the English.

This was quite special…

And this was not…

Steep was a consistent flavour of Stage 5

Llandegla you beauty

Chester – for sure the nicest city on GB Divide and the end of Stage 5 – thank God!

Roman Bridges on the way to Manchester

And plenty of industrial past

But we’d learnt by now that whenever our pace was good and it felt easy, it was bound to change

Leaving Bury and heading onto the moors

Old and new

Could we reach the end of the stage (6) before the rain set in?

Not easy on a fully laden gravel bike

We didn’t make it to the end in the dry, but gravel switchbacks almost made up for it!

Stage 7 started so well – The Dales never looked better

Our Stage 7 consisted of the Dales, followed by Great Dun Fell

Those views…

Speeding towards Ribblehead

Route finding was pretty straightforward!

One of my favourite images from the entire ride – emptiness.

All good things come to an end. Trout Beck was about to catch a victim: me!

Having survived Stage 7 (just), we ‘reset’ at Alston: new brake pads, tyre pressures checked etc.

I’d always planned to change pads half way, but was still slightly shocked to find that I really needed to!

A significant moment on Stage 8: that’s Hadrian’s Wall, so ahead lies Scotland…

Tom gave me a headstart for the day – about two hours or so. He caught me exactly on the Scottish Border, some 80km into the day.

The Scottish Borders…

And then this happened. Just trust your Garmin (and take a climbing rope)

Into the forest…

Just mile upon mile of gravel roads. Our first taste of Scotland was magnificent

But Stage 9 was tough: Glack was a savage climb and descent…

And the climb of Dead Wife’s Grave (!!!) was even worse!

But Stage 10 was special: the Trossachs…

Possibly the best stage…

Although steep and rocky in places… as ever…

Beauty ahead…

The temperature is about 10 degrees and rain threatens. Jackets remained on all day.

Nowhere else on the GB Divide does grandeur quite like Scotland

Nearing Laggan – there’s still snow on the hills behind

We celebrated by ordering every dessert on the menu 🙂

Oh Stage 10, you beauty…

Unlike Stage 11: the Queen Stage for sure. It was a very late, wet finish. Spot the route…

This pipeline saved my bacon: I was walking at the time and beginning to panic, when suddenly the pipeline appeared and of course, every pipeline needs a good gravel access road! Storm inbound!

Stage 12 started damp…

But look where we went!

Double jacketing… it was five degrees and pouring rain for most of the day…

Redefining remote…

Yes, really….

The penultimate gravel section of the GB Divide

Stage 13… The Flow Country

And smoooooth gravel on the final section….

And suddenly we were there… at the end.

Job done. 2,000km, 33,000m of up and an awful lot of rocks, stones, gravel, soil, mud and dust.

 

When to ride the GB Divide?

This was an easy decision, all of it based on the Scottish stages where April and May were likely to be the driest months, late June onwards was midge season and May and June offered the longest daylight hours. Plus I wanted to avoid school holidays for all the obvious reasons. I settled on 11th – 25th May.

Format

For our first foray into bike packing (I would later realise we were in at the deep end), I didn’t want to add the complication and weight involved in camping, nor cooking. So, our format would be:

– a train to the start and from the finish

Thank you GWR!

–  c.100 mile days, using inns each night: no matter how hard the days were, we could look forward to a hot shower, a good meal, a comfy bed and breakfast the following morning. We could travel lighter and we would see the entire ride i.e. no night riding required.

– but no rest days

– and we decided to stick to the official GB Divide route 100%, come what may. I knew that for someone who hates hike-a-bike sections even on local rides, I’d be on a slippery slope if I started playing with the route at all, so I simply locked that option away and told myself and Tom ‘no variations at all’.

We used pre-booked inns every night (and one B&B) and local shops, garages etc for resupply every day. We were on a tight and limited schedule and needed everything to work smoothly. Adding days, or hunting around for accommodation in the rain at the end of a long day, wasn’t an option for us.

