Paris Brest Paris

This is not the post I was going to write about Paris-Brest-Paris. The post that I composed in my head, sometime around midnight on Monday 19th August, went something like this:

So, I failed at Paris-Brest-Paris. And honestly, I’m not sure whether I care. I’m not sure quite why I was riding it in the first place, or why I attempt to ride any really big rides. Or why anyone does. Is it just so we have bragging rights? So we can say, look at me, I can ride sooooo far? Is it to try and find our limits? I’m really not sure. Anyway, I wasn’t really fit enough for this ride and everything caught up with me and then I got sick and enough was enough. Really, my heart wasn’t really in it.

I don’t really know why that didn’t turn out to be the blog I wrote. But here’s the story of my Paris-Brest-Paris.

The road to Paris Brest Paris

The journey to Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP) necessarily starts many months before you actually ride it. Even if you are the kind of rider who is fit enough to just pitch up and ride 1200km in 90 hours (I’m not!) you’ll still have an extended preparation period, as you have to qualify for PBP by riding a series of  accredited 200km, 300km, 400km and 600km rides within a set time period in the first half of the year. So you could say that my journey to PBP started on 12th January, when I completed Mr Pickwick’s January Sale 200km – my first audax of 2019 and the first of my PBP qualification rides.

Mr Pickwicks

Wry smile and several layers on Mr Pickwick’s January Sale

Actually, my journey started before then. You can ‘pre-qualify’ for PBP by riding an accredited ride in the previous year. You still have to ride the whole series of qualifying brevets in the time-frame, but pre-qualification allows you to register in advance and guarantee your PBP place. This was important for 2019, as it was widely predicted that this was the first year where people who had not pre-qualified would likely not get a place. I rode the Bryan Chapman Memorial 600km in May last year so that was my pre-qualifying ride, which enabled me to register for PBP in early January, before I’d ridden any of this year’s rides.


Welsh sunshine on the Bryan Chapman Memorial 600 in 2018

But really my journey started back in the autumn of 2014, when I first started getting to know about audaxes and heard about Paris-Brest-Paris. At a time when my longest ride was about 200km (and it had been a big challenge to get round that), I was fascinated by the idea of such a giant ride and had no idea how one would undertake such a challenge.

In 2015 I rode my first 400km ride, which many fellow riders were using as a qualifier for PBP. I barely made it round the 400k in one piece but nonetheless I still definitely wanted to give the longer distance a go! And once I’d ridden London-Edinburgh-London in 2017 it seemed like Paris-Brest-Paris was the next big goal on the horizon.

So Paris-Brest-Paris was on my to-do list for a long time, and at the beginning of this year I duly lined up the rides I would use to qualify. A Facebook group which had been set up to encourage more women to ride PBP proved to be a great place to connect with others who were doing the same and to get motivation. I even got (much appreciated) support from Rawvelo, who provided me and two other female riders who were aspiring to ride PBP with some of their delicious energy bars and gels to fuel our qualification efforts.


Through the first half of this year I ramped up my mileage (although maybe not as much as I should have) and worked my way through my qualifying rides: the 300km Everybody Rides to Skeggy on 13th April was followed two weeks later by the 400km Moors and Wolds. At the beginning of June, I completed the 600km Windsor-Chester-Windsor – the final step on my journey to Paris Brest Paris. I was on my way to France. In the interim, I had rather rashly signed up for the very hilly Pure Peak Grit Challenge in July, lured in by the temptation of a big challenge just for women.


With Marcus at the end of Windsor Chester Windsor

Then my mum’s health took a turn for the worse. She’d been fighting cancer on and off for over two years and suddenly it was aggressively back. On Saturday 6th July she died.

A week later I tried to ride Pure Peak Grit and only made it about 120km before I felt I just couldn’t go on. Having ridden through the night, I bailed on the ride and returned to my car as dawn was breaking, exhausted, and spent most of the day asleep. If I couldn’t manage a night start on what was meant to be a 48 hour ride, I wasn’t sure how I would manage one on a 90 hour one.

Through the blur of grief and funeral arrangements I barely rode my bike for the rest of July, managing just one 200km ride. Suddenly PBP didn’t seem very important at all.

Getting there

Just as London Edinburgh London doesn’t really start in London, Paris Brest Paris doesn’t really start in Paris. For obvious reasons, the ride starts some way west of the city, in the small town of Rambouillet or more exactly in the Bergerie Nationale (the National Sheepfold, according to the PBP website) just outside the town centre. There are lots of ways to get to the start and I probably chose the most stressful, though it was quite cheap and relatively fast!

My start time for PBP was 18.45 on Sunday 18th August, but I had to attend bike check and registration the day before, on the Saturday. I was quite stressed about getting there in time for this. Having collected a large cardboard bike box from the local bike box, I boxed up Trixie the Tricross and flew with her to Charles De Gaulle airport on the morning of 17th, arriving around lunchtime.

I then got a coach to Gare Montparnasse, meeting a nice Croatian guy called Matija who was doing the same journey as me, en route. Once at Montparnasse we eventually found the right train for Rambouillet and boarded, along with our bike boxes and a lot of other cyclists. Fifteen minutes later, the train still hadn’t left the station and the police came along with large guns and made us all disembark whilst they inspected a suspicious package!


On the train before we got evacuated

We eventually were allowed back on and the train took us to Rambouillet, from where we found a bus to take us to the Bergerie. What we didn’t know was that it was a half a mile walk uphill on a muddy path from where the bus dropped us off to the registration place. Between us we dragged the two bike boxes up the path but it wasn’t the most fun and relaxing journey ever! I reassembled Trixie, left the bike box in the left luggage and got through bike check and registration.

I’d been unable to find a hotel in Rambouillet for the Saturday night, so was staying a few stops on the train back towards Paris. Having mislaid my phone for an anxious hour or so (eventually found it safely in my bag!) I then couldn’t find the hotel and spent a fair amount of time cycling around in increasingly torrential rain. It was gone 9pm before I found where I was staying and then there was nowhere but McDonald’s to eat nearby, so dinner was potato wedges. Not the best preparation for a big ride!

Setting off: Rambouillet to Villaines-la-Juhel

I woke up on the Sunday morning to see the trees outside my window angrily thrashing around under grey and rainy skies. I wasn’t due to start riding until early evening, so I sincerely hoped that the weather would improve (as it was forecast to do) before then.

Having spent several hours packing and repacking what I was carrying, attaching the numbers to my bike and looking again at route timings I made my way to Rambouillet late morning. Luckily the weather was brightening up by the time I left the hotel.


Cut off times and distances on my top tube


The WhatsApp group for women who were riding PBP was busy with last minute questions – someone had noticed that the times in our brevet cards did not actually correspond with our actual cut-off times, unless you happened to be in the very last group heading off. I had already calculated my cut-off times and stuck them on my top-tube but this did seem a bit confusing and unfair to riders who were relying on the brevet card to provide their timings.

I had a lazy day in Rambouillet, catching up with friends from previous audaxes and getting together with some of the other women riding PBP for a group photo outside the impressive chateau. Although apparently there were more women than in previous years, we were still massively outnumbered by men. I wasn’t surprised – this has been the case on every audax I’ve ever ridden. Particularly there didn’t seem to be many French women and, although the ride was very international, the majority of riders were French. I only met one female French rider through the whole event.

PBP women

Some of the 2019 PBP women

I was in start group L, due to set off at 18.45. About an hour before my start time I headed towards the start and found hundreds of cyclists, roughly arranged in their letter groups. I say roughly because every now and then a new cyclist would arrive and accidentally join the wrong group, then have to shove their way forward to the correct corral. I took the time to admire the different bikes on display around me, including one which had a clock built into the headset cap. Turns out headset cap envy is a thing!


Headset envy!

Eventually we were shepherded gradually towards the start line and then we were off, passing under an inflatable archway and over the first of many timing chip mats. Almost immediately the pace picked up as the stronger riders dashed off.


Waiting to start

The first few hours of PBP went by in a blur as I tried to stay with as fast a group as possible. There were several good pelotons working together which I benefitted from, even if the speed was a little too extreme for me – I was travelling at over 30kph for quite a long period, which is considerably faster than I usually ride. But I wanted to hang with the fast folks for as long as possible to build a time barrier – I always figure that riding fast at the beginning, as long as I’m not actually gasping for air, makes little difference to how tired I’m going to feel later on but does buy me an early time buffer.

Even at this early stage some riders seemed not very equipped for riding in groups. I was surprised to see riders on their own in the middle of the road, making it hard for anyone to overtake, and also riders not holding their line but weaving as they were being overtaken. Unfortunately this would just get considerably worse throughout the ride.

The first control wasn’t until Villaines-la-Juhel at the 217km point, though there was an optional stop at Mortagne-au-Perche after a little over 100km. As I’m vegetarian and dairy-free, I figured that food en route was likely to not be ideal for me (checking out the food options at the first control confirmed this) so I’d decided to use controls mostly just for sleeping and topping up water bottles and try to use supermarkets, cafes and the food I carried for fuelling. I didn’t stop at Mortagne but instead carried on towards Villaines.


By now it was the middle of the night, and I was amazed that there were still intermittently people out by the side of the road cheering us on. At a little before 3am I stopped to use the loo in a little town and was surprised as I came back out by a woman waiting for me, water bottle at the ready, asking, “L’eau?” I gratefully filled my water bottles and carried on.

The first few hours riding in fast groups had helped my overall time and I arrived in Villaines at around 4.30am, at least an hour earlier than I’d thought I’d get there.

The received wisdom is that on the initial section of PBP you should ride through the night and the subsequent day, only stopping to sleep on Monday night. But as I got off my bike to get the first stamp in my brevet card I realised I was already a little sleepy.

I find my body really struggles in the early morning if I ride through the night without stopping but if I can lie down just for a little while I can trick it that it’s had a night’s sleep. So, brevet card safely stamped, I headed towards the sleeping area and paid €3 for an hour and a bit lie-down. I asked for a wake-up call at 6am and was shown to a large room filled with very hard gym mats and dotted with a few snoring men. I wasn’t sure I’d sleep at all, but I wriggled into the silk sleeping bag liner I’d brought with me, draped the thin blanket they’d provided over the top and promptly drifted off.

Monday: Villaines-la-Juhel – Carhaix-Plouguer

I was suddenly wide awake at 5.55am, five minutes before my wake-up call was due. Stumbling outside I found it was still dark, but with the promise of dawn arriving soon. I decided I needed coffee and investigated what there may be on offer that I could eat – pretty much just French fries! So I had a quick and not entirely appetising breakfast of coffee, fries, bread, veggie slicing sausage and energy bar and then got back on the bike.


Rather beige breakfast

It was about 90 kilometres to the next control and I pretty much immediately realised three things:

  • When people had described the route of PBP as ‘mostly rolling, with just one major hill’ what they meant was that, apart from at the very beginning and end, I would always be riding either up or downhill, with very little flat in between
  • The wind was picking up and was blowing determinedly into my face
  • Nobody was being very friendly

Although I was feeling refreshed after my nap and somewhat ready for the day ahead, I was also feeling a little overwhelmed at the enormity of the task before me. I wanted to get as close as I could to Brest before I slept again, and I was hoping to build up a buffer in time so I could get at least three hours sleep on Monday night. I figured I could probably make it to Carhaix-Plouguer at 521km and sleep there, which meant riding a little over 300km. Suddenly that felt like an awfully long way.


Beautiful morning heading out of Villaines, and some decent road positioning (which was somewhat rare!)

I really wanted to find someone or a group of people to ride with and I was surrounded by other riders but it didn’t seem that anyone wanted to ride together. Every time I either went past someone or they came past me and I said ‘Bonjour’ or ‘hello’ there didn’t even seem to be a response, not even an acknowledgment I’d spoken most of the time. I’m not sure if this was due to language differences or everyone struggling a bit with the wind, but it was very strange and not something I’ve experienced on an audax before – even on London Edinburgh London. Meanwhile, the poor road etiquette of the night before seemed to be continuing, with many riders riding in the middle of the road and others undertaking them.


Every time I did manage to join a little group, the relentless rolling terrain and diagonal headwinds seemed to splinter it almost immediately. Also, most other riders seemed to be just stopping pedalling on the downhills, which I really don’t get when you can see the uphill coming. Since most of the other riders were male and heavier than me, they would sail past me as we started to go down, then stop pedalling and not start again until the gravity of the next uphill started to slow them. Since I was trying to build momentum to get up the uphills, this meant I had to get past them as we started to climb in order to keep moving forward. The combination of it all: relentless terrain, headwind and other riders who seemed to be a hindrance rather than a help, really started to get to me.

By the time I reached Fougères at 306km at a little before 10am I was hungry. I really wanted ‘real food’. A veggie fry-up would have been nice. But failing that I’d just take whatever was on offer.

They say never go shopping when you’re hungry. Well, I was pretty hungry and also sleep deprived when I spotted the large supermarket. I’m also never particularly good at shopping quickly. I spent the best part of twenty minutes wandering around the aisles trying to find food I could eat before emerging with bread, a litre of chocolate soya milk, a large carton of bulger wheat with edamame, almonds and raisins, aubergine spread and a box of Nature Valley bars. Rather an odd combination. I sat outside the supermarket and ate as much of it as I could before heading on to the control for my stamp.

In retrospect, drinking most of a litre of chocolate soya milk may not have been the best plan. Or perhaps it was the random assortment of food that I’d shovelled down. Or maybe it was the water I topped my bottles up with (I later found out that several people started to feel a little poorly after Fougères). Whatever it was, shortly after I got back on the road I started to get indigestion.

Monday dragged on. I was only a quarter of the way into the ride and things were hurting. The wind was still blowing. Other riders still seemed unfriendly. I don’t really remember riding with anyone, but I must have done at some point because I remember a conversation with someone where I was telling them how much harder than LEL I thought PBP was. I got to Tinténiac at about 2.15pm and, feeling like I didn’t have much time in hand, I almost immediately pushed on for the next control.

In retrospect, I can see that there were several things happening: going into London Edinburgh London I was nine weeks after a hysterectomy and cancer diagnosis. Nobody really expected me to be able to ride it, including myself. So the first couple of days, when I discovered I could ride and actually didn’t feel that bad, I was almost euphoric with the realisation. Going into PBP, everyone I knew seemed to expect me to just sail round. But I was really not sure I was fit enough, or even that I wanted to ride. Now that the route was harder than I’d expected and the wind was constantly in my face, the pain and lack of motivation were probably unsurprising.

Also, on LEL a combination of a tailwind heading north, a more generous time allowance for a longer ride and the fact that the cut-offs are spread evenly over the whole distance meant that I built up a large time buffer. At one point I think I had twelve hours in hand.

On PBP, the minimum average speed over the whole ride is 13.3kph – this of course includes all stoppages so your actual moving speed needs to be considerably quicker than that to build up time to eat and sleep. On LEL, because it’s a longer ride, the minimum average speed is 12kph. Also, on PBP they assume (probably rightly) that riders will be slower on the homewards leg and therefore weight the time allowance accordingly. What this means is that you have around 38 hours to get to Brest and about 42 to get back to Rambouillet. So it wasn’t really that surprising that I was reaching controls with less than five hours’ time in hand – but I felt like I wanted to be further ahead as I was thinking about sleep time that evening!


