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.
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.
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…
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.
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!
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…
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!
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!
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.
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.
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!
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!
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:
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.
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 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:
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.
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)…
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.
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:
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.
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!