Our train to Penzance arrived at c.3.30pm, so we decided to ride to the start (17.5km) at Land’s End and then complete the first 35km of the route that same day. That would be our Prologue, or Stage Zero. From there, largely based on the location of inns on the route, plus a bit of caution thrown in as the proportion of off road increased in any given stage, we settled on the following itinerary, based on an assumption of 18 – 20kph average speed and no more than 2 hours of cumulative stoppage time per stage (writing this now, with hindsight, is hilarious)! By booking the overnight stops in advance (essential to secure rooms in most of them), we were fully committed to the schedule below. This would become both motivating (we HAD to get to the end of each stage) and stressful (some LONG days, constantly up against the clock of last dinner orders)!

Our stages, my Strava files and where we stayed each night

Stage Zero: Land’s End to Lelant: 35km incl’ 500m of up and 15km off road

https://www.strava.com/activities/7126510641

https://www.thebadgerinn.co.uk/

Stage One: Lelant to Frizenham: 162km incl’ 2,440m of up and 25km off road

https://www.strava.com/activities/7131527372

http://www.frizenhamfarmhouse.co.uk/index.html

Stage Two: Frizenham to Cheddar: 164km incl’ 2,800m of up and 30km off road

https://www.strava.com/activities/7136883813

https://www.batharms.com/

Stage Three: Cheddar to Libanus: 159km incl’ 3,000m of up and 50km off road

https://www.strava.com/activities/7143165056

https://www.thetairbullinn.co.uk/

Stage Four: Libanus to Machynlleth: 150km incl’ 3,300m of up and 70km off road

https://www.strava.com/activities/7148896972

https://www.wynnstay.wales/

Stage Five: Machynlleth to Chester: 154km incl’ 3,600m of up and 50km off road

https://www.strava.com/activities/7153781523

https://www.theboathousechester.co.uk/

Stage Six: Chester to Gargrave: 161km incl’ 2,400m of up and 40km off road

https://www.strava.com/activities/7159487584

https://masonsarmsgargrave.co.uk/

Stage Seven: Gargrave to Alston: 132km incl’ 2,600m of up and 40km off road

https://www.strava.com/activities/7165157228

http://www.cumberlandalston.co.uk/

Stage Eight: Alston to Yarrow: 149km incl’ 2,500m of up and 70km off road

https://www.strava.com/activities/7169876085

https://www.thegordonarms.com/

Stage Nine: Yarrow to Callander: 149km incl’ 2,200m of up and 35km off road

https://www.strava.com/activities/7174859626

http://www.theoldrectoryincallander.com/

Stage Ten: Callander to Laggan: 155km incl’ 2,200m of up and 85km off road

https://www.strava.com/activities/7180490044

https://laggan-hotel.com/

Stage Eleven: Laggan to Inchbae: 143km incl’ 2,800m of up and 90km off road

https://www.strava.com/activities/7187026702

Inchbae Lodge Inn 3-star hotel Main Road, Inchbae Lodge, Garve IV23 2PH•01997 978233

Stage Twelve: Inchbae to Altnaharra: 139km incl’ 1,800m of up and 70km off road

https://www.strava.com/activities/7191189148

https://altnaharra.com/

Stage Thirteen: Altnaharra to John O’Groats: 138km incl’ 1,000m of up and 30km off road

https://www.strava.com/activities/7195274348

Totals: 1,990km incl’ 33,140m of up and c. 50% off road

Interestingly, as we rode north, we came across two others riding the GB Divide – one in Wales and one on the final day, a few kms from John O’Groats. They took five weeks and four weeks respectively.

 

Preparation

Trello – a perfect tool for planning a complex schedule!

I’d only ever used Trello for work, but this particular board became a work of art and was simple to share with anyone else interested in our schedule and/or joining us

Besides all the bookings – trains and inns – for which we used a Trello management board – we also spent time on the following:

Mental/Commitment

We were resolved to ride long days and although we’d never bike packed before, we felt we had enough previous reference points to string the 13 stages together (Tom races the UK scene and rides A LOT (!) and I’ve ridden the Tour de France route, various Cent Cols, multiple Everestings and other trips). I also LIKE off road riding, although I was mistakenly assuming there would be more gravel and less rocks! Likewise, I was content with limited resupply and relative self-sufficiency from the start to finish of each stage.

