London-Edinburgh-London 1419kms in 116 hours maximum
It’s 07.00 on Thursday 1st August 2013. I’m leaving the village of Kirton, Lincs, which is situated just to the south of Boston. My next port of call will be St.Ives in Cambidgeshire, some 80kms distant across the Fens. The forecast is for a hot day, with a strong headwind, and on this flat terrain there will be very little shelter from either. It’s already muggy even at this early hour, and I have already cycled 1200kms in about 90 hours. The next four hours are going to be tough.
And so it proved. I suffered very badly with a sore backside on this leg. It seems amusing for me to even mention it, but it was a catastrophe at the time. I had foolishly but logically changed to the Fizik Antares saddle which had been so comfortable all year. However, the slightly different dimensions of the audax bike a propos the race bike had inflicted this excruciating discomfort. Big mistake, I should know much better than to fix what ain’t broke!
The first 20kms to Spalding were bearable, but the formidable combination of mental and physical tiredness together with the featureless landscape and early morning traffic, conspired to make my mind focus on each painful pedal stroke, each bump in the road, and to seemingly put the brakes on time itself.
What to do? I had been sponsored by several people to raise money for the Marie Curie hospice in Hampstead in memory of two friends who had spent their final weeks there. And so I called upon my deceased friends to help me find the strength to banish the pain and finish the ride. It sounds crazy, but I asked and was given respite. By kilometre 65 of this stage I could even raise a smile at the ironically named village of Ramsey Heights, some 3 metres above sea level.
But let us go back in time. The ride began for me at 07.30 a.m on Sunday 28th July at the Davenant Foundation School in Loughton. A field of 1100 entries, with about 1000 starters assembled from 34 different countries. We were released each 15 minutes in groups of 30/40 riders. All riders to be reasonably self-sufficient, but with compulsory controls approximately every 75kms to receive a stamp as proof of passage.
That morning, there was a tailwind and the first 100kms to St.Ives passed rapidly, apart from my riding buddy’s broken spoke in Stanstead Abbots. About 15kms out from this control, a group of fast moving Slovenians came past and towed us swiftly to St. IVO school for refreshments served up by volunteer helpers.
Card stamped we headed across the Fens towards Kirton at 180kms. This too was a pulsating ride with the assistance of the wind, and flat roads. Just outside Spalding some speedy Luxemburgers took up the running and instinctively spread out across the road to form an echelon as the wind blew from the left flank. Thankfully nothing was coming the other way.
Kirton control came and went, but not before a brass band had royally entertained us on the school stage, what a treat. Outside it remained hot. We had another flat 68kms through the dykes adjacent to the River Witham before arriving at the next refuge in Market Rasen. Gradually the landscape began to alter. The barren, reedy flatness receded to be replaced by gently rolling cornfields and gorse hedges. We dodged a huge downpour which left vast amounts of surface water on the lanes around Woodhall Spa. It was pleasing to arrive at Market Rasen, 246kms down in 11 hours.
The first proper hill was next on the agenda, Walesby Hill. It split our little group and temporarily severed the connection between Phil Sudell and myself. The villages of Caistor, Kirmington and a symphony of windfarms came and went before the descent and crossing of the vast expanse of the River Humber via the cycle lane on the Humber Bridge.
The Bridge is a suspension bridge with a span of 1400m and a total length from anchorage to anchorage of over 2kms. It was designed to cross the last major estuary in Britain and on this mild July evening the twinkling lights of Hull to the North and East welcomed us to the world of the Yorkshire Wolds. This meant some sharp bumps would be encountered before our stop for the night at Pocklington, 336kms in 15hours.
Shower, food, drink, sleep for 3 hours , food, drink and depart at 4.30a.m, destination Edinburgh, a ride of 370kms. The spectacular private residence of Castle Howard was situated en route, in the spectacularly hilly and eponymous Howardian Hills, but only after passing through Fangfoss, Skirpenbeck, Buttercrambe and Barton-le-Willows. Distinctive rural names jolt a city boy’s appreciation of history into gear, as Buttercrambe was mentioned in the Domesday book.
So we cycled through the majestic rolling avenues of Castle Howard and onward towards the vicious left hook of a climb which is Dalby Bank, itself preceded by the insane descent to a gravelly right hand bend. It was a mad passage of half-destroyed tarmac that led us to Coxwold and a meeting with the Italian-girl-with-pony-tails grupetto. They led us into Thirsk at a frantic pace. After 400kms of riding we averaged 32kms per hour for the last 14kms on this stretch of road.
Once again, nourished by our supporters in the Thirsk control, we set off for Barnard Castle 68 kms in front of us. A pretty stage, with a crossing of the wooden bridge at Whorlton a highlight, and a taste of what was to come as we headed West into a strengthening wind before crossing the Pennines. My mate John Hopper was helping out at Barnard, it was also the location of both my bag drops. So another shower and change of kit and boy was I the cleanest randonneur of LEL. The food was top notch too.
