London Edinburgh London, or LEL, is Britain’s answer to Paris Brest Paris (PBP). A long, in theory unsupported, bike ride which is a test for the long distance cyclist. Riders have 125 hours to complete the 1500km and must pass through each intermediate control town within specified time limits too. In the event, there were numerous diversions forced upon the organisers so we were left with 1540km, 14500m of climbing but with 128hrs 20mins to complete the ride. Whilst this averages at an achievable 12km/hr, this time limit needs to include all your stops, sleeps, fixes and faffs and so you need to be very efficient, both on and off the bike. Each control is in a school in the town essentially with the dining hall set up for food and the school hall laid out with airbeds for riders to sleep.
The day before the ride involved a long drive down from Newcastle and registration at the start. Dinner was had with other members of my cycling club and most headed to bed early ready for the exertions the next day.
Not good at sleeping before big rides, I had chosen a leisurely start time of 10:15, my logic being that I might sleep better knowing there was less pressure on getting up early and setting off. Of course, my sleep was disturbed in the usual pre-ride ways: worrying about what I had packed, how to attack the ride, what mechanicals I would have as well as just it generally being very hot and difficult to sleep.
Sunday 7th August
London >> Hessle 303km, elapsed time 15:06
After arriving nice and early at the start I was able to soak up the atmosphere and clap other groups as they went off. This was a much smaller scale event than PBP with only 1800 sign ups compared with approx 7000 and so the start was much more orderly. Riders waited patiently before their group was called and then we assembled to join the starting pen and have the starters log you as having set off. In my relaxed state of soaking in the atmosphere I had forgotten to load the route up on my Garmin and so had a frantic couple of minutes getting the course started, but apart from that it was a nice straightforward start.
We were off, and faced firstly with a very potholed road followed by a steep climb, with some impatient motorists on the Epping Forest roads. Climb crested, there were then several kms of quite busy roads before it settled down to the type of country lane that would serve us well for much of the ride. A group quickly formed and we were making good progress towards St Ives, the first control. I hadn’t really clocked the headwind, and so what I felt was a ‘good’ pace at the start was in fact really quite quick considering the headwind so I definitely burned a lot more matches on that first 100km leg than I realised. I would pay for this for much of the rest of the ride, certainly psychologically.
My aim was to be efficient in the controls, so upon arrival at 14:10 I set my stopwatch and went to get some food and refill water bottles. The food wasn’t great at this first control when I arrived so I felt like I wasn’t fuelling enough for the next section — another long one, but flat through the fens into the wind a little. I was out in less than half an hour and back on the road. However, a volunteer had told me my bike had fallen over in the wind but didn’t think there had been any damage. Riding out of the control it was clear my saddle was no longer straight so it must have got knocked, so I stopped and fixed this. Thankfully this was to be my only mechanical issue during the ride, though I wasn’t to know it at the time!
The ride to Boston was mostly alone, leap-frogging the same riders as I stopped to get supplies from a shop or for a toilet break. My pace slowed considerably on this leg as I began to feel the wind, which although not strong was still present, and the effort in my legs from the first stretch. I also started to get blisters on my hands, which didn’t bode well this soon in the ride!
Boston (18:39) had similar issues with food — small portion sizes and there wasn’t the ability to ask for more. I’d have to be stopping on route more than I thought I would. I was still fairly efficient through the control and left for what were to become more hilly stages to come. Thankfully this next stage was a little shorter and I arrived at Louth at 21:40. Still too early to stop for any sleep, I pressed on to the Humber Bridge and the control at Hessle. This stage was dragging a little in our first taste of night riding (which was to become a big fixture of the ride). A shop at a crossroads had decided to stay open all night for us so a big group of cyclists were stopped here to take on more provisions and enjoy the coffee machine. I debated pressing on, but was tempted by the coffee. It took a while to get served and the machine was empty when I got to the front so I used up time here, but it was nice to chat to a few riders and have a little break. Back on the bike and after a few more hills we could eventually see the Humber Bridge ahead of us. I do like crossing a big bridge on such rides.