Impromptu roadside support from local people

The only thing lifting me was the support along the roads. Fairly regularly we were passing impromptu stands, with local people offering drinks, snacks and encouragement. At some of these you could take a slip of paper with the person’s name and address on it to subsequently send them a thank-you postcard. Many of the towns we rode through had decorations for Paris-Brest-Paris and the names of local riders who were taking part. It really did feel like a big event.


Cheer squad

More wind, more relentless ‘rolling’ (and very attractive) countryside, I eventually reached Loudeac at around 7.30pm. Getting off the bike to get my card stamped I realised I was once again very hungry. My stomach hadn’t felt quite right since just after Fougères and I’d subsequently not been eating that much. Once again there wasn’t really anything on offer at the control that I could eat so I decided to head out through the town.

It turns out there’s nothing much open in a small French town on a Monday evening. All the shops and supermarkets were firmly shuttered and several cafes that I passed were also closed. I was heading out of town, and beginning to wonder just what I would do about food, when I saw an open café. In my not-very-good French I managed to explain that I didn’t eat meat or dairy and ask if I could possibly have some pasta without either of these. Pasta with vegetables duly arrived and was wolfed down, along with an alcohol-free beer.

It was whilst waiting for the food that I realised that, in amongst the wind, there had actually also been quite a lot of sun and that my legs had definitely caught it. In fact, I suddenly felt like I’d maybe had a bit too much sun in general.


Oops, that’ll be sunburn

Heading out from Loudeac with a full belly I should have felt good. And I did feel better…for about ten minutes. Then the churning returned in my stomach. I rode on. Drank more water. Rode on. The route suddenly seemed even more spiky than it had before (this wasn’t just an illusion, I realised on the way back that the section between Loudeac and Carhaix-Plouguer is full of short, sharp ascents and descents).

It started to get dark. I thought about how pointless this whole thing was. What was I trying to prove? To whom? I needed a wee, but there was nowhere to go which was out of view. I felt silent hatred for the many male riders I’d seen all day who would just stop and urinate by the side of the road in full view, a couple without even properly getting off their bike. There were still many riders around me, but I felt very alone.

Eventually, a little before 11pm, I made it to St Nicolas du Pelem, which was meant to be just an optional sleep and refreshment stop but which was actually also a secret control. I was tired and thought about sleeping there instead of at Carhaix, but I told myself I would have to get up and get riding again when it was still the middle of the night and would also be letting myself in for a bigger day on Tuesday.

It was a little after St Nicolas that I started to feel the fatigue. I wasn’t really that far from Carhaix, and I was trying to tell myself that, but it felt harder and harder to turn the pedals. It wasn’t that I was super sleepy, more just that I felt bone tired. My stomach continued to churn. I kept sipping water and electrolyte drink, alternating the two bottles. Coffee. I just really needed a coffee to get me through the next few kilometres. I knew it was stupid to allow myself to obsess over how much I needed a coffee when it was 11.30pm in the middle of nowhere in France but I couldn’t get my mind off how much I wanted one.

Maybe I had a guardian angel at that point, because I rounded a corner and was met with a house illuminated by disco lights. Outside, a small bunch of people were sat behind a table with what looked suspiciously like a flask of coffee. “Café? L’eau?” the guy shouted as I approached. I stopped and tried to express in my broken French just how grateful I was for this provision. I’m not sure I quite managed but hopefully they got the gist!

I had a bounce in my pedal for a couple of kilometres after the coffee stop, but it was short-lived. I was close to Carhaix…close to being able to sleep…but then the stomach churning got more insistent and then I was stopped by the side of the road, leaning over my handlebars to vomit copiously on a grass verge. I finished throwing up all of the pasta I’d eaten a few hours before and took a sip of water. Mistake. Gagged again. It seemed that all I could do was keep pedalling and get to Carhaix.

It was getting on for 1am by the time I dragged myself into Carhaix-Plouguer and all I wanted was a bed. Or whatever type of mat they had that would pass for one. Just somewhere to lie down for a couple of hours with a blanket over me. It was not to be.

My request for the sleeping quarters was met with the news that they were full. One of the volunteers offered to show me where I could sleep on the floor. Heart sinking, I followed her, to find a hallway chock-a-block with bodies. There was just one small space so I got my sleeping liner and lay down…only to be moved on by a guy who’d apparently already bagged that space and had returned with his sleep sack.

By this point I was pretty much in tears. I was exhausted and felt like I might throw up again at any moment. It was cold outside, definitely too cold to try sleeping out without a bivvy bag, and there was no way I could make it another 90km to Brest without sleeping. By this point I was pretty sure I was going to bail on the ride anyway, there seemed no way I was going to finish it and little reason to try, but even if I bailed there and then the most important thing I needed was to lie down!

Luckily some Scandinavian guys found me trying to express this desperate need to one of the volunteers and took pity on me, showing me to a disused canteen they’d found where there was a least a little floor space to lie on. The floor was hard, and cold, but at least I was horizontal.

Tuesday: Carhaix-Plouguer – Tinténiac

I know I did sleep, a bit, at Carhaix but it really didn’t feel like I had. I was awake before my alarm was due to go off and it felt like I spent the whole of the previous two hours shivering uncontrollably, trying not to throw up and thinking about how much I did not want to be here. I made my way to the toilets and brushed my teeth – even that made me gag.

Sometimes you don’t look as bad as you feel. The mirror helpfully confirmed that this was not one of those times. My face was a puffy, creased mess, with huge bags under my eyes. It wasn’t even that cold inside, but I was still shivering, my body seemingly unable to regulate its temperature. I wasn’t sure what I wanted but I knew I did not want to go back outside and get back on a bike.

I went outside to do just that…and couldn’t find my bike. I really thought I’d parked it on row C, but it was nowhere to be seen. There were hundreds of bikes. It was still dark. I was more than a little out of it. I walked up and down, up and down rows of bikes, unable to see Trixie’s familiar purple handlebars.

It took me a good twenty minutes to locate her, twenty minutes that I really didn’t have to lose. But at least all the walking up and down had warmed me up a little. My Garmin showed the temperature had really dropped and it was now only 5C. But it also showed, through its elevation screen, that I would very soon be heading uphill.

I didn’t feel I could set off with a completely empty stomach but I didn’t want to eat anything either. Time for an emergency gel. I forced one down and chased it with a sip of water. Wanted to be sick but didn’t actually vomit. Headed out.

The section after Carhaix-Plouguer was a low point. On the approach to Carhaix I’d been feeling rubbish and wanting to bail but I somewhat comforted myself with the idea of sleep. Now the sleep stop had come and gone, with very little sleep. I still felt rubbish. I just wanted to get off my bike and lie down by the side of the road – the only thing stopping me was how cold it was. I was wearing all my layers and still felt cold.

Soon I was going up. And up. And up. The climb was interminable and the increasing number of lights coming back towards me (fast riders heading back from Brest) was not helping my mood. Finally I made it to the summit and it was freezing. A cold mist hung over everything. I had to stop and put on latex gloves under my normal gloves to add an extra layer of warmth. By now the Garmin was telling me it was 3C. The descent was almost as miserable as the climb had been. I just needed to get to Brest…and get on a train.


Beautiful morning heading towards Brest…but I’d rather be in bed!

At the bottom of the descent there was a town, Sizun. Several bakeries and cafes, open early to cater for PBP. And miraculously people I knew: Angela, Debs and Marcus. They exclaimed over how rubbish I looked, and I told them how rubbish I felt. I told them I thought I was going to stop at Brest. Hearing it out loud I felt a pang of regret, but also relief. They were pushing on to Brest, which I knew I needed to do too, just not right this second. I went into a café, ordered a peppermint tea, put my head on the table and slept for half an hour.

I woke up and drank the remainder of my peppermint tea, using it to wash down small bites of energy bar. It felt like a belt had been tightened across my chest, preventing me from swallowing anything without gagging. All consumption had to be done carefully and slowly. I made it back onto the bike, telling myself it was only about 35km to Brest and then I could stop.

It wasn’t until the descent into Brest that my attitude started to change a little. The sun was finally shining and warm and there was the sea! Our route took us over a large bridge, with lovely views. We were nearly there, nearly halfway (actually the control was several kilometres further on, reached by weaving through the morning traffic, but I didn’t realise that then!)

I reached the Brest control and wondered what I should do. Get my card stamped? Tell them I was bailing? Maybe I didn’t want to bail? I tried to eat some veggie sausage…that didn’t go so well. Drifted over to the refreshment area and thought I should celebrate getting this far either way. Bought a beer. For the first time since the night before I managed to consume something without gagging a bit. Beer went down much better than water had been doing!

My phone started to light up with messages from friends who were using the online tracker to watch my progress, and who had seen I had made it to Brest. I mentally kicked myself for sharing the tracker link – all these people were watching me and cheering me on. If I bailed I’d also have them all watching me do so.

I thought about how I really didn’t want to ever do this ride again, or in fact any super long audax. If I bailed now, would I feel compelled to come back in four years with unfinished business? I thought about how I’d learnt before that no-one would care that I’d failed but me. But that I would probably care a lot. Probably better all round to keep going.


How to age 20 years in 2 days: ride PBP. But beer helps…

Back on the bike, I knew I needed to eat something but couldn’t really stomach anything either. There was a Lidl on the way out of town, so I stopped there and tried to find something to eat. I bought some bread and crisps but found I couldn’t really eat anything too solid. In the end, I took the soft bit from the middle of the bread and smothered it in the vegan pâté I was carrying. That just about went down.

I was dreading the climb out of Brest, but the sun was shining and there were still riders heading towards me into town, which made me feel a bit better. And I got chatting to a nice American guy from Pennsylvania, whose name I don’t recall but who suggested that honey might be a good solution to fuelling with my upset stomach.

It was getting hotter again, so I stopped at a conveniently placed roadside stand and removed one of the two pairs of socks I was wearing. I was still finding it difficult to eat and drink, but generally was feeling a little brighter. Even more so when I got back on the road and found myself riding with a German guy called Olaf.

He’d previously lived in the UK and we started talking about LEL – it turned out I’d read the blog he’d written comparing LEL to PBP. I told him I planned to volunteer next time to give me an excuse not to ride it and it turns out he is overseeing the volunteers! He also knew Fiona Kolbinger (having met her on LEL) and we talked about her incredible achievement and how insane it must be for her to suddenly have been propelled to stardom through her TCR win.

Through all the chatting I barely realised that we’d climbed the whole horrible hill that I’d clawed my way up in the dark. We rode together into Carhaix, where he left to find a café. The sun was out and it was warm. I decided to stop just before the control to get an ice lolly. That’s when I realised I didn’t have my purse.

I spent ten minutes checking and re-checking every pocket in my jersey and every bag on my bike. Definitely not there. About €300 in cash, several bank cards, my driving licence…all gone. My immediate thought was how was I going to continue the ride? I had no way of paying for anything…and I would need to at least buy some food. I couldn’t even bail, as then I’d need to pay for a train back to Rambouillet. It really was a not great predicament, but I felt like I was facing it slightly detached from the situation.

As I rode into the Carhaix control an amazing stroke of luck – a familiar face! It was lovely to see Alice, who I’d met on the Pure Peak Grit challenge, and even more lovely that, once she learned of my lost purse, she immediately lent me some euros. I would be able to continue the ride, or pay for a train if I decided to bail.

Into the control and I tried to explain to the volunteers in my broken French that my purse was missing. Miraculously, someone had already found it! It was at the roadside stand where I’d stopped to remove extra socks. Even better, they would be able to get the motorbike guys to pick it up and bring it to me. Did I want to wait for it at this control or have it waiting for me at the next one?

I was a bit overwhelmed that my purse was found and making its way back to me but very happy. I told the volunteers I would like to have it waiting for me at the next control, then used a bit of the money Alice had lent me to buy a beer to celebrate (they had Pelforth Brune, which is my favourite Fench beer, and beer had worked well for me at Brest so why not?) I also called Emily to update her on my progress and told her I still hadn’t quite bailed.


When you can’t stomach solid food…

Leaving the control, I tried to ride out with Alice but we got separated almost straight away. I saw her again in the next town, where she was enjoying pastries with Els, an awe-inspiring rider who was riding PBP on a fixie. Heeding the advice from earlier, I bought a tube of squeezy honey.

I reached St Nicolas again at about 6.45pm and found my purse waiting for me, with all money and cards intact. I was very grateful to the motorbike guy who’d delivered it there safely for me and tried to express this as best I could!

I wanted to get to Tinténiac before sleeping but figured this would mean riding through much of the night. On LEL I learnt that late afternoon, when sleeping stops are quiet, is a good time to take a short sleep break and it was the same on PBP. St Nicolas had comfortable camp beds in a warm room, with only a couple of other riders snoring away. I paid my €5 and asked for an 8pm wake-up.

I slept soundly for an hour but still woke up feeling nauseous. I chased down some squeezy vegan pâté with some squeezy honey and hit the road. And the hills. It was straight back into the spiky section I’d hated so much the day before. It was soon getting dark and I could tell it would be a long night.


Heading into another night

I was about halfway to Loudeac and into a rhythm of cursing myself for signing up for this ride, cursing my stomach for not settling and cursing my fellow riders for erratic weaving across the road when I came across Nick. I met Nick on Windsor-Chester-Windsor in June, though I’d also previously ridden an audax he’d organised. He was stopped d so I asked if he was OK. He told me he’d just decided to bail on the ride. He was riding fixed, was tired, up against the time limit and alarmed by the poor standard of riding around him.

I suggested we rode together to the next control, which was great for me as I had company. He may or may not have felt the same, but I felt it was nice to have someone to chat with as I gritted my teeth against the incessant ups and downs. We had one of those quite familiar conversations that you can only have with a virtual stranger when you’ve both had your emotions flayed by a lack of sleep and a surfeit of time on the bike!

We reached Loudeac a bit before midnight and for once I managed to find something to eat in the cafeteria – just soup, but it was warm and salty and made a nice change from honey and bites of energy bar! Nick was going off to find a bed and I was very tempted to do the same but I knew I needed to push on.

It was 86km from Loudeac to Tinténiac, over 50 miles. I knew there was an optional stop at Quédillac in between, with places to sleep, but I also knew that if I didn’t want a hellishly long Wednesday, I needed to get to Tinténiac before I slept. I told myself that no matter what I was having three hours sleep at Tinténiac. Even if it meant I was out of time.

I left Loudeac and almost immediately felt sleepy. Time to bring out the podcasts. I’d downloaded the TCR podcast, as well as several of the Tough Girl ones and some Desert Island Discs episodes. Listening to Fiona Kolbinger describe her incredible ride as well as various other inspirational women talk about their lives and exploits worked perfectly, keeping me alert and giving me something else to think about other than the pain I was in.


