Peter Langford: The Inspirational End-To-End Cyclist
My role model redefiner… introducing my dad, the 90 year old who cycled Land’s End to John O’Groats.
What will you be doing at 90 (or what are you doing at 90)? I have to say, I hope that I am redefining expectations of what is possible. I want my world to continue to expand rather than retreat, I want to keep a passion for adventure and have the grit and determination to go out of my comfort zone instead of snuggle up with a comfort blanket. I'm fortunate, at 57, that I have an amazing redefiner role model in my Dad. Did you hear about the 90-year-old man who recently cycled over 1100 miles from Land’s End to John O’Groats? That’s him.
Looking back, he’s probably always been a bit of a redefiner. In the early 1970s, he and my mum moved from London to rural Suffolk, bought a big house and started a charity, run by a community and welcoming school groups to experience life in the country (Ringsfield Hall Trust is still going). But this story is about his older years. Always fit and healthy, he started distance cycling after my mum died (he describes it as part of his therapy). At 75, he undertook his first long trip, Land’s End to John O’Groats on his old Raleigh bike. We were all impressed, he planned the trip, carried all his luggage in panniers and raised money for Ringsfield Hall (for maintenance of the gutters – not very exciting, but something that concerned him!). Little did we know that he would do it again, and again; that every 5 years he would feel the draw and that 15 years later, at age 90, he would still have the physical, mental and emotional strength to do it again.
Why Choose to Do an Epic Cycle Ride at 90?
His response is to wonder what age has to do with it. He might be older, but he’s still motivated by goals, and by seeing what he’s capable of. He enjoys variety, purpose and challenge, these are all deep in his psyche and have nothing to do with how old he is. He relished the whole process – planning the route, booking accommodation, saving money to pay for his own expenses, training (although he does admit that some of the wet and windy rides were not so much fun). The other big ‘why’ was to raise money. Dad has always had a strong social conscience and a particular concern for those who are experiencing homelessness. He saw his ride as an opportunity to raise money and to raise awareness that this is not a ‘problem’ that we should hide from. Along his journey, he spoke to rough sleepers he met, including Keith in Okehampton. They shared a chat and a sausage roll. These are people who deserve our understanding and support, and so far, he’s raised over £38,000.
How Has He Managed Such An Epic Cycle Ride?
How is it even possible for someone to physically and mentally do that at 90? Most people half that age feel very daunted at the prospect. I have to say, if you saw him walking, you wouldn't put a bet on him being able to do it. Although generally very healthy, he has bad arthritis in both knees – walking is slow, painful and requires a stick. Part of it is being fortunate, he’s had a few health scares over the years, but nothing that’s stopped him for long, and cycling works for him – he says he feels 20 years younger on a bike, and he looks it too.
He’s always been active, curious, compassionate and very determined and he’s needed every ounce of those traits to keep him going. The biggest of these I think is his determination – pushing his bike up long, steep hills, keeping going when lost on Bodmin moor, going up a track with a "nearly impossible slope like a dried up waterfall, by far the hardest quarter of a mile I’ve ever done", coping with malfunctioning brakes, diversions and (very worryingly) a 4-mile ride along the M90 outside Edinburgh! One of my brothers was with him when he hit his lowest point, a long hill, in Cumbria. Dad eventually got to what he thought was the top, but then turned a corner and there was twice as much again. He felt ‘utterly exhausted’ and told my brother that he couldn’t see how he could continue… but he did. A couple of dextrose tablets, a 10-minute break and he was on the go and cycling up another hill.
Over the last few days of his adventure, my daughter, son-in-law and I joined dad – two bikes between us, so we could cycle, plus a car so one of us could take the luggage. This was the North of Scotland, beautiful, remote and a few hills! Watching Dad power ahead was a masterclass in determination (and I have to say, not a little stubbornness!). He was focused, brushed off pain and discomfort and focused on the goal.
The last day was tough. It was about 50 miles from Strathy to John O’Groats, via the UK’s most Northerly point, Dunnet’s Head, an exposed headland (not happy with ‘end to end’, dad wanted to go ‘bottom to top’ too, so on his first day he went to the Lizard, the most Southerly point in the UK). It was drizzly, a bit blowy and he had already been cycling for four weeks, but he seemed as fresh as if he’d only cycled around the corner.
At the end of the ride, there was a round of media interviews. Naturally, people were impressed by what he had achieved. They were keen to understand the highs and the lows, and any quick-fix secrets for a long and healthy life. The highs for Dad were about the people, the connections and the community. Along the way, he was joined at different points by his three children (me and my two brothers), two granddaughters, each with their husbands, a niece and her husband, friends old and new. A French friend (who he got to know about 10 years ago while on a trip to Dover) even travelled over with his partner for a few days and helped by carrying Dad’s luggage from place to place. There was a problem with the hire car, so they did it all by public transport!
Dad loved this time with people – time together, to talk, to be outside and to share. His ride inspired people, there was a whole community following him on a WhatsApp group and via Instagram and a blog. People he met along the way saw his bright yellow shirt declaring ‘Lands End to John O’Groats at the age of 90 for the homeless.’ It started conversations, people passed him donations through car windows, they paid for meals, they found him on social media and made donations. The lows? The hills of Devon and Cornwall often get a mention, plus getting lost and that ‘awful hill’ where the glucose tablet was called for.
Having a ‘walk on part’ to this story has given me the chance to think about any ‘secrets’ – if I want to be stretching my comfort zone as I get older, what can I learn? I’d draw out three things. Firstly, be grateful. Dad says he is the most fortunate person he knows and gratitude helps you to stay positive, (and healthy). Secondly, look after your health by being sensible about food, drink, exercise and connection with other people. Finally? Embrace opportunities, instead of assuming you can’t, think ‘how could I'?
On this final note, Dad is currently saying ‘never again’, but as my brothers and I remind him, he said that five years ago…