LEL 2017

Setting the Scene

LEL 2017 can only take place due to the phenomenal efforts of the organisers and volunteers who make it happen. To them, we the riders, are indebted for their time, patience and support. Thank you one and all.

The Muswell Hill trio comprised Saville Row Alex, Baking Ben and The Wattmeister. Our combined weight was 244 kgs including filled water bottles.

Alex 68kgs plus bike/luggage 15kgs…..Ben 52 kgs plus FIXED WHEEL bike/luggage 13kgs….The Wattmeister 80kgs plus bike/luggage 16 kgs.

Alex rode a steel Casati road bike, TW and Ben opted for bikes mades from titanium tubing.

We all three opted for at least a front hub dynamo lighting system….Ben also had a rear light wired to the front hub….this set up is slightly heavier but offers exceptional reliability. Alex and TW chose to run battery operated rear lights. In addition, we all ran a form of rechargeable and/or battery operated front light of at least 300 lumens to illuminate dark narrow lanes in complete safety, and finally, we attached headtorches to our helmets in case of emergencies.

For navigation, Ben and The Wattmeister preferred a laminated series of route sheets, with Alex and TW also making use of a Garmin 810 with downloaded GPX files.

Our kit contained spare inner tubes, multi-tools, batteries, portable charging packs, spare clothing as necessary, food, (spare reading glasses for The Wattmeister), suncream and bum cream and legal medicines such as paracetomol and ibuprofen gel.

1443 riders were taking part. The first group left at 05:00 a.m and the last batch were due to go at 16:00 p.m

We departed from Loughton at 13:00 p.m on Sunday 30th July with 1440 kms/890 miles in front of us….our closing time back in Loughton was Friday, 4th August at 09:40 a.m….just under 5 days in total.

To be continued.

Day 1 245 kms to Louth

There are no winners…but instead, everyone is a winner.

Audax is not a race. Some guys and girls ride a bit faster and some are better organised…the challenge is to get to the finish within the time limit.

Having said that, as our large group blazed a trail northwards beyond the gravitational pull of the M25, through Roydon, Hunsdon, Much Hadham and Puckeridge…aided by a strong tailwind and the last decent sunshine we would see for a few days…The Wattmeister struggled to restrain himself from hubristic urges to push on.

Two guys from Leeds Mercury were doing a sterling job of towing our peloton towards the first control point at St.Ives…105 kms into the ride.

In these situations, it is only fair to contribute, so Alex, TW and Ben did their turns from Shepreth to beyond Haslingfield which included the first serious little climb of Chapel Hill…we were rewarded with a welcome  ‘thank you’ from one of the Leeds riders before a bit group of Spanish riders….clad in orange lycra… injected some spicy ‘pimento’ into proceedings…chopping us up into fragments of what was once a whole meandering collective.

We regrouped, and arrived in St. Ives control for food, drink and mini debrief.

The next leg of 67 kms passed in a blur. Still aided by the benign zephyr, our threesome stomped through Raveley and Upwood before dropping down to the pancake flat, dead straight arrow of a road to Crowland via Whittlesey and Thorney.

Exhilarating, exuberant and exultant…the only real disappointment was that we were going so fast that we couldn’t engineer a visit to the fantastic Not Just Café in Whittlesey. If you ever find yourself with (daytime) hunger pangs in this part of the Fens, then give it a try.

After Crowland, which for some reason has beguiled The Wattmeister….the old fool….the route uses Welland Bank and Cradge Bank to find a back way into Spalding, control town number 2 at 180kms.

After a couple of bowls of delicious lentil stew, (or maybe it was chicken curry, or maybe it was both), a few cups of tea, a delicate readjustment of the nether regions and seeing to a plethora of other minor necessities, like remembering to reset the Garmin, change the route sheet, put on armwarmers etc. etc., the intrepid trio set off for control number 3, at Louth, some 83 kms distant in north east Lincolnshire.