Night riding

Unlike on usual night rides, I was continually surrounded by other riders, so didn’t feel fear about being along in the middle of nowhere. On the contrary, I felt fear that I would be crashed into by one of the obviously sleep-deprived randonneurs, many of whom were riding ever more erratically. All along the route, the sides of the road were littered with sleeping audaxers wrapped up in bivvy bags and foil blankets. In one town I passed a small ATM vestibule which looked to have around ten riders sleeping in it!

At Quedillac I had a coffee and tried to eat yet more energy bar. I just wanted to sleep, but I also wanted to push on. I was moved ever slower, but I was still moving. And it was a beautiful starry night.

I finally reached Tinténiac just before 6am. My cut-off time here was 9.16am, so having three hours sleep would put me right on that cut-off. I didn’t care, I knew I needed the sleep. I was alarmed to see a small queue for beds, but it was just due to them taking some time to allocate spaces, rather than being full. Eventually I was shown to an actual bed, in a room with only three other beds in it. Luxury! I lay for five minutes listening to my still over-active heartbeat before I descended into sleep.

Wednesday: Tinténiac – Mortagne-au-Perche

Once again I woke up shortly before my wake-up call was due. I still didn’t feel great, but I felt much better than I had the day before. I had 350km to ride and about 27 and a half hours to ride it in. Normally that would feel simple. Right now, it did not.

Before leaving Tinténiac I treated myself to a clean pair of shorts. Because there were no drop bags on PBP, I’d been limited in what clothing changes I could carry with me. In the end, I’d decided that a clean jersey wasn’t essential but I didn’t want to wear the same shorts of four days.

Back in the saddle and everything hurt. My seatbones felt like they had hard ping-pong balls of raw flesh beneath them, a sure sign of saddle sores despite my wet-wipe and chammy cream routine. My hands did not want to be back on the handlebars. Legs felt stiff and unwieldy. It was day three and I was feeling it. I left Tinténiac at 9.25am, with no time at all in hand.


Wednesday morning and everyone’s a little tired. Yes, this guy is having a nap!

Luckily just up the road I managed to latch on to a small multinational group of German and French guys. Having wheels to ride on gave me a boost and I made spinning easier again. I made it to Fougères at 12.09, seventeen minutes ahead of my cut-off time.

The sun was shining but I didn’t dare expose my burnt skin, so I rode along in leg and arm warmers, trying to drink enough to not dehydrate too badly. I was feeling a little better but still struggling to eat or drink substantially. Drinking had to be done in sips rather than gulps. One of the roadside stands I stopped at had mint cordial which they added to my water – that was divine!


These lovely people gave me water and mint syrup, and lots of encouragement!

I can’t say I was entirely happy, but Wednesday was definitely my best day so far, if only because I wasn’t feeling quite so wretched. I was grinding rather than spinning up the hills, but I still don’t think that excuses one old Polish guy coming up behind me and shoving my bike forward from behind on one climb. It totally caught me by surprise and it was all I could do to not crash. The sheer inconsiderateness of it, when I was obviously tired, really took my breath away. I’m absolutely sure he wasn’t shoving the bikes of any slow men.


Avocado is my saviour

At a supermarket between Fougères and Villaines I found my saviour – avocado. I’d gone in looking for proper food that I could still somehow eat without choking. It turned out avocado was just the right consistency. I bought two and mixed them with some couscous, washed down with some iced tea.


Roadside encouragement near Villaines…and a welcome sign telling us we’d ridden over 1,000km

Riding into Villaines-la-Juhel on the Wednesday afternoon was the absolute highlight of Paris-Brest-Paris. A large inflatable arch to ride under, cheering crowds on both sides of the street and a band playing a fanfare for each rider who arrived – I literally felt like I’d won a stage of the Tour De France. Better still, I’d now ridden over 1,000km and *only* had a little over 200km to go (I tried not to think about how that meant I actually had about 130 miles still to ride).

Highlight number two came soon after the Villaines control. I stopped in town and bought another avocado and some bread, then got to the top of the hill heading out of town and found a field with a view for a picnic in the evening sunset. Life felt good, just for a few minutes.


Early evening picnic (the flower in my helmet had been handed to me by a small child)

My euphoria was somewhat shortlived. As it got dark it felt like the zombie cyclists came out to play. It felt like I was well and truly in the ‘bulge’ and any semblance of competent group riding had gone out of the window. Over-tired riders zig-zagged erratically across the road, sometimes veering abruptly to the side, stopping and just going to sleep draped over their handlebars! Others rode doggedly down the centre of the road, ignoring all calls in French and English to move over. Some people’s lights seemed to have failed, and I told a couple of people that their back lights weren’t working only to be met with a shrug.


Sunset and sunflowers

A little way before Mortagne-au-Perche, we came to a town where half the population seemed to be out in the town square cheering us on. A marquee had been set up, serving hot soup which was vegetarian. It was a welcome break, and a small sign on the wall told us we had ridden 1,074km and had 145km left.


Only 145km left!

I rolled into Mortagne-au-Perche around midnight to find a bustling control, with riders passed out in various corners or laughing, eating and drinking. I needed to sleep, or at least get horizontal for a while, so I paid €5 for a bed. This turned out to be a thin sleeping mat, packed cheek by jowl in a hall with hundreds of others.

The mats were so close together that it was virtually impossible to access one without tripping over the legs of the people who were sleeping in the vicinity. This, coupled with the fact that there was only a thin sheet (so I was immediately cold but too tired to go and get more clothes from my bike) meant I didn’t sleep very much in the hour and a half I had allocated myself.

The final push: Mortagne-au-Perche – Rambouillet

Back outside and onto the bike in the dark. I just had 122km left to ride, and over 10 hours to complete it in, but it still didn’t feel like I was near the end. I knew I was finally due some flat riding once I got half-way to Dreux (the final control) but for now the road continued to rise and fall. I really needed someone to talk to, a little company through the night.

My hopes were answered when Alina rode up alongside me. She is German and I’d seen her earlier in the day riding with some other fast German riders but now she was riding alone. We started riding together and chatting, sharing stories and letting off a bit of steam about the frustrations of the ride. The next 30 or so kilometres, and the last few hills of this ever-rolling ride, flew by.

Unfortunately, I was now well into calorie deficit and my body was screaming at me for food. However, I was also still feeling nauseous. It was dark and I couldn’t rummage around for whatever snack would keep me going whilst not making me throw up without stopping. Reluctantly I let Alina head on towards Dreux whilst I stopped by the side of the road and rummaged for sustenance.

One sachet of almond butter, several large squeezes of honey and a Rawvelo bar later I was back on the move and heading towards Dreux. The final control before the finish. I got there at about 6.20am and found they were selling cure little PBP Dreux purses alongside the brevet card stamping.


Dreux was a place of reunions and zombies. Semi-conscious bodies were scattered around the hall, draped over chairs and tables. But amongst the comatose there were familiar faces, exhausted but awake and ready to ride: I bumped into Angela, Debs, Els and Alina again as I wandered around the hall and got a coffee, all of us thrilled to have made it to the last control. A text message told me I’d just missed Marcus – he must have been heading out as I arrived. There was only 45km to go and we all knew we were going to make it.


Dreux – the final control. With a few tired riders!

I headed out alone again but feeling euphoric. Suddenly I felt energised again and, realising that with a bit of a push I could make it back to Rambouillet in under 87 hours, I was soon zipping along. Even the pain from my saddle sores and battered hands couldn’t dull the excitement – I was finishing PBP! Day was dawning and a beautiful sunrise welcomed me as I headed out past fields. And that’s when the emotions came.


It started with me stopping to take a picture of the sunrise, and then a random thought that I wished my mum could see the sunrise. Then I remembered her and my dad unexpectedly showing up by the side of the road in Lincolnshire, as I was battling headwinds on the return route of LEL. By this time I was sobbing, tears of grief for my mum, tears of relief that I was finishing, tears of joy, tears of sadness, tears of tiredness. Just a lot of tears.

Through the tears and snot I was pedalling on as fast as I could, just determined to make it back to Rambouillet. And suddenly I was not alone. Someone was sat on my wheel, someone who was pedalling, and then freewheeling, pedalling and then freewheeling, with the loudest freewheel in the world tick-tick-ticking behind me. For mile after mile it seemed they were sat behind me, saying nothing, whilst I was sobbing and pedalling and actually might have quite liked a wheel to sit on for a little while.

So, I’m (a little bit) sorry to the American guy who got asked rather abruptly why he wasn’t coming past me and told that his free-wheel was frankly too loud (it was!) I don’t really buy your explanation that you were ‘waiting for a friend’ as generally you don’t do that two inches off someone else’s back wheel. But thank you for having the grace to back off when I challenged you.

I finally managed to stop crying and start smiling as we headed through woods on the approach to Rambouillet. By this point I had the ‘distance to destination’ screen up on my Garmin and watched as this ticked into single figures. Several groups of local riders passed in the opposite direction, out for a morning spin and shouting encouragement (or maybe they were just fast riders who’d finished the day before and were back out for a recovery ride).

Then I was heading into Rambouillet and into the Bergerie and it was chaos – cars and campervans and people on the approach road, so many that I wondered if I’d taken a wrong turn. Some people cheered me on whilst others seemed oblivious to the steady stream of approaching riders. Then we were filtered into a courtyard, over gravel and cobbles, just what you need at the end of a 1200km ride! After the hoopla and welcoming crowds at Villaines the day before it felt quite anti-climatic but I was finished.


The joy of a completed brevet card

Into a marquee to get my brevet card stamped, and to be given my very attractive finishers medal. Then into the food tent, to be welcomed by many audax acquaintances followed by several hours of story sharing, congratulations and a few beers in the sunshine. This is, of course, the best part of the ride – you’ve finished and others you either already know or have met along the way have done the same and you all get to celebrate!


Post-ride celebration with Debs and Angela

In reflection

It’s now nearly two weeks since I bumped my saddle sores over the Rambouillet cobbles. The sores are now healed, the post-ride fatigue has lifted and I’m starting to get feeling back in my little fingers. My sunburnt legs have started to peel a little, and I’m sure my battered palms will soon do the same. Basically, I am well on the road to recovery.

Already, people are starting to ask me what’s next. And I’m really not sure there is anything next. Oh, there will be plenty of cycling adventures. But big, long, multi-day rides…I’m just not sure.

The reason I love audax riding is that it allows you to challenge yourself and your endurance, even if you’re not a particularly fast rider. A rider able to average 12mph can build up to a 200km and ride it comfortably with a couple of café stops en route and still be well within the cut-off time. They’ll get the same recognition for finishing as the rider who whizzes round at 18mph. It’s nicely egalitarian.

But once you get into the longer rides that’s where the disadvantage kicks in – once sleep comes into the equation the fast riders once again have an advantage, and a choice. They can choose to be sleep deprived and whizz round in an impressively fast time or they can ride fast, get a decent amount of sleep, take time to stop and eat and finish in the same time. A rider like me doesn’t get to have a choice – longer rides will always be about sleep deprivation and chasing the clock.

I like 200km rides. They are a nice challenge. A big day out. An adventure. But one I can undertake with no sleep deprivation, no loss of sensation in my hands, no saddle sores, no crying or vomiting by the side of the road.



But…there is something about a big ride. Anything 400km and over and I know I’m in slightly different terrain. I’m going to be missing sleep. Having a lot of thinking time. And likely meeting with others who I will have an immediate intimacy with because they are doing the same. Emotions are closer to the surface when you’re fighting fatigue and the miles and sometimes that can make it easier to connect with others. I’ve met so many great people through long distance rides, and it’s generally on the really long ones that you properly do get to talk with people.

Over the last year or so, with the Peak Brevettes group, 2019 PBP Women’s group and Pure Peak Grit I have for the first time connected with a group of women, locally, elsewhere in the UK and internationally, who are riding long and arduous rides. Many of them are achieving things I can only dream of. But watching them does make me want to aim for more, even though I’m asking myself why I even want to ride.

My sister recently wrote a blog-post about using the outside to deal with grief and it strikes me the five things that she references are what you inevitably experience on a long ride. There is something therapeutic about big challenges, though there is also something horrible and pointless about them too! So as for what’s next, I’ll be attempting to ride 200kms for the next few months to continue my third Randonneur Round the Year effort and after that we’ll see…

TLDR: I cycled quite a long way in France over four days and it was hard.

You can see my ride on Strava here:


Categories: Paris-Brest-Paris, Uncategorized | 13 Comments

A very long post about a very long ride

At the beginning of this year, I made a resolution to ‘ride some, write some and remember it’s an adventure’. Back then, I thought the big challenge of the year was going to be completing the 1,400km London Edinburgh London audax. But it turned out that was only going to be one of this year’s challenges and that ‘remembering that it’s an adventure’ was going to be more important than I could have imagined.

Warning: this is a very long post! Click here to just read the five top things I learned along the way

Ever since I first heard about London Edinburgh London (or LEL as it’s commonly abbreviated to) I’ve been fascinated by it. I first read a magazine article about it around the time it was last run (it only takes place once every four years, so that would’ve been 2013). At the time my longest ride was about 80 miles and LEL (a 1400km, or nearly 900 mile audax over 116 hours) just seemed ridiculously difficult and not something someone like I could ever attempt. But since then I’ve started doing longer and longer rides and the ambition to attempt LEL has been there in the background.

Even before I failed to complete the Highlands, West Coast & Glens 1,200km last summer, I was pretty certain I wanted to sign up for LEL. It’s the most prestigious audax event in the UK and also the one with the most participants (around 1,500 this year). I was thrilled to discover that my Audax UK membership gave me automatic entry rights and, at the beginning of January, I paid my £329 entry fee and started planning my training.


Also around that time, the intermittent abdominal pain I’d been experiencing started to get less intermittent and more regular. I eventually made a doctor’s appointment, got referred for an ultrasound and then descended down a rabbit hole into a parallel universe of tests and waiting and worry and uncertainty where suddenly it seemed I could potentially be seriously ill.

As the weeks and months went by I tried to keep riding and training, though it was hard to focus when my brain kept churning through the possibilities. By late April I knew I was going to have surgery, and that this would have to happen before LEL. My doctor  told me there was no way I would recover in time to ride the event – just nine weeks after the hysterectomy. I thought he was probably right but wanted to prove him wrong!

Knowing that I would not be able to ride for most of June I did a little more in May and the weekend before the operation I rode a DIY 600km taking in some of the LEL route through Lincolnshire. I just hoped I would get to ride these roads again a few months later.


Rainbow in the Fens on my DIY 600km

On Thursday 25th May I woke up following surgery with a six inch incision from my belly-button to my pelvis following the removal of my uterus and the ‘suspicious fibroid’ attached to it. I spent three days in hospital and then went home to recover on my sofa – luckily the Criterium de Dauphine and the French Open Tennis kept me occupied! I was back on a bike just under two weeks later, but just for a mile ride round the block which felt decidedly odd and which tired me out so much I had to have a nap straight afterwards.

On 13th June I found out that the ‘suspicious fibroid’ wasn’t a fibroid at all – it was cancer. The good news was that they thought they’d got it all, but they wouldn’t be sure until I had follow-up scans. Obviously not great news, but the very next day (just under three weeks after the operation) my friend came round to accompany me for my first proper post-op ride – just over 40 miles out into Lancashire. It was hard going and I was slow, but it wasn’t impossible.