Fingers crossed, this would be the first of 4 such crossings on the ride. I eventually rolled into Hessle at 01:20. My plan here was a quick couple of hours sleep and a shower and change as this was where my bag drop was. However the beds were full so I opted to have a shower first. Upon entering the shower room, it was an inch deep in water. I should have immediately decided this was a bad idea and stayed dry, instead in my tiredness I went straight in, got my indoor shoes wet, had a shower and then had to spend quite some time getting dry. I wasted around an hour on this ill-advised shower followed by then having to strap my shoes to my bag so they would dry during the day of riding later. I then just decided to have an hour of shut-eye with my head on a table in the canteen as the beds were still full.
Monday 8th August
Hessle >> Brampton (269km, elapsed time 18:04)
I left Hessle in the early hours for a hilly section to Malton. I didn’t feel very rested (obviously) and progress remained slow. There were a few hills in this section but my mood began to pick up as the sun began to rise and we were treated to some good views. It felt a lot colder than forecast, but I was well-prepared with plenty of layers. I was looking forward to a good breakfast in Malton, but there was a large queue and only cereal. I loaded a bowl as full as I could with Fruit and Fibre, waited for a toaster to warm some bread, twice. This proved wholly inadequate for what lay ahead. Helmsley market square did incredibly well that morning with a horde of cyclists descending upon local bakeries and cafes in the heat.
The section across to Barnard Castle would prove to be the most difficult of the ride in my opinion. There were frequent, very steep climbs followed by twisty descents where you couldn’t really pick up too much speed because of the narrow twisty roads. We were treated to some great views on the edge of the North Yorkshire Moors, but I was a bit too grumpy to enjoy them as I felt I was having to exert myself far too much this soon into the ride. There were still over 1100km to go and I was already tired from climbing. I feel sorry for the volunteers at the secret control on this section (to make sure we stuck to the route) who will have had to endure many a cyclist moaning about that hilly section. Thankfully the next part to Barnard Castle was more forgiving in terms of hills. I don’t recall much of this section other than some very excited locals in Middleton Tyas community shop were were delighted with the extra trade and somewhat perplexed by what we were doing!
After what seemed like all day, I eventually rolled into Barnard Castle control at 14:44. I had heard good things about the food at this control from previous editions and I was not disappointed. I was gearing up for asking for a bigger portion of rice, but the server just began spooning more and more onto my plate without me even asking until there was a mountain of rice that would normally be enough to feed my whole family! The curry was great and I spent a bit longer here than I intended as there were a few VC167 riders here at the same time so we were all chatting a little. With trepidation I set out for what I knew would be a hard, hilly section with the two additional climbs of Chapel Fell and Killhope Cross. I took the first of these climbs steadily and made good progress up the hill. It stretches out in front of you and you can see the top from the start so you know what lies ahead. You could see the little dots of other riders in the distance tackling the higher slopes. I was stronger than I thought and overtook a few riders on the climb despite taking it steadily and eventually it was time for the descent. This was a rapid downhill, peaking at over 70kph. I wouldn’t have fancied this section in the dark!
At the bottom was a pop-up cafe at St Johns Chapel kindly set up at short notice. Many riders were taking a break here. I unfortunately had to break it to some riders that we were about to have another nasty climb as some of them thought that was all the big hills done. Killhope Cross starts off steadily but gets very steep at the top and many riders were getting off to walk this top section. I eventually decided that I was going so slowly at the top I might as well save my knees and walk the final section. Then it was a nice fast run in to Alston. Some riders stopped here, but I knew the Nook cafe had opened especially for the event and I wanted to support them, worried that many riders would go past having already stopped in Alston. I was treated to some excellent soup before putting on some layers as it was beginning to get cold as evening set in. On the roads to Brampton I found myself similarly paced to a rider from Brazil and we rode together to the control. I would repeatedly bump into him for the rest of the ride.
I had optimistically planned to ride to Moffat that day and get there in the early hours, but I was too tired now so decided to stop at Brampton for the night as my drop bag was here anyway. Arriving at 21:52, I was pretty much in bed by 10 and asked for a 3am wake up call. This was to be my longest and best sleep of the ride.
Tuesday 9th August
Brampton >> Edinburgh >> Brampton (369km, elapsed time 23:35)
I was back on the road by 4am and ready for a big day ahead. Having stopped early the day before, I knew it would be a tough day and ask, but I was keen to at least try and get back to Brampton again that ‘night’ though I knew it wouldn’t be until the early hours that I’d get back.
