www.londonedinburghlondon.com - "AN AMAZING CYCLING ADVENTURE
This summer, 1,000 riders from 33 countries will cycle 1400 kilometres from London to Edinburgh and back again in under five days.
Riding through some of the most beautiful scenery in Britain, they will rely on self-sufficiency, camaraderie, and the hospitality of hundreds to complete an epic cycling challenge."
Just over a year ago, in June 2012, I took part in my first cycling challenge. It was a charity ride over 5 days, in Madagascar, for a charity called Transaid. The challenge was done on mountains bikes, although most of the ride was done on tarmac. I had the time of my life at a point when i was doing a bit of soul-searching. I met great people, enjoyed amazing support from the locals cheering us as we cycled past, Tour-style, and had a lot of fun and pleasure riding. We were doing about 100km per day, and the terrain was quite hilly ("ondulating", our guide kept on saying... I wish i knew about Strava back then to find out how much we actually climbed!). So nothing too strenuous for experienced cyclists, but on heavy mountain bike, and having simply done spin session and a couple of flat rides in Wiltshire as training, I coped surprisingly well with five days in the saddle, and happily discovered that along with riding came a culture of food stops and banter in equal frequency and amount: lots! My kind of sport. Little did I know then that this first challenge was the first step on a slippery slope leading to a second fantastic cycling adventure.
Just before the end of 2012, I started posting on Facebook a call for ideas for new year's resolutions. Some of the friends i made in Mada, who were "proper cyclists", encouraged me to start road cycling. It did not feel challenging enough: I needed a more specific goal. This is when someone advised me: there was a challenge that would take place in the summer, a challenge that only took place every 4 years. The name was a bit daunting: London Edinburgh London. But not bothering reading the small prints, I figured, I can do it in my own time, it sounds like a great trip across the UK. So I registered my interest, got on the Facebook group, and signed up late on the 4th of January as soon as the lines opened. It almost was feeling still like a joke then, something so out of the norm that you want to keep on going through nearly absurd steps just to see how far it will take you. Still, I had signed up and paid for an entry to this fully organised long-distance bike ride, so I was going to do my best. First things first: i needed a bike.
With a lot of excellent advice form a friend, and after a couple of failed bids on eBay, I managed to take advantage of the sales and got a Caad 10. I received it at the Evans cycles stores on the 12th of january, and fell in love with it immediately. From then, i would start cycling every week-end for one long distance ride, 100k to 100 miles to start of with, whether it would rain, freeze or eventually, at long last, shine. I became an adept of audax rides, and it is on my second audax that I got my first encounter with the LFCC (Rutland and beyond). Who could ever forget Steve Hill's welcome to the LFCC's club house, in full orange high visibility uniform, kindly showing me where to park my car, and pointing at the friendly riders from the friendly cycling club who would help me follow the route.
My plan was to get accustomed to riding on road until the spring, then aim for a 200k, and a 300k before the summer. Through chance encounters at audax rides and word of mouth, I found two other LEL challengers from Nottingham, where I lived then, who would be experienced and kind enough to guide me in my preparation and possibly team up with me during the event if i proved worthy by then. Mark and Colin are two experienced riders, with plenty of mileage in their legs and a good chunk of their respective 59 and 69 years of age spent in the saddle. Moreover, Mark had completed the LEL in 2009, when the weather and gale-force winds had decimated the contenders and scarred many a cyclist for life. So I would listen and learn with respect and awe. Worth noting as well that cycling had become a double passion for me by the end of February, developing a special interest for an LFCC member (no, not Steve Hill this time, in spite of the fetching orange body suit).
I faced into my first 300k in May, for an audax from Nottingham to Skeggy and back. Quite flat so it should not be too traumatic for a first time on this distance - or that is what I thought. The first half was decent enough, but as we got towards the sea, the wind really picked up, a headwind all the way back through the plains, a real challenge. Throw in a storm near Lincoln for good measure. I hit a wall when we got into Nottinghamshire. I had misjudged the amount of food I need to continuously ingest in order to function when riding the whole day. I had to stop, then start again at a granny 7mph for a bit (I could not believe the sat nav!), before the energy gels finally kicked in and I could finish the ride. My confidence was a bit shaken, to feel so low physically on a ride a couple of months away from the LEL when I would have to go through this distance every day for 5 days. But I had learnt lots in terms of "riding within myself" and my determination was still strong.
