Photo: The climb over Harthope Moss, England’s joint highest pass and A road (It’s peer is Killhope Cross, which we also climbed).
This is the story of some riders, those I met at the roadside and the army of truly wonderful volunteers. Especially the volunteers. They really made LEL.
London-Edinburgh-London (LEL) is one of the iconic audaxes that attracts riders from all over the world. In my case 1,557km and 15,666m of climbing to be completed in 128 hours 20 minutes (5 days, 8 hours, 20 mins), Sunday 7th August – Friday 12th August 2022.
Day 1, Sunday: “Feelin’ Groovy”
“Slow down, you move too fastThe 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy), Simon and Garfunkel
You got to make the morning last”
The main start was in Debden, Essex but organisers Danial and Roger experimented with an option for some riders to start at the Guildhall in central London. How many times in my life would a 1,500km audax start 800 metres from our apartment? It had to be the Guildhall start for us. Danial came over to wish us well. So began the amazing support we would receive over the next five days.
“us” being (L-R) Chris, my friend from Islington Cycling Club (ICC); me; Salvatore, my Sicilia No Stop companion who’d come over from Brescia for his first time riding in the UK; Mike, another friend from ICC.
As expected the early pace out of London was powered by enthusiasm and trepidation, especially for Chris and Mike. This was their first 1,000km+ ride. It was my fifth. My trepidation wasn’t about the distance but driven by my first ever DNF on Hamburg-Berlin-Cologne two weeks previously. The diagnosis was reactive synovitis, an inflammation of both knees, probably a hangover from Covid in May. I carried enough Ibuprofen to sink a ship to help me on my way.
At the first control in St. Ives (119km) we were welcomed by such enthusiasm and helpfulness by the volunteers. This was to be the hallmark of LEL. The breakfast was excellent. I was translating the options for Salvatore, a vegetarian. It was his first experience of porridge. I told him when he gets to Scotland he’d have to put salt on it. “Buono”. Used to limited vegetarian options in northern Italy Salvatore was really well catered for at every control. Bravo.
“We need to slow down” I counselled. “Agreed”. We didn’t.
On the way to Boston we stopped for a chat with a Brazilian family offering water top ups and sweets. What we didn’t expect is that in addition to English and Portuguese, they all spoke Italian. The lady explained that her husband is on the ride so they were out supporting all riders. Thank you / Obrigada / Grazie.
Across the Fens we kept up the pace, creating a healthy time bank, which I knew we would need later in the ride. Having not ridden in the UK for over a year I was reminding myself to keep to the left. Leading the group across a junction I found myself on the right hand side. Embarrassingly the shout from behind to get over to the left came from Salvatore.
“We should slow down” I repeated at the Boston control (209km). We didn’t.
I knew Salvatore, a stronger rider than me, would be fine, but this was new territory for Chris and Mike. I kept dropping back a little in a vein attempt to slow things down. It didn’t work.
I was really looking forward to the Louth (262km) to Hessle (320km) stage as we’d be crossing the Humber Bridge. Thanks to our pace we reached the bridge at sunset.
We pushed on, arriving at the Malton control (386km) in Yorkshire at 01:30 to end the first day. Our early pace meant that even after a few hours sleep, we left for the second day seven hours before the control closed.
Day 2 Paying the price
Needless to say, the second day was slower than the first. Not just because the real climbing started but because we were paying the price for a strong start. The compensation was the beauty of the North Yorkshire Moors.
Arriving at Barnard Castle (500km) 10 hours and 18 minutes before it closed, the wonderful volunteers amused us with their stamp.
One third distance done, it was also a bag drop. Excellent food (as much of anything as one could eat) a shower and fresh kit prepared us for the big climbs to come. The facilities were so good that Chris asked me if I’d had a massage at the control. Very funny.
What are the chances?
Sitting next to an Audax Germany rider over coffee in Helmsley:
“Do you know Thomas Baranowski?” I enquired.
“Yes, he is a very good friend of mine”
“My name is Colin”
“I know this because I am also a member of Audax UK. I scanned your article in the Arrivée magazine to send to Thomas. My name is UWE. Uniform Whisky Echo.”