The following Monday, three and a half weeks after the operation, I rode 82 miles out to Southport and started to believe that maybe LEL would be possible. I still had nearly six weeks before I’d be on the starting line…


Taking in some less-travelled roads on a post-op ride to Southport

I wanted to keep my Randonneur Round the Year (RRtY) attempt on course and to do that I needed to ride a 200km in June. So, on the second to last day of the month, my friend Sarah selflessly accompanied me on a DIY 200km route which we’d mapped out to be as flat as possible. God, it was hard! It rained relentlessly all day and by the time we stopped for lunch we were both filthy and soaked.


Mucky and soaked!

The last 40km were particularly miserable – I’d run out of steam and, just 5 weeks post-surgery, was really feeling fatigued. I was so glad that I had company, someone to chat to to try to take my mind off how crappy I was feeling. The few hills there were seemed like alpine climbs and I ground up them, biting the inside of my cheek to take my mind off the pain elsewhere! But I managed to complete it.

Then it was the beginning of July and, still waiting for my follow-up scans, there didn’t seem like too much more riding I could do in preparation. I worried that if I tried anything bigger than a 200km I’d run the risk of failing and/or exhausting myself. To be honest, with the uncertainty of the scan results still hanging over me, it was hard to concentrate on anything other than worrying about that, even though I knew it wasn’t very productive.

Nonetheless, I wanted to make sure I still got to ride a 200km in July and I certainly couldn’t guarantee I’d complete LEL and be able to count that! So I planned a route for 7th July, the last day before my post-op time off work ended. Then, the day before I was due to ride, I found out that my long-awaited CT scan would be the next afternoon! So what was to be a full-day ride became a full-night one. I went for my CT scan and then, around 6pm, I set out on a solo adventure to the Wirral coast.



I reached the sea just as the almost full moon was rising behind the clouds and I took a moment to sit and watch its silvery rays play across the waves, thinking that for the first time in several months I felt completely calm. Finally, at least for a few moments, I wasn’t thinking about scans or what they might show, or at least, I wasn’t worrying about them. It is magical moments like this that are so special about riding long distances.

Five days later I got the best possible news – my follow-up scans were clear. For now I am cancer-free. It was 11th July and I had just under three weeks to get prepared for LEL, both mentally and in terms of my pre-event planning (which I’d been putting off). I booked the bike in to have the new rear wheel it’s been needing for months fitted and had a Wiggle spending spree for all the bits and pieces I thought I might need, especially new tyres. I definitely wanted to minimise the possibility of punctures!


One of the things I decided to do in preparation for the ride was to set up a sponsorship page. I’d orginally been going to do London Edinburgh London just as a personal challenge but the trials and tribulations of the previous months had made me think about how lucky I am to have access to the NHS. With that in mind, I wanted to raise some money for an organisation that tries to give everyone access to decent healthcare: Medecins Sans Frontiers.

On Saturday 29th July I turned up at Davenant School in Loughton (just outside London) to register for LEL. It was then that the enormity of this event hit me. Row upon row of bikes were racked outside the school. Steel bikes with full mudguards and Carradice saddlebags. Titanium bikes with Apidura luggage. Carbon fibre bikes with deep-set rims. Recumbent bikes. Folding bikes. A full-suspension mountain bike. Several velomobiles. Elliptigos. Tandems. Tricycles. Even a tandem tricycle. About the only type of pedal-powered vehicle I didn’t spot was a BMX bike, though I wouldn’t want to guarantee that there wasn’t one there!

The place was buzzing with cyclists from many different nationalities, all getting registered, filling drop bags to go off to distant controls, having a coffee and picking up pre-ordered LEL clothing. On a white-board inside the main hall, good luck messages were written in tens of different languages. In the large canteen a gaggle of volunteers were serving food and drink to tens of different riders. I’m used to turning up at audax events to find five people in a village hall with an urn in the corner – it suddenly struck me just how different this was!

Having collected my brevet card, which I’d need to get stamped and scanned at each control point, I filled my two drop bags with the spare clothes, food and bike bits I thought I might need along the way and left them to be sent off – one to Louth in Lincolnshire and one to Brampton in Cumbria. I hoped I’d make it far enough to use their contents. I also picked up the event jersey which UI’d pre-ordered months before in a burst of optimism and hoped fervently that I hadn’t wasted £40 on a jersey I’d never be able to wear: one more incentive to finish the ride!


With two very full drop bags!

Registration sorted, I returned to the house we were staying at in nearby Debden (massive thanks to my Mum’s friend Gwen for putting us up) to spend some quality time fiddling with the bike. Taking the cut-off times from my newly acquired brevet card, I carefully copied all the distances between controls and the closing times onto a piece of waterproof paper to stick to my top tube. Well, actually two pieces of waterproof paper, one for north-bound and one for south-bound. I stuck the north-bound piece over the south-bound and hoped I’d get far enough into the ride to peel it back off…


Top tube distances and control closing times…in miles because my mind doesn’t work in kilometres! The distance in brackets is how far that control was from the last control.

Although I’d requested a morning start time for the Sunday, so had everyone else. I had been one of the unlucky ones who hadn’t got my chosen start time and instead had been allocated to start at 2.30pm.

I got to the start at a little after midday and had some food (provided free for the riders), spending some time in the cafe chatting to some other riders. One was an eighteen-year-old girl called Vedangi who was apparently the youngest rider in the event. Her enthusiasm buoyed me up as the minutes ticked towards my start time.

Before I started I got to meet the brother of an old friend who, we’d realised when I’d posted my sponsorship page on Facebook, was also riding LEL and even had the same start time as me. We compared training stories and ride strategies as we watched other waves of riders leave and waited for our turn in the start pen. And then, suddenly, we were at the start line and I was waving good-bye to Emily. Dead on 2.30pm, we were off!


Setting off from Loughton

Day One – Sunday
Loughton to Louth

On a ride as long as LEL, you can’t possibly think of the whole thing – there was no way my brain could compute that I would be attempting to cycle nearly 900 miles in total. It couldn’t even deal with thinking about how far I might be cycling that day. I knew success lay in just thinking how far I had to go before the next control…in this case St Ives, which was 100km or 62 miles away.

My plan for the first section was to try to get with a group and go as fast as I felt I comfortably could. It felt good to be turning the pedals after several weeks without too much cycling. As we’d just set off there was a good bunch of people around me and several of us exchanged pleasantries as we headed out into the Essex lanes.

A few miles in and there was a good group forming, with a nice tailwind pushing us on. Then, just as I thought I’d found a good few wheels to stick with, the snack-pack on my handlebars fell off, showering trailmix across the road and losing me several minutes as I tried to retrieve it.

Bag reattached I carried on my rapid journey. The roads weren’t flat, but the undulations felt fun rather than onerous and the sun was shining. I had a run-in with an irate driver, who was on the wrong side of the road coming up to a blind bend and yet still felt he could yell at me to “f*cking slow down” when he nearly collided with me. Ah well, I’d expect nothing less of Southern drivers!

For a while I chatted with a woman with a Liverpool Century jersey on. She told me she was soon moving to Manchester so I encouraged her to check out Team Glow, the awesome club that I have got so much from being a part of.

Then, much faster than I’d expected, I was in St Ives. It had taken me a little over four hours to cover the first 62 miles. And so far I felt fine! I didn’t want to hang around at the control – I quickly got my brevet card stamped, went to the loo and filled up my water bottles and I was off. I knew that minimising faffing was the key to success for me in this event and I was happy to see that I’d only been stopped for ten minutes at the first control.

Out of St Ives and we were into the flatlands, aka the Fens. The wind was still nicely behind us though so we continued zipping along. I briefly hoped that the wind might change direction by the time we were coming back this way, then put all further thoughts of that out of my head – I still really didn’t believe that I would make it to that part of the ride.

I was still riding in a loose group and chatting with people on and off. One guy expressed surprise that I was riding alone and asked whether I would be able to fix a puncture! I thought it would be ambitious in the extreme to undertake such a ride if you couldn’t at least change an inner tube and somehow doubted he’d have asked the same question of a lone male rider…

I arrived at Spalding a little after 9pm. I’d originally planned to possibly sleep there but I was at least two hours earlier than I’d expected to be and not at all tired. In fact, I was amazed at how good I felt after covering 100 miles in less than seven hours! So instead I grabbed some pasta which I ate as quickly as possible and headed back out.

More flatness and more fast progress. As it got dark I was glad to see that my dynamo lights were working just fine. I’d had some problems with them over the last few months which I thought were fixed, but you never know… We passed through Horncastle and I remembered cycling round and round the town, trying to find a supermarket, on my last visit during the DIY 600km in May. No stopping this time though.

We started to hit the Lincolnshire Wolds a little before Louth but there was nothing too extreme. I was excited to be getting to a control where I knew I was going to sleep, albeit for a few short hours. I’d decided to give myself three hours sleep a night if possible, and see how that went. I figured with food and faffing this may amount to a four hour control stop each night and, if I could keep my other control stops not too long, that was doable.

I actually arrived in Louth with 8 hours 46 minutes in hand, not that I knew that at the time. It was only later in the ride that I would start to ask the volunteers for my time in hand. The tracking system was great – it not only allowed the amazing volunteers to see where you were up to time-wise, it also allowed friends and family to see you arriving at and leaving controls.

Unfortunately for me, everyone else seemed to have decided to sleep at Louth. When I arrived a little after 1.30am it was a control in chaos. A long queue of people wanting beds waited patiently for some of the earlier riders to wake up and leave.I didn’t really fancy joining it!

The controls had a great bed system – when you arrived, if you wanted to sleep the volunteers would show you to a free bed and ask you what time you wanted to wake up. You’d then be given a wake-up call at that time. The beds were just air mattresses laid out in rows, usually in the gym area of whatever school the control was in. But they were a lot more comfortable than a hedgerow or the floor, as I was about to find out.

Having discovered no beds at Louth I then tried for some food, only to discover that the only food that was left was cake (which I couldn’t eat as it had dairy in it). Luckily, as I had a drop bag at Louth I had plenty of snacks, so I ate some of the provisions I had with me (vegan salami and coconut-oil flapjacks) and managed to find a small spot in a corridor with about twenty other people to try to get some sleep!

I can’t say that the few hours rest I got was the best sleep I’ve ever had. Not only were we on the floor in a brightly lit corridor but we were also packed so closely that there was a domino effect every time someone shifted in their sleep! However, I did get some slumber, although I was wide awake again before the alarm I’d set for three hours hence went off.

I stumbled back to the canteen to try to find some food, only to find that now the only offering was porridge which had been made with milk. After some discussion, I managed to get some made with hot water instead so at least I had something warm and filling to eat. There was coffee too, which helped. I’d done a caffeine detox in the weeks running up to the event so that I could get an extra hit from the coffee I drank during LEL!


Day Two – Monday
Louth to Alston

It was getting light as I left Louth and headed out into the Wolds, just under four hours after I’d arrived. The short but sharpish hills woke me up, without giving me too much of a shock to the system.

Inside I was rejoicing. I’d always felt that the beginning of the second day would be a moment of truth for my LEL: I thought it was very likely that this was the point at which my fairly recent surgery would catch up with me  and I would feel so fatigued that I wouldn’t be able to go on. Instead, despite having less than three hours sleep on a solid floor, I felt alive, awake and raring to go!

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I crossed the Humber Bridge just as the rush hour was building. Luckily bikes are completely separate from cars on the bridge and the sun was out so I could enjoy the view over the estuary.

After the bridge there was a long climb up from sea level, which was the first time I started to feel the miles in my legs. It wasn’t worse than I would have expected for having already ridden over 200 miles though! Then it seemed to be downhill or mostly flat to Pocklington. I got there around quarter past ten in the morning, having taken less than five hours to cover the 60 miles from Louth. I wasn’t flying quite as much as I’d been the day before but I was still moving faster than I’d dared hope for.

After the slight surprise of quite a lot of climbing after the Humber Bridge, I decided to take a moment at each control to just check-out the elevation profile of the next section of route. So as I quickly ate some food at Pocklington, I noted that the route to Thirsk started out pretty flat, but then went pretty spiky! Fifteen miles in I realised why, when I passed a sign welcoming me to the Howardian Hills Area of Natural Beauty.

I’ve ridden quite a lot in the North of England but I hadn’t been to (or even heard of) the Howardian Hills before and I always like exploring new places, so there was a part of me thinking, “Oooh, nice, somewhere new to ride!” There was also a part of me thinking, “Bloody great, this is going to hurt!” It turned out both parts of me were right!

The roads through the Howardian Hills turned out to be a bit of a roller coaster, with a lot of steep ups and downs. My strategy for these types of roads is to pedal as hard as I can on the downs to give myself momentum to get up the ups! Unfortunately there were quite a lot of riders around me and that didn’t seem to be the strategy of many of them.

It all turned into a bit of a melee, and I kept either getting stuck on the downhill bits behind people who were freewheeling or getting stuck on the uphill bits behind beefy blokes who would overtake me on the descents and then slow down on the climbs. I’m sure there were also many riders getting stuck behind me as well – there were just a lot of riders on the roads and it’s harder to ride as a coherent group when there’s climbing involved.

Castle Howard gatehouse

Passing through the gatehouse to Castle Howard

Despite the slight frustration of being unable to find a riding rhythm, the scenery was a welcome distraction. We rode right through the gatehouse of Castle Howard, although we didn’t get to see the castle itself (I’ve since seen photos and it looks impressive). And the sun was mostly shining which also helped with staying positive. Eventually the route flattened out again and I rode with several different groups as we headed down the last few miles to Thirsk.

Checking my phone at Thirsk I realised that there were actually quite a few people following my progress! I’d been in contact with my partner Emily via text at most of the controls but now I saw that one of my friends had posted my tracking data on the Team Glow Facebook page. It gave me a real lift to see people following me and commenting on my progress. My old friend whose brother was also doing the ride was sending me regular Facebook messages, telling me she knew it was hard but I was smashing it. Even though I was riding alone I felt that I had an invisible peloton urging me on.

Also checking the profile for the next section I saw that it was mostly flat, with a gradual climb up towards Barnard Castle, but that the section after was the big one, with the biggest climb of the ride (Yad Moss) in the middle of it. I really wanted to make sure I rode Yad Moss in the daylight, partly for the views but also because I didn’t fancy such a long descent at night, especially with the possibility of wandering rabbits, sheep and other wildlife!

My plan was to get to the other side of Yad Moss and then try to get a few hours sleep. But the next control on my brevet card was Brampton, around 30 miles from the Yad Moss summit. I had a drop bag at Brampton, so it seemed like a good place to stop, but I was worried that I would get there and find a similar situation to Louth the night before: no food and no beds. It was then that I remembered Alston, a non-compulsory control right after the big climb and about 20 miles before Brampton that had some sleeping space. I decided to aim for Alston and see if there was a bed there and carry on to Brampton if not.

It was mid-afternoon by the time I left Thirsk so I knew I’d be up against it to get to Yad Moss before it got dark. The route from Thirsk to Barnard Castle was pleasant, winding through small villages and also through a ford. Although there was a bridge to the side I decided to take the plunge and splash on through! The route was relatively flat and I tried to push the pace but my legs, now with getting on for 300 miles in them, were less willing than the day before and I somehow seemed to have lost most of the other riders so I couldn’t get into a group.