I had a second chance at the distance, or twice the distance, at the beginning of July. 600k over two days, as a last test, with Mark and Colin. By then, i had stepped up my training with a first "cycling holiday" in the South of France, and 3 days cycling with friends from the Transaid ride from Lancaster to Edinburgh in June. And it paid off. The 600 went really well, the route Colin had prepared was lovely, the weather was amazing, and I felt great. Three weeks to go to the start.
The strategy for the LEL had been decided by my elders: Colin, Mark and I would cycle as far as possible every day by day light, with limited riding at night, trying to use night time for sleep. Simple. This meant keeping to an average of about 15 mph and stops to about 30 to 40 minutes at the controls that were peppered along the course every 40/50 miles. We would get the practical and moral support from both Colin's wife, and LFCC's own amazing (flourish) Luke Turnbull (flourish again). Luke and I arrived in Loughton on the day before the start so that i could register and get rider's number (C22) and my LEL bottle and jersey.
We were lucky enough to have a very early start on the Sunday morning, 06:15. We were part of the second group of 50 to be released on the LEL course, out of 1,000. We planned on riding from Loughton to Pocklington: 335k, 4 controls and a relatively flat course with 2,186 m climb for the first day. The route outside of London was gently hilly, then we were on the fens with a bit of lovely tailwind. We bunched with some of the riders that had started at the same time as us, from all across the world. Many from the US had nice old fashion jerseys and little riders tags from the Race Across America, there were some Germans riding in fancy aerodynamic soapbox pedal cars (recumbent "bullet" bikes aka velomobiles), Poles in skin-suits, Frenchmen boasting PBP credentials, highly motivated Taiwanese, a few couples on tandems shouting at each other in various languages . The stats said, therere were about 6% women at the start, so with the early start and the good pace, I managed to claim the "first lady at the control" title and applause for the first three controls: St Ives, Kirton and Market Rasen.
At each control, our routine becomes well coordinated: signing in and getting our brevet card stamped, filling water bottles, using the loo, and eating as much as possible in the rest of the time allowed for each break on Colin's schedule. All the food is "free" - included in the registration fee. It is quite varied at each control and between controls. Because the controls are usually large schools, it feels very much like being a pupil again. Lots of pasta of course, always a bit of cake, sometimes rice or potatoes for a change. Heaps of bananas. Bread. More pasta. More cake. After two or three days, the appearance of a bit of crunchy lettuce or sliced tomatoes is a blessing. But overall, the abundance of food to eat or take away is striking. And everywhere, the volunteers can't be helpful and supportive enough, smiling and encouraging. In most places, they are up before dawn and hardly get any sleep at night, serving the continuous flow of riders, cleaning up plates, floors and toilets, booking beds, or fixing bikes, painful limbs or sunken morale. It is amazing how the diversity of riders is mirrored by the volunteers. From around the world, they have come to the event and dedicated their time, sacrificed holiday time, spent away money, all of that to support us.
After Market Rasen, the route started to become hillier, and the weather changed dramatically to thunder and rain. We carried on nonetheless, and arrived in Pocklington in the evening. Along with a great, great many riders. With the good weather and all having started within a few hours of one another, many of us had decided to sleep there. There would be a lot of bed sharing, people would be woken up forcibly to free up the air mattresses for the next lot every three hours all through the night. Fortunately, not for us. Luke, and Colin's wife Rosy, had managed to find us a motel to sleep into and enjoy a proper 6-hour rest. At the end of this first day, I feel energetic still, confident, and hungry.
