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Looking back on LEL

This year marked the return of London-Edinburgh-London, a self-supported ride from London to Edinburgh and back, a total of 1500km which needs to be completed within 125 hours. It takes place every four years and is generally regarded as the jewel in the crown of the UK audax scene. We had several Wheelers riding including Joe Woodbury who was taking part for the first time. Now that the dust has settled he recounts his LEL experience…

I arrived at registration with the family on the Saturday and checked into the Marriott… My flapping had clearly already started back in March as I learnt a few days before I had managed to book two hotels for the night!

Quick visit to a local bike shop to look at my handlebars after I had tinkered with my headset after registration and managed to move my handlebars off centre. There was no way my anxiety was going to be settled without getting it looked at! I blame the aero bars, tt mount and mudguards. The week running up I had managed to be reasonably organised, bike was pretty much sorted by Tuesday and I had even managed to track down a gold dust tyre (Conti GP5000 TR S… shout out to Tall Dan at Pearson / never under estimate the power of the KWCC forum)!

The evening before was nice and chilled. After saying goodbye to my wife and son, I ate an early (very rich) pasta in the Marriott, met a few riders from the US. I managed to resist joining in with a full blown African wedding reception, which looked a lot of fun, particularly having laid off the beers in the week running up. (‘week’ not ‘weeks’!)

Flapping continued the morning of the race. Alarm at 4:50am, left hotel for 5:20am, I decide to play it extra safe and enter Debeden school, the start, into my Wahoo, in the hope that there was a slightly shorter route that avoided the main roads (even though I had driven the route back and forth the day before)! Twenty minutes later I was beginning to get to know Epping Forest on a gravel forest trail, fully loaded and on a brand-new pair of Conti’s. Fortunately, I managed the seven kilometre ride unscathed and in time for my 6:30am start from Debden. I hadn’t felt confident enough back in February when choosing start times to go for the 100 hour race group, so had opted for the second regular wave, with 125hr cut off.

We set off without a hitch after a nice intro/motivational speech by one of the volunteers on the start line, the takeaway, ENJOY! The group started off very gently, which I was happy with knowing what was to come. One rider went off, then another and then I followed… The rider setting the pace was Oscar (same name as my son, it was meant to be I thought) and we ended up riding with him for most of the first day, a super nice guy from Warwick. After about 20mins of a strong pace, we settled down and began chatting, I asked him whether he was going to keep this pace up all day… “Still warming up!” he responded (Me: [Gulp]). Oscar wanted to get to Barnard Castle (480km) and was then going to reassess, but he was ultimately wanting to get to the boarder before stopping for sleep! I then started to reassess my own goals I had set myself. My first bag drop was at Malton (366km) and I had planned to see Mum at Barnard Castle, 110km after Malton on the morning of day two. I would see how things progressed.

There were small amounts of climbing during the first part of the day, but over the longer distances and with fresh legs, the rolling terrain was manageable. Oscar and I rode with a mixture of other riders, mostly in a group of 3-5, we were at the Humber Bridge by 6pm (300km completed). We got to Malton around 9pm (366km).

I bumped into Mark (KWCC) at Malton and also Marco (KWCC). We exchanged notes on day one so far, both were stopping for the night and heading off early the following morning (wise idea as I would later find out). I had a banging dahl and custard dessert, grabbed some fresh kit from my first drop bag and proceeded flapping once again trying to pack my kit. I had decided I was going to continue with a group heading onwards to Barnard Castle and the ETA was around 2am (110k with 1215m of climbing…)

Shortly after heading off from Malton there was a realisation amongst the riders I was with that we had overlooked both how much pace would drop as it turned dark and the extent of the climbing on this section. About an hour in, the group had strung out further, conversation had all but stopped and I was with a couple of riders, one of whom was a rider called James who I rode with for a bit. (rode with at this stage = in silence taking it in turns to follow each other’s wheels…).

