On Friday 30 July at 11.05am Christina Mackenzie set a new record for riding from Land’s End to John o’ Groats – the length of the United Kingdom – in 51 hours, five minutes and 27 seconds.
The statistics are impressive: 839 miles, 34,626 feet of climbing, including at least two actual mountains, no sleep and an intensive support operation.
The Land’s End to John o’Groats record – or ‘the end to end’ as it’s known in time trialling circles – is a beautifully parochial representation of British cycling and our peculiar obsession with time trials. After all, it’s a stupidly long time trial across the length of the country dating back to the 1880s.
Early attempts were typified by moustaches, stimulants, and penny farthings. The level of difficulty can be seen in the list of women’s record-holders: there are only eight members of this elite club, and Lynne Biddulph’s (née Taylor) time had stood since 2002.
Mackenzie attempted the end to end two years ago, finishing the ride but missing the record. It drifted away on the penultimate climb of Helmsdale: “I felt awful, when I realised there was no way I could do it. I’d let everyone down and was really disappointed in myself. I never wanted to do it again.”
Big training miles
An approach from Gary Hand of Espresso Coaching changed her mind, though, leading to an intense training plan for another attempt: “I would look at what was coming up on TrainingPeaks, and just go, ‘ouch… this is going to be painful’ but it got my body ready for the stress, fatigue and recovery needed.”
One ‘long weekend’ stood out from Mackenzie’s training plan, consisting of three unsupported 200-mile rides and 10,000 metres of climbing in brutal laps of the Scottish Highlands.
While 8,000 miles in six months qualifies as ‘big miles’, her training also included intervals, threshold work, hill climbs, gym work, strength and flexibility. In short, “getting pushed further and higher each time, with everything increasing.”
Comfort vs aero
Notable upgrades include the wide-range 11-32t cassette (a broad range of gears that allows you to clip along at a comfortable cadence while seated on climbs or into a headwind is more important than close spacing); the deep-but-still-manageable-in-a-crosswind FFWD 60/90mm wheelset; and the pair of Exposure lights.
Mackenzie also opted for a wide-fitting version of Shimano’s RC7 shoes. It is not unusual for feet to swell significantly on ultra-endurance rides, so this was done to avoid hot spots.
- Framset: Liv Avow Advanced Pro 2 TT
- Cockpit: Stock Liv base bars with custom aero extensions
- Shifters: Shimano SL-BSR1 mechanical aero shifters
- Crankset: 170mm Shimano Ultegra R8000 50/34 crankset with Giant Pro power meter
- Rear derailleur: Shimano Ultegra R8000 medium cage rear mech
- Cassette: Shimano 11/32 cassette
- Saddle: Cobb Fifty Five saddle
- Wheelset: FFWD F6R front wheel / FFWD F9R rear wheel,
- Tyres: 23mm Continental GP5000
- Pedals: Look Keo Max 2 carbon pedals
- Computer: Garmin 830
- Lights: Exposure Toro MK11 front light and Blaze MK2 rear light
- Shoes: Shimano RC7 SPD-SL in wide fit
- Helmet: Endura D2Z Aeroswitch
More important than the bike is Mackenzie’s position, which has been honed over years of endurance riding.
Being able to sustain the position with comfort is vital to avoiding injury and minimising pain: “if injured, it’s not a question of finishing the last 10 miles, it’s the length of the country. I don’t have a hugely aggressive TT position, it’s comfort over aero.”
Nevertheless, her position wouldn’t seem out of place at an out-and-back time trial – to maintain that position for 51 hours is a feat of extraordinary endurance.
From Land’s End to John o’Groats
For long rides, a steady headwind feels personal. For the end to end record, it is terminal.
Mackenzie checked the forecast obsessively in the weeks before: “I refreshed mywindsock, every hour, again and again, but it kept changing!”
The wind proved ideal for the first 100 miles of Mackenzie’s ride up and over Bodmin Moor, with a speedy 21mph average: “At one point I was watching my heart rate come down whilst my speed went up, I was loving it! I had to reassure the team that I was in zone 1 though!”
Bristol saw the arrival of grumbling, tropical downpours: “It was wet and uncomfortable, but you could see blue sky and knew it would stop.”
Cities are a good place to watch but bring navigational challenges, invariably in the rush hour. However, having lost time during her previous attempt, getting lost in Exeter with mounting anxiety, Mackenzie knew what to expect: “this time I sailed through.”
After Bristol, the route bisects the midlands corridor, an endless spool of darkening post-industrial sprawl.
A cheering Lynne Biddulph appeared amidst the murk of a Staffordshire roundabout, a brief vision amidst the darkness.
With daylight came the first big climb, the nine miles of Shap Fell. Things were going well: “Shap wasn’t a breeze, but I kept tapping away, and it was a lot more enjoyable than two years ago, because of my training.”
She opted against a planned 20-minute sleep stop in Penrith: “I didn’t feel tired and didn’t think it would gain me anything, so just had a quick change of clothes, some food, then carried on.”
Crossing the border at Gretna is a deceptive milestone, with the ‘Welcome to Scotland’ sign undermined by the small matter of a further 400 miles.
For Mackenzie, the stretch from the west to the east coast became a gruesome crawl: “If ever there was a time when I wanted to stop, it was then. It’s the worst road in the world, the surface is lumpy and horrible. I was ploughing through miles of just nothing and felt fatigue kicking in.” At Abington, the road changed direction in a neat dog-leg, and with it the wind was kind again.
Falling asleep on the A9
Once over the Forth Bridge, groups of friends, colleagues and club members were out in force.
Home roads brought the comfort of knowing the landscape, but also heralded the serious business of the A9 and an overnight 40-mile climb to Drumochter summit: “The climb was fine, but I got cold on the descent. I stopped to put warm kit on. Then I was too hot, like the Michelin Man, so many layers I couldn’t move, I got flustered, had to stop. Then it rained so I needed another wardrobe change.”
The second night without sleep compounded matters: “I knew I was tired and there were a couple of times where I nodded off, but I kept upright.”
Mackenzie wins the prize for understatement. Falling asleep on the descent of Drumochter Pass is part of the myth of the end to end, stories abound of riders veering off the road, avoiding shadows, imaginary rabbits, that sort of thing. It is where the ride gets spicy.
Inverness marks the home straight, albeit a home straight of 120 miles with two hard climbs, Helmsdale and Berriedale, the first of which crushed Mackenzie’s previous attempt.
“At that point it was a mental game and I broke it down to a 100-mile training ride. To be honest, I enjoyed Helmsdale, I knew what was around the corner.
“Nearing the end I was crying, realising what I had done, I was trying to calm myself. At the finish someone took the bike because I couldn’t walk, and then the emotion hit me, with everyone cheering and congratulating me. I was stood there in tears.
“The team were in tears. I didn’t want it to end, everything that I’d worked for came down to this.”
To those following, both on the road and refreshing the tracker, this remarkable ride always seemed on.
The end to end comes down to how you cope with the variables of weather, equipment, sleep deprivation, fitness and form. For Mackenzie, there were no punctures, no creaking noises from bike or rider, just a remorseless gain against an ambitious schedule, and at the end, a feeling of unbridled elation.