“Pleased to meet you Uwe. Small world”
A week before the start the organisers were forced to alter the route due to a road closure over Yad Moss. This meant an extra 12km in total, no big deal, and an extra 870m over the aptly named Harthope Moss and Killhope Cross. Unlike the Alps for example, the road didn’t snake up the climb with hairpin bends. They went straight up and over resulting in sections of 17% – 18% and parts at 20%. The official time limit was extended from 125 hours to 128 hours 20 minutes to accommodate the extra challenge. The Northbound climb wasn’t so bad but the Southbound traverse would take it’s toll on so many riders.
The four of us climbed at a similar pace and assembled at the highest point of the audax.
Some enterprising young women had set up a pop up café in St. John’s Chapel which was very popular. We weren’t sure what to look for but we took their advice and kept an eye out for the “steep decent”.
Photographs really don’t capture the steepness of the climb but the array of riders walking up Killhope Cross gives you a clue.
Arriving at the Brampton control just after 8pm we made a decision. Although we’d started together the four of us had no agreement to stay together. The demands of the day meant that Chris and Mike needed to sleep, but for Salvatore and me it was too soon. I knew I would not be able to sleep that early, so we made a break for the border, arriving in Scotland in under 40 hours from leaving central London.
At the Moffat control (665km) I parked my bike next to Adam from Audax Club Hackney who I’d met on Alpi4000 a few weeks before. It was a meeting of minds. We were both reeling from the last hour before the control. The route took us off a perfectly good fast road onto a country lane full of pot holes and loose gravel (if you know me you know my views on gravel). It was quite dangerous in the dark and really slowed us down. Neither of us were in a good mood, but at least we had good food, sleep and Scottish hospitality to look forward to.
Day 3, Tuesday: SUPER Scotland
We were in Scotland for less than 26 hours but it was remarkable.
Remarkable because the climb out of Moffat was my favourite, the brilliantly named Devil’s Beef Tub. A steady rise along a good road alongside a stunning glen.
Remarkable for the crossing of the Forth, twice.
Remarkable as the Dunfermline control (776km) was the only one to provide alcohol.
Remarkable for the support at the Dunfermline control. I’d broken my prescription night glasses when swapping them over that morning. I asked if, by chance, they had some glue at the control. If not, no problem, I’d buy some in Edinburgh and fix them. Straight on to the control WhatsApp group Alistair asked the question. Diane replied that she was in a local supermarket buying some more whisky (it proved to be popular) and would get some. Ten minutes later she returned to the control with a bag of goodies. Not only did the ‘Mary Poppins’ of the Dunfermline crew (not my description) give me some superglue but apologised for taking so long to get back to the control. Getting the glue was way beyond the call of duty, let alone rush back just for me. I asked how much did I owe, but it was on the house. The LEL house. Thank you Diane, thank you the Dunfermline team and thank you LEL.
Remarkable for the food choice at Innerleithen.
Remarkable for the support at the Eskdalemuir control (906km). As we were about to leave into the night I discovered my leg warmers had been knocked to the floor in the bike park and someone’s water bottle had leaked slightly uphill of them. They were soaked. I went into the kitchen and asked if there was a warm place I could leave them for a while to dry. “We can do better than that. We’ve got a tumble dryer”. Wow. 20 minutes later they were dry enough to wear. I went back to the kitchen to say a big thank you and commented that one leg was a bit dryer than the other. I got put in my place with the reply “Maybe one leg was wetter than the other when you put them in the dryer”. Brilliant. My excuse is that after 906km and only 6 hours sleep I wasn’t thinking straight, but actually I was just being an idiot. Thank you to the Eskdalemuir team.
Remarkable that for all the time in Scotland we didn’t get a single drop of rain.
Heading back to the border, Salvatore was a little behind me when Uwe and Marcello, followed by two other riders, overtook me. I jumped on their wheel and enjoyed a ride on the Uwe express (we’d passed a few times and Uwe always seemed to be on the front). After being transported across the border I decided I had to buy a ticket for the train and headed to the front. 10km at Uwe speed was enough for me and I dropped back. “Thank you Thomas”, a little German joke I thought, calling me by our mutual friend’s name.
Re-united with Salvatore we slept at the Brampton control (966km) for a good four hours as we knew we had a big day ahead of us.