The next morning we left the hotel at 4:30 to eat the breakfast at the control and set off by 5am in a very fresh and misty morning. Planned for today: 293k of hilly, sometimes quite steep (who knew there was a cat 3 in the UK? in Lincolnshire??!) but not for too long - 2870m - and through very scenic countryside. We stopped at Thirsk first, then we caught the wheels of fast riders from Britany and reached Barnard Castle. After BC came the strangely beautiful hills of Yad Moss: I really enjoyed its bare landscape, in spite of the wind and a bit of cold drizzle. There were always a few LEL riders around wherever you were, and over a stretch you would start expecting spotting some newly familiar faces and bikes. Most of the time we were all quite silent, either saving the energy to last the distance, or because of the language barrier, or lost in our own thoughts.
Out of Yad Moss there was a steep paved slope through a town (Alston?), the kind of slope you don't want to see because you know you will have to climb it on the way back. Then we rode to Brampton, again the road is quite lumpy but pleasant. So far, so good: i don't feel tired, so I am quite happy to ride on to Moffat to close the day. Luke and Rosy have sorted out another hotel near the control. Luckily there were some rooms available: after the scenes of people sleeping it rough on the canteen floor of Pocklington, we play it safe.. and comfortable. It is gLamEL.
I am mentally ready for something i feel could be the hardest day, because of a mix of tiredness and Scottish landscape. But actually, it all starts well and at a good pace in the dewy morning. We arrive in Edinburgh early for a second breakfast. We ride with a Brazilian who lived in London for years before going back to his country. He has a very philosophical approach to cycling, a bit mystical too, so we chat about start-up businesses in South America and meditation in monasteries of Nepal. We arrive in Traquair just before lunch time. There are amazing iced cakes with the number of kilometres left to London, messages of encouragement as well. And they have porridge too. Third breakfast it is! One of the volunteers is wearing a red kilt and they serve a thimble of whiskey.
The cycling is about to get tough though, on the road to Eskadelmuir. It is getting very windy, headwind of course, a bit wet and very hilly too. I eat a banana between hills: I need the sugar to get me going to the control. There are some easier moments at times: we ride past beautiful golf clubs, the tarmac is smooth around these. And when there is a long uphill, there is bound to be a long downhill too! Easier for us, but not so much for a rider on a fixie: not only does he fight up the hills, zigzagging up the slopes, but when he flies down hill, I am amazed at the speed of his feet. So between the speedy hills and the spectacle of the fixie show, we arrive quickly to Eskadelmuir.
I suddenly realise that I must have dropped my brevet card on the road somewhere. iIblame the banana I pulled out of my pocket... must have caught to the plastic wallet protecting the card. I am a bit gutted really. All the riders' moves are recorded on computers, so that followers can track our progress online so I am sure somehow I won't be disqualified. But I am disappointed to lose the memories: each control has a special commemorative stamp, with a picture related to the site. The cards are sent to Paris to be homologated at the end of the event and eventually will be sent back to the participants. In short, they are a key part of the adventure. I try not to be disappointed too much, I let the people responsible for the control know about it, and get into the control to get a meal.
Eskadelmuir is a tiny control, a very small disaffected school in the middle of nowhere. I meet there with a volunteer who was an organiser on my very first audax, the Mere Century from Cheadle back in January. We have a bit of a chat, then someone taps on my shoulder: "Are you the lady who has lost her card?". Utter miracle: my card has just been brought back by a woman rider from Derbyshire, an angel on a bike, Sainte Denise! Not only did she spot it on the road, but she stopped, walked back a little to catch it from flying away and brought it to the control. On the third day of an event like that, when most people feel quite tired, riding in the wind, it is such a generous act to stop half way on a hill and pick up a stranger's card.
I am in great spirits again, thanks to Denise. The local press takes a picture of our little group enjoying the meal, and off we go again. Across to England again, and to Brampton again. In front of us, a steep hill of peddles, then Yad Moss. I feel good and upbeat, but Colin is flagging. A lot. He has not been eating much in the last day and a half and his batteries are running low. We still have quite a bit to do until Barnard Castle where we will meet our supporters Luke and Rosy. So on we go, with regular stops to wait for one another. The night falls, and it is getting cool, Colin is not too confident riding in the dark so it does not help his morale, but we are slowly progressing, and arrive into Barnard Castle (on top of a hill, of course) a bit before midnight. Phew, that was testing, and I can't wait for a bed. Luke and Rosy are there, they have found us a place to stay again. I am very tired but it is important to eat, and i also take a shower before riding on the 500 yards to the hotel to crash on my bed. Muscles are a bit painful, and the room is really hot, but as soon as I assume a horizontal position, i am gone! 313k, 3,577m ascent, Scotland in and out.
