London Edinburgh London 2017, Mark Moroney

I first learned of London Edinburgh London, LEL, back in 2015 when registering for Paris-Brest-Paris. The event’s distance struck me as immense on that warm August Parisian day and I could not foresee myself ever being brave enough to tackle this “giant”. Little did I know what the future would bring!

On Sunday 30/07/17 the LEL atmosphere was fairly tense as 1500 riders from all over gathered for the start of this epic challenge. No less trepidatious than the other participants I also considered myself  lucky enough to be there albeit knowing that 5 days of sometimes fun and sometimes suffering laid ahead.

Here are some of many experiences in riding 1400 km plus up and down England/Scotland’s land.

After saying farewell to my favourite supporter Lori I headed out of the school and immediately north. Unfortunately 3 km into the ride when just settling down I noticed an absence of power(not that I ever produce much!!) and my chain was broken. Pulling in I was left for dead by my companions and about start the messy work of reconnecting the chain when a friendly German appeared as if by magic and indicated that I had arrived at the back door of Davenant School,our starting point!

Twas a miracle or maybe even some karma. I followed his lead and headed thru a back gate and 300m on where later groups of riders were now assembling for their start. The mechanic on duty fitted me a new chain quickly and 35 stg lighter and 45 mins later than planned I was on my way again.

Heading out thru N London suburbs traffic was light altho’ drivers did seem more aggressive than I am used to in the emerald isle. In fact I learned at the first check-point in St Ives that Helen, one of our Audax Ireland riders, had been forced to bail into a nettle patch by an oncoming ruthless driver.

The 5 day ride was punctuated by the many interesting people I met on my trip and the first of these was Dan from Shropshire who was riding a trike and when I asked him why he said it was fun and his next purchase for his stable was a trike tandem! He was a well travelled rider and among his adventures was a 89 day tandem trek across Canada with his wife(must be love I commented), a 10 day trek across Iceland, and a 1200 km race in Adelaide, Australia in preparation for LEL.

St Ives school was our first control and here I could see how well the LEL is organized. Card stamping was always efficient and followed by nutrition replenishment at the well stocked cafeteria. So far as I could see all work is by volunteers and these were mainly, friendly, efficient and helpful. Food was always tasty and presented well and the muffins were top class at many venues(kudos to LEL!). The only thing I missed was a good flat white!!

Time does seem to slip by very quickly on LEL, although sometimes not when suffering against a headwind or up a long steep climb, and I had to be really focussed to avoid “wasting” it at a welcoming control. Minutes, even hours lost at a control are really hard to claw back on the road, especially when tired as the days roll by!

Stage 2 of LEL takes in the flat lands of England’s west country and includes some of the Fen lands which is exposed to wind but today luckily no rain. For most of the ride the wind was WSW and mostly blew strongly. (On the return journey thru the Fens, Thursday, it was like cycling against a brick wall! )

Heading up to Spalding I got in with some strong groups including a smartly turned out English shoe shop keeper from Geneva who was berating the fact that he had not brought a lighter bike than his beautiful hand built steel m/c. Unfortunately I saw the same lad head off in a car at one of the Scottish checkpoints, his race done, his spirit unbroken!

The countryside started to change as we left the Essex flatlands and rolling climbs replaced long straight roads.  A feature for several hundred kms in this area was the high hedge rows protecting the road from errant cross winds but also preventing a view of any surrounding countryside. It sometimes felt as if you were cycling in a long hedge enclosed tunnel. This made for several hours of boring riding which was accentuated in darkness.

I was making good progress north and taking in necessary nutrition at the food stops in Spalding and Louth and hence decided to plow on to Pocklington where I would snatch a few valuable hours shut eye.

Heading towards Hull and the massive Humber estuary the crowds were well thinned out and as I approached the massive Humber estuary my navigation accomplices, Garmin and Wahoo Elemnt, were being tested to ensure I traversed this section without a wayward step. The view from the bridge onto the now darkened waterway was amazing and I felt that I had reached a watershed in my epic.

Luckily I hooked up with a knowledgeable rider on the north side of the estuary and I followed her to escape the estuary environs and keep heading north.

Travelling on an Audax ride requires cycling skills, fitness and also navigational expertise. More mature Audax cyclists stick to the detailed route sheets provided. As well as requiring an ability to interpret the directions you also need to make sure the route map is kept dry during your adventure. More recent development in Garmin, Wahoo, Lezyne, etc has reduced a need to rely on route maps but as I know to my cost at PBP, Garmin, etc do have weaknesses and can let you down! So I was relying on two electronic systems, route sheets and sometimes asking for directions!

