London Edinburgh London – Scotland bound
Let’s be honest, at one point in time, if you rode a bike, even down to the shops, you were looked upon by the general population as a bit of a nutter, a bit of an outsider. Thankfully the public’s perception has changed for the better somewhat since the Hoy/Wiggo/Cav/Pendleton/Cooke/Froome effect has made cycling more widely known and accepted. Back in the day though, and my day was the early 1980s, I was involved in a Cinderella sport, a sport that had as many ancient customs, traditions, methods, clothing and secret meeting places as a branch of the funny handshake brigade.
“You’re cycling where on your bike? That’s ten miles away! Who do you think you are, Eddy Merckx? Blooming weirdo.”
In fact at school, some of the lads nicknamed me “Eddy” as it was the only cyclist name they’d ever heard of. How I wish I was even 10% as good as the great man himself.
I must admit that I suppose I held similarly bigoted views according to the cycling sub culture riders chose to participate in; roadies – my kind of rider, hard as nails, fast is fair, don’t you half wheel me or I’ll kill you; track riders – niche, specialised fast lads, love circles silk and ovals – fixed wheel masters; time trialists-nocturnal, secretive, dark alpaca, masochists; mountain bikers – forget mtb it hadn’t been invented yet; cycle tourists – panniers, youth hostels, maps, mash, normal holidays for a working class lad; Audax riders – total maniacs, riding through the night, Brooks, dynamos, brew ups, ultra-distance, even more nocturnal than the TT lads, the niche of the niche.
By the way, and as a point of clarification, it was just about all lads back in those days, you might have one or two female riders in your club or region but it was 99% a male sport. I’m 99% correct on that point.
Anyway, fast forward a few decades and I’d taken the plunge and entered the ultra-long distance London-Edinburgh-London (LEL), a ride so big that it only gets held once every 4 years. It’s all run by volunteers and it’s a huge event with 1500 riders from around the world.
If you’ve read my previous blog then you’ll know that my preparation wasn’t exactly perfect, in fact some would say that it was pretty useless. A long event to me is a 30 laps points race for old fellas at the Manchester velodrome. 30 laps, that’s 7.5km or just under 5 miles. LEL would only be about 855 miles longer, nothing to worry about there then!
In fact I had been worried prior to the event. I was always getting ill, migraine headaches, even throwing up on long preparation rides that I tried. Not only that, my riding partner was way stronger than me, I’d never done any long back to back rides, didn’t know what the best equipment choice would be, didn’t know how I would navigate properly, didn’t have a clue compared to most of the experienced Audax riders.
With about 2 weeks to go thinking to myself that I’d better “put up or shut up” I made a mental shift. I’d entered the damned event, my choice, I’d better just get on with it. Not only that I’d get a load of ear ache from the Missus if I failed to finish, so I reckoned I’d best make it all the way if I could.
Down in “that” London
The day before the event, Jack and I travelled down to London, the car full of bikes and equipment. We were aiming to overnight in Stoke Newington at some friends of my brother’s. They were great people down there but we didn’t realise at first that it was a bit of a hippy vegan commune. No worries, Jack and I get on wonderfully well with everyone. We went out on to The High Street to buy some last minute things and to eat out at a Turkish restaurant that had been recommended. We walked right past the restaurant by mistake, and kept on walking. We pretty much ended up in the next borough and, no word of a lie, I almost got the hunger knock. We had to dive into a pub for a pint and some snacks to give us the energy to make it the rest of the way back. It was like an urban survival task! We eventually had a great meal and went back to the commune. We should have had a good night’s sleep but our hosts were playing some loud rock music until probably around three or four in the morning It might not have been politically correct to have asked them to shut the f**k up so, needless to say, we weren’t exactly refreshed when we woke up.
We had breakfast back on Stoke Newington High Street and on the way passed a group of residential buildings called “Yorkshire Close”, kind of ironic and funny as we’d have to pedal around 180 miles before we got back to our home county of Yorkshire.
We headed up to the depart control at Loughton and got ourselves ready for our start. Although there were 1500 registered riders, we were set off in groups of about 40. All different nationalities, shapes, sizes and different styles of bikes. They’d been setting off from about six in the morning whilst our time slot was one in the afternoon. All too quickly we put the first pedal stroke down and began the adventure.