At this stage, I knew I was beginning to feel the effects of fatigue, trying not to count the actual sheep staring back at me as we twisted through the North Yorkshire country side. Hovis advert 16-18% descents were followed by equally steep ascent. Fortunately half way through this section, there was a ‘secret control’. The torches in the middle of the road from the volunteers were a welcome relief. Top up of water bottles, quick flapjack, chat and got my knee warmers on.

Unfortunately, 10mins after leaving the secret control, I had a sinking feeling when I realised that my brevet card was not in my bib shorts pocket. Either it had fallen out on the road or at the control, either way I knew I had to turn back as it is your passport whilst you are on the ride. Passing riders going the wrong way with me climbing back up the hill I had just come down, with over 420+km already in the legs at this stage, made for a real low point. Luckily, I was able to retrieve my brevet card where I had sat down at the control to put my knee warmers on. I was back on my way but it cost me around 30 minutes and precious energy. Lesson learnt.

I arrived at Barnard Castle, I think with 1-2 other riders around 3:40am… Some more pasta, more dessert, shower and bed (makeshift dorm in a school hall, with blow up beds).After 2 hours sleep I was awoken by the twitching of my own legs. I caught up with my mum and her partner Dave, who were both volunteering at Barney and had come to see me off. (aside, this was a mega morale boost and they chose one of the best controls). On the road for 7:40am… I was turning back on myself after five minutes for my knee warmers, which I was beginning to think were cursed. Thanks Mum.

The climbing continued immediately heading towards Brampton and Moffat. Stunning climbs, scenery and descents, which on their own would have been a phenomenal ‘normal’ ride. It was at this point I was reminded of how heavy my bike still was with excess kit and food. Mudguards were also turning out to be the wrong choice, but on a positive my legs and body were still in one piece.

By Brampton my impromptu ‘LEL Updates’ WhatsApp group that I had created during day one was now beginning to gather pace and I was receiving lots of fantastic support and messages from friends and family. The group would go onto become a key part of my overall ride, picking me up when I was low and steadying me as I was at a high (adrenaline, tail wind or fresh bibs). You all know who you are… thank you.

I had crossed the border into Scotland just before 1:30pm which meant I had another 160km (+1100m climbing) before I would arrive at Dunfermline which was the halfway point. By around sixish, after another minor brevet card scare at a control (knee warmers not at fault this time), I had another low point. The relentless rolling terrain and at times busy roads were beginning to take there toll. Fortunately, I came across a Spar where another rider was in a similar position and was finishing a 2L bottle of coke, which he handed to me to finish off! More coca cola, water topped up and snacks and I was on my way. Spirits lifted knowing that I was close to Edinburgh.

Arriving at Dunfermline by 20:30, in true Scottish style I was offered a whiskey, fantastic touch (why did I turn the offer down?!). I knew that I really wanted to get to the next control (Innerleithen) that night, 81km remaining with 1016m of climbing, so again I grabbed some fresh kit from my second and final drop bag and headed off on my own into the night.

Riders had the choice of avoiding central Edinburgh, but there was no way I was going off the route. It hadn’t even occurred to me I was actually going through Edinburgh until I suddenly emerged from a tunnel on a cycle path and saw Slane Castle, before being delivered onto some cobbles whilst also navigating revellers from the fringe festival at kicking out time! I arrived in Innerleithen at 1:30am in time for some veg curry, sadly no shower, and bed by about 2:30.

It was a miracle I even managed two hours sleep this time, with the most severe, loud snoring from one rider, tucked up in bed… realising that all four pairs of earplugs had remained on my bike!

Setting off around 5am, the sunrise and scenery the following morning going through the Scottish Boarders was stunning. Those knee warmers came in handy as it suddenly dropped to around five to six degrees just before I got to Eskdalemuir control around 7:30am (only control with no sleeping and no showers). The food at this place was next level, fresh, hot second breakfast, and some hot chocolate to warm up.