The control at Barnard Castle was posh – a private school with turrets and wood panelling that put me in mind of the Mallory Towers books I read as a kid. Not that I was there very long. I arrived at about 6.45pm and resolved to leave before 7 – just taking time to wash down a flapjack with a cup of strong coffee and have a quick wee!

Then it was off out through the streets of Barnard Castle (which seemed like a very lovely town) before the climbing started. Scrolling to the elevation screen on my Garmin all I could see was a diagonal line heading upwards. Not encouraging. Once I’d zoomed out I could see I’d be climbing for the best part of twelve miles.


Rare moment of stopping to take a photo with nice scenery!

By now, I could definitely feel my legs. Not badly, they were just letting me know that they were no longer particularly enjoying this cycling malarkey. Nevertheless, they kept turning and slowly slowly I was edging my way up the climb. The weather kept changing the whole way up – it rained, it stopped, the wind picked up (and somehow seemed to be a headwind), then it dropped again.

It took me just under three hours to travel the 25 miles from Barnard Castle to the top of Yad Moss, by which time it was definitely getting dark. However, the clouds had lifted slightly and the last rays of light both allowed me to see the road ahead and provided some nice layering of the Northern Pennine hills!


Last rays of light at the top of Yad Moss

The descent down towards Alston was a lot of fun until I got into the town itself, when it suddenly got steeper and cobbled. Thinking about how much fun it wouldn’t be to have to ride back up the cobbles, I rode down slowly, looking for the Alston control.

The control was tucked away off the cobbled main street and was immediately welcoming – yes, they had beds and they also had food! I shovelled down a bowl of lovely thick vegetable soup, accompanied by several hummus sandwiches, and then was gratefully shown to an airbed, requesting a wake-up call three hours later.


Day Three – Tuesday
Alston to Brampton (via Edinburgh!)

I woke up a little after 2am, shivering from having slept in still-damp clothing. I often find that on long rides as I get more tired I also get more susceptible to the cold, so I put on an extra layer and warmed up with coffee and toast before heading out into the still-dark morning. Having started to feel really fatigued at the end of the last day I was glad to feel more energised, if still not fully awake, as I covered the twenty mostly downhill miles to Brampton.

I had a drop-bag at Brampton which meant a welcome change of clothes, but first…a shower! Oh, the miracles of hot water and shampoo – soon I was clean, warm and raring to go. Knowing that I was now near the Scottish border and, mishaps aside, would reach Edinburgh today was also helping my frame of mind.

There were two alternative routes from Brampton to Moffat – one of which was meant to be more scenic but hillier and the other which was flatter. I’d optimistically loaded them both onto my Garmin but now realised that I didn’t want to ride any more hills than I had to, so I carefully double checked with a volunteer as to which route I should be following! Then, a little after 5am, I got back on the bike and headed towards Scotland.

The border wasn’t that far away at Gretna so I soon saw a ‘Welcome to Scotland’ sign in front of me. Of course, I had to stop for a photo – luckily other cyclists had the same idea so I even had someone to take it for me!


Scotland welcomes me…by giving me a thorough soaking!

As I tried to post the photo, I saw a concerned text message from my wife – apparently the online tracker was showing me leaving Brampton control and then returning – was everything OK?

Unfortunately, the rain that had started just before I reached Scotland chose that moment to become absolutely torrential. I was trying to text Emily to let her know that, yes, everything was OK and the tracker was wrong but the rain was coming down so heavily that my phone thought it was fingers tapping the screen and went into an overdrive of gobbledegook. I had to back jump on my bike and pedal up the road until I found a bus shelter where I could take cover from the rain and send a reassuring text.

The route carried on towards Moffat, not hilly but gradually climbing. It began to feel like a bit of a grind. Luckily there were riders around me for much of it, I rode for a little while with an American guy who told me the best long distance ride in the States is The Cascades in Washington state and then got overtaken by a fast-moving train of Spaniards and various hangers-on. They motioned for me to join them, but unlike on the first day I didn’t have the pace to get on-board a rapid peloton.

I reached Moffat slightly after 9am, hoping for a second breakfast. I was excited to see a menu offering vegan porridge, but it wasn’t to be – the volunteers told me the porridge was actually again made with milk and I would have to wait half an hour to get any made just with water. This seemed like a long wait for some porridge so I settled for toast instead!

Then it was back on the bike with the knowledge that my next stop was the halfway point – Edinburgh! But on the horizon was another long drag of a climb, the Devil’s Beeftub (apparently it’s where vagabonds used to hide the cows they’d nicked!) I settled in for a slow grind up for five miles, but then I met Joff.

Joff was a London boy and he was also a breath of fresh air – someone who wanted to ride alongside me and chat. Suddenly the long drag wasn’t so much of a drag: chatting away took my mind off the fifty miles to Edinburgh and my legs were suddenly spinning much faster than before. We talked about Rapha clothing (my Rapha jacket had been doing a good job of keeping me dry during the morning’s showers and his partner works for Rapha) and how cycling was a great panacea to all of life’s ills and all the while I was travelling up the Devil’s Beeftub climb faster than I’d dared hope for. He also took this photo of me, which I hope he doesn’t mind me stealing:


Climbing the Devil’s Beeftub

After the climb there was a lovely long and gradual descent, followed by a fairly flat 20 miles before the slightly downhill run-in to the Edinburgh control. Unfortunately the road after the Beeftub was terrible, not so much pot-holed as just cracked all over – the kind of surface that jolts your whole body with every wheel turn. My poor buttocks and hands were soon feeling the strain of both 400+ miles of riding and the constant jolting and I was popping ibuprofen in a vain attempt to help!

The route into Edinburgh was via an off-road cycle path and I briefly rode with Tom, who had had a nightmare mechanical with his rear mech disintegrating several miles back. He was now riding single speed and planning to head straight to a bike shop in Edinburgh in the hope of finding a compatible mech hanger.

And then…I was at Edinburgh! The smile on my face was very large as I pulled into the school on the outskirts of the city which was the control and was greeted by a volunteer saying ‘welcome to Edinburgh’. I bumped into Shaun, a lovely guy who is crazy enough to ride audax events on a fixie and who I’ve ridden with on other events. He hasd set off earlier than me and was getting ready to leave Edinburgh as I was arriving. It was great to see him going strong.

My smile was only slightly dimmed by queueing for twenty minutes only to find they didn’t really have any vegan food options! I ate some bread and spoke to Emily on the phone, sharing my elation at reaching the halfway point, and had a nice sit-down. Then, aware that I’d spent more time than I should’ve done at this control, I headed back outside to resume my ride. But as I got to my bike the heavens opened and I was sent scuttling back to the cover of the school foyer for another five minutes until the deluge passed.


At Edinburgh…terrible photo but a big smile!

But once I was back on the bike it wasn’t all smooth sailing. It was only 26 miles to the next contorol at Innerleithen but those 26 miles were straight through the hills. I was tired. Everything hurt. And now I was cycling into a not-inconsiderable headwind. Despite nice scenery all I seemed to be able to look at was the display on my Garmin showing me how slowly I was moving. It took me two and three quarter hours to get to Innerleithen but it felt like so much more.

I knew there were more hills after Innerleithen and I needed to reset both my body and my mind so I decided it was worth having a little lie-down at Innerleithen. It was around 5.30pm when I arrived there and I was happy to find that the food situation was considerably better than at Edinburgh. I was also happy to find that late afternoon was a great time to get a bed – there was virtually no-one else wanting to sleep then. It also seemed a really friendly control, with volunteers handing out badges. I’d heard that at the last LEL they’d even been handing out shots of whisky, but sadly there was none in evidence this time around.

I was shown to an airbed a little before 6pm and requested a 7pm wake-up call, not at all sure that I would get any sleep. But I lay down and, after five minutes of crazed thoughts, I drifted off, somehow waking up automatically five minutes before I was due to be awakened. I don’t know how my body did this but consistently I seemed to wake up just before I was due to do so. In fact there is only one control (the last one) when I hadn’t already woken up before my wake-up call came.

I went back out to my bike, feeling somewhat refreshed from my nap but also quite intimidated by the 60-odd miles that were still between me and my preferred sleep stop for the night – the Brampton control. But then a stroke of luck happened. I realised I was leaving Innerleithen at the same time as another woman. It turned out her name was Sheila and, like me, she was attempting her first LEL.

As we climbed out of Innerleithen we chatted, firstly about the amazing long-distance women who inspired us (I was wearing one of Jasmijn Muller’s ‘Be The Egg’ caps whilst Sheila was rocking a black cap that she admitted was an homage to Emily Chappell), then about our experiences of LEL so far and audax in general. I shared some of the stories of the roller-coaster last few months and Sheila whetted my appetite for further adventure with tales of touring round Iceland. In short, we bonded, and as we approached Eskdalemuir we decided to ride on to Brampton together.

Our stop at Eskdalemuir was short, just long enough to recaffeinate with some coffee and empty our bladders. Then, as it was now dark and getting chilly, we added another layer and headed out to Brampton.

We hadn’t got very far when I suddenly saw Sheila’s light behind me stop. She had a puncture – close examination showed a sharp piece of flint embedded in her tyre. She urged me to continue but I was enjoying her company and preferred to wait, trying to help wiht the tyre change by shining my head-torch in the right direction. The change was quick and we soldiered on.

The last twenty miles to Brampton were hard work. Bad road surfaces were hampering us, as were worried about hitting potholes or gravel in the dark. In the end we realised we could save some time by just staying on the main A7 road – it was late enough that the traffic was light and the good surface and clear white lines gave us confidence to ride a little faster.

We were less than ten miles from Brampton when we came across a Thai rider by the side of the road, so tired he no longer seemed able to think straight. We advised him to have a nap where he was, reasoning that just a short nap would probably give him the energy to get to the control. He was worried that he would go to sleep and not wake up in time so we tried to persuade him to set an alarm on his phone so he could get some rest. Hopefully he did so and then was able to ride on more safely.

Finally we reached Brampton and I retrieved my drop-bag. It seemed like a very long time since I’d had a shower and change of clothes there this morning. In fact, I’d ridden arond 190 miles since then, as part of a 200+ mile day. No wonder I was tired!

Unfortunately, as we checked in at around 2.30am we were told that they currently didn’t have any beds available. There were plenty of people trying to sleep elsewhere in the control, draped over couches and face down on tables in the cafeteria. I didn’t really fancy joining them and the volunteers had said that there were likely to be beds coming free by 3am so Sheila and I decided to grab some food and then join the bed queue. Having eaten we didn’t need to wait too long for some beds to be vacated. I bid farewell and good luck to Sheila – she had started several hours before me so had less time in hand and was planning just an hour’s nap before hitting the road again. I requested a 6.15 wake-up call and gratefully collapsed onto an airbed.


Day 4 – Wednesday
Brampton to Pocklington

I woke up feeling stiff, but somewhat revived after a few hours’ sleep. I returned to the cafeteria and shovelled more food down me, then changed clothes. It felt good to have clean garments on, though I’d forgotten that I’d only packed bib shorts for this section.

Getting back on the bike was hard. I had ridden over 500 miles over the previous three days and my body knew it! My backside felt like two goose-eggs of pure agony – I really did not want to connect my buttocks with the saddle. It took several miles for the pain to settle down from excrutiating to barely bearable.

The nineteen miles to Alston took considerably longer than they had in the other direction the previous morning. Not only was I in pain, there was also a slight headwind and psychologically I knew what awaited me on the other side – Yad Moss again! I was yawning and finding it hard to wake up – the fact that they’d run out of coffee at Brampton probably hadn’t help.

As I arrived in Alston I considered stopping at the control there for a coffee but I didn’t really want to detour from the route. Plus, I figured getting up the cobbles would require my full concentration. But when I saw the wall of cobbles in front of me I admitted defeat: walking up the steepest part of the climb seemed much more preferable than potentially falling off on it.

I was about to get back on the bike when I spotted The Moody Baker shop. They were just opening up and they had coffee! I quickly decided that a brief coffee break before tackling Yad Moss was in order. I entered and was asked whether I was also heading to London – apparently I was by no means the only LEL rider who had been enticed in to the little shop.

Suitably caffeinated it was then just a case of grinding back up Yad Moss, trying to ignore how tired my body was feeling and how much I wanted to stop. About two thirds of the way up someone had set up an impromptu cafe van selling coffee and flapjacks but I worried that if I stopped there I may never get going again so I continued on. To my right I could see the white golf balls of Great Dun Fell and I consoled myself that at least I wasn’t heading up there today. Great Dun Fell is a great climb, but it is considerably steeper than Yad Moss and I would not have been wanting to tackle it in my current state.


The text I sent Emily from Barnard Castle on the way south probably gives an indication of how hard the ride was getting…

The twelve mile descent towards Barnard Castle was very welcome, as was yet more coffee and food once I arrived there. In the cafeteria I bumped into Vedangi again, the 18-year-old who I’d met before starting. She had a heavily bandaged knee and told me she’d hit a tree after going 48 hours without sleep and had had to end her LEL attempt, although she had was hoping to still cycle on to Edinburgh. Ouch! I made a mental note to try to avoid cycling into trees, nipped to the loos to rub germolene onto my saddle sores, downed some more painkillers and headed back out.

I left Barnard Castle and almost immediately found myself behind a small group of older men who were obviously out for a nice 20 mile pootle on their hybrid bikes. Normally I would have overtaken them but at that moment I was very happy to sit behind them out of the wind for five miles or so and I was quite disappointed when they turned off in another direction. I don’t really remember much more about the journey from Barnard Castle to Thirsk but I think it’s safe to say I wasn’t enjoying life too much, as this is the message I sent Emily once I got there:


My communications weren’t getting more cheery!

As the nap at Innerleithen the day before had helped so much I’d already planned to have a short sleep at Thirsk. When I got there a little before five the talk in the canteen was all about the weather forecast for the next day. I checked the BBC website for the Louth forecast and sure enough, it was awful – strong winds ramping up all morning to around 40mph by early afternoon. So I decided to have a slightly more extended sleep at Thirsk and then push on through the night, with the hope of getting at least part of the way through the flatlands of Lincolnshire before the wind got unbearable.

The gym with airbeds at Thirsk seemed to be miles from the main control but it was deserted, with only one other rider having a nap. Although light was streaming through the windows I lay down and quickly fell asleep, glad to not for once be surrounded by snoring hoards!

I woke at around 7pm and grabbed some more food and coffee before heading out to once again tackle the Howardian Hills. Just as the day before, the late afternoon nap reinvigorated me and I was once again enjoying being on the bike. If only the pain from my saddle sores would quit all would be good…

As I cycled along I realised that the right side of my bum was hurting more than my left. A few more miles on I worked out that the piece of electrical tape I had put on a small tear on my saddle lining had a crease in it which was exacerbating the pain. I immediately removed the tape but it was too late – I was already bleeding. In a struggle which would have no doubt been hilarious if anyone had been there to watch, I then spent a good deal of time byt eh side of the road in the dusk, trying to apply a large plaster to my bum underneath my bib shorts. Eventually I somehow got a dressing situated mostly over the area that was most damaged and my riding immediately became more comfortable.