Daylight surrendered its tenancy to dusk as we romped through Pinchbeck, Gosberton, Kirton, Frampton Fen and Gypsey Bridge.  Catching and then joined by two young lads…Lou? and A. N. Other….they injected even more pace on the rollicking road to Mareham le Fen….which signalled the end of 100kms of unbroken contourless terrain.

At this point, 25 kms from Louth, it was clear that we had missed a mighty rainstorm. Deep puddles and running water reflected the slate grey sky. We passed several riders in full rain gear. After Horncastle, where, in ordinary circumstances, The Wattmeister would have stopped for a pizza…a chinese…and a kebab, we followed Green Lane to Hemingby….I mention it in particular as its course is dead straight, up a gentle hill, and it transports you painlessly into the Lincolnshire Wolds…a bucolic paradise of tiny lanes, rolling hills and quaint villages like Raithby, Scamblesby and Cawkwell. If I am reincarnated as a hobbit…then this will be my domain.

After dispatching the steep slopes of Red Hill….(but what a lie! it nearly unseated The Wattmeister!)…we arrived at Louth at 10.45 p.m…245 kms in 9.75 hours for a shower, change of kit, feed, 4 hours sleep, feed and move on at 5.30 a.m….except sleep was hard to come by what with all the farting and snoring….

for which The Wattmeister can only apologise.

Day 2 Louth to Brampton 315 kms

And so, cleaner, dryer but alas hungrier than the previous night…the control kitchen had spectacularly failed on food provision… Baking Ben, Saville Row Alex and The Wattmeister set off for Pocklington, control town number 4 in the Vale of York.

We had completed a 245 km chunk on Sunday but….but, our grip on the ride was still fragile, we needed to at least reach Brampton on the north west corner of the Pennines by nightfall, a total distance of 560 kms.

Perhaps due to not eating properly, Monday morning was spent in a mental and physical brown study as Alex and Ben moderated their pace to accommodate the bilious baroudeur. We crossed the massive Humber Bridge and joined forces with another group through surprisingly hilly North Newbald, Sancton and Market Weighton before the speedsters rioted through the lanes around Burnby with a meek, weak Wattmeister conniving to hold on to the group. This leg ended with a painful Team Time Trial into Pocklington at 340 kms.

The old tummy was rumbling but would not accept much in the way of food or drink. A few bowls of tinned fruit and a half hearted attempt at some spaghetti bolognese helped to restore some energy, but this level was way off The Wattmeister’s target of 9 square meals a day.

One high point at Pocklington was discovering a secret peaceful building within the control benefitting from empty toilets and a bit of space in which to try and make sense of the situation.

No use moping, we set off gently towards Thirsk via the Howardian Hills. The sweetest of lanes, ridden in sunshine, through Fangfoss, Buttercrambe and Bossall helped to lighten the mood, we were not going fast, but we were going forwards. On the approach to Castle Howard and its sequence of short sharp hills, Alex and Ben set about defying gravity as The Wattmeister sunk to the bottom of the climbing ecosystem.

Actually it was not so terrible, but with dwindling energy reserves, the long hilly drag from Hovingham to Coxwold put more pressure on TW, but equally, it was plain to witness the pain of plenty of other riders.

Once again, Alex and Ben waited for their ball and chain, and once again he couldn’t muster the pace to join them on the run in to the control at Thirsk, 408 kms.

It began to rain. The temperature dropped. No food for TW, despite the control’s excellent menu. His reputation was beginning to suffer on more than one level. He may only be an average cyclist, but surely nothing could affect his unsurpassed ability to eat? All kinds of food. At all times of the day and night.

We set off for Barnard Castle, a ride of 63 kms….the rain ceased. We grabbed the wheels of two very steady French riders who allowed us to sit in….practically the whole way. This was a recovery ride par excellence. We crossed the wooden bridge at Whorlton with just 6 more kms to ride to the control at grand Barnard Castle School. The two Frenchmen accepted our thanks with grace….it is the normal thing to do…to help one another. We would repay the favour on Day 4.