Thanks for that bastard climb out of the control, it sucked the life out of me, (I was expecting to descend into the town and ride down the valley), but the views were marvellous. Finally I found my legs and caught up with Julian and Mark with whom I had been hanging on. However this reunion was to be short-lived as they drew away after the likeable town of Middleton-in- Teesdale on the long climb of Yad Moss. As we gained height via High Force and Langdon Beck, the landscape turned to rocky wilderness, the wind blew and the clouds formed a dark alliance. Sure enough, the sky turned inside out and upside down and tipped every bit of moisture it held onto us weary cyclists as we crested the summit and dived down to Alston. The Montane Photon jacket did a great job though in cheating the cooling wind and keeping my torso dry.
Gently does it down the slippery cobbles in the town centre, before the rather wonderful road to Brampton overshadowed to the South by the highest point in the Pennines, namely Cross Fell. It was here that I met Margaret and Malcolm in 2005 when my seatpost bolt sheared and Malcolm retrieved two replacements from his toolbox. Since then, it has been a tradition to stop and catch up. And so, as a Polish express came along, it would have been rude not to jump on….along with about 20 other riders.
We stormed into Brampton like cowboys headed for the saloon. Brampton was great, it rambled a bit, it seemed chilled, the food was really good, it prepared us for Scotland. Exiting the control Julian and Mark soon left me in their wake as they smashed up the road to Longtown. I was officially having “a bad patch “, not at all helped by a road surface that felt like riding a jackhammer. This continued via drab Gretna and Kilpatrick Fleming all the way to the next control at Moffat. The only saving grace was the sight of gorgeous Scottish rolling hills beyond the A74 (M) to the East. The school hosting the control at Moffat was a glorious modern spectacle, with some legendary audax volunteers. It was difficult to depart in the late evening, but the climb of the Devil’s Beef Tub and the siren call of the halfway point in Edinburgh were too much to resist. 624km in 37hours.
Back on the road in the late evening sun, it was a rare privilege to be able to start the climb in such peace and quiet. It stretched out benignly into the distance, the occasional red tail light of another rider flickering tantalisingly up the road. This was good for the soul, but there was still a lot of riding to be done before Edinburgh, and it was a fight to stay awake. A fight that was helped by a colossal downpour which caused me to quickly don all my clothing in order to keep warm.. What a contrast in temperature with a few minutes previously.
Once I had dried out, the dozies began their attack. Everything slowed right down. Brain function, limited at the best of times, succumbed to weariness. It was like swimming against the tide. Each kilometre ridden seemed to add another two to the remainder. Tweedsmuir and Broughton felt like they were separated by a continent. The agony of sloth only began to subside when the lights of the city became visible in the distance. Even then the route took us up some blasted hill which obscured the chandelier of lights making me think I had taken a wrong turn. Tired and tetchy then, I caught another rider on a stinky little dig near the control, and we rode in together at 01.54, 700kms in 42 hours. Halfway and about 14 plates of pasta/rice/stew consumed so far.
Tuesday morning dawned, someone had baked some cracking oatmeal fruit thingies to nourish us on the way. I stuck one in my front chest pocket. I can recall absolutely nothing about this inside of this control. I must have eaten and slept, at the very least, and I also had the oatcake thingie. I left again with Julian and Mark and we were immediately confronted with some beastly climbs, rush hour traffic and the A7. What a relief it was to turn right @ ‘Lime Works’ and head for the peaceful lanes and hills.
It was at this point that I consumed the oaty thing. Oh, it tasted devine. Moist and fruity, sugary and light, I almost turned round to get some more. We ascended the B7007 which afforded superb views to the Northwest. The road turned due South towards Innerleithen and it was soon obvious that the next 20kms were going to require some effort due to a stiff headwind. At least we didn’t have to endure the rain which had marked the ride 4 years earlier.
Down the wonderful road to Innerleithen , across the narrow bridge and on to Traquair. This control was serving Glenlivet, and although a shot doesn’t make you climb better, it certainly numbs the pain….especially at 9.30 a.m. In addition to the whisky, there were some fabulous cakes on show, and the shorter stage of 42kms was a welcome break in the morning’s climbfest.
For our next task, we had to face three more decent hills through some fine countryside. Along the valley by Ettrick Water we cycled, and then a left turn by the side of another nameless Scottish stream. Finally, over the crest of the pass, and Davington and Garwaldwaterfoot lay on the road by the tumbling River Esk, amid long grasses and wild flowers.