I reached Pocklington well after midnight on Monday morning as the 97 km from Louth were hilly, I was tired and darkness had well settled in(“your land speed seems to reduce dramatically when it gets dark”, quote from Moroney’s theory of cycling). Still I was happy as with 340km in the bag it had been a good day and a welcome few hours sleep seemed attainable.

Pocklington although well served by well-meaning volunteers was badly laid out. The control centre was in the middle of the cafeteria, showers were in a not adjacent building and sleeping facilities were distant again from these latter spaces. It was a good place for me to loose time faffing and I duly did so.

I first ate(OK), I then went for a 3 hour sleep and only managed max 1.5 hours(the hall was huge catering for about 180 people and many of those insisted on repacking their pannier bags right next to their sleeping mattress), I then had a shower(should have done this first!) and I then ate again. I wasn’t really efficient with my stop over.

Thirsk was next my target destination and leaving Pocklington at about 0700 I was hopeful of being well into Scotland before I rested. Rolling, leg sapping hills were now well evident and my initial day’s energy and enthusiasm was slightly flagging. I conversed with several interesting people, among them three different Americans whose stories ranged from horrific cycling accidents, working for Netflix cycling challenges in NY city!

The day was going fairly well until we arrived at the historic Castle Howard with its magnificent buildings and grounds. I knew that the climbing legs were to be challenged when the tourist sign proclaimed the arrival of the “hilly Castle Howard area”. Not to disappoint me the hills came thick and heavy in this area. Another American and I diverted into the Castle for a non-existent photo op. The gatekeeper on seeing my return down a one way avenue indicated violently that I should retrace my steps back down a vicious hill before continuing my travels. I was having none of this. This elevation had been hard earned so I continued past his gesticulation leaving him to challenge my American “partner”.

Thirsk is notable for its race course but I sped past briefly noting its fine central layout on my way to Barnard Castle and the entrance to some serious climbing. Warming up the legs on more rolling hills I passed thru the pretty village of Barton known for its forded river crossing. The adjacent footbridge seemed more cycle suitable and I contented myself with a photo shot of four wheeled steel vehicles charging through the water a rate of knots.

The pretty single lane wooden bridge at Whorlton set amongst the tree clad river made a beautiful scene and I stopped for some photos here before finding that the gradient up from the river presented a good challenge to my lowest 36×32 gear!

Castle Barnard school was in sight and as I climbed into the scenic grounds I could understand why such a beautiful place had been chosen to locate a LEL control. The dining hall where we ate had wood panelled walls, plaques to many former pupils and showed off a historical building which demanded more time to investigate. The food here was again excellent and altho’ I would like to linger I headed off to tackle the infamous Yad Moss and it’s challenging approaches.

Yad Moss peaks at 600m(!!) and its steady climb is one which tests out even the most seasoned legs. The wind from the west was strong as as I headed for the peak. In the darkness I could see a long string of riders ahead and behind. I chatted with a young English woman who was carrying what seemed an awfully big pack. On enquiry she admitted it was mighty uncomfortable but that her small frame size mitigated against any suitable bike bag.

The weather had also become colder and I stopped near the top to put on my best Gabba and full winter gloves. On reaching the peak I noted that the highest road climb in Ireland doesn’t come close and felt good to have bested this Yorkshire giant.

The road from the summit goes down sharply in several areas and fortunately no riders had been bested by the twisting road. Caution was necessary as we headed thru the village of Alston where the descent attained 15% and full on braking was often necessary.

Brampton was my next destination. Rolling hills with some steeper test were ahead before I could consider a few hours rest. Cycling in the dark is a challenge in itself notably on new roads. Riding solo as I did for much of this leg I needed to prod myself to maintain a reasonable speed.

Brampton was a hive of activity when I reached the check-point at the local school. Sleeping accommodation was at a premium and after a few words of encouragement from fellow Irish Audaxer Dan(?) I headed for the “lounge” where a volunteer said I was welcome to bed down. The lounge was a long corridor with dimmed lights, no mattresses and no blankets. Fortunately I had sent some spare cycle clothing to Brampton with the provided LEL “bag drop” and draping some spare leggings around me I quickly drifted off for the best 2 hours kip of the trip.