Actually the toughest one, when i was expecting that by then, London would be such a magnet that my bike would just fly down to it. Not quite. We are back in the steep hills climbed on the way out. I had fresh legs then, not so fresh now. There are two big ones I am dreading especially, and indeed, once the second one is tackled, my left leg is aching, the ITB is flaring up big time, pulling on the knee and hurting along the thigh up to the hip. I keep pushing but 5 miles to Pocklington and I am in pain, focused on breathing deeply, on the road ahead of me, on Luke awaiting for me at the control (with hopefully ibuprofen in his pockets). I can't speak: words stuck to the back of my throat and struggling to contain the emotion, part frustration, part, I suppose, worry, that we are only half way through the day.
The weather is grey and damp. After the control, we are off again and for a while the ibuprofen works... that is, until about the Humber bridge. Then it hurts again quite a lot, and the next control is still far away! Fortunately Mark has got strong pain killers from a back injury he got a long time ago. I take a couple and it numbs the pain a bit, but I am quite a bit slower than I should be. Mark and Colin are patient and helpful. We meet a few other riders that are also hitting some limits: a couple of ladies from the US one of whom is quite sleep-deprived and struggling. a couple on a tandem speaking really loud... are they arguing? No idea, it is probably Dutch and they are still pedalling faster than i am so no reason for concern.
At long last we get to Market Rasen after 8pm. I feel very tired and I need to do something to my legs before I can go on again otherwise I will be very slow again for sure and we could be in for a long and painful night. We have plans to sleep at the next control, or just outside, in Kirton. Colin asks to leave soon so he can avoid riding too much in the dark, while Mark will wait for me to get a massage at Market Rasen. My left leg is really painful and I have been compensating with my right leg so my right Achille's is very warm and swelling up. Not a pretty picture! I am so grateful for the help I am getting though, in particular from Evelina. She is a volunteer from Poland who lives in Britain and is a friend from the main organiser of the LEL and got recruited for her cheerfulness, and her skills as a trainee physio. She gives me a long massage on the left leg - the Achille's cannot be worked on as it is inflamed. She has no previous experience of cycling and cyclists. The first thing she asked me was to pull down my cycling shorts, then when I explained the realities of the outfit, she giggled and said: "So, all these people are walking around without underwear?"! She is amazed at our craziness, and awards me a special Crazy Person's Award, for doing it as a "beginner".
After the massage and the unplanned extended rest it provides me, i feel a lot better, refreshed and with a loosened leg. Colin has been gone for an hour when Mark and I hit the road. The night is actually lovely: calm, relatively warm, no wind and clear skies. The navigation is relatively easy and we are getting back into flatter territory. All these factors put together, and the friendly, supportive company of Mark, make for a great and peaceful ride. It is the first time i ride in the night intentionally and for a longer time, if I don't really count the late arrival into Barnard Castle the previous night. And actually, it feels also quite different as Colin is not around to moan about night riding, stomach cramps, haemorrhoid cream application or other recurring pleasantries his conversation on the bike bring. Mark and I chat away and cycle steadily, and we arrive at the hotel around 12:45. It feels late after 4 days of cycling, but it is not too bad for someone who had to contain a few whimpering noises and French expletives about her leg a few hours earlier! Colin had apparently arrived 20 minutes before. So all in all, after 276k and 2099m of ascent that felt like twice as many but also a nice relaxing ride chatting under the starry sky, the team was reunited at the fantastic find of Luke's for the night (best hotel bed ever). I could not be happier.