Passing back through the Castle Howard grounds in the gloaming

A little bit further up the road I paused again to have a snack and suddenly a police car turned up. The officers just wanted to check that I was OK and knew where I was going. I told them I was fine and I was heading to London! The wind had dropped and I felt good after my nap, even though I wasn’t moving very fast I was getting there and I was in good spirits by the time I got to Pocklington just before midnight.

On the volunteer desk was a woman named Gill who I rode with in a couple of audaxes the year before. She recognised my name as she scanned in my brevet card and we briefly exchanged stories about our cycling achievements and failures since we last saw each other.

I’d told myself I wasn’t spending more than 15 minutes at Pocklington but I had been riding alone for the past four hours and suddenly there were people to talk to. Plus it was warm and there was food. I spent longer than I should have sitting in the canteen area, chatting to an American guy about different rides I should try in the States before finally dragging myself back out to the bike.


Day 5 – Thursday
Pocklington to Great Easton

Back on the bike I was suddenly feeling a lot less chirpy. It didn’t help that I knew it was sixty miles to the next control. Nor did it help that the route was a lot hillier than I’d remembered from the outward trip. For the first time on LEL I started to feel dozy – not tired in my body but tired in my mind. In fact, my legs felt OK, better than they had first thing on Wednesday morning, but my thought processes were like treacle.

My butt was now hurting so much that every pedal stroke was painful. I got into a rhythm of three pedal strokes followed by a little rest, followed by three more. Obviously, this is not a very efficient way to cycle and I wasn’t moving very fast. In between all of this I was frequently looking at my Garmin to see how fast I wasn’t travelling and how far I hadn’t come.

By 2.30am I’d still only travelled just over 15 miles and I needed a rest. It was raining on and off – at one point I decided to stop and lie down on a bench, only for the drizzle to start as soon as I was off the bike. I actively started looking for bus shelters but none appeared. It seemed I was in for a long, dark, tired night of soul-searching.

Then, when I thought it couldn’t get much worse I noticed that the road seemed to be getting even bumpier than usual. Yep, I had a puncture in my rear wheel. Initially thinking practically, I limped to a section of pavement under a street light so I could see what I was doing. I got out a spare tube, tyre levers and gas for inflating the tyre, then the practical thinking left me. I spent some time (who knows how long?!) sitting on the pavement thinking about how I did know how to change a tyre but could not be bothered to do it right that minute. I was not in the best state of mind.

Eventually I managed to raise myself from my torpor sufficiently to change my tyre, then got back on my back and continued on to the Humber Bridge, only a few miles away and thankfully downhill.

Crossing the Humber Bridge heading north had felt fun and like an achievement – I’d made it to the North! Crossing it heading south felt, quite frankly, scary. It was really windy. The bridge seemed very high up (it is very high up, but it seems even more so when you’re sleep deprived). All I could think about was how many miles I still had to ride. Still close to 200, I reckoned. Not many in the grand scale of LEL but still a seemingly insurmountable distance at that moment in time.

I got to Barton-upon-Humber on the other side of the bridge and finally found what at that moment was the equivalent of a 5 star hotel to me: a bus shelter! And not just any bus shelter…one that had a bench long enough for me to lie flat out and even had an arm-rest for me to prop my feet up on. Here, I found a picture of it on Google maps so you can see how luxurious it was (it was around 4am when I arrived, so there was no-one waiting for a bus)…


Audax hotel…palatial, right?

Anxious that I might get too comfortable in my lodgings, I set the alarm on my phone for half an hour’s time and lay back. I woke up feeling a tad chilly to find a fellow cyclist had occupied the other end of the bus shelter – well, it was plenty big enough for two! I apologised to him for my alarm disturbing him and stiffly got back on my bike.

Unlike every other nap I had had on this ride, the sleep had not rejuvenated me. My body was stiff and sore and did NOT want to ride a bike. It really just wanted to lie back down and go to sleep again. Luckily, the nap had reset my mind somewhat, so at least that wasn’t switched off. It tried to tell my backside that it wasn’t really hurting that much, my legs that they did really want to turn and the scar on my belly that, no, it wasn’t really starting to hurt it was just imagining it.

Slowly I inched up the road, trying to think positive thoughts and failing. Really, I just felt very alone and I wanted someone to talk to. I tried to talk to myself but that really didn’t help, as all I could think to say was ‘How on earth are you going to cycle another 200 miles?’ That was not a question I really wanted to contemplate.

Somehow, just as I was properly starting to wallow in how miserable life was, fate provided a saviour, in the form of Arnold, a cheery guy who appeared from nowhere, wanted to chat and was for some reason happy to ride at my by now glacial pace.

Arnold was Lithuanian but living in London, he loved adventuring on his bike and I have no idea what we talked about for the twenty or so miles that we rode together but he had an infectious laugh and honestly, I’m not sure I would have made it to Louth without him. Thankfully I was with Arnold when we hit the Lincolnshire Wolds again, which were suddenly much steeper than I remembered from the way out. I didn’t end up walking any of the climbs but there may have been audible grunting!

Although I’d been moving slowly, I still had some time in hand and I’d been debating whether I should try to get an hour’s sleep at Louth. But I was worried about how much time I’d need to get through the flatlands of the Fens, especially with the wind picking up. And by the time I got to Louth, having spent several miles chatting with Arnold, I was feeling much more awake. It had taken me seven and three quarter hours to make it the sixty miles from Pocklington but I had made it! I celebrated with some food and a shower!

Freshly washed, with a new plaster on my butt and clean clothes from my drop-bag on my body I felt like a new person. The clean clothes included a pair of Twin Six shorts that are very comfy but also fairly noticeable (they have polka dots!) which caused comment from other riders for the rest of my ride. At Louth I also bumped into Sheila again – she had teamed up with an experienced audax guy and was on a mission to finish in time. I wished her luck as she sped off. I was feeling better…until I saw how much the trees were moving in the wind!

Although there had been food at Louth this time the options weren’t great so I decided that I’d treat myself to brunch in Horncastle, which I knew was just fifteen miles or so up the road. From Horncastle I would ‘just’ have 150 miles to go to Loughton. The section from Louth to Spalding was around 53 miles in total, it would be good to break it up.

I was alternately thinking about what I would eat in Horncastle and trying not to think about how much pain I was in and how alone I felt when I saw a car stopped ahead of me, with a woman waving at me frantically. It took me a good few seconds to realise that the woman was my Mum. My parents had driven out to Lincolnshire from their home in Nottinghamshire to try to find me and cheer me on. There may have been a few tears when I saw them!

I exchanged hugs and half-coherent ramblings with my parents and somehow resisted the urge to climb into the car with them. Then it was back on the bike. Two minutes later the heavens opened and I once again got soaked but I was feeling buoyed after the brief encounter with my folks and Horncastle was calling.


Breakfast in Horncastle

I reached Horncastle and happily found a cafe that served veggie breakfasts. Still damp from my recent soaking, I carefully sat myself away from the other customers enjoying their coffees. The breakfast was excellent and I was soon joined by two fellow LEL’ers, one of whom was the guy I’d met on the way into Edinburgh with the broken rear mech. He’d managed to get it fixed and was still hoping to finish the ride in time, just as long as he could dissuade his riding partner from sleeping in too many hedgerows!

Breakfast finished and I hit the road again. Heading out of Horncastle I was straight into the flatlands of Lincolnshire and straight into the wind. Mile after mile, the wind got stronger, I pedalled harder and moved slower. I stared at my Garmin, finding it hard to believe just how slowly I was moving. I tried not to think about my hurting knees, backside, stomach, shoulders and hands. I sang to myself. I told myself that this time tomorrow it would all be over. I told myself that I could do this. I did not really believe it.

Then a guy came past me (I had forgotten his name but I found him on the LEL Facebook page and it’s Eric). I told him, I’m sorry, I’m just going to be cheeky and try to ride on your wheel for a bit. We started chatting and he took pity on me, riding with me and sheltering me from the wind for miles on end. Here’s a photo that someone called Mike Moody took of us together:


With Eric, one of my several saviours!

Eventually Eric stopped to get a drink and I continued on my own into the wind but at least I was that little bit closer to Spalding. I finally reached the control there just before 4pm and decided that I needed to recharge my batteries before I spent any more time in the wind. I headed for an airbed, asking to be awakened at 5.30pm.

I was hoping against hope that I would wake up and find that the wind had dropped but my hopes were dashed. I went back out to my bike to find it was still blowing hard. It was less than 40 miles to St Ives but I calculated it could take me between five and six hours at the speed I’d previously been moving. I knew I still had time to get to Loughton before my cut-off but I wasn’t sure I’d have the energy, especially if I didn’t manage to get any more sleep.

As I was leaving Spalding I was provided with yet more saviours – this time in the form of a largeish peloton led by Audax Club Mid Essex (ACME). The set out just after me from the control and, when they caught me up, asked me if I wanted to join them. Did I ever! Not only did I now have a group to help shelter me from the wind, I also got to move around and chat with lots of different folks within that group. What was going to be a long, hard, lonely slog to St Ives suddenly became a fun bonding session with new people to talk to! It was still a hard slog but it was a hard slog with company.

Someone managed to capture video of the peloton I was in coming through the Fens, which gives an idea of the wind we were riding through which you can see here. I have to admit that I did not spend very much time on the front of this peloton.

I had estimated that it may take me until midnight to get to St Ives. Instead I found myself there before 9.30pm, still delighted but slightly unbelieving at my good fortune. I was even more delighted when Emily turned up. She was on her way to Essex to meet me the next morning and decided to stop off and surprise me. It was great to see her and we hung out whilst I ate some food. Finally I wasn’t feeling negative anymore. I had less than 100 miles to go and over twelve hours to cover it.

I’d bumped into a guy I knew from a previous audax called Marcus at the control and he’d asked if I wanted to ride on with him and another guy. But somehow we lost him, so I bade Emily goodbye and ended up riding out of St Ives with the other guy.

The route took us along a cycle path by the side of a guided busway, which at first was a novelty but then turned into just tedious. It just seemed to go on and on, and then suddenly we were in the middle of Cambridge! I will admit that sleep deprivation was kicking my butt by now, and it felt quite surreal to be riding through this historic city.

Out the other side of Cambridge and I got to the point that my vision was blurring. I told the guy I was with that I needed to stop and rest and he decided he did too. Side by side we collapsed onto a bench by the side of the road. Thankfully I remembered to set an alarm to ensure our 20 minute nap didn’t get longer as I was out for the count when it went off.

No sooner had the alarm sounded then the guy next to me jumped up and pedalled off as fast as he could! I figured I needed to follow him so did the same. I never saw him again but the immediate sprint did at least wake me up somewhat.

Great Easton was the control I’d been dreaming of. It was the last control and was only thirty miles from Loughton. Finally, a distance that seemed easily rideable! I figured as long as I left there with at least three hours in hand I would make it in time (although obviously I wanted more than three hours in hand, just in case!)

I was dreaming of it and I kept dreaming as I wound my way through the Essex lanes, sure at every turn that the control was just around the corner. It didn’t help that the last few miles featured some slight hills, which came as a shock after so long in the Fens! Finally FINALLY I reached the control at 3.30am and was checked in by the lovely volunteers. The woman on the bed booking station assured me that yes, they did have a bed and asked me my name, saying they liked to personalise their wake-up calls.

I asked for a 5.30am call and was shown to an airbed, as it turned out right next to Joff, the guy I’d ridden with on the way into Edinburgh. I’d seen him briefly at one earlier control but it was nice to say hi again and realise that we were both going to finish. Then it was sleeptime.


Day 5 – Friday
Great Easton to Loughton

For once I was out like a light almost as soon as my head hit the airbed. And I didn’t wake up until a volunteer was shaking my shoulder, saying, ‘Siân, it’s 5.30am.’ Still somewhat asleep I stumbled down to the school’s canteen, lured by the smell of toast and coffee.

The canteen looked how I imagine places look after a minor disaster. Bodies of riders were draped across tables and chairs in various stages of consciousness. But the volunteers, who were probably almost as tired as the riders, were doing a great job of checking on people and pointing us towards the coffee and food which we craved.

Suitably fuelled I headed out to my bike. It was just before 6am. The sun was shining. The birds were singing. I had nearly six hours to travel the thirty miles to Loughton. Barring something disastrous happening to my bike I was going to make it. I couldn’t stop smiling as I pedalled out of Great Easton. And then for a while I couldn’t stop crying. I was finding it hard to believe that I’d so nearly completed the challenge that just a few weeks before I’d thought was likely impossible.

The ride from Great Easton to Loughton was a joy. The wind had finally dropped and the route took us through rural areas of Essex where the sun shone on fields of corn. Several times I chatted with other passing riders. At one point a guy in a van stopped to ask what the event was that all these cyclists were part of. When I explained he said, “I bet your bum is killing you!” I admitted it most certainly was!

I was just around eight miles from Loughton when I spotted another female cyclist by the side of the road. I asked if I could help and she explained that her bike had broken irretrievably but that a friend was bringing her a replacement to ride in on and she hoped to make it to Loughton before her 10.30 cut-off. How soul-destroying to be so near and yet so far – I hope the replacement bike reached her in time!

By the time I was into the last five miles I didn’t want the ride to end. After having spent most of the day before hating being on the bike, I was enjoying cycling again and could almost forget how much my body hurt. That’s not to say I wasn’t overjoyed to turn into the gates of Davenant School and ride over the finish line, clapped in by a few spectators and by my lovely wife, who was waiting for me with flowers.


The sweet sweet sight of a completed brevet card!

For the final time I handed over my brevet card to be scanned and stamped, then I took a photo of it before it was added to a large pile to be sent off for ratification. Hopefully one day soon it will come back to me in the post!

In exchange for the card I was given a medal and I then made my way through to be photographed by Charlotte Barnes, a professional photographer who is herself a keen long-distance cyclist and who was taking finish line portraits. I love the photo she took of me, which I think reflects the mixture of elation and exhaustion I was feeling.

And that was it, LEL done! I collected my drop bags which had been shipped back from Brampton and Louth and chatted with a few other finishers. Then Emily snapped a picture of me and Trixie before we loaded her into the car to drive the 1.5 miles back to where we were staying – somehow I did not want to cycle that last little bit!


With Trixie the trusty Tricross who carried me through 896.7 miles of adventure


Click here to see my London Edinburgh London ride on Strava.

I’m delighted to have already raised well over £1000 for Medecins Sans Frontiers but if anyone else would like to sponsor me you can do so here.