By 9am I was passing the Scottish boarder again and by Longtown I started seeing some confused riders who were still heading north. However, the local with a stick was the one that really tickled me. I couldn’t catch much of what he said, but there was a loud slur, stick pointing in the direction behind me and the word “…WAY!”.. I figured that he was probably also pointing out that I was heading in the wrong direction. The odd thing was that it felt like I was on the home stretch, despite there still being 600km left!!

The second half of day three was when it began to unravel for me. I went from feeling the best I had felt the entire ride, after Barnard Castle control (thanks for the surprise welcome… there were no tears!) I could feel myself slowing up, physically and mentally…

I was back onto the never-ending 110km stage to Malton (slightly tweaked route). Unfortunately, it was even harder due to the heat and compounding fatigue. There was no secret control this time, I made the right decision to find a petrol station thanks to a very confused looking local lady, who must have wondered why I was unable to hold a conversation, answer a question or follow basic directions!

I was soon riding with a new friend Simon who I had chatted to briefly earlier in the day near Yad Moss. We were both in welcome need of each other’s wheel at this stage, both bewildered how there could actually still be 600m+ of climbing left before Malton, turns out there really was.

By Malton I was properly out of it. Thanks to the volunteers who were helping me more and more by this point. Reset again with food and drink, I was back on the road with Simon. This was by far one of my slowest stages as I was struggling with the drop in temperature, faffing with gloves, gilet, lights and was peddling squares. I definitely needed Simon’s wheel to follow at this stage, the final five kilometres I remember thinking, ‘why am I even struggling to cycle downhill’. Simon had booked a Premier Inn, I arrived at the Hessle control.

The final day, day four, was the only time I needed to be woken up at around 4:15, despite the mysterious snoring rider (he beat me to the control again!). Getting up and going was a real struggle. For the first 30km I was barely able to turn the pedals and the thought of getting through the remaining 360km was really hard to get my head around. Fortunately, my spirits were lifted by the time I got to Louth. The food was out of this world (porridge, eggs, fruit, juice, coffee +++)

At this stage, my neck and shoulders were starting to give me grief and I could only go onto my aerobars for twenty to thirty seconds at a time before the pain started. The flats of Lincolnshire were a welcome arrival, however the temperature was picking up and set to be hottest day yet. Detour in Bolton to a Holland & Barrett to get some electrolytes. Getting heckled in a busy town centre by multiple different people and drivers after 1250km wasn’t fun, but I was switched off and to be fair, I must have looked very out of place.

The controls were starting to whittle down. So was my speed and power! I had a great time at Great Easton (the last main control), a photo with all the volunteers whilst chowing on pasta, laughing and with my legs up. It was a real highlight to chat with a number of the volunteers and begin to appreciate that the end was within sight and the relentless heat of the Fens, and the afternoon was now behind me.

After safely navigating Cambridge city centre it was onto Essex. Luckily the organisers had arranged for an additional final control at around 48km to go, which was very lucky because I arrived in my worst state yet and with nothing left in the tank. I had spent the last 30km riding on top of the pads of my aerobars, barely able to hold my handlebars for descending. The volunteers once again bought me back from the brink and served up some home-made electrolytes (orange squash, salt, sugar and water), wet sponges, the best macaroni I have ever had, desserts +++).

Final section left, the end was in sight, but this was by far my hardest section, it was like trying to ski in flat light, after a while I stopped being able to tell whether I was peddling up a hill or going down a hill, my legs could no longer feel the difference. Neck and shoulder pain was unbearable (I had the early stages of Shermer’s neck). My heart rate was trying to tell me something, it had been steadily getting lower throughout the day and less responsive to increases in effort, this was likely due to the fatigue and was clearly getting ready for some sleep.

I arrived at Debden in one piece for 10:45pm to be greeted by my wife (complete with a Welcome Home sign!) and sleeping son, which was unreal. Although my wife later said that the ‘hug’ I had given her was in fact her holding me up by my entire body weight as my legs finally chucked in the towel!

Provisional finish time of 88hrs 15mins and approximately seventeenth rider back. LEL was everything I was expecting and more. Would I do it again? Probably, but better ask me in a couple more months!