The first few miles were a bit hillier than I expected, but nothing too hard. Although there was a chance of showers, the sun was out and we had a following wind, perfect riding conditions. I think with the excitement of the event and the adrenaline that was clearly flowing, the group was perhaps going a bit too fast in the first 10 or 15 miles. At one point we all had to stop at a railway level crossing and that allowed me to get my breath back a bit.
I got talking to a rider called Juliette, on the flat we seemed about equal fitness, but every time we went uphill, she just rode away from me. I could blame the heavy saddlebag I had, or the fact that I was (probably) older so I made a note to self – don’t try to keep up with Juliette whilst we were on the front.
After a short while we caught the group who had set off 15 minutes before us. It comprised of about 35 Spanish riders, all wearing the same orange jerseys. We went straight past them but noticed after a few miles that they were sat on our wheels. Up the next climb (it was a bit hillier around here than I expected), quite a few of the Spanish lads came through to the front to secure the pace, whilst I found myself slipping down the bunch a bit. I’d then work my way up the group on the descents or flat only to go backwards again on the next climb. It was a reasonable early tactic for me as I didn’t have to go into the red anymore on the hills.
In some places we had a howling tailwind and, as some of the roads got bigger we were flying along at road race pace. It was fantastic.
We picked a rider up whose bike was a heavy looking vintage machine, no drop handlebars, 1930s style, very distinctive. He seemed pretty strong as he kept up with our fast moving group. However it turned out that his vintage brakes were pretty useless and on one occasion as the bunch slowed and swept round a right hand bend, rather than ramming into the back of the braking riders, he came flying up the outside on the wrong side of the road, and would surely have been killed if there’d been any oncoming traffic.
Our international peloton passed through some lovely villages in Essex. However that section was marred somewhat by a nob head “Essex boy” driver, who’d pulled across the road towards the bunch when we had priority, then wound his window down and started to hurl abuse at us. Then spat at us, his spittle just missing Juliette, who I was once again riding close to. He came round us once or twice more in the next few miles before he fucked off for good. As a Brit amongst the international bunch, I was a bit ashamed of his behaviour and hoped that no one would think it representative of the typical British driver.
Soon enough we reached the stunningly beautiful 15th century St Ives bridge, one of only 4 bridges in the UK that incorporates a chapel. This marked the end of our first official 100km leg and we soon found the “control”.
A word about the controls. Roughly every 100km/60 miles the organisers had hired a building, usually a school, where the riders could have a rest, sleep, eat, use the toilets, get a drink etc. Quite a few of the controls would also have volunteer mechanics. The “control” part, I assume, originates from the French long distance riders and basically means getting your individualised route card stamped to prove that you have passed through. In addition to the stamps, the organisers had a computerised system where the card got scanned on arrival and departure. This information was made available to any loved ones or followers so that they could monitor your progress as the ride progressed.
We quickly found a table, got some food and drink and reflected on the leg we’d just completed. The weather was still good and I hoped that we might hook up again with the Spaniards when we left the control. It was on this next bit that we had our first incident. One moment we were riding along, the next Jack had hit the deck and landed pretty hard. Two other guys stopped to help, one wearing a San Fairy Ann CC jersey. Within a moment Jack had picked himself up and got to the side of the road. One of the guys produced some Savlon anti-septic cream and Jack took care of his grazes. We talked about it later, and what happened was that I was riding on the outside, and as I swung out to originally overtake the two guys, Jack lost concentration swung out too early and clipped his handlebars on my saddlebag. Thud! Jack’s a fairly muscular guy, despite the grazes to his right thigh and shoulder, and slamming into the ground hard, he seemed to be OK. We didn’t know it then but the crash would have repercussions several days later.
The Romanian Circus & Tailwind Charlies
We ended up in a group of six or eight, two or three of whom wore Romanian jerseys. They were very strong and fast, a man and woman on the front of our little group were tanking along at 35kph, we still had that lovely tailwind but there was no way I’d be able to maintain the same speed when it came to my turn on the front. Despite their strength, the Romanian duo had a great circus act each time we approached a junction. One of them wanted to go left whilst the other wanted to go right. This invariably meant that they ended up bumping into each other whilst still moving. After this happened two or three times, thankfully without any crashes, they eventually dropped to the back of the group. To be fair, they’d been brilliant pacemakers once they’d decided which way to go!