Invigorated with my brief rest I was on the road early on Tuesday eager to crack the Scottish section of the LEL. The weather was certainly cooler as we approached the border and I reached into my travel pack for more protection against the falling temperature. A brief halt at the border for a photo op, who wouldn’t??,  hardly disturbed my steady rhythm. Gretna Green was further reason for a photo as I contemplated the many couples who had started life together at the famous blacksmith’s shop. The first really heavy rain of the trip did its best to dampen the spirits as it descended in sheets. Typical Scottish weather I heard many declare in anger!

Nonetheless my spirits were high. I could feel the halfway point of my odyssey was in reach. Two women passed me at a clip and buoyed with over confidence I latched onto their train and began a very fast bit and bit session for several miles as we headed for Moffat. Riders who had sailed past earlier in the morning were now left for dead as we flew along and it felt good to be on the road.

The checkpoint at Moffat was in a modern school and the food available was of the usual high standard. After refuelling heartily I headed north towards Scotland’s capital in good spirits unaware that there was some climbing still to be done before that destination was reached.

The Devil’s Beef Tub rises up to 407m and is no mean test on any regular cycle. However, with 640 km of hard work done this climb taxed me fully as I now travelled a section of outstanding natural beauty which lead all the way to Edinburgh. We were on the A701 which is aptly labelled a scenic highway and has great vistas of Scotland’s Munros and “not” Munros on either side.

With each high speed descent I could feel my lack of sleep beginning to affect my control and rather than risk running out of road I decided to pull over for a quick 15 min nap to resharpen my reflexes. The ground on an entrance to a field was hard but comfortable and made for a good resting place before I resumed my ride refreshed.

The control at Edinburgh was gained via a cycle path and here the LEL organisers had posted useful red direction arrows to facilitate navigation to Gracemount school…..the halfway point!

Energy levels at Gracemount were high with the usual high level services provided to riders. My friend Nigel, recently domiciled in Glasgow, had driven to meet me bringing with him some fuel loaded home bread and peanut butter and after giving me a quick neck massage he and I set out south to London.

The full force of the southerly wind could now be felt as we headed via narrow, rolling lanes towards the Innerleithen check point. Even though Nigel was leading me on at what he felt was a reasonable pace I was having difficulty staying on his wheel. My energy levels were low and Nigel was having difficulty sheltering me from the full force of the sometimes gale force wind.

Between Edinburgh and Eskdalemuir there are four 400m peaks and with energy levels fairly sapped this was to be a really hard part of the LEL. After leading me up the first 400m peak against a fierce southerly wind Nigel turned back to Edinburgh and left me to forage forward alone. I was very grateful for his company and his hard work but now it was up to me.

Innerleithen was a small scale control point and I wasted little time checking in and refuelling. Darkness began to descend as I now headed for Eskdalemuir and a more isolated part of the LEL adventure. The challenge of the rolling road was taking its toll but I soldiered on resolved to make Brampton my next resting place. When I passed the Buddhist outpost of Kagyu Samye Ling with its impressive statues silhouetted eerily in the dark I knew I was approaching the control point having been advised of Samye Ling by my recent Scottish friend John W.

There was certainly a friendly atmosphere at Eskdalemuir as all the locals had come out to man this remote outpost and encourage riders. One of the volunteers was up from London to help, demonstrating the unique attraction of LEL. Refreshments were of the usual high standard and although the sleeping arrangements were attractive I was determined to reach Brampton and resolutely headed forward.

Darkness now fully engulfed me and with it my usual difficulty of maintaining night speed returned. The roll of the road was not as severe as before but each slight hill still presented quite a challenge. I was tired and eager to catch a few winks but still had to get thru Langholm and Longtown. The road here made some challenging diversions and in my tired state I made a few errors before eventually getting back on the direct road towards Brampton.

About 12 km from Brampton I was overcome by fatigue and collapsed in a heap onto the luckily soft grass verge. Rescue was, however, close by and a friendly group from London, Jim, Brad and Andy pulled me out of the ditch and insisted on providing a four star escort to my resting spot at Brampton.

The “lounge” now beckoned with its half star accommodation…a friendly floor, a darkened corridor. However, my mental state was at a fairly low point. I was overwrought from my days adventure, 310 km of hard cycling completed since I left Brampton was not a sap to a tired body, and my back-up battery was almost dead thus potentially affecting my GPS systems’ ability to perform. Things conspired against me and although dead tired I was unable to sleep, tossing and turning on the hard floor thinking of the 560 odd km still to go and all the reasons that I would not regain the start at Loughton.

Eventually 2 hours after laying low I grabbed a towel from a helpful volunteer and headed for a quick shower followed by breakfast in the crowded cafeteria. Brampton probably served the best porridge on the trip and thus fortified I headed out towards Alston and the control at Barnard Castle.