Or could i? The next morning i am bouncing up and down. We ride to the Kirton control for breakfast and i am ecstatic: it is the last day, we have a mostly flat road ahead of us, and a shorter day with only 200k to go to London! I meet Mike from the LFCC at the control: he has ridden the leg to Kirton early morning so he is a bit tired, but we are both happy of this chance encounter so close to the finish and it cheers us on to face the heat scheduled for the day. We are riding on the fens again, and it is baking hot and with a bit of headwind. Not as bad as it could be though remembering Skeggy. And there is more company around: more riders bunching up sometimes or racing one another (some people just don't learn). We are no racers, so we are pacing ourselves but steadily progressing.
Eventually we get out of the fens, and the scenery becomes a bit more varied. We are cycling with a group of French people so we strike a nice conversation about the PBP, about jobs, families, a bit of everything. We stop for drinks or ice creams in a little village of thatch-roofed cottages, then go on together again. But our little team has to stop as Colin's neck is starting to give up after the 4 days of riding: he has acute muscle pain and his neck can't carry his head properly. Mark and I are happy to stop regularly whenever a nice bit of shade can be found, to wait for Colin to catch up. Mark is a bit tired after having led us through the wind of the fens. I am still bouncing and chatting away, the excitement gets stronger as we get closer to London. Rosy and Luke cannot come to the last two controls before London - it has been sometimes the case along the way, when the controls are especially tiny or remote like Traquair and Eskadelmuir. But the volunteers are fantastic and I am so happy and can't smile broadly enough.
At Great Eaton the control is buzzing with riders, and conversations spontaneously start across tables. We meet with one rider who is a bit upset: his team mate is suffering from the neck like Colin, except that he has been suffering for the whole day to the point that he cannot lift his head at all. He has just called his wife to come and pick him up at GE. Quitting the event 45k from the finishing line, I can't believe this, it can't happen! I try to convince the man with the pain in the neck - much later identified as Ron - that he is too close to the finish line to let go. It is about 5pm, so he has over 12 hours to finish, only 45k to go with a few rolling hills and a bit of traffic. I give him a massage with some ibuprofen cream that Colin kindly shares with Ron, give him a pep talk also, and prescribe a proper rest, lying on one of the inflatable beds for an hour without moving. I also suggest taking the saddle down a bit and the handlebars as high as they can go, to help his whole back carry the head rather than straining the neck. Ron seems a bit more confident and calls his wife to say he will try to finish. Colin, Mark and I leave the control, and I keep my fingers crossed that this will work...
I take the psychological lead for the last few miles, to put a stop to moans about neck pains and traffic: I chat away with Colin, sometimes joking, pricking his pride gently, spurring him on to the finishing line and focusing him on the pint of beer that awaits him with a pub meal when we get there. My strategy works! Our pace picks up as the heat comes down and the evening approaches. We ride through Hertfordshire at a good speed, in an improved mood with a bit of banter going on. We arrive, all on a high, in Loughton just before 8pm. I am so happy to get to the finish where Luke and Rosy are waiting for us. Luke even got some champagne! I feel very good - must be the adrenaline - though my right ankle starts looking like a melon. We have finished the ride, we are sipping in champagne glasses Luke has borrowed from the hotel (another one, celebratory and posh one this time), and we are all smiling, smiling, smiling. One hour and a bit later, after a shower, some after-sun cream on the brown lines of my tan, and ice on my ankle, we are celebrating some more at the local with a good meal. Job done!
The LEL has been a fantastic adventure. All the memories are still a bit blurred in my mind: some riders have numb fingers for months after the event, I have a numb memory where all the moments blend into a picture of the British countryside, me, my Caad 10, and the energy I draw from the support of everyone around me and thinking of me from further away. In fact, I took great pleasure in riding it, and even if there were a couple of tough moments, I enjoyed it very much. This is thanks to the great organisation of the event, the amazing volunteers, the advice and experience of my team mates. And above all, the fantastic, loving support of Luke. His help has been priceless at the controls, and in organising hotel rooms for all of us, taking care of our luggage so we would not have to worry about bag drops, patiently nursing me and my legs in the evenings, cheering me on with kind words, or getting creative to find me some cold stuff to rest my ankle on (frozen sliced bread, a cold bottle of milkshake, a cool bottle of Pepsi max). Without him, this would not have been possible. I love you x