Quite a lot of this stretch was pretty boring flatlands, the Fens, interspersed with the occasional village. One of more interesting villages was Crowland where they have the unique 14th Century Trinity Bridge. It was originally built to cross the River Welland and one of its tributaries. The bridge has three separate stairways that converge on the top and is now a listed monument. We cycled right past it as it no longer crosses any waterways.
After Crowland we seemed to get into some slightly wilder country with cattle and horses grazing between the road and the River Welland on our right. The river has been worked on over the years and has manmade banking that is elevated above the surrounding land to protect against flood damage. It had been used in the past as a canal for haulage by barges and many miles were dead straight, meaning that we had many miles of arrow straight roads too. The light around here seemed somehow different from what I’m used to further north. Still sunny, just different. We followed the river basically all the way to the next control at Spalding.
I mentioned earlier about the route cards being checked by the volunteers. On these rides there is a certain minimum and maximum speed at which one can ride. The idea I think is that the ride has to be completed fast enough that it’s a challenge, but not so fast that it becomes a race. Also not so slow that it becomes open ended and volunteers never get to go home! The card is pre-printed with each rider’s individualised earliest and latest clock time they can arrive at each control, calculated according to their start time.
We had 117 hours to complete the total distance which I reckoned was roughly four and three quarter days. At St Ives Jack and I were only 15 minutes behind the fastest allowed time, and by Spalding after 100 miles only 53 minutes down, despite stopping for Jack’s crash. We got to Spalding at 7.15pm, the slowest time allowance was to get there at 02.04am so we were building a very nice buffer already. The organisers had advised everyone in advance that if a rider was to fall a bit behind their slowest allowed time, they would still be able to progress and, if they clawed enough time back before London, their ride would be successful provided they finished within the 117 hours. Jack and I had planned to do the ride in 100 hours so that time limit nonsense wasn’t going to apply to us.
We’d pre-booked a bed and breakfast at Louth as Jack reckoned we’d get a much better night’s sleep, compared to sleeping on a blow up mattress in a school hall with hundreds of other tired cyclists. It seemed that quite a large proportion of the 1500 riders had the same idea to sleep at Louth that same night, the place was absolutely packed. We queued for quite a long time to get a meal and eventually found a table we could share with some others.
End of day 1 stats – 244km/152 miles ridden in 10h:23 mins including all stops
Languages from around the world were spoken in the dining hall, there were guys flaked out on the floor, blokes with food trays having to step over them. Elsewhere some of the Eastern/Asian riders chose to sit on the floor, cross legged in a circle to eat their meal. We chatted to a veteran Belgian guy on our table who told us that when he rode the classic Paris – Brest – Paris Audax two years previously, he’d got through the whole 1200km with only 1 x 1 hour and 3 x 45 minute sleeps. I was somewhat incredulous and dumbfounded by this, I’m the kind of guy who needs his sleep.
It’s up to each individual rider, or group of friends if they are riding together, to work out their own strategy in terms of pacing, sleeping etc across the duration of the ride. Some guys were planning to ride through the first night and build up a buffer of time, some planned to ride through multiple nights. Some guys wanted to finish in 65 hours! To my mind these guys are total nut cases. Okay, I admit that we are all, at some level, crazy to undertake such a long cycling challenge in the first place, but choosing to ride through the night, well, I’ll leave that to the extremists.
Anyway, we had a great night’s kip and a nice breakfast at the B&B (Travellers Rest, highly recommended). There was just one problem though, whilst we slept, we weren’t riding, and that nice buffer we’d accumulated was pretty much wiped out! We went back to Louth control to hand in our drop bags and officially check out before we hit the road. Our destination that night was Barnard Castle
The Barton Belle
I think we left around 09.30 which was much later than most other folks. Once again the weather Gods were with us, sunny with another nice following wind. This section of the ride up to the Humber Bridge was across the Lincolnshire Wolds. This is a fairly hilly area, though none of the climbs felt very hard, it was easy to keep the power on and roll over most of them. A very rural and agricultural area, some random farms, tall hedges, forests and very sparsely populated. After a number of miles, I recognised a rider coming the other way, it was my brother Chris. He’d ridden out from his home in Hull to meet us and to ride back with us part way north. He knew the way like the back of his hand, though to be fair, there weren’t many changes of direction. The riding was great, a bit of banter and the miles flew by. We got to Barton, rolled around a corner and who should we see but my brother’s girlfriend. She lives there and had just popped out to the shops. The timing was perfect. We had a natter for ten minutes or so then hit the road again.
