887 miles in under 5 days
One dark winter’s night the idea was hatched. I think a pint or two may have been involved. I said I wanted to ride the National Audax UK 400 at Tiverton and before we knew it five of us had signed up for the longest audax event there is, the London-Edinburgh-London, the LEL. Were we mad?? 1420km (or 887 miles, and just a bit further than Lands End – John O’Groats) in less than five days. We were mad! But it turned out that 1100 others were heading for the asylum too.
The LEL website information looked impressive. Controls would be in schools, rather than village halls, there would be 250 beds in most controls, professional caterers, bike mechanics, medical staff, two bag drops, and start times to choose from, including a prologue from Buckingham Palace to the start at Loughton on the edge of London. How could anyone not go on a 5 day organised cycling trip with food, full board and lodging for a mere £219, the entry fee? But it was a huge unknown for all of us. We needed to ride 200 miles and have enough time left over to sleep and feed in each 24 hour period.
Regular rides every Sunday with the Falmouth Wheelers, a tour with them in Ireland and some 200s, a hilly 300 and the National 400, built our confidence quietly but steadily. Robin and Martyn went further and completed a 600. The start date crept up on us faster and faster. Equipment and new ideas were tried, tested, abandoned and rethought as we focused in on July 28th. Martyn was riding with the “Moultoneers” and had an early start time. Robin, ‘Helston’ Trevor and myself opted for a 9.45am start, the theory being that it gave us a full night’s sleep and time for a hearty breakfast before our ordeal began. Our plan was to stay together for at least the first day and get 4 hours sleep each night.
We registered the day before the start at the HQ in Loughton, collected our new LEL tops/gilet, deposited our two bags for the bag drops, and attached our frame numbers with our names on to our bikes. The atmosphere was relaxed but efficient. We quickly found that the volunteers running the event were friendly, knew what they were doing and were more than willing to sort out any problems. There were riders from 35 countries. We saw jerseys from Ekaterinberg in Russia, Finland, Japan, Italy, France, Denmark, Australia, Greece to name but a few. We met some Indians from Pune. We warned them about British potholes. “In India we have missing manhole covers!” they replied. We met Giovanni and Guiseppe from Milan who needed directions to a bike shop to get a repair. And we met two Audax UK riders, John Barkman and Simon Gent, starting in the “fast” group who planned to ride to Thirsk (250 miles) before stopping to sleep.
Sunday 28th July. London. 09:45. The three Wheelers in their club jerseys were ready for the off. There were some intriguing machines on display – trikes, a handful of HPVs [Human Powered Vehicles], recumbents of all shapes and sizes, a trike luggage trolley, a 1920s French upright and three “Elliptigos”, a sort of cross trainer with handle bars, small wheels and gears. This event took all sorts!
Ian Hennessey, AUK chairman, set us off with the forecast of a tail wind but rain possible later. It was already getting hot. The pace was steady as we made our way through the Essex and Hertfordshire lanes and on into the open prairie land of Cambridgeshire. We tangled briefly with hordes of other riders doing the London-Cambridge. Otherwise there was little traffic. The tail wind was strong and staying in a bunch helped us keep up a good pace as we began to pass earlier starters. Half the field seemed to be from overseas as we tried to bid them well with a “bonjour” or a “kali mera”. We passed through our first two controls at 60 and 110 miles and after crossing some beautiful parts of the Fens we reached Market Rasen (155 miles) in 10½ hours. It was a beautiful sunny evening and we were feeling good, so much so that a celebratory pint was called for in the last village before the control. The sprint for the village sign went to a photo, but no hostelry appeared. So we made up for it in Market Rasen. Quite a few other riders had the same idea!
After an excellent bit of refuelling Robin and I elected to take 4 hours sleep while Trevor, still raring to go, pushed on. Arrangements at all the controls had so far been excellent. There were no queues, except once when the volunteers stepped in to ply those waiting with drinks. It was this cheerful willingness of all the LEL volunteers we met that continued throughout the event and which made it a resounding success. Nothing seemed too much trouble and delays were avoided, something which can mar big events and cause the riders a lot of stress.