There’s one clip in Mark Beaumont’s Maiden Race video where one of the other competitors says something like “just survive to the Scottish Borders and it gets so much better.” I interpreted this as ‘the ‘gravel’ gets more and more rideable and the scenery/solitude, better and better’. I think the latter turned out to be true…

Anyway, I mentally decided that Alston, at the end of our Stage Seven, was my first goal: it was just over half way, so there I would reset, checking the bikes over really carefully, replacing brake pads (necessarily it turned out), recharging Di2 batteries and even swapping my jersey for a different colour (blue to orange), to mark the ‘second half’ of the ride! We also took delivery of ‘storm grade’ jackets: the plan had been to send our lightweight ones home by post but I suddenly decided to keep them. Two days later, the temperature dropped to single digits (Centigrade) and the rain set in: we ‘double jacketed’ all the way to John O’Groats!

Training

This was easy: volume and regularity. I ride my bike a lot and so does Tom, so we didn’t do anything specific to prepare for the GB Divide, besides plenty of long back-to-back days and I spent much of the preceding three months riding both my gravel bike and MTB off road, to make sure my handling skills were up to date. I was also lucky: Tom is a fully qualified coach, working with Downing Cycling and as such, kept an eye on my preparations and guided me when necessary.

The Perfect Bikes for GB Divide

I spent a LONG time researching and thinking about the ideal bike set up. My biggest fear going into the event was a destroyed tyre/wheel in a remote Scottish glen (in the rain of course), or some other major mechanical failure. Given our ‘fixed’ schedule, detouring to mend a bike would have meant the end of our ride.

The GB Divide website states “This route was made for gravel bikes. We love fast flowing tracks but we are not allergic to road and if it’s a choice between a rutted bridleway or road, we choose road – our philosophy was to get to the good off-road riding as quickly as possible. So in terms of riding time, it’s probably 50:50 road:off-road. The vast majority of the ‘off-road’ is doubletrack so you’ll want a setup that rolls well but can handle the rough stuff… a gravel bike with minimum 40mm tyres would be ideal.”

So in theory, the perfect bike for the GB Divide was a gravel bike with a minimum of 40mm tyres. Watching the YouTube videos of GBDURO and pouring over the few photos that I could find, I was doubtful: it looked like MTB territory to me, so I went for super strong 650b wheels from DT Swiss and on the recommendation of Molly Weaver, I chose Teravail’s Rutland tyre in 47mm width, with a durable side wall (60TPI). Molly had used these herself without incident on the GB Divide in 2020 and that was the best insight I was ever going to get.

With hindsight, there is no perfect bike, so it’s about getting your compromises right and then accepting their strengths and weaknesses. For parts of the GB Divide, I’d now take a MTB, but for the whole thing, I’d take the exact same set up that we both rode.

Tom and I rode OPEN Upper gravel+ bikes. Besides his chain-ring having a couple of extra teeth (42 vs my 40) and my custom ASSOS paint job, they were identical and specifically ‘modified’ by the mechanical wizard John Bailey of VeloWorx, for what I perceived to be the challenges of the GB Divide:

My OPEN Upper – specifically tailored to the GB Divide and brilliantly built by VeloWorx.

Frame: Open Upper (both bikes were Size XL)

Frame wrap: both frames were fully wrapped in a custom film produced by Invisiframe. This really protected them from luggage scuffs and all the other trials they went through!

Wheels: DT Swiss GRC 650b 1600 Spline carbon rims, on 240S hubs

Tyres: Teravail Rutland 650b 47mm, Durable casing (tubeless with 90ml of sealant in each tyre)

Groupset: Shimano GRX Di2 1×11 (40T chainring (or 42T in Tom’s case) and 11-42 cassette)

Power Meter: Stages l/h crank arm

Pedals: Shimano XTR Race SPD

Stem: enve carbon road stem with integrated Garmin mount

Bars: enve road bar with internal Di2 interface

Seatpost: Specialized S-Works carbon in-line

Saddle: Specialized Romin Evo Mirror 3D printed

Bottle cages: enve carbon

 