Although it’s quite a landmark and now a listed structure, I can remember as a kid, the financing for the construction was a really contentious issue. It seemed that the bill would have to be footed by the local residents and it created a shit-storm of a protest back in the 1970s. To cycle over it was almost equally shit. Although there’s a separate cyclepath/walkway, as you approach it, you still seem to have huge wagons thundering towards you at 60mph, one fuck up by the driver and you’ll be killed. It was also pretty windy up there and you had to negotiate your way around pedestrians out for a stroll, who seemed oblivious to the fact that one wrong move, and the wrong wind direction, could leave you free falling into the river Humber whilst still clipped into your bike.
I’ve cycled the Severn, Forth and now the Humber Bridge. They are all an evil necessity as far as I’m concerned.
Yorkshire at last!
Once north of the Humber, my brother led us expertly through the off road bits and through the lanes to the west of Hull. I think he turned back for home around North Newbald. I swapped my LEL souvenir water bottle for one of his. I don’t know if I’d got a dud LEL bottle but each time I tried to drink from it, more liquid ended up on my shirt and shorts than went in my mouth! Another hour or so saw us up through Market Weighton and to the day’s first stop at Pocklington.
I got chatting to one of the helpers at Pocklington and it turned out that she was the daughter of the founder of the LEL event, who had sadly passed away a few years ago. Apparently he wanted to design an event that would start to rival the more famous and long established Paris – Brest – Paris. I’m sure that he’d be very proud if he was still alive to see how popular his event had become, with 1500 riders from scores of different countries.
We had a decent meal at Pocklington and hit the road again in the early afternoon. We’d ridden some of the next section to Thirsk a couple of months prior in the 3 Coasts 600km. It was a pretty hilly section that went past Castle Howard and the Howardian Hills. It’s extremely scenic around here but pretty tough going. We got past the worst of the hills and dropped into a none compulsory control at Coxwold village for some coffee and cake. There was another tough pull out of Coxwold and after a few more lumpy miles we could see White Horse Bank to our right.
By the time we reached Thirsk at 5pm we’d done about 160km/100miles but still had another 150km to go. It was going to be a late night. Despite trying as hard as I could, I always seemed to take longer at the controls than Jack. I didn’t think I was faffing too much, but I must have been. I’ll admit that I’m a slow eater so that didn’t help, but there wasn’t a single time at one of the controls where I was faster than him at getting turned around.
Although Yorkshire is my county, and LEL would spend 23% of the entire route in it, I didn’t know these parts very well, they’re just too far away from my home to do in a normal day ride. The route to Barnard Castle was fairly flat and we had reasonable early evening conditions, fairly mild, just a couple of light showers here and there. We rode the 65km fairly well, dodging round a few riders who’d stopped on the very picturesque Whorlton wooden suspension bridge, to take pictures, and rolled up to the School control. This was certainly the most historic looking building of all the controls we had on the route. Built out of local stone block and opened in 1886, it’s a magnificent structure. The dining hall is most impressive with wooden plaques commemorating some of the sporting achievements of the pupils.
Jack and I got our meals very quickly and sat down to eat. After a few minutes I heard some of the Italian riders talking
“…..hey Luigi….”. I stood up and asked
Luigi was a guy I’d contacted prior to the event via the LEL facebook page, after complimenting him on the bike he was planning to ride. We’d made no arrangement to meet, other than that we might see each other on the road, so to meet him in person in the dining hall was a lovely coincidence. We chatted for a few minutes about the ride and then he took me outside to show me his bike, a most beautiful, hand built to his own specifications, Gios Torino. I reckon it was one of the finest bikes on LEL.
Luigi was riding with a group of about 6 or seven riders, all wearing identical yellow Team Ferrari kit. Their plan that night was to stay at a hotel at Middleton in Teesdale I think. If so, they didn’t have too far to go.