With the 600 m summit of Yad Moss to be crossed I knew what lay ahead. Leaving Brampton at 0500 I was feeling fairly low but a voice in my head kept muttering to me that I could still do it. So I ventured forth over some rolling, gradually rising terrain and my first objective the pretty village of Alston.

Alston lies deep in the Pennines and in normal circumstances would be a lovely spot to visit. The main cobbled street has a gradient which often touches 18%(!!!) and with tired legs and violent cross winds it presented a severe challenge. Some of the LEL contestants had taken advantage of the unofficial control to rest at Alston but none had faltered in their upward journey.

Further on and about 1 km from the summit a kind LEL supporter was dispensing coffee and flapjacks(I got the last one!) and the refreshment and chance to rest briefly and chat were well appreciated. A long downhill was some reward for the hard work completed and this was enjoyed before the road rose and fell again for the last few miles into scenic Barnard Castle.

I resolved to refuel quickly at Barnard Castle but before eating I made some effort to stretch as my back and neck were both feeling sore. I was in the middle of enjoying a delicious jam sponge, with custard, when a volunteer approached and asked me if I was in pain. Briefly I wondered if this were a trick question set up by the organizers! I was tempted to give an honest answer but held my tongue and simply replied how she had discerned my discomfort! She asked if I wanted to have a Reiki treatment to ease my back pain and with nothing to lose I agreed. As far as I could ascertain the Reiki consists of the practitioner’s dispensing positive energy into the client using her thought process and without physical contact.

So when my “friend” asked me to breathe in the colour light purple and breathe out dark purple I did my best to comply. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. We then chatted for a few minutes about the value of Reiki and the hope that my treatment would help ease my pain.

I’m not sure whether or not the Reiki worked but the advice I got about thinking positive and believing in myself and my ability was of great help. My spirits were low and strengthened by a new resolve I left Barnard Castle with a renewed vigour.

Heading for Thirsk I crossed the river Tees by the quaint single lane wooden bridge at Whorlton. Two friendly Englishmen, Dave and Bob, invited me to attach to their train and as the rain had started I was happy to take any assistance possible from their draft. The rolling roads were fairly uninteresting with the ubiquitous high hedgerows now more prominent and traffic density beginning to increase. I reached Thirsk about 4 p.m. on Wednesday and now felt pressure to keep going if I were to make the 117 hour finish deadline.

By 5 p.m. I was on the road again demonstrating that even when faffing is minimised much time is lost at a check point. Earlier in my travels I had discussed with Andy, one of the organizers, the way the seasoned Audaxers ensure time wasting is minimised by being fully focussed and awake when stopping.

The road to Pocklington passes through the Howardian hills home of the ancient Castle Howard. It’s obviously a lovely spot for a tourist visit but the area is punctuated by some very long steep uphills, several up to 11% gradient. Our route seemed to travel right around the vast estate and with the savage climbs taking their toll I could easily have done without this tourist side trip. I soldiered on and made up my mind to take a rest at Pocklington where I had stopped on the outward trip.

Despite only taking two hours sleep, it was after 1 a.m. on Thursday by the time I left Pocklington. The outward distance to this checkpoint was 340km and I felt that even in my present tired, worn state I could complete this distance by the appointed time.

However, I had forgotten that the way home differed from the way out and there was an extra check point at Great Easton and 20 additional kilometres to be factored in!

Once again my guidance systems were playing up and I was having difficulty finding my exit from Pocklington. Luckily I hooked up with a young Londoner, originally from Lithuania, who guided me onto the correct road and also discoursed at length about his life philosophy and why he was on the LEL road. Arnold proved an interesting companion and I learned much of his life in London and experiences as an emigrant in the vast metropolis. He told me also of his friend who was simulataneously competing in the unsupported 4000km Trans Continental bike race from Belgium to Greece, making our challenge seem puny.

We crossed the vast Humber Estuary via the impressive suspension bridge and it would be fair to say that this was one of the engineering highlights of the trip. Shortly thereafter Arnold decided to push on, perhaps wearying of my endless stories!!  However, he had looked after me well and we parted amicably as his youth was easily trumping my experience.

We were now entering into the flatlands of England and what should have been an easier part of the journey. However, the wind from the south seemed to blow ever harder on this Thursday morning as we left Spalding for St Ives via the Fens. The road through the Fens was open and exposed and very busy with impatient traffic of all types. The driving wind made it hard for me to keep above 14 kph and although many good “trains” passed I was unable to hold their wheels.

