Three thirty-seven in the morning and the carpark of the Holiday Inn near Land’s End should be quiet, but today it is a hive of bizarre, hushed activity. In the shadows, lit by the strobe of a flickering streetlamp, a man dressed as Elmo is fiddling with the carbs on his tartan-covered Kawasaki GPZ500S.
Out of the corner of my eye, a rider on a VFR750 which looks like it has been dragged from a swamp is trying to coax his reluctant Honda to life. This is the start of the Longest Day Up charity ride: a thrash from Land’s End to John O’Groats in a day on £300 bikes, with no motorways involved.
Over the last eight years it has raised more than £100,000 for Cancer Research. MCN featured the event last year and I was so inspired I decided to take part. So I bought myself a suitably awful motorcycle – a fur-covered, 80,000-mile Yamaha XJ900F called Albert.
Months of prep, swearing and skinned knuckles followed before an exhaust header failed the day before and the cylinder head turned to dust as I tried to undo the already-broken exhaust studs. So I cheated, taking the forfeit of a blow-up croc on my pillion and using my naked, stiffly suspended Yamaha MT-09 SP with its 14-litre tank.
No touring bike, but I’m still, as Elmo suit-wearing Keith Bousfield points out, "a cheating b*****d." With a drop of the Union Jack we roll onto the A30. Throttles are stretched and the sound of leaky exhausts and clattering valves floats across the moors. There is a set route and along the way are four check points.
At these stops volunteers provide refreshments and sometimes much-needed repairs. There are few things in life I like better than clocking distance and the MT-09 and I settle into a rhythm, completing 120 miles between fill-ups and latching onto various riders on the way.
All walks of life are here: from husband and wife Dan and Trudy Mills on their VFRs to Tony Horrocks and hand-painted Triumph Tiger 900 riding in memory of his brother died from cancer. His bike looks OK from a distance but is so bent that no panel lugs actually meet their mounting holes. Over time I ride with them all and I can’t help but be impressed with their fortitude and staying power.
But inevitably as the miles roll by, the pain starts. Six hours and 350 miles and the ache from my backside grows with intensity with every bump, matched by an ache in my neck that gets bigger from the constant battle against wind blast. The only thing to do is keep going.
But there are amazing moments. Chasing James Sargent on his Honda Hawk held together with gaffa tape and goodwill across the Lincolnshire Wolds is hilarious and an empty A68 on a summer’s day is sheer joy. As I cross the Scottish border I get a German tourist to take a picture.
Even on a modern bike this feels like an achievement. Scotland is amazing, but is always much bigger than you think and the reality of another 400-mile stretch ahead of me and everyone else starts to bite. But the reward is the final 120-mile leg. The A9 to John O’Groats cuts magnificently though the Highlands, lit by the lengthening shadows and orange light of a mid-summer sunset.
I arrive at the finish line 20 hours and 907 miles after I set off. Everyone is buzzing, wired from so long in the saddle, with the talk already moving to next year's event, bikes and prep. I'm already thinking of the machine I could take. You should come and join us.
To donate, or join in next year head to www.thelongestdaydownchallenge.co.uk
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