Midnight on the Moors
Eventually Jack and I had to push on, so we set out into the late evening with 84km to go to Brampton. It was a lot cooler by now so I’d put my longs on and dressed a bit warmer. It was only 17km to Middleton in Teesdale but it was fairly hard going up a long climb with only a very short headwind descent. Along this stretch it got too dark so we put our lights on. The next obstacle was Yad Moss, a long climb that would take us over to Cumbria. I’d looked at this climb a bit in my research prior to the event and concluded that it wasn’t too steep and should be a pissball to climb. What I hadn’t reckoned on was the cumulative effect of fatigue over the previous 2 days and 480km/300miles. Before we started the long haul up the hill we put on even more clothing as it was really cold now. There was a very strong wind whipping across from the left. Fortunately the climb was fairly constant in terms of direction and gradient, so the wind wasn’t too much of a hindrance, it was just bloody cold. All we could do was to grind out the miles nice and steadily. There was a fabulous view of the night sky, no light pollution out here and one could see thousands of stars. At one point Jack said I should look behind me back down the hill. I didn’t know what he was talking about, and only caught a glimpse of a string of white bicycle lights following us in the plodding distance.
Eventually we got to the top and I told Jack to go on whilst I had a pee stop. The descent to Alston was on a fairly wide road with a good surface and not too many bends to worry about, even if it was pitch black. The main danger was if any sheep was to rush out, fortunately none did. The Hope front light Jack had lent me before the ride was super and lit the way very well.
A bit of a mix up in Alston. I overshot the optional control and didn’t know whether Jack had stopped there or not. I eventually got him on the phone and retraced to the control, checked in, we drank coffee and had a quick snack.
Brampton Burn up
The final bit to Brampton was another 30km away. By the time we left Alston it was nearly 1am but Jack was in full racing mode. We probably had the benefit of a slight tailwind but, either way, Jack was smashing down the road at top pace, with me tucked on his wheel. I did a couple of turns and it was great fun doing a two up time trial in the dark in the middle of nowhere. We quickly sped into Brampton where we found the school and checked in at 01.50am to collect our drop bags.
We’d booked B&B at Brampton too, the Blacksmith’s Arms, however it was a couple of miles out of town and those couple of miles turned out to be all uphill, a final sting in the tail after our long day on the road. I hate these “bonus” climbs! I’d let the proprietor know much earlier on that we’d be late, but we accessed our room with no problems. It must have been about 02.30 by the time we got bedded down, much later than we’d expected.
Stats for the day – Distance 312km/195 miles approx 17 hours including stops.
On the road to Edinburgh
By the time we’d had a hearty breakfast and went back to the control, we didn’t officially start from Brampton until ten to ten. The official limit was ten past ten, so we were only just ahead of the maximum time limit. This was going to be another big day of over 300km and we really should have set off a bit earlier. Having said that though, I think we needed the sleep and neither of us was panicking and were confident of our abilities, we knew we just had to ride. We’d already arranged to stay a second night at the B&B so we decided to leave our saddlebags there and travel much lighter.
The first leg to Moffat was fairly uneventful, conditions weren’t too bad. We hooked up with a long haired vegan rider, Rob for quite a few miles. He was pretty strong and we rode well together. Some super-fast geezer with stripy socks came flying past us, never one to miss a wheel, we jumped on the back, however after about a mile or so, by which time I was blowing out of the back of my neck, we decided to let him go, there was still an awful long way to go, and I didn’t want to totally blow up so early on. I can forgive the guy for being too strong for me, but those fucking horrible socks, no way!
We crossed the border into Scotland at Gretna Green but I couldn’t be arsed stopping to take the “compulsory” photo of the Welcome to Scotland sign. Shortly after, some young kids at the side of the road “high fived” us, it was great fun. I can imagine that they would usually be bored silly, there seemed to be very little for them to do in some of these small border towns.
Much of our route on this leg ran parallel to the main M74 motorway, our road wasn’t very pretty, but at least it was flat. We picked up a stocky Greek rider whose name I can’t remember properly, however one of his nicknames was Morris. He was a doctor. We had a good chat and rode together. We’d see each other quite a few times over the next days.
The road surface around here was shocking, I’ve read elsewhere since the ride, that some of the Indian lads reckoned it was worse than their roads at home! It was kind of slow going, not so much headwind but just a lot of drag. We saw quite a lot of riders, mostly in ones and twos, heading south and gave them a wave. It was only after the first few that I realised these were also LEL riders who’d already been to Edinburgh and were on their way South again. They were somewhere around 250km ahead of us on the road. Some had started around 05:00 the day we left from London so I reckoned we weren’t doing too badly.