Recovery and restoration.

Things had been looking bad for The Wattmeister. It is just not possible to complete these epic rides without eating and drinking sufficiently. At the start of the day there was a feeling of not quite being in the ride, but now we were well and truly in it, with a taste of the minor dramas and setbacks that punctuate such an undertaking.

At Barnard Castle, somebody put a full english breakfast in front of TW. Maybe he did it himself, subconsciously, a self-healer. The recuperative effort was immediate. He dived in for seconds and then topped up with a bowl of greek yoghurt and fresh berries. This was more like it. Food plastered his face, like a baby,  Other riders at his table gave him more space, more RESPECT. The fear in their eyes was palpable. He looked like a man who lived on roadkill, a man who ate randonneurs…dead or alive.

The sky over the Pennines looked angry, scolding, threatening. We had a long, bleak climb over desolate moorland in front of us. It rained harder. We passed High Force and Langholm Beck Youth Hostel. The temperature dropped a few degrees. The wind howled. This wasn’t a movie set, this was real. Bitter cold rain ripped at our ears. We stopped to put on thermal skull caps and long fingered gloves. With about 3 kms to the top, we turned bang into the wind, but as we crested Yad Moss, the weather gods seemed to show us some mercy and we hurtled down towards Alston and the lovely valley road to Brampton.

The woes of early morning had vanished, never to return on this ride. As darkness fell over Tindale and the surrounding fells, The Wattmeister stopped to pay his respects to Malcolm and Margaret who had rescued his 2005 LEL by replacing a broken seatpost bolt.

In Brampton, a shower, change of kit, more sausages, eggs, bacon and beans dispensed by a firm but cheerful woman with an American accent (?), then 4 hours sleep with blindfold and earplugs.

Not one fart nor one tiny bit of snoring could disturb this reverie.

Day 3 Brampton to Brampton 302 kms

It IS possible to function on just 4 hours of solid sleep. The volunteers at Brampton had constructed a good system for allocating (air)beds and for waking  riders at allotted times. We, perhaps 200 of us, shared the school hall. There were comings and goings at all times of the night but The Wattmeister drifted off into the deepest slumber and remained there until it was time to be woken

Having arrived at Brampton at around 11. p.m the previous evening, it was necessary to allow an hour to shower, change kit, eat and drink sufficiently and take care of any other business before falling asleep.

We allowed ourselves 4 hours of sleep, and, after being woken, another 90 minutes maximum in order to make sense of the world. Various tasks needed to be completed in these precious minutes. Eating, drinking, recharging vital equipment, packing necessary kit according to the weather forecast, and so on

Those 90 minutes passed very quickly and conversely everything that needed to be done happened very slowly. It is called the Randonneurs Law of Reverse Negative Split.

As we departed the haven at Brampton it began to rain….cold, wet rain which ran down the back of your neck and through your ears and God knows where else. It pissed down from Gretna Green to Johnstonebridge. The road surface shook the fillings out of our teeth, Saville Row Alex had a bad patch….perhaps his only weak moments on the whole ride…it roused paternal instincts in the Wattmeister.

Soonish, we turned right to Moffat. What a gorgeous looking town. The control seems spanking new and shiny clean. We left our wet shoes by the door, signed in and filled up with breakfast. Now, I don’t know what was in the porridge, but it tasted mighty good and seemed to be full of watts.

The glorious climb from Moffat up to the Devil’s Beef Tub, so named because Scottish scallywags used to rustle English cattle and hide it in a marked bowl in the landscape, was taken in the BIG RING. Porridge Power. For the first time in the ride, after 630 kms, The Wattmeister was keeping pace with Alex and Ben on a climb.

The splendid scenery, a glimpse of sunshine, a rattling descent and the thought that the halfway point in Edinburgh was only 60 kms away lit the mental and physical touchpapers and off we bombed via Howgate and Leadburn Crossroads before hooking up with the traffic-free cyclepath at Loanhead….the sweetest, most refreshing approach possible to the control at Edinburgh.