Day 4, Wednesday: Torture Garden
We’d been keeping in touch with Chris and Mike through our little ‘LEL4’ WhatsApp group. They had now split with Chris looking like he might catch us up, but Mike was struggling with some medical issues so it was going to be particularly tough for him to finish in time. As Salvatore and I left Brampton for the big climbs more than five hours before the control closed we knew that if we got through today ok we’d make it back to the finish in time.
I’ve discussed with many inexperienced audaxers that long distance cycling is played more in the head than in the legs. Fatigue, sleep deprivation and the seemingly endless road all play havoc with your mind. It can be tortuous. The chat the previous night and amongst the riders on the road was all about the two big climbs we were about to suffer. I had learnt on my very first 1,000km+ ride (PBP 2019) that the downhill can make the return uphill seem so much worse. I was prepared for a couple of tough climbs, but they were quite short compared to the longer climbs I’m used to in Italy.
After re-fuelling at Nenthead I took on the first climb. Three ramps at 17%-19%, each taking no more than 10 minutes. In less than half an hour I’d reached the summit, passing a number of riders walking their bikes.
Next was the biggie. Having been buoyed by the previous climb I reckoned on an hours grind and the worst of all the climbing would be behind me. Many riders walked, some traversed the road to minimise the gradient. I used my Alpi4000 legs and my mental preparedness to head straight up, stopping a couple of times for photos and short rests.
Within an hour I was on the descent heading for Barnard Castle. I’d ridden over the climbs. One day I will end up pushing my bike, but for now I’ve managed to keep riding up all climbs.
The ‘torture’ didn’t stop there. Salvatore called from Barnard Castle (1,055km) to say he’d booked me in for a massage. It turns out Chris wasn’t joking, we really could get one. On arrival I explained to Caitlin that I might be a little late for my appointment as I need to eat and shower. “I’ll delay my lunch and wait for you” she offered. “No, no, you go to lunch. I’ll fit in with you”. This was typical of the fantastic volunteers at every control. Her fellow masseuse was Italian. “I haven’t spoken Italian for three days”. Like buses, none for several days then two of us at the same time.
Goaded on by Salvatore the massage was, shall we say, ‘forceful’. Just what I needed but the kneading was painful. My thighs were really tight, lot’s of deep tissue damage to repair (not from the massage) once LEL was over. Thank you Caitlin.
Back over the North Yorkshire Moors we rode to the Malton control (1,167km) to be met by a familiar face. I say met, she was waiting for someone else, not me.
“Hello, how are you?” I asked.
“Do I know you?”
“You do” removing sunglasses and helmet “It’s me. Colin, from the Giro di Muscoli” .
“So it is, sorry, I didn’t recognise you”.
No reason why she should. It was Sally Light, the CEO of the Motor Neurone Disease Association. We’d met a couple of times leading up to the Giro di Muscoli in 2020. Small world.
All that remained for the day was to get to the Hessle control (1,236km) for some sleep before our last day of LEL. But not before we were tortured by the cold descending to the Humber. We wore every bit of clothing we had. The one and only time I used my rain jacket.
Day 5, Thursday: Mind games
Our early start deprived us of the view as we rode into the mist.
Even on good rides, the long distance will usually take it’s toll somewhere along the route. My low moment came as we approached the Louth control (1,296km). There was no logic to it. Yes I’d had a puncture and my knees were giving me a little trouble after the climbing of the previous day but nothing serious. I just felt a bit overwhelmed. I could feel a wave of emotion hitting me. I’ve been there before. I knew what to do. On arrival I parked my bike, covered my face and let it all out. I didn’t want anyone to see me blubbing. I wasn’t ashamed, I just didn’t want any of the volunteers to get concerned and try to help, as I knew they would. After letting it all out I was fine. It’s a mild form of PTSD following my skiing accident. Anything can trigger it at anytime. I’ve just learnt to live with it. I got my stamp and re-fuelled. No one was any the wiser. Until now.
Blessed by cross/tail winds we skipped across the Fens arriving at the St. Ives control (1,442km) 7.5 hours before it closed. We were making good speed. Chris was keeping pace but still a few hours behind us. Mike however had crashed trying to swat away a bee. He’d fallen pretty hard but was able to continue after some self treatment and rest. He had until 13:50 on Friday to get to the finish.