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Five things I learned on London Edinburgh London

Two weeks ago I rode 1,441km (896 miles) from the outskirts of London to the outskirts of Edinburgh and back, as part of the LEL audax which takes place every four years. These are the five things I learned along the way:

  1. You can’t do it alone (but you won’t have to) Although I set off alone, I had the unwavering support of my wife, my family and a great bunch of friends and club-buddies who were cheering me on via text message and social media. I also was helped immeasurably by the many lovely people I rode with along the way, only some of whom I’ve managed to remember in this blog. And of course, the event volunteers who at every control made sure that I and all the other riders were safe, fed, somewhat rested, etc etc. THANK-YOU ALL SO MUCH!
  2. An hour’s sleep really can make all the difference It’s amazing how you can feel like you can’t go on and then, after just a short time resting, you’re ready to go again
  3. Faffing is what will make you fail I actually think I did quite well in the faffing stakes, in that I didn’t faff too much. But there were definitely still times when ten…fifteen…twenty minutes went missing because I wasn’t being organised. In the last ten miles before a scheduled stop I need to mentally plan what I need to take off my bike when I stop, how long I plan to stop for and the order of things I need to do during that stop
  4. Even small changes to your set-up can cost you dear Deciding to tape over the small tear on my saddle the day before the event led to a saddle sore which by the time I finished was basically a several inches wide open wound. It’s only just now healing, nearly two weeks after the event. Where possibly, don’t make any changes that haven’t been bedded in over shorter distances.
  5. It’s the wind that will destroy you I already know this from previous events, but I learnt it all over again on LEL. From now on I only want to do rides in places with no turbulence!

Want to hear the whole story? Click here to read about my five day London Edinburgh London adventure (warning: it’s very long!)

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Baby steps

I rode a bicycle! Only 1.3 miles round and round the block and it felt very strange and I had to have a lie down after but I rode. A week and a half post surgery and I’m happy with that…

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Salford – Peterborough – Salford

It seems a bit surreal to be writing this lying in a hospital bed when this time last week I was battling my way through a headwind in the Lincolnshire fens. The surgery happened on Thursday and seems to have gone well, although I won’t know the results of the post-surgery tests for several weeks. I’m already feeling a bit stronger and will hopefully be going home tomorrow, although I know it’s going to be while til I’m back on a bike.

But back to last weekend and the DIY 600km I mapped out for myself. I’d been planning to ride the Pair of Kirtons 600km on the weekend of 3rd & 4th June as part of my LEL preparation but I knew that would be impossible once I had surgery scheduled. I initially thought of riding that route anyway, but couldn’t find a suitable place to book a bed for a few hours sleep. Probably I should have just taken a bivvy bag and found a bus shelter somewhere but I wasn’t quite ready for that level of discomfort!

So I ended up mapping out a route that started and finished at my house, and submitting it to the DIY audax coordinator to ride as a mandatory by GPS route. DIYs are a weird but also kind of wonderful aspect of audaxing. Basically, what you do is map out your own route for any audax distance (100km+). Then you fill in a form to demonstrate the route you’re planning to ride and when you’re planning to ride to the DIY coordinator along with a nominal fee (I think it’s £3, though you can bulk-buy DIYs and get a discount!) They check it and let you know that it’s OK. You then head off and ride it, track it on your Garmin and send them the file to show you’ve done it.

Of course, lots of people would say, if you’re mad enough to want to ride 600km, and to not ride it as part of an organised event, why not just go and ride it? Why bother with the verfication? Well, firstly if you get it verified it then goes towards your audax awards, like a Super Randonneur Series (200km, 300km, 400km and 600km rides all in the same audax year). Secondly, for me at least, there is added motivation if I have said that I am going to do something. I knew that having submitted the route and filled in the form would make it slightly less likely that I’d bail when the going got tough.

I called my 600km ride Salford-Peterborough-Salford, as it was a big loop, starting from home, with a sleep stop at a Travelodge in Peterborough. I’d deliberately planned it to take in a chunk of the LEL route from the Humber Bridge down to just past Spalding. It basically looked like this:


The ride started well. After not too much faffing I left home slightly after 6am on Saturday morning and headed east to Greenfield to meet up with my awesome friend Sarah who’d offered to ride as far as Hull with me and then get the train home.

I was a bit annoyed that I managed to stupidly map in an off-road section between my house and Greenfield (in an area which I should know well enough not to do that) and hoped I hadn’t done that too many other times! (Luckily there were only two other short sections that I’d messed up with similarly, both on the Sunday morning).

I met Sarah at the bottom of the ride’s biggest climb: the Isle of Skye road out of Greenfield. I figure it’s good to get your challenges in early! We both have ridden this road numerous times and it was fun to spin up it fairly leisurely, chatting in the unexpected sunshine. After Holmfirth the ride levelled out and we were soon zooming along at a much better off than I’d expected. In fact, we reached our brunch stop at 56 miles by 10.30am.

The nice Audax UK DIY official had suggested a potential refreshment stop – a greasy-spoon cafe in Askern near Doncaster. I turned out to be a really good choice: cheap with very large portions! Suitably refuelled with large amounts of fried food and carbs we were back on the road a little after 11am and zooming towards the Humber Bridge.


Hearty veggie breakfast, including fried bread 🙂

I ride in Yorkshire quite a bit, and I always think of it for hills. But I don’t often go to East Yorkshire, which it turns out is pancake flat! That and Sarah’s company meant I continued to make great time. Obviously there’s the advantage of having someone to draft but I also find that just having someone alongside you means you pedal a little harder without really noticing it. And of course having someone to chat with makes the miles go by more quickly!

The weather had started out nice and sunny but without us really noticing it started to cloud over, By this point we were on the outskirts of Hull. Literally as we got to the Humber Bridge the wind picked up and the rain started! It was then that I realised I may be about to have a little headwind problem…


Heading over the Humber Bridge into the coming storm

We crossed the bridge and then said good-bye, with Sarah heading back over to go and catch her train from Hull. We’d made really good time up to this point and I was already having fantasies of maybe getting four or even five full hours sleep. I knew there were a few hills in Lincolnshire but that most of the next 100 miles until my sleep stop was flat.

I really need to make sure I never allow myself to dream of how much sleep I’m going to get on long events! My route to Peterborough may have been fairly flat but it was also due south. And the wind was blowing straight up the country. Having previously been happily tootling along at 16-18mph with very little effort, I was now pushing to maintain 12mph on the flat. Plus it was raining.


At least rain makes for dramatic photos!

And it wasn’t completely flat either. On a 300km audax in the Lakes a few weeks previously a guy I rode with for a while was telling me about the hills of the Lincolnshire Wolds and I have to say I didn’t really believe him. But whilst they may not be the equivalent of the climbs around Manchester, with a headwind and 120 miles in my legs they were noticeable enough!

Once I’d cleared the Wolds I was into the flatlands, riding along country lanes, surrounded by fields with absolutely no respite from the wind. I stopped for some food in Horncastle, wandering rather aimlessly around a supermarket trying to quickly figure out what I wanted to refuel with. By then I’d covered 150 miles and decision-making was getting harder!

It was around Horncastle that I first started to see a few other audax-y looking riders – I obviously wasn’t the only one checking out a bit of the course. As night started to fall I rode on through the Fens, trying not to be too freaked out by being alone in such an empty landscape. I only partially succeeded and was glad to finally see the lights of Peterborough on the horizon.

I finally reached the Travelodge I’d booked into at midnight and hauled my wet self and mucky bike up to the fourth floor in the lift. Luckily the guy on front desk didn’t bat an eyelid.I stripped off all my wet clothes and hung them around the room, hoping that they may dry at least a bit before I’d be putting them back on again!

I knew I needed to hit the road by 4am to give me the time buffers I wanted for the second day. By the time I’d eaten, cranked up the heaters and hung out my clothes it was 12.30am – I crawled into the extremely inviting bed and set my alarm for 3.30,

Peeling myself out of bed when the alarm went off was excrutiating. Every muscle in my body seemed to have seized up in an insistence of just a few more minutes sleep. I firmly pushed away the temptation to sleep on and get a train home and eventually got out of bed and got moving.

Mostly the clothes were still wet but at least they were warm and wet! I was hungry but figured that I’d eat the porridge sachet I had with me and then stop a little way down the road for a proper breakfast. I didn’t realise then that a little way would actually turn out to be 60 miles!

I headed out into the pre-dawn light, dodging drunk revellers who were stumbling their way home as I pedalled out of Peterborough. Soon I was out in the countryside and the sun was coming up – thankfully the previous day’s rain had cleared. It was a pretty ride out into Rutland and I enjoyed the early morning sunshine, dreaming about the breakfast I would soon have, at first I thought at Stamford and then, when there was nothing open there, at Oakham.


Enjoying the morning sun but desperate for some coffee!

Of course, I had forgotten that these are really quite small towns and it was really quite early on a Sunday morning! When I got to Oakham at around 7am not only was there nowhere to get breakfast, even the public toilets were still locked! I carried on, into and across Leicestershire, keeping thinking that I would find somewhere to get breakfast around every corner. I had plenty of snacks on the bike but I really wanted some hot food and a coffee!


Not sure exactly what was hidden behind this hedgerow

My salvation wasn’t to come until I’d travelled over 60 miles from Peterborough, when Kegworth Services served up the twin delights of a Greggs and a Starbucks! Before I got there I discovered another of my mapping fails which turned into a stiff uphill hike dragging my bike up a clay-y path. The only good thing was that I later realised this had earnt me a QOM on Strava!


Mapping fail – not really road bike suitable!

I finally reached breakfast at around 10am and, large coffee and egg cob later I set off again across Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. Feeling suitably refuelled and refreshed, I was better able to ignore all the nagging aches that come on the second long day on a saddle: shoulders, palms of hands, seat-bones.

I’m not sure what kind of masochist maps an 18% climb at mile 323 of a 370-odd mile ride. Actually, I am sure: me! I’d realised that my route went up Mow Cop but left it in as a) I thought it would give me a good view and b) I thought the back route wasn’t that brutal. I was right about the former but wrong about the latter!

I tried to avoid as many hills as possible but the slopes of the Staffordshire Moorlands had already taken a few bikes out of me and I have to admit I swore loudly and repeatedly as I dragged myself up Mow Cop. The view from the top was worth it though.


It’s all downhill from here!

Summitting the Cop made me feel like I’d nearly finished but in fact I still had fifty tired miles to travel around the Cheshire lanes. By mid afternoon the sun was shining and people were gathered in every pub garden I passed. The temptation to join them was great!

The last fifty miles were tiring but uneventful. I knew I’d finish, I just didn’t particularly want to carry on pedalling! But I as glad to get home well within the allocated 40 hours and still feeling like I could have ridden further if absolutely necessary. Only time will tell if this stands me in good enough stead to seriously attempt LEL.



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Towards LEL…or possibly not…

So, it turns out I am really bad at keeping New Year’s resolutions then

Having decided I would document my riding more frequently, and in particular my training for London-Edinburgh-London (henceforth referred to as LEL) I then…didn’t do that.

There were many reasons for this. Number one being my inherent laziness when it comes to doing something which doesn’t have a specific deadline attached! And number two being some other stuff that has been going on which has made riding LEL both less and more important to me (a little more about that later).

So flashback to January…


I entered LEL! Luckily for me, I had joined Audax UK back in 2015, just a few weeks before the cut-off for getting an automatic guaranteed place for London Edinburgh London. So I paid my £329 and I was in. Now just the small matter of getting myself physically and, perhaps more importantly, mentally fit for an event where I would cycle 1433 kilometres in 116 hours or (to put it into terms I can relate to) average around 180 miles a day for five days in a row.

What was obviously meant to happen after I’d clicked ‘enter’ was lots and lots of cycling. What actually happened was a bit of cycling.

Alongside training for LEL I also have ambitions of Randoneering Round the Year (RRtY) – an award you can get if you ride at least one Audax UK accredited ride of at least 200km every month. I wanted to start this in October last year, but then I fell off my bike and broke my hand so ended up hardly riding between October and December.

Having barely ridden the back end of last year, I knew I had to step up my game A LOT. Instead, I stepped it up a bit.

In December I only rode about 200 miles all month, and about 100 of that was in Tennesse on a sit up and beg bike over the Christmas break! In January I managed to double my December mileage, riding about 450 miles, including 100km and 200km audaxes, which hurt. January last year I was coming off spending three weeks cycle touring in Cuba in late November/early December. January this year I was coming off six weeks in October/November of not really riding at all, and it showed.


Making the most of a sunny January day for a ride with a friend

However, what also showed was that I had a better base fitness than in the past. It’s now been three years since I properly started doing longer distances on the bike and the accumulation of long rides seems to mean that my body can hold fitness for a bit longer. I’m really hoping this is the case for the next few months!

During February and March I should have been really ramping up my training more. I did, a bit. A few more audaxes followed, enough to keep up the RRtY goal but not much more. I still was averaging slightly less in a week than I’d need to ride in a day on LEL.

Partly this was because it’s hard to get out and ride when it’s dark and cold and rainy. But alongside the riding I had another issue: the intermittent abdominal pain I’d been having for several months just wasn’t going away. Eventually I got round to going to the doctor about it.

At some point I might write a post about the maelstrom of emotions that descended after that initial doctors visit and the subsequent many other appointments and tests which I’ve had since. Suffice to say that throughout March and April my life had a constant undercurrent of confusion and dread. But the one constant that kept me going was knowing I wanted to do the LEL.  Not sure whether the tests would show I had cancer? OK, but I have a big ride in July so better get on the bike! It was sometimes hard to motivate myself to go out an dride on my own accord, but if I had an audax which I’d entered I made sure I went and rode it, even when I was at my most panic-stricken.

And honestly, long rides have become therapy these past three months. In March, just after the initial ultrasound report had said ‘sinister pathology must be considered’ and I’d been put on an urgent referral pathway, I rode the Scouting Mam Tor 200km, thinking through every possible eventuality of what those words may mean.



Blue skies for the Scouting Mam Tor 200

It helped that the weather was good. I swore and sobbed my way up the hills of the Peak District, angry at my body for betraying me. Then I felt the cold grip of panic (which had been tightening in my chest all week) loosen a little as I felt the warm sun on my back. Watching the yellow full moon rise as I rode back alone through the Cheshire lanes, I gave myself a good talking to, saying I wasn’t dead yet so might as well enjoy the moment!


Full moon and my dynamo light in the Cheshire lanes – much more lovely in real life!

At the beginning of April, convinced that I had ovarian cancer (I don’t, the blood test revealed a few days later) I rode the ridiculously hilly Delightful Dales (or as we renamed it, Frightful Dales) 200km, chatting the whole way round with my amazing friend S to take my mind off the pain in my belly. (It’s amazing how pain increases ten-fold once you’re told it could be something serious).

I swore heartily when I ended up walking up the steep pitch of Park Rash but however much I wanted to blame whatever the ‘condition’ I have is, I knew that was really down to my own lack of fitness. And once I’d ridden 129 miles with nearly 11,000 feet of elevation gain I knew I couldn’t possibly be at death’s door just yet!


Sunshine, hills and hang-gliders on the Delightful Dales 200km

After each long ride I felt so much better. I was tired and sore, but from riding, not from other, more sinister, pains (real or imagined).

Being out on the bike gives me thinking time where I can order my thoughts, figure out the questions I want to ask at my next appointment and what obscure information I want to Google. But it also gives me something else to focus on at the same time, so I can’t go too far down the rabbit-hole of panic and worse-case scenarios. Being on the bike is a distraction, either through chatting to fellow riders, absorbing the beautiful scenery or swearing my way up another hill. Being on the bike also gives me time to fall apart a little, shed a tear or two and then pull myself together and carry on.