The canteen served a most delicious pescado con queso pasta concoction, and much more besides. We turned around quickly and headed south. Once again we were well served by as quiet a route as possible on our exit from Edinburgh. Unlike the pasta, it contained a few lumps before the first big climb into the Moorfoot Hills.

At the summit, the temperature dropped. We were assaulted by a vicious downpour which cut visibility and turned the road surface into a shimmering silver ribbon stretching far down the valley. Ben had already sauntered up the climb and now TW and Alex set about chasing him down on the wild descent. What triggers such mad defiance? Soaked through and pedalling hard to keep warm, we careered off the mountain to find shelter in the control at Innerleithen.

There was a piano, The Wattmeister played a couple of frozen bars of ‘Life on Mars’ before being seduced by the excellent Scotch Broth.

We had to don our wet clothes…the hardest part of this game..but once again we follow a sweet cycle path from the control to Traquair and the headwind blowdried our kit back to comfortable standards.

Three more climbs and we would be in Eskdalemuir. A couple of Finnish lads took it upon themselves to marshall the group. It included a Dutch guy on a city bike with flat bars and the least aerodynamic clothing in the universe….plus two panniers containing spare heads….He was SO STRONG. Spinning up the climbs, spinning down the descents, catching the wind like the sails of a round the world yacht. What a legend!

Our group arrived safely in Eskdalemuir….3 times more rainfall than Manchester per annum. What a friendly vibe emitted from this control. It was hard to leave, but leave we must to tackle the hills en route to Langholm and then finally to form our own group on the outskirts of Canonbie and drag them back to Brampton.

Where does the energy come from after 800 odd kms? The Wattmeister was flying. A cherished time on these long rides, where pain ceases to exists, and there is only effortless flow. We hammered our way back to Longtown and coasted the last 16 kms in to Brampton.

A great day in magnificent scenery. The route was familiar and the weather had almost repeated its antics of 2009. The Wattmeister applauds the wonderful little stretches of cyclepath which afforded a different aspect to the ride.

Day 4 Brampton to Louth 314 kms

Brampton 04:30 a.m.

Ran the gauntlet of damp, smelly shoes and prone bodies between the building entrance and the canteen. Semi-conscious riders were attempting to re-distribute kit. Everything happening in slow motion.

Another cracking breakfast was served up by the smiling volunteers. Eat all you can! Having had a shower, sleep and sporting clean kit from the drop bag, The Wattmeister was feeling more sprightly than for a few hours…days…eons….he  had lost track of time.

What to pack? The situation highlighted the juxtaposition between speed of eating and slowness of thought. Intuitive angel says..”take the heavy rain jacket…the zip will not let you down”. Vainglorious devil whispers….”travel light, you’ll go faster”.

Always side with the angels. The devil wants you to suffer and fail.

Now well into the ride, 860 kms completed, Baking Ben, Saville Row Alex and TW had found a contented rhythm…less of a chaingang tanking along….now more subtle and fluid, like a shoal of fish or a flock of starlings easing forward steadily and gracefully. The mind had a chance to wander too….making calculations based on time and distance…computing the possible luxury of more rest…making compromises in case of mishap….all the while absorbing the magnificence of the Pennines as we climbed Yad Moss from the West, passing Drew Buck’s tiny camper van dispensing succour to the riders.

For once it didn’t rain on the top and the leg via Middleton in Teesdale to the control in Barnard Castle afforded glorious views across and up the valley. Very little traffic, and such as there was, most courteous to us riders.

The control was as excellent as we had come to expect. It would have been just great to be able to loiter….to observe the volunteers and other riders…to bathe in the moment. But, we managed a swift turnaround to keep the momentum in our favour and headed off to Thirsk.