Observations & Bike Set Up

– besides the various cages and luggage that we added to the bikes, we also pondered a couple of other things. The first was tyre pressures: using the Silca Tyre Pressure Calculator, we had a compromise to make: the recommended on-road pressures were 39 rear + 37 front, but off-road they came down to 31 rear and 29 front. We compromised at 35 rear and 33 front, with a rider + bike + luggage + food + water assumption of 105 kgs. We used a Silca Tatico blue tooth pump and App to maintain these pressures. The second point was whether to run our saddles at on-road height, or drop them slightly to cope better with the off-road terrain? We left them at road height and I think that was probably the right choice – half the route is on fast flowing lanes, after all.

– the Teravail tyres were phenomenal: neither of us punctured, despite hitting hundreds of thousands of rocks and sharp edges. The tread however is made of quite soft rubber and both our rear tyres were worn smooth on the centre tread after 2,000km. I’ve seen forum complaints about this, but I was content: the tyres gripped well on wet, slick surfaces and I’d prefer that over a more durable, but less adhesive rubber.

Its hard to explain just how impressive these tyres were: neither of us punctured, despite hitting hundreds of thousands of rocks!

– GRX crank arms are metal and thank goodness: the frequent rock strikes would have destroyed carbon crank arms

– the Mirror saddles were crazy expensive, but truly wonderful: a new ‘quantum leap’ benchmark for multi-day saddle comfort, esp’ over really rough terrain

Specialized S-Works Romin Evo Mirror Saddle: redefining long distance comfort

– the DT Swiss wheels and hubs survived everything we threw at them and finished the event completely true: that’s extraordinary

– our mudguards from Ass Savers were superb: of all the things we took on GDB, these were possibly the best value for money: cheap, minimalist, super lightweight and brilliant – both we and our luggage stayed remarkably clean, despite some pretty mixed weather

– did we have enough gears? No, probably not BUT I really wanted the reliability of Shimano and a 42T sprocket was the largest they did!

– in short, I wouldn’t change a single thing about the bikes

Luggage

In the planning phase, I’d been really tempted by the rear mounted Tailfinn carbon rack + bag option, but there were questions around the quality of the fit given the OPEN through axle arrangement. With hindsight, I think this set up would have been too fragile for the GB Divide (remember we both crashed a number of times), plus too much of our luggage weight would have been above/over the rear wheel, which is not where you want it when the terrain gets really technical. Ideally, luggage weight should be low on the bike and within the frame’s main triangle, over the front wheel, or on the front forks.

Most of the bags below are available in larger sizes, but I felt it was best to have more small bags of lighter weight than fewer, heavier bags. I’m sure this was the right choice. As we rode through Wales, we decided to get really ruthless about some of the things we were carrying – for example spare lights, an extra warm top, a second camera – and we parcelled up almost 3.5kg of kit between us and left it in Chester (to be collected by a local relative)! This included our top tube bags – we just didn’t have enough to carry to warrant them, plus they were the things most likely to rub against our knees and besides, *one of them had already been eaten by an animal at one of our overnight stops!

Our luggage for GB Divide: mostly Apidura, with bits of Restrap, Tailfinn and Birzman thrown in for good measure!

We used the following:

– rear seat pack: Apidura Expedition Series – 9 litre

– frame bag: Apidura Racing Series – 4 litre

– bar bag: Apidura Expedition Series – 9 litre

– top tube bag: Racing Series bolt on version – 1 litre*

– hydration vest: Apidura Racing hydration vest

– tool canisters: 1 x Birzman (Tom) and 1 x Tailfinn 1.7 litre cage pack (Guy)

And we also used the following additional luggage:

– cages: 1 x Tailfinn cargo cage (small – Tom) and 1 x Tailfinn cargo cage (large – Guy)

– fixing straps: Tailfinn 40cm x 20mm (trimmed length to fit); and assorted Restrap straps to secure anything else (e.g. I used these to keep the side flaps snug on my frame pack where it was rubbing on my knees)

The Tailfinn cargo cage, bag and straps were really impressive: my tools lived here, bone dry!