I was glad to reach Spalding and took advantage of some German cyclists to finish this part of the journey.

I had phoned ever patient Lori to meet somewhere on the road from Louth to Spalding but with my increased tiredness got the meeting place wrong. Luckily she was persistent and we met up in Crowland, outside Spalding. I took a 15 minute nap in the back of our car, refueled with a fresh sandwich, kissed my wife and headed on towards St Ives.

Still deluded by the distance to go I jumped on a fast moving peloton and enjoyed some good natured chat with a mixed group of Welsh and English cyclists as we worked together to lighten the load. It was interesting to note that even with this strong group of 12 cyclists we were only making 20 kph in the heavy wind!! We reached St Ives feeling fairly happy. Most of those in the group had “time in hand” but I was running out of time having now realised there was further to go than I had anticipated.

I checked in quickly, filled my water bottles, searched for a coke(unable to find one!) and headed through sprawling St Ives and onto Great Easton. I had only 120 km to do and in normal circumstances I would have found this not too much of a challenge. Unfortunately I was tired, I hadn’t slept for almost 24 hours, my Shermer’s neck problem was resurrecting itself and I was starting to have hallucinations.

Once again I struggled to exit the town. I hooked up with a “Russian” and we took what was designated a guided bus lane towards Cambridge. I knew little of this transportation system but quickly learned that guided bus lanes and bicycles do not mix well. My journey downhill was rudely abbreviated as I descended into a large shrub overgrown pit about two foot deep which was part of the rail system and acted like a wooden sleeper. I landed hard, hit my head(helmet saved me), scraped my arm and knee but luckily was otherwise unhurt.

My Russian accomplice had avoided the pit by keeping to the adjacent bike lane, where I should have been, and after shouting over at me to check my health he was never seen again. On rescuing my bike it seemed OK and somewhat chastened by my experience I headed along the bike path which ran exactly parallel to the bus way.

The surface on the bike path was really smooth and I now made good time, my senses having been sharpened by my near death experience. I was passed by a group of Englishmen and soon noticed that Jim and Brad, my two saviours from outside Brampton, were among them. They welcomed me into their peloton and we made good time as we passed through the historic university city of Cambridge. Brad knew the city and we sped along its intricate pedestrian and one way systems losing little time.

Things were now going well until Brad and Jim had to stop for a break as their hallucinations were getting severe. I was now left with two others who were not so friendly and soon left me in their wake.

Night time had well settled and we were in a remote part of the country which had some navigational challenges. The turns and twists in the road came frequently and in my tiredness I lost valuable time. My frustration increased as my speed decreased and we seemed to plunge into more unwelcoming territory. The rolling hills were made more difficult by the abundance of “loose chippings” of even finer variety than we use on roads in Ireland. Eventually well after 3 a.m. on Friday morning we reached the check point at Great Easton.

As usual this check point was well serviced and replete with friendly volunteers. One young volunteer was most positive about my chances of making Loughton by 6 a.m. I knew that the odds were against me as by now Shermers neck had taken firm hold and my hallucinations were fairly severe.

My mates Jim and Brad had now reappeared and vowed to escort me on this final leg. I was keen to go, and after Jim had a fag we headed off.

It was not to be. My physical condition meant that I could not keep my head up for any length of time. Jim and company were soon out of sight. I was now on a very busy commuter road and my hallucinations were beginning to worry me. One false move and I would be under the wheels of a fast moving, unforgiving car driver. I saw a friendly road side bench and lay down for a 15 minute nap and revitalisation. I was not cured but I felt I could ride on to the finish fairly safely.

I completed the last section of LEL fairly slowly. Tiredness and physical deterioration contributed to a less than exemplary finish. However, I also felt mentally depressed as I had missed my finish time by three hours. Perhaps I could have made that deficit up with better time management at check points?

I rolled over the finish line at Loughton just after 0900 on Friday, tired, sore, but unbowed. I felt I had achieved something. Lori was there to greet me and I was glad of her embrace. I checked in with my brevet card and received my finishers medal. The atmosphere was good as riders celebrated having completed 1441 km under some of the event’s most difficult conditions.

I am now recovering!!

LEL is a tough event. It is really well organized with excellent food stops and cheerful volunteers. The entry cost makes it fairly good value with food, sleeping and showers all included.

There are several really challenging climbs. The wind played a big part last week and in open exposed country that is always likely. Some roads are very badly surfaced, very busy and boring (high hedges).

If you want a challenge, train for the next edition in 2021. Seems far away but isn’t.

Long-distance cycling in Ireland