Suddenly afflicted by a crashing tiredness, probably aided by muggy conditions, The Wattmeister begged his two companions to leave him so that he could kip in a ditch. They desisted and slowed down accordingly. Thus, we inched our way in desultory fashion towards Middleton Tyas, Moulton and Streetlam, picking up a few riders on the way.

It started to rain quite heavily, which always means a drop in temperature. The Wattmeister revived in these conditions and the tempo lifted on the approach to Thirsk.

Here, our intrepid hero managed to ‘go through the card’, i.e he had ALL the main courses on offer, one after the other, and, some lovely portable flapjack was provided for the next leg to Pocklington.

The benefits of three consecutive main courses cannot be exaggerated. We whizzed up the hills around Coxwold and raced the lumpy bumps into the wind from Hovingham to Castle Howard. The lanesy transition back through Buttercrambe and Fangfoss softened the edgy competitiveness of the previous kms, and as we drew closer to Pocklington, the headwind gave us a taste of what was to come.

The return visit was a happier experience than the outward one. Great food, lots of love and a nice quiet toilet on which to doze. Apologies if you were waiting.

Somehow, the trio split up. Unable to fathom out if Ben and Alex had already left, and vice versa,  The Wattmeister set off for Louth alone…quite alone. He didn’t see another rider until just before the Humber Bridge…and he hadn’t forgotten about that climb at North Newbald, 20 kms into the section. Naturally it began to rain on the higher ground. It really didn’t stop for the next 4 and a half hours. Thank you angel for suggesting the heavy duty rain jacket.

After making a mess of locating the cyclepath OFF the bridge, a little group formed, but it was moving very slowly. TW pushed on, the wet, dark conditions not helping his dodgy eyesight. He followed another rider at a respectful distance of 100m on the neverending climb up from the Bridge to Caistor. But when that rider stopped for a wee, he was cast out into the tropical (for it was mild) black deluge to fend for himself.

Retracing the outward leg via a stinky hill at Rothwell, where a small group were huddled tightly in a bus shelter, and negotiating a wind blown left hand bend at Binbrook, the thought occurred that it was a privilege to be out in these conditions, for when again would this perverse opportunity present itself?

Arriving in alone in Louth near midnight, The Wattmeister signed in, and upon exiting the control room, bumped into Ben and Alex. Two minutes behind but unseen for 5 hours.

Day 5 Louth to Loughton 250 kms

Having been reunited with Ben and Alex, we set about showering, eating and kitting ourselves out in spanking clean, DRY clobber from the drop bags before taking 4 hours sleep.

The control kitchen at Louth had got its act together compared to the outward stop on Sunday night…there was plenty to eat and drink this time round, and it was all gratefully received.

Had an interesting conversation with two Scots lads which was summarised by this non-sequitur…”that made sense, but when you really think about it, it shouldn’t have….but actually it does…” Cannot remember what was said in the first place.  Time to get moving before getting lost in a Bermuda Triangle of metaphysical jumble.

We had to accept that today’s challenge would be dealing with a strong headwind. Even in the folds of The Wolds, we were buffeted by powerful gusts, and the descent of Red Hill was taken with a degree of caution.

As we departed the higher ground via Hemingby, Horncastle and Mareham le Fen, we were faced with 100 kms of pan flat roads all the way to Upwood, and very little in the way of protection from the aforementioned wind. By way of protest, a spoke popped in The Wattmeister’s back wheel on the approach to Bunker Hill near New York. Even the place names were taking the piss.

After a rapid spot of fettling to straighten the wheel, The Wattmeister cruised to the convenience store at Gypsey Bridge for a ten minute break to clear his head. While sitting on the wall opposite the store….smashing coffee, jelly babies and crisps into the raging inferno of his metabolism, a large group raced by towards Langrick.

Must, must, must get on, but they are 800 metres ahead. The wind is his formidable enemy but the crossroads at Langrick and then Frampton are his friend, and after burning several matches, junction is made with the peloton.