Mike kept us updated on his progress, joining other riders keen to make the finish in time.
Through the centre of Cambridge, Salvatore stopped for lots of photos. I stopped for ice cream with a couple of American audax buddies, George and Chris. They had a unique take on LEL. They had decided at Brampton that they wouldn’t make it, so they skipped Scotland and headed back, getting stamped at each control and staying in hotels. Very civilised.
They couldn’t escape Scotland forever though as we met Jim Kerr of Simple Minds. We didn’t actually meet him of course but Simple Minds were playing at Audley End House near Saffron Walden as we rode past. They were playing their classic “Don’t you (forget about everything)” so loud and clear from behind the wall it sounded like a concert just for us. Brilliant.
The Great Eastern control (1,511km), was run by Ivor of Audax Club Hackney who I’d met on Alpi4000. He was the nutter who rode 1,460km and 23,000m of climbing on a two speeder (turn the rear wheel around for gear selection).
I had one question for him. Bear in mind that the finish was 47km away in Debden, a suburb in the civil parish of Loughton. “Which one of you decided to play with our minds by routing us through a village called Debden?” (6km after Saffron Walden). They admitted it was deliberate. Several riders I spoke to were so tired they hadn’t noticed, but I spotted their mischief. Nice try.
After a quick snooze Salvatore and I headed into the night for the final Debden. The last 33km were brilliant for me as they were the same as ICC’s annual The Great Escape ride. I’d ridden that route many times so the familiarity made it a joy.
One final bonus. The organisers had decided to use the back gate entrance to the school at the finish, taking a couple of km off the ride. A nice surprise. We finished at 03:15 Friday morning, in 116 hours 45 minutes. 8 hours 15 minutes before the original 125 hours and 11 hours 35 minutes before the extended time. Congratulations Salvatore.
There is one thing that I haven’t mentioned. The heat. If you have read other blogs about LEL or read comments on social media you’ll know that the heatwave caused so may problems for so many riders. A provisional (brevet cards to be validated) 60% of the starters made it back to London in time. After eight summers of riding in Italy I must be so acclimatised to the heat that I didn’t really notice it. That’s why I haven’t mentioned it.
Salvatore and I grabbed a few hours sleep in the very warm bag drop room so we could welcome Chris home. Just before he arrived, another example of what long distance riding can do to your mind. I bumped into Uwe:
“Thank you, you too Thomas”
“Why do you call me Thomas, I prefer you use my real name”
“Is Thomas not your real name?
“No, Thomas is our friend’s name, my name is Colin”
Chris arrived at 06:30, exactly 120 hours after we left the Guildhall. Many congratulations Chris, a great performance for your first big audax.
Chris was also riding to raise money for the Ringcross Community Centre Food Bank that ICC riders support by collecting food from shops on a cargo bike. If you would like to join me sponsoring him then please make a donation to his JustGiving page. At the time of writing he is close to his target of £5,000. Thank you:
Whilst Salvatore and I headed back to central London we were keeping an eye on Mike’s progress.
Mike made it to the finish at 13:12 with 38 minutes to spare. A phenomenal effort for his first big audax. Huge Chapeau Mike. Salvatore expressed it so well.
Congratulations to all the riders who made it back to London. A special mention for Gareema Shankar from Delhi. She was the last rider to complete the course. Despite illness, hallucinations and crashing she was determined to complete the ride even though she was three days over time. Inspirational.
We had one last duty to perform. We met up on Saturday night to reminisce about our LEL experience.
We all agreed that it was the volunteers that made it. They were fantastic. I’ve done PBP, 1001Miglia, Sicilia No Stop, and Alpi4000. LEL is by far and away the best supported ride of them all. Next year I start a cycle of doing these rides for the second time, starting with PBP. I hope to do LEL again in 2025. By the following edition in 2029 we’ll be living back in the UK. Inspired by the volunteers of 2022 I will repay their great kindness and volunteer. Thank you. You were stupendous.
Salvatore produced this excellent video of our adventure. Click on the photo to experience all 1,556km in just a few minutes. Bravo Salvatore.