– Birzman Super 8 strap: these straps, supplied by Silverfish UK, are pure genius. They allow you to attach small items in the blink of an eye – a portable charger; a waterproof, gloves/kneewarmers/armwarmers etc. Tom’s Di2 battery went (inexplicably) flat in the middle of Stage 8 and we simply attached a charging bank to the frame using the Super 8 strap, tucked the cables away in the frame bag and rolled on. The Super 8 strap will fit almost anywhere on your bike: top tube, down tube, stem, seatpost etc. Brilliant.

The Birzman Super 8 strap: pure genius

Again, as per the bikes, I wouldn’t change a single thing about our luggage set up (*except to remove the top tube bag, as described above. A mouse/rat/bear was kind enough to do this for Tom anyway 😉

Mouse? Rat? BEAR???

Packing and attachment

We worked out really quickly that reattaching bags each morning was fiddly and took about five minutes per bike, so we resolved to only remove the seat packs and the bar bags. Everything else stayed on the bikes.

We packed everything in lots of various sized Sea to Summit ultrasil drybags. I’m not really sure that we needed to use these – the Apidura bags proved to be completely waterproof – but since the dry bags weighed almost nothing, it’s probably a precaution I would take again.

We packed as follows:

– rear seat pack: anything we weren’t likely to need during the day – spare tyre; first aid kit; survival bag; toiletries; electricals/recharging cables; first aid kit; spare cycling shorts; spare socks; chamois creme; skin repair gel

– frame bag: cap, headband, rain gloves, knee and arm warmers, light rain jacket

– bar bag: super-light hiking shoes, rolled in evening clothes; storm jacket on bungees on the outside

– top tube bag: camera and food

– hydration vest: water; food; power bank; sun lotion; lip balm; Exposure Trace and TraceR lights on Racewear brackets; chain lube; a few wet wipes; pump; money; spare power meter batteries

– tool canisters:

– Birzman (Tom): multitool; spare tube; zip-ties; chain breaker and chain links; mechanic gloves; tyre patches; tube patches; electrical tape; short lengths of shock cord

– Tailfinn (Guy): Leatherman tool; 3, 4 and 5 mm allen keys; lighter; spare tube; spare brake pads (x 2); tyre patches

By the end of the trip, we had become very adept at packing our bags and reattaching them quickly.

There’s a full kit list at the end of this blog.

 

What did we learn, as bike packing newbies?

So many things, but the following stood out:

– how to push/carry our bikes: this might sound ridiculous but there’s a knack to this, as well as dismounting safely when things get tricky! Our legs were covered in cuts and bruises from pedal strikes from the first few days, but by the time we left Wales, we’d got really adept at pushing our bikes without inflicting leg wounds!

– how to pack bike luggage and reattach the luggage really quickly

– how to get really ruthless with what we took with us: at the end of Stage 5 we shed 3.5kgs of kit we’d decided we didn’t need

– that gates come in a million different versions. A good gate is one you can close one handed. A bad gate requires both hands and a deadlift! There are a lot of gates on the GB Divide.

 

Speed

Our elapsed time was 310 hrs, 41 mins i.e. 12 days, 22 hrs and 41 mins. My moving average speed was 18.1 km/h and Tom’s was just over 20 km/h.

Some of the days proved stressfully slow – 15 – 17km/h: a couple of stages in Wales, Yorkshire in general and a couple of the Scottish days. Outside of GBDURO, anyone riding the GB Divide will make up their own daily schedule, so it’s slightly irrelevant to refer to best stages, or the Queen (hardest) stage: there were highlights and difficulties almost everywhere. For me, our Stages 3, 5 and 11 were the ones that challenged most and this was entirely based on surfaces, hike-a-bike and therefore average speed. To cope, we just stopped less and kept riding!

From Stage 3 onwards, the GB Divide became a love/hate thing for me. If the surface was rideable, I was happy, but once I was off and walking and the clock was moving against me, I was unhappy. Simples.