Doing a long ride is also really tiring. There’s a couple of days after when you literally don’t have the energy to feel anything too deeply. This was especially useful the first few weeks of confusion, when all I could think of was worst case scenarios, when my resting heart-rate had spiked from 50 to 75 beats per minute and when I felt like I was constantly on the edge of panic.


Seeing the sea halfway through the BCM Warm-Up 400km

By the time I rode my biggest ride so far this year (the BCM Warm-Up 400km in south Wales over the bank holiday weekend) I knew that I was going to have to have surgery fairly soon and that this meant LEL was in doubt. Riding this event was fun though – the route was nice and the weather was fine. Pushing through the night on my own reminded me that I am strong and I can weather difficulties. It also gave me time to think of every conceivable question to put to the consultant at my appointment the Tuesday after!

I completed the event in under 24 hours, the first time I’ve ridden a 400km in under a full day. And I felt good. Sure, I was knackered. At one point at 4am I had a 5 minute lie-down in a bus shelter to revive myself. But at no point did I feel like I couldn’t go on or that I wanted to bail, and I have felt both those things in the previous 400km events I rode.


Dawn starting to break after a long day and night on the road

This past weekend I rode from the Lake District up through Northumberland to Scotland and back on the Westmorland Spartans 300km. It was a cracking route up on deserted roads, just a slight shame about the mizzle and the headwind. I got chatting to a nice guy named Marcus, which helped pass the time. And I felt strong, even when I was crawling up Kirkstone Pass in the dark and the rain at 11.30 at night!

But on Thursday 25th May I will be having abdominal surgery. I don’t know how this will go or yet what they will find (I’ve been told it’s more likely to be benign but cancer also has to be considered and I won’t find out for sure until three weeks after the operation). I will have 9 and a bit weeks between having a large abdominal incision and one of my organs removed and hoping to be on the start line in Loughton.

It’s probably not enough time to recover, of course. I know that. Not only will I be recovering from surgery but the four to six weeks that I’ll be completely off the bike would have been my most intense training period.

Nevertheless, I am determined to do whatever I can to get to the start line. This weekend, my last before the surgery, I’m attempting a DIY 600km. This will be the test of how fit I am, as well as being an opportunity to actually ride some of the LEL course. I’ve mapped a route from Manchester across the the Humber Bridge, and then down through the Lincolnshire wolds, following the LEL route. All being well, I’ll grab a few hours’ sleep in Peterborough before heading back across through Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire, up past Stoke-on-Trent and through Cheshire.

If I succeed, I know I am at least going into the op as prepared as I can be. And then I will wait until after the surgery for the good or bad news. After that it’ll just be a case of getting back on the bike and seeing how I feel. Fingers crossed!

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New Year’s Resolutions: ride some, write some and remember it’s an adventure, not a competition

Having set up this blog to document my cycling adventures, and then spectacularly failed to post anything other than a howl of pain when I failed in last year’s big challenge, I’m starting 2017 with a resolution to actually write about my cycling adventures (and maybe also some of my adventures off the bike too).

I’m also starting 2017 with another resolution: to challenge myself but also to continually remind myself that this is meant to be fun, there’s no competition and if there is it’s only with myself and no-one else cares!

I am naturally a competitive person. I am also naturally a spectacularly un-athletic person. For years this made doing sport nightmarish: I desperately wanted to win but never had the skill to get anywhere close to doing so, no matter how hard I practised. I’d spend hours practising tennis, then lose 6-0, 6-0 to everyone I played. I’d spend hours after school trying to clear the high jump, or trying to do a one-handed cartwheel, or trying to shoot netball goals, only to have a classmate do whatever I’d tried and failed to do so many times effortlessly in one attempt in the next PE lesson.

One of the reasons I like audax is that it’s a challenge (you have to cycle long distances) but there’s no ‘winner’. You have to finish within the allotted time but the finishing times aren’t published so I can’t torture myself with how much slower I was than everyone else. The challenge is in finishing at all, and that can be a very big challenge at times (as I found out in Scotland last year).

So, I don’t cycle because I want to race – there’d be no point in me doing so as I seem to have no fast-twitch muscle fibres in my entire body! Primarily, I cycle because I want to get outside, because I like exploring and because I like the camaraderie of riding with friends and meeting new people through cycling. At times, I like the solitude of riding alone. And yes, I cycle because I like a challenge and want to push myself.

This year my challenge is likely to be London-Edinburgh-London, another super-long audax. I’ll write about why I decided I wanted to attempt this, after the failure of last year’s Highlands, West Coast and Glens, in a future post. Suffice to say, planning a 1400km audax at the end of July means I need to spend a lot of time between now and then on a bike. Some of that time is undoubtedly going to feel like hard grind. But I’m writing this post to keep reminding myself: this is about adventure. It’s about meeting new people and socialising with old friends. It’s about enjoying the view. It’s about exploring. It’s about all of that and more just as much as it’s about setting goals which I’m not sure I can achieve.

Since I’m yet to have any real cycling adventures in 2017, here are a few pics from the end of 2016. I was in Tennessee visiting my partner’s family and went exploring around some rural roads on her Mom’s sit-up-and-beg bike:

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On failure…

So, last week I failed to finish the Highlands, West Coast and Glens 1200km Audax. And it really sucks. I have spent all year wanting to do this and preparing to do this and failing feels absolutely horrible.

I got to Ullapool late on Wednesday afternoon, 465 miles into the 750 mile route, really feeling the effects of a day of relentless wind and rain. Physically, I felt I could have gone on (as in, my legs were still able to turn) but I was scared about how cold I was getting. On the road into Ullapool my teeth were chattering even when I was climbing. Really, I needed to get warm and lie down for a couple of hours before continuing up and over a big climb to Gairloch and on to the bunkhouse I’d booked for a couple of hours’ kip, 90 miles away. But I quickly found that everywhere to stay in Ullapool was fully booked.


It was late afternoon and I knew in a few more hours I’d be in a much more remote area, cycling through the night. Physically, I wasn’t sure I could continue without risking hypothermia. I’d had 30 minutes sleep the night before, after 145 miles of hilly cycling. The day before that I’d cycled 180 miles and had 3 and a half hours sleep. I had already cycled 140 miles since setting out at a bit after 2am. In short, I was pretty tired. The biggest climb of the day was coming up, followed by, more worryingly, the biggest descent of the day. I knew it was exposed and remote and that I’d be riding it alone, probably in the dark.

These are all good reasons to not attempt to continue, and writing this now part of me still feels I made the right decision. Yet now I also realise that there were probably other options open to me which I didn’t or couldn’t consider at the time. That’s what being exhausted and under-prepared will do to you. Looking back, the biggest problem I had was lack of sleep. Although I didn’t feel exhausted, the lack of sleep, combined with the cold, was making it a lot harder for me to make positive decisions.


In an attempt to try to make myself somewhat OK with the fact I’ve failed, I’m trying to figure out the things I’ve learned from the experience. These are the things I need to ruminate on and remind myself of if I decide to try anything similar in the future:

  1. The line between carrying on and stopping is very, very fine: there’s no real logical reason to do something like a 1200km audax and there are lots of logical reasons not to do it. The minute you entertain them, all is lost. On the day I quit, I’d spent the first few hours trying to persuade my friend who was riding with me not to quit. She was struggling from lack of sleep and just wanted to stop. I spent six hours trying to persuade her to keep going, to eat something and really just not to stop. Partly, this was because I knew she wanted to do the ride (we’d both previously said we didn’t care too much about the time limits of the event but we wanted to complete the whole distance) but it was also partly selfish – I knew it would get much harder for me once I was alone. But not once during this conversation did I entertain stopping myself.After she left me in Lairg, 65 miles in, I then rode 45 miles on my own into a headwind, with driving rain. Conditions were appalling. I started to feel like I was going slowly mad but I still didn’t want to stop. I barely made it to the checkpoint in Lochinver in time. This still didn’t bother me – by that point I didn’t care about the time and just wanted to complete the event. Setting off from Lochinver, I still felt optimistic. The route was hilly again but the coastline was beautiful and the wind was finally behind me. I watched seals in the sea and thought about how lucky I was to be seeing this. I was enjoying being out on my bike.

    But the minute I turned back onto the road towards Ullapool everything changed. The wind was in my face again and I was instantly freezing. Within minutes I was sheltering in a phonebox, shivering violently , trying to figure out how the hell I was going to continue. That was the first time I considered stopping and, although I then told myself I could find somewhere to rest and carry on, I know the seeds of failure were sown right away.


  1. The biggest challenge isn’t the distances you’re riding, it’s the lack of rest: although I did do a fair amount of training and preparation for this ride, I know I should have done more. One of the things I needed to practice more was riding with little or no sleep, day after day. I’ve done long rides where I’ve been super tired but I haven’t done back-to-back monster rides with little sleep in between. Audax isn’t a race but if, like me, you don’t/can’t ride particularly fast you can’t buy yourself enough time for sleep. A person who can average 14 or 15mph moving pace has so much more time for rest that a person like me averaging 11-12mph. I needed to do more to prepare myself for this.


  1. Sleep deprivation can do really weird things to you and this is worse when you’re alone: Over the first couple of days, I really didn’t feel the impact of not having much sleep. Partly this was probably because I was well rested before starting the ride, but I think a big part of it was having someone to ride with. I also think having a goal to focus on, even if it was just getting to the next control point in time, played a large role in keeping the weirdness at bay. Certainly, it wasn’t until I’d decided that I couldn’t go on that the weirdness really hit. After I couldn’t find anywhere to rest in Ullapool, I decided my only option was to cut out the loop to Gairloch (which was very exposed, with a large climb and descent) and head straight to the bunkhouse where I’d reserved a bed for the night, sixty miles away near Strathcarron. I set off from Ullapool and the wind dropped. The clouds cleared and it was a pretty evening. Suddenly I felt I’d made the wrong decision – surely I could have carried on towards Gairloch?Yet a couple of hours later it got dark, the wind picked back up and the rain started again. I was riding alone through the night on deserted roads and I got more and more filled with foreboding. At one point, the maps on my phone gave me directions and, as I couldn’t figure out where the disembodied radio voice was coming from, I became convinced that there was an undercover police officer hiding in the grass by the side of the road! There were lots of deer around and their eyes kept reflecting in my headlights, spookily making me feel like I was being watched. The ride seemed to go on and on and eventually I felt like I would never reach my destination, that something really bad was going to happen. I’ve ridden on my own through the night before so I know about the bad thoughts that come from being in that situation are like but this was worse than I’d ever experienced it before. I kept having to talk to myself, to remind myself that really everything was OK and that I needed to keep eating. It was a long ride. If I ever do something like this again, I need to figure out a way of keeping creepy thoughts at bay when I’m alone in the dark.


  1. Company plays a big part in success: I really enjoy riding with the friend I entered this with – we don’t seem to run out of things to talk about and she annoys me much less than most people (though quite possibly I really annoy her). This is no mean feat when you’re riding for 20 hours a day! Plus, she is one of the people I most look up to on a bike.However, I don’t think she enjoys the challenge of the really long rides in the same way I do. We have twice done long rides in which she has decided to stop before me, but which I have also decided to bail on later on. Both times I had good reasons for stopping, but there are always good reasons for stopping! I wonder if subliminally I am allowing myself to give up because the person I was with has already done so.

    Psychologically, I find it tough to imagine doing a really long ride alone (I have done a couple of 400km rides and those were tough enough) but I also wonder whether having someone with you who packs it in makes it more likely that you will do the same. For me, part of the enjoyment of a challenge is sharing that challenge with someone else, but what do you do if you can’t find anyone stupid enough to want to share the challenge?


  1. The things that will hurt the most are likely to be the things you don’t expect or that haven’t really bothered you that much before: On a couple of recent rides I’ve had real trouble with knee pain. On one 400km ride it got absolutely agonising. So I half expected knee pain to become a real problem.Sure enough, forty miles into the first day my left knee started to hurt. But then…it just stopped, or at least didn’t get beyond a dull ache. What did really start to both me was the palms of my hands. The pressure of the handlebars really took its toll, with intense pain in the palms of my hands and pins and needles up my fingers. This hurt more than any other part of my body.


  1. After a while it gets really difficult to eat, but you nonetheless have to keep eating: Despite the fact that I was switching between sweet and savoury and trying to mix snacks up between energy bars, sausages, nuts, sweets, etc, I quickly got to the point where it was difficult to eat. My mouth was dry and it felt like there was a permanent undigested lump of food in my throat. Continuing to eat was a challenge. At times I could feel my energy levels dropping and I had to tell myself to eat something out loud. However, I do think that keeping myself fuelled was one thing I succeeded with on this event. At no point did I bonk, or feel that I was dangerously close to bonking. So that’s one positive.


  1. The human body is remarkably resilient, and if you give it time it will keep on going: on the morning of the fourth day I had already bailed but I needed to get back to Mull, where we were all staying. My partner very kindly offered to collect me from the Isle of Skye ferry, as otherwise it would be nigh on impossible for me to get back to Mull in time for the last ferry.As I’d bailed I wasn’t hurrying to get going and when I did get going my legs weren’t turning very fast. By the time I was on the road it was after 10am. It wasn’t until I was cycling that I realised I needed to get the ferry at 2.40pm. I tried to cycle faster but my legs weren’t having it, in fact, when I hit a hill I had to get off and walk. I was despairing – not only had a bailed on the event, I now wasn’t even going to be able to cycle 50 miles in time for a ferry. Almost in tears, I texted my partner to say I wasn’t going to make the ferry.

    Then something else happened. I ate a snack, my legs warmed up, the road flattened…I’m not sure exactly what it was but suddenly I saw a sign telling me I was 15 miles from the ferry. It was 1.25pm and I just thought: I can make that. Somehow my battered legs allowed me to cycle a laden bike 15 miles across Skye in a little under an hour. It’s amazing what the body can do.


  1. Doing something like this is actually really selfish: no-one cares if you finish, apart from you. You spend lots of time out on your bike training when you could be doing other things, like spending time with family or friends. When it all goes pear-shaped you may well freak your loved ones out by phoning them when you’re at a really low point and you also may need them to come and rescue you. I am very lucky that I have a very understanding and supportive partner.


  1. The people who organise and volunteer at these sort of events are amazing: when we got to Trantlebeg on the second night the lovely guy there made us baked beans on toast and tea and wouldn’t even let us wash our crockery. These people are awake for hours on end, helping exhausted cyclists who are barely capable of communicating beyond grunts.


  1. Scotland is beautiful, and you can appreciate that beauty even if you’re knackered and it’s been raining for hours


Overall, I’d say I enjoyed the event at least 80% of the time. Unfortunately most of the other 20% was pretty miserable! I am now looking forward to some nice short rides with long café and pub stops whilst I contemplate if I ever want to try anything as extreme again. Huge thanks to my companion in insanity, Sarah, and our support crew, Emily and Helen, as well as all the family, friends and cycling buddies who sent encouragement along the way.

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