A Very Big Adventure

Club member Mike Kirby writes another great blog about his latest long distance ride

‘We have sweet and sour pork and would you like some jelly to follow’? said a kind lady at the last of the controls. It was 2 in the morning, around me, tired bodies lay inert on the floor, heads slumped across folded arms at tables, those awake, spoke in hushed tones. ‘Oh yes please’ I said, ‘and a cup of coffee please’. To be honest it would not have been my first choice, but I needed to eat and by that time I didn’t really care.

We were at the village hall at Great Eastern in Essex, surrounded by the amazing volunteers that make London Edinburgh London happen. My sweet and sour pork with some rice was hoovered up, followed by raspberry jelly, and then my fourth power-nap in the last 24 hours. I had left Malton in North Yorkshire at 2:30 in the morning, the warm air of the valley, giving way to thick mist as I climbed up out of the Vale of York and into the Yorkshire Wolds. Hopefully the last day of the LEL.

The bike, fully loaded

London Edinburgh London is an endurance cycling event run every four years. It is a fixed course between 20 points, or controls, which you must visit. These are staffed by volunteers whose cheerfulness at all hours of the night or day, reaffirms your faith in human nature.

LEL is 1540 kilometres – if you don’t get lost. That is like setting off from Banbury and riding to Nice. Aside from a medal, the only prize on offer is to get your name on the list of finishers, oh, and an all you can eat breakfast at the end. It is not a race, but you have to complete within 128 hours to get on the list. So, at 6am on Sunday morning the 7th of August myself along with around 1700 other people from literally all over the globe set off from a school on the outskirts of London and headed north filled with the hope and expectation that every new dawn should bring.

Each control is between 50 and 120kms apart. The first, in St Ives, near Cambridge was reached in about 4 hours. Then it was over the fens to Boston and a further 100kms away. The big sky of the fens loomed over the flat landscape and the hot wind started to blow into our faces, sapping energy.

The Fens

Pretty soon the first ‘hills’ shimmered in the distant heat haze, the Lincolnshire Wolds and the next control at Louth. The hills reminded the riders that their bikes were fully loaded with everything needed for 4 to 6 days of furious cycling. Legs, conditioned by over 200kms of flat riding, complained as the gradients kicked in.

All the controls had a choice of hot food and puddings – usually of the outstanding school dinners variety. My best intentions, to stop for a maximum of 20 minutes at each control, quickly disappeared. By the time I had ‘checked in’ and got my card stamped, used the loo, filled bottles, reset the Garmin for the next stage, made sure lights, tracker, nav and phone were charged enough to make it to next control, there wasn’t much time to eat. On day one I had pockets full of food but there is no substitute for proper food. So, the stops lengthened and targets recalculated.

I had ‘chunked-down’ the ride into Landmarks. St Ives and then The Lincolnshire Wolds, both places I lived for a while, then the Humber bridge, which was being built when I was at Uni in Hull. As we crossed the river, the sun sat just above the horizon to our left, the wind now whipping across us, whistling through the wires.

The Humber Bridge

My saddle had worked loose about an hour before the bridge. I had checked it in the dusky light and it seemed the head of the bolt had sheared off. I managed to balance on the moving seat but progress was slow. My mind was racing, did I have a plan B? Was the bike shop on the Anlaby Road still there? Could I make up the time after an early morning fix? But the guys at the control sat me down, gave me a coffee and told me to hang on a bit whilst they sorted it. Which they did. Amazing people, dealing with a long line of slightly panicky, very tired riders with quiet expertise and efficiency.

My saddle anxiety meant I had not charged my front light. Plan B time: A shouted question across the bike park: Is anyone going to Malton tonight? I have Jelly babies! A Police Inspector and an artist answered that yes, they were and yes, they would be happy to have me along and yes, if I needed to, I could follow their pool of light.

I had not mentioned that this was my first night ride as we rolled out of Hessle control, direction Malton at 10-30. The saddle had cost me a couple of hours, but it was good to be going North as the wind and the temperature dropped and we chatted into the night. It was oddly comforting to see that the red tail lights ahead were riders on the same mission and that we were lighting the way for those that followed, their jewel like front light twinkling in the darkness.

We arrived in Malton at 1-30 to noodles and rice and a sports hall full of air beds, packed with riders, snoring, farting, talking in their sleep and with a constant stream of riders coming in, and not a few leaving as well.

This is hopeless, I thought as my head hit the pillow, no chance of any sleep. Two and a half hours later I woke up, got up and hit the road again into the dawn at 5am. A few riders had the same idea, but for long stretches, utterly blissfully, it was just me and the sun rise.

Passing Castle Howard, rising out of the mist, the North Yorks Moors looming on my right, I got to Helmsley long before and shops and cafés opened. The hoped-for coffee and bacon roll would have to wait.