A happy moment

For future reference and assuming a similar format i.e. use of inns and daylight riding only, I will keep myself roughly to this guideline:

Road bike packing: 100 miles/day

Gravel bike packing: 120 kms/day (versus our 150 – 160km schedule)

Mountain bike packing: 80 – 100kms/day (and even that might be ambitious on something like the HT550)

 

Physical demands of GB Divide

So what does it take, physically, to ride the GB Divide, covering +/- 100 miles a day? Well, I’m a ‘lifetime (amateur) athlete’, aged 54, weighing 83kg and with an FTP of c.320 watts. Our bikes + kit weighed around 20kg. I don’t really have a ‘top end’ (never raced) but my endurance is good. Our format was 13 days of riding with overnight stops i.e. proper sleep, but no rest days and I arrived at Land’s End well prepared. While I’ve ridden comparable events in the past, I’ve never had the benefit of a power meter plus data from Training Peaks to really clarify the impact of such a ride on my body. But this time, I had accurate power recording and hence data: in all I pedalled for 111 hours at an intensity factor of 0.67. I used 71,439 calories over the 2,000km journey and at the end of Stage 13, my final cumulative TSS was 4,799. My Fatigue was 295, Fitness 142 and Form minus 164! My peak Fatigue was at the end of Stage 12: 303!!!! Tom, who is a coach for Downing Cycling, predicted that it would take me two weeks from the end of Stage 13 to be relatively recovered and four weeks to be fully recovered. Exactly one week after finishing, my Fatigue was 98, my Fitness was 120 and my Form was 9 : the first time my Form had been positive since the event ended. So there you have it: a window on the physical demands of the GB Divide!

Another way of putting it (given our moving time each day), is this: if this had been a road ride, we’d have knocked out 13 x (hilly) 200 – 250km days.

 

Mental demands of GB Divide

There’s no doubt that the GB Divide is a very difficult ride! How difficult depends on:

– your time frame – 13 days was tough, whereas five weeks would feel far more relaxed

– whether you’re camping, or staying in inns (the latter being far easier in most respects – less kit to carry, warmth and food at the end of each day, etc)

– whether you have company or ride solo (solo being harder when things get challenging, making you more susceptible to quitting)

– the quality of your equipment and how well it withstands the route and the elements (this is a really big deal in my view)

– luck! There are lots of variable elements, notably rain, wind and surface conditions, which could go in your favour (for us they generally did), or not!

My view is that you’ll have to be mentally pretty resilient to complete the GB Divide and adept at managing your chimp i.e. the part of your brain that tells you to quit! I constantly felt that all my previous benchmark rides were helping me to cope with the demands of the GB Divide – this is what David Goggins refers to as ‘The Cookie Jar’ – something you reach into when challenged, for memories of how you previously coped with similar hurdles.

 

The weather

We were incredibly lucky: the GB spring of 2022 was really dry, so our trails were largely dry and dusty. Some of the English stuff could have been horrendously muddy, but we were saved that.

For Stage 0, it rained all morning and then stopped as we alighted from the train in Penzance: that was uncanny! It often rained overnight, but was then dry all day. I think in total we rode in rain on 5 out of the 13 days, but only one of those had prolonged rain (Stage 12 – the most remote one).

We also had a strong tailwind most days – occasionally a crosswind and only once a headwind.

 

Resupply points

The Racing Collective wants to preserve the unknown and the sense of adventure for anyone tackling the GB Divide, so I’m not going to pinpoint the resupply points – except one*. What I can tell you is that we never once deviated from the route in need of supplies, even though some long stretches contained… nothing. We did often only find one resupply point all day and once, none at all: we were prepared for this, so had enough food and water to get us through. If you were racing i.e. riding through the night and missing shop opening hours, huge sections of the route could be devoid of resupply. The Broughton Village Store* in the Scottish Borders deserves a mention though: good coffee, hot pies, delicious cakes and lovely staff. I told them that they won my ‘Best Resupply Shop Award’ and they seemed pleased! Both Tom and I lingered there for a while and I left with extra cakes and sandwiches attached to my bike!

 

Accommodation

In our schedule section, I’ve listed our overnight accommodation. All except for the Laggan Hotel, were on or within a few hundred meters of the route. The Laggan was the only option in the area, so worth the 8km detour and proved to be excellent.