There is nothing like sleep on a long audax event. Zonk! You are out cold until that nice girl volunteer gently rouses you from the sleep of the dead saying “it’s 2 o’clock”. After more food and coffee Robin and I set off into the darkness at 3 am and found to our surprise we were climbing. This must be the Wolds. It was a delightful ride. Then in the far distance we saw the lights of the Humber Bridge, our next major landmark as we headed north. It was soon light as we crossed the Humber and met up with Trevor at Pocklington (208 miles). On we went past Castle Howard and more hills with some tricky descents. The groups were thinning out now but there were always riders in sight and morale was lifted as we continued to pass more and more early starters. Apart from having to stop at each control to get our cards stamped, a full refuel was always needed, and for some a further pint of the amber nectar!
Everything was going well so far and I was looking forward to reaching Barnards Castle where the scenery would get really interesting and the route sheet much easier to follow. But first I had to endure the almost obligatory incident on any bike ride, the tangle with the bad driver. Briefly, a lorry driver in a hurry, annoyed at being held up on a minor road by cyclists, overtook and cut back in with his trailer, forcing me and another rider behind me onto the verge. Waving fists and a chase persuaded him to stop and the predictable exchange took place, which included the old chestnut about “you don’t pay any road tax”. I was going to ask him if he bothered to pay any tax at all but the grunt drove off in a huff.
All was soon forgotten as the beautiful scenery of Teesdale opened up ahead and the first of the big climbs, Yad Moss loomed. Trevor stopped to try and get a brace for his painful neck which was beginning to cause him some considerable pain. A massage at the last control had eased it a bit but they recommended a brace. No luck. Painkillers would have to do. Robin pushed on to secure us beds at the Brampton control, and perhaps give himself some “rehydration” time, as we struggled into a strong headwind on the climb. A heavy shower made it colder as we climbed to the unmarked summit at 1973ft. Was this an ominous turn in the weather? A few riders seemed very lightly equipped for bad weather or night riding.
Over the top of the Pennines and it was a long, fast descent to Alston, the highest town in England with its picturesque cobbled High Street. Trevor was struggling with the pain and several times had to stop as we made our way down the valley of the South Tyne to Brampton. Robin was waiting for us having enjoyed his“rehydration”. Things were at a low point for Trevor and we would have to see how he was after a sleep. I took 3 hours and set off before the others at 3am. Edinburgh was well within striking distance and the next stage to Moffat (388 miles) seemed surprisingly fast and pretty flat although the road was gently climbing all the time from the border. There was a lot of standing water on the road so I was glad to miss that earlier rain. At Moffat the sun came out as I climbed the next big climb, the Devil’s Beeftub (1343ft), a nice steady Alpine type ascent. Here I passed and had a chat with two of the riders using Elliptigos, which one claimed was 50% harder to ride than a solo bike. I am not surprised. They weighed 40lbs!
A fast descent despite some awful rough surfaces fairly soon saw me arriving in Edinburgh half an hour ahead of my schedule after 50 hours on the road. Clare was there waiting to stamp my card as I asked if it was ok to give the controller a sweaty kiss! Luckily it was! My Scots friend and his wife were there to greet me too and maybe to check if I looked able to survive the return trip before I embarked on my next adventure with him in the Alps in two weeks time. Trevor and Robin arrived shortly after, Trevor looking much better but Robin cursing the loss of his camera. Several riders had abandoned after a chilling night in the rain.
We were halfway – almost (439 miles). It was time to bid farewell and head south, but not before we had a pint on our club chairman. This we did, taking in tow a girl from Singapore, Siew Yee, who was anxious about the time limit and struggling to cope with lack of sleep and the food available at the controls. She soon proved she was going to be able to finish and she stayed with us as we climbed a long way from almost sea level back into the Moorfoot Hills. At this point our style must have looked pretty impressive because a camera car slotted in in front of us and started filming. Did any of us think – wow! Hollywood here I come! Yes! Was there just a bit of vying for the front position by any chance? After having seen enough the camera car moved away but we did get a further screen test next morning, and had made sure the jerseys were clean and the teeth sparkled.
Traquair was our next control in the beautiful border country where cream teas awaited us and a free, wee dram of whisky at the village hall. One might have expected the cricket team to appear next, such was the warm, relaxed atmosphere of the afternoon scene. But by the time we had done a further 30 miles to the next control at Eskdalemuir the heavens opened and we were all sheltering in the hall, taking on hot soup to warm ourselves up. Autumn had arrived it seemed. Was it all downhill to the border, I asked. Oh yes, I was promised. Well it certainly was not! We agreed that Robin and Trevor would press on to Brampton and reserve us beds and I would keep Siew Yee company. Night fell and as we took the long flat road from Longtown towards Brampton we saw car lights stopped ahead which then moved off. As we passed the spot I had a momentary glimpse of a naked woman standing waiting on the verge. Strange….I asked Siew Yee what did she think she had seen. “I don’t want to look back. I’m sure I will see a ghost!” she replied. I knew it was too early in the night to be hallucinating. Strange indeed….I decided not to start trying to explain to my companion what strange customs might or might not be being observed. We reached Brampton at 11pm after our day trip to Scotland of 190 miles. We met up with Robin and all decided on 3 hours sleep.