I felt good after my sleep, but it was clear once I hit the flat l that I wasn’t going much faster despite feeling better. I tried to push harder to pick up speed, but after about 30 mins of pushing I would start to feel my muscles complaining. There was still a long way to go so I decided to just back off. Not to worry as I was still making progress and building a buffer at this stage. As the sun rose I was treated to gorgeous skies and it wasn’t long before I crossed into Scotland.
Soon it was to be the service road parallel to the motorway that I am very familiar with from many audaxes in the borders. Whilst this section is quite dull and the surface not great there is a certain satisfaction of riding this road and making good headway into Scotland. After Lockerbie we turned right onto a narrow and hilly lane and I was wishing I was back on the B7076 as I knew it would have been quicker. Moffat (07:50) was a great control with lots of breakfast options available.
Then it was the final Northbound section to the Forth bridges and Dunfermline. This was a very long section which took a lot of time and energy in the rising temperatures. The initial climb up Devil’s Beef Tub is again one I’m familiar with, with 10km of steady climbing. I broke up each km into 250m in and then out of the saddle just to try and make it tick by a little quicker. Eventually it was conquered and then you have a great steady descent for miles and miles. I stopped at the Spar in Biggar to refill water bottles and the shopkeeper there had clearly met quite a few riders that day as he was asking about the ride and offering suggestions for bakeries further up the road. I met a group on this section that I would keep bumping into over the next day or two. There were faster than I wanted to go so I kept letting them go, but then I’d overtake them again later as they stopped more frequently or for longer at controls. After some truly awful road surfaces, I could finally begin to see the Forth bridges in the distance. Crossing the Firth of Forth was a real highlight of the ride, much like the bridge before Brest on PBP. However, like PBP there is still some steep climbing to do afterwards and the control was still some way to go. I got to Dunfermline (14:37) and bumped into a couple of VC167 riders who I would keep bumping into for the rest of the ride — again they were riding quicker now, but I was stopping less. Crossing back over the bridge southbound was great as I now knew I was over half way and always getting closer to the finish as opposed to riding away from it. This was also one of the only sections where I saw riders coming the other way which was also enjoyable to wave and cheer them on.
This high was soon to be countered by my lowest point in the ride. We were allowed to free route through/round Edinburgh and I was keen to avoid the centre, thinking that it would be incredibly slow to go through areas with pedestrians, the fringe festival and on cycle paths. So I had planned my own route around the outskirts. However, it was rush hour, there were lots of road works, Edinburgh is a LOT hillier than I thought and the road surfaces were atrocious. It took so long to get out of Edinburgh and I had too stop at a Tesco to refill water as I’d used so much in the heat on the hills in the city. After the ride it was clear that people had a similar experience if they went through the centre, but at this time it just felt like I’d made a massive mistake. And then I felt a sharp pain in my knee. This is an issue I’ve had on several long rides. On PBP I had a similar issue which meant I ended up riding pretty much one-legged for the last 200k and that was awful. I began to have doubts and to catastrophise about this ride and thinking that there was no way I’d be able to do the same for the last 700k! So I knew I had to back off more, manage my efforts uphills in particular, not push too hard or chase groups and concentrate on riding smoothly. My knee was a constant thought and worry for the rest of the ride.
Once out of Edinburgh we were into the glorious section to Innerleithen. Other than the flying ants, this section was really good and was beautiful as the afternoon gave way to evening. Nothing too steep, but steady climbs and descents through the valley.
I arrived at Innerleithen (20:29) and had a dilemma. There were beds here, but none at the next control. So it was either sleep here, or push on for Brampton if I wanted a bed, which was another 110km. But i wasn’t tired yet so I knew I had to push on.
So I set out for Eskdalemuir with the setting sun. There were some lovely scenes and I regret not trying to take some photos on this section.
Eskdalemuir (23:42) was a great little control with some nice pasta and amazing crumble — puddings had been few/far between/non-existent so this was very welcome. People were starting to find a blanket and a small bit of floor to sleep on, but I knew I wouldn’t sleep well and it would get busier so I wrapped up in nearly all my clothes and set out into the freezing night.