The control at Eskdalemuir was a different type of refuge from 4 years ago. Then it had resembled a field hospital, as bedraggled riders escaped the hurricane that swept through the valley. Now, all was peace and calm, and the food was equally as good. Just after Eskdalemuir there is a tough climb leading to a wickedly rapid descent, of the ‘straight down’ kind. It’s good if your brakes work here, because it’s easy to hit 75km ph. The road continues in its own bumpy fashion to Langholm.
I was shot, needed to sleep, but spied a little café tucked in the shade to the left of the High Street. Sometimes you’ve got to stop, because going on is just a waste of effort. One bacon sarnie and a double espresso later, and the wheels were turning again, Brampton-bound. And boy were they turning. After the initial treasure hunt of minor lanes interspersed with the major A7, all the time hugging the River Esk, we ended up on the Time Trial track from Longtown to Brampton. I didn’t quite catch the chap ahead on the carbon Giant, but it was great fun giving it a go.
The time was 4.30p.m and the temperature was about 26 degrees. 850kms done. Psychologically , and physically Alston’s cobbled High Street and the Pennines stood in the way. But first a quick stop again at Malcom and Margaret’s house which stands on the route about 7 miles out of town. From there, the road bucks and weaves its way to Alston, the cobbled climb proved no problem at all, and the ascent to the summit of Yad Moss is much quicker from this direction. However, it did rain. Proper rain. The sky darkened and it was a replay of the outward leg. Apart from being a little cold with bare legs and wet feet, the drop down to Middleton was a warlike charge from the barren expanse of the crags down to the leafy lanes beyond Middleton and on towards Barnard Castle. I really enjoyed this stretch.
At Barnard Castle I suffered an electrical debacle. My USB plug blew, the Lithium batteries in the Ixon light failed (I hadn’t even used it!), my GPS was waterlogged, the Sigma computer followed suit and my Pebble battery charger couldn’t be charged. In addition my routesheet was a washout. Where did all this stuff come from? Luckily Pat Hurt and John Hopper rescued me with a new set of dry cue sheets, and I felt quite liberated not having to worry about all the other stuff.
Now , this is what I have learned: there are two things that improves the quality of life for an experienced audaxer. 1) Reading glasses to follow the route. 2) Toilet paper.
That’s better. After a good night’s rest, I was re-joined by Phil Sudell who had made an enormous midnight effort to reach Barnard Castle. We set off for Coxwold, but the Phil soon needed more shuteye and found a suitable shady bench on which to doze. I soldiered on to tackle the Howardian Hills and Dalby Bank before tacking on to a small group taking turns into the breeze before the next control at Pocklington.
A swift turnaround here got me back out on the road to Market Weighton, where I found a fine bench for myself on which to take forty winks. This preceded a lot of climbing and torrential rain, but perversely I enjoyed the adverse conditions and began to catch riders on the way to the Humber Bridge. From there, about 40kms, we formed a tight little group all the soggy way back to Market Rasen. The company was a godsend for all of us, because the conditions were pretty grim. There was little point in trying to dry off at the control, so after more food and drink I set off with Jaqui a Frenchman with a pronounced handlebar moustache.
Jaqui spoke rapidly and cycled slowly. We covered 12kms in the first flat hour from the control. I had to ditch him. Apologies Jaqui, there’s a time limit on these things, I am impressed that you have had several Colnagos though. Smashing on alone in the dark through Woodhall Spa, I picked up the road by the River Witham and caught a few riders on the way back to Kirton. Once again we formed a mini peloton to reach Kirton at around midnight.
This brings me back to where I began. Sore and nearly broken, I reached St. Ives and some friendly faces. Showered again and slept under a tree. The heat was fierce, I still had 120kms to go, but plenty of time in which to do it. But boy was it hot, accompanied by a strong head on breeze, it was like riding into a furnace. The route was also quite hilly, and some riders were falling by the wayside. Any shops that were open were doing a roaring trade in ice creams and cold drinks. Finally I hit very familiar roads around Thaxted and determined to have a cold pint of Peroni. Bliss! The next control at picturesque Great Easton was not too far away down a bumpy, hilly lane and we were afforded a wonderful welcome by Tom Deakins and his team. A prolonged rest there ensured that the heat had subsided a little, before Andrew Deaner and I departed for the finish in Loughton.
These last 45kms were ones to savour. We both knew the roads so well, like old friends re-united. The energy came from nowhere and we virtually raced each other back to Loughton to the applause of a modest crowd of well wishers.
A long way to cycle. No punctures or other mechanicals. Well done to the Hutchinson Intensive tyres and the Giant SLR gel bar tape which kept my hands comfy. 1420KMS IN 108 HOURS
A great event put on by volunteers, superbly organised with a vein of friendliness running throughout the controls. It was a privilege to take part.