We were off again at 4am with two days remaining and just over 350 miles to go. The sun was not long in joining us as we climbed the cobbles out of Alston and on up over Yad Moss. Siew Yee was feeling the cold despite wearing everything she had available and at Middleton-in-Teesdale we warmed her up with hot coffee and a bowl of soup. Her clubmate from Singapore arrived, Lawrence Loh, and handed out his card which described him as “cycling the world”. He was a bit of a racer back home and this was confirmed when we named him Mark Cavendish from the size of his thighs. Much humour!
One by one the controls went by, as the routine of stamping the card, grabbing a large plate of food, drinking lots and getting a quick shower became established. It was vital to stay focused and not glaze over and doze off at the table. The hills around Castle Howard seemed to have increased in size to 1 in 6 and the rain came down. We got to Pocklington and decided to snatch an hour’s proper sleep before pressing on in the dark to Market Rasen. I was not looking forward to this. Trying to follow a detailed route sheet with a headlamp through the unknown lanes of Yorkshire is not easy and a single mistake could lead us anywhere. So we reached the Humber Bridge with some relief and by 4am we got to Market Rasen with much relief. Time was getting a bit tight for Siew Yee. We took another 2 hours sleep and briefly saw Robin who was setting off. After some breakfast we followed. We had 155 miles to the finish and 24 hours left to do it in.
The last day was unbearably hot, over 30 degrees they said, and we had a strong head wind. As we rode across the wide open Fens, Siew Yee and I started to pick up riders struggling along alone, often in too high a gear. As we passed them they were invited to join in behind us as our chain gang began to grow. We relayed to take turns at the front. Siew Yee asked me if we were going to pick up the whole world. Other groups were doing the same. One rider came alongside and asked what he had to do to join us. Had he paid his subscription, I asked. We laughed. This was fun even with the heat and the wind. Eventually at 5.30pm we reached the last but one control at St Ives (812 miles). Just 75 miles to go and 13 hours to do it but we soon discovered others in our group had to finish sooner than this. What was increasingly occupying me was the pain in my backside after so long in the saddle. Every 5 minutes I needed to get out of the saddle. It was beginning to annoy me.
So off we set again but mentally struggling to focus now that the end was in sight. Lots of riders were pausing at the roadside. An American on the verge stopped us and demanded a tyre lever. We obliged but I again found myself getting annoyed with his chatter about not seeing a single Macdonald’s or Starbuck’s. Had they gone bust, I suggested wearily. The evening was still hot and after dark there was no need for any arm or leg warmers. The route somehow found the hilliest parts of Cambridgeshire and Essex for us as well as some of the most potholed lanes. It seemed an age before we finally made the last control at Great Easton at midnight. Tempting and necessary though it was to snatch another hour’s sleep we decided to bash on and just finish as soon as we could. Time was still short for some of the group.
Just 28 miles to go and all arrowed by the LEL team to help us. I was convinced that we kept going under railway arches and my eyelids kept dropping. I was beginning to hallucinate. Eventually I had to stop and someone offered me caffeine tablets. Within a minute I was fully awake and on the go again. At long last we crossed the M25 and rode into the school grounds at Loughton. Someone stamped my card and someone put a medal round my neck and gave me a blanket, which I took outside and immediately fell asleep on a bench, till I was woken up 2 hours later by a very wide awake Trevor. We had all made it, he told me.
I had finished with 2½ hours to spare, in a similar time to Martyn, and Siew Yee with one hour in hand. Robin had finished with 8½ hours to spare and Trevor with 8 hours. Of just over 1000 who started about 800 finished within the time limit.
What a ride. What an experience. Better than the PBP [Paris-Brest-Paris 1200km] 25 years ago? Yes, I think it was. This time we had ridden to a plan, and it had worked pretty well. We had gone out to enjoy it if we could and we had. It is something I think we shall all remember for a very long time. Age has little to do with being able to do it. Would I do it again? That would be asking a question too many.