At Kirton it rains heavily and the group is whittled down to four….the two French guys who on Monday led us from Thirsk to Barnard Castle, and another French rider with suntanned legs. We start a chaingang…a good one…and by Gosberton, about 10 kms out from the next control at Spalding…we slowly reel in a bigger group comprising mainly younger German guys being towed along by just one rider….he is doing an immense, heroic job into this wind.

At the control, The Wattmeister shakes his hand and thanks him profusely. But now the spoke needs to be replaced and although the resident mechanic has just finished his 4 day stint, Vince arrives with a toolset containing a chainwhip and lockring tool. The new spoke is fitted and the ride goes on.

The 9 miles from Spalding to the water tower at Crowland are epic…absolutely epic. Within a hundred metres of pedalling into the cyclone towards Cradge Bank, The Wattmeister wants to surrender…..there is no shelter, the wind is ripping in at gusts of 60 km ph. It is hard work just holding the bike upright.

The German armada joins us…all big guys who could, should offer some shelter, but after 500m The Wattmeister is on the verge of letting them, and Alex and Ben, drift off into the distance. But, some atavistic desire persuades him to dig in….just a bit longer. The group of approximately 30 riders crest Welland Bank. The leaders are making a good fist of maintaining about 17 km ph, but the wind is scything through the rest of us, carving the group up into little bits like a cheesecake.

30 riders becomes 27…becomes 25…with each pedal stroke the wind continues to decimate the peloton….within 2kms there are just 15 riders. Randonneurs’ faces are distorted into real life Jelly Babies by the crushing effort. We are literally sprinting every 10 seconds to hold the wheel in front. It’s not raining, but dribble and spit fly through the air. You can touch the physical expenditure….literally hold it in your hands. It is as exhilarating as it is debilitating….and the water tower does not appear to come any closer.

Two Germans at the front are holding a conversation….impossible!…Gods on two wheels…Alex and Ben look calm and serene….and now there are only 7….just 7 riders from the original 30….. The Wattmeister is one of them. What a brutal selection this has been.

Briefly, into Crowland, we turn away from the onslaught. There is a regrouping in order to face the next 50 kms of bombardment before we will climb to shelter and eventually retreat from this monster. And so, progress is wrought out of oppression. Our new friend, Thomas from Aachen, teams up with Alex on the front. We hit a mean speed of 19 kms ph. The wind continues unabated….it sucks the moisture out of us….it pummels us…but it doesn’t stop us. We takes turns on the front and gain the village of Thorney, then Whittlesey,  Poundbridge and finally Ramsey St. Mary signals the winding down of hostilities.

Today there will have been lots of time conceded by anxious riders.

A quick shower in St.Ives to wash away the Fens followed by a royal afternoon tea of curry, stew, soup and tinned peaches, and we crack on to Great Easton, a team of four joined as we have been by the colossal strength of Thomas from Aachen.

The 14 km busway from St.Ives is a traffic free treat and soon the grand colleges of Cambridge tower over us. Somehow, our batteries have recharged themselves and a series of good, strong pulls have us whizzing past Audley End and navigating the newly gravelled lanes around Broxted and Tilty before a glorious Soupfest at Gt. Easton. The sharp right hand turn into the control almost ends The Wattmeister’s LEL!

Back into the night on familiar lanes and roads….we are a well lit and well drilled quartet, but two professional Stanstead Express coach drivers, one after the other, deem that 1.5 centimetres is enough space to give us…not 1.5 metres.

Within sight of the watering hole, we tackle the Toot Hill intervals with gusto…Baking Ben winning this series hands down with an explosion of powerful brio, and after the last climb up Coopersale Lane, it is all coming to an end rather quickly.

What started off as a long ride, became an elegiac odyssey up and down the length of the country. The experience is populated by memories of places and people who shared their time and the road. Episodes of bad weather had to be overcome, but they add incrementally to the sense of achievement.  Big kudos to the overseas riders who made such an effort to participate and once again, thanks and admiration to the organisers and volunteers who made it happen for us.