The quality of the accommodation varied hugely – probably from ‘almost’ 2** to 4**** but in EVERY instance the hospitality we received and the food we ate was brilliant. I would relish a return to the Bath Arms (Cheddar), the Boatyard Inn (Chester), the Mason’s Arms (Gargrave), the Gordon Arms (Yarrow), the Laggan Hotel (Laggan) and the Altnaharra Hotel (Altnaharra).

We received a small round of applause from other guests at the Laggan when we ordered the entire dessert menu (there were five choices and we liked them all)!

The End.

Full Kit List

Bike

  • OPEN Upper (Guy & Tom)
  • Enve cockpit; S-Works seatpost & saddle
  • Shimano GRX Di2 groupset
  • Guy: 1 x 40 (11-42) Tom 1 x 42 (11-42)
  • DT Swiss 650b wheels
  • Teravail Rutland tubeless tyres (47mm)

On Bike

  • Ass Savers mudguards
  • K-Edge GoPro mount (failed – shook itself to pieces)
  • 2 x enve carbon bottle cages & 600ml bottles
  • Tailfinn Cargo Cages & tool canister
  • Garmin 1030 + storm cover

Bags

  • Apidura Race/Expedition series underseat bag; frame bag; top tube bag and bar bag (the latter using Restrap bar spacers)
  • Apidura hydration vest with Exposure Trace & Trace R blinker lights on Racewear clip on mounts

Spares & Tools

  • Spare tyre (one only)
  • 2 spare tubes
  • 4 x tyre boots (two each)
  • 16 x tube patches (8 each)
  • Finish Line wet lube
  • Rag/wet wipes + blue gloves
  • Spare cleats (1 set)
  • Chain tool and quick links
  • Silca Tatico pump (digital pressure)
  • Allen keys
  • Micro lock
  • Gerber Skeleton multi tool
  • Electrical tape
  • Assorted zip ties
  • Assorted spare Restrap straps

Wearing + Spare Clothes

  • Bib shorts (x 2)
  • Base layer
  • Jersey
  • Socks (x 2)
  • Helmet
  • Mitts (never wore them)
  • Sunglasses
  • Bike shoes

Other Bike Clothes

  • Gilet
  • Leg warmers
  • Arm warmers
  • Headband
  • Cap
  • Overshoes (destroyed them in 1 day)
  • Warm gloves
  • Waterproof jackets x 2 (‘lightweight’ + ‘expedition grade’)
  • Waterproof shorts (never wore them)
  • Down jacket (doubled as evening warmth)

Casual Clothes

  • Shorts
  • T shirt
  • Boxers
  • Superlight shoes: A note on shoes: both Tom and I used S-Works Recon shoes – they were what we had and were used to. They’re basically a XC race shoe, with zero flex, so in theory, not ideal for something like the GB Divide: we estimate we walked for 30 – 40km (cumulative) within the whole route. Most bike packers probably take a pair of sliders or similar for their ‘off bike’ time, but knowing that we would be hiking a bit, I cast around for a super lightweight walking shoe and found the Arc’teryx Arakys approach shoes. At 270g a pair, but with a Vibram sole, these were perfect and really useful in three particular places (you’ll need to ride the route to find out where)!

Electrical & Devices

  • iPhone + cable
  • Camera + cable (destroyed it in Trout Beck)
  • GoPro + cable
  • Small power bank (one only)
  • Multi USB plug
  • Exposure light cables (2)
  • Di2 charging cable

Toiletries & Other Bits

  • Emergency bivi bag
  • Clothes wash
  • Washing up liquid
  • Sun lotion & Lip balm
  • ASSOS chamois crème
  • ASSOS skin repair gel
  • Credit cards + cash
  • Lens cloth
  • Razor
  • Tooth brush and paste
  • Toilet paper
  • Various S2S Ultrasil drybags

First Aid Kit Contents

  • Antispeptic (Savlon)
  • Selection of plasters
  • Wound pads & tape
  • 1 x bandage
  • Needle
  • Tweezers
  • Asprin (2)
  • Nurofen Express
  • Immodium