We next passed through Lockerbie, a town that few people would have heard of until the night of 21st December 1988. A town now known for the tragedy and horror that visited it. The bombing of Pan Am flight 103 killed all 259 people on board and 11 more on the ground. I was silent as I rode through this place that will be forever scarred with memories and nightmares.
Jack had been craving a proper pork pie since we’d left London. We stopped in the small but busy town centre to ask some locals if they knew where the nearest butchers shop was. They were interested in what we were doing and how many people were doing the ride. We chatted for a few minutes then headed to the other side of the square. Jack got his pork pie and bought me something too. The butchers was quite near the school and we had a nice lunch. A modern school, as many of the others had been, with a great bright layout to the dining room. We stayed about 40 minutes then hit the road again. Our next stop would be Edinburgh.
Almost immediately out of town and the road started climbing. The sun shone even warmer and I was starting to cook. I pulled over at a layby and started to strip off my overshoes, arm warmers and legwarmers. I told Jack that I’d catch him up. This was a long steady, 10km climb known as the Devil’s Beeftub. Halfway up the climb I caught up with a few of the riders from India. One of them was the legend that is Mohan – he rides a lot of these long distance Audax rides around the world, but he does so on a fairly old mountain bike wearing normal clothes and trainers. Jeez, it’s hard enough on a road bike. He normally completes the rides in time. I can only assume he gets very little, if any, sleep, to make the time cut. I rode with one of his mates, Satish, for a few kilometres and we had a good chat about the Audax scene in India, how quiet these roads were etc.
Climb done, we had some pretty fast, and gentle downhill roads towards Edinburgh. The views to our right were of the wonderfully coloured hills that climbed away from the River Tweed that we more or less ran parallel to. Jack said that he wanted to keep the pace steady and enjoy this stretch. His knee was hurting him and he said that he was losing strength in one of his hands, otherwise everything was good. We stopped several times before Edinburgh to either put on some waterproof clothing, or to remove it, depending on what mood the rain clouds were in. Jack also had a puncture along a bleak stretch of road. Luckily it was near a concrete bus shelter so we dragged the bikes into it whilst he swapped his inner tube.
Quite a few people had told me in the run up to the event that my body would “adapt” after a few days of riding. I was somewhat doubtful about this as I’m sure there was only one direction it would go, and that would be to deteriorate. However despite the fact that we’d done over 650km/400miles in the last few days, I admit to feeling that somehow my legs were on autopilot. It was a pretty good feeling.
Soon enough we approached the outskirts of Edinburgh and passed through Roslin. This is where the Rosslyn Chapel, of author Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code fame, is located. Don’t ask me why the chapel is spelt differently from the district, I’ve no idea.
Another rainstorm and we hit town. My bottom bracket started making some groaning noises, but it was in much better shape than the unfortunate overseas rider who’d hit a bollard at the entrance to a bike path and was laid on the floor with a broken shoulder. Fortunately he was being assisted by some volunteers and emergency help was on its way.
Another kilometre and a bit more rain later and we reached Gracemount School, the Edinburgh Control at around 6pm, having covered 710km to this point, the route home would be slightly longer but we were four hours up on the maximum allowed time so we weren’t worried. I had a chat with the volunteer mechanic about my bottom bracket and he said to leave it with him whilst we got a drink and meal. We ate a good meal and were ready to hit the road within the hour. The mechanic had found the problem, which was a worn bearing seal, had packed it with grease, and said that it should be ok. Even if it started making a noise again it shouldn’t fail for a long time.
With this long distance ride, I’d started to tune my brain into thinking that there was no proper rest until we got to each evening’s respective B&B, simply that I had to keep riding until I got there. This sounds an obvious tactic perhaps, but it was the best way to keep concentrated throughout the long days and evenings. The downside was that I didn’t pay too much attention to the clock time during the day whilst we were riding, and never even looked at the original schedule that we’d planned in advance. Had I done so, I’d have seen that we still had nearly one hundred miles to ride and it was already seven in the evening. I knew it would be pretty late when we’d get back to Brampton………….