Out of Helmsley, towards Rievaulx Abbey LEL gets serious. There is a long and gradual climb out of the town, then a sharp left down a very narrow bumpy and gravel strewn road. The river systems of the North Yorkshire Moors run roughly North-South and we were heading East-West and what followed was two hours of torture, plunging down into steep valleys and grinding up the other side. But the views in the early morning sun were absolutely stunning, but progress was slow. Time to reset the targets once more.

After Barnard Castle control a long climb over into Teesdale. More gentle climbing took as past High Force waterfall, before a right turn onto Chapel Fell and the slog to the highest parts of the course. Apparently, Chapel fell from Teesdale is ‘easy’, the run down into Weardale consisted of five ramps of between 15 and 20% which we would have to tackle on the way back. Another gradual climb took us to the head of the Wear valley, where a vicious ramp took us over towards Alston, apparently the UK’s highest market town.

The control at Brampton was followed by a rapid run to Moffet by around midnight, into Scotland for the first time and some shut-eye. I arrived just in time to see my friendly police inspector leaving Moffet on her way to Edinburgh.

Over the hills towards Edinburgh catching tantalising glances of the bridges over the Forth Estuary, brought us to Dunfermline, just north of the estuary and the halfway point. By now temperatures were in the low 30s and everyone was on a short tether, not helped by what followed. After re crossing the estuary, a hard left took us into the confusing cycle path network around Edinburgh. dodging dog walkers, dopey teenagers on cell phones, and other cyclists simply on their way home, was a challenge. the cycleways eventually delivered us into the very centre of Edinburgh, packed with festival traffic, burning hot and with roadworks at every turn. A stressful assault on the senses.

The Forth Bridge in the distance

Thankfully the route out of Edinburgh whilst hilly and bumpy, eventually delivers onto a blissful cycle track heading South into the Pentland hills and more climbs on the long run to Innerleithan and Eskdalemuir, the last two controls in Scotland before arriving back in Brampton about 1-30.

The Brampton control was packed with a large number of riders still heading north, looking for a bed for the night at the same time as those heading South. Luckily, they still had blankets, and after a wonderful shower, I gladly wrapped myself in one as I lay down to sleep in a classroom doorway for a couple of hours.

Nest morning, it was a case of tracking back to Barnard Castle via the much-feared Chapel fell.

In France this climb would have at least 20 hairpins to even out the grade. I was hopelessly over-geared and under-legged to get up it and decided the adopt the ‘eating an elephant’ approach and take it a bit at a time.

I arrived in back in Barnard Castle having acquired a riding partner, a veteran American long-distance rider who made up for in relentlessness what she lacked in speed. She also had a seemingly endless supply of Jelly babies. We rode together to Malton where I decided that discretion was the best part of valour and much to my companion’s disgust, got an early night, rather than press on to Hessle.

I decided to get up when I woke up, which happened to be 1-45. A quick breakfast- a surprisingly large number of people around at the control at this time of day, saw me on the road at 2-30, the start of the longest day. Warm eddies of air moved lazily around the Vale of York but the temperature plummeted and mist set in, the higher I climbed. Thick fog cloaked Thixendale but the sunrise just before Hessle warmed chilly bones. Second brekky, and then back over the Humber heading south.

I got as far as Humberside Airport before the voices in my head started yelling at me to pull over. My only thought was that I must, must sleep and that dark things would happen if I didn’t. A roadside gateway provided a soft cornfield, my jacket made an excellent pillow and I was asleep as soon as my head touched the ground. A 30 minutes nap in the early morning sun had an amazingly restorative effect.

Pressing on I am soon back on the long flat straight roads over the fens, the wind thankfully mainly helpful. A mid-afternoon power nap at Boston was followed by St Ives for a late supper. After St. Ives the root diverts through the centre of Cambridge, still heaving with people on the way home from the pub. My American friend, who I had reconnected with at St. Ives kept reassuring company with a running commentary as we headed ever South. Progress was painful. Saddle sores meant the only comfortable way to ride was either out of the saddle or on the tri-bars, neither of which I could sustain very long. But the moon was full, the wind was at our backs and every pedal stoke moved us closer to the finish.

And so, to Great Eastern, for sweet and sour pork and Jelly and 2:30 in the morning. It tasted so good as my 24 hours ‘on the road time’ ticked by. As we wound our way to the finish through what seemed like endless Essex lanes, the moon cast long shadows, soon to be replaced by the dawn. The heat-bleached stubble fields shone white in the early morning and the sun lit up the trees either side of the road with a golden glow.

The reward – the medal

Then it was all over, no more miles to cover. Five days and 15 minutes after leaving, we were back. Smiling faces greeted us, but there were no woops and cheers, no dramatic lunges for the line, just a quiet acceptance that we had collectively been through a lot, pushed ourselves hard, endured where we might so easily not have done, and along with 950 follow travellers, had completed London Edinburgh London 2022.