The section to Brampton was not good in the dark. There were extremely poor road surfaces and it was difficult to see the potholes in the dark. One road we had to turn into near Canonbie looked so little like a road I assumed I’d missed the turning and was heading onto an unfinished building site, but it soon became a hilly and poorly surfaced road. We finally made it onto a main road and the going was better, but I was very tired after a whole day cycling so the kms weren’t ticking by as quickly as I’d hoped. I rolled into Brampton having tackled the whole Scotland section at 03:43 after nearly 24 hours cycling. I asked for a wake up call at 8am and had a restful sleep.
Wednesday 10th August
Brampton >> Malton (201km, elapsed time 13:48)
Hitting the road after 9am meant a later start than usual and so I was unsure how far I’d get that day with the parcours ahead. I knew we had the hilly Pennine section once again and then the long long stage to to Malton. My hope was to get there in the evening and head onto Hessle for a sleep. It was very warm by 10am as the road started to rise more frequently and so going was again very steady. I passed a cyclist struggling with a broken front hub on one climb nearing Alston. Unable to offer anything of use, I remembered that I’d saved the number of a mechanic offering help on this section. I passed on the number to him and bade farewell, hoping that he’d be able to get sorted. We were only a few km from Alston so I knew he’d be able to make it to civilisation fairly easily and hopefully get his bike repaired. I paused in the market square at Alston to get more water and have an ice lolly as it was very hot now and I had the big climbs to come. I had heard of several riders taking the closed road over Yad Moss but I knew I would feel like I hadn’t done the ride properly if I didn’t follow the mandatory route. So I turned left where others were continuing straight on and accepted my fate! I took Killhope Cross steadily and made it over, albeit very slowly, conscious of pushing my knee too hard.I paused again at St Johns Chapel for a coke before heading up Chapel Fell. This was a different story and I ended up having to push the bike up on one of the sections towards the top. I was not alone! Drew’s van of delights awaited at the top and I took a rest here to chat and regain my breath before heading on knowing that the worst of the climbing was now done. Barnard Castle welcomed me at 15:03 along with a good lunch.
I booked a massage for the first available slot at 16:00 but another one came up at 15:50 which I swapped into. However in my tired state as I walked away I only had the 16:00 time in my head. So I later turned up for my massage after a snooze on the grass having missed my slot. I was so cross with myself as I knew it would have really helped my aching knees. I apologised profusely for wasting the physio’s time by using your a slot no-one could use but he was very understanding.
It was still hot in the afternoon sun on the way to Malton and I needed another lolly stop at Barton Truck stop and later had to pause for a siesta on some inviting grass at one stage.
It was now a proper Audax as I had stopped at a garage forecourt! I was relieved this was a less hilly route than the Northbound section. I got to Malton at 23:05 and was too tired to continue to Hessle so I decided to have a couple of hours of sleep and then set off to Hessle.
Thursday 11th August
Malton >> St Ives (273km, elapsed time 20:30)
I left for Hessle in the early hours of Thursday morning and it was soon cold. I remembered some of this route in reverse so knew I had a few steep climbs to do fairly early on. At the top of one I started to ride with another rider. He turned out to be a very experienced and fast audaxer who had done many LELs and 24hr TTs very quickly so I was definitely slowing him down, but I think we were both glad of the company in the dark. There was a very dense fog for large portions of this leg and visibility was very low. I was glad of my backup light as I was able to turn that on too in order to try to see a little more. I didn’t want to go too quick in such conditions as the road could be up to anything.
We arrived at Hessle (06:03) where I had my bag drop. I had a shower and did quite a bit of faffing in sorting out my bag and offloading some stuff into my bag drop. I also decided I’d have about half an hour snooze. I could have had longer but I was keen to press on as I had not been adding anything meaningful to my time buffer and remained paranoid about time consuming mechanical issues.
Again, it was quickly hot and I had to stop a few times, feeling drowsy. The climbs weren’t bad by previous standards, but they were sapping at this stage of the ride. A local cyclist had come out to the route with their vehicle and was offering fig rolls and Tunnock’s caramels. I’d just missed the Cokes — my fault for stopping for a snooze!
Louth eventually happened at 11:44 and I had now cycled further than PBP and was now in new distance territory. I arrived somewhat dazed in the heat and needed to take advantage of the cold Coke that was for sale as well as the cold squash and ice that volunteers were giving out. I met some randonneurs from the USA and chatted with my VC167 friends before heading to the dormitory for a half hour sleep to get away from the midday sun and heat. If I had more time in hand I’d have waited longer and headed out when it was cooler but I knew I needed to press on with just over 50k to Boston.
I met up with a couple of other faster VC167 riders at Boston (16:15) who had got their much earlier, slept and we’re going to head out soon as it would be a bit cooler. I ate, filled bottles and settled down on the grass for another half hour snooze followed by a quick FaceTime home before setting off. I had about 6 hours in hand on the original time limit when I arrived so with just 230k to go of flat riding I was finally beginning to think it would be possible as long as I avoided injury or catastrophic mechanical issue.
Upon leaving Boston I ended up in a group of German cyclists. They were going slightly quicker than i wanted to go but I had met one of them earlier on the Killhope Cross climb so I was keen to chat for a bit but I knew I couldn’t stay with them for long as I didn’t want to push my knee too far. I needed to stop for water at a service station and by the time I’d finished they were up the road. If I was feeling better, it would have been a great group to make good progress across the fens to St Ives, but I knew it was the sensible choice.
I rode with another guy on and off who had done the Pan Celtic a couple of weeks before and we shared a bit of the boring ride to St Ives. I was really tired so can only apologise for my lack of any interesting (or indeed any, at times) conversation! There was at least no headwind and was in fact a slightly favourable cross-tailwind but as I want really able to push I wasn’t able to take too much advantage of it.
St Ives finally arrived at 22:48 and I headed straight for the beds. I knew it would be hot again tomorrow, so I just wanted to get a couple of hours and finish the ride before it got too hot. I asked for a 1am wake up. I had left my earplugs on my bike and there was an AWFUL snorer (and that’s saying something against some stiff competition!) but thankfully there were some spares at the front so I used those and fell straight to sleep.
Friday 12th August
St Ives >> London (116km, elapsed time 6:47)
I headed out in the early hours and negotiated the guided busway to Cambridge. After truly awful cycling infrastructure in Edinburgh, this was like riding in the future! I imagine those trying to traverse Cambridge in the day would have had a tougher job of it, but I really enjoyed this section. Then after leaving Cambridge, the kms ticked by quite slowly. At this stage of a ride, time can do funny things. On one hand you’re nearly done, so you feel like it should go by quickly, but in reality you still have further to cycle than many cycling friends do on a long weekend ride and so it takes as long as it does and this feels like it’s dragging.
On the way to Gt Easton I see signs for ‘Debden’ which plays with my mind as the finish is at Debden Green. Deliberately annoying routing?
Finally arriving at Gt Easton at 05:50, I have some beans on toast and am in good spirits. I now allow myself to believe I will complete the ride and set off for the finish. I know there’s a few nasty little hills, but I finally allow myself to push harder on the climbs and make good progress. We cross the M11 and M25 and I know the end is coming.
On PBP I was filled with such emotion as I approached the finish, giving in to the tears as I had overcome so much with my injury and with the feeling that I wouldn’t finish finally being lifted. I didn’t have that this time. I thought I would, having put so much into training, with the year delay to the ride and with trying to keep injury at bay, but I just felt a bit empty at the finish. I was ushered to the finishing table and collected my medal, but my overall feeling was of relief rather than of elation.
I had finished in 118hr and 25mins, so I’d met my aim of completing within the original time limit of 125hrs.
My brevet card was taken from me and I felt a bit lost. My constant companion for the past 5 days (especially as I hadn’t received a lanyard and so had to take extra care to ensure it was kept safe and not dropped in a control) now no longer required.
There were no teammates around so I FaceTimed home and then headed back to the hotel for well-earned sleep in the heat.
The ride back to the hotel was about 8km and quite hilly and it was already hot.
There were quite a few teammates tucking into breakfast so I got changed quickly and joined them to commence the post-ride debrief. The achievement had begun to sink in and I began to feel proud of myself